Chapter 37: Hatred
Reiss wished she could remain curled up on her smashed in mattress with the covers yanked over her head waiting for the rest of the world to pass on, but stubbornly it refused. Numb to the touch, she stumbled out of her room. Freed of the trappings of the guard armor, almost no one glanced over at the elf dressed in less sartorial splendor than the average servant. Maybe she should care, but the dullness that slicked away all sense of touch to her fingers drilled down to her marrow. She felt as if cold should seep from her fingertips and ice trail every footstep as she moved dumbly through the world.
Her wanderings took her to some of the castle she never visited either under the King’s wing or on her own. The east wing held much of the Queen’s quarters, which aside from the children’s bedroom and nursery, never interested Alistair. They also included a lot of the beds for handmaidens and other women useful but not with any real power -- the cousins and close friends a woman forced to leave her family and marry a total stranger could bring along for backup. Beatrice seemed to have quite a few orbiting her, but they also kept to themselves. It was as if there were two entirely different royal houses living in the palace. One was traditional and quiet, happy to defer to the more elder voice. The other loud and brash, but exceedingly kind to those most over looked.
She was thinking nonsense to keep from thinking anything else. Reiss trailed her fingers across a banister while slowly trudging down the stairs. One step, then another, each foot plunging her deeper downward to nowhere. It wasn’t until she stepped a few feet away from the landing that she realized there was no more banister to trail, yet her fingers hung up in the air gripping to something invisible. She’d often felt like a ghost moving through the waking world, wanting to be seen but scared of the consequences. It was worst during those years in Kirkwall when scrounging for an iota of attention from shopkeeps who assumed she both had no coin and intended to steal whatever she wanted. People looked through knife-ears until they needed something to blame them for.
And there was always something.
Light sparkled from a candle flaring with blue flame and Reiss reached her solid hand up to try and block it. Blinking against the assault, she recognized the bowl of fire being rekindled by a portly woman. Wrinkled like a shar pei puppy, the woman’s face was both ancient and oddly adorable -- her bright blue eyes shining below the folds as she scooted to the second statue and dumped the potion inside. Andraste’s pyre kindled inside of it, casting enough light outside the small chantry.
Nodding at her work, the woman slid in through the always open door.
Reiss had never been inside this one. She knew of it, apparently Beatrice would attend to it often during the day. While Alistair would trudge to the Grand Chantry in the middle of Denerim with his children once a week to say the right words and sing the correct songs, he didn’t see much need to visit the tiny one installed in his home. Floating over the stone floor her feet failed to feel, Reiss ignored every warning etched in her bones and stepped across the threshold.
Incense walloped her nose first, the oils as musky as a deer in heat. Two censers dangled near the door, not in active use with no ceremony to conduct but the scent lingered around them in anticipation. There weren’t any pews, only a handful of chairs along the back. Mostly it was a small shrine to Andraste, the Lady in all white extending her hands out to her people while painted flames of gold flickered up and down her dress. Three painted backgrounds made up the scenery behind her, each one displaying her life in easy to understand form. Birth, Life, and Death; it was the same for anyone else in thedas, though hers involved a lot more of the Maker’s attentions and toppling of an empire.
Reiss glanced warily around, realizing she had no idea what she was supposed to do. Even when escorting the King to the chantry, she’d wait outside. While there were tales of a few elves slipping in and out of the smaller chantries across Denerim, it didn’t seem to be her place. Biting the inside of her cheek just to feel something Reiss glanced up at the stone face of the Prophet. She was supposed to fix everything, to stop the evil mages from hurting people, to free the elves from slavery. Well, there were still evil mages running around hurting people and elves... Caring about elves required admitting that they were people first, a task that seemed almost impossible for most humans.
“She’s quite lovely,” a crackling voice whispered beside Reiss.
All but leaping to the side, Reiss’ hand drifted down to her side where thankfully no sword waited for her. Drawing a blade upon a chantry cleric would be her final straw for certain. “I...” Reiss blinked slowly and nodded, “yes, she is.”
