Cresca was stronger than a bear and twice as quick. By the time the trainer stepped back and gestured for Fenlin to stop their spar, the elf was covered in bruises and sand. Her second wind had come to her though: Fenlin had finally started being able to parry and dodge the trainer’s attacks half of the time. Not successfully, but this woman was a warrior and Fenlin had gotten soft, relying on magic too often.
Her mother would have been terribly smug about that realization.
“Cresca. Master requires the elf if she has finished training for the day.” Fen looked over her shoulder to see a guard, hands clasped in front of him.
“She has,” Cresca said. “She is not hopeless but will require personalized training if she’s to be ready by the festival.”
Fen nodded to Cresca and hobbled towards the weapons rack and to replace the wooden daggers where she’d picked them up. All at once the aches seemed to coalesce into life, through the adrenaline and exhaustion. Fen grit her teeth, pulling at the masque. She wanted to breathe.
“Leave it on until the Master requests you remove it,” the guard said. “Follow.”
Silently cursing Orlesian tastes and Tevene magisters, Fenlin followed the guard through the shaded doorway and into a corridor. Beyond the hedge she could hear voices and chatter. Other fighters then, but why was she being kept separate? Fenlin frowned behind her masque. Something to think about after seeing what Polonius wanted. It seemed that the master always wanted something. Wash and scrub the dirt of the ship off. Dress this way. Listen to him read one of the books. Ugh.
The guard led her through the barracks and into a courtyard, shaded by fig trees and with a small fountain bubbling at the centre.
“Wash the sand from yourself,” the guard said, pointing at the fountain.
Fen glared at him through the eyes of the masque, but hobbled to the fountain. The water was fresh on her hot skin, and as she washed away the dust and grime she felt a little sorry she’d glared at the man. He was only doing his job and for all she knew, the guard might be a slave too.
Once she was cleaned, Fen wiped her hands on the flaps of her skirt and relished the cooling feeling as the dry air sucked away moisture from her skin. From her aching, bruised, and scraped skin.
“Follow,” the guard said again, and this time Fenlin tried not to stare at the frescoes and paintings on the walls of the villa. The furniture, the gauzy curtains and lush carpets, all things of such luxury that she could hardly believe this was a simple home and not a palace. Did all magisters live in this kind of luxury? Had Rahlen grown up in better as a Prince? Hanin surely had, being the son of the Inquisitor. Suddenly she felt very small, and very unimportant. She’d grown up in abandoned temples, tents and a swamp. One of the main highlights of her childhood had been discovering the spell to keep away mosquitoes.
The guard stopped at a door and knocked twice, facing Fenlin. He looked bored, and she wondered how quickly he might react if she reached for his sword.
“Come in,” Polonius’s voice called through the door before Fenlin had a chance to make a grab for the guard’s weapon.
The guard opened the door and motioned for Fenlin to go in. She couldn’t. Fen was rooted to the spot the moment she saw Rahlen. The prince was sitting on a wooden table much like the one Polonius had treated Fenlin upon on the ship, his injured leg extended out onto a chair in front of Polonius. Two guards flanked the magister who wiped his hands on a cloth, stained red.
“Ah, our huntress returns,” Polonius said. Fenlin was grateful for the masque then, to hide the furious blush as Rahlen looked up and stared at her. His mouth hung open and Fenlin tugged the masque a little lower, wishing it hid the brilliantly red ears that poked out through her braids.
“Come, let me tend to these bruises,” Polonius said. “Sit next to your Ferelden friend. He should rest his leg, the work done today was extensive, but will require still more before he will be able to train.”
Fenlin hesitantly walked forward, unable to make eye contact with Rahlen, though he was still watching her with wide eyes. His ears had gone red… wait. Fenlin blinked and pointed at his head. His hair was gone. Well, not all gone, but-
“Ah, yeah.” Rahlen said, running a palm over his cropped hair, shorn tight along the sides. He seemed sheepish, almost…shy? “In the heat and if I’m to fight, long hair wouldn’t be a good idea. I didn’t argue when Polonius had one of the others cut it.”
“Quite right,” Polonius said, pointing to the wooden table. “Don’t make me ask again, huntress. Please, sit.”
