Straining at the Leash: Part Five

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Back to Straining at the Leash: Contents
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The man was dark-skinned, with a short, neatly trimmed black beard, and a braid of black hair. He wore a long, pale surcoat emblazoned with a silverwork design that Corda couldn’t make out properly; it looked like a bird, perhaps, or some kind of heraldic device with too many claws. In any case, she found herself distracted by his armour… and the gilt-hilted daggers he wore, displayed as prominently as the crossbow on his back. A pattern like scrolled, repeating waves marked the metal of his pauldrons and, though it seemed thin, it was finely crafted. Each scale of his cuirass was so tightly sealed to the next that it might have been a second skin, and the way they glimmered…! It was silverite, she was certain. Corda had read about the metal in a book on the subject of enchantment and armoury—perhaps one of the most lucrative employments a mage might secure, and a highly advanced area of research—but she had never actually seen the metal close up.

She realised she was staring, and blinked quickly. Whoever he was, the man was most certainly no stuffy, toothless visiting dignitary, and it probably wouldn’t do to gawp.

She bowed graciously, and the stranger inclined his head. Everything in his appearance and posture indicated a grave, almost solemn kind of presence, yet the gaze that swept appraisingly over her was lively and sharp.

Corda wasn’t sure she liked being so swiftly assessed. She hated anyone staring, but he didn’t look at her the way most people looked at her for the first time. It was, she thought, as if he had expected to see her scars. She kept her face impassive, and clasped her hands together within the sleeves of her robes: the model of the quiet, obedient apprentice, at least until she knew what was going on.

The stranger glanced enquiringly at Irving. “This is…?”

“Yes.” The First Enchanter nodded, his voice warming as he closed the chamber door behind her. “This is she.”

Corda intensely disliked people talking about her behind her back. She glanced between the three men, hating the sense of imbalance that came with being the only one in the room who didn’t know what was happening, and fought the urge to scowl.

Greagoir squared his shoulders and huffed irritably. “Well, Irving, you are evidently busy. We will discuss this later.”

“As you wish, I’m sure.”

The First Enchanter smiled and waved him away amicably, and Corda didn’t miss the Knight-Commander’s glare of fury at being so summarily dismissed. The man stalked from the room in a fugue, and she got the distinct impression that Irving was trying to suppress a snigger.

“Now, where was I…? Ah. Yes. My dear Mistress Amell, allow me to present Duncan, of the Grey Wardens.”

The stranger bowed to her, and Corda blinked. Grey Warden? He was most definitely not what she had imagined. Even so… were they really here already? She’d been expecting much more pomp and circumstance.

She recovered herself, and returned the gesture of respect as gracefully as she could.

“Ser.”

“You’ve heard about the war brewing to the south, I imagine,” Irving said, watching her carefully. “Duncan is here looking for recruits to join the king’s army at Ostagar.”

Corda tried hard to keep her face a blank mask of polite interest, and resumed the neat stance with clasped hands that so many an apprentice hid behind.

“I see.”

She looked questioningly at the First Enchanter, but he was giving nothing away. Irving simply smiled at her, his eyes twinkling with some inner amusement that—at that particular moment—Corda found incredibly suspicious.

She inclined her head to Duncan, addressing him with cautious respect.

“The enemy must be causing a great deal of concern, ser.”

He looked levelly at her, his expression inscrutable. When he spoke, his voice was rich and carefully modulated, the words burred with the slight hint of an accent. Northern, Corda thought… perhaps a touch of Highever on the vowels. Curious, because from looks, she’d have pegged him as a Rivaini. Evidently, the Grey Wardens were a far-flung bunch… either that, or the Tower was more parochial than even she had imagined.

“Every enemy merits due concern,” he said. “It is through vigilance that we reach victory… if we are to reach it at all.”

