Straining at the Leash: Part Seven

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It wasn’t the best plan Corda had ever heard, though at least it was relatively well thought out… if a little rushed. The phylactery chamber was down in the lower basement levels, behind a door locked by a complex mechanism that, Lily said, required two keys, one of which was held by the Knight-Commander, and the other by the First Enchanter. Corda’s stomach had sunk at that, for there was no way they could hope to lay hands on either, let alone both keys, but Jowan had come up with a surprisingly good idea.

Corda was to requisition a rod of fire from the stockroom—something only a mage could do, as such potentially dangerous items were not released to apprentices—and they would use it to melt through the locks. In theory, there was no reason that wouldn’t work… as long as the door’s mechanism was solid, and actually did depend on metal more than magic. The fat Chantry tart couldn’t answer that one accurately, so Corda supposed they’d just have to wing it.

Either way, once they were inside, it was simply a matter of finding Jowan’s phylactery, destroying it, and then slipping out through one of the service passages on the basement level that led to the grounds. Lily could get them out that way, just as she intended to get them down to the phylactery chamber in the first place: she had keys to several of the service passages, and she said she had managed to bribe and cajole one of the gardener’s boys to leave an exit clear, and a boat moored on the jetty. Apparently, she’d told him she wanted to steal away for a few hours to visit a sick relative, and he was prepared to believe her… at least for the sake of a kiss and half a sovereign. Jowan had looked very po-faced at that, and Corda had said nothing.

She disliked how much of the plan relied upon Lily, but then she disliked Lily intensely, so she supposed that was reasonable.

They didn’t have much time. Lily said the interval between the paperwork for the Rite of Tranquillity being filed and Jowan being taken could potentially be very short, and at first Corda was reluctant to be sucked into the maelstrom of it. She felt sure something would go wrong if they rushed headlong into things, but, as Jowan reminded her, she had been woken in the night for her Harrowing, with no notice, and no way of escape.

That’s what they do. They take you when you’re vulnerable, and you can’t fight back. Don’t let them do that to me. Please, Corda.

She’d hardly been able to argue. Besides, with the Grey Warden still in the Tower, tonight’s dinner would be a large meal in the main dining hall—no simple repast in the refectory, not when Irving could make much of his distinguished guest, and draw the whole thing out with speeches and interminable toasts—so it seemed as if that might provide a helpful distraction.

She said she would take care of the rod of fire, and meet them by the basement doors while everyone else was in the dining hall. Lily hadn’t liked that. She still didn’t seem to trust Corda, despite the fact that, as Jowan pointed out, one mage would attract much attention in the inventory stores than a mage, an apprentice, and an initiate. Corda fought the urge to slap the bitch, and assured her that she wasn’t about to run off and decry their entire plan to Irving, and, once Jowan smoothed things over a bit, Lily seemed to relent.

Corda smouldered inwardly with rage and hatred and, yes, all right, maybe even jealousy… though she said nothing. She didn’t even say anything when Jowan—with the terror and the nervous anticipation rolling off him like a heat haze—asked her if she was going to come too.

What?

Well, if you help us I don’t want to see you punished for it. If you come with us, you could get away. Start over somewhere couldn’t you?

She didn’t know what to say. She could barely stand to look at him, not when everything had changed so irreparably. He had been her friend. They had been bonded in their otherness, joined together like outcasts and misfits, and now she would lose him… and all right, maybe that was preferable to watching the templars burn the soul out of him, but, damn it, she didn’t want to see him go. She didn’t want to see him go with Lily, either, though she was damned if she’d tell him that.

They planned to get married, Lily said. In some far-flung corner of Ferelden, far away from the Tower. Or maybe they’d go to Orlais, or the Free Marches… somewhere small and quiet, where they could make a life, and Jowan could stay out of sight of any templars, and never, ever use any magic, or expose himself to lyrium, or—

Or do any of those horrible, terrible mage-like things. Maker’s breath, they both sounded as bad as each other. “I’ll pray to Andraste every day to protect us…” Ridiculous! She’d have him renounce his gifts entirely, and even he’s starting to sound like he believes magic is a curse.

Corda supposed it wasn’t surprising. Jowan had never risen to the academic challenges of magic like she had. He didn’t enjoy studying, he had no great wish to take his education in the Circle further… and, all in all, he probably would have been better off if he’d been born mundane. His family wouldn’t have abandoned him, and he’d have had a normal life, with a normal girl… just like Lily.

Corda wasn’t entirely sure why those thoughts made her feel so bitterly nauseated, but she didn’t stop to examine them.

All those thoughts rampaged through her head, and he was still looking at her, not understanding why she hadn’t simply said yes, they would all get away together, and everyone would be safe.

Slowly, Corda realised that she had not, even for a moment, considered it.

