A twig snapped and Abelas’ eyes flew open. Too late.
“Oi up, looks like the knife-ear’s awake!”
Mythal , how had he managed to sleep so heavily?
“No funny business, elf.”
Three humans, their faces half-covered with scarves. Two stood over him, silhouetted against the sun where it shone through the trees. There were knives in their hands. One more was stooped over the remains of a campfire, looking for anything of value.
“Shit, he’s got nothing.”
“ Nothing? Fuck off. Look at his armour. Ha! Yeah. If you’ve really got nothin’ for us, elf, we’ll take that.”
Abelas sighed. If he hadn’t pushed himself past exhaustion yesterday, they would never have been able to creep up on him like this. Foolish of him, he knew, but there was little point dwelling on it. He needed a distraction. Something to catch their attention so he could draw the dagger from his hip.
“Not even supplies, chief.”
The man who’d spoken before, the one who’d suggested taking his armour, glanced back in disbelief. Abelas rolled his eyes skyward. Trust a shem to be shocked at the idea. There was nothing he needed that he couldn’t find for himself. Aside from, it seemed in the moment, a little luck.
“Alright,” their leader said, “Hand your weapons over. And while we’re at it, we will take the armour. Waste of time, this was…”
If he was quick - and he usually was - he could feign obedience and turn the blade on them as he got up. But if he took down one, two more remained, and one was far too close. Think, think…
“ Get a move on! ”
At that moment, a sound drifted from the trees a short distance away. A soft whistling, the first line of a lullaby he hadn’t heard in centuries. Confused, his attackers turned their heads, and that was enough. An arrow from the sound’s direction pierced the eye socket of the furthest; Abelas got up, towering over the remaining bandits. He quickly buried his blade in a second man’s throat before shoving him away. The last of their number panicked. If he had run, Abelas would have let him go. One’s instinct in these situations was intensely personal, he knew. Where one man would flee, another would double down. This one raised his weapon, and was rewarded with an arrow in his side. Abelas cut his throat. Better that than a slow death.
As he straightened up, the shadow of an elf dropped from the trees and approached him slowly, footsteps near-silent on the grass; then stopped and watched him from a distance.
“My thanks, da’len,” he said, “I have nothing to reward your kindness with, I’m afraid.”
The elf dropped her bow and lowered the hood that had kept her face in shadow, revealing white-blonde hair, dark green slave-marks and an unmistakable smile.
“Oh, I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.”
Abelas frowned. This woman - she was the Inquisitor’s. He had seen her before, at the temple. She and her elven friend had seemed sympathetic to his plight, but had ultimately done nothing to stop their witch from taking the Well. His face twisted in disgust at the memory.
“What do you want, Inquisition? Can’t you leave a man and his disgrace in peace?”
“I’m not Inquisition,” she replied, “Never was. All I want is your time.”
Suspicious as he was, he had to admit that his curiosity was piqued. She was small, barely his shoulder height, in fact. A ranged fighter. And a mage, if he recalled the staff she carried in the Wilds. No match for him if she decided to attack. And it would be good, he thought, to spend some time with one who at least knew his circumstances. The longer he spent interacting with Dalish and shem, the more out of place he felt.
“You have it.” he nodded, once.
He knelt to start a fire, then reached for pieces of ram meat laid out beside him.
“Let me.” she said, and before he could respond, she took over for him. Her fingers were quicker than his. This was something she knew.
He sat back against a tree and watched her. She kept her gaze low, her manner too polite to trust.
“You say you are not Inquisition,” he said, “Yet I saw you at the temple, on the side of the shem.”
She still didn’t look up. “I’ve only ever been on one side, hahren. That’s the people’s.”
Silence fell once again, and she felt his eyes on her as she finished her task and sat back to watch the meat cook. Mae had vague memories of the priests of the Evanuris. Despite her hatred of the “gods” themselves, their keepers were, to her, admirable. If misguided. They were like stone shelters to their acolytes against the howling tornado of chaos outside. Abelas in particular seemed to embody their cool, calm, collected spirit in a way that made her envious of his followers. At last, she looked up from the fire to see he had taken off his own hood. His hair was lighter even than hers, neatly braided and falling far past his shoulder. The branching lines of his vallaslin looked elegant on him.