Corda’s careful blankness faltered, and her eyes widened. “You think King Cailan’s forces will not best the Wilders, then, my lord? I understood our enchanters had travelled south to lend His Majesty their support. Are we… insufficient?”

It was a bold suggestion, and a degree far beyond what was proper for an apprentice. Of course, Corda thought, she wasn’t an apprentice any longer, was she? No more threats of the birch cane or confinement to dormitory. The worst they could do to her for rudeness now was probably a stiff talking to and banishment to the library, and that knowledge gave her a wonderful sense of freedom.

Duncan smiled. He looked almost amused by her cheek, and that roused Corda’s curiosity. However, then the smile diminished, and left him looking hauntingly solemn.

“If it was merely the Chasind with which we had to contend,” Duncan said, locking those dark, bright eyes to hers, “then I am sure the Circle’s contingent would be ample. However, there is a greater threat brewing.”

Corda drew a short, soft breath across her teeth, and the gleam of triumph jumped in her blood.

I was right!

“Darkspawn,” she said quietly. “Short of the tribes uniting behind a common banner, that’s the only thing that would pull an entire army down to the Wilds, isn’t it? And, of course, your lot,” she added, half to herself, before wincing and catching at the casual rudeness of the words. “I-I mean—”

The First Enchanter chuckled dryly, and the sound echoed against the chamber’s high walls. Corda glanced at the man, waiting to see if she’d be disciplined, but Irving didn’t even interrupt. He just shook his head, and exchanged a look with Duncan that she found puzzling.

“Indeed.” The Grey Warden nodded crisply, returning his attention to Corda. “There are darkspawn in the Wilds, and they are moving north.”

She bit her lip thoughtfully. Well… that should work out well for King Cailan, shouldn’t it? The vibrant young warrior king, justified in his munificence and his desire to be part of something glorious. All the gossip the Tower had gleaned from Denerim and West Hill over the past five years had said he’d been champing at the bit for some war or skirmish in which he could prove himself his father’s equal.

Something like this would be the perfect opportunity… and yet, somehow, Duncan didn’t look like a man who was seeking recruits for the sake of numbers. The more she looked at him, the more Corda saw that, just like his armour, all the man’s gravitas and quiet dignity was a well-crafted shell.

Beneath it all, he looked worried.

She glanced with brief trepidation at Irving, trying to work out why she was being allowed such an untrammelled part in this conversation. Was this the benefit of her new magedom? Or was she a curiosity, a creature to be trotted out for the interest of guests?

Either way, she drew breath and dove in while she could, eager to hear more.

“I’ve read of such things happening,” she said, eyeing Duncan curiously. “But I thought the dwarves kept them in check?”

He shook his head. “No longer, I fear. The darkspawn have formed a horde, and threaten to invade north into the valley. If we do not drive them back, we may see another Blight.”

“Bl—?” Corda began, her eyes widening a little.

Surely that wasn’t possible. It was a thing of legends, of stories…. And yet, Corda’s mind told her—suddenly rattling at a frenetic pace, and throwing up images of long-ago skimmed books and scrolls—the whole point of the stories was that there were seven Old Gods. The Chantry was quite specific on that point; seven sins, seven pillars of wickedness that ancient Tevinter had wrought and, by the accounts of some so-called holy scholars, seven ways in which mages were the scourge of Thedas.

Faith and belief aside, Corda was exceptionally well-versed in the things the Chantry had to say about the magic of Tevinter… as far as the Circle’s library allowed her to be, at any rate.

Seven Old Gods; four Blights. Why should it be so impossible? Unlikely, yes, but… not impossible. Not impossible, however much we might wish it so.

Oh, Maker’s breath…! 

“Duncan,” Irving chided genially, “you worry the poor girl with talk of Blights and darkspawn.”

Corda looked up sharply, realising that she’d fallen silent, and annoyed at the old man for taking the opportunity to cut across her questioning.

“Oh, but, First Enchanter, I—”

Irving waved a hand, hushing her. “No, my child. This is supposed to be a happy day, is it not?”

