Straining at the Leash: Part Ten

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Back to Straining at the Leash: Contents
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The corridors all seemed to blend into one another as they headed back to the staircase, and the service passages through the ground floor that would, Lily said, lead them out to the jetty, the boat… and freedom. Ripples of unease shivered through Corda’s body, and she tried not to keep glancing into every shadow, fearing that every open door they’d left in their wake was another danger of discovery; as if demons, or templars, or some other more terrible possibility—Maker only knew what—might linger there.

They were all breathless, all quivering with the elation of having actually done it—done the impossible, broken into the most heavily fortified part of the Tower, destroyed the most secret, most potent weapon the Chantry wielded—and nothing seemed fully real. She found herself reaching to her belt pouch again, fingers moulding to the shape of the pendant within.

We’ll have to be careful on the way out,” Jowan said, peering up towards the basement doors, and the steps beyond. “Dinner’s probably over by now.”

Unless the old farts are still toasting each other and making speeches,” Corda said darkly, glancing back at them. Lily was clutching Jowan’s hand again, looking pale and nervous. “But you’re right… the quicker we are, the better. We’ll split up as soon as we get to land.”

Lily nodded, but Jowan winced and flapped his mouth a bit. “Are—? Well… yes, I suppose… but…. Oh, let’s just get this over with.”

Corda nodded. As she moved towards the staircase, his leather-shod feet scuffled on the stones, and she was aware of his scurrying to catch up with her. He’d disengaged his hand from Lily’s, and now he touched her on the shoulder. Corda tensed slightly, as aware as ever of the scars beneath her robes, and the curiously uncomfortably, vulnerable feeling that came from the warmth of that brief contact.

Corda,” Jowan murmured, as the reek of lavender, kingsblossom and sweat rolled over her, “listen…. I-I just wanted to say thank you. I mean it. Without you, we could never have—”

She didn’t really want to look at him, but she did anyway. His dark blue eyes shifted nervously, his gaze never steady, and his narrow face full of flittering excitement and unsettled tension. She twitched her lips: not quite a smile, and not quite a gesture of dismissal.

You’d have done the same for me,” she muttered. “Wouldn’t you?”

He blanched. “O-Of course I would!”

Well, then. Anyway, you should probably wait to thank me until we’re the other side of the lake.”

~o~O~o~

Corda knew something was wrong the moment they set foot in the chamber.

The torches were still burning on the walls, and ostensibly nothing had changed, but… but the room felt different. It was like the stones themselves were holding their breath. She turned to Jowan, only to find he was gripping Lily’s hand again, beaming at her, and halfway through saying something about how wonderful it would all be when they got across the lake, and how tomorrow morning was going to be the first sunrise they saw in freedom.

It was then that she noticed what was different. The chamber that led to the basement entrance they’d used had two sets of double doors, one at either end. When Corda had come down here to meet Jowan and Lily, they had been open. Now, they were closed.

Trapped.

The crisp, sharp noise of metal on stone caught at her ears. Footsteps. Corda looked up, her mouth dry, and saw figures emerging from behind the shadows that encased the stairwell. The blank, faceless metal of templar armour glimmered menacingly in the torchlight.

Behind her, Jowan swore under his breath, probably as he realised the same thing as her: this was no chance patrol that had happened to find the basement doors unchained. They were lying in wait—and they were not alone.

Panic rooted Corda to the ground, the breath buzzing in her throat as she tried to count how many templars there were. Six, seven eight, plus, as she saw with a chill of utter horror, the Knight-Commander and First Enchanter.

It seemed an excessive show of force.

The three of them stopped dead, bunched into a terrified knot at the top of the narrow staircase as Greagoir strode forwards. His heavy armour was polished to a high sheen, the heraldic symbols on the shoulders and surcoat catching the light like jewels, in a sharp contrast to the darkly scoured lines of the sword of mercy on his chest. His broad, lined face was set into an outraged glare, his eyes like chips of flint beneath heavy, greying brows.

So, you see, Irving? I told you our information was correct,” he growled, glaring at them. “An initiate, conspiring with a blood mage. I’m disappointed in you, Lily.”

