Come dawn, she rises, relieved, for finally she is able to move, to step about her own room without guile. No-one can complain, no-one can wonder, and no-one else can worry, if they hear the noises of stirring coming from behind the heavy, stout wooden door. Her unrest, and the depths of the deficit she has been deepening night upon night, is, to the best of her ability, keep private for one more morning.
Patience is not the problem. She could stare out the generous bay window at the clean and clear Fereldan night, painted with void violet and luminous indigo where the stars cascade in fluid clouds across a galaxy’s horizon, she could look at the sky for hours. Or, she could look at her ceiling—darkened and shadowed, lacking even an empty spider web to disturb, and for all that it’s recently really registered to her as a vista, it may as well not be existing.
But the view doesn’t make much of a difference to her now; her attention isn’t too demanding of details for something to keep it. Even a wall could do. In fact she spends her time watching the one to her left emerge presently from the indeterminate dusk. With the odd imbalance of a morning’s chiaroscuro, the window is the first thing defined along its dark stretch. It’s faintly grey first, it’s faintly coloured next, and then, compared to the black and grey that frame it, the whole breadth of its panes becomes a bright, fiery convex looking glass lit up by a world that’s she’s supposed to believe is real.
That’s what they are all supposed to believe. That’s what the Chantry calls it. That’s what other mages call it. That's what everyone calls it—the real world. As opposed to unreal, supposedly. That’s what the Fade is called. It doesn’t matter that the Fade is where most of them will spend nearly a third of their lifetimes whether they want to or not.
By now, she can see enough red in the sky above the lightening purple mountains to know that she should actually be up. Too much longer and she’ll be dawdling. So she gets out of bed. Blankets moved, sheets pushed aside, the tips of her toes touch the floor first. Not too cold, so her heels and her soles follow, taking steps over the wood floor and cozy rugs in turn. These floorboards are not the originals, and, what’s been laid for carpeting, was picked to appeal to the perceived sensibilities of a foreigner born in a place where snow can only be found on the ground at higher, more difficult altitudes. Anything antique had been removed and preserved when this place first came into possession of the Inquisition.
Now, it is the property of the Chantry, specifically of the Divine Victoria. She has leased it out to one Cullen Stanton Rutherford, the first man without an ennoblement to hold such a vast estate in a long time, even on a temporary basis, and even in Ferelden.
She knows he doesn’t care, has heard him say it’s not an accomplishment and anyway it’s not something he’s concerned about. After all, as they all know, he’s just here to continue to do good work as a citizen who’s now retired to private life. It is his choice, his proud choice, to keep helping people. He will help both the templars and the mages who need it.
Still, she thinks it’s nice. For him. He keeps achieving things. And his hard, earnest work is being rewarded. Why is it that such a logical cause-and-effect pair seems to be so scarce in this world?
There could be a lot of reasons, she observes to herself, as she wrestles her shift over her head. For several seconds she simply stands there. Naked, she watches the useless thing float to the floor and pool at her feet, which then step on the crude lace linings. Having packed or sold or given away most of her nicer things, what she’s left with are these accoutrements of a lesser lifestyle. Not that she minds. It just sometimes they are gaudy, and sometimes they are uncomfortable. Sometimes, they chafe at her neck and her wrist and make her wish, with a brief, vague, already dissolving thought, that maybe she should pay more attention to what needs to go into the laundry. She’d only had to put up with this shift because all the others ones she has are currently pungent, unattractive even to her.
So. She should think about taking more care of herself.
Or something like that. Make some kind of improvement.
The white fabric is soft against her feet, however. It slinks between her toes and the varnished, treated wood. As she gets into her undergarments, it’s a nice sensation beneath her.
Which is nice to have before she has to do the hard part.
