Straining at the Leash: Part Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He blanched. “O-Of course I would!”

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

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

Trapped.

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

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

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

It seemed an excessive show of force.

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

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

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

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

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

Blood mage… why does he keep saying that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I—” she began, faltering with uncharacteristic reticence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jowan, don’t. It’s over….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Run,” she whispered. “Now. Fast.”

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

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

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

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

Are you all right, Irving?”

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

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

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

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

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

I… I am here, ser.”

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

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

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

I wasn’t defending you, you fat trollop.

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

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

Corda shivered involuntarily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not without telling me the truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corda frowned as recognition pushed past her fear.

You?

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

Indeed,” he said quietly, his face serious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and I helped him.

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

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

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

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

But?” Corda prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

It was raining when they left the Tower.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she would do it alone.

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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.”

  ———————————-
On to Part Nine
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Straining at the Leash: Part Six

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Back to Straining at the Leash: Contents
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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 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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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Eleven

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Bright sunlight filled the courtyard. We’d come out at the far edge, the last vestige of the bustling, labyrinthine passageways that served the castle’s daily business. The smell of dead bodies and musty tapestry cloth soiled with dried blood was still rank on me, and it felt strange to see that—in the midst of all this death and violence—there could still be sunshine, and fluffy white clouds scudding across a flawless blue sky.

A stone stairway led up to the main doors, which I knew without looking would be heavily barred and bolted. Below, down a slight slope, the portcullis and double-walled gates that separated the forecourt from the route down to the village were still tightly closed. It was all as serene as a painting, but for the bits of discarded equipment and scuffmarks in the dirt that told of the fight the arl’s guards must have put up before they fell. There were no bodies, of course. Not just lying there, anyway.

I glanced at Morrigan, curious as to what she sensed. Her breathing was tight, shallow, and she scanned the borders of the courtyard as if she knew there was something there—something that was aware of our presence, and just waiting for us to walk into its trap. I began to think Alistair had been right, and that splitting up hadn’t been such a good idea.

There wasn’t much time to think about it, though. Up on the walls, crouching behind the crenellations and now rising, aiming at us with sightless eyes, were at least half a dozen archers and crossbowmen. They bore Eamon’s badge, and so did the corpses pouring down from the cover of the guard towers. Like the others we’d seen, these were more than shambling flesh-puppets. They wielded weapons and, worse, the tempered steel of pure hatred, knapped to an edge with maddened fury. As a hail of arrows splintered down from the parapets, we scattered. Morrigan flung out a blaze of magical energy intended to blind and disorient the creatures, while Sten raised his sword and unleashed a terrifying qunari battle cry that, under other circumstances, would have made me wonder if all their words sounded so violent.

A few slim, elegant ash trees dotted the courtyard. In defiance of the coming winter, they still held onto the last of their leaves and, as I ducked behind one pale trunk, I was briefly amazed at the brightness of the colours. Stark, red-tinged green, so sharp against the blue sky. It seemed unbelievable—as if none of this was more than a paper cut-out, a stage upon which we danced—yet it wasn’t as if I was unused to seeing brutality next to beauty. I gritted my teeth and swung out from behind the tree, plunging into the fray as weirdly detached as before. I know I took risks: overextended my sword arm, misjudged blows and dodged attacks by sheer blind luck. Somewhere, through the fog and the comfortable cushion of pain—that barrier of exhaustion and aching fatigue that stopped me really thinking about anything—I was floating through it all. Nothing mattered except the weight of the blade and the thud of steel biting dead flesh.

Alistair was yelling about cover. I remember peering dreamily across the courtyard at him, frowning as I spotted the arrow sticking out of his shoulder, and then seeing Morrigan pirouette across the debris-strewn ground. Her robes spiralled around her like the beating wings of some ragged bird, and the sunlight glinted sharply on the jewels she wore. Her black iron staff sailed through strange, wild angles, spurting ice and flares of light, and the hair crackled on the back of my neck. Without her, we’d have been dead a dozen times over, but it didn’t mean I was comfortable with her magic.

Now, she was everywhere, all at once holding them back and striking them down, positioning herself between Alistair and the onslaught. I fought my way over, barely even seeing the corpses I hacked through and, somewhere at my core, slightly sickened by that knowledge. His wound could have been worse; he was still standing, and still swinging at anything that came close, though his shield arm was obviously weak. Sten was out in the centre of the courtyard, a little way from us, and I cursed my stupidity at first dividing our numbers, and then allowing us to wander blindly into this mess.

That said, watching the qunari fight was like witnessing an entire battlefield in motion. He moved between stances effortlessly, as if he anticipated the enemy’s every move. They swarmed him, but he never faltered. It made what came next worse, somehow.

Morrigan yelled the word. Revenant. I didn’t know what it was, what she meant… just that there was a moment of panic, and she turned her fire towards the far corner of the courtyard. I thought there was another wave of corpses coming, and then it hit.

I’d felt the force of her magic before—but nothing like this. It caught all four of us, the sensation that of something warm and slightly prickly, like a dry summer wind, gritty with the sweltering debris of the city. A greasy, metallic taste clogged my mouth, and I blinked owlishly, not understanding what the witch had warned against. I still didn’t know what it was when we went flying through the air, tossed aside as easily as dolls and flung against one of the great stone buttresses that supported the inner courtyard wall.

We landed tangled in a muddled, yelling heap. The arrow in Alistair’s shoulder had broken off at the shaft, and blood welled through the jagged ruptures in his armour. A ripped, bloody swatch of shirt was visible between the torn leather bands, but he could use the arm well enough to help support himself as he scrambled to his feet. We were all stunned, weakened… my head spun, and I couldn’t quite believe it had really happened. Things moved too fast for me to grasp, seconds running into each other like muddy raindrops. Sten and Morrigan were both up, and I had my sword in one hand, and a dagger in the other—and it still wasn’t enough.

The creature was unlike any of the other corpses, though it was of the same mould. The body it was using had, I judged, once belonged to one of Ser Perth’s men; I recognised the badge that held the ragged cloak about its shoulders, and the same bright tracery on the armour. He’d been tall, broad… a well-muscled and experienced knight, his face hidden beneath the square steel shell of a helm that glinted in the sunlight. The blow that had killed him—a great, tearing gash to his side—was still visible, the metal armour sundered and dented, and the flesh beneath beginning to turn black. I thought I saw the pale wriggle of a maggot, but there wasn’t much time to dwell on details.

The revenant took a few paces sideways across the courtyard, looking at us with its head tilted as it moved, much the way a cat might inspect incapacitated prey. A knight’s sword—a blade of impressive, ornately tooled steel, easily the length of my arm and half again—swung delicately in one heavy gauntlet, as if the thing was merely toying with the idea of a fight.

We were pressed in tight together, knotted up in deference to being both outnumbered and, quite possibly, outclassed. Tension burned the air as the seconds spun out, no one making the first move. The remaining handful of corpses were holding back; waiting, I thought, for this new monster’s command.

At my right, Sten jostled impatiently. Morrigan put out her arm, a barrier to impulsive action.

“These things strike hard,” she warned. “It is a demon of pride, or greed. Powerful. You have seen its command of magic. Do not give it the advantage.”

“Right,” Alistair said dryly, pain etched into the hoarseness of his voice. “I’ll bear that in mind when it’s holding me down and hacking my arms off.”

Sten gave a low, unsettling growl. “The remedy to that,” he rumbled, “is to be the one doing the hacking.”

I let out a short bark of laughter that was probably symptomatic of hysteria, though the tail of it died as sparks guttered from Morrigan’s fingers. She was bent into a ready crouch, staff held at an angle and thick silver bangles clinking on her bare, white arms. The dead knight’s helm tilted from side to side as magical energy rippled in the air before her. I didn’t understand what she was doing at first—neither striking or preparing an assault, just keeping a tiny pulse of light moving at the ends of her fingers. Her face was a tight mask of concentration, lips parted over small, even teeth.

“You see it?” she murmured, those ochre-gold eyes unblinking. “See….”

I did. The creature was watching her, apparently fascinated. The blankness of that bloodied helm frightened me; I could easily have believed there was a dull red glow where the eyes should have been, or that there was nothing beneath the armour but a nightmare, waiting to pull me into its centre the way the shades had tried to do. That wasn’t true, though, was it? There was a body there, a thing that had once been a man, and it could fall.

“On three,” Alistair said quietly. “One….”

Sten nodded, leaving me the only one who didn’t quite know what was going on.

“Two….”

“Er, hang on. What—”

‘Three’ didn’t quite happen. Sten yelled, Morrigan loosed a burst of ice, and there was a mad tumble of steel and legs that broke all that aching, painful tension into tiny pieces.

The revenant was a demon of pride, desire and greed. It fed on those impulses, and in turn they defined it. Like all its kind, its existence on the mortal plane was a troubled one, driven by hunger and need, and the ravening insanity that stalked close behind. It sensed Morrigan’s power the way she felt its presence, and it desired it. After all, a dead body provided easy pickings for a creature of the Fade, but the residual shreds of life were nothing beside the tempting promise of a powerful mage.

Its greed was its undoing, distracting it just enough—just long enough—for the three of us to hit up close, hard and fast. As Morrigan’s frost burst disorientated the creature, Sten swung in at the front, smashing a mighty blow into its chest. Alistair took the left flank, an arc of metal and violence, and I found myself in my usual position: spitting dust amid a forest of legs.

The remaining corpses were no longer holding back, and the melee quickly grew chaotic. I ducked, rolled, and came up behind the demon, seeking a weakness in all that dented plate armour. The knight’s ornate, keenly balanced sword swished past my head with a noise like tearing silk, and pain erupted at the tip of my left ear. I yelped, and thrust my blade into the revenant’s back as it spun, trying to tackle assailants from three different angles. Morrigan screamed at us to pull back, and it was clear she had problems enough of her own. Corpses clawed at her, and she struggled to hold them off alone. As the other two pulled away from the fight, I hesitated, thinking we would draw the demon onto her. Alistair grabbed the back of my jerkin and, as he dragged me out of the way, I understood the strategy no one had bothered to tell me.

The revenant struck its sword against the flagstones once more, preparing whatever foul magic it was that had sent us spinning through the air before but, this time, the remaining undead bore the brunt of the damage. Greed had its uses, I supposed; particularly where blinding a fool was concerned.

The demon succeeded only in breaking its own allies against the stones, which made them easier to dispatch, and left it unguarded. It howled with rage, and Morrigan ploughed towards it like some mad, dancing black flame, lobbing spell after spell at the creature. We piled back on it, and the smell of frostburnt carrion and dead, rotting flesh was so far down the back of my throat I almost failed to notice it. When Sten struck the killing blow that, at long last, saw the creature slow, topple, and finally fall, it seemed we’d been fighting for hours.

There was such silence in the courtyard… and no sense of triumph. We stood, panting, looking down at the thing, and the body seemed small, despite the sword still clutched in the metal-sheathed grasp. Alistair bent down and pulled it from the dead knight’s gauntlet.

“This should get back to Ser Perth. He’ll know who this man was.”

I glanced around at the bits of other bodies, other men… hadn’t they all had names, and families? Or did knighthood impart some greater worth?

I winced, and absently reached up to pat the sore tip of my ear, staring dispassionately at the blood that glossed my fingers when they came away. Just a nick, for which I was absurdly thankful. It wasn’t as if I’d been pretty to start with—but I had no wish to lose my points.

“Let’s just find Bann Teagan,” I said, wiping my hand on my filthy breeches. “It’s this way, right?”

~o~O~o~

Under less abnormal circumstances—and with fewer bloody body parts strewn around the place—the castle would have been impressive. I might have cowered as Alistair led us up through the main doors, and stared in wonder at the bas-reliefs and gilded fixtures.

Instead, I shivered as the mighty panels of carved oak closed behind me, and squinted into the darkness of a dank, filthy hallway. There were beeswax candles in iron sconces, but they’d been ripped from the walls, just like the tapestries, and the whole place smelled of death.