“I’ve always wondered why she looks so Orlesian in all the paintings and statues. Pretty rouged up cheeks, a deathly pallor as if she’d never marched armies in the sun, bright glistening robes instead of the battle armor needed. Not even the fabled Ferelden stature, always tiny as a twig.”
Reiss glanced upward at the same face pictured and sculpted across all of thedas -- the bride of the Maker wasn’t often depicted as a warrior but the woman waiting in anticipation in the bridal suite. Chaste and pure, not coated in blood and muck from getting into the dirt and stirring up shit. “I’d never thought about it,” she said, her eyes drawn to the flickering bowls instead.
“It is a pretty form either way,” the cleric said with a smile. “May I ask what brings you in here today? We don’t often get elves.”
“I’m sorry, Sister,” Reiss turned to scamper away, “I should not have...”
“No, please,” her tiny hand gripped tight to Reiss’ arm and managed to hold the warrior in place. “Something must have brought you to me, to...Her,” she gestured with her flat chin up to the Prophetess gazing lovingly down at no one. “There is pain in your eyes. I’d imagine in your heart as well.”
She shuddered at how quickly this unknown woman sussed her out. Reiss survived by hiding, balling up her emotions and burying them behind thick armor so no one else could pick them off her. But untethered from everything she’d ever known she couldn’t cling to a single rope hold, her entire life picked open like a gaping wound.
“Jader,” Reiss gasped out.
“A true tragedy,” the woman drew her fingertips to her forehead and then brought them together in a prayer. Those bright pale eyes slipped closed as she whispered words from the chant through tight lips. “How can so much evil be allowed to exist in this world?”
Because silent tongues let it fester. The thought burned fast in Reiss’ mind as she stared at the woman, but she shook it off. Her hatred would only lash back at her, no one else truly feeling the sting. No, maybe one other person.
After finishing her prayer, the woman smiled sadly, “Do you have friends there? Family?”
“My sister,” she didn’t know why she was talking to this unknown elderly woman. Reiss never knew any of her grandparents. There’d been an uncle in one of the alienages, but between the blight and time, she’d long lost any track of other family. It was only her sister and brother since the blight, and maybe now just her brother.
Tears tumbled down Reiss’ cheeks as her shoulders began to shake. “She was in the chantry, worked in it as a Sister.”
“Blessed be,” the woman didn’t gasp in pain but smiled brightly as if Reiss told her Atisha won some grand award.
Shaking it off, Reiss stepped towards the statue of Andraste and stared upward at the face that gazed past all the concerns of a little elf. What did her troubles matter in thedas? “I don’t know if-if she’s okay, or...not.” Death floated through her life with every waking breath but somehow Reiss couldn’t imagine the bright light of Atisha extinguished so cruelly. Was she burned alive while begging for help at the base of a statue just like this one?
“I told her not to do it, not to take the vows. It painted a target on her back, the first elf in a chantry? An Orlesian chantry?” Shaking her head, Reiss glared up at the face. “How could you?” she whispered to Andraste, the Prophet’s serene gaze never wavering. She was supposed to protect them, to help them, but just like all the rest She didn’t care. “Atisha gave her everything for the chantry even before the new Divine, before she could be anything other than a cook. And they, it...”
Fingers glanced across Reiss’ shoulder, “We cannot all see the Maker’s plan, often things are set in motion far beyond our comprehension but we must trust in it. All things happen for a reason.”
The reason being hatred blankets out common sense, love means nothing when it goes toe to toe against despair, and in the end good doesn’t triumph over evil when good gives up on the fight before it’s even begun. She wanted to scream that and more in the woman’s face, to point out how if humans weren’t so terrified of a set of pointy ears that her sister would be alive. Atisha wouldn’t be some aberrant freak paraded around as the savage elf that learned to speak the chant, leaving her open to arrows from all sides. There would be dozens of others, normal elves trying to survive just like the rest of them.
