Chapter 1: A New Position
In which Miss Lavellan arrives at her new place of employment and finds it far stranger than she ever anticipated.
The Fereldan countryside was not the idyllic paradise she’d been led to expect. Instead of rolling hills and thatched country cottages, Ellana's view was of nothing but rain and impenetrable fog. It did little to distract her from the vast, gnawing unknown of her future.
At first, the excitement of a new position had been enough to soothe her nerves—surely, her situation could not get worse . She’d survived her fair share of dire circumstances, and felt she should be immune to the anxiety of uncertainty.
A night in the village inn, with all the gossip and rumour that entailed, cured her of any such illusions.
When she mentioned that she was traveling alone to Wolvenhall, each and every single person pursed their lips in disapproval. None were shy about their feelings on Wolvenhall’s new tenant.
The point of his ears had made some wonder if he would be an angry sort of politicker, or perhaps would host wild bacchanals under the full moon. Neither was true, yet some ladies in the village were dismayed—they perhaps wouldn’t have minded a bacchanal or two if it meant that the manor would be used for a ball.
But he showed no interest in balls, bacchanals, or indeed anyone or anything beyond his wrought-iron gates.
By all accounts he should have been an interesting man. A rich elf with the twin virtues of mysterious origin and extensive education was an intriguing combination.There were rumors he had served abroad, as had most elves who had made their fortune in the war, though no one could quite say when or where. And then there was his ward, a human boy of seemingly stunted capacity. An elf raising a human was odd indeed.
Yet despite all of this potential, visitors to Wolvenhall reported a reserved and academic man, proud and unfriendly, a man uninterested in accruing any goodwill from anyone. A string of tutors for his young ward reported exacting standards and an icy temper, but nothing interesting enough for scandal. All left or were dismissed in short order.
In the end, anticipation and excitement soured to bored irritation when it became clear the whole estate was dull as dishwater. Thus the town felt justified in their poor opinion of elves and left him alone, a stalemate which seemed to satisfy all parties.
And this was the man soon to be her employer.
At least it would be a quiet life. She could use one of those.
Somehow, the prospect of a solitary life in a massive, ancient fortress did little to quell her nerves.
Wolvenhall’s grand stone facade rose out of the mist as her carriage drew closer. The top floors faded into the fog high above, as though in a half-remembered dream. The grounds were thick with untamed shrubbery and gnarled, leafless trees.
It was a wet autumn, and the roads were thick with mud. The carriage had stuck in potholes twice already that day. She had no issue with helping to pull the wheels from the mud, yet she couldn’t help but think the driver would not have allowed such a thing, had she been a lady with rounded ears.
Frankly, she would have preferred to walk.
But that was what a wild Dalish would do, not a proper governess.
Her thin overcoat was soaked through and dripping mud—not quite the first impression she wanted to make, but at least they had arrived, albeit a day late and past sundown.
The carriage brought her around to the servants’ entrance. It was a far cry from the grand columns and wrought iron embellishments of the front facade. She could hardly make out the door in the darkness, and the stairs leading to it looked like they might collapse at any moment.
The driver flew away without even a goodbye the moment she and her luggage hit the ground, splattering her coat with yet more mud. She could hardly blame him, she supposed, watching the horses fade back into the fog, for even in Wycome she’d heard the eerie tales of Wolvenhall. Blood magic, ancient catacombs, ghosts and spirits beyond counting— the rumors were of infinite variety. The village inn had some especially gruesome stories of its history.
She had presumed it all to be wild imaginings, but now, standing beneath the stone behemoth itself, she found her fingers trembling.
Foolish , she chastised herself, clasping her hands together until they stilled. Ignorant superstition . For her to be frightened of strange magic was bitter irony indeed.
Cringing at the freezing mud sloshing in her boots, she knocked on the door, hesitantly at first, and then when no answer appeared imminent, more insistently.
When she had nearly given up hope, and begun wondering how on earth she would find her way back to the village, the door flew open, making her jump back in alarm.
A pair of pale grey eyes stared at her from the dim entryway. “You’re wet,” a voice whispered.
She could hardly muster a reply. “Yes, I am,” she managed.
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could make out a young man, hardly older than fifteen, with a shock of white-blond hair and, somewhat alarmingly, a wide-brimmed hat that filled the doorway. He held a small lamp that illuminated little more than his ragged clothes and the curve of his jaw.
“I’m supposed to welcome you in now, aren’t I?” the boy said, stepping back inside. “Won’t you please? You’re so awfully cold.”
“Thank you,” she said, wondering if she should perhaps instead run the other way.
The boy hefted the lantern up to his face. His skin, pock-marked as it was, held a certain luminosity, and his wide, somewhat frantic eyes were friendly. “Hello,” he said, staring at her as he hefted her single piece of luggage.
“A pleasure,” she said, extending her hand, and then withdrawing it when he merely stared. “And you are…?
“I’m Cole,” he said, turning away and leading her down the dark hallway behind him. “And you’re Miss Lavellan.”
“Oh!” She exclaimed, “I didn’t realize—I’m delighted to be your new tutor, Cole.” What an odd house, that the master’s ward would meet her at the door and not a footman or housekeeper. Particularly at such an hour!
Cole paused mid-step. “You’re not. But you’re not frightened of me, either. It’s nice.” She caught a glimpse of a half-smile beneath the absurdly massive hat.
It was true—how he knew that with certainty, she did not know, but she was not frightened of this odd young man. Perhaps others were—yes, she could imagine the looks he would get in the village—but she’d always found that the strangest folk were often the kindest.
More than once, she’d survived on the kindness of those others would consider mad.
He led her down winding stone corridors that all looked alike, his footsteps oddly light and sure for such a gangly youth, until finally they stepped through a nondescript door into what she presumed was the great hall. Even by the light of Cole’s lantern, she could not see the ceiling.
It was a massive stone rotunda, more akin to an ancient chapel than a foyer, full of statues looming in the shadows. She saw a human man on a rearing stallion; a tall woman in diaphanous robes holding aloft tipped scales; a hound with its nose to a scent, tail alert; a long indeterminate blade, too large for a man to wield. Some pieces were lifelike—fine marble carved by masters—while some were decrepit, ancient things, forged of crude bronze and stone.
It was an extensive collection, spanning centuries, but in the darkness of the hall, they all looked like shadows.
She squared her shoulders against a shiver, suddenly very aware of the way she was dripping mud on what was surely a very expensive black marble floor.
Before them was a massive staircase made of dark stone, branching to the east and west. All else was in darkness. It was so very different from the great houses she’d visisted before, pretty little chateaus of white painted wood, porcelain and soft florals, pastel pinks and goldfinch yellows.
Here, she half-expected an altar of crude obsidian to jut from the floor, old blood cracked in the grooves.
It was a dark thought, even for her, and she shook it away.
“I wonder that you are awake at this hour, Cole,” she said, speaking largely in an attempt to dispel the nerves that gripped her. Darkness was merely an absence of light; she would laugh at herself in the morning, surely, for being frightened of an innocuous art collection.
“Oh, I’m always awake, even when I’m not,” he said, as though that were reassuring. “I don’t mind the dark. It’s easier, in the shadows where there’s no seeing. Don’t you think?”
The manner of his speech was beyond strange, but she had to smile all the same—she had never met someone who thought as he did. “You have a singular mind, Cole,” she replied.
His face brightened. “That’s what he says!”
“He? Who do you mean?”
Cole turned his wide eyes to her, luminous in the darkness. “Solas, of course.”
“Ah.” He led her up the staircase, veering to the eastern wing of the manor. Their footsteps echoed in the vast space. Attempting nonchalance, she asked, “What kind of man is he, your… benefactor?”
Cole’s voice took on an odd cadence. “Better boredom than prying in dark corners, eyes in all the mirrors he doesn’t want seen. Dullness, best kept at a distance, is better than fear. Scared turns to suspicion turns to knowing and then it’s done.”
“I’d heard he was an academic sort,” she said, diplomatically, utterly unsure what to make of his odd turn in mood.
“Oh, yes,” Cole said. “He’s full of columns.”
“And he treats you kindly?” Not twenty minutes into their acquaintance and she was already worried for this young stranger. To be alone in such a large and imposing house, and wandering awake at such a late hour, in ragged clothes...
Cole just looked at her. “He guides me to the shining places,” he said, and, well, that was that.
She dripped her way to the top of the staircase, painfully aware that she was creating extra work for some poor maid in the morning.
Or, perhaps, for herself—the duties of her employment were not entirely clear, and she had been desperate enough not to pry.
The eastern staircase led to a tall hallway lined in tapestries and paintings. Imposing, to be sure, but less so than the great hall below them. Every item was worthy of any museum, yet it was all haphazardly strewn across the walls. She’d seen amateur needlework paid more respect.
She felt immensely plain and small, in her starched brown cottons and damp overcoat, before all that careless finery.
She shook off the feeling best she could. She was to live here for the foreseeable future—it wouldn’t do to be intimidated by the decor.
Cole paused before a doorway. “This is your room. You can have another one, if you want. There are twenty-six.”
“This will do fine. Thank you.”
“I won’t come in. Molly didn’t like that. She screamed at me, and then she left.” Ellana presumed ‘Molly’ to be her predecessor. Cole frowned. “I only wanted some ribbon, for the cats. But she wouldn’t forget.”
“It’s all right,” Ellana said, at somewhat of a loss for words. “Will you go to bed now, Cole?”
“No,” he said. Not argumentatively, but as though he were merely stating a fact. “But you want me to?”
“I’d like that. And tomorrow you can show me the rest of the house?”
His smile was unguarded. “Probably!”
She said her goodnights and closed the door behind her, heaving a deep breath.
By the standards of the rest of the manor it was a small room, but by her standards it was a palace—if a somewhat spartan one.
At school she’d shared a bed with three other girls, cramped and miserable, made all the worse by the way they’d pinched her in her sleep, leaving sharp red bruises. Even little orphans and natural daughters thought themselves above an elf. Afterwards, at her first position, she’d slept in an unused linen closet, and rejoiced at the privacy.
A queen bed sat against the wall, with a cedar trunk at the foot of it and a cherry armoire to the side—how meagre her single bag of possessions would look in such grand storage! There was a sizable armchair as well, and a little writing desk facing the window. Moonlight streamed through gauzy curtains, illuminating the room enough to maneuver by. The fog must have lifted.
She swayed on her feet, the excitement from her arrival draining out of her in one fell swoop. She stripped out of her wet clothes and gloves, setting them to dry by the window.There was a bowl of water on the windowsill, somehow still warm despite the night’s chill, and she gratefully splashed her face and hands, washing away the foulness of the road best she could.
Despite the oddity of her situation, and the thousand questions racing through her mind, she couldn’t resist the charms of a clean bed and a door that actually locked. She blew out her candle and climbed under the covers without preamble, and sleep found her the moment her head met the pillow.
She woke just after dawn—an old habit—and slipped on her one other dress, an ill-fitting thing that had once been perhaps a fetching green, but had since faded into a kind of moldy pastel.
It was clean, in any case.
Last came her ever-present pair of gloves—how lucky she had been that they were not muddied during the journey.
She was shocked to find Cole in the hallway when she emerged—had he not left since he dropped her off last night?—but after a moment she saw that he was looking a little cleaner, and he was in different clothes.
The hat, though, seemed to be a permanent sartorial choice.
He turned when she emerged, a wide smile on his face. “You’re still here!”
“Should I not be?”
He shook his head. “People don’t stay.”
In the light of day the manor wasn’t all that frightening, and she wondered at her odd superstitions the night before. What had seemed like intimidating extravagance in the darkness now looked more like dusty clutter.
“Well, I don’t plan on leaving any time soon. Would you mind showing me the kitchens? I can fix my own tea.”
Cole’s eyes widened. “Oh! We eat breakfast in the room with the birds,” he said, picking at his fingers. “You’re meant to come. He brings jam and bread.” His expression turned apologetic. “No tea, though.”
She boggled. “He’s awake?” She’d never heard of a lord of one of these great houses who ever woke so early, never mind one who arranged his own breakfast.
Cole furrowed his brow. “I can’t see him, so I can’t say for certain—”
She shook her head. “Never mind. I’d be happy to join you.” She swallowed the nerves that threatened to set her head spinning.
Her new employer. The man who could take one look at her and send her packing, back out onto the streets.
And what then? Who would recommend her for a position? Would she return to the orphanage school? Or wander the woods again, and try to find a clan that had never heard the name Lavellan?
Or, worse, he could be cruel and monstrous, and she would need to weigh happiness against poverty.
She startled at Cole’s hand on her arm. It was surprisingly warm. “It’s all right.”
She returned a shaky smile. “Sorry to worry you, Cole. I don’t do well on a lack of sleep.”
“He loves sleeping, too! I know you’ll get along.”
She had to smile a little at that. “I certainly hope you’re right.”
Cole led her down the staircase and through the great hall full of artifacts—these, at least, looked just as intimidating during the day. The bronze spear from the night before glittered sharply, and the marble figures had a certain lifelike glow about them in the sunlight.
The mud she’d dripped on the floor last night was gone as if it had never been.
The parlor was a small annex room off of the central rotunda. The walls were painted with vibrant, wide murals of birds of all different types—cranes, sparrows, starlings, and some she had never before seen but looked as though they belonged in some distant jungle. This must have been what Cole meant by the ‘room with the birds.’
A single long table ran the length of the room, piled high with hundreds of books, more than she’d ever seen in one place before.
“Goodness,” she breathed.
A flutter of movement across the room brought her nerves back in full force. Her employer, hidden behind a newspaper until that moment, folded it and set it down on the table.
He rose to greet her. “Miss Lavellan, I presume?”
He was a tall man, surprisingly so for an elf, with a certain elegance in his carriage. He was bald, though not seemingly due to old age (though he was certainly older than she), and beardless. Despite his elegant posture and grace of movement, his clothing was oddly ragged—the sleeves of his green coat were frayed, and though everything appeared clean and pressed, it was all more than a decade out of style.
She attempted a curtsy. “A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Solas.”
“Likewise,” he said, with a polite smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I hope that your delayed arrival was not due to any trouble on the road?” His voice was quiet and precise, with an accent she couldn’t quite place.
She winced. “Apologies for my tardiness. This season is poor for travel.”
He glanced away, an odd turn to his mouth. “You are here now, which is all that matters, I suppose. It appears that you have already met Cole?”
She glanced over at Cole, who was carefully inspecting a globe on the table, tracing the borders slowly with his fingers. “Yes. He’s been very kind.”
His eyebrows raised. “Has he?”
She narrowed her eyes, wondering at his tone. “He showed me to my quarters last night, and we had the pleasure of speaking, for a time. I found him to be a singular young man.”
“Singular, yes. Forgive my surprise. It is merely that many are discouraged by my ward’s manner. He has a unique view of the world that some find... discomfiting.”
She glanced again at Cole, who did not seem upset at this description of himself. In fact, he appeared to not be listening at all. “That’s their loss, I suppose.”
“Yes,” he said. It was only when she had his full attention did she realize he had hardly noticed her before. “Lavellan. A Dalish name, is it not?”
She took a deep breath, ready to reel off the speech that she always gave to assure people she wasn’t the Dalish nymph of their imaginations. It was always grating, but she did need employment, and most employers did not harbor warm thoughts for her people.
“Yes, it is. I was born to a Dalish clan far to the north, but I was raised in an Andrastian orphanage, as a teacher and governess. I know the Chant and am fluent in Common, as you can likely tell, and can read Orlesian, and speak it a little. I taught at the orphanage for a time, and more recently worked for two years at—”
He waved a hand, cutting her off. “I have read your recommendation. If you are Dalish, where are your vallaslin?”
Taken aback, she sputtered out, “I—ah, that is—my clan, I wasn’t—” she took a breath to steady her nerves. “I left my clan at a young age. Too young for vallaslin.” Most non-Dalish didn’t even know what vallaslin were, let alone were able to pronounce it correctly.
His eyebrows rose again. “Left your clan? Is that commonly done?”
“No,” she said, wishing she could leave it at that, but his silence prompted her to continue. “It was an unusual situation,” she said, hoping against hope he wouldn’t dig any deeper. “It was a dark time for my clan, and they were no longer…able to provide for me.”
Creators, let that be the end of it!
He sniffed and looked away, apparently satisfied by that answer. “That does sound like the Dalish.”
She was nearly too shocked to be angry. Nearly. “I beg your pardon?”
He clasped his hands behind his back, looking down at her with faint irritation. “The Dalish hide in forests, hoarding their fragments of distorted history, somehow believing they are more than children playing games with shadows upon the wall. I sorely doubt the ancients spent their days herding halla.”
This insult, coming from a fellow elf? Even humans were content to call her ‘rabbit’ and leave it at that!
“Should they recite the Chant and live in human manors, then?” She couldn’t stop the sharp edge in her voice nor the heat rising to her face. Her left hand itched, as it always did when her emotions ran high, and she was grateful she remembered her gloves that morning. “The Dalish aren’t perfect, but at least they’re trying to keep the memory of our people alive. Someone should.”
He seemed taken aback, but pressed on. “This ‘memory’ they claim adherence to is an inaccurate fantasy, which is to say, it is a lie.”
“And who is the arbiter of that— you ?”
Some distant part of herself was horrified. Not ten minutes on the job and already she was insulting her employer!
The rest of her was just angry.
He looked askance at her, eyes narrowing. “For someone expelled from Dalish society, you are surprisingly defensive of their ways.”
Just as she opened her mouth to say something regrettable, Cole cried out in distress. She whipped around, having forgotten he was there in her anger. His shaking hands were clutched to his ears and he was bent over the table, staring into nothing.
“Cole!” Solas was at his side in a moment, and Ellana followed. She wanted to reach out, but Cole shrank away from their approach, and so she forced herself back.
His eyes were clenched tight. “It’s all red and sharp, I can’t…”
Solas’s voice turned gentle. “Listen to my voice, Cole. Focus on what is here.”
“What is here?”
Her heart jumped at the strain in his voice, so far from the soft, almost melodic way he usually spoke.
“Feel the wood underneath your feet. The breath in your lungs. The weight of your hat on your brow.”
Cole gulped in breath and after breath, tension slowly draining out of him. After a few moments, he blinked, expression clearing, though he was still quite pale.
“There you are,” Solas said.
“Thank you,” Cole breathed.
Ellana reached out at last and softly set her hand on his arm. “I’m sorry for upsetting you, Cole.” She took a deep breath, ashamed at her temper and horribly certain that all this meant she was out of a job.“And I must beg your pardon too, Mr. Solas. I spoke out of turn.”
But his eyes were on her hand, resting on Cole’s sleeve. After a moment, he looked away, clearing his throat. “The apology is mine to make, Miss Lavellan,” he said, straightening once again, all politeness. He turned to Cole. “Are you all right?”
Cole nodded. “Yes. Pillows would be nice, though. And maybe a cat.”
“You may go to your rooms, then, and rest a while.”
Cole wandered away, leaving them alone in an awkward silence.
She mentally scolded herself, staring at her feet—how could she have been so nervous, and then flown off into a temper like that? Surely he would not want some angry knife-ear around to upset his sensitive ward… and to challenge him so outright? What was she thinking ?
“Is he all right to go alone?” She ventured at last, not meeting his eyes.
“Yes,” Solas said, rubbing at his temples. “He merely needs some time to himself.” He paused. “It seems you have a way with him.”
“Not near as much as you, I’m sure, but I like him, truly.” She wondered if he would let her say goodbye. No, perhaps a clean break was better for everyone.
He sighed, face set with some odd emotion, and for the first time she noticed the purple circles under his eyes and the pale sheen to his skin. Was that exhaustion, or illness?
“I fear your assessment is uncommon, Miss Lavellan, though I am glad to hear it. I think that after all this excitement Cole can be excused from his lessons today, save for perhaps some reading after supper.”
She stared at him, unsure. “Wait—do you mean you’re keeping me on?”
Bafflement was written all over his face. “Your qualifications and references are excellent, and you do not seem to fear taking on a challenging student. The position is yours, if you desire it still. Was that in question?” He tugged at his sleeves, an anxious gesture.
“I thought that, well, since we argued…”
He frowned down at her. “I am not in the habit of punishing those who disagree with me.” He sighed again, brows drawn tight. “It is not a bad thing to have one’s opinions challenged every so often.”
She allowed herself a small smile. “Thank you, Mr. Solas.”
He looked away, stooping a little. “Indeed. Well. To begin, please call me merely Solas. I cannot abide needless formality. Second, I will be working until supper, and do not wish to be disturbed. You may explore the house at your leisure. I only ask that you do not venture into the west wing, as that is where I work. We dine at six.” He turned away to his table piled high with books.
Sensing a dismissal, Ellana left the parlor with a clumsy curtsy, resisting the urge to skip. Certainly, her employer was odd and a little irritable, and her student might be a challenge, but she had a position— not a small thing for an exiled Dalish elf deep in human territory.
She let herself bask in it, for just a moment.
Chapter 2: Memory and Thorn
In which our heroine learns more about the strange manor of Wolvenhall and its mysterious inhabitants.
She wandered the dark rooms of Wolvenhall in a kind of daze, the immense, lonely quality of the house beginning to weigh down on her. Nearly every room was shuttered, the furniture draped with white sheets that loomed in dusty sunbeams like malformed ghosts. Strangest of all, she still had not seen a single servant. Not a single maid or cook or footman appeared to live in Wolvenhall at all.
As the shine of new employment faded away, she couldn’t help feeling nervous about Solas himself. Certainly, he had been kind to Cole, but he was still cold, ill-tempered and seemed to hate the Dalish based on some principle she didn’t quite fathom. And what sort of man was he, really, to live as he did? She had never met a noble remotely like him.
Though she supposed he wasn’t nobility, not really—no elf could be a true aristocrat, not in Fereldan. But he was wealthy, which was very nearly the same thing.
The rooms that weren’t shuttered were still poorly maintained, more akin to storage rooms or ramshackle libraries than functional living spaces. She’d seen more books that morning than she had in her entire life. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to their storage she could fathom. Massive tomes of military history sat alongside grammar books for schoolchildren. And the books themselves, to her dismay, were poorly cared for. 'Musty' seemed to be the operative word.
Wolvenhall was not a beautiful house, by most measures. Its dark, heavy stone and forbidding architecture meant it felt more akin to a fortress of war than a family estate. And yet there was a certain gravitas to it, a sense of history and awe, that lent it a power not found in airy Orlesian chateaus.
Still, gravitas didn’t exactly make for a welcoming atmosphere. Perhaps after a few weeks she’d find it more inviting... yet somehow, she doubted it. For all her strict schooling, a childhood of wood and sky had left her with a permanent longing for soil under her toes and fresh air in her lungs.
After a time the oppressive mood became too much, and she fetched her coat and wound her way out into the back gardens. It was a bright and crisp afternoon, the unbridled sunniness welcome yet nearly painful after the days of rain and fog. Despite the chill, she couldn't help but smile at the opportunity to enjoy the outside world.
Cole waved from further down the path. It seemed they were of the same mind.
Indoors, the lack of care made the whole manor feel almost shabby, but in the gardens, that lack of care had blossomed into something wild and beautiful in its untamed state. She’d seen her share of perfectly coiffed, symmetrical gardens, and they paled in comparison to this. Rose bushes towered overhead, vines and thorns tangled in a whirlwind, and what had once been careful hedges were now a thick forest of dense, prickly foliage. Tall pines lined the periphery, and when she closed her eyes, she could almost feel the prick of needles under her feet, the musk of halla on the breeze, the distant drumbeat of aravel sails snapping in the wind—
She forced her eyes open. No. That wouldn’t do.
A black cat stretched out in a sunbeam, purring in contentment as Cole rubbed his ears.
“I hope you’re feeling better,” she said, sitting down on a stone bench near the happy couple. “Did you get a chance to rest?”
“I’m resting now,” Cole said, scratching behind the cat’s ears. “Do you like the gardens? They’re my favorite.”
“I do, very much,” she said. “I’ve always found nature comforting. I suppose it’s the Dalish side of me.”
“Things grow out here,” Cole said, “but things shine in there, underneath all the dust.” Another cat emerged from the underbrush, this one a mangy calico with a nicked ear. It rubbed right up against Cole and crawled into his lap.
She hummed, kicking her feet a little. Even if Solas was a rude sort of man, she would at least enjoy Cole’s company, however strange he sometimes was. His strange qualities made her less self-conscious of her own.
“Would you like if we held some of your lessons out here? Weather permitting, of course.”
Cole’s eyes lit up. “Yes!”
She nodded, hiding a smile. “Good. But let’s save that for tomorrow, shall we?”
He nodded, and then paused, as if searching for the right words. “Solas means well. He’s very kind.”
“He is certainly very kind to you,” she said, not wanting to give offense. After all, she had been quite rude to him, in turn. But this was not a subject she wanted to revisit, not when it had upset him so. She tried to deflect to a more neutral topic. “What is the nature of his work?”
Cole looked up at her, lips thinning in frustration. Apparently the topic was not as neutral as she’d hoped. “I am not meant to say,” he said. “But I want to! You wouldn’t mind any of it, I know. But I can’t!”
“It’s a secret, then?”
“Now I’ve made you curious,” he said mournfully, frowning down at the snoozing cat in his lap.
“It’s all right,” she said. “I might feel curious, but people are allowed their secrets. I won’t go prying.” She’d be a hypocrite not to say so.
“Do you promise you won’t? He’d be so upset, and then you would have to go away.”
That brought her up short. A secret she’d be dismissed for stumbling upon?
“Curiouser and curiouser,” Cole moaned, and the cat squirmed away from his lap.
“No, no,” she said, placatingly. “I promise.”
He nodded, wide eyes fixed on her face. “Thank you.”
They sat in companionable silence for a time, listening to the wind rustle through the pines and watching the light dapple across the wide stone walls of Wolvenhall.
Back in her quarters, she unpacked her small bag and scoured her muddy dress from the night before, managing to erase the worst of the stains. She retied her braid into its customary tight Orlesian style down her back, and splashed her face a few times in the basin by the window. Somehow, someone had replaced the water from the night before, though she could not imagine either Solas or Cole doing so. Despite her efforts to be presentable, she arrived to dinner before anyone else.
The table was bare, save for a single a single candelabra that cast long, shuddering shadows across the walls. The dining room was hardly the entertaining parlor she’d envisioned, built for parties and gossip, but a low-ceilinged, dark, stone cube adjacent to the kitchens. It would have seemed more like a servant mess hall, were it not for the fine furniture.
She stood by the table for a few minutes, growing increasingly worried that she’d misheard the time, when the double doors to the kitchen flew open.
Cole emerged holding a tray of bread and cheeses. Solas, to her immense shock, came just behind, carrying a tray of his own.
“Good evening,” he said, sparing her a glance as he arranged the trays on the table. “Could I trouble you for the teapot? You will find the water already at a boil.”
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
The kitchen was perhaps the most ordinary room in the entire manor. It was tidy, well-appointed, and entirely lacking in unnerving art or piles of books.
The kettle sang on the massive cast iron stove. She removed it from the heat and poured the water into the teapot over a bed of tea leaves. The familiar aroma brought her out of her daze. After rummaging around in the cabinets for a moment, she found a few mismatched, chipped teacups.
This was all… beyond strange.
She returned, teapot and cups in hand, to Solas and Cole standing by the table, awaiting her return.
“Standing is… polite?” Cole asked, eyes on Solas. Standing, as though she were a lady! The situation became odder by the moment.
“Yes,” he said. “Thank you, Miss Lavellan.”
She placed the pot and cups down on the table and sat, to which they followed suit. “If I’m to call you Solas, you may as well call me Ellana,” she said, trying for some levity.
He nodded, expression unreadable. “As you wish, Ellana.”
She couldn’t help blushing at the sound of her given name. It had been a long time since she’d had a friendship that called for the intimacy of first names, and to hear it from a near-stranger was...odd.
Not entirely unwelcome, but odd.
She was already growing used to that peculiar combination of feeling.
“Pass me your plate, please,” Cole said, reaching toward her.
“I—thank you,” she stammered, handing him her dish. She turned to Solas. “Is your cook perhaps, ill, then…?”
A wry but genuine smile turned up the corners of his lips. “No. I fear I do not employ a cook. Cole and I arrange our own meals.”
She stared at him as Cole passed her plate back, heaped high with toast, jam, and cheese. “Truly?”
Everyone in the village had assured her Wolvenhall was the dullest place on earth, and yet so far she’d found little that failed to shock her.
His smile fell, brows drawing together. “It is unorthodox, I realize. We do not entertain often, and there is little need for pomp and circumstance with just the two of us alone. I hope it does not disappoint.”
She waved a hand, dismissing his concern. “No, no. I didn’t mean that. You do things very differently here, that’s all.”
“That is true,” he said, brow uncreasing. “It is routine for us, yet I imagine it must be strange, coming here from the care of a grand Orlesian family.”
“A welcome change,” she blurted out, then flushed. It was not good form to speak ill of her former position.
Solas seemed to pay it no mind, however. If anything, he seemed pleased by her outburst. He poured himself a cup of tea sniffed at it, frowning, before setting it aside. She wondered if she brewed it improperly.
“He hates all tea,” Cole assured her.
“I see,” she said, raising an eyebrow at Solas, who merely scowled down at his teaup. She shrugged. “The more for us, then, I suppose.”
Cole ignored both his tea and food, instead choosing to stare at her across the table, eyes wide. It was difficult not to feel self-conscious, but she scarfed down all the food on her plate regardless, barely remembering her table manners. In all the excitement of the day, she hadn’t realized how hungry she was. Cole chattered away while they ate, talking about the people he’d met on his last trip down to the village. It seemed his episode from that morning had been long forgotten.
“Cole,” Solas interrupted after a time, voice gentle. “Remember to eat.”
“Oh,” Cole said, looking down at his plate in surprise. “I forgot.” He started to pick at a hunk of cheese with a dessert fork.
They continued to eat in a suddenly awkward silence. She supposed it must feel strange, having a stranger in their midst when they were so accustomed to being alone.
“I can understand cooking for two, but surely you don’t clean this entire manor by yourselves?”
Solas’ small smile returned, though she could now see the tiredness behind it. “No. Wolvenhall is far too large for Cole and I. We keep the rooms we do use tidy, and the rest are either used as storage for my books or left empty.”
“Oh, yes,” she said, leaning forward, “your book collection is beyond anything I’ve ever seen!”
He eyed her a little warily, as if searching for some hidden mockery, but relented when he found none. “You are welcome to any that interest you, of course.”
She gaped at him. “Thank you,” she said, trying not to sound over-awed and failing utterly. “That is very generous.”
He shrugged, looking away. “It is nothing.”
It was hardly nothing, but she let the point rest.
“Is there a subject of particular interest to you? I could perhaps point you to the correct room, if not the correct shelf,” he asked. “I fear there is little organization.”
“Oh, anything,” she said, the possibilities running wild in her head. “Religion, perhaps?”
“Religion?” he said, and looked at her a little askance, perhaps wondering if she were more devout than she let on. “May I ask why?”
She picked at her gloves. “I was raised by one polytheistic religion for years, and then taken in by the Chantry soon after. It is difficult not to wonder at the truth behind it all. Even Andraste was a mortal woman, once.”
“Most are content with the easy comforts of mythology,” he said with a faint smile, and she suspected he was swallowing some snide comment about the Dalish. “I would attempt the far room in the east wing, second floor. There is some fine scholarship there, scattered amidst the writings of Brother Genitivi."
