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The Light that Binds Us

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A sharp wind sailed down the Frost Back Mountains, whipping the fine white snow across the burnt orange sky and right into the disgruntled traveller’s face. As if walking up a hill in five inches of well-trodden slush, which was already on its way to turning to ice in the evening cold, wasn’t bad enough he had to stop every few paces to pull his damp woollen scarf back over his numb nose. Not to mention the rolled up tent that batted against his thighs with every step, or the holes in his gloves. He certainly wasn’t the most dishevelled person on the road to the village of pilgrims, those apostates really did look like they’d spent the last few months hiding in hedges and ditches, but he definitely knew what he was going to spent that piece of his inheritance on: a whole new wardrobe. A horse would be nice too, or at least a donkey to carry all his damn equipment.

“Urgh, fuck the Maker,” he muttered at the crowd overflowing from the settlement’s only tavern/inn. He’d thought what with the Temple of Sacred Ashes becoming the prime tourist destination for any self-respecting Andrastian they would’ve built at least one more in the last ten years. But even if that had been the case he couldn’t have really expected to get a room now, could he? The road had been clogged up with mages, Templars, clergy, and Maker knows how many bureaucrats since he’d joined it that morning. Another night in the tent it was then, if he could find a dry place to pitch it far enough from the route of the drunken rabble the tavern/inn would be evicted in the early hours that is. Well, there was nothing stopping him having a drink first, even if he had to stand elbow to elbow with his fellow travellers at least he’d be standing in the warmth.

As entered he pulled down his scarf to breathe in that earthy smell of beer, jellied meat, ashes, and vague damp that always radiates from such places. The inside was as crowded as he thought it would be, even the stairs leading up to the rooms had become extra seats for the barrage of patrons. He tried to slowly weave his way through them, but all his worldly possessions on his back made it impossible not to hit someone with it every couple of steps. He gave up muttering any apologies when it became apparent they were getting lost in the thick mist of a hundred conversations happening at once.

When he got close enough to take in the bustle around the bar itself he was relieved that at least the barman was keeping on top of things. The old man paced up and down the bar dishing out tankards with the same leisurely pace as he would serve the dozen or so villagers and pilgrims that came in on any other night, no matter how many impatient hands were waved in his direction. He didn’t even bat an eyelid when the towering form of a Qunari lent right across the bar to get his attention. The top of her curled horns scrapped against a low hanging beam, dislodging one of the cups than hung from it. It fell out of the traveller’s sight, he didn’t even hear it smash above the noise between them, but he did see the golden tip of the Qunari’s left horn glint in the candlelight as she freed herself from the timber and shook her head at whatever the barman was saying. It couldn’t be, could it? What would she doing here? She made a mockingly resigned gesture before straightening up and reaching for something in the pocket of her crimson coat. A coat she’d had made out of Deepstalker hide after they’d killed an entire nest of the blighters that time they’d tried to find some smugglers’ hideout on the Storm Coast because ‘I want to get at least something out of this wild fucking Nug chase’…

“Ataashi!” he waved across the crowd. She didn’t even glance his way. “Hey, Ataashi!”

He barged his way to her side. It better be her otherwise he was going to look an utter fool.

“Ha, no way! Bartholomew Trevelyan, you son of a bitch. Come to bum another drink off me after bailing on a job, have you?” Yes, it was Ataashi alright. “Well, tough luck, I’m all out,” she emptied a coin purse with frayed embroidery onto the counter. The barman counted the coins, nodded to himself, then shuffled off to get a broom.

“Aw come on, you’re not still mad about that, are you? I’d talked about going to Orlais for ages. And I said plenty of times in advance I don’t do giant spiders.”

“Doesn’t make you any less of an ass for fucking off before we got a replacement for you. Elera was right, it really should’ve been a six-man job,” she shuddered. “One bit me right on the ass, made it go numb for two days straight.”

It was this bit of oversharing, and the way she leant on the bar, that finally tipped Bart off to the fact she was at least a bit tipsy.

“How long have you been here?”

“Long enough to get a table. And no, you can’t join us.”

