9:23 Dragon, Lornan's Exile
The young arlessa's carriage rested in the courtyard outside the front gates of a keep, a pair of lazy guardsmen standing half-hearted watch in the noonday sun.
"Eh, why do we get always get such shite assignments?" complained the young, tall one. "Standing out here in the hot, while Her Ladyship natters with the gentry."
The older, shorter guardsman shrugged, a scar on his cheek making his frown look fearsome. "Most likely because someone got drunk at Wintersend and insulted the steward's wife."
"Did not!" The young guardsman protested. "I mean, yes, I was drunk, but I didn't mean to stumble just as she passed by. My hands just went where they needed to go, as it were."
"I think the lesson to be drawn there is not to get drunk in the first place, ye nit."
The young guardsman only looked uncomprehending. His companion shook his head with a long-suffering sigh.
From the undergrowth, a few yards away, a pair of golden eyes watched.
Those men are inattentive. Might I creep closer?
"Still. If I have to spend another week dancing attendance on Her Ladyship, I think I may go mad." The young guardsman heaved a dramatic sigh. "Just what does the arl see in her, anyway?"
The older guardsman made a cynical grunt. His hands traced a set of sinuous curves in the air.
"Well, yes, there's that. But she's so nose-in-the-air. So Orlesian."
"Trust me, boy, Orlesian women are put together just the same as Fereldens, and sure as sure she's not nose-in-the-air in the bedchamber."
A shadow stirred in the undergrowth, and then a small dark form darted silently across open ground. Either of the men might have seen it, had they been alert and looking in the right direction.
Inside the carriage: wonders. Seats covered in velvet, with elaborate embroidered cushions. A spare cloak hanging from a peg, decorated with silver studs. Little bottles and flasks with mysterious contents.
Who makes all of these things?
There, on the front seat where a careless maid had left it, something small glittered. The creature hopped up on the seat and stared, nose and whiskers twitching.
It was a hand mirror. The golden frame bore an image of deer and sparrows dancing in a field, the eyes picked out with tiny chips of gemstone. The glass had been polished to a shine, with silver backing. The creature saw itself in the glass: sharp nose, black furry mask around golden eyes.
It made a small sound of astonishment and delight.
"Here now, what's that?" The older guardsman's voice, from just outside the carriage.
The little beast's heart leaped with terror. It jumped to the window, down to the ground, and made a break for the undergrowth. Its flight was hampered somewhat by the decision to take the mirror with it.
Raccoons, after all, have hands.
Quick as a flash, it was gone.
"Did you see that?" asked the young guardsman.
"No, I did not, and neither did you," said his partner. "Better to say nothing and let the arlessa's maid take the blame, if you don't want to be on shite assignments 'til next Wintersend."
Miles away, no human scent drifted on the breeze, and no sound could be heard but that of wind in the leaves. The little raccoon finally paused in a sunlit glade to examine its prize.
A flicker of shadow, a twisting of shape, and the beast vanished. In its place stood a young girl, tall and gangly, all knees and elbows. She wore a motley collection of cloth and leather scraps, embellished with raven feathers. Her eyes, enormous and golden, peered avidly into the mirror.
Do people outside the Wilds all possess such beautiful things?
Perhaps not. Those men spoke as if they served the woman who rode in that carriage, and unwillingly at that. She must be wealthy, possessing many things that others have made for her. Like a clan chief among the Chasind folk.
She was certainly very beautiful.
The girl tucked her prize into a pocket of her rough tunic, and turned to the path home.
She moved like a shadow through the wood, somehow covering far more ground than any girl should have done, no matter how forest-wise. Any merely human pursuer would soon have fallen far behind. Branches and vines never reached out to trip or catch. The birds and beasts took no notice of her as she passed. As the sun sank into the northwest, the forest slowly declined into marshland around her, occasional ruins jutting out of the earth like the stumps of decayed teeth.
There, on an isolated spot of high ground, a wooden hut. Home.
No sign of Mother. She must be away on some errand.