Fen bobbed her head, hopping up onto the table and awkwardly tucked her hands in between her knees, clasping her fingers together and staring intensely at them. She tried not to think about how warm Rahlen felt next to her, even though she wasn’t touching his skin at all. He just sort of radiated heat.
“Ferelden,“ Polonius said kindly. “You can talk. Tell me. Are you two lovers?”
If she had the voice to, Fenlin would have squawked, as it was she straightened abruptly, glancing at Rahlen the the Magister. Even Rahlen seemed taken aback. Polonius just seemed amused, his lips curling into a smile as he lifted a draught of lyrium to his lips. He downed it, waiting for a reply and ran his hands over one of the nastier bruises on Fenlin’s arm. She could feel the magic gather, starting to heal the injury.
“No?” Rahlen said, sounding just as confused as Fenlin felt. “I- she pulled me from the water after the ship I was on wrecked. I owe her a life debt but we aren’t- at least I-”
The master waved away the babbling. Fenlin was staring even harder at her hands now, crushing them between her knees.
“Good, good,” Polonius said. “You see, there is a great demand for fighters after they make a good showing. I would hate for jealousy to arise over something so simple. Especially with our little huntress’s first event so soon.”
Fenlin blinked, then as what the master’s meaning sank in, she shoved Polonius’s hands away and moved to hop off the table. She wouldn’t do that. Fighting? Sure but… but being rented out? It made her skin crawl and bile rise in her throat.
“Ah, you wish to leave so soon?” Polonius asked, his voice smoother than a viper’s. “If you do not wish to participate in the festival, I will have to send in our Ferelden friend here. Unfortunately, his leg will not have enough time to heal before he faces the Champion of Qarinus.”
Fenlin stopped, hands balling into fists. Beside her, Rahlen cursed in a hiss of breath. Polonius just smiled, like he’d smiled on the boat when he talked about the ‘killing instinct’ he’d seen in her.
“I’’ll fight,” Rahlen said, putting an arm in front of the small elf.
Fenlin frowned, then took Rahlen’s arm gently and moved it to rest on his lap. She kept her hands on it to keep him from lashing out or doing something stupid. Shaking her head, Fenlin pointed at his leg. Rahlen had to heal. Then… Polonius would just find some other blackmail to keep her compliant.
Her mother’s voice kept ringing in her head. Trust no one, plan, gather information and when the opportunity comes to strike, do not hesitate.
“Such a touching devotion, really,” Polonius said. He was enjoying himself immensely, the smile now a grin. “I’m glad we all understand each other regardless of ability to speak.” The master cupped Fenlin’s chin, looking through the masque’s eyeholes to study her expression. She grit her teeth and stared back, telling herself she’d be the one to kill him. Some day.
“Don’t worry huntress, no one will touch you until after your first fight.” Polonius said, running his thumb along her jaw. Fenlin wanted to slam her fist into his throat. Instead, her dug her fingers into the wooden table’s edge. Beside her, Rahlen had gone stiff, but she couldn’t look at him. Not right now. Maybe not ever again.
“Now,” Polonius said. “Lets finish healing these bruises so you can be at your best for tomorrow’s training.”
Rahlen wasn’t sure how he felt. He had no frame of reference for the roiling and colliding emotions in his chest. Locked in a cell that had a cot, a chamber pot and little else, he was alone with his thoughts and none of them were enjoyable. Well, the sight of Fenlin safe had been, especially dressed… like that, but the memory was tainted by what the Master had said.
That she’d be sold for a night after her fight. To make it worse, she was fighting so that he didn’t have to. Polonius was healing Rahlen’s leg, but the Prince knew that the Master was taking longer than he had to. Intentionally.
Still, the bastard Polonius made sure that Rahlen was there every time Fenlin finished her training. Every time, Rahlen would only be on the wooden table for ten, maybe twenty minutes before the small elf limped into the room, covered in bruises or worse. And Rahlen had to sit there, every time, watching as the Master healed every hurt on Fenlin’s small body, all while knowing this was because of him. Because of his maker-damned leg.
When they were out of this horrible place, he would figure out how to make her the first elven Arl or… or something. Something important.
Rahlen finally admitted to himself then, that he was homesick. Not for Orlais, but Ferelden. The rocky fields, the sound of happy Mabari as they followed their chosen owners along in life. His mother’s gentle smile at his father’s terrible jokes. He wanted to see the Cousland castle, to be lectured by his sister or spar with his brother and ask how the wedding planning was going.
