Ephemera: Chapter 11

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What are you going to do? It’s not like you can just swim across.

You’ll never make it.

You couldn’t do it. No one can. 

They’d find you. Whatever you did, wherever you went… they’d find you.

Karl didn’t mean them that way, but his words had become a litany of reproachful disbelief, and Anders hated that. He hated the fear that hung behind it; the pale shadow of a frightened, chastened little boy in apprentice robes, lurking at the back of his friend’s eyes.

The thing was, he fully intended to do it. That was what Karl didn’t understand.  It was merely a matter of time… and time was, paradoxically, both the one thing that life in the Tower granted in abundance, and the first thing that they tried to take from you. Right from the beginning: grinding it down, minute by minute, until you stopped noticing its passing; they took it, and changed what it meant, and you didn’t even notice. He’d always said that. It was how they started to mess with your head.

Well, he wasn’t going to stick it. What did they expect him to do, wait around like an idiot for his Harrowing, then settle down and play the good little magey until he died? After all, Anders definitely wasn’t enchanter material. He was under no illusions about that. In fact, he could just imagine the horror with which the Circle would regard the idea of him being allowed to teach apprentices. No… there was nothing here for him. No career, no steady acceptance.

After his Harrowing—assuming he actually lasted that long, he thought ruefully—he could join a fraternity, and he knew there was no choice in which he’d pick, although he doubted it would do any good. All the Libertarians that Anders had met in the Tower were moderates, which was a nice way of saying ‘full of hot air’. Yes, they believed mages should have more freedom, and they were prepared to stand up and complain about the Chantry’s strictures, but no one ever actually did anything about it. He supposed, realistically, they couldn’t. Not yet, anyway. Not with the stranglehold the Aequitarians and the Loyalists had on the council of senior enchanters, at least in Ferelden.

He and Karl had talked about it quite a lot, up until a few months ago, when Karl had got annoyed and said there was no point trying to talk politics with Anders. All he’d said was that, if the Aequitarians ever broke with the Loyalists and sided with the Libertarians, it could mean the whole College’s balance of power shifting… a new dawn for mages.

Karl had said that would never happen—not in Ferelden, anyway, and definitely not in Orlais. Nevarra was a law unto itself, though the Chantry was still strong there, and the Free Marches’ Circles were too conservative to allow more votes for freedom, especially when all their councils cared about was keeping political stability. Apparently, in Starkhaven, the ruling clan had incredibly strong ties to the Chantry, and Tantervale was little better. Besides, even if the College of Magi ever did table a motion for autonomy, the Divine was hardly likely to just agree to it.

Anders hated it when Karl talked like that. It was as if he was laying out all the reasons that the Circle was untenable—all the reasons that convinced Anders he physically couldn’t live like this, in this mockery of security and imprisonment—and then he had the gall to get angry when the topic of escape came up.

Karl went the same way with it every time; repeating all those well-worn words about why it was a bad idea, how it could never work, and why Anders shouldn’t even be talking about it, and it was like he couldn’t hear how much he sounded like one of them.

They argued over it, from time to time, and Karl would get frustrated and say he was only cross because he didn’t want to see Anders get hurt, and that was so stupid! It was as if he didn’t understand how wrong it all felt, how oppressive and choking: all this, all the time. The darkness and the closeness of other people, the unremitting intrusiveness, and the suspicion and the pointless bloody rules… and he probably didn’t feel it, did he? He didn’t see it, because he’d been here too long. It was too late for him. They were in his head. They owned him, even when he was saying he believed the system was wrong, and the thing that terrified Anders most of all—far more than demons, or templar swords, or the blazingly judgemental glare of the Chantry, which always seemed to tell him he was a monster—was that he’d end up like that too. One day, he’d wake up, and he’d still be talking about freedom and change, but inside he’d be tame, and all his words would just be a thin veneer over the fact he didn’t know any other life, and he was too scared to leave.

He would rather have died than let that happen, but he couldn’t say it to Karl, because that would have meant admitting what he really thought, and Anders had absolutely no wish to hurt him like that, however frustrated he got with his friend.

It was so much easier just to hide it all, and not talk about it, except at that safe level of make-believe, with silly fantasies about running away and making a life on the road, or in some far-off place full of perfect dreams. Sometimes, when Anders wanted to play those games, he’d see Karl’s face getting all tight, and it seemed better just to stop talking completely, and restrict themselves to the communication of bodies.

That was all right, though. Touching Karl—kissing him, fucking him, finding new ways and new places to eke pleasure and excitement out of life—was one of the few things that felt worthwhile.

Anders still thought about it, though. His plans might have been a little half-hearted—at least for the length of time that Karl kept him distracted—but they were still there. He was never just going to sit back and accept it, never let them win. He couldn’t.

So, he planned. He did it quietly, in his own head, where they couldn’t touch him, and he took hold of the problems and the possibilities, and turned them around and around until he saw little chinks in them that would lead to solutions, like light glancing off a prism. In his free periods—when they didn’t coincide with Karl’s—Anders would walk around the Tower. Most of the other apprentices his age spent their spare time studying or gossiping in the common rooms, but he prowled his prison, learning the stones, the short cuts, the very fabric of the place, well enough to find his way around it blindfolded. He walked, and watched, and learned which templars dozed on guard duty, and which side rooms and store cupboards they knew the apprentices used as illicit trysting or meeting places, and which ones they just hadn’t discovered yet. He found the quickest routes from east to west and north to south through the Tower’s heart, and learned which doors were always locked, and which ones the Tranquil left open when they were drifting between corridors, cleaning or stock-taking, or moving things around.

The lower basement levels were a good way out, Anders decided. There were important, heavily fortified things down there, like the repository where all the really old stuff from the Tower’s days as an Avvar, and then Tevinter, fortress was stored… and of course the phylactery chamber. That gave him some sleepless nights. Oh, to get at that little vial! It was too complicated, though. All that messing around with keys and guards—word had it the chamber could only be opened by the Knight-Commander and the First Enchanter together—and then having to get out undetected… it would mean needing help, and Anders didn’t want to involve anyone else. This was his freedom, and his plan, and he wasn’t taking responsibility for anybody who wasn’t him.

He didn’t trust anyone that much. Maybe not even Karl.

Still, the phylactery chamber and the repository weren’t the only things down there. There were the storage chambers and tunnels cut right back into the living rock—as he’d discovered during his week spent assisting the Tranquil, which he never wanted to think about ever, ever again—and there were service passages, and then all the mundane bits of the Tower and their attendant storerooms: gardens, kitchens, laundry facilities and the rest of it.

There had to be a way. There was probably a lot more than one way. Not being noticed was the key… getting himself tucked away down there somehow, so no one noticed one more body slipping out of some unguarded side door. From there, it was only the lake that was an issue, and there were boats that crossed that a couple of times a week.

However, as experience had taught him, he would need to learn how to blend in better. The problem was in familiarity. The same sets of people usually made deliveries to and from the tower, and he’d be spotted at once if he just tried to tag along with the butcher’s lads. No… it would take something more creative than that.

Anders briefly considered faking some really esoteric sort of illness—the kind that would need medicine more than healing—so that he could be taken across in a boat by the very people he wanted to escape from. The elegance of the idea appealed to him, as did the melodrama, but the details didn’t hold up to scrutiny. For a start, it was hard to fake sickness in a tower full of experienced healers and, even if he did pull it off, there was no guarantee they wouldn’t just shut him up in a room and leave him to die… or, worse, try and bring the medicine to him.

Damn. Apart from that, another very good plan. Ah, well. Back to the drawing board.

He took to spending as much time as he could down by the kitchens and the service halls, skulking in shadowed doorways and at the ends of corridors—just far enough away that the terrifying women with the beefy, floury arms wouldn’t shoo him out, waving and shouting like they were trying to scare geese or something—and watching who came and went. Anders reasoned that the turnover on servants had to be reasonably regular. After all, large kitchens fed on skinny little runts who turned spits, chopped vegetables, and fetched and carried for the aforementioned beefy-armed women… just the same way that the Tower itself fed on the wide-eyed little children poured in through its doors. If he could time it just right—just after the new hirelings were brought in, perhaps—maybe no one would know he didn’t fit in. All he’d need to do would be to steal a set of clothes and find something large and heavy to carry, like a grain sack, which he could hide behind.

It might work. It probably wouldn’t… but it might.

Failing that, Anders suspected his best alternative was slipping out in the dead of night, when all good little apprentices should be in their beds, and trying to swim across the lake. The first glimmer of that as a plan did appeal: the inky water, the thin, sharp slices of moonlight silvering his head as he cut silently through the cold and the dark… but there were logistical problems. He’d need supplies, which would be hard to carry on him, and it wasn’t as if the templars’ patrols didn’t take in the grounds, even in the small hours, and someone splashing around down on the shore would probably attract attention. And, as Karl had so annoyingly pointed out, Anders wasn’t exactly an experienced swimmer to begin with.

That point irked him, and he began to look increasingly at the lake as another oppression. It was always there, every time he snatched a glance from a window, or on the rare opportunities they were escorted outside for their exercise periods. It was there, mirroring the endless expanse of the sky, and it was everything that meant freedom and boundless space, and yet it was also hedging him in, an insurmountable barrier that he began to hate the way he hated so much about the Tower, and the enchanters, and… and just everything.

Just as, before, he’d strayed to every window and every gleam of sky, Anders began to shy from glimpses of the outside. He started to take his walks deeper and deeper into the Tower’s belly, down among the lower levels, where all the apprentice stories of ghosts and monsters concealed in the Pits were based. Some days, he stuck to the central spiral of rooms at the building’s core: the chapel, and the inventory office, and the crowded corridors that ran off along the potions and alchemical laboratories, where the long, curved hallways always smelled of brass polish and herbs.

Karl didn’t come too. He was busy. Karl was always busy: studying in the library, or taking extra classes, or attending open lectures and seminars, or even going to the bloody boring inter-fraternity debates, where wizened, bearded enchanters and spotty little new mages in their first terms would take turns to waffle on in rhetorical circles.

It was mind-numbing. Anders preferred to stay well away. Sometimes, he preferred to stay well away from the Tower’s other enforced gatherings, too… he skipped study periods, assemblies, and occasionally even meals, which was how he came, one evening, to be mooching along the corridor not far from the chapel, while most of the Tower should have been present at dinner.

There was another visiting enchanter being celebrated. A botanist from Antiva, apparently, who had an accent so thick that no one could understand her lectures. Karl had said they were very interesting, all the same, but Anders had been annoyed with him at the time, and said he thought everything was interesting, and Karl had just grinned and said what was wrong with that… and that hadn’t helped Anders’ mood at all.

So, he’d thought ‘sod it’ and hung back in the dorm when everyone else went down for the meal—he’d told the templar on escort duty he had the runs, and hopped about a bit, claiming to be desperate for the privy, and she’d finally left him alone—and now he was just sloping along, hands crunched up in his sleeves, with his slippers scraping the flagstones.

Dusky, bluish light filtered dimly through the high, tiny windows, but he didn’t bother to look up and watch the dust motes dance in it, or to watch the shadows the early-lit torches cast on the venerable stone walls. He knew the tapestries and the statues by heart—every thread, every line, every curve and every stupid, bland inscription—and he knew every crack and colouration in every bloody flagstone.

The corridor that circled around to the chapel’s side door was totally silent; the air itself seemed velvety and heavy, like a physical kind of quietness that could blanket everything. The only sounds were the gentle susurrations of Anders’ shoes and robes, and maybe the whisper of his own breathing… and the only thing that, tonight, kept him from wanting to rip his skin off and pull out his own eyeballs was the fact that Mr. Wiggums had chosen to keep him company on his walk.

The cat had been doing that more often recently. Anders was pathetically grateful for it. They’d been forging a bond of sorts: he’d save scraps of meat or fish from his dinner, and hide them in his pockets until he saw Wiggums next. He’d slip the treats to the boot-faced old mouser, and, in return, the cat would wolf them down, then glare at Anders accusingly and, perhaps, deign to headbutt him a few times and rub his wiry, thick body around his ankles. Occasionally, Anders was allowed a few seconds to stroke the cat’s flat, hard head, or tickle him behind the ears, until Mr. Wiggums got fed up, and half-heartedly tried to eat his fingers.

Once, the cat had happened upon him as he sat in an alcove close by the wine cellars—not too close: the booze was locked behind several heavy doors, naturally—and, having emerged from somewhere with a guilty expression, had hopped up onto the stone ledge beside Anders, and sat close by him for a long while, before getting back down to hack up a hairball.

Now, they walked together in companionable silence, Anders with his arms folded across his middle, hands buried in his sleeves and frown affixed to his face, and Wiggums with his ears at half-mast and tail straight up, the end slightly crooked.

Anders hadn’t meant to skirt so near the chapel. He didn’t even like the place. He was, he suspected, developing a really deep-seated aversion to everything about the Chantry. Karl said they meant well—the actual people; the sisters and the brothers and, anyway, many of them had been given up as children, just like mages were, so they had a lot more in common than you’d think—but that wasn’t the point.

It was their faith that Anders hated. The unshakeable peace they had from something so intangible, so… fragile. It made him suspicious.

Anders was fairly sure he couldn’t even call himself an Andrastean anymore, if he’d ever been one. Did he believe? He didn’t know. Not in the perfect, blameless Andraste whom all the statues depicted: she was an idea, not a real person. Maybe she’d never been a real person. The Fade was real enough—every mage knew that, just as they didn’t have the luxury of doubting the existence of demons—but that didn’t necessarily mean that everything in the Chant was true.

No, there were too many rules, too many constraints… and while the Chantry encouraged the faithful to be good and strive to regain the Maker’s favour, mages were left to believe that, however good they were, they were still cursed. Still incomplete. Still dangerous.

If we can never be as good as them, what’s the point in trying?

Anders drew to a halt near the chapel’s side door and glowered at the heavy, iron-bound wood. The decorative panels over the hinges and lock plate were worked with designs that incorporated Chantry symbols—the Maker’s Eye, the sunburst, the sword of mercy—and an etching that looked a bit like some sort of multi-petalled flower around the keyhole. He pulled a face at it, but the metal remained impassive.

Beyond the door, the chapel seemed unusually quiet… or almost quiet, anyway. It was the sort of still, gravid silence that sounded like someone trying not to make a noise, and that attracted Anders’ attention. He glanced down at Mr. Wiggums, noticing the way the cat’s ragged ears oscillated towards the heavy door. A look of vague disdain flickered across the feline features and, with one last rough shove up against Anders’ legs, the tom wound his way in a circle and then padded off down the corridor, tail held high.