But she couldn’t say it, because even without any true education Reiss knew what it would get her: an argument, a curse, a potential whack on the knuckles, and the label of dissident. People were most happy with elves that frolicked, dressed in little more than strips of gauze to be pretty play things. When they stand up and start asking for more, then the claws come out, often from the kind hand that swore they’d watch your back. Life taught her how to hold her tongue because a kick to the head is the sharpest teacher of them all.
“Thank you, Sister,” Reiss bowed her head, needing to get away quickly. Stepping past the woman, the numbness in her soul burned away as a fire licked through her veins. It felt like she drank the same potion they used to stoke Andraste’s holy pyre, her entire body hot with the blue flame.
“It’s Mother, actually,” the woman said, needing to get in the last word. “Please, return here anytime you require a balm for your soul.”
Atisha believed in the chantry. She felt something neither Reiss nor later Lorace ever did while listening to the chant. Her calling, as she kept insisting. Even when her elder sister pointed out that the chantry didn’t like elves listening in on services, Atisha would find ways to sit near the chanters. Every setback drove her to try harder, every cleric or Mother dragging her out by the pointed ear convinced Atisha to try a new way in. She loved Andraste with all her heart regardless of how much Her followers hated her. It was idiotic, and often drove Reiss to wishing to scream the belief out of her sister, but nothing could shake her.
Outside the tiny chantry, without anyone watching, Reiss folded her hands and in her head said the only prayer she could think of. Maker, if you took her away from me, from this world she was trying so hard to help, please just...look out for her. She loved You without any good reason and deserves better.
Alistair knew better than to tell Karelle that she was imagining whatever she thought she saw. Sadly, he didn’t know any way to try and tell his chamberlain to not talk about the thing that wasn’t in any way untoward of interesting for the gossip mill without making it a big deal. She was too damn good at her job for him to have her killed outright, so that left his final option -- playing fully stupid. It was the one skill he mastered.
If his chamberlain inquired anything about his bodyguard, Alistair would glance around as if he was following a butterfly, or less than politely change the topic by leaping to his feet and demanding they all dance. He doubted it worked, but it seemed to annoy Karelle enough her pointed questions faded away before anyone else started in. While he knew some of the court would find his assumed dalliances entertaining -- the Banns were always amused at how their King kept rutting around in the ‘working class’ -- Eamon would be a different story. He believed in tradition and keeping things within the castle as it were. Then again, technically Alistair had.
By the time he returned to his room, he wasn’t certain what to do. Thanks to his earlier requests, Charles brought in a fresh bouquet of lavender and mint because when it came to thinking of what to give a women, apparently Alistair defaulted to what went into refreshing drinks. Absently, his fingers plucked up a few sprigs of lavender as he stepped to Reiss’ door. It was becoming routine in the way double knotting his boots kept him feeling safe, but after his fist gently knocked into her door, he froze. What would she think of that gesture? Bringing a flower to her when she was in so much pain? Would she worry he only cared about, uh, organizing her drawers, as it were?
Foolish, it was better to not bring anything. He moved to toss the lavender back into his room when the door cracked open and Reiss stared up into his eyes. “Hi,” Alistair squeaked out, his fingers traitorously twirling the flowered herb.
Her bloodshot, heart breaking eyes followed the movement and she reached out to pluck the offering from him. He braced himself to have it tossed into his face, but Reiss forced on a soft smile as she placed it into the vase holding the rest of the flowers he brought her. With the fingers free, Alistair gripped onto the doorframe and leaned into her room. “How are you doing?” he asked, uncertain if he should enter.
Reiss turned from her little vanity to face him. Plopping onto the bed, she asked, “How do I look?”
Terrible. Her cheeks were so raw, it looked like pinpricks of blood were dashed across them from continual crying. The skin below that was wan and nearly yellow as parchment, while darkness hovered under her pain filled eyes.
Sliding into the room, Alistair picked up her cold hand and smiled, “Beautiful.”
“I do own a mirror, you know,” she said, a hint of something other than despair floating in her tone.