“Us? So the rest of the crew is here too,” Bart took a longer harder look around the room. Ataashi let out an exasperated sigh.
“Yeah, but we’re on a job so-”

An elven man in the corner of the room threw his tankard up with a cheer and pointed in their direction. The rest of the table had a similar reaction when they followed his gaze. Bart grinned and waved back.

“Not at the moment you’re not.”

The elf and his companions at the crowded table beckoned him over. Bart certainly hadn’t planned to run into them, but he couldn’t deny his luck as he started towards them. He may have hesitated to call anyone at that table his friends, but catching up with them was just the kind of distraction he needed after the long day of travelling, and the even longer day to come.

“Hey, get back here!” Ataashi barrelled in front of him, nearly knocking a couple of unsuspecting patrons over. “Do really think you can just strut in here and act like nothing happened?” bending down so that her glaring amber eyes were level with his startled hazels.

Bart flinched at this before regaining his cool and holding his hands up.

“Whoa, Tash! Aren’t you the tiniest bit pleased to see me? I mean, we did-”

“Nope, not at all.”

“…Well the others are. Just let me catch up with them at least.”

He didn’t remember Ataashi being the spiteful cold-shoulder type. So either she took…what they had, more seriously that he’d thought, or that cold shoulder was more of a lukewarm one, testing him. Making him work for his spot at their table now he wasn’t a Dragon anymore, if he ever officially was.
“Hey, how does this sound?” he raised his voice so the others could hear. “Since this place looks packed to rafters I’ll gift the money I was going to spend on my room to you, to buy another round for everyone!”

There was a roar of approval at this.

“And no excuses about work in the morning,” he dug a coin pouch out of his trouser pocket. “How does that motto go again?” he asked the table.
“There’s no job that can’t be done with a hangover!” the mercs yelled in unison.

Their leader frowned at them, then at Bart, then back at them. Bart held the pouch out to her, it wasn’t anywhere near as weighty as he’d like. “Just one round though. Unless you only get beer.”

She frowned at the money, then back at him.

“You know I won’t,” She snatched it from him with a little smile he couldn’t figure out was resigned or triumphant. “We’re playing Wicked Grace, Balvik will deal you in.”

“How can I? I’ve got nothing left to bet with,” he gestured at the pouch already retreating out of his sight as Ataashi went back to the bar.

“Oh, I don’t know about that. You still got that pretty pair of daggers daddy bought you?” Balvik, a dwarf with a beard so dark and thick it was impossible to tell where it ended and his Carta tattoos began, teased as he shuffled dished out the cards.

“Hey! I’ll have you know I bought my babies with my own money. Well, Father’s money…but still, I’d sooner give away the boots on feet than those,” He gave one of the ornate sheathed blades a squeeze and he slotted himself between Elera sour-faced elf of few words, and the wall.

“Pity, they’d make great letter openers,” the dwarf’s retort earned a bigger laugh, especially from his fellow axe wielder Elera. She handed him some cards and nodded at the table.

“Hey, I’m buying you all drinks. Doesn’t that exclude me from betting for at least one round?”

There was a chorus of ‘no’s.

“Well too bad, I gave all my money to Ataashi.”

“You don’t get out of it that easy Trevelyan, you could fill a house with the shit strapped to your back. You’ve got plenty to bet,” Faron, the elf who’d first spotted him, said.

“Yeah, don’t you remember the rules deserter? You’ve got to pay to play, one way or another. Or you could just run back to Orlais,” a boy who couldn’t be a day over sixteen patted the table with a grin.

“What? You weren’t even there when I left!”

The boy just laughed at his dismay and tapped the wood more insistently. Looking around at all the other playfully mocking faces Bart couldn’t help but think this was some kind of impromptu revenge. So much for being welcomed back. Oh well, they’d forget about it after Ataashi came back with the drinks. In the meantime he’d have to just be a good sport and roll with the punches.

“Alright, alright,” he comically rolled his eyes before fumbling with his backpack. He pulled out the first thing he found and slammed it on the table. “Ah ha: a cup! Made of finniest tin. Quite a prize.”