Corda didn’t dare look back, but she heard the girl whimper. Greagoir came closer and closer, bearing down on them like a bull, the sheer weight of his presence enough to make Corda stand aside before she even knew she’d done it. She felt weak, and she hated it… hated him, and the self-righteous anger with which he seized Lily by the arm, and thrust his face into hers, staring into her eyes as she flinched away from him, her chin puckering and her lips quivering as she tried hard not to cry.

Hmph.” The Knight-Commander grunted disdainfully. “She seems shocked, but fully in control of her own mind. Not a thrall of the blood mage, then.” He turned abruptly to address the assembled templars. “The initiate has betrayed us. The Chantry will not let this go unpunished!”

Another round of pompous striding followed, the clink of armour fitments and the clip of sabatons on stone breaking the strained, terrible quiet of the chamber. The templars had begun to gather, closing in on them in a rough half-circle. There was nowhere to run except back into the basements, and what would that have achieved?

Blood mage… why does he keep saying that?

Corda looked hopelessly at the First Enchanter, but Irving was merely standing quietly, his hands folded into the sleeves of his robes, and his face set into a mask of disdainful regret.

Please! This isn’t what it looks like,” she protested, beginning to raise her hands until she saw how the templars tensed. She lowered them at once to her sides, trying to keep her posture loose and non-threatening, even as her voice rose in pitch. “I swear! Knight-Commander, your information is wrong. Jowan is no blood mage: he told me so himself! It’s just a rumour, a—”

Greagoir ignored her words, merely thumbing a gesture in her direction as he glared accusingly at Irving.

And this one… newly a mage, and already flouting the rules of the Circle! It’s beyond belief! You will take her in hand, Irving. An example must be made!”

Indeed.” The First Enchanter looked wearily at Corda, and she felt her stomach tighten. “This saddens me greatly, child. You could have come to me, told me what you knew of this plan… and you didn’t.”

Corda clenched her teeth, willing herself not to say anything that would make things worse—as if such a thing was possible—but it filled her with indignation that, even now, he could say that… that he could chastise her for showing just one ounce of integrity.

And stupidity… I knew I should have grassed this up, didn’t I? Oh, and just thinking about it felt so wrong, like a betrayal, and Maker knows if I’m going to betray anyone, I’d hope I’d have the courage for it not to be a friend….

She started to open her mouth, and a thousand words it would have been useless to say fought to get between her lips. She wanted to shout, to scream, to yell that—even here, even like this—mages deserved the chance to stick together, and that all Jowan wanted was freedom from the brutal, spiteful rules the Circle made for them… setting them up to fail, then putting them to death or Tranquillity for that failure.

I don’t regret it. I don’t regret it. I don’t—

I—” she began, faltering with uncharacteristic reticence.

We do not have rules for the sake of rules,” Irving said gravely. “It is the Circle’s duty to protect all mages, and, in turn—”

That’s rubbish!” Jowan shouted, pushing forwards, pushing himself in front of Lily. “You don’t care for the mages! You don’t care about any of us! You just bow to the Chantry’s every whim!”

Corda winced, but it was too late. The damage was done, and they were all going to be punished. Her pulse thrummed as, light-headed, she began to realise just how much trouble they were in.

Enough!” Greagoir thundered, raising a gauntleted hand. “You and your accomplice will be taken to cells to await your punishments… I think you know what that will be, blood mage.”

She blinked rapidly. Her forehead stung and she was dizzy with disbelief. Why did the Knight-Commander keep calling Jowan that? This was so wrong. If they truly believed he was a maleficar, he would face death… and so would she, most likely. Her knees began to feel shaky, and the room started to turn pale. Greagoir was still pontificating. He levelled a curt gesture at Lily, his face a stormy mask of anger.

“…and you…. You have betrayed the Chantry, betrayed your sisters and your brothers… betrayed me, and poured scorn upon your vows. You will be punished, initiate, but your involvement with the maleficar makes things even worse. How are we to know your mind is your own? You will be sent to Aeonar until we can determine the degree of your guilt.”

The mages’ prison? For a mundane? Then they must truly believe Jowan’s corrupted her. Maker’s balls, those stupid sodding rumours…!