Alistair glanced behind himself to watch their copies acting out the same attempt of him pathetically trying to console a woman perched upon the edge of a cliff. Uncertain if her sister lived or died, Reiss seemed to keep going on by assuming the worst. In her shoes, he’d probably do the same.
A plate of food sat upon her vanity beside the bouquet, no doubt from Karelle, but it looked untouched. Swiveling back to her, Alistair wrapped both his hands around her small one. Her fingers all but disappeared inside of his fumbling mitts, so surprisingly dainty for someone that wielded a sword. He couldn’t stop running the back of his thumbnail up and down each finger, feeling the bone hiding below her pale flesh.
“I don’t know what to do,” Alistair whispered, wishing he had an answer to help her.
“Neither do I,” Reiss admitted. “I’ve been going through her old letters to...maybe I shouldn’t do that.” She fumbled through a small box sitting on her bed. Parchment lay scattered across her duvet, each one in very fancy handwriting. Scooping up the wayward letters, Reiss stacked them together and placed all back into the box. When she finished, she patted the empty bed and Alistair sat down beside her.
“Do whatever helps,” he said. Sitting on the edge, he watched his knees knock together in an arrhythmic song.
“That’s the problem,” she pulled her shoeless feet up off the floor and tucked a knee under her chin, “I don’t know if it helps or hurts.”
Maker, he wished he was better at this. That he had the magic words, or the right ideas; even the ability to give a really good hug might help. But no, all she had was him in his fumbling, idiotic state -- poor girl.
Unaware of Alistair mentally kicking himself, Reiss reached forward for something sitting inside her box. She drew up what looked like pieces of grass braided tightly into a chain. Catching his curious look, she explained, “Atisha, she...she used to find slips of plants and knot them together to make bracelets or necklaces. Sometimes she’d trade them through the camp for bits and bobbles, then use that to make more. I...I told her to stop it.”
The bracelet slipped out of Reiss’ fingers as she wrapped her palms against her eyes. “I don’t even know why. It wasn’t hurting anyone, the others in the camp liked them, it made us feel like...like people for a bit. But I, knowing me I got mad, and snapped, and took it out on my little sister who was only trying to...”
He wrapped his arms around her, Reiss’ crumpled body thudding into his chest while she berated herself for something decades past. Slowly, Alistair rubbed his hands up and down Reiss’ arms while he said, “It’s not your fault.”
“She was a child,” Reiss cried, needing to hurt herself.
Alistair bumped his chin into her forehead, wishing he could see her eyes, but she kept them covered as if afraid of the King seeing her cry. Brushing his cheek against her skin, he whispered, “So were you.”
The dam shattered again, Reiss gasping like someone kicked her in the chest. Her fingers flew from her eyes to grip tight to him. Rocking with her, Alistair buried his face into the top of her head. No words passed between them for minutes, perhaps hours. He couldn’t tell as he tried to hug her and she clung to him. It was all he could think to do.
After a bit, Reiss’ tears stopped and she lifted her head away from her knees. That caused him to draw back, but he kept ahold of her while she stared into his eyes. “This is...probably not what you were hoping for tonight.”
She shrugged, half her face squinting in pain, “I’m not very good at this mistressing thing.”
“Hey,” he tried to catch her eye but she kept glancing towards the door that led to the hallway. “I don’t need to have someone entertain me at all hours of the day. I can handle myself, usually. You’re not failing at anything here. You’re in pain, but...I want to be here for you. To help, somehow.”
“Because I,” careful there Alistair, “care for you.” Whew. She seemed to sigh at his avoiding the big L cannon. “And, I know what it’s like to lose someone close to you,” he kept talking quickly, trying to cover up for the awkward moment, “someone you never thought could die. Who was not just your life, but your tentpole. The person that through everything would always come back.”
Reiss drew her fingers across her eyes, smearing away the tears and asked, “Is this about the Hero?”
