Story: The Hope Chest

Without truly knowing Siorus Cadigan’s history, this story might not carry the same impact for the casual reader. Still, it is one of my favourites and a defining moment in his life. In reading it over, I think it details more of his ‘story’ than most of what I write for him.

Siorus is a character I role play. I like writing stories for him–he doesn’t like me sharing them. Tough luck, Rus, this one is heading out there.

Thedas belongs to BioWare. Siorus and Lostwhithiel belong to me. Sol belongs to Jenn Burke. She and I share all the other characters mentioned. Picture credit: Rolling Grape Vines

Rolling

((1 Harvestmere, 33 Dragon. Lostwhithiel Castle))

A shadow flickered across the ground at the periphery of Siorus’ vision. He spun, shield raised, and caught the edge of a blade. Steel rang against steel, sharp in the quiet of early morning. A dagger poked between shield and sword and Siorus twisted into the strike, knocking the slender blade aside. Then he twisted back again, shield ready to catch the sword. A boot connected with his shin, the force of the kick nearly enough to tip his balance. He would wear a bruise for a week or more and the mark would be well deserved and familiar.

Skipping back a step, Siorus paused long enough to gather his will, then leapt forward, shield leading his charge. His opponent ducked and sidestepped with unnatural agility and Siorus stopped to breathe. The flat of a blade delivered a stinging blow to the back of his hip. Turning into the strike, Siorus swept his shield across, spun and followed with his sword. He missed. Sidestepping, he tried again.

Every thrust of his shield carried more force than he had used in this yard before. Every strike aimed more true. Always, when he sparred with one of the guards, Siorus held back, keeping a portion of his strength and speed in reserve. He bruised his men; he punished them as he had been punished. But he was careful not to demoralize them, not completely. He left them able to walk, able to guard the castle and patrol the highways. The man opposite had trained him, however. The man opposite had earned the full weight of Siorus’ shield, the most precise strike of his sword, and it was with a certain joy Siorus loosed his talent, his potential. He danced with the only partner who knew all the steps… and who could and would change them at will.

After earning a clip to the ear that stung and deafened, Siorus stepped back and lowered the tip of his blade. He remained ready for another strike, however. Desiderio Spada might be a swordmaster, but he was no gentleman. Two blades, one long, one short, dropped into view, signaling his opponent accepted victory. Siorus looked up and smiled. He felt a warm trickle on his neck and reached up to touch his numb ear. His fingers came away sticky with blood.

“You move too fast for an old man,” he said in Marcher.

“And the good life has turned you into a snail,” Des replied.

“Is that why you let your shadow touch the ground?”

“Of course. I did not come to Ferelden to kill the Bann of Lostwhithiel.”

No, he had not. Siorus had yet to decide exactly why Des had come, however.

Gesturing his mentor, Siorus indicated they should sit. Normally he would meditate after practice. If he had risen early enough, he would watch the sun rise over the castle wall. This morning he would rest with Des instead. He suspected the older man had not interrupted his practice merely to point out his faults, though that would be a good part of his motivation. He led Des to the row of benches lining the outer wall of the yard, sheathed his sword, tugged his shield from his arm and sat. Similarly divesting himself of weapons, Des sat beside him, a soft sigh puffing from his mouth as he eased himself down.

The mercenary nodded toward the shield resting against the wall. “I see you are still carrying the same shield.” Dark brown eyes narrowed on Siorus’ sword hilt. “And sword.”

“They still work,” Siorus answered with a wry smile.

“Ever practical.”

Glancing over at the shield, Siorus said, “I adopted the design as my heraldry.” He looked back at Des, interested in the older man’s opinion.

Des nodded. “I noticed.” He smiled. “I knew you would someday lead a band of your own.”

“Is that why you taught me to hold a shield?”

The mercenary laughed. “No. I gave you a shield because you are stubborn.” Siorus frowned and Des continued, “A stubborn man holds a shield like no other.”

Siorus snorted.

A quiet moment bloomed, one both comfortable and not. Questions wheeled through Siorus’ thoughts and he suspected Des’ mind ticked over at a similar rate. Even in repose, Des would be thinking. Then they both began to speak at once and Siorus waved at his mentor, deferring to the older man.

“You will keep your daughter.” Not ‘Ines’ or ‘the child’, ‘your daughter’, and not a question, a statement.