She stares at it—the cold, dead thing that is what other people call her limb. They refer to it as her arm. Her hand. As if it were actually a real part of her. As always, Dagna’s work has produced a masterpiece: finely crafted ironbark, the last bit of a large amount gifted to the Inquisition by a surprisingly kind Dalish emissary before he vanished, serves as a base that shines even in the most desultory of glooms, with lovingly worked, deceptively delicate extensions which are fully articulate as fingers when animated by magic. The flawless quality of their attunement means that a mage only has to use a very minimal, and very meagre, amount of her mana to manage things as efficiently as if she were not maimed and handicapped. In the centre of what is considered the palm is a slot for one of several runes crafted with the potential of her particular needs in mind. One of them is a rune of sealing which keeps the whole extension constantly containing within it the heat generated and shared by the other, living parts of her body; one of the runes is designed to function like a torch. It emits a light, yellow and cheerful, like the sun. Only held in her hand, to show her the way, the young, enthusiastic dwarf had said when she personally presented all of it to the former Inquisitor. That was the last time she saw the dwarf. It will probably always be the last time, too.
She stares at the prosthetic.
And, eventually, she puts it on because she needs two hands to get herself dressed if she’s not going to be asking for help. Which she won’t be. The first few times she had were too hard to bear. Even now the memories rankle without needing to be completely recalled—skimming them brings about frustration, and bitterness directed towards herself and her failures, and recalls the visceral, belittling fear that this would be her life now. That this is what she had been spared for. This was it.
Once her tights and jerkin are on, she secures around her waist a sash of cloth that adds a swath of colour to the otherwise drab black, brown, and white ensemble. A belt might give her a better cinch, but this has fewer clasps and catches. It is also, in her estimation, more reminiscent of something feminine, which is how she has tended to prefer styling herself when given the chance. Her hair—which, bangs and all, has lately grown longer and longer with no-one to insist she do anything with it—she keeps simple. After brushing out the night’s tangles with a few quick strokes, she ties it up, secures it, and flips it. An inverted bun keeps it up off her neck, and it’s elegant enough to make it seem like she’s attempted more effort than she has. For just the extra seconds it takes to tuck and twist the wad of white she won’t have to worry for the rest of the day about the weight of it slipping and causing the whole thing to unravel.
To her cheek she touches the silver-white fingers of the hand which is tinted slightly blue. The construct and the light thrum of her magic are warm against her skin. Looking out the window, she catches up the loose tendrils of her hair and pins them into place tightly behind the rounded shells of her ears.
By now the sky is dusted with rose and blushing burgundy. A bell bursts out and sounds over the horizon—five times, five echoing tolls it makes, to mark the first service of the day.
While everyone else on the estate is headed towards the chapel to crowd into pews and bow their heads and raise their voices in worship, she finds her way outside. Dew on everything twinkles with the piercing shards of the sun, that first light finally breaking over the encircling mountains and making it down into the lower parts of the land carved away by the violence of heavy ice committed over the course of deep time. Light increases, and grows, and the shadows that have recently been birthed around things are already beginning to shorten. They will contract until it is midday.
Mist that has pooled burns off, the lingering chill retreating to cracks and crevices is dispersed and vanquished. The ground is firm and familiar under her feet as she makes her way to the barn and her favourite part of the day. Her task is to water and feed the chickens and collect any eggs from the hens. A chore, though she doesn’t consider it such.
She has no qualms with spreading out their feed and having them follow after her in a fluttering, fussy flock. She is glad to pick up their smooth, perfect eggs no matter how much gunk or grime or shit may be on them. Once they are clean, she admires the different shapes and sizes in her basket—from the utterly unblemished to the direly speckled, from the tenderest of blues, to the richest orange-brown, to the rare few velvet black ones laid by the Orlesian hen gifted to her by a poor farmer for saving his children from wraiths, each one is of interest to her. They are beautiful. They are natural. They are a sight like gems.
In Ostwick, she was never allowed to so much as consider taking on duties pertaining to any aspect of tending livestock. Though she had no further claim to it, and was supposedly separated from both its benefits and its burdens, her noble name would go on to imprison her. Menial tasks, which would have allowed her the freedom of some fresh air, were considered below what she was fit for. The outdoors were denied to her because of it. She was rendered softer than other fragile mages because of it.
Now, after she has actually been someone, such a view is nonsense. It’s the kind of favouritism and stratifying, stifling privileges that Cullen balks against like a cat shown water he could possibly be bathed in.