And what would I do? Be maid of honour at your wedding? What place is there out there for me?

The cold winds of memory rustled around her shoulders. She blinked hurriedly, and muttered something about crossing that bridge when they came to it, and this not being the place to discuss it. Then, mercifully, their subversive little meeting was over, and she was left with the issue of trying to wrest a rod of fire from the stockroom.

~o~O~o~

Getting out of supper wasn’t hard: now she was out of the apprentice dorms, there was no templar to escort her as part of a group, and, as she’d been lucky enough to score her own quarters without having to share, no room-mate to ask awkward questions.

Corda enjoyed the comparative freedom, and slipped up a side staircase to the lecture rooms on the third floor, where she stole a requisition form out of a drawer in one of the enchanters’ desks. As good fortune had it, one of the newer enchanters had also left a ledger and some report markings lying around, which made forging her signature much easier. Corda silently thanked Enchanter Leorah for her stupidity, glad of not having to go through the rigmarole of faking a whole set of experiments to have permission approved for. It would have been easy enough—and, she had to admit, there probably was a lot of interesting experimentation to do with a rod of fire—but it would have taken time, and she was afraid Jowan didn’t have that. Besides, if she was set on this course, she had to see it through before her nerve gave way.

The corridors were quiet as Corda paced down to the stockroom. She didn’t doubt that Irving was making much of the Grey Warden, though her inner amusement at his pomposity was tempered by the fact she had to admit that she would have liked the chance to speak with Duncan again. And then there was the issue of all her suspicions about Gwynlian, and Uldred, and what had sounded so very much like something big with the Libertarians. Secession, at long last, or… what?

Corda tried to push the thoughts from her mind. She didn’t have time to dwell on them now, and what real evidence did she have? Nothing except eavesdropping and rumour, and the Tower was already far overburdened with that.

Still, she wondered what the plans Gwynlian had spoken of were. Escape? That scandalous notion somehow seemed darkly comic now, and Corda sighed inwardly.

A few shadows flickered, but she thought little of it. There were probably a couple of other apprentices sneaking around illicitly… of course there were, because there always were, but she had little time for the ghost stories and tales of hidden things and bound spirits that people said haunted the building’s lower reaches. Her stomach griped quietly in the gloom, and it seemed to Corda that the fact she was missing dinner was probably the most frightening thing there was in the darkness.

As she started to make her way to the stockroom, her mind drifted between possibilities. She knew that, in theory, she should go to Irving. If Jowan had been deemed unable—unsafe, even—to pass his Harrowing, then there was a reason for it… a reason she understood all too clearly. After all, as she’d stood in the Fade, feeling the breath of demons on her neck, had she not thought to herself that he wouldn’t be able to resist? If she doubted him, of all people, then maybe he truly couldn’t do it, and that would affect him always, no matter where he was. Demons didn’t respect territories or national borders. Corda hated even thinking it, but it was still true. And yet… was Jowan dangerous? She almost snorted at the thought.

About as dangerous as a wet fish.

He had strength enough in him, and sense, and the only way he’d ever succumb to demons, she felt sure, was if he was put to the Harrowing in the first place… forced in front of them like a tender new lamb.

It was wrong, Corda decided. She sidled up to the thought slowly, aware that perhaps she was not approaching it with complete clarity, but… but this was Jowan, for the Maker’s sake! And they were going to make him Tranquil. They weren’t even giving him the option to decide his own fate… and that was the worst thing of all. It was the unfairness that ran through the Tower’s whole heart, she decided. Shepherding them, corralling them like beasts—treating them as if they didn’t even have enough mental acuity to know when they were being manipulated.

Only, everything was a hotbed of manipulation in this place, wasn’t it? She thought of Gwynlian and Cullen, and the whispers of whatever Uldred intended to do—the murmur of secession and the hope of a new future—and of Jowan, driven by fear to attempt the impossible. Even she was a part of it: dragged from her bed and thrown to demons to prove she deserved the right to live, with the prize of membership of the Circle awarded to her if she succeeded. One of us. And yet she never would be, would she? She’d never fitted in here. Besides, it was merely another form of manipulation… making apprentices believe they needed to belong, that they had no other home, no other sanctuary. No one else would want them. Our rules or no rules, no safety play nice or play dead. Well, they could all stuff it. All of them.

Anger surged in Corda, her footfalls growing heavier as she approached the stockroom. She couldn’t feel sure of anything anymore; all her certainties and her solid, secure convictions seemed to have melted away in the face of more and more new, frightening things. Who knew, the world might yet come apart at the edges: war, and Blight, and darkspawn… rebellion, escapes…. At least she understood now why Jowan hadn’t found Gwynlian’s fraternisation with a templar as objectionable as she did. Maker, but he was a fool! And bloody Lily…!

