One of the things I loved to do, before everything changed, was to climb atop one of those flimsy, wooden platforms that flanked the locked Alienage gates, and watch the crush of life that was Denerim's market district. From where I perched, you could see everything without being seen to be seeing. The open market: foreign goods of all colours, shimmering under aging tents; young, human boys tripping over each other, and under the skirts of older girls; guards in full chainmail, patrolling the edges. Sometimes, there were festivals, complete with street dancing, the cacophony of lutes, puddles of ale, and all manners of bad fashion. Whatever I could not see, I could sense with ear and nose. The clash of metal on metal, the shrieks of nobles at the hands of cutpurses... and the Chant of Light, carried by the wind. Mostly, I smelled wet dogs. And delicious food. It was at this platform, where I first met Elva. She was perhaps five years older than me, and much wiser. 'Boring and rotten,' she told me, curling her knees and sweeping the corners of her dress beneath them. 'Full of stupid shem men. I've been there. Yeah, go on then, tell the Elder - that spot's mine!' I left dutifully, not because I feared her, but because I knew him. A bright-eyed, elven-born messenger, who brought tobacco for the guard. Who would always look up, if only for a second - and only see me.
Those who have never lived in an Alienage may think it a prison. In my view, it is only slightly worse than a castle, that most exalted of human habitats. The difference is that we do not control our gates - that we plead, not order, others to allow us to leave and enter. I remember having this discussion with Elva, one slow afternoon. 'The Alienage can never be a home,' she said, 'Not while we have to watch our backs all the damn time in case some rotten shem crawls in. You know they can just walk in all over us, rape me and gut you.' I disagreed. It's true, of course, but doesn't this mean all our enemies are on the outside. What about the humans, who fear backstabbers in their quarters, and pickpockets in their streets. Here, we stand together, against them. 'Huh! Trying to sound like an Elder, are you?' Elva mocked, ' Your inexperience betrays your naïvete. What wouldn't you risk, for one free day? Wouldn't you serve them, if they promised to leave your family alone?'
As I walked out the Alienage gates for the last time, I looked up, half-thinking I might catch a glimpse of my younger self, peering out curiously and fearlessly. Instead, I saw Elva. She had not wished me goodbye, and was not looking at me. The years, a full ten in total, had aged her; gone was the spirited, tough-talking friend I knew. In her place, a bitter and unwilling mother who wished only to be left alone. I knew it would be pointless to wave.
With my eyes turned up, I almost collided into a man.
'Watch where you're going, elf!" he snapped, "Sorry, Ser, here's your smoke. That will be twenty bit.'