It was too quiet as we made our way towards the main hall; no sound but the mismatched paces of four sets of boots, and Morrigan’s iron staff clicking on the stones in counterpoint.

We were all tense. I glanced at Alistair, but he intimidated me. Silent, thin-lipped, and with the revenant’s sword still in his hand, he wasn’t entirely the comrade I’d begun to grow used to fighting beside. The arrow wound in his shoulder looked bad, but he just shook his head when I asked if he was all right, and said it was fine. I didn’t argue, though I didn’t like the pallid, waxy cast to his face.

One more turn of a corner, one more corridor full of smashed statuary and torn fabric, and we were almost there.

“It’s close,” Morrigan said softly. “I… believe we are expected.”

I looked dubiously at the wall, and what had once been a very beautiful painting of a young woman. She was in tatters now, dark scraps of canvas fluttering from a gilt frame. Alistair grunted.

“Hm. Maybe we’ll get lunch.”

It wasn’t his usual flippancy. There was a dull, hollow quality to his voice, and it prodded me towards the same unthinkable truth that I’d been trying so hard to avoid: if Connor had really been possessed, then surely there was only one possible course of action. My stomach clenched, and I glanced back over my shoulder, wondering where Leliana was now.

Too late to wonder, though. We’d found what we sought.

The doors to the main hall were open, as if everything within was being framed just for us, no more than a play, a revel.

It was a huge space, the fine stonework hung with cloth-of-gold tapestries and the high ceiling a mass of interlocking beams and bosses. At the far end, a great fire roared, and there was a dais, which held a small dining table, groaning beneath the weight of fine decanters and salvers of food. Other benches were ranged the length of the hall, though they’d been pushed back to the walls, as if to make space for a party.

Guards thronged the edges of the room, each one standing stock still with a crossbow or sword in his hand, and a blank, empty look on his face. It was hard to tell, at first glance, whether they were alive or dead… but my eyes did not linger on them.

On the dais, seated at the table, was the boy I guessed must be Connor. He was young—Maker, so very much younger than I’d thought—and he laughed and clapped delightedly as, on the floor in front of him, Bann Teagan rolled and tumbled like a jester.

Lady Isolde stood by the boy’s shoulder, her body hunched and her eyes downcast, her mouth a curve of misery. The fire leaped and danced, tongues of amber light throwing eerie patterns across this absurd scene.

We came to a halt in the open doorway, and I heard Alistair’s intake of breath. Bann Teagan performed a dramatic somersault, landing on his hands, and then—as Connor stood up, attention suddenly switching from him—he collapsed to the stones, limp as a wet rag.

The boy came to the edge of the dais, looking down the length of the hall at us. I’d never seen such an expression on so young a face. Pale skin, with the well-fed peachiness of a human child, and an amply covered frame… yet the look in his face was one of feral curiosity, and the barely suppressed anger of madness.

“These are our visitors,” he said, his thin, boy’s voice echoing off the stones as he tilted his head, peering at us the way the revenant had done… almost as if he couldn’t see us, but sensed us by smell or some other, horrible method. “The ones you told me about, Mother. Isn’t that right?”

She’d known all along. Known, and let us walk blind into the trap. I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised. Connor was her son, and he was just a boy… he couldn’t have been much more than nine or ten years old.

The arlessa nodded wretchedly. “Y-yes, Connor.”

She raised her head and looked at us, and I thought I could see the firelight catch at tears on her cheeks. The guardsmen hadn’t moved, hadn’t even blinked or glanced at us. They were still as… well, as corpses, which worried me. Bann Teagan crawled across the floor and sprawled himself at the foot of the steps leading up to the dais, ankles crossed and arms propped upon his knees. He grinned inanely into the middle distance, and giggled to himself.

I’d never seen magic that could do such a thing to a person—never even thought it could exist. My heart hammered at my ribs, and I fervently wished we’d discussed what we planned to do. I looked at Alistair, just in time to catch him striding forwards across the neat flagstones, firelight glimmering on the sword he still held.

“What have you done with Bann Teagan?” he demanded.

“Uncle?” Connor smiled unpleasantly. “But Uncle Teagan is right here. Say hello, Uncle.”

The bann looked up at him and waved mechanically. “Hello, Uncle!”

“Dear Uncle was very full of himself earlier,” the boy confided, lips drawing back into a smug sneer. “I think being a jester rather suits him.”

He reached out to the laden table, pulled the leg off a stuffed chicken and threw it to Teagan, who caught it and at once began to guzzle the meat. Connor chuckled, and it was a horrible mix of a child’s laughter and something much older, much darker than any boy should ever know.

“So….” His gaze ranged coolly over us. “These are the ones who defeated the soldiers I sent to reclaim my village? It won’t do. Won’t do at all. And look at this one!”

The child’s face warped into an expression of outraged, appalled horror, and he pointed a finger at me. I gritted my teeth, determined I would neither flinch nor cringe.

“Look at it! It’s staring at me, Mother.”

Isolde whimpered, and her voice shook when she spoke, though her tone was striving to be that of a woman speaking to her child. She still believed he was in there, I realised. She still hoped.

“She is an elf, Connor. You… you’ve seen elves before. We have them here in the castle, and—”

“Yes!” He clapped his hands and let out a snort of laughter. “I remember… I had their ears cut off and fed to the dogs!”

My stomach knotted in a sudden fist of revulsion and, I am ashamed to admit, hate. The child—the creature—must have sensed the reaction, for Connor turned to me again, head tilted to the side, and grinned. He lifted one hand and gently fingered his own ear.

“The dogs chewed for hours. Such fun! This one has been insolent, Mother… shall I send it to the kennels?”

The arlessa let out a stifled sob and began to move towards the boy, her tapered, white hands outstretched.

“C-Connor, I beg you, don’t hurt anyone!”

She dropped to her knees, her fine gown smattered with dust and dirt, and clutched at his arm. He resisted at first, shook his head, and then seemed to blink as if he was waking from a dream, confused and disorientated.

“M-Mother?” The same voice, but clearer, not burred with that hard edge of hatred. “What… what’s happening? Where am I?”

“Oh, thank the Maker!” Isolde cried, seizing the child by both arms now, shaking him hard. “Connor! Connor, can you hear me?”

His moment of clarity did not last long. Connor broke away from her, and I swore I saw the change in him; the way his face grew pinched and his brows drew tight together, eyes clouding over and body becoming taut and somehow angular.

“Get away from me, fool woman!” he snapped. “You are beginning to bore me.”

The arlessa put those white hands to her mouth, and wept bitterly. I saw Alistair look to me, his face grim. Isolde was right: the boy was still in there. The demon had control, but it was not complete. I wanted to think there was some way we could save him, some hope that we would not have to—

I swallowed hard. Had I thought of it? Truly? Thought of what it would mean to sink my blade into the neck of a child, and watch his blood spill out onto my hands?

“Please!” Lady Isolde’s cry was a heart-wrenching, ragged wail, broken through with tears and edged with pain. “Please… can’t you see? He’s not responsible for this. It’s not his fault!”

She reached for her son, but Connor brushed her roughly away, and she fell to her hands and knees on the dais, sobbing afresh.

“Protecting him the way you have hasn’t made this any easier,” Alistair said darkly.

Even the air in the room seemed to taste bitter. My gaze flicked nervously between them as the arlessa raised herself to her knees, her face twisted with fury and hurt.

“You dare to—” she began, the bile cut off by a mangled cry that was half sob, half snarl of rage. “No! Connor did not mean this! It was that mage, the one who poisoned Eamon—he is to blame. Connor was just trying to help his father!”

The boy was prowling, keeping his distance behind the small dining table. His chubby, childish fingers picked impatiently at the treats sprawled out across the cloth, shoving candies and sweetbreads into his mouth, but the dark, shadowed rings of his eyes never left Alistair. He—it—knew what would have to come.

Behind me, Morrigan snorted. “Was he? And he made a deal with a demon to do so? Foolish child.”

Connor scowled. “It was a fair deal!” he shouted, spraying crumbs across the table, gobs of half-chewed food dropping from his greasy lips as if suddenly forgotten. “Father is alive, just as I wanted, and now it’s my turn to sit on the throne and send out armies to conquer the world! Nobody tells me what to do anymore!”

“Nobody tells him what to do!” Bann Teagan parroted, rocking in his hunched position at the foot of the dais. “Nobody! Ha!”

The fire seemed to be drawing warmth out of the hall instead of providing it. I tried to suppress a shiver as Connor—or whatever we should have termed the thing currently wearing his skin—curled a dismissive lip.

“Quiet, Uncle,” he snapped. “I warned you what would happen if you kept shouting, didn’t I? Yes, I did. But let’s keep things civil. These people have come for an audience, and they should have it. Tell us… what is it you want?”

There was a moment of harsh, dry silence. The fire cracked, and Alistair’s boots scraped on the flagstones as he took a step forwards.

“To stop you, demon. We know what you are… and this will end here.”

He sounded brave. For a brief, absurd moment, I thought of the lurid tales in my childhood books, where princes faced down terrible monsters and triumphed with their pure hearts and magic swords. Alistair still had the revenant’s sword in his grasp; the tip of it touched the flagstones next to his worn, dusty, bloodstained boots. His armour—the rough, mismatched kit we’d bought third-hand in Lothering—was dishevelled and stained, his ash-wood shield marked with all sorts of unpleasant mementoes of battle. Dried blood caked the left side of his face, and he appeared to be swaying very slightly.

Connor scoffed, and that thread of darkness, that otherness that was not the child’s voice, saturated his words.

“I doubt that very much, mortal.”

Something deeply unsettling happened to the room; it was like a flash of lightning on a grey summer’s day, when a storm breaks without warning, the sky seems to turn inside out, and the world catches it breath. I heard a howl, a scream of something in terrible pain, and realised it was Connor… fighting whatever it was that was within him. The air shook, the fire roared, every torch in the place blew out—and the guards that fringed the room suddenly seemed much more alert.

Connor flung out his arms, a sheet of white light projecting not just from his hands, but his whole body. I felt myself knocked to the ground, my eyes burning with the imprinted shape of something not human, something… something I did not, at that point, understand.

I didn’t see much after that except the guards piling on us. That they appeared to be already dead—puppets rather than corpses animated by possession, as far as I was any judge—was little consolation. We fought hard. Morrigan put everything she had into driving them back, while Sten held the centre of the room, his greatsword whirling in devastating patterns. Alistair was wielding two blades—the knight’s sword and his own—in a furious flash of steel and desperation, and I found myself wresting the windlass from one man before he could fire the thing, and cracking his head open with the stock. When a blow to the back of my neck knocked me flying, I let the crossbow fall from my hand and spun, dagger ready to open up my assailant… only to find it was Bann Teagan.

The look on my face must have mirrored the horrified shock I could see deep in his eyes, and my blade faltered. Stupid, because he—or whatever force had control of him—brought his fist around in a generous arc and smacked it squarely into my mouth. My whole head jarred, and pain burst in sharp white stars as my vision swam. I lurched, knees wobbling, and the taste of blood had me spitting and retching. I watched my loose tooth skid across the flagstones in a splatter of thin, red saliva, and caught myself on my hands as I fell. Thinking that I should have seen that one coming, and probably dodged it, I stuck out my leg and tripped the bann as he lunged towards me. He went down, I scrabbled to pick up my blade and scrambled over, and we were a tangled, thrashing mess on the floor. I wanted to hold him, not kill him, but it wasn’t the first time I’d had my arm around the throat of a human man, squeezing and choking as he clawed at me in desperate agony.

I let go as soon as he went limp, and flung myself away from his prone form, panting.

~o~O~o~

When the dust settled, Lady Isolde was standing by the fire, its amber light haloing her pale figure, eyes great pools of horror in that white, oval face, and her honey-coloured hair dishevelled. Connor was long gone. Two large, iron-bound doors led out of that end of the room, one each side of the fireplace. The boy could have fled through either one… or she could have shoved him through either one, I corrected.

I started to heave myself to my feet, lungs sore and throbbing and my head light.