Corda wanted to hop from foot to foot in frustration, but willed herself to remain still, and managed a graceful smile as she bowed her head.

She caught Duncan watching her as she looked up, and the suggestion of a smile seemed to touch his lips before he turned to Irving.

“We live in troubled times, my friend.”

The First Enchanter nodded sagely. “Ah, but then we should seize moments of levity, should we not? Now most especially.” He treated Corda to a wide smile; something she wasn’t all that used to seeing on the man. “The Harrowing is behind you, my dear. Your phylactery was sent to Denerim, and you are officially a mage within the Circle of Magi.”

Corda inclined her head. “Thank you, First Enchanter.”

She would much rather have gone back to discussing the darkspawn, but she doubted there would be another chance now. Irving would probably summarily dismiss her, and she wouldn’t see Duncan again, except as some distant figure on the dais during one of the interminable after-dinner speeches.

Then, he would leave and head back down to Ostagar and, if there was a Blight, Corda would be doomed to watching it from the window of the tower, while the same boring routine lapped around her feet, day in and day out.

She wondered, in a brief and facetious moment, whether a wave of darkspawn engulfing the country would even affect what time the refectory served meals.

Irving moved to a trunk near his desk, and as he bent to lift the lid, Duncan cleared his throat.

Corda looked up, and he caught her eye enquiringly.

“Forgive me… phylactery? That is the… vial…?” He gestured loosely with one hand, as if trying to locate the proper word.

She nodded, though she doubted he truly didn’t know it. Any man who addressed the First Enchanter as “friend” would surely be aware of such an intrinsic aspect of the Circle’s function—especially one that was a source of so much contention among the mages. The Libertarian fraternity, in particular, had often made a great deal of noise over the phylacteries, and what they called the double standard of the templars’ using something amounting to blood magic to control them. Oh, the Loyalists always claimed it wasn’t blood magic, just magic worked upon the blood—the way templars’ abilities were fuelled by lyrium, but did not draw on mana in the conventional sense—but few mages truly believed that.

Corda certainly didn’t.

Of course, she realised, if the Grey Warden knew what a phylactery was, that meant the question wasn’t a question. And, if it wasn’t a question, then it was words being lined up just to see what she did with them. Would she take the opportunity to complain about the templars’ strictures, or demonstrate her loyalty to the regime?

She shot a sidelong glance at Irving, busy removing a bundle of items from the trunk, and then smiled at Duncan.

“Quite so, ser. When we come to the Tower as apprentices, small amounts of our blood is taken and preserved in special vials. It is stored by the Chantry, in the event it is… required.”

He met her gaze steadily, his face impassive but his eyes alive with a dozen hidden things.

“So you can be hunted if you turn apostate,” Duncan said quietly.

It was a statement, not a question; a bland observation, not an opinion. His tone was guarded, suggesting whatever personal feelings he might have had on the practice were not open for discussion… and yet, equally, hinting at something far more than the usual acceptance of authority that Corda was accustomed to encountering in the men who wielded the Circle’s power.

Well, well….

“Even the most docile dog may need a leash, my lord,” she said, with a slight incline of her head.

The lid of the trunk Irving had been ferreting about in thudded shut, and the sound echoed off the stone walls. Corda flinched, and inwardly cursed herself. It made her look weak, and she didn’t want that… now less than ever.

Duncan looked thoughtfully at her, but he said nothing.

“Indeed. We have few choices, of course,” Irving put in, as he crossed back to them, his leather-shod feet murmuring against the floor. “The gift of magic is looked upon with suspicion and fear. We must prove we are strong enough to handle our power responsibly… as this young lady has so recently done.”

He held out the items he carried—the embroidered russet silk of a mage’s robe, with a small golden band resting atop it, and a smooth birch staff—and smiled proudly at Corda.