“Yes.”

“I know you think yourself unprepared and ill-equipped, but that is life, Siorus.” Des shrugged. “I waited as long as I could.”

Siorus had not doubted, not for one moment, that Des had watched and waited, that he had chosen the date of his arrival carefully. It was a precise strike from the sword of a master. But as they were conversing in Marcher, a language they were both fluent in, Siorus did note the other man’s particular choice of words. As long as I could.

Brows dipping in concern, he asked, “Are you well, Des?” He seemed so. Older, a little greyer, but still solid, still a rock of a man.

“I am.”

“There is something-”

“I have retired, Siorus.” Des picked at the leather of his training armour. “I have not led a campaign in two years.”

Guilt poked. “Because of Ines?”

“In part. Also because it was time. I am something of a unicorn. An old mercenary. A rare being, hm?”

Guilt poked harder and Siorus dipped his head. His last two visits to Starkhaven, Des had asked him to stay. “Des, I-”

“Sh, I know.”

How could one man make him feel so contrite and so valued at the same time?

“What will you do now?” Without the band, without Ines.

Leaning back in his chair, Des smiled and a tickle of premonition wormed down Siorus’ spine. “I will do what any fortunate man should do.” His smile widened, creasing well-worn lines about his mouth and eyes. “I will live with my family, let them care for me as I amble into my dotage.”

“Amble.” Siorus snickered, then stopped, eyes widening. “You mean…”

Des laughed and slapped his thigh. “Ah, your face!” Cocking his head, he smiled with genuine warmth. “Yes, Siorus, I mean I intend to stay here. I sold the farm, packed my worldly goods and traveled to the arse-end of Thedas to live with my son and my granddaughter.”

Disparate emotions pulled at Siorus, fingers tugging his heart in different directions. He recognised shock; a mercenary knew shock. He acknowledged the thread of fear. The rest? It twisted and hurt. He remembered the brief fantasy of the night before, the idea he might have somehow gathered a family, and the thread of fear expanded into a suffocating ribbon banding about his heart and lungs. Ducking his head, Siorus curled his fingers into his palms and struggled not to show what he felt, though he knew Des had already seen it, would continue to see it no matter which mask he donned.

For his part, Des remained uncharacteristically quiet and when Siorus glanced up, he saw a reflection of his own mix of emotion… or a more clear rendering. The older man wore a smile, but his dark eyes held a hint of something Siorus had never seen in Des’ gaze before: fear.

What is he afraid of?

The answer was obvious and when Siorus stumbled across it, his breath caught.

“You are welcome, maestro.” He used the Antivan word and meant it as gesture of respect. Immediately, he understood it was wrong, however. Shaking his head, he started again. “My home is yours, padre.”

The broad smile returned, and Des leaned forward to grasp his arm. “Thank you.” After squeezing Siorus’ arm with a grip the younger man had not forgotten, Des leaned back with a chuckle. “Now, before you go dig a ditch, I have something else for you, something you may want to look at first. It will save you a trip out yonder.”

Brows drawing together, Siorus shook his head.

“Your trunk, Siorus. Your belongings and the gold you left with me.”

##

 Empty, the cedar chest might be carried by one man. Full, it required two to carry it from Des’ suite to Siorus’ study. They placed it behind the desk, under the window.

Standing up, Des glanced around the room, gaze curious, then he patted Siorus on the shoulder. “I am off to practice my Fereldan with anyone who will talk with me. I would tell you not to be afraid of the stories I might share, but…” He shrugged, chuckled and left without finishing his sentence.

Siorus smiled at his back, closed the door and turned to face the chest. His smile faded as regarded the simple cedar chest with equal parts sorrow and trepidation. It had been Pia’s; she had called it her hope chest. Before they wed, it had been a treasury of things she had made and saved for her future husband and household; embroidered shirts and handkerchiefs, linens and woven blankets, socks knitted with a delicate hand and ribbons for the daughter she anticipated, a bonnet for a baby of either sex, more blankets made from the softest wool.

He had worn one of the shirts on their wedding day and knew it was still in the chest, carefully folded and preserved between layers of treated linen.