That’s something she likes about him. That, after everything she’s survived, there’s someone who agrees with her: her past, or at least the parts of it that she can’t change no matter how responsible she is, shouldn’t change any of her present circumstances. The only thing that matters now is what she does. That’s how she’s going to earn her keep and retain her place among those who want to be here. She has a real reason to get out of bed.
Though the hens squawk and clatter about and ruffle each other feathers over trifles that don’t concern her, she doesn’t mind them, and there’s really no way they could actually bother her enough to make her think of this task as worse than an inconvenience. What they want from her, she can easily give them. They are actually capable of being satisfied by the paltry attention she shows them, and they prefer that she doesn’t try to reach out and touch them in some way. It’s simple—they just want food, and she just wants to feel like she’s accomplished something. Then she can stare in whatever direction she wishes while the gathered eggs sit in the woven basket hanging off her bent elbow as whichever hens are currently squabbling peck at one another around her boot-clad feet.
Today, she looks towards the mountains, where, overnight, the first streaks of snow have appeared. Winter will be here soon.
Before that, autumn, along with the parade of things that she knows come with this time of year in Ferelden: scarves, then coats, then thicker cottons and wools, gloves in the morning, layers laid on top of one another in a certain order, she’s learnt that it’s wool first, to be against the skin to make the best use of its thicker weave. Bonfires, winds coming up from the south like the exhalations of a giant, frozen, sorrowful being spreading its mourning across the world. Scattered rain, snows that melt, and then snows that don’t. For months. Once the first leaves start to colour towards their magnificent dying shades, it seems to her a short, inexorable plunge into a white, icy wasteland that only the forsaken must venture out of doors into. The chickens won’t mind if it’s another hand that dispenses their food and lays claim to what few eggs they might produce, but she will continue to do this, she thinks, come the veiling of the world. Maybe this time, her fourth time trying, will be the time that she finally doesn’t mind a Fereldan winter too much.
Maybe, given the circumstances of the current world and her place within it, she just won’t care all that much.
A bell tolls. And so knells the conclusion of the peaceful part of her morning. Breakfast is soon, is really just about to start, and it’s the one meal from which her absence would be noted, as she knows from previous experience, from the handful of times she had to excuse herself with something mildly concerning to quell worries and suspicions of something worse. Like when she didn’t quite lie about having excessively high levels of fatigue for morning, or when she mimicked the husky croak of a cold. She had managed to get most of a day to herself. That was a waste of time—people who were depending on her had suffered that day from a lack of care she didn’t actually mind, or regret, giving. It’s important work that they do here. She helps people.
On the edge of the forest, where the trees start to cluster together and truly obscure the sun from the lower lying things, a pair of deer are grazing. They are oblivious to her. A fly lands on her cheek and she swats at it with her hand that is both lighter and stronger than steel.
Giving a brittle shiver, for she really does feel devoid of heat, she gathers herself and decides to head back over to the main hall. It will be breakfast, and then time for her first session of the day. The templar she’s helping heal is on the verge of committing to going off of lyrium completely.
Once, when Cullen was vulnerable, but maybe not at his weakest or most shameful, he told her what the hardest part was. It was knowing that he could do better than what he was allowing himself to do.
She told him, at least he was trying. She asked him, is this what he wanted?
Yes, he had said, with tepid sweat sliding down his swollen temples and crowding around the grooves of his quivering grimace. Even if he hated that it wasn’t what he could have conscientiously called giving their cause his best.
But it’s what he wanted. That was something.
Although she isn’t fond of having to touch people, and especially templars at that, she can’t exactly complain about this contact. Hands on her patient—this is a required part of the work she does now. As a conduit of healing, she has to channel her magic somehow, and it’s physical contact that works the best. She’s been taught this lesson more than once her in life.
Intimacy can be an aid to accomplishing an intended task with magic. After all, the closer you are, the less energy has to be wasted on transfer and transference. That just seems logical. It usually proves to be so, too.