She smiled and poured herself a cup of tea and enjoyed the way it warmed her fingers through her gloves. “Hearsay in the village is that you’re an academic sort, and your book collection would seem to prove it,” she said. “Did you attend university?”
Solas straightened in his chair and set his fork down. She’d meant to make light conversation, but his tension was obvious. “Yes,” he said, and didn’t elaborate. Was it her mention of the village, she wondered? Perhaps the ill will ran deeper than she presumed.
“I’m envious, I admit,” she said, glancing back down at her plate. “I’m grateful for my education, of course. Most aren’t so lucky.” Most Dalish were illiterate. Through no fault of their own, of course, though she doubted her dinner companion would agree, given their earlier disagreement. “But to dedicate years to the studies of your choice? It must have been marvelous.”
Solas glared down at his teacup. “Not the term I’d use, no. The politics and prejudices of academia are as poisonous as any Orlesian court. Corruption is inevitable in any organization, but it is especially potent among those who believe themselves superior to others. I fear it would have only disappointed you.”
“I see. I suppose I must defer to you on the subject,” she said, looking away and feeling as though she’d missed some crucial detail. She’d expected him the type to wax nostalgic for his university years, though perhaps elves would not have such fond memories. There wasn’t a university in Fereldan or Orlais that would admit an elf, not since the tragedy at the University of Orlais cut short Empress Celene’s education reforms. Solas must have been one of the last elves educated at a true university, an opportunity many of their people would kill for. She didn’t think it would be good form to argue with him twice in one day, however.
Solas stood, chair scraping against the stone floor. Whatever warmth she’d seen in him before had retreated behind a cool reserve. “Forgive me. I have matters that I must attend to this evening. We will discuss Cole’s lessons in the morning.” He nodded to them both, and before they could respond, he strode out of the room as though he couldn’t leave quickly enough.
She watched him leave, an unsaid apology she didn’t understand lingering on her lips.
Cole walked her back to her rooms after supper. His mood, too, had turned somewhat dour.
“You find us very strange,” he said, frowning.
She had to smile a little at that. “I do, yes.”
His frown turned to puzzlement. “It doesn’t bother you.” It wasn’t a question.
“There are worse things in this world than strangeness,” she said.
“Some people don’t think so,” Cole said, picking at his sleeves.
“People think all kinds of idiotic things, Cole. You mustn’t let it bother you.”
A little smile was her reward for her dubious wisdom. “You’re right. It can be hard, sometimes, to know where they end and I end. But Solas helps.”
“I’m glad,” she said, perplexed, and decided not to press the subject of her employer right then. “Well,” she said, pausing outside her room. “I’ll see you for breakfast, then, and we’ll begin your lessons.”
They said their goodnights, and she retreated into her quarters. The room was bathed in moonlight. Without bothering to light a candle, she splashed herself with cold water and sank beneath her blankets. Sleep did not find her quickly that night, and when it came, it was restless, and full of visions she could only half-remember upon waking.
Chapter 3: The Village
In which a fine outing is disrupted by all manner of oddities, poor manners, and a shockingly large man with horns.
Cole revealed himself to be a quick student, if an unorthodox one. Solas piled her with strict notes on curriculum the next morning— Orlesian grammar and ancient history—but her instincts told her that Cole would need a more creative touch. When the weather permitted, they studied the natural word in its element, wandering the gardens and discussing the flora and fauna. When the ever-present fog turned to heavy, cold raindrops, they spent their lessons more often than not by the fire, poring over books.
Cole gobbled up information like a much younger child, yet with the wisdom and intelligence of one much older. He surprised her at every turn, finding connections between maths and literature she’d never considered, or wondering at the human cost of wars long since lost. He had odd gaps in his knowledge—he would know the writings of an obscure philosopher, but then not know a basic piece of algebra. This likely came from living with an academic, who no doubt thought his own areas of interest more important than mere mathematics.
When not teaching she explored, though never into the western wing where Solas worked. She pored through bookcases, sneezing at the dust, and accumulated a fine stack by her bedside. At school, they’d had little beyond the Chant and the books necessary to teach. Her mind feasted on the wealth of knowledge she found in those halls. History, religion, even the odd book of poetry—she read them all. Solas clearly had a predilection for ancient texts, some crumbling or half-ruined by damp, but occasionally his collection would surprise her. A slim and quite graphic volume on dragon anatomy, for instance, made her laugh out loud, her voice echoing like a bell in the empty room.
She saw little of Solas himself outside mealtimes, and even then he was distant, his mind clearly elsewhere. The few times he did engage her in conversation, he seemed to stay vague and dull with a certain deliberateness she couldn’t understand. He never spoke of his work, and she didn’t ask, though curiosity ate at her. Surely the study of history did not require such secrecy!
Occasionally, on colder evenings, she would see him in the hall when she and Cole gathered by the fireside, their heads together in a book. He never joined them.
It was none of her business, but she could not help but worry about someone who seemed so very alone. Cole, at least, had her, and his occasional trips to the village, but Solas had no apparent interest in travel, and though he seemed to care for Cole a great deal, their interactions were not frequent. Twice a week he tutored Cole privately in the western wing of the manor, which Cole did not speak of; either it had something to do with his unspoken work or Cole merely found it boring, it was difficult to tell.
And yet she enjoyed the simple routines of their little household, and she was too relieved by her good fortune to be truly lonely. And Cole was fine company, if not quite yet a friend. He seemed to sense that there was more to her story than she told them, yet did not press her for details, for which she was grateful.
Her curiosity about Wolvenhall could not help but grow, but nor could she forget Cole’s warning to not investigate. She could not risk her position, however much she might want to learn all there was to know about her odd new home.
And Wolvenhall was indeed odd, in more ways than one. She could not help but notice how the water basins seemed to clean themselves, and how any mud or leaves tracked in from outside mysteriously vanished by the next morning. Somehow the tea was always brewed just right, and food was never over or under-cooked. It was still dusty, and cluttered, and disorganized, but with only three people to care for it, Wolvenhall should have been in ruins, not merely messy .
Cole, when she asked about all this, merely shrugged. “I haven’t noticed,” he would say, his eyes a little too wide and guileless to be convincing.
The atmosphere began to weigh on her, too. At night, she could swear she heard whispering, or distant thunder below the earth, or caught glimpses of a figure in the hall, gone when she turned her head. A part of her wondered if the solitude might turn her mad.
And so, when Cole suggested she accompany him to town one afternoon after their lessons, she agreed with great enthusiasm.
“We need to ask his permission first,” Cole said.
Her enthusiasm deflated a bit. “Permission?”
“We need gold, to buy things, and I don’t have any,” Cole clarified.
“Oh. Right,” she said, and realized she had not yet been paid. Not that she’d had any cause or opportunity to spend money, but all the same...
That night at supper, Solas was even more distant than usual. His usual pallor was more pronounced, the hollows under his eyes a bit darker than usual. She’d thought him ill, those first days, but it seemed to be his natural state, and he didn’t complain of any particular discomfort. She supposed none of them got much in the way of sunshine. His dark clothes were as buttoned-up and shabby as ever, his neckcloth tied tight around his neck. She supposed it must help with the chill, though, she thought dubiously, a hat would likely serve him better.
She cleared her throat, a little awkwardly, which forcefully jolted Solas out of his reverie. His teacup rattled in its saucer.
“Er,” she said, a little taken aback, “Cole invited me to accompany him to the village.”
“Ah,” he said, a little vaguely. “That is an excellent idea. The road is long, and in the winter often treacherous. To go alone would be unwise.”
She paused, and then cleared her throat again. “It seems, however, that circumstances being what they are…that is, I don’t intend any, ah...”
“You forgot to pay her,” Cole supplied.
She nodded, suppressing a wince.
Solas’ brow furrowed. “You have been with us for over a month? Surely not.”
“She’s been here for one month and twelve days,” Cole informed him.
“I see,” he said, looking at her as though he had only just realized she was there. “My apologies. Time tends to get away from me, I fear,” he said. “I will have Cole bring your wages to your quarters in the morning, if that will suffice.”
“Thank you,” she said, a bit uncertainly.
“Of course, any purchases for the household will be paid for from my accounts. I will send Cole with an allowance tomorrow.”
She nodded. “Do we need anything in particular? Cleaning supplies, perhaps…?” She let the question trail off. She couldn’t help but to prod, albeit in a roundabout fashion, at one of Wolvenhall’s many mysteries.
Solas glanced away, and she couldn’t help but read evasiveness in his expression. “No, thank you. I have given Cole a list of our necessities. If you have anything to add, by all means.” He paused, as if searching for the right words. “You have been with us a month, and have not fled in the night, which is a marked improvement from my previous attempts at hiring. Are you satisfied with your position?”
She could not help but notice how abruptly he changed the subject, but let it slide. “Yes,” she said, “Very much so.”
“So you intend to stay?”
The question caught her off guard. “If you’ll have me.”
“Oh, don’t go,” said Cole around a mouthful of bread.
“I don’t intend to,” she assured him, now concerned that this line of inquiry meant she was about to be sacked.
“I imagine this is a lonely life, for a young person, and lacking in much of any interest,” Solas said, gesturing to the heavy stone walls around them. “Surely you would prefer a more lively household?”
She frowned. “You speak as though I am a child and you are fifty years my senior! I am not so much younger than you, and can judge my own happiness perfectly well.”
Solas bowed his head in acquiescence. “You are correct, of course. I intended no insult. Forgive me.”
“You haven’t insulted me,” she she said with a small smile. “Merely condescended. Just a bit.”
Solas laughed. It was a small thing, his laugh, barely a chuckle, closer to a huff of air. But it was warm, and genuine, and not a little delighted. His eyes crinkled at the edges, and for a moment he looked more vibrant and healthy than she had ever seen him. The transformation was startling.
Equally as startling was the realization that he was, in fact, rather handsome.
“You are ever a surprise, Miss Lavellan.”
Her blush deepened for reasons beyond embarrassment. “I apologize, truly,” she said in a rush. “That was uncalled for.”
“No so,” he said, the remnants of a smile still playing at his lips. “Your judgement is well-deserved.”
No one in this house behaved as they ought to. It made her bold. “Are you suggesting I am wise, then?”
“On the contrary,” he said, the smile turning to something more intent. “I am declaring it.”
She hummed, raising an eyebrow and hoping against hope that her face hadn’t turned the color of an overripe tomato. She caught his gaze and held it, a questioning tilt to her head.
And then Solas all at once seemed to realize his forwardness, and retreated back behind the blank wall of reserve that most often characterized their conversation. The sudden turn his attentions could take left her feeling somewhat bereft. One moment they would share a smile, the next, his expression would shutter. The glimpses she saw of whoever he was behind the wall he put up were brief indeed, like the sun through a thick canopy.
He stood up and cleared his throat. “I fear I must retire for the night. I hope you enjoy your excursion into the village tomorrow, and please remind Cole to wear a coat.”
She wished him good-night and glanced over at Cole, who blessedly did not seem fazed by that odd conversation. In fact, he appeared to be smiling into his bowl of broth.
Despite the muddy roads, the walk into town the next morning was lovely. She taught Cole some bird calls she half-remembered from her clan, and they talked idly of inconsequential things. With the blue sky bright above them, she could nearly think spring was on the doorstep. Her first wage sat in her dress pocket, warm and secure, and she could not help the skip in her step. It all went a long way towards helping dull the memory of intense grey eyes and carefully chosen words.
The village itself was an entirely different story. She felt the change the moment they stepped from the muddy road onto the cobblestones of the main street. Despite the tidy shops, colorful signage and thatched roofs of a friendly village, the chill was palpable.
It was nearly all humans, for one, and the few elves she saw seemed to skitter from shadow to shadow, heads down. Things were somewhat better for elves in the bigger cities, where some had established a kind of elven merchant class with its own particular fashions and society. In the smaller villages, though, being an elf was not often an easy thing.
Since the disastrous results of integration in Fereldan and Orlais during the Orlesian civil war, the backlash against ordinary elves had been difficult to bear. War, that terrible equalizer, had led some, be they Orlesian or Fereldan, to find their fortunes by fighting, spurred on by Ambassador Briala’s push for equality. But fifteen years after the war, with Celene secure in her throne, and the progress they’d prayed for never happened.
The damage had been done, perhaps for a generation or more. Some elves blamed the humans for all of it. Others blamed the small group of elves who had ignited that first violent backlash, who had disgraced their people.
She shook her head. Best not to think of that.
The village’s humans were more diverse—a few fine ladies and dandies, several soldiers, tradespersons, farmers, merchants. They all regarded the two of them with immediate suspicion.
She almost wished for her bonnet, with its carefully placed ear coverings. The thought made her frown. That she would even think such a thing! She squared her shoulders anew, determined not to let them make her ashamed.
Apart from her ears, it seemed that everyone considered Cole to be either suspicious or beneath them. He received no greetings from anyone, not even a tip of a hat. On the contrary, everyone seemed to give him a wide berth. He, at least, seemed not to care a whit for their opinions, but it made her wary.
She stayed quiet as Cole walked her through the errands of the day— the market, for bread, and the postman, for letters, which he handed to her for safekeeping. Solas had received two; one from the University of Orlais, embossed with the Empress’ golden lion seal, and another in a shabbier, mud-stained envelope whose return address she could not make out.
The third letter was for her.
Her hands shook when she saw the familiar penmanship; she did not need a return address to know who had sent it.
“Are you all right?” Cole asked, peering down at her.
“Yes,” she snapped, stuffing the letter in her sleeve, and winced at her harsh tone. “Sorry, Cole. Would you mind if we headed home? I find I’m quite tired.”
“Oh,” said Cole, dismay writ large across his face. “I was hoping we could perhaps go to the inn.”
Ellana had spent one unremarkable night at the White Wolf Inn before making her way to Wolvenhall for the first time. She remembered all the cruel rumors she’d heard about Solas and Cole, and the memory made her bristle— both at the rumors, and her willingness to believe them.
“The inn? Aren’t you a bit young to be drinking at inns?”
“Oh, not to drink,” he said, eyes wide, “The bartender lets me listen. A musician. Her notes make my head feel funny.”
Ellana suppressed a knowing smile. “I see,” she said. “And what would Solas think of you listening to musicians in village inns?”
“Oh, he wouldn’t mind, I’m sure!”
She could not resist the note of longing in his voice, nor his unfair puppy-dog eyes. “All right,” she said, a bit of her ill humor melting in the face of young love. “Just for a bit, mind you. You have reading to do this evening.”
The inn was crowded, though not altogether unsavory. A few elves were scattered among its patrons, and she felt less out of place than she did outside. A young woman played lute by the fire, her clear voice rising above the din of the crowd. They found a table nearby and Cole was immediately enraptured.
She let her thoughts wander for moment, enjoying the music, before a nearby conversation brought her tenuously improved mood crashing back down.
“... find it terribly unpleasant that such a fine historical manor is kept in such a state. And by an elf no less! It goes to prove that they cannot be trusted with such responsibility.”
The speaker, a woman in a fine coat and lacy bonnet, looked directly at Ellana and Cole as she spoke, and in her Ellana saw every haughty noble she’d ever resented.
“Y’can keep your fine historical manors, thank you. It’s creepy, is what it is. Ghosts and spirits and whatnot.” Her companion was a simpering sort of man, thin and hunched over his mug of ale.
“You are superstitious,” said the lady. “The threat is real enough without involving ghosts! Elves, buying up such fine property? And with no attempt at friendliness with the fine families around here— his betters, I might add! It is an abomination . I wonder that the Queen allows it. And that freakish boy he cares for—what a circus!”
Ellana gripped her gloved hands together, willing herself to calm, to not get angry.
“The militia ought to rout ‘em out, that’s what I think,” said her companion. “Swords drawn. It’s just not right.”
She stood up, her hands clenched into fists on the table.
So much for not making a scene.
“Pardon me, madam,” she said, turning to them. Cole looked up at her in confusion that turned to nervousness when he saw the expression on her face.
“A rabbit who knows how to address her betters!” said the woman, flush with her own cleverness. “I am all astonishment. What is it, dear?”
When she lived in Orlais, rabbit was tossed out like it was nothing by nobles and commoners alike. It always grated, but the irritation of it had dulled to background noise.
At Wolvenhall, odd as it was, she was a person . And this woman calls her rabbit and threatens her home?
“Kindly remove your wagging tongue from this establishment before I rip it out myself,” she said, mildly, and then remembered her manners. “My lady.”
The woman gaped at her, face turning beet red. Her companion choked. “You impertinent little—”
Cole grabbed her arm as the whole tavern turned to witness or egg on the argument. The musician’s playing halted mid-chorus. “We should go,” he said, urgently, and all but dragged her out the door as the woman and her companion screeched hateful slurs after her.
Cole led her around the side to an empty alley beside the inn. She could still hear the commotion inside, muted. She’d made a scene. And she couldn’t regret it, not with her temper flaring, not with her new home belittled and her hosts insulted.
“What is wrong with the people in this town?” she demanded. “You’ve done nothing to them! How can they be so hateful?”
“They don’t understand, so they fear. All the talk is only talking,” Cole said.
“But how can it not bother you?”
For a moment, Cole considered her in silence, and looked much older than he was.
They both jumped as the inn’s side door banged open a few feet behind them. They were even more shocked when they saw who emerged. At first all she saw was a broad chest and sharp horns— and then she saw the eyepatch, the twinkling eye, and the stubbled grin. Only after that did she see the young man behind him with a sword at his hip. They were both armed, in the casual manner of soldiers on leave, though their simple traveling gear wasn’t the uniform of any army she knew.
“It’s not every day I see the wealthiest woman in the county get politely threatened with dismemberment,” the qunari said, with a wide smile. “Nicely done.”
She bristled, and shoved her hands in the pockets of her dress. “What do you want?”
The qunari held up his hands in mock surrender. “Just wanted to make sure everything’s okay out here. Iron Bull,” he said, holding out a hand, and after a moment she realized that was his name. Her hand felt tiny in his grasp. “And this is my associate, Cremisius Aclassi.”
“Krem,” said the young man, bowing over her hand and shaking Cole’s.
“Ellana,” she said shortly. “And this is my student, Cole.”
Iron Bull nodded at Cole. “Hey, kid. You’re from Wolvenhall, right?”
Cole nodded. “Yes,” he said, “Do you sharpen your horns?”
“Damn right,” Iron Bull said, sharing a grin with Krem. “Listen,” he said, turning back to Ellana, “I like your style. You piss off any more nobles, or if Lady Arabelle in there makes good on any threats, get in touch.” He pulled a stack of cream-colored calling cards from his pocket and handed her one.
She took it. Bull’s Chargers , it read in plain script across the top, accompanied by an address. “You’re … bodyguards?”
He shared another significant look with Krem. “Not exactly,” he said. “But close enough.”
“Why are you offering me this?”
Iron Bull shrugged, arms spread wide. “Might be I like a girl who picks on nobles twice her size.” What followed might have been a wink, or just a very exaggerated blink; the eyepatch made it hard to tell. “Might be I owe your boss one.”
“Solas?” she said, startled.
“We fought together in the war, for a while at least. Kind of an ass. But an ass I owe a favor or two,” Iron Bull said.
She nodded, slowly. She’d heard rumours that Solas had been a soldier of some kind, that first night in the village inn, but had chalked them up to just rumours. She could not imagine him as a soldier.
“You’re that Iron Bull!” Cole exclaimed, looking at him with renewed interest. “Nice to meet you.”
“At least someone’s heard of me,” Iron Bull said, with another maybe-wink at her.
“Thank you,” Ellana said at last, though she couldn’t imagine ever needing the services of a bodyguard. “I appreciate the offer.”
“Anytime,” he said, glancing at his companion again. She got the distinct sense that despite his casual demeanor, Iron Bull was a man who noticed every inflection, every glance. It made her self-conscious.
She pocketed his card. “Take care,” she said, and pulled Cole towards home. Iron Bull and Krem just nodded at them, apparently satisfied, and at last they departed from the village.
It was past supper by the time they returned to Wolvenhall, and she immediately retreated to her rooms, overwhelmed and exhausted. There was a plate of bread and jam waiting by the door, and the kindness of it only served to make her feel guilty. She splashed her face with water and scrubbed at her boots best she could, trying not to think too hard about why the basin of water was still warm, or why everything she owned seem to stay clean despite all her best efforts at ruining them.
She had overreacted. In the extreme. Gossip, however cruel, was hardly reason to threaten an unarmed woman.She’d come to Wolvenhall’s defense without even considering the implications. That anyone would dare even mention harming her new home was not a thought she could abide. The fervor of her feelings shocked even her.
And in trying to defend her home, she’d gone too far, and would lose it all. Again.
There was a sharp knock on her door. She opened it, and there was Cole, looking nervous as she’d ever seen him. “He wants to see you,” he said. “In the room with the birds.”
She nodded, having expected such a summons, and braced her spirit.
Cole’s anxious expression followed her out the door and down the stairs, guilt weighing heavy on her shoulders. She felt like a ghost walking down towards the parlor, among all the blank-eyed statues and staring portraits on the walls.
Solas was in the parlor, head in a book. He looked up at her as she entered, brows drawn, and in that moment she was utterly sure she was going to be sacked.
“Cole tells me you had an eventful day,” he said, mildly.
“You could say that,” she admitted, picking at her gloves.
“He tells me that you antagonized Lady Arabelle. She is a neighbor of mine, as I’m sure you know.” His expression was unreadable.
“Yes,” she said, very aware that lying would do her no good. “She was saying truly awful things. About Cole, and you, and this place—”
“Indeed. Cole tells me that she threatened to storm Wolvenhall with armed soldiers,” he said, again unreadable.
‘I couldn’t allow it,” she blurted out. “It was vile, and hateful."
“And you planned to stop her?”
“However I had to."
Solas paused, considering her for a moment. “Is that so?”
“Yes,” she said, and meant it. For whatever that was worth. In her bones, she meant it.
“...Thank you.” There was, to her surprise, no trace of mockery in his voice.
She gaped at him. It wasn’t quite the reaction she anticipated. She expected anger, forced apologies— not acceptance. Not thanks .
“...Though the sentiment is unnecessary. Wolvenhall has held against more dire threats than mere socialites, I assure you.”
“I know,” she admitted. “She was trying to rile me up, and, well, she succeeded, didn’t she?”
Solas hummed. “Perhaps Cole will have an easier time of it in the village, now that word has no doubt spread of his vicious defender.”
Ellana shook her head, banishing the image of her as Cole’s attack dog. “I’m confused,” she admitted. This conversation was not going how she expected.
“Lady Arabelle has been an irritant as long as we have lived here,” Solas said, with a dismissive wave. “Her words have no bite to them, I assure you.”
She was wary, but nodded. “We met a friend of yours,” she said. “After the… argument.”
“Yes,” Solas said, his expression that of man who had just tasted something sour. “Cole mentioned that. Iron Bull? I wonder at him being back here. We are old acquantainces.”
She drew Iron Bull’s card from her pocket and passed it to him. “He offered his services, if we are ever in need of them.”
Solas sniffed. “A fine sentiment, I suppose,” he said, and then his expression turned awkward. “Cole also tells me that you recieved a letter that appeared to upset you. You need not speak of it if you do not wish to, but…” he trailed off.
She had forgotten that, in the wake of everything else. She drew the letter from her sleeve slowly so as not to rip the delicate paper. “That’s right,” she said, and traced the penmanship she still recognized so well with a fingertip. “I did.”
“Your business is your own,” Solas said, clearly sensing her discomfort.
She shook her head and ripped open the envelope in one quick movement. Best to get it over with.
She sank into a chair as she read.
When she was finished, she crumpled the paper and tossed it aside.
Solas regarded her solemnly. “It is ill news, then.”
“Not exactly,” she admitted, glancing up at him and away. “It is from my clan. Our— their Keeper.”
He stayed silent, though she could make a guess as to his opinions on her Keeper.
“They want money,” she said, and rushed to explain at his shocked expression. “She doesn’t ask outright, of course. But that’s the implication. I got the same letter at my last position.”
Solas’ lips thinned into an angry line. “One would imagine that banishment would preclude such a communication.”
She forced a sad, lop-sided smile. “They are desperate,” she said, “and it’s not quite that simple.”
“It appears rather straightforward from my perspective,” he said stiffly, crossing his arms over his chest.
“There are things you don’t know,” she admitted, forcing herself to meet his eyes. Here, then. He could force it out of her, if he wished.
“Your business is your own,” he repeated, and gratitude blossomed in her chest. “You are an excellent instructor for Cole and a fine addition to our household. We need not know the rest, unless you wish to tell it.”
Perhaps the tears were from exhaustion, or the unchecked emotions of the day, or something else, perhaps his words— a fine addition to our household. As though it were her house, too. Her eyes stung, and she wiped at them, embarrassed.
He offered her a handkerchief from his coat pocket, which she took gratefully, her gloved fingers brushing against his. Even through the cotton fabric, he felt warm.
“Miss Lavellan,” he said, slowly, as though weighing his words. “Ellana,” he corrected. “It has not escaped my notice that you appear to fear dismissal each time your actions are those of a free-thinking person and not a machine.” He cleared his throat, face set. “I regret that I would cause such feelings, and hope that they are eased as you settle here. A self-effacing smile turned up the corners of his mouth.. “If I—if we disliked your presence, you would know, I assure you.”
If that was meant to quell her tears, it was hardly working. But they were happier tears.
She smiled down at the handkerchief in her lap. “Thank you,” she said, and composed herself after a few moments, rising from the chair. “I think I’ve embarrassed myself enough for today.”
“Not at all,” he said, and paused, moving for a moment as though he meant to reach out. But he stilled, and let his hand drop. “Sleep well.”
It wasn’t until she returned to her room, utterly spent, that she realized she’d taken his handkerchief. It was still a little damp from her tears, and a bit ragged.
In one corner, embroidered neatly in dark green thread, were two unfamiliar initials: F. H .
A little bit of backstory, a little bit of mystery, and a little bit of Krem. More familiar faces coming soon!
Thanks for reading! \o/ Apologies for any typos or grammar errors, I'm posting from the road this week!
Chapter 4: Candlelight
In which Wolvenhall is visited by an odd pair, heretical topics are hotly debated, and Cole is given a new pair of socks.
The winter continued to be a mild one, though the roads were still slick with mud and unfriendly for travel. And so it was a great surprise when on one dismal, foggy morning she heard the unmistakable sound of a carriage pulling up the drive.
She rushed to the room opposite hers, which had tall windows that overlooked the front gardens. Below, a carriage pulled by white horses had arrived, piled high with boxes and luggage. No one had mentioned visitors, and part of her was shocked by this intrusion into their little enclave. It was easy, in Wolvenhall, to forget that the rest of the world existed.
She felt a sudden shyness, but forced herself downstairs nonetheless, where she found Solas already at the door.
There was a clatter of noise as a strikingly mismatched pair stomped into the foyer, carrying a few boxes and bags with them. The first was a dwarf, though he was unlike any dwarf she’d ever seen, with golden, pulled-back hair, a sun-touched complexion, and finely embroidered clothing. The second was a tall, handsome woman in red military dress with close-cropped black hair and a scar across her cheek. A sabre swung from her hip, and, although sheathed, it was clearly not for decoration. They gave the immediate impression of being polar opposites, even in their expressions—the dwarf had an air of sarcasm in the grin that tugged at his lips, while the woman’s mouth was a thin line of resigned irritation.
The dwarf gave Ellana a lopsided smile as she came down the staircase, and raised his eyebrows at Solas. “Did you get hitched and not invite us, Chuckles? I’m gutted,” he said, voice mocking but not unfriendly.
Solas glanced back, not having noticed her arrival, and she could have sworn the tips of his ears turned pink, though his expression was quite neutral. “Varric, Cassandra, may I introduce Ellana Lavellan, Cole’s tutor. Miss Lavellan, this is Lady Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast, and Varric Tethras, a scoundrel you would best avoid.”
Both names sounded familiar, though she couldn’t quite place them. She nodded to them in greeting.
The tall woman stepped forward, ignoring Mr. Tethras’ cry of dismay at Solas’ introduction, and offered Ellana her hand to shake. “Forgive my traveling companion; he is a man of great wit and little sense. It is a pleasure to meet you,” she said, in a thick Nevarran accent.
“Likewise,” she said, taking her hand and suppressing a wince at Cassandra’s strong grip.
“Despite what Chuckles might tell you, I’m not so bad,” Mr. Tethras said, and offered his hand as well. She shook it, noting the ink stains that marked his sleeve.
“‘Not so bad’ is a low bar that even you fail to meet, Varric,” Lady Pentaghast said, rolling her eyes.
“Height jokes, really? I thought you were above that, Seeker.”
“‘Chuckles?’” Ellana blurted out, glancing sidelong at Solas and hiding a smile behind a gloved hand.
Solas sighed, long-suffering. “Be wary, or he will bestow you with an unshakable endearment of his own.”
“Varric!” Cole cried from the top of the staircase, and hurried down to grasp the dwarf by his shoulders, his hat falling off in his excitement. “You made it!” He seemed to remember his manners, and turned to the tall woman nervously. “And…Cassandra. Hello.”
Mr. Tethras rustled his hair, an impressive feat given the height difference. “Good to see you, kid.”
Cassandra shifted uncomfortably, giving Cole a cursory nod of hello. “Might we skip ahead to tea? Our journey was long, and the company trying.”
“Of course,” said Solas.
Ellana steeled herself, expecting him to start finally treating her like the help, and send her off for refreshments. She couldn’t help a bit of dismay. Yet he turned to her student, instead. “Would you mind, Cole?”
“I’ll go bring the horses around,” Mr. Tethras said, and ambled back out the door. “I always forget you do your own chores.”
“That leaves me to do the heavy lifting, as usual,” Lady Pentaghast grumbled, eyeing the wooden boxes they’d carried in. “Where would you like it all?”
Solas waved a hand toward the breakfast room painted with birds. “The parlor is fine. Allow me.” He took a box under his arm.
Ellana followed suit, and peeked inside. “Books!” How…unsurprising. “Excellent. There’s a real book shortage around here.”
Lady Pentaghast snorted and shook her head. “Delivery direct from Val Royeaux, as requested.”
“Ah!” Solas exclaimed, as excited as she had ever seen him. He hefted a singularly large volume out of his box. “You managed to find the first edition. Remarkable.”
They made quick work of the boxes, mostly thanks to Cassandra’s superior strength. After a time all they settled down with tea and biscuits, the two travelers stretching out and sighing into their hot drinks with satisfaction. Solas cast longing glances at the new piles of books. Cole, she couldn’t help but notice, seemed nervous, his usual chatter quieting to a few choice comments. Cassandra’s obvious discomfort with him seemed to be mutual.
Mr. Tethras—or rather Varric, at his repeated insistence—kept up the bulk of the conversation, a mix of prying questions aimed at Ellana and complaints about the travel conditions.
“Say what you want about Kirkwall, but at least they know how to build a road,” he declared, finishing the thought with a swig from his tea mug.
“Are you from Kirkwall yourself, Mister—ah, Varric?” Ellana asked.
“I was,” he said, darkly. “When your friend blows up your hometown’s chantry, things get a little… dicey.”
The pieces fit together all at once. “I thought I recognized your name—you’re the writer!”
“Guilty as charged,” Varric said with a flattered grin.