“My dear, I present you with your robes, your staff, and this ring, bearing the insignia of the Circle. Wear them proudly, for you have earned them.”

She stared, caught out a little by the oddness of the moment. Somehow, she’d always thought there would be more ceremony to it than this. She’d risked her life in the Harrowing, hadn’t she? They had dragged her from her bed, thrown her to the demons, and now all she got was an armful of stuff and a “well done, carry on”? It hardly seemed fair, but then “fair” was not a concept Corda had been used to associating with life in the Circle.

It was enough. And, she told herself, it was what these symbols meant that mattered.

“I… uh, thank you, First Enchanter,” she said, inclining her head, and slipping a brief glance at Duncan.

He smiled. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you, ser.”

Corda hugged the ring and robes to her chest, and closed her fingers around the staff. It seemed to hum gently against her palm, and she almost caught her breath. She’d used them before a few times in lessons, but never very often, and it felt odd to know that this simple piece of wood, infused with energy, was hers and hers alone. The runes etched into the top of the neck, just below the slightly hooked head of the staff, were as delicate as spider webs, barely noticeable on the polished surface of the wood. Corda looked forward to the opportunity to sit and study them at leisure… and that led to another thought. She would have new quarters, wouldn’t she? Even now, a couple of bedders were probably lugging her things up the stairs, and she hadn’t the faintest idea where they’d end up.

Somehow, she hadn’t imagined that finally earning her magehood would be such a strange, dislocating experience.

“Um. I’m sorry, but… er… what happens now?”

Irving chuckled. “Patience, child. You have been through an ordeal, and there is no need to rush. Your belongings will be transferred from your dormitory to your new quarters. You will need to speak with whomever is to be administering your induction… I believe it is Enchanter Sweeney. You will learn a lot from him, I’m sure. In the meantime, the rest of today is yours. Rest, or study in the library. As you please.”

Corda nodded slowly. Right, then. This was her dismissal; the First Enchanter evidently wanted to get back to discussing recruits and warfare with his esteemed visitor.

She glanced at Duncan, and bit her lip as, unbidden, another set of words sprang from her mouth.

“And I’ll be able to leave the tower, won’t I? I mean, how—”

Irving smiled indulgently, but shook his head. “Yes, but not yet. Not for several months, at least, and then pending approval of a request submitted officially in writing, and the assurance of an appropriate placement.” He held up a hand, silencing the protest he evidently assumed Corda was about to begin. “I know we have spoken of your desire to study in Cumberland, but any such possibility will require a long wait. In the meantime, child, you would do well to remember that these walls protect us as much as they protect others from us.”

He met her gaze and held it firmly as the echo of those last words whispered around the chamber. The candlelight glinted off the shelves full of esoteric curios—skyballs, jewelled paperweights, gilt-bound books, artfully painted maps and Maker alone knew what else—and Corda just knew he meant the war. He meant her to go quietly to her new chamber and be a good little mage and not ask questions… and that roused her curiosity more than anything else possibly could.

She bowed her head. “Of course, First Enchanter. I should go and familiarise myself with my quarters. Thank you.”

Irving dismissed her with a wave of his hand. “My pleasure, my dear.”

“Grey Warden.” Corda dropped a bow to Duncan, finding it more difficult than usual with the staff in one hand—something she’d have to get used to, she supposed—and began to turn for the door.

“Ah!” Irving raised a hand, and that small, clipped exclamation skipped across the air, just the way his voice did when he wanted order from an assembly of students.

Corda turned again, clutching her hard-won bundle of robes to her chest, and regarded the old man’s oddly smug expression. There was something she could only describe as a twinkle in his pouchy eyes, and that unsettled her. She was far more used to seeing Irving up on a lectern somewhere, pontificating in those low, gravelly tones of his, and droning on about the dry, piffling inconsequentialities of the fraternities or the latest templar edicts from Denerim.

Right now, he looked far too cheerful for her liking.