Well, well. If even the cat doesn’t approve… this is probably something interesting!

He tiptoed forwards, listening intently. The muffled sounds of voices echoed within the chapel, but not the feminine murmurs of the sisters, or the mellifluous lilt of one of the lay brothers warming up before the evening service. It was too early for that, anyway, and everyone ought still to be at dinner; even the holiest cleric had to eat.

No, these were deep, male voices, purposefully hushed. The illicit thrill of eavesdropping slipped a grain of glee into Anders’ blood, and he grinned to himself. Lovers’ tryst, maybe?

Ooh, right there in the chapel? Dirty. I like it. I wonder if— nah, Karl’d never go for that. Or would he…? 

He crept closer to the doors, crouched down, and put his palms to the wood as he tried to peer through first the keyhole, and then the narrow gap beside the hinges, where the ancient wood had warped a little. Anders held his breath as he screwed up his eyes and tried to squint through the tiny crack. There was less than a quarter of an inch to see through, but at least he could hear what was going on much more clearly.

There were two templars inside the chapel, near the central platform that held the revered mother’s lectern, the marble Andraste with the outstretched hands, and the brazier that burned with the Eternal Flame. They must have been templars, Anders decided, even though they weren’t wearing their full armour. He recognised the soft grey tunics and wide-legged trousers they wore when they were off-duty and—like this pair of charmers—locked in some pantomime of penitence.

Templars prayed a lot. Far more so than people who were meant to have already received whatever holy benediction their initiations placed on them, in Anders’ opinion. They thought they were made holy, didn’t they? Something like that, he was sure… not that he was overly familiar with their rites of passage. As far as he knew, there was training—years of training, apparently, and education, not that the results of that were immediately obvious—and then the actual initiation and knighthood, which involved a lot of semi-mystical rot about vigils and prayer… and then the Chantry started dosing them with lyrium and putting them in charge of other people.

As far as Anders was concerned, this did not equate to a series of good ideas and, coupled with the continuance of all that praying, and all those frightfully restrictive vows (among several colourful additions to the publicised chastity, obedience, humility, and piety, some of the apprentices said that templars even forwent changing their underwear more than twice a week, but Anders had never heard this substantiated), it wasn’t surprising that so many of them were bastards.

Of course, he reflected, as he pressed closer to the wood, watching the two men kneeling side-by-side before Andraste’s image, if Karl had been here, he’d have said that templars were people too, and they weren’t all the same. Some were Chantry charity cases, given no option, and some joined simply for the academic opportunities. Yes, some thought mages were a blight on the world—a canker that needed to be controlled and thoroughly pruned—and some were sympathetic and supportive.

However, Karl wasn’t there, and Anders didn’t have to listen to his soft-option excuses. He smirked to himself as he considered the possibilities that observing unseen presented: a cloud of noxious stinking gas, fed through the keyhole, or maybe a little jolt of electricity… could he shoot it as far as the nearest templar’s backside? He wondered, and was starting to raise his hand to gauge the trajectory, when one of the templars—the slighter of the two, with fair hair and broad shoulders—broke his sub-voce mumble of the Chant to cry out with unnerving zeal.

“Ah!” The young man threw his head back, revealing a fresh, rosy face, eyes closed tight and brow pinched in a frown of concentration. He still had his hands clasped piously before him. “Ah… Lady! I shall embrace the light. I shall weather the storm… I shall endure!”

The other templar opened his eyes and frowned at his companion, who’d gone immediately back to a rambling mumble of disjointed bits of canticles and aphorisms, his mouth moving ceaselessly.

“Edven? Edven, are you all right?”

Anders shifted position, his crouch growing uncomfortable, though he was unwilling to leave his perch… not when things seemed to have the potential for amusement.

They’re all nutcases. Didn’t I say they were nutcases? Wish Karl was here. He’d have to admit I was right….

The fair-haired nutcase let his head loll back again, his lips slackening around the words as they grew louder. Anders was hardly an expert on the Chant—despite numerous sermons and enforced readings of the jolly, luridly illustrated books of concordance and affirmations that the sisters always managed to slip into the dorms—but even he could tell that the templar’s repetitions weren’t running correctly. They were mangled bits of different canticles, pulled out and stitched together the way people pulled a simplistic few words out of the Chant to illustrate one particular point they wanted to argue. Which was stupid, because the bloody thing was enormously long (Anders had heard it said that, in Orlais, they sang the entire thing at the cathedral, instead of the normal précis version, and it took weeks to get through. It sounded terrible.) and, anyway, it wasn’t like it was one coherent document. There were verses that had been stricken from the Chant, and new ones that had been inserted… it only meant what the Chantry wanted it to mean, didn’t it?

And the stars stood still,” the young templar cried, “the winds did quiet, and all animals of earth and air held their breath / And all was silent in prayer and thanks!

The other man looked up again, this time in distinct alarm. He didn’t seem much older—in fact, though he was broader than the first, his bulkiness seemed to come more from residual puppy fat than muscle—and his pale brown hair, cut short as the order demanded, had a slight curl to it that made him seem perpetually untidy. As he turned to his companion, Anders was able to make out a long, straight nose, and narrow dark eyes.

“Edven,” the templar whispered hoarsely, his hands unclenching tentatively, as if he wasn’t sure whether he was allowed to cease the attitude of prayer or not. “Edven, calm yourself….”

That evidently wasn’t going to do much good. The nutcase was rocking on his knees, his chant growing louder and faster, broken through with excitable imprecations.

“Ah, Lady! I hear her voice… her sweet music! Blessed are they who stand before / The corrupt and the wicked and do not falter. /  Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just. It is the Maker’s justice, this sweetness! Her holy light! Do you not feel it? Let Him take notice and shine upon thee, for thou has done His work on this day….

Anders bit his lip hard, stifling a giggle at having every ‘templars are barmy’ joke he’d ever made so conclusively supported.

The second templar had started looking mildly concerned. “Edven, perhaps we’ve prayed enough. I know what Ser Rylock said, but—”

“You don’t understand, Carrick!” Edven protested, rising up higher on his knees, his face turned to Andraste’s impassive stone countenance. “Why should I wish this to end? I feel her holy light! She speaks to me! Sings to me, in her mellifluous grace….”

His friend was looked seriously worried now. “Andraste sings for the Maker,” he began hesitantly. “She is His bride, set at His side in the heavens, that She may beg Him to turn His holy gaze back upon we who have yet to prove ourselves pure, and—”

“I hear her!” Edven all but shrieked, piercing the sanctimonious quiet of the chapel with his breathless awe. “I see her! And, oh, brother… she is so beautiful! Do you not see how her cheek blushes with the warmth of life? How her lips part as she breathes out words of love and hope? Plump and red as cherries! The sweetness of her breath is as honeyed wine… her eye is as topaz, glittering with warmth, and her brow a polished shell of purest white. Her hair glistens like gold! She beckons me, brother! Beckons me to her!”

Anders clamped both hands over his mouth and nose, trying to stifle his laughter without actually suffocating himself. Great hiccoughing spasms of hysteria clenched and twisted his ribs and stomach as his shoulders convulsed, and one uneven breath escaped him as Edven staggered to his feet, arms outstretched, and began to lumber towards the plain marble statue.

“I shall come to you, Lady! I am your supplicant, your most devoted servant! I come in love… such love as thou fill me with—as you fill all our hearts!”

“Edven! Um… Edven?”

Carrick stumbled awkwardly to his feet, scrambling after the other templar, who was now clambering up the platform, past the brazier, and towards the statue of the prophet, still spewing ragged bits of the Chant and interspersing them with hyperbolic—and, Anders had to admit, pretty damn sketchy—praise for Andraste’s womanly form.

Bloody dirty bastards, the lot of them… haven’t I always said? I always said….

Good grief, what does he intend to do now?

The light of the eternal flame, and the perpetual glimmerings of candles, painted delicate shadows on Edven’s tunic, turning his fair hair to burnished copper as, arms spread wide, he approached the statue with a look of wild, unfocused bliss on his face.

If Anders hadn’t been trying so hard not to laugh, he might have been afraid of that strength of zeal; it was the dangerous kind, that makes reality feel pale in comparison, and turns the world blurry at the edges, until only the pure white flame of a dream is enough to sustain the mind that birthed it.

Come to me, child, and I shall embrace you. / In my arms lies Eternity! She speaks to me!” Edven cried, his voice coloured with a bright, sharp kind of passion that suggested, whatever he was hearing, he was unlikely to be aware of anything else. “She is my Light, my Guide… O, that we shall know you, Lady! Lead me! Lead me unto my Maker!”

And, with that, he began clasping himself to the rigid marble draperies of Andraste’s graven gown, and running his hands across it like it was a real woman’s dress.

Anders shoved four half-curled fingers in his mouth, and tried not to let his mirth explode.

Maker’s cock… if he grabs her tits, I’m going to pass out….

Carrick was all but hopping from foot to foot now, his face a picture of appalled and desperate panic.

“Edven? Edven…! Oh, Maker’s breath…!”

It was clearly far too late for him to do anything for his friend. The boy was lost to a divine rapture, or spiritual frenzy, or… or maybe just the effect of all those odd vows, Anders thought.

Anyway, what did you call it when the junior templars started dry-humping statues of the Maker’s chosen prophet?

Edven was definitely going for it, in any case: he had his hands cupped to the statue’s cheeks, reached up to smear his lips against the marble bosom and throat, his body a constant snake of movement as he rubbed himself against what would—if she’d had any anatomy under the carved gown—have been Andraste’s thigh. Parts of the Chant still escaped him, together with a series of progressively more ecstatic cries that seemed to be shifting quickly from spiritual zeal to more earthly excitement.

Anders stopped breathing at that point, trying desperately to choke down the disbelieving laughter. Tears wet his cheeks, and his nose was running, and he wasn’t entirely sure he hadn’t actually swallowed his own hand.

“My soul is a channel of Her love!” Edven yelped, pumping his hips.

“Oh… shit,” Carrick intoned, backing away from his now desperately writhing friend. “I… I’m going to go and get Ser Rylock. Or… or someone. Yes. I… I’ll be right back….”

He started towards the double doors, his face pale as death, and Anders almost swallowed his tongue in a combination of hysteria and panic. He lurched abruptly from the door, trying to straighten up while still convulsed with laughter, tears leaking from his creased-up eyes, and yet he knew he had to get out of here—he shouldn’t be here, anyway—before anyone noticed his presence.

The rattle of the door sounded, and he broke into a stumbling, still gulping with laughter that he could now hardly conceal. It burst from him in cackles and jolts as he pelted down the corridor, his snorts and giggles echoing off the high stone walls. He ran, and he didn’t stop until he made it to a small storage room about three doors down from one of the alchemy lecture rooms.

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Chapter 12
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Straining at the Leash: Part Ten

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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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Straining at the Leash: Part Nine

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She led them back the way they’d come, retracing their steps over the blank stones, and then down another twisting corridor that had Corda wondering just how initiates came to be so much more familiar with the basement stores than mages.

This will lead us into the repository,” Lily said, as they neared another ominous-looking door, this one much larger than the others, and carved from ancient, greyish wood, instead of cast in metal. “It’s where some of the Circle’s greatest treasures are stored.”

Corda wrinkled her nose. In her experience, the Circle usually liked to flaunt its riches… the ones that poured in from its curio shops and Tranquil cash cows, anyway. In any of the public chambers in the Tower, or the senior enchanters’ studies, it was hard to move for exotic novelties like enchanted skyballs, small Avvar statues, antique silver inkwells or paperweights from Orlais or Nevarra, or even artefacts with reputed historic significance. It was rumoured that, in Irving’s office, there was a dagger on the wall with a blade crafted from dragonfang. Such gifts, apparently, had been marks of honour during the occupation… or possibly just demonstrated the Orlesian appetite for the unusual, combined with the pleasing frisson of danger.

She glanced suspiciously at Lily. “The ones we’re not meant to know about, then?”

The girl said nothing, but she looked distinctly uncomfortable. Jowan shot Corda a reproachful glare, and she sneered at him.

Well? Don’t tell me: anything even vaguely related to Tevinter gets shut down here. You know, not every piece of information we have from the Imperium is—”

Some of it is evil,” Lily said hoarsely. “There are wicked things left down here. We should be careful.”

Corda scoffed. “Right. I’m sure it’s all positively dripping with blood magic.”

Jowan glared at her again, his brow pinched. “Corda! Please… can we just…?”

He gestured hopelessly to the door, the light above their heads pitching and fizzing against the shadows. Corda was preparing to say something cutting about his impatience, but then she turned her gaze to the door itself and, as she stepped closer, the full magnitude of its presence struck her.

It was a ghastly thing. Just looking at it made the back of her neck crawl. The timbers were silvered with age, making the door look almost ghostly against its dark stone surround. More carvings littered the stonework, but Corda saw none of the warding runes or glyphs that had been on the first door… none that she recognised, anyway. There were fewer geometric patterns, too: this didn’t look like dwarven work. Instead, tiny figures interlaced their way along the stone frame, contorted in apparent agony. She saw familiar motifs on the ancient planks… the sign of the Chantry’s sun, and the Sword of Mercy, and all manner of other religious self-flagellation.

Corda shuddered and, at her shoulder, Jowan pulled a face.

It’s… horrible,” he murmured. “Why would they put something like this down here?”

It’s called ‘the Victims’ Door’,” Lily said, with something a little like a trace of reverence in her voice. “It is built of two hundred and seventy-seven planks, one for each of the original templars. It serves as a reminder of all the dangers that those cursed with magic pose.”

Corda was already taking the rod of fire from its box. It woke quickly at her touch, and she cupped her hand around it, channelling her power into the thing until the tip crackled and blazed. She slipped a sidelong glance at the initiate as the flames began to coalesce, turning the rod’s grey surface first orange, and then white. The light danced over Lily’s face, highlighting the soft curve of her jaw, and the faint look of awe on her face.

Huh,” Corda said meaningfully, allowing the rod to flare just a little brighter.

How do you know all this, Lily?” Jowan asked admiringly.

Admiration…! Yes! Let us bow down to the people who lock us up, treat us like animals, and then call themselves ‘Victims’, because we are so terribly dangerous. Let us admire them, for they truly are something.

Andraste’s pimpled arse… I do not know how much more of this I can take….

Oh, I’m no expert,” Lily demurred. “Initiates have to learn the Circle’s history if they are to work with templars and mages. I… just pick things up.” She cleared her throat, and nodded at the twisted carvings and elaborate keyholes. Three large bronze plates, each emblazoned with a Chantry sun, marked the mechanisms. “They’re bigger locks,” she said doubtfully. “But the rod of fire will work on them, won’t it?”

