Actions

Work Header

Liminal Loyalties

Chapter Text

“Well,” Ser Raine remarked as he kicked dirt over the ashes of the fire. “That’s the last night we’ll spend on the road, Maker willing. We’ll be at Krisholm Circle by tonight.”

Emmit glared at him from the ground where he was sitting. Raine had found some decent clothing for him to wear at the last village, because his original shirt had been filthy with blood and worse things. His blond plait was half undone, and probably had a leaf stuck in it, but he couldn’t pull it out and redo it like he wanted to because his hands were tied in front of him.

“Really? Still with the silent treatment?” Raine clucked disapprovingly. “It’s been four days, Emmit, you have to speak eventually.”

“No, I don’t,” Emmit said. He watched the Templar sullenly as he finished saddling up his horse and resettling all of his packs. Raine’s armour was scorched and battered, and his face crusted with dark stubble, but his sword was sharp. More importantly to Emmit, he still had a vial of lyrium tucked away on his person somewhere, so he wasn’t going to be running out today.

Raine looked down at him, and a serious expression crossed his face. “Actually, fellow-me-lad, you rather do. Like I said, we’ll be at the Circle before tonight, and we need to talk about some things before we get there.” He settled onto his haunches in front of Emmit, and raised his eyebrows. “Can you be civil for ten minutes for that?”

“No,” Emmit said. “I still can’t believe you’re doing this. You absolute asshole. I saved your life.”

“I know you did,” Raine said calmly. “I was there.”

“And you’re still dragging me to the Maker-damned Circle!” Emmit struggled against his bonds in a moment of impotent fury. “How could you? You bastard. You only got the drop on me because I was out cold.”

“You think you would’ve got away in a fair fight?”

“Yes!”

The horse flicked its ears back, annoyed by his raised voice. It sidestepped away a little and shook its head with a jingle of tack.

Raine shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. Luckily the question didn’t arise.”

“You son of a bitch. You couldn’t bend the rules just this once? Maybe just say to yourself, hey, that mage is unconscious because he just held a horde of demons back from roasting me in my armour -”  

“Emmit –”

“Maybe I’ll have the common decency to let him wake up, and refrain from tying him up like a chicken and throwing him on a horse!”

“This thing is not for show, you know,” Raine said lightly. He gestured at his chest, where the sunburst pattern was still visible under scorchmarks. “I did what I could.”

“You could have let me go!”

“No, I couldn’t,” Raine said. “You want me to bend the rules for you? I already have. By rights I should have put a sword in your chest as soon as I met you.”

Emmit huffed out a breath. He resented it a little – hey, I could have murdered you out of hand and I didn’t, aren’t I magnanimous – but he was grateful for that. Honestly, before this week, if someone had told Emmit he would be having even a semi-reasonable conversation with a templar he would have laughed.

“I know. I appreciate it,” he said grudgingly. “That’s why I helped you. But I was kind of expecting that, you know, since I did that, you could have made an exception. Even just a head start? Even templars are human.”

Raine looked pensive. “You’re right, Emmit, we are. I’ve met corrupt templars before. Men and women who make exceptions, do favours for friends. You can find people who’ll look the other way for just about anything as long as you toss them enough lyrium.” Raine’s mouth thinned to a line. “If I let you go then I might as well be one of them. So no. No, I cannot make an exception to the rules for the man who saved my life. I’m bending them as far as I dare, though, so do you want to listen to my advice?”

Emmit let his head fall back to look up at the sky for a long moment. He was out of attractive options, and the Circle seemed like an inevitability at this point.

All those years , hiding and being cautious and coming up with plausible excuses. All that careful experimentation and practice. All over, now.

Who’s going to defend everybody on the road now? he wondered desolately. They need me. Don’t they know they need me? Doesn’t Ben know they need me? They’ll be sorry I’m not there next time they try to take the route through the Badlands.

“Raine, are the other templars just going to kill me when we get there?”

Raine sighed. He stood up, his armour scraping and ringing. “Maybe,” he said. Emmit appreciated that he didn’t lie. “I’ll try and convince them not to. The trouble is that you’re a hedge mage.”

Emmit craned his neck back to look up at him. “What’s that?”

“You’ve never been taught magic properly. So there’s a chance that you… can’t be taught anymore. You’re too old, too set in your ways, your mind can’t learn to work like it needs to.” Raine spread his hands. “I don’t actually know if that’s you or not. Usually we have no choice but to kill adult apostates who haven’t had any proper training. Most people would say that I shouldn’t be taking you to the Circle at all, that I should have killed you as soon as it became clear you weren’t trained.”

“I did have that book,” Emmit offered. “Is that enough?”

“I don’t know,” Raine said. “All I can do is take you there so we can see if you’re capable of being taught. So. Are you going to let me help you? Or are you going to pout the rest of the way to the Circle and then throw a tantrum at my esteemed brother templars?” He folded his arms, looked down at Emmit with raised eyebrows.

Emmit didn’t answer for a few moments.

“That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way,” Raine said. “You’re completely at liberty to choose the tantrum. I’ll be sad, because I like you, but it won’t be my fault.”

Emmit’s shoulders slumped. “Okay.”

“Okay? Okay what?”

“Okay! I’ll be civil! I’ll listen to your advice.” He clenched his fists in his lap. “Whatever it takes for them to not kill me.”

Raine gave him a lopsided grin. “Smart boy.” He took out his knife, made a ‘give’ motion with his fingers until Emmit raised his bound wrists. “You going to behave?”

Emmit nodded. Raine cut his hands free.

“So here’s what we’re going to do,” Raine said, helping him stand. “I’ll talk to the Knight-Captain for you. I’ll tell him about the abominations we fought, that you’ve been using your magic for noble purposes – which you have – and that you didn’t hesitate to step in when my life was in danger. And, here is the important bit, I tell him you cooperated fully with me. Obviously that’s only going to work if you aren’t hissing and spitting at everyone like a feral cat.”

“I’ll try to restrain myself,” Emmit muttered, stretching and rolling his shoulders.

“You’re young, you’re what, sixteen?”

Seventeen. Almost eighteen.” Despite all the more important things going on, Emmit was annoyed. He didn’t look that young. Being short was irritating sometimes. He began to comb his hair out with his fingers, more for something to do than anything else.

Raine flicked his fingers impatiently. “Tell them you’re sixteen. It’s not common but there are apprentices who enter the Circle that old.”

He went to his horse, soothed it with a few murmured words and a gentle hand on its neck. He mounted with practiced grace despite the armour.

“So, basically, step one: lie like rugs to the templars,” Emmit said.

“Naturally,” Raine said, with another grin. “We both have plenty of practice so we should be fine. Up you get.”

Emmit regarded his offered hand with distaste. 

Still time to blast him and run. He untied your hands, more fool him. You’re not that tired, you could take one man and a horse.

But, for one thing, this wasn’t a man, it was a templar. Raine negated just about all Emmit’s advantages and reduced him with a blow to a slightly built young man with no weapons and no armour.

For another thing… Emmit could count the number of actual human beings he’d killed on the fingers of one hand. And Raine was… not as bad a person as he easily could have been.

With considerably more difficulty and some swearing, Raine pulled Emmit up behind him.

 

                                                                                                                     ***

 

Reece was in the chapel of the Krisholm Circle of Magi. There was no service happening at the moment; the small hall was hushed, the darkness and emptiness pressed comfortingly against him like a cool cloth. The light from the Eternal Flame gleamed gold from the statues and icons, and was swallowed up in the velvety red darkness of hangings and corners.

He lit his candle with a surreptitious flick of his fingers. He probably shouldn’t do that, but there was nobody to see. He hoped the Maker wouldn’t mind.

He set it into place at the foot of the statue, fixing it there with a little melted wax, and retreated a few steps. Folding his hands into the sleeves of his robe, he fixed his eyes on the wavering little teardrop of his candle flame. He dug into his memory and found a hymn to murmur under his breath.

What he really wanted was some time alone to think. He didn’t know what he was asking the Maker for. Maybe for guidance? Grace? Maybe just understanding.  

Things had changed since his Harrowing. Reece wanted to actually do something now, something useful, something other than avoid his peers, read books other people had written and feel sorry for himself. Surely the Maker would approve of that? 

He had never been especially interested in studying how magic itself worked. But now, after the Harrowing… he circled the idea carefully, probing at it like an injury, waiting for it to hurt and tell him he’d gone too far.

Of course, there were other options. He was interested in learning more healing. Maybe he could try to get a posting to one of the healing centres outside the Circle?  

He didn’t really pay attention when someone else entered the chapel. When they walked behind him, he glanced away from the candle to them. It was a templar, one who didn’t look very familiar. Perhaps he’d transferred recently. There were a fair few new faces in the Krisholm Circle Templar contingent lately – their own Knight-Captain had only been here a few months.

Reece would have bowed his head again, but to his surprise, the templar paused and approached him.

“Hello,” he said, his voice a little hushed. He was tall, fair-haired and freckled, perhaps a few years older than Reece. “It’s Reece, isn’t it?”

Reece blinked at him, taken aback. Reece was not afraid of templars. To be honest, he almost forgot they were there some of the time – they had been as much a fixture of his classrooms and living areas as the bookshelves or the walls for the past ten years. They were just people. At times he even found their presence comforting.

He reminded himself of this firmly. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, it is.”

The templar smiled. “Somewhat belated, but congratulations on passing your Harrowing.”

“Oh,” Reece said, relieved. He’d had many mages and even a few templars say that to him. “Thank you, ser.”

“Word in the barracks was that you probably would.” The templar looked around. “I’ve seen you in here before. You come often?”

Reece fiddled with the fraying trim on one of his sleeves. “The chapel is here for mages as well as templars…”

“Oh, sure, but most of you prefer to stay away. Especially these days.” The templar shrugged. “Don’t let me bother you.” He turned away. 

Reece sighed and looked back to his candle as the templar made his way to the front of the chapel, presumably to talk to the Sister. Reece didn’t think of himself as especially devout.

The face of Andraste shone down at him, solemn and fierce, alive with shivering shadows. Reece smiled up at it sadly, then untucked his hands and padded quietly away.

 

                                                                                                              ****

 

Knight-Captain Laurent frowned out the window of his office.

“I don’t understand what you were doing there on your own in the first place,” he said. “Requiring rescue by the apostate mage you’re supposed to be hunting.”

Raine at least had the grace to look a little embarrassed. “If I’d realised there were that many blood mages hiding up there I would have waited for backup, Knight-Captain. It was my mistake and I take full responsibility.” He’d had had time to clean up before giving this report, but he still looked scruffy, dark hair disordered, grime under his fingernails. It annoyed Laurent.

You, he thought, are an example of the kind of thing the Knight-Commander transferred me here to deal with.

Laurent disliked the man intensely, but didn’t actually have any proof of wrongdoing from him. He  was good at the actual business of hunting down apostates, which Laurent was forced to admit was more important at this point than how smartly he turned out. But if Laurent could ever find any evidence of the petty corruption he suspected was hiding behind that smirk, Raine would be in some serious trouble that his family wouldn’t be able to get him out of, good at killing mages or not.

Whatever he thought of Raine, he had to admit this wasn’t an easy case. “He’s had no training at all?” Laurent asked. “Not even from a friend or relative who might have spent time in the Circle?”

“No,” Raine said. “He taught himself out of a book. And it’s a clean book, too, there’s nothing forbidden in it that I could see. All Chantry-approved.”

“Hmm,” Laurent said noncommittally. Some of Laurent’s peers were of the opinion that any mage, left without the guidance of the Chantry and the guardianship of the Templar Order, would unavoidably turn to blood magic and foul rituals. Laurent didn’t hold to that view. Still, could a single book really be said to compensate for the lack a Circle education? 

“He’s half a child, really,” Raine said, his gaze sliding away awkwardly. “I think he could be taught, Knight-Captain.”

“The question is, does he want to be taught?”

Raine shrugged, a habit that Laurent thought made men look sloppy. “I think so. He wasn’t exactly thrilled to see me, but when it came down to it he didn’t run, and I think I’ve impressed on him how much safer it is for him to be here.”

Sixteen. Well. All it would take was a writ from Laurent and the boy would be Tranquil and the very definition of safe. He sat down at his desk and drummed his fingers on the table in thought.

He didn’t want to risk the lives of the people under his care due to sentimentality. You could kill almost as many people through sentimentality as you could through negligence.

It was a serious thing, to issue a writ for the Rite of Tranquillity, and Laurent didn’t ever want to get to the point where it was routine for him. That would surely mean there was something very wrong with the way they were teaching or raising mages, if the Rite of Tranquillity were so often needed it became banal. Laurent believed you needed to give mages a chance to prove they were strong enough.

“Very well,” he said abruptly. “He can be admitted to the Circle as an apprentice on a probationary basis. Once the Enchanters in charge of his teaching have assessed him, we will make a final decision as to whether he can be taught or not.”

Raine saluted. Was that a hint of relief in his posture? “Very good, Knight-Captain. Will that be all?”

“Not quite,” Laurent said. He made eye contact, his expression flat. “My predecessor might have put up with templars on field missions running off alone doing whatever they want, Raine, but I won’t. Stay with your intended partner from now on. Do I make myself clear?”

“Crystal, Knight-Captain,” Raine said, staring at a point past his left ear.

“Good. Dismissed.”

Laurent pressed his fingers against the bridge of his nose for a moment once the man had left, sighing. Raine was not the only member of this chapter with poor discipline; Laurent wished he were. A dozen minor disciplinary matters called for his attention, and he knew for a fact there would be a dozen more his subordinates weren’t telling him about. People had gotten used to lax standards.

Lax standards killed people. Laurent was not going to have them kill people on his watch.

He had so much paperwork on his desk. When had the job started involving all of this?

He was halfway through the stack when he heard the sound of an argument going on outside his door.  He tried to ignore it – that was the point of having an office door, after all, and he wanted this paperwork done so he could get out and about this afternoon.

But it was awfully persistent. Eventually he put his pen down with a sigh.

“C’mon, recruit, Laurent and I are old friends,” he heard a familiar voice say. “You’d know this already if you’d been here longer than ten minutes. He’ll have time for me.”

“If mages wish to speak with the Knight-Captain they can submit a request.” The tone was that of somebody with extensive patience who was nevertheless reaching the end of it. “You do not have an appointment to speak with the Knight-Captain today. You may submit a request to me and I will pass it on.”

“All right. Please go and tell Knight-Captain Laurent that I’m here and I’d like to talk to him. I’ll wait here.”

“Not now. You’ll get an appointment sometime later in the -”

Laurent jerked the door open and leaned out. “Hester, what are you doing?”

Both the people standing by the door startled and looked around. One was the templar recruit stationed outside his office today, her feet planted firmly and lines of annoyance between her eyebrows.

The other was a compact elven woman with snapping eyes and a bundled-back mass of brown ringlets, a carved wooden staff in her hand.

“Laurent, I need to talk to you,” she said immediately.

 “I’m sorry, Knight-Captain,” the recruit said, glaring at Hester. “I shouldn’t have –”

“No, it’s fine,” Laurent sighed. It wasn’t the recruit’s fault Hester was stubborn. “Not your fault. Get in here, Hester.”

She smiled and stepped inside. “Long time no see. Knight-Captain.”

“Hester,” he said in exasperation as he closed the door. “You need to go through the proper channels. You can’t just show up and expect to see me because you knew me before I was appointed.”

“What, I need to make an appointment to talk to my friend?” Hester said, raising an eyebrow.

“If it’s about some kind of official matter, which I’m guessing it is because I don’t know why else you would be here, then yes. You do.” He sat down behind his desk and frowned up at her. “What do you want so urgently to talk to me about?”

“This business with the cancellation of all travel permits, Laurent, it’s utterly ridiculous!” Hester leaned her staff against his desk, the better to gesticulate as she paced. “Bad enough you won’t approve any new ones, but the longstanding permits! Some of the Enchanters have projects months in the making! And what about the healers assigned to Meike’s Crossing?”

Laurent pressed his lips together. “The healers will already be on their way back to the Circle,” he said. “There are no immediate plans for their replacement.”

She looked at him with incredulous disgust. “What is the town to do until ‘plans’ eventuate? Maker’s breath, Laurent, people travel for days to see those healers! What are you thinking?”

“Meike’s Crossing will cope,” he said shortly. “As towns without a Circle presence have coped for generations.”  

“Ridiculous!” she repeated. “How long are they going to be without healers for?”

“I can’t say.”

“You can’t say! Oh, that’s just great.” She threw her hands up. “What are you people doing up here? Do you look at the world around you at all? We need to -”

Hester.”

She turned to look back at him, her brows drawn down. “Laurent, I –”

“You will address me as Knight-Captain!” he snapped, cutting her off. “What are you doing here?”

She resettled her stance, folding her arms. “If you’re Knight-Captain, then I will be Senior Enchanter, thank you,” she said coldly.

“Fine. Senior Enchanter. I have no new information or advice for you. The new restrictions came into place yesterday and they will remain in place for the foreseeable future. If your only purpose in coming here was to complain, then you should be ashamed for wasting my time.” Laurent resisted the urge to get up and pace as well. He gestured at the door. “Leave, please. I have work to do.”

“My purpose in coming here was to find out what’s going on! Everybody is confused and angry. Surely the Knight-Commander doesn’t think she can do this without…”

“If the mages wish further clarification of the new restrictions, I’m sure the First Enchanter will answer your questions,” he snapped. “We have already discussed the matter in detail with her. If they wish to complain about the new restrictions, they may do so to their hearts’ content among themselves, but I am not obligated to grant my ear to it.” He looked at her across the table. He used to have so much respect for this mage in front of him. Had she changed or had he? “Did your new Libertarian friends think you would have some kind of angle or leverage here? I’m disappointed in you.”

“I haven’t resigned my Aequitarian membership yet,” Hester said. “Although you templars give me enough reasons to. I don’t think you realise how -”

“Don’t tell me what I do and don’t realise,” Laurent said. “Senior Enchanter, you cannot just show up at my offices and make a fuss until you get your way. Next time whatever fraternity you belong to now wants to whine in my ear, they can make a formal application like everybody else. Get out of my office.”

Hester balled her hands into fists at her sides, her face set. “I’m disappointed in you, Laurent. I always thought you were one of the sensible ones. But here you are tugging your forelock and going along with whatever crack-brained reactionary bullshit coming out of –”

“That’s enough.” Laurent stood, strode to the door, and opened it. “Kelly!”

The recruit was standing a few paces down the hallway, apparently staring fixedly at the wall and attempting not to eavesdrop. She came to attention. “Knight-Captain, ser!”

“Please see Senior Enchanter Hester to her quarters,” he said. “And see to it that she remains there for the next three days.”

“You can’t do that,” Hester said from behind him. “I –”

“I can, and I am,” Laurent said, returning to his desk. “You have had multiple opportunities to comply with orders and you have not.  If you mages act like children I’ll treat you like it. You can collect your staff again when you’re let out of your quarters. Kelly, take her out.”

“Ser.” The recruit collected the staff with one hand, and took hold of the elf’s shoulder.

Laurent watched, his jaw set, as Hester eventually allowed herself to be pulled away, glaring daggers. Once the door had swung shut behind them he tried to let the tension out of his shoulders.

He should have known being posted to the same Circle as Hester would cause problems. Few templars could gracefully deal with being on amicable terms with a mage, not these days, and the Knight-Captain probably wasn’t one of them. Well, he thought resignedly, I’ve probably just solved that problem for myself anyway. Hester is not going to forgive what I just did easily.  

The trouble with Hester was that the Blight had been over for ten years, and she’d been back in the Circle’s care for five years. Hester was bored, and it seemed that now she was meddling in politics to alleviate it. Laurent recalled that when they’d been with the Ferelden army together she had scoffed at fraternities and all that such carrying-on.

Mages. As if Laurent didn’t already know the ripples of effect that the new restrictions were going to have. But regardless of what the mages thought, the outside world could and would function without their input and access to it. And probably be better off. Laurent suspected the days of Circle-organised healing centres and visitors to the tower were over for a while.  

 

Chapter Text

“All right, let go,” the elf snarled as Kelly pulled her down the hall from the templar area of the tower.

Kelly resettled her grip, wrapping her hand around the mage’s upper arm. “No,” she said coolly. “Come on.”

The mage tossed her shoulder, being forced to take several quick steps to Kelly’s one. “I am a Senior Enchanter,” she said through gritted teeth. “Very well, the Knight-Captain has decreed that I – ouch –” She fell silent.

They continued down the hall, and eventually Kelly began to feel uncomfortable, using her much greater weight and strength to force the elf along when she probably would have walked if allowed to. Kelly slowed for a moment.

“I’ll walk to my rooms,” Senior Enchanter Hester said stiffly. “Honestly, what am I going to do? Hare off down the corridors and hole up somewhere?”

Kelly considered. She doubted the Knight-Captain had meant for Kelly to frog-march the Enchanter all the way up the five flights of stairs to the her quarters. He didn’t much go in for that kind of thing anyway.

“All right,” she said. “So walk. Let’s go.”

The mage straightened her robes and tucked a trailing length of hair behind one long pointed ear. Then she set off, head up, as if she wanted nothing more than to get to her quarters and had no idea why Kelly was tagging along.

Some of the mages were like that. Kelly thought it was the silliest posturing she had ever seen.

She took the mage to her room without incident, handing over the staff to the templar on duty for that wing.

“Senior Enchanter Hester’s confined to her room for the next three days,” Kelly told her. “By order of Knight-Captain Laurent.”

“Really?” The templar whistled slightly. “That’s interesting. They used to be friends, did you know?”

“Yes,” Kelly said dryly. “The Senior Enchanter was at pains to tell me.”