Oh! No….” Lily shrank back, horrified. “No, please… it isn’t true! I would never— Please! Not there!”

Her voice was a frightened yelp, like the cries of a child, and it seemed to break something in Jowan. Ignoring the bare blades of templar swords aimed at him, he pushed in front of Lily, shielding her with his body.

No!” He was scowling now, all the indecision and fear in his face condensed into hard, sharp planes of determination and fury. He drew a knife from his belt—the small, blunt kind most apprentices carried for mealtimes or unjamming stuck desk drawers—and he held it up, as if he really believed he could take on a dozen templars with it. “No… I won’t let you touch her!”

Corda’s chest tightened. This was going to end badly for all of them, but she couldn’t stand to see him hacked to pieces in front of her. She started to reach out to him, to convince him he had to stand down—

Jowan, don’t. It’s over….”

and never in a thousand ages could she ever have expected to see him drive the knife into his own palm.

Corda felt it as it went in, she could have sworn. The shock of the act reverberated around the chamber like an explosion and then… then came the blood, and the power.

It was thick, like treacle, and it made the air taste bitter and salty, and then the fog of it rose up in a dark cloud, swallowing everything. She saw Jowan at the centre of it, his face grim and determined, and the power crackled from his skin in a terrible storm of primal energy, fuelled by and mixed with his own blood. The gash in his hand flowed like a river: blood… everywhere. Dark red billowed from him in gouts and spurts, staining his pale skin, staining his robes, until Corda closed her eyes, unable to watch. She could see it still, taste it, feel it, hear it deep inside her own head. It was a chorus of murmuring voices, a roar of sallow wind… it was everything, all at the same time, and then, as he reached the pinnacle of the power he was drawing, Jowan unleashed it.

Corda had always known he had more strength in him than he believed he did. She thought bitterly of how she’d tried to convince him of it, as the force of his magic tore the air in front of him, ripping through the chamber in a colossal burst of dark energy, like tainted ice. The templars went flying before the first of them had even got off a negating spell, and Corda saw one knight hit the stone wall with thundering force. Greagoir was knocked down, scudding across the flagstones on his back, a cut opening up along his left cheek, and Irving went down too, folding like the frail old man he so infrequently resembled.

The metallic echoes of the magic—not quite a spell, more a raw unleashing of power—reverberated throughout the chamber as, bodies scattered all around him, Jowan turned to Lily. His hand was still bleeding heavily, the blood dripping from his fingers, and his face had taken on a waxy, unhealthy pallor, his eyes unfocused as he reached out to her with his other hand.

Lily… Lily, come on! We have to go. The boat—”

He took a step towards her, but she backed away, shaking her head. “By the Maker…! Blood magic? How could you, Jowan? You said you never—”

You lied to me, you bastard!” Corda exploded, finally finding her voice through the ringing in her ears. “Back in there, you said there was a rumour… how could you be so stupid? People knew, and still you went ahead with this!”

He spun around to face her, wild-eyed and spattered with blood. “What else could I do? They were going to make me Tranquil, Corda!”

And now they’re going to make you dead!”

One of the templars was beginning to stir, trying to haul himself up with evident difficulty. It didn’t seem as if Jowan had killed any of them—though Corda wasn’t too sure about Irving—but he’d dealt far more damage than she’d ever thought one apprentice mage was capable of.

Seems like everything they say about blood magic is true….

Jowan winced at her words as if she’d slapped him. “And what choice is that?” he demanded, turning from her to look again at Lily, who’d moved so far from him she was now pressed up against the far wall, tears scoring her round, soft cheeks. “Lily! Please! Come on!”

You said you n-never…,” she managed, the words dissolving to sobs.

All right! I-I dabbled,” he admitted, his voice growing high and tight as he looked imploringly from her to Corda. “I thought it might make me a better mage, so I could pass the Harrowing, so I could— Maker’s breath, I did it for you, Lily! For us. All I ever wanted was to be with you! Come on… please.”

The hand he was holding out to her began to droop, his fingers trembling as she shook her head violently.

Blood magic is evil, Jowan! It corrupts people… changes them…. I didn’t want this!”