Lightly, she squeezes the man’s shoulder, and leans forward to meet his gaze. She means to engage him after indicating that she’s going to check up on him. The spirit which is invisible to him lingers nearby, close, in the Fade. Hovering, concerned, invested in this man’s welfare as any other compassionate person would be.
He is looking rather sallow. And he seems thin, diminished—not just gaunter, but lesser as a whole. Talking with him she has had the impression more than once that he is still not quite used to no longer having abilities that set him apart, and above, and make him more capable than others. If he can actually handle being without so much power, is yet to be seen.
Currently, he certainly is very powerless. He quails under even the gentlest of her touches. Her gaze seems to be a burden upon him.
“How are you feeling?” she asks in a slow, deliberately comforting voice.
“Well, you’re alive to feel awful at least.”
“I don’t know if I can do this.”
It’s not an admission. It’s a frank statement of what he thinks is a fact. He doesn’t even bother to brush off her hand, to dismiss the efforts she is making on his behalf.
She is not sure how to respond to such candidness. He isn’t appealing to her for her help. He’s just telling her he doesn’t think he is capable of enduring what he’s set out to do with the aid of those whom he sought to mentor and guide him with their burgeoning body of experience on the matter. Stories of the addictions they’d broken had inspired him to make the sojourn all the way from Wycome.
Once more, she presses her fingers into the taut, tangled muscles of his shoulder. “No-one can make you do this. Not even you. But I think you should wait before deciding you’ve lost. One loss doesn’t mean you’ve been defeated.”
He considers her through the fringe of his mussed, swampy hair. It’s still messed up from the frantic scrapping of his trembling hands across his scalp as he had recounted to her his nightmares fresh from the night before. Lips move, and he swallows, but no words emerge from him.
Then he looks away from her—he looks away from the former Inquisitor. The templar looks away from the mage, the jailor looks away from the freed prisoner. He must resent her when he is still so trapped, so haunted, so immured and with no easy solution to the languishing.
It’s hard for her. Not nearly as it is for him, but there’s a pinching at the base of her skull that niggles her with its insistent, repetitive reminder. Here is a man, before her, suffering the consequences of his actions. What would he have her do? Release him from his misery, absolve him of his deserved punishment? Reminding him his suffering has a cause is not kind to him, but nor is it kind to anyone to go around excusing everything. Then no-one ever learns and nothing ever changes.
And she wants things to change. She really, truly does. That’s why she worked so hard to set a good example, when it was hard to live with just the collateral damage of her own world-contorting decisions. Remembering this, she exhales her held, troubled breath in the face of his determination of failure.
Again, she puts pressure upon him. “Take it one day at a time. It’s the best anyone can do. It’s what I did.”
That, out of everything, seems to finally breach through his resolve to write himself off as a lost cause. After all, if a weak-willed, easily tempted mage can win over her unfathomably evil enemies with such a simple strategy, imagine what a templar, who actually is used to being in control, could do with it. Finally, there is some depth evident in his eyes.
“You’re right. I won’t give up now. Not yet.”
“So, are you ready for another go at it?”
“How much longer?”
She imagines there’s a fold forming already in his resolve from his reactive flinching. And she does’t hold it against him. It has been a tough day. “Just one more today. Tomorrow, if you’re really going to keep your act clean, we can work on repairing some of the damage that’s been done.”
“Is there really that much of it?”
Forcing her face into forms, shapes, and lines that she knows have served to reassure others who have looked to her for such things, Althea gives him a tired, loop-sided smile. “Not more than I can repair, in any case.”
He reaches out to her, and he holds her arm as she and the spirit heal him. Both of his hands are gripping into her real, pliant flesh. At the very height of the process of purifying his body, he twists from the thousands and thousands of pinpricks of agony, and the bones of her forearm are wrenched and ground together.
In the afterglow of his pain she soothes him the best she can with much more measured procedures. She uses just her mana and a touch of the spirit’s sympathetic guidance. When she is done, he is lulled and sleeping and unaware of how blackly her bruises are threatening to bloom.
Exhausted, enervated, she thanks the spirit with a nod of her head and bids it goodbye for now before it willingly, and gratefully, returns to the Fade to renew itself. For Althea, there’s lunch to attend, with food to consume to replenish her energy.
