With assistance from jillyfae and Chris.
Mother screamed. In her dreams, she always screamed.
It wasn’t Gialinn’s return that Gheris remembered. It was not her recitation of the Vir Tanadahl. It was not even the strange, lonely funeral the clan had held when she had been little. It was Gialinn’s final, horrendous scream as the Silent Lord destroyed her. Gheris awoke every time, gripping her mother’s ring on her hand, swallowing a word she had said but once in the last fifteen years: Mamae!
These dreams were not so common anymore. It used to be Gialinn and Geoffrey floated through her dreams, followed by Naessa and Casidhe and Aidan and Lothaire. Even Simon sometimes made an appearance to lecture her. Sometimes the mabari, Kent, popped up and brought to her a frozen little yellow bird.
Lately, however, it was books she saw in her dreams. She dreamed she was flipping through the last book she’d taken from Rickety’s makeshift library, reading nonsense her mind made up. Like in most of them, the books in her dreams had lies about the Dalish or stories about broken families. They made her angry and she would wake up bubbling with energy and going about her daily chores. Rickety said she reminded him of a sandstorm on those days. Other times, it was poems. Those days, she was slow to rise and slow to finish her tasks. “A lazy cat,” Rickety said, “who lets all the mice past.”
She lay still, silent, listening for movement. It must have still been night; the storage room she slept in had no windows, but at dawn, she would hear guards and laborers crunching through the snow. It was quiet now, save for the howling of the wind. She turned onto her side and tried to go back to sleep, but every time, it was Zareh, or Grandmother, or Gialinn who kept her from falling completely asleep. She worried about Geoffrey. She wondered about Aidan.
Resigned, Gheris slid out from under her covers and quickly pulled on her thick woolen frock and belt, memory guiding her in the absence of light. She checked the pockets every time she dressed, as if the ice heart might appear. There was nothing but a scrap of blank parchment she’d left from her writing exercises. She pushed the door open and crept out, silent and barefoot.
The main room was dark, but light spilled down the stairs from the second floor. There were two rooms upstairs. One was the sitting room with a few shelves of books and stacks of Rickety’s records of the shop. The other was his room, where Gheris was not permitted, though she’d caught a glimpse of a large sword once when the door was open.
Rickety sat with his ledger open and a stack of parchments with his stamp on them. She didn’t speak or make a sound as she came into his view, but he didn’t startle easily.
“Couldn’t sleep?” he asked.
She shook her head. He pointed to the books he’d selected for her when she’d finished all the children’s books a month ago. She’d never been able to settle on just one, flicking through all of them on random days, so they just left them in a stack for her convenience.
Gheris looked through them. She felt on edge. The Book Of Maps was by someone Rickety had once told her had been a pirate, a bandit of the seas; though it was one of her favorites, she knew she wouldn’t be able to focus. Finally, she settled for a book blindly and sat down in her usual spot on the floor beside the fire.
“What are you doing?” she asked instead of opening the book.
Rickety grunted. “Think to your calendar dates. What important time is coming?”
She blinked. “The solstice,” she said slowly, not quite sure what was so special about it. Everyone celebrated that, one way or another.
“Right. The start of a new spring after that. Tax collectors will be coming.” He tapped the parchment beside him. “Marking my records for the year.”
Gheris frowned. Dalish didn’t pay tithes, but he didn’t know she was Dalish. Or if he did, it didn’t mean anything to him. “Oh. You squint when you read,” she observed. “Is there something wrong with your eyes?”
“Old age,” he responded. “Gets harder every month.”
“Can’t a healer fix that?”
He turned to look at her, face contorted in disbelief. He snorted at her. “Where do you come from that a healer is available every time you snot and cough?” He barked a laugh and shook his head, turning back to his work. “A healer! Pah!”
Gheris frowned, realizing he was right. If they had access to a healer, the alienage would not be half as bad as it was now. Their mages were locked away because they were dangerous. Keepers used old magics.
She opened her book and began, slowly, pushing her way through the first page.
She found many philosophers and religious writers used very strange, difficult vocabulary. Even when she could discern the words, they never used straightforward sentences – always elusive, meant to confuse her rather than make things clearer. She hated it, and so now she was determined to read it and understand it. And if anyone should ever try to argue with her about it, she wanted to be able to tell them what she thought.
The books sometimes talked about something called qunari, and a place called the Tevinter Imperium. The Book of Maps said it was very far away in the north. The Chantry complained that it was full of mages. But they also said Keepers were mages, and while Gheris knew they used magic, it wasn’t the same. Grandmother couldn’t heal everything, or didn’t heal everything, but none of her elders had ever suffered from failing vision.