I can try,” Corda said, squinting up at the door.

It took longer than before. She wasn’t sure whether it was truly harder, or whether she was just starting to get tired, but the rod seemed recalcitrant, and every gout of flame made her hands ache.

There,” she said, satisfied as the last lock gave a sad little thunk.

Jowan gave a stifled yelp of excitement. “We’re in!”

Almost,” Lily reminded him. “Now we just need to find our way into the phylactery chamber itself.”

~o~O~o~

The repository was the single most wonderful thing Corda had ever seen in her life. She could, she decided, have stayed there indefinitely and died happy. There were whole boxes of scrolls and tomes, and ancient Tevinter artefacts whose vague shapes seemed familiar from illustrations in manuscripts, but which Corda had never imagined she would actually see in person.

The single ball of magical energy that Jowan had conjured for them couldn’t even light a quarter of the chamber: shadows wreathed everything, falling in deep lines between the stacks and shelves, and turning the borders of stone and wood blurry. Corda couldn’t stop herself from moving towards one dark corner full of particularly interesting shapes—a series of jagged outlines and bulky forms swathed in dustsheets—and she pulled another small light from the air, letting energy swell into the pale ball. Once she could see what she was doing, she tugged the sheet free. It released surprisingly little dust, and she supposed the Tranquil probably swarmed down here on a regular basis, too, cleaning and keeping the artefacts inspected.

It didn’t really surprise her, though she felt a twinge of anger at the fact they knew this place so intimately. They were allowed down here, to handle and understand these antiquities… when real mages weren’t. Real mages, who hadn’t been neutered the way the Circle wanted to neuter Jowan, were judged not worthy of access to this wealth of material—and Corda found that unforgivable.

Jowan!” she called excitedly, as she crouched beside a weathered stone statue in the rough shape of a hound seated on its haunches, its mouth open in a snarl. “Jowan, have you seen this? Look!”

He peered over at her and frowned. “Oh yes, I’ve seen pictures like that. it’s one of those amplification devices, isn’t it? They were meant to triple the power of spells directed through them. I always wondered how they worked.”

Lily tugged at his elbow, her lips moulded into a dissatisfied pout. “Jowan, leave it alone please? We should be looking for another door. I’m almost certain the phylactery chamber is on the other side of that wall. If we

Really?” He looked at her with interest, a glimmer of imagination lighting in his face. “Lily, you’re so clever!”

The initiate looked confused, and Corda rolled her eyes.

Ugh.

Jowan,” Lily insisted. “Please, let’s just

No, you’re right! If the phylactery chamber is the other side of that wall, we could use this to amplify the rod of fire’s power, and blast right through the masonry! I don’t know why I didn’t think of that!”

He looked so pleased with himself: a greasy, sweaty kind of joy, like a small dog licking its nose as it whipped its thin tail. Corda massaged her forehead. She wasn’t sure if it was being down here that was doing itin amongst all these old objects so filled with poweror the prolonged fear of being caught in this ridiculous plan that couldn’t possibly work but her head was starting to hurt.

Because it’s a stupid idea,” she said flatly. “Honestly, Jowan you want to blow a hole through the wall? These walls are more than a foot thick! We’ve seen that. Anyway, even if it worked, we’d be knee-deep in templars in seconds. You think no one would hear? We still have to get out of here in one piece, remember.”

Oh.”

He looked crestfallen, and she sighed deeply. Lily pulled again at his arm, urging the three of them on through the repository’s packed aisles.

Come on I’m sure there’s another door. These chambers are like rabbit warrens. Let’s try over here.”

Corda grimaced as Lily dragged Jowan away, past the racks of artefacts, chests, and boxes. There was so much here! She would have given anything for the time to spend looking through it all properly, and that thought made the regret and fear rise up in her again, because after today there would be no more Circle; no more studies, no more learning.

What was I thinking?

Corda wished fervently she hadn’t agreed to do this, and that thought then filled her with an uncomfortable, dark kind of shame as she looked at Jowan’s narrow figure loping clumsily down the length of the storeroom. It was selfish, to think that somehow her expectations of a comfortable, secure life were more important than his. They were the same, weren’t they? They wanted the same things. And no one wanted to be made Tranquil, especially without even being offered a choice.

Anyway, she’d come too far to turn back now.

With that realisation firmly embedded in her mind, Corda turned to follow the others. As she did so, the light above her spun lazily, catching at the glimmer of something on one of the shelves. She frowned, and peered in between two boxes of scrolls, her fingers moving hesitantly over the dry, crackling parchment. It was so tempting to just start unfurling one—just one scroll, or maybe just one book—and seeing what so-called ‘forbidden’ knowledge lay within. It couldn’t be that bad, could it? The restricted stacks in the library had a few Tevene texts, and several of those were written by former enchanters who had been branded apostate simply because of political schisms within the College. Everyone knew that, however much the Circle couched the explanations in terms of the danger of philosophical thought without context. Mages, the apprentices were taught, were too often apt to live solely in the realms of academia. This was one reason the Chantry’s structure helped them: it was a framework, not just of right and wrong, but of context.

Approved spells, systems of legal study… all ways to keep the true extent of our power from us.

Corda blinked. It was hard to come to terms with this new state of affairs, these new thoughts that reared up where, in the past, she had only had mild concerns. If, before, she had been wary of the templars’ rules and the leashes that mages allowed themselves to be subdued by, now she was a wildly snapping dog, straining at that tether, desperate to sink her teeth into the one responsible for her chaining.

Amazing, she thought, how fast everything could change… and how fast fear faded to anger.

Her hand closed on the object that had first attracted her attention: a small golden amulet, tucked between the boxes. The chain was delicate, with tiny, finely wrought links. It slipped through her fingers like silk, and from it was suspended a square gold pendant, set with a disc of what looked like onyx, perhaps an inch and a half in diameter. As she picked it up, Corda felt the power in the thing. It hummed beneath her skin the way the rod of fire had, but there was no dark core of control. The pendant didn’t need her to wrestle with it; instead it merely accepted her touch, and seemed to lengthen itself out in her fingers, like a cat responding to being petted. The onyx disc shone in the light she’d conjured, its surface looking almost oily, and the faint etchings of runes danced under her fingers. Corda knew very few Tevinter runes. Unlike the dwarven runic script that was simple to read—almost pictographic, in fact, and frequently used as waymarkers or signs for the illiterate—Tevene runes were complex, and a jealously guarded branch of academic study.

She thought one of the symbols resembled the Tevene rune for ‘life’, but it was hard to tell. It made sense, though: the pendant seemed to throb with its own living energy.

Corda!” Jowan called, in that awkwardly hushed tone between trying to be quiet and trying to get her attention. “Corda, quickly! Lily’s found another door!”

Corda bit her lip, and slipped the pendant into her belt pouch.

After all, what harm could it do?

~o~O~o~

Lily stood triumphantly in front of a small door at the back of the repository, its surface etched with runes. Two heavy brass lockplates were set into the wood, and Corda frowned at them suspiciously.

What about those? Are those more wards?”

No I’ve heard about these locks,” Lily assured her. “They use them on the vaults the lyrium potions are storied in, up on the fourth floor. They’re not warding glyphs. They can’t be—the door is primed with magic. It needs a password, and then it must feel the touch of mana.”

Corda pulled a face. “A password. Right. And do we have this password?”

Lily nodded enthusiastically. “Yes! Yes, I’ve spoken about this many times with Ser Maurais. One of his duties is to help in the distribution of the knights’ lyrium, and I have often aided the Revered Mother with the consecration.”

Corda didn’t bother to disguise her contempt. That the Chantry fed its watchdogs lyrium at all was questionable, in her mind, and to sit upon the sanctimonious tussocks of hypocrisy by pretending that mumbling a few words over the stuff made it the consecrated waters of the Fade, or whatever other rubbish they called it, was plain distasteful to her.

Lily wasn’t looking at her, however.

Ser Maurais sounds very friendly,” Jowan complained snidely. “What were you doing talking to him about the vaults?”

Lily shrugged. “It came up in conversation. I… I believe he trusts me, that’s all. The password must be a portion of the Chant, and Maurais has often complimented me on my singing, so I suppose—”

Oh, has he? Has he really?”

Corda sighed tersely. “If you two want to start bickering like an old married couple, that’s fine, but maybe it should wait until after we’re out of here? You can practice all you want then.”

They both looked chastened, and a little embarrassed, and she crossed her arms impatiently, nodding at the door. “Go on, then. Impress us.”

She did. Grudgingly, Corda had to admit that the portion of the Canticle of Andraste that Lily wove from the air was beautiful. It was something about the sword of the Maker, the tears of the Fade, and flames raining down from heaven, but the words weren’t important. The chant itself—a pure silver thread, shimmering and faultless—seemed to vibrate in the air and, as Lily sang, she put her hand to the door, and it was the closest thing to magic Corda had ever seen a mundane do. She glanced at Jowan, and saw he had tears in his eyes, his face suffused with softness and tender longing.

Does anyone have a bucket? I may puke.

Lily’s eyes seemed to refocus as she finished, and Corda felt the shift in the door.

Quickly. It needs mana to undo the locks. Any spell will do.”

Corda frowned. “Fine.”

She drew a breath, and let electricity crackle from her fingers, the sparks caressing the locks and glimmering over the door’s runed surface. Slowly, the sound of pins clicking and tumblers rolling filtered through the stale air, and the locks thudded open.

The air that left the vault within was like the stale belch of hot air from an oven yet, rather than heat, the phylactery chamber seemed to exude a dark prickle of energy. It stirred the mana in Corda’s blood, whispered under her skin, and made her feel at once slightly nauseous, and vaguely light-headed. She turned to Jowan, ready to ask him if he felt it too, but he was practically hopping from foot to foot, his face clammy with excitement.

We’re in! I can’t believe we’re in! Come on… let’s get a move on!”

~o~O~o~

The phylactery chamber was not as large as she’d expected. Oh, it was big enough… a long storeroom with a high, vaulted ceiling, and rack upon rack of shelves stretching away into the shadows. Every shelf held rows of vials in wooden stands, each little glass tube less than five inches long, their corks sealed with wax.

If the repository and the corridors and storerooms beyond had seemed clean, like places that were regularly dusted and inspected, this chamber felt like somewhere forgotten: a dank, dark archive full of information no one wanted to read.

Corda shivered, unsettled by the ranks of vials, and the faint pulse of magic that perfumed the air. She didn’t know anything of exactly how the templars preserved the blood they took from apprentices, or how it could be used to track those who absconded, but the whole place felt unwholesome. If blood really was the concentrated form of one’s essence—a person’s very identity—then it was as if every single one of those little vials was a soul crying out for freedom in the dark.

She hated thinking about it.

Above her head, the light she’d made faltered. She didn’t even remember them taking her blood. It had probably happened while the bandages were still on, when she lay under a canopy of wet sheets, waiting for the healers to see if they could save her. Corda had few memories of that time, and she didn’t want the ones she did possess.

She looked up at the racks that stretched away into the repository’s vaulted stone ceiling, and wondered at how easy it would be to destroy them all. Every tiny vial, every ugly leash the templars kept them on…. Pointless, of course, unless she also led every single apprentice in the Tower to freedom. The templars would merely take more blood and the students—as inured as they were to the systems the Chantry ruled by—would meekly submit.

A small voice of practicality at the back of Corda’s mind reminded her that, if they didn’t, they would probably be run through, but that hardly seemed to be the point.

They’re alphabetised,” Jowan said with relief, already thumbing through the racks. “Look… the blasted Tranquil again, no doubt. Just the people you want for making lists of things. We should check for yours, too. You never know, it might still be here.”

Corda nodded absently, but Lily looked nervous.

I don’t think so,” she said, hovering close to Jowan. “It was probably in the dispatch that went to Denerim yesterday. I know there were packages, and the Revered Mother had letters to send, so—”

I’ll look anyway, if you don’t mind,” Corda said icily, passing the girl to get a small stepladder that rested against the far wall.

Lily looked glumly at her own feet.

Oh, yes. This is a fine time to regret your crimes, idiot. Just try to wait until we’re all out and safe before you succumb to remorse and fling yourself down in prayer, all right?

Corda shinned up the ladder, holding onto the racks for support. Row after row of vials shimmered ahead of her: dark blood with the glimmer of lyrium inside it, like the shining carapaces of so many black beetles. She loathed touching them. As her fingers skimmed the labels and the small sheaves of paper left at the end of each row—fastened to the racks, in true Tranquil fashion, by short lengths of string, so that nothing could be misplaced—she grew more aware of power these fragile things held.

It thrummed at her temples, and year after year of mages seemed to be at her shoulders: all of them, young apprentices bleeding out their essence, catalogued and numbered. No matter whether they were destined for greatness, or Tranquillity, or other terrible things… all who had passed before, and every child and young soon-to-be-Harrowed mage now in the Tower. She couldn’t stop thinking of that. People she saw every day—the snotty-nosed little kids, and the nervous young apprentices just starting their first lessons, and the older ones who gossiped incessantly—this was their blood. Their leashes. Their lives.

More than ever, Corda wanted to pull the entire rack down and smash everything, washing the chamber’s stone floor in a sea of blood. The thought simultaneously sickened and excited her, but the impulse faded as her fingers met the bare place on the wood where her phylactery should have been. An empty spot on the rack, a slight ring of dust… so, so close.

It struck home harder than she had expected, and she descended the ladder weakly, her brow furrowed.

They shouldn’t do this to us,” she said, half to herself. “I mean, it’s practically blood magic, isn’t it? Talk about sodding hypocrisy.”

What? No,” Jowan said quickly, still searching for his own vial. “That’s… well, it isn’t the same. I’m sure it can’t be. The Grand Cleric would never allow that.”

Corda shrugged, enjoying the look of offended hurt on Lily’s face. “Oh, I don’t know. They only say it isn’t because it’s them doing it, I bet.”

That’s not true,” the initiate protested. “It’s something that’s done for safety’s sake… it’s not…. I mean….” She blinked furiously, evidently trying to find some argument that wasn’t undermined by precisely what they were doing, here and now. “Jowan told me you’ve studied the Spirit School,” Lily said, with surprising defiance. “Well, that’s often thought to be similar to blood magic.”

It isn’t,” Corda said flatly.

No, but— well, it’s how rumours get started, isn’t it? I mean, I heard someone spreading a rumour that Jowan was a blood mage! You can see how ridiculous that is.”

Lily!” he exclaimed, almost falling over as he spun from the rack. “That’s—”

Jowan?” Corda demanded, her back suddenly straightening and her arms dropping to her sides. “Is that true? Why didn’t you tell me?”