I’ll give it up!” he said, sounding desperate now, his bloody hand clutched across his chest, the wound spilling into the cup of his palm like a seething tide. “All magic. Like we talked about… I’ll never do anything. I just… I just wanted—”

No!” Lily was crushed against the wall, her body hunched and her arms wrapped around herself, her tears flowing just as freely as his blood. “I trusted you… I was ready to sacrifice everything for you! I don’t know who you are now. You get away from me, blood mage! I don’t know you. I don’t….”

She turned her face away, given over to her sobs, and Jowan stared for a moment, slack-jawed and white as a corpse. Corda had barely realised she was holding her breath, and her chest ached with it. She touched Jowan’s back. He flinched, turning quickly to her with a look on his face like a frightened dog, ready to snarl and leap. His eyes were wide pools of terror and incomprehension, and there was a great deal that she wanted to say, but the wounded templars were struggling to stand, and—after this—Greagoir wasn’t likely to wait long for a summary execution.

Run,” she whispered. “Now. Fast.”

He nodded weakly, and pelted for the doors. He was almost there, dragging them open enough to slip through, when one of the templars made it to his feet and drew back his arms, preparing some form of smite. Corda didn’t think. She lifted her hands, allowing her palms to bloom with flames, and she turned the air in the chamber red. It was enough of a distraction. She saw Jowan get clear of the room, a distant blur of legs and robes disappearing down the corridor, and then the breathless, dry, violent sensation of a templar’s cleanse hit her, knocking out her magic and knocking the air from her lungs. It made the room spin, and hurt almost as much as the heavy blow that then landed across the back of her head.

Bloody robes,” a metallic-sounding voice muttered, as Corda stumbled and fell to the floor.

She tried to push herself up, but a templar boot connected squarely with her stomach, and it seemed better to curl in on herself and stay down.

Gauntleted hands laid hold of her arms, pulling them roughly behind her. She felt cuffs fasten over her wrists, then she was dragged upright, her blurred vision clearing enough to make out the figure of the Knight-Commander helping Irving to his feet… and Lily, sunk down to the ground by the far wall, her head in her hands.

Are you all right, Irving?”

The First Enchanter nodded, waving away further assistance, though he stood awkwardly, one hand clamped to his side. Greagoir was glowering, the gash on his cheek still yielding a thin trickle of blood.

Blood magic… filth. But to overcome so many—I never thought that boy capable of such power!”

None of us expected this,” Irving said, with a dour glance in Corda’s direction. He returned his attention to the Knight-Commander. “And you? Are you all right, Greagoir?”

As good as can be expected, given the circumstances. If we had acted sooner, this would not have happened! Huh… where is the girl?”

Lily stepped forwards, evidently having dragged herself from the corner in which she had been cowering. She stood with her shoulders stooped and her hands hanging uselessly at her sides, her face tear-streaked and puffy.

I… I am here, ser.”

Greagoir scowled at her. “You aided a blood mage, child! Look at all he’s hurt.”

She did it for love,” Corda interjected, amazed at her own apparent inability to keep her mouth shut. “And she didn’t know. They just wanted to be together… that was all.”

Lily shook her head sadly. “You’ve been a true friend, but you needn’t defend me any longer.”

I wasn’t defending you, you fat trollop.

The initiate raised her chin, meeting the Knight-Commander’s angry glare bravely, and yet Corda couldn’t find it in herself to feel inspired by Lily’s valour. She was too busy wondering whether Jowan had made it to the boat in time, and how far across the lake he could get before the templars scrambled a pursuit.

Knight-Commander, I was wrong. I-I was accomplice to a… a blood mage. I will accept whatever punishment you see fit. Even… even Aeonar.”

Corda shivered involuntarily.

Hmph. Get her out of my sight,” Greagoir growled, waving a couple of the templars who were able to stand forwards.

They took hold of Lily and began to escort her away… and Corda turned her head, unwilling to watch her go. Her cowardice didn’t help her escape the Knight-Commander’s attention, however. He glared furiously at her.

And you! What were you thinking? Your antics have made a mockery of this Circle! You know our rules are in place for good reason. Your foolishness has been beyond measure and— Ah! What are we to do with you?”