Cassandra scoffed. “Stop it. He doesn’t need a bigger head, I assure you.”
“I read your Tale of the Champion,” Ellana said, plowing onwards. “I had a few questions, if you don’t mind…”
“You and everyone else,” Varric said, giving Cassandra a significant look.
“Oh?” She said, sensing a story, shoving her questions about dubious pacing and amnesiac ex-slaves aside.
Cassandra let out a long-suffering sigh. “Varric was…under a certain amount of suspicion after the events at Kirkwall.”
Solas huffed. “That is an understatement, as I recall, Seeker.”
Varric raised his hands in his own defense. “It was a fictionalized retelling! You taking it seriously wasn’t my fault.”
The expression on Cassandra’s face went beyond disdain. “Ugh,” was all she managed.
Ellana quickly felt the conversation moving somewhere darker than would be appropriate for teatime, and asked what first came into her head: “This is ignorant of me, but what exactly is a Seeker?”
Cassandra straightened, her disgusted expression lifting. “It is not surprising that you don’t know. There are few of us left. The Seekers of Truth were founded in ancient times, to investigate crimes of a… magical nature. As you can imagine, our role has shifted in more recent centuries.”
“Magic!” she exclaimed, hoping that her surprise would be noted as just that…surprise at something shocking, with nothing else to it. She very determinedly did not look at Solas, for fear that he would see right through her. He could be quite piercing, when he was not lost in thought.
“Yes, if you can believe it. When magic was taken from the world, so it is said, the Seekers’ role moved into more of an internal check on the Chantry, to prevent corruption within the ranks of the faithful. And to investigate crimes against the Chantry itself, when we are able.”
“So, for example, investigating a suspicious explosion at a Chantry house?” Ellana asked.
“Precisely,” Cassandra said, with a glare at Varric.
Solas shook his head, cutting off Varric’s chance at a rebuttal. “Your history of magic is Chantry propaganda, I’m afraid.”
To Ellana’s surprise, Cassandra nodded, and didn’t argue. “Most likely. We have few records from those times, and those are more mythology than truth.”
“What do you mean, Solas?” Ellana asked, unable to hold back her curiosity despite the uncomfortable topic.
“Magic was not taken from this world. It withdrew, like a hand snatched from a hot stove. Chantry scholars speak of magic as if it were some elemental, mindless force, bent towards sin, but on the contrary—magic was an intelligent force, procured through the goodwill of spirits. When that goodwill was broken, the spirits fled, and took magic with them.”
Cassandra, to Ellana’s surprise, did not seem scandalized by this topic. Nor did Varric, though to be fair she did not particularly take him for a man of the Chant (particularly after reading a few of his more…lurid novels). But any talk of magic was risky; even so many hundreds of years after its disappearance, and even though speaking of it was no longer a crime, magic was only spoken of in hushed whispers. And there were always rumors of magic in the darker places of the world, of spirits roaming the moors, severed from the world they knew and unable to pass into the beyond, of hedge witches living on the edges of the world, seducing and consuming unwary travelers...
Ellana could not feel so blasé about the topic as her companions. “You speak of magic as being intelligent, even benevolent, and yet there are countless stories of the evils of magic, and of the power it gave to cruel men.”
“Are the sins of a few enough cause to remove wonder from the world?” Solas asked, and though he appeared calm, she knew him well enough by now to sense his irritation. “Spirits, like men, were both good and evil in their time, and most were some shade of both. The common ‘stories’ told of magic are far more rumor and propaganda than true history.”
“What is wonder to one man is brutality to another. Surely the removal of one more weapon cannot be a bad thing,” she said, and tried to ignore the itching in her left hand and the heat in her face.
“It is shortsighted indeed to presume that magic was merely a weapon. It was a tool of art as much as war, the same as any other tool mankind has wielded,” Solas said, and while his voice was cool, his eyed narrowed. “Do not aim to remove the tool. Remove instead evil from the hearts of men, if you can.”
She forced her feelings to heel and tucked her hand against her side. She could sense the curious looks of Varric and Cassandra, but could not meet their eyes. “I suppose I should defer to the expert,” she said, with what was surely unconvincing humour.
“You academics always make my head hurt,” said Varric, and she couldn’t be more grateful for his quick turn in conversation. It seemed her attempt to lighten up the room had backfired. “Ellana—talk with me about the Dalish. I’ve got some wild ideas for some stories, but I don’t want to piss off my elven friends…”
“I fear your governess will end up corrupted after all,” Cassandra remarked to Solas, who merely frowned at her again.
Varric, to his great credit, turned the strained atmosphere far friendlier in due time. Cassandra and Varric had brought a ham from the village, and while Solas went to prepare it—a habit that continued to shock her—they both turned on her in unison.
“Does he treat you well?” Cassandra demanded, arms crossed.
Ellana was taken aback. “Oh, yes, ma’am—quite,” she said. “And Cole is a fine student.” At that, she looked around, realizing that Cole must have slipped out during the conversation.
Cassandra stared her down, unblinking. After a few seconds, not finding the artifice she sought, she relented. “Good. I would not expect him to be unkind, but he can be a...difficult person to get along with, at times.”
“I couldn’t say,” Ellana said, biting back a smile at Cassandra’s wry look.
“We saw a qunari in the village, says he met you a while back. Also says you threatened some poncy noble,” said Varric, with a grin. “Nice.”
“Oh, yes—Iron Bull, right?” She’d nearly forgotten about his calling card, which still sat in her desk upstairs.
“He is certainly a character,” said Cassandra, with an odd mixture of distaste and awe. “Solas and I fought with him in the civil war. I wonder that he has not visited properly. But then, they were often at odds...”
For all that she kept getting confirmation of it, she simply could not imagine Solas fighting in any wars, let alone the Orlesian civil war. What stake would he have in such a conflict? “You fought alongside him? I admit, I have trouble picturing Solas as a soldier.”
A dark look passed between Varric and Cassandra, some secret understanding. “I did,” Cassandra said, with hesitation. “Though I fear that is not my story to tell.”
Ellana nodded, perplexed but not prepared to press the issue. It wasn’t, truly, any of her business, and the day’s conversation had already been fraught enough without adding wars into the mix. “I understand,” she said. “But, yes, Bull approached me after witnessing the scene in the pub—I suppose he told you all about it?”
“He was lacking in specifics,” Varric said, leaning in, unable to resist a story.
So she told it herself, embellishing some details and leaving out the misery of her walk home and the embarrassing memory of her weeping in front of Solas. She even managed to draw a laugh out of Cassandra with her imitation of Bull’s voice.
Luncheon was less turbulent than the preceding hours. Cole continued his disappearing act throughout the meal, and Solas kept shooting her odd looks, but the ham and cheese seemed to make Varric and Cassandra finally forget their arduous journey.
After eating, Solas turned to Cassandra and asked, “May we speak in private?”
“Right,” Varric drawled. “That’s our cue, Mittens. Let’s let the grown-ups talk shop.”
“Mittens!” Ellana exclaimed, looking down at her hands, sheathed in white cotton gloves. She was a bit pleased to already have earned a nickname, but dismayed that the gloves were so remarkable. They were not fashionable, granted, but she’d hoped to aim for forgettable and old-fashioned—with an emphasis on forgettable.
Solas didn’t spare either of them a glance as he led Cassandra away—towards the west wing, Ellana noted.
“Don’t look so down,” Varric said, “those two have some truly dull conversations. Mostly Orlesian politics. Which, let me tell you, I write convoluted murder plots for a living, and—”
“They talk about Orlesian politics?”
“Briala’s sent Solas about a dozen letters, according to Cassandra. Too bad for her I don’t think he’s too interested in playing the game these days.”
That drew her up short. “Ambassador Briala is sending letters to Solas?” Then she remembered—the other letter that had come, the one that hadn’t been from Deshanna. It had come from Val Roueayx, and sealed with a golden lion.
It was Varric’s turn to look surprised, and then worried, as if he’d said too much. “Briala’s always trying to get rich elves on her side. It’s nothing serious. Just politics as usual.”
Perhaps. It was easy to forget that Solas was a rich man, despite the manor—his shabby clothes and shockingly casual attitude towards rank were not qualities one associated with the nouveau riche. And despite living with him for so many weeks, she had no notion of where all his wealth came from. There was some vague assumption that he’d made it in the war, but she had no evidence for that, only speculation.
She wondered if that was the point of it all—the unkempt grounds, the unfashionable wardrobe, the rare visitors. To make people forget to ask the questions that they perhaps truly should.
“I see,” she said at last.
“Anyway,” Varric said with a sigh, “let’s find the kid. This place is damned gloomy. Not sure if you’ve noticed.”
They found Cole in the gardens, sitting on a stone bench apart from the main path. The morning fog had lifted, but the sky remained determinedly grey, and the air was heavy with the potential for rain or snow.
“We missed you at luncheon,” Ellana said, sitting to his left on the bench. Varric took the seat to his right.
“Cassandra doesn’t like me much,” Cole said, voice low and mournful.
Varric patted his shoulder. “Don’t take it personally, kid,” he said. “Cassandra doesn’t like most people.”
“She just has to get to know you better,” Ellana said, trying for encouragement.
Cole shook his head, and stared at his feet, kicking half-heartedly at the dirt.
Varric glanced at her and shrugged. Teenagers, his look seemed to say. “Hey, did you get my last letter, with the package?”
Cole’s face lit up with a smile. “Yes! Thank you. Look,” he said, pulling up one pant leg to reveal some very bright red socks.
“You’re a regular dandy now,” Varric said, a kind laugh in his voice. “Glad you like ‘em. Let me know if they itch. I’ll have words with my tailor in the city.”
Cole looked up at him with the biggest puppy-dog eyes she’d seen since the last time he convinced her to go for a stroll instead of practicing his Orlesian. “You’ll take me, won’t you? To the city?”
“I’d love to, kid, but it’s not up to me,” Varric said, expression pained.
“The white spire, tall enough to block out the sun, and the red banners of the Lion hanging from every window, great golden statues lining the streets, knights and dancers, and exotic pink birds,“ Cole sucked in a breath, eyes wide with wonder. “I’ve been there in books.”
“Yeah, not to mention all the rats. And politicians. It’s really not all that, trust me.”
Ellana had been to Val Royeaux exactly once. Upon graduation from Madame Vivienne’s school, the students were brought to see the lady herself at her townhouse in the city, a confection of a building made of white marble and intricate stained glass. It was all quite shocking after years of their quiet, grey life at school. They stood in a line in her parlor, all feeling quite shabby and underdressed, fidgeting in the echoing quiet. They heard her before they saw her—the clack of her heeled shoes against the smooth stone of the grand staircase. And then there she was, the woman they’d only seen in paintings, the patron saint of the orphanage, somehow even more flawless in the flesh. After a few choice words of greeting, she looked them over, one by one, and quizzed them on their studies and manners.
She’d paused on Ellana, glancing at her ears, and gave her a small, reassuring smile. “You do your people credit, my dear,” she said, before asking her a tricky question about Orlesian history. At the time she’d been a mixture of proud and a bit put off—at the time, she’d wanted nothing more than to pretend she had never been Dalish at all, that she was no different than the other nineteen girls in that line.
“I’m sure you’ll see it someday, Cole,” Ellana said. “It would be good practice for learning the language, don’t you think? I feel certain we could convince Solas to weather the journey, for education’s sake.”
“Yeah, good luck with that,” Varric muttered.
“What do you mean?”
“Not sure if you’ve noticed, but he’s a little...overprotective,” Varric said, making it clear that he disagreed.
“But Cole goes to the village alone twice a week,” she said.
“And even that took some convincing,” Varric said, with a nod from Cole.
It surprised her—she had never seen these signs in her employer. But then, they had not asked; for her part, she was still settling at Wolvenhall and could not think of traveling, and she had not seen these signs of wanderlust in Cole.
She huffed in irritation. Protectiveness was a fine trait in a guardian, certainly, but Cole was not a child any longer. “That’s absurd. A young man of Cole’s standing should see the world, don’t you think? It’s only natural.”
Varric held up his hands. “Preaching to the choir, Mittens.” He stood up, and shivered theatrically. “I don’t know what you do in the middle of nowhere, but in the civilized world, we don’t hang around gardens in the dead of winter. Shall we?”
“A fire would be nice,” Cole admitted, and stood to join him.
Ellana hung back for a moment. She watched the pair of them pass through the garden gate, heads bowed together, Cole smiling at what, even from a distance, was clearly an impression of Cassandra.
Varric, in his way, was far more fatherly towards Cole than Solas. Solas cared for the boy, of course, but held him—and everyone else, really—at such a remove. She had no doubt as to his affection, remembering that first day when they had argued and he had been so gentle with Cole in his distress, and yet he so rarely displayed it. In truth, she had little knowledge of their history, or how Cole had come to be his ward. Another mystery of Wolvenhall.
She glanced up, realizing for the first time that the forbidden western wing of the estate looked out over the gardens. One room on the top floor glowed with warmth, and whether the movement of light inside was from figures or flickering, she could not discern.
Varric’s low, bright voice faded into the distance. She stood, rooted in place, and watched the light dance against the glass. She, too, was at a remove, a visitor in this place that was layered deep with history she did not know or understand, and the thought pulled at her heart. She could not name exactly what it was she wanted. She did not want an answer to every mystery her new home presented. In good conscience, that was not something she could ask, if only because she could not return the favor. Perhaps all she wanted was to be on the other side of that pane of glass, warmed in the same glow of candlelight, welcomed and sheltered. But even that was not quite it.
After a time, the wind began to pick up, and the first drops of icy rain jolted her out of her reverie. She hurried after Cole and Varric, glad, at least, for the prospect of a fire.
Oh my gosh, I am garbage, so sorry this update took so damn long! Life and health stuff got away from me, and, well, I have trouble writing Varric. Thank you so much for reading and for bearing with the wait.
Chapter 5: Interlude
A collection of correspondence, past and present.
An old letter, folded neatly and kept, dusty and dry, in storage somewhere in the royal palace.
How lovely to hear from you, my dear. I regret that I have not written you sooner, but, as you are surely aware, the Season is nigh, and my hands are quite full between the University and the demands of the court.
As I am strapped for time, let us arrive straight at the point. I admit, our students are most typically from a more refined background, and I worry that this girl you have been made aware of will find it quite difficult at our little school. And yet the story you relayed to me has touched my heart. I know that you must parlay with the Dalish, dear, but how worthwhile can such alliances be, when they abandon children so thoughtlessly? Regardless, my answer, of course, is yes. I will send a carriage and footman to handle all the necessary logistics. You are a charitable soul to arrange matters for this girl. I have no doubt that the example of a Dalish child raised under the Chant will be looked on favourably by many, Her Holiness included.
My fondest regards to Celene. Do let her know that you are both welcome to join me at the University at any time. Monsieur Gaspard paid us a visit recently, and I fear he found our hospitality wanting, and he looked quite put out by our newest scholars or, perhaps, by the shape of their ears. A matter to discuss another time, for my seamstress is now looking quite impatient with me.
This stationary is finely made, and marked with the sigil of Andraste’s pyre. Yet the scrawling handwriting is impatient, and there are more than a few ink splatters on the page.
It does not escape my notice that you will only respond to my letters when I offer you books. Fine, then, but know I will be arriving along with them, and I will be in a foul mood.
Ignore me all you like, Solas, but I know that the Empress’ house is just as frustrated with your inability to pen a response. You may be holed up in the backwaters of Ferelden, but do not think that protects you. I do all I can, but as you well know I am no player of the Game. No doubt Celene’s spies read all my letters regardless, so, forget it. We will speak soon enough.
A letter on cream parchment, written shakily and sealed with red wax.
I am sorry to hear that the clan is suffering this winter, but, as you well know, I am not a member of clan Lavellan any longer. I have these past ten years kept your secret and thus consider whatever I owe you by blood or friendship to be paid. As I recall, the clan is in possession of a certain artifact that would fetch a fine price at any museum or university in Thedas. Perhaps, in lieu of holding on to such a relic, you might consider feeding those children you have found worthy of keeping.
Given the above, I hope you understand that the forthcoming delivery of some three dozen wool blankets to your return address is not for your benefit.
A note slipped into a package, written on sturdy card stock in a practiced hand.
Hope all is well at Chateau Creepy. Sorry to hear about the new tutor. Not your fault. He seemed like kind of an ass anyway, and definitely not smart enough to keep up with you. On that note, use those puppy-dog eyes and get Chuckles to send you to my place in the city for the spring. Fresh Orlesian air, good for the soul, really not that far all things considered, etc., etc.
Anyway, to cheer you up, here’s a draft of my latest story. It’s a love story, as a matter of fact. Figured that would be up your alley more than the murder mysteries. Oh yeah, and some spicy caramel candies. A friend sent me these straight from Kirkwall—me and my brother used to love these things growing up.
A short note left on a pile of books in the parlor at Wolvenhall. Upon closer examination, they are assorted texts on a wide range of subjects, including Chantry history (some rather heretical indeed), botanical prints, and a slim book of ancient elvhen grammar.
These volumes may be of interest to you.
A message on plain note-paper in an elegant, thin script. It has long since been torn up and burned, but this is what it said:
I understand your concerns. Yet I feel you go too far in your judgements. You truly believe our friends capable of violence? Your suspicions may blind you to the rare opportunity that lies ahead of us, ripe for the taking. Where does this sudden shyness come from, my dear snarling wolf?
I will meet with them tomorrow evening and lay out our hesitations. It would please me if you joined us. I fear E and A would outmaneuver me in the technicalities, though certainly not in manners.
I was planning to finish this story for Nanowrimo, but the election sapped all my energy. I did get a few chapters done, though! Will be posting throughout the holidays. Thanks to those still reading!
Chapter 6: A Restless Night
In which night falls on Wolvenhall, and things are not all they might seem.
Solas did not join them by the fire that night. Cassandra, to Ellana’s surprise, did, though well past sunset, and then only grudgingly. Irritation made sharp lines of her features, and she did not smile at even Varric’s gentlest jokes. It seemed that whatever she and Solas had spoken of in the west wing had not gone well. Ellana could privately admit her deep curiosity as to what had kept them so late, but she could tell well enough that any inquiry would not be appreciated.
Ellana, for her part, was in a sour mood as well. How foolish she had been, to argue with her employer on such a topic! She was a poor hostess that night for their guests, and she worried that she made a poor impression. For the first time since arriving at Wolvenhall, she wished for the relative invisibility she’d had at her previous post.
It was an idle wish, and not one she truly hoped for. She could not imagine returning to that Orlesian chateau, where the gulf between master and servant was so wide that she felt like a mouse among giants. That position had, at the time, been a relief, proof that even a Dalish girl could find a good position in a respectable family. And yet knowing now the pleasure of being accepted at a household as an equal, or near to one as she could hope, it would be quite difficult to return.
And besides, even if she wished it, returning was not possible. She had seen well enough to that.
Wolvenhall was her last, desperate hope. And it had repaid her well, with kindness beyond her imaginings. She thought of Solas, assuring her of her place and handing her his handkerchief, and her heart clenched. She had repaid that kindness by pressing him on the subject of magic, of all the infernal choices! Sometimes she wondered just how low her foolishness would take her. Had she only the ability the make herself small and untemperamental, such topics would never come to light.
And yet her anxiety was not merely due to the disagreement with Solas, nor the wondering at what he and Cassandra could possibly be speaking of for so many hours alone, nor even the usual nerves of making new acquaintances. In truth she was a creature of habit, and disruptions to her routine made her irritable.
Perhaps it was the long, dull years at school, years that ran together in varying shades of gray in her memory. The strictly curtailed hours of a student were, truth be told, something of a relief after the sharp desperation of Dalish life, the worry over where the clan would find food for the next meal, or shelter for the next winter. Students were at least assured bread and a roof over their heads.
It was, she admitted to herself, why she had taken to Wolvenhall so thoroughly. To be a teacher was to be even more structured than a student, and she cherished the hours spent over books and with Cole in the study, and the punctual meals with Solas. Despite their small number, she had little time for idleness, and that suited her well.
The arrival of their guests, however pleasant they might be, was a disruption. It was, she realized, quite disagreeable of her, but that made it no less true.
And so it was that her racing thoughts kept her up that night. The poor weather, which began hours before as intermittent raindrops, had bloomed into a full-throated thunderstorm. The trees rattled and creaked in the wind, giving her dark, fearful visions of great beasts crashing through the forest. She could almost imagine the wind to be a low, mournful moan, a lonely ghost out in the hills, and the scratch of branches against the house to be the claws of a vengeful spirit. She huddled deeper into her scratchy wool blankets, shivering and feeling quite childish, yet altogether unwilling to relinquish the safety of her bed.
After what felt like hours of half-asleep anxious tossing and turning, she was jolted fully awake by a hideous cracking sound that was far too close to be a thunderclap or a tree branch snapping. It sounded near enough to be coming from the hall, in fact, and the possibilities swirled through her sleep-addled mind—a tree fallen on the house, or a portion of the roof torn away, or even a lightning strike on the house itself!
She forced her head above the blankets inch by inch, the furniture in her little room looming tall in the darkness. The storm still raged, and there was no moonlight to guide her. But if someone was hurt, or there was some damage to the roof that might cause a flood, she needed to help.
The floor was freezing on her bare soles. She felt her way to the desk chair and slipped on the moth-eaten wool robe she’d tossed there the night before. It would be quite embarrassing to be seen in her thin white nightgown alone, even by Cassandra.
She moved to open the door to the hall, and hesitated, her hand lingering, though at first she could not say why. And then she understood—the wrought iron doorknob was warm in her hand, warmer than it had any right to be on such a cold night.
Her heart filled with dread. She stepped back, flinching at a flash of lightning from outside, and something quite strange caught her eye as the thunder rumbled—a soft glow coming from beneath the door.
At first she thought it to be from a candle, perhaps someone else come to investigate the noise—but it did not flicker, and she heard no voices, no footsteps. And it was not the hue and intensity of fire, either—were it not the middle of the night, she would suppose it to be the light of sunshine.
All her survival instincts told her to crawl back beneath the covers and hide, but she could hardly sleep now. Steeling herself, she ignored the siren call of her bed, and opened the door.
Her regret was immediate.
The cold blew away in an instant, leaving the air humid, verging on hot. There was no sound of thunder, or rain on the roof, or branches scratching at the windows. She was correct to suppose the light sunshine; when she rushed to the opposite window, she saw the garden below in full bloom, a summer sun high in the sky.
The hallways, too, had changed. The cluttered mess of frames and paintings had vanished, leaving behind bare walls, no indication visible that any artwork had ever hung there. In point of fact, Wolvenhall appeared spotless, not a single mote of dust floating in the warm air.
Fear gripped her heart. Was she going mad? Had she hit her head? This was simply not possible. She turned to flee back to bed, but though she could not remember closing the door, it was locked. She shook the lock in a desperate effort, throwing her weight against the wood, but it held firm.
Breathing hard, she weighed her options. She could wait, and hope this bizarre episode ended on its own. She could try to flee the building and find help in the village. Or she could try to find the others.
“Yes,” she murmured to herself. “I must find Cole.” It was her job to take care of him, certainly, but also her moral obligation. The rest of them could take care of themselves, at least as well as she could, but Cole was yet a child.
She ran down the hall—Cole’s room was close. She threw open the door without knocking—it was, after all, rather an emergency.
It was empty. Not only of any sign of Cole, but of any living occupant—there was no bed, no dresser, no light, no sign of the fireplace having ever been used at all.
She mustn’t panic. There must be a reasonable explanation for all of this, and giving in to panic would not help anyone. She still needed to find Cole. Perhaps he had—changed rooms? He must still be somewhere in Wolvenhall, mustn’t he? And frightened, no doubt. She guessed that the great central hall would be her best option to find him, and if not there, the gardens might be his hiding spot.
She closed the door to Cole’s room with a definite snap and made her way down the hall, paranoia making her slow down and soften her steps. A waft of wind met her, carrying the sweet smell of wildflowers and sun-warmed grass in its sweep, and it would have been lovely had it not felt so very wrong.
It was quiet. Wolvenhall was not a bustling place, but it was always creaking and groaning, alive in its own cacophony of old wood and older stone. It had disturbed her, those first few nights in the manor, but now the absence of those sounds was as unnerving as the sudden change in weather. She soon realized that she had no need to tread quietly; even walking with a heavy foot, the boards did not creak, almost as if they could not feel her weight at all.
She stopped short when she reached the staircase down into the great hall. Gone were the statues, the glass cases, the old weaponry from ages long past.
Bare of its cluttered collections of artifacts, the great hall looked like a chapel, spare and serene, almost abstracted into its essential elements of light and space. The quality of the light there was more beautiful than she remembered, shining through the tall, narrow windows above in beautiful patterns. The door to the parlor had been removed, and beyond it the room was bare, the bird frescoes stripped from the walls.
A figure stood alone in the center of the hall, familiar and strange all at once.
He turned at the sound of her voice and offered her a faint smile, seemingly not at all surprised by her presence or appearance. He didn’t even spare a glance at her nightgown or bare feet.
“Ah, Miss Lavellan. You are becoming quite the fixture.”
She ignored his odd remark in the flood of relief she felt at seeing a familiar face. He looked different. Younger, perhaps. Healthier. The circles under his eyes had vanished, and there was a lightness to his movements that she hardly recognized. He was dressed strangely, too, in new clothes she didn’t recognize. Gone were the frayed cuffs and patched elbows—she hadn’t even realized he owned any finer clothes. His eyes were cool as he watched her hurry down the staircase.
“Thank goodness you’re here,” she said, catching her breath at his side. “What in the world is going on?”
He spread his hands wide, gesturing at the walls around them. “The same as always, I fear.”
Puzzled, she looked around, as though she were perhaps mistaken as to how different the great hall looked now. “I would hardly call this usual, Solas.”
He reached out and tapped her on the temple, a simple touch that nonetheless sent a jolt straight through her. “And who wears your face today?”
She was utterly taken aback, but he did not seem to think it at all a strange thing to do or ask.
“I beg your pardon?”
His head tilted as he looked down at her with the same calm interest, as though she were a modestly intriguing specimen he held pinned under a magnifying glass. This close, she could see the faint freckles that dusted his nose and cheeks.
“No, not Denial. Regret, perhaps? Or are you Temptation?”
She shivered and squeezed her hands into fists. None of this felt right.
“Solas, I’m glad to see you, but there is something terribly wrong. Five minutes ago there was a storm, and it was freezing cold, and now it’s a warm summer’s day, and everything is strange. Where is Cole? I heard the strangest noise, and thought…but then there was a light, and…” the details of the night started to blur together in her mind. The more she tried to clutch at them, the quicker they slipped through her fingers.
She forced herself to meet his gaze, desperate for some hint of understanding.
He stared down at her in utter shock. “Impossible,” he murmured, searching her eyes for...something.
“What?” She blinked. This was making less and less sense by the second. The more she tried to understand, the more the world seemed to swim before her eyes.
She watched him school his alarm into a more neutral expression and retreat behind the layer of cool reserve he kept at the ready. That, at least, was closer to the Solas she knew. “I apologize. The fault is mine. It would seem I must be far more careful. You are dreaming, Ellana.”
She shook her head. “That can’t be. This all—it feels so real.”
“It will not seem so when you wake up.”
“Wake up?” She held her hands up in front of her face, as if they could confirm or deny this supposed unreality.
With a hard jolt, she realized her hands were bare. She had forgotten to wear her gloves. How could she have been so careless?
And yet her left hand was smooth. She touched it with fascination, running her fingers over the featureless expanse of her palm where there should have been a raised scar and the thickly webbed texture of old burns.
She couldn’t quite remember why it should be so. There was something missing, some important piece to this puzzle. She stared at her hand, casting out in her memory for some clue, but everything was strange, blurred, masked, almost as if...
The world fell on its side.
Pain shot through her body, flooding outward from her palm, every pore alight . She dropped to her knees, unable to even scream through the breath caught in her throat. Sickening green light and heat spilled from her hand, catching on the floor around her and rising up, blotting out everything but flames, the smell of burning hair and flesh thick in the air. She dug her hands into the mud, willing the cool earth to ease the burning, but it did nothing. All around her was shouting, screaming, the clatter of weapons being drawn and torches lit, and above even that a dull roar, growing ever louder and sharper until she could not think around the noise and the pain and the fire—
“Wake up,” someone shouted, very close.
She opened her eyes to quiet.
The pale pink light of dawn lit the window of her room in a glow, a gentle staccato of light rain on the roof the only evidence of the storm that raged the night before. Beneath her was the same reliably shaky bed, the same pillows, the same woolen blankets.
Her left hand was just as scarred and broken as it should have been. For the first time in her life, it was a relief.
She sat up, breathing in the cool morning air in deep gulps. Her robe was still on her chair where she’d left it, and, when she shot up to check the doorknob, it was exactly as cold as it should have been. She peered out into the hall, and it was just as cluttered and dusty as it should have been.
She leaned against the door. A dream after all. An odd one, but certainly not the oddest she’d ever had. It had just felt so very real . Even the pain.
Determined to put it all out of her mind, she started on her morning routine, splashing her face in the basin and slipping on her moss-green dress. Yet she could think of little else but the dream, and made a mess of her braid in her distraction.
She did, however, make doubly sure she was wearing her gloves before stepping into the hall.
She found Solas and Varric already sitting down to scones and tea in the parlor. They both looked nearly as tired as she felt. Varric, usually so full of good humour, was slouched miserably in his chair, and while Solas sat as straight as ever, there was an obvious tension in the line of his shoulders.
“Miss Lavellan,” Solas said, with more enthusiasm than she expected, given their argument the previous day. About magic, of all things, she remembered with a start. She had nearly forgotten in all the night’s excitement. He was no doubt trying to make up for any lingering awkwardness. And yet he stared at her as though it was a surprise she should be there! She avoided his gaze, not entirely sure why, only that her feelings were still-sharp edged from the dream.
“Morning,” Varric said around a yawn.
She made her greetings to them both, sorry for their pallor and dark eyes. No doubt she looked just as sickly.
The scones she recognized from the baker in the village, strawberry and cream concoctions that were a bit too sweet for her, but went down fine with a strong cup of tea. Solas, she had learned, arranged for the delivery of some foods on a recurring basis, and he had a particular affection for sweet baked goods. And there were enough preserves and salted meats in the cellars to last them for quite a while, regardless. Cole welcomed any and all cats into the house, and they were grown fat and happy on the mice that Wolvenhall’s stores attracted.
The prospect of hot tea and a buttered scone buoyed her spirits more than a little.
“Looks like none of us got any sleep last night,” Varric groused, picking at his plate.
“I’ve never heard so loud a storm. When I finally fell asleep, I had the strangest dream. But I can hardly remember it now.”
It was a lie, of course. The dream was still vivid in her memory; she could have recited the whole thing start to finish. But admitting that Solas had played a central role, and in such an odd way, was too embarrassing to admit. And the fiery ending, of course, she could not explain to any of them. It was best to feign forgetting.
“I’m surprised all your dreams aren’t nightmares in this house of horrors,” Varric muttered.
She mustered the best smile she could. “I hope it at least served as inspiration for your writing. Another murder mystery, perhaps?”
“I appreciate the thought, but ghosts and spooky castles aren’t really my thing.”
“I will have to read more of your novels,” she said. “I fear Wolvenhall’s library lacks sorely in fiction.”