“And what do you know of the people , da’len?”
He sounded faintly sour. Mae held back a smile. “More than you’d imagine, probably. Where are you going?”
“Why do you ask?”
“You spoke of Uthenera when we met last. You haven’t gone, though.”
Abelas paused. “I have not. I… thought I might see how the world has been changed, first.”
“Do you think of changing it back?” she asked lightly.
He raised a hand and sighed deeply as he smoothed his hair back. The sky was overcast, a deep, heavy grey. His head was full with a dull ache that signalled an oncoming storm.
“Of course.” he replied. “But such imaginings are pointless.”
Are they? he thought he heard her murmur. She turned her attention back to the fire for a time, leaving him with his thoughts. A cool breeze was gradually picking up, causing the grass to ripple.
“We can move north,” she said. “I’ll wrap this. There’s shelter by the river.”
Under a rock outcropping beside the river, they set up a second fire and fetched fresh water. Abelas felt the first cold drops of rain on his skin as he returned to their shelter. As they ate quietly, the skies broke open and the rain fell so heavily they could barely see the far bank. Mae finished eating and sat in the dust at the edge of their space, reaching her arm out to watch raindrops splatter against her skin.
“You said you wanted my time. You knew where to find me?”
Mae looked back. Shaking her arm off, she got up and returned to the fire before she answered.
“We haven’t been tracking you the whole time. Just the last few weeks.”
He eyed her with open suspicion. She propped her head up on her palm and studied him carefully for a moment, her smile strangely warm.
“The Dread Wolf sends his regards, hahren. And his hopes that you might consider joining us.”
“ Fen’harel … Then, he lives.”
“Not only that. You’ve met him already.”
Abelas shook his head, his frown deepening with his confusion. “Impossible. Even if it were true that he wanders this world still, I could not have overlooked him.”
“But you did.”
He fell silent, his gaze lost somewhere in empty space. The temple. Those two, looking at him with something in their eyes that shocked him with its sincerity. Mae herself, gently coaxing the Inquisitor into softening his stance. And the other, her companion. Malas amelin ne halam, Abelas. Soft, easy, dialectically familiar. Even then, he had registered quiet surprise at the skill of the elf’s tongue. He hadn’t understood. He hadn’t wanted to ask, to spend any more time in the presence of his own failure. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. But now… now it seemed obvious. If only he had looked a moment longer. In hindsight, those rain-coloured eyes were horribly familiar.
“And I missed my chance to thank him for his efforts…” Abelas sighed. “Though we lost Mythal, it was because of him that we didn’t lose her sooner.”
“We tried our best. I’m sorry, Abelas.”
We . Of course. The song from the trees. El’gara vallas, da’len .
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I’m Mae,” she replied, “But you might know me as Halla.”
So, at last he met the woman behind the whispers. The shadow of the Dread Wolf, the sparrow singing secrets in his ear. Abelas’ head felt light, shock combined with the storm’s pressure breaking. Mae brought him water and knelt at his side.
“My ignorance shames me, my lady.”
Mae gasped, pressed a hand to her mouth and laughed nervously in a sudden flurry of discomfort.
“There’s no need for that! I’m not your superior , lethallin.”
“But you are his first, are you not? As such, you outrank me.”
“Gosh.” Mae smiled, “Already committing to all that, are you? Abelas .”
She reached up and turned his head with her hand on his cheek to make him face her.
“We don’t want your life. Only your help. Freely given. This isn’t Arlathan. We’re wiser now. And you have a choice. If you want to, you can leave, right now. We won’t argue. You deserve to rest. But…”
Her touch sent his thoughts reeling. After so many years without contact at all, this, and the almost maternal warmth in her eyes, was overwhelming. He wanted to throw her hand away, but at the same time, he didn’t.
“But you could help us change so much.”
She believed it. He felt her sincerity. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps even now, he could do his part to protect the remnants of his old life. Of Mythal, of Arlathan. Though Fen’harel’s methods were nothing he’d have chosen for himself, there was no choice left. He couldn’t sleep, knowing he could have been part of this.