The dry heat of Tevinter where the sun was a punishing thing, worse than any of the slavers, made Rahlen realise just how much he missed the freedom of home. Even the circle, for all it’s changes, had restrictions that had chafed from time to time. Sitting in the cell, behind a locked iron door, wearing a Collar, Rahlen understood a little better what had driven the Mage rebellions before he had been born.
If the Kirkwall Circle had used underhanded tactics like Polonius was: blackmail and threatening harm to ensure cooperation, Rahlen didn’t blame the apostates who had tried to escape.
“Time to get up, Ferelden.” The clang of a shield on the iron bars jolted Rahlen back to the present. Sitting up, Rahlen swung his legs off the cot and stood with a grunt. The muscle on his injured leg was working better every day, but it ached, too new to be used to holding up his weight.
“It’s early for the healing isn’t it?” he asked the guard, who just shrugged.
“Polonius wants all the gladiators to watch the fights tonight,” the guard said, her eyes lingering over Rahlen’s bare torso. “Even the injured ones. You’ll be travelling with the other new recruits.”
Hah. Recruits, as though they had signed on for this. Rahlen rolled his shoulders and limped forward, slipping his hands through the bars so that the guard could put shackles on his wrists. It had become routine, and routines could be exploited, once Rahlen’s leg was fully healed at least.
Shackles in place, the guard opened the door and led Rahlen down the hall to the mess area. Over the last week, Rahlen had watched the gladiators practice, but was kept separate for a reason that he hadn’t quite figured out. Whether it was due to the injury, or because Polonius wanted to make him grateful for when Rahlen was able to join the others, the Prince hadn’t figured it out yet. Yet.
Spotting Hanin, Rahlen tilted his chin up at the elf, and limped over to join him. The man had a number of purpling bruises, but he looked more at ease than when Rahlen had spoken with him last, as the guards had literally dragged Hanin away to the main barracks.
“Your leg is looking better,” Hanin said, hands similarly shackled. “Are you going to be able to join the rest of us in training soon? These fuckers fight dirty,” Hanin added with a glare at a female dwarf. The dwarf made a lewd gesture and laughed.
“Hey, you keep leaving that handsome chest of yours open,” she said with a wink. “What girl wouldn’t want to get her hands on it?”
Hanin glowered, his sunburnt shoulders drooping as his weakness in practice was pointed out in front of everyone. Rahlen smiled, for the first time in… days. It looked like the elf had been able to vent some of the frustration of being enslaved, even just a little. Rahlen envied him.
“Hey,” he said quietly, leaning in to Hanin. “Have you seen Fenlin? the Master seems to be, weird, about her.” Rahlen didn’t go into specifics. He didn’t feel right telling Hanin that Fen was being blackmailed into fighting, or maybe worse.
Hanin blinked, staring up at Rahlen for a long moment.
“Fenlin? That’s the mute girl you were with right? She’s here?” Hanin asked, surprised. Then he pulled back, eyes wide. “Oh shit, oh shit! She’s the one who’s been in the other training yard,” he said. Immediately the dwarf was by their side, followed by a human who was nearly as tall as Rahlen was.
“You know the fighter that’s taking on the Champion tonight?” The Dwarf said, eyes wide. “What are they like? Do you think they’ll survive? Corsair keeps thinking it’s a qunari. One of them Tal-Vashoth.”
Champion? Rahlen frowned, looking at Hanin for an explanation. He didn’t get one.
“Line up for the cart,” the guard said. “Try anything dumb and we’ll use you as fodder for the bear show.”
Fenlin was pacing in the darkened room where she had been told to wait. She felt numb, as though all the anxiety and tension of the last few days had been siphoned off and bottled up for later. Her hands were dry as she gripped the twin daggers, twirling them back and forth to adjust to the weight of them. The training pair were heavier and these had a better balance, their edges sharpened to gleam in the torchlight of the room. Her mother would be able to make the knives dance, Fenlin just wanted them to go into the opponent instead of into her.
The armor she’d been given was hardly… armored. Instead it was some abomination of dalish design, cut to reveal skin more than to protect precious organs. The mask she was told to wear was leather, tooled to look like Andruil’s owl, though it thankfully left half her mouth free to breathe. She looked like a whore dressed up like an owl more than she looked like any kind of hunter.