By the time Ataashi returned with three bottles of ‘the best wine I could get’ he’d lost that cup to the boy, whose name was Darren (or something beginning with d), and was starting to wonder if bumping into his old friends was really a blessing after all, especially when she confirmed she’d spent every penny he had. He should’ve expected that, The Dragons were experts at spending each other’s money, in fact what he remembered these games Wicked Grace was kind of like their personal bank. They poured all their money into it, withdrew some by winning, and saw the rest get stored away by whoever became the group accountant after being the biggest winner of the night. Thank the Maker that hadn’t been him when he took off, otherwise he’d got more than snide comments from them. But he couldn’t reach up to those hands so easily, he had to travel across half the country to get his share. At least that meant he’d actually earned it, in a way.

“Wow, was that really your last bit of cash?” Ataashi chuckled as he slapped his riding gloves onto the table for his latest bet.

“If I don’t win anything it was,” Bart tried to sound hopeful.

“Considering Elera is playing I don’t fancy your chances kid. Unless she’s willing to go easy on you,” Balvik muttered from behind his cards. Elera scoffed at this possibility.

“Huh, you’d think a rich boy would be better at taking care of his money. They usually hoard their fortune until it poured out of their cold dead hands into the open palms of their children,” Ataashi pondered as she uncorked the bottles with no effort.

“‘poured out of their cold dead hands’, how poetic Tash,” Faron poured another into his tankard which still some beer at the bottom.

“I’m quite the bard after a few drinks. After finishing this you might even get me singing,” she took a swing of the deep red liquid right out of her bottle.

“Well Tash, unlike those other noble pricks I can’t reach up to those hands so easily. I had to travel halfway across the country to get my share. So I’ve actually earned my inheritance, in a way,” this earned him a much bigger laugh than any of his deliberate jokes.

“Wait, aren’t your family all back in Ostwick?” She asked.

“All except my uncle, who just so happens to also be the lawyer overseeing my dear departed Grandmama’s estate. Trust my luck to start asking about what she left me right as he’s whisked away to The Conclave to help with all the bureaucracy that goes along with that. He insisted I meet him here to talk it over.”

“And that couldn’t be done through letters because…”

“Fuck should I know? Probably another of Mother’s ploys to bring me back into the light of the chantry. Though I can’t see why hanging around intense negotiations between magic wielding madmen and sword-wielding fanatics will give me a spiritual awakening,” Bart lowered his cards to look for the third bottle. When he saw it was in Elera’s vice grip he gestured to Ataashi to let him have some of hers. After a moment’s pause she passed it over. The wine was very dry with only an afterthought of any flavour resembling fruit. Definitely made in Ferelden.

“Urgh, don’t. We all agreed we wouldn’t discuss politics here,” she leaned in closer and lowered her voice. “We travelled through The Hinterlands to get here. The place looks like The Blight hit it. Burned cottages and fields…” she took the bottle back to another big swig from it. “I don’t think this conclave thing is going to work. Too much blood has been spilt.”

“Probably not, but at least they’ll be arguing about it instead of just trying to kill each other. If the rest of those bureaucrats and diplomats are anything like my uncle they’ll get something out of it. Maybe even a ceasefire,” Bart shrugged as if he hadn’t been thinking about it for most of the trek up to Haven. All he’d been able to conclude was that it was hard to be optimistic when you were neutral because you could see the fools on both sides.

“I don’t think our client is very hopeful. Don’t tell him this but he’s really overpaid us to be his bodyguards. He’s some noble mage sympathiser. All three of his kids have ended up in the Circle. Well, they were in The Circle.”

“Wow, all three kids. That’s…unfortunate,” Bart tried to focus on his cards, but the serious turn in conversation and the wine going rather suddenly to his head made that difficult.

A wealthy client. That would explain the particularly good spirits everyone was in. Bart wondered if that meant they’d been put up in rooms as well. Perhaps there was room for him on someone’s floor.

“I still think he’s planning on finding his apostate kids and making a run for it. Hide them in the depths of his big castle or something,” Elera piped up.

“In that case he’s not paid us enough to deal with pissed off Templars. Maybe you were right to bail on us, Bart. We always get the shit end of the stick,” Balvik placed his hands on the table.

“I think everyone is dealing with the shit end right now. Civil war to the left of the mountains, mage rebellion to the right. And here we are, stuck in the middle with the bloody Chantry. After I get my money I’m sailing off to Antiva. All I’ll have to worry about there is sunburn and assassins.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Ataashi wiped some wine off her lips, smudging the rouge in the process. “Any chance you can take us along? I would kill for a holiday.”