Corda took a deep breath, and the world seemed to crystallise around her. Despite the very real threat of death—or of her own one-way trip to the mages’ prison in the north, to be shackled and tormented with demons—she couldn’t dredge up any more fear. In that moment, all of Greagoir’s bluster and ire suddenly seemed like nothing more than an old man’s posturing.

They would do with her what they pleased… for such was the Circle, and the Chantry’s hold over it. The truth of what had happened—that she had believed her friend to be honest, and believed that he just wanted a normal life, away from all of this—wouldn’t matter. If she was tried at all, it would be by templars, and they would not choose to believe in an iota of her innocence.

There seemed very little point in protesting, and so Corda drew herself up, and stared icily at Greagoir.

Do what you please, ser,” she said coldly. “I stand by my decision to help Jowan. He was my friend.”

For a moment, it seemed entirely plausible that the Knight-Commander was going to explode.

You helped a blood mage escape!” Greagoir roared. “All our prevention measures have been for naught—because of you! I can’t even begin to—ah! Take her to a cell,” he barked, turning away.

Corda flinched as two templars—heavy, broad men with blank steel instead of faces—flanked her and took hold of her bound arms. They began to lead her away, and she searched desperately for some argument, some protest… and found nothing.

As she was removed from the chamber, all she saw was First Enchanter Irving, standing alone on the bloodied flagstones and watching her go.

~o~O~o~

The cells beneath the Tower were things of legend among the apprentices. Everyone knew there were dungeons, stretching away into the bedrock, but they were supposed to be mostly disused. Acts of wanton misbehaviour that merited being locked up were few and far between. Generally, the enchanters preferred to revoke privileges, remanding apprentices to dormitories, or to allot creative punishments such as cooking, cleaning, or menial duties in addition to studies, or extra assignments of an especially boring nature. Only serious things, like escape attempts, major insubordination, or subversion of the Tower’s more stringent rules resulted in a student taking a trip to what was generally called ‘the box’.

Anyone who did land such a punishment tended to brag about it, and claim that the cells were filthy and rife with rats and bits of skeletons still in manacles… which no one really believed. There was a rumour that one mage had been confined in the cells for an entire year, but no one believed that, either. It was as ridiculous as the stories that said the templars shut people away down there and forgot about them, until they died of neglect and faded to spirits, never knowing whether they were alive or dead.

Corda didn’t much care for the gossip, especially after the cell door shut behind her. She sat miserably in the small, dank stone room, staring at the back of the iron door. She was below the level of the lake down here, she reckoned, and she couldn’t help thinking about Jowan, and whether he’d made it across.

She wanted him to have done, despite his lies and his betrayal. She was angry about it, of course, and yet filled with so much sadness. He should never have felt he had to augment his power like that. No one should be so afraid of failing something as cruel as the Harrowing that they turned to the very craft the ritual was meant to protect people from.

Oh, if only he hadn’t been so stupid! Stupid with the dabbling, stupid with Lily, with his plan for the phylactery… all of it!

And if only he hadn’t involved me. I will never forgive the weaselly little shit for that.

Not without telling me the truth.

It stung with the pain of betrayal, and, in the darkness, after the templars had left her alone, maybe she did even weep.

She cried for her lost, broken thread of a life, and her friend, and even—Maker damn it for all the bloody stupidity—even for Lily, who didn’t deserve to be sent somewhere as horrible as Aeonar.

She turned the past few days over and over in her mind, looking for some chink in the armour of circumstance, some point at which she might have done things differently… there were probably a dozen, but Corda wasn’t sure any of them would have helped.

She lay down on the hard, narrow cot that smelled of damp, but didn’t bother trying to get any rest. There didn’t seem to be much point. She was merely waiting until someone came to get her, and then… well… execution, probably. She supposed it hadn’t sunk in yet. That must be why she felt so calm, so oddly dispassionate.

It was dark in the cells. One torch burned in the hallway beyond the iron door, and its light filtered through the small grille in the cell wall, but that was all. Corda tried to pull a light from the air, but the door apparently had some form of ward on it—sensible, she supposed, if these rooms were for imprisoning mages—and all she managed was a weak sputter that died on her fingers.