The other templar chuckled. “You’re heading back down? Your shift there will be over by the time you get back. Might as well just go to the barracks.”

Sure enough, when she returned to the Knight-Captain’s office her relief was already there – a recruit named Lawne who greeted her with a nod. She didn’t especially like him, but they had come from the same village so they spoke more than they otherwise might have. 

“Something’s up,” he said in a low voice.

Kelly tucked her hair behind her ear and frowned at him. “What do you mean?”

“Just had a messenger come hurrying past, fresh from the road,” he said. “And then another one from the Knight-Commander to the Knight-Captain.”

Before Kelly could respond, the Knight-Captain raised his voice from inside his office. “Recruit!”

The two of them exchanged a glance, and Lawne opened the door.

“Ah, you’re both here,” the Knight-Captain said when he saw that Kelly was outside as well. “Good. I have messages for you to take.”

The Knight-Captain was a tall man with a downturned, serious mouth, dark skin, and black hair lightly dusted with grey at the temples. Years posted in Ferelden and the Free Marches had eroded his Orlesian accent.

 Currently he looked – not angry, precisely, but – intent. His face was set in a kind of tight-lipped impassivity that made Kelly think he was worried. He separated a stack of folded messages into two stacks and pushed them across the desk.  

The he squinted at Kelly for a few seconds, and separated one out. “Ah. Kelly, right? This one is yours. The others are to be found with all haste.”

 Kelly and Lawne saluted, and took them.

“Go on,” Lawne said urgently as soon as they were far enough down the hall to not be overheard. “What is it?”

Kelly unfolded her message, her stomach squirming a little with nervousness.

It was brief. “You are to join the pursuit of apostates in the area of Meike’s Crossing,” she read aloud. “You will remain close by your partner, Ser Raine, at all times and obey his every order. Report to him at the stables no later than two bells past midday. The grace of Andraste go with you.”

She stared at the signature, barely a scrawled initial. Her mind turned over slowly.

Kelly had fought demons once before, once or twice, in small villages out on patrol. It hadn’t been so much fun she was eager to do it again. But this was the first time she’d been singled out for a hunt. That must mean she had done well those other times, which put a pleased glow in the middle of her chest.

Not without an accompanying twinge of fear, though. Meike’s Crossing was a big town. What damage could an apostate wreak there? Multiple apostates? It didn’t bear thinking about.

 “Huh,” Lawne said, his tone caught between shock and envy. “How come you get to go hunting apostates?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Two bells past – ” She looked up at the sun, then down at the remaining handful of messages. Two were to templars, one to the Senior Enchanter in charge of the spirit healers in Krisholm Circle. “Doesn’t leave much time once I’ve delivered these.”

Lawne peered over her shoulder. “Here,” he said brusquely. “The mage’ll be easy to find, and Ser Tiresia’s on duty at the gate for sure, but it could take you ages to find Ser Marlon. Swap you.”

“Okay, thanks,” Kelly said, shooting him a quick smile.

“Probably won’t see you till you’re back, so give a robe a fist in the mouth for me,” he said, punching her shoulder lightly before turning away.

 “Sure will,” Kelly said automatically. She tucked the message away and set off at a light jog.

 

                                                                                 ****

 

“This will only sting for one moment…”

Emmit flinched and made no sound as blood ran down his forearm. The man in robes kneeling beside him took hold of his wrist and angled it so that a thin stream dripped into the vial he held.

“Okay, there,” he said soothingly. “That’s all we need.” He pressed his fingers against the shallow cut he’d made to stem the flow. He murmured quietly, and a flurry of blue sparks rose from his fingers. When he took them away the cut was gone.

Emmit looked at it, a little impressed. His own crude attempts at healing magic had never been as simple as that. “So now you’ve got my blood,” he said. “And you’ll keep that here?”

“Yes. At least until you’ve passed your Harrowing,” the healer said. He was a youngish man with spectacles, and he smiled warmly at Emmit. “That’s not the friendliest of welcomes to the Circle. I’m sorry.”

Emmit glanced around. He was in a cell. It was dry, and there was a bench to sit on, and all in all it wasn’t a pit or anything. But still unmistakably a cell, with bars where the door should have been. He tried a smile. You’re sixteen and cowed and cooperative. You want to do well in the Circle. You want to learn. “You’re the first person I’ve seen who’s not a templar and doesn’t look at me like they’re going to spit me, though, so… I don’t mind.”

“I know you’re probably frightened,” the healer said. “But it’s okay, you’re safe now. No matter what other people might have told you about the Circle, I promise you’ll find that it’s not so bad. And I imagine you’ve never seen a community of people who are just like you?”

“No,” Emmit said quietly. “I haven’t.”

The healer nodded. “Well, now you’re here and you’re safe,” he repeated. “And you’re with your own kind, so we can help you. Once the templars say you can come to the Tower proper we’ll get you a bath and some better clothes, and then you can meet your teachers and the other apprentices. Just hold tight here for now, right? Can you do that?”

“Yeah,” Emmit said. “Sure.”

“Too bad if he can’t,” he heard a voice from the doorway.  Raine leant against the wall just outside. Templar armour didn’t look particularly comfortable to lean in, but he did it anyway.

The mage gave Emmit another look of silent support, and then stood gracefully, the vial of dark blood in his hand. He left.

As his echoing footsteps died away, Raine unfolded his arms. “Don’t mind him. I suspect he’s used to initiates being children.”

“Really,” Emmit said, a little sourly. “I suppose you templars are also used to initiates being children?” He looked around the cell, rubbed his shoulder where he’d been slammed into the floor earlier. “Nice.”

“Hush,” Raine said. “I was hoping to stay around Krisholm for a few days at least, see you settled. But that’s not actually going to be possible.” He chuckled. “I don’t know, barely here one day and Laurent already can’t wait to get rid of me. I’m out on another assignment.”

“You’re leaving?” Emmit felt a spike of alarm go through him, and fought it back, annoyed with himself. “What do you have to go do?”

Raine sighed. “Some mages were allowed out of the Circle to work as healers, and they were supposed to come back, but some of them didn’t. So we’re going to go bring them back by force.”

“Oh,” Emmit said. “I hope they get away.”

Raine gave him an unimpressed look. “They won’t. Know what that spirit healer was taking your blood for?”

“A phylactery,” Emmit said sullenly. “So you can find me if I run.” He wondered what kind of spell that was. Absently, the back of his mind started to turn the problem around to look at it from all angles, wondering how you would achieve that effect.

“That’s right. We’ll find these mages, never doubt it. Just like we’d find you if you took it into your head to try and escape from here.”  Raine gave another of his crooked smiles. “Listen, my little mage friend, don’t think the other templars here are going to be as charming and tender-hearted as me. What you said just now, that you hope the mages get away?” He made a cutting-off motion across his throat. “Don’t do that anymore. Not even in jest – take it from me, most templars have absolutely no sense of humour.”

“Raine, I don’t know if I can pretend I want to be here,” Emmit said, staring at the stone floor under his knees. “That’s pushing my acting abilities.”

“Well, bruises are a very good teaching motivator, so I’m told,” Raine said lightly. “But hey, pretty much none of the mages have really wanted to be here for the past twelve months, so you won’t stick out that much. Just try to lay low, pay attention to your teachers and study hard.”

Did they ever want to be here? Emmit supposed the healer had seemed happy enough to be in the Circle.

“And, for the love of Andraste, do not do any of your weird magic! You’ll have to go back right to the beginning, I expect, but stick to it. Real magic only.”

Emmit scowled and fixed his gaze on a block of stone up near the ceiling. “Real magic only. Got it.”

“Good man.” Raine left the cell, locked the door with a clinking of keys. “I hope to see you alive and with all your faculties when I return.”

“You too, I guess,” Emmit said. But he waited to say it until Raine had already walked away down the hall and couldn’t hear him.

 

                                                                                 ****

 

Krisholm Circle was a fairly pleasant building, all things considered, the main tower short and rounded and rising barely a handful of stories above the rest of the compound and its ivy-laden wall that closed in the gardens.

Reece’s favourite place in it was the library. Specifically, the little corner desk in the eastern room of the library that he considered to be ‘his’. There was a nice window across the room that he could go and look through if he wanted and see over the gardens, but the corner desk was tucked out of the way behind shelves. The murmur of conversation from the main areas was just loud enough to be pleasant background noise, and the air smelled of leather and paper.

He frowned, flicked over a few more pages. He knew all this already, maybe the next chapter…? He brushed dark wavy hair out of his eyes and fiddled with his pen, although he hadn’t found anything worthy of noting down yet.

He glanced at the stacks of books by his elbows. He hoped there was at least one good one in there. The eastern room had all of the literature and poetry, entirely non-magic-related books, so he’d carried all of these in from the other rooms and it had been tedious.

The problem was, what he’d found was either the sort of thing he’d already been taught as an apprentice – a mage has a particularly strong connection to the Fade, which makes them attractive targets for possession by demons – or complicated descriptions of rituals that he didn’t know enough to understand. There didn’t seem to be anything in the middle.

Maybe he should just give up.

“… absolutely outrageous. They’ll come for Senior Enchanter Ignatius next, mark my words. They’re picking off the Libertarians one by one.”

 “‘Mental instability’, does anybody really believe that? Hopewell’s as sane as you or me, who do they think they’re fooling?”

“The Order doesn’t care anymore. They’ve dropped any pretence of legality, how long before they stop even looking for excuses?”

Reece looked up, annoyed. Normally he was left alone in this room. He could see flickers of rich blue cloth through the bookshelves, and then the two mages rounded the corner, heads bent towards each other.

“They won’t be happy until everyone either submits or is made Tranquil!” the first one was saying, quietly but heatedly. Reece knew her; she lived down the same hallway as he did and her name was Lea. She punched a fist into her hand as she spoke.

The other one, an older elf he did not know very well, was nodding distractedly. “If Hopewell is not safe then nobody is. What will the –”

Reece coughed quietly.

They startled and turned. Reece was shocked to see the second mage holding out a hand as if to call mana to it. It was only for a split second, but still.  

“Oh, Reece,” Lea said disgustedly. “It’s just you. What are you doing skulking back here? I thought you were a templar.”

“Um,” Reece said, looking down at his spread-open books and the pen in his hand and back up at her. “I’m skulking? What are you talking about, anyway?”

“You haven’t heard?” Lea said. “Enchanter Hopewell, from Markham Circle. She’s to be made Tranquil.”

“What?” Reece said, frowning. That didn’t make any sense.

“It’s true,” the second mage said. “The news came in this morning. You hadn’t heard?”

“No, no, that can’t be true,” Reece said. “You must have heard wrong. The Order can’t make an Enchanter Tranquil.”

Lea gave a short, bitter laugh. “Can’t they? The templars can do whatever they please.”

“No, they can’t,” Reece protested. He felt a sinking dread in his stomach. “There are rules, it – it’s illegal. They’re not allowed to make mages who’ve passed their Harrowing Tranquil.”

The elf was frowning at him disapprovingly. “The Templar Order no longer cares about what is and isn’t legal. They care about keeping control over the Circles in their charge – all other concerns and limitations are being dispensed with. It has been happening for months and everyone in the Circle knows it.”

“The Order can’t just disobey the rules of the Chantry like that!” Reece said. He pushed his hair back again, raked a hand through it anxiously. “The Rite of Tranquillity is, is a last resort, to humanely prevent abominations that would otherwise be inevitable. The templars can’t just use it as a disciplinary measure.”

“Perhaps once,” the elf said. “No longer.”

Reece shook his head. “They can’t. They wouldn’t do something like that, this is absurd, I’m sure it’s all just a rumour.”

“What about Kirkwall?” Lea demanded.

“That’s Kirkwall! We’re not in Kirkwall. Our templars are proper templars, they wouldn’t do something like this.”

Lea snorted. “Oh, well, I’m sure that’s a great comfort to Enchanter Hopewell in her cell at the moment. And her brother and sister Libertarians, in solitary confinement for months. Are they even alive? Who knows? The templars aren’t telling. Mages all over the continent are going silent, Reece! The Order is squeezing the breath out of us.” Her lip curled as she looked at Reece. “And you Loyalists will whimper and let them. Come on, Danil. Let’s find another room. One without potential templar spies.”

Reece flinched. “I would never –”

He was speaking to their shoulders as they turned away. He watched them leave, trying to get rid of the miserable knot in his stomach.  This is my room anyway, he complained to himself, smoothing a hand over the book in front of him. I was here first.

It was months since he’d talked about politics with anybody. He and his friend Katrinna used to have friendly arguments.

Nobody had friendly arguments about politics anymore.

He shook his head and tried to find the place he’d been up to in the book.

Some hours and a few forays to get more books later, he had managed to put the argument to the back of his mind. He had also managed to become side-tracked, into a fascinating book full of essays on and fantastical descriptions of the author’s experiences with the Fade. He sat it atop the rest of the books he had intended to read and was lost for a while as the sun moved across the sky and the ink dried on the nib of his pen.

He looked up at the sound of armoured boots. A templar doing a patrol of the library, he supposed. They usually just glanced around behind the shelves. They did not usually pause, round the shelves and approach the corner desk.

It was the templar he had met in the chapel; the young one with the freckles.

“Oh, hey, Reece,” the templar said. “That reminds me.”

“Um. Hey,” Reece echoed. He watched as the templar reached into his armour, and produced an envelope.

“A letter arrived for you today,” the templar said, and smiled. “I saw your name on it, in the pile of mail awaiting approval, and I thought I’d bring it to you if I saw you around.”

“Oh!” Reece exclaimed. He could see familiar forceful handwriting on the front of the envelope. He had been anticipating that letter. “Thank you, ser. But… isn’t the mail given out in the evenings anymore? I thought…”

“Oh, no, it is,” the templar assured him. “But it can take a while, what with every letter needing to be looked at nowadays. I thought you might like to get this one early.”

“Thank you,” Reece said again, puzzled. He stood up and reached out a hand to take the envelope, but the templar flipped it back, stopping him.

“So, who’s the letter from?” he asked casually.

Reece felt a guilty jolt for absolutely no reason. “It - I think it’s from a pen-friend of mine. An alchemist in Starkhaven. That’s what it looks like, anyway. I’m expecting a letter from him.”

The templar raised his eyebrows. “An alchemist in Starkhaven, hey? That’s a fair way away. How do you know him?” He tapped the letter into his other hand idly, still smiling.

Reece wondered for a second if Archer had written something in that letter that the templars were worried about. It was the only explanation he could think of for it being singled out like this, but what on earth could Archer have written? 

“He, uh, he wrote a treatise,” Reece said. “And I read it. I read the copy in the library, I mean. And I wrote him to talk about it, and he wrote back. We’ve never met.”

“Ah, I see,” the templar said. “What do you write about?”

“Lots of things,” Reece said, bewildered. “His work. Philosophy, maths and history sometimes. Why?”

“Just curious,” he said. “I see you here all the time. Reading about philosophy and history, I guess?”

“Oh?” Reece had no idea where this conversation was going or, for that matter, where it currently was. “I… I like the library. Ser, is there something wrong with my letter? I don’t understand why you’re bringing it to me.”

“No, there’s nothing wrong with it,” the templar said. He held the letter out again, and this time let Reece take it. He grinned. “My name is Petyr, by the way. I’m from Harrowholt.”

Reece smoothed the envelope with his fingers. Well, that was okay then. “Thank you for bringing me this, Ser Petyr. Have a good day.”

“I will,” Petyr said. “And you’re welcome. See you around, Reece.”

When he was gone Reece sat down and took the letter out of its envelope. As he’d thought, it was addressed to him in Archer’s handwriting. It was already opened, like every letter Reece had received for the past month. He tried not to mind.

He flicked through some of the pages. Archer’s arguments were dense, as they always were, trying to convince Reece he had the right of some convoluted point that Reece suspended for the moment. Then talking about alchemy, some new formulae… something about his family… here he harangued Reece for taking his time writing back, which was not unusual…  

He could not find anything unusual, nor any sign that the templars had removed anything. He had received and sent a dozen such letters over the past months.

He sighed. He was just going to have to get used to the idea that all correspondence was scrutinised nowadays. It wasn’t really all that surprising – continuously getting fat letters from people who were not mages and weren’t related to him must look suspicious, so no wonder Petyr had wanted to know who he was writing to.

He abandoned Three Years Exploration Into The Fade for the moment and reshuffled the letter back to the beginning. To his surprise, Archer had actually paid attention to what he’d written about the choice he was trying to make.

Regarding your question, the first page began, I would advise you to go into research. My reasoning is thus:

It’s true that healing is more immediately useful, and it’s a noble profession to be certain, but I am getting the impression you mostly want to learn it because of that rather than any particular passion. I wouldn’t allow a desire to be useful steer you away from theoretical subjects that are of less concrete benefit but provide the world with knowledge. Reece, you are in a fortunate position living in the Circle as you do…

“What?” Reece said under his breath. “Fortunate, Archer, really?”

… in that you don’t have to be concerned about what is practical. I, for one, am held back from pursuing some areas of alchemical research simply because they are not marketable, and I must earn money and put food on the table. You don’t have that concern. So while it’s true that the answers you seek might not be ‘useful’, or might not even be out there, you have the liberty to go looking for them anyway. This is valuable!

If of course I am mistaken and you do have a burning passion for healing that you are simply very poor at articulating, then by all means do that instead.

What’s the cause of all this fretting anyway?

Reece sat back from the letter, thoughtfully. It was an angle he hadn’t considered, admittedly. But now Archer brought it up, Reece realised that he did very badly want to be useful.

That was the entire problem. Reece was useless.

He couldn’t actually tell Archer why he suddenly wanted to study magic, mages and what made you one or not. He couldn’t tell Archer anything about his Harrowing.  

Still! Here was an entire letter to be read and pondered and responded to. The day wasn’t so bad after all.

Chapter Text

Raine shaded his eyes as he looked down the road. The forest that Krisholm Circle was nestled into had given way to well-tended fields for this stretch of road, but they hadn’t met anybody since leaving. All that fuss and you’d think they’d send more than two of us, he thought. Or well, one and a half.

His new partner, a stocky young woman with ear-length brown hair, was eyeing him when she thought he wasn’t looking. Her seat on the horse was… well, not bad exactly, he thought, reminding himself to be charitable. But you could tell she hadn’t come from a family like Raine’s, in which horsemanship was a priority even for the extraneous sons you intended to pack off to the Chantry to get them out of your hair.

If the Knight-Captain thinks I’m so irresponsible, he wondered, why did he give me a wet behind the ears little choirgirl to look after? Hasn’t even had her Vigil yet. Is he trying to tie me down, or is he trying to get this one killed for some reason?

“What, do I have something on my face?” he remarked.

She gave him a steady, blank look. “Ser?”

“I’d really rather you just had a good gawp and got it out of your system, instead of shooting me coquettish little glances under your eyelashes.”

She frowned for a moment at that, thick eyebrows drawing together. “I’m sorry, Ser. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“That’s all right, some people have a natural talent and don’t have to try. I’m one of them myself.” He sighed. “So. Lass. Know what we’re about?”

She looked back ahead again. “All I was told was that I was to report to you, and that we were joining in a hunt for apostates at Meike’s Crossing.”

“Right,” he said. “There are two apostates. At least, the latest information we have is that there are two of them. There are a dozen mages in total at Meike’s Crossing right now, so it’s always possible the situation is going to escalate, Maker forbid.”

 She nodded but said nothing, waiting for him to continue.

“They’re all healers,” he said. “They’ve been recalled to the Circle. At the moment there is a group of templars already there, ready to escort them back. We’ll be helping some of those to find the two apostates while the rest head back to Krisholm Circle, I assume.”

He turned, opened his saddlebag, and pulled out the two glass vials he had collected before he packed anything else. “Our other purpose is to bring these with us.” He tipped them back and forth, judging their glow. No real change yet, as expected. He leaned over, holding one out to Kelly. “Ever seen a phylactery? Do NOT drop it, please.”

“No,” she admitted, eyes bright with interest. She took it carefully, cradling it in her hands.

“That glow will get stronger the closer we get to the mage it belongs to,” he said. In her hands, the vial had a dim red glimmer that was barely visible in the sunlight. “I wouldn’t expect it to change too much today, but I’ll show you again when we’re closer. Makes it a whole lot easier, let me tell you, having basically a compass that points due mage.” He held out his hand for the phylactery, and tucked it back safe into his saddlebag. “Not without its dangers, though.”

She glanced at him. “Dangers?”

“Hah. Yes.”

“I don’t remember being taught about phylacteries being dangerous to use,” she said when he didn’t elaborate. “Not for templars.”

“Well, it’s not that the phylactery itself is dangerous,” he said. He scanned the grass around them absently. “It’s just not wise to think that because you have the phylactery, finding and killing the apostate will be easy. After all, mages know we have them. Right? What does that suggest to you?”

She considered for a moment. Her gaze passed over the fields as well, mimicking him. “So the mages know they’re being hunted and that we can follow them wherever they go,” she said thoughtfully. “You’re saying… a mage could set a trap for you. Because they know that you won’t be following their tracks, you’ll be following the phylactery, which points as the crow flies…”

He grinned. Oh, good, he’d been worried for a minute, but this one might actually survive their hunt. “Very true. Following the phylactery blindly gives you an excellent chance of missing something important. Anything else that occurs to you?”

She scowled at the front of her saddle in thought. “No, ser.”

“So you’re a mage. You’ve decided that you’ve had enough of the Circle, with all those stick-in-the-mud templars, encased in their shiny armour with their shiny lyrium philtres and their shiny swords and just general shininess, trying to tell you what to do. You want to escape. What do you do, Mage Kelly?”

“I guess I wait for one of them to be distracted so I can slip away.”

“And assuming you’ve done that without becoming a mage-shaped pincushion, then what do you do?”