“First Enchanter?”

Irving smiled, and waved dismissively at her. “You will be so kind as to escort Duncan to his chamber, Miss Amell. The guest quarters on the east side of the tower, close to the library. Your things will be awaiting you there,” he added, inclining his head graciously to the Grey Warden. “I fear I must discuss the matters we addressed further with Greagoir… I shall speak with you again this evening, if that is…?”

“Quite amenable,” Duncan assured him, bowing his head with equally stiff grandeur.

Corda fumed silently, feeling like she was choking on all these paper-thin pretences of etiquette. Surely this was what the Tranquil were for, anyway? Only, no… the Circle never liked to show them off to visitors. They were kept firmly in the background; cooking, cleaning, ordering and tidying, when they weren’t doing usefully lucrative things like enchantments. It was like not wanting polite company to see your ugly kitchen maid—not that she was much better, she supposed. Her very face was a blatant statement on the destructive power of magic.

She said nothing, and just bowed again, holding the door open for the silver-armoured Warden with his neatly clipped beard and—yes, she could see as he drew closer—his braid oiled in the manner some of the apprentices she’d known of Rivaini extraction had done.

The Grey Wardens evidently recruited from all over, though it still puzzled her as to what he was doing here, and now of all times.

His presence was an irritation, anyway, for all the glamorous talk of monsters and kings and battles. Despite the sudden interruption of her Harrowing, Corda was still itching to find out what Gwynlian had been up to, and what Enchanter Uldred had been disseminating to his students. It wasn’t as if she’d had enough evidence to go to the First Enchanter, but if she’d just been able to talk to him in private, then maybe…. Oh, but it was no use, was it? Not without something concrete to base the accusations on—if there were even accusations to make.

Still, Corda thought, as the gentle tick of her new staff beat time on the steps that led down to the next floor, in between the slip-slop of her leather-shod feet, and Duncan’s hardier, sturdier army boots, the very fact of Uldred being away at Ostagar might be of benefit. And that she was a Harrowed mage now meant she would be on the same floor as Gwynlian or at least somewhere on the same staircase. If she could find out where it was, she could get access to the idiot bitch’s chamber, probably, and have a good look around; maybe even sneak as far as Uldred’s study, which was much farther up into the Tower’s privy rooms than an apprentice would have been allowed to roam.

Corda was contemplating the details of the plan when the Grey Warden spoke, and his low, smooth voice pulled her abruptly from her thoughts.

“Thank you for walking with me,” Duncan ventured, peering speculatively at her, as if he wanted to gauge her reaction. “I am glad of the company.”

Oh?

Corda kept her face impassive. “I have always done what First Enchanter Irving asks of me.”

It was a staid, mechanical response—a safe thing to hide behind—but it appeared to amuse Duncan. He smiled.

“I’m sure he is very proud to have you as a pupil.”

There was the very slightest hint of dry mirth in his tone. At first, Corda almost missed it… but it was there. She got the distinct feeling he was playing with her, and she was torn between being pleased by the attention—it was certainly rare enough to have someone to engage with, much less such a rarefied visitor as this—and perplexed as to why so distinguished a guest was bothering to make small talk with her in the first place. Not to mention, where was the rest of his delegation? She felt sure that there should have been someone. Jowan’s gossip from the dorms had suggested a whole deputation, with accompanying pomp and ceremonial feast… and, just for a moment, Corda felt a little chagrined at how brusquely dismissive she’d been of her friend, and everything he’d said about the Grey Wardens.

True, apparently the Anderfels had been driven to bankruptcy by the order, and there was plenty of ill-feeling in the Bannorn about allowing them back into Ferelden—or so went the fourth-hand court gossip the Tower had from the few mages who’d been in Denerim in the past year or so—because what good were their constant calls for men and gold without a Blight? Only, if there was a Blight….