“What have you done?” Alistair demanded, pushing past me to where Bann Teagan lay.

I didn’t have an answer, barely able to breathe as I was. The hall was littered with bits of bodies, the bitter copper tang of blood tainting the air. I hung back, feeling useless and stupid as there was a general flapping and fanning to revive the unconscious nobleman.

Sten was wiping down his blade, surveying the mess with apparent disinterest… though I had begun to learn not to judge the qunari by appearances. Morrigan stood to one side, leaning heavily on her staff, the rise and fall of that artfully framed bosom the only suggestion of her exertion. She met my gaze, and the look in her eyes confused me. It was strange; part satisfaction, part cool mischievousness, and partly almost like some kind of fellow feeling. We were both outsiders, I supposed, adrift and unwanted by the world in which we now found ourselves.

Her lips curled into an odd, tired, snarling smile—was that respect I saw there?—and she nodded at me. I looked away, aware now of the intense throbbing in my lip and jaw, and the taste of blood in my mouth. I spat again, a thin dribble of it hitting the stones, and tried to avoid probing the ragged, empty tooth socket with my tongue.

Bann Teagan was coming round. That was good, I realised blearily. The arlessa was fussing at him like a wet handkerchief, tugging at his arm in that peculiarly girlish manner—embarrassing, we would have said back home, in a woman of her years.

“Teagan! Oh, Teagan… are you all right?”

The bann sat up, coughed, and nodded, pushing her gently away. “I-I’m fine, Isolde. I am myself again.”

His voice was as rough as mine had been after we met the corpses in the dungeons, and I had no doubt I’d left my mark on him. Still, as he turned those dark blue eyes to me, Teagan found strength enough to smile grimly.

“That’s… that’s quite an arm you have there, Warden.”

I inclined my head, not all that keen to let my relief show. “Your left hook’s not so bad either, ser.”

Maker, but talking hurt. Teagan’s smile widened a flicker, then his face turned solemn, brows drawing close over that long, sharp nose.

“I am truly sorry. Are you—”

“Fine.” I brushed away the concern, and glanced to the doors at the far end of the room. “Where’s Connor?”

Alistair helped Teagan to his feet, shooting me a look of guarded, tight apology as he did so. I gave him a small nod. It didn’t matter. He cleared his throat.

“I didn’t see him go, but… the family quarters are upstairs. I suppose—”

“Please!” Isolde cut in. “No… Connor is not responsible for this! It’s not his fault. He—”

“You knew about this all along, Isolde,” Bann Teagan reproached sharply. “If you had only said something…!”

Her mouth crumpled, her whole face like a faded rose wrapped in layers around the girl she must once have been.

“I was afraid,” she murmured. “I didn’t speak, because I believed we could help him. I still do.”

A heavy, awkward silence fell, into which the fire crackled ominously. I looked at Alistair, hoping he’d have some diplomatic, sensible thing to say—did a templar’s training extend to comforting the relatives of blood mages they were about to kill?—but he was looking at me, probably with much the same expectation.

I supposed I might as well make myself the scapegoat.

“Lady Isolde,” I began, pushing the words past the sticky rawness of my split lip, and hearing how thick they sounded. “Connor is not in control. The demon that possesses him has killed countless numbers of—”

“And what do you know?” she demanded, glaring at me. “My son is not always the demon you saw! Connor is still there. You saw it!”

She was right, but it changed nothing. The arlessa turned back to Teagan, tugging again at his arm, tears filling her great doe-eyes.

“Please, Teagan! I just want to protect my son!”

He frowned. “Isn’t that what started this? You hired the mage to teach Connor in secret… to protect him.”

“They would have taken him away!” she protested, her voice rising to a tremulous quaver. “I thought if he learned just enough to hide it, then—”

This was going nowhere.

“Why did Connor run?” I asked, cutting across the woman.

She treated me to another glower, but managed to squeeze out a tight-lipped answer.

“Violence… scares him. I know that sounds strange, given everything that— It is him, don’t you see? Not the demon. From time to time, he does come back into himself. That is why I know he can be helped!”

Alistair nodded thoughtfully. “But he’s passive now. Which would mean he might be, uh….”

He trailed off, shifting uncomfortably and clearly unwilling to say what I supposed we were all thinking.

“Vulnerable,” Teagan supplemented bitterly.

The arlessa’s hand went to her mouth. “No… you can’t be suggesting—no! He remembers nothing… he is so frightened. He doesn’t know what— Blessed Andraste, he is but a child!”

“What about Arl Eamon?” I asked, hoping to divert the woman from another peal of fractured agony. I understood her pain—or so I thought—but it didn’t make the choice ahead of us any easier. “He’ll be upstairs too, yes?”

Teagan nodded. “His sickbed is at the top of the east staircase. The creature has shown no interest in harming him so far, but, if Connor did make a pact with the demon to save his father, then….”

His words fell leaden into the air. Yet another complication. I glanced at Alistair, taking in the closed-in set of his face, the glassy look in his eyes. To think we’d come here expecting sanctuary, and the answer to all our problems.

I closed my eyes, took as deep a breath as I dared to do, and tried to think. It was horrifying to discover—somewhere above all the pain and fatigue, and the awful weight of indecision—that one bright thread, silver and terrifyingly clear, running right down the middle of my mind. I grasped hold of it and, in the blackness behind my eyes, everything suddenly seemed simple.

Item: the mage-child was possessed. Maker alone knew how many deaths he’d caused already. He had to be stopped. Item: if the demon was destroyed, Arl Eamon might never recover. A possibility, but a dangerous one.

However, should that happen, surely his estates would pass to Teagan, or at least to Isolde? I had no experience of how the nobility ran their inheritances, but it seemed likely. Everything we had come to Redcliffe for—supplies, men, the pledge of support to warn and unite the country against this accursed Blight—we would still be able to get, whether Eamon lived or died.

Probably.

I opened my eyes, and the silver thread vanished in the dimness of the hall. There were anxious, tight-lipped faces, and bodies on the floor, and for all the clear, simple truths in the world, I did not want to be the one who murdered a frightened child.

I sighed, and turned to the figure in black, waiting at the edge of the room like a shadowed ghost.

“Morrigan…?”

She stepped forwards, her staff clicking on the stones. The firelight picked at those golden eyes, and she twitched her lips impatiently.

“Hm. You would have my advice, I suppose?”

Alistair clenched his jaw and, for a moment, I thought there’d be a comment coming, but he said nothing. I nodded.

“Please. You know better than me… is there anything that can be done for Connor?”

The witch looked thoughtful, then inclined her head. “Perhaps.”

“What?” Lady Isolde’s face segued brilliantly from vituperative indignation—the haughty ‘who is this woman?’ obviously trembling on her lips—to desperate hope. “You must tell us!”

Morrigan’s gaze hardened. I guessed must did not sit well with her. Still, she shrugged, as if none of this was more than a trifling matter.

“A mage may be possessed by a demon, through weak will or carelessness… but to give oneself willingly as part of such a deal as this is a different matter. It is possible that the demon might be driven out, and the boy’s life spared. But,” she added quickly, “I do not know how to perform such a ritual and, even if I did, it could not be done alone.”

“But it is something!” the arlessa said, raw faith and hope grating in her voice. “You see? A chance, however small… we must take it!”

Her face was alight with this new possibility, and I saw what Jowan had meant when he spoke of her piety. She must— oh.

Jowan.

“You’d need, what, then?” I asked Morrigan, a frown creasing my brow. “Another mage?”

She snorted. “Several. Such an undertaking would require many mages, and a great deal of lyrium. I… suppose you are thinking of the boy in the dungeons?”

You couldn’t sneak much by her, and we were hardly overwhelmed with options. Magic was magic, surely, and if Jowan could aid her, I bet we’d be able to overlook his affiliations.

I nodded. “Would it be worth…?”

Morrigan narrowed her eyes, the swoops of shadow she wore making her precise expression hard to read.

“It is a possibility. Such magic may harness great power, after all. There are those who say that is why your Chantry forbids it.”

“Wait….” Alistair frowned. “You don’t mean—”

“If you prefer,” Morrigan said icily, “by all means, take your blade to the boy. Do it while he is weak, and hope he is not waiting up there in ambush.”

He bridled, and I couldn’t blame him. As was so often the case, the witch’s words held a degree of hard truth, but they left a horrible taste in the air.

~o~O~o~

The argument was a bitter one, and Lady Isolde did not help matters. Her initial reaction to the idea of sending for Jowan bordered on the hysterical, yet the very thought of our attacking Connor had her almost flinging herself in front of the door to defend him.

We did not have the time to weave in her endless circles of impossible choices, and I for one was fast losing patience. Decisions had to be made and—as had been happening with increasing regularity—my companions looked to me for the making of them. The absurdity of that still did not fail to surprise me, and it birthed a hard knot of resentful anger that, in a way, I suppose I was grateful for. It gave me the strength to be the one who shouldered the blame.

I had Sten and Alistair make the iron-bound doors secure and pile up the corpses that still strewed the floor. We would hold the hall, if nothing else. Bann Teagan was given the ornate sword Alistair had wrested from the revenant, and sent to get word to Leliana and Jowan, whom we assumed were still somewhere between the village and the wing of the castle we’d already fought our way through. He promised to return with them, and Ser Perth’s men, as quickly as possible, and that left me to sit with Morrigan and Lady Isolde, and try to piece together a fuller picture of how the whole affair had begun.

Arl Eamon had fallen ill, from what I could make out, within days of the battle at Ostagar. I knew, recalling Duncan’s words to Cailan as we arrived at the fortress, that Eamon had been hale enough to agree to the plan of holding his forces back—though whose idea that was I still couldn’t be sure—and to send word to remind the king of their readiness. I wondered how much difference it would have made if Cailan had listened… how much difference it made now, come to that.

But had it been planned to coincide? I didn’t want to believe it, and I told myself it didn’t matter. Whatever Loghain’s motives—although there was a lingering stink of opportunism in the way things looked—it didn’t seem possible that one man could orchestrate such a coup. Still, it didn’t matter now. Connor and the demon within him were our immediate concerns.

“He is a gentle boy,” Isolde kept saying, in between sniffles. “This is why I know it is not— He wouldn’t hurt anyone!”

The weary breath of a sigh rattled between Morrigan’s teeth, and she stared fixedly at the wall opposite. I cleared my throat, and tried to drag the arlessa back to speaking of the first signs he’d shown.

It hadn’t been much, apparently. Glasses that shattered when he lifted them, plants in the little corner of the kitchen garden they had tilled together that grew twice as big as the seeds she had sown.

“I-I told him he had green fingers,” Isolde said mournfully. “But I knew. There is a… history of it in my family. Terrible, wicked men, who have all had magic. I did not want that for my boy! I prayed it would not be so… that he might be delivered from the curse….”

She dissolved into weeping again, and I caught Morrigan’s eye. One delicate brow arched, and those painted lips pursed themselves into a tight bow. I shrugged. The shoulders of the arlessa’s white gown shook as she sobbed convulsively, and I reached out hesitantly, laying a grubby hand on the fine cotton lawn.

“Um. There, now,” I tried. “You had his, er, best interests at heart.”

She looked up, glaring at me through the veil of tears. I withdrew my hand, reading in her face the boundaries I had overstepped.

“Do you have children?” she demanded. “No? Then you cannot understand. Do not presume to give me false comforts. I know what I have done—all the death I have brought—and I would do it again. That is my shame, and you know nothing of what it is to bear!”

I shut up and sat back, put firmly in my place.

The waiting was not easy. The great hall was relatively safe but, though the walls were thick, we could still hear the occasional odd noise coming from elsewhere in the castle. There were thumps, crashes… things that sounded like cries, from time to time. It sent a shiver down my spine, and the silence we sat in began to feel thick and awkward.

The only one of us who seemed able to wait patiently was Sten. He sat on the floor, near the fire, and it surprised me that someone so large could hunker down into so still and compact a position. Those odd, violet eyes were half-hooded, and he seemed to be gazing at some distant point, far beyond the immediate reality of this tense, siege-like existence. I wondered if it was prayer. Did the qunari pray? The Chantry would have had us believe they were bloodthirsty animals, and I supposed I could see where the impression sprung from, but it certainly wasn’t all there was to them.