He gave her an oddly venomous glare in the dimness, his lips pressed tightly together. “Well, you’ve hardly been that interested in anything I have to say recently. Anyway, it isn’t true! It’s… it’s all because I’ve been sneaking around, meeting with Lily. I… I guess people must have seen me, and assumed I was doing something forbidden. You know what it’s like in this place.”

Corda narrowed her eyes. She didn’t like the sweaty desperation in his voice, but it wasn’t as if it was that unusual… and he had a point. Besides, she knew him. He would never have been that stupid.

Would he?

Unthinkingly, her hand moved to her belt, her fingers touching the pendant that sat within.

I think you’re both fools,” she muttered, with very little grace.

You didn’t have to help us,” Jowan said sulkily, turning back to the racks. “You could just have got the rod of fire and left us alone.”

Corda snorted. “I could have. But I’d have got in trouble anyway. Besides… I wasn’t going to let you do this on your own. Idiot.”

And he was. Oh, he was such an idiot… but he was her friend. He had been, for the longest time. The only friend she’d ever had. And she wouldn’t have given that up for anything.

I’ve got it,” Jowan muttered breathlessly, turning to face them.

Lily put her hands over her mouth, and Corda wasn’t entirely sure she hadn’t started praying.

Jowan held his phylactery out at arm’s length, as if he was afraid it would bite, and he turned it slowly in the light, watching the dark-stained glass twinkle.

Such a small thing,” he murmured, as if entranced by the vial. “So fragile. It’s hard to believe it could be so important—or so easy to end its hold over me.”

Corda bit her lip. There was power everywhere in this room. Hers, and Jowan’s, and the amplified pulse of a thousand apprentices’ souls, suspended in these little tubes, all calling to her… all crying for freedom.

Well,” she said hoarsely, “better get a move on, then, hadn’t you?”

Jowan flinched, and then seemed strangely dispassionate as he dropped the phylactery to the stones and crushed it beneath his leather-shod foot. The sound of glass crushing seemed awfully loud in the stillness, and Corda had the sense of a moment caught in time, a fleeting instant that hung over them all with a kind of breathless intensity. She saw it on Jowan’s face, too: a waxen, focused stare as he looked down at the smear of wet blood and liquid lyrium beneath his foot. He seemed to be holding his breath, unblinking and shivering slightly.

It’s done,” she said quietly, wanting to break the spell of that strange quiet. “Let’s just get out of here.”

He glanced up and nodded quickly, immediately seeking Lily with an urgent gaze. “You’re right. Lily? We need to get to the boat.”

The initiate put her hand in his, and Corda turned away, leading them back to the door and the way they’d come.

She didn’t want to look back.

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Straining at the Leash: Part Eight

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They were kissing when she found them by the basement doors. This entrance was set back from the warren of service passages and storerooms that comprised the northern side of the ground floor level: a low stone chamber with a door at either side, then a small staircase, with two large pillars and a set of double doors at the bottom. 

There might not have been any templar patrols in evidence, but Jowan and Lily weren’t as cleverly disguised behind the left-hand pillar as they clearly thought they were.

Of course not. That fat cow’s arse sticks out so far you could see it from Seheron.

She had one arm around his neck, the other looped across his back, her fingers clutching at his narrow shoulders. In turn, Jowan held her waist, and cupped her face in his palm as their lips met in a repeated rhythm of comfort and affection. It wasn’t just lust, Corda noted with mild disdain. Not the kind of feminine power that Gwynlian had so enjoyed exerting over her templar pup, but a mutual reaching out… a shared sweetness.

She cleared her throat loudly as she descended the last couple of steps and crossed the chamber, expecting them to break apart guiltily, but there wasn’t a shred of shame in it. Jowan, who normally breathed like the air wasn’t his to take, still had his hand to Lily’s cheek as they parted, and he was still looking at her with such warmth and affection… and with a kind of courage in his face that Corda had never seen. Never seen on him, and never seen on anyone else. Not that anyone would look like that at her, anyway.

Sappy rubbish.

You’ve got it?” Jowan asked, finally relinquishing his hold on Lily, except for her hand. “That was quick!”

Corda eyed him coolly as she moved down the steps to the basement doors. “You know me. I don’t mess around.”

Did anyone see you?” Lily asked nervously, looking paler than ever. “Templars, I mean, or—”

No. But the longer we hang around out here, the likelier it is someone’ll come by. Have you got the keys?”

The initiate let go of Jowan’s hand and fumbled in her belt pouch, pulling out a heavy ring of keys, each swaddled in a strip of cloth to keep it from jangling. Corda wondered idly where Lily had stolen them from—and how long they had before their rightful guardian noticed they were missing—and she was half-tempted to ask Jowan whether it was the girl’s thieving little magpie fingers that had attracted him to her in the first place, but she held her tongue.

She couldn’t help feeling, as Lily attacked the padlock, that just maybe the girl’s desire to get out of the Tower was just as equal to her affection for Jowan. Maybe he was just the lucky stooge she’d picked to be her ticket. After all, just because she blindly parroted back all the crap the Chantry taught its children didn’t mean she really wanted to spend the rest of her life shut up here… forbidden love or no forbidden love.

The lock gave on the third key, and Jowan helped her unfasten the chain, wincing as they dragged the heavy doors back on their hinges, the sharp creaks and clanks echoing throughout the chamber, and probably up into the stairwells beyond.

They’ll be on the fish course by now,” Corda said airily, pushing past them into the darkness of the corridor beyond, and snatching a small wisp of light from the air with a wave of her fingers. “Don’t worry: plenty more dinner to go before anyone notices something’s amiss.”

I wish I felt as confident as you sound,” Jowan muttered as he traipsed after her.

Corda smiled bitterly into the shadows.

You and me both, my friend.

~o~O~o~

Corda had never been this far down the Tower before. She’d expected the basements to be dank, airless chambers, but what met them was a series of neatly vaulted corridors, with doors leading off from either side. There were no lights—no expensive, showy glowstones or enchanted lanterns—though torch sconces lined the walls and seemed well-used, indicating the passages were regularly patrolled.

By someone, at least….

Great,” she muttered, tucking the box that held the rod of fire under her arm as, with a flex of her fingers, she channelled a little more energy into the ball of light above her head. It flared brighter, casting pale shafts against the stones and making the shadows shrink back along the heavy walls. “It’s a labyrinth. Do we actually know where we’re going?”

It’s this way,” Lily said, moving off ahead. “Come on… quickly.”

Beside her, Corda heard Jowan stifle a whimper. She glanced at him, noting the clammy sheen of sweat on his forehead.

All right?”

He winced. “I’m just so nervous it’ll all go wrong. If—”

Shh.” Corda smiled gently; an expression she knew wasn’t familiar to either of them, at least on her. “It’s going to be fine. We’re going to get you out of here, Jowan. I promise.”

His face softened a little, that familiar quire of dark hair flopping forward over his brow as he nodded. “I’m sorry I had to bring you into this. I know you never… I mean, all you wanted was to go to Cumberland, and if anyone finds out that you—”

I’m coming with you.”

Jowan gulped, his eyes wide. “Really? Corda….”

She shrugged. “Well? What else am I supposed to do? You think they won’t find out who took the rod of fire? I’m not exactly inconspicuous, and I’d rather not get in that much trouble. Anyway,” she added, watching Lily recede down the corridor, “I’m sure there will be other libraries… other opportunities. As long as the templars don’t catch me.”

He said nothing, and she wasn’t sure whether it was regret or apprehension that made his mouth crumple and his chin wobble slightly. Lily turned to peer back at them over her shoulder.

I don’t think they’ll be able to catch you,” she said, smiling shyly at Corda. “You’re clever… you’ll be able to stay ahead.”

Corda balked. She hadn’t realised Lily had overheard them—silly, really, because these stones echoed just as badly as anywhere in the Tower—and that rather put her off talking anymore. She gave a non-committal grunt. Stay ahead… yes, that would be it, wouldn’t it? That would be what her life was likely to be from now on: a constant cycle of hiding and running, with no safety and no respite.

Let’s just get on with this,” Jowan muttered.

Lily’s fragile smile faltered, and the ball of light that danced above their heads continued to spin in lazy circles.

~o~O~o~

They walked for what felt like ages, until Corda was beginning to wonder if Lily really had any idea where she was going. The various storerooms and side chambers that filled the basement seemed horribly like cells—all small, square rooms, some of them with bars filling part of the walls, instead of solid stones—and Corda realised with distinct unease that they probably dated from several hundred years back. Successive remodellings couldn’t disguise the bones of this place… or of what these dark, low places had most likely been used for, especially under the Tevinter Imperium.

Prison cells, torture chambers… I bet there are still some more around somewhere. Stands to reason, doesn’t it? The Chantry doesn’t trust us that much.

There had to be holding cells somewhere, she reasoned, even if the templars prided themselves so highly on their rules and containments that no mage ever farted without the Chantry knowing. And yet, here, the siderooms mostly seemed packed with crates and barrels, and shelves full of old books, mouldering away behind locked doors.

Is knowledge really as dangerous as all that? To be locked up like prisoners?

Lily glanced at her, apparently noticing her curiosity.

This is where the Tranquil store some of the most sensitive scrolls and tomes. The rest are in the inventories one level down from here, practically cut into the rock. There’s a huge catalogue system in the stockroom, so the clerks know where everything is at any given time, and, twice a month, they move all the books around. Helps preserve them, stops them getting too damp… and stops anyone trying to sneak a volume or two out,” she added, wrinkling her nose. “I dread to think what would happen if the mages got their hands on some of this information.”

The light above them guttered slightly, then blazed, developing a slightly greenish cast as Corda tried to restrain her anger.

Oh, yes,” she snapped. “Because we’re all just one hair’s breadth away from shedding our poor disguises of humanity and ripping the nearest innocent mundane baby to pieces, just to slake our terrible thirst for evil. Why, I never start the day on less than two spit-roasted infants. How about you, Jowan?”

He pulled a reproachful face at her, his eyes hollow and his cheeks sunken in, but Corda had hit her stride. She kept her voice lower than she would have done if they hadn’t been trying to stay hidden, but her words still lashed against the stones like belt-whips.

How can you talk like that? How can you count the man you say you’re going to marry in with people you believe are so awful?”

Lily frowned, all the softness and gentleness in her face turning to bruised confusion. “I… no! That isn’t what I meant at all…! I love Jowan in spite of his magic. I know he’s a good man… but there are terrible things down here. Manuscripts from the ancient Imperium, and texts the Chantry has forbidden, because they contain too much—”

Corda wasn’t even listening anymore. If she had, she might have argued that not everything that had come out of Tevinter was blood magic, or censored, or even all that different to the four legal disciplines. Unfortunately, blinding rage smashed across her mind at the words ‘in spite of’.

You sanctimonious bitch! Mages have nothing to apologise for! How dare you pity him? You should be proud of Jowan for who he is… not try to smother every piece of his nature out of him!”

In the light’s eerie, unnatural glow, Lily looked pale and ductile, like uncooked dough. Her lips moved soundlessly, chewing at uncertain shapes, as if she was trying to decide between returning Corda’s anger tenfold, and falling to her knees in prayer.

That is enough! Don’t snap at her! Corda, apologise to Lily,” Jowan demanded. “If anyone here is being unfair, it’s you. You always are—you’re so quick to belittle other people. And it’s… it’s ugly.”

A combination of surprise, disappointment, and raw shame welded Corda’s lips shut. She had never seen him angry like this, or, moreover, standing up to her this way. His face was full of hard lines and sharp angles, a picture of determined ire. She glowered at him and, for a few taut moments, they stood facing each other in the passageway, neither budging an inch.

It doesn’t matter,” Lily said earnestly. “Come on. We need to get to the phylactery chamber.”

Corda narrowed her eyes and, with one last glare at Jowan, stalked off after the initiate. She could hear him grumbling under his breath as he followed.

~o~O~o~

The door was an immense construction. Corda was surprised it wasn’t guarded but, according to the sainted Lily, there were two templars keeping watch, just past the locked iron doors at the end of the corridor.

That entrance is at the east side of the Tower,” she said, keeping her voice low, though it was deeply improbable anything short of an explosion would echo that far along the passage. “There’s a staircase that leads almost right up to the Knight-Commander’s office. That’s why we had to walk the long way around.”

Jowan winced. “So, we’ve just been halfway around the Tower, practically? No wonder I feel like I have blisters….”

Corda ignored him, too busy focusing on the door. It looked out of place next to all the ancient stonework, and yet its heavy, intricate construction spoke of dwarven craftsmanship, and histories of Kinloch Hold did say that the dwarves had aided the Avvar in first building their impregnable edifice. Still, she doubted this was a relic of that time. Probably a much more recent installation, designed with a very specific purpose in mind.

She tried not to shudder as she pictured the Knight-Commander and the First Enchanter standing together before this dark iron monolith, their keys in their hands as they prepared to survey the ranks of phylacteries, and decide the fate of the apprentices whose blood they’d harvested. Patterns of scrollwork and geometric bands crawled across the dimly glimmering metal, and hinges as thick as Corda’s arm stood supported by wide bands of iron, knotted with rivets.

The two locks were huge, yawning maws, their scratchplates worked in complex geometric designs, with metal ropes twisted along their edges. Corda didn’t doubt there was probably some unpleasant symbolism to the whole business.

Hurry up,” Jowan whined at her elbow. “Get the rod out. Melt the locks!”

All right,” Corda snapped. “I know what I’m doing!”

She didn’t. She had no idea and, as she fumbled with the box, the rod of fire stirred into life… and brought itself into flame. She caught her breath as she opened the box, and the slim cylinder within glowed orange, warming the air below her hand.

So many flames….

It didn’t hurt when she picked it up. Such was the instrument’s nature: to channel power and lend to it its own enchantment, but to control it with a degree of precision that made the average mage’s level of concentration look like a ditzy schoolgirl’s.

She felt its power, though. It coursed and throbbed under her skin, and that ached like a week-old wound. The rod seemed to have a will of its own, almost, and Corda fought to impose her control on it. Fire leapt from the tip, first deep red, then hot white, then arcs of spurting blue until, with a grunt of frustration, she willed the thing into submission.

The other two had leapt back out of the way, and she glanced up to see Lily peering nervously over Jowan’s shoulder, the fingers of both hands knotted in the shoulder of his robes as he held his arms out, shielding her from the sparks.

Oh, for the Maker’s sake… it’s not like I would’ve set her alight. Not purposely. Not very much.