Duncan floated through his mind first. The first person to ever listen to him, to let Alistair choose what he wanted in life instead of dictating it for him. “When I received word that Lanny died I crawled into bed and didn’t get out for two weeks. They were sending healers on the regular, scooting food under the door, once they even had the entire kennel of mabari climb onto the bed with me to try to get me out.”
“I got stubborn, stubborner than usual, and every time Eamon or the rest insisted I had to put on a brave face for the sake of the People I refused. My world stopped that day and...the worst part was how nothing really changed. She was gone and yet birds kept cheeping, pies kept baking, people kept laughing and smiling as if--as if the most cataclysmic thing in thedas didn’t just occur.”
Reiss nodded along, her bun bumping into his chin as she did. “It’s surreal, like a waking nightmare. Everything’s different but not. How did you...? I shouldn’t ask that, it’s far too personal.”
Alistair smiled at her and wrapped his arms tighter, “I got hungry, famished really, and while sneaking away with a tray of food I stumbled across a book Lanny lent me ages back. Never got around to reading the thing because she was always sending me books. The woman is a walking library. While I was flipping through it, I kept finding small notes she’d leave. Not meant for me, but to herself. Comments on sentences, musings on the various ‘motifs of story structure and how it relates to the ideal.’ It’s stupid but finding that, seeing her silly little words about nothing important made me feel better because she wasn’t all gone. Some things remained.”
“But,” Reiss fell silent a moment in his arms, “she returned to you.”
“Not entirely, and not for two years. Those were a long two years, ones I didn’t think would get better.”
“And yet they did, you healed as one does and gets over the loss,” she spat out quickly, seeming to need to psyche herself up for healing.
“No,” Alistair whispered to the air, “some people you never really get over. You patch up the hole in your leaking soul with time and distractions, but it’s always taking on water. Every now and then it needs a bit of bailing to keep you afloat.”
“That’s surprisingly poetic,” she whispered to him.
“Guess who I learned it from.”
Reiss chuckled at that, nodding her head against him. “I should...” she glanced around the room as if trying to find something to distract herself with. “Um....”
Opening his arms, Alistair scooted back but not away from her. He slicked up his hair and, with his fingers knocking together, brought forth the only idea he had. “I was wondering if you didn’t want to, uh, have a go.”
“A go?” she almost flinched at the idea.
“In the...with...” he folded his hands into fists and punched at the air. “I make a pretty good punching bag,” Alistair shrugged.
A smile that lifted his spirits crested across Reiss’ face. She drew a palm under her eyes to mop up the tears and nodded. “Yes, I...I think that having a go at each other will do wonders.”
Alistair stood off the bed while she picked up the box of her sister’s mementos and carefully tied a string around it. Offering her his hand, he glanced over at the mage box, “Shall we bring the music or should I just hum a few bars?”
Lifting to her feet, Reiss smiled, “I think we can make due without.”
He anticipated her to be vengeful, and rightly so given all the poison building up inside her heart, but Reiss attacked him with a methodical pounding. Alistair had no hope to get a punch in edgewise, all he could do was try to limit the damage she did to him. At the end he was certain he’d be finding some beautiful bruises sprouting up and down his forearms, as well as one perfectly placed punch to his stomach, but as the sweat and tension lifted from the room all the pain faded at her exhausted but slightly smiling face.
Snatching up a towel on the dummy’s head, Alistair passed it first to her. Reiss dabbed at her forehead, and said, “Thank you.”
“I believe it is customary to let the lady wipe the fight sweat off first. I read it in an etiquette book.”
She chuckled at that before handing it back to him to do just as he said. “This helped, more than I thought it would.”
“Fighting, feeling my muscles move into the old formations, following the flit of an arrow to the target always helps to calm me down. It’s why I had this room installed. Well, that and I hated every damn piece of furniture in here,” Tossing down the towel, Alistair whispered in her ear, “There was a life sized clown doll right over there.”
Reiss glanced to the corner, her eyebrows bent in concern, “Whatever for?”
“I didn’t ask because I was afraid of the answer.”