Solas, who appeared to be fully absorbed in his breakfast, did not seem to register this pointed criticism of his book collection.
Varric winked at her. “I can hardly deny a fan.”
Cassandra entered and sat beside him with a heavy sigh, plainly just as tired as the rest of them. “Deny her at least your more sensational stories, Varric.”
“And a very happy morning to you, Seeker,” Varric grumbled.
Cole joined them soon after, rather more chipper in disposition. They finished breakfast in relatively good humor, or at least commiserated misery, though Solas kept giving her odd, distracted looks that she could only interpret as concerned. No doubt her sleep-deprived appearance was quite miserable.
“Or are you Temptation?”
The dream-memory made her drop her butter knife with a loud clang. “Pardon me,” she muttered, grateful that none of them knew it wasn’t clumsiness that made her blush. An absurd dream. She could not imagine the Solas sitting in front of her ever saying such a thing.
The five of them made short work of clearing the table. Varric and Cassandra managed to summon enough energy to trade barbs, and Cole, in defiance of them all, was in a fine mood, and even shared a shy smile with Cassandra. Privately, she felt a swell of pride. She would have to congratulate him on that later, after Cassandra and Varric departed.
Solas, on the other hand...hovered. She would turn toward the kitchens, soiled napkins in hand, and nearly run straight into him. He’d duck out of the way, a murmured apology barely audible, but then there he would be again, holding the door, or watching her when she turned around.
This prolonged attention was startling, coming from a man who more often than not seemed lost adrift in his thoughts. His focus was a shifting thing, most days, a sun passing behind clouds, warm one moment, then shadowed and cold when it passed.
After not too long, it started to grate. The dream continued to prod at her, and he was doing his part to keep it foremost in her mind. When he wordlessly took the tea saucers from her hands as she tidied them up on the table, her temper got the better of her.
“Solas,” she said, somewhat more forcefully than she intended. “Is everything quite all right?”
The saucers clattered in his hands, tilting at an alarming angle. “Pardon me. Yes, of course.”
“If you insist,” she said, and pointedly righted the pile of saucers.
“Thank you,” he said, but did not move, his eyes on her gloved hands. She quickly tucked them behind her back, an old habit learned in school, when girls would snatch them off her and pass them around in a circle.
When he said no more, she turned away with a huff of irritation, intending to finish cleaning, but the motion was cut short when he cleared his throat pointedly.
“Yes?” she said, unable to avoid a note of drawling sarcasm in her voice.
“It is only—are you feeling altogether well, Miss Lavellan?” He seemed to be aware of his strange behavior, but appeared determined to see it through regardless.
Perhaps her appearance was more of a disaster than she realized. Inwardly, she battled irritation with affection at his clear worry. “I appreciate the concern, truly, but I am uncertain as to its origin. I am quite well.”
He nodded, considering her with a veiled expression. “I am glad to hear it,” he said. Again, an uncomfortable pause, his gaze lingering, as if he wished to say more, or wished for her to say more, though she had little idea what in the world he could possibly want, and so the moment lingered.
“I mean to say, if you—” he said.
“Well, I suppose—” she said simultaneously.
“Please,” Solas said, when both of them were again silent for an awkward moment, gesturing to her as well he could with his hands full.
“I should go to our guests,” she said at last. “Varric and Cassandra may need help in preparing for their journey home.”
“As you wish,” he said. After a brief pause, he turned and slipped out of the room, his back straight and taut as a drawn arrow.
Now it was her turn to watch him. With his attention off her at last, it was easier to look without fear of embarrassment, and she found that she saw him in something of a new light, the memory of his languid movements in her dream so fresh in her mind. It was so easy to only see the shabby coats and worn books; she often forget the utter elegance with which he held himself. Yet when she cared to look, it was clear as day.
Varric and Cassandra, having left their weighty collection of books in Wolvenhall, took little time in gathering their belongings. Though a short visit, Ellana was sorry to see them go—they had arrived strangers, but Ellana had enjoyed their company, and she had been particularly happy to meet Varric, who was important to Cole.
Cassandra shook her hand, and Ellana suppressed a wince at its’ strength. She wished that she'd had time to know the Seeker better. “I hope your journey isn’t too arduous,” she said.
“Take care of yourself,” Cassandra said. “No doubt we will see each other again sooner rather than later. Your employer is a stubborn man.”
Ellana nodded. That was...certainly true, though she did not understand what Cassandra meant, exactly. “I hope we will.”
“Can’t you stay a bit longer?” Cole begged Varric.
“I would love to, kid, really,” Varric said, visibly pained at the puppy-dog eyes Cole leveled at him, a potent weapon Ellana had fallen victim to many times. “But my publisher will kill me if I miss another deadline.”
Cole nodded miserably. “I’ll miss you.”
Varric sighed, reaching up to ruffle the boy’s hair one last time. “I’ll miss you too, kid.”
“So long, Varric,” Ellana said, reaching out to shake his hand.
“Bye, Mittens. Good luck with...well,” he paused, “everything? Not exactly the easiest gig you’ve got here.”
She smiled. “That’s very kind. You may not believe it, but I am happy here.” It must seem odd, to anyone else, but it was true all the same.
“Yeah,” he said, giving her a piercing look, “you are, aren’t you? Well, if you ever need a break from the whole haunted house thing, come visit me in Val Royeaux. It’s not a palace, but it’s comfortable enough, and I doubt you’d want to visit Kirkwall anyway. Most people don’t. Bring the kid. Call it a working vacation.”
“That would be lovely. Thank you.” If Solas would ever agree to such a thing, she would have no objections. She fully intended to bring up Cole’s over-sheltered life to her employer at the right opportunity. Cole would have to enter society at some point, whether Solas liked it or not, and never leaving Wolvenhall would only handicap him when he came of age.
“Will you not give more thought to what we spoke of, Solas?” Cassandra said, whirling on him as he helped to load the carriage.
Solas grimaced. “Further thought is unnecessary. My answer is, as ever, no.” Ellana got the distinct impression that this conversation had been repeated many times over.
“Matters are not so simple,” she said, voice so low that Ellana had to strain to catch it. “I have little interest in playing errand girl, and even less in playing politics.You know that they will not be deterred. Once a sword is drawn, it cannot be so easily sheathed.”
Solas merely gave her a polite smile. “Thank you for visiting us, Cassandra. I hope it will not be the last time.”
Cassandra did not seem surprised by his rebuff, but that did not ease her irritation. “I hope so as well,” she said through gritted teeth. “You will be hearing from me again.”
“Good-bye, Cassandra,” Cole said, meek as a dormouse.
“Cole,” she said, giving him a curt nod. At Varric’s pointed nudge, she cleared her throat. “Yes, well. Farewell, Cole. It has been a pleasure.”
Though the nicety was clearly coerced, Cole’s face lit up in a smile. Ellana nodded happily at him from behind Cassandra. One small victory, at least!
Cole ran after the carriage as it pulled away, waving his hat in the air as Varric waved back. She and Solas stood back and watched them pass through Wolvenhall’s iron gates, splattering mud as it flew. From there they turned onto the thicketed road that led to the village, and out of sight. A misting rain began to fall, so fine it could hardly be seen, and fog rose up around the front gardens, casting the world in a haze of grey.
“You are shivering,” Solas said. “Shall we?”
“Certainly,” she said, as it was rather cold, and together they returned to the parlor. It was strange walking back into the empty house, knowing that it was only the three of them left. The hall was the same as it ever was, more museum than living space, and yet she could see the bones if it underneath now; how the light would fall on bare walls, how footsteps on the stones would echo in empty space.
It was easier to see now how much of a patchwork Wolvenhall was; the great hall was clearly the oldest structure, built for some unknown purpose, perhaps as a tower or temple of some kind, and then the wings of the house were built centuries later, in a wholly different architecture, spreading out like wings from a hollow spine.
Solas bent by the hearth in the parlor, retrieved the tinder box, and coaxed the kindling to a small flame. The glow of the fire lit him at the edges, casting warm light on his ears and hands. He appeared to have shed the watchful quality that had irritated her earlier, and had fallen back into his usual tired reserve.
“Cassandra brought you books and...some sort of news,” she said, chancing a look at him, “but why does she travel with Varric? They are an oddly matched pair, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“That is plain enough,” he admitted. “Varric insisted on joining her, no doubt. He is attached to Cole, as you can tell, and I can hardly object to his interest. He must have heard tell that Cassandra would be visiting me with a delivery, and arranged to travel with her from Val Royeaux. I believe he also takes joy in rattling her composure, so there was twice the impetus.”
“It seems odd that the Lady Seeker would come all this way to deliver you a few books, even if she is a friend.”
He bowed his head. “As you say, she had a message to deliver, along with the volumes for my research. The books were more of an... offering, you might say, from the University.”
He shifted his weight uncomfortably, as though the conversation had veered to topics he would rather avoid. “Yes,” he said after a moment, weighing his words, “They have shown...a certain interest in my work, but fostering a relationship with them holds little appeal for me.”
“Could the books not be sent by post?” A personal delivery from Cassandra Pentaghast must not come cheap.
She could have sworn that he winced. “Perhaps, but I may have ignored several of her letters. Cassandra is not so easy a woman to ignore in the flesh, as you might imagine.”
Cole’s entrance interrupted the line of conversation. She was glad to see a smile pulling at his lips; no doubt the departure of a friend was difficult for him, but it had clearly been a much-needed visit. “Varric is kind, and Cassandra wants to be kind, but she’s afraid. Still, it is nice to have Wolvenhall to ourselves again, don’t you think?”
She looked upon the two of them—Cole in his absurdly large hat, Varric’s bright red socks sticking out from his boots, Solas in his same frayed sweater, a far-away look on his face—and smiled.
“I agree completely,” she said.
Chapter 7: The West Wing
In which boundaries are breached and matters come to blows.
The weather worsened at Wolvenhall after their guests’ departure, the winter drizzle now a permanent companion, but Ellana’s spirits were not dampened. She enjoyed the wild, elemental nature of the moor, its untamed state so very different from anywhere she had ever lived. The Dalish, contrary to popular belief, did not frolic whimsically in the forests. Her clan, at least, had lived mostly on the fringes of human towns, relying on trade and occasionally performance to get by. Mostly, she remembered muddy roads and the struggle of starting campfires in the rain. Poor weather was rather more pleasant when one had a manor house to enjoy it from—albeit a leaky one.
Cole, for his part, mourned the loss of their lessons in the gardens, though many feral cats made their way into the house to warm up by the fire, which cheered him considerably. It was not an unusual sight to see Cole entangled with a cat or three in his lesson room, all of them asleep over a copy of Intermediate Orlesian Grammar .
Which was not to disparage his skill as a student—she had seen him grow in leaps and bounds under her instruction, and was not so self-confident as to attribute it to whatever meagre skill she possessed. She merely harnessed the obvious potential and intelligence that so needed an outlet. Solas’ stubborn nature was to his credit when it came to Cole’s schooling, and perhaps he had been quite right to expel so many previous tutors, as she could not see him thriving in a more regimented and rote curriculum.
Solas himself seemed to withdraw even further after Varric and Cassandra left, and it was not unusual to miss him at dinner for days at a time. Cole assured her that he was eating, just at odd hours, which was at least a relief, but she could not help but worry.
And, she could at least admit to herself, she missed his company, a bit. Cole was lovely, and a dear boy, but he was still her student, and still very much a child. Though her conversations with Solas often veered toward argument, or towards even stranger waters, she found his company fascinating, if not always exactly comforting.
Though she was embarrassed to admit it, she saw more of Solas in her dreams than she did in the flesh. In flashes, she would catch sight of him, in the oddest locales—in ruins, deep underwater, high up on mountaintops—and he would grimace at her, plainly irritated, and she would find herself elsewhere all at once.
The Dalish believed in the power of dreams. Before she passed, Ellana’s mother had told her a little about them—that dreams about death really meant something was changing, houses held memories, halla symbolized longing. She didn’t quite believe in all of it—years of Chantry schooling left her rather skeptical of such things, for better or worse—and certainly her mother had never told her the symbolism of your employer being continuously irritated with you.
And so, she fretted.
“Are you certain he’s quite all right?” she asked for what felt like the dozenth time at supper one night, Solas again having chosen to stay away, this time for the fourth night in a row.
Cole picked at his cabbage soup which, admittedly, did not look very appetizing. “I’m sure he’s fine,” he said, but he did not sound convinced in the slightest. She knew that even he had not seen him for days.
“Should we not check on him?”
Cole frowned. “Miss Lavellan, we couldn’t.”
Ellana sighed impatiently. “I’m not interested in rummaging around in his business. I’m truly just concerned.”
“I—we can’t!” Cole was insistent, but she could sense that he was just as worried for his guardian.
“Well, he certainly could not refuse you . I could stand outside, and you could come and tell me if all was well.”
“I...suppose that could be all right,” Cole admitted.
“You are free to blame me in whole, if our concern should be taken the wrong way.”
Her motives were not altogether clean of curiosity, and she regretted taking advantage of Cole’s good nature. But her heart was almost entirely in the right place—and, frankly, the secrecy grated. What could possibly be so important?
Still, an uneasy feeling haunted her as they made their way up the staircase after supper. She could not help her imaginings at what they might find. What if Solas had injured himself, or fallen ill? Neither of them would know. She would hate for Cole to be distressed, and the thought of it made her, too, feel queasy with anxiety.
Their footsteps echoed in the vast chamber, both of them absorbed in their own worries.
“This is how he was,” Cole said, when they reached the top and halted at the branch between the eastern and western wings. “Before. I didn’t see him often. My tutors weren’t interested in seeing much of me outside lessons. Unnerving creature, they thought. Solas had his own worries, and tried his best, but he was very sad. It was lonely. I used to shout at the walls to hear the echoes shout back.” He stared at the ground as he spoke, as though back inside the memories he spoke of.
“That sounds very difficult,” she said. She could hardly imagine it—to be so young, with the coming and goings of indifferent tutors his only connections apart from an often distant guardian. Boarding school had not been pleasant, but at least she had been around students her own age. She wondered, not for the first time, how he managed.
“Things are much better now,” he said, turning his pale gaze back to her.
She had to fight the sudden sting in her eyes at that. “I’m glad,” she said, and, on impulse, reached out and squeezed his hand, a brief touch that she hoped expressed more than her meagre words. “Things are much better for me, too.”
Together they turned toward the western wing of Wolvenhall. It was nearly identical to the eastern wing in appearance, the same burgundy carpet, the same wooden trimmings and mess of artwork, but its forbidden nature made it seem eerie to her eyes.
Neither of them dared step forward first. Cole, of course, was not barred from venturing onward, but the addition of Ellana brought them well outside the usual rules of the house.
“Cole, if you are not certain…”
He shook his head and started down the hall. After a moment, she trailed behind him. Closed doors lined the hall, and she saw no light from beneath any of them. Just like the east wing, then, with its plethora of empty rooms.
The further they went, the more the air seemed to buzz with energy. Perhaps it was her overactive imagination, but it felt physical, like a nervous tingling on her skin, and it only seemed to strengthen the further they walked. Cole was silent in front of her—if he noticed anything amiss, he said nothing.
Cole led her down a leftward passage at the end of the hall, and then down a small staircase, perhaps one meant for servants, as it was narrow and creaked on every stair, nothing like the grand staircase at the center of the house. Cole stopped to light a candle at the top of the stairs, as the light of the setting sun was no longer adequate.
She had explored the east wing thoroughly, and the bottom floor there was the same as the floor above; many empty rooms and tall windows, nothing particularly out of the ordinary for a half-used house. The first floor of the west wing, on the other hand, was immediately different, in that all that greeted them at the bottom of the stair was a thick iron door, bare of any decoration or signal as to its purpose. She strained to remember what it looked like from the outside, for some clue as to what might be behind the door, but all she could recall were windows shaded by thick curtains, much like in the rest of the house’s unused rooms. The metal of the door shined in the candlelight—it was a more recent addition, then, nothing like the corroded old wrought iron of Wolvenhall’s gates.
Her nervousness turned into fear. Whatever Solas’ work was, it was clearly not as innocuous as she first assumed. What she chalked up to academic paranoia would not account for this level of security; rare volumes would not necessitate a door like that, not in such a remote house.
The buzzing sensation only increased as they walked to the door. She had to restrain herself from itching at her arms.
Cole shifted his weight nervously. “You should wait here,” he said, and she was not about to argue. “And turn around. Solas will not be pleased if—”
As he spoke, a terrible scratching came from the other side of the door, metal screeching against metal, and it swung open to reveal none other than Solas himself, blinking down at them in confusion.
“What will not please me, Cole?” He was squinting, as though the light of their candle were hurting his eyes—and perhaps it was, as behind him she could see nothing but darkness. It took a moment for him to spot her. “...Miss Lavellan?”
He stepped towards them, out of the doorway, and she saw his face in the full light of the candle.
She stifled a gasp. She was used to him looking tired, pale, even sickly, but this was well beyond that. Dark circles sat deep around his eyes, and his skin looked somehow...stretched thin. She could see blue veins at his temples. There was a glazed quality to his eyes that shocked her—he had a tendency to appear lost in thought, even dreamy, but this…
Beyond him was utter blackness. It was like staring into the space between stars. Try as she might she could not make out a single shape in the room beyond—not even a single candle illuminated whatever was inside. And she had a very strong notion that something was inside, something beyond valuable books, though what it was she could not even imagine.
Cole stared down at his feet, clearly expecting to be reprimanded. “We were worried, and…”
Ellana cut him off. If Solas would get angry at anyone, it should be her. She was Cole’s teacher, after all, and responsible for his behavior. “ I insisted on coming. Cole was going to leave me here in the hall, and go in to see you. We were both worried that you were not well.”
She expected some degree of rage, or at least irritation, but Solas just continued to look exhausted, so very exhausted that any other emotion was beyond his reach. “Is that so?”
“We weren’t wrong,” she said after a moment, when he didn’t continue. “You look as though you haven’t slept in a week.”
A humorless smile twisted his face before falling back into exhaustion. “I assure you, sleep is the last thing I need.”
Cole clutched at the brim of his hat with both hands. “It’s my fault, really, Miss Lavellan would never have come if I hadn’t agreed! You can’t send her away!”
Solas pinched his brow in one hand. “Cole, please. No one is being sent away.”
She allowed herself a measure of relief. She hadn’t truly thought he would, but all the same…she had broken the one rule of Wolvenhall. “You are clearly ill,” she said. “Nothing could surely be worth risking your health.”
“That is for me to judge.”
Having cared for two spoiled Orlesian twins, she was quite adept at picking up the signs of grumpiness by way of exhaustion. “You should really go to bed,” she insisted.
“You really should,” said Cole, wringing his hands.
Solas did not budge. “You trespass here against my wishes and intend to lecture me on what I should and should not do?”
“I…” Her irritated response trailed off, the odd buzzing noise in the air having reached an irritating pitch. “Heavens. What is that? Steam? Has a pipe cracked?”
“I don’t hear anything,” said Cole.
Solas’ frown deepened. “There is nothing wrong with the pipes.”
She shook her head, trying to clear away the infernal sound. “Regardless. At least come and have a cup of tea.”
“Yes, yes, I know. It will be good for you even if you hate it.” And she would not mind getting away from the source of that noise, too.
Solas frowned, hovering in the doorway like a shy maiden at a dance. If she weren’t so concerned for him, it would have been amusing.
“Fine,” he said at last, to her great surprise and relief.
He allowed them to lead him up the stairs and back into the great hall, and from there they journeyed down into the kitchens. The sound faded the further they got from the west wing, but it left her with the beginnings of a headache and aching teeth—she hadn’t realized she had been grinding them so hard until she stopped. By the time they reached the dining table, Solas was swaying on his feet.
Cole sat with him while she rushed to put the kettle on. She rummaged through their tea stores, finally settling on a sweet-smelling Rooibos she had found weeks ago and saved for a special occasion. It had the faint aroma of sugared hazelnuts, and she knew that Solas enjoyed sweets, so perhaps it would not be so detestable.
She spooned out a tablespoon of leaves into the pot, and before the kettle began to sing, poured the almost-boiling water over them and inhaled the scent deeply. She had yet to find a situation that would not be improved by a good cup of tea.
She returned to Cole and Solas talking quietly but intensely, their heads together.
“I hope you aren’t berating my student,” she said, placing the teapot on the table along with three stacked cups. She did not think the situation called for the formality of saucers. “It was my idea to come and find you, not his.”
Solas looked a bit more normal, now that he was out of his strange dark dungeon and sitting down. “And yet he did not seem to offer much resistance,” he said, testily.
“I can be terribly persuasive,” she said.
“That is...well,” Solas muttered, looking down into his empty hands as though he found them quite fascinating.
“She is,” Cole said, all solemnity.
She poured them all a cup and pushed it towards them across the table. Cole, who did not share Solas’ distaste, slurped it down with abandon.
“Drink,” she said, when Solas hesitated. He sniffed at it, reminding her for an absurd moment like a fussy Orlesian poodle she’d once known, and then took a tentative sip.
Both Cole and Ellana waited for his reaction. After drawing out the suspense for a moment, he offered them a small nod. “It is not terrible.”
“What a relief,” she said, hardly managing not to roll her eyes.
“I think it’s delicious, Miss Lavellan,” Cole said between sips.
It was—perhaps a little too sugary for her taste, but the nutty flavor balanced it nicely. Though the tea did not seem to benefit him much, Solas’ mood seemed to improve some in their company, though his eyes were still half-lidded and his face quite pale. She and Cole exchanged a worried glance across the table.
Solas cradled the warm cup in his palms, his head drooping down to inhale the steam and scent. His fingers flexed against the porcelain anxiously.
“I regret that I have caused you both concern,” he said at last, looking between the two of them. “I am not as young as I used to be, and perhaps have been pushing myself further than I should. But not without good reason.” He leveled a stern gaze at her, though she could not imagine why.
“I cannot imagine anything so urgent here that would necessitate not sleeping,” she said, uncomfortably aware that she was scolding her employer like he was one of her students. “I know that research always seems quite pressing to scholars, but really, what could not wait a day, or even a month? Don’t historians measure time by way of centuries?”
Far from consoling him, her words seemed to make him glower all the deeper. “Your opinion is noted,” he said. “Consider, however, that I might have good reason not to share it.”
She bristled at his frosty tone. “Be that as it may, no work can be improved by exhaustion, surely.”
He merely shot her another irritated look and sipped his tea, dismissing the line of conversation.
The sheer stubbornness! She had dealt with less willfull toddlers. With a huff, she returned to her tea.
“She’s not wrong,” Cole said, his voice quiet. She could hear the waver in it—he was more worried than he let on.
She heard Solas sigh, and remembered what Cole had said, about yelling at the walls just to hear a voice. She could hear the guilt behind that sigh.
“Fine,” he ground out after a moment. “I suppose I could...rest my eyes for an hour.”
Again, he glared at her, as though it were her fault he couldn’t manage his own sleeping habits.
Cole’s eyes brightened a bit. “Good. That’s good!”
“Only an hour,” Solas insisted. “I have matters to attend to.”
He stood up, and swayed on his feet again. Cole rushed to his side and grasped his arm, which Solas immediately shook off, as though it were a hit to his pride.
“Perhaps a bit longer,” she said, hiding her concern behind a tease.
“One hour,” he said, with great finality, frowning at her one last time.
Ellana finished her tea as Cole trailed Solas out of the kitchen, no doubt determined to see that he did not collapse on his way to his bedchamber. It occured to her that she had no idea where he slept. Behind that thick metal door, where all she saw was blackness? She resisted the urge to follow them by pouring herself another cup of tea.
Visiting the west wing had revealed only more questions, without a single answer to show for them. As naturally inclined toward curiosity as she was, the issue nagged at her for the rest of the evening, disrupting her enjoyment of the tea, a good book, and even a hot bath. It was, of course, the thought of the iron door that nagged at her, and whatever lay beyond it, and not the memory of the person who had emerged from the darkness, pale with shadowed eyes, and the irritating yet delightful grimace he'd made at her offer at tea.
That night she dreamed of a place she had never seen before. She wandered beneath spires of twinkling glass, gardens of shimmering, alien flowers and towering mosaics that must have been the work of generations. The stars shone in her eyes, too big and too close, as though she could pluck them from the sky with her fingers.
This beautiful world was hers alone, until it wasn’t.
“Hello,” said a voice behind her.
She turned around to see a man...and she would be hard-pressed to describe him more thoroughly than that. Something about his features shifted when she tried to look more closely. He was human, or perhaps a tall and muscular elf—but she couldn’t be sure. When she tried to suss out the shape of his ears or the color of his eyes, she was left with no impression at all.
“Hello,” she echoed.
He guestured with an unremarkable arm to the garden around them, at the dew-sprinkled spring buds. “What do you think of all this?”
“It’s quite beautiful,” she said, peering at him—he was hazy around the edges, almost as though he were radiating heat, though she felt nothing but a faint summer’s breeze.
“I see,” he said, and though she could not have described his mouth, she saw it pull into a deep frown. “I hoped that perhaps you had better sense.”
“You don’t like it?”
His laugh was not kind. It was barely a laugh, something closer to a pot running over, hissing and steaming. “Like it? This place is built on more blood than there is water in your oceans. But your kind only sees what is, and not what was. How lucky for you.”
“You are entitled to your opinion, I suppose, though I cannot say I understand it.”
He ignored her. “I have been watching for a while, miss, hoping to find you alone. You are quite carefully kept in that house of yours, aren’t you?”
She could not remember anything such thing, but it was, after all, a dream. Something about his words, though—she was transfixed.
“Exiled, reviled—we have that in common, you and I. My brethren might be born from your mortal follies, but they have no interest in your world, not anymore. But I have so much to give—there’s so much I could help you with, if you’d let me.”
“You’re a spirit,” she realized, half wonder, half fear.
“That is your word for it, I think,” he said. He remained indistinct, though when she looked closer she saw some method to the madness of his vague form—he was shifting, from moment to moment, watching her eyes, watching for what she wanted to see.
He took a step fowards. “If you would only let me in,” he said, reaching out to her with an indistinct hand, inviting her to clasp it. “There is so much we could do. You carry a mystery in your hand that cries out to be solved.”
She looked down at her hands—gloved, as they should be—and considered it, for a moment. Secrets were lonely things, and the offer of another to shoulder her burdens...it was not altogether a hateful thought. And surely she was the first to speak with a real spirit in an age! The things she could learn...
But Ellana Lavellan had been taught to read by a Chantry sister, and she knew a demon when she saw one.
“Sorry,” she said, stepping back, surprised at how calm she sounded. “Maybe another time.”
“That is a shame,” the demon said, the sound more steam now than a man’s voice. “Then you are quite useless to me.”
His form lost all vagueness and became something quite distinct indeed. He rose up to tower above her, a swirling, seething mass of fire and smoke. She coughed and held her hand over her mouth, trying to block out the fumes, but they reached up into her senses and pulled something loose.
When the smoke coalesced into a figure she recognized, she found that she could not look away.
“Such a disappointment,” Keeper Deshanna said, shaking her head, her body half-ablaze, a column of smoke behind her. “We were right to send you away.”
“You ought to leave,” Cole said, turning away from her, eyes hidden beneath the brim of his hat. “We really just felt sorry for you. It’s not our fault you mistook pity for kindness, don’t you think?” The question was asked as though it were any of his hundred daily queries during their lessons.
The form shifted again, and still she was unable to look away.
“Miss Lavellan,” Solas said, his eyes nothing but burning embers in his face. “I fear your services—”
Solas—or rather, the demon wearing his face—was cut short by a right hook to the jaw.
Ellana whirled around, the rictus of the spell broken, only to find the actual Solas panting at her side, flushed and massaging his fist.
“Miss Lavellan,” he said, keeping his eyes on the demon. “We really must stop meeting like this.”
Bless you for still reading despite your (very sheepish) author's terrible, terrible update schedule. Forgive me. I hope some actual plot development earns me some forgiveness?!
A huge thank you to raspberriesandstrawberries for not one, but TWO beautiful pieces of fanart!!!! To say I am thrilled is a serious understatement. You can see and admire them here: http://raspberriesandstrawberries.tumblr.com/post/157510396928 and here: http://raspberriesandstrawberries.tumblr.com/post/155200320958 \o/
Chapter 8: The Mirror
In which a dream ends and a memory begins.
“Stand back,” said Solas, pushing himself between her and the demon, its body a writhing mass of black lava and fire.
“You,” it hissed, and though it did not have eyes any longer, she felt its attention shift off of her and onto Solas. “Stay out of my way.”
“Leave,” Solas commanded, and she felt more than mere emotion behind his words. She flattened herself against the wall behind them at the swell of warmth, the stone cool and damp through her gloves. Solas’ arrival had solidified their surroundings, somehow, the usual misty edges of her dreams turned sharp. The air burned in her throat as her heart beat against her chest, and had she not known better, she would not have guessed this was a dream at all.
The demon sputtered and steamed like a campfire doused with water, quelling beneath Solas’ furious gaze.
“Foolish dreamer,” it screeched, “do you think you can keep all of us away, with prey like this?”
“ Leave ,” Solas said again, and she could hardly tell his voice from thunder.
The creature twisted into itself, squirming and crumbling. After a last desperate effort, it melted into the stone floor with a final wave of heat, leaving no evidence that it had ever been save for a smudge of soot. Only the rustling breeze remained, and with it, the faint smell of a lightning strike.
“That will not be the last of them,” Solas said, breaking the silence, staring down at the black mark and shaking out his fist, bruised from where he attacked the creature.
As though from a great distance, she considered his profile. Gone was the exhausted slouch and the dark circles under his eyes. His body had the alacrity she only recognized from the last time she had dreamed him, in that empty simulacrum of Wolvenhall’s atrium.
“This is a very strange dream.” Her voice came out thin and high, the adrenaline of the moment falling from her all at once and leaving her shaken.
Solas turned on his heel to face her, his typically sleepy expression energized by anger, a high flush marking his pale cheeks. “What were you thinking, engaging with a demon?”
Self-righteousness brought her back into herself. Even in her dreams, it seemed, Solas was prone to condescension. “I hardly invited it. And were you paying attention, you would have noticed I refused its offer.”
“And that is meant to assuage me, I presume.”
“Yes, in fact, it should.”
He towered over her. “Enough. Whose are you?”
She drew herself up to meet him, straightening her back in the way she learned at Vivienne’s school. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”
“Briala would be the obvious suspect,” he said, hands clenched behind his back. She could see the muscles flexing in his neck. “Or are you Celene’s creature? She has sent me her spies before, but this is quite another level. I am almost impressed.”
She was growing more lost and confused by the second, but she felt she had reason for annoyance at the very least. She jutted out her chin—it was difficult to talk down to someone half a foot taller than herself, but she gave it her all. “I hardly even know what you’re accusing me of. How dare you act as though I am the interloper in my own dream!”
“I have spent the past fortnight trying to shield you from the more aggressive specimens that Wolvenhall has to offer, all while fending off your attempts to breach my defenses—attempts I had thought were unconscious. The moment I let my guard down—at your insistence, if you’ll recall—you are here , of all places, consorting with demons!”
Consorting! She threw up her hands. “If you think I fell asleep intending to find that ,”—she pointed to the pile of soot on the ground, whirling in the soft summer breeze, and her voice wavered— “you are very much mistaken. I have never seen anything more horrible in my life.”