The rod sizzled and belched out a short burst of fire before settling to a steady burn. Corda looked down at her hand in faint wonderment, seeing her scarred knuckles standing proud, her blemished fingers wrapped around the rod and enveloped in flame… yet she felt only the merest suggestion of heat swelling from its tip. She hadn’t realised how intently she was staring at her own hand until Jowan cleared his throat.

Um, Corda…? Do you want me to do that? It’s all right if you—”

Shut up!” she barked, glaring at him afresh. “I’m concentrating.”

His mouth tightened, and he slunk into silence as she brought the rod to the first of the locks. It would be impossible to detach them from the door, but she could melt the mechanism itself and, if they were lucky, it would be enough to get them in.

She held her breath, and tried to ignore the way sparks leapt off the whitening metal. The rod fought her as she fed it into the lock, but she summoned her power, pushed it on… pushed it through… and let out a sigh of relief as she heard the pins click.

The second one was easier. It gave way, and, with a bit of a shove, the door swung open. Lily gave a soft ‘praise the Maker!’ and threw her arms around Jowan’s neck. Corda considered icily pointing out that the Maker had had very little to do with it, but instead slipped the rod back into its box and headed through the doorway.

Damn it!” she spat, as the other two edged after her. “There’s another door. Did you know there was another door?”

Lily frowned. It stood higher than the first one and, if anything, the metalwork was even more complicated. Jowan drew level with her, reaching out to squeeze her hand as they stood in the narrow space between the two portals.

Well… it’s all right, isn’t it? You’ll just have to do that one too.”

Just have to do that one too’… hark at you. Hmph.

Corda resisted the urge to grump, and stepped forwards, her hand already slipping the lid of the rod of fire’s box open… except the rod was cold. In that instant, the light she’d conjured overhead winked out too, pitching the three of them into total darkness. Lily whimpered.

What happened? What—”

Jowan pulled an orb from the air, and it wobbled uncertainly, glancing slabs of light skittering across the stones. Corda bit her lip as she looked up at the door, and the runes carved into its surface. In her hand, the rod of fire stayed obstinately cold.

Lily came forwards, fussing and peering at the locks. “What’s the matter? Why isn’t it working?”

Corda gritted her teeth and brought the rod to the mechanism. She waved her hand, muttering an incantation, but no flames swelled. Nothing happened. With a growl of frustration, she pulled back the rod and glared at its dull, dim surface. “Magic is useless on this. Any bright ideas, initiate?”

Lily either didn’t hear her, or chose to ignore the taunt. Either way, she was running her hands over the door, tracing the symbols etched into the metal.

Oh… this isn’t good. I think these are warding runes. Of course—this’ll be the templars’ work, to negate any magic cast within this area. I should have guessed!”

Corda grunted. “So much for ‘can only be opened by a mage and a templar together’. Why does this not surprise me?”

It’s clever, really,” Lily was saying, still peering up at the runes. “Isn’t it? I mean, how do you keep mages away from something? Make their powers completely worthless!” She turned to look at Corda and Jowan, and then the expression of triumphant realisation crumbled from her face, and she sagged, her mouth bowing. “Well, that’s it, I suppose. We’re finished. We can’t get in. Jowan, we’ll have to go without it….”

No!” A shrill thread of panic underscored his voice. He still stood by the first door, pressed against the doorframe from apparent terror at the prospect of something that could take his magic—and his only chance at true freedom—away. “I can’t. I… I need the phylactery, Lily! We can’t risk them finding me. It… it would ruin everything. There has to be another way in.”

Corda frowned. “What’s so bad about running without the phylactery, Jowan? Plenty of people do.”

And they’re caught,” he protested, glaring wild-eyed at her. “I can’t do that, Corda. I need this chance.”

He was letting his fear run away with him. She could smell it on him, like the poxy lavender water he’d started to wear, and she bared her teeth in silent anger.

All right, all right….” Lily held up her hands. “We’re not giving up. I have an idea—but we’ll have to be quick.”

  ———————————-
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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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Straining at the Leash: Part Six

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Corda sighed as she surveyed her new quarters. A small room, but pleasant enough. Narrow bed, washstand, desk… a little bookcase, and a mirror standing atop a chest of drawers in which she could keep the vast array of her wealth and finery, she supposed.

She snorted as she thrust five pairs of clean smallclothes into the drawer, and hung one clean shift over the mirror, so she didn’t have to look at it.

Dinner had been predictably trying, for the most part. Corda, along with two other apprentices she didn’t know, had been called up onto the dais and officially welcomed as new members of the Circle. It was a speech she’d heard many times before, and yet it seemed so disorientating to be the subject of it—and to see the sea of faces spread out below her, and know what they were all thinking. Who was she, why had it been her, and what had happened to the ones who’d been called and weren’t standing there beside her?

Worst of all, when they applauded her, Corda had to stand there, knowing what had become of those who’d failed the Harrowing. They were dead, or Tranquil, and if they’d crossed into the Fade, they’d met their ends on templar swords, their minds riven with terrible things, their last thoughts the feasts of demons.

She had stared down into the rows of faces, and felt as if they could all see it on her, as if they were staring at her because she’d survived, because she was there, and how dare she be? She’d wanted to turn and run from the hall. Even when she found Jowan in the crowd, he looked tight-lipped and resentful, like he wasn’t pleased for her at all.

That had stung, but she was trying to shelve the thoughts. Her apprenticeship was over now, anyway, and she probably wouldn’t see as much of him, or… well, she would have said ‘all her other friends’, if she’d actually had any.

Corda tried to tell herself that it wasn’t a bad trade. Anyway, Jowan would be up for his own ritual before long—he’d have to be, at some point—and she would do everything in her power to make sure he passed. She could coach him, tell him what to expect, and then he’d be all right. Not even he could mess it up, not if she gave him a clear enough plan.

No, that would be fine. And she had a better position now, anyway. She was far better fixed to find out what had been going in Uldred’s little student meetings, and to poke around for answers… for evidence that she could present to the First Enchanter, should it become necessary. She had no desire to turn traitor but, if Gwynlian or any of the others were truly planning a rebellion, the Circle needed to be informed.

If that was what it was, Corda reminded herself sharply. She wasn’t sure whether she should have tried to speak to Irving already she could have done, couldn’t she? When she was in his chambers, perhaps she should have tried to snatch a few moments to speak of her concerns—but it would have seemed nosy and churlish, in front of Greagoir and the Grey Warden, when the First Enchanter had his mind on other, more pressing matters. Besides, she had no wish to sell anyone out when the templars were looking. If anything was going on, it was Irving and Irving alone who needed to know… who probably already did, Corda supposed. He was perfectly well aware of the rumblings within each of the fraternities, and what did she truly believe Gwynlian had been talking about, anyway?

She sighed as she shut the drawer and took a glance around her rather sparse chamber.

Everything will change, Gwynlian had said. And her stupid letter to her stupid sister… prison bars bending and sagging, a change coming to the Tower… If all goes well, perhaps you shall find me on your doorstep.

Maker, the girl was a fool. She was either planning to run away—quite possibly with her appalling templar puppy—or she really did think that something was going to happen. But what? With Uldred at Ostagar, it was hard to believe he could lead any kind of rebellion… unless the mages intended to defect, and escape to the south or something.

Corda snorted mirthlessly at that thought. She hadn’t read much about the wastelands of the Korcari Wilds, but—whether they were filled with darkspawn or not—she wasn’t entirely sure that plunging off into frozen bogs and marshes was a viable plan for escaping anything.

All the same, she wished she’d had a chance to talk to First Enchanter Irving about it, without Greagoir noticing, or the Grey Warden being there to complicate matters… and complicate them he had. Even as Corda looked around her new quarters—and they were pleasant enough: much quieter and more private than the cramped apprentice dorms—she couldn’t help her lingering curiosity over Duncan’s words. And the thought that, just maybe, he was here to accept applicants for the order…. Did she want that? Was it something she could ever have imagined?

She wasn’t at all sure. She doubted it. A week ago, she’d have been certain not—a life of fighting, of blood and terror and violence; who in their right mind would want that?—but then there had been her Harrowing, and she couldn’t quite forget the power filling her like the cold breath of a winter morning, and making her every movement reverberate with strength and sylphlike quickness.

Corda didn’t call it bloodlust… she hadn’t seen the demons bleed.

~o~O~o~

She was walking down to the refectory for lunch when Jowan’s familiar footsteps scuffled after her, pattering uncertainly against the stones.

Corda?”

She turned, scowling at the figure scurrying its way along in the lee of the wall. He looked sweaty and nervous—even more so than usual—and there was something very furtive in the way he was hurrying after her.

Jowan? Were you following me?”

He baulked as he caught up to her. “Does it matter?”

Defensive as ever.

She pursed her lips. “Well, what do you want?”

He came closer, his hands out as if he wanted to shush her, and his voice was a cracked, hushed rasp. “No, I…. Look, I need to talk to you. It’s important.”

Corda frowned. “Why are you whispering?” she asked, squinting the length of the corridor. A mage in pale blue robes was visible at the end of it, crossing the stairwell with her arms full of books. “It looks very suspicious.”

Her voice echoed lightly against the stones as she spoke, and Jowan positively quivered.

Sshhh… please! I… I just want to make sure we’re not overhead. We should go somewhere else. I-I don’t feel safe talking here.”

Her frown deepened. “You’re starting to worry me, Jowan.”

He winced at her, those deep blue eyes glassy with something that looked very like genuine fear. Corda was about to tell him to stop being so silly, but then he reached out and tugged at her sleeve in wordless urgency, almost hopping from foot to foot like a child desperate for the privy, and she felt her resilience melt away.

Please,” he whispered. “Please I think I’m in trouble.”

Oh, all right,” she said, injecting brusque impatience into the words, in the hope it might hide her worry.

A look of pained relief washed over his face, and he turned quickly, beckoning her to follow as he darted off down the corridor. Their footsteps slapped against the flagstones, and Corda suppressed a sigh as she lengthened her stride in order to keep up. She’d have said this wasn’t like him, except that it was. That was the trouble, really: it was more like Jowan than Jowan, this weaselly, strange paranoia… and she didn’t like it one bit.

~o~O~o~

He led her to the chapel, which she found ironic. Probably the single place with the greatest concentration of third-party eyes and ears in the entire tower. She said as much, but he shushed her… and introduced her to Lily.

Corda hated the girl on sight, naturally. She was a little shorter than Jowana good half a head shorter than Corda herselfand generously curvy, with a smooth-cheeked, soft face, full lips, and large grey eyes. She wore her hair in a coiled braid, like many of the other initiates, and even though it was pulled tightly back, the rich coppery brown of it still managed to shine under the candlelight. She smelled of the beeswax polish and incense of the chapel, with undertones of some sweet floral water. She probably, Corda thought sourly, bled honey and had flesh made from sugared violets. Jowan certainly looked at her as if she did.

I’m glad to meet you,” Lily said, extending her hand. “Jowan’s talked a lot about you.”

Corda stared at the delicate palm before her for a few moments before tentatively shaking it. She disliked the custom, and she disliked being touched, even more so when Lily’s soft skin made the ridged scars on her own hand so painfully apparent.

Can’t say likewise,” she said flatly. “Are you sure it’s safe to talk here?”

She cast a look around the chapel. At the chamber’s centre, the huge statue of Andraste, complete with eternal flame cupped in her outstretched hands, stood guard over the Tower’s souls or so the Revered Mother would have everyone believe. Two bays flanked the central aisle and beyond that, secreted in smaller wings out of sight of the main doors, were small rooms used by the priests and sisters for storage, or the preparation of dreary sermons.

At the moment, everything seemed quiet. One lone sister with a broom was sweeping the dark red carpet on the other side of the chapel, and she didn’t even appear to notice their presence. No one else was around; neither priests, templars, nor initiates appeared to be in evidence. Corda didn’t frequent the chapel much, but she was aware that, like much of the rest of the tower, the activity it saw went in fits and bursts throughout the day. If you were clever about itor sometimes just luckyyou could slip into any nook and cranny without being noticed, and time your privacy to slide in between disturbances, or templar patrols. Rumour had it that a lot of mages were quite expert at that they were like rats, she supposed: innately bred to find the smallest holes to hide themselves away in.

Lily nodded, and beckoned them over to one of the side wings, in the shadow of an alcove that held a statue of some ancient Divine.

We’ll be all right if we’re quiet,” she said earnestly. “I can see the door from here, and if anyone comes in, we’ll just change the subject. Please this is really important.”

Corda sighed, turning her gaze to Jowan. “What have you got yourself into, idiot?”

He puffed his chest out a bit, looking ruffled and petulant, but he set his jaw firm. “You remember how worried I was about my Harrowing?”

Corda groaned. Not this again.

Well, I was right to be!” Jowan protested, lowering his voice to a sibilant, urgent whisper. “They’re not even going to give me a chance, Corda! They mean to make me Tranquil. Lily saw the paperwork on Knight-Commander Greagoir’s desk

And how, pray tell, did she manage that?” Corda asked coldly, eyeing the initiate with suspicion.

Lily’s pretty moon of a face began to harden, and she reached for Jowan’s hand, pulling it towards her and clasping it in both of hers. “I clean in his office sometimes,” she said. “We’re often given jobs like that to do; to keep us humble. Sometimes I think it’s just so they have to pay fewer servants.”

There was a quiet, pale bitterness in her voicea shadow of something not quite choked downand Jowan put his other hand over hers, giving her a look of big-eyed sympathy that made Corda marginally nauseous.

Oh, yes. Scrub a few floors and you’re a martyr. Try living like we do, you fat tart.

Lily was given to the Chantry when she was a child,” he supplemented, looking pleadingly at Corda. “I know you won’t think it’s the same, but the initiates are subject to just as many rules as we are. And if anyone finds out about us, Lily’ll be in such trouble! She’s not allowed to have relations with men,” he added, turning pink-cheeked and bashful under Corda’s withering glare.

I don’t want to know about your ‘relations’, Jowan and as for the Rite of Tranquillity, they can’t just

They can,” Lily cut in urgently. “I saw it. First Enchanter Irving had signed the writ, and so had Greagoir, and it had the Revered Mother’s seal and everything. The Rite can be offered before an apprentice undertakes their Harrowing or, in certain cases, it is approved as a merciful alternative.”

Merciful? Of all the

Corda pressed her lips tightly together, denying herself even the freedom to think what she wanted to, lest she lose control of her tongue.

They don’t think I can pass,” Jowan said mournfully, clinging tighter to Lily’s hands as he turned his baleful gaze on Corda, his brow pinched. “So they’re going to make me Tranquil. I don’t even get a choice. They’re going to take away everything I am—my hopes, my dreams, my fears… my love for Lily,” he added, looking shyly at the girl. “I don’t want to be like that, a husk of a thing… breathing, but not truly living. Would you want to?”