Corda had often found it easy to dislike other girls, but rarely had she formed so instant and trenchant an antipathy as this, and she obstinately refused to admit the reasons for it, even to herself. Especially to herself. Of course, now she positively couldn’t go to Irving about Gwynlian, Cullen, and the rumours about Uldred—even had she wanted to; even had she still believed it was the right thing to do—without it looking like she was grassing up Lily and Jowan… and someone would be bound to see, Corda would have bet. It was too risky.

Still, she wished she knew what Cullen and Gwynlian had discussed, and whether they had met on the night of her Harrowing. Perhaps they hadn’t; perhaps Cullen had been called to stand guard over the rite just as unexpectedly as Corda herself had been put through it. She wasn’t sure, although she had seen Gwynlian in the corridors since, albeit briefly, and there had been no clamour of an escape or anything. Maybe that hadn’t been what they were planning. Maybe it had all changed because Uldred had been called to Ostagar… yes, that was probably it.

She told herself that over and over, until she started to believe it, and to believe that what she knew wasn’t worth going to Irving with… especially not at this hour, and not with the issue of Jowan and Lily to be dealt with.

Friends first. Suspicions later.

If there was a later, of course.

It was unlikely, Corda thought glumly, as she neared the stockroom, with its enchanted lanterns burning over the doors, that there would be much of a later, if Jowan’s plan went off as he intended. She would most likely be caught: the trail of evidence from a melted-out lock back to the very easily identifiable mage who had requisitioned the rod of fire would be short, and even the stupidest templar would make the connection.

She should leave with them. She could escape, she supposed. It was probably the only way to avoid a significant punishment… at least until she was caught, and brought back to the Tower. And she would be caught if she ran. Her phylactery would already be on its way to Denerim, so there was no chance of destroying it. She would have to choose between staying here, and probably kissing goodbye to the chance of studying in Cumberland—if they even let her stay in the Circle after this—or following Jowan’s lead and pitching into a life on the run.

Corda didn’t relish either option. Staying seemed a dark, terrible thing, and for the first time she really felt as if the Tower was a prison with no redeeming features. It seemed as if all her studies—the safety of books and learning—had been a dry echo, a pointless endeavour that itself was the result of manipulation. It was the way they’d kept her docile, kept her trapped without even believing she was… and had she ever once thought about another life? She doubted it. For years now, her thoughts had been focused on Cumberland, and further study, and the College, and… and part of Corda didn’t know why she should suddenly feel that it had somehow been a lie.

It wasn’t just because of Jowan, she told herself. It wasn’t just because of how instantaneous her decision to help him had been. And she didn’t feel guilty. She didn’t. If anything, she was grateful for all this—for the glimpse of the truth her Harrowing had given her, and for Jowan’s predicament, and for the presence of the Grey Warden, and all the troubling news he’d brought—and she embraced the way it had made her think.

Her eyes were open, Corda thought. The tremors of uncertainty and all the anger, fear, and worry that crawled across her skin were the first pieces of truth she’d felt in a long time, and maybe what the Tevinter treatises she’d read talked about was true: crossing into the Fade was like drawing aside a curtain. Only, now, she knew what lay so close to the waking world.

She knew, and she could see for the first time how flimsy all the rules that held mages in place were. It put everything else into considerable perspective.

~o~O~o~

Owain didn’t give her much trouble. She’d thought for a moment that he’d question the forged signature, but he just looked at it, shook his head, and remarked that Enchanter Leorah’s handwriting was ‘most unclear, like so many of the faculty’, and how ‘inefficient’ it was. Of course, the Tranquil were incapable of annoyance or frustration, but Corda thought Owain’s words rang a little of some bland kind of regret, as if he believed the entire world would be better run according to a system built on neat columns of copperplate.

He didn’t even ask what she was using the rod of fire for. She would have expected that; expected anyone to ask, especially given the fact it was her requisitioning the thing. It probably looked odd, like a one-armed man asking to train with a greatsword. However, Owain either lacked curiosity, or had simply seen too much go in and out of his storerooms for this to be anything unusual.

He presented Corda with a locked metal box, about eight inches by fifteen, with a tiny brass key on a chain, and gave her strict instructions not to put the rod in contact with any candles, torches, or other sources of flame, and to keep it away from glowstones, as the enchantments that fuelled both objects had a tendency to cause magical energy to arc unpredictably.

She nodded sagely and promised to be careful, for the first time beginning to feel a little afraid of the thing she had in her possession… and the things she had promised to do. Her pulse quickened as she made her way down through the dim corridors, down towards the basement levels.

This is a terrible idea. It can’t work. We can’t— we’re all going to end up Tranquil, or dead, or worse… whatever’s worse than that. I’m sure there’s something. Oh, what am I doing? Why did I even—?