He faltered at that, the anger in his face dimming into confusion. “It should be quite difficult to lie here.”
“And yet you accuse me of, what, espionage?” she scoffed. “To what end? Has the Empress of Orlais asked me to spy on your book collection? I suppose I should hardly be surprised that you are just as maddening and secretive in a dream of my creation!”
He rubbed at the crease between his eyes. “Wait, please. I have perhaps...gotten ahead of myself. Tell me, what do you think is happening right now?”
“I am having an irritating dream about an irritating man,” she snapped.
He closed his eyes and sighed, the anger draining from his face. “I see,” he said, and turned around, facing the sky dotted with stars and the garden below it, still glistening with dew. “Then perhaps I was right at the first after all,” he murmured. “This can hardly go on as it has. You were not incorrect that I am exhausting myself.”
“Since this is my dream, you really ought to try making some sense.”
He turned to face her again. Now he just looked nervous , and somehow that frightened her when his anger hadn’t.
“Miss Lavellan, I must tell you something that you will not like.”
She waited for him to continue, any possible response sticking in her throat.
“I hardly know where to begin. But the conversation should not be had here, given how our last real encounter ended.”
She remembered—fire, pain, screaming. She would rather not repeat the experience either.It was an odd conversation to be having with, essentially, herself. In dreams, after all, other people were merely extensions of one’s own mind. That was what her mother said.
There was something she wasn’t grasping. And as it was her dream, that hardly seemed fair.
“I do not wish to alarm you,” he said, his hand rising as though to take hers, and then falling. “Though I fear it is inevitable.”
“Just...out with it, then,” she stammered, feeling as though she were at the crest of a tall wave, not knowing whether it would crush her or bring her to shore.
“You must understand,” he said. “I am not a creation of your imagination.”
That didn’t make any sense. “This is a dream,” she said.
“Yes,” he said, “This is your dream. And I fear I have infringed on your privacy in a rather dire manner. Truly, I would not have transgressed had your life not been in danger.”
She wrung her hands together, pulling at her gloves. “What does that mean, Solas?”
His jaw clenched, as though he already regretted whatever he was about to say.
“Dream-walking is an ancient magic, one that very few even know of, let alone are capable of practicing. I am one of them. You, it would seem, are another.”
She felt her face shutter and watched the flash of emotion that passed over his face. Sympathy, perhaps.
She was cursed twice-over, then. All her secrets, and he had discovered one she hadn't even known herself.
She shivered, frost spreading in the grass between her toes. The dew looked even prettier frozen, she noticed.
“This is real?” Her voice cracked on the word.
“That is a matter of debate,” he said, brow creasing at her obvious distress. “Miss Lavellan, I do not—”
She stopped hearing him. The dreams. Solas had been himself in all of them, then, not some fragment of thought. The atrium, the empty hallways, the dozen times she’d interrupted him and not realized what she was doing. The flash of irritation on his face all the times he dismissed her. She had been...invading his dreams, then.
Her mind rebelled at the very idea, but she felt in her bones the truth of it. Those had never been normal dreams, and she had known it. Nothing about Wolvenhall had ever been normal. So much she hadn't seen, hadn't wanted to see. She had been so desperate for a home she hadn't noticed what was right in front of her face.
If Solas was real, she realized with a burn of dread, so was that demon.
What had it called her? Prey?
Her veins turned to ice.
When Ellana Lavellan was ten years old, she had a penchant for getting into trouble.
Whether it was spooking the halla, nicking apples from the communal stores, or getting into places she shouldn’t, her curiosity got her into more trouble than the rest of the other Dalish children combined. She assumed that she’d always have her Keeper’s long-suffering sighs and her cousins’ half-admiring, half-exasperated smiles. Soon enough she’d have her vallaslin and her assignment—maybe a hunter, or even a First, if she were lucky. If she were First, she’d get to learn how to read.
How could she have known, then, to hold onto it all as closely as she could? To treasure every beat of the aravel sails in the wind, every bright afternoon among the halla, every lesson with the Keeper?
Keeper Deshanna had told her in no uncertain terms that she must behave herself at the Arlathvhen and not disgrace the clan. Ellana, quite certain of her own maturity, agreed, and was determined to make sure clan Lavellan could never be faulted for anything. They were not one of the old clans, who held on to some measure of prestige even in the shemlen world, and so even a small slip could mean disaster.
And she did try, on the day all the clans gathered near Wycome. But it wasn’t every day that she wandered into a tent and found an eluvian.
Keeper Deshanna had kept quiet about the large package that had followed them from the outskirts of Denerim to the Arlathvhen, telling Ellana that she’d have to wait for the meeting of clan elders to catch a glimpse of its contents. And yet this was surely it—the right size and shape, though it looked so fragile outside of its thick packaging.
Well, she guessed it was an eluvian, anyway. It didn’t glow with a rainbow of colors like it did in the stories. It didn’t glow at all, in fact. It could have been just a big mirror, had the carvings not matched the pictures she’d seen in books. Keeper Deshanna had told the children all about eluvians, and how many of them laid dormant in shemlen cities, waiting for the return of the Elvhen empire, and elvhen magic along with it.
She glanced around the empty campsite—the rest of Clan Lavellan was already at the meeting grove, feasting and dancing around the fires. For now, she was alone with the eluvian and the patter of rain against the tent.
She weighed her Keeper’s disapproval against her curiosity. Surely Deshanna wouldn’t mind, so long as she didn’t touch…
But before she could make a decision, the eluvian came to life with a shimmer that she felt under her skin, every hair she had rising to attention. It was just as Keeper Deshanna had told in her stories, and so much more at the same time—a symphony of greens, blues, reds and yellows, moving in inscrutable patterns to some unheard music. Beautiful. Before that moment, she hadn’t known just how much of her world was made of brown and grey.
Ellana could only gape. She knew that she should run and tell her Keeper that their treasure had woken up, but all she wanted was to jump through and see what was on the other side, clan elders be damned. The stories Deshanna told loomed large in her memory—ancient roads that spanned across oceans, cities lost to millennia and looming with spirits...
Before she could be that reckless, the colors rippled outwards and she jerked back in surprise, barely avoiding the object thrown violently through the mirror. She fell back against the skins of the tent, mouth agape, choking on a shout. Whatever it was landed in front of her with a heavy thud, blindingly bright even against the shifting light of the mirror.
And then the eluvian went dark and shattered, a hundred slivers of glass tinkling to the ground in time with the rain outside.
She winced and tried not to think about who would be blamed for destroying the clan’s treasure. Anyways, Keeper Deshanna had a hundred books, and Ellana doubted it would be hard for her to fix it.
The only light in the tent now was the shining orb that lay at her feet.
Something about it was fascinating. It burned with an inner fire, shifting with different shades of green that cast strange shadows across the walls of the tent, turning the familiar surroundings unrecognizable. Its smooth surface, some sort of metal, was inlaid with silver grooves in whirling lines, a pattern she had never seen before.
What could a curious Dalish girl do in the face of this temptation? She reached out with a trembling hand and grasped it.
It was warm to the touch, and then hot, and then so hot that she tried to snatch her hand away, and screamed when she could not. This was not an ordinary heat. It pushed itself into her, up her arm and into her blood, turned her vision white and took her breath.
Someone must have heard her screams, and soon half the Arlathvhen surrounded her, a crowd of angry and frightened faces blurring thorough her tears. She was outside and on the ground, and had no memory of how she came to be there.
“Help me,” she cried out, but they were all afraid, and did not approach her. The green flashes seemed to escalate the more frightened she became, and with them, her pain only increased. She plunged her hands into the muddy earth, searching for relief, but this was no earthly fire, and water did not quell it.
After what felt like an eternity of agony Keeper Deshanna’s face swam before her, horror and anger written across her lined face.
“Keeper,” she gasped. “I’m—so sorry! I saw the mirror, and—and I—”
“Hush, child,” Deshanna said, and tipped a tincture into her mouth.
The liquid was bitter and viscous down her throat. The pain did not dim, but her consciousness did, her last vision that of the crowd of elves, brandishing weapons and torches, green fire casting shadows over their eyes.
Later, she learned that the debate over her fate lasted for days, overtaking whatever other business the Arlathvhen had planned. The clan elders, it seemed, feared that if word of magic at the Arlathvhen reached the ears of the humans, they would all be slaughtered. And perhaps they were not wrong. Perhaps it was only her youth that saved her, in the end. The Dalish treasure their children.
She lost everything but her life. Her home, her family, her heritage. She saw Deshanna just one more time, as her carriage was about to pull away and whisk her into another life, a life of humans and stone walls and the Chant.
And so she wore gloves and kept the story of her scarred hand quiet, moving through the shemlen world like a ghost. It surprised her how easy it was, to let herself fade into the background of her own life. She lost herself in her studies at school, set herself apart from the other children, and tried to forget that she had ever been Dalish. But every night she removed her gloves and saw the truth—that she had been touched by magic, and paid a terrible price for it.
No fade-kisses for these two. ;) Still working at this, albeit at a snail's pace. Thank you for reading!
Chapter 9: A Matter of Magic
In which the bonds of both friendship and reality are tested.
She woke up, the taste of fire and soot thick on her tongue. She stared at the plaster cracks in her ceiling until she could no longer stand it, and then began to pace her room. She went from the window, to the desk, to the door, and then back around again, forcing back anything but the feeling of cold wood against her feet.
She watched her own distress from a safe distance. It would not do to let it run wild in her, to let the mark in her hand burn free.
After some time, whether minutes or hours she could not have said, there was a tentative knock on her door. It went through her like a crack of lightning, bringing her back into herself.
When she ignored it, a familiar voice called out, muffled by the thick wood. “Miss Lavellan? Are you in there?”
She let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding. Cole, not Solas. She inched the door open to see his pale, luminous face in the half-light of the hallway.
“Is something going on?” Cole asked, fidgeting when she said nothing. “I want to help. Everyone seems so distressed.”
“Distressed?” She said, snapping out the word like a caged animal.
He took a step back. “Um,” he said, eyes wide. He thrust forward a tray. “I brought tea?”
She stared down at the white teacups and little spoons, and tried to remember how to be polite. “Thank you.” She turned back into the room and gestured for him to follow. “You can put it on the desk.”
He followed her inside and put down the tray, busying his hands with checking the steeping leaves and arranging the spoons.
She sat back heavily on the edge of her bed. Her head fell into her hands.
What could she do? Solas knew, now, at least part of it. The terribly irony of it all was that he knew, and yet he didn’t know. He’d only discovered the piece she hadn’t known herself.
She considered running. But she doubted her ability to hide from someone who could invade dreams, and he already suspected her of being some sort of turncoat—though to what side, she could hardly guess. He would be sure of it if she ran. The thought of him thinking her a traitor (again, to what?) hurt worse than the thought of a life of restless dreams.
And where would she go? Wolvenhall was her home.
She considered contacting Deshanna, the only other person who knew her secret, but shook the thought away. She was a grown woman, not a child running to her Keeper. And she had little interest in being turned away from the Dalish again.
No, no, that wouldn’t do. If only she could go back, before the dreams, before even Wolvenhall, before the night in the tent, before the shattered eluvian...
She felt a light hand on her shoulder and jumped.
“It’s all right,” Cole said, hovering awkwardly in front of her, cradling a teacup in his hand. She'd forgotten he was there.
She straightened up and touched a hand to her cheek—it was wet.
“I'm sorry,” she said, embarrassed for her student to see her in such a state.
Without her noticing, Cole had maneuvered a warm teacup into one hand and a handkerchief into the other. “There,” he said.
She wiped her eyes and sipped the tea. “Thank you.”
Cole’s moon-bright eyes met hers, and all she saw was sympathy there. “Miss Lavellan, please. What is happening?”
Surely he knew. Mustn’t he? He was not restricted from the west wing, and though she still didn’t know exactly what was behind its doors besides a splitting headache, she thought now that it must have to do with magic.
“How much do you know about Solas’ work?” It came out more challenging than she intended.
Cole’s eyes shifted down to the floor. “Not everything, I imagine.”
How could she even ask? “The nature of it?”
A long pause.
“Yes,” he said, and then, like a dam breaking: “I’m so very sorry I couldn’t say anything. I’m so relieved that you know now. It was so easy to keep it from the rest of them, but not you. There were times I thought you knew, but you wouldn’t say anything! And other times I knew you would hate us for it if you guessed. I knew about the dreams, he told me that much, but not what happened tonight. He won't say anything.” He considered her red eyes seriously. “It must have been terrible. Are you going to leave?”
She shuddered in shame at her cowardly thoughts of running away. “Of course not,” she said, and meant it. “It’s only…”
“I’m very sorry I couldn’t tell you the truth,” he said, eyes downcast.
An alarming thought occurred to her. “He didn’t...cast some sort of spell to keep you from talking about it, did he?”
Despite everything, talk of ‘casting spells’ made her feel ridiculous. Spells were for wild wood-witches from ages past, not sleepy academics with...freckles.
“No! Of course not,” Cole said, eyes wide. “But I made a promise. He was frightened of being found out, you see.”
She shook her head. “The secrecy I understand perfectly."
Another light touch on her shoulder. “It’s quite a lot to take in.”
“Magic,” she breathed, picking at her gloves. “Everything I’ve ever been taught says it is a force of destruction. Not to be trusted. That magicians were—are devious and deceitful.”
Cole bit his lip. “They do say those things. I don't know about anyone else, but Solas is a good person. He took me in when no one else would.”
And he had done the same for her, though she wasn't sure if he knew it. She had never really told him about what drove her from her previous employer.
Keep it a secret. Even your dearest friends will not understand, Keeper Deshanna had told her, that night when the carriage to Madame Vivienne’s school arrived.
But Keeper Deshanna was not there. She could tell them. All of it. What she was capable of, and what it had brought her. The whole sorry story.
But it would not do. The dream-walking, their apparent shared ability, he could hardly fault her for. But she could not imagine he would accept the force of destruction lying dormant in her hand, ready to ignite and destroy his home, his work, his ward.
Or worse, perhaps it would fascinate him. Perhaps she would stop being Miss Lavellan and start being an experiment, something to study in that dark room in the west wing.
And yet. If she was cursed with magic, she at least should learn to control it. She lived her life in fear of another outburst that would reduce her circumstances yet again, cleave her away from everything she cared for—if she could only learn more, perhaps that experience might not ever be repeated.
The magic in her hand was one thing. This dream magic was something else, something new. Something entirely different. A lifetime ago, her mother had told her that dreams were important.
And at the very least, she was not interested in being the prey of any demons. And that was the most pressing threat, wasn't it?
The rest, then, could wait. She could learn more, about Solas, about magic, and perhaps then...
For a moment, she was ten years old again, hovering before a mirror in a darkened tent, wondering whether to obey her elders or leap forwards into the unknown.
Curiosity won out, breaking through her fear like a star through a cloud.
"I know you're right," she admitted. "I do—trust you. Both of you."
"I think he wanted you to know," Cole said, meeting her eyes. "He would never admit it, I suppose. But he is the only living magician he knows. I wanted you to know from the start. I knew you were different from the others."
A secret he didn't want to keep, but was too afraid to tell. She stared down at her gloves and sighed. "I understand," she said.
"You do," he said. "I knew you would."
It was her turn to meet his gaze. How much had he already guessed, even before all of this? He was a perceptive child, after all.
"Cole," she said, "I'm very glad all your other tutors quit."
He smiled and ducked his head, hat falling over his eyes. "Me, too."
His back was to the door of the study, his body lit from behind by a roaring fire. He cut an imposing and dark figure, hands clenched behind his back, flames licking at his heels.
She drew a deep breath and forced herself through the doorway.
“Well,” she said, and watched his shoulders tense. “We have a great deal to talk about, don’t we?”
His eyes flickered in the firelight as he finally turned to face her. She could not help but wonder what he saw as he regarded her. His expression gave her no clues.
“I admit, that you have not already dragged me to a Chantry house for summary execution gives me some measure of relief," he said, after a moment.
His light tone was belied by the tension in his jaw. She stood firmly planted behind the threadbare armchair that faced the fire, one she had sat in so many times, teaching Cole poetry or history. Those cozy evenings wrapped in books felt like millennia ago.
“Clearly that would make me a hypocrite,” she said, staring down at her gloves, trying and failing to keep her voice steady.
"I could not begrudge you self-preservation, if that were truly your choice."
She had thought herself beyond further surprise that evening, but the thought of turning him in shocked her. Yet she instinctively weighed the idea, ashamed of herself all the while. The whiff of magic would bring down the Chantry on Wolvenhall in a matter of hours. But by now she would be implicated by association, and what would be done with Cole? Nothing good, she was sure. And worse would be done with Solas.
She shuddered at her own mercenary thoughts. Wolvenhall was her home.
“No. I want to know more,” she said, wavering voice solidifying with her decision. “Though I hardly know where to begin.”
His expression was difficult to read. “I admit some surprise. After our previous conversations on the matter and merits of magic, I had thought you rather immovable on the subject.”
“It seems we share this affliction,” she said. His lips pursed, as though he longed to argue with her wording, but he said nothing. “I would be a fool to not learn how to control it, given what happened last night.”
He nodded. “That would be wise. Demons are not creatures to be trifled with, even in dreams.”
“So I gathered,” she said.
He watched her carefully. “Would you allow me a few questions, to start?”
“So long as I can have the favor returned.”
“Of course,” he said. “First and foremost—how long has it been that you have had these dreams?”
She thought back. “The night Varric and Cassandra visited is when it started, I think.” A horrifying thought took her. “Please don’t tell me either of them are...whatever this is.”
He seemed to choke on the very idea. “Certainly not."
"Do they know?"
He caught her meaning. "Cassandra knows, yes. As for Varric, I suspect so. Cassandra would not have told him, but he can be...irritatingly perceptive."
Perceptive where she had been so very unaware. So attentive to her own secrets that she never once guessed his, despite it sitting right under her nose for months.
"What do you think it was, then, that started it?"
“The influence of Wolvenhall, I suspect, if this has not gone on since childhood. I wondered if that might be the case. I doubt you could have survived this long without better control, otherwise.”
She felt a chill. What would that demon have offered to her as a girl? What would she have given it, to have her family back? Her clan?
He cleared his throat at the look on her face. “Pardon me. I am accustomed to considering the subject...academically.”
What must it be like, to consider demons and magic without a thrill of fear? She gestured for him to continue, not trusting her voice.
He nodded. “Wolvenhall’s natural magical ambience combined with the natural disturbance of the storm must have created the perfect opportunity for your ability to manifest. Curious that none of our previous occupants were effected. But they were all rather closed-minded, I suppose, and none of them had elven blood. And perhaps you had a dormant affinity for magic, as well. It is not altogether unusual, despite what the Chantry would have you believe. It would be curious to test whether the ability persisted if you left the manor.”
Solas was animated as she had never seen him, his usual reserve forgotten for the moment.
The relief of a secret shared. How many years had he kept his? How many people had he turned away, in order to keep it?
A thousand questions came to mind, and she could not help but let them spill out. “Wolvenhall’s natural ambience? What does that mean? Do storms really cause some sort of magical disturbance? And what does elven blood have to do with anything?”
A small smile lit in his eyes, and she blushed at her forwardness. “I suppose I have a great deal to explain.”
“Wait,” she said, holding up a hand. “This is why you’ve been so tired? You were...fending off demons? As you said in the dream?”
“Yes,” he said.
She shook her head, guilt and confusion pulling at her. “I don’t understand. Weren’t you asleep, the same as I was?”
“Do you feel well rested this morning?” He returned.
She shrugged. “No more or less than usual.”
“Interesting,” he said. “Perhaps because you were not truly aware of what was happening for most of the dream. Dreaming with intention—and particularly inserting oneself into the dreams of another—is quite tiring, and little like the sleep of the unaware.” A wry smile. “Though I only have myself to confirm that theory.”
“And now you have me,” she mused.
“Yes,” he said, meeting her gaze for a moment and then looking away, suddenly quite interested in the yellowed upholstery of the armchair she stood behind.
"Couldn't you have slept during the day, when I was awake?"
"I have other responsibilities," he said. "I caught rest where I could, but as I said, dreaming with intention is tiring in and of itself."
There were a hundred more questions she wanted to ask, but they all stuck in her throat. There was really only one thing that mattered, one thing she had to learn. She needed to protect herself, and that was all. Getting caught up in all of the wonderings inside her was dangerous, and not only to herself.
“The demon,” she said. “You said I could learn how to control the dreaming, keep it away?"
“Yes,” Solas said. "We dispatched of that particular demon, but it was not wrong when it suggested there would be more to follow. An untrained dreamer attracts attention, and it can come in many forms, some of which you might not expect."
“Something you’ve learned from experience?”
“Yes,” he said.
His lack of further comment spoke volumes. Her hands gripped the chair. “Very well. Teach me, then. We have, what is it, twelve hours until I’ll need to sleep again?”
His brow furrowed, and he turned back to the fire, hands linked behind his back again, though his shoulders had lost some of their tension. “Quite a deadline. And yet you have already shown remarkable resilience.”
He gestured toward the fire before him, and she recalled the pillar of flame and smoke he had quelled with a word. “You warded off a demon with no training or awareness. Most do not have that measure of focus."
“How lucky for me,” she said. She hadn’t really done anything. He’d been the one to burst in, fists flying. A fact she found difficult to believe truly happened, looking at the slender man in the threadbare jumper in front of her.
“It has little to do with luck,” he said, turning to face her again. She recognized his tone from the few times she’d observed him instructing Cole, and rather felt like she was about to be drilled on on the Canticles by a severe Chantry sister.
“Is it all in the right hook, then?”
The surprised smile that flashed across his face made something twist in her chest.
“Not precisely,” he allowed. “But improvisation is sometimes necessary for success.” He cleared his throat, instructor persona reassumed. “Please, sit down.”
She sank into the armchair facing the fire with a sigh, just noticing how her legs had begun to ache from standing at attention. He settled in the chair beside her, a careful distance away.
“Before you can attain full awareness in your dreams, you must learn how to determine whether you are dreaming at all. Dreams feel fully real when we are in them, however ridiculous they might seem when we awaken. The key is to interrupt that feeling."
"Like waking yourself up from a nightmare," she said.
"Yes," he said, "with the goal of never letting it escalate into a nightmare in the first place. Nightmares—or rather, the negative emotions they elicit—entice demons. To put it in the simplest terms."
She considered. "Would positive emotions entice friendlier spirits, then?"
A small smile. "I could regale you with an entire dissertation on that precise question, but it will have to wait for another time."
"Delaying a lecture. This truly is serious," she said, hoping to draw another one of those smiles out of him.
He frowned instead, as though reining himself in. "It is." He cleared his throat, and continued. "There are several methods to disrupt the verisimilitude of a dream. I will start with the simplest, and perhaps...quickest to see results."
He held out both hands, palms up and facing one another, as though he were about to applaud.
"What will happen when I press my hands together?"
She quirked a brow at him. "Is this a trick question?"
"No," he said.
"Your...hands will touch?" She felt rather foolish.
"Precisely," he said, bringing his hands together with a quiet clap. "That is how reality functions. No matter how hard I press, my hands will remain solid. Dreams, on the other hand, are formed by our intentions and expectations. If I expect and intend for one hand to pass through the other, it will."
"So I should do that in a dream, then, to test if I'm asleep?" Doubt crept into her voice. It seemed a bit too easy—or too optimistic, maybe. Awake, certainly, it seemed reasonable. But in a dream, how would she even remember to check that she was dreaming?
"Ah," he said, "I believe you have arrived at the conclusion I intended. How to remember the test when dreams are so very convincing?"
Yes," she admitted.
"Practice," he said, as if it were as simple as proper penmanship. "In the waking world. Make it a habit to check the reality of your surroundings, even when you are certain you are awake. If it becomes a habit outside of dreams, it will become a habit when dreaming as well."
"I suppose that makes some sense," she allowed. "Do you do that often? Check the reality of the world?"
A half-smile tugged at his mouth. "Almost never. But when I first learned to control my dreaming, I made it a habit. You will reach the point of no longer needing the test. I am able to dream with intention now, whenever I so wish."
"How long have you been able to do this?"
"Since childhood, to a certain extent. I was not able to master it until many years later, however."
She wondered what he had gone through, to work all of this out on his own. Had a demon visited him as a child, when this ability manifested? It seemed too intrusive a question to ask.
"All right," she decided. "So what do I do?"
He glanced down at her hands. "This may work better without gloves."
"No," she said, too quickly. "It's fine."
To her relief, he didn't press the subject. "Very well," he said. "Do as I did—hold your palms upwards, facing one another." He demonstrated.
She copied him. "And press them into one another?"
"First, expect that your hands will pass through, as best you can. And while you hold that expectation in your mind, ask yourself the question, 'Am I dreaming?'"
She focused on the white of her gloves, and tried to convince herself that the laws of reality were not in effect. It was difficult, with the warmth of the fire before her and the familiar frayed armchair creaking below her, but she tried her best, holding the question of dreaming in her mind at the same time.
"Once you are quite certain," he said after a few moments, "press your hands together."
She did, and her hands touched, just as reality dictated they should.
"Now say to yourself, 'I must be awake.'"
"I must be awake," she repeated, feeling quite foolish again.
"Good," he said. "Repeat the process two dozen more times, and it should stick."
"Two dozen?" Once had felt silly enough.
"Not right this moment," he assured her. "In fact, you should go through your day as normally as possible, and scatter the tests throughout. It will soon become routine."
She nodded, reluctantly. It made a sort of sense, though she still doubted whether it would actually work, and whether it would be enough to deter an actual demon. "I'll try." What else could she do? They could hardly keep on as they had, with Solas giving up his own rest to protect her dreams. She had to learn how to protect herself, and if this was the way, she would take it.
He leveled her a look of understanding. "I know this is difficult," he said, gesturing to, she thought, the entire situation they'd found themselves in. "I should have been more forthcoming before it escalated this far, and for that I apologize. My reticence was driven by my own fears, not any doubt as to your character."
Some guilt simmered in her chest at that. "I'm only glad it happened with someone who understands what's happening," she admitted, shaking her head. "I can only imagine how frightening it would be if you weren't here."
"I am glad for whatever assistance I can offer, of course."
She found herself quite aware of how closely they sat together, of how warm the fire was on her face, and of how she suddenly could not think of a single intelligent thing to say.
"I should get started, then," she said, rising and smoothing her skirt.
"Yes," he said, standing abruptly to meet her. "The sooner you start, the better. Please, find me with any questions you might have, but remember to have as routine a day as you can. There will be plenty more to discuss in the days ahead."
She doubted this could possibly feel like just another day, but she swallowed the protest. "I'll endeavor to be as ordinary as possible," she said. "It is only my mortal soul at stake, after all."
Later, the three of them gathered in the breakfast parlor. A companionable silence filled the room as they focused on their separate activities. Cole was hunched over one of the volumes of Orlesian Civil Wars: An Abridged History in Twenty-Nine Parts. Solas was leaning back in his chair, considering the paintings on the walls with lidded eyes. For her part, she was doing everything in her power to put off retiring to bed.
She had spent her day in as average a fashion as she could hope for: tutoring Cole, reading by the fire, playing with the cat, watching the mist roll in from the forest. Throughout it all, she tested the reality of her situation as per Solas' instructions, and found that it felt less and less like foolishness as the sun made its way toward the horizon and the sky dimmed, shadows lengthening along the walls.
She had done her best. The only thing left was to put this theory to the test. And yet the idea of sleeping, and perhaps meeting another demon, quite frightened her.
Best to get it over with. One last test, and she would go.
She held her hands out as she had done two dozen times already that day, and tried to convince herself that they were immaterial as the mist outside.
But this time, there was no reassuring clap as reality was reaffirmed.
"I must be dreaming," she cried, staring down at where her gloves intersected. For a moment she thought the room might turn over along with her stomach at the sight of it.
Of course. She had already gone to bed, hadn't she? She remembered testing the reality of her dark bedroom, over and over, until sleep had finally taken her in the early hours before dawn.
Not only that, but Cole looked suspiciously like a scarecrow, not a boy at all. And she was fairly sure his hat was not usually purple. How had she missed it?
Her attention whipped to Solas, who was already regarding her with a pleased smile.
"Excellent," he said, ignoring her noise of utter shock. "I can, however, offer a few suggestions for improvement, probably best discussed after you wake up."
Look at me, posting more than once every six months. Thank you all for the lovely comments, I treasure them all!
Chapter 10: Winter's Grasp
In which a cold snap begets conversation and revelation.
It was a bright, crisp morning, the daylight shining through the windows coloring the painted birds in hues of jewels and gold. Yet despite the much-welcome sun, the air was frigid, so cold that the usual dampness of the manor had frozen dry, and so she was glad to see a fire blazing in the hearth when she came to the parlor room.
The table was already set for two; her student had already come and gone, it seemed, with half a slice of buttered toast left on his plate. She found Solas behind a newspaper.
Remembering his antics from the night before, she barely resisted grabbing a scone and throwing it right at that shining head. It was a close thing.
“Sleep well?” He didn’t look up from his paper.
She crossed her arms. “Oh, quite. I’m surprised to see you up so early—surely sitting around in my dream waiting to make an appearance took up so very much of your energy.”
He shuffled the paper in his hands. “I appreciate your concern, but it was a trifle.”
A smile tugged at her lips. “You have a dramatic streak beneath all that politeness, don't you?”
He leaned back in his chair and set the paper aside. “That isn’t something I’ve been accused of in many years,” he mused.
“Really? Who else has called you dramatic?” She could hardly imagine Cole saying such a thing. Solas spoke so little of his past that even this inconsequential admission interested her.
“You may not believe it, but I was rather hot-headed in my youth,” he said, lips twisting into something that was not quite a smile.
It was difficult to imagine him as a young man. Part of her was convinced he had emerged into the world fully-formed and world-weary, probably wearing a threadbare jumper and a sensible overcoat. She itched to ask more, but she saw the way his eyes darkened and supposed that his childhood had not been brimming with happy memories. She supposed it wouldn’t be very fair of her to interrogate him on his upbringing.
She chose the seat across from him. “So aside from offering you amusement, did our experiment go well, do you think?”
He steepled his fingers. “You were successful, though it took rather longer than I had expected.”
A smile flashed in her direction, there and then gone. “How do you feel?”
She considered. “Not bad, I’m surprised to say. It’s almost as though…” she huffed, unable to find the right words. “I’m not as frightened, I suppose. It all feels more manageable, now that I can control it, at least a little.”
“I am glad to hear it,” he said. “That confidence will only grow, the more competence you achieve.”
“Competence?” she wondered. She had only thought of the immediate danger, and hadn’t yet given much thought to what it would really mean to harness this...whatever it was to its full potential.
He coughed into his hand. “If you wish, of course. I ask that you become competent enough to resist interlopers, for all of our sakes, let alone yours; beyond that, it is your choice whether or not to continue.”
To continue. Survival, of course, had to be her first priority. She had read the Chant enough times to know the dangers of demons, and after meeting one firsthand, she would really rather not repeat the experience.
The Chantry was quite firm on the matter of demons, even all these years after magic had vanished. Had supposedly vanished, she corrected. Given all that had happened in her life, she could not help but wonder.
One would have thought that the Chantry would have eased the harsh condemnation of magic, generations after its disappearance. And yet the Templars still existed, albeit in smaller numbers, and every child was instilled with the same fear of magic and demonic influence. It was strange, now that she thought of it. Was it mere tradition, or something else? Of course there were always rumors of evil magic brewing in Tevinter, and of stranger things in the dark corners of the continent, but most educated people dismissed such claims as superstition.