While Fenlin waited, she bounced from foot to foot, trying to keep her muscles warm. The bouncing also was to ensure that the costume (because whatever she was wearing, it was not truly armor) didn’t catch or snag or slip out of place.
The crowd roared, echoing through the stone halls. Someone had died, then. Fenlin let out a slow breath, rubbing her throat where the collar had sat all week. And now it was gone, lest it get in the way of a killing blow. A shame, it would have been more protection than anything else she was wearing.
“Huntress, follow me,” the guard at her door said. Fenlin swallowed hard, and nodded, following the man through darkened corridors to a ramp that led up to the arena itself. Sunset stained the sand red, making it look as though the entire arena was stained with blood.
It probably was.
Torches ringed the arena providing light for when the sun finally set. Although they could be impromptu weapons should she lose a dagger in the battle. A last ditch effort, should it come to that. And if things went terribly, she could always change into a mouse and burrow into the sand.
“Wait until they announce you,” the guard said, eying her. “A word of advice: play to the crowd. Polonius favours those who do. With who you’re facing, you’ll need that favor to be spared.”
Thanks, buddy. Fenlin closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. She tried to channel her mother, the icy stillness, the nerves of steel. The ruthlessness that Fenlin had seen when the family or cult came under threat. She just felt like a poor imitation. Fenlin was fire, not ice. She always had been.
“Tonight! Hold your breath as Master Polonius presents to you a rare treat. A wild elf, captured in the Brescillian forests after slaying no less than five men,” Fenlin opened her eyes. What? They’d caught her in the damn bathhouse. Injured.
“Sworn to silence to better serve her heathen goddess, allow me to present for the first time in Qarinus, THE SAVAGE HUNTRESS!”
The crowd gasped, and for a moment Fenlin froze. The guard next to her placed a hand on her back and shoved her forward. Stumbling the first steps, Fenlin caught her balance. She pressed her shoulders back and chin up. Walking out into the arena, she looked around with wide eyes at the cheering crowds, calling for her blood. She didn’t need to act the confused savage, she felt exactly that right now. A foreign elf in strange lands, unsure if she would survive the mercy of the crowd or the ferocity of her opponent.
Remembering Polonius’s words and the Guard’s warning, Fenlin pointed up at the crowd. They roared, and she watched in confusion at the simple gesture’s response. Were humans that easy to please? But no, there were elves too, further up in the stands. How… how could they watch this?
“And now, the hunter becomes the hunted,” the announcer boomed over the sounds of the crowd. “Our golden wolf, unbeaten, uncowed, vicious and bloodthirsty, Qarinus’s Champion….” the announcer paused as the crowd grew deafeningly loud.
They started to chant, and the words they did caught Fenlin off-guard.
“FEN’HAREL!” the announcer screamed, gesturing to the opposite side of the Arena.
Swallowing hard, Fenlin fell into a crouch as her opponent walked out, arms spread wide. He was golden, wearing wolf fur across his shoulder, the armor (he got actual armor!) gilded and glinting bright in the torchlight. In his hand was a spear, the end tipped in a long leaf blade. The reach he would have offered a clear advantage, well beyond that of the armor he wore. But the spear offered opportunity as well. If she could get past his guard, she could strike the chest and bared arms.
The Golden Wolf grandstanded for the crowd, and Fenlin watched his movements: the way he stepped in the sand, the way he held the spear. Half-forgotten lessons from her mother slowly resurfacing as she adjusted her grip on the two daggers.
Trumpets announced the beginning of the fight and Fenlin prowled in a slow circle around the golden wolf, watching for an opening. In turn, the man walked, keeping opposite to her, his spear at the ready. Gauging each other, the way a wolf and hunter might do so in the forest, instead of being on hot sand in Tevinter, fighting for amusement.
He moved lightning quick, flicking the spear down and snapping it up, tossing sand into her direction. Fenlin tucked and rolled forward, instinct telling her to move instead of to block. She rolled to her feet, seeing that the golden wolf was already recovering from his lunge, the blade of the spear retreating from the space she’d occupied just heartbeats ago. That would have been a quick end.