This book talked about language, yet it was an obtuse thing to read. She barely made it through the first two pages before pushing it away in frustration.
Rickety heard the scrape of leather on wood and turned to look at her. He raised his eyebrows in question.
Gheris made a face. “It’s more Chantry nonsense, I think. It’s always Maker this and Andraste that.” She pushed her hair away from her face. “Maybe if they stopped singing for a little while, they could pay more attention to what they’re writing. It’s impossible. Don’t they want everyone to listen to them? That won’t happen if no one can understand them.”
Belatedly, she checked Rickety’s face for insult, but there was an amused smirk instead. “Not a believer, are you?”
Gheris shook her head. Any feelings of inadequacy weren’t going to be fixed by someone who could only be convinced to pay attention with singing. One absentee father was enough.
He was still looking at her, apparently waiting for her to say something about it. It was not her preference to speak of her family. Rickety had never pressed, and she felt sometimes she wanted to say something. She just wasn’t sure what to say. My mother and father didn’t want me. But I was raised by a kind uncle whom I disrespected, and I had a younger shemlen brother for whom the entire rest of my family shunned me. Charming. She knew it wasn’t entirely anyone’s fault, and it was starting to become clear that maybe it wasn’t her fault, either. But if there wasn’t any blame, how was she supposed to forgive anyone?
“I…” She cleared her throat. “I can’t sing.”
He let out his small, rough snort of amusement and resumed his work.
Two pages and what felt like two hours later, she closed the book again and stood, not sure what to do with herself. She was restless. She hadn’t been out – really out, in the wilds – in months. The city was stifling. She wanted to hunt or to track something. She wanted to climb trees. Rickety had yelled at her when she climbed the walls of the house. Now he watched her pace and raised his eyebrows.
She twisted her mother’s ring. She was, most unnaturally, at a loss for words. She always had something to say. She was forthright, honest, direct. But it seemed none of it ever mattered anymore. Perhaps none of it ever had meant anything at all.
She perched on the second chair, across from Rickety, but it was no tree branch. The floorboards were warm beneath her feet, but not from sunlight.
Slowly, he put aside his ledger and set down his quill, now frowning. She made a point to minimize her contact with him only to what was necessary for her studies or chores. There was never small talk. They never asked each other a thing. It was not for lack of curiosity on her part, but rather that it was obvious life with the Iar had not been normal. Any habits she’d built with them were subject to examination.
And, though she’d never admit it, she didn’t want to embarrass herself in front of him. Something about him reminded her of Lothaire. They both had lined faces and honesty made their bones big. She wanted his approval. The first time Rickety had nodded and smiled when she read a sentence on her own had lifted a weight she didn’t know she carried.
“I was raised never to talk to humans,” she said at last. Of all the things she could have said, that was what she blurted out. She continued to twist the ring. She wanted elves to talk to, but she wasn’t sure any would understand right now. Maybe humans wouldn’t, either.
Rickety folded his hands on his desk.
The elf folded her arms. “I don’t know what to do anymore,” she admitted. “I don’t want to steal. I can’t go back… home. I want to stay here, but I know I don’t do anything you can’t do yourself. I’ve never not had something to do.”
It was a struggle to keep her voice low.
Rickety sniffed in thought, then nodded. He closed his ledger, stood and stored his parchment. Gheris watched him, resigned that maybe there was nothing for her. Her usefulness lived and died with the Silent Lord.
“Start with the letter. That’s why you came here to start with, no?” he said when he was done clearing his desk. “Be up on time in the morning. Snow won’t clear itself.”
Gheris stared after him.
She hadn’t forgotten. It was always in the back of her mind. But her penmanship was terrible and she was worried she still might not understand it.
But what if it was about Geoffrey? What if he needed help, and she hadn’t been able to answer in all this time?
But what if it was nothing at all, a mere courtesy? What if she had nothing to say? Would it be rude not to ever answer? It had already been months.
She twisted the ring on her finger and opened the drawer of the desk again, pulling out the letter she’d stored beneath all her writing practice. She unfolded the pages.
To her surprise, now that she saw the writing again, it was not so mysterious and arcane. The script lacked the precision of these Chantry books; it was loopy and pretty, if a bit scattered. There was another style of writing, too, on the following page that was neat and firm and did not seem to float across the page like Naessa’s did. As Gheris began to read, she calmed. It was legible. She understood it.
In case you need to contact the Clans, I wanted to let you know that Darana has take over the Iar, and traipsed them off to the Frostbacks to do some trading with the dwarves to help them rebuild. Ninnion’s taken the Adra down to Korcari, and the Valwe will be in the Brecilian until next season. Barring any unexpected emergencies, we’re following the triple-nine pattern until the next Gather, so you should be able to track anyone down. If you want to.