Corda folded her arms stiffly across her chest. He was appealing basely, shamelessly, to every shared fear they’d ever discussed, to every shudder and grimace when dealing with the Tranquil… every conversation they’d ever had about what it meant to a mage, and to cling to the humanity you were allowed to possess.

She definitely didn’t care for his transparent attempts at manipulation, but she couldn’t deny how effective they were, and she sighed deeply.

All right. Fine. So… what are you going to do?”

A thin look of gratitude washed over Jowan’s face, and he glanced between Corda and Lily, evidently working up the courage to voice something. Lily looked nervously across the chapel, and at the sound of boots on flagstones the three of them stilled, stiffened, and held their breath. The templars passed by the open door, and the industrious sister with her broom kept on sweeping.

Jowan leaned forwards conspiratorially, swallowing hard.

I need to escape,” he said, meeting Corda’s eye with a strength and determination she wasn’t used to seeing in him. “We need to… Lily and I both need to get away.”

Corda said nothing. There didn’t seem to be anything to say. Escape plans were common enough among apprentices; they were a way of dreaming, a way of living inside your own head, where the templars couldn’t touch you. Still, very few people acted on them. The potential dangers—and the punishments—outweighed the temptation, especially when apprentices were conditioned to believe in the impregnable security of the Tower.

Of course, that wasn’t to say no one tried. From time to time, apprentices and even fully-fledged mages made efforts to get away. The ones who succeeded scored themselves a kind of fame among those who remained… but so often they were brought back, chained and cowed, and it seemed like freedom never lasted long. Punishments were severe, too, particularly for repeat offenders. It tarnished the appeal of the whole endeavour, making real contemplation of escape—not just dreaming about it—the refuge solely of the desperate, or the insane.

Corda?” Jowan prompted anxiously, looking more like his usual worrity self.

What?” She raised her eyebrows, aware of the silence hanging awkwardly between the three of them. “What, you want to do an Anders? It won’t work, Jowan! It never works! How would you even—”

I’m going after my phylactery,” he said solemnly, clutching Lily’s hand so tightly his knuckles were turning white. “It’s the only way… the only way I can be sure they won’t track me down. After that, we have a plan—we can get away clean, I know it—but we need help.”

They were both looking at her then, imploring and full of terrible faith… like they actually thought she could do something. Corda blanched. Lily was the first to speak, her voice hushed but the words steely, and her face lit with the absolute conviction that the faithful so often had.

We need a mage,” she said. “A full member of the Circle. Jowan says you’re his best friend—he says if anyone will help us, you will—but you have to give your word. No going back, and no telling anyone.”

Across the chapel, the sister with the broom had finished her sweeping and retired to one of the small storerooms. She hadn’t glanced their way once, and, even if she had, the alcove shielded them from prying eyes, and kept their whispers from echoing. Even so, Corda felt exposed and vulnerable… and nothing could hide her from the cold blade of Lily’s words.

She looked at Jowan, wondering if he really had said that; if he really thought of her that way. A light sheen of nervous sweat had begun to prick his forehead, making his hair hang lank and face look greasy.

If they did indeed have a plan, and it worked—which was highly unlikely, she had to admit—then she would probably never see him again. That thought needled her intrusively. Of course, it probably wouldn’t work. Apprentice slang did not call the folly of audacious escape attempts ‘doing an Anders’ for nothing: the mage who’d spawned the phrase had racked up six attempts, so people said, and every time he’d been brought back. He was quite well known for it… and well known for being as mad as a box of frogs. Tower gossip said that was the only reason he hadn’t been shipped off to Aeonar—and even the mere flicker of that word across Corda’s mind made her want to shudder.

Still… if this was all true, and Lily had really seen the authorisation in the Knight-Commander’s own hand… well, Jowan didn’t have much alternative, did he?

Corda took a deep breath. “All right. I’m in.”

Jowan looked like he was about to melt into a puddle of relief, but Lily frowned at her. “You have to give your word,” she said sharply. “Promise you won’t tell, and—”

Lily,” Jowan chided, tugging at her hand. “It’s all right. Corda won’t give us away. If she says she’s in, she’ll help. I told you we could trust her.”

He smiled weakly, and Corda felt a sinking pit of dread open up in her stomach.

She was going to regret this in a dozen different ways; she just knew it.

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Straining at the Leash: Part Five

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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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Straining at the Leash: Part Four

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Back to Straining at the Leash: Contents
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Corda had once read, in one of the treatises buried deep in the library’s restricted section, that crossing the Veil was like opening one’s eyes.

It certainly felt that way. She hadn’t expected it, but then she hadn’t expected any of it. She’d been frogmarched up before First Enchanter Irving, with Knight-Commander Greagoir standing by… and they were quite the double act, those two. All that lugubrious stuff about the role and responsibility of mages, the sacred duty, the purpose of the Harrowing and what she must learn to face—and there, at the core of it all, the fact that she would be murdered if she failed, or resisted.

Corda supposed that to fail wouldn’t be so bad. If she entered the Fade and succumbed to a demon, she probably wouldn’t know anything about it. She assumed one didn’t.

She stepped up to the swimming, singing orb of light that held the ritual’s focus, and she felt the call of the lyrium swell and throb in her blood… and all she could think, as the feel of the Fade enveloped her, was that Jowan would brown his robes before he got this far, no matter what she thought she’d prepared him for.

Silly sod….

The world ebbed, dissolving into coils of pale, sparkling light that wound around her, soothing and cocooning.

Slowly, the faces in the chamber faded away, and the light filled Corda’s vision: coruscating spider webs that crawled over her skin, crowding her eyes. A whimper escaped her as she felt her grip on what was real slide away.

She had fleetingly entered the Fade from a waking state before, but only under the strict guidance of the enchanters. As apprentices, they had been taught of the dangers the Fade contained, and drilled in the care they would have to take.

The lessons echoed in her ears—trust yourself and only yourself, for your will is all that is real, but never be convinced you are infallible, for pride is a demon’s weapon—and yet seemed so totally useless. Oh, it was one thing to say something, to instruct an apprentice to behave in this or that manner… but as to how it was actually done? Yes, the old men were really quite silent on that matter.

Typical, she supposed.

Corda glanced around her, trying to get her bearings, despite all she knew to the contrary. There was nothing real here, no true distances or honest shapes, and yet she scanned the horizon for the things that ought to be there: the dependable width of the sky, or the weight of cliffs and solid ground.

The landscape seemed to shift around her, forming itself to adhere to the things she expected to see—the comfortable, predictable lies of stones and moss and paths—but the ground itself seemed to be made of ropes of fibres; a heaving, living mass, like the roots of a tree.

She raised her hand, flexing her fingers in front of her face. A point of pulsing light—brilliant, sharp white—bloomed in her palm, and it seemed strange how effortless it was. Magic ran through her like breath, and it swelled in everything. She could feel it, all around her, all through everything.

She felt… alive, as if she had woken from a long sleep, and discovered all the cobwebs blown from her. Power flowed everywhere, in everything, and Corda recalled what she’d read in all those dusty Tevinter treatises: the Fade was the realm of dreams, but only for dreamers. For those who knew how to use it, its very unreality became a strength, the tool to bring form to their will.

Here, anything that could be imagined could be brought into existence, with the proper application.

Corda smiled and stretched her hands out before her. Almost at once—quicker and easier than it had ever felt before—light shimmered between her palms, and condensed into a blue orb that bobbed gently in the air. She felt its warmth on her face, and she laughed delightedly. Pushing forwards with a strength that came so naturally to her—as naturally as breathing—she flung the orb out ahead of her and, with a flick of her wrist, transformed it into a spiral, a dancing sheet of light that, with a little concentration, became the shape of a simple chair.

Corda grinned at the shivering spectre of the object. All right, it was rough, and probably not safe for sitting on, but it wasn’t bad for a first try.

Her smile faded as she regarded the chair, and it flickered suddenly into nothingness. She frowned. Not only was it harder than she’d thought to maintain the object’s form, but she was not alone here. She muttered a cuss, annoyed at herself for being so foolish, so distracted by stupid, simple trickery.

Above all, the Fade was the realm of demons.

~o~O~o~

He called himself Mouse, the one who came to her. At first, he was timid and ingratiating, and he told her how he’d been an apprentice like her, so many years ago… how the templars had thrown him to the wolves, so to speak, and left all that was him trapped in the Fade, long after they’d hacked his body down.

Oh, he was good. She was tempted to applaud. Poor little Mouse, with whom every apprentice could agree, could feel sympathy and fellowship. Because they were him, weren’t they? Cast adrift before they were ready, and yet who could ever be ready for the life they were made to lead? Not all magic was equal, not all mages born the same, and yet there they were, trapped and corralled like beasts, and shackled by what the templars told them they were—what the Chantry told them they had to fear—the weak and the strong together. What became of mages like Mouse? What became of the fear inside every apprentice?

No. They had to master it, or have it master them. They became hard, indifferent… beaten on that anvil of their power until they grew so far removed from normal people that maybe they were the monsters some folk believed them to be.

Corda recognised it all. She smiled, and she was hard pressed not to laugh.

They talked for a long while, she and Mouse. He wanted to scare her, to take the fear and build it up, turn it into something she could lose control of. He wanted her to believe in other demons, in spirits of justice and valour that would aid her, and in bigger, more terrible creatures that wanted to devour her entirely. He showed her an old, tame demon of Sloth, said it would tear her in two if she roused it… and Corda didn’t doubt him.

The thing had the form of a horned, half-rotted bear, slow and lumbering, and yet all made of teeth and claws. Its eyes burned like dull coals, and its snout wrinkled as it surveyed the one who stood behind her.

Demons, the enchanters had always taught them, were twisted and terrible creatures, bent on thwarting mortals to their wills. For Corda, every lesson had carried the echo of Chantry teachings, the ever-present crackle of Andraste’s all-cleansing pyre glowing on the edges of the words.

With every passing year—with every book she read, every scroll she snuck from the library’s hidden stacks—Corda had been growing less and less convinced of the truth in this.

They hunger for us, mages were warned. They seek life, to know it and possess it, yet they cannot understand it.

And that was supposed to be enough. It was enough to dismiss the denizens of the Fade as savage, sinister things, mindless and savage, and to determine that they were worth no understanding. Any attempts to do so—to research and evaluate spirits, to piece together texts like Mareno’s Dissertation on the Fade—was painted as blood magic… and hadn’t Mareno himself been branded apostate for his efforts?

Yet they all made sense.

These, Corda thought to herself, as she skirted the delicate games of the Fade, these were not monsters. She was not a trespasser among vile creatures, but rather a guest in a foreign land.

Oh, they wanted what she had. That was beyond doubt. They hungered for her power—she could feel it, feel the spittle practically dripping off the jaws they were so careful about not showing her—and any one of them would have taken her mortal flesh if she’d allowed it… but she knew. She knew, and she would not falter.

Mouse tried to frighten her with worse than words. He coaxed a rage demon out into the open—a small, angry, confused spirit that he tried to make her believe had been tracking her—and he goaded it into a fight.

It was the only time Corda came close to overreaching herself.

She fought the demon because she had to, and it surprised her to find just how easy it was to pour her power into every blast of magic. Mana flowed in the Fade like blood, like air, like the very foggy shroud that seemed to cling to everything. She ripped and twirled and danced, and the power burst from her in great, scalding waves.

She enjoyed it, she found. Enjoyed the metallic taste, and the prickling shivers on her skin and yes, even the heat… even the blistering fire of the rage demon when it burned close to her, wailing and roaring in fury. She welcomed the fire, and there was no fear. No blood, no pain. Just her power, her magic… her retribution. Her will.

She’d never been so close to the fire before. Never looked into the heart of the flames, not since then, when the whole world had turned red in a blaze of anger.

It was the only time Corda took her eyes from Mouse and, when the fight was done and she was riding high on the blood-pounding exhilaration of victory, she turned to find him in his true form.

He was hideous; a great sunken wraith of a thing, bristling with bones and arcane energy. Weakened, she dropped nonetheless into a fighting stance, drawing up the reserves she’d already tapped, and reaching deep inside herself for the last ounces of her power.

The light came again then… that enveloping cocoon that shifted and dragged her with it, and if entering the Fade had been like opening her eyes, crossing back was like being dragged blind through a hedge.

She fought it. She didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to relinquish everything she’d found there… and then the voices came. Corda was fairly sure she screamed. They were the voices of dreamers, of memories—perhaps of lost souls. She heard her brother howling as the flames took him, heard the shrieks of the little children and the raw, desolate wails of their mother… the horror at her freakish progeny: the monster who could do this terrible thing.

The metallic taste of power turned to the taste of fire and death in her mouth, and Corda barely saw the blurred outlines of the Harrowing Chamber swim in front of her before the world turned white again.

~o~O~o~

She woke in darkness, her skin clammy with cold sweat, her pulse beating in her throat and her eyes widening against the shadows. Her breath scraped against the blackness and, for a few sharp, terrible moments, Corda couldn’t feel the limits of her body… the places where she ended, and all the solidity and realness of life flooded back in. There was nothing; nothing but the swirling, seeping dark, and it felt every bit as shrouded and strange as the Fade, but without the comforting, soul-deep burn of power.

No song of lyrium shivered here, no arcane breath kindled in her blood.

The panic started to rise, and her breathing quickened again, gasps breaking from her throat as she stared into the steep-voided nothingness, blind and futile.

“Corda?”

Cool, damp fingers clasped hers—a hand, pinching and clutching roughly at her, at the contracted, thick ridges of white skin that scarred her knuckles—and that panicked her worse than anything.

She flinched away, flailing in the darkness, whimpers breaking from her as her eyes tried to adjust to the lack of light.

“Don’t… it’s all right. Please, it’s all right….”

A dim glow thrummed into life above the bunk, outlining a familiar face.

Jowan?

She couldn’t even say his name. Her tongue seemed stuck to the roof of her mouth, her throat dry and swollen.

She glanced down at her hand, at the thin, pale fingers grasping hers, and watched as they pulled away in unwieldy, awkward movements. The glow became a concentrated oval, the smell of tinder and dwarven matches suddenly sparking in the gloom… he was lighting a candle, and she closed her eyes against its sudden flare.

He moved it away quickly, setting the thing on the far edge of the table beside her bed, and part of her mourned it. She missed its light, its warmth… and yet the flame felt different now. Everything felt different.

After the Fade, it all seemed cold. Weak.