Corda breathed deeply, her head swimming with possibilities. It was unlikely, she decided. Very unlikely. Not impossible, but… well, was that the kind of excitement anyone wanted in their future?

She blinked, aware of the slightly expectant quality the silence around her had developed, and she glanced at Duncan, only to be assailed by a sudden flare of tired irritation at the fact he’d clearly been sneaking a surreptitious look at her scars. It didn’t surprise her; people usually did that. Frequently, they asked banal questions as well, which he so far had not. She cleared her throat as they passed one of the templar statues set back into a niche in the curved stone wall—some old Knight-Captain who’d single-handedly quelled an abomination, so the story went, and was immortalised in graven stone to glare down at all mages who passed him ever after. Corda was always tempted to pull a face at the thing every time she passed it.

“Forgive me, my lord,” she began, peering enquiringly at Duncan, “but I am curious. Is there not a full deputation of Grey Wardens arriving at the Tower?”

He chuckled dryly. “No. No, it is just me.”

“Ah.”

Well, that was odd. It didn’t have all the weight of a political pressure, then; a move by King Cailan to secure more support for his pets. Perhaps, Corda thought, it was a more subtle recruitment drive… or simply a plea in earnest, if the situation in the south was worse than anyone thought, and the order actually genuinely, urgently needed men.

“We never hear much of the Grey,” she said diplomatically, trying to inject some optimistic curiosity into her voice. “Only stories. Legends, if you will. They are quite… impressive. The order seems most dedicated.”

She sneaked a sidelong look at Duncan, and was mildly annoyed to find the man watching her with that same air of faint amusement. He inclined his head slightly, acknowledging the compliment.

“We have but one purpose. Our duty is to battle darkspawn wherever they appear… and that is what we do.”

“Then what you said in the First Enchanter’s chambers, about a Blight…?”

Duncan’s expression grew sombre. “Yes. We believe there is an archdemon leading the horde. If this is so—”

Corda blinked. “One of the Old Gods?”

A look of faint disapproval flickered across his dark eyes, and she cursed herself inwardly for sounding so enthusiastic. One was not, after all, meant to sound so interested in the prospect of devastation and peril.

“Darkspawn do attack the surface in ragtag bands,” Duncan said slowly. “But archdemons are the one thing capable of rallying them, turning them into an unstoppable force… a veritable army. I fear that this is what we will have to face.”

They were following the curve of the tower’s wall, nearing the library. The light that filtered through the high, small windows was bright and clean, and the sound of the chapel’s midday service bell reverberated through the stonework.

Every day the same. Every chime, every beat, every bloody repetition….

“So, King Cailan’s army is set to beat back this threat? Will it, uh….” Corda swallowed heavily, aware that there were things one was not meant to voice. “Will it be enough?”

If he thought she was seditious, Duncan didn’t say so. He just kept looking straight ahead as they walked, apparently taking in an interest in some of the ornamentation on the lintels of the great doors that bisected this part of the corridor.

“Perhaps,” he said carefully. “If we play our cards right.”

They were nearing the library. There were a few apprentices wandering about, clutching armfuls of books and talking quietly together. A single templar stood by the westerly door to the chamber and, at this hour, all the doors were wide open. The smell of books and the years of pressed paper greeted Corda like an old friend, but she was too preoccupied to truly appreciate it, and gestured to Duncan that they take the left-hand part of the hallway, cutting past the Tranquil’s inventory office rather than skirting the entirety of the library to reach his guest quarters.

“How many mages have joined the king’s army?” she asked, her voice low in deference to that shiny-suited templar. “I know several of our senior enchanters left, but as to how many others—”

“The Circle of Ferelden sent seven mages to Ostagar,” Duncan said shortly, a surprisingly blunt degree of frustration and disdain colouring the words. “Seven… in response to the king’s call. I asked King Cailan’s permission to come and seek a greater commitment from the Circle.”

Ooh, that is one tantrum I’d like to have seen….

