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Ascendant: Herald Asunder

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The Hunterhorn Mountains cast a shadow over the pale and ragged hills rolling into the west, across the sparse grass and spindly trees clinging to life on the arid plane at the edge of the Orlesian Empire.

Fiona followed the dark outline as the last of her early morning fatigue faded. Her hands clenched over her arms, trying to suppress the nerves pricking in her stomach. After so many years of fighting for freedom, her anxiety at the coming absolution of the Mage-Templar war, whatever the Conclave’s outcome, put her on edge.

She did the right thing by choosing not to attend the Conclave. The Order would not accept this peace Justinia promised. She did not have the luxury of wading into the fight anymore, not with so many of her people clinging to threads of frayed hope. The Lord Seeker would seize on her absence and strike them again while she was playing politics. However much she wanted to take on the burden herself, she couldn’t. The Mage Rebellion needed its leader alive and focused, not sequestered away in a small village with Chantry mothers and zealous politicians squabbling at each other like breeding hens.

Her certainty did nothing to settle her stomach, however.

A sharp rap of knuckles on her open door broke the quiet of her morning vigil.

“I’m about to leave, Fiona. Mind seeing me off, or are you too busy staring into the distance and practicing your stoic face?”

Fiona closed her eyes and loosened her grip on her arms, let them fall to her side. “One would think after all this time you might show more respect toward your elders.”

The immediate snort she got in response made her mouth twitch. She faced the young woman leaning against the doorframe to her private study.

“What can I say? My etiquette classes were lacking.” Roslyn grinned and eased off the door, locks of curly, blood-red hair escaping their haphazard knot. “Although, there is an argument to be made that I have an uncouth nature and no amount of study would make my demeanor more palatable.”

“You are spirited."

“And you’re nervous.”

Fiona held her intent amber eyes. “I do not deny it.”

Roslyn's grin faded as she leaned against the railing. “You think the templars will try something.”

“It would be naive to think they wouldn’t consider it. You must be ready for anything.”

“I always am.”

The girl's bronze skin caught the first rays of the morning sun, shining warm across striking features—a prominent nose, a soft, pointed chin, bright, intense eyes under a heavy brow.

In the three years Fiona had known her, Roslyn Trevelyan had blossomed from an angry and cynical young woman, ready to tear down the world to avenge the death of her Circle, into a leader worthy of her trust. The rage which had burned so violent when they first met had been honed into a focused flame, a cutting blade Fiona had encouraged Roslyn to sharpen. The strength in her gaze, the confidence in her voice—if she could harness it, she would go far in this world. If she didn’t let her fear get the better of her.

“Besides," Roslyn said, "it’s just a bunch of Chantry sisters yelling while the rest of us sit back and try not to murder each other. I’m not sure we’ll get anything done as it is.”

“Divine Justinia seems intent on reaching a peaceful resolution.”

“Right, because she’s never shown a lack of conviction where mage freedom was concerned before.”

“This is why you must not back down.”

Roslyn knew how important it was not to show weakness. Fiona had made sure to teach her this lesson over the past three years, reinforcing the idea that no matter what one felt or feared, no matter the adversary, weakness was the quickest path to self-destruction. The weak did not live long in this world, and she would not let Roslyn falter. Not if she could help it.

But Fiona reminded her all the same, perhaps more to assuage her own fears than her second's. “If the Chantry cannot meet our terms—”

“I give them a colorful refusal and wait for the templars to do something stupid.”

“Thank you for doing this, Roslyn.”

“Well, when the Grand Enchanter asks you to represent her at peace talks that may or may not ensure every mage in Southern Thedas their freedom, you don’t exactly refuse.” She frowned when Fiona didn’t return her smile. “Of course, Fiona. Thank you for trusting me.”

“I know you were hesitant at first, but I would not choose anyone else to be my voice at the Conclave.” She paused, noticing the slight hardness to Roslyn’s eyes. “You understand our fight. You know the stakes.”

“I do. I’ll do what I can.”

“You’ll do more than that, I think.”

“You’re probably right.” Roslyn laughed, but there was an edge to it, an unease she couldn’t hide. “You could have chosen someone else. Even Adrian might have been a better candidate. At least people know who she is.”

Fiona arched her brow. “You think you have not made an impression on people, on the Order?”

Roslyn smiled thinly. “No, I’m sure I’ve made quite an impression. I just don’t understand how my kind of impression is the one you want to give the Conclave.”

“We have tried to play nice before, Roslyn, and where did that get us? Fighting a war on both sides while the people of Thedas cry for our imprisonment and silence. I know what the senior enchanters would have me do.”

Memories of calm words spoken over clinking tea cups flashed through her mind—entreaties for peace and diplomacy whispered through tired lips already resigned to the grave. They would accept the leash and the yoke, not caring that in a decade it would be unrecognizable from the cages they’d broken once before.

“Half-measures are no longer acceptable. Declaring one’s freedom means nothing if one cannot defend it.”