She let her fingers drift to her belt pouch, and slip inside it. There, the pendant she had taken from the repository met her touch, its surface slickly smooth and surprisingly warm.

Given everything she’d seen today, she doubted it was a totally wholesome artefact. There was power in it, certainly… perhaps magic of a darker hue than the Circle approved of, too. She wasn’t sure if she was still afraid of that thought.

Corda lay in the semi-darkness, and traced the shapes of the pendant, learning it by touch. No breath of demons whispered in her ears, no forbidden rites tugged at her mind. She drew it out of her pouch, holding it tucked in her palm, and brought it to her eye level. The onyx disc glimmered dully in the dimness, and clouds seemed to swirl within it.

I would have to be a complete fool to put you on, wouldn’t I? And yet… what have I got to lose?

Corda spread the pendant’s chain in her fingers, readying to slip it over her head, but stopped at the sounds of footfalls in the hallway past her door. Hurriedly, she shoved the pendant back into her belt pouch and swung herself up, her slippers scuffing gently against the grubby stone floor.

The clank and grind of a key in a lock sounded, along with some low, muttering voices, and she tensed. The door swung open, and the blaze of a candle punctured the darkness. Corda screwed up her face, momentarily afraid. A figure entered the cell, hidden in the darkness behind the candle flame.

She lifted her hand, shielding herself both from the intruder and the light, but the figure stopped, pushing the door closed after itself, and just stood there, waiting until she grew accustomed to its presence.

Corda frowned as recognition pushed past her fear.

You?

Duncan lowered the candle, holding it away from her, out to his left side.

Indeed,” he said quietly, his face serious.

The candlelight glimmered on his dark skin and silvery armour, his neatly clipped beard helping disguise any hint of expression around his mouth. Corda’s frown deepened, and she smoothed a hand over the front of her robes.

Forgive me, ser, but I’m hardly in a position to accept visitors. Why why are you here?”

I heard about what happened,” Duncan said, without any obvious trace of judgement.

She snorted. “Yes I’m sure the entire Tower has. Not quite the hitchless ceremonial dinner the First Enchanter was intending for his honoured guest, I’ll bet.”

The Grey Warden said nothing, and, hearing the bitter brittleness in her own voice, Corda shut her mouth abruptly. She didn’t understand how Duncan could even be here. Why would Greagoir have allowed it? She squinted suspiciously at the man, the candle making shadows dance in front of her eyes, and an awkward silence pooled between them.

Did… uh,” she began tentatively, looking down at her hands. “Did you… hear anything about—?”

Your friend escaped,” Duncan said. “The templars took a boat across the lake, but they found no trace of him. I’m afraid, however, that the girl remains under lock and key.”

Corda nodded slowly, trying to keep her relief contained. Jowan had got away… maybe that meant it hadn’t all been for nothing. And yet….

He lied to me. He was a blood mage. He was lying the whole time.

and I helped him.

Even after she knew, even after she’d seen what he’d done, Corda had helped him. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She wasn’t sure what Duncan thought about it, either; he remained so impassive that it was hard to tell.

Ah,” she said, dropping her gaze to the floor. It was difficult to keep looking at the Grey Warden, and she didn’t know why. Corda cleared her throat. “Um… have… have you ever seen someone use blood magic?”

She didn’t know why she asked. Duncan didn’t look surprised.

He inclined his head. “Yes. Once, in my youth, just after I had joined the Grey Wardens. I was travelling with my mentor, when we encountered a group of templars hunting a blood mage. They were quite far away, so I cannot be sure of what I saw.”

But?” Corda prompted.

Behind the candlelight, she almost thought she saw him frown.

He forced some of the templars to turn on their fellows,” Duncan said quietly. “It was… quite dreadful to behold.”

Corda caught her breath, her mind full of the moment Jowan’s knife had sunk into his palm, and the blood had begun to flow, and everything had turned to darkness and that terrible, raw, violent power.

He would have escaped,” Duncan went on, “had he not overlooked one templar, who snuck up behind him and cleaved his head in two.”

She winced, the images of Jowan’s bloody coils of magic swiftly replaced with another, much more vivid picture, and she glared at the Grey Warden, full of hatred for the thoughts he’d planted in her head.