The girl thought to take her prize into the hut and conceal it in her own space, but at the last moment she thought better of the plan. Instead, she scampered over a low rise, finding a thick bramble that she had used before when she wanted privacy. She squirmed under the thorns, and curled up in a space not quite large enough for her to stretch out full length.
There, she brought out the mirror once more, turning it over and over in her hands, admiring the luster of the gold, the shine of the tiny gemstones, and the perfect reflection of the silvered glass. She stared at her own face in the glass: high cheekbones, tapered chin, large golden eyes.
That girl is me. I have never seen myself so clearly before. Even a quiet pool of clear water does not compare.
I'm not sure, but I think I may be pretty.
So engrossed was the child in her precious thing, that she failed to listen for the fatal sound of footsteps on the ground outside her refuge.
For the second time that day, the girl's heart jumped. This time, the fear seemed to reach up and strangle the breath in her throat. She made a tiny squeak of terror.
"Morrigan. Come out at once . . ."
The girl very carefully did not give an exasperated sigh. She began to reverse herself, preparing to wriggle under the thorns once again.
". . . and bring with you whatever you have."
She stopped. Now the knocking of her heart felt so strong, it seemed a wonder Mother couldn't hear it.
If she can see through those thorns, she can hear my heart beating.
Soon enough, she stood before her mother, doing her best to show no outward sign of fear. Fear only made Mother worse. She would still be angry if you made a mistake, but you could at least try to get respectful anger instead of withering contempt.
"Show me," said Flemeth.
Morrigan surrendered the mirror at once.
The old woman took the small thing, turning it over in her hands. "Well, girl. You could not have made such a thing as this, and you could not have traded with anyone for it. From whom did you steal it?"
"I don't know for certain," said Morrigan. "Men stood close by the carriage where I found it. They mentioned someone named the arlessa."
Despite herself, Morrigan flinched slightly. It would be the withering contempt after all.
"An arlessa is high nobility out among the dog-lords, girl. That's wealth and power. Enough to comb the Wilds for thieves and apostates, if it decides to take notice. You took the risk of calling that down on us, and for what? This?"
"There was no risk!" Morrigan protested. "No one saw me. Even if the men did see, they would not understand what they saw."
"Fool! They don't have to understand, they only have to be afraid. One word to the Chantry and we have yet another pack of idiot templars on our doorstep. One day, we may get one intelligent enough to do us real harm. Or, much more likely, one lucky enough to do us harm. Do you want that?"
Morrigan looked down, still felling rebellious, but Flemeth had produced the argument that could not be refuted. "No, Mother."
"All for a pretty little bauble. Gold, a few tiny stones, a chance to admire your own face. Bah!" With a flat snap of her wrist, Flemeth sent the mirror flying through the air to strike a nearby stone. It shattered, glass and tiny gemstones scattering in the muck.
Morrigan's face did not change in the slightest, as if carved out of pale stone. Deep in her mind, the fear curdled into something new and strange, something she didn't have a word for as yet.
It might have been hatred.
Flemeth watched her daughter closely, nodding to herself after a moment. "This is a hard lesson, girl, and I know it. Let me ask you this. Why do you suppose we live in the heart of the Wilds, so far away from other folk who might have such things?"
"Because we hide from the templars, of course," said Morrigan, her voice calm enough to belie the seething in her heart.
"That is one reason, 'tis true. Not the whole reason." Flemeth pointed at the remains of the shattered mirror. "In the outside world, men and women spend most of their lives pursuing such frippery. Pretty, yes, and a way to show off one's wealth, but ultimately useless. Not worth your time, even if it didn't risk exposing us to those who would murder us in cold blood. No, girl, I'll tell you what has significance in this world. Knowledge. Power. Survival. Those you shall have, and laugh at the fools who chase after wisps and nonsense."
Morrigan nodded slowly, her face still set as if in stone. Her thoughts she kept to herself.
Very well, Mother. If that is the lesson you wish me to learn, I will learn it even better than you expect.
And one day, I may have enough knowledge and power to survive even you.