At that moment, Sten exuded such a sense of tranquillity and calm that I was rather envious. I would, I decided, find some way to ask him about his people… and maybe about the truth of what had happened in Lothering, though I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to know.

Like Morrigan, Sten’s usefulness outweighed any moral qualms I could allow myself to indulge regarding his presence… and I wondered quite when I’d grown so hard and pragmatic. Somewhere atop the Tower of Ishal, I supposed, shot full of arrows and dying in a roar of blood and agony.

I had those dreams more often than I cared to admit. We were there again, with the smell of paraffin and blood and the rankness of ogre-flesh making the world draw in like a scream, and the flames were rising higher and higher, and then the darkspawn came… but I didn’t pass out. They closed over me, ripping me to pieces, and I felt every tooth and blade as they stripped my body to the bone.

I’d wake, then, and the dream would still be sticking to me, clammy and horribly real. Once or twice, Alistair had been standing over my bedroll, looking down at me with a worried frown. We didn’t talk about it. No point, I supposed. I knew he had dreams too and he had, I didn’t doubt, experienced the same strange gamut of changes that followed the Joining, though there were some things I couldn’t have asked him about, even if I’d wanted to.

I hadn’t had a normal course since leaving Denerim. At first, I’d thought it was the stress of the journey and the events of my conscription, but time was wearing on, and things weren’t as they should have been. Still, that was the least of my worries, I supposed, and if nothing else it freed me from the inconveniences of rags and cramps. I should have been grateful for that, whatever the reason.

Alistair’s boots echoed on the stones as he paced—bored, apparently—the length of the hall and back again.

“Is it just me,” he said, “or is anyone else hungry?”

Morrigan snorted. “You are always hungry.”

I smiled gently, careful of my split lip, but grateful for the break in the tension. The small dining table still sat on the dais, holding the remnants of the food Connor had been glutting himself on. Roast chicken, sweetmeats… all manner of delicacies, some of which I couldn’t even identify.

Lady Isolde waved imperiously at the spread.

“Eat it,” she muttered. “You always were one to think with your stomach, Alistair.”

He’d already wandered over to the table, ostensibly oblivious to her disdain, and was prodding at the food. Having satisfied himself there was nothing demonic about it, he helped himself to half a chicken and a bunch of grapes.

“Well?” Mouth full, he raised his eyebrows defensively. “When’s the last time we ate anything, hm?”

A belated growl from my stomach forced me to admit he had a point and, after a brief struggle with my pride, I hauled myself up and sloped over to join him. It was a long while since my last meal, and who knew how long it would be until the next. That said, I didn’t eat much. Something about the prospect of imminent bloodshed saps the enjoyment from food, and everything tasted of copper and salt anyway.

Still, when the sound of boots pounding in the corridor beyond the large double doors alerted us to the fact Bann Teagan and the others had returned, we must have looked like we were enjoying an impromptu picnic. Even Morrigan was tucking away a few morsels.

Sten lifted the bar from the doors and admitted the relief party: Ser Perth, the knights, Teagan, Leliana… and Maethor, who bounded straight up to me, barking happily, and almost knocked me to the ground as a tongue like a side of bacon gave me the most thorough wash I’d had since leaving home.

“I do hope we’re not interrupting,” Leliana said, the delicate twists of her accent wreathed with mirth.

~o~O~o~

Castle Redcliffe’s great hall had, in its time, probably seen its fair share of bitter meetings. ‘No powerful man rests easy’, as Father used to say. Hard choices were bred into the very rock places like this were built on, and without that degree of ruthlessness, the strongest walls might crumble.

Still, I thought there would be blows.

Ser Perth and his detachment of knights were at Teagan’s back, surprisingly bright-faced after the long night they’d had. They jostled like a pack of terriers, eager to be loosed on the castle and claim back their arl’s safety—and the symbol of his rule—and they did not take kindly to Jowan’s presence. It was a wonder the mage had made it this far without ‘accidentally’ tripping over someone’s boot. He’d been bandaged, but the more obvious of his wounds could hardly be disguised beneath linen and plaisters, and he shrank when he saw Lady Isolde.

Naturally, she was hardly the model of grace and humility, even though she’d expected his arrival.

You!” She rose from her seat on the dais, her face pinched with violent fury. “You did this to Connor! You summoned that—that thing…!”

“I didn’t! I didn’t summon any demon,” Jowan protested. “I told you, my lady! Please, if you’ll just let me help—”

Help?” the arlessa shrieked. “Help? You betrayed me! I brought you here to help my son and in return you poisoned my husband!”

Bann Teagan went to her side, laying a warning hand on her arm, without which it seemed entirely possible Lady Isolde would have flung herself at the mage, an iron-clawed creature of vengeance and anger.

“Isolde… Isolde, you must calm yourself. These people have done a great deal of good. If it wasn’t for this young man, and… and Leliana,” he added, his gaze sliding to the Orlesian, head respectfully inclined, “there are several survivors who would never have made it back to the village alive.”

She curled her lip, eyes still blazing, but she did relent. I looked to Leliana, and she nodded. It was true, then: they’d got Valena to safety, and been fortunate enough to find others who’d escaped the demon’s wrath. That was good… unexpected, but good.

Later, I would discover that our flame-haired battle maiden was well on the way to becoming a folk hero in those parts. Redcliffe would, for years after, be abuzz with tales of the Orlesian sister who came to free them, with fire in her eyes and music in her voice. She had the kind of face well-fitted to legends.

“I only want to help, my lady,” Jowan repeated diffidently. “Please. If what my lord tells me is true….”

The atmosphere in the hall was like whetted steel, with seconds sliding on a glistening, dangerous edge. Ser Perth stood by the doors, watching the exchange intently. Like the other knights, he still wore the silver-cast symbol of Andraste around his neck. I wondered if faith and conviction would be enough to see any of us through what had to come. Beside me, Maethor whined softly, and without looking I reached out and touched my fingers to his warm, bullet head. A wet, wrinkled nose shoved itself into my palm.

“The child has become an abomination,” Morrigan said, her voice cutting cleanly across all the highly wrought emotional tension in the room. She addressed Jowan, stepping forwards with her back to the arlessa, the firelight painting a dim, amber aura around her. “But it was a willing deal, and the creature’s possession is not complete. The boy has much ability, yes?”

“Indeed.” Jowan nodded. “I saw that, even in the short time I had with him. But he’s young, and he has very little control. You think…?”

Morrigan tilted her chin. “Can you do it?”

He sagged visibly, his hands worrying at the torn sleeves of his robe, and his head bowed. Bann Teagan shook his head.

“I confess, I don’t understand. You’re saying there is a way to destroy the demon without… without harming Connor?”

Jowan looked up, his bruised, swollen face warped into an apprehensive grimace.

“There may be,” he said hesitantly. “It is… technically possible for a mage to confront the demon in the Fade.”

“What do you mean?” Teagan appeared nonplussed. “Is the demon not within Connor?”

“No, my lord. At least, not physically. Not fully. The demon approached Connor in the Fade while he dreamt, and it controls him from there. We can use the connection between them to find the demon, and hopefully… well, defeat it.”

This was an eerie, unsettling realm of which I knew nothing. I thought briefly of the mages I’d seen at Ostagar: guarded by templars and cocooned in their own strange, sparkling shells of white. I glanced at Alistair, and found him watching Morrigan, his mouth tight and his face full of quiet disapproval.

Lady Isolde spoke next; all hopeful, earnest curiosity that was in such marked contrast to her last outburst that I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow.

“You can enter the Fade, then, Jowan? Kill the demon without hurting my boy?”

He looked wretchedly at her, and opened his mouth to reply, but it was Morrigan who answered.

“It is not that simple. Such a ritual requires a great deal of power. Lyrium… a lot of lyrium, and mages. More than we have at our disposal.”

“E-Except,” Jowan stammered, his voice growing thin and reedy in the stifling, thick air, “I… I have blood magic. I… think I know a way.”

I knew we had to consider using him, but I didn’t have to like it. Back home, old men would have spat on the floor. Women would have made warding signs with their fingers, and pulled their children away. We didn’t speak of foul things. All magic was distrusted, but—

“Blood magic is forbidden for a reason,” Alistair said sharply.

The distaste radiated off him; I felt it in the way Ser Perth and his men shifted uncomfortably, too. I glanced at Leliana, and saw those icy eyes narrowing. She was still buoyed by the satisfaction of victory, I would have bet, carried on the smiles and thanks of the people she’d returned to their homes.

From somewhere above the hall, a noise echoed… something like the thud of furniture falling over, and glass breaking. We all raised our heads, and for a moment no one seemed to breathe, but then everything fell silent again, and the arlessa let out a short, ragged sigh.

“If there’s a way, I must know it. Please! Tell us what you mean, Jowan.”

He winced. “L-Lyrium provides the power for the ritual… but I believe I can take that power from someone’s life energy. From blood. But the ritual requires a lot of it… perhaps all, in fact.”

“My lord!” Ser Perth protested, starting forwards, but Teagan held up a hand.

“You’re saying someone must die? Someone must be sacrificed?”

A cold, dark fist clenched my stomach. Hard choices indeed. Nothing but hardness and death in these dim stone halls, and more blood to drench this parched red rock.

“Yes,” Jowan said, the word barely more than a whisper. “I… I think I know how to perform such a ritual, though I’ve never done anything of this… complexity before.” He twisted the hem of his sleeve awkwardly in his fingers, that quire of dark hair flopping down over his brow, and I was struck by how young he seemed. “Still, I, uh, I should be able to send another mage into the Fade.”

He glanced up, looking from face to face for some kind of assurance, some grain of a decision. Young, I thought, but that youth was misleading. Maker only knew what dark things he’d done, and my gut roiled at the mere thought of what he was suggesting. I’d thought bringing Jowan back here might be a way to prevent more death—not ensure it.

To sacrifice an innocent on the off-chance that we might have the opportunity to defeat the demon…. What if it didn’t work, and we still had to kill the child? Or what if yet more horror was unleashed? And how could anyone even be sure that Connor wouldn’t play host to something worse in the future?

I knew precious little about magic, but this was too bitter for me.

“No.” I shook my head, and found my voice surprisingly loud in the quiet. “Not if it means this. The price is too high.”

Jowan nodded solemnly and lowered his gaze.

“I disagree,” Lady Isolde said sharply. “I think we should do it. Let it be my blood. I will be the sacrifice.”

A chilled, terrible hush echoed in my ears, but no deathly silence fell in the hall. A chorus of outrage broke from Ser Perth’s knights, and Bann Teagan stared at the woman, aghast.

“What? Isolde, are you mad? Eamon would never allow this!”

She shrugged, every trace of that passionate ferocity suddenly condensed into a hard, glassy determination. He tried to take her arm—jar sense in her the way she’d tried to shake some humanity back into Connor—but she jerked away, firm and deliberate.

“No, Teagan. Either someone kills my son to destroy that thing inside him, or I give my life so my son can live. To me, the answer is clear.”

I stared at the arlessa, impressed and unwillingly humbled by her swift, resolute decision. She’d taken no moment to think, and she expressed no grief, no regret… I admired that, but I didn’t take it for balanced, rational thinking.

Morrigan must have caught my unease. I didn’t dare look at her, expecting irritation. Maker, it had been me to suggest finding a use for Jowan… I just hadn’t envisaged it would mean this. Yet, when she spoke, Morrigan was uncharacteristically hesitant, her usually arch tone dropping to something nearing gentleness.

“It does seem like a sensible choice, with a willing participant.”

The arlessa turned her gaze on me, and I saw the full force of her pain and determination in those dark eyes. Her mouth was a pale, guarded furrow; faded petals drawn tight around a paper rose. I swallowed heavily, and shook my head.

“I… I don’t….”