Maybe he was just trying to survive. Had you thought of that?”

Hm.” Duncan shrugged, his silvery armour gilded in the candlelight, and he met her gaze with dark, shrouded eyes. “It is something to consider, certainly. But… this is not what I came down here to speak to you about.”

Corda scowled. “No. I imagine not. Frankly, I’m surprised Greagoir permitted it. So you wanted to see the face of the criminal?” She jutted out her chin, glaring at the man as the candle flame wavered between them.

Duncan simply continued to watch her quietly, his face still unreadable.

Maybe you wanted to ask how we did it? How we got through all their precautions? Because, actually, you know, it was surprisingly easy. It was only because of LilyI mean, I hate to admit it, but it was. Poor cow. Cooperation,” Corda added thoughtfully, her scowl slipping into a frown as realisation settled around her. “That’s all it takes. Someone from the Chantry, and someone from the Circle, working together. Maybe that’s why they put so much effort into making us fear them.”

The Grey Warden made a small noise in the back of his throat. She wasn’t sure whether it was reproach or appreciation.

Be that as it may,” he said, “you are still facing a severe punishment. I have come to offer an alternative.”

Corda grimaced. “Oh? An alternative to being hanged at dawn? Or are they planning to ship me to Denerim for a public execution?” She frowned again, as her weary, addled mind finally caught up to his words. “Wait, what? What alternative?” Something in between fear and confusion laid a cold hand around her throat, turning her voice hushed. “You don’t mean…?”

I came here to seek recruits both for the king’s army, and for the Grey Wardens.” Duncan’s eyes glimmering like dark stones. “The First Enchanter had already spoken highly of you, but, seeing what you have done today… well,” he said, permitting himself the smallest of smiles, which Corda found both unsettling and astounding. “It seems to me that it is a rare person indeed who will risk everything for a friend.”

Corda’s lips thinned. “Hm. A friend who turned out to be a maleficar. That doesn’t bother you? I mean, I’m surprised I can’t hear Greagoir shouting from down here.”

Duncan inclined his head, almost as if he was hiding his amusement. “You have great power at your disposal, and you are not afraid to use it. Tell me… would you truly prefer to remain here, your gifts wasted, or would you take a chance at something more, and join the Warden ranks?”

Corda didn’t know what to say. This seemed like a cruel joke, in the dank darkness of the cells: something to be dangled before her and then snatched away.

You mean that?” she asked hoarsely. “But… the Circle won’t let me go, surely. The templars—”

If the Grey Wardens choose to conscript someone, neither king nor priest may deny them,” Duncan said, as if intoning some ancient piece of law. “I offer you a way out. I have already spoken to the Knight-Commander and the First Enchanter.”

She let out a short cough of laughter. “Oh! I bet they were thrilled. Maker’s ba— I mean… well, I mean yes. Of course. I— Thank you,” she added, looking up at Duncan with new respect. “But… how…?”

He shook his head. “There will be time to discuss everything in more detail once we are underway. For now, we must leave. We shall make out way south, to Ostagar, where the king’s army is camped. You will be initiated there. Are you ready to leave?”

Corda glanced around the cell. “Never readier,” she said darkly. She frowned. “I… don’t suppose you can do anything for Lily? Another conscription, or—?”

Duncan shook his head. “I’m afraid not. The rite of conscription may not be invoked lightly.”

And you’re already pushing your luck. Hmm, I see….

I… understand,” Corda said carefully, rising to her feet.

Good.” Duncan gave her a small, tucked sort of smile, sad and yet oddly sympathetic. “You know, not many would have done what you did today. Believe it or not, we need more people like you.”

She snorted. “Huh… I thought the world already had plenty of fools.”

Duncan said nothing, his expression settling back into that inscrutable quietness. “Come. We will leave immediately.”

Before the Knight-Commander takes a hatchet to someone, I presume?

Corda shuddered a little at the thought of Greagoir’s undoubted fury, and stood, far readier than she’d ever imagined she could be to leave the Tower behind her.

~o~O~o~

It was raining when they left the Tower.

