Hare climbed—hand over hand, hoisting his weight up branch by branch. The tree was tall and old and held his weight well, his fingers and toes finding the familiar, worn places in the bark where he had placed them time and time before. He didn’t stop until his head peeked out of the foliage that crowned the top of the ancient tree and he could see the sweep of the land below. He breathed deeply, and the smell of the sea came to him.
His clan came here often to trade with the humans. There was a town nestled in the crook of the valley, where one of the streams from the Vimmark Mountains met the Waking Sea. The forest curled around it the way a mother cat curls around her kittens. When he was younger, he used to play with some of the human children who lived there until his clan moved on again. It was the children who had first started to call him Hare—a play on his given name, Haren, and the fact that his pointed ears reminded them of a rabbit. Idly, he stroked a finger down the curve of his cheek, still tender from the vallaslin etched into him the night before. He wondered if they would recognize him now.
To the east, the buildings of Kirkwall loomed out of the morning fog, the sun stretching its light behind them. The city’s spires were mirrored by the masts of ships coming in from the sea. He strained to see the colors of the sails through the fog.
“You will take a ship to Ferelden,” the Keeper had told him. “From there, travel to Halamshiral, and observe the events of the Conclave. What happens there will affect all of us.”
He had stared up at her last night, torches flickering all around them in the dark. Her hair was grey and thinned, but her eyes gleamed as sharp as steel-tipped arrows. “I don’t understand,” he had said to her. His face ached from the thousand pricks of the tattooing needles. “How will a meeting so far away affect our clan?”
She smiled down at him, her skin creasing deeply under her eyes. “Not just our clan, Haren, or even the Dalish. This meeting will alter the future of all elves.”
His breath shuddered through him, drawing him back to the present. His chest felt tight, the snug strap of his quiver pushing down on his ribs with each rise of his lungs. The sight of the ships drawing ever closer made his eyes feel hot. His clan was his home—each forest they had travelled through, every tree he had climbed, every meadow he had romped through with children both human and elf. They were all wrapped up in his heart, each a thread twisted together. And now the cord formed a knot in his throat. He sniffed.
“Haren,” called a voice from down below. “Hare! Aren’t you going to say goodbye?”
“Coming,” he called back. He took a few moments to compose himself, and then slid with ease down the tree to the ground. The Keeper stood waiting for him, his clan forming a half-moon around her. “Keeper,” he started. “Andaran—”
That was all he could get out. His clan swarmed around him, embracing him all at once. He was pulled this way and that into as many hugs as they could steal. With each press of warmth against him, with every flash of a wavering smile, he felt the tears build up inside him again. The First slipped a wooden pendant round his neck, which he clung to, tight, rubbing his thumb along its polished smoothness. The Keeper embraced him last, and when he hugged her back, burying his face into her firm shoulder, he inhaled deeply. She smelled like halla and aravel varnish and home. It was a scent he didn’t want to forget.
“Keeper,” he murmured, “why me? There are older hunters, better hunters—everyone knows my fingers still shake when I draw back the bowstring.”
She pulled back, holding him by the shoulders and looking him in the eyes. Her expression softened. “You’re gentle,” she said, and stroked a lock of hair off of his brow. “Violence and hatred have shaped these lands for far too long. Perhaps it’s time we stop listening to prideful warriors, and look instead to the meek.”
She brought him close for another hug then, and this time he did cry. When she pulled away, his arms hung in the air for a moment as if she would come back. Instead she pressed a coin purse into his hand and folded his fingers over it with her own.
“Dareth shiral, Hare. May the Dread Wolf never hear your steps.”
He walked, then—out of the woods and down the path to the sea. He had always been good at walking silently, at going unseen, but just in case he made his way along the shore instead of the road. He did not know what to expect of this journey, and tried hard not to think too much on it. He looked ahead, where the sun climbed the sky steadily the same way he climbed trees, the robin’s shell blue unmarred by clouds.
The crashing waves washed away his footprints behind him.