Her hair was free from its braids, and it whipped around her face in the savage wind. It was like moonlight, woven into cords, unbound for the moment so that it could reach towards the twilit plains and remember the feeling of the night sky. She was never allowed to wear her hair loose when she was awake and had never before felt the breeze lift it from her scalp and brush it against her horns.
There were many things she could not do when awake, but this thing she would long for the most. Feeling the wind, truly feeling it, was unlike anything she had ever experienced before. It was in the fade, and it was imagined, or remembered, or however many ways there were to describe something that was not real, but it was as tangible as she would ever get, and she would cherish it for what it was.
They had perched themselves atop a large hill, overlooking a valley with a massive road carved through the middle like a gash upon the landscape, white cut through velvet green and bleeding crumbled stonework into the dirt below. It was paved with large pieces of granite that looked like they had been impossible to move, each block as large as the modest houses in Par Vollen. She didn’t understand how people could make such a thing. What had it taken to construct something so grand? A hundred people? A thousand people?
She shied away from the word, even in her own thoughts. It was better to hide from it, always, than to risk slipping into too much comfort during the day. To be comfortable meant to be careless, and to be careless meant to be caught. She did not like to think about what it meant to be caught.
The Qun was supposed to make her strong, to bring her peace in the knowledge that she was part of the whole, a piece of a network that could not be broken. She knew the day her fingers had melted the sweets she had stolen, singing the sugar so that it smoked against her palm, that she was not part of this whole. She was an imperfection, a mismatched cog in the machine, a wart that should be removed the moment it was to be discovered.
She was nothing and no one, a mere baker who longed for the privilege to bake something other than bread. She was not important to the army, she did not hold up the pillars of her society like the tamassrans. Yet still, they would come for her if they knew. They would bind her, more than just her braids, and she would be a baker no more. She did not want that, not ever, and so she made herself smaller, day by day, so that she could slip through the gaps in the Ben-Hassrath’s vigilant gaze.
Here, though, she was not a baker. Here she was a mage, standing tall and proud next to her Traveler. Here it was not the middle of the night, but the first brush of dusk, and they were free atop the hill as they waited to see what was in store for them. He had promised that the Uthvir never failed to take him someplace interesting, and so they waited, enjoying the peace for what it was. She drank it in and wondered if she would ever taste something so sweet again.
They heard the song before they saw the people. It was at first a whisper, something caught in the breeze and whipped past her ears too quickly to tell if it had been real or created in the depths of her imagination. A figment of the wild, nothing more. Gradually it grew, as a buzz and then as a hum, the rhythm pounding across the plains to announce their arrival. She stood, leaning on her tiptoes and squinting in the direction it seemed to be coming from, desperate for a glimpse of the source. Like ants they marched over the curve of the horizon, and with each step closer she felt as though she were shrinking to make them bigger, rather than their approach increasing their size.
There were hundreds of them, humans beyond counting. They marched at a steady pace, keeping rhythm with a song that put fire in her blood and indescribable hope in her heart. Their faces were grim and determined, holding as steady as the ranks that they kept, their eyes full of battle and rebellion. She had never seen such passion in a Qunari, not ever, and it made her yearn for things she could not explain. Emotions echoed in person after person, the light in the depths of their souls emblazoned as mirrors that reflected at each other, building in strength with each new iteration. To see it was like watching a pyre burn the flesh from bone, like feeling the last of a person leave the world in the embers that floated to the stars.
It was not their march that stole her breath away, though. It was not their passion, nor their determination. What made her gasp and still her lungs was the woman in the front, who opened her mouth and created a sound that could not have been mortal.
Her hair was fire, wild waves of red bound back with a band of silver and gold, to match her brilliant armor. She marched at the front of the horde, and though she was easily the shortest one there, she seemed larger than even the mountains. She was enormous, vast, and she filled the world with sound that was so sweet, and so miraculous, that Eva felt tears begin to build in her eyes. The men and women behind her joined their sound with hers, creating a harmony that echoed across the aubergine sky. She called, and they answered. That simple exchange created music that stirred the hearts of the world.