“I… run.”

“Right. And you know that no matter where you go, how far or how fast, the shiny templars will be able to find you. Because they have your phylactery.”

“So I try and get the phylactery first.”

He raised a finger. “Ah, yes, but we templars guard them pretty well, you know. The only time they leave the security of the phylactery vault is if they’re being moved to another stockpile… or when they give them to a couple of warm bodies combing the wilderness.” He grinned at her. “How secure would you say these two are now?”

She gave him a bland, level look. “Very secure, ser. They’re in the keeping of a very experienced, wise templar. Where could they be safer?”

That startled a laugh out of Raine. “True! The point I’m getting at, in a very involved confusing kind of way, is that a smart mage who you would expect to run might not run from a templar with their phylactery. They might decide they have a much better chance if they can get their phylactery off you and destroy it. It’s a useful tool, but it’s also a target.”

“Understood, ser.”

“Listen, I know you’re not completely green, but when we actually get there, don’t go haring off after leads, all right? I want you to be stuck so close to my side you’re annoying me.” 

“Yes, Ser.”

Raine shook his head. Why people thought he would be a good templar to stick a recruit with, he had no idea. But at least Choirgirl seemed to have her wits about her for a recruit.

 

                                                                                             ****

 

Knight-Captain Laurent,

I wanted to apologise for the other day. I lost my temper. And you’re right – if I wanted to talk to you as a friend I should have approached you in that context, not in your office. The problem is that you very rarely seem to be off-duty these days.

I will be honest with you, Laurent. I have a lot of respect for you and I believe that you have respect for me. Surely between us we can have a civil discussion.

You’re a good man. I know you do what you do because you want to keep everybody in this tower safe. But we can best achieve that by working together, mages and templars – you can’t maintain order with the entire mage population against you, Laurent, you know you cannot. Does Knight-Commander Althea know that?

You don’t hear the way mages talk, Laurent, I do. We are all frightened. Frightened that what happened in Kirkwall will happen here. Frightened that you will begin to see blood mages in every corner and make people Tranquil for voicing the slightest word of protest.

I trust you enough to know that won’t happen while you are Knight-Captain. But the rest of the mages don’t know you; all they see is the flaming sword, and the steady tightening of your power over them. It is almost impossible to get an audience with you or the Commander. You don’t appear to listen to a word the First Enchanter says to you. You make appearances, announce some new restriction or punishment to be applied, and then disappear.

Can you blame them for being afraid? Can you blame them for voicing their concerns to you?

There must be a better way for us to handle this. If you would talk to us perhaps we could find one. 

Your friend,

Hester

Laurent flicked the paper across his desk and sighed heavily.

His chambers were half-lit and cool, and he really should have been sleeping. It could never be guaranteed that some emergency or other wouldn’t drag him out of bed in the middle of the night so he needed all the sleep he could get. But sleep had been elusive even before he had read the letter. 

Laurent didn’t believe half of the stories repeated about the Gallows in Kirkwall. Sensationalist nonsense that no Templar chapter was capable of living up to.

But, he admitted uncomfortably, it was an established fact that Knight-Commander Meredith had been unstable and brutal to the point that somebody should have intervened. He had heard that confirmed by templars who had first-hand experience working under her.

And more recently… it was true that the Templar Order had been quietly relaxing its prohibitions on the use of the Rite of Tranquillity. Initially, it had only been mages too weak to defend themselves against a demon, but they were not the only mages who were dangerous, were they? Until he was given a reason not to, Laurent would believe most of the uses so far had been justified. But it did make him uneasy. 

He should raise this uneasiness with his superior, he knew. Why hadn’t he? The issue had not arisen in Krisholm, thank Andraste, and it wasn’t really his place to gossip with people about how other Circles were run, but still.

Fearful mages were dangerous. A Circle infested with mages that thought they had nothing to lose? How could you stop them? It made the skin on the back of his neck crawl.

And yet. He had known too many good men and women in mages’ robes, people whose morality should allow them to rise above that kind of base instinct.

Reluctantly, he pulled out paper and writing implements, and sat staring into the dark for a long minute. 

Hester,

Your apology is accepted. I, too, lost my temper, and it is not solely at you. 

You are right that the Knight-Commander cannot maintain order with a hostile mage population; that is precisely the problem. The mages are hostile due to increased restrictions, which are necessary because the mages are hostile, and so on and so on. The situation is worse in other Circles than here, but we have it bad enough.

I would gladly talk to the mages if I thought it would help, but no amount of talking will remove the restrictions, so I would be dishonest if I seemed to be offering a compromise it is not within my power to grant.

Nevertheless. I am open to your suggestions as to …

 

                                                                                           ****

 

The templar in command at Meike’s crossing was a short man with a beard and a scowl. Kelly took their horses to be stabled while Raine conferred with him.

She wasn’t sure what she thought of the older templar – Knight-Captain Laurent didn’t seem to hold him in very high regard, and Kelly trusted his opinion. But Raine’s flippant confidence was still somewhat reassuring, and the templars here treated him with respect. She decided to reserve judgement for the moment.  

“Looks like you and I have our quarry,” Raine said when she returned. He held up one of the vials. “Lisbeth Markeri. There was a fight but she apparently wasn’t involved in it – she went missing some time after all of the initial excitement. ”

The phylactery had a faint but distinct glow about it now. To Kelly’s surprise, he handed it over to her. “You can mind that. Again, don’t drop it. Let’s go have a chat to the rest of these mages, find out what this apostate was like.”

The remaining mages of the Meike’s Crossing healing centre were sitting on the ground in a dispirited huddle, under the watchful gaze and range of half a dozen templars. One of them was weeping on her neighbour’s shoulder.

“No, Lisbeth didn’t fight,” one of them said. She nursed an arm close to her body and sported a startling red-black bruise over half of her face. “None of us fought but Drew. As far as I knew she was right beside me the whole time, and then suddenly when we were hauled out into the middle of the street and lined up for the count, I realised she wasn’t there.”

Drew,” one of the other mages muttered venomously. “He’d better hope the templars don’t bring him back alive, that’s all I’m saying. I –” Somebody else hushed them.

“Drew’s not my responsibility, Lisbeth is,” Raine said calmly. He squatted down on his haunches to be on the same level as the mages. “Anybody here her particular friend?”

The mages glanced among themselves and did not answer. If any of them were the apostate’s friend, they certainly weren’t going to volunteer themselves. And none of them would rat another out either. That was mages for you, Kelly thought. Confronted with apostates and maleficars in their midst, they close ranks. 

Raine sighed. “Curious for her to be so friendless among you.  All right, just anybody answer me, then. What was she like?”

“Oh – she was, she’s fine,” the bruised mage said. “A good healer. Kind of shy, but very sweet. She didn’t talk much.”

“What was she like?” a mage muttered from the back of the group. “Was?”

Raine ignored that comment. “Did she ever speak to you of leaving the Circle?”

“No, never…”

“Had you noticed anything odd about her over the past few days? Behaviour, mannerisms, speech?”

The mages looked at each other and shook their heads, some slower than others. Kelly let her gaze wander over them, wondering if any were lying.

“Did she have family in the area?” Raine continued to question them.

“No… I, um, I think her family was from over Markham way? I don’t know?”

“No, they weren’t, she was from some backwater to the east,” another mage muttered.

“Very helpful,” Raine said dryly. “Anything else?”

“No - ”

“Well - there was –”

Shhh.

Raine stood, strode forward into the huddle of mages and grabbed the one who’d spoken by the upper arm. “What was that?” he said mildly, hauling him to his feet. “Speak up, robe, time’s a-wasting.” 

The mage cringed as he hung from Raine’s hand. He had blood caught in the creases around his mouth and chin, as if a nosebleed had been clumsily wiped away. “I – I only thought to mention – it’s probably nothing -”

“Well, then it won’t take you any time to tell me, then.”

The mage avoided everybody’s gaze. “S-she – that is, Lisbeth – Lisbeth did get along really well with one of the other healers. Not a mage, a man from the town. A herbalist. I don’t know his name.”

“Mikel,” the bruised mage mumbled. “You mean Mikel.”

“Yes. That’s him. Like I s-said, probably nothing, I mean, they worked together, it wasn’t that odd, and there was nothing unusual…”

Raine let the mage down. “Likely so,” he said. “Still, we’ll pay this Mikel a visit. Anybody else think of something that might be relevant?”

The healers shook their heads again, avoiding eye contact. It was plain they just wanted Raine and Kelly to leave them alone.

“All right. You all be good, now.”

                                                                                                   ****

 

Meike’s Crossing was a fairly prosperous and large town – that is, ‘large’ in comparison to the other settlements on the outskirts of Ansburg lands. If I was this Lisbeth Markeri, Kelly thought, I would stow away on one of the barges taking goods to the Minanter River. You could be in a different city within a few weeks. That would be a good way to avoid conventional tracking, not to mention faster.

It wouldn’t help her against them, of course. Kelly had been making a wide circuit of the town and was now coming back closer to the docks.

“We should never have let those blighted, demon-consorting creatures into our home in the first place,” a townswoman told Kelly, her mouth twisted in distaste. “I wouldn’t let one of them lay hands on a child of mine anyway, how do you know healing is all they’re doing? This town is full of demon-touched, and I always said we’d regret it, didn’t I, and now look, we’re all going to be murdered or worse in our beds by this monster you templars let get loose…”

“Madam, we are on the apostate’s trail as we speak,” Kelly said, trying not to show how weary she was of this speech, having already listened to variations on the theme several times over the course of the day. “I only –”

“Hah! Could have fooled me, you’re all casting about like dogs what’ve lost a scent! What are you templars good for if you can’t keep those creatures leashed and muzzled? Why weren’t –”

“Madam,” Kelly snapped, “Have you or have you not seen any sign of the woman I described? No? Then good day.”

She turned away, trying not to grit her teeth too obviously, and was startled to find Raine leaning against the wall of the next house.

“Keeping your temper all right, rookie?” he said, one side of his mouth quirking up in a smile.

Kelly flushed and decided to say nothing. The way the woman had spoken about mages annoyed Kelly. What did she, ignorant sheltered townsperson, know of demons? She thought that that pitiful huddle of healers in the street was what she had to be afraid of, that they were already twisted corruption-riddled monstrosities? What would she think if she ever saw a real abomination?

The dangerous thing about mages was how they didn’t look or seem dangerous until suddenly they were.

“I called in by the healing centre,” Raine said. “Mikel works there, right enough, and he lives over by the docks. Guess what.”

“He’s gone, isn’t he?” Kelly said.

“That he is. Not been seen since the evening the mages escaped. His family didn’t think too much of it because apparently he often goes out for days at a time looking for herbs in the forest.” Raine gestured at her. “What’ve you found?”

Kelly pulled out the phylactery. “Definitely brighter here in the west.”

“Curiously enough, west is also where our missing herbalist goes foraging. West it is, then.” He reached over and tilted the vial in her fingers thoughtfully. “Looks no further than a day’s travel. The forest gets pretty thick west of here, I’m told, so we’re probably better off without the horses.  We’ll set out today while there’s light.”

 

                                                                                            *****

 

The pair of them unloaded their supplies and repacked what they could carry themselves. Raine almost felt like he should be staying; heading out in the other direction with the main group to hunt the other apostate, who sounded by all accounts to be the more dangerous of the two. He had already badly injured two templars.

But, then again, you couldn’t underestimate mages. This one would be challenge enough.

“This was in the front of your saddlebag, ser. Figured I should let you pack it.”

Raine looked down at the box the recruit had just passed him – a handspan across, polished wood with the sword of mercy branded into the lid – and felt his mind stumble and falter as if encountering an unexpected obstacle at ankle-height.

He told himself to go and pack the box with the rest of their supplies, but he didn’t.

“Ser?”

He looked up. The recruit was standing in front of him, giving him a quizzical look, a saddlebag slung over her shoulder. He cleared his throat, stood straighter, turned around and resolutely put the lyrium kit in his pack. He tucked it carefully away near the middle, where it was well padded.

“I’ve been thinking,” Kelly said. “Shouldn’t they let those spirit healers heal the templars that were hurt in the attack? And each other? I mean, I know why they haven’t, but surely it would be safe. It seems silly to have them all sitting around injured.”

“Hmm,” he said absently. “I’m sure they’ll get around to it.” The inconsistent headache he’d been trying to ignore all morning nagged behind his eyes.

“You saw the healing centre,” she said, kneeling by the saddlebag, a frown creasing her brows as she repacked their travel food. “Are there a lot of sick there? Do the non-mage healers think they’ll be able to cope with them?”

“They’re somewhat cross, to tell you the truth,” he said. “But they’ll have to.”

“It will be safer for the healers in the Circle anyway,” she said. “Half the town seems to hate them. I’m surprised there wasn’t –”

“Kelly, go, I don’t know, recite Transfigurations or something,” he sighed.

“Which verses?”

“All of it. I don’t know.”

She sat back from her work and gave him another of those level looks. “Why would you want me to recite Transfigurations? You don’t strike me as the type.”

“Perhaps I’ve forgotten it,” he said vaguely. “And I want you to jog my memory. Or perhaps I just want you to be quiet for a while.”

“Ooookay,” she said. “How about I just walk over here and get the other supplies?”

“Yes, that would be great, thank you.”                                                 

She stood, left the stall. Once she was gone he allowed himself to lean against the wall, pushing the heels of his hands against his eyes until he saw bursts of colour. No. You don’t need it yet. Wait till tomorrow.

He’d been given enough lyrium to last out the hunt, which was a fair amount since regulations said to take it daily. He didn’t. He took it when he needed to.

Always there was the temptation to push the doses closer together. He could see how easily it would creep up on him – he had watched it creep up on other templars who tried to keep it at bay like he did.

One breath, two breaths. This was easily bearable. His head barely hurt, he was himself. He’d been managing just fine until he’d had the box actually in his hands and remembered that he had the lyrium.

It wouldn’t do any harm to take the lyrium a little earlier than he’d planned, but it wouldn’t do any harm not to either. You don’t need it. You want it. There’s a difference. When you need it you can have it, not before.

He heaved a sigh, pushing himself away from the wall. Too much work to be done to waste time grappling with the spectre of lyrium hunger.

Chapter Text

All right, I get it, Emmit thought, looking around the room. I will no longer complain about being shorter than everyone around me. This is worse.

They had placed him with the other apprentices at his level, i.e. the lowest. He loomed head and shoulders over the crowd of children, between the ages of six or so to nine.

“Holding yourself in focus and reaching out for the Fade,” the mage at the front of the classroom instructed them, “Most of you should be able to produce a witchlight in your hand.”

Emmit looked up as she stopped and addressed him specifically. “Emmit, you just try and hold yourself at the level of concentration we were working on last lesson and try to be aware of the Fade,” she said kindly. She was plump and reminded Emmit vaguely of somebody’s aunt. “You aren’t up to this yet.”

Emmit sighed, looking around him at the top of everybody else’s head. “Yes, Enchanter.”

The Fade. Huh. His book said it was where spirits and demons were, and so on and so forth. But Emmit had never really given much thought to where the ‘power’ he used actually came from. When you needed to do magic stuff, you just did it. It wasn’t in a specific place you had to reach out to.

He closed his eyes to block out all of the more accomplished mages in the room and their attempts at creating light. Breathing in, two three four, out two three four, in two three four…

Emmit wound a fold of his robe around his fingers and tried to reach for the place magic came from. Never mind he didn’t know where that was. Stupid robe. Nobody would give him pants. He hadn’t encountered such a ridiculous garment in a long time.

In, two three four…

“That doesn’t look like focus.”

Emmit just about jumped out of his skin. He whirled.

One of the templars in the room was right behind him and eying him with a scowl, having apparently walked around the line of apprentices. “Stop playing with your clothes. The other children can keep from fidgeting. Why can’t you? Pay attention to what you’re doing.”

“I was focusing,” Emmit said through gritted teeth. “I’m not anymore, though, because some -”

“Ser!” his teacher snapped, bustling over. “I must protest. You are overstepping yourself and distracting the apprentices.”

“Apologies, Enchanter,” the templar said, not sounding apologetic at all. He shrugged and walked back to his post by the wall.

“There now,” the teacher said, taking Emmit by the arm and turning him around again. “Ignore the templars, Emmit, they’re only here to observe. How are you going?”

Emmit craned his neck for a few seconds, reluctant to turn his back on the templar. “Um. Fine.”

He closed his eyes and began to breathe slowly again. He felt an itch between his shoulderblades as if the templar was still looking at him, hunched his shoulders and tried to ignore it. Come on, Emmit, focus. You need to at least look like you’re learning. Play along until you figure out enough about this place to get out.

It wasn’t going to be easy – Emmit had seen more templars in the past week than he had seen in the entire rest of his life. It set his teeth on edge and made him feel like he had to be constantly ready to defend himself.

The walls would be easy enough to scale, he supposed, and if not he could think up some way to use magic to help him with that. The problem was the guards. And the phylactery, he reminded himself.

The rest of the apprentices were talking quietly, making small exclamations as their own lesson progressed. Why did they find it so easy? The templars were walking a circuit around the room. Emmit could hear them; full templar armour was not exactly quiet.

Breathing in, breathing out. Try to figure out where the hell you stored fire and ice and molten rock when you didn’t want it. Ignore the heavily armed mage-killers pacing behind you.

Clink, clink. The templar passed close behind him again.

What if he just pretended like he was going to use magic, to himself, and tried to feel where it –

Everything seemed to happen at once. There was a hissing, crackling noise, and his hands felt warm. When he opened his eyes, he briefly saw why: they were dancing with tiny lightning bolts, which grew into larger lightning as he watched...

 And then the templar had seized him by the arm and dragged him around. “Ware magic!” he snarled, so close to Emmit’s ear it kind of hurt, and then all of the breath seemed to be knocked out of Emmit as the templar shoved him backwards with one hand on his chest.

 He hit the wall feeling grey and empty and dizzy. The lightning was gone, he noticed as his knees buckled and he slid to the ground. He tried to scramble to his feet, panic flaring, throwing his hand out towards his attacker.

Nothing happened. He lowered his hand, heart pounding wildly.

The templar stepped forward to grab him by the arm again. He finally remembered where he was and didn’t try to resist, even though he really wanted to punch the templar in the face.

“Sorry,” he panted. “Sorry, sorry. That wasn’t – what did you – sorry.”

“Maker’s breath,” the templar snapped. He shook Emmit, making his teeth rattle. “Look what you could have done!”

Emmit looked around the templar to see the other apprentices crowded away against the sides of the room, looking at him with wide eyes. Where he had stood, there was a scorch mark on the floor. He realised that the templar had spun him around in order to put his own body between Emmit and the rest of the room.

“All right, all right, everybody calm down,” the teacher said brusquely, parting the crowd of children as she came down the room and approached the templars at the back. “Nobody’s hurt. Thank you, Ser Julien.”

She put her hand on Emmit’s other arm, looking up to meet the templar’s eyes.

Julien didn’t let go of Emmit. “This apostate is a menace,” he snapped. “I don’t know what he’s even doing here.”

“Nothing happened that doesn’t happen with all apprentices,” the teacher said calmly. “Despite his age, Emmit’s been with us less than a week, and I don’t think your interruption earlier helped matters at all.”

“You don’t have your class under control.”

“That’s not your role. Your role is to do what you just did, keep everyone safe, and let me teach.”

Julien snorted and let go of Emmit with bad grace. “Get back to your class, Enchanter.”

The lightheaded, empty feeling started to dissipate. Emmit rubbed his arms.

“Sorry,” he muttered to the teacher. Idiot, idiot, idiot. You could have hurt those children. You’re supposed to be keeping a low profile! You’re lucky you’re not heading back down to the cells again.

“Why don’t you sit down,” his teacher said. “A dispel is never pleasant. Do you know what went wrong?”

I can’t find your imaginary place where magic comes from, that’s what. “No.”

“Hmm,” she said, trying to hide her worried frown. “Well, rest a bit before we try again. Everybody else, back to your places, please…”

 

                                                                                                       *****

Archer,

I apologise for the delay in responding. You aren’t my only correspondent, you know. 

I should probably warn you – all of Krisholm’s ingoing and outgoing letters are being opened and screened now, for the sake of security. It’s quite likely that templars read all of my mail these days. I know you work in a competitive field and so on and so forth, so I would advise you not to write about your trade secrets or anything you wouldn’t particularly want to be seen by eyes other than mine. I just thought you’d want to know.

I’m so glad your work with summerstone is finally producing results, you’ve been complaining on that subject for what feels like a year now. I knew your persistence would pay off – tell me more about the new compounds?

No, I still haven’t read the Elias book, I told you, you said I shouldn’t read it until I’ve finished all of the Philosophae Irratiaea books, and the fourth volume can’t be found in any of the Circle libraries I’ve written to and asked, it’s apparently very elusive. But I think I understand your point regardless. I just think you’re wrong to class the subject as a…

 

                                                                                                       ***** 

 

Kelly hung back at the edge of the clearing, pressing herself into the shadow of a tree while she took the phylactery out again.

“Well, we’re close,” Raine said softly, as he looked over her shoulder. She wrinkled her nose; neither of them smelled that great after a day on the road and a day hiking.

Kelly looked at the cottage in the clearing. It was small, probably only one or at most two rooms, with a drift of bright green weeds and a small sapling growing in the thatch of the roof. It didn’t look that well maintained, but there was a path to the door. The phylactery lit her hands up a ghostly red. “Do you think she’s in there?”

“Uh. No,” Raine grunted. “Not quite bright enough for that. Could have left a trap, though. Follow me and keep your eyes open.”

He strode out into the clearing, sunlight flashing on his armour. Kelly followed, hand on her sword hilt, mouth dry. She scanned the banks of weeds, watching for movement or light among the waving seedheads.