“Seven is quite a few,” Corda said doubtfully, forgetting for a moment that she probably shouldn’t disagree with the man.

Duncan shook his head. “I had hoped to place a mage or two within every contingent. I cannot do this just seven.”

“Well, perhaps mages don’t need to—”

“Mages will make all the difference in this war,” he said shortly, giving her a sharp look. “The darkspawn have their own magic, and our resources must exceed theirs.”

Corda’s brow furrowed. Darkspawn had magic?

Hm. You should tell the people about it. I’m sure every good Fereldan citizen would be queuing up to shiv them with a pitchfork. Get the lynch mobs out, and you wouldn’t even need an army….

“Perhaps,” she said carefully, “if the Chantry allowed us more freedom of movement, more of us would be able to attend your call, ser.”

He smiled. “Indeed? I sometimes wonder if the Chantry’s many laws regarding magic are entirely necessary.”

Corda blinked, a little surprised at hearing such a statement from a man like him. Surprised… but encouraged.

“Quite so,” she said, treading lightly with her words, just in case this particular Grey Warden was trying to bait her into heresy, just for the pleasure of decrying her to the Grand Cleric. “There are worse things in the world, after all.”

Duncan nodded vehemently. “Darkspawn are a greater threat than blood mages—than abominations, even. It takes decades for the world to recover from a Blight. I wish the Chantry could see that. We must stop at nothing to defeat the horde. Nothing. But— ah, listen to me!” He gave her a small, grim smile. “An old man’s rantings can’t be very interesting, I am sure.”

Corda snorted. “I’ve been an apprentice in this tower for years, ser. Old men talking have defined my life.”

He laughed at that; truly laughed, in a warm, rich bubble of mirth. His eyes glittered with it, his lips peeling back to show white teeth against dark skin, framed so precisely by that neatly trimmed beard.

“I’m sure they have!”

A few apprentices on their way to the library scattered the wide corridor, and they all but shrank back against the walls, staring with saucer-blown eyes at Corda and her unusual guest. Duncan’s laughter danced against the stones, and Corda allowed herself a small smile, relishing the looks of surprise and awe she drew.

“We don’t really hear much from outside the tower,” she said, as the Warden’s mirth subsided. “I mean, they permit us to walk in the grounds, but short of smoke signals to the docks….”

Duncan smiled afresh and nodded in what seemed to be a sympathetic manner, Corda noted with quiet glee.

“Indeed. A good view of the other side of the lake, perhaps, but a rather… isolated… existence?”

“You could say that,” Corda said tightly.

Duncan inclined his head again. She felt more secure in speaking to the man, content to believe he wasn’t baiting her for the sole purpose of tripping her up, but it did leave one unanswered question: why was he so interested in talking to her at all?

As they moved past the swell of the library’s outer wall, where the enchanted lanterns that hung high above the arches and doorways cast pale ovals of light against the stones—like silent, sombre eyes peering down from the carved lintels and austere panelling—Duncan seemed to note their surroundings with interest. Corda wondered how much he knew of the Tower’s inner workings. Most visitors, for example, thought these great sets of doors and high, pointed archways were simply to impress, little knowing that the Circle’s grand architecture was backed up by several inches of solid, steel-bound oak, as ancient and unyielding as stone. Should there be sufficient cause, every mage in the Tower knew the templars would not hesitate in closing these mighty portals, and isolating whatever spot in which trouble broke out from the rest of the building, leaving those within to either starve… or be hacked down if they did try to break through.

For all the little touches of opulence—the tapestries and hangings, or the thick, Avvar-inspired rugs that were more numerous in this part of the tower, where outsiders were accommodated—Corda couldn’t help but feel her prison had been constructed by the same kind of mind responsible for abattoirs.

Cattle. That’s all we are. Herded through day after day, hoping we won’t be pushed out onto the killing floor….