And yet here they both were, she and Solas, and surely they could not be alone in the world. And they must keep it secret, for fear of execution—or worse. She had lived with the fear for years, of course, but knowing that he faced it too...it made her angry, where before she had felt only fear.
What came after mere survival?
“Do you think it’s worth it?” she asked. “All of this?”
“How do you mean?” he said, eyes wary.
She bit her lip. “It’s only that once I somehow started...dreaming in this way, I managed to intrude on you, terrify myself, and get attacked by a demon, all in the span of, how long exactly, a single month?” She stared down at her gloves. “Will the rest of my life be like this?”
She had been resigned to a life of secrecy since she was a child, but somehow, finding Wolvenhall, allowing herself to feel that somewhere was home, was safe, had changed things. A door had opened that she could not close. She did not want to live her life on the run.
“Any great power left unrefined is dangerous. It is frightening, certainly—even I will occasionally discover things that surprise me. But the potential for beauty outweighs the risks, I believe.”
“Beauty? I suppose the ruins I dreamed that demon in were rather pretty, but couldn’t I just walk five miles and see much the same? Ferelden and Orlais are full of such sights.”
“I will introduce you to friendlier spirits,” he promised. “There is more to find in dreaming than ancient landscapes and long-forgotten cities. There are stories lost to time, large and small, histories that no one alive could tell, written in no book or scroll on any continent across the world. Or, if that is not enough, you could turn your attention to creation, and build in dreams what could never exist in reality. Once you are able to direct your will, a great deal becomes possible.”
The expression on his face as he described it, the passion in his voice—there was a buoyancy in it that she rarely saw in him, his eyes lit with twin sparks. Was this always underneath the surface of him, carefully guarded, parceled out to the select few?
But she still couldn’t see magic in the rosy light that he did, not when it had already ruined her life once.
“Which sounds lovely,” she said. “But there’s more to it, isn’t there?” She weighed the best way to continue, not wanting to offend. “What I mean is, there’s a reason why you and Cole are here in Wolvenhall, alone, and not...anywhere else, isn’t there? Why you have no household, why you don’t go into the village?”
“Ah, he said, looking away towards the fire, the light angling across the planes of his face as the energy drained from his face.
“That didn’t come out right,” she said, stomach dropping. She had insulted him. “I only mean, doesn’t all of this come part and parcel with secrecy? Won’t we both forever be in hiding?”
She wished more than ever to just tell him the truth of it all, of why her clan had abandoned her, but something still held her back.
He shifted, still not looking away from the fire. It was becoming difficult, even frustrating, to see him retreat back into himself time after time.
“I fear you are operating off a false pretense. It is no fault of yours; I have not been altogether straightforward. But our way of life here is not due to my desire for secrecy, though I certainly do aim for it. I could be just as secretive in the heart of Val Royeaux, I imagine, given enough effort. I admit that I merely have little interest in society and its customs and vagaries.” His hands flexed on the table, as unsure as she had ever seen him. “Admittedly, secrecy and isolation do go well together.”
“I see,” she said.
“If a normal life is what you wish,” he said, voice gentle, turning back to her at last, “‘All of this,’ as you put it, will not hold you back.”
“A normal life!” she scoffed. “Little chance of that, I think.”
He tilted his head, something sad in his expression. “And why not? You are young and have an education. I imagine you could do whatever you so wished.”
“I do not wish for one,” she said, hands twisting beneath the table, not sure if it was even a lie, not anymore. She had spent so much of her life wishing it to be different, to grow up as a normal Dalish girl or a normal orphan or a normal governess. All of it was meant to keep her in the background, to stay safe. Yet despite all her years of trying, she had never been good at it. She had been hated in the orphanage, she was sent away from her first assignment, she even caused a scene in the village not a few months ago. She didn’t have the knack for normal.
“Besides, it seems a bit unlikely,” she said. “I am a Dalish exile raised in a Chantry orphanage. I have no family and few connections. Any of those would preclude a normal life; all of them at once rather forbid it, don’t you think?” It was difficult to not let a little bitterness leak into her voice.
“That may be,” he said, “Yet I have no doubt that you could build whatever life you wished for. It is not the weak-willed who can twist dreams to their making, after all.”
She wasn’t sure that will or the lack thereof had much to do with it, but let the matter rest.
“Is that a kind way of saying I’m bull-headed?”
“Not the word I would use,” he said. “Indomitable, perhaps.”
She laughed to hide her blush. “You needn’t sweeten me up, I’ve been called a stubborn creature more times than I can count.”
“I do not find that entirely impossible to believe,” he said, and she laughed again.
Something warm settled in her stomach at his returning smile.
They returned to their breakfasts in a comfortable silence, Solas turning back to his paper and she admiring the frescoes above their heads. The paint shone like it had just dried the day before.
Wolvenhall was...clean, she thought with a start, some strange feeling itching at the back of her mind. Dusty, perhaps, but with three people and no household, surely it should have been in ruins. At her previous position, there were a half dozen servants employed, and that had been for a townhouse...
The thought gnawed at her, fading away like a distant constellation when she examined it too closely. The more she thought of it, the more agitated it made her.
“Might I ask you something?”
“Of course,” he said, glancing up from his paper again.
“It’s strange, isn’t it? No servants, no cooks…I’ve never seen you or Cole wash more than a plate or two.” She shook her head. “Why hadn’t I noticed that before?”
Even now, as her mind approached the subject, her thoughts slid around the idea, and she had to concentrate to consider it all: the muddy footprints that were gone the next morning, the bathwater that was always just right...
“Ah,” he said, ears turning pink. “I had forgotten. A minor disguise of my own doing, I fear. It is designed to repel attention. If you have not noticed it before now, that is hardly your fault. This house requires too many to run it than I was comfortable hiring, given the...sensitivity of my studies.”
“A disguise? Some sort of spell , do you mean?
“In a sense. Just as there are demons who embody our worst traits, there are kind spirits driven by our best impulses. Duty, compassion, love, and so on. I have merely obscured their presence from you, and any other visitors that might stumble upon them.”
“And, what? They clean the house?” she said dubiously.
“Not as such. They are preservationists, not servants, and you won’t catch them scrubbing the floors. They preserve what was, and prevent what could be. In an architectural sense, of course. And they are kind enough to perform minor household tasks for us, as well.”
She considered the implications of this. “Could you not summon a spirit tutor from the air for Cole, instead of hiring some Dalish stranger?” It was half a joke.
“One can learn a great deal from spirits, but real instruction is not so easily replicated,” he said, frowning. “They are by nature mutable and subjective, and not inclined to follow a traditional curriculum, to say the least.” He sighed. “And Cole is isolated enough, here. I assumed that one person would be easily enough deterred from any curiosity about my work.”
“Pity for you,” she said, grinning.
“On the contrary,” he said, returning her smile. “I suppose I can relax the rule, now that there is no need for secrecy.”
“I would...see spirits? When I’m awake? I didn’t even know that was possible.” He had said they were kind, not like the demon in her dream, but…
“It need not be today, or tomorrow, or ever, if you wish. I imagine you have had enough revelations to last you a lifetime,” he said.
The thought of unseen spirits surrounding her, tidying up her messes and warming her bathwater, made her both shiver and, bizarrely, want to laugh. “Does Cole see them?”
“Of course,” Solas said. “They are his companions as much as you are. His connection with spirits is part of what makes him special.”
She stared. “His connection with spirits? What do you mean?”
Solas’ lips thinned. “Ah, yes. You wouldn’t know. It is not a pleasant story, truth be told. Cole was ill-treated as a child, and a spirit of compassion brought him some relief. But the experience left him...changed.”
Ellana opened her mouth to protest, and then shut it with a snap, thinking of her student. His often otherworldly gaze. His unique way to speaking. His kindness, his willingness to see the good in others, to take on their—her—pain as his own.
If a spirit had influenced Cole, it couldn’t have been an evil one.
She squared her shoulders. “If Cole can see them, I should be able to as well. I am his teacher, after all. It would be a poor example to keep myself in the dark for my own comfort.”
His eyebrows rose in surprise. “Are you certain?”
Solas nodded, satisfied, perhaps, that he wasn’t forcing the issue. “As you wish.”
She stared at him for a moment. “Aren’t you going to...wave a magic wand, or something like that?” Part of her, she realized, expected robes, candles, chanting...
His lips twitched. “There is no need.”
No horde of spirits rose from the floorboards to loom at her menacingly. The fire continued to crackle just as it had, and she couldn’t hear any sort of tortured moaning from some dark corner of the house.
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you sure?”
“Quite.” A small smile. “They make themselves known as they see fit.”
“Oh.” She was surprised at her own disappointment.
“I am sure they will introduce themselves, when the time is right,” he assured her. “Of course, for spirits, time can be measured in centuries.”
“Wonderful,” she muttered, imagining the apparition that would no doubt terrify her in the bath three years hence.
The conversation troubled her throughout her lessons with Cole.
Cole was the same as ever, a curious and diligent student, but she could not help but watch him for signs of what Solas had told her. It surprised her how easily she accepted such a story but, then, Cole had always been different. Most of all, it seemed unfair that she should have this knowledge of him, and not ask him outright. It felt uncomfortably close to gossip, even if it had been Solas who told her.
“Cole,” she called, as they were adjourning for the day, “might I have a word before you go?”
“Of course,” he said, fidgeting with the brim of his hat. “You’ve wanted to ask me something for a while. It’s itchy.”
“I have,” she said. “Though I’m not sure how to start, in all honesty.”
“You’re not leaving!” he said, eyes wide and bright.
“Nothing like that,” she assured him quickly. “Solas told me something earlier, and I’d like to ask you about it.”
Cole nodded, waiting for her to continue.
She sighed. “I understand if it’s something you would rather not speak of—I’ll leave it be and never mention it again, if you’d prefer”
“Oh,” he said.
“Solas told me—and I hope he was not breaking your confidence—about your upbringing. Not very much—just that you had been ill-treated, and were brought comfort by a…” she glanced around the room and whispered: “a spirit.”
Cole shook his head. “No. I mean, no, he didn’t break anything. I don’t mind telling, but he says people might find it odd. Even though you are very odd, too.”
She let that go by without comment. “So it’s true?”
“Yes.” A pause. “Oh, you want to know more. I suppose you would. It is a strange thing.”
She shrugged. “I didn’t exactly have a normal childhood myself.”
“No, you didn’t, did you?” He said, looking at her again with those luminous eyes, and she wondered how much he guessed—or how much he knew . She didn’t know what it meant to be spirit-touched, after all. But if Cole knew more than he was letting on, he didn’t say so, and the moment passed.
“I don’t remember much from before,” he said at last. “Memories of memories. Sometimes I think I’ve made them up. A woman by the fire, her hands in my hair. A litter of brown kittens, their mother in the road. I bring them inside and gave them milk. Muddy boots by the door, and a coat that smells of coal dust. Things like that. Solas helps me find them, sometimes.”
Her hands tightened on her knees where she sat, wanting desperately to reach out to him.
“I remember being very hot, so hot I could have burst into flame, and then very cold. And then being alone after that, and later, not being alone. I had nowhere to go, so they put me somewhere, somewhere with lots of other people—other children. I remember all their stomachs rumbling in the dark. It hurt very much, and I tried to help—the little ones get hungry faster. But there were so many of them. I think that’s how it came—there were so many of us.”
“The spirit," she said, not trusting her voice with anything else.
“Yes. It came to me, to help me help. I didn’t have to eat anymore, and I had it in my bones, right up alongside me, helping. It was so beautiful. They were going to put us on a boat, I think, but we frightened them away, and we led the children to somewhere else, somewhere safe. And it was gone.”
“It left you?”
“Maybe,” he said. “It stayed, too, or maybe a piece of it, or a shadow. Things look different, after. I wandered for a while. There were kind people, and bad people. I tried to help the kind ones, but they always found me. I don’t really remember. But that’s when Solas found me.”
“How did he find you?”
“He said a spirit told him about me,” he said. “It was in the woods, I remember. He said he would protect me.”
“You trusted him.”
Cole shook his head. “I was very tired, and it was winter. I made a village angry. I didn’t understand stealing; I just needed to eat.”
She could imagine it clearly: Cole, cold and frightened, Solas finding him in a snowy wood. Offering him a hand. The image made her heart ache.
“And that’s when you came to Wolvenhall.”
“No,” he said, to her surprise. “Wolvenhall was later. We traveled for a while. Solas taught me things. He didn’t try to study me; I could tell he wanted to help. I met Varric. Solas knows him from before. I think it was Varric who convinced him to settle somewhere, for my sake.”
“Really?” She hadn’t thought Solas would be influenced so by Varric’s opinions.
“He wanted it, too,” Cole said. “He wanted to be away from other people…he was always very tired.”
She nodded, slowly. “So, Solas has raised you since then.”
“Yes. He helps me find the shining things, and I get to talk with spirits. None of them have been like that spirit, but they’re very nice all the same."
She reached out and clasped his hand. “Thank you, Cole. I’m glad you’re here now.”
“You aren’t bothered? I know you don’t really like magic, and, well…”
She smiled down at him. “Honestly, you being touched by some sort of kind spirit is the least surprising thing that’s happened to me in ages.”
He smiled back—a tentative little thing, but genuine.
The next night was uneventful: no demons, spirits, or smug elves accosted her in her sleep, to her great relief. The morning was bright once again, but they were still in the grasp of deep winter, too cold for snow or clouds or even wind. A chill, uncanny feeling.
She was the first to breakfast. She made her way to the kitchens and with shivering hands poured the water for tea, warming herself by the stove as it boiled. Were this a normal household, they’d all pack up for Rivain this time of year to lounge in the sunshine. But neither Cole nor Solas seemed to notice the cold much. Or perhaps they were merely accustomed to it.
She couldn’t help but peer into the stove as she waited, wondering if some spirit she couldn’t see stoked the flames, but no beady eyes looked back at her.
She settled in the parlor with bread and tea, and absently flipped through Solas’ paper from the previous morning. Little caught her eye—politics, advertisements, agriculture. But then, under the Arts & Society heading, her eyes snapped to a headline she couldn’t ignore:
ARTIFACTS ACQUISITION A COUP FOR UNIVERSITY OF ORLAIS
In a thrilling bidding war between the star Orlesian and Fereldan universities and several private buyers, three Dalish artifacts were acquired by the University of Orlais for an astounding sum of five thousand royals. The artifacts, originating with the Free Marches’ Lavellan Clan, are said to be of monumental cultural import. The clan itself will receive five percent of the proceeds, after taxes and lawyer’s fees.
“We are pleased that these historical pieces have found a home in Orlais,” Ambassador Briala’s office said in a statement this morning. The Ambassador has been an outspoken proponent of elven rights since her appointment, to the dismay of many conservatives at the Empress’ court.
The Ambassador’s office, in conjunction with the University, also announced that the artifacts will be on display at Vivienne de Fer’s personal salon for four weeks once the asset transfers are complete in the spring. A celebratory ball will follow.
Capping a year of high bids for elven artifacts, this record-breaking auction cements elven artifacts as the fastest growing interest for collectors of all stripes. No longer the domain of niche academics, elven art has found its way to the highest echelons of society. Will we see halla in the streets of Val Royeaux next?
It went on, describing the various personalities at the auction, including her old headmistress, Vivienne. It was a short article, not three inches, and didn’t mention Clan Lavellan again.
Her hands shook as she remembered her letter to Deshanna, months before: As I recall, the clan is in possession of a certain artifact that would fetch a fine price at any museum or university in Thedas. Perhaps, in lieu of holding on to such a relic, you might consider feeding those children you have found worthy of keeping. . .
She hadn’t thought Deshanna would do it, not really. Her Keeper had never responded to her letter, or the blankets she sent, and Ellana had thought that was the end of it. The clan must be desperate, then. The ‘artifact’ must be the eluvian—the one she had shattered. It had to be. Their most priceless possession, even in pieces. For that to end up in the hands of Orlais, of the Empress who had infamously purged the Halamshiral alienage…
She wasn’t a part of her clan anymore, but she was still an elf. She could not help her disgust.
Her head whipped around as Solas and Cole entered. They both stopped short at the look on her face.
“Are you alright?” Cole asked, hovering in the doorway.
“Did you know about this?” She shoved the paper accusingly at Solas, trying not to let her hands tremble.
He glanced at the article and frowned, passing it back to her, his expression cool. “Yes.”
“And you didn’t think to mention it to me?”
“I did not wish to trouble you,” he said, not quite meeting her eyes. “I know your relationship with Clan Lavellan is...fraught.”
“That is not your decision to make,” she snapped. “Perhaps you’d hoped I’d forgotten all about them? That I wouldn't care a whit about it after all?”
He set his shoulders as though meeting a blow. “That is not a fair accusation.”
She deflated a bit—it wasn’t, really. “You have no right to withhold information like this from me.”
“I apologize,” he said, with some awkwardness, his brow furrowing. “I did not intend to cause you harm.”
And indeed he looked pained, more so than she would have expected from her burst of temper. Whether it was regret or discomfort or something else, she could not tell.
She ground her teeth and tossed the paper aside. She didn’t know what to do with her hands. “This is my fault,” she muttered.
“Your fault?” Solas’ voice was sharp. “It has been more than a decade since you lived among them.”
She shook her head. “It isn’t that simple.”
“Is it so terrible, for your clan to profit off those who oppress them?”
“Five percent, Solas.” Her voice rose again. “That’s their commission, for selling our culture to the highest bidder. To the Empress of Orlais . I’m surprised you would consider that a fair deal.”
“I do not,” he said. “But surely it is better than starving.”
“That isn’t a fair choice,” she said, her body shaking with barely suppressed rage. “It never has been.”
“No,” he said, suddenly looking more tired than she had ever seen him. “It hasn’t.”
The anger went out of her in one long breath, and she was left with nothing but an empty chill. There was nothing she could do—the deal had been made. The eluvian would sit in a human university to be gawked at, with no elves left there left to study it. For not only had the Empress purged the alienage, she had banished all of her elven students. What sort of sick aristocratic jest was this?
“I should go,” she said to the quiet room, surprising even herself. “I should see her—my Keeper—when she’s in the city.”
Solas, who had been staring at his hands, startled to attention. “You cannot be serious.”
“I am,” she said, realizing it was true as she said it even as the thought made her stomach sink. “There are things I need to say to her.”
“I want to go!” Cole cried out, excitement coloring his voice, jarring against the mood in the room. “Varric said I could visit! We could stay with him! It would be safe there, and then Miss Lavellan wouldn’t have to travel by herself.”
Solas stared at them both as though he had just walked into an ambush and wasn’t sure whether to flee or fight. “Absolutely not.”
“Oh, please,” Cole said, sounding, for once, like the teenager he was. “You could come too, I know you don’t like to travel anymore, but it would be just marvelous, wouldn’t it? You could teach me all about the city…”
“No,” Solas said, with some finality, but she and Cole would not be quelled so easily.
“Varric did invite us to visit,” she reasoned, warming to the idea herself. “It’s rather rude to put him off forever. And I’ve been meaning to broach the topic besides. Cole should see more of the world. A young man of his station should see Val Royeaux, even if he won’t be introduced at court. I’m sure Varric has plenty of friends he could arrange introductions with. And he already knows Cassandra,” she finished, a bit dubiously.
“Be that as it may, you are a fledgling dreamer—that is dangerous enough even when I am present to protect you.”
“You said yourself that my coming to Wolvenhall probably caused the dreaming to manifest—I might only be a dreamer here, for all we know. It would be interesting to test, wouldn’t it?”
He glared at her for this obvious play at his researching propensities, but his gaze did turn considering. “I admit, that would be interesting.” He shook his head. “But my answer is still no.”
“But why?” All her reasons had been so...reasonable! “It’s not until spring, so we’ll have plenty of time to prepare.”
“Please,” Cole pleaded, aiming his wide, shining eyes to expert effect.
Solas looked between them helplessly. “You will not be dissuaded, will you?”
“No,” they said in unison, her determination alongside Cole’s chipper certainty.
He sighed, massaging the furrow of his brow. “I will not stop you, then. But nor can I join you.” He frowned at Ellana. “I am entrusting you with a great deal. We will speak more on how you must prepare.”
She and Cole grinned at each other, even as anxiety gripped at her insides. She had just committed to seeing Deshanna again, and leaving the safety of Wolvenhall for a city she barely knew, all while in the grip of powers she barely understood.
At least she had time to plan.
Oh right, there's a plot!
Did you know that Mr. Rochester calls Jane Eyre indomitable? The more you know. (I reiterate that Solas doesn't have a wife in his attic).
Thank you for all your wonderful comments, they make my life. <3 Next up: upping this slow burn to a respectable MEDIUM HEAT, WOO.
Once their holiday to Val Royeaux was confirmed, Varric’s guest rooms reserved and the carriage booked, Solas took it upon himself to teach her as much as he could about dreaming. Unfortunately for her sleep schedule, he knew a great deal. During the day they said little, both too exhausted to do much more than eat and work. Cole’s lessons continued, though they focused on Orlesian as the trip grew closer—as she was near fluent in the language, she could converse with him with little effort. Lucky, as she had little effort left after long nights spent dreaming.
Dreaming together was an intimate thing. And yet Solas kept himself at a remove, often literally—she’d speak to him from across a crevasse, or from the roots of a great tree where he sat perched high above. And it was tiring work, even if they were both asleep.
To make it worse, she was awful at it all.
Her previous exertions into dreaming had been unconscious, and she soon found dreaming with intention to be a different beast entirely. She flinched at her own shadows, seeing flickers of memory and illusion everywhere. It wasn’t demons or spirits she was frightened of—Solas showed her what drew and repelled them, and they functioned on a sort of logic she could understand, despite being creatures of pure feeling. A demon was frightening, certainly, but it was a fear she could understand and use.
It was the hazy line between dream and memory that terrified her. She still remembered that first ill-fated dreaming, when she had found him and collapsed into her own memories of fire and pain, and how suddenly it had happened. Always, in the back of her mind, she wondered what would again tip the scales and crush her.
Her fear made her a coward.
“It’s not working,” she complained, in the flickering landscape she had created. It might have passed for a forest, provided one squinted and stood on one’s head.
She knew the sweat on her brow was not real, but her frustration was, and it was far more vivid than the half-baked woodland in which they found themselves.
“Allow me,” Solas said.
To his credit, he showed no impatience with her failures. Either he was a very good teacher, or his pleasure in sharing his passion outweighed any annoyance. Perhaps , she thought, a bit of both.
She nodded, releasing her grip on the landscape with a huff of annoyance. The not-quite-forest dissolved into nothing.
He closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, they were outdoors—just outside of Wolvenhall, beneath its wrought iron gates. It wasn’t the cold winter night of reality but a spring day, the sunbathing them in golden light. She had forgotten what real warmth felt like—it had been so cold that she and Cole had not ventured outside for their daily walk in weeks.
“Let’s just stay here,” she said, tilting her head toward the light and inhaling the warm air.
“There is little time for dallying, I fear.”
“Sunshine is important for good health, you know.”
“Allow me to remind you that we are dreaming,” he said, but smiled.
“So,” she said after a moment, once her skin warmed, “tell me. What am I doing wrong?”
He considered. “It is difficult to say for certain.”
“I’ll accept your best guess, at this point.”
“The key is control,” he went on, waving his hand, dispersing the field, and with it, the sunshine. She shivered. “Powerful emotions can draw unwanted attention, as you know, and dangers can follow, but that problem is not solved by an excess of restraint. What we find in dreams is a reflection of ourselves, after all. And dreaming does not reward hesitation.”
“Yes,” she said, gritting her teeth. “ Confidence . You’ve said that about a hundred times.”
“Perhaps we are going about this the wrong way,” he mused, more to himself. “So long as you fear this power, you cannot control it.”
“It and I didn’t get off to the best beginning, if you’ll recall.”
“Yes,” he said, gaze turning inward. “The subconscious pull of strong emotions can be destabilizing, and perhaps that is what holds you back. If we reversed it...yes, I have been going about this the wrong way. A dream is a realm of feeling, after all, not mere matter.”
“What does that mean, Solas?”
Sharp eyes met hers, and for a moment she felt like a butterfly facing down a pin. “You fear losing control, of reliving the memory that disarmed you last. Harness your fear, and you may harness your control of the dream.”
“That’s…” It made some sense, or at least the kind of dream-sense he specialized in. “Is that such a good idea?”
“Confidence, Miss Lavellan,” he said, with some vigor. She scowled at him, and his look softened. “No harm will come to you so long as I am here.”
She took in a deep breath. The very idea of sifting through her memories, willing for them to overtake her, made her want to curl up into a ball and cry. But every other angle had failed them, and she didn’t want to spend even one more night failing to conjure saplings .
“It is your decision,” he said, bowing his head.
It was not much of a choice. If this was what she had to do to get through whatever mental block was holding her back, then what else could she do? And she had to face it, or she would only be exposing herself to more danger, wouldn’t she?
She nodded, trying for businesslike and landing more near nervous tic. “All right. Where do we begin?”
He gave her a sharp look, as though he hadn’t expected her to agree so readily. To his credit, he did not second-guess her: it had been his idea, after all. “Therein lies the issue. To produce the desired effect, you must experience strong emotion. A dream will not bend for false sadness or anger.”
Ellana inventoried her feelings: she was nervous, certainly, and tired, but nothing of any particular strength. She doubted there were sleepiness demons she could conjure—though, in truth, she had no idea. Perhaps there were.
“I admit, I am at a loss,” she said.
“I suppose I could conjure something quite terrifying to spur matters along,” he said, and at her narrowed eyes, hurriedly continued, “but brute force does not seem necessary. Perhaps we begin by trying something more pleasant. A memory.”
“A pleasant memory,” she repeated numbly.
“Something from your childhood, perhaps,” and then winced, as though he had caught himself in an unintended offense.
Yet it did not trouble her. Her memories of childhood were tinged with the hindsight of loss, of course, and she would try not to dwell on that. But there was a reason she still mourned the loss of her clan; she was happy, then, despite the death of her mother. There had been a freedom in her childhood she had never recaptured.
She closed her eyes, remembering: the sound of aravels in the wind, the smell of smoke from the campfires, the cadence of story and song. It came back so easily, like opening a favorite book, albeit one she had tried very hard to forget.
Her eyes opened to a forest clearing.
The white-stitched sails of aravels stretched back into the woods, nestled among thick oaks. A fire burned low, just enough light left in the coals to shine on two figures in the dark. There was a woman, with dark hair and darker eyes, Mythal’s white leaves curling across her brows. And a little girl, digging in the dirt with a burnt stick.
The two figures ignored the intrusion: it was a memory, after all.
“I’m not tired,” Ellana’s younger self whined, bent on her task.
The smoke curled up into the treetops, up into the stars. “Yes, you are,” said the woman.
Solas was beside her. He kept his voice low. “Your mother?”
“My Keeper,” she said, stepping towards the fire to hear better. It had been so long since she had heard Deshanna’s voice.
“I want a story,” the little girl said.
“Of course you do,” Deshanna sighed. “And what will it be this time?
“Stars!” Her younger self abandoned her stick in lieu of grabbing Deshanna’s sleeve. “Please?”
It was strange: this was her memory, but she couldn’t have remembered every word, or every gesture, or the way the tree branches waved in the wind, could she?
“Memories are not facts,” Solas said, mirroring her thoughts. “Even in the waking world, we fill in the gaps of our own stories, weaving the narrative of our individual lives. Your Keeper’s memory of this scene would likely be quite different.”
“Would it? Then which version is true?”
“It is all true,” he said, gesturing to the clearing, where Ellana was now lying on her back, staring up at the sky through the trees.
Deshanna eased down beside the young Ellana with a grimace—even then, her back had been poorly. “Let us see what the skies have for us tonight.”
The view through the trees was limited, so Deshanna pointed to the constellation just above them: the Great Tree.
“What’s that one?” Little Ellana asked, even though she knew very well.
“The Great Tree is made from the oldest of our stars, child. In winter, it points us due north, to lead us back to warmer lands.”
That’s right, she remembered. This was winter: they’d been too far north for snow, but a snap was in the air. Less than a year until the Arlathvhen, wasn’t it? In the not-so-distant future, that little girl by the fire would lose everything.
The temperature dropped, and she shivered.
“Miss Lavellan?” Solas’ voice sounded far away.
“In the summer, it takes root across the eastern horizon…” Deshanna’s voice started to fade until it was barely a whisper.
“This was a mistake,” she said, stepping back, the forest floor gone white with ice. The figures by the fire slowed and went silent, and the forest quieted with them.
Solas’s brows furrowed. “Concentrate on the memory,” he said, with urgency.
But it was already too late. The clearing jolted, turning on its side, throwing her down, her face meeting muddy ground. Cold rain sliced across her skin, a hundred voices surrounding her, faceless figures looming over her, illuminated in a sickly green light. At first she thought Solas gone, but there he was: in the back of the crowd, coming out of a tent, looking this way and that. He hadn’t seen her.
Her hand flashed and she winced at the familiar pain—why didn’t she have her gloves?—and plunged it into the cold mud, but it was not true fire and water could not douse it.
The crowd solidified into familiar elven faces, her clan and the clans of the Arlathvhen, their voices loud but incomprehensible. It was too much: too much noise, too much pain. This was just what she had been frightened of. Why did dreams keep pulling her back to this memory?
The ground consumed her, pulling her down by her arms first and then her legs, and she drowned in it, sinking and then falling through the earth, at once amid mud and rock and then free-falling in a great void. A familiar nightmare, well-trodden. Inevitable.
She clutched her burning hand to her chest and thought: no.
This was her dream. Solas’ voice echoed in her ears: Confidence, Miss Lavellan.
Still falling, she closed her eyes and wrenched at the reality around her, willing herself back, back to anywhere but the void: Wolvenhall, the clearing with Deshanna, anywhere.
She opened her eyes to a familiar sight: the eluvian, still and dark in the dim light of the tent, a light rain pattering on the canvas.
But this was no longer a memory, not exactly. There was no little Ellana here to meet her fate, alone in the dark. There was only her, her hand already scarred, and she knew what was coming.
When the eluvian lit up, that same pattern of light she had seen in a hundred nightmares, she remembered what came next: the orb, the shatter of glass, the light and the pain.
But none of it happened. This time, when the glass shone, she could see through it: a window, not a mirror.
Solas was there. He saw her at the same moment she saw him, and his expression twisted, fear in his eyes. There were shadows moving behind him, tall figures she could not make out, but beyond that, there was nothing but unformed haze.
“Miss Lavellan,” he said, voice urgent but dim through the glass. “Are you all right?”
“Solas? What are you doing?”
His lips moved in response, but she heard nothing, only the rain. When she pressed her hand to the glass, his came up to meet it, his fingers gripped the slick surface, unable to reach her.
Whatever he was saying, it was clearly urgent. Yet however much she strained to listen, there was only silence. And she was no lip-reader.
He pulled his hand away from the mirror, then, turning to face a shadow behind him. With a jolt, she saw what he left behind: a handprint in blood.
She shouted for him, but he did not turn back, fading into the shadows beyond the mirror, and she felt a certainty in her gut that he was in terrible danger. Yet no matter how she smashed the glass with her fist, she could do nothing.