“Ready?” Raine asked at the door, sword drawn. Kelly drew her own and nodded.

The door wasn’t locked. Raine shoved it inwards with a shoulder, his body humming with lyrium that Kelly could feel in her teeth. “Surrender yourself in the name of the Templar Order!” he shouted.

A man fell back against the wall with a yelp, staring at them both with wide eyes. He held up empty hands as they trooped into the cottage. “Aaah! No!”

Raine surveyed the room, and then lowered his sword slightly. “Mikel the herbalist, I assume,” he said, his diction crisp. “No, keep your hands up. Step forward and no sudden movements.”

The young man obeyed. He had sandy blond hair and a half-hearted beard. He also had charred marks on his trousers, and a clean bandage wound around his left arm.

“Have a look around, recruit,” Raine said, not taking his eyes off the man. “Well? Are you deaf, man? Who are you?”

“Y-yes,” the herbalist said, his eyes darting between their blades. “I, that’s me. Mikel. There’s nobody else here.”

The cottage was indeed one room, and was in better condition on the inside. The floor was swept and clean, and there were homespun blankets on the narrow bed in one corner. Bundles of plants hung from the roof on short lengths of string by the window, over a couple of plain wooden chests.

“Sure there isn’t,” Raine drawled. “Where’s Lisbeth, Mikel?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Mikel said, trying to laugh and casually push his hair back from his forehead. “L-Lisbeth is back at Meike’s Crossing, surely?”

Two portions of bread and two cups were set out on the rickety table. One had been knocked over, and water dripped down to a spreading puddle on the floor.

“Don’t play games with us, healer,” Raine said. He sheathed his sword, cautiously. “The stakes are too high. We know Lisbeth is with you.”

“I don’t know what you mean! Lisbeth’s not here, I haven’t seen her, w-we haven’t spoken for ages…”

Kelly picked up a shirt that had been lying on the bed. It was charred, around the left shoulder and arm. She looked at the bandage on Mikel’s arm.

“That’s funny because her phylactery says she’s very close,” Raine said. “Rude of her not to call in and talk to you. If you want the best thing for Lisbeth, you know what you should do? You should help us find her and talk her into coming back with us before she hurts somebody.”

Mikel shook his head dumbly.  “D-don’t hurt her,” he said. “If she’s here, if you find her, don’t hurt her, okay?”

“I don’t understand,” Kelly said, letting the shirt drop. “You have a healer with you. Why are you bandaging your arm up with salve like a regular person?” 

Mikel wavered, his eyes moving between Kelly and Raine. “It wasn’t her fault,” he burst out suddenly. “She didn’t mean to do it, it was my fault. I made her angry.”

“What’s your fault? Her running away?” Raine asked.

Mikel shook his head again. He looked close to tears. “No, not that. I meant…” His hand crept up to touch his arm. “She would never mean to hurt me. I-I don’t know what happened at the healing centre, I wasn’t there, but…” His mouth firmed. “It’s your fault. You templars. I don’t know what happened but she hasn’t been the same, she’s… she’s so frightened. She thinks you’re going to kill her. She thinks you’re going to kill all of them.”

Raine sighed. “Did she leave you here? How long ago and why?”

“I – we argued,” Mikel said. “I didn’t mean to – she’s just upset, that’s all, she would never hurt me on purpose but she just got so upset, and I – I’m not going to help you find her.”

“She’s not herself, eh?” Raine said.  “Kelly, tear off some of that blanket for me, will you? We need to make sure our herby friend doesn’t go anywhere. Mikel, if Lisbeth’s behaviour is abnormal, it probably means she’s not in control of herself any longer.”

“I – she’s fine,” Mikel insisted. “Anyone would be upset. She’s a good person. It was an accident and she’s fine, she’ll heal me w-when she...” 

Kelly looked down at the phylactery and felt her stomach lurch. It was shining even brighter than before – so brightly she honestly didn’t see how it could get any brighter. “Raine,” she said urgently.

Raine turned back, saw the light of the phylactery. His face hardened suddenly. “She’s coming back. All right, we –”

“No!” Mikel shouted, his voice cracking. “I won’t let you hurt her!” He raised his voice to a cracked yell. “Beth, Beth, they’re here! Run!”

Kelly fumbled to put the phylactery down on the table and have both hands for her sword. Raine cursed, jerked his head towards Mikel. He was drawing his sword. “Rookie, you –”

No!” Mikel snatched at his belt, came up with a small knife. He threw himself forward.

Raine’s sword slid into his belly almost silently, two-thirds down its length. For a second the three of them were frozen, Raine with his other hand on Mikel’s shoulder, as blood ran down Raine’s sword hand and pattered on the floor, as Mikel’s freckled face went white and the little belt-knife dropped from his limp fingers.

“Shit,” Raine said.

He let Mikel go, turning his wrist so that the herbalist slipped off the sword as he fell to the floor.

Kelly spared only one glance for the herbalist, because then the door flew open as if pulled by a gust of wind.

Lisbeth Markeri was a small woman, her hand bony and thin as she held the door open with a stream of air. She had no staff. Her hair was loose and strands of it clung to her tear-stained cheeks and puffy eyes.

She took in the scene, the light of the phylactery shining red on Kelly’s face, Raine standing over Mikel’s curled body with his bloody sword. She screamed.

Flame burst from her hands and flowed into the room like water, pulled by the current of air. Kelly threw her arm up and stumbled back a step, knocked back by the heat.

“Mikel!” she heard over the crackle and hiss of the flames. “No! No! Mikel, get up!” The mage’s voice was raw and frantic. Kelly could see her stumbling forward behind the screen of fire, her hair whipping around in the wind of it. She could not see Raine, engulfed in a stream of pale flame and too bright to look at.

Kelly stepped forward, her arms feeling like leaden weights, and swung her sword, aiming for the back of the mage’s neck. She was too slow and only managed a glancing blow, which still should have knocked the slight woman to her knees… but didn’t.

The mage stumbled, turned her face to Kelly, snarling and inhuman. Her eyes burned white-hot like coals.

Andraste, all I did was get her attention, Kelly thought, a little hysterically. She backed away, hit the table, shoved it away while trying to keep her guard up. …Raine? 

You!” the mage – no, the abomination – howled. “Your fault!

 The small room was blisteringly hot and dry, the wind of the fire stripping moisture from exposed skin. Kelly, gasping for breath, raised her sword again.

 The fire parted, the wind quieted – and Raine sprang forward, the centre of an expanding burst of calmness. His blade flashed silver and red in his hands, and he yelled wordlessly as he brought it down heavily towards the abomination.

The abomination caught the blade in one upflung hand, fingers blackened claws, and screamed, thin and harsh and enraged. 

Raine growled, disengaged his sword with a sweeping motion, and turned it in his hands to come at the abomination’s chest. Flames were flickering and dying around it, in a circle around Raine, as if the monster was being stripped of swaddling layers of fire. Kelly caught flashes of pale, thin limbs beneath charred robes.

Kelly propelled herself forward again, came in low to hack at the abomination’s knees. It gave a whistling scream and fell, rolling waves of flame washing against the floor of the cottage. It writhed on the ground, flame and flesh and black crumbling ash.

“Recruit, get –” Raine was panting.

The abomination rolled, propped itself up on one hideously still-human arm, shot the other out to grab Kelly by the ankle.  She swore and kicked, and the abomination pulled with shocking strength. Kelly crashed to the ground.

She couldn’t see properly, tried to pull herself backwards. She could see Raine stepping forward, stamping on the abomination’s wrist and hand furiously. The heat and the pressure around her ankle fell away, and she struggled to get further away, breathing in panicky whimpers.

The abomination was rising to its feet, spitting and haloed with crackling flame. Kelly finally managed to scramble back to her feet as Raine drove his sword through its chest with a shout of effort and another flare of quiet and coolness.

It kept rising.

Maker’s breath, just die! When will it die? Kelly cried to herself as she dove for her dropped sword.

As if her prayers had been answered, the abomination faltered, hissing. Raine put a booted foot on what was left of its shoulder, jerked his sword out, stabbed it again.

It crumbled. The flames wreathing it died away.

The cottage was suddenly, shockingly quiet. Kelly just stood for a few moments, drawing breath after breath into her lungs and listening to the ragged sound of Raine doing the same.

“Andraste,” Raine finally gasped, turning away and putting a hand on the table for support. “I’m getting a little too old for this.”

Kelly felt a wave of dizziness pass over her. “You’re not that old,” she croaked, more for something to say than because she thought it was particularly clever or useful.

“Haha. Yes, I am. You put another couple of grey hairs on my head single-handedly just now, recruit.” He turned around, wiped sweat from his face, and gave her a lopsided grin. His face and neck were angry red with burns.

“Right. I was supposed to hang back.”

He shrugged. “A little difficult when the abomination comes charging through the door right behind you. You did all right, by the way, especially considering you don’t have lyrium.”

Kelly looked around. The abomination’s corpse was a small, pitiful, shrivelled thing. The little neat cottage was a shambles, the floor strewn with herbs and disordered blankets and stained with a dark pool of blood.

She went to Mikel and knelt beside him, rolling him over onto his back. The front of his shirt was a sopping, sticky mess. His skin was warm under her fingers as she checked his throat and chest.

“Dead,” she said.

“Well, you don’t say,” Raine said sourly. He came to stand over her shoulder and look down at the body. He rubbed his face, wincing. “Ah, don’t mind me. Stupid boy. What did he want to do that for?”

Yes. Stupid to fall in love with a mage. Incredibly stupid to try and help her run away. Stupid to throw his life away for the sake of that abomination behind her. Kelly stared at the body, her thoughts in a sickening whirl. His little knife had been barely any threat to them.

If Raine hadn’t killed him and they had had to deal with him and the abomination at the same time, Kelly and Raine might both be dead now. But if he hadn’t been dead when the mage entered, though, would she have…?

“What would have happened with him if we had brought him back to Meike’s Crossing?”

Raine shrugged. “Well, he was guilty of conspiring to help an apostate escape. So he might actually have died anyway. Or at least been thrown in prison. Wouldn’t have been our problem, anyway.”

 They buried the two bodies together – or rather Kelly did, digging a grave not that much larger than you would have needed for Mikel’s body alone, behind the cottage among the drifts of weeds.

Raine returned from wandering around the nearby forest with a chunk of stone the size of Kelly’s head. He dropped it on top of the mound of dirt.

“Least that way his family can find it if they want to,” he remarked, dusting off his hands. “Andraste, guide these souls as they return to the Maker’s side. ‘And all things shall return to you, as all things came from you’. Come on, Kelly. Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Raine wiped sweat away from his face, wincing as the burns stung. Hopefully the healers back in town are still alive so I can get one of them to fix this. It’s annoying.

That might have to wait until the lyrium wore off a bit, though. It sang and shone in his blood, burning away the fatigue of hours of walking in armour. He didn’t even really mind the sting of his injuries. He whistled softly as he walked, listening to the sounds of the forest that filtered through over the top of the crunching of their boots.

“Ser,” the recruit said from behind him. “Can I ask you a question?”

“You just did. Can you ask another one? Sure.”

He thought he heard a slight sigh.

“You’re lucky you’re walking behind me and I can’t see those eyes you just rolled,” Raine said, resettling the pack that seemed to hang lightly on his shoulders.

“Do you think,” Kelly said, and then fell silent.

“On occasion, I have been known to, yes.” He chuckled, and spun around and walked backwards so he could see the recruit. “What’s your question?”

Her face was grave, brows drawn together in thought. “If Mikel hadn’t been dead when she got there, do you think the mage would still have attacked?”

Oof.

“Let me clear something up for you, recruit,” he began, and paused as a rock shifted under his boot. He stopped, and dropped back so that he was walking properly beside Kelly. Walking backwards lacked a certain gravitas. “This mission was a success. Don’t think it wasn’t. The apostate is taken care of and can’t hurt anybody, and neither of us died ensuring that. That is a good result. Clear?”

She looked dubious. “Ser.”

“Obviously, the situation with the herbalist is… regrettable,” Raine said. “A perfect success would have been if we could bring both him and Markeri back alive. But he was collaborating with an apostate. Ultimately, blame for his fate has to fall on his own shoulders.”

“But we should have saved him,” Kelly said quietly.

He sighed. “Yeah. I wish we could have. It’s good that you’re thinking about it like that. But if you’re going to survive this job, you need to get past the feeling that you’ve failed if you can’t save everybody.”

“I suppose that makes sense.” She gave him a sidelong look. “You didn’t answer my question.”

He shook his head. “Have to get up early to get one over on you, eh? I suppose I didn’t.” He swung his pack onto a different shoulder. “The thing is, I think that mage was possessed before we got anywhere near her. I mean, I could be wrong, but usually kind, sweet, experienced healers don’t set fire to their lovers because they got mad.”

She nodded.

“So, really, whether she attacked us or not, there was no way Lisbeth Markeri was getting back to the Circle alive,” Raine concluded. “Personally I prefer it when they burst into flames and try to claw your eyes out. I sleep better at night that way.”

“Right,” Kelly said. She looked a little unsettled. “Thank you, ser. I didn’t mean to – I mean, I wasn’t trying to imply that the mission went poorly or anything like that.”

You mean you didn’t want this to come out as ‘why did you murder that herbalist’, Raine thought. “That’s all right,” he said aloud. “I didn’t take it that way. Keep on dismantling missions and thinking about how you can approach it better next time. That’s how you stay alive to get old and grizzled like me.”

They crested the top of a hill and looked down at the shining grey ribbon of the river and the town nestled in the crook of its banks. There was a pillar of smoke rising from the centre of town.

“Andraste’s tits,” Raine hissed. “Hope you’re not tired out, rookie.”

 

                                                                                                       ***

 

Emmit curled up in the library chair and opened the book dubiously. One of his instructors had given it to him to study in his free time. He leafed through it to the introduction, trying to be hopeful but not succeeding that well. His battered spellbook back home had been useful at first, sure, but he’d found it less and less so as he got older.

Maybe I just work better when I can work alone and at my own pace.

He was partially through the first chapter when a droplet of water fell past his face and hit the page.

Automatically he wiped it away before it could soak into the paper, and returned to reading.

Another drop hit the page. Emmit frowned at it, puzzled. A third and fourth caught in his hair.

“What the…”

Emmit sat up, putting a hand to the back of his head. A chorus of snickering came from the other side of the room as Emmit looked around.

He didn’t have to look far. A wispy grey cloud, no wider than a serving platter, was hovering near the library ceiling. Raindrops fell from it to splatter gently against his upturned face. There was another wave of furtive laughter.

That’s amazing, was his first thought. Could I do that?

His second thought wasn’t one as such, just a wordless irritated groan. He stood up and moved to a different chair a few metres away, ignoring the handful of apprentices watching him from the alcove across the room. He settled himself with the book again.

Another chorus of whispering and laughter made him look up. The cloud was slowly, steadily making its way across the library, leaving a damp trail across the rug, towards him. It settled above his head again.

He snapped his book closed and stood.

The apprentices were about Emmit’s age – two of them were, in fact, his dorm-mates. Emmit strode over towards the alcove, and stood with his arms folded in front of them.

“Excuse me,” he said, his voice drenched with utter, sarcastic politeness. “Is one of you nice people responsible for that cloud over there?”

The one at the front, a young man with red robes a year or so older than Emmit, hooked an arm casually on the arm of his chair, an elaborate carved wood-and-velvet thing. “Why would I do that?” he said, his eyes playing over Emmit. “I have to share a room with you. I’d really rather the entire dormitory didn’t smell like wet dog, which it’s going to now.”

“What are you blathering…? Oh,” Emmit said, realising what the other apprentice was getting at. “I see. If you’re trying to get a rise out of me, tired Fereldan jokes aren’t going to work. I might have been born there but I’m not really… from there.”

“Oh, really?” the apprentice sneered. “Think you’re a Marcher, do you?”

“Not really,” Emmit said. “I just think choosing your insults based on nationality is stupid. Why, you...” He paused. The cloud had caught up with him and was again dropping a steady patter of rain on his head and shoulders.

One of the other apprentices, a girl, laughed at his expression.

“Yes, very funny,” Emmit said, wiping a sleeve across his face. “Just get rid of it, alright, I’m trying to read and you’re getting my book wet.”

“If you kept moving around you could keep ahead of it,” the third apprentice suggested. “Walk in circles.”

Emmit gritted his teeth. “Or,” he said brightly. “Whichever of you did it, could stop doing it! That would also work!”

“Hmm,” the apprentice in the red robe drawled. “I’ll think about it.”

Emmit was a merchant’s son and couldn’t help noticing this apprentice’s clothes. What would Leysa have sold good wool dyed that nice deep colour for, he wondered to himself. And fancy buttons? Fox fur around the collar and cuffs? A pretty penny indeed.

Between that and the accent, Emmit figured he was dealing with some stuck up noble. Emmit had met people like that before. They would walk all over you if you let them.

And Emmit didn’t have to let them anymore.

 “Don’t think about it,” he said. “I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.”

The red-robed mage raised his eyebrows. Deliberately, he put the book he was holding aside and stood up. “I’m sorry, I don’t think you’ve realised who you’re talking to, you weird little barbarian.”

“Nope. Don’t know, don’t care,” Emmit said. Water slid down the back of his collar and dripped into his eyes. He tipped his head back to glare at the other apprentice. “You clearly have some sort of problem with me, and I’m trying to learn here. So can we find some way to work out whatever your issue is in a more timely fashion?”

The red-robed mage grinned. “Oh. You want a fight?”

Emmit only hesitated for the barest instant. “Yeah. I guess so.”

“Are you sure we…” one of the other apprentices murmured apprehensively. She was glancing at the door to the room.

“Oh, don’t be such a wet hen, Marise,” red-robe said. “We’ll go around the back of the orchard, they won’t see us. Come on, then, Fereldan.”

The other apprentices stood as well. Emmit wondered, as he followed them through the rest of the library, what he had got himself into. He wasn’t worried worried – if he couldn’t take one poncy noble brat, just put him in the ground right now – but it was going to be a bit difficult to fight him while keeping his promise to Raine of ‘real magic only’. Not to mention, most of Emmit’s magic was the kind he used when he wanted to kill things.

Could always just punch him in the nose, I guess, he thought as the red-robed nobleborn apprentice led the way through the grounds of Krisholm Circle in the dim late-afternoon light. That’s non-lethal.

They didn’t pass any templars; the sole mage they passed raised an eyebrow at their group but didn’t challenge them. The sun had passed down below the level of the walls some time ago, leaving the grounds darker than seemed normal for this time of day. The apprentices skirted around a small cluster of trees, on the other side of the compound from the gate and its guards.

“You still up for this?” Red-robe said casually once the lights of the guardhouse were out of view, stretching his arms and fingers. “I know you’re having trouble keeping up with the little ones, so frankly I’m surprised you came out here. Sure you don’t want to chicken out?”

Emmit sighed. “Are you going to let me read in peace?”

Red-robe shook his head, smiling. “Oh, no. Most of your classmates could get rid of that spell by themselves if they worked at it. You should be able to, too. Call it incentive to work harder.”

Emmit gritted his teeth. “All right. Yup. Definitely want to fight you now.”

The two apprentices who’d followed Red-robe out backed away, leaving Red-robe and Emmit alone in an open patch of dirt and dead leaves.

“All right. Your choice.”  Red-robe raised his hand, freeing it from the fur-trimmed sleeve with an elegant flicking motion. Blue-white power began to collect in his fingers.

Huh. Okay. Emmit shifted his feet apart, knees loose, palms open. He saw the other mage’s stance shift and dove to the right. 

With a shouted word, the apprentice flung a bolt of lightning at Emmit – or where Emmit had been.

“You know,” Emmit said, bouncing back up to his feet. “If you weren’t so damn dramatic about it, you’d probably have better –” He dropped to his knees again as another bolt seared over his head.

“Oh, sorry,” Red-robe said. “I thought we were both mages? Are you going to participate in this or just keep throwing yourself to the ground?”

“You don’t want me to try and cast a spell at you,” Emmit said, back on his feet and circling around. If he could get close enough, he could probably just bear the mage to the ground and hit him a couple of times, that’d work, right? He didn’t strike Emmit as the type who coped well with that. 

“Actually, I – do!” A blue-white bolt crackled past Emmit’s belly as he turned side-on to avoid it. Red-robe cursed. “Hold still and cast something already.”

Emmit took a deep breath. I can be non-lethal. This is fine. He threw his hand up, hoping this wouldn’t be too dangerous.

Wind whipped the fabric of his robes around his legs and threw leaves spinning through the air towards Red-robe, who stumbled and was forced backwards for several feet, fetching up against one of the trees. The wind whipped the branches of the trees, sending one careening off into the grove with a sharp snap, and then died away.

The apprentice scrambled to his feet, leaves stuck to the fox-fur and his face red. He began to mutter under his breath, fingers moving. 

A circle of light traced itself on the ground around Emmit, a couple of metres across – covering most of their little arena. The area inside it became criss-crossed with lines, sketching out a geometric pattern that glowed under Emmit’s feet.

Emmit looked down at the glowing lines of light that had sprung up all around him and lunged to the side. His movement was checked by the unexpected confines of his robe and he fell, sprawling, most of his length still inside the glyph.

He sat up, breath catching. He wasn’t going to make it.

Suddenly, the skin of his arms and face felt cool and his hairs stood on end. There was a faint chiming noise and a shimmer of energy flared up over his whole body.

The glyph flashed. Lightning burst out of the glowing lines, hissing and shrieking. It wound in jagged flickering lines up his legs and chest, and danced around the circle marked out by the glyph.