I didn’t know what to say. I had no clever words, no brilliant arguments. I wished I had—knew I should have had, because of what I was now. Grey Wardens were supposed to be heroes, weren’t they? Surely they didn’t deal in blood magic. We shouldn’t stand by and let this happen.

Lady Isolde’s expression hardened and she turned away, ignoring me with all the arrogant grace she’d had the first time I saw her, at the bridge. She pulled at Teagan’s arm again, the way she’d done then, and I could see how easy it must always have been for her to make men do as she pleased.

“Teagan, you know this is the only way. When it’s over, I want you to tell Connor—”

“Lady Isolde, please!” Alistair’s voice was roughened by fatigue and tension. “You can’t… I mean, we’re not seriously considering allowing this?”

He looked at me—like I had a casting vote here. All that clear, honest intensity… I felt about two inches high, and jealous of his ability to see things so simply. How he could not be torn in two, the way I was?

“I-If the only other way is to kill the boy—” I began, before Leliana cut across me.

“Murder a child? Really?” She folded her arms over her chest, her blood-spattered armour lent an oily sheen by the fire, and her face was hard as porcelain. “I don’t like this talk of blood magic, but—”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right!” Alistair protested.

Behind him, Sten shifted subtly… or as subtly as someone of his size could. I looked at him, hoping somehow that all his silent focus might result in a pearl of balanced philosophy. He inclined his head, acknowledging my attention, and offered his opinion.

“It is an abomination,” he said simply. “The child obviously lacks the strength necessary for a mage. Either it dies now, or later.”

I had the horrible sense of my stomach dropping into my boots.

“My son is not an ‘it’!” Isolde cried, and I almost expected her to start a tirade on the temerity of bringing a qunari into her home—she seemed to be drawing breath for it—but instead she shook her head violently. “Connor is blameless in this, do you not see? He should not have to pay the price!”

Things were heading in circles again. I knew, if something wasn’t done fast, we’d still be arguing about this when Connor grew bored with hiding.

I looked at Alistair, shamed by the prickles of guilt crawling down my back. His stance was slumped, his wounded shoulder heavily favoured, and he returned my gaze with dusty, wretched hopelessness.

“I wouldn’t normally suggest killing a child,” he said quietly. “But….”

Highly charged emotion began to give way to shouting among the others. Ser Perth was trying to convince Bann Teagan that the arlessa should not be allowed to sacrifice herself and that, rather, he should give his life if it meant the chance to save the arl’s family. Some of the other knights were offering theirs. Before long, I thought sourly, they’d be fighting over the privilege.

“There has to be another way,” I said, though I didn’t know where to look for one.

Jowan was standing dumbly in the middle of the floor, head down and hands half-hidden in the sleeves of his robe. I looked at Morrigan, who appeared to be watching the back-and-forth of the argument with interest.

“You said there would have to be more mages,” I reminded her. “How many more?”

She blinked, wresting her attention from the bickering nobility and giving me a small frown. “Several, depending upon their power. And lyrium. A great deal of lyrium.”

Jowan glanced up, overhearing us. He nodded glumly.

“Almost an entire stockroom’s worth,” he said, and the words seemed to chime against some memory. He stopped, mouth half-open, and eyes narrowing speculatively. “They, uh, they would have everything you need at the Circle Tower. Whether the First Enchanter would agree to help, of course, is another matter. Irving, er… doesn’t take kindly to blood magic, in any form. They might demand the boy be… you know.”

I wrinkled my nose. Executing their own? Where I came from, we’d always assumed the magi looked after each other.

“It’s true,” Alistair added. “Mages are tested for their ability to resist demons. They call it the Harrowing. If they fail— well, that’s where the templars come in.”

It seemed like an unnecessary cruelty, and I was about to comment on the fact, when a thought struck me with all the beauty of a spring sunrise.

The treaties… from the archive. Arl Eamon might be in no state to help us use them, but they still had status, didn’t they? Sure, Alistair and I were the only two left in the country, but we were Grey Wardens.

“What if we made them help? Compelled them? We… we have the treaties, right? You said one’s for the Magi.”

Alistair’s expression shifted as he lit on the thread of my idea. “That is a good point. Technically, the treaty only requires them to aid against the Blight, but—”

“Then we’ll convince them,” I said briskly, and in that moment I believed it. “How far is it to the Tower? Could we get there quickly?”

“It’s at least a day’s journey each way….” Alistair frowned doubtfully. “I don’t know if Connor would remain passive that long.”

Hearing her son’s name, Lady Isolde broke from arguing with Teagan.

“What is this?” she demanded coldly.

Alistair winced, shying from meeting her gaze. She barely looked at me.

“The Circle Tower.” I squared my shoulders and lifted my chin. “If we could get there and petition the mages for help… the demon might be defeated without resorting to blood magic.”

I could hear my voice thinning as I spoke. The room was growing quiet, every pair of eyes turning to me. I felt their scrutiny, their disbelief. Part of me knew it was a silly, desperate idea… that same part of me that wanted to slink away into the shadows, ashamed of trying to assert authority where I deserved none. But I didn’t have the luxury of doubting myself anymore, and I stood my ground, refusing to give in to the weakness.

“Y-You said Connor comes back to himself,” I said, meeting Lady Isolde’s stony expression. “How long do those bouts last?”

She blinked, and I wondered if I could trust her to tell me the truth.

“I… I don’t know. It is hard to say. Sometimes no more than a few minutes but, other times, many hours. After the first attack on the village, he hid in his room all day. We… we thought it was over, until we tried to help him, and the demon—” She broke off, reaching for Bann Teagan’s arm. “Teagan? Do you think it’s possible?”

He shook his head, his face grim and tightly drawn. “It might be, but… it is a tenuous chance.”

Well, I supposed, why should they trust my judgement?

“We’d have to move fast,” Alistair said, and I knew he sounded so much more believable than I had, “but we have the means to persuade the Circle to help. They have an obligation to the Grey Wardens.”

Teagan frowned. “You mean to use the treaties then, Alistair?”

“If we can. If Merien thinks… uh, well….”

He glanced at me, his bloodied, dirty face full of complexities. It was a gesture of loyalty, yes, but also one of fear. He was just as afraid of what we might have to do as I was… and just as afraid of taking the lead.

“I believe it’s worth a try,” I said, as firmly as I could. “But there should be… preparations, just in case.”

I turned to Morrigan, and saw the recognition of what I was asking in her eyes. She nodded curtly, and it was hard to tell whether determination or disapproval most marked her face.

“If Connor becomes… hostile again… you know what you need to do, don’t you?”

That ochre-gold gaze hardened, but she inclined her head. I let out a long breath, too tense for relief, but tinged with a seed of hope.

“Good. Sten?” I sought the second most unnerving set of eyes in the room, and found the qunari’s expression as impenetrable as ever. “I would like you to stay too. If anything happens—”

“I understand,” he said, and I hoped Lady Isolde did not fathom the depth of meaning conveyed in those simple words.

“Thank you.”

“And what about me?” Leliana asked crisply. I gathered from the coolness of her tone that she did know exactly what had been meant.

I glanced at Alistair. He was wounded, exhausted… as were we all. My head reeled gently with the tatters of ideas—fast horses, breakneck gallops that might get us there and back again in double time—but I didn’t know if they’d work. If I’d thought for a moment I wouldn’t have been thrown out on my backside the minute I arrived, I’d have volunteered to go alone.

“You should stay,” I told her. “If Connor doesn’t remain passive, then—”

“Neither of you are fit enough for such a journey!” Leliana complained. “It is madness.”

“Is it?” Lady Isolde demanded. “Madness, to try to save my son? My family?”

The two women stared at each other for a moment across the cold expanse of the flagstones, and Leliana was the first to look away.

“Forgive me, my lady,” she murmured, lowering her gaze. “But….”

“We’ll at least try,” I said, my voice gaining firmness. “Connor’s life is worth that much.”

There was a tense, uneasy silence. I wondered if any of them knew that what might sound like bravery was born completely out of fear.

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Volume 2: Chapter Twelve
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Straining at the Leash: Part Two


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

Well, most people’s faces, anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was it safe? Could she be trusted?

Would she do it again?

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

Or… what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stared down at the desk, and she frowned.

“Jowan?”

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

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

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

That meant something, Corda decided.

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

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

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

Corda bunched her hands into her sleeves and shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

Or, more accurately, she was interrupted.

“C-Corda…?”

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

“You’re awake, then.”

“Oh, I had such horrible dreams…!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you all right, Corda?”

“What, me? Oh, yes. I mean—”

“You’re not usually so nice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corda!”

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

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

“Has she gone?”

“I, er, I think so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resist what? Damn you!

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

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

Corda widened her eyes, and held her breath.

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

“But—”

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

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

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

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

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

She needed to find Jowan. Now.

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Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Ten

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“Ugh, it’s all in my hair!”

Leliana stopped for the third time in almost as many steps, frantically trying to claw bits of spider web from herself. The stuff seemed to hang from every unseen corner down here; thick, brittle, ancient stalactites that wafted in the dank currents of air, and stuck themselves to every unsuspecting head that passed by. I was glad I was the shortest one there, save for Maethor.

Morrigan sighed irritably. She appeared to have no trouble whatsoever negotiating the narrow passageway we were traipsing through… not that I was surprised by that. It was more than could be said for Sten. He’d been nearly doubled over for the first thirty feet or so after the dirt-packed walls closed in. Once we’d got out of the roomier end, leading on from the mill’s storage cellars and undercrofts, the passage was barely more than a dark, dusty, clammy shaft, pitch dark and stale-smelling. We groped our way with nothing but the glimmer of a single rag torch, and Alistair’s childhood memories of the castle’s layout to lead us.

The trick, I found, was to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and not think about the tons of earth above my head. We were lucky, inasmuch as the passage remained usable, though it had long been abandoned. Still, things skittered in the darkness, and I held my breath, tempted to close my eyes in case the weak flame Alistair held lit up anything I didn’t want to see. Redcliffe might yet be free of darkspawn, but Maker only knew what might have been down here, undisturbed until now….

Maethor whined, and I glanced down at the hound, the torchlight catching on his brindled coat and making the darker streaks seem blacker. His pupils were enormous, his expressive eyes swallowed up into saucer-like voids of apprehension.

“I know,” I whispered, reaching out to pat his hard, flat head. “I don’t like it any more than you.”

He wagged his stubby little tail weakly, and padded on beside me. Amazing, I thought, how much warmth could be drawn from the loyalty of a dog.

Leliana let out another squeak and brushed more swags of old, decayed web from her hair.

“You know,” Morrigan said conversationally, “in places such as this, where the Veil is thin, or has perhaps been sundered, the pooling of magical energy can wreak peculiar changes in things such as spiders.”

“I do not want to hear it,” Leliana said grimly, hefting her bow higher on her shoulder.

The witch smiled in the dim, flickering light.

“Oh, but it is quite fascinating. They can grow to ridiculous sizes, and develop the most virulent poisons. I remember once, when I was young, Flemeth sending me out to a ruin in the Wilds frequented by such beasts. Fangs quite as long as my hand, as I recall… and the most uncanny ability to spit—”

Leliana yelped, and Morrigan giggled herself into silence, at least for a while.

Gradually, the passage started to change. The air was getting damper, less like the stale dankness of packed earth, and more like something decaying, something… wet, and probably mouldy. The dirt and timber that framed the walls, replete with spider webs, began to give way to a pattern of stones, visible beneath the years’ accumulation of thick dust and grime.

“We’re probably just about underneath the moat,” Alistair said, peering ahead dubiously. “It’ll lead into the old dungeons, I bet. There’s a maze of chambers, undercrofts, tunnels… all kinds of things built under the castle, right into the cliff.”

“Dungeons?” Leliana enquired, tossing her head back as she completed retying her sleek ponytail—now completely free of spider webs.

Old dungeons,” he repeated. “I don’t think the arl ever had much use for them. Not when I was here, anyway.”

“Hm.” Sten gave a disapproving rumble, and the sound echoed against the walls. “That does not sound like a practical system of governance. Punishment should follow crime.”