Corda had not been given an opportunity to collect any belongings from her quarters, not that she’d had much to start with. Instead, as she followed Duncan up from the cells, she was met with an incandescent Greagoir, whose bellowing could be heard from several chambers away. The Knight-Commander was, as she had expected, furious at the fact Corda was escaping punishment, and that his control was being undermined.

I refuse to allow it!” he had barked more than once, hollering, she thought, like a child whose favourite toy had been taken away.

To her surprise, the First Enchanter merely stood quietly at the end of the chamber, overseeing the unfolding events with something not unlike mild satisfaction. As he observed, neither the Circle nor the Chantry could stand in the Warden-Commander’s way, and Corda was confused by his lack of ire.

He had seemed so disappointed in her—something she tried so hard to convince herself she didn’t care about—and yet this development appeared to please him. Corda decided it was less to do with her, and more to do with Greagoir’s loud pouting about ‘losing all authority over the mages’ and ‘every rule being flouted’. She supposed, in Irving’s position, she’d enjoy that too.

All the same, as she accompanied Duncan out through the public chambers, she couldn’t extinguish the sense of loss.

People came to look at her, crowding the staircases to stare down at her in silence. Corda tried to ignore it. They’d been staring at her ever since she came to the Tower. Always staring. Well, now they had something to look at, didn’t they?

She squared her shoulders, letting her hair fall back from her face, and lifted her chin.

Irving barely had a word to spare her when it came to the leaving itself.

First Enchanter,” she’d said, giving him a shallow bow.

The words swam under her skin. Everything she’d wanted to say to him before—about Uldred, and Gwynlian and Cullen, and everything in that blasted letter—and everything she should have said….

I should have. Even when we were right there in the chamber, the first minute that stupid rumour came up. I should have known.

She hadn’t been able to say it. He’d just… looked at her, and the words had failed to come. They parted with cursory, brittle politeness and, as the dual echo of her and Duncan’s footsteps spooled around the chamber, Corda let the frustration she felt curdle into determined spite.

Sod Irving. Sod the Circle… sod everything they did to the mages, and every little way they’d failed to stand up for people like Jowan—the Jowan she remembered, who’d been weak and frightened and so damn stupid—and every tactic they’d ever used to make her docile and keep her tame.

If Uldred and his pets were planning anything, let it come. Let it happen, after Ostagar, and let Greagoir see if all the new measures he was bound to bring in helped him… and Corda didn’t doubt he’d do something. He was still grousing about a ‘necessity for more effective measures’ when his voice faded from her ears, and she would have felt a deeper pity for those left behind if there hadn’t been so many hard, accusing faces glaring down at her from the stairwells.

The doors shut after them with resounding finality. She didn’t look at Duncan. The sky was grey, rolling endlessly over the murky lake; even the jetty seemed drab and dull, its timbers darkened by the thin fall of rain. The ferryman’s boat was moored close by, bobbing and creaking gently with the swell of the water.

Corda tried to breathe slowly and calmly. Everything seemed so… open. It left her feeling vulnerable, and her mind railed at the sheer madness, the strangeness of it all. This was it, now: the rest of her life. She was adrift, and she had never felt smaller than she did when she climbed into the ferryman’s boat.

She didn’t know what would await her at Ostagar—what becoming a Grey Warden would mean—but at least it was a future. Duncan had been right about that. If the alternative was death, then Corda had no choice but to embrace this new destiny… and she would, she supposed, as the rain pattered against the shoulders of her robe.

She had slipped the leash that bound her, and that meant that this was… what? Freedom? If that was true, it felt odd. Empty, Corda thought, the way she’d felt when she’d realised how wrong she had been about Jowan… about everything.

Maybe life would have been easier if she hadn’t fought against the templars’ rules. Maybe she would have been better off accepting their restraints, or trying to believe that, just for once, she didn’t know best—that, perhaps, they might have had some wisdom. She supposed she’d never know now. All those possibilities were gone.

All that was left was the future—the future that Duncan had bought for her—and she had to face it, no matter her mistakes and the stains they had left upon her.

She would carve her own place in the world, make her own destiny, and ensure that she never misplaced her trust again.

And she would do it alone.

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