Laughing even more at that, she ran her fingers down his battered forearms to grip onto his hand. Alistair turned to return the favor, happiness swelling inside of him that he helped in whatever tiny way he could. “Are you feeling better?” he asked.
“I am,” Reiss nodded.
“It’s okay if you’re not up to bodyguarding tomorrow,” he panicked, worried that he sounded like the grumbling boss instead of the concerned boyfriend. “I can stay in house, or...”
“No, I’d...I would prefer to return to my duties. Wallowing won’t help anyone,” Reiss said, her eyes flitting back to her small room. “How did you get along without me today?”
“While I missed your company, it wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. Karelle sent Brunt up to fill your place which also meant my children got to attend court for awhile.”
“Actually, I need to invite them along more often. Spud insisted she belonged in the throne, then that I needed to sit in it while she sat on me. This was as some banker was defending his choices to something or other with interest and tax rates about other things I was paying close attention to with a squirming three year old in my lap.”
Reiss’ cheeks lit up and she glared at the ground, “How is that not disaster?”
“Because midway through the longest conversation on who has the rights to breed a donkey I have ever been forced to witness, my son decided to not just soil his drawers but give a great enough poop explosion that it streaked down the blankets and ended up on the floor,” he laughed to himself, grateful he hadn’t been the one carrying Cailan at the time. “That cleared the room in an instant, everyone with business for the crown insisting they had something else to be doing that day, far far away from baby poop explosion.”
Reiss’ shoulders shook with her silent laughter. Her perky cheeks lifted even higher as she spoke, “Maker’s sake, they can’t deal with a little baby shit?”
“This was no little. I’m starting to think that kid’s secretly eating whole druffalo when no one’s looking. Gotta say, I was impressed. Horrified, but impressed.” Alistair swung their clasped hands together as he found himself bobbing away in her pretty eyes. Shaking off the urge to kiss her, he sighed, “After that spectacle, I spent most of the day with my kids. Post baby clean up. Spud tried to paint my hair, then we all had another bath, and Brunt more or less stood there like a silent statue glaring at us all.”
“I don’t say much on the job, either,” Reiss said.
“No, but you give little nods or smile on occasion when something happens. You’re not frozen without anything going on behind those eyes. I swear he’s sleeping while standing upright.”
“With his eyes open?” she asked.
“I knew a Warden that could do that. Freaked us all out so we’d bury his face under leaves.”
As his little laugh dissipated in the air, heavy silence descended in its place. He wanted to hug her, to tell her that he was there for her, that he’d do whatever he could to help. But she was so strong, it made him feel like anything he did try would probably be pathetic or a waste of her time.
“It still hurts,” she whispered, her eyes closed tight.
Ignoring the fact they were both coated in fight-sweat, Alistair wrapped her tight to his body. “It’s okay,” he whispered.
“It’ll be okay?” she asked.
“No, just that it’s okay to hurt.”
Reiss blinked a few times, her eyes darting through the air as if she was speed reading something. After a beat she glanced up into his face and a bottomless gratitude washed across her. “How are you so damn smart?”
A rampaging blush burned across one cheek, then leapt to the other as Alistair gulped at the air. “I...uh, I doubt you’d find anyone to ever agree with...”
Before he could finish, she lifted up on her toes, her lips crushing tight to his. As he tipped his head, giving her nose breathing room, her mouth softened, and Alistair matched in kind. There wasn’t any heat. No, there was some because there always was whenever he kissed her. But what bowled him over instead of lust was a sense of comfort, a longing he didn’t even notice, being swaddled by her mere presence as she circled her fingers against his back. Reiss drew a calm to him with an ease he never thought possible.
Sliding her lips to the side, she kissed once against his cheek and whispered, “Thank you, again. Could I...May we sit out on your balcony for a time watching the stars together?”
A smile rose through Alistair’s jittery nerves and he cupped her cheek, “I wouldn’t love anything more.” Taking one more kiss before he regretfully had to break from her, Alistair moved to step away, but Reiss kept their hands locked together. Maybe, maybe she needed this bond as much as he did.