The corner of the desk nudged the back of his thigh and Siorus turned, surprised to find he’d backed away from the chest. Growling softly, he took two steps forward and then he turned, strode to the door of his study, locked it and leaned his head against it, eyes closed, palms pressed against the wood. He sucked in air scented by his own breath and berated himself for being a coward. Then he approached the chest and knelt before it, ready (or not) to begin the ritual he had performed once a year since Pia had died—until he’d run away to Ferelden.

The lid opened on well oiled hinges to reveal the small sword he had carried from Ferelden to Kirkwall to Starkhaven. The blade was wrapped in leather and both rested on a folded sheet of heavy linen that hid the rest of the contents from view. Lifting it out, Siorus grunted at the light weight and began pulling the leather away from the blade. The silverite shone as if it had been polished yesterday and he wondered if it had. He would not begrudge Des the intrusion; many of the items in this chest belonged to the older mercenary as much as they did him. Siorus traced the blade with his finger and then, according to his ritual, he entertained a memory of wielding it before setting it aside.

He lifted the linen sheet away and looked into the box. It was all there, things he remembered and things he did not, and that was how it had always been. No matter how well he guarded his memory, one or two items in the box always surprised him. He pulled out his journal and leafed through pages brittle with age. The columns of figures begged a smile and he was able to add a new memory to the box. He had told Sol about this journal and his habit of counting stars.

The next item was a cloth wrapped bundle, his wedding shirt. Siorus did not unwrap it, he dared not. Next was a set of folded linens and he wondered why he had kept them. He seemed to remember wondering the same thing every year and yet, every year he replaced them in the trunk.

There were more books and he sorted them as he pulled them out, opened the covers and inspected the pages. Two were volumes of poetry, five philosophy and another two were herbologies. He set those aside for Sol. The last book was a collection of stories for children. Siorus’ fingers trembled as he handled it. He remembered ordering it, he remembered Pia teasing him over the expense.

 “I can tell our child stories without a book,” she had said. She read well enough, but not as well as he did.

Siorus weathered her gentle jibes with his usual stoicism and plotted to keep the book with his usual stubbornness. He had had a similar book as a boy—a fact not shared—and wanted to pass it to his child. Stroking the cover, Siorus swallowed over the ache in his throat and set the book aside for Ines.

He found ribbons and pulled each one over his calloused fingers before tucking them away beneath the cloth wrapped bundle of his shirt. He found his bag of gold which he tossed onto the desk. Inexplicably, there were socks folded into one corner and he frowned at them until they became familiar. Then he concentrated on drawing air through a throat constricted by sorrow.

“Why do you never fold your socks?” Pia had complained, time and time again.

Siorus had never had answer for her. He had always been meticulously neat, but socks had always defied his order. They conspired to lose themselves or nestle with the wrong partner. He had suggested she make them all one colour, so they would always match, but she never did. They were always dark wool, black or brown, but the heel and toe often featured incongruously bright colours. She giggled when he frowned and beamed when he wore them anyway.

Rocking back on his heels, socks clutched in his fingers, Siorus battled grief. Nails bit into his skin and the sharp pain gave him a focus. He unclenched and clenched his fingers again, delivering a new row of deep purple marks. After the third sting, he looked down to note he’d dropped the socks. He rubbed his palms together and wished for another hand to slip between his. To halt the useless cycle of injury that never delivered him properly from grief.

Sol had her own demons to face at the moment, however, and it had barely been a month since she had sat with him on the shore of the Basin to observe the anniversary of Pia’s death. He had been surprised by her company, but had welcomed it. She made the occasion no less sombre, but somehow lighter and more bearable. They sat together quietly until the sun rose, hands clasped together, fingers entwined, and then they had walked back to the castle together, shoulders touching, heads bent close so they could converse quietly.

The last items in the chest were a mixture of memories and heartbreak. Siorus handled each one with reverence, chest aching, throat dry, features stiff. When he had everything arrayed about him, he turned a slow circle on his knees. Then he began putting it all away again, except for the books, one ribbon and his sword.

Closing the chest, he placed the leather wrapped sword on top and stood. Dizziness assailed him—he had been kneeling for too long. After steadying himself, he stacked the books on his desk and tucked the ribbon into his pocket.

##

A short while later, Des watched from the wall as a solitary figure with a shovel angled over one shoulder strode between neat rows of vines. Smiling, he waited until Siorus had disappeared before turning away.

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