Shadows swallowed the mirror, and it cracked—not shattering as it had in her memory, but a single, long split. From the crack came a dark liquid, oozing and then flowing freely, pooling at her feet. Belatedly, she recognized it for blood.
No , she thought again, closing her eyes and trying to ignore the sick warmth seeping into her shoes. This wasn’t real. This was a nightmare. And it wasn’t even hers .
She shut it all out. Feeling, light, sound—everything became a void, until there was no eluvian, no tent, no rain or blood—only quiet, calm, blackness.
She could not say how long she was there, in that peaceful dark place, the only sound her heartbeat. But it did not last.
A warm hand took hold of hers, and Solas’ voice pierced through the void.
He knelt her where she lay prone on the ground—was it the ground?—and a rush of dizzy relief threatened to overwhelm her.
She gripped his hand and found she wanted nothing more than to lean into him, fall against his chest and rest. Her single anchor in this bizarre world.
“I...think so,” she managed in stuttering breaths, clutching onto his hand a bit harder than she needed to. Her gloves, she noted to distant relief, were still intact.
“. . . I apologize,” he was saying. “I attempted to wrest the dream from you, but somehow my own memories touched yours, which did not help matters.”
She gathered herself up enough to look around—to her surprise, they were in Wolvenhall’s kitchens, a warm fire in the hearth and the smell of cinnamon in the air.
Her hand was still in his. He seemed to remember it the moment she did and pulled away, his ears pink.
“I feel strange,” she admitted, rubbing her brow. “Are we still dreaming?”
“Yes,” he said, and a smile broke free across his face. “Despite my interference and the turmoil of your surroundings, you were able to stabilize the dream. I am impressed.”
“That was...good?” It didn’t feel like a victory. She felt sure that victory should be less exhausting.
Solas’ pleasure was not quelled by her subdued reaction. “Well done.”
If he was pleased, she supposed she shouldn’t agonize over it. Still, something about it bothered her. “What did you mean, about your own memories touching mine?”
He straightened where he knelt beside her. “Ah. Perhaps you did not see it.”
“No, I think I did—it was really you, then, through that eluvian? What were you trying to tell me?”
The words seemed to shock him: his gaze turned sharp and snapped to her face. “Yes,” he said, voice wary, any softness in his expression gone. He ignored her question in favor of his own. “What do you know of eluvians?”
“You seem to forget I am Dalish,” she said. And even if she weren’t, she’d had access to his library for months. What was so strange about that?
“There is a great deal of knowledge lost to the Dalish. I presumed the eluvians to be in that category.”
“Then you presumed wrong,” she said, unable to summon much heat for the argument. It was the last memory she wanted to dwell on, not after all that.
“I suppose I did,” he agreed, but he did not relax, his hands clenched at his sides.
“I am not so certain it was your interference, actually,” she admitted. “My clan had one in their possession, after all.”
“Your clan had an eluvian,” he repeated flatly.
“Yes,” she said, “briefly. It was a long time ago, and it did break, soon after we brought it to the Arlathvhen.”
“You clan had an intact eluvian.”
She frowned at him. “What is this about, Solas?”
He shook his head. “I...am merely surprised the Dalish could have preserved it.”
“Well,” she said, trying and failing at levity, “If you’ll join us in Val Royeaux, I suspect it will be on display at the University. Perhaps they’ve fixed it.”
“ That is one of the artifacts your clan sold to the Orlesians?”
“I’m only guessing, but I don’t know what else of value Deshanna could offer them. Even broken, it was a treasure.”
He shook his head. “There is no one there left who knows what to do with such a thing. It is wasted on them.”
“I don’t disagree,” she sighed, and rose to her feet, wiping dust off of her dress. She would rather not think of Deshanna and the Orlesians, not now. “Might we speak of something else? How impressive my dreaming skills were, perhaps?”
He allowed a small smile, but his eyes were still troubled. “You did very well,” he said. “Now that you have faced what troubled you, I hope you will find your dreams far easier to control.”
“I hope you’re right,” she said. “But I’ve had quite enough for tonight, I think.”
He nodded. “As have I. I have a great deal of work awaiting me in the waking world.”
“Tomorrow, then,” she said, after an awkward silence, neither of them moving to leave.
Not minutes ago their hands had been clasped, relief and wonder intertwined, and she wanted nothing more than to return to that moment. But a strange distance had come between them, now, and she could not think of how to bridge it.
They bid one another goodnight—a strange thing to do in a dream, perhaps—and she allowed herself to drift into true sleep, her dreams troubled by the memory of glass and blood.
Preparations for their journey to Val Royeaux continued, both awake and asleep. Overcoming her hesitation in the dream had breached a dam within her, and she found her abilities improving every night. Solas had little to criticize in her progress, to her great pleasure. During the day she and Cole continued practicing their Orlesian, and made more frequent journeys to the village to be sure the manor would be well stocked with food in their absence.
The chill of deep winter eased by inches. She bid the snow goodbye with relish; despite several well-fought snowball battles with Cole, the white landscape stretching to the horizon unnerved her, and Wolvenhall was a drafty house and prone to chills even in warm weather. Ellana, who was born in the Free Marches, had little tolerance for cold and was found huddling around a fireplace more often than not.
Unfortunately, spring meant mud, and she worried that the poor roads might delay their travel, and the Dalish exhibition would pass them by entirely. But it was an unusually dry year, and the rain held off, to the dismay of the local farmers and the delight of Ellana and her student.
She gave all appearances of delight, that is, despite inner doubts about the journey. She was thrilled for Cole to see the city, but her nervousness about seeing Deshanna and her continuing anger about the artifacts from clan Lavellan sapped what excitement she had for herself. And the more time she spent with Solas, the more she knew she would regret losing his company for their weeks in the city.
Though she spent weeks thinking on it, she could not yet decide what she would say to her Keeper, should the opportunity present itself. Part of her wanted to lash out in rage, but knew she might regret such a display--though perhaps she might regret the opposite, were that her choice.
Solas himself continued to intrigue. She knew him first as a proud man, even cold, and yet over the months in his employ she had caught glimpses of the hidden sides to his person. With their time spent in dreams, she could not help but be swayed by his passion for magic and spirits, and though she could tell he tried to keep his distance, their friendship deepened. He smiled more easily than before, and she found herself trying to amuse or delight him more and more.
It was dangerous territory, some part of her knew, for the both of them, and yet she could not help trying. What harm could it do, after all?
On the night before they were scheduled to leave, she was awoken by voices.
One voice she knew, even from a distance: she could not make out any words, but that was surely Solas’ low murmur.
The other was a higher voice—not Cole, she was sure, but higher and more feminine. It carried in a way that Solas’ did not, a strange echo in it that she couldn’t place.
A woman ? she wondered, and wondered again at the strange jolt in her chest at the thought.
She tested the reality of the universe, remembering the night she had woken to a Wolvenhall she hadn’t recognized, and was not sure whether she was relieved or disappointed to find herself in the waking world.
She could hardly get back to sleep with this mystery under her nose. As quietly as she could, she slipped on woolen stockings and her woolen robe and stole out into the hallway, lighting a candle as she went.
Her curiosity only deepened at what awaited her. Just down the hall, a room was shining with violet light, its door swung wide open. The voices were louder, now, and she could make out some conversation:
“...what I deserve.” She caught only the muted end of Solas’ words.
“You have punished yourself enough,” said the unfamiliar woman. The light coming from the door pulsed with the words.
She steeled herself and knocked on the doorframe. “Is everything all—” she glanced into the room and nearly dropped her candle in surprise. “Oh!”
Two faces turned to her. The first was Solas, of course, perched on the edge of one of the long reading tables that spanned the room. The second was not a person at all—a violet light in the vague shape of a woman hovered above them, her hair fanning about her face in a wind Ellana couldn’t feel.
It could be nothing other than a spirit, she knew at once. It burned like an ember with inner heat, threads of violet fire pouring outwards from its core of light. She had been nervous to see a spirit, but she hadn’t known they were so lovely. It was nothing like the demon in her dream.
The violet light turned the simple study and its inhabitants into something from another world, beautiful and shining, like something from a story.
Though it did not have a face, exactly, she could have sworn the spirit smiled at her before descending through the floorboards in a flourish of vapour, taking its unearthly glow with it.
“I would not take offense,” Solas said after a moment, staring at the floor where it had disappeared. “Wisdom is more accustomed to listening than speaking.”
“None taken. I’m sorry to have frightened her away.”
“It is no trouble,” he said. Without the spirit’s ethereal light shining on him, he was Solas again, with faded freckles and a line between his brows. He had shed his usual coat for a simple loose shirt and trousers, sleeves rolled to his elbows, his hands flexing nervously.
When not in ill-fitting coats, he made a rather smart figure. She found herself blushing at the sight, and hoped the room too dim for him to notice.
She set her candle on the mantelpiece, the flickering light casting strange shadows on the walls.
“What are you doing in here?” she asked. As far as she knew, he spent most of his time in his study, and perhaps even slept there.
“Sleep eluded me, and so I set out to find a volume that Cassandra brought me. Wisdom found me first, and we conversed for a time.”
“Wisdom,” she said, turning the idea over in her mind. “Interesting. She was lovely.”
“Once this world was full of such brings, or so Wisdom tells me. There once was not such a divide between us. Now, few but Dreamers will see them.”
“It seems a shame something so beautiful is stuck cleaning the floors, then, don’t you think?” she asked, remembering their conversation about the spirits that inhabited the manor.
“Wisdom is a different sort of spirit. And regardless, do not think it the drudgery of a servant,” he said. “Pride exists throughout the house all at once, preserving it and its inhabitants from harm and wear. To try and turn it from its purpose would only corrupt it, I fear. Spirits are reflections of the physical world. Wolvenhall has been many things through the centuries; a fortress of war, a home, a temple. Many people have felt deep pride in this place. The spirits here are not bound by anything more than their loyalty to this place, or in some cases, their interest in us.”
The lull of his voice was near hypnotizing in the dark. “It seems a lonely existence, that’s all.”
He glanced at her, sidelong. “Do you not think it admirable, then? To dedicate oneself to the past?”
“You sound nearly Dalish.” He scoffed, and she grinned. “But, I suppose my answer is both yes and no. We can learn from history, of course, but for a life to be spent only looking backward seems a sad thing.”
Solas cleared his throat. “Perhaps you are correct,” he said. “But then you are flesh and blood. Such questions are irrelevant to spirits, however strange their ways may seem to us. Pride can so easily turn to arrogance, or despair. And yet it can also turn to faith, or wisdom. Our ancestors wrote of enduring spirits, old even in their time, that embodied these virtues and sins. Some claimed these spirits were where their gods arose from, though the Chantry has long forbidden such scholarship. Yet the knowledge can still be found if one knows where to look.”
“You speak only of spirits and dreams,” she said, “but people always speak of magic in terms of spells and enchantments . Why is that?”
“That is a simple question with a complicated answer,” Solas admitted. “In the past, magic was granted through the goodwill of spirits—a sort of boon, or favor, or in some cases, a curse. And yet spirits are reflections of our world, and thus, in a roundabout sense, magic does stem from within us. The popular image of a wizard with a wand is quite outdated, I fear. Of course, there are more brutal methods of summoning magical power, but it is those methods that drove the spirit world from us, long ago.”
“Brutal methods?” She looked down at her hands, wondering. It had not been a spirit or demon that cursed her hand. She was fairly certain of that.
“The most ancient magic of all,” he said, darkness in his expression. “Blood, and bone.”
“You’ve said that before,” she said, “that we drove spirits away, and that is what caused magic to recede from the world. The Chantry tells it differently."
"They do," he said.
“Is this what you did at university, then?” she wondered. “Talk to spirits and study ancient magic?”
His brows drew together. “To a certain extent.”
“I hardly think you need to be secretive now,” she said, waving a hand at the space between them, at the secrets they now kept together.
“It was not the happiest time of my life, in truth. I prefer not to dwell on it.”
“Suit yourself,” she said. “I dreamed about attending—not that I could have, of course—but by the time I was old enough…well, you know the story, I suppose. You must have been one of the last elven students.”
“Yes,” he said, and didn’t elaborate, his eyes on the floor where Wisdom had vanished. “I was.”
“Well,” she said, after an awkward moment. “I suppose I’ve interrupted for long enough, and frightened away your friend besides. I should—”
“Stay,” he said, quiet enough that she wasn’t sure she’d heard him correctly at first.
She stared at him.
A weak smile. “If you wouldn’t mind, of course.”
“I—of course. I’m only surprised,” she said.
He didn’t say anything, and for a long moment she thought he would stay silent. But then: “I owe you an apology, Miss Lavellan.”
Puzzled, she moved from the mantelpiece to perch on the table beside him. “Ellana. And how do you mean?”
“I fear I have been unkind to you, as of late. You are involved in magic you wished no part in, and have pushed you harder than I intended. It is unfair of me, and stems solely from my own fears.”
She clasped her gloved hands together in front of her. “The magic is hardly your fault.”
He just looked at her. She was all too aware of how close they were in the dark, of the way the candlelight played over the planes of his face, wavering light reflected in his eyes. Mere inches and her hand could meet his, but the distance seemed an uncrossable gap.
“You may think so, but you still have my apology.”
“Well, I’ll take it, but only for waking me up at this ungodly hour,” she said, hoping to relieve the strained expression on his face.
Yet it only seemed to weigh him down further. “You are kinder than I deserve.”
“Oh, hush,” she said, his self-deprecation ridiculous to her. “Do you know what coming here has meant to me?” The words stuck in her throat—she had to force them out. “I’ve never told you, but my last employer was...it was nothing like this.”
“I gathered as much.”
“No, it was—it was worse than you think. I took care of twins, these little blonde-haired Orlesian terrors—but they were lovely, really, as was their mother. The father, though—they were all frightened of him. I thought him your average strict patriarch at first, but it was...more than that. I finally caught him in the act, once—the children in the closet, his hands around her neck.
“I...threatened him,” she told him, glossing over the minor matter of how , hoping he wouldn’t question the ability of an elven servant to successfully intimidate an Orlesian aristocrat. “Enough to get her and the children away, to stay with her father’s family. She was grateful, but it was—I was let go, after that, of course.”
The woman had promised to keep Ellana’s secret, as thanks. She couldn’t ask for more than that, after all she had been through. The man, last she heard, had fled to Rivain. It had been one of the few times she had been glad for the terror that magic could inspire.
“I am sorry to hear it,” he said, uncertain. No doubt he picked up on the strange shadows her story cast, but he didn’t push the issue.
“It’s fine,” she said, awkward at how much she had revealed. “My point is that if your feelings are guilty, I give you full permission to dismiss them. How can you think otherwise? Here I am treated as an equal, I am not trampled on, I am given room to think, and read, and breathe. One does not have high expectations for their last hope. Yet Wolvenhall is as much of a home as I’ve ever known.”
“I only wish it could be a happier one,” he said. “I would not have you carry this burden if I could prevent it.”
“I cannot pretend to enjoy defending myself from demons when I sleep,” she said, “But if it was meant to happen, I am glad it happened here.”
“In truth,” he said, after a long moment, “I—well. I value your presence here very much, well beyond the service you provide to our household.”
She could not trust herself to speak, her heart jumping to her throat.
“No,” he said at last. “It is more than that. Wolvenhall is a lonely place, as you well know, and I have kindled that isolation for my own purposes and thought little of it. Cole has had many tutors pass beneath our gates, and I did not expect your presence to be any different. That night, when I found you in my dream and saw you for what you were...I knew everything had changed.”
His eyes on her were ardent, and she found she could not look away.
“I have found in you a kindred spirit, Miss Lavellan,” he said, “and I do not think it a small thing.”
“Ellana,” she corrected, for it was all she could think of to say.
“Ellana,” he agreed, voice gone soft.
What else could she do in the face of this admission? She leaned toward him, catching his sleeve in her hand, and pulled him closer. She pressed her lips to his, soft as a whisper, her eyelashes brushing his cheek—over as quick as it began, yet it felt like a seal. A breath of surprise escaped him and he leaned in, a trembling hand coming to her cheek.
“I do not wish to take advantage,” he murmured, pulling back mere inches, his breath ghosting against her lips. She could feel the tension radiating from his jaw.
“You do not,” she said, meeting his eyes, turning so to kiss his palm where it cupped her cheek.
Something between desire and fear warred in his expression, and she pulled away, afraid she had terribly misunderstood this situation. But he pulled her back to him, a hand at her waist, and this time there was no uncertainty. He kissed her reverently, with a shudder of released tension, holding her to him, his fingers warm through her dressing gown. It was all she could do to hold on. He met her like a man starving, and she gave as much back in spades, passion unfurling in her chest, warm and urgent.
She had wanted this for a long time, she realized all at once, had coveted his attention and warmth like dry soil craves the rain. And yet it was more than mere loneliness that parted her lips.
She had known his passion to be there, beneath that polite mask he wore, released in unpredictable bursts of temper or excitement—and here it was, the whole of it, laid at her feet.
He pulled away again in an exhalation. His gaze flicked from her eyes to her mouth, and she remembered: Or are you Temptation?
Even then, had he felt such things? She had been the one to find him in the dream—her, the unsuspecting moth to his flame. Or was it the other way around?
“I am not certain this is the best idea,” he said at last, his voice rough.
She bit her lip, leaning in to rest her forehead against his. She did not want to admit it, but he was not wrong. He was a friend she dearly did not wish to lose. A companion in magic she could not hope to find again. Her employer, and the guardian of her student. And there were matters she had not been fully honest about, not yet.
She did not want to think of those things. She wanted his warm hands in her hair, to hold him to her, to forget the world outside. It was not fair that she might hold this new, tender thing, and have to cast it aside.
It was a new feeling, to have so much to lose.
“I care for you,” she said, ashamed to hear her voice shake. “It is unorthodox, maybe, but true all the same.”
“And I for you,” he said, his voice low. He tucked an errant hair behind her ear. “Yet I fear my own selfishness in this matter. You deserve…” he trailed off, watching her expression, as though she held the answers he could not find.
“I’m willing to risk it,” she said, sure, at least, of that.
“I—” he stuttered, eyes wrenching shut, “Yes. There are only...considerations I must think on, first.”
A new nervousness gripped her. “Solas, if I misunderstood—please tell me, if this is unwanted, and we will speak no more of it.” She could not abide it if this came from pity, or some desire to spare her feelings, or worse—perhaps she had made herself ridiculous, a governess with ideas above her station...
He shook his head, eyes opening and softening. “No,” he said. “There are matters to consider, but do not think it anything to do with you. I am only aware of the complications that could arise.” A wry smile flitted across his face. “I apologize. It has been a long time.”
That eased her fears a little. “Take whatever time you need,” she said laying a hand on his. “I understand.”
He took her hand in his and kissed the cotton of her glove: first the palm, over the scar he could not see, and then the back, like a courtier. “Thank you,” he murmured, and pulled away. She steeled herself against leaning back into him, feeling the sudden distance between them like a physical ache.
She was no innocent. She was all too aware of her thin dressing gown, of how easily a kiss could turn to something more. She saw the desire still in his eyes, and yet he stayed still, distancing himself with every breath. But it was more than being gentlemanly: she saw the way his hands twisted together, and the fear that warred with the desire.
She would not press the issue. The thought of severing this tentative thing between them with impatience made her wince.
“We travel tomorrow,” she said instead. He had stood his ground at remaining at Wolvenhall, and so her excitement at visiting the city was now somewhat soured.
“Yes,” he said, getting to his feet. He continued to watch her, as though she were afraid she’d fall through the floor like his spirit friend. “I had nearly forgotten. You should rest.”
She gathered her candle and summoned a shaky smile, her heart still beating too quickly for her to have any hope of sleep that night. “In the morning, then.”
In truth, she was loath to leave. There was a tug at her heart, a thread in her chest that bound them together, and she felt as though the faintest change might snap it for good.
Solas looked as though he wanted to say more, but he stayed at the desk, a similar anxiety mirrored in his face. “I—yes. Sleep well.”
Somehow she managed to turn her back and return to her room, veins thrumming with nerves that made her hands shake on the candle.
She leaned against the door once inside, exhaling in one long, low breath. She went and splashed cold water on her face from the basin, and stared at her own reflection in the vanity’s mirror. She had the same lips as she had this morning, the same eyes, the same complexion, and yet it seemed a stranger stared back at her, someone changed.
What have you started, Ellana Lavellan?
Awww yeah. Finally earning that T for Teen rating.
Chapter 12: Letters from Val Royeaux
In which Ellana and Cole arrive in the City of Lights, and find the society rather different than they expected.
They left Wolvenhall in the early morning, after a quite cursory attempt at sleep on Ellana’s part.
A restless night had given her time to think, enough time that her stomach was in knots by the time she rose to pack her meagre belongings. The night before already felt like a dream—and had she not made sure at the time, perhaps she would have thought it one.
But dreams were not the refuge of fantasy anymore, as she well knew. Whether it had been in a dream or not, she would have had a great deal to worry herself with.
It had been impulsive, hadn’t it? And now she was leaving, with no time to speak with him about it, only a gulf of time before them for things to sour and go wrong.
Impulsive, yes, but he had kissed her back. With some fervor, if the dream-like quality of the night hadn’t blurred her memory. Impulsive, yes, and yet it felt inevitable too, with retrospect on her side. Impulsive, but not altogether ill-considered. They had been dancing around one another for some time now, hadn’t they?
She threw her clothes and possessions into her valise with haste, heat rising in her cheeks.
The carriage was already waiting outside when she descended the staircase, Cole and Solas waiting for her by the front entrance.
She could not help her eyes snapping to Solas first—and hadn’t they always? However inconspicuous he tried to make himself, her eyes found him before anyone or anything else.
His face was impassive, and she knew him well enough now to know it for practiced. Did he hope to pretend it never happened? The thought was more dismaying than she might have anticipated. Perhaps it was for Cole’s benefit—or for her own. Or perhaps in the light of day he had seen the error in his judgement.
Cole had significantly more luggage than she did—Solas had ordered him an appropriate wardrobe for the journey, and he was bringing a collection of books for the continuation of their studies, as well.
She nodded to them both. “Good morning.”
“You’re late! Or very, very early, depending on how you look at it,” Cole grinned, a bit of a strange expression on his wan face. He was bouncing with energy—the prospect of Varric brought out this boyish side in him, it seemed.
“My apologies,” she said. “I left my packing until this morning.”
“Will that be enough?” Solas asked, gesturing to her valise.
“It’s all I have,” she said, holding the valise closer, feeling the creep of shame. She hadn’t thought about it. It wasn’t as though she had many opportunities to spend her wages at Wolvenhall or in the town. She lifted it into the carriage, acutely aware of its lightness. What a small person she was, with her half-empty luggage. And if she felt small here, she would feel even smaller in Val Royeaux, wouldn’t she?
Cole clambered into the coach, already chattering to the driver, his excitement for the journey outweighing any hesitation. Ellana, by contrast, lingered at the door. Now that the moment had arrived, she found herself quite unwilling to leave.
Solas, after helping to heft in Cole’s more substantial luggage, took her hand to help her into the carriage. She could feel the warmth of his hands even through her gloves, and tried not to remember that warmth at the small of her back, at her cheek.
“I wished to apologize,” he said, pitched low, not yet moving to help her up. “There is a great deal I would like to say, and no time to say it.”
“It is rather poor timing,” she agreed, attempting some levity, distracted by the weight of his hand around hers.
“Yes,” he said, his eyes not leaving her own.
“I’ll write you when we arrive,” she said, wishing she had the presence of mind to say more—something to bridge the strangeness between them. But she could not find the right words.
He nodded, but his brows drew together. “Trust nothing to paper you would not want read by the Empress herself. And write nothing of our work here. Such a letter in the wrong hands would mean dire consequences for all of us.”
“Should we speak in riddles, then?” she jested, alarmed at the turn the conversation had taken. “I was hoping we could test whether the dreaming could work at a distance. That wasn’t just a feint to convince you to let us go, you know.”
He did not seem to think it much of a jest. “The ears of the Empress are not fooled by riddles. But...yes. I believe we could make such an experiment. Write me with a date, and I will understand your meaning. But please do not commit anything else so sensitive to a letter.”
She smiled. “Only if you promise to explain why, exactly, the Empress is reading your mail when I return.”
That did not appear to reassure him. If anything, his shoulders drooped. “Very well. Yes. I owe you that much.”
“Solas,” she began, suddenly unsure, but he cut her off with sharp shake of his head that seemed more for his benefit than hers.
“Your carriage awaits,” he said, and, with a touch at her waist, helped her up into her seat. His hand pulling away felt as though it was taking something important with it, something she could not go without. The door closed.
“Thank you,” she said automatically, and met his eyes through the window.
“ Dareth shiral ,” he said, and the carriage jerked away. She watched his figure recede as they sped down the path and through the gates, until he was swallowed entirely by the grand facade of Wolvenhall.
My apologies for the tardiness of this letter. We have only just arrived at Varric’s townhouse and it has been a trying journey. The cold kept the roads intact all across the border, but Orlais itself is a cesspool of rain and mud. I lost count of our broken axles and stops and starts, but all is now well and we are in rather good spirits, all things considered.
Cole and Varric send their best. I will implore your ward to write you in the morning; he and Varric have already embroiled themselves in a game of snaps. How Cole has the energy for such an exertion is beyond me, as I hardly have the strength to hold this pen. Youth, I suppose.
I don’t know if you’ve ever visited Varric in the city, but we find ourselves quite comfortable in his home. He speaks ill of Val Royeaux and is always comparing it in the negative to Kirkwall, but he has a lovely little building, and as Kirkwall has been some degree of on-fire for years, I think nostalgia tints his recollection a little. As for my thoughts and observations on the city, I cannot yet say—we have arrived at night, and though the lights are pretty enough, I am too weary to appreciate them.
I hope all is well at home. I imagine you will regret your decision to stay, once I tell you the bit of knowledge that I have just gleaned—Varric is down the street from a little Orlesian bakery that makes the sweetest confections in the city. More to come on that front, but for now, I am retiring to bed.
Thank you for your letter. I am glad to hear that you and Cole are well. Please give my regards to Varric.
She had expected something with rather more feeling than that in reply, and if not feeling, at least conversational. This letter—or note , more like—felt like a rebuff, and it stung. She had waited for this letter, and now felt rather embarrased.
At the time, the kiss had felt like a promise. But the more she ruminated on it, the more she felt it could have been a very kind sort of rejection after all. How many hopeful lovers were put off by promises of maybe and someday? He had certainly kissed her like he meant it, but perhaps in the light of day he had realized the foolishness of such a pursuit. She was only a governess, after all.
What had he said, the day they left Wolvenhall? He had apologized, and wished they had more time to talk. It had not felt like regret, or a rejection, but perhaps her own hopefulness was obscuring the truth of it all.
The thought of him regretting what happened—well, it was not a happy one. She would come to regret it, too, if it meant the loss of the camaraderie they shared.
He needed time. That was what he said. That there were considerations . She would not begrudge him that. She could not begudge him a hundred years, if that was what it took.
Cole popped his head into Varric’s parlor, a plush little room decorated for card playing and relaxation, not stuffy formality. “Is that from Solas?”
She tossed the letter on the chaise beside her. “He sends his regards,” she said shortly.
Cole picked it up and squinted, holding it to the light as though Solas might have written something more by invisible ink. “It’s not very long, is it?”
“Not very,” she said, feeling a bit childish at her tone.
“Is he yours?”
She startled and blushed. “Pardon me?”
Cole held the letter up to the light. “It says, ‘Yours, S.’”
“Oh,” she said, smoothing her skirt. “Right. It’s a figure of speech.”
“Are you going to write him back? I still need to write him, too. Writing is much harder than just talking, I think. What people mean isn’t in the words .”
“Yes, I suppose I will.”
“Maybe he was distracted by something else,” Cole said, and she realized with a surge of affection that he was trying to cheer her up.
“I’m sure you’re right,” she said. “And either way, we have lessons to occupy ourselves, don’t we?”
Cole nodded, but she had found that since they arrived in Val Royeaux, he had been rather less excited about his lessons. She could hardly blame him; a young man in the city had more interesting things to think of. And there were all kinds of education; hers, right now, was hardly the more important. Still, it was a bit dismaying all the same.
As your letter gives me little to respond to—I am glad that you are glad, etcetera— allow me to regale you with tales of our journey thus far. Forgive me if this holds no interest, but I am in sudden excess of leisure time.
Varric has taken Cole under his wing entirely, and I find myself somewhat bereft. Do not be alarmed, our lessons continue, yet I find for the first time that he is anxious for them to end. He has been introduced to all kinds of people, I understand, as Varric’s social circle is as wide and varied as the city itself. I admit to holding some worry as to his reception, but that does not seem to have been a concern. Varric has good instincts for that sort of thing.
You may wonder why I write as though this is second-hand information: well, that is it exactly. I have little wish for Cole to be seen as needing a chaperone or keeper, and while Varric is not a man prone to caring for propriety, I wished for my student to put his best foot forward. Thus the luxury of free time in which I have found myself.
An aside: Varric, I have learned, is quite the card player. He has not convinced me to play with real money yet, but I expect my savings to be diminished significantly by the time we return.
Regardless, Cole has met many fascinating sorts of people, which I’m sure he will tell you about in his own letter, if I can get him to sit still for more than ten minutes. Varric seems to know every ex-patriate in the city, and I admit he seems better suited to the company of those of Fereldan or the Free Marches than Orlais. I asked him why, then, Val Royeaux? All he would say was that he had friends in the city, which is true enough, but Varric seems the sort to have friends everywhere.
As for yours truly, I fear I have already finished the books I brought. Luckily, Varric’s library is quite extensive, though the opposite of your own—fiction, mostly, and rather lurid fiction at that. I will have to find a bookshop posthaste. I have become quite familiar with Varric’s house, and it is lovely, if quite a garçonnière . I have not done much exploring of the yet, but I have made my way to the little pâtisserie down the street I mentioned. I must say, the rumors about Val Royeaux’s pastries are well-deserved. The petit four are a bit too sweet for my taste, though I imagine you would enjoy them.
That being said, I do not think I made the pâtisserie owners happy with my presence, and I may not return. Perhaps living at Wolvenhall has spoiled me, or perhaps Val Royeaux is especially unfriendly to elves. When with Varric I am not so conspicuous, and merely walking the street most assume me a servant on an errand. But an elf buying a petit four for her own pleasure is apparently not done in this part of the city. Perhaps I will have to visit one of the more elven-friendly districts, or even the alienage. I have never seen one before.
Now please, indulge me. I want to know all the goings-on at Wolvenhall, however incidental or routine. I admit to some homesickness.
I apologize for the brevity of my last response. I admit to some distraction now that Wolvenhall is empty. Without my fellow inhabitants to measure the time by, I find the hours I keep to be poor indeed. I am working on my own research, which I hope you will understand is not able to be discussed in a letter.
I implore you not to worry about propriety of Varric or Cole’s behalf, and to enjoy Val Royeaux while you can. It is a strange city, and I cannot say I miss its politics, but it is beautiful, and deserves to be admired. Please exercise caution if you do choose to visit the alienage. Val Royeaux’s chevaliers are infamous for their ill-treatment of elven citizens, and they would not make allowances for your status—or Varric’s, for that matter.