And Emmit felt nothing. He looked around in confusion, threads and bolts of lightning obscuring his view, and his skin just felt cool.

The glyph faded away and the lightning went with it.

“Hayden!” Emmit heard from behind him. “You could’ve hurt him!”

Emmit turned his body to look. Another young man stood among the trees there, folders and books bundled clumsily to his chest with one arm, the other falling back down to his side.

 “Oh, great,” Red-robe said, rolling his eyes theatrically. “Everybody remain calm, Reece is here. Any fun that may have occurred will be under control shortly.”

The new mage frowned. He was tall, in mage’s robes that seemed to be blue, with a long straight nose and neatly combed dark hair. He resettled his grip on the books irritably. “This isn’t funny, Hayden,” he complained. “What are you, twelve? Duels behind the orchard?”

“Go away, Reece,” one of the watching apprentices said. “You’re not an apprentice anymore. Are you really going to be one of those people?”

“Apparently I am,” the stranger said. “Hang on – Hayden, how old is this apprentice? Is he new? That’s not fair and you know it.”

“Actually, it was the initiate’s idea,” the red-robed apprentice, Hayden, said with a shrug. “I don’t know what he was expecting.”

“Probably not to end up crisped,” the stranger said.

“Oh please, they’re only paralysing, he’d be fine.”

“Look, you’re lucky it was me who came to see what was going on and not the templars. Do you know how far away you can see this lightshow from? Especially since it’s almost dark out?”

It was true; the sky showing above the walls was dusky purple, and the shadows under the trees were deepening. The apprentices exchanged glances. The two who hadn’t been participating in the fight began to edge back towards the path.

“Come on, Hayden, let’s go,” one of them muttered. “I don’t want to get confined to the dorm room again.”

“Oh, fine,” Hayden said with a shrug. “I won anyway.”

Emmit gritted his teeth. “Did get to knock you on your ass, though. Happy to do it again. Any time.”

Hayden rolled his eyes as he turned away. Emmit sighed and climbed to his feet, tugging the stupid skirts of the robe back into place and brushing away dirt. 

“Sorry about them,” the stranger said, looking down at Emmit.

Emmit looked at him warily. He looked to be scarcely a few years older than Emmit, despite being much taller. “Yeah, well. I did agree to the fight. Which wasn’t that smart, I guess, but he was being an ass.”

“That sounds like him,” the stranger agreed. Emmit placed his accent as similar to Hayden’s. “I don’t miss sharing a dorm with Hayden, at all.”

Emmit flicked a finger against the bare skin of his arm and watched the barrier spell shimmer. “Thanks for the help,” he said. “This is pretty neat.”

“Oh, no difficulty, it was all I could think of at the time,” the other mage said. 

Emmit fell in beside him as they walked back down the path.

“I’m Reece,” the new mage offered as they walked. “Nice to meet you.”

“Emmit Thorne,” Emmit said. “I – ” He stopped. Raindrops were trickling down the back of his neck again. “Son of a bitch!”

Reece tipped his head back. “You have a friend.”

“I know. This is what the argument was about, if you were wondering,” Emmit grumbled, shading his eyes. “It must have taken it this long just to get here… how did it get past the library door?”

“Hayden’s rather proud of that spell, I think,” Reece said. “Here.” He muttered something and flicked his fingers. The raincloud thinned out into wisps and disappeared.

“Can you show me how to do that?” Emmit said, without thinking.

Reece, who was shuffling his armful of paper from one side to the other, looked at him oddly. “Yes, I suppose. Can’t your mentor show you?”

“I don’t have one of those,” Emmit said. “I’m only in the very beginning classes.”

“What?” Reece looked baffled. “Why? You’re not that…. ” He froze and stared at Emmit. “Oh! You’re that apprentice! The wild one!”

Emmit was torn between being amused at his expression and a little upset.  “Yeah. That’s me,” he sighed. “That apprentice.” He had been kind of hoping he might have made an ally, a friend. Apparently not.

Reece covered his mouth with one hand and looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean – it’s just that I heard we had an initiate brought in last week but I wasn’t paying much attention at the time and so I…” He trailed off.

“Okay,” Emmit said glumly. “Thanks for your help, anyway.”

An awkward silence fell as they tramped back towards the tower entrance, the dirt of the path crunching under their slippered feet.

“That’s doubly unfair of Hayden to pick on you, then,” Reece said abruptly. “Why, you don’t know anything!”

Emmit squeezed a few drops of water from his hair. “Ouch,” he said dryly.

“Oh, no, I didn’t mean…” Reece grimaced. “All right, I am going to close my mouth now.”

“No, no, by all means continue,” Emmit said. “Why, nobody has told me that for at least ten minutes.”

“Sorry!”

“It’s fine,” Emmit sighed.

“Hold on a second,” Reece said, stopping again. “You said you were in the library? Oh, no! Hayden wasn’t doing that raincloud spell in there, was he?”

“Yes?”

“Oh no. Do you know how bad a damp environment is for books?” Reece looked mournful. “I’d better go make sure the carpet dries out properly before dinner…”

“Had you?” Emmit blinked. “Okay. I can show you where.”

In the better lighting of the library, Emmit could see Reece didn’t have any fur or lace on his robe. In fact, it was almost shabby in the same way Emmit’s robe was - sturdy fabric with little in the way of ornamentation, bearing pale patches of wear on the elbows. The mage himself was lightly built underneath it, with a scholar’s soft hands and not much muscle.

He made a disapproving noise at the carpet behind the library door. “Honestly. Now, let’s see…”

Emmit watched as Reece bit his lip thoughtfully, eyes darting back and forth, and then held his hands out. A wave of dry, hot air touched Emmit’s feet, apparently radiating out from the damp patch on the carpet.

“Is this really your job?” Emmit said curiously. “I mean, are you… you’re not an apprentice. Are you a librarian?”

“No,” Reece said absently. “I’m a mage. I passed my Harrowing not long ago. I’m not really, um, anything specific yet. Where else?”

“Right. The Harrowing.” Emmit scuffed a foot on the now-dry carpet. He’d been told about that; some kind of ultimate final test to make sure a mage was safe to be around.

“We should get to dinner,” the mage said, looking up at last. “Templars don’t like it if people straggle in late.”

“Huh. That’s odd, considering it wouldn’t be that difficult to slip away and skip dinner entirely,” Emmit said thoughtfully. “They don’t take a head count. Do they? I’ve never seen them do one.”

“Well, no,” the new mage said, eying him. “They don’t. Or at least they never used to. You can skip meals for a few days, but that’s about the limit. Then they start noticing that they never see you.”

Emmit was pondering how much time that might give you away from prying eyes, but this fellow didn’t need to know that. “Well, Maker forbid we annoy the templars,” he said, flashing a smile.  

 

                                                                                                       ***

 

The streets of Meike’s Crossing were largely deserted as Raine and Kelly made their way through them. There didn’t seem to be any damage out here, Kelly noted with relief. She had feared to find the whole place in ruins. Instead it was all more or less normal, just quiet and occasionally filled with the smell of smoke.

Raine tried to stop a woman who was eying them, but she shook her head and kept going. “You’ll want to get to the statue in the square,” she said over her shoulder. “You missed it.”

“Missed it?” Raine demanded of her back. “Damn. Come on.” He didn’t have that bright-eyed, over-active energy from this morning anymore; it all seemed to have focused into purpose.

The square, in contrast to the rest of the town, was clogged with people. Mostly men, but women too, a worrying number holding makeshift weapons in their hands. People turned around to watch the templars approaching with grim looks.

“Local militia,” Raine muttered to her. “Town guards and whatever idiot has their grandfather’s sword lying around. Coming through! Thank you.” He strode into the edges of the crowd and Kelly took a deep breath and followed.

There were a few small, sad heaps scattered across the cobblestones of the square – bodies, Kelly realised with a lurch. The townsfolk kept well clear of them, leaving the otherwise crowded square mottled with clear patches.

Raine used them to make his way through, pushing his way from clearing to clearing. Kelly followed in his wake, trying to look impassive and confident. She darted a downwards glance at one of the bodies as they passed – it was dressed in robes, with a mage’s slippered foot exposed at one end, and smoking slightly. She thought the others had been townsfolk.

In the centre of the square, there was a statue: Andraste, robed and smiling benevolently down on a cluster of weary people at the base of her plinth. Kelly counted six of the healers, guarded by two templars.

Raine broke into the small bare circle surrounding them, his strides long and confident. “This,” he said, “Really will not do, people. Does somebody want to tell me what’s going on?”

There was one man standing in the cleared area, his back to them; he turned around, his brows drawn together in a frown. Well-dressed but not richly so, Kelly noted. He had an axe – the kind meant for wood, not people - with its handle shoved through his belt. 

“Your timing needs some work, templar,” he said. “Could have used you a couple of hours ago.”

The people shuffled backwards a little, and the cleared circle widened around them. Kelly heard somebody shouting something over the heads of the crowd – she didn’t catch the exact words, but they weren’t friendly. 

She didn’t like standing with her back to these people; it made her neck prickle and her hand want to reach for her sword. She turned around, so she could watch Raine’s back but still catch glimpses of the conversation as it played out.

The faces of the crowd were grim, determined, frightened – the ones in the front didn’t look exactly pleased to find themselves there. Some were trying to wriggle their way back out into the crowd, but some were standing firm.

Kelly let her gaze travel over them, and most eyes flickered away from meeting hers.

“And your manners could use some work,” Raine said. “Don’t see me complaining. Are you the person who’s going to tell me what’s going on?” 

One of the templars limped over to stand beside the townsman. “The apostate led the main party off, summoned some company, and doubled back here,” she said grimly, standing slightly canted to one side with her arm held protectively against her ribs. “His target appeared to be the rest of the mages. He’s dead now, along with his foul reinforcements, but it was a near thing.” Her eyes travelled over to Kelly with a flicker of relief. “Yours?”

 “Dead,” Raine said. “Few problems. How –”

“Listen, you can compare stories later,” the townsman interrupted, over a rising swell of discontented muttering from the crowd. “I’m Kent. I speak for the townsfolk. We were just giving your esteemed brother and sister in arms a final warning.”

“Really?” Raine said, raising one eyebrow. “That sounds serious. Why doesn’t everybody go back to their homes while we talk about it?”

“I don’t think so,” Kent said, shaking his head. “Final means final. People are dead because of you. We want those mages gone.”

There was another inarticulate murmur from the crowd, this one of agreement. Kelly looked around, and for the first time allowed herself to wonder what they were going to do if it came to actually fighting these people.

I can’t, she thought. They’re civilians with whatever vaguely weapon-shaped things they could find. She thought about shoving her sword through the abdomen of the woman directly in front of her, like Raine had with the herbalist in the cottage, and her stomach turned over.

“And I told you,” the templar snapped, “We’re leaving in a day’s time. Two days at the most.” She put her hand to her sword hilt and made an attempt to straighten up. If she’d meant to appear more intimidating, it was a failure; Kelly could see her swaying from here. Her hair hung in sweaty strings over her eyes, and her skin was pale under smears of ash and mud.

Kelly looked for the other templar, and found him over with the healers, equally dirty and battered looking.

“Two days’ time isn’t good enough,” Kent said. “You’ve been here days too long already. You said it yourself; the piece of shit that burned the healing centre down came back because we still had the mages here.” He looked around at the crowd, seeming to take heart, and folded his arms. “You pack those mages up and get them out of town, or we will get them out of the land of the living.”

“Alright, let’s not get carried away,” Raine said. He stepped in front of the healers, his hands out in a pacifying gesture. “We’re leaving.”

“Orders are to stay here until the Knight-Lieutenant and the rest get back,” the other templar said, glaring at Raine. “We’re not going anywhere.”

Raine scowled, stepped over to her. He lowered his voice to a hiss, but Kelly could still hear him. “That is a really good way to get a lot of people really dead. Either the mages or the townsfolk.”

“The Knight-Lieutenant said –”

“I don’t care what he said!” Raine flicked a glance over his shoulder. “Look, we’re ranked the same and I have seniority, so in the absence of the ranking officer, we need to react, and I’m making the decision. The main party can catch up to us on the road.”

“The main party can catch up to us here,” the other templar insisted.

Raine sighed. “I am really tempted to just poke your wound until you fall over and drag you out of here on a litter, but I suppose I had better not. Stay here if that’ll satisfy you.”

“The mages can’t stay,” Kent threatened. “If they’re not outside the town boundary within the hour, we – ”

“The mages aren’t staying,” Raine assured him, and turned back to the templar. “Look, you stay here and report in to the Knight-Lieutenant when the main party gets back. The rest of us take the mages and leave.”

The templar hesitated.

“That’s fine with me,” Kent said. “You useless templars have worn out your welcome, too, but we can live with one of you for two days.”

“If we hadn’t been here to protect you – ” the templar began.

“Bullshit you protected us!” Kent spat on the ground. “The mages decided to kill each other in the street and you did absolutely nothing. It was another mage who killed the freak, not you.”

“Ser Oswin died in your defence, and you call that – ”

Kent began to speak over her, but Raine raised his voice over the both of them. “However bad things were, I’m sure they would have been worse if we hadn’t been here. And I notice you aren’t especially grateful to that mage, either, whichever one it is.” Kelly saw him cast an irritated glance at the mages. “Are we all agreed?”

The crowd was stirring again, but Kelly could see a few more people slipping away from the front rows, melting back into the crowd.

“We are,” the templar said reluctantly.

“Yes,” Kent said, after a few moments. “A couple of us will be staying here to escort you out of town.” He looked over, past Kelly, and jerked his head at some men from the crowd.

Raine nodded, turning away from Kent towards the huddle of mages and the templar guarding them.

“How many of the mages can walk?” he asked brusquely.

The first templar limped with Raine, casting her eyes over the mages. “All of them, pretty sure. Anybody badly injured? No?”

“Feels like we’re on the wrong side,” the second templar muttered, with a disgusted twist of his lips. “Protecting mages from good upstanding citizens who sing the chant? That’s the opposite of our job. I don’t want to die for these robes.”

“They are our charges,” the first said tightly. “And these aren’t accused of any wrongdoing.”

Raine nodded. “I think we have enough horses for… Recruit, you had better go and fetch them.” He waved a hand at her without looking.

“Ser Raine,” Kelly said. “Should we – um – do we have someone we need to talk to before we leave?”

He looked at her, uncomprehending.

The people in the square were beginning to trickle away. Kelly felt a blush spread across her cheeks as she realised half of them were looking at her. She hadn’t wanted to spell it out in front of the crowd. “Ser. Mikel’s family,” she muttered, as quietly as she dared. Admitting in public that Mikel had died, and at Raine’s hands no less, was exactly the last thing they needed to do.

He winced. “That’s right. Uh. Damn.”

“Should we leave a letter, or…”

“What are you whispering about?” Kent said suspiciously. “Who’s Mikel?”

 “Kelly, you go and find the family and talk to them while I get things sorted here,” Raine said quickly. “Shouldn’t take you too long. Fifth house down the road to the docks, red door. Be back in twenty minutes.”

Kelly nodded. “Ser.” 

The crowd parted for her reluctantly. She held her head high and tried to stride as if she couldn’t see the suspicious glares levelled her way.

 The house with the red door wasn’t hard to find. Kelly wasted a minute standing in front of it, rehearsing words in her head over and over. Knocking on the door, she had a sudden irrational hope that nobody would answer and she would have to go back to the town centre without finding them. Not her fault, she was on a time limit, right?

A tired-looking woman opened the door. She looked surprised and not a little frightened to find a templar on her doorstep.

“Hello. Are you related to Mikel the herbalist?” Kelly said.

The woman looked anxious and stepped back. “He’s my son. Come in, then, but I already spoke to the other templar…”

“I won’t come in, thank you,” Kelly said. Dread clenched in her stomach. “I’m very sorry to have to tell you this. But Mikel is dead.” She took a deep breath, fixed her eyes on a detail of the woman’s dress rather than her face. “He chose to run away with the apostate, Lisbeth Markeri, when she attempted to escape from being returned to the Circle. We… that is to say…” She swallowed, tried to find her script again. “Regrettably, Mikel was killed in the confrontation with the abomination.”

The woman was still. Her chest moved as she breathed. Kelly didn’t look at her face.

“His grave can be found behind the small cottage in the forest west of Meike’s Crossing,” Kelly said, feeling like she was blundering forward into emptiness and silence. “I am very sorry for your loss. May Andraste’s grace go with you.” She bowed her head, awkwardly, stepped away.

“Wait!” Mikel’s mother said, taking a step forward, her hand outstretched. “What do you mean – dead – how can – why?”

Kelly winced, tried to set her face in a look of calm sympathy. “He had taken the apostate to his hideout in the forest, and attempted to help her against us.”

“Why would he do that?” Mikel’s mother said, her voice tiny and desperate. “He wouldn’t – Mikel’s a good boy, how could…”

“I don’t know, madam,” Kelly said. “I am sorry we could not save him from her.”

Kelly retreated, leaving the woman standing on her doorstep alone, looking lost. She turned her back and quickened her steps.

Why did you say that last thing? The apostate wasn’t the one who killed him. We did that.

But it was her fault.

“Wait! Templar, come back!”

Kelly wasn’t running away from the woman’s questions. She just wanted to get back to Raine before things got worse in the town square. That was all.

 

Chapter Text

The dining hall had a kind of threadbare grandeur to it – faded but clean embroidered tablecloths and a ceiling that rose high above all of their heads. Emmit had never seen the chandelier that hung there lit; mostly the place was lit by witchlights that hovered over the middle of the tables.

“Maybe the templars get cross that latecomers are keeping them from their own dinner,” Emmit suggested, carrying on the thread of their previous conversation as they sat down with their plates. “I know I’m unbearable when I’m hungry.”

Reece chuckled. “I think they like to know where everyone is,” he said. “You know, all the mages together in one place, not wandering the halls.”

Emmit nodded. The food was decent here, at least, for something that was clearly cooked in large quantities to feed hundreds of people at a time. He wondered who cooked it; he couldn’t see templars doing it. He made a mental note to find out where the kitchen was and how often it got supplies. Maybe this mage would know.

Reece was eying him, not very subtly at all. “So,” he said after a minute, as they ate. “I’m sorry I was rude before. But you must know, your age is a bit unusual. You are…?”

“Sixteen,” Emmit said.

“Wow, yeah, most people come to the Circle by nine or ten.”

Emmit tried to shrug as if it was no big deal.

“You must have shown magic late…?”

“Well. Not really,” Emmit said. To his surprise, he didn’t mind the questions. It was nice to have company; if Emmit had to eat one more meal at the children’s table with the six year olds, he would probably blow something up. Or at least paint the dining hall ceiling with soup. “It showed at the regular time. I mean, nine or ten, yeah, that sounds about right.”

“You knew you had it and you lived away from the Circle for six years?” Reece looked horrified, his fork dangling as if forgotten from his hand. “But why – weren’t you worried about demons?”

“Not really,” Emmit said casually. “I met a few I guess? They tried to kill me so I killed them back.”

Reece looked even more horrified for a few seconds, but then sat back and gave Emmit a suspicious look. “That doesn’t sound right,” he said. “You’re trying to shock me.”

“Maybe just a little,” Emmit said. He grinned, and gestured with his fork at Reece. “Sorry, I couldn’t help it. Your expression was just…”

Reece frowned at him.

“Sorry. Consider it payback for saying I don’t know anything, and we’re square now.”  

“Well. Why didn’t you come to the Circle when you were younger?”

“I… it’s complicated,” Emmit sighed. “I thought I would be okay without it.”

Reece shook his head. Had he drawn away a little from Emmit across the table? “All alone? You didn’t have anybody to teach you? You’re really lucky the templars found you before something awful happened.”

Emmit gave a weak smile. “I… lucky is… not how I would have put it at the time,” he said uncertainly. “They weren’t exactly gentle with me. But, uh, yes, of course.”

Reece toyed with his fork and looked sad for a moment. “No. I guess they’re not.”

“So, how long have you been here?” Emmit asked, hoping to steer the conversation away from templars.

“Oh, since I was nine,” Reece said. He smiled. “So I suppose I must seem very sheltered to you. What nationality are you - Fereldan? You must travel a lot.”

“Yeah, we do – I mean, we did,” Emmit agreed. “My family are merchants. Spent most of my life on the road. I… I’ll admit, it’s kind of hard to imagine spending all of my life in one place. You haven’t left Krisholm since you were nine?”

“No,” Reece admitted. “They used to do these… field trips for apprentices, especially ones interested in herbalism or healing, to the forest around the Circle. But that was ages ago, they don’t let anybody do things like that now.”

“Yikes,” Emmit said softly. He looked around, at the groups of mages sitting at their tables eating, at the shadowy ceiling, at the templars standing around the margins of the room, and tried to imagine sitting here two or three times a day every day for the next ten years. He fought down the rising sense of panic.

“And now even the Enchanters aren’t allowed to apply for research trips or anything,” Reece was continuing. “But I mean, that might be temporary. The Knight-Commander didn’t say it was permanent. And of course, sometimes mages get transferred to another Circle, because they requested it, or because they’re needed somewhere else…”

Emmit felt a surge of pity and disdain for Reece. Shut up in this place for over half his life? And he didn’t really seem to see anything wrong with it. No wonder he was a bit odd in the head. Hold on now, he reminded himself. He did just step in to defend a stranger from bullies, even though it wasn’t really any of his business. So he’s not totally useless.

He just seems like it.

“How come you talk like a noble but you don’t dress like one?” Emmit said.

Reece’s face flushed, and he made a movement as if to cross his arms over the worn blue robe. “I. Um. I don’t... That is, this is Circle issue....”

“Well, how come what’s his face…” Emmit waved a forkful of vegetables. “Hayden. He doesn’t wear ‘Circle issue’.”

