Port Windsor, Ferelden
He wasn’t what she had expected.
That she had many expectations to begin with was her first mistake, and nearly laughable given the object of her attention. Appropriated research and word of mouth had sewn quite a pretty jacket for the man at the dimly-lit corner table. She wasn’t sure it fit.
As she made her way across the bar, she made a point of signaling the barkeep behind his counter. It would be closing time soon, and there were no waiters at this hour, but the man would make an exception for her, as men often did.
Her sharp heels clicked harshly on dull flooring until stopping in front of a man who appeared almost as worn as the aged wooden boards beneath her shoes, and she waited for no invitation before sliding into the worn seating opposite him.
“Commander Morelle,” she greeted, letting his name and title roll heavy off her tongue, “You’re a hard man to find, if one is looking…”
If not the premise of new-found company, then surely the sound of a woman’s voice would rouse any man from his drunken stupor, especially one of the likes of her.
Yet the man in question did not stir to the occasion as his name fell from her lips.
He sat stunted, his back arched forward, and his elbows propped unceremoniously on the tavern table. A cigarette hung loosely from his lower lip. From neglect, it had begun to consume itself; the ash clung desperately as the ember continued to burn. Glints of light flickered across his features still half hidden in shadows.
The Knight appeared oblivious to everything and everyone around him, his head hung to the side. The only thing that had appeared to receive any attention was the chipped tankard that he cupped casually in one hand.
It wasn’t the first time this man had slighted her.
If the woman had taken his complete disregard for her presence as an insult, however, she gave little indication other than the slightest tightening in the corners of her lips.
Another patron left for the night, and the cool draft from outdoors made the candlelight flicker. The woman felt the breeze whisper over her caramel skin as it passed over, and watched as it caused the man’s shirt collar and stray hairs fallen in front of his face to flutter. It was the only movement he’d been a part of since she’d set her eye on the weathered knight sitting in the shadows of the empty establishment.
The bartender had wasted no time in rising to her request, and she heard the rustle of clothing before he appeared beside them to take their orders. The woman requested a particular brandy, a favorite on cool nights like this, and as the barkeeper’s attention shifted to the already well-liquored knight, she requested he bring another of what the man already had, with a finger and small flick of the wrist.
In the space of dull silence, she took a moment to examine him. The shadows seemed to cling to him like wet clothing, settling into the lines and hollows of his face, and casting distinct angles over the strong contours of his jaw and neck. In his current state, the woman surmised that while he may not appear conventionally attractive, he was certainly interesting to look at, and she liked a face she could study. She wondered how interesting of a subject he might be in a more befitting environment.
Aged scarring. Dry lips. Hollow crescents sunk under his eyes too interested in a cheap cup to gaze upon new company. She wanted those eyes to look at her. Patience had never been one of her virtues, and she placed one hand on his arm to grab his attention.
“Commander,” she hummed, her tone smooth and direct. She leaned forward against the heavy wood table and rubbed her thumb against the fabric of his sleeve, “A girl could get jealous, the way you stare at your drink.”
Not all was lost to the knight.
Bits and pieces of information, like fragments of broken glass was scattered about. While not much use singularly, he was able to put together portions of what was happening beyond himself. A sweet caress of air, fresh and intrusive to his lungs that had become accustomed to the stuffiness of his corner; a flash of a stained apron he had come to associate with the wreck-of-a-man that worked the bar; and the feeling of eyes on him.
Time stretched with silence, and the barkeeper came and went with the woman’s orders, placing each glass in front of their respective recipient. With the lady, the bartender took extra precautions and tread lightly, as if her glass might shatter, that or he would break under the pressure of this simple task. When it came to the graying knight however, he was more uncouth in his delivery, letting it clang audibly on the table, causing the pale froth that bubbled on top of the tankard to spill over the side, dampening one of the knight’s sleeves.
The liquor bled into the fabric, and the knight stirred in his seat, his head turning ever so slightly in regards not to his damp sleeve but the warm pressure on the opposite arm.
Her voice was silk, with undertones of steel. Such directness in her tone could not be ignored.
She was exactly what he had expected.
That he had any expectations to begin with was perhaps his first mistake. He had not lifted his gaze from his empty pewter, nor did he feel the need to. She was bound to be beautiful, charming, and by her own right graceful as only a woman of her class and stature could be. She smelled lovely, a much more pleasant addition to the stale scent of sweat, piss, and misery that was such a part of Maonaigh’s as the cheap ale it served most its patrons. The fragrance however was nothing he could place at the moment. It was as unique and foreign as she was said to be.
However as alluring as Lady Vanderhall sounded he had little interest to engage her tonight, or any other night. Yet, he could not deny her determination. Not many would enter such a place, even if armed in plated armor. If it was not for its history of prior quarrels between drunks, then the overall state of the establishment that had repulsed so many of its past regulars through the years in its descend to ruin. The O’Mooney despite its shabbiness was a place one wouldn’t be bothered, a place where everyone for the most part kept to themselves and drank away their coin..
For her troubles he would extend the courtesy.
That, and she had bought him a drink. It would be rude not to exchange some pleasantries.