She does not go to the dining hall. Quietly, she retreats from the patient’s room, and moves without sound down familiar hallways filled with the noon’s brilliant late summer light. She arrives at a wood-panelled room that serves as her office, and, inside it, she finds the one she shares it with. He’s sitting down surprisingly absorbed in something. It looks suspiciously like he’s studying it.
He’s always said he isn’t much for being a scholar. Evangeline says so too, despite however many robes he may still wear. This was a joke, apparently, between them. He had laughed when she said it and then they had touched one another in a way that embarrassed Althea to witness. She had rarely felt like such an isolated, lonely voyeur. As far as what she’s ever seen of the two, Rhys is the only person who’s so much as considered glancing contact with Evangeline. She’s the sort of person you know you shouldn’t touch unless she wants you to.
The woman is sitting on the other side of his desk, one elbow placed on the crowded surface, her palm supporting her brow and her fingers eloquently curved to her temples as she reads something she’s concentrated on. Her brown hair is, in the manner of a trained templar, in the manner of a retired Knight-Captain, braided neatly and coiled closely to her head.
They both look up at her as she steps over the threshold.
But it’s Evangeline alone whom she first looks at. Try as she might, there’s just no avoiding it. Like a dowsing rod to water, or a dog to a new scent, that’s where her attention always goes when she begins to share space with Evangeline de Brassard. And it’s hard to say exactly what it is that makes her do so. It’s too subtle of a shift that always occurs, accumulating on her skin like a fine, barely there, unutterably unmissable mist, an insistent gossamer web that pulls against her without leaving any sorts of impressions. Every time the women comes into her vicinity she gets this creeping feeling. Each time it comes, it coalesces too, until it’s a faint chime that is consistent enough to actually be tuned out. After eight months spent on the same estate, no matter how impressive its size, Althea’s become accustomed enough to regard this as a quirk that she really doesn’t care to mull over beyond remarking upon it, to herself, from time to time. Even if the sensation strikes her sometimes as something that’s saying, Hey, are you sure you don’t want to give me a longer look? she tries to be better than her urges. Given the status of her stump she knows personally how awful it feels to be the subject of lingering glances. It’s always worse if they come from those whom you consider good acquaintances.
As it often is, something in her bristles at being brushed aside, but it cannot resist the push. She smiles in such a way that closes her eyes and tilts her head with the weight of it.
“Good afternoon, Rhys. Evangeline.”
As far as she’s concerned, they’re both saying it to her.
“Well, don’t let me interrupt whatever you’re doing. I’m just here to get some reports together and give them a final coat of paint. I’ve got a meeting with Cullen in the afternoon.”
“Ah, of course. Don’t let us keep you from your work. Unless you want to be,” Rhys says, and he laughs amiably. His eyes are brown and warm and they do his face a great service. They soften him, make his full beard and dark hair and sharp features no where near sinister. Evangeline is beautiful, too, but hers is a face that isn’t made ugly and horrifying by just a hard, stern, or stressed look. There are wrinkles around her eyes and mouth and nose that limn how much her former life strained her. Rhys though, he’s just a few shades away from presenting as the stereotypical hellacious mage who burns and bleeds his enemies away with malicious aplomb and sauve composure.
While he isn’t exactly gentle, he’s actually far too emotive to outwit anyone. Even Evangeline can keep him in check on a very, very off day.
“Are you all right?”
Rhys has spotted the way she holds her arm close to her when she’s much less than halfway to her space. For a few seconds she stands still, as if she actually has a decision she could make about responding to him. As if she could ignore his care and concern and the comfort he’ll probably offer her very soon.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I just forgot how tightly templars are able to hold onto things.” A slight lapse passes, and she realises the irony and the bland, easy-to-make quip in what she’s saying. “You know, like their swords.”
“They certainly were taught to hold onto those around mages,” Evangeline adds, to Rhys’ evident mild approval. He’s always struck Althea as a man who likes humour, preferring it to other, lesser reactions. Like anger, rage, or acting with a complete lack of reason. He’s actually capable of being quite funny when he can get his timing right.