“Well, no, his parents send him things,” Reece said. “Most of the nobility send clothes and sweets and things to their mage children. They’re not allowed to visit, really, and mages can’t hold titles or anything like that. But they’re allowed to send presents, so they do.”

“Oh.” Emmit paused. “Yours… aren’t nobility, then?”

 “No, um, they are. But they don’t...” Reece trailed off, and then smiled with visible effort. “There’s nothing actually wrong with Circle issued robes. I mean, it’s only clothes, everybody else wears the same.”

“Oh, sure. Of course not,” Emmit said. “Just wondering. That’s all.”

They fell into an awkward silence, with only the quiet hum of the rest of the room’s conversation. Emmit looked up and realised a templar was watching the both of them from across the room. He scowled and hunched his shoulders a little. He felt a bit like the mages were a flock of chickens or some other livestock.

Reece cleared his throat, and gave Emmit a curious look. “Did you really meet any demons?”

Emmit looked at the older mage for a few seconds. “Nah, not really,” he lied. “Only in the incident that landed me here.”

“What incident?”

“It’s… kind of a long story,” Emmit said.

The other mage smiled tentatively. “There’s time. I’m interested..?”

Emmit chewed his lip and considered it. He felt like it was a bad idea to talk too much about this stuff; he was bound to let something slip. But he supposed he could give an abridged version.

“Well. I travelled around a lot with my family, like I said,” Emmit said. “Do you know a templar called Raine?”

Reece tipped his head, his eyes going faraway with thought for a second. “Mm. No. But then, I don’t know all of them by name.”

“He’s the one who… found me,” Emmit said. “He uh, actually he assumed I was a hell of a lot more malevolent than I actually was. Than I am, I mean. There were… disappearances in the area.” He sighed. “Since they started a little while after we came to town, Raine came sniffing around us. And he found me. He put two and two together and came to the obvious and completely wrong conclusion.” He laughed self-consciously. Me, dangerous! Can you believe what a silly mistake that templar made?

“Oh,” Reece said. “He figured out it wasn’t you eventually, I assume?”

“Oh, yeah,” Emmit said. “We talked for a while and he decided it wasn’t me. But it turned out I had a few pieces of the puzzle he needed to figure out where to go next, so he left me under guard in the village while he went to investigate these ruins in the forest.” If by ‘had a few pieces of the puzzle’ you mean ‘literally handed him the answers on a silver plate after finding them myself’.

“But…?”

Emmit grinned. Please. You think the local watchhouse and a couple of lazy watchmen could keep me in? “I was on his trail within a couple of hours. Lucky for him, too.”

Why?”

“Well, I couldn’t let him go after them alone,” Emmit said. “He’d have died. Stupid templar. What’d he want to do that for?” 

“Um,” Reece said, looking at him with round eyes. “I’m sure I don’t know. Perhaps something to do with… years of training… or lyrium techniques to suppress magic, or… a really big sword… you know, basically any of those as compared to a foreign teenager…”

Emmit laughed. “Okay, point. But I was right, you know, he did end up needing my help.”

 “What was in the ruins?” Reece looked fascinated.

“Well, that’s where the demons came in,” Emmit said. “And evil mages. And corpses. It was… bad.” He shrugged. “But we made it out, and we stopped them. So it was okay in the end.” Except for the part where Raine was completely unreasonable and ungrateful and I ended up here. That’s significantly less okay.

“That’s incredible,” Reece said. “You really are lucky to be here…”

Emmit made a faint noise of agreement. “So now I guess I’m here. To get magic lessons. I mostly taught myself things out of my book before this.”

“Oh, a book. Right.” Reece looked slightly relieved. Then he put his head on one side. “When you say ‘demons’, you mean abominations? Not naked spirits. What were they possessing?”

Belatedly, Emmit realised that he probably should be more careful what he said to this mage. He took a swallow of water and tried to come up with an answer that hid how confused that question made him. Maybe a joke. “Uh. Do I? Some of them were wearing clothes, but I suspect that’s not what you mean?”

“You don’t even...?” Reece spluttered a little. “Look – okay, you have to be making fun of me again.”

“No,” Emmit said. “Look, um – so, I know a spirit is different to a demon.” Because the teacher seems to talk about it like they are so I’m guessing they are. “But people seem to use the words to refer to the same thing all the time. It’s confusing me.”

“Well – yes, they are the same thing, kind of, but also not really,” Reece said.

“Wow. Thanks. That clears it right up.”

“I mean – a spirit refers to any being from the Fade,” Reece said patiently. “A demon is a type of spirit. One whose purpose has been twisted.”

“Okay, so spirits are good and demons are bad,” Emmit said.

“Not quite – it’s a bit more complicated than that, actually, because…  look, haven’t you been taught this?”

“Um,” Emmit said, hating the way his voice had shifted up in pitch. “Of course I have.” He had been spending a lot of time nodding and looking attentive while Enchanters poured a steady stream of ideas and unfamiliar words over him – well, really, half of it sounded more like chantry stuff than anything useful, and he intended to be out of here before any of it became relevant – and pretending he already grasped most of it.

Usually we kill adult mages who don’t have any training, Raine’s voice echoed in the back of his mind. Your mind can’t learn like it needs to.

Emmit had thought he was good at hiding things. Years of keeping his secret in every minor and major town they’d passed through apparently hadn’t given him the skills he needed to keep one incredibly naïve scholar away from his secrets. Pathetic.

Reece began to collect their empty plates and cutlery, apparently to take it somewhere. “I suppose if you find something possessing a corpse it’s pretty safe to say that’s a demon,” he was saying thoughtfully. “I mean, I don’t know why a benign spirit would want… but hey, Emmit, you know, Krisholm is actually kind of a weak place in the Veil. There are probably more spirits here than most places you’ve been.”

“Wait, really?” Emmit frowned, distracted from his thoughts. “So isn’t it safer for me to be out there, then? How come?”

Reece shrugged and stood. “Lots of mages in one place. Lots of magical workings being done over the years. It happens. But that’s why the templars are so careful, you know.”

... This place gets stupider the more I learn about it.

                                                                                       ***

“All in all, that could have been worse,” Knight-Commander Althea said, after Laurent finished his report about the matter of the Meike’s Crossing healers. She stood at the open window of her office, looking out over the grounds of Krisholm Circle. From here Laurent couldn’t tell if she was looking down at the templar sparring grounds, or at the sky.

The Knight-Commander had returned from the city, which meant Laurent could hand back command of the Circle. It probably wouldn’t mean his workload actually decreased, he thought to himself wryly. There was always more to be done. But he was relieved anyway.

“You handled things fairly well in my absence. Rebuilding ties with the township will be slow, though.”

“Thank you, Knight-Commander,” Laurent said. He stood, although not exactly at strict attention; usually Althea didn’t stand on formality when they had these meetings. She seemed to like to stride about the room, anyway. It was both larger and finer appointed than his, but not excessively so. Laurent approved - some people he’d served under in the past seemed to think a templar’s office required a lot of decoration, and it had never boded well.

“There was another issue I wanted to discuss,” she said, her tone changing. She turned away from the window to give him a measuring look. Her grey-streaked hair was pulled back in a severe bun, and her eyes were narrow and sharp. “I hate to bring this up, Laurent, but I really have to speak with you about it.” She strode over to her desk, and sat down with a barely detectable wince. She stretched her leg out awkwardly under it.

Laurent frowned. “Of course. What is it?”

 “I’ve had some letters of complaint about you recently.”

Laurent looked up sharply. He endeavoured to look surprised. “Have you, Knight-Commander? Who from?”

“One Valette Renauld, Countess of Hayd’s Peak.” She searched her paperwork and separated out a couple of pieces of paper. “And her sibling, Lady Nicola of Frost’s Ridge. And a friend of hers, the Revered Mother of a Chantry in Markham. Apparently the Countess’ son was a templar under your command here.”

“Ser Jeralt?” Laurent bit the inside of his cheek. “I believe I recall the man.”

“You discharged him,” Knight-Commander Althea said. She raised dark eyebrows at him as she held the letters out. “Dishonourably. The Countess most strenuously objects.”

Laurent took them. “I suppose that isn’t surprising.”

He skimmed the first letter, written on thick, creamy paper in elegant writing. It was about what he had expected. Disrespect to the family, blah blah, unfaltering piety and generous tithes to the Chantry, blah… the word ‘outrageous’ was used more than seemed strictly necessary…

“What are their actual grounds for objecting?” he asked. “We had significant proof of wrongdoing.”

 He reached the end of the letter and the corner of his mouth lifted in a bitter smile. The Countess laid the blame for this entirely at Laurent’s feet, and called on Althea to bring him to heel. In which case the Countess would no doubt be entirely magnanimous over this complete misunderstanding, she understood what it was to have overzealous underlings…

“All lies and circumstance, naturally,” Althea said. “You are speaking of the son of one of the oldest and best families in Thedas, after all. How can he be accused of such base actions?”

“If his family is so old and fine, and he is so dear to them,” Laurent said, “I’m sure they can provide for him adequately without need for a lyrium pension.”

“I’m sure they can, but that’s not the issue,” Althea said. “It is – well, perhaps you wouldn’t understand, but it’s quite an insult. People will talk, if they aren’t already. We’re isolated out here, but we are not completely cut off from society.”

Perhaps you wouldn’t understand. Laurent sighed.

Why was he even surprised anymore? He had stayed away from his home country for years to try and get away from this shit, but it was impossible. Orlais, Ferelden, Free Marches - the nobility were the same everywhere. Always there was this disbelief that the rules could possibly apply to them. And was it any wonder they thought like that, when half the time it turned out that they didn’t apply?

He kept these thoughts to himself. Knight-Commander Althea was of noble stock, he was fairly sure, and he knew voicing his frustrations only ever lowered people’s opinion of him.

Not always. The thought came unbidden. Hester and Charls and the rest, back during the Blight. It didn’t lower people’s opinion of you then.

But he had moved up in the world since.

“With respect,” he said evenly. “The Order is much improved for no longer including the man. We implicated him in the attempted escape of three mages over the past year. He took bribes – in lyrium, and coin, and… various favours. He was, in short, a miserable excuse for a man and a templar both.”

“Yes, of course, he obviously couldn’t have stayed in his current position, that’s clear.” She sighed, took the letters back from him. “But you understand I have to placate these relatives of his now. A touch of delicacy wouldn’t have gone amiss.”

Laurent stared over her shoulder. “You’re suggesting I should have quietly shuffled him into a post where he wouldn’t do any harm. A post that didn’t look like a punishment, and could even be viewed as a reward. Because his mother is nobility, and can get her friends to write us angry letters.”

The Knight-Commander’s mouth twisted. She shifted her legs into a different position irritably. “When you put it like that… no. I suppose you shouldn’t have. But a simple discharge without all this fuss…”

“I…” Laurent sighed, looked away. “Knight-Commander, I don’t mean to make your job difficult. But I thought cracking down on this kind of thing was what I was here to do. And I have made no secret of my views on this. Examples need to be made. How can we tell the common templars and the mages how things will be, and then not follow up with actions?” 

He understood. He did. The Templar Order needed the goodwill of the people, or it could not function, and like it or not, that meant treading carefully around the people with more worldly power. And the nobility gave coin to the Chantry, coin that supported the activities of the templars, as well as orphanages and schools and charitable works. Armour and lodging and food for an armed force couldn’t be summoned out of the air by faith and righteousness alone. Laurent knew it wasn’t as simple as telling all the nobles that the Templar Order would be run as the Order pleased and to keep their noses out.

“Quite frankly,” The Knight-Commander said eventually, looking down at the letter with a sour expression, “I am inclined to agree with you. I suspect the Countess would have made a fuss regardless of how Jeralt’s dismissal was handled, and in times such as these the Order cannot afford weak links. You have my trust to carry on as you see fit.”

Laurent inclined his head, a slight smile coming to his face. “Thank you, Knight-Commander. I appreciate your trust.”

She gave him a faint smile. “Good. Then go.”

He bowed, hand on his sword hilt – and then hesitated. “Knight-Commander Althea,” he began, and stopped to clear his throat. “Before I do, I did have… an issue I wanted to raise with you.”

She glanced up. “Yes?”

“The Hopewell business,” he said.

“Ah. That.”

“Are we going to make a statement of some kind to the mages?”

She sighed, made a decisive hand gesture. “No. No statements. We’re not going to respond to the ridiculous rabble-rousing that’s going on, and the last thing we need is the inevitable mage hysterics that will result from any kind of official engagement.”

Laurent bit the inside of his cheek again. “Begging your pardon, Knight-Commander,” he ventured. “I am certain that the mages already know about the Rite being completed.”

She snorted. “Not officially, they don’t. Unless you’ve said something.”

“I have not,” Laurent said. “But it isn’t as if we’ve kept it secret from our own people; news is bound to filter into the mage population, even if we were to try removing mention of it from letters the mages get.”

“Mages always gossip,” Althea said dismissively. “That doesn’t call for a statement.”

“I merely thought that it might calm matters to get everything out in the open,” Laurent said, even though he was certain the Knight-Commander wouldn’t take his suggestion. “It… alarms them not to be told things, even when they hear it from other sources. Open communication with the cooler heads might go a ways towards establishing calm.”

She gave him another measuring look. “You’re a very honest, straightforward person, Laurent. I like that about you. But no. If we don’t throw grist to the rumour mill, it will die out that much sooner.”

“Ah.” Laurent nodded. He had promised himself he would at least raise the issue, for the sake of what Hester had said to him, but… the Commander probably had a point. The mages might want to be told things, but that was no guarantee they’d respond well to it. He took a deep breath. “One further question, then.”

“Yes?”

 “Am I to understand that this is to be a… a reordering of our policies, Knight-Commander?” Laurent gritted his teeth and resisted the urge to fidget like a recruit. “The Rite of Tranquillity and its less restricted use. Is this a permanent change? Or simply a one-off response to an untenable situation?”

Althea made an irritated noise. “We’re not going to start handing them out for frivolous reasons, if that’s what you’re ask…” She stopped and held her hand up, shaking her head. “No, no, I’m sorry, Laurent, I know you didn’t mean it like that.” She frowned at him, but not as though she bore him a particular grudge for asking; just as if it was a difficult question. “You just worry about Krisholm, Laurent. I wouldn’t expect we’ll need it often. But I won’t take it off the table. Does that answer your question?”

“Yes,” Laurent said. “Thank you, Knight-Commander.”

He tried to fight off the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as he left the Knight-Commander’s office. He had hoped for a different answer; he hadn’t wanted to admit to himself how much he had been hoping for this not to be the way things were. The times change and we have to change with them.

No matter. Maker willing, if they did their duty and kept a firm hand on the reins it would never become an issue.

                                                                                                         ***

“Hey, Reece.”

Reece looked up from his books - he had not heard the sound of someone approaching. It was after dinner, with still a few hours to go before the mages had to go to bed. The library was hushed and gently lit.

It was the freckled templar, again. “Hello, Ser Petyr,” Reece said, pleased he had remembered the name. He glanced around; had he misjudged how late it was? Usually if you were quiet the templars let you stay in the library until curfew.

“Another letter for you,” Petyr said, putting it down on the edge of the desk. “You get a lot of letters, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Reece said cautiously. “I suppose I do.”

“Who’s this one from?”

Reece picked up the letter. “My mentor, ser.”

Petyr leaned a hand on the desk casually. “Oh, don’t mind me,” he added, noticing Reece’s nervous glance upwards. “Just bored, is all. Who’s your mentor?”

“Cassia,” Reece said, edging his chair backwards a little. “She mostly works with Spirit magic. She was a very good mentor to me. She got stuck in Halamshiral when they cancelled travel permits.” This desk had always been a quiet place, he thought to himself ruefully. That was why he’d chosen it. But people kept interrupting him while trying to find quiet places to talk. Now he had bored templars making conversation, as well?

“Well, I hope for your sake she isn’t as dreary as Enchanter Grandvin, whose seminar on Spirit magic I had to suffer through today,” Petyr said. He cast his eyes at the ceiling for a moment. “I thought I would suffocate in words, and I’m not even the one he was talking to. Do you mages use magic to stay awake?”

Reece laughed before he could help it. “Oh, now – it’s not so bad,” he said halfheartedly, still smiling. “I don’t think – it’s just his voice that’s the worst, I don’t think he can help it.”

“The voice is the worst,” Petyr agreed. “How are you supposed to pay attention to that drone?”

“He’s very intelligent,” Reece said.

“I’m sure he is,” Petyr said. “Also very boring. Are you going to specialise in Spirit magic, then?”

“Oh,” Reece said, looking down at the books spread across the table. “Maybe. I was thinking about it. Or maybe…”

“Maybe what?” Petyr prompted him when he trailed away.

“I was thinking Creation,” Reece confessed. “Healing.”

Petyr smiled at him. “Healing? You want to be a healer? Nice. So what’s stopping you?”

“It’s not my strongest school,” Reece admitted. “And anyway… most healers start a lot earlier, they work in the infirmary as apprentices, and I never did that, so I’m probably a bit… useless…” He ran his fingernail down a crease in his papers.

“I’m sure you’re not,” Petyr said. He looked thoughtful. “You know, I bet there will be some healers around the Circle with spare time soon. You could at least ask one of them to teach you, couldn’t you? It’s not like they’ll be busy.”

“Will there, ser?” Reece said, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, shh, you’re not supposed to know yet,” Petyr said with a shrug. “The mages from Meike’s Crossing are back. They’re in the cells now, but I don’t think they’re going to stay there for that long. You should ask one of them to teach you once they’re released.”

Reece was a little alarmed; he didn’t want to be told things he ‘wasn’t supposed to know yet’ by templars. But why were they in the cells? “Oh, if all of them are back, there’ll be a surplus of healers, surely,” he demurred. “They won’t want me…”

“Well, you won’t know unless you ask,” Petyr said. “What’s the harm? Anyway,” he added, shrugging armoured shoulders with a metallic noise. “I’d better get moving before the Knight-Lieutenant catches me.”

Reece ducked his head. “Ser. Perhaps I will.”

He stared down at his notes. It wasn’t that Petyr had convinced him; he had already made up his mind to go and ask the healers if he could learn from them.

 He didn’t know enough. When he was younger, it seemed that mages who had passed their Harrowing knew everything they could possibly require. Now he was realising how very ignorant he was. Cassia was not here to mentor him anymore, and he was, if he was honest with himself, getting bored with the freedom to read whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. Hard to believe, but true. Some form of structure to his learning would help.

He could pursue his other project in his free time. He wasn’t going to abandon it. He did not feel guilty. He just… needed to take to a step back.

Chapter Text

Emmit tested the branch with one hand, experimentally. It seemed like it would hold. He held his breath and put all of his weight on it, boosting himself up onto the next highest branch of the tree. He sat there for a few moments, looking for his next step.

If he could just get up that branch there, he could sidle along it and get right up against the wall of the compound.  Still only halfway up it, but there was ivy and maybe he could find a ledge?

Emmit eyed the closest branch, and didn’t much like the idea of doing this at night, which was what he had planned.  Maybe he’d have to rethink things.

He was supposed to be heading to his morning’s class soon, but he had a few more minutes.

“Um. Emmit? Is that you? What are you doing?”

Emmit looked down to see a pale, worried upturned face atop blue robes. Damn. I thought I’d ditched him at breakfast.

“Guilty as charged,” he said, throwing his leg over the branch and standing. “I’m climbing, what does it look like?”

“You’re not allowed to do that,” Reece hissed up at him. “Look, I know you’re new, but you aren’t allowed to climb the trees.”

“Why not?”

“Because – because you just aren’t, okay? Get down before a templar sees you.” He shaded his eyes and looked around anxiously.

Emmit pulled himself up to the higher branch. “Oh, good idea,” he said, puffing for breath a little. “You keep watch, then. Thanks.”

“Emmit! I am not standing guard for you, I’m telling you to get down!” Reece looked flustered, stepped closer to the tree and craned his neck. “The templars don’t mess around with things like this anymore, they’ll throw you in the cells at the very least.”

Emmit looked down at him. “Oh, no,” he said. “You mean they’ll lock me up? I’ll be confined to one building? How will I stand it?”

“Yes, Emmit, that’s what…” Reece trailed off. “Oh, yes, very funny.”

“I think having another, smaller prison inside your prison is a little bit complicated for my taste,” Emmit said absently. Made it to the branch near the wall. If he just inched along to the side…

“What? I can’t hear you.”  

Emmit rested his forehead against the stone of the wall. Ivy tickled his cheek. “Never mind.”

Reece was, well… he’d had a few days now to develop an impression, and Reece was nice. He was pleasant enough company and he meant well and he didn’t seem to have a mean bone in his body. He was a nice person. Which was fine. But it didn’t mean he would have Emmit’s back when it counted.

Particularly not since what Emmit intended was most definitely not allowed and honestly quite dangerous.

“Emmit, please, you’re going to get hurt…”

He sighed. “Okay. Coming down - heads up.” He began to make his careful way back along the tree branch. This route showed promise. He wondered if he could get his hands on a rope from somewhere? Or maybe make one?   

“Did you mean I’m going to get hurt by falling?” he asked once he was down, brushing bits of bark off his knees. “Or by the templars?”

Reece reached over and plucked a leaf out of his hair, looking exasperated. “Either. Both. Please don’t do that again. You’re not even supposed to be out in the grounds at this hour.”

“I miss being outside,” Emmit said, by way of explanation. He sucked at a graze on one of his knuckles. “And I miss getting exercise. I’ve only been here a few weeks and it’s driving me crazy.” It was the truth; he hoped it would be enough to throw Reece of the track.

“I know, but you have to be careful,” Reece said. “Don’t you have –“

“Hey! You mages!”