“No need to be jealous, my lady.” He slurred, low and hoarse from lack of use. Veles retracted his arm slowly from her touch, pushing away the empty cup with the back of his hand before reaching for the other pewter with one sluggish motion. He brought it up to wet his lips, his attention still downcast as if the wood rot were of more interest than the woman before him.
“There is no competition.”
She hummed, amused with the man’s answer, and reached for her own glass, bringing it to her lips but not drinking. Instead, she watched him over the rim, where he sat nearly swallowed in shadows. His voice reminded her of wet gravel under a burdened carriage. She watched the way his throat worked down the liquor, right down to an interesting scar around his neck. It wouldn’t be the only interesting scar the battle-hardened soldier had though. The woman expected his scars told plenty of interesting stories. Though currently, the man before her appeared far more interested in drowning such stories out. ‘Weathered’ was a good word for him. The flames from lit candles were reflected in his eyes like liquor in glass, and she wondered just how much more than stories he’d drowned with it.
The faintest scent of plum and spice returned her attention to her drink, and she took a modest sip, appreciating the way the taste rolled over her tongue, smooth and fresh in an otherwise stale atmosphere.
“Good,” she replied, returning the glass to the table. She traced soft fingers over its contour while her sharp, painted nails hovered just above the edge, “I make short work of competition.” She smirked at him with half-lidded eyes and continued, “You’re not giving yourself enough credit though, are you?” It was a statement, rather than a question.
“Knight Commander Veles Morelle,” she started, leaning a bit forward in her seat. A few strands of jet-black hair slid over her shoulder and fell limp in front of her inches above stained wood. “You’re certainly decorated in titles anyway. Lord of War. Dragontamer. Victor of the Nines. There’s plenty of competition out there for a man of your reputation.” She thumbed the swell of her glass, despite having lost interest in it. “They say in certain parts of the world that it occurs too often a reputation makes the man, not the other way around. As such, I’ve become more interested in what the undertones of a place have to say about a person. And New Haven whispers volumes about men like you, Commander. Do you know what they call you, in hallways and dark corners?”
She paused, allowing a certain amount of rhetorical suspense to infiltrate the silence between them.
“Stag in Solitude.”
Ducking her head a little, and tilting it to one side so as to gain the slightest bit of entry into the man’s line of vision, with little success. It was tiresome, speaking to a man disinterested, and more so, insulting. She stared evenly into his shadow.
“It’s very dangerous for a man like you to be in a place like this- in a state like this. How often do you come here to drink, Commander Morelle, stag in your solitude?”
“I make short work of competition.”
It was a statement that Veles could drink to, and that he did with another tilt of his pewter. The ale was cool and tasteless, yet it settled well in the pit of his belly and quenched his thirst.
The rest was rather laughable; it was good he was not known for having a sense of humor. Such honorifics had long lost their glamour, if they had any to begin with. So unimportant to him, these embellishments bestowed upon his reputation, that they did not stir any sense of pride within the knight.
Dragontamer. A brow rose ever so slightly.
She continued to speak despite that Veles had long lost interest in what he perceived as an attempt to fall into his good graces. Her voice began to fade away, becoming something distant and ambient in the background. She knew how to stroke one’s ego; a charming quality of hers he had now first hand experience with. It was, however, falling upon deaf ears.
“Stag in Solitude.”
Was that all they whispered nowadays?
The Knight placed his pewter down, a gesture so fluid that the rim did not make an audible clang against the tabletop. Strands of her hair slid into his peripheral as she ducked down, a vision as black as ink. It was her words that gripped him once again and curiosity let his attention stray back to the woman across from him.
“Dangerous?” The commander questioned with a slur, as if taking into account her concern. His eyes slid closed.
Here among the drunkards, and a blunder of a man behind the bar counter? These were the men that posed a danger to him? Or perhaps it was not a man at all that he needed to be wary of.
It was impossible to avoid the whispers, the idle chatter among his men in armor; and those of nobility, who picked up silver cups instead of branded steel.
They too had a number of things to say about Ophiura Vanderhall. A rising star within his city, A woman of ill repute, a vixen in the night, a whore in fine silk. Such soft murmurs bred by fear and distrust for an outsider.
Shadows lingered in her presence, they came in with her and watched from their perches. Their figures danced upon the walls with every flicker of a candle.
He wondered for smallest of instances if her shadows would be fast enough to always keep her from harm.
“As often as time permits, and time hardly grants me such favors.” Veles answered, his voice was even, void of any feeling. His eyes still remained closed and his body slumped further into his seat, having grown indifferent towards their conversation.
The commander fell silent. The barkeep from his earshot thought that perhaps their meeting was over from how lethargic the knight had sounded. Thank the gods. He would just like to close for the night and soak his aching feet in a epsom salt bath, warm and relaxing.
Those dreams were put on hold for a while longer.
“Such peculiar questions you ask of me.” His voice broke the brief silence. “ How often do you seek men stag in their solitude, in a place like this--- in a state like this?” He wiped the side of his mouth with the back of his hand. “ Quite a tactic, approaching a man when his inhibitions are down.”