“Ha! Haven’t I given you people enough already?” he felt his laugh die in his throat the moment he showed his losing hand. Elera raked her winnings over to her.

“Nice gloves, Trevelyan” she smiled as she tried on Bart’s former riding gloves.

“Can I have the wine back, Ataashi?” he asked meekly.

“Haven’t I given you enough already?” she smirked before downing the rest then slamming the empty bottle onto the table in front of him.

Who needed the Maker to dish out divine punishment when people could do that just fine by themselves?

**********

White mist enveloped the rusty lock as the Dalish mage channelled an icy breath from The Fade through her fingers. The chest had been quite a find, hidden under a bed that hadn’t been slept in for a very long time. The rest of the cabin hadn’t turned up anything of note really, a few cups and pots, a wooden figure of Andraste missing an arm, plenty of bugs. Usually she wasn’t so fussy about what she took, but now that she was travelling alone she had to be more selective. Her bag didn’t have unlimited space. Hopefully the contents of this box was worth the discomfort of using ice magic when she was already cold. She gritted her teeth as the wind slipped through one of the many holes in the roof and ran a finger down her exposed collarbone. But she couldn’t draw her cloak tighter or etch up her scarf until that lock was covered in ice.

She withdrew her hand from the crystals of ice that now spiked off the lock and picked her staff up off the dusty floor. The ice cracked and splintered as she struck at it repeatedly with the blunt end. Her strikes were hard and quick, conscious of the noise it created in the twilight, but it still took longer than she’d care to admit until the lock finally broke and clattered to the floor.

The chest groaned as she lifted the lid, the musty smell of disturbed dust flying up to greet her. Most of the space inside was taken up by something long and wrapped in a cloth. She unwrapped it to find a sword untainted by rust. In fact, she could see her smile reflected along the broad steel. The handle was made from a darker heavier metal with a sigil of a griffon engraved at the bottom. Whoever wielded it must’ve been strong, considering she could barely keep the tip pointing upward let alone swing it. She wondered what the warriors in her clan would make of it compared to their light ironbark blades. Souren, their craftsmen, would probably make some comment about primitive Shem smithery. She’d assumed such a lonely cabin in the middle of the woods would’ve belonged to some…what did humans call them? Tree Cutters? Wood People? Woodsman, that’s what one of her books called it. There was a large pile of logs outside that had become a haven for beetles, perhaps he’d meant to sell them to the nearest village. Or perhaps a Huntsman, or were they known as rangers? Were they even the same thing? But there was no axe or bow, just this sword. Important enough to preserve, but not important enough to take with them. She fished out the sparse contents of the rest of the chest for more clues. An amulet with a blood red stone in the centre of some engraved runes. She vaguely recognised a couple of symbols from similar jewellery worn by human travellers the clan had crossed paths with over the years. She knew they were for protection, whether this protection came from enchantment or just a promise of good fortune she couldn’t remember. Since humans hated magic so much it was probably the latter, she couldn’t feel any emanating from this one anyway. The only other things in the chest were letters written in a pretty cursive hand, a hand that she couldn’t read in the fading light. She sprung up and organised them into a pile on the table, and tried and failed to lift the sword up to that height. It remained on the floor for now; lighting her was more important. She went to retrieve it from her pack by the entrance. A sharp gust of wind banged the door against the wall the moment she picked it up, rusty hinges screaming in surprise. She’d left it open to let the last of the natural light in since the windows were too clogged with dust and cobweb to be of much use. But now all it was really letting in was the cold. She began to close it, but stopped, breath freezing in her throat. A dark shape stood in the clearing between the cabin and the woods. A human shape.

She stared it down, silently willing it along. But it stayed right where it was, at the edge of the clearing, directly facing her.
Creators, where was her staff? On the bed, out of reach. The magic she could channel from her hands wouldn’t be able to reach the shadow, at least not enough to hurt it. But maybe she didn’t need to…
The figure strode forward. She threw the door wide open, lightning bursting out of her fingertips. Purple contrasting against the last red rays of the sunset.