If you find yourself in need of excitement, I recommend visiting the Grand Library (I believe you are the only person to whom I could write such a sentence). Much of their elven collection was destroyed or lost, but they have surprisingly extensive works on the Frostbacks’ Avvar. You might find something to interest you in their unique religious beliefs.
“Come on, Mittens,” Varric pleaded that evening, all of them feeling a bit cooped up after a day of rain had kept them inside. “Cassandra’ll be there, and she’s been wondering where we’ve locked you up. She’ll be interrogating me all night if you don’t come.”
Ellana hesitated. “I don’t wish to intrude—”
“Do you want me to beg? Because I’m not going to beg. But I can be really insistent.”
She sighed. “All right, Varric. If only for the sake of your dignity.”
“Thank you,” he said, most magnanimously.
Cole brightened behind him. “Oh, good!”
“What on earth do I wear?” Ellana wondered, looking down at her plain brown dress in some dismay.
Varric waved a dismissive hand. “You’re fine. It’s just a party. And this isn’t exactly a fancy crowd.”
“If you’re sure,” she said, dubiously.
They were in the carriage when Varric turned to her, so she was unable to beat a swift retreat. “So,” he drawled. “How’s Chuckles?”
It took her a moment to remember that he meant Solas. “He’s well,” she said. “I would say he’s bored being in an empty house alone, but I imagine he’s getting quite a lot of work done.”
“Mmmhm. Not exactly what I meant.”
She pursed her lips at him, glancing to Cole, who was watching their conversation with some interest. “I can’t imagine what you mean.”
Varric snorted. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed the way you wait for his letters. I write romance novels for a living, Mittens. I know what it looks like.”
Maker, had she been so obvious? “Let’s talk about something else. Anything else,” she said, pointedly glancing again to Cole. “The weather, perhaps?”
“Oh, you’re worried about the kid?” Varric’s guileless grin made her eyes narrow.
“I already told him,” Cole said, eyes wide. “Sorry, was that wrong? I can try again.”
“Told him what , exactly?”
“It would make a decent book,” Varric mused, immune to her protestations. “Wealthy recluse, pretty governess. That sort of thing writes itself. Kind of lacking in action, though...”
“How lucky for me,” she snapped. “Told him what , Cole?”
“Easy, Mittens,” Varric said. “Only that the two of you may have gotten closer since me and Cassandra visited. Something about a midnight rendezvous in a library? I mean, shit, that entire house is a library, that doesn’t really narrow it down.”
“It was a kiss, not a rendezvous, ” Cole told Varric, a bit scoldingly, echoing her own thoughts.
“Maker take me,” she swore, covering her burning face with her hands. “Cole, how did you…?”
“I notice things,” he said brightly.
“This is humiliating,” she muttered into her palms. Her only relief was that Cole did not seem upset by it.
“Come on,” Varric said, a friendly hand at her shoulder. “It’s not so bad.”
“Easy for you to say,” she muttered. “Besides, don’t get too excited. I rather think he’s cooled on the idea.”
Varric eyed her skeptically, that infuriating smirk refusing to relent. “Chuckles? Sure. There’s a guy who cools off easy. Whatever you say.”
The carriage jerked to a halt, and while Ellana was not exactly in the mood for a party any longer, she couldn’t help but be impressed by the building’s facade. It was stately, verging on imposing, but there were flowers planted along the front and warm candles burning in the windows.
“Whose house is this, anyway?” she asked as he helped her down the step.
“We’re visiting an old friend of mine. You might have heard of her. Black hair, bested an Arishok, wanted on three continents?”
She stopped, staring down at her outfit in dismay. “Varric. You brought me to the Champion of Kirkwall’s manor house, and you let me wear this?”
“I think you might have some misconceptions about Hawke,” Varric said. “And anyway, it’s not her house, technically. She’s sort of in hiding.” He and Cole both took an arm, and it rather felt as though they would lock-step her into the manor if they had to.
“Fine,” she muttered, and relented. It wasn’t as if she could turn back now.
“That’s the spirit!” Varric said, and inside they went.
She wasn’t sure what she had expected, but the Champion of Kirkwall was shorter than in her imaginings. And quite a bit drunker. Which was saying something, given how many scenes in Varric’s book were set in a tavern.
“Varric!” Hawke boomed from across the room when they entered, barreling towards them and lifting him into a bear hug.
It was not quite an Orlesian party as she had been lead to understand them. It was rather raucous, in fact, with all sorts milling about—elves, dwarves, and humans, none of them seeming very fussed about looking fashionable. There were more than a few pairs of muddy boots, not to mention overfull flagons of ale. It was all very...Fereldan. In that respect, Varric had not led her astray. Certainly no one was in a mask.
The decor of the manor was somewhat at odds with the atmosphere. She had never seen so many statues or icons of Andraste outside of a Chantry house.
“Whoa, there,” said Varric, beaming up at his friend. “Seems like you got a head start on us.”
“Hi,” said Cole. “I’m Cole.”
“I know who you are, kiddo,” Hawke said, giving him a friendly knock on the shoulder. “You were here last week. Besides, Varric doesn’t shut up about you.”
“Hawke, this is Ellana Lavellan,” said Varric. “Ellana, Hawke.”
Ellana, more than a little starstruck, shook her hand. “Nice to meet you,” she squeaked. Could she ask about Varric’s book? That would be quite gauche, wouldn’t it? Everyone surely bothered her about such things all the time.
“Cole’s teacher, right? You’re younger than I thought. Varric’s been trying his damndest to get you out of the house.”
Varric had mentioned her to the Champion? “Well, here I am,” she managed, weakly.
Hawke gestured toward a table piled high with bottles of wine, cheese, and various platters of fruit. “Get a drink, settle in—wait. Lavellan, you said?”
Ellana froze. “Yes.”
“Dalish, right? You don’t have the—what d’you call them—”
“Right, those. But it’s a Dalish name, right?”
“It is,” she said, picking at her gloves, now wishing she was anywhere but at this infernal party. How could Varric be so convincing? “Why do you ask?”
“Merrill!” Hawke shouted to the room, giving Ellana a brief shock. “Where is she? Well, anyway. Remind me to introduce you to Merrill later. She’s Dalish.”
“Of course,” she lied. She vaguely recognized the name from Varric’s book. Anxiety settled in her stomach. A Dalish elf would know all about what happened to Clan Lavellan. She would have to do her best to avoid this ‘Merrill’ woman.
“Ellana Lavellan,” intoned a voice behind her, “is this woman disturbing you?”
Ellana whirled around to find Cassandra towering over her, frowning deeply at the Champion of Kirkwall.
“Oh, hello Cassandra,” Hawke drawled. “You always come to our little parties, but you never seem to enjoy yourself. Would you like some wine?”
“No, thank you,” Cassandra said, still frowning. “And you know why I come to these gatherings, Hawke.”
Hawke had the bemused expression of someone who was far too intoxicated to have the conversation she was having, and knew it. “Well! Welcome, everyone, have fun, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do—” and she was off into the crowd, a glass of wine in each hand. Varric had already disappeared—no doubt to find a card game.
After a moment’s pause Cassandra nodded at her, as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. “It is good to see you well, Miss Lavellan. How fares Wolvenhall? And your employer?”
Varric sidled up alongside Ellana out of nowhere, a pint in his hand. Cole had disappeared—probably to inspect the cheese platter, if she knew him at all. “A little more than employer , these days,” he drawled.
Ellana felt herself turn beet red. “Varric!”
Cassandra turned her glower on Varric. “Do not tease, Varric.”
Varric smirked. “Not teasing, Seeker, just stating facts.”
Ellana somehow expected Cassandra to be the sort of person to dismiss gossip out of hand. But on the contrary, there was a certain sparkle in her eye. “Is that so?”
“You two deserve each other,” she groaned. She had no wish to scold them or resent their appetite for gossip, but it felt very strange to have this—whatever it was—with Solas peered at by prying eyes. It seemed unfair to invite scrutiny when the matter had not even been settled between them. There had been so much privacy, at Wolvenhall.
“All right, I will not pry,” said Cassandra, with a glance at Varric that said she would be prying plenty out of him later. “Let us speak of something else, then. But first, cheese.”
Equipped with plenty of wine and cheese, she sat next to Cassandra in a relatively quiet corner of the raucous room.
“It seems as though you and Hawke don’t get along,” she said, sipping at her wine—a fine Orlesian syrah, but she found it went a bit sour in her mouth.
Cassandra rolled her eyes at the mention of Hawke. “No, we do not. I do not come to these events to socialize, you understand. I only hope to influence Hawke. She may be a wanted woman in Kirkwall, but she still has a voice people will listen to. And with all of the tension in the air here—we will need strong voices, and soon.”
Influence Hawke, the way she had tried to influence Solas? “What do you mean, the tension in the air?”
Cassandra sighed. “Yes, I forget. Wolvenhall is a world apart, isn’t it? There is no easy explanation, but the situation for your people—elves, I mean—is getting worse. After the war, matters had improved somewhat—some elves made a fortune for themselves, and elves even began to live outside the alienages in Val Royeaux, which was unheard of even twenty years ago.”
“And the humans resent it.” This was not news to her. She remembered well the glares from the bakery on Varric’s street.
“That is a piece of it, yes. But it is more complicated than that. Not so long ago elves could study at the University, could be apprenticed to human artisans. No longer. The backlash has left them without options. There is no more road to a kinder life, no war to earn a fortune in and rise as your employer did. What we see and cannot have—it grates on the soul. The Chantry’s hands are tied. The chevaliers are blinded by their prejudice. And now even the Empress fears an uprising.”
She was surprised at Cassandra’s frankness, and decided she would be equally frank. “The Empress who burned Halamshiral, the last time she feared an uprising.”
Cassandra nodded, her face grim. “The very same. And so you understand my anxiety now that matters are coming to a head again.”
Ellana stared down at her wine glass. “I do understand. What I don’t understand is your involvement, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“Because I am not an elf? True enough. Nor am I Orlesian.” She sighed. “I serve the Divine. I know full well that the power to solve this problem exists. What lacks is the will to use it. What use is there in the dithering of politicians?”
Ellana couldn’t help her cynicism. “Perhaps it is best that the Empress does not have the ‘will’ to solve the problem in the manner she thinks best.”
Cassandra sighed. “You may be right. You have heard of the Dalish artifacts in the city, no doubt?”
“That’s part of why we came, to see the exhibition.” She swallowed. “They were sold to the University by Clan Lavellan.”
“It is no small thing, for the University to display elven artifacts. An attempt by Celene to assuage the elves, I believe. But that will not please her human curators—or the chevaliers.”
“Could an art exhibit really make any difference in the first place?” Ellana asked doubtfully.
Cassandra sighed. “This is Val Royeaux. The city where a tip of the fan can mean the end of a life—or an empire.” She sighed. “I make no secret of my distaste for the Game. But one must learn to read its signals, and the exhibit is an obvious one.”
As it always did, the weight of the problem overwhelmed her, made her feel her own insignificance. She was Dalish, but not. A city elf, but not. A typical elven servant, but not. An would-be academic with no academy that would take her. “I hope you are successful,” she said, and meant it.
Cassandra pursed her lips and nodded. “Thank you.” From across the room, Hawke had started to lead a small group of revelers in a Fereldan folk song—something about dogs. Ellana didn’t recognize it. “I fear that is my cue to leave. There is little I can accomplish in such an atmosphere.”
“And yet you keep trying.”
Cassandra’s jaw was set. “Yes. I do.” She rose and shook Ellana’s hand.
The wine and cheese sat sickly in her stomach as she moved back into the milling group, and all at once found herself face-to-face with the woman she had hoped to avoid all night. And there was no escaping—she was wedged between the table of cheese and the corner of the room, with no convenient parlor to duck into.
Merrill was a slight woman, with an untidy mop of dark hair and thickly-lined vallaslin in a pattern Ellana didn’t recognize. Her wide, dark eyes made her pale face seem almost childlike, were it not for the furrowed lines in her brow.
“Oh! You must be Ellana! Hawke told me I should find you,” said Merrill, a small smile lighting up her eyes. It was only that smile that kept Ellana from bolting, etiquette be damned.
She managed a smile in return. “And you must be Merrill. I admit I’ve heard of you, from Varric’s book.”
“Wait! Oh, you’re Cole’s teacher—that must mean you know Solas!”
Ellana blinked. “Yes, he’s my employer. But how do you know him?”
“Well, I don’t know him , really, but I know his work!” She turned her gaze to some unseen treasure, eyes gone starry with delight. “He wrote the most detailed papers on Elvhenan history in the library archives. The artwork alone was marvelous. And he was just a student then! Well, it’s all banned now, of course.”
“I have to admit, I’ve never read any of his work.” She had never seen a sign of Solas’ writings at Wolvenhall, and if he was publishing anything at present, she never heard a word of it.
“It’s been years since he’s written anything! Do you know why? His treatise on late-Tevene runes and their similarities to late-Modern elven sigils seemed unfinished—oh, I don’t mean to criticize, of course, it’s only that it was so fascinating…”
Ellana’s mind spun. This wasn’t how she thought this conversation would go. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. I’m more involved with Cole’s instruction—I don’t know much about his work.” A lie, of course, but she could hardly confess to dreaming to this stranger. “I’d like to read it, though.”
“Oh! Well, I must have some copies in my room, if you’d like to borrow them.”
“I thought you said they were banned?”
Merrill waved a hand. “I stole them! It’s all right, no one noticed. I think. It’s not as though we can visit the library whenever we want, so, fair’s fair, I think.”
She remembered Solas’ letter: If you find yourself in need of excitement, I recommend visiting the Grand Library . But of course that was impossible—it had been years since an elf could set foot there. Still, she wasn’t sure if it was safe, yet, to follow this strangely distracted young woman away from the crowd. “You’re staying here? In the manor?”
Merrill blushed. “Oh, yes. Hawke said it was ridiculous of me to stay in the alienage when she has seven spare rooms here. Not that we’re using the spare rooms.” She giggled nervously. “She’s so hospitable. Or, well, Sebastian is, really. I think he knows we’re using his house? Probably?”
In that moment she reminded her a bit of Cole, and the thought rallied her courage. “I’d love to see the papers, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Merrill beamed. Together they ascended the staircase to the second floor and into a cozily-appointed suite. Someone had jerry-rigged a banner of the Champion’s family crest above the fireplace, and clothes and boots were scattered across the bed and the floor, human and elven sized. Ellana sat on the edge of the bed, picking at the quilt there with nervous fingers. This woman seemed sincere enough, but perhaps she had wanted to get her alone so she could bring up Clan Lavellan in private?
Merrill rummaged through a desk for a few minutes, muttering to herself, and finally emerged clutching a sheaf of loose paper, pressing it into Ellana’s hands eagerly.
Investigations into the Pre-Exalted March Artifacts of the Dales. Solas was listed as the primary author—his name stood out on the page like a beacon—and beneath it were names she didn’t recognize. Elven names. It was printed by the University of Orlais, the seal of a golden lion in the upper right corner. What followed was an exhaustive archaeological record, complete with sketches and illustrations of what he had found. It was—extraordinary. The sort of scholarship that would never be allowed anymore. She traced the careful lines, wondering at the care and time and effort. When had he stopped drawing?
She realized she had been staring at the papers in silence for quite some time and glanced up, meeting Merrill’s luminous eyes.
Merrill gave her a small, sad smile. “It makes me feel the same way,” she said. “I can see it in your face.”
“It’s—wonderful. Thank you for sharing this with me.”
“I’m glad you could see it, lethallan . I’m surprised he never showed you. Are you an academic?”
Ellana huffed out a humorless laugh, remembering her jealousy of Solas, that he had gone to university. “Hardly. That’s not really an option for us, is it?”
Merrill considered her face, and Ellana saw something stony and immovable beneath her timid surface. “You mustn't define yourself by what they will allow you to be. Don’t you think?”
She couldn’t help her smile. “You sound like my Keeper.”
Merrill touched a finger to her mouth in surprise. “Oh! Deshanna was your Keeper, wasn’t she?”
Ellana nearly shot out of the room. “You know her? How?” But of course she did—Merrill was Dalish, had her vallaslin, even. The Dalish community could feel very small, she remembered.
“I’m helping with the restoration of the eluvian for the exhibit. I wasn’t sure at first, but—”
Something like anger, but not quite, made her hands tremble on the papers, and she set them down on the bed. “You’re restoring it? For the Orlesians?”
Merrill nodded, twisting her fingers nervously. “I could have let them try, I know, but I thought they’d make it worse, break it again. It should be restored properly, shouldn’t it? Even if in the end…”
She kept her voice even. “If in the end, it doesn’t belong to us?”
“It’s a relic from the People, whatever building it’s put it, isn’t it? It doesn’t belong to them at all, whatever they think they paid for it. When Deshanna came to me and asked for my help, I almost refused—”
Her head spun. “ Deshanna asked you for help?”
“Yes—she had heard I was in the city, and—well, my own clan doesn’t want to see much of me, anymore. It was nice to hear from a Keeper, even if she wasn’t mine. I was a First, you know.”
“You clan doesn’t want to see you?”
Merrill looked down and away. “No, not since—well, they don’t approve, you see. Of lots of things. Of history they don’t agree with. They think we shouldn’t involve ourselves, that we need to keep ourselves pure, removed from the rest of the world.” She met Ellana’s eyes. “I heard about Clan Lavellan, you know. I thought you might understand, then…”
“You heard about it,” she repeated, her own voice cold to her ears. “What did you hear, exactly?”
“I wasn’t there, at the Arlathvhen—I only went to Clan Sabrae after, maybe a year after it happened. They said that you were sent away...that you, well. Broke the Eluvian.” Her eyes went wide. “I don’t blame you at all, of course! You were only a child. It seemed so cruel. How could they do something like that?”
She couldn’t help the laugh bubbling out of her. It came out strange, rusty, relief and anger brimming over. “Is that what they say?”
Merrill was all anxiety—she twisted her hands in her tunic, her eyes wide. “I’m sorry! It’s only what I heard, and I thought you and I might—”
She stood up, horrified at the tears pricking at her eyes. She wasn’t angry at Merrill, not really. But she couldn’t stay there any longer. “I’m sorry. Thank you for showing me the papers. I mean it. But I have to go.”
“Oh, dear, I’ve really—”
But she was already gone, down the stairs, scanning the room for Varric. If one more person tried to engage her in some conversation about elves, or politics, or anything —
Cole was at her side in an instant. “You’re upset,” he said. “Red, itchy—”
“I’d like to leave,” she interrupted, not caring about propriety any longer. “Can you find Varric, and meet me outside?”
In Val Royeaux, it was easy for an elf to leave a party without saying goodbye. Even in Varric’s more progressive crowd, no doubt most assumed she was a servant. After all, for all that Hawke was with an elven woman, the people serving the drinks all had pointed ears. She leaned against the door of the manor, taking a few deep breaths of cold spring air. It took several more minutes for Cole and Varric to emerge, and that gave her enough time to dry her eyes.
Varric, to his credit, didn’t ask questions, though she could feel his curiosity like a physical presence. Cole, too, stayed quiet through the ride, though he reached out to touch her hand once or twice. The further their coach drew from Hawke’s party, the more foolish she felt. Merrill hadn’t deserved her outburst; but how else could she have reacted, with Deshanna and the Eluvian—but she would have to apologize. Merrill had tried to reach out in friendship, after all. She’d been abominably rude—to her host’s friends, no less.
“We’re here,” Varric prompted, and she realized she was sitting in a stopped coach, her mind turning in circles. Cole was already inside. “Let’s get you a cup of tea.” He considered her face. “Hey, scratch that. Let’s go for something stronger, shall we?”
She managed a smile. “Tea is fine. I have a letter to write.”
I do not wish to start this letter with bad news, but I fear your advice is somewhat outdated. Elves have been banned from the Grand Library for years. If you have any advice on sneaking inside, however, I would not be opposed.
Your other advice—to explore Val Royeaux—could not have come at a more opportune time. Varric invited me to one of his gatherings this evening, and with you in mind, I accepted. It was a rather bizarre night, in truth. I expected something rather different from a party in Val Royeaux—masks, petticoats, string quartets, passive aggressive politeness, etcetera—but of course that would hardly be to Varric’s taste.
I admit, the conversations I had there have left me somewhat shaken. I would appreciate the opportunity to discuss them with you—but that is not a conversation meant for paper. And there is a great deal besides I would care to speak of, if you are amenable.
Let us conduct our experiment the evening of the 30th. I look forward to it.
Hi again. Thank you for (STILL!) reading and for your patience with this chapter! As ever, please let me know if you see any typos, etc...I'm terrible at editing my own work.
Chapter 13: The Depths
Oh god, how long has it been? Thank you, as always, for your patience. Here's a little interlude of what Solas is up to back at home.
Wolvenhall was dark when Solas awoke.
Despite the weather’s turn to spring, the stone manor always had a chill, and he winced as he rose from his seat on the floor. Another productive day of dreaming. He had known Wolvenhall to be a site of great import the moment he saw it—before, even, when he had glimpsed it first in a dream—but its history stretched back even further than he had once suspected.
In dreams, Wolvenhall was full. Once only spirits and animals roamed the grounds, wisps of feeling and instinct in a cold forest, whispers on the winds of memory. A simple temple had followed, nothing but wood and nails, and with it, priests and the spirits that communed with them. Later still there had been warriors, noble families, servants, mages, all manner of bustle and feeling and life. Nothing like the present. He rose to a silent house, empty save he and the spirits that haunted the halls.
His study, with its high ceilings and tall windows, felt the chill more acutely than other parts of the house, despite the heavy black curtains he had hung to conceal his work from prying eyes. He pulled his coat tight against the cold and wound his way down into the kitchens, acutely aware that he hadn’t eaten since the morning. He summoned light to the room with a gesture and set to work making himself a simple dinner of bread, salted meat, and cheese.
Once it had been his daily routine, but he found now that the food soured as he ate, left him unsatisfied. How quickly he had adapted to Cole’s chatter, to the careful way Ellana turned the pages of a book so as to not stain the pages over dinner.
He could recognize his loneliness for what it was. He could also recognize it for foolishness. It was by mere luck that his solitude had been interrupted in the first place, after all. He knew full well that he did not deserve their company from the first; to mourn its loss was presumption of the highest order.
“It is not foolish to miss companionship,” said a voice in his ear, and in his reverie, it startled him. How a person who glowed with violet light managed to sneak up on him, he still could not quite understand, but there she was—glimmering in the low candlelight of the kitchen, her face serene.
He busied himself with cleaning his plate. “Hello, old friend,” he said, choosing to let her remark pass unanswered.
“Is it wise to disregard words of Wisdom?” she persisted, her voice light.
“You have never been my strength, as you well know.”
An insubstantial hand came to rest on his arm. “You give yourself too little credit.”
He shook his head. “It matters not. I have your companionship to satisfy me, I hope.”
“It is not the same, my dreamer, though you might wish it so.”
He forced his clenched jaw to relax. It would not do to bicker with Wisdom—it was always a dissatisfyingly one-sided exercise. Such were the hazards of friendship with a being composed of moral virtue.
“I need not argue the merits of your friendship. You know well enough that your company has been invaluable to me, these past years.”
“Ah,” Wisdom said, her voice an echo against the stone walls of the kitchen. “Compassion is better suited to what ails you, I fear,” she said, speaking, as spirits often did, to his feelings rather than his words.
“Perhaps,” he said, with a rueful smile that died as soon as it lived. “But that is in short supply. Did you need anything? I should return to my work.”
“I want for nothing,” she said. “But there is something you should know. Our interloper has been restless, as of late. It resents his banishment.”
“I have no doubt that it does. Are the wards still intact?”
“Yes. Yet you may still wish to speak with it, all the same.”
“As you say. It would be unwise to disregard your advice, after all.”
With a small smile, Wisdom receded, taking her unnatural light with her. The kitchen reverted to its usual shades of grey and brown.
She was in the right, of course. Friendships with spirits were different than friendships of flesh and blood. Not lesser—in most cases he found the company of spirits preferable, after all—but certainly different. Spirits were predictable, once one knew their nature. Their decisions made sense when coming from a place of desire, or rage, or faith. But then, so were most people were predictable in their own ways.
Most, but not all.
And there it was. He could admit it to himself, at least. It was not mere loneliness that made his days listless and without purpose. Lack of friendship alone did not account for his state. There was little platonic about his feelings.
If only she hadn’t kissed him, this mire of feeling might have been avoided. No—if only he had not kissed her back.
No, that was not quite right, either. The real crux of it all: if only he had not wanted it so very badly, enough that it overrode his good sense. The wise course would have been to plead forgiveness, attempt some return to normalcy, but the idea of it set his teeth on edge, guilt at war with desire. Perhaps she would return changed, and find him no very fine company after all. That, he could accept. But he could not do it himself.
She had become essential to their household, then to Cole, and finally, to him—she absorbed their attention and affection in a manner he found discomfitingly familiar. And yet she rarely asked for anything—her pay, if he had forgotten again, or to pass the butter plate—and what a surprise it had been for her lips to seek his, there at midnight in the dark.
His own feelings he had already known. Curiosity, at first, and then fascination—he could not deny it, once spirits began taking her shape. And then more—doors opening to rooms he had not known existed. How easily he had grown toward her affection, her clear loyalty to the house and to Cole—and to him, though part of him hated that he could tie her to this life, a life that had so little to offer. The rest of him only ached for her to return.
He berated himself for it—how wholly inappropriate, after all—and was determined to never reveal his feelings. Such an effort was made far more difficult when they began to dream together, of course, and he found himself going to ridiculous lengths to distance himself—across a ravine, up a tree, anywhere but at her side. Things had always been easier for him in dreams. It was a liability.
He had not expected the kiss.
He had hardly been able to read her first letter from Val Royeaux, for the guilt churning in his gut—and then been disgraced by his own curt, rude reply. But his letters were not private—he had known that for some time, and even if he could enchant them to reveal themselves only to the recipient, she did not know the spell to read them. Her education had been focused on preventing possession. There had been no time for any other sort of magic, and now she was gone, nearly defenseless in a city that hated him.
Had Celene known the depth of his affections, Ellana would already be in a Val Royeaux prison cell, ready to be bartered for with his service. The only thing protecting Cole was a well-placed rumor that Solas was using him for experimental magic and so cared for him not at all—a rumor he dearly hoped would never reach the ears of his ward.
He read Ellana’s letters twice over, then, to be sure they did not contain some hidden meaning, but they were innocent of any knowledge of interception. Until her last, which seemed to have been penned in some distress, and asked for him to join her in their ‘experiment’. What Celene’s spies would make of that, he could hardly guess.
Were he a braver man, he would go to Val Royeaux himself and protect them with whatever meager power he had. Or he would never have allowed this trip at all. But he was no prison warden, sentencing those around him to confinement at Wolvenhall. His failings should not be their burdens.
But there was little time for self-recrimination. The depths and mysteries of Wolvenhall called to him, and he could do nothing but answer.
Wolvenhall was once a temple. And while the original wooden structure was long since lost, the god that lived there did not decay so easily.
That was, Solas would admit, not entirely accurate. The old spirit that lived at Wolvenhall was not a god, but it thought itself one, and spirits, of all beings, understood the powers of perception. It was a strange creature, too old and too meddlesome to be truly of any single spiritual trait any longer, flitting between emotion and form in a manner Solas found disturbingly mortal indeed. Even now he could not put on a pin on its true nature: it raged, it seduced, it terrified. Perhaps, he thought, such distinctions were more complicated than they might first appear. Spirits were mutable by nature, after all.
Its presence was one of the reasons he had chosen Wolvenhall. Not only was it a site of great historical and magical activity, but it was home to a spirit of great age and power—he could hardly ignore such a combination. It was only after he was bound to the lease that he realized the dangers of living alongside such a resident. Wolvenhall's longstanding rumors of ghosts and hauntings were not entirely legendary.
“Wisdom tells me you are unhappy," he said, when he finally found the spirit.
“You have banished me from my own house. Of course I am unhappy.” Its voice was a low snarl, perhaps bestial if it had not been so sardonic.
Solas considered the spirit, there in the darkness of the tunnels beneath Wolvenhall, lit only by the green-hued light of his veilfire candle. Tonight it took shape of an elven man, colorless and flickering, a mockery of Solas’ own form.
“I have banished you from interfering in my house. There is an essential difference.”
“You test me, dreamer.”
“If this was a test, then it is one you have failed. Your attempt to possess my governess was sloppy at best. You should not have done that.”
“Sloppy? I nearly won her.”
“And yet you did not. ‘Almost’ possessed is not good enough, I imagine.” He tried not to remember the terror and rage he'd felt at seeing Ellana under the creature's sway, his own face bearing down on her with ill intent.
“Possession is such a dirty word in your language. Have you ever wondered why?” Its tone turned nostalgic. “But please, let us discuss your fresh little dreamer. I have not seen such a creature since I was young.”
He breathed through a swell of anger. “That must have been a very long time ago. Why do you stay here, without any worshippers to strengthen you? Do you require only their memory?”
The spirit did not have a face, but he saw it scowl. “Worshippers? You fancy yourself a historian, I gather. But you know nothing.”
“What is a god without followers?”
“Followers are not the same as worshippers, little one. Did you worship your Orlesian empress, when you followed her to war?”
He found himself rather determined not to discuss Celene with this odious spirit. “I have not bound you here, nor have I detected the bindings of any other mage,” Solas pressed. “All I have done is prevent you from interfering in my work and my household. You are free to move on as you wish.”
“This place is mine,” the spirit said, its voice gone cold and sharp. “I was here before you, and I will be here long after. Waiting for your death is nothing to me.”
Solas huffed a breath. He could recognize a stubborn soul in kind. “Very well,” he said, “I suppose that is your prerogative. But do not misunderstand me. If I detect your interference or intrusion in this house again, I will not be so gentle.”
The spirit laughed, and for a moment its face flickered, as though trying to decide what form to settle into.
“You know well that your tricks will not work on me,” Solas warned.
“Can you blame me for trying?”
“I remember thinking it such a boon to have found a house with such a powerful spirit in it. How foolish of me.”
It laughed. “You think it mere chance that you came here? Interesting! That would be almost too much of a coincidence, don’t you think?”
His teeth ground. This creature had an unfortunate knack for getting under his skin. “Explain yourself.”
“Settle down, dreamer. You came of your own will, in the end. I merely provided a few nudges along the way. You saw Wolvenhall first in a dream, right? I made myself so vibrant for you.”
“And why would you draw me here?”
The spirit tilted its head, and Solas got the distinct impression that it was lying through its nonexistent teeth. “Call it curiosity. You are the first mage to manifest in an age, after all.”
“Not the first.”
“No,” the spirit conceded. “But you are the one who stayed alive."
That, at least, was true. Except now there was Ellana Lavellan. He was not alone, not in this. Not anymore.
Refusing to let the spirit sway his composure, he gave it his iciest, politest smile. “Is that all, then? Wisdom seemed to think you had something new to tell me.”
The spirit shrugged. “I only hoped to petition my case.”
“Consider the matter closed.”
“For now,” said the spirit. “There will come a day when you’ll need me, and perhaps then you might be open to renegotiations. Who can say what will happen?”
“I cannot imagine needing you for anything,” Solas snapped, and turned on his heel, taking the light of his candle with him.
The spirit’s rough and howling laughter echoed in his ears as he climbed out of the depths of the manor, back to the familiar, empty rooms. Soon the only sounds were the rustle of branches against the walls and the low, keening wail of the wind.