She ventured a curious look at Duncan, aware that they would reach the guest chambers at any moment, and she would probably not have another opportunity to speak with him. Corda cleared her throat.

“Um…. About your recruitment drive?” she asked, as casually as she dared.

Duncan looked levelly at her, his face betraying no sign he found her impertinent. In fact, he seemed quite interested in what she wanted to say. That in itself set alarm bells ringing in Corda’s head, but she’d gone too far to stop now.

“I assume there’s no sense in trying to draw mages from outside Ferelden? No one would get here fast enough, if this horde is pressing the valley like you say.”

He nodded. “Indeed. I had sent letters to Starkhaven, Kirkwall… the White Spire. Even Cumberland. Very little was forthcoming.”

“But the Grey Wardens are supposed to be the darkspawn’s scourge, aren’t they? Surely, if there were enough of you—”

“If only,” Duncan interrupted wearily, shaking his head. “We are few in number, though I suppose it is fortunate there are some of us in Ferelden at all. Were it not for King Maric, that might not be the case.”

“Hmm.” Corda chewed the inside of her lip thoughtfully, wondering how far it was safe to voice her thoughts. “And Cailan too, I imagine. He’s somewhat… enamoured of the order, according to gossip.”

It probably wasn’t polite to discuss, she supposed, but politeness could go hang. Besides, she found she rather liked Duncan, and she doubted he was the kind of man to go off huffing about a bit of tattle. He wore his formality the same way he wore that skin of shimmering armour, she decided: a part of him, but a part that could easily be removed when it had done its service.

“He has been most supportive,” Duncan said, though his tone hardened a little, assuring her that there would be no further probing of His Majesty’s motivations.

Pity, that.

“You’d be looking for recruits for the order, then, too?” Corda suggested. “Not just for the king. I mean, if there’s an army of darkspawn, you need an army of Grey Wardens. Stands to reason.”

Duncan smiled sadly, and she wondered what she’d said wrong.

“Would it were that simple. But, yes, I am hoping we will find some suitable candidates. We have already acquired a few in the past six months—fine young men, all of them—but our ranks are somewhat bare.”

The doors to the guest quarters lay at the end of the corridor: tall, wide doors set into a broad stone arch, their oaken panels studded with heavy rivets.

Now or never….

“I heard the Grey Wardens only ever have one mage amongst them,” she blurted. “Yet you don’t seem to distrust mages, ser. Is it your commanders who do, then? Because, if there were to be recruitments from the Tower, I—”

Duncan was smiling at her again, with that oddly guarded twist of mirth in his eyes. Corda frowned, feeling exposed and confused, and just a little irritated.

“I am sure we will have an opportunity to speak of this further,” he said gently, and she only just resisted the urge to huff in annoyance.

Corda sniffed and nodded towards the nearest of the guest chambers, its door already standing open, with a Tranquil bedder carrying a leather pack inside. She supposed she shouldn’t have been surprised that Duncan didn’t seem to have much luggage. Nothing about the bloody man seemed predictable, after all.

“Well,” she said, dusting her free hand against the skirts of her robes, “here it is. Not much, but I’m sure you’ll be comfortable. If you need anything, you can ask one of the Tranquil. There’s usually one droning about somewhere.”

“I am sure I shall manage,” Duncan said dryly.

“Right. And, er, thank you for telling me all those things,” Corda added, as he began to move to the door. “About the darkspawn and everything. It was… enlightening.”

He inclined his head, but said nothing. She cleared her throat uneasily, unable to shake the feeling that she’d embarrassed herself.

“I suppose, if war does come this far north, we’ll all have to be ready.”

“Indeed we will,” Duncan replied, and his dark gaze stayed trained on her until she bowed, and left him to settle in the room, retreating like she’d been scalded.

Even as she walked briskly back down the hallway, making for the stairs that led to her own new quarters, Corda couldn’t have said why she was so eager to get away.

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On to Part Six
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