All the same, after smiling at Evangeline and chuckling, he gets up and comes over to Althea. With him comes the ever pervasive scents of cider and clean robes that seem to follow wherever he goes, whenever he happens to be going there. It’s possible that this is Evangeline’s doing.
Faintly, but noticeable to her, as out of place as a crimson thread dangling from his forehead, are the traces of spirits around him. Recently he’s been in contact with one or several of them.
Fair enough. Just because he’s here as a healer, doesn’t mean that’s all he has to use his abilities for. Before even being asked, she obediently offers out her one arm for him to take and inspect. With a little dip into his mana, he takes the imminently painful edges off of the bruises—they should end up being more pink and yellow than black and blue by the time they fully form as marrs upon her skin.
“See, not so bad,” Althea says, with an incline of her head. Done accepting his help, she takes back her arm to herself and lets it hang by her side. She’ll see to healing herself the rest of the way later.
“Still, there’s no rule here that says we mages can’t help each other from time to time.”
Casting her gaze away, she looks at Evangeline, who is engrossed again by whatever she’s reading. Oblivious to being watched, she’s unaware completely of the twitch that the inscrutable peculiarity about her causes in Althea’s watching eyes. And even Althea isn’t actually consciously aware of it happening—most tremors and spasms and convulsions and bodily oddities she attributes automatically to the state of her recent sleep schedule. The motes of apprehension which flicker every so often across her skin are like brief little itches, and gone in the short time it takes for her to reach and scratch them. The doubts in her mind remain inchoate and abandoned for their lack of inherent interest. Mushy, bland, dollops of dough never baked into something that might actually draw some attention.
“Thank you, Rhys.”
“Of course. Anytime. We’re all here to help each other.”
That’s a nice way to look at it. And it’s not untrue.
“Thank you,” she says.
Then she gets to work and, when Rhys and Evangeline leave together to get something to eat at the tail-end of lunch, Althea barely notices that it’s easier for her to work. Her concentration comes more readily than she’d expected it to when she started working in the company of others. Preparing the papers doesn’t take her as long as she’d prefer it to. So, with nothing else to do, she returns to her bedroom, cleans up, tidies her things, folds her discarded shift up before placing it atop her laundry, and then lays on the foot of her bed with its pile of blankets and furs and stares into the shadows lurking in the empty, ashless hearth. Vaguely the sounds of the afternoon service reach her, and once she wonders what it might be like to take a nap. What an indulgent luxury that might be welcome at a time like this.
She gets up, and she goes, and she delivers the asked for documents detailing progress to Cullen.
They say some things to each other, like the comrades they are, and then she has nothing to do for many hours.
On departing, she repeats a statement of his she doesn’t disagree with. “Everyone is working hard. The clinic is making progress.” And, because he is a good and pleasant person who rarely gives himself any of the credit no-one else would deny that he deserves, she adds, “I think this was a good idea. Really. You’ve allowed people to make a difference. You’ve allowed people to get better. That’s more than most would have given them.”
Both the lyrium addicts and the mages could have had it so much worse after everything. It would have been so hard for them to find anything approximating a sliver of peace they can find here amongst well-intended strangers.
The words she uses to express this echo dully in her head. They then sink like so many heavy, useless stones dropped into a black, unwholesome pool brimming with murk and other indeterminate, obscure things. They cause ripples and kick up silt, slightly, but even when all their aftermath has long since settled, you couldn’t possibly see where they might now lie on the filthy, unfiltered bottom. They will remain untended in the undredged depths.
And yet, he smiles at her before she goes. He must be too kind and caring to not pretend like he can’t see, hear, and sense all that is lacking within her. Or, that’s what she’d tell herself, if she didn’t know he’s just finally had some good fortune in his life. It seems like it has blinded him to things he never should have to face again.
The ringing of the bell crashes outwards into the night and shatters its serenity. Midnight services will begin soon.