“Oh?” Morrigan intoned. “Crimes such as yours, you mean?”

A few seconds of searingly awkward silence blistered the passageway. Sometimes, it was almost impossible to believe the things she came out with, although the qunari appeared unruffled.

“I am here, am I not?” he said dryly.

Morrigan chuckled.

Our footsteps were definitely hitting stone now and, as we went on, the passage wound its way from disused tunnel to something that was identifiably part of a larger structure.

“It’s romantic, really, I suppose,” Leliana ventured, shooting me a small smile. “Don’t you think? You can just picture forbidden lovers making their way to secret trysts through these dark, winding miles…. Of course, it was probably a lot cleaner back then.”

She reached up and ran a nervous hand over her hair. I shrugged.

“Perhaps. ’Course, it’d be a good way to get stuff out of the castle, too. Wine, brandy, meat from the kitchens… maybe more, depending on how well-guarded the armoury and the cellars were.”

She gave me a rather odd look, and I shut up, suspecting I’d just been pegged for a thief. That wasn’t true at all—Father would have leathered me to within an inch of my life, for a start—but, in my experience, the black market’s existence was a simple fact. The less people had, the more they were willing to risk for luxuries… and sometimes necessities. Back home, few elves who worked in service had never ‘borrowed’ a loaf of bread from a tavern kitchen, or made light measure when changing the beer casks. If that meant the shems called us thieving scum, well, we were used to prejudice. It just made us careful not to get caught with any definite proof.

For all his strict values and even stricter rules, I knew Father had been just as guilty. Not often, and not much: just the occasional few odds and ends. Kitchen scraps from the bann’s table, I thought bitterly… and it struck me as odd that it was something I’d never been bitter about. Not until now.

Ahead of us, the passageway sloped up and, it seemed, came to a dead end. Alistair put the torch to the slimy, mould-streaked stonework, revealing the grooves and disused hinges of a hidden door, presumably designed to be used from the other side.

“We could try to lever it open,” he said doubtfully. “It might give.”

“Well, we don’t have many options,” I agreed, looking along the length of the wall.

We seemed to have hit the entry point into the castle proper, though whether we’d got here after Bann Teagan and the arlessa had arrived—and whether they had done so safely—was impossible to tell. Time had a way of falling in on itself down here.

“I will do this.”

Sten stepped forwards, not waiting for assent or thanks, the greatsword that had dispatched so many walking corpses weighed purposely in his hands.

“Move aside,” he said, glancing disparagingly at Alistair. “You are… small for this work.”

Alistair looked affronted, and I smothered a laugh.

“Right,” he muttered. “I’ll just, uh, hold the torch, then.”

Sten jammed the blade into the crack, and it bit with the tooth-scratching ferocity of steel on stone. I was only too pleased to get out of the way and leave him room to move… and he was impressive. Even beneath the hotchpotch of armour Owen had strung together for him, the starkly obvious landscape of muscles and sinews churned with all the unstoppable power of a waterwheel. That, and the expression of intense, oddly placid focus on his face, was enough to make me uneasy. I watched the startlingly white braids pinned at the back of his neck swing rhythmically as he drove the sword into the narrow groove over and over, gouging out years’ worth of grime and mortar and, slowly, beginning to shift the stones.

Not so much a hidden door, then, as a door that had been bricked over—and from the village side, I noted. I was half-heartedly wondering whether that was important when Sten growled, and a chunk of masonry thudded to the ground by his feet. Little by little, he wrenched the stones away, revealing the wood behind them, and then set to demolishing the door. It didn’t take much; it was damp down here, the wood already softened with rot. Still, it must have taken a stonemason at least half a day to seal the passage off, and Sten had undone all that work in less than half an hour.

He stepped back from the pile of stones and ruptured timber, barely panting, and still stooped over a little, though the passageway had widened out.

“It is done.”

“Er, yes.” Alistair blinked at the mess, and the ragged hole that now led into the castle’s dungeons. “It certainly is.”

“Thank you, Sten,” I added, because politeness seemed sensible; especially after that display.

However, remarkable though the qunari was, I had to concede that all that crashing and banging had probably lost us any element of surprise we might have had. As we headed through the remains of the doorway, I wondered what might await us in the bowels of the castle.

I didn’t have to wonder for long.

~o~O~o~

At first, we found nothing but decayed corridors and empty alcoves, probably once storage spaces. Leliana was wondering aloud about when the passage had been sealed off, and spinning some elaborate hypothetical tale about possible resistance cells using it to attack the Orlesian incumbent of the castle during the occupation. That surprised me. I suppose I’d assumed her sympathies lay across the border somehow but, of course, none of us were so simply, easily defined.

I should have learned that by then.

As we approached another corner, another crumbled archway, Alistair held up a hand. I recognised the gesture; my fingers were already closing on the hilt of my dagger. We stilled, and listened. Sure enough, I caught the same sounds of movement he’d heard, and there was somehow unpleasantly familiar about them.

“Walking corpses,” he muttered, passing the torch to Morrigan. “Twenty, maybe thirty yards?”

I nodded. “We should try to draw them out. See what we’re dealing with. There’s no telling how many there might be.”

The dull light of our rapidly dimming torch picked out the discoloured trails and rivulets coursing down the walls. Damp, dark, and tomblike… and now with yet more undead. It wasn’t a heartening prospect. At least on the surface we’d had the chilly night air to blow the stink away, and there had been much more room. I didn’t relish the prospect of fighting with my back to the clammy stonework.

Alistair looked as if he was about to reply but, before he could, a thin and reedy scream echoed from the passage ahead. It was a real howl of anguish, an agonised cry of pain, and there wasn’t time to analyse anything else, because then we were running… running towards it, which went against everything I’d ever learned in the alienage.

Not all of the cells were completely disused, it seemed.

Five corpses—guards, once, judging by the liveried uniforms that still clung to their bodies—were trying to wrench the bars from one of the doors. Immediately, I noticed something different about them: their anger. One by one, shambolic and ungainly, they turned ravaged faces towards us, and each had his lips pulled back into a grimace that was as much fury as it was a mask of death. When the first left its prey and came lumbering at us, it let out a snarl that I could scarcely believe a human throat was capable of loosing. It was an ugly, twisted thing, but it chilled me right to the core.

One of Leliana’s arrows whistled past my shoulder and buried itself in the creature’s left eye, just as Morrigan’s first blast of ice—coming as it did with a burst of bright, burning magical energy that ripped the dimness to pieces—nearly blinded us all.

I thought I’d known pain before then. The buffeting my body had taken, in terms of fighting and fatigue; the blisters, the route marches, the apparently endless coshes on the head… I seemed to float on a cushion of them all, pain wound upon pain until I could feel practically nothing. I’d been awake for more than a day, wielding a weapon for most of the past twelve hours or so, and now I was high above myself, connected to my body by only the most tenuous of silver threads. It was beautiful, in a strange and unholy way. I was aware of ducking, lunging, cutting, thrusting… and of having my dagger knocked from my clumsy hand by a furious corpse that screamed into my face, all dead breath and bloody, brown teeth as its hard, cold hands wrapped around my neck, fingers digging into the flesh. Nails ripped, blood welled, and I wriggled frantically. There were dark echoes that called to me from the recesses of memory. Twisted ones, as if Fate was enjoying a joke at my expense, but they were there all the same… armoured guards, the unmapped portions of an arl’s estate, with all these faceless corridors and empty rooms. It seemed I was destined to keep finding myself here, fighting for my life over and over again.

This time, however, I’d had more practice.

I kicked, twisted, dropped from the corpse’s grasp… drew the light, narrow sword I carried and—with a terrible, efficient calmness that I witnessed as if it was happening to someone else—struck off the creature’s head.

It crumpled to the ground, and it was only then that I realised I’d been screaming profanities.

For once, we’d outnumbered the undead, and we made short work of them. I straightened up, sheathed my blade and coughed, aware that my throat was rough and sore from the corpse’s attentions.

“You’ll have bruises,” Leliana remarked, and touched my elbow gently, as if she was testing whether or not I’d lash out when she did.

I looked down at my hands. They were, as usual, dirty. Dried blood crazed my knuckles, and I clenched my fingers into my palms… which, for a while, stopped the shaking.

“I always have bruises,” I muttered, giving her a sickly smile.

A whimper from the cell drew my attention, and pushed back the clouds from my head. I lurched forwards, eager to see what the monsters had been so intent on hunting.

“Hello?” I croaked. “Anyone alive in there?”

I turned, reached for the torch from Morrigan, and held it up, peering into the shallow cell. A figure was huddled into the corner—a mage, judging by what was left of his dirty, torn robes. One sleeve was badly ripped, blood oozing from a nasty gash to his forearm and, as he cautiously raised his head and peered at me, I saw his face bore the mottled, swollen marks of a really thorough beating.

“Wh-who are you?” he asked, flinching from the torchlight and raising one thin hand to shield his eyes. “You… you don’t look like the arlessa’s guards. Are you from outside the castle?”

The mage climbed unsteadily to his feet, those knot-jointed hands clinging to the bars for support as he pressed close to the cell door, trying to see all of us, yet squinting against the torchlight. He must have been down here a while, I guessed. Alone, in the dark. The thumbnail was missing from his right hand; nothing left but a caked mess of blood and torn skin.

Staring in revulsion at the wound, I found myself evenly divided between pity and fear.

He is… an infiltrator.

The arlessa had warned of a mage, hadn’t she? And Alistair and Morrigan—for once—agreed that blood magic was the most likely cause of the evil besieging Redcliffe. Yet the skinny, pale-faced young man before me, with floppy dark hair and nervous, uneven breathing, couldn’t possibly be the one Lady Isolde had meant. Could he?

I took a step backwards. “I think you’re the one who should be answering questions, mage.”

He nodded, head lowered and eyes downcast… like a dog that’s been whipped too often to think of biting. Leliana tutted.

“This poor boy is in need of healing, not an interrogation!”

“He’s also the only person we’ve seen so far who’s alive,” I retorted. “I’d like to know why before I break out the ointments.”

She looked unimpressed, but I was too damn tired to argue. The mage curled his hands tighter around the bars of his cell door.

“It’s all right, I understand,” he said in that curiously light, wheedling voice of his. “I… I know this looks bad, but it wasn’t my doing, I swear to you. My name’s Jowan. Lady Isolde hired me to tutor her son. But—”

“You!” Alistair scowled. “You’re the one who poisoned the arl!”

“I’m not proud of it!” Jowan yelped, flinching away again. “It wasn’t—”

“Just tell me why we shouldn’t kill you right now!”

The thunder rolling across Alistair’s face exploded into vituperative rage. It startled me to see he already had his sword half unsheathed, and I put out my hand, resting my palm on the bars, my arm a barrier between the two men.

“We should at least hear what he has to say, shouldn’t we?”

Alistair exhaled tightly. He relented, but kept the mage pinned with a sulphurous glare, and the way Jowan cringed made me doubt he could have the nerve to do anything under his own volition.

“All right,” Alistair grumbled, and I wondered whether he would really have run the boy through.

“I-It wasn’t the arlessa’s fault,” Jowan said anxiously, pressing his face close to the bars. “Honestly. She had no idea. When she took me in, she just wanted a… a mage from outside the Circle. She wasn’t to know what I’d been hired to do.”

“Outside the Circle?” Alistair’s scowl deepened even further. “Why did Lady Isolde need—”

I cut across him. “What do you mean? Who hired you?”

Jowan swallowed heavily. “T-Teyrn Loghain. It’s true, I swear. I—”

“That traitorous bastard!”

I winced. I’d wanted to derail Alistair’s anger, not fuel it. Still, it shocked me… it shouldn’t have, but it did. I thought of the elven spy in the pay of Rendon Howe, sitting up in the tavern and watching the castle, waiting for— well, waiting for the first signs of the arl’s sickness. It made sense now, didn’t it? They’d been watching. Waiting for the arl to weaken. Waiting for the moment when all the cards were in place, and there would be no resistance….