“Stay back!” she yelled, lowering her hand just enough for the electricity to strike the snow, causing it to steam and hiss. But the shadow continued undeterred. “One more step and I’ll bring out my staff.”
The shadow raised its hands. Could Templars dispel magic without a weapon as easily as a mage could cast it?
With little other options she let out one more intense bout of lightning. The crack of energy made the hairs free of her braid to frizz and stand on end. In the burst of light she leapt to the bed and grabbed her staff. She turned back, blinked, a kaleidoscope of colour crossing her vision, the moss green crystal on the end of her weapon pointed at the entrance, the adrenaline pulsing through veins causing it to quiver in her grip. Painstakingly slowly everything came back into focus. Yet the figure still didn’t attack. It just kept its arms up.

“I stopped, just as you ordered. And you still got your weapon?” it stated in a raspy yet placid voice.
The last sparks of lightning faded into the dusk sky.

“I have none of my own. I have no intention of harming you,” it elaborated when she failed to respond beyond lowering her staff slightly.

“Why didn’t you say that earlier?” she finally managed to get out.

“I was about to. But your attacks made it difficult for me to communicate this to you.”

“I wasn’t attacking you, I was threatening you,” she squinted out at them. They appeared to be wearing some kind of robe with the hood up that threw shadow over the parts of their face that weren’t covered by a fair beard. They couldn’t be a mage, could they? Where was their staff?

“Hmm, understandable I suppose, being a lone apostate one must be cautious.”

“Are you alone as well,” she cursed herself for confirming she was by herself.

“I am. And I assure you I found this place the same way I assume you did: sheer luck,” they shifted where the stood, lowering their arms and clenching and unclenching their fists to return the blood flow. “I’m very cold, may I come in? I promise you I’m not a Templar.”

“Well, I figured out that much,” she brought the staff to her side but kept a firm grip on it. “Who are you?”

“Martin Amell. Formerly of the Ferelden Circle of Magi. And you are?”

“Ariel Lavellan,” she relaxed a little at this news. He may be a world away from her, but they had one thing in common at least: magic.

“A pleasure to meet you,” he smiled with only his mouth. “So, am I allowed in, or shall I keep walking? I’m sorry to press you on this matter, but as I said, it’s very cold out here.”

She gave him another once over with her eyes and noticed his right sleeve had been singed by her magic.

“…You can stay until the snow stops falling,” She stood aside to let him through.

“Thank you,” he nodded and entered.

He sat down on the bed as Ariel pulled that lantern out of her pack. It took a few attempts to light the candle within (fire magic was not her strong suit). But just as she thought of asking her fellow mage for help a spark caught the wick and the cottage was bathed in a low orange light. Martin’s face was very pale, combined with his thin lips and large dark brown eyes it made him look sickly. She wondered if it was from being trapped in a Circle tower, perhaps they didn’t have any windows there. And then there was the faint mark on his forehead, partially obscured by the shadow of his hood…
She didn’t realise she’d been staring until he gave her that polite smile again.

“So…have you travelled far?” she awkwardly took a seat and placed her staff on the table.

“Yes, I was near Ostagar when I heard news of the Conclave,” he lowered his hood, a few strands of greasy dirty blonde hair falling on his face.

“Ah,” she nodded as if the name rang more than a small bell for her.

She couldn’t take her eyes of that mark, she could see now it was a circle, too neat to be a scar. And his complexion wasn’t natural, there were lines across his cheeks and swirls around the mark which suggested he’d painted his face like she’d heard rich human ladies liked to do.

“What about you?”

“The Free Marches,” like her name she saw no reason not to tell the truth. People from all over Thedas had converged here for the Conclave.

“Is that where the rest of your clan is now?”

“How did you-”

“Your face tattoos.”

“Oh…of course,” she moved her hand away from her staff. Blood rushed to her mortified face, the sudden heat making her pull her hood off. Creators, she’d been travelling for weeks now, how could she still forget about her damn vallaslin! Well, in her defence most people gave away when it was visible by staring at her, and sometimes worse. “…Yes.”

“Why did they send you to The Conclave alone?” he didn't sound concerned, or even curious. In fact, everything he’d said had been delivered with a flat, factual, calm. It may have made all his questions sound less like an interrogation, but it also made him completely unreadable.

“Did they teach you some mind reading magic in The Circle?” she tried to make it sound more like a joke than an actual inquiry.