Roslyn stared out at the Blasted Hills, a slight furrow in her brow.

Fiona let her gather her thoughts, recognizing the spark of certainty taking hold in her eyes. “Why did you join the Rebellion, Roslyn?”

“What do you mean? We had no choice.”

“You could have fled, disappeared into the wilds and abandoned the fight to become a barmaid or a sell-sword or any manner of occupation.” She smiled. “You, like a thorny wildflower, are capable of surviving in the most unlikely of places. You would adapt. You could have lived a long and quiet life somewhere beyond the templars’ reach and your family’s influence.”

Roslyn met her gaze, molten steel forming in her eyes. “No, I couldn’t.”

Fiona studied her, waiting for a flicker of doubt. “Why?”

“What happened was wrong. I don’t mean just at the end. What happened to me, to… No one should be forced to live inside a cage.”

“Admirable, to be sure."  Roslyn hadn't told her much of her Circle's fall, but stories of what had befallen her people across Southern Thedas all rang with the same anger and fear, the same deep-seated pain. “You fight because it is immoral, what they did to you. You fight for the right to live in accordance with your own beliefs.”

She collected her fine ceremonial robes, draped over a chair beside her bed. Made of rich, navy samite and embroidered with the Circle of Magi insignia in silver and gold, the robes of the Grand Enchanter were a sign of strength her people would need today. That she would need.

“You don’t fight for the same thing?”

Fiona unwrapped and donned the garment with careful, steady hands. Smoothing out the cloth, her fingers lingered over the intricate edging on the cuffs.

After so many years spent as the Grand Enchanter, in a Circle tower where clothes were on hand when needed, she was still unaccustomed to such finery, more comfortable in rags and tattered leathers. Her eyes searched for the dirt of a life spent traveling and scraping for her next meal. Survival used to be so simple, she forgot sometimes that her robes were just another set of armor.

I will never truly leave the alienage behind me, or the Grey Wardens, it seems.

Roslyn watched her closely, eyes hard and expectant.

Fiona had always found her striking, not for her looks, but for the strength in her eyes, too sharp and too bright for her own good.

“For women like us, to live is to fight,” she said slowly, emphasizing each word. “Pointed ears and soft hearts will get you killed, my dear. It is all well and good to believe in the cause, to trust you are correct in your morals. But control, autonomy—this is the only thing that matters. You fight for that above everything else, and you might live long enough to reap its benefits.”

Not for the first time, Fiona's gaze strayed, wondering if maybe her son had pointed ears as well—too small to be truly elven, but pointed enough to mark him for his mixed heritage.

No, of course he doesn't. News that the King of Ferelden displayed elven traits would not have gone silent for this long, not after nearly a decade spent on the throne.

“I do not tell you this to frighten you. You are young, and I would not see you fall to the same innocence I once fell prey to. Goals and values are worthy, but they are intangible. If you have the power to determine your own fate, you have the power to survive.”

“It’s all right,” Roslyn murmured. “I understand. Thank you for trusting me with this, Fiona. I… I’ll try not to let you down.”

Fiona smiled sadly. “I know you won’t.”

Roslyn's eyes were wide and searching as she stared down at Fiona, but she remained silent.

Fiona considered reassuring her. She could tell her the journey would be worth it in the end, that the Conclave would be the end of this fight—but she had long ago promised not to lie to her, not in this.

“Go ahead, my dear.” Fiona summoned a brighter smile, reaching up to cup Roslyn’s cheek before she stepped away. “I will meet you in the courtyard to see you off. I am sure your friends are already waiting for you. Master Harper will be, at least.”

Roslyn snorted and her expression relaxed. “Derek probably still thinks he can convince you to let him come with me.”

“He is a devoted friend.”

Her eyes softened. “We’ve been through a lot together. I understand why I need to go alone, but it will be strange.”

Fiona could not say anything that would not sound like false hope or comfort.

Roslyn hesitated, but left Fiona's chambers without another word.

When she was alone again, Fiona paused in the act of securing the final button on her robes. She stared without focus at the sprawling complex outside her window, the Rebellion’s temporary refuge.

Roslyn is the right choice. No matter how fond of her you are.

Roslyn was strong and proud. She would not let the Rebellion be usurped or manipulated, like so many others might. Choosing the illegitimate, half-elven daughter of Free Marcher nobility as her second—a thorough example of the injustices leveled against her people by the majority of Thedas and the Chantry—was provocative, incendiary. Many would see it as an insult to the Chantry itself. It proved she would not cave to the Order’s demands. 

Good. She needed to show a strong front. It was the right choice.

It was not kind, however, and she hated herself for it.

Fiona closed her eyes, settling into the mantle of the Grand Enchanter. She dragged up the cold steel that had become her mask and mantra in the years since the dissolution of the Circle, let the authority fill her, bolster her.

She smoothed her robes, and with one last look out the window over Andoral’s Reach, she rolled her shoulders back and turned for the door.