Your Uncle Falenath wished me to send you his regards. He recovered nicely from his ordeal, and is helping Darana keep Syndelir in line for you. He’s got a sharp tongue hiding in that head of his, now that he’s not trying to placate Grandmother. Guess you came by yours honestly.
Lady Oriane returned to Orlais. She is using Gervais’ get to gather land and power to herself. I would have flushed the bastard’s spawn out of my system at first chance, but she said that wasn’t her way. She claims it is revenge, and in honor of Lothaire, and that she wanted to go home. I do not understand humans. Maybe you’ll have better luck?
However, in honor of her husband, she wanted me to let all his former companions know that she would be willing and able to provide assistance if it was ever required. She’s in Armagnac. She’s apparently going to be in charge of Armagnac, simply because its former master raped her until she was pregnant. Have I mentioned how nonsensical humans are?
Thank you, by the way, for helping.
Ferron says I am writing this letter all backwards, and should have started with the thanks, and perhaps even have apologized for not holding off on the bonding until you could attend, but I don’t think you would have come, and you certainly would not have expected that level of patience from me, so I’m not sure why I should make false protestations of regret. I wanted to bond, after all. And it’s my letter, so I told him to go and write his own. As it is, we found Casidhe in time. Teresa couldn’t make it, but at least one of our number could.
I’ve sent messages off for Aidan and Simon as well, but I’m not completely sure they’ll get them, as I’ve lost track of their whereabouts. If you happen to see any of them, could you please pass along our well-wishes, and Lady Oriane’s offer?
Keeper Shyth’valwe’sikarmeth, Naessa Arielle
As my wife has not magically developed proper manners just because she’s a Keeper, and married, I am taking her suggestion. While I certainly don’t regret our union, I am sorry we didn’t get a chance to drag the rest of our former companions to our sides to celebrate the day with us. You were all missed. Yes, even you. That’s why I’m writing to you. You are much too hard on yourself, Gheris, and I hope you’ve found a new life that makes you happier than the Iar ever did.
If you’re still in touch with Casidhe and his Teresa, tell him I hope they are as happy as we, and that we’d be pleased to send them a Dalish bonding (wedding, humans call it?) present with which to impress the neighbors if they have had their union and not told us. Some fine ironbark weapons, probably, as neither struck me as the type to settle down in domestic bliss.
While I know you’re probably greatly relieved to be free of your past, please, stay in touch. You will always be clan, and family, and friend.
Fare thee well, lethallin,
The first thing that stood out to Gheris was that names had spellings that didn’t always make sense at first. She had to sound them out. The second was that she’d started crying. No one had ever thought to send her anything before. She wiped the tears away rapidly with a sleeve.
It took Gheris some time to stop reading the letter over and over again. She had a silly grin on her face and she folded the letters back up and held them close to her chest. It was such a simple thing, but it was so…
Naessa and Ferron – married! It only made sense. They were the two finest examples of what the Dalish had to offer; a bright, caring Keeper, and a very fine and true warrior. And they had thought of her when they didn’t need to. She didn’t know what she would write back. But she wanted to write back, which was more contact with people than she had ever wanted before. And a gift! She’d need to get them something. Somehow.
She pushed her hair back from her face, trying to stifle her grin though no one else was around to see it.
She fumbled to take out the folded piece of parchment from her pockets and pulled out the bottle of ink and the quill Rickety had cleaned and put away. It would help to organize her thoughts to make sure she didn’t lose anything for when she started writing the letter. She’d need to rewrite it a few times, anyway, for neatness and to ensure she didn’t smudge anything.
The door slammed noisily behind her, jingling the bells. Rickety shouted from the back of the shop to ‘stop bloody slamming doors!’
Mute, she strode past him without even looking at him and into the kitchen. She set the kettle to boil before finally peeling off her scarf, gloves, and hat. She could smell her mentor’s vile drink in another small pot.
The business of the illicit acquisition of goods had boomed lately. Rickety, receiving a commission for every stolen object he fenced, had enough to buy them both treats now and again. For himself, dark beans from the north, somewhere called Seheron. When she had tried biting them, he laughed and told her they were crushed and boiled in hot water. She had tried to drink the dark liquid they produced, but it was bitter and made her choke. He called it ‘qaffa’, and his accent grew stronger. But she’d taken a liking to his strange tea and was careful not to use those herbs too often. Her nerves were singed, though, and she found those sharp herbs soothing.
It was a few minutes more as the kettle boiled and the tea steeped. She brought out a mug of his ‘qaffa’ and her own tea. Then she pulled the two cat statuettes from her pockets before finally removing her cloak.