The candle flame guttered, and Corda groaned. She was probably in her dormitory. It felt like it—same lumpy bed, same shapes in the darkness—and yet if Jowan had been allowed to wait with her, it must be near morning. Late, or early, enough for it to be acceptable for him to be here… and for her arrival back to have caused plenty of excitement among the other students, she realised with an inward grimace.

Ugh.

“Corda?”

She blinked crustily, and peered through bleary eyes at the ungainly figure hunched on a chair beside her. Candlelight spilled over his narrow features and, now she was growing accustomed to her own eyes again, the dormitory didn’t seem that dark.

“Jowan?” she managed, raising a hand to scratch at her head.

He nodded. “How are you? Are you all right? They brought you in hours ago. You looked awful… I was worried. You barely moved all the time you were asleep. Did it hurt? What did they— well, I suppose you can’t tell me, can you? Still, just a little hint. I never thought it would happen like that. Just, bam, and they take you. I mean, obviously you passed, but—”

Corda groaned and covered her face with her hands. “Shut up, Jowan. Please.”

“I was worried,” he huffed petulantly, but the babbling did stop.

She peeped between her fingers, watching his crumpled, awkward way of sitting there, staring at her, and she couldn’t help but wonder how long he’d been waiting for her to wake.

Slowly, she sat up. Everything seemed to stay where it ought to be. Her head, though pounding, didn’t actually fall off, and she managed to focus on the faintly wavering outline of Jowan’s form.

“Irving wants to see you,” he said, a trifle resentfully. “Soon as you woke, they said.”

Corda frowned. “Who said?”

He shrugged, and rubbed at his left arm with his right hand, fingers tugging at the slippery fabric of his robes.

“The templars who brought you in.”

Jowan shook his head ruefully, and glanced off down the length of the dorm. She supposed there were probably other apprentices around. No one queuing up to see her, though. No one desperate to know she was all right.

No one except him.

Gingerly, Corda swung her legs off the bed, groping about on the floorboards with her toes until she found her slippers. She reached down and tugged them on, still frowning as she considered the meeting awaiting her. After the performance in the Harrowing Chamber—all long-faced solemnity and pompous posturing—the First Enchanter was one of the last people she wanted to see… but she’d be facing him on a rather more equal ground now, wouldn’t she? A mage. A member of the Circle, just as he was.

Oh, he still had the heavy robes and the bejewelled sash and the pins of half a dozen important memberships on his lapels, yes, but it was something, wasn’t it?

Corda smiled to herself as she reflected on that. Definitely something.

I am a mage.

The words had never been truer, never tasted rounder or sweeter as she rolled them around her mind.

In one respect, she knew the ritual itself hadn’t mattered. The Fade, the demons, all the old men and their puffed-up, sober words… they meant nothing. She was as much a mage now as she had been the day she was born, full of power and untapped potential. And yet, it was the Harrowing itself that had shown her just how much—just how easy it was to reach out and touch the fabric of dreams itself, to open her eyes and travel beyond everything. No teachers, no books, no lessons… no templars and no Tower.

She was a mage, at the gateway of her own potential, and no mere pile of mortar and stone could imprison her.

~o~O~o~

Corda had been called to the First Enchanter’s chambers a few times before, though not for some years. It had been when she was new to the Tower, not long after the dressings had come off and she was beginning to blindly grope her way around that odd new world.

Irving had been kind to her, as far as he’d been able, though he’d always seemed a distant figure, rather than a kind and avuncular protector. She remembered him coming into the chamber during those long weeks when she lay swaddled in wet sheets, her wounds being slowly healed and her mind bound with soothing spells.

She remembered the distrust of the bearded men who’d peered down at her, like she was so much mouldy meat. He alone had voiced the belief she could master her powers, that she was untainted by demons or the lack of control that all mages feared… even if he hadn’t sounded completely convinced.

Of course, in the years that followed, the gratitude Corda had felt towards the First Enchanter had tempered into a sullen kind of resentment. She was never sure why. His age, perhaps, or his consistent and unyieldingly stoic temperance in the face of every single templar restriction or outrage.

Apprentice gossip said that, however calm his outward demeanour, Irving was just as gruff as Knight-Commander Greagoir behind closed doors and—when the Tower’s two controlling influences were locked in debate in one of the upper council chambers—enough shouting came seeping under the doors that it echoed like the Maker clog-dancing in steel boots.

Corda had never doubted that was true. She suspected far more went on behind the scenes of the Circle than the apprentices ever knew about… or most of the mages, too, come to that. The senior enchanters never liked anyone to know anything if they could avoid it, and they held tight to the power the templars allowed them, guarding it as jealously as dogs.

She doubted Irving was any different, when it came down to it. After all, mages were generally a petty, self-obsessed bunch, absorbed in their own infinitesimal squabbles most of the time.

Still, she slowed her steps as she mounted the staircase to Irving’s chambers, frowning at the sounds of muffled voices from within. The Knight-Commander, she realised, as the echo of his brusque tones painted the corridor. The templar on guard duty, stationed about halfway down the hall, had his helmet on and appeared to be staring steadfastly straight ahead from inside his visor. He turned his head at Corda’s approach, and she nodded to the man, as confidently as she could manage… despite that small twinge of discomfort that always plunged, deep in her gut, when she saw them fully armoured. She hated to admit it, but the bastards did scare her.

“Here to see the First Enchanter, ser,” she said brightly.

The faceless mask of steel swivelled to examine her.

“Ah.”

Corda tried to stop herself shuddering at the way the man’s voice echoed inside his helm. They didn’t even sound human. He nodded shortly.

“Yes… the newly Harrowed one, isn’t it? He told me to send you in when you showed up, but you’ll have to wait outside, and mind your manners. He’s in conference.”

The templar jerked his head towards the chamber, armour clinking gently as he settled back against the wall, resuming his sentinel’s stance. Corda bowed minutely—just enough to be sufficient for politeness—and hurried off in the direction of Irving’s chamber… and the echoes of voices within.

“…have already gone to Ostagar,” protested a voice, as Corda drew near the chamber’s heavy oak doors. “What else can you possibly expect?”

That was Greagoir, and Corda bit the inside of her lip, holding her breath with the sudden excitement of listening in to something forbidden.

The corridor was lit by the dim bluish hue of magically charged glowstones—expensive trinkets, like the lanterns used in the library—but the gap beneath the wood flickered with the warmth of dancing candlelight. Shadows moved against it, and Corda glanced over her shoulder to check the on-duty templar wasn’t watching her.

Satisfied he wasn’t, she crept closer to the door, placing her fingers gently against the knotted boards and leaning in to listen. The heavy iron hinges and handle were cool to the touch, though heat evidently blazed in the argument within.

“Wynne, Uldred… in fact, most of the senior mages! Surely we’ve committed enough of our own to this war effort.”

Footsteps clunked against the chamber’s floorboards, and more shadows moved beneath the door. The Knight-Commander couldn’t be talking to Irving, Corda decided, and the shadows seemed to spell three people in the room, at least.

“Your own?” The First Enchanter’s voice echoed dryly. “Hah! Since when have you felt such kinship with the mages, Greagoir? Or are you simply afraid to let them out from under Chantry supervision, where they can actually use their Maker-given powers?”

Corda smiled, quietly amused. Perhaps there was truth to the rumours, after all. She would have liked to think so.

“That is not—” The Knight-Commander broke off and gave a frustrated growl. “You are perfectly well aware that the Grand Cleric has already authorised the departure of two detachments from Denerim, and in any case—”

“Gentlemen.” A third voice interrupted, this one deep and smooth, with the clipped, precise tones of a man used to authority. “Please. There is nothing to be gained from arguing. Besides, it appears there is someone here to see you, Irving.”

Stillness seemed to fill the room behind the door, and Corda frowned in the instant before realisation hit her.

Damn!

More footsteps, and one of the shadows under the door was moving… moving towards her.

She hopped back hurriedly, away from the door, and stood there brushing the front of her robes down nervously, attempting to look as innocent as she could.

The door creaked open, revealing the figure of the First Enchanter, swathed in his opulent robes, blue eyes twinkling in the centre of his lined, craggy face, framed between his long, iron-grey beard, and his close-shorn grey hair.

“Ah,” Irving grated, smiling genially, “if it isn’t our new sister in the Circle. Come in, child.”

He extended one long, knotted hand, gesturing into the candlelit chamber. The space was dominated by large, heavy pieces of furniture—a desk, many bookcases and shelves, ironbound trunks, a few chairs—and every surface seemed to spill over with papers, books, quills, and trinkets. The smell of beeswax and lavender polish lingered in the thick, heavy air, burnished with hints of the smouldering fire, and the suggestion of old pipe smoke.

Corda cleared her throat. “Um… thank you, First Enchanter.”

She followed him inside obediently, blinking a little in the sudden rich glare of candlelight. The Knight-Commander was indeed present; he stood near the fireplace, his large, broad, heavily armoured frame a striking sight against the smooth stone mantel, with the glimmer of low-burning flames glittering against his highly polished plate.

He looked up as she entered, his face hard as his armour, as if he was simply annoyed by the interruption—by the fact that Irving’s having summoned her was, in itself, an irritation that should not be allowed.

However, it was not Gregoir to whom Corda’s eyes were drawn.

A third man was present in the First Enchanter’s study, and he was as rare and intriguing as the ranks of valuable books, peculiar curios, and strange little mementoes that crowded Irving’s shelves.

She blinked again, and tried not to stare.

 ———————————-
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Straining at the Leash: Part Three

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It took Corda ages to track him down. That in itself struck her as strange, because Jowan was a creature of habit. If he wasn’t in class, he was either in the refectory, the library, or his dormitory, huddled up behind a book and not talking to anyone.

She eventually found him outside the stock room in the upper corridor. He was standing by the open doorway as the Tranquil assistants glided serenely past him, his brow furrowed in thought as he stared into the room. Caught in profile as he was when Corda approached—his lower lip drawn in and his dark brows pinched over his sharp-featured face—he reminded her of nothing so much as a nervous whippet.

Jowan flinched wildly and let out a yelp when she stalked up behind him and prodded him between the shoulder blades.

“Maker’s breath, Corda! Don’t do that….”

She shrugged and folded her arms across her chest. “Where have you been? I’ve been trying to find you.”

Jowan blinked and looked guiltily at her. Well, he always looked guilty… he breathed like he was stealing the air. Still, something complex lingered in his deep blue eyes; clouds with a storm chasing behind them.

“I was just… I wasn’t doing anything,” he said dismissively.

Corda didn’t believe him, but she didn’t really want to waste time arguing.

“Listen,” she said instead, leaning a little closer so she wouldn’t be overheard, and pausing to sniff when she caught a whiff of something unusual. Something… different. “I overheard— Are you wearing scent?”

“What?” Jowan blanched. “No! No, I just… it’s a different soap. That’s all.”

Corda wrinkled her noise. He smelled like elfroot, lavender, and king’s blossom. It wasn’t unpleasant, actually. Not the blend of nervous sweat and ink that she was used to picking up from him, but… nice, all the same.

“It doesn’t matter. Can we go somewhere and talk? This isn’t exactly for public consumption.”

“Well, I—”

Corda didn’t wait for him to finish. Grabbing his sleeve, she dragged him down the hallway and into one of the chambers that stood off the laboratory corridor. A lone templar stood on guard while, inside, an elven mage fiddled with a bench full of retorts and glass piping. Corda glanced at the experiment in progress, fleetingly curious. It looked like some of the trials she’d read about, concerning the process of imbuing items with magical energy at the material level, instead of merely enchanting them. So far, few mages professed to have attained reliable results but, she had to admit, the possibility of being able to instil, say, a resistance to fire or cold into the actual thread of a bolt of cloth, instead of merely slapping an enchantment on the cloak made from it… that was knowledge worth chasing.

Naturally, apprentices weren’t let anywhere near experiments that interesting, and rumour had it the Chantry—and the more conservative Fraternities—didn’t approve of that particular branch of arcane studies anyway, in case it threatened the monopoly of the lucrative, and above all biddable, Tranquil enchanters. Corda curled her lip. Oh, everyone knew about that. The goods the Tranquil enchanted and sold in countless little curio shops across the nations ranged from genuine treasures to tacky pieces of useless rubbish… but it brought money to the Circle’s coffers (or the Chantry’s, depending on one’s point of view), and offered the public a nice, safe view of magic.

It made Corda want to spit.

In any case, not everyone who practised the arts of enchantment needed to be Tranquil. They said Tranquillity gave the enchanters better concentration, made the whole process—and the use of lyrium it involved—much safer, but then that was usually the Chantry’s excuse for anything. Safety. Hah.

Corda furrowed her brow. The Formari were renowned enchanters, and very wealthy by it, and they weren’t usually made Tranquil.

A small puff of smoke belched from the mage’s retort, and he swore. The templar glanced over his shoulder, then frowned at Corda and Jowan.

“What do you two want?”

Corda flashed him a cheerful smile. “Just fetching some supplies,” she said brightly and, clutching Jowan’s sleeve ever tighter, dragged him into the side-chamber at the end of the lab.

Once they were alone among the wooden racks and the warm green glint of the rows of flasks and empty bottle, Corda kicked the door shut behind them and turned to Jowan, surprised by the nervous, bright-eyed keenness of his expression. The waft of lavender and king’s blossom caught at her nose again, and she frowned. There was something distinctly different about him today… the same something she’d been noticing on and off for months. Anyone else, and she’d have thought he’d found a girl.

Corda blinked, pushing the thought from her mind, along with the reasons for the uncomfortable heat that began to crest at her throat. She reached out and punched Jowan on the arm.

“Anyway, listen.”

“Ow! I am,” he protested, rubbing his forearm. “You didn’t have to do that.”

Corda sneered and, leaning closer, recounted all she’d heard pass between Gwynlian and Cullen.

Jowan’s eyes widened. “She’s—? With a templar?”

Corda winced. “Did you even hear what I said? That’s not the point. I mean, it’s disgusting, but it’s not the point. What matters is—”

“It’s not that bad,” Jowan said defensively, his brow crumpling into a frown. “I mean, just because something’s forbidden doesn’t make it revolting. Love happens wherever it chooses, and if—”

“Love?” Corda scoffed. “I doubt it has much to do with that. Anyway, will you shut up and pay attention? The sappy crap is beside the point. What matters is what Uldred’s doing. He’s planning something that’s going to shake the whole Circle, I’m sure of it… and I want to know what it is.”

Jowan’s eyes grew dark and shrouded. “Corda, I don’t—”

“Aren’t you in the least bit curious?” she snapped. She hadn’t even mentioned the hint of demons yet… not that she was eager to do so, when it might send him into another spiral of panic about the Harrowing. “Anyway, with Uldred and the others at Ostagar, this is the perfect time to dig.”