“No, I just see any other reason you’d be so far away from them.”

“Well, I’m the only other mage they have. And obviously our Keeper can’t come.”

“I see,” it was Martin’s turn to nod as if he understood her completely. “And I thought being thrust out of the safety of The Circle back into the outside world was surreal. At least I was still raised in civilisation, albeit an island one. Not that the Dalish aren’t civilised. They’re just…different.”

“Well, I managed to get here on time, so I suppose we’re not completely hopeless out of the woods,” with no human trinkets or mysterious shadows to distract her anymore she became aware of the hunger grinding away at her stomach.

“And yet here you are. In the abandoned shack of a woodsman a good two miles or so from Haven.”

“Huh, I thought it was a woodsman,” she smiled at this confirmation as she rooted through her backpack. “I thought it would be faster to avoid the traffic on the roads by cutting through the forest, re-join further up. But I didn’t take the snow into account.”

It was still better than suffocating in the village. Sitting by the fire with the clan could be draining enough for her, let alone a human settlement with its narrow muddy roads and static stone buildings stuffed to bursting point.

“Are you hungry? I have some bread, some cheese, and some cured meats,” She pulled out the greasy paper bag with all these things inside. Martin appeared to think for a moment. “I also have bandages, and a poultice for that arm.”

Martin probed the tare in his coat.

“I think I need a sewing needle more than bandages, the lightning barely touched my skin.”

“Ah, well, I suppose that’s one good thing about this weather: makes you put on extra padding,” she couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed at this. Whether it was the way he brushed off her power or that she couldn’t easily make amends for her hastiness in using it she didn’t know.

“Although I wouldn’t mind some cheese. Not wise to sleep on a completely empty stomach.”

“Of course,” she broke a sizable bit off the yellow and handed it to him.

They ate in silence, the wooden boards of the cabin creaking and groaning as it constricted against the cold air outside. Ariel drew those letters closer to her, studying their words in the candlelight. She couldn’t cipher much from them. Like many Dalish elves she’d been raised bilingual due to the patchy preservation of her mother tongue, but only in the spoken word. Most of the books she’d studied under Keeper Deshanna were in Elvish. In fact she couldn’t get past the first couple of lines (basic greetings and ‘I hope this finds you well’) without the urge to whisper every word under her breath, which she didn’t want to do in the presence of Martin. He probably thought her being here was ridiculous enough without learning she could barely read the common language or whatever humans called it. And she’d heard somewhere talking with your mouth full was very offensive to them.

She folded the papers up and stuffed them into the overflowing backpack.

“I doubt you would get much for those,” the mage piped up.

“For what?” she mumbled through a mouthful of crusty bread. So much for etiquette.

“For the things you looted from this place, and a few others by the looks of things,” he nodded at the backpack.

“Looting?! I’m not looting…I’m collecting,” she quickly did the bag back up and nudged it closer to her with her foot.

“For what purpose?”

“What purpose? Uh…” she struggled to swallow the last of the dry bread down. “…research.” She finally said as if she’d only just learned the meaning of the word.

“Research?”

“Yes. It’s not like I ran into humans, every day.”

“I see,” he clearly did not. “Does that research include this gigantic sword at my feet?”

The candlelight stroked the blade on the floor, making its surface appear molten.

“Considering I can barely lift the thing, probably not,” but then she didn’t like the prospect of leaving such a weapon where anyone could find it.

“Then I think I’ll like to take it with me. I don’t know if I can make much use of it myself, but a Grey Warden-issued great sword would serve as a good deterrent against any bandits.”

“What would you need a sword for? You have your magic.”

“Oh, I don’t have any magic,” he started rubbing his forehead.

“But, you said you used to be with the Ferelden Circle…” the realisation of what he was saying hit her stomach before her brain.

“I was…” he brought his hand back to his side revealing the mark on his forehead to be some kind of brand. A brand in the shape of something even she knew well: the sunburst of The Chantry. “…You have heard of the Tranquil, haven’t you?”