Now that it’s come time for her next required activity, she feels she’s ready for bed. It’s hard for her to believe how hollow out and used up she feels. Even her mana responds sluggishly to her attempt to conjure a magelight into her dark room. In the end she has to summon a wisp, a small snap of sentience that trills at her in an nearly impossibly excited way. She is reminded of how joyful anyone can be when their fundamental desires are fulfilled. Its exuberance is hard to bear.
Cupping the little being in her palms, she asks it quietly, “Will you hang around for a few moments to share with me some of your light? Then you can go back home.”
The wisp shivers, and its luminous presence becomes even more intense. It flits upwards and buzzes around the ceiling and it illuminates everything with its generous, energetic arcs. Moving among everything that basks in the delicately blue glow, Althea reattaches her prosthetic to her stump and then she leaves the room. For a few brief moments she feels the wisp coming after her. Then, after a strange cheerful cheeping anyone in the hall could have heard, it departs back to the Fade that lies across the Veil that is remarkably thin here.
On her way to the service she encounters only a few other people—several templars, one older mage. This is a bit noteworthy. Normally she’d see at least ten more. Despite the lateness and coolness and the reforming, deepening silence of the night, this is a service more well-attended than the one given in the late afternoon. Perhaps, if anyone asked, she could say why it is so, because there’s an appeal to her that others might share. An excuse to get up and be about at such a strange and awkward time is exciting—it’s a chance to explore the world when it is different from how it’s normally and properly experienced. In the Circle, she had been one of the many mages who managed to slip away once from the crowd walking blearily from the chapel back to their rooms in the winding, silent, barely familiar hallways. Before she had actually passed over into a world of broken rules and danger and looming consequences, the night had been tinged with a sense of the unordinary and the otherworldly, though those participating hadn’t forsaken sense completely, given that this whole ritual was sanctioned and encouraged by their keepers in the Chantry.
Here, it’s just that this is the service that works best for her to go to in the course of her day. And she has to attend at least one. She’s been told that plenty.
By the time she settles in the farthest back pew the priest leading the devout group has shepherded them to the point of the first of several intentional silences they will be lead through. This is a time for personal prayer, interrupted at the start when she had opened the door and it had announced her arrival with its not-quite-gone creak that no amount of oiling or maintenance seems to be able to cure it of. To compensate for this intrusion and demonstrate her contrition to the miffed priest, she bows her head along with everyone else, and continues to participate for the entire duration of the service.
Her lips move with the muscle memory her over-long years with the Inquisition can’t dim or dull. She was a ward of the Chantry for most of her life, and that means she knows certain things. The winking of the candles may be beautiful and mysterious on the darkened, inwardly reflecting surface of the stained glass windows, but the sight is not enough to allure her. There is more comfort in the effortless repetition of rebukes and promises it doesn’t matter if she believes in or not. They aren’t her words to be scrutinised and picked-apart and examined for goodwill or ill-intent.
This kind of tacit surrendering to doesn’t bother her. It’s for a short duration and, once, in the past, a distance that’s unfathomable to her now, this was a ritual that was important to her. It had meant something to her. And isn’t it also nice to pretend you could be a part of something for a change?
At the end of it she stays on her knees and keeps her head down. Imagining blackness and hearing nothing, the tramping footsteps and rustling clothing of the tired congregants leaving past her don’t cause her to stir. Eventually even the priest—who is a human woman despite all the Divine’s recent reforms—has departed.
Time passes. The candles remaining burn down. The eternal flame at the altar persists in its warmth and light in the cradle of its silver font.
Then, someone is next to her, and waiting. But they are polite about it. Coming upon a knocked over hourglass, they inspect it for cracks, but otherwise leave it unhandled because it is not their property. They will stand by until its owner has come to reclaim and right it.
Is he watching her? It doesn’t make much difference, she thinks, the first thought to disturb her placidly flat mind. There’s no way he could actually see her in the dusk of this chapel, or the eye-watering blaze of the sun.
Muttering to herself something that could seem like the closing of a prayer, she lifts her head up and turns it to her side.
“Good evening,” Cullen says to her. He moves to get on his knees besides her. He takes up a significant amount of space.