Emmit started, and looked to the source of the shout. Sure enough, a templar was bearing down the path towards them. Emmit stifled the urge to run – where would be run to?

It was an older female templar, her face lined under the helmet. She huffed irritably as she reached them. “What are you doing out here?”

“Good morning, Ser Hannay,” Reece said with subdued politeness. “I’m sorry, I was just walking.”

“Oh, Reece, it’s you.” The templar frowned. “Why are you out of class?”

“I, um, I don’t have class today, ser,” Reece said. “I’m a Harrowed mage now.”

“Oh. Well.” She stared at Reece for a few seconds too long, her lips moving slightly. Then she blinked, shook her head and turned to Emmit, her scowl returning. “What about you? Hm? Apprentice, do you have permission to be here? It’s midmorning, you’re supposed to be in classes.”

“I’m not –” Emmit began.

“Emmit just got lost,” Reece interrupted, taking Emmit by the arm. “He’s still learning his way around. But it’s okay, ser, I found him. I’ll show him where he’s supposed to be.”

Emmit didn’t think that would work. But the templar looked Reece up and down, and then shook her head in an indulgent kind of way. “Okay, Reece, but ask next time you want to walk here, all right?”

“I will, ser. Sorry,” Reece promised.

“You’ll be late to class yourself if you aren’t careful. You get going now.”

“Yes, ser. Thanks, ser,” Reece said, beaming at the templar. His fingers tightened on Emmit’s arm and he tugged Emmit insistently away down the path. He let go once they were around the next bend and out of sight, but continued to walk briskly, so Emmit had to go fast to keep up.

“You liar,” Emmit murmured, a little surprised.

Reece’s face fell. “Oh. Not really. Did I?”

“Well, I’m not complaining,” Emmit said. “But I wasn’t lost and you know that perfectly well. Why was that templar nice to you?”

Reece shook his head. “Funny, but when you don’t puff up like a belligerent bantam rooster at people, they tend to be a lot more relaxed in the way they treat you.”

That startled a laugh out of Emmit. “Like a what?”

“Sorry. That was rude of me.” Reece sighed. “But, Emmit, be careful. I mean, Hannay’s all right, but some templars...”

Emmit walked beside him for a few moments. “Some templars?” he prodded.

Reece sighed again. “Most of our templars are decent as long as you do as you’re told. But even they’ll come down hard on you if you ask for it. And some of them…” He shrugged uneasily. “You learn which templars you have to tiptoe around. I’ll point them out to you.”

“I’d appreciate that,” Emmit said. Mentally he filed away the words ‘if you ask for it’, in the basket labelled Probably Don’t Ask Reece To Help You Escape.

                                                                                        ***

The cells of Krisholm Circle were a few short flights of stairs under the earth, and constructed mostly of the same honey-coloured stone as the rest of the compound – although it was harder to tell in the dim, smokey light of the lamps. No magical lights permitted down here.  

“Why don’t you sit down,” the other templar suggested. Kelly didn’t know his name; he’d never been rostered with her before. His bleary eyes didn’t exactly inspire confidence. “We’re on duty all night. You’ll wear yourself out in the first hour pacing back and forth.”

Kelly looked at him. He certainly didn’t look ready to leap into action, leaning back casually in his chair and idly rolling the pair of dice in his hand.

But on the other hand, this was the only exit out of the cells and they were in front of it. It wasn’t as though a mage could get past them without it being obvious.

She sat. The table that furnished the guardroom had a scarred, stained surface.

“We’re not it, are we?” she asked. “I thought there was a rotation of four here.”

“Oh, right. They’ll be along. The Knight-Captain beefed up the roster a bit because we’ve got more than a handful of occupants tonight.” He dropped one of the dice, and stooped to pick it up laboriously. “Normally there’s, oh, four or five rowdy robes in here to cool down, at most. So you don’t need many men to guard it.”

“Right,” Kelly said.

“Fair warning, lass, guard duty’s boring,” the templar told her. “You were out when these robes got recaptured, right? See any action?”

“Yeah,” Kelly said. She tried not to sound as if she were bragging. “I was with the party that went after one of the apostates – not the one that attacked the town, the other one.”

He shook his head. “Bad business,” he said. “Should’ve shut that healing centre down years ago. They don’t belong out there.”

Kelly thought about the building the healers had set up in in Meike’s crossing, lying in smoking ruins. She supposed it had seemed worth the risk of having to at least some of the townsfolk. “No,” she agreed, for something to say.

They both looked up at the sound of the door to the guardroom opening. Two templars came down the stairs, armour glinting in the lamplight, bringing with them an eddy of cooler, clearer air.

The first of them was the bearded Knight-Lieutenant she remembered seeing briefly at Meike’s Crossing. Kelly stood abruptly. After a moment, her watch-mate did the same. 

 “At ease, templars,” the Lieutenant said. “I’m here to question the surviving apostates from the healing centre.”

“Do you want them brought somewhere, ser?” the other guard asked.

“No. Here is fine.” The Lieutenant’s eyes slid over Kelly, and he nodded slightly with recognition. “Recruit. You’ll know. Which one of these cells holds the mage that was speaking with the abomination during the second attack?”

“Um. Enchanter Targold?” Kelly said. She thought that was the mage’s name; it was the elf with the broken arm who had told them that Lisbeth was ‘sweet’. “They had a… confrontation. I didn’t witness it myself, but Ser Palma reports that she killed the abomination.”

That had surprised Kelly. If any of the healers had been going to take down an abomination in a spectacular mage duel – an abomination that had just batted aside three templars - she wouldn’t have expected it to be that one. She had trouble picturing it.

“Targold. Yes, that’s her,” the Lieutenant said. “Which cell?”

“Cell fifteen, Knight-Lieutenant.”

He nodded. “Fine. Carry on as you were.”

Kelly and the other guard saluted, and the two templars headed down the short hall of cells, to the left, their shadows stretching tall and monstrous against the stone walls.

“Well, I expect they’ll call if they need any help,” the other guard said with a half-smile. He straightened his chair and sat down again.

Kelly fidgeted. “I’m going to check the other row of cells,” she said, standing.

She paced down to the end of the dimly lit walkway to the right, seeing nothing, and paced back. She suspected this was, indeed, going to be very boring.

“Still there, eh?” her watchmate said as she came back.

The next while passed without speaking, only the sound of the dice being absently rolled on the scarred tabletop.

 “They’re going to be putting more people on most patrols from now, I hear,” the other templar remarked. “Maker knows where the Knight-Captain thinks he’s going to find the people to do that. We’ll pull double shifts if we have to, of course, but can’t do that forever.”  

Kelly frowned and raised her head; the sound of raised voices and metallic noises had drifted down the walkway from the cells to the left. She stood.  

“What’s up, lass?”

“Heard something,” she said. She walked to the doorway and listened. She could hear a voice; female and too low to make out words.

Then the Knight-Lieutenant’s voice, sharp and clear above it. “Spare me the tears, robe, you’re not fooling anyone. Hold her up, I said.”

There was the scrape of metal again, and a dull noise, barely audible. Perhaps it was Kelly’s imagination, but she could easily in her mind’s eye see a mailed fist striking flesh. She held her breath to hear better, almost without intending it.

More unintelligible words from the mage, the pitch high and strained this time.

“Liar,” the templar’s voice snapped. “That filth came back to the healing centre. Not once, but twice. Why?”

This time she could make out words: “I don’t – ”

Another dull thump, and the sound of somebody throwing up. More scuffling noises that went on for long seconds, and Kelly wanted to leave and not hear any of this, but still she held still and listened.

“Why would the apostate return to the rest of you?” A wet scraping noise and a sob. “Tell the truth. Was it you he was looking for? One of the others?” A short cry. “He thought you would join him, didn’t he? Why would he think that?” the Lieutenant’s voice went on relentlessly.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” the guard said from behind her, bringing her attention back to the guard station and the table. He was looking down at the tabletop and his dice, bored. “Like I said. They’ll call if they need help.”

“Right,” Kelly said. She could feel her heart beating rapidly under her ribs. She looked down the walkway guiltily. “I don’t…” She trailed off, not sure what she had been about to say.

She had missed a question and a non-response. “I said where! Answer me!”

“I don’t know! None of us know!”

“You expect me to believe that? There’s never just one fucking maleficar. You come in nests, like rats and maggots. I’ll stamp out this nest, if I have to make every mage who ever exchanged two words with that healer Tranquil. Right? Right?”

“Something wrong, recruit?”

Kelly looked back. The other guard was leaning back in his chair and giving her a thoughtful look.

She opened her mouth, to say something like is this a good idea, or is the Lieutenant allowed to do this?

Stupid questions. Of course he was allowed to hit apprehended mages. She closed her mouth again, uncertainly. 

“You want to go watch or something?” He raised an eyebrow. “It’s arguably better than boredom, but I don’t know if I’d – ”

“No!” Kelly pushed hair back from her forehead and found it clammy with sweat. She looked back down the walkway one last time, and turned away hurriedly. “No. Of course I don’t.” Shit, that sounded a bit… “I just. Wanted to make sure there was no danger. That’s all.” She stepped back into the circle of light around the table.

The other templar nodded. “You’re too jittery, lass,” he said, almost kindly. “Sit down and play dice with me. Knight-Lieutenant’s doing his job, we do ours, no troubles. Right?”

Kelly sat down, her leg jumping anxiously. Trying not to hear anything that might come drifting down the walkway. “Right,” she echoed. “Okay. I can play dice, then. But I don’t have anything to wager.”

“Well, that’s half the fun, but alright.”

                                                                                ***

Hester knocked on the door, rapping smartly three times, and stood back. She scanned both ends of the corridor warily while she waited for it to be opened. All clear.

She stepped inside without speaking as the door was opened, and the mage who had opened it did his own quick glance down the corridor before shutting it.

Inside, the room was softly lit by a couple of drifting witchlights, and somewhat crowded.

“Hester,” Farha said warmly. The two mages sitting on the bed shuffled along as well to make room for Hester to sit down. “Glad you could make it.”

“Haven’t seen you in a while,” her neighbour, a pretty redheaded human named Gia, commented.

“Confined to my room,” Hester said with a grimace. “Only supposed to be three days, but I got let out yesterday. Bastards.”

“Whose toe’d you step on to get…”

Marcus, the round-faced elf who was manning the door, interrupted. “Are we expecting anybody else, or can I finish the spell?” He looked between their faces impatiently. Farha had the lone chair. Mages in embroidered robes sat along the desk, along the bed, and stood or sat against the wall. Nine in all. It was lucky being senior enchanter got you a bigger room or they’d never all have fitted.

“No,” Farha said heavily. “Close it.”

Marcus traced the final lines of a glyph, which flashed and faded away slowly. “All right. We can’t be overheard or snuck up on,” he said. “I’ve got some spell wisps in reserve for distractions, but I’d rather not use those if I can help it because they might lead back to me.”

“Thank you,” someone murmured, and the other mages echoed it.

“Nobody’s heard from Targold, then?” a mage over on the desk said hesitantly. Yarrow, a softly curvy elf woman with Dalish markings on her face.  “I hadn’t, but I hoped…”

“Nothing,” Farha said.

“No.”

“Me, either.”

“No.”

They exchanged worried glances.

“I hate this,” one of the mages, a thin blond human named Phelan, hissed. “We don’t even know who tried to escape. If anybody!” He leaned back against the wall, his mouth twisting.

“I saw some of the templars come back,” Marcus volunteered. “Both were wounded. And – I think a couple didn’t come back at all.”

“Shit,” Hester muttered. She drew her legs up onto the bed under her robes. Templar deaths helped nobody. Everyone in the Circle would be wise to keep their heads down for the next few weeks. Assuming something else worse wasn’t in store.

“There’s something else,” Farha said. “Kieran is missing. Have any of you seen him today?”

Slowly they all shook their heads. Hester’s stomach dropped. He wasn’t a close friend, like Phelan and Yarrow were, but she knew Kieran.

“Do you think it’s connected?” Gia asked.

“It must be,” Yarrow said. “Another healer? Gods. Are they going to imprison all of them? They can’t think…”

“Kieran was mentor to one of the Mieke’s Crossing cohort,” Phelan pointed out. “Wasn’t he?”

“Andrew Vrays. He was mentor to Andrew…”

“How did none of us see it? Did they just take him from his bed? I don’t – ”

“Have you asked –”

“No,” Farha said dryly. “I have not asked. I did not go to the templar stationed on my wing and ask him, hey ser, where did Enchanter Kieran go? Is he coming back? Should the rest of us be worried?”

“We should be able to,” Hester said. She hugged her knees, anger burning hot in her chest. “They can’t just take people and not tell us why. We are owed an explanation.”

“Well, you ask,” Marcus said, frowning. “You’re such friends with Knight-Captain Laurent, apparently, so of all of us -”

Yarrow and Phelan scoffed. “Hester, don’t you dare,” Phelan said. “You’ll disappear next.”

“No, really, if he’s so – ”

Hester looked down at her knees, her cheeks burning. “Laurent’s a good man,” she snapped. “And perhaps -”

“Hester, who exactly was it who had you stuck in your quarters, because –”

“The Knight-Commander left him in command for over two weeks this time,” Farha observed. “She’s spending more time in the city.”  

“Anybody would think living in a tower in the middle of the wilderness hampered one’s political and social life,” Phelan said.

“Who’s going to teach Kieran’s classes?” someone asked. “We shouldn’t cancel them. It’s not good for the apprentices to have too much free time, or to get behind.”

“Well, permanently or temporarily? I could –”

“Not permanently, surely,” Gia protested. “He’s coming back. Eventually. Isn’t he?”

“Will he be in a fit state to teach when he does?”

“They must be suspecting some kind of plot,” Hester said. “If they’re taking people who are connected to the healers.” She looked around. “They might be thinking blood mages.”

“Templars always think blood magic,” Phelan snorted. “Somebody sneezes during the Chant or a templar gets shooting pains, and they’re wringing their hands and fretting about how maleficars have struck Krisholm with a plague.”

“It’s not a joke,” Gia said darkly. “There was a cabal of them in Ghislain when I was there. They killed six apprentices before they were caught. Terrible things happened almost daily. You couldn’t trust anybody there for the weeks it took to find them.”

“I’m not going to believe that anybody in the infirmary is a blood mage,” Yarrow said, quietly but firmly. “So the templars won’t find anything.”

“I think we should ask the templars what’s going on outright,” Hester said. “In a group of us, or all of us individually.”

“They’ll refuse,” Marcus said.

“Well, yes, maybe,” Hester said. “But if we don’t ask them, then we have a limited ability to complain that they haven’t told us. Officially speaking.” She made a firm gesture with one hand. “We be polite, we play by the rules they set us, we give them no reasons to claim we’re doing anything wrong, but we don’t sit back and let it happen without comment either.”

“Hester, do you really think we haven’t been doing that?” Yarrow asked. “How successful have we been, since the College was disbanded? The First Enchanter –”

“First Enchanter,” somebody scoffed. “As if she could ever be relied on to do anything but nod and say “Yes, Knight-Commander.”

“Now, that’s not fair, I think – ”

“Well, she can’t,” Phelan snapped. “Does she ever stand up to any of them? No. Does she try to intervene in any of these disappearances? No. Is she ever even here at one of these meetings? No.”

“I don’t think she’d be able to get to a meeting without a templar following her,” Marcus pointed out.

“The First Enchanter isn’t allowed to do her job anymore,” Farha said. “She’s there because the rules say there’s supposed to be a First Enchanter and the templars find it convenient to relay messages through her. That’s all.” She uncrossed and recrossed her arms. “If she tried to do more she’d be removed and replaced. I think Chiara has decided that she can do the most good where she is without rocking the boat.”

“The templars can’t appoint a First Enchanter,” Yarrow said.

“Would they bother trying? Or would they just stand her down and leave us without one?”

“My point is that if we don’t say anything, the templars will think they’ve won and can push further next time,” Hester said.

“They’d arrest us,” Marcus said.

“Just for asking where the healers and Kieran are and what’s happened?” 

“Yes,” Phelan said. “Best case scenario, Hester, they send us away with a flea in our ear. Worst case scenario they have us all roughed up and sent to the cells for insubordination.”

“Well, fine, we get sent to the cells, then,” Hester said stubbornly. “I’d rather that. We can’t just sit here huddled up in Farha’s quarters complaining and working ourselves up into a lather about the state of things.”

“And then they have our names on their list of troublemakers,” Marcus said. “They’re not going to listen, Hester.”

“If you ask me, we’re never going to see any of those healers again,” someone muttered. “They’ll just kill them all, and Kieran too.”

“Or make them Tranquil.”

“Nah. Tranquil mages are too visible, and they can tell tales. They’ll just kill them all.”  

“I don’t think Laurent would do that,” Hester said. She curled her hands into fists under her robes.

There was a chorus of soft disbelieving noises.

“Well, I don’t,” she said firmly. “We’ve quite enough to worry about without getting into hysterics about how the templars want us all dead and could kill us at any moment, so I –”

“Hester, none of us are going to risk our lives and our selves based on your trust in a man you knew a decade ago,” Phelan said.

“Look, I’m not going to deny that he’s a Maker-damned inflexible asshole sometimes, but that could work in our favour,” Hester said. “He follows rules. Ad he’s not going to have mages killed or made Tranquil without due process.”

“He’s not in charge, though, Hester,” Yarrow pointed out. “Knight-Commander Althea is.”

“I don’t think she’d get away with killing them all either,” Marcus said. “Kieran’s got family in Ansburg, very prominent people apparently. So do some of the others. Family who’ll ask questions. Althea cares about that kind of thing.”

“Oh, good, she’ll only kill the poor ones and the elves,” Phelan said dryly. “Not much comfort for you and me, eh, Hester? Yarrow?”

“I think Hester’s right,” Farha said unexpectedly. “Not about the Knight-Captain. But about presenting our concerns as a group. It’s better to show a united front.”

 “And if it goes badly?” Phelan asked.

Farha shrugged. “Then we’ll have done our best, I suppose, if that’s important to you, and the templars are solely to blame from then onward.”

An uneasy silence reigned over the room. Hester watch the glow of the witch-lights shift over people’s faces.

“Well, count me in, then,” Phelan said with a huff. “Can’t have Hester and Farha sitting in the cells by themselves.”

“Yes,” Yarrow said. “I agree.” 

“I think we should leave,” Marcus whispered. “We’ve been here long enough.  We’ve established what everybody knows.”

“We haven’t come to any decisions,” Gia pointed out.

“We’ll see what happens tomorrow. I want to talk to some other people,” Farha said. “I’ll send you messages. All right?”

There was a flurry of nods and whispered assent. Marcus dismissed the spell on the door, and began sending people out with whispered directions.

“You know if they catch us, suddenly it’ll be ‘if you have nothing to hide why are you so secretive’,” Phelan said, as he stood waiting beside Hester. “‘If your talk wasn’t rebellious why were you hiding behind spells and locked doors to have it?’ Gosh ser templar, I don’t know…”

Hester smiled, recognising the truth in his words. “If they ask us to name a scapegoat, I’m throwing you to the templars first,” she joked. She was more than a little touched by his sudden declaration of support.

“Phelan,” Marcus murmured, gesturing outside.

He pressed a hand to his heart, and gave Hester a deeply wounded look as he left.

Slowly they all ducked out the door, to head back by different routes to their own quarters.

Chapter Text

Laurent looked at the four mages lined up before him in his office. Two elves, two humans. All Enchanters, from their robes. One very well known to him, the others not. He resisted the urge to single Hester out with a frown or stare.

You had to have been expecting this, he chided himself wearily. It had been a week since the disaster at Meike’s Crossing, and the mages had been told nothing. In their position, Laurent would be worried and frightened, and needing reassurance.

And of course, the responsibility of speaking to them was his. It wasn’t just that they would have interpreted being handed to a Lieutenant as being fobbed off; Laurent wasn’t sure he could trust any of the ones who were free to handle it as carefully as it needed to be.

The elf with the tattooed face had just finished speaking, her voice soft and reasonable. Laurent noted her hands clasping nervously behind her back.

He sat back. “I see,” he said. “Everything you’ve said is correct, to my understanding. I know this is frightening for you all. What would reassure you at this point?”

They exchanged glances. “We would like to know that the Meike’s Crossing mages are safe,” the Dalish mage said softly.

“And Kieran, too,” the blond man said.

“We would like to hear what crimes they are charged with,” the darkhaired mage at the back said firmly. “And if there are none, we would like them released.”

“Nobody is charged with any crimes yet,” Laurent said. “The investigation is ongoing.”

“The investigation into what?” Hester spoke for the first time. Her eyes met his across the room; as he frowned at her, she made a visible effort to soften her expression, uncrossing her arms and opening her body language up. “We’re not accusing you of anything. We just want to know the basics of what’s happening.”

“There must be something you can tell us?” the elf asked. “Surely, Knight-Captain…”

Laurent kept his face blank. If it had been up to him, he probably would at least have told them that there had been some casualties but the majority of the healers were safe in Krisholm.

But Althea had made her instructions on this matter clear, and he understood why. If there were accomplices still in the Circle, letting them know anything of what had occurred would only make it harder to find them. It was possible that the rogue mage’s mentor would be the loose thread that unravelled a conspiracy of sedition and demon-summoning and the worst kinds of dark magic.

Maker send it was not so.

The four mages’ eyes were fixed on him. “I understand your concerns,” Laurent began. And he lost them. He could see the engagement in their faces disappear as soon as he said the words. The blond even went so far as to roll his eyes, just subtly. “But I cannot give you any further information at this time,” he continued anyway.  Ugh. Why should saying I understand their concerns make them trust me less?