He had the strong hands of a soldier, she noticed, calloused and scarred, with labor-tanned skin and nails trimmed per necessity. Sharp olive eyes followed his hand as it dragged casually over the corner of his lips and fell to rest on worn wood once more. Their actions were determined, each movement with distinct purpose regardless of the triviality of the gesture. They were the hands of a man completely comfortable in his own skin, so much so that he moved with the ease of apathetic torpor while capable of iron bidding. The scars and callouses his hands wore were a testament to such bidding.
The lady couldn’t help but to be curious how long it had been since such hands had held anything but iron and pewter, instead, lingering, perhaps, on the soft flesh of a woman- how long it had been since his lips had tasted anything but the cool ale before him. The simple comforts of sex and intimacy appeared unimportant to the man who instead chose to spend his nights in the company of cheap liquor. Blinking deliberately, she leaned back to sit upright in her seat, her eyes shifting from his hands back into his shadow. She took a long inhale of musty air and exhaled evenly, chest swelling and falling in time like a wave on the shore. Tension from the day had settled into her shoulders and back where a nagging ache pulled at her attention. She was tired, and found herself looking forward to the simple comforts of a hot bath and cool sheets.
“I seek out men as often as I like,” she tongued, the corner of her lips playing upward at the statement, “I’ll expect you’ve heard your fair share of my entertaining such company; perhaps our engagement would have been equally pleasurable had my requests for an audience not gone unanswered.” She brought her glass to her lips and took another sip as she stared evenly over the rim. Condensation pooled in her hand, and the candlelight flickered around them, dimming as they neared extinction, but the remnants of fire reflected in the woman’s eyes shone with a directness that could not be ignored.
Having entertained her interests long enough to call it a day, she set the glass down with an element of finality and raised her chin at the man stooped before her.
“I’d like to consider us friends, Commander Morelle.” She stated thinly, more of a proposition than a feeling, “Things will be easier that way. For both of us.” Fabric rustled as she gathered her dress before moving to leave, “You may be decorated with impressive titles, but I am not a woman so easily captivated.” She leaned forward, full lips parted to challenge him, “Impress me.”
She reached one hand out to her side and it was received by one of her shadows, as she stood from her hard seat.
“Don’t underestimate me, Commander.
“Remain stag in this city for much longer and you may find yourself in unfamiliar territory.”
Padraig Maonaigh had held his breath in anticipation, waiting for the Knight’s answer. A response worthy of a decorated soldier, one that surely would impress. Morelle however, simply took a ginger sip of his ale.
The knight commander never did say much.
Lady Vanderhall then turned on her heels. Her men in tune with her every move.
Padraig had quickly tried to busy himself with some task behind the bar as she passed. Without much thought he picked up a rag that needed a good washing. He was almost tempted to peek up at her expression. Was she angry? Surely she was displeased, but he naturally lacked the courage to do so. Instead, he scrubbed away at a stain that had plagued his family for the past 50 years.
Her approach made his hands shake, and the scent of her perfume made him uneasy. He scrubbed harder, but the black stain just glistened. She left without another word. Paying him neither regard nor her drinks.
He was glad to see her go. That woman was nothing but trouble, and now she owned his bar. It felt like she owned part of him as well. What would his forefathers say if they saw him now?
“You’re pathetic. You’ve sold yourself to a tramp.”
The barkeeper looked back at the shabby corner table. Morelle hadn’t moved, though his eyes were focused not on his drink but on the empty seat across him. Padraig shifted around nervously behind the bar in hopes of catching the knight’s attention, nearly knocking over a jar once labeled tips, but the lettering was so faded that all that remained was the dot from the i. Not that it mattered, no one ever tipped. So neglected, it became the home to spiders, mold, and the occasional rat.
What could he do? To ask the Knight Commander to leave was simply not an option. Padraig at a loss took a seat behind the counter, a hard wooden stool was better than standing.
It was warm, and the calmness of the hour had started to take effect. His feet still ached, but his eyes felt heavy…
His owns snores startled him awake. Padraig rubbed his face, wondering when the bar had gotten so dark. Most of the candles had seemed to burn themselves out.
A shift in the shadows reminded him he wasn’t alone.
“M-my Lord?” he croaked anxiously. The barkeep struggled to keep his eyes open for he still felt spell of the hour upon him. Perhaps Morelle had left?
A strike of a match, and burst of light from its tip blinded him. The barkeep winced in pain as the knight lit a candle between them.
He pressed his eyes shut, as he tried to shield his face from the lone candle. The pain was unbearable, but the rustle of coin, the sweet sound of money being placed on the countertop brought him to peer between his fingertips. The discomfort was worth the sight of a small leather purse.
“For your service.” Said the commander soberly, without a trace of his previous intoxication.
Padraig quickly dropped his hands and reached for it, ignoring the affliction from the light, and pulled at the string that bounded the leather.
It was what he was promised, but before he could thank Morelle the candle flickered, and the last of the night’s breeze rolled in. A shiver ran up his spine, it was not because of the chill. Even through blurry vision he had caught glimpse of the commander’s eyes as he left.
Pale, cold, lifeless were but some of the usual descriptions. However, there was an undertone of brightness to them now.
As rumor had it, that was never a good sign.