Fingers laced together, they walked back from the clearing in a warmth that defied the chill cooling the earth below their feet. They stepped out from the cover of the trees into the camp, laughing when they halted. Nirwen's father, Mir'salen, strode toward them.
Nirwen's heart froze. She felt Nehn start sliding her hand out of her own, but she tightened her grasp. No. She closed her eyes, took a breath, and opened them again. Her father stood before the both of them.
"Papae." Nirwen said, meeting his gaze in spite of her heart pounding, signaling to flee, hide, become invisible, or to take Nehn and go far away. His eyes were the same as hers, but all efforts were futile in discerning a ready response in them.
"Nirwen. Nehn." He nodded at each of them, looking from his daughter, a flush upon her face, to Nehn and undoubtedly, over their joined hands. "You've returned later than expected."
"We were just talking at the clearing. Lost track of time," Nirwen replied with the simplest form of the truth, unsure whether her voice sounded as quiet as it did in her head. Still, she searched her father's face for something, anything that would let her know what he was thinking; if this was the end of months wholly theirs, of all the possibility they reassured one another with when they shared fear. As that thought ended, Nehn squeezed her hand. She closed her eyes for a second, blinking back the inopportune tears that jumped up. Whatever was to come, Nirwen felt a certain calm take over. "We wanted to spend some time together, and we fell asleep," she added.
Mir'salen nodded, his face warm. Not angry, not heated. Calm. Yet with a familiar worry. "Nehn, please, go join our family at the fire while I talk to Nirwen for a moment," he said. Nehn turned, flashed Nirwen surprise, fear, and love in her widened eyes, then silently nodded and complied. He put an arm around his daughter, pulling her in close, the same way he had done since her earliest days. The warmth almost brought the tears back to her eyes, but the knot in her belly still needed reassurance. They walked slowly around the encampment. "Nirwen, you're seventeen now. You have much to think about, and decisions to make. You will have to meditate on our way of life, what you want, and on just who you are, and will be. Your vallaslin will be the most visible symbol that you are Dalish, but you won't last even receiving it unless you feel all of what that means. As our oldest, well, this is new for us too," he finished with a chuckle, taking note of the bracelet on her left wrist.
"Was this from Nehn? Your mother said she had been asking for leather scraps for weeks, but refused to say why." Nirwen looked up, a warmth starting to blanket that knot she felt as she nodded.
"She was feeding your brother when we saw you both return from a supply run the other night. We saw the way you looked at each other. Your mother told me about the leather then. We saw your face, how light, how you just couldn't help smiling, and laughing together. Honestly, it scared us. I look at you and I see our baby. I see our future. Your mother and I, I can't say we haven't wondered just who among the young men you might match with once you came of age. So this...with Nehn...how long? Are you certain? Can we help with anything?" They stopped walking, though Mir'salen kept his arm around her.
"Five months. I...I love her, Papae. I do." Nirwen didn't know if it was relief or more anxiety that washed over her the moment she set those words free. But there they were. A truth. Her truth. Whatever was to come would come.
There was just one more thing she didn't want to ask, but had to know. One more question to determine if this knot would ever ease. Nirwen drew a slow breath. "Are you going to separate us?" she quietly asked, voice breaking. Once the question hung in the air, a tightness rose in her chest, somehow leaving her floating with anxious anticipation.
"You have much to consider ahead of you, Nirwen. If it has been five months, then you've been keeping with your duties. You and Nehn have been friends far longer, and there's no doubt you work well together. The short answer is, no. For both of you, this year is a serious one. Nothing now is necessarily permanent, but you will have to make choices that will be."
He pulled Nirwen in closer once more, then looked in her eyes. "I wish you would've told us," he said, his face earnest and caring; her father's face. "Come, Nirwen, let's get back to the others."
Nirwen tossed both arms around him, eyes welling up, but unsure how to feel. Was this a blessing? Permission? Acceptance? All she knew was that the knot began untangling itself inside her, a future still laden with traditions, considerations, and a long path to her adulthood, but a future still left to determine. For now, it was enough.