No, that wasn’t fair; it disappointed them because they saw it for what it was, a trite statement he had taken to pulling out whenever he wanted something blandly reassuring that promised nothing and gave away nothing.

“So, thirteen mages have disappeared, and none of them are coming back, and we can’t know why,” Hester said. 

He gritted his teeth. “Don’t be needlessly inflammatory - Senior Enchanter. I’ve said nothing of the sort. What I’m saying is that we’re investigating, and there is nothing to tell you until we’ve finished.” 

“So you’re investigating whether they’re alive or not, then?” the blond mage said sharply.

“No,” Laurent said, grimacing. He breathed out sharply through his nose, and tried to begin again. “I understand the secrecy is alarming,” he said quietly. “I get that. I do. Please take my reassurances that it isn’t something we’re enacting against you as a punishment or because we suspect you, as a group, of any wrongdoing. It’s simply a precaution until we have all of the information. A temporary precaution. We’re trying to keep the Circle safe, and that takes precedence over all other matters.”

“Of course, keeping the Circle safe is important,” the elf said. “All of us want to keep the Circle safe, Knight-Captain.”

“So let us help you,” the dark-haired human mage said. “We want to help ensure the safety of the Circle as well – it is our responsibility and our right as much as it is yours.”

“Thank you,” Laurent said. “It might be that we need the assistance of some mages, as the investigation progresses – I will make note of your names and offers of help. At the moment, all we require is that Circle life carries on undisturbed, and that the mages remain calm and comply with any instructions we give.”

There was silence as the mages absorbed his words. He could see them exchanging meaningful looks; a quick decisive gesture from the blond was half obscured by robes, and Hester shook her head in reaction to it.

“So you will neither release our missing colleagues, nor give a justification for their continued imprisonment?” the dark-haired mage said, deliberately.

“The innocent will be released and the guilty dealt with in due course,” Laurent said. “These things take time. I promise you that when we know all there is to know, there will be a full accounting.” His conscience pricked him slightly at those words, because he couldn’t necessarily promise that.  But he needed to tell them something.

I will make every effort towards it, he told himself. That’s all a man can do. He stood up. “As I said, there may be a point when we require your input, but until that time, please, return to your regular lives and duties. Thank you for your cooperation.”

The elf was the first to bow her head; the others followed suit. “Thank you for your time,” the elf murmured.

He hesitated as the group of mages began to filter out of the room.

“A moment. Senior Enchanter Hester, if you would stay behind.”

The other three gave her quick glances and looked as if they might protest. She held her head up high and waved them on. “Of course.”

“See? Exactly what I told you would-” he heard as the door swung shut.

Hester turned to face him and he regarded her for a few moments. Other mages might have shrunk from his gaze; the Hester he had first met, prickly and burning-eyed, would have snapped an insulting remark or scowled at him by now. This Hester just stood and met his eyes calmly.

“Hester,” he said finally. “I really need this to be an end to the matter for the moment. You understand me? I am not angry you came – ” he gestured at the door to indicate that by ‘you’ he meant the group as a whole. “As I said, I understand. But you need to let it be for the moment, and not raise a fuss. Or go trying to hunt things out through illegitimate means.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “There was a listening spell found in the Templar wing this week. That wouldn’t happen to be any of your friends, would it?”

Hester folded her arms. “Honestly, Laurent. Do you think I’d tell you if it was?”

Laurent felt cold anger take hold in his chest. “I think that you would know better,” he snapped. “Or you should. It’s not a laughing matter! Do you think such things are helping? Do you think slinking around the tower like thieves muddying the halls with illegal spells is making the mages look trustworthy? I have been forbearance itself and what do I get?”

“Oh, forbearance itself,” Hester said, her eyebrows climbing. “So you have. Laurent, the mages you just spoke to aren’t dissidents. If I wanted to align myself with libertarians and anti-Chantry radicals, trust me, I could. Those men and women aren’t it. They came here because they want to work with you, not against you.”

“Good! Fine! Maybe you and they should get to it instead of running your mouths,” he snapped. “And not waste any more of my time with –”

“Laurent,” she said fiercely, “If you knew how much I defend you to people in this tower!”

He gaped at her for a moment, startled into silence.

“You start out saying you understand and you aren’t angry at us for politely asking you what’s going on,” she said. “Like we should be grateful. But scratch the surface even a little and you’re throwing around accusations and recriminations. You aren’t actually angry at us for anything. Are you? All we have to do is exist and that’s enough.”

Laurent could feel a blush starting to climb up his cheeks. He hadn’t wanted to get into another argument with Hester. He’d wanted to quietly ask her to do what she could to keep the other mages calm. How had they ended up in conflict again? He had, he realised, overreacted.

“I’ve been trying to convince people not to write you off as another dimwitted thug, or self-centred political climber,” she said. “So it would be nice if you could stop acting like all mages and me specifically were put on this earth solely to waste your time.”

She watched him with her lips pressed tightly together.

“I – I didn’t keep you back to criticise you,” Laurent said, casting about for words. “Or accuse you and your friends. I have…. It’s been a very stressful week.” He sat down carefully, laid his hands flat on the table, and sighed. “I’m sorry.”

She gave him a piercing look – as if assessing his sincerity – and then let her arms fall. She stepped closer to the desk. “I’m sure it has.  We’re all on edge.”

He nodded agreement, and released the breath he had been holding, letting go of the tension like a weight from his shoulders. Remember who your enemy isn’t, he told himself.

“Hester,” he said. “Do you trust these people?”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “What’s that?”

“I’m asking your honest opinion,” he said. He gave up and lifted a hand to his face, rubbing his temple and pushing his fingers through the hair he kept cropped short. “These mages who came today are all colleagues of yours. Closer than colleagues. Do you trust them?”

“I do,” she said. “Why?”

“I just…” He shook his head. “Hester, I genuinely meant it before when I said that we might ask the mages for help later. And I’m working on it. Getting trustworthy mages more involved in the running of the Circle. It’s simply not the ideal time to be trying to implement that kind of thing.” He made an upwards gesture, as if to sum up all of the reasons why trust for Circle mages was at a nadir right now.

“You mean you need to convince the Knight-Commander,” Hester said.

He didn’t respond, but she was right. Why do I keep making more work for myself? he wondered. He had had a full plate as it was in running his portion of the Circle guard and getting the Krisholm Templar Order into what he considered appropriate discipline. Now he’d decided he was going to reform the way they interacted with mages too? He suspected he was overstepping himself.

“So who’s in charge?” he asked.

She frowned. “Nobody’s in charge, Laurent, it’s just a group of senior mages. It’s not a cabal or a committee.”

“Well, yes, I know, but somebody usually takes on a more active role in these things,” he said. “I didn’t get the impression it was you. Is it?”

She gave a small quirk of a smile. “Don’t think I have leadership qualities, Laurent? Ouch. Why do you want to know?”

“Well, if I’m going to encourage cooperation between your people and mine, it helps if I know who yours listen to,” he said. “It’s clear the First Enchanter isn’t the only one.”

Laurent personally had no problems with First Enchanter Chiara. But neither did he think she was the person mages went to for anything they really cared about. She was about as approachable as Knight-Commander Althea was.

Hester blew her cheeks out in a sigh, as if she’d come to a decision. “Farha,” she said. “There isn’t a leader, not really, but if you want somebody who most of us would hear out, it would be her.”

“That’s the older woman with the straight dark hair?” he asked, making a note of the name. He would probably never actually get to the point where it would become useful, he thought ruefully, but good to have in any case. Hopefully Farha would prove to be a reasonable woman he could put in a room with Althea and the Knight-Lieutenants under his command, and expect them to have a civil conversation. “Thank you.” He looked up, and found a smile.

Hester returned it somewhat sadly.

“I know I sound like I’m reading from a script these days,” he told her. “But I meant every word, before. I do understand. And I will give you an accounting when I can.”

“I know you do,” she said. “And I’m – glad it’s you here, Laurent. I don’t think the last Knight-Captain would have handled things as well.”

“I see,” Laurent said. So was my predecessor one of the dimwitted thugs, or political climbers? he wondered. Laurent had certainly found his standards… lax in some areas. “Thank you.”

She tucked her curls behind her ear, and gave him another unusually subdued smile as she left. 

 

                                                                 ****

 

Raine’s footfalls echoed off the stone walls as he walked through the hushed, darkened halls of the lower levels of the tower, humming to himself. As he passed the shadowy entrance to the dining hall, he realised he had no idea where the melody was going and trailed off. What had he been thinking, again?

He rounded the corner, and started up the stairs to the third floor, for the fifth time that night.

It wasn’t that he didn’t think night patrols were important. Clearly somebody needed to be on the ground, as it were. It was an important job, and if people didn’t take it seriously it would open them all up to disaster.

It was just so Maker-damned boring.

He proceeded down the corridor, the sound of his footsteps muffled on the carpet, into one of the residential areas. Identical doors lined the walls – mages’ cells. Or, well, rooms, Raine didn’t think they were uncomfortable enough to be classed as cells by his standards. All was quiet.

A torch burned at the end of the corridor, and he paused as he reached it. Well. There is still another set of stairs and a torch here, he thought to himself sarcastically. Nobody has made off with either of them in the last twenty minutes. Excellent.

The headache was back already, pulsing lightly behind his eyes. He’d used more lyrium in the past few months than he’d planned. It couldn’t have been helped – he’d needed it every time – but he was paying the price now. His patrol route ended here, so he turned and made his way back. Lyrium would be easy to get here: he still had some in his belongings back in the barracks. The thought did not improve his mood.

He descended the stairs, humming tunelessly – and then stopped, his foot hovering soundlessly just above the next stair.

He stayed motionless for another minute, holding his breath, his ears straining. But it didn’t come again, the soft sound he’d heard. It was quite possible he’d imagined it – he wasn’t even sure what it had been. Footsteps, perhaps.

Secondhand moonlight from the windows further down the hall outlined the planes of the room, folds of curtains and wooden banisters rendered colourless and flat. The doorways were black caverns.

 He eased his foot down onto the step, and then continued, taking the last few steps soundlessly. He crossed the middle of the space and got a wall against his back, eyes travelling carefully over every shadow. He walked over to the door to the dining room and glanced in, carefully. Ranks of empty tables and chairs greeted him.

The hem of one of the tablecloths was swinging gently.

Raine narrowed his eyes. Abandoning stealth, he strode over to that table, grasped the corner of the tablecloth, and flipped it up onto the table.

“Evening,” he said. 

A pair of mages looked up at him, wide-eyed, clutching each other in fear.  Not apprentices, Raine noted, but young mages, an elf and a human. Barefoot and in their nightclothes. The elf swore quietly under her breath.

Raine let himself relax, tension falling away from his shoulders. He sighed in exasperation. “Girls, this is a terrible place for an assignation. Don’t you know how well sound carries across that big empty hall?”

They blinked up at him. The human cleared her throat. “Um. Sorry? Ser?”

“So you should be. You made me walk all the way over here looking for you.” He shook his head and stood back, hiding a smile. “Get out from under there, come on.”

The two mages clambered out from under the table and stood huddled in front of him.

“I am obligated to tell you to go back to your rooms,” he said. “I don’t feel like writing any reports tonight, but the next templar might. Pick somewhere with less acoustic qualities next time.”

“Um…. what?”

He waved a hand dismissively. “Off you go, now. Shoo.”

The elf would have stood there looking at him in astonishment, but her companion tugged at her arm. “Of course, ser. Thank you, ser. Good night.” She drew her companion away.

Raine followed them to the door and watched as they disappeared up the stairs. Hopefully they wouldn’t encounter any other templars tonight – the last thing Raine wanted was some officious superior getting in his ear about why he hadn’t ‘done something’. Because of course, keeping grown men and women out of each other’s pants was the most valuable use of his time.

It had been something to lighten the tedium, anyway.

He resumed his patrol, continuing down the hall for the third time, crossing bars of moonlight that fell through the windows. He neared the office in the front hall – which happened to be where the shifts usually changed over. It wasn’t time for him to meet a relief there yet, but there was a figure waiting for him all the same.  

As he approached, he realised it was the young templar who had been assigned to him for the mission to Meike’s Crossing. She was clad in a simple shirt and men’s trousers, her feet stuffed into boots that weren’t laced up properly. She looked smaller without armour, stocky and serious-faced.

Raine found that he didn’t have the faintest clue what her name was. He’d known it the other day – he’d called her by it – but now he reached for it and it simply was not there. “What are you doing?” he said gruffly. “You’re not in uniform.”

“I’m off duty,” she said. “I thought I’d see if you were busy.”

Raine fought back discomfort and shrugged with a clink of metal. “Yes, I am, but also not really,” he said dryly. “I’m supposed to be patrolling.” 

“I could walk with you a bit?”

He groaned. The headache was worse than ever. “Recruit, you’re killing me, you really are,” he complained. “You’re not on duty and you want to hang around on patrol? Go do something else. Don’t you sleep?”

She shuffled her feet and stared at the carpet. Her brows were drawn together in a ferocious frown. “Can’t sleep,” she mumbled. “Thought maybe I could ask you some things.”

“Things? What things?”

“Just… things,” she said. “Kind of… worried about some stuff. Don’t really want to talk to my superior.”

He sighed. “Meike’s Crossing and that herbalist still bothering you?” he asked.  

She shook her head. “No, it’s not that. Something else.”

Raine looked around. He sighed heavily. “All right. Go sit in the library, I’m going to sweep the south wing and then we can talk. Maker help you if this turns out to be about boy troubles or something.”

She smiled, the gloom lifting from her face for a moment. “The other recruits? No, thank you.”

Raine complained internally while he walked through the rest of his route and returned to the library, checking side rooms and behind shelves. I really do not feel like handholding the Order’s latest bad bargain through her first confrontation with death right now! Can’t somebody who doesn’t feel like shit do this?

“All right,” he said, perching his hips on one of the long wooden tables that ran the length of the library. “What’s the problem?”

 She crossed her arms, huddling into herself. “I was on guard duty down in the cells last night,” she said. “Knight-Lieutenant Hendon came in to question the mages. And…”

Raine listened. She didn’t describe what had happened to the mages – as far as he understood from her halting sentences, she hadn’t even seen it. Just listened to it happening in the next room.

“And I don’t – It doesn’t make sense,” she said at the end. “Why did he assume the other healers were working with the abomination? It tried to kill them! It did kill some of them! I don’t think they were in on it.” She looked up from her feet at last, her eyes searching his face. “Do you?”

Raine grimaced. “No,” he said. “They weren’t in on it.”

“Then it was wrong,” she said, her voice rising. She opened up her arms in a frustrated gesture. “That mage – Targold – she was one of the good ones! Right? She killed the monster. And apparently that’s a bad thing? That puts her under suspicion? Why?”

“Well,” he said uncomfortably. “Hendon… may have had a point, at that.”

She looked over at him. Perhaps it was only his guilty conscience that saw disappointment there.

“I mean,” he said, defensively. “Frail little elf healer suddenly producing a ton of raw offensive power out of nowhere, yes, that should make your hackles rise. And the costs of missing a blood mage or a rebel conspirator – they’re high. High enough that the cost of being wrong and tormenting some innocent is low in comparison.” He frowned and corrected himself. “It seems low, anyway. At the time.”

She hunched her shoulders and looked away. “So you think the Knight-Lieutenant was right,” she said, a little sullenly. “And I’m being soft.”

Raine raked a hand through his hair. “Didn’t say that,” he grumbled. “I didn’t. Listen, recruit – tell me something. Why’d you decide to join the Order?”  

“There was a flood,” she mumbled. “In my village. We asked the Chantry for help and they sent some templars – to help with, you know – finding people, and keeping us safe, and everything. And I guess there wasn’t really much work for me there. ” She shrugged. “Afterwards. So, I mean… they told me what the job was, and it sounded… useful. Important. Like something I might be good at. I mean…”

Raine grunted. His head really, really hurt. “Yes,” he said impatiently, cutting to the point of her answer. “You joined because you wanted to do good. Right? You wanted to help people.”

The recruit shrugged awkwardly. “Yeah. I guess. But I…”

“That’s a good reason,” he said. “It’s sure better than my reason. Which is: my parents said I had to. So I’m guessing you didn’t join to lock people in little underground rooms and break their fingers one by one until they tell you want you want to hear. Right? That wasn’t really what you pictured yourself doing when you left your village for the Maker’s service.”

“No,” the recruit mumbled.

There was a tapestry on the wall behind her – depicting Andraste, of course, all the artwork in here seemed to. Raine tried to marshal his thoughts and come up with something that sounded, if not helpful or reassuring, at least coherent. He gave the Andraste a sour look. I really could have done without this right now, he thought pointedly at it.

“Look, L– uh, K… Lass.” He sighed. “You’re right. The healers didn’t do anything wrong, and they don’t deserve to be punished for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But they have been. And that’s not your fault.”

“I let it happen.”

He chuckled. “You think you could have stopped it? No. This is a part of the Order. Not a nice part. All jobs have their unpleasant sides, and service to the Maker’s no different, unfortunately. Some templars didn’t join with the lofty intentions you did. And some did, they just interpret it… differently. If you don’t want to be the type of templar who does those things, you don’t have to be.”

She was looking at him with worried brown eyes beneath a furrowed brow. He wasn’t making any sense, he knew it. “What are you saying? I don’t have to be that kind of templar? But other people are. Shouldn’t I stop them?”

Holy shit, girl, just fix the whole damn system there while you’re at it, he thought, with weary amusement. All by your lonesome.  He rubbed his temple. “Lass, I don’t know if you can.”

“I should have done something,” she said. “I should have said something. Shouldn’t I?”

“I don’t think that would have ended well.”

“But it wasn’t right,” she said. “It wasn’t fair and I didn’t –”

“Well, the world’s not fair,” he snapped. “It’s not right or fair or just. It’s never going to be, and you can’t fix it.”

She folded her arms again, her jaw working. “So you do think I’m being soft. And I should just shut up.”

“No! That’s not what I’m saying here. That’s not my point.” He cast about for what was his point. “If you want to survive here, pick your battles. This kind of thing is going to happen. You don’t have to participate in it, and you aren’t weak or stupid for noticing and thinking it stinks. But you can’t fix it either. Do your own job the best you can. That’s all anybody can do.”

“Pick your battles,” she repeated. He could tell it didn’t satisfy her.

He took hold of her shoulders and turned her around, walking with her to the door of the library. “This is okay,” he told her. “This is normal. It’s normal to think about these things. You’re going to be fine. And when you’re a full templar – maybe when you’re Knight-Lieutenant yourself, in which case Maker help you – you’ll do better. Right?”

“I will,” she said. “I’ll be better.”

He pushed her out into the corridor with a light touch between her shoulder-blades. “Stop beating yourself up over things you can’t do anything about, and go get some sleep.”

“Yes, ser,” Kelly said, glancing back at him. She ducked her head. “Thank you.”

He smacked himself in the temple lightly and snapped his fingers as she walked away. Kelly. Yes, that was it, he thought in relief. Her name was Kelly, he remembered it now.

He double-checked all his equipment out of habit, rolled a crick out of his neck, and continued on his route. His memory was fine. He was fine.

Chapter Text

“Hello, Emmit,” Reece said, looking up and smiling. The dining room was crowded and becoming more so, but there were empty seats between him and the next mage, a blonde human woman. “Do you want to sit here?”

“Yeah, thanks,” Emmit said, sliding into the seat beside him at the table. He looked over his shoulder across the long tables, to frown at the dining room entrance. He watched a templar enter, firmly gripping the shoulder of a mage. She let the shoulder go with a small shove, and left again as the scowling mage continued into the room.

“How are your classes going?” Reece asked Emmit.

“Don’t ask,” Emmit said absently. “Reece, what’s going on? That’s like the third mage I’ve seen being strong-armed in here.”

“I don’t know,” Reece said, following his gaze. “I guess they don’t want anyone to miss dinner tonight. Maybe there’s going to be an announcement, they often do those after dinner…”

“Maybe they’ve finally decided to murder us all, and they’re getting us together in one place to be more efficient about it,” the blonde mage said. She spoke lightly, obviously joking, but there was an edge to it.

Emmit smiled weakly, although it wasn’t the sort of joke that seemed meant to be laughed at. “Well, if the speaker is really boring, I guess it –”

“Why do you say that about your classes, Emmit?” Reece asked, as though the blonde mage hadn’t spoken. “You had Ellery today, right? I thought he was generally pretty good with the beginners’ Spirit classes.”

“Oh, yeah, he’s fine,” Emmit said. “It’s not…” He grimaced. He had no intention of telling Reece that he still struggled to find the Fade on anything resembling a consistent basis. “Spirit magic and I are not friends. Let’s leave it that, all right?”

He was spared any further questions, because something was happening – the roar of conversation swelled and subsided, and the seat on Emmit’s other side was quickly taken as anybody still standing hurriedly found seats.

The only figures left standing were the templars. Emmit noted uneasily that a few had taken up stations at the door. Admittedly, if you wanted to take out everybody at once…

A chiming noise made him look away from the doors, and towards the other end of the room. There was a high table, of sorts – a shorter tablet on a slight dais, at the end of the room. A woman was standing by it now, holding her hand up as she called for the room’s attention. Her robe was more elaborate than most, and she wore an official-looking stole.

“Is that-?”

“First Enchanter Chiara,” Reece murmured beside Emmit. “You didn’t meet her? Normally – oh, never mind, hush.”

“My friends and colleagues,” the First Enchanter said, her voice carrying across the hall. She was younger than Emmit would have expected, her hair up in delicate braids, and her face betrayed nothing of her feelings. “The Knight-Commander has a few words to say to us this evening, partially at my request.”

She looked up over the heads of the crowd, and inclined her head to someone at the back of the room. One of the templars stepped forward and began to walk down the aisle between tables, and the