Corda glanced towards the thick oak door separating them from the almost deserted laboratory. Privacy was never guaranteed anywhere in the Tower, but hopefully this would be enough. The rows of flasks and retorts snatched at her reflection, taking glancing shards of her face, her scars, and throwing them back to her. She looked away.

“I’d noticed something funny was going on ever since Gwynlian started under Uldred, I just didn’t know what. Been thinking it goes back to the last deputation that attended the College, in Cumberland. It must be that… and you know what that means, right?”

Jowan looked blankly at her, and she growled in frustration.

“The Libertarians!” she snapped, scything her hand across his arm again.

“Ow! Stop hitting me….”

“The fraternity has been talking about a legal challenge for years,” Corda said sharply, glaring at him as he rubbed his arm again. “The right to secede. Don’t you ever listen?”

Jowan glowered reproachfully at her. “Not when people keep hitting me, no. Anyway, I thought all that was just hearsay. The Chantry would never allow mages independence.”

Corda shook her head impatiently. He could be so painfully dense sometimes. She wanted to slap it out of him, unable to understand how someone with his agile mind could be so singularly uninterested in things that could have such far-reaching consequences for their lives, and for the Circle itself.

A self-governing, autonomous order of mages, operating under their own rules and guidances, without the interference of the Chantry and their bloody watchdogs… it was a beautiful dream. All right, even the most radical idealist had to acknowledge that they needed recourse to protection, if something went wrong, but how often did that happen?

Although not much news from the outside world filtered into the Tower, they heard of more demons and abominations being unleashed by apostates who were being chased by templars than ever occurred within the walls of Kinloch Hold. To Corda’s mind, the logic was simple: remove the threat of incarceration or death, and mages would not need to dabble in forbidden knowledge. After all, when was the last time something bad had happened in the Tower itself? Aside from the odd scorched ceiling or larger-than-average spider, nothing terrible was ever wrought by magic.

Not here, anyway.

Corda shivered briefly, unwelcome memories pooling in her mind. Yes, mages deserved freedom… but freedom with the safety of knowledge, not the rod of fear. It was fear of having their child taken to the Tower that had urged her parents to keep her gifts hidden, to ignore those first warnings signs. If it hadn’t been for that threat hanging over her—if being a mage hadn’t carried such a dangerous stigma—then none of it would ever have happened.

Blake would still be alive.

She frowned. “It could happen. It might, one day… and if the fraternity words it carefully—if the delegation plays its cards right—it could be sooner than we all think.” Her fingers closed on the slippery fabric of Jowan’s sleeve. He flinched, presumably anticipating another wallop, but she just shook his arm for emphasis. “Don’t you think that’s what everyone wants?”

Jowan looked uncomfortable. “Probably not the Chantry. A-and, from what you said, Gwynlian wasn’t talking about a speech to the College of Magi and a well-researched treatise on the benefits of an autonomous Circle.”

Corda bit her lip and let go of his sleeve, all those sudden flurried of beautiful hope fading into stillness.

“No. You’re right… it’s more than secession. We should sneak out tonight, listen in on Princess Tippy-Toes and Ser Grope-a-lot, and find out what’s going on.”

Jowan’s face fell. “Corda….”

“Oh, come on! You’re with me, aren’t you?”

He positively squirmed, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “Well, I agree something strange is going on, but I can’t—”

“Of course you can,” she snapped. “I’m helping you study for your Harrowing, remember? You’re going to be the best-prepared apprentice in the history of the Circle, so that’s no excuse.”

An odd look crossed his face, like fear and ingratitude tied up with irritation. “All right, but not tonight. I can’t—”

“Jowan!” Corda’s mouth dropped open in exasperation. “Of course it has to be tonight! Why would you even—? I mean, what can you possibly have to—”

“I’m meeting someone,” he said wretchedly, his eyes narrowed to a wince.

“Meeting someone?” Corda echoed, unsure whether she was more surprised or appalled. “What?”

Jowan looked at his feet. “I… I’ve met someone. A girl. She—”

“Oh,” Corda said stiffly.

It was a strange thing, she realised, but the poky little storage room suddenly felt bigger, as if the protections of all those shelves and cabinets had been stripped away, and there was nothing around her but cold air and open space. She’d been wrong, hadn’t she? Assuming he wouldn’t find anyone to look twice at him, or that, even if there had been someone, it might just possibly have been— well, that was nonsense.  Silly, pointless nonsense, apparently.

Corda tilted her chin and pushed her shoulders back. “Well, can’t you play ‘hide the staff’ some other time? This might be the only chance we get to—”

Jowan shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry, Corda. Anyway, it’s not like that. We don’t… I mean, we haven’t—”

“I don’t want to know,” she said crisply.

His face sagged into a hurt look, the way it used to when he was younger, all gawky and convinced he was a failure just because he couldn’t manage a simple healing spell.

“Oh. All right. I just… I thought you might be happy for me. I mean, we are friends, aren’t we?”

“Yes,” Corda said, throwing another guarded glance at the doorway. They wouldn’t be alone in here forever, and she thought she’d heard footsteps. Impatience and frustration bloomed under her skin, together with a set of other, darker emotions that she couldn’t altogether identify. “Yes. Of course we are. You know that.”

The words sounded hollow and, when she returned her attention to him, Jowan was looking at her with a speculative curiosity in his eyes, tinged with apology.

“Good, because—”

“I’m just surprised you didn’t tell me,” Corda snapped, not even sure why it suddenly mattered so much.

Jowan frowned. “You just said you didn’t want to know! Anyway, we’re had to keep things very quiet. Lily is—”

“That’s her name? Lily? Is she in my dorm?”

He scowled. “You know, you’re being aggressive, even for you. No, she’s not. She… she isn’t a mage. She’s an initiate. We met in the chapel. I—”

Corda stared, aghast. “An initiate? Oh, Jowan, you idiot….”

“I know it’s forbidden,” he hissed, lowering his voice even further, as if he was convinced the walls had ears, “but we’re going to find a way to make it work. I love her.”

Corda baulked, but recovered quickly. She was aware this was the sort of situation in which one was meant to smile, and say helpful, supportive things to one’s friends… but somehow the words didn’t quite make it out, and she felt her lips contorting into a sneer.

“Well, good for you.”

Jowan frowned. “Don’t be like that—”

“Like what? How long has this been going on, anyway? You weren’t even going to tell me?”

His frown grew deeper: angrier, even. “I thought you said you didn’t want to know? You’re going to have to make up your mind, Corda.”

A tiny flare of pride for him burst in her chest. Stupid, she supposed, but it seemed to show something; some snatch of how he’d grown, how he’d learned to stand up to her over all those years they’d shared… years that suddenly seemed to feel slightly different in her memory, like a shifting bar on which she struggled to hold her balance.

“Well, you evidently have,” she snapped, revelling in the way he flinched.

Jowan sighed. “You don’t understand. We’ve been planning this for more than a week. If I’m not there, she’ll think—”

His eyes were open pools, his face washed free of all those usual traces of guilty, nervous anxiety… and Corda had never wanted to hit him more.

“Fine,” she growled. “I’ll go by myself. You have fun, won’t you?”

“Corda….”

She turned to go, but Jowan grabbed her arm. Unused to the contact, she recoiled, and he jumped back, hands raised apologetically.

“Sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Corda looked down at her arm. Beneath the fabric, scars crawled over the flesh, a network of thick, white ridges transecting mottled red and purple skin. Her lips tightened.

“You didn’t hurt me, Jowan.”

He looked as if he was about to speak, but no words came, and then the sound of footsteps echoing from the laboratory sent them both scampering.

~o~O~o~

“Did you hear the news, by the way?” Jowan asked, as they slipped back out into the corridor, both pretending to look unruffled.

Corda reached up and smoothed a hand over her hair. “No. What?”

“The Grey Wardens,” he said, his voice dropping to an awed whisper. “Word was sent from Redcliffe. They’ll be here by this time tomorrow. I think the kitchens have already started preparing some sort of feast. They say the Grey haven’t come here since First Enchanter Remille’s time… and you know how that worked out. I think the Circle’s probably very keen to make a good impression.”

Jowan gave her a small, runny, nervous smile, and Corda winced.

“Hmph.” She pushed her hair back off her shoulders, meaning to look regal and past concern… and then wished she hadn’t, because it left her face feeling exposed. “I’d forgotten about them. All a bit of a pointless to-do, isn’t it? Just more bending the knee for some bunch of foreign soldiers.”

Jowan pouted reproachfully. “They’re heroes.”

She snorted. “Heroes are just dead men waiting for graves. Anyway, what good are Grey Wardens without a Blight? You know, I read a book about the Anderfels. It said the Grey Wardens bankrupt everywhere they go, just plundering for recruits and gold, and now they rule up there; kings of some grubby, Maker-forsaken little mountain, with nothing to do but wait for fairytales to crawl out of the ground.”

Their slipper-shod feet scudded in mismatched steps against the stones, like every apprentice before and after them. Jowan hugged his arms around his middle and frowned at her. He always had hated having his favourite bits of make-believe pissed on, Corda thought bitterly.

“You’re being spiteful,” he said, but without much emphasis.

She raised an eyebrow. “Am I? I just don’t see why the world needs more orders of self-proclaimed great men, armed with swords and a sense of burning justice.”

As if to punctuate her point, they came to the turn in the corridor, and a statue of one of the old Knight-Commanders from the Blessed Age, set back into a great stone niche. Shafts of dusty light from the small, high windows in the facing wall shone down upon Ser Whatever-His-Name-Had-Been, and caught at the gilded marble of his faceless templar helm. The sword of mercy engraved upon his chest—also picked out in tones of brass, but dulled by the years and the repeated polishings of Tranquil servants—glimmered with the sinister silence of a snake.

Corda stopped, looked at the statue, then folded her arms and glared at Jowan. He sighed and shook his head.

Booted feet echoed on the flagstones, signalling a pair of templars on patrol, and Jowan scurried to catch up with her as she began to walk again.

“Still,” he said, “if we get a good feed out it….”

Corda scoffed. “Hm. If we do. What’s the betting it all just goes to the top tables, eh?”

She kept her tone low and neutral, in deference to the templars as they hove into view along the corridor, with their shiny armour and the quiet buzz of their own conversation. One laughed at something the other had said, and it felt as if it was probably a joke about mages, whether that was true or not.

A glance at Jowan told her he was back to his nervy old self, pale and wide-eyed… though at least now she supposed he had a reason for so much anxiety.

An initiate. Some simpering Chantry tart with her head full of lies and mistruths. Just perfect.

Still, it was his choice. His mistakes to make, and his life to ruin.

“People say they’re looking for recruits,” Jowan muttered as the templars passed by, barely glancing at them. “Mages to go to Ostagar.”

He practically whispered the word, and Corda was sure she caught a whiff of panic in his voice, like he didn’t know whether he wanted to be called up, or was fit to wet himself at just the mere thought.

All the same, Jowan had been quick enough to change the subject, she noticed. He puffed a breath between his lips as he glanced up at the high, shadowed walls, the shafts of light from the windows falling far behind them now.

Corda frowned. “More? But the Tower’s already sent mages to the king’s army. Dozens. How many more people are we expected to send?”

He shrugged as they neared the stairwell down to the dormitories.

“I don’t know. I presume they want recruits for the Wardens instead of the regular army.”

She shuddered. “Ugh. I can’t see why. If you ask me, there’s no reason the whole country should have to pay for King Maric’s infatuation with them. It’s not as if the darkspawn are even a threat anymore.”

Jowan looked doubtful. “As far as we know.”

“Oh?” Corda raised an eyebrow. “An expert in Blight lore now, are we?”

He wrinkled his nose and shrugged, but gave her a small, tucked smile.

“No… I suppose you’re right.”

And he relented. Just as he always did, Corda thought ruefully. He always let her have the last word, agreed with her, or backed down on the rare occasions their opinions actually differed.

He always did… except when it really mattered.

~o~O~o~

She turned in as early as she could without arousing suspicion, intending to sneak out of the dorm under cover of darkness, and down to the gardens. Jowan could waste all the time he wanted with his Chantry tart, but Corda was actually going to do something useful.

She didn’t see much harm in allowing herself an hour or so’s doze before she had to slip out, however, and she bundled herself up in the heavy blankets that swathed her bunk, growing warm and comfortable as sleep slowly slid over her.

It didn’t seem like more than ten minutes until Corda was awoken by someone shaking her elbow.

Psst!”

She shifted, bleary and unfocused as the world swam before her, all dimness and shadows except for the single vivid golden oval of a candle flame. The grip on her arm tightened, and she realised it was not the warmth of skin, but the cool, unyielding feel of metal closing around her flesh.

Awake immediately, Corda stifled a gasp and went rigid. What reason did a templar have to be rousing her from her bed?

As her eyes grew accustomed to the dimness, she made out the face behind the candle, and almost yelped aloud.

Cullen. Shit. They know….

“You need to get up,” the young templar whispered. “Quickly and quietly, now. Don’t wake the others.”

Corda glanced furtively around the room. Her bunk was on the end of the row, with more space around it than many. Even so, she suspected at least a few of the slumbering forms around them were merely feigning sleep.

“I haven’t done anything,” she whispered back, resisting his grip without actually struggling. “Why are you—?”

“Sshh! Please, be quiet.”

Cullen let go of her arm and held up his hand, two gauntleted fingers extended. Odd, she thought, that he seemed to be somewhere between commanding her and pleading with her. With that in mind, Corda straightened her back and narrowed her eyes.

“Where are you taking me?” she demanded, her voice ever so slightly louder than before.

Cullen winced and held the candle closer to her. Perhaps he only meant to shed more light into the bunk, but the heat of the flame swelled against Corda’s face, and she shrank back, struggling not to whimper.

She hated him for that. Hated him more than she’d hated anyone in a long time. It rose in her, thick and bitter as gall, and she clenched her teeth together, the candle spotting her vision with flares of bright blue.

Fear was the enemy. Fear had always been the enemy.

Corda heard other bodies stir in the beds nearby. Other apprentices… other people she shared this space, this life with. She had never wished more fervently that she could have considered them friends.

She swallowed hard and forced herself to sit up straight, pulling her wrist from Cullen’s grip. He blinked and wet his lower lip, looking—oddly, she thought—nervous.

“It’s time,” he whispered, moving the candle back. “I have to bring you to the First Enchanter. Come on… quickly. And quietly. Please.”

Corda drew breath to argue, but his next words took her breath away.

Please. And bring a cloak; the Harrowing Chamber gets chilly.”

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On to Part Four
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