Given her size, a lot of things seems larger to her than they really are. She tends to underestimate their impact. “Good evening, Cullen. Would you like some privacy to pray?”
“No. You can stay. You were here first.” He smiles at her. Again. His is such a wholesome presence. Even when it’s not only them it’s impossible to ignore him, the nervous, winsome vigour that he naturally radiates. She has never found him to be unattractive. He just wasn’t the one she chose.
“It was a lovely service.”
“It was.” For her, it’s always a bit of a challenge to discern a pause from a stop in his part of a conversation. Multiple years to build familiarity haven’t quite been enough for her to learn the cadence of his speech. It always varies so much, depending on whom he’s talking to. But she was right to wait because he ends up adding the point to his return to this place, “I have something for you.”
From his thick, reddish coat laid over no armour he produces a bundle. She takes it from him, and unwraps the white oilcloth of average quality to find a candle that looks just as unremarkable as the hundreds set about the entirety of the chapel they are in.
And it is that. It’s just a candle.
The thing that’s of interest to her is the briefest of blue-white shimmers. With a slight turn the entire side of it catches her attention with a single scintilla that reveals to her an easily unseen form.
She looks up at him, and he says, “It’s from the priest. She thought you might like to light one of your own.”
“Thank you, Cullen.”
Again, silence that she cannot define. Deliberate, or its unmeant.
There’s something she should tell him, but she doesn’t know how. She can’t ask him to do what should be done.
The next thing he does is get up and place a hand near her. On the pew before her upon which she has rested her hand he loosely curls his large fingers.
“Good night. I hope you get some rest.”
“And you, too. Good night, Cullen.”
There’s no way he’ll know unless she tells him.
He leaves after that.
When she’s by herself, she holds the candle in both hands, and she gives it all of her attention. Mana begins to quicken, it takes a shape resembling the one she wills it to, and leaks out, and it touches the faultless surface in her palms. Suddenly, she can see all of the message meant for her spelt out in fine lyrium dust embedded in the wax:
It’s time to go north the other way around.
Since Cullen will have received this message too, she chooses to tie up this end now. Standing up, she takes the candle with her over into an alcove and places it to stand among dozens of its peers. Once her hands leave it the lurid message vanishes and is replaced by a spectral mental image shining in the place where she saw it. It’s easy for her to reach out again and light the candle and then force it to burn down until it’s nothing but a bit of waxed fused with the rest that has been accumulating in this corner of the chapel. The lyrium was a catalyst to this process.
That accomplished, she turns, she leaves, she goes back to her room.
Eventually she ends up in her night dress with her stump unencumbered. By the large window, she surveys the view she soon won’t be seeing any longer. One of the moons is setting, its pale ghost all that can be seen through the thick clouds that have devoured it. It’s slowly descending from its place of pride among the innumerable stars she cannot see. The known constellations shine somewhere out there.
For hours she just sits at the window with her forehead leant up against the cold unyielding glass.
She still isn’t able to explain to others who should know why it is that they shouldn’t trust her—why they probably can’t, though she has no way of being sure. And how could she tell them that she’s being stalked, haunted, followed through both wending dream and shocking nightmare, but not preyed upon? How could she convey that she is not in danger but that doesn’t mean they themselves might not be safe from this same predator?
All she has to do is close her eyes long enough and she’ll see the dark wolf watching her from the same ineffable, uncrossable distance. No matter how she tries to reach, to climb, to struggle to get to him, he has never needed to move to stay beyond her.
Probably he knows everything about her. So, to keep him away, she does not give him an opportunity to see her. So long as she does not sleep, he cannot so easily find her and watch her with his unwavering gaze. She’s thought of it as a mournful one too, before, but it’s hard to say exactly. It’s been months since she’s seen it. There’s no way of knowing what he’d really been feeling the last time he caught the sight of her.
If thwarting him this way may potentially kill her, that really doesn’t concern her. There are so many other dangers in the world that threaten her. Her death is unlikely to be one that’s in spite of him. It’s more likely to be the culmination of someone else’s lust and machinations, or just the conclusion of natural causes.
That’s something, she thinks to herself, alone.