“Sulwen, da’len, never tell your father of this.” Sulwen could remember her mother, Adaia Tabris, saying that more than once in her childhood.
There were many things that Sulwen wasn’t supposed to tell her father. One was that Adaia liked to use their saved coppers to get Sulwen a cookie once a month. She would count out their coins carefully, then take Sulwen to the only baker in Denerim who was friendly to the elves of the city. After securing their prize, Adaia would take Sulwen to sit under the Alienage Tree. She would tell stories of their ancestors while Sulwen slowly ate her cookie and it was their little secret. Sulwen wasn’t supposed to tell her father that she and her mother went out begging for coin near the Chantry, trying to guilt people into being charitable the way the Maker said they were supposed to. Cyrion had his pride, Adaia said, but Adaia used Sulwen as a distraction while she relieved nobles of their purses. She wasn’t supposed to tell Cyrion that Adaia had started teaching her how to pick pockets. Sulwen couldn’t tell her father that Adaia went without meals on a regular basis just so Sulwen could eat something during the day, before Cyrion came home with his day’s wages. She wasn’t supposed to say anything about the kitten that she found and convinced Adaia to keep for pest control (at least, until it was old enough not to need milk from their neighbor’s goat and could hold its own in the house).
There were other things, just little things between mother and daughter, but the most important thing that Sulwen was never, under any circumstances, to tell her father was that Adaia trained Sulwen to fight.
It could get them arrested. Elves weren’t allowed to carry weapons in Denerim. They really weren’t allowed to carry weapons anywhere, but there were always a few exceptions in Thedas. Some exceptions were out in public, like Gray Wardens. Others, like Adaia, were more private.
It could get them more than arrested. Elves were struck down in the street every day by city guards and mercenaries for lesser offenses than carrying a weapon.
So, Sulwen was under strict instructions to not tell Cyrion that Adaia was teaching her how to use her famous daggers. It was a rule that Sulwen never had to think twice about keeping. After all, training in blades was fun. If her father found out, he would take them away for sure.
It started when Sulwen was small. The knives were as big as her arm. She struggled to hold each in one hand. The first time she held them, Sulwen ended up dropping Adaia’s favorite dagger. It fell on her foot and went out the other side. Adaia ran her to a healer, who charged their entire savings to stop the bleeding and offset infection but left the wound open. Adaia carried her home and stitched her up. She spent the rest of her life with a pale scar on the top and bottom of her foot to mark the first lesson she learned with her blades: if you must drop them, get your feet out of the damn way.
Adaia taught her other tricks of the trade: how to pick locks, how to mix poisons and bombs, and make traps. Trapmaking was something Sulwen excelled at. Give her a bit of metal and about two minutes and she could make something to bring down a full-grown man if he wasn’t paying attention. By the time Sulwen was ten, Adaia had assigned her the job of making the traps for her nightly excursions.
“Remember, da’len,” Adaia would always say, “we never take from our own. Only those who punch down.”
There were all these things Sulwen was never to tell her father, and she didn’t, because one day, just after Sulwen’s tenth birthday, it simply didn’t matter anymore.
It wasn’t often that Adaia ventured out of the Alienage for shopping, but this cloudy summer day found them in Denerim’s marketplace, haggling for a lower price on some Antivan peppers. Normally, Adaia wouldn’t bother with peppers either—most food in the Alienage was bland due to the cost of spices—but she’d promised a friend a small bundle in return for information about a visiting lord’s guard shifts. The shopkeeper wasn’t happy.
“I’ll tell you one more time, knife-ear,” he said impatiently as Adaia tried to get the price of the peppers down to something more reasonable, “I ain’t going a copper under four silvers. You can take it or leave it.” He crossed his arms over his chest and grinned triumphantly at Adaia. She huffed quietly.
It wasn’t like they had the money. Anything they took from nobles was redistributed throughout Denerim, both to disperse the stolen goods and to help those who could not help themselves. The majority of the profits from Adaia’s most recent job had gone to a recently windowed woman in the Alienage, who had six children under the eight of ten to look after on her own after her husband had been killed in an accident on the docks. There wasn’t much left for the Tabris family. Certainly not enough to be spending five silvers on a bundle of peppers.
“C’mon, Otto,” Adaia cajoled. “I heard you sell a bundle this size for three silvers just last week.” Otto clenched his jaw.
“Price’s gone up since then, hasn’t it?” He grumbled. “And you should be calling me ‘sir’, knife-ear.” Adaia pulled back abruptly. Sulwen’s stomach dropped. Otto had been tolerant before, though nowhere near friendly. Why would he call them that all of a sudden?
“Got it in your head that you’re suddenly better than me, shem?” Adaia bit out. “I’ll not make obeisance to anyone, least of all you.” It was the wrong thing to say. Otto’s nostrils flared and his face turned beet red.
“Get away from my wares, then, if you won’t be respectful.” He hissed, expression turning uglier by the second. Sulwen clutched at her mother’s arm. “Or I’ll report you to the guard for more than just loitering.” Adaia’s dark eyes narrowed.
“Excuse me?” It was an innocent enough question, but the steel in Adaia’s tone was dangerous.
“You heard me.” Otto hissed, dropping his voice. “I saw you the other night coming out of the Arl’s estate. Same night they got knocked over, in fact.” Adaia’s jaw clenched. “What were you doing, hanging around there, eh?”
“You must’ve been seeing things.” Adaia’s fist clenched around Sulwen’s hand.
“I wasn’t.” Otto insisted. “And if you got the haul everyone’s talking about, then you can more than afford five silvers on some peppers.” Adaia huffed and very carefully let go of Sulwen’s hand.
“You know I can’t afford it, Otto.” Adaia said through gritted teeth. Sulwen’s body felt all hot and cold as she watched Otto’s face firm even more. What was he doing? Why was he doing this? He knew they couldn’t afford five silvers. “Whoever you saw, it wasn’t me. I’ve nothing to do with that robbery.” Sulwen honestly didn’t know if her mother was telling the truth or not. She’d been asleep through the whole night, never once woken up by the noise of Adaia leaving or coming back. Either way, though, Otto wasn’t buying it.
“Now you’re a liar as well as a thief!” He growled. “I’ve given you and your kind the benefit of the doubt all these years, even tried to be kind, but if this is how you repay the people of Denerim for their generosity—”
“What generosity?” Adaia slammed her hand on Otto’s counter. He flinched back. Out of the corner of her eye, Sulwen saw a city guard turn toward them. “The generosity of letting us live in the Alienage, in absolute squalor? The generosity of barely paying us a wage for double the work done by you shem?”
“Oi, you there!” The guard called out. He walked toward them. “Is this knife-ear bothering you, ser?” He asked Otto. He was young, Sulwen thought to herself. Younger than most of the guards around the market.
“She was just leaving.” Otto said firmly, but Adaia didn’t move. “Else her daughter will be going home alone today.” Otto muttered quietly, just loud enough for Adaia and Sulwen to hear.
Adaia growled and lunged across the counter to grab Otto by the collar of his jerkin. Sulwen skittered backward as the guard rushed forward, sword drawn.
What followed was always a bit of a blur whenever Sulwen looked back on it. In the end, it really didn’t matter who did what. It only mattered how it ended: with Adaia gasping for air around a longsword in her chest while Sulwen screamed for help that didn’t come.
After that, all the things that Sulwen had been told to never reveal to her father didn’t matter anymore. Nothing really mattered at all.