Taking inspiration from his own tactic, Fen caught a handful of sand and flung it up into the man’s helmet. She was closer, with better aim, and succeeded in getting the man to stagger back, shaking his head under the helmet. The crowd gasped, then roared it’s disapproval at the move they had cheered moments before. Fenlin scampered around and into the wolf’s guard to slice at the man’s back. She scored a hit, drawing two lines of red across his golden skin. This close, she realised his skin was oiled, she realised, to make grappling difficult.
Yet here she was with stupid straps to grab ont-
Distracted, Fenlin didn’t see the butt of the mans’ spear until it connected with her cheek. It knocked her back, sending the useless mask askew. The eyeholes no longer lined up with her face, the leather effectively blinded her. Fenlin scrambled back, dropping one of the knives to reach for her mask and tear it off. She tossed it aside, and leapt to the side to dodge the man’s spear thrust.
The Golden Wolf hesitated for a moment and it was all Fenlin needed, her mother’s advice echoing among the ringing in her ears. ‘Do not hesitate.’
She sprinted forwards, sliding under the jab of the wolf’s spear, and scissored her legs to catch and trap the man’s knee. Fenlin dug her remaining dagger into the sand and used the extra leverage to twist. Her legs forced the joint to bend, bringing the man down to his knees with a thud and a grunt of surprise. Good.
Fingers grabbing onto his fur, Fen hauled herself up onto his back, ready to slam the dagger into his side. The man rolled before she could, trying to dislodge her. Fenlin hung on, losing her last dagger in the process. Yet even as the champion staggered to his feet, Fenlin clung on still. She wrapped an arm around his throat, digging her toes into the band of his heavy leather belt.
Fen reached around him with her free hand and hooked her fingers through the visor of the man’s helmet, pulling it off. As she tossed it aside, Fenlin felt the man grab the arm around his neck and bend. Already off balance, her fingers lost purchase, his oiled skin too slippery to hold onto. Flying through the air, Fenlin landed on her back, gasping as air was pushed from her lungs. Rolling onto her front, the small woman pushed herself up to hands and knees, watching for the death blow she knew was coming. She’d face it directly, at least.
The man standing before her was golden, his skin, his hair, his remaining armor. The Spear was held loosely at his side, fingers ready to drop it. The Golden Wolf looked shocked, and he dropped the spear.
“Fenlin?” Athim whispered. “Fennel, is… that you?”
The gasp of air caught in her throat, and Fen’s eyes flew open wide. She wouldn’t have recognized him at first, too caught up in survival, in trying to put on a good show, but hearing his voice (deeper now) and seeing his face, (grown up and square jawed) tipped her memory.
Leaping up, she ran at him. This time, the champion of Qarinus didn’t try to block her. Instead of attacking, Fen threw her herself at him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and her legs around his waist. She held on tight Athim, face pressed against his shoulder. Her shoulders trembled, and she felt him stagger under the unexpected weight, but he returned the hug just as fiercely as it was given.
The crowd wasn’t sure what to do, cheer or boo. The golden wolf had never refused to fight before. He’d never lost, never fought to a draw.
Now, what… was this? What had just happened?
Fenlin pulled back, looking at Athim again, sure this was some Magister’s trick. Cupping his face, she stared, looking for the small scar on his eyebrow where she’d accidentally hit him with a staff once. It was there.
“Fennel, Mythal’s mercy, it’s really you,” Athim said, staring back. “I- What are you doing here?”
Fen could only shake her head, unable to answer. Remembering Polonius’s threat through the shock of running into her childhood friend, Fenlin swallowed hard and pulled Athim into a big kiss, sneaking a peek at the crowd as she did. This time, the crowd roared it’s approval. They might not get the death they expected, but the kiss was enough to explain the ‘draw’. Maybe. Maybe it was even better?
Athim seemed surprised, but as Fen pulled back, she glanced meaningfully at the box of seats where Polonius stood, watching. He nodded, and adjusted his grip, throwing her triumphantly over his shoulder and carrying her out of the arena to deafening cheers and whistling. It seemed the Golden Wolf had won the hunt after all.
“Fen, why won’t you tell me what’s going on?” he murmured through his smile. “Why are you here?”
She could only answer with the smallest shake of her head that he couldn’t see.
She couldn’t tell him.
She couldn’t talk.
Glancing up at the box where Polonius was, Fenlin felt a sinking feeling. This wasn’t going along with the Magister’s plan. Something told her that she’d face his consequences before the night was over.