As the tears rushed across her face, Eva saw others join them in their vantage point, spirits blinking into existence out of thin air and pulsing with the rhythm of the march. They clustered around the army, a barrier of light and admiration, and she wondered if any of them felt their presence, if the humans knew the help that they had in their shadows.
The veil was a fog obscuring them from one another, separating them from the ranks of worshipers who sought only to be closer to the melody of war. The spirits wept trails of glitter and light, yearning to be with the humans, longing to aid their cause. For the humans it meant nothing, a soft draft of air when the wind was still, a glimmer of light when the sun had gone and no more. For Eva, it meant a riot of color and sound that made her feel so plain, and so very lonely. Only in dreams could she stand next to such grace, and always locked away in the prison of her mind.
She wiped her eyes, taking a bracing breath. “I have never heard a human make such beautiful sounds.”
“Nor have I.” The Traveler began striding forward at a languid pace, his hands clasped together behind his back. He was tall for an elf, and far more regal compared to the viddathari that lived in Par Vollen. His jawline was cut from stone, and he had hands that were soft in most places, with callouses where his staff had made them hard. By Qunari standards, he would be considered too thin and frail, but Eva still found his presence imposing, as though he took up more space than he did.
Of all his features, though, she liked his eyes the best. When he spoke or smiled, it was not his lips that held the message, but his gaze. His eyes were blue like the storm-drowned seas, but they held kindness and wisdom, unlike any she had seen before. She had not known him for long, but from watching his eyes as he spoke, she knew that he was kind and that he liked to teach. She fell into step behind him as he ambled down the hill and smiled to herself as he began lecturing her again while they shadowed the army as it crossed the plain.
“This human is a special case.” He smiled faintly as he spoke, and she strained to divide her attention between his information and the battle hymn. “There has not been a woman more legendary for song than was Andraste, not before her time and never again after. Her voice lifted a rebellion out of the hearts of people who had been trodden on for centuries, kindling flames that had been cold for too long.”
“Rebellion.” She whispered the word to herself, feeling something terrifying and desirable in the handful of syllables.
Eva had spent her life trying to blend in, to flow with the tide so as not to be discovered. She wasn’t sure she understood what it meant to rebel, nor what it would take to lead so many people in the act. She was afraid, often of everything, but hearing the woman’s song, Eva would have liked to think that she would have followed. If she had heard such a voice in her time, she would like to think that she would have left the dough un-kneaded and joined in the ranks of those that marched.
In a dark, quiet part of her mind, a voice reminded her that she would not have. She would bow her head and obey, as she always did, because Eva had no courage for such things. The song would pass her by, and she would find her end with all the regrets of a woman who did not have the bravery to sing.
Night sank deeper around them, and as the last of the sunlight faded, the army lit torches, their fires popping beneath the hymn on their lips. Something about the fire made it feel like something more, like the song’s spell grew stronger as it fed on the flames. The night met the orange glow of a hundred points of blazing defiance, a handful of stars stolen from the sky to guide them in their holy purpose. Eva had never believed in such a word, had never felt that the world had anything so wonderful as could be considered holy, but in this she could see why people thought such things. In this moment, she, too, believed.
“Where are they going?” she kept her voice low, afraid to disturb the air despite the fact that she knew she could not be seen. Not by them, at any rate. The spirits gathered around them, playfully waving and darting across their paths. The Traveler nodded his head to them in greeting but did not offer more interaction than that.
“Andraste’s history is not a peaceful one, I am afraid. The reward for rebellion is freedom, but the cost is far higher than many can know.” He paused, and Eva worried that she had offended him somehow as his brows knit together above the bridge of his nose. The wrinkles in his face told a story, a story that did not look like it had a happy ending as he changed before her, turning to a bitter man whose shadows ran deeper than could be measured.