Yes, she had: ‘If you stray too close to the shemlen’s village, Da’lin, the Templars will lock you away in a big tower. And if you don’t do everything they say they’ll take away all your magic and your dreams. In fact, you’ll have no emotions at all!’ Of course, she never doubted the existence of the Templars. She’d heard human traders mutter about them through sideways glances at her and Keeper Deshanna’s staffs on the few occasions the clan did business with them. The Tranquil, on the other hand: an out of control rumour at best, a complete horror story at worst. And yet here was a mage with no staff sitting across from her with a face as blank as a mask and a voice as monotone as they come.

The intuitive unease she’d first felt rippled through the rest of her body, putting her hands back on her staff. Martin stared at her with those dark stones of eyes set into a white face.

“Hmm…it seems you have. I suppose elves have just as much of a hard time understanding that means I have no desire to hurt you. Or do anything to you for that matter,” saying this in that flat voice of his made him sound more patronising than reassuring.

“…What did you do?” she finally asked.

“Excuse me?”

“What did you do to have that done to you?” a sticky sickly feeling clung to the back of her throat. Such an unimaginable punishment must be for an unimaginable crime.

“I simply didn’t want to risk the Harrowing. And it really was a risk for me. From what I remember my magic was only strong when I was angry, which only served to make me even angrier. Exactly the sort of frustration a demon would exploit.”

“But even if your magic was weak it was still yours. And you emotions-”

“You didn’t grow up in the Circle. You wouldn’t understand,” he didn’t sound angry (of course he didn’t), but there was a finality to his words that plunged them into a silence that only fuelled Ariel’s anxiety. “…I don’t feel nothing exactly. I feel…a general sense of…wells, tranquillity. Like the levity you feel when you realise you’ve been dreaming. Whatever imaginary monsters were chasing you were just that, figments of your mind. They cannot bother you anymore, let alone hurt you. You can just keep on walking until wake up.”

“Except you’ll never wake up,” Ariel pulled her staff into her lap, running her hands along it absentmindedly. The action didn’t sooth her. Instead she imagined that village on the other side of the woods. How many of the mages sleeping there tonight were like Martin? Did they accept their fate as gladly as he did? How many more Tranquil will be made if this Divine woman ruled in favour of the Templars?

“Why did you come here, Martin? What do you hope will happen at The Conclave?”

“I hope that order will be restored. That I can return to my work enchanting runes,” Martin shuffled closer to the other window.

“You want to go back to the people that did this to you, to a prison!”

He didn’t return her shocked stare.

“It wasn’t a prison to me, it was a sanctuary. I certainly didn’t leave it of my own accord, I was rather forcibly taken by some mages when things fell apart, something about not wanting to leave anyone behind. Well,” he wiped the grime away with his sleeve. “As you can see, they did leave me in the end.”

“Oh…I’m so sorry,” she looked back down at her staff.

“Don’t be. I should’ve seen it coming, mages have never really liked being around me. And ordinary people I’ve encountered who don’t know what to think. Hence the face paint, makes things easier,” he leaned closer to the glass, narrowing his eyes. “I think the snow has settled now.”

He rose and pulled his hood up.

“Wait,” her chair scraped against the wooden floor as she rose out it. Martin stopped and waited for a follow up that didn’t seem to want to come out. Her stomach still clenched at the thought of sleeping in this cabin with him. But if she let him go now she knew her guilt wouldn’t let her sleep at all. “…You stay, I’ll go.”

“It’s quite alright, I-”

“I have a tent somewhere in here,” she hauled the heavy pack back onto her shoulders. “And lantern.” She picked it up, causing the light swirl around the room. “That is, unless you don’t have any candles.”

“I have no concerns about the dark, and I’ve got a sword now,” he nudged the blade on the floor again.

“Good,” with her staff by her side and started towards the door. “Well...have a safe journey.”

Martin blocked her way. Even after everything, she couldn’t help taking a step back.

“If you do insist on going, take this,” he reached into the depths of his pocket. “You’ll need it more than I will to blend in with the Circle mages.”

He handed her a tin about the size of her palm. She screwed it open to find a white paste with clear tracks from when he’d applied it to his face.

“Thank you,” she smiled as she transferred it to one of her own pockets.

They gave each other a final awkward nod before she set out into the growing night.

“Fenedhis lasa,” she hissed as the wind bit into her exposed ears. As she wrestled it for her hood she couldn’t help but turn back to the cabin, but the door had already been shut.