Straining at the Leash: Part Two


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Back to Straining at the Leash: Contents
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Corda didn’t see Gwynlian for several days after the incident with the letter. She didn’t think a vast amount of it, as the apprentice quarters housed more than enough students for one face to disappear among many.

Well, most people’s faces, anyway.

Corda knew the little bitch had been gossiping. It was obvious from the way conversations suddenly stopped when she entered the room, and wide, suspicious eyes turned to stare at her. Well, she didn’t care what they thought. She had far more important things to occupy herself with.

Right now, one of those things was Jowan. They were sharing a desk in the library, which was almost deserted at this time of night, and at this time of year, without the imminence of end-of-year exams looming over anyone. He kept muttering to himself, and his stub of pencil skittered over his ragged notebook, leaving a trail behind it like that of a drunken spider crawling through dust.

“…to the multiplication of— oh, no, that’s not right. Oh, damn….”

She watched, mildly fascinated by the expression of constipated concentration that twisted his sharp, narrow features, and the constant stream of mumbling.

He wasn’t a handsome boy. Man, she corrected herself, with faint amazement at the thought. He never had been; there was something too much of a weasel in his looks, or possibly some kind of thin, nervous greyhound. Then there was the incipient whine in his voice, the tendency towards self-righteous bluster when he was in the wrong… the fact he seemed incapable of ever actually applying himself to the studies of his gifts. He had the oddest ability to be acutely irritating, too, yet she’d always managed to forgive him it.

Corda would have forgiven him anything, as a matter of fact.

She’d been, she thought, perhaps thirteen when she came to the Tower. Late, compared to many of the apprentices. Very late, compared to some.

Her arrival, of course, had been dramatic, and who knew what gossip had scorched the halls as she lay beneath the damp sheets, kept in dark silence while robed figures traipsed in and out of the room. She remembered some of the healing, but not all. They’d kept her out of it, sparing her the pain and the fear, yet not letting her mind wander completely at liberty… worried about what she might bring back with her from beyond the Veil, she supposed.

After those long weeks, they brought her up through the fog little by little until, at last, she was deemed well enough to begin the induction into her new life. Corda knew there had been concern over how she’d adapt. She hadn’t been as oblivious as all that; she’d caught snatches of whispered conversations, the muttered worries of bearded old men as they looked at her naked body, and the red-raw flesh that weltered with blisters and burns.

Was it safe? Could she be trusted?

Would she do it again?

The low rasp of the First Enchanter’s voice stood alone in her memory, speaking for her. An accident, and no more. The child will come to terms with her abilities, and we must provide the guidance that will enable her to do so.

Or… what?

That was what she’d seen on every face, from the first moment she arrived in the dormitories. The what ifs lingered on every set of lips, like they were all just waiting to see whether she’d flare up over the lack of second servings of pudding in the refectory, then go nuts and torch someone.

It was either that, or the staring. When the scars were new—when she was new, and an unknown quantity—it was outright prurient rubber-necking. As they healed, and the years passed with a singular lack of Corda setting anyone aflame, the curiosity died down, and she grew more used to pity.

Jowan was the only one who had never inflicted either of those things upon her. They had met for the first time here, in the library; him scuttling along with an armful of books, not looking where he was going, and crashing into the ladder she was using to reach one of the higher shelves. They both went flying, with an almighty noise—much to the consternation of the librarian—and had been unceremoniously cast out into the hall and told to be thankful they weren’t being reported to their dormitory masters.

He’d been terribly apologetic. A fidgety, pale scrap of a boy then, apparently nailed together from offcut bits of knees and elbows, and perpetually treading on the worn hem of his robe. He looked into her eyes when he talked to her, though, not at her face.

Over time, they’d found they had much in common… as much as Corda ever had with anyone. Things developed a pattern. A comfortable routine, she supposed.

She was the leader. He followed. She spoke of things she found interesting—books she’d read, lectures she’d heard—and Jowan agreed. Occasionally, with some stammering and a certain degree of weaselling, he’d venture to express an opinion that didn’t quite match hers. Gradually, he even learned to argue with her… though he always preferred to wheedle instead of face her straight on. Still, it was something.

It was friendship, of a kind, and Corda supposed they had both come to depend on it. Jowan wasn’t all that popular, being a reedy sort who tended to hang around with the entropic crowd—themselves generally loners, poseurs, and melancholy, bookish types—and she had little to do with most of the other apprentices, except for the most fleeting and shallow contact.