Before she could ask after it, he was himself again, smiling with even peace and leaving her feeling as though the moment had existed only in her head. “I believe they are marching to one of the larger battles that her followers faced on their way to overtake the Imperium.”
Eva stumbled over her feet at the mention of her people’s bitter foe. “The Imperium? You mean Tevinter?”
He nodded sagely. “The very same. Andraste, moved by the plight of those kept in chains in the Imperium, revolted against them, gathering a legion of rebels every step of the way.”
“I have heard stories of Tevinter. Of how many men they hide in their towers, like rats.” She looked out over the expanse of the army, and it no longer seemed as vast. “I am thinking this army does not look like enough to exterminate them.”
“It is not.” The admission was flat, with the faintest notes of sadness hidden in his eyes, and Eva felt her heart sink. “History would see that Andraste received more aid before she was through, but at this moment, their cause is all but hopeless.”
She stopped, halting in the middle of the road and sending a spirit careening in a tailspin as it avoided her abrupt change of pace. It made a strange sound at her, like the chiming of a broken bell, before disappearing within the crowds of the now receding horde.
“Why do they still fight? If it is hopeless, why would they march into battles they cannot win?”
He turned from her, gazing at the people fading into the night, some of whom might not make it to see the day if he was correct. “They believe it is the right thing to do.”
Something in his voice broke her heart, and she hung her head. “They will die for their cause, and then there will be no one left to fight for it.” She felt his eyes on her, but she didn’t meet his gaze.
“There is wisdom in that, Eva.” His approval was apparent, but it did little to cheer her spirits. She sighed, letting her eyes drift back to the march, watching the firelight blink out in the distance, one row at a time. It was beautiful, to see such a group with her own eyes, to feel their song stir things within her she had not thought existed. It was also tragic, to know something so wonderful could be destroyed so easily.
He knew that there was little he could do to waylay the heartbreak in his new friend’s eyes. She had seen something that the strongest of magics could not replicate, and she had learned of the cost they had paid for such beauty. Many of Andraste’s forces died on the morning of the battle they had just watched them march to. Andraste herself had escaped, and she had gone on to win many more victories, but ultimately, she had paid for her faith. Her faith in whatever spirit she thought a god, her faith in people, her faith in those that she had loved the most. These had been her downfall, in the end, as betrayal had seen her thrown to the flame as penance for her brazen belief in freedom. The world was not kind to the faithful.
The suggestion to leave was warm on his lips when the words stilled, halting as his breath ceased, his heart faltering. Eva lifted her eyes up to the sky, brimming with tears that she would not allow to fall, filled with sorrow and admiration that was only afforded to those that had so little in life to lose. She closed them, and with the starlight bathing her face in silver softness, she opened her mouth and began to sing.
It was a whisper, at first, her lips moving around the unfamiliar words with an accent that was strange yet sincere. As her heart felt the melody, her throat filled with sound, spilling Andraste’s hymn into the air with as much passion as the soldiers of the rebellion. Her voice was sweeter than he would have thought possible, honey and amber sugar, warmed by the fire and served with a blossom’s first bloom.
It called to the spirits around them, drawing them from the ether of the fade, and they materialized in the remembered moonlight, echoing her notes with their own bright keening. He was amid the stars and the firefly dances of the spirits, and he reveled in the sound, in the sweet memory of a rebellion that did so much and so little for so few and so many. Eva, the blushing mage with a fathomless heart, paid homage to those that were lost for their faith.
It was painful to know that such beauty yet stirred in this world that often felt shattered. His silence, its own song that filled him to brimming with restless doubts that could find no stillness, stretched out before him as he listened. He was not yet sure what he would do with his quiet and the knowledge of this beauty. Nor was he sure if the directive could be found, as perhaps it would remain a question whose answer was myriad and incomprehensible. What he was sure of, with a certainty that changed the way he viewed the world through eyes that had seen it take too many forms, was that he was very glad he had invited Eva on his travels.