Ever since Ostagar, and the debacle at the Tower of Ishal, I’d been prepared to believe this whole business was a mistake. I hadn’t perceived the treachery and intrigue that Alistair had, and I’d thought it was some failing on my part; that his anger came from the depths of his grief and loss, that he needed Loghain to be the villain, because the deaths of all those men—of the king, and of Duncan—were too terrible a price to be laid on chaotic error. Too terrible a price, perhaps, to know that we were responsible for. Plenty of nights since the battle, I’d told myself the beacon wouldn’t have mattered, even if we’d lit it on time. The darkspawn had outmanoeuvred the king’s army, and Loghain might have pulled his men anyway. They might all have died too… and there was nothing we could have done differently.

Of course, this changed everything. If it was true.

I tightened my grip on the cell door, centring myself on the feel of cool metal beneath my palm, when the world felt ever less real around me.

“Loghain? You mean, someone who was working for him?”

Jowan shook his head vehemently. “No! No, it was Teyrn Loghain himself. I-I knew it was him. I’d seen paintings. The Hero of River Dane. He came to see me in Denerim, while I was, er, a-awaiting execution.”

He hung his head, but the show of remorse didn’t win him much sympathy.

“I knew it!” Alistair snorted. “You’re a blood mage, aren’t you?”

Jowan nodded miserably.

“Truly?” Morrigan quirked her lips. “Well, I would never have guessed.”

I glanced at the witch, trying to decide whether the interest in her expression—and the slight hint of respect in her voice—were there just to annoy Alistair, or because she really was impressed.

“I dabbled in the forbidden arts,” Jowan protested. “A bit. But that’s all. It was for— oh, it doesn’t matter now. The teyrn told me I could atone for my crimes, if I did what he asked. He… he told me Arl Eamon was a threat to Ferelden, dangerous to the nation, and that if I dealt with him, then not only would I be helping my country, but that he’d personally see to it that matters with the Circle would be, um, settled.” He raised his head and looked imploringly at me, his swollen eyes beginning to glaze with tears. “I thought I was being given a chance to redeem myself, but Loghian’s abandoned me here, hasn’t he? Everything’s fallen apart, and I’m responsible!”

His voice cracked, and the tears started to fall. If it was an act, it was a good one.

“You’re the reason we’re knee-deep in corpses, then?” I asked sharply, because remorse alone is not atonement.

“What? No!” His eyes widened, as far as they could, and he shook his head fervently. “No, that wasn’t me. I was already imprisoned when the killings began.”

Alistair frowned. “But Lady Isolde said—”

“Lady Isolde is a pious woman. She hates magic. That’s why, when Connor started to show signs—”

“Wait, what?” Alistair’s frown deepened incredulously. “Connor’s a mage?”

“That’s why I was hired,” Jowan explained patiently. “Not just for scholarship. I told you, the arlessa wanted someone outside of the Circle. She was so afraid of anyone finding out… even her husband. She said that the arl would ‘do the right thing,’ even if it meant losing their son, and that infuriated her. She just wanted me to teach Connor enough to hide his talents. That way he wouldn’t be taken away.”

Alistair’s frown stiffened, then faded, and he sighed wearily. “Oh, no.

He glanced at me, waiting to see if I’d made the connection he obviously had, and I must have looked nonplussed.

“The Circle of Magi takes apprentices away from their families, yes. But, more than that, a mage can’t inherit a title.”

“Ah.” I nodded slowly. “And Connor is the arl’s only heir?”

“Exactly.”

It made sense, and a small part of me was perversely pleased to be justified in my initial distrust of the arlessa. A dark and inescapable conclusion hovered over us, though, and I looked grimly at Jowan.

“Then, the walking corpses, the… whatever’s going on here. It’s the boy?”

He nodded. “I think so. He’s still very young, and he doesn’t know much, but… it is possible he could have done something inadvertently. I don’t know. They locked me up here after the arl fell ill. I was new to the castle, so they suspected me at once. The first I knew of the killings was when Lady Isolde came down here with her men, demanding that I reverse what I’d done. I thought she meant my poisoning of the arl, but she was convinced I’d summoned a demon to torment her family and destroy Redcliffe. She… had me tortured. There was nothing I could do or say that would appease her.”

His fingers flexed convulsively against the bars, and I trained my gaze on the bloodied mess of his thumb. It was far too easy to imagine what they’d done—and what they would have done next. I doubted a mage valued many things in life more highly than his hands.

“Why didn’t they just kill you?”

“I’m not sure. I think they intended to come back for me. But the screams, they just got worse and… nobody came. I’d started trying to get out, but then those things came after me, and I figured I was safer just hiding, until they found me. They’d have killed me if you hadn’t come. I owe you my life. Please… let me out, and I’ll help. Somehow. I have to at least try to make things right!”

There was a clear, desperate note in his voice that sounded genuine to me, but I looked to Alistair for a decision. He narrowed his eyes.

“You don’t think you’ve done enough already?”

“Please!” Jowan’s knuckles whitened on the bars. “I made a stupid mistake at the Circle, and now I’ve made an even greater one. I’m… not a bad person. There’s no reason for you to believe me, but I’m not. I have to make up what I’ve done. I have to try.”

I looked carefully at Jowan, my hand still lingering on the cool metal of the cell bars. Only those few inches of iron separated us, flaked with rust and pitted with years of dents and dings. I knew nothing of how blood magic worked, but I’d seen Morrigan cast enough spells to realise that, had he wanted, the mage should have been able to set us all aflame, imprisoned or not. The arlessa hadn’t taken all of his hands. Not yet, anyway.

“You’re very… eager,” I said doubtfully.

He curled his lip, and I could see where they’d knocked a tooth from his jaw. Upper right, almost the same place as one of mine was still loose from last night’s fighting.

“What? I’m not allowed regrets?”

His tone was harder, sharper… for a moment, with the dim light picking out the bloody shadows on his face, it was nearly possible to believe a boy like Jowan really was a maleficar. That comforted me, in an odd way.

The gentle clink of jewellery told me Morrigan was folding her arms across her chest, and I knew that penetrating amber gaze would be burning into the back of my neck.

“I say this boy could still be of use to us,” she announced. “But, if not, then let him go. Why keep him prisoner here?”

I didn’t want to look at her. I agreed, much to own horror. Whatever Jowan had done, he seemed repentant… had I not freed Sten under the same morals?

Alistair didn’t sound convinced. “Hey, let’s not forget he’s a blood mage. You can’t just… set a blood mage free!”

“Better to slay him?” Morrigan snapped. “Better to punish him for his choices? Is this Alistair who speaks or the templar?”

Ouch. She’d hit a nerve there. I felt it in the way his stance shifted, though I didn’t turn my head, didn’t bother to see whether his face was as stony as his voice. I was watching Jowan, expecting there to be some whiff of desperation about him, some impatience to see his fate decided. He just stood there, gaze downcast, swaying slightly… as if he didn’t care what happened to him anymore.

“I’d say it’s common sense,” Alistair said brusquely. “We don’t even know the whole story yet.”

He had a point. For my own part, I was more inclined to believe Jowan’s version of events over the arlessa’s, but he had just as much reason to lie, if not more. What if we let him out, and then discovered he was the one who’d summoned the demon? No, that was silly. If he was, he’d be better protected, wouldn’t he? Not alone in a cell, harried by walking corpses. I hadn’t quite forgotten those screams of his, either… unless it was a bluff, some kind of trick. Maybe he was a demon. I blinked, trying to focus through the tiredness and confusion, and more aware than ever that I was out of my depth.

Behind me, Leliana was wading into the debate.

“He wishes to redeem himself! Doesn’t everyone deserve that chance?”

“Hmph.” Morrigan scoffed. “Like yourself, you mean?”

“Everyone deserves a chance to redeem themselves in the Maker’s eyes,” Leliana said evenly. “This man no less than any.”

Jowan glanced up then, looking at her with unexpected softness, his mouth slightly open… almost as if she reminded him of someone. A pang of sympathy stuck me; we all trailed our pasts behind us, like kites on silver strings, their tails knotted with memories—and regrets.

“What d’you think, Merien?” Alistair prompted, obviously unwilling to make a decision. Again.

I sighed, and hoped he wasn’t banking on me to stand up to Morrigan for him.

“You’re right,” I said. “We don’t know the whole story. But I’m not about to leave him caged and defenceless.”

Jowan brightened. “You mean you’ll give me a chance? You won’t regret it, I promise. I’ll… I’ll find some way to help.”

“And after that?”

I didn’t know why I asked. I suppose part of me wanted to hear that he’d run, escape somehow… that he could.

“Afterwards?” A hollow, dark emptiness settled in at the edges of Jowan’s expression, almost eclipsing the hope that had flashed so vibrantly there. “I… don’t know. I assume I’ll be arrested. Or executed. Or whatever people like me get. But I’m tired of running from the Circle. I need to account for what I’ve done.”

I looked at Alistair: a moment’s silent enquiry. He nodded slightly, though those hazel eyes did not hold mine, and I knew he wasn’t sure whether to believe the mage, or whether to trust my judgement. Given that, his loyalty was touching.

“All right,” I said, stepping back from the cell. “Sten? Would you mind?”

The qunari had not contributed an opinion, but now he detached himself silently from the shadows and moved forwards, monolithic and implacable. Jowan whimpered.

“I’d cover your eyes,” I suggested. “And get back as much as you can.”

Sten sniffed philosophically as he squared up to the door.

“This would never have happened among my people,” he observed. “We keep our mages under much more effective control.”

He took hold of the door and, with a grunt of effort, wrenched the bars a good inch out of their settings. The mortar crackled and crumbled, and the metal squealed. Another few tugs, and the cell door ruptured off its hinges, allowing Jowan to squeeze through.

~o~O~o~

For all his assurances about wanting to help, it was abundantly clear in the first few minutes that the young mage was too badly hurt to keep up—and I doubted he’d be much of use if we ran into more trouble.

I suggested he use the passageway and head back to the village, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

“I have to make it right,” he kept saying, clutching one hand to ribs I suspected were broken, as he limped between Alistair and me. “I have to… to at least try.”

There wasn’t time to waste arguing. The rest of the dungeons were reasonably empty—though we did discover that the cells nearest the back staircase had not been half as disused as Alistair recalled. Slop buckets, unrusted shackles, and a pack of cards on a small table—a guards’ game of Blind Boy Beggar left eerily unfinished—told of a part of the castle’s life he had either never seen, or perhaps conveniently forgotten.

Maybe, I thought, one eye on Jowan’s injuries, it wasn’t naivety. Maybe things really had changed since he’d left… or since the arl’s illness had allowed Lady Isolde a firmer hand on the place.

In any case, it made no difference. We crept up the back stairs and, oh Maker, I was reminded of the last time I’d done this, skulking through faceless corridors and chambers, heart fit to beat through my chest.

The castle was very different to Arl Urien’s estate, in scale, layout and style, though I recognised many similar touches. As we reached the main floor—where noble folk would wander, and not like to be offended by the sight of plain woodwork or the feel of chilly draughts around their shoulders—the basement’s bare, ugly walls gave way to clean, fine stonework festooned with tapestries. The doors were universally heavy, oak, and carved with bas-relief scenes that mainly seemed to involve hunting hounds. Properly lit up with torches, and with the sounds of life and bustle ringing through the halls instead of this ghastly silence, I imagined it would be very pleasant. Nevertheless, a small part of me refused to move beyond the thought that, if these rooms were full of life, it would be the life of servants. Scores of them, scrubbing and dusting, fetching and carrying, and catering to the needs of the arl’s household. Certainly, someone like me would never see the inside of this place, unless it was on my knees, with a pail of water at my side.

Maethor growled, and I pushed the sneaking, insidious thoughts to the back of my mind. They were small, jealous things, and not for now. The mabari had trotted a few paces ahead of us, hackles up as he pointed his wrinkled snout towards the large double doors that lay before us.