There had, of course, been no other choice. She knew that. What could happen to Jowan had happened to hundreds of apprentices before him, and could just as easily have happened to her. Being made mindless, emotionless… a husk of a person, kept only for cleaning and stocktaking, and providing the enchantments to line the Chantry’s pockets, because what else were the Magi but pets and profit-makers for the god-botherers? There was no freedom, no true life, even with the comparative autonomy that being a full member of the Circle conferred.

There certainly won’t be after this, I’ll bet.

Perhaps, Corda thought, this was what Uldred had been preaching… although, remembering Gwynlian’s references to him as ‘Master’, she doubted it. He was a senior enchanter, just like the rest of the pompous bastards, and whatever he was planning—whether it was a legal challenge, the way the Libertarians had been talking about for years, or some other underhanded coup to strike at Irving’s authority in the Tower—she didn’t doubt it would have more to do with Uldred asserting his own position than it would truly redressing the balance between mage and templar.

There was no way to do that, she realised. Nowhere in Thedas would give them that kind of equality, and as long as the Chantry stuck to its views about magic ‘serving’ man—or, perhaps more accurately, the Circle generating reliable coin and currency for the coffers—nothing would ever change.

Oh, these bitter mental railings were nothing but self-justifications, Corda knew: her fear welling up inside her and making her spout rational arguments for why she was doing this mad, stupid thing… and it was fear.

And fear was the enemy, just like it always had been.

Fear was what made Jowan weak, after all. Fear that he wouldn’t succeed, fear that he’d never be good enough—and it was that weakness, she felt sure, that Irving and Greagoir had sniffed out in him. It was that which had made them earmark him for Tranquillity, and it couldn’t be more unfair, because it was the bloody Chantry and the bloody Circle that gave them these things to be afraid of!

Just as it always had, the fear began to curdle to anger in Corda’s chest. She felt it ripple under her skin, coiling darkly and scooping out bitter places inside her, where the temptations sat and weltered.

Fear is the enemy. Fear makes you weak. You take the fear, and you face it… flush it out. Own it. Make it strong and solid, like iron… like anger. Turn it cold and brittle, like ice, and then break it into a million pieces….

She had never been more afraid in her life than she had the day that Blake died. What she had done to him—what she had done to herself, and to her whole family, her whole village—was something only monsters could do. She’d believed that; believed it was a demon, or some other force that she couldn’t control, that wasn’t intrinsically her. She’d had to, because it meant it wasn’t her fault.

Even now, she remembered the fear when he wouldn’t stop… his big, brawny face, and his laughing—his constant laughing—as he hurt them. Standing by the fire, the squirming figure of their littlest sister held tight in his grasp, and Rhea’s terrified keening cries as he held her closer and closer to the flames, laughing all the while in that slow, invasive way of his that seemed to creep under Corda’s very skin.

—Stop it, Blake! Stop it!

And then his hand on her wrist—he was so much bigger than all of them, so much heavier—and she couldn’t fight back. She couldn’t stop him, no matter how much she hit him and clawed at him, and then he was dragging her to the flames as well. Rhea’s blistered hands were swollen and shiny, her face blooming to deep red and streaked with tears. He wanted to watch all of them burn. It made him laugh. He found it… entertaining. And the fire loomed closer and closer, hotter and hotter, and she had no control. There was nothing but flames, and she felt her skin heat and sear and oh Maker but it hurt…. She screamed. Screamed, cried… panicked.

So much fear, and blind terror. She wasn’t herself anymore, and if she wasn’t herself, who knew what would fill the space left behind?

The fire came then. The fire that was all around her, and yet within her. It burst out, roared up… her screams of fear became the ragged wails of an angry, inhuman creature. A monster.

She burned him back. Burned him for all of them. Struck him down like the bully he was… and his screams filled the house. She didn’t stop. By the time people came running in from the fields, she couldn’t stop. Rhea had run away, run hollering for their mother, but the two of them were locked there still, burning. Burning and screaming. She didn’t stop until he was dead. Her brother, a blackened and charred stump of a beast at her feet… the last thing she saw before the Fade swallowed her whole.

The thing that frightened her most was losing control. 

Corda caught her breath and leaned against the cool stone of the corridor’s wall. All right, so maybe she was more afraid than she was willing to admit… maybe, whispered a little voice at the back of her mind, she never had conquered it.

Fear was the enemy. It always was.

She clutched the box containing the rod of fire tightly to the folds of her robes, and hurried down the darkened steps. One solitary lantern bracketed to the wall in the stairwell lit her path, casting a pale glow with its enchantment that bloomed thinly against the stones.

In the box, the rod seemed to shift. The crackle of its power arced against the metal, and Corda felt it jump under her hands, its heat beginning to surge. She bit her lip, pushing back the unbidden, hideously vivid memories of flames, and hurried on.

Jowan better bloody well appreciate this….

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