Rickety sipped the drink and nodded. It was acceptable. She brought her shoulders up briefly and hid a smile behind her own sip.
“These have been gone a while,” he commented, examining the cat statues.
“You would think people would want them back. But no one will buy them from me.” She tapped her pointed ears and held back an elvish insult. “More than half of them recognized it. I had a good price, too!” She stomped a foot on the floor in frustration.
He squinted at her. “What are you trying to sell them for?”
“Two sovereigns a piece.”
“Too cheap. And not what I was asking.”
She blinked. “I wanted to, ah, prepare something. A gift.” She sniffed. Had she caught a cold, or was it just an effect of the sharp wind?
He raised his eyebrows, already guessing it had to do with the letter. “I can get them out and get you more for ‘em. This stone’s not common around here. Makes it pricey. Amazing what people will pay for things from a faraway place.”
She thought about the crystal sitting upstairs, the crystal that looked brown on the outside but she’d chipped it, and it had blue on the inside. “Ma ser-” She broke off with a cough. “I would appreciate it,” she said tightly, “if you could fence it for me.” She drained her tea quickly and felt it slide down through her chest to her stomach. She shuddered appreciatively. This was nothing like the winter of last summer, but it was cold nevertheless. “I’ve finished shoveling the snow, too.”
“Then you’re free for the afternoon.” He returned to his qaffa and work.
Gheris hurried up the stairs to finish her letter.
She had what felt like twenty copies that had some error in it. She wasn’t sure which god to ask for assistance, so she asked both June and Dirthamen for help. Writing seemed like a craft to her, but sometimes it had two meanings. Sometimes three or four. The Chantry didn’t write like that very often, but poets did. Their poems had one word that mean three things in a single sentence. She marveled and enjoyed trying to discern the meanings, but she also wanted to be simple in her letter.
She looked over the most recent draft. It was less splotchy than the other ones, sure, but it still looked strange. She wished she could make her handwriting better. Even with frequent practice, improvements were less visible now than they had been when she first began. She could target an artery or miss vital organs with her blades if she so desired, but precision with the quill was much more slippery.
When she had read the most recent copy over and over again and marked down a few final changes, she pulled out a fresh piece of parchment. She agonized some more, then set the ink to paper, pausing every few minutes. It came out relatively neat and there was only one smudge, and a small one at that. Her hand was starting to cramp, and it was still not a very focused letter, but she felt better for writing it. Writing things down was easier. There was more time to find the right words.
Naessa and Ferron,
Your letter was unexpected and greatly appreciated. I am sorry it has taken me so long to respond. I had to learn to read and write first.
Congratulations on your union. I could not imagine anyone among the clans better suited for each other than you both. May the Creators grant you many long days together, and many children.If this letter reaches you safely, then with it, there ought to be two pieces, one for each of you. I am not certain if it is an appropriate gift. Had I something more useful, however, I would have given that. It is good that you did not wait. Good things should happen often and quickly.
Though Teresa and Casidhe left for Denerim when I did, we took separate paths. I have not seen them since we all parted ways. I have no doubt your letters reached everyone, and certainly, I think it may be best if you and not I kept in touch with them. I wish all of them the best. Even Lady Oriane’s bastard. May he take after the mother and not the sire.
I have spent some time in Denerim. I do not doubt that under the careful hand of another Keeper, things may change, but I do not miss company I never had among my clan. I miss Geoffrey and Uncle Falenath, and everyone else that was with us in our journeys. Even Aidan, a little. Do not tell him I said so.
Right now, I have a place I can stay. I think it is safe, even among humans. This is odd. I do not feel included, but I do not feel excluded. Their customs are no less ridiculous and our people are mistreated, but it is a very general sort of dismissal. It is not personally cruel. A wrong deed is still wrong, but it is easier to bear. For all that they have abandoned our ways, the flat-ears in the alienage act kindly to each other. They have a tree that they gather around to celebrate their marriages and births. They have forgotten their gods, but they remember each other. They are no dalish, but they inadvertently still follow the Vir Tanadahl. I wonder if these thoughts betray our people. You know, many humans and elves do not even think the dalish are real.
Ferron, your words are kind. Perhaps I judge others and myself too quickly. I seek a path now that will let me be useful, but it is hard to go anywhere without offending sensibilities. I have learned recently that the world is very big, however, and it would be wrong to return to the clans without having seen any of it. There are other clans throughout Thedas, I think. Maybe they have knowledge we do not. Right now, I am assisting a shopkeeper in Denerim.
Perhaps in the future, my path will guide me back to the Iar.
Mythal’s protection on you both, and the clans.
Ir annala lath, lethallin and lethallan,