Alistair drew his sword. “I think that’s the library. Past it, there’s a way down to the courtyard, via the old chapel. That’ll be the quickest way to get to the main hall. If Bann Teagan and Lady Isolde are still alive, I’d bet that’s where they’ll be… along with whatever’s been causing this.”

I grimaced. “You’re going to tell me there’s no side entrance now, aren’t you?”

He shot me a dry, acerbic smirk. “Oh, if it was easy, you’d just get bored.”

I snorted. At that point, boredom really looked good.

We were about to enter the chamber when, behind me, I heard Morrigan’s sudden intake of breath. I glanced over my shoulder, and saw her eyes widen, gleaming with an intense alertness. Jowan felt it too: he tensed, and almost fell, clutching at his ribs.

“C-Careful!” he called, as Alistair’s fingers closed on the handle. “It’s waiting for—”

He didn’t get a chance to finish the sentence. The second the door opened, something rushed out. I never saw it clearly. It was like a black, gritty wind; first one shape, then two, then three, whirling around us, impossible to strike at or escape. I didn’t know what they were, just that my bones seemed to be made of lead, and my flesh hung from them like wet sand. I could barely move, rooted to the spot by a horrible, undeniable weakness.

“Shades!” Jowan yelled, which meant nothing to me. “They’re demons! Don’t let them deceive you!”

I didn’t understand. My ears were full of that rushing, grinding wind, and then a face—or a near parody of one—reared up before me, screaming out of the ripped cloud. It resembled a twisted skull, but it was as if it was carved from the grain of the air itself… so immeasurably different to the revolting physicality of the walking corpses. These were creatures of the Fade, I realised; they spurned the rules and the realities of this plane.

I am greater than this, the skull seemed to say. I am greater than you all.

It was a dark, metallic sound… not a voice, but the impression of a voice, as if I remembered the creature speaking, whether or not I’d truly heard it. The gaping, sucking mouth, and the holes where eyes should have been, pulled at me, and I felt my whole centre shift, as if it could draw me into it, suck me dry and leave nothing behind but a desiccated rind. All my thoughts, memories, dreams—everything I was, had been and might yet be—that was what it wanted, what it hungered for. I had to resist. I knew that, and yet….

“You’ll have to do better than that!” Morrigan shouted, a bolt of white light leaping from her staff and striking one of the creatures.

It hissed—or screamed. I wasn’t sure which; hard to tell when the sound seemed to lodge itself right in my brain without ever having passed my ears. The shape of a clawed hand scythed through the air and caught her on the side of the head, and it snapped a thought into focus. Demons in their own forms, not trapped inside the body of another… how were we supposed to kill them?

Alistair cannoned into the third shade, shield up and all his bodyweight behind the blow. It hit something, at least—the thing howled, and it seemed to stretch out, its shape changing and thinning, as if all it had to do to deflect this world was simply bend, simply reach away. He stumbled, thrown off balance by its easy avoidance, and the thing came back hard. It slammed into him, and it had physical form enough to send him sprawling.

To my right, Jowan sent a weak pulse of magical energy against the creatures. It caught one’s attention, and it sprung around, clawing through the air towards him. Everything stank of mould and staleness, and I flung myself forwards, knowing he was too weak to resist it alone.

“What do we do?” I yelled, swiping madly at the shadows and feeling nothing but cold and weakness enfold me.

“Draw them,” he shouted, lurching back and trying to hold himself up. “Draw them out! Don’t… don’t let them see you!”

I didn’t know what he meant at first, but it soon became clear. These things fed on the spirit, drawing all the life—the messy, chaotic jumble of things it meant to be mortal—from their prey, and draining them. Keeping them on edge, never letting them train their attention on any one of us for too long, was the only way we had of not sinking into that shrouded oblivion. I felt it, though: snaking around me, pushing at the edges of everything, tugging me and beckoning me towards it. Rest. Sleep. That was how they did it; like spiders numbing their meals with a bite, then emptying them completely.

We fought hard, fast and nimble. Distractions and flurried attacks that fell on bodies made of little more than cloth and whispers. It was like wrestling nightmares… and hadn’t I done enough of that in the past few weeks?

Still, we kept them busy while, together, Jowan and Morrigan focused their magic on the demons. The creatures weren’t as strong as they’d first appeared. The struggles weakened them, and it certainly seemed as if they could be hurt, maybe even killed. I wasn’t sure if that’s what happened, or if they just retreated, slunk back to the Fade, or to some other hidden corner of existence. Either way, first one went down, and then the others followed. Each was the same: a roar, and a whirl of that gritty, dark wind, then it was just… gone. We were all left standing there like idiots, panting and clutching naked blades, armed against an empty room.

I glanced around me, seeing the space for the first time, and found myself awestruck. There were shelves as high as the ceiling, all full of books. Endless rows; more than anyone could read in a lifetime, surely. Lecterns, some with tomes open upon them, and well-worn chairs beside the cold, unbanked fire, suggested that someone had used this room regularly, though maybe not for a while. Small, high windows allowed shafts of light to fall on the smooth flagstones, and the centre of the floor was thickly carpeted with an enormous red rug. Doors led off to the left and right and, not knowing which way we should go, I looked to Alistair for directions. He was staring at the fireplace, mouth tight and gaze fixed on some distant pinpoint of memory. Easy to forget how much this must hurt him, I supposed, but my sympathy was stained with misgivings. I still wondered: how often had he been back here? How many letters had passed between him and the arl, or Teagan? And how close to all of this—the politics, the power, the privilege—had he really been?

A thud behind me signalled Jowan falling over, and Leliana rushed to help him up. I blinked, ashamed of myself. We had no time for petty jealousy.

“Is he all right?”

“He needs a healer,” she said firmly, hauling the mage to his feet, his arm around her shoulders.

Jowan groaned and mumbled something about being fine, which his pale, sweaty face rather belied.

“We go this way,” Alistair said, pointing to the left-hand door. “It should lead out towards the courtyard. From there, we can open the gates. You could… get him back to the village faster than trying to get through the passageway.”

He sounded reluctant, but it seemed unlikely that Jowan would be able either to escape, or perpetrate any kind of unclean magic, given the shape he was in. For one so weakened, he’d put a lot into fighting the shade demons, and I supposed we had to trust in that.

I nodded. “All right.”

~o~O~o~

Things did not go as easily as we’d hoped. Despite the number of bodies we’d cut our way through in the village, it seemed the castle held more surprises. Most of the wing between the library and the courtyard was running with undead; they came out of nowhere, teeming like silverfish on damp wood. There were more elves among them. Servants, I supposed. It shouldn’t have made it harder, but it did. Hollow eyes, snarling mouths… bodies and faces too like my own. My blade faltered on the first one: a girl, probably about my age when she died, or maybe a little younger. She was blonde, and pretty, with pale blue eyes that had turned milky and opaque in death. Her white skin had a mottled, blue undertone, and her grey dress was stained and dirty. I stared at it, thinking how ashamed she’d be of that, how it just wasn’t right, and my sword hung, limp and useless.

Sten pushed me aside, a hand almost as large as my head easily brushing me out of his path. I stumbled, though I didn’t fall. He took her down in a single stroke, clean and efficient, and all I could do was watch the neatly detached head roll on the stone floor.

Something of the previous night’s grim rhythm returned for a while; nothing but the dull thuds of flesh and the bite of steel, broken by the occasional groan or growl of a corpse, or a grunt of effort. Only once it was over did we hear the sniffling coming from one of the small side-chambers.

It turned out to be Valena, the smith’s daughter, and that provided a moment of such unadulterated joy. I might have promised Owen we’d find her, but I hadn’t necessarily believed it—especially once the state of things in the castle became clear. At best I’d assumed that, if we even got back to the village alive, we’d have to tell him she was probably among the walking dead… but here she was, very much alive. Corpses definitely didn’t scream so much.

I tried to calm her, but the sight of an armour-clad elf wielding a blade and splattered with blood and bits of brain matter didn’t seem to help, so I stood back and let Leliana take over. She was, I had to admit, much better at it than me. She did the hair-smoothing, back-rubbing thing, cradling the girl like a child and hushing her with that sweet, musical voice. Eventually, she stammered out enough scraps of information to confirm what we thought—that Master Connor had, as she put it, ‘been took’ by something, but fear had won out over curiosity and, as soon as the trouble started, she’d hidden instead of trying to flee. It had probably saved her life.

“I just want to go home,” she wailed, and Leliana looked imploringly at me.

“There could be more survivors, no? We should look for them. Not everyone in the castle can have perished.”

“Foolishness!” Morrigan snorted. “The more time we waste turning out every storeroom and cupboard, the more likely we are to attract the demon’s attention. It almost certainly knows we’re here anyway… it is just a matter of whether or not it chooses to attack.”

I rubbed a hand across my brow. My head hurt, not that I really noticed it. Everything hurt, and my tongue felt thick and dry.

“All right…. Leliana, take Jowan and Maethor. Make sure Valena gets back to the passageway safely. It might not be the quickest route, but at least we know we’ve cleared most of the creatures out down there. If you find anyone else alive, that’s great, but we have to push on. You can catch up with us in the main hall, which is across the courtyard, right?” I glanced at Alistair, waiting for him to confirm my grasp on the castle’s layout.

He nodded hesitantly. “Yes, but are you sure splitting up is a good idea?”

I shrugged. “The mage is injured. Leliana’s right: he needs healing. And this girl needs to get home. Would you rather she goes alone?”

“Well….”

He didn’t sound entirely convinced, but then I knew I was no tactician… not that any other bastard was coming up with a plan.

I looked at Morrigan, half-expecting her to argue, but she said nothing. Sten was doing his statutory impression of a rock-face, and Maethor was licking Valena’s salty cheek. Leliana nodded.

“All right. I shall do it. But we must move fast, yes?”

“Yes.”

We rose, divided, and the sense of unease was almost tangible. That small, weak voice at the back of my mind—my alienage brain, I told myself—kept beating the same chant over and over: who did I think I was? What right had I to think I could take charge, to think I could do anything but get us all killed? I was nothing but a foolish child, a chit of a girl who should have been strung up for her bloody-minded insolence the day she dared take up arms against her betters.

You’ll die here. You’ll all die… and none of it will matter.

I blinked and shook my head, trying to concentrate on following Alistair down yet another stone-walled corridor. Was it my own imagination, conjuring threats from my fear, or something else? I knew nothing about demons, except that they came from the Fade. Just the same as dreams, then, I supposed. Yet anyone who says dreams can’t hurt you has never had a bad one. Half-real memories swam behind my eyes; blood-red rock and swarming, teeming bodies, black and jagged against a thick, putrid fog. As I’d been learning since my Joining, dreams could be many things, and their boundaries were both flexible, and dangerous.

Nearer to the heart of the castle, we found more traces of the carnage the past few days had seen. Tapestries ripped from the walls, floors and rugs soiled with blood and filth… doors, furniture and statues broken into pieces. There were a few bits of corpses, too, though they remained fortunately inanimate. I’d lost all track of where we were, which was north or east, left or right. There were too many twists and turns, too many staircases and side chambers. Alistair seemed to know where he was going, at least. He stomped through, tight-lipped and intensely focused, checking every door and corner we passed for the possibilities of traps or ambushes. No one wanted to get taken by surprise, especially now our presence must have been noticed.

“I don’t like this,” he announced in hushed tones, as we came off the foot of a winding stone staircase, beside a small, squat wooden door that led out into the courtyard.

From the staircase’s narrowness and rough finish, I guessed it was for servants’ access… and it occurred to me that so were most of the routes Alistair had led us down. I’d thought it was meant for stealth, but just for a moment it struck me as odd. The thought floated away like mist, and I frowned.

“No,” I agreed. “S’quiet.”

“It is too quiet,” Sten put in. He already had a firm grip on his sword.

Morrigan’s black iron staff scraped the flagstones as she shifted restlessly behind me.

“Then I say we go out there and make some noise,” she said, and her voice held an unsettling hunger.

She could feel something, I guessed. Something powerful… which meant we must have been getting close.

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Volume 2: Chapter Eleven
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