The girls generally distrusted her, and the boys were usually frightened. Corda didn’t care. In classes, she spoke her mind and outstripped all but the brightest of the others—and they were bright enough to at least seek her out from time to time, for study breaks and judicious pre-exam revision. That was all she needed. She learned what she needed and, anyway, weren’t most acquaintanceships built on both parties extracting what they wanted from the other?

Up until a year or so ago, she hadn’t thought much about what she wanted from Jowan. She wasn’t likely to get it, she knew that. He’d never shown the slightest indication of… that sort of interest. Come to think of it, she didn’t even know if he liked girls. She supposed so, but they’d never talked about it. She’d never raised the issue, and she doubted he would even have dreamed of doing so. Jowan wasn’t a great one for starting risky conversations.

She looked at him now, the quire of dark hair flopping down over his brow as he frowned at the book in front of him, pencil bobbing in the air and sketching out some invisible train of thought.

“All right,” he murmured to himself, as if he’d actually forgotten she was there. “If the value of ice is x, then carrying forward the— no, hang on….”

Corda stifled a giggle and he looked up at her, embarrassment chafing quickly to a frustrated scowl.

“It’s all very well for you to laugh,” he whispered, “but if I don’t get this right, I’ll never be ready for my Harrowing.”

Corda narrowed her eyes. “You’re not still panicking about that?”

Jowan’s mouth quivered for a moment, and she thought back to a time when he would have blustered his way out of it, instead of just drawing in a long breath, then sighing and looking wearily at her.

“Yes,” he muttered reluctantly. “You know I am. What if I’m not ready? What if they call me and I fail? What if—”

“Don’t be a fool,” she replied, keeping her voice hushed.

At the end of the row of shelves, one of the Tranquil library assistants—a tall woman with a shaven head and large, blank, staring eyes—crossed towards the restricted section, where some of the sealed and protected texts were stored. Corda would have loved to get her hands on them… but the apprentices weren’t let anywhere near.

She dragged her gaze back to Jowan, and the book he’d been poring over.

“They won’t call you until you’re ready.” Corda snaked out a hand and grabbed the book, too quick for his nominal protest. He sighed as she spun it around so she could read the page, and looked annoyed when she snorted softly. “And I don’t see why you think this is such a problem. It’s just simple primal magic.”

“It’s a problem if I can’t do it, isn’t it?” he hissed. “If—”

He stared down at the desk, and she frowned.

“Jowan?”

He shook his head, throwing himself sulkily back into the book.

A small frown dented Corda’s brow. Unusual for him to clam up like that, she thought, and a grain of guilt began to needle at her.

~o~O~o~

Corda supposed she could just have laid herself bare, told Jowan she was worried about him, and that she wanted to help. She didn’t know what he would have said to that… and the not knowing put her off doing it.

She wasn’t like the other girls. She knew that. They could coax and cajole what they wanted from people… like Gwynlian, who only ever had to flutter those big brown eyes to have one of the senior enchanters personally assist her with an experiment, or fetch some esoteric tome from the library’s restricted stacks, where every book had to be signed for by a faculty member.

Gwynlian would have got him to talk. But… Corda wasn’t like her and, in any case, things were changing in the Tower that, albeit briefly, took her mind from Jowan’s odder-than-usual behaviour.

Something was going on with the templars. They’d had their berth space in the same place for as long as Corda had been at Kinloch, but now they were taking over other areas on the upper floors, jostling the mages and several of the extra-curricular study groups aside. Important business, people said, but what did that mean? Nothing, she was sure. Just more garbage from the Chantry’s lapdogs, cloaking fictitious explanations around the single, simple truth: the grand cleric was worried about whatever it was happening down in Ostagar, and wanted the Magi’s leash jerked so they remembered that—whatever small liberties allying with the King’s army might grant—they were never truly free.

Corda huffed to herself as she stomped down the corridor, weighed down with an armful of books. There had been a pompous little ceremony at dinner last night, for those leaving for the army camp. A great feast, replete with speeches, cheers and table-thumping. The First Enchanter had presided over it all with a look of weary respect, and spoken at length of how every individual must have the strength, when the time came, to face the call to action in whatever form it came. The apprentices, she’d noticed, all nodded sagely among themselves and acted as if they knew what he meant—the Harrowing, the great rite that they both feared and longed for in equal measure: their chance to prove themselves—but the mages and enchanters sat grey-faced or tight-lipped, and Corda smelled a whole lot more going on than anyone was really saying.

There were rumours that, whatever was happening in Ostagar, demons were involved… or worse. Why else would there be a concerted effort to recruit mages? The deputation that Enchanter Uldred had taken with him was hardly small. Of course, they said all manner of things came pouring out of the Korcari Wilds from time to time. Barbarians, witches, monsters… even roving bands of darkspawn, and there had apparently been tell of an ogre, once. Naturally, Corda assumed it was all exaggeration. Not having much communication with the outside world sharpened the Tower’s taste for scandal and whetted the mages’ skills for gossip-mongering, especially among the apprentices. Still, it would explain a lot.

She wondered about it as she dragged her armful of tomes back to the dorm.  Maybe that’s what the king was pitting his troops against: the untold horror of darkspawn incursions. It made sense… though it scarcely seemed believable. Maybe the Chasind tribes had united under a single banner and were attempting to invade the valley. Corda smiled to herself at the notion. Silly, perhaps, but with the lack of any reliable source of information on the outside world for the Circle’s denizens—or, at least, for its apprentices—a dragon could have razed Denerim to the ground for all she knew.

It had to be something there was a reason to keep quiet, though. Some kind of threat that required nipping in the bud, but was too sensitive to blazon about like a bard’s glory tale.

She dumped the books on one of the desks by the door, pleased to see that the dormitory was unoccupied, except for a couple of girls on the other side of the room. They were talking quietly, but not so quietly Corda couldn’t overhear, and the looks of ashy disbelief on their faces caught her attention.

“Well, is she all right?” asked one, her voice hushed but echoing against the high-walled stonework, nonetheless.

“I don’t know,” said the other. “I just saw that templar, Cullen, in the corridor upstairs. He was white as a sheet. He said there was nothing to worry about, but… I don’t know. He definitely looked worried! I expect they’ll bring her back down later.”

Corda listened keenly, while pretending to ignore the other apprentices and focus on her stack of books. She’d checked out several volumes of Josephus on primal theory, along with A Practical Guide to the Uses of Magical Energy—an outmoded study guide, but with some very useful woodcuts—and a couple of translations of Orlesian and Nevarran treatises that made for good comparative reading. Jowan wouldn’t be able to wriggle his way out of this one. By the time Corda was finished with him, he’d be better prepared for his Harrowing than any apprentice had ever been before… probably.

“Well, he would be worried, wouldn’t he?” The first girl tittered breathlessly. “Everyone knows he’s in love with her.”

Corda curled her lip, still nominally pretending not to be listening, but now starting to lose interest. There seemed to be something about the templars for many of the female apprentices—and a goodly number of the boys. The appeal of forbidden fruit, she supposed, if said apprentices were dim enough to forget that the whole point of the templars’ presence in the Tower was to breathe down their necks, pry into their business, and generally wait like hungry dogs for the opportunity to run an abomination through while shrieking ‘See? We told you so!’.

There were small scandals, from time to time, though. She didn’t know—didn’t care, frankly—how the details of the templars’ vows impacted on their lives. It was just another leash the chantry had for keeping their mutts in check, the same way they shackled the initiates with chastity and servitude, and buoyed them up with enough propaganda to build a false sense of superiority. Magic was evil, a curse under whose yolk mages should be pitied… yet still viewed with judgmental suspicion.

People said it made them hard, that magic was an anvil on which they were beaten, tempered, and cooled until they grew rigid, unyielding. It was true, Corda supposed. In a way. They had to be strong, but it was the strength of defence. Weakness—any slip, any moment’s loss of focus—could bring disaster, whether it was the accidental unleashing of powers that should be carefully controlled, or the slackness that opened the door to unwelcome guests from beyond the Veil. No… if they were hard, it was not the anvil that made them so, Corda thought. It was the beating, and the threat of death that followed on behind. Always watched, always judged… if they grew intractable, was it any wonder?

~o~O~o~

Sure enough, they brought Gwynlian in about an hour later; barely conscious on a linen stretcher. She still had the imprint of the Harrowing Chamber all over her. She murmured loose streams of words, brown eyes glassy and slim, white hands describing weird shapes in the air. They laid her on her bunk, and the apprentices crowded around—keeping a distance that was wary rather than respectful—watching and whispering among themselves. The mages stayed with her until she slept, a protective cocoon of warm, white light pulsating around her head.

Corda stood and watched long after the others had filtered away, the novelty of the experience worn off. She rubbed absently at the elbow of her robe, picking at the seam. There were so many rumours about the ritual. They couldn’t possibly all be true. A few years ago, some apprentices had tried to convince everyone that those who failed their test got spit-roasted and served up in the refectory under the guise of fat pork. Nobody had really believed it, naturally, but it did turn the mind to what lay behind all those secrets. Anyone with half a brain could tell why, in Corda’s opinion, roughly a third of those who ascended the steps to the Harrowing Chamber never seemed to come down again.

Whatever happened up there, it was more than a written paper with an oral exam panel, that was for sure. But, she reasoned, what was it that mages needed to show their mastery of above all else? Themselves. Any first year student could recite that. Discipline was everything. And what threatened that mastery? Weakness. Lack of focus. And—Corda fought to stop herself moving her lips in time to the thoughts, like mumbling along to the words of a well-remembered song—where and how would that weakness come?

She looked at Gwynlian’s pallid face, mildly appalled that the girl could even manage to look delicate and feminine while unconscious. The Fade. It had to be. And Gwynlian was here… alive. Exhausted, and probably the worse for wear for a good few days to come, but alive.

That meant something, Corda decided.

“She’ll be all right, you know,” one of the mages said encouragingly.

He was elven; his skin a dark tan, but with curiously pale brown hair and eyes of an unsettling light green. Corda was aware that, outside the Circle, his kind faced a degree of prejudice and—though she would never have admitted it—she could see why. All long, pointy ears and delicate bone structure, yes, but it was a façade of beauty, and one that many of them hid behind. One of the girls in the dorm, Nadia Surana, was like that. Cold, arrogant—and with those same odd, alien eyes, pale as moonstone and just as opaque.

“You can come and sit with her if you like,” the elven mage suggested. “The sleep spell will wear off soon enough. Are you two friends?”

Corda bunched her hands into her sleeves and shrugged.

“S-Sort of,” she said. “I suppose. Um. Is she hurt?”

The mage shook his head. “Only tired. She’ll sleep for a while, then wake up feeling awful… then she’ll be fine. They say it was a very clean Harrowing, though it took a while. You might like to start packing her things for her. She’ll be moving up to the mages’ quarters later on.” He smiled thinly. “Your turn soon, I shouldn’t wonder.”

Corda said nothing, and stared at the still, fragile figure on the bunk.

“Well,” the elven mage said, rising and brushing his slim hands against the front of his robe. “I’ll leave you to it. You should be proud of your friend.”

She gave a non-committal grunt but, once left alone with Gwynlian’s slumbering form, Corda did as the man had suggested. There wasn’t much. Letters, in their reams, from the apocryphal Heather. Papers, neatly filed and bound with red ribbons and thick wax seals. Corda recognised Enchanter Uldred’s signature on some of them, and narrowly resisted the urge to snoop.

Or, more accurately, she was interrupted.

“C-Corda…?”

Gwynlian stirred decorously, doe-eyes fluttering open and her wide, pale brow creasing. Corda shuffled the papers back into an orderly pile, and removed her thumb from beneath the seal she’d been about to break.

“You’re awake, then.”

“Oh, I had such horrible dreams…!”

Corda hesitated before approaching the bed, unsure as to whether the after-effects of the Harrowing might include her ending up with soiled shoes. Still, Gwynlian seemed staunch enough… for her. The girl had always been a diaphanous creature, like some empty-headed butterfly, prattling her way through life in the Tower in a perpetual flutter of pretty colours and inconsequential nothings. Corda frowned. Until she started under Enchanter Uldred’s tutelage, anyway. Something had changed then, and it was the same something she saw now, nestled behind Gwynlian’s vapid, bovine eyes.

Not so peaceful anymore. Not so settled, so content to let the world wash over her. She seemed… pinched, somehow. Haunted. As if there was some other truth, some hidden knowledge, at work inside that pretty head. Corda felt it, though she didn’t understand it. Maybe that was what happened to you after the Harrowing. Whatever it truly involved, whatever it truly was—

Well, she wasn’t scared. If a fool like Gwynlian could survive it, Corda had no doubt that it would present little challenge for anyone half as competent as her. Unless Master Uldred taught a very different brand of magic from old Nevis and his fellows, of course….

She narrowed her eyes before glancing down at Gwynlian, and bending her mouth around as sweet a smile as she could manage.

“I started getting your things together for you. You’ll be moving upstairs later today. You’re so lucky.”

It was a struggle; matching the intonation, keeping her voice bright and sugary. She’d heard it often enough, but it didn’t come naturally.

Gwynlian sat up against the pillows and peered at her in apparent confusion.

“Are you all right, Corda?”

“What, me? Oh, yes. I mean—”

“You’re not usually so nice.”

There was steel in the new mage’s voice. Corda opened her mouth, reaching for a reply, but a sound in the doorway interrupted her. Hesitant footsteps, the clinking jangle of armour, and the awkward clearing of a throat. She snapped her lips shut and turned to glare at the young, chestnut-haired templar.

Cullen coughed, shifting his weight from foot to foot, and tried to peer around the enormous stone moulding of the doorframe.

“I, er, I-I just thought I’d, um… s-see how the, uh, how she—”

Corda snorted and, ignoring the fool of an Andrastian watch-puppy, turned to Gwynlian.

“Looks like your little friend’s come to play. I suppose I should leave you to it. Don’t forget Enchanter Generys’ first-year class turns out in about twenty minutes. You might not even have time to get all his plate off.”

An indignant splutter echoed from the doorway, and Gwynlian sprung up from the bed, wobbling unsteadily with the effort of rising too fast.

Corda!”

Corda sniggered as she excused herself, though she didn’t venture too far away. She wanted to gather a couple of the books and notes she had earmarked for Jowan; it suddenly felt more urgent that she should talk to him, see him…. After all, if Gwynlian could be called for her Harrowing—and pass—then surely Jowan’s turn wouldn’t be far behind. He’d been here longer than her, he was…well, he had to be ready.

Corda clutched the treatises to her chest and, outside the dormitory, paused as she caught a few words more interesting than sickly flirtation. There had been talk about Cullen and Gwynlian for months. Corda hadn’t bothered with the details, but she knew the young templar was as bad at disguising his feelings as Gwynlian was at masking her delight in the power she had over him.

“Has she gone?”

“I, er, I think so.”

A fool, Corda thought, as she leaned against the cool stone of the corridor wall. And an unobservant one. She heard the clank of armour: awkward footsteps across the flagstones.

“Are you really all right? When they carried you down, y-you looked so pale….”

“Oh, Cullen, I’m fine. I promise. Just tired.”

“Was it awful?” he asked, lowering his voice.

Corda could just picture it; the solicitous touch of fingers to a pale, soft jaw, the way that doe-eyed gaze would drop to the floor. She wrinkled her nose.

“You know I’m not supposed to talk about it.”

“But you resisted, didn’t you? Anyway, you don’t have to keep the secret from me. I was there. I… I know what you had to face.”

Corda picked up her ears, holding her breath and hoping for another tidbit, however small. There was a soft sigh, then the full, tense-threaded silence of a kiss.

Resist what? Damn you!

“It was easier knowing you were there,” Gwynlian murmured.

Cullen exhaled bitterly. “You know Greagoir chose me to… to strike the killing blow, i-if the demon broke through? I… I don’t know if I could have done it, Gwyn.”

Corda widened her eyes, and held her breath.

“You would have done your duty, my darling,” Gwynlian purred. “I know you would.”

“But—”

“Shh.” Gwynlian gave a small laugh that, somehow, sounded harder than her usual gentle chuckle; like summer raindrops suddenly turned to hail. “Old Pockface was right about one thing. We don’t have much time. Will you meet me in the gardens tonight? Hm?”

“I… Gwyn, what if Greagoir knows? About us?”

“It won’t matter soon. So soon, my love. Nothing will matter. It’s all going to change….”

“Gwyn, I don’t like it when you say things like that. What— oh….”

His exclamation of surprise gave way to a muffled groan, and Corda scowled at the wall opposite. ‘Pockface’ she could ignore—for now—but demons… it explained so much. And yet not enough. She pushed abruptly away from the wall and stalked off down the corridor, head held determinedly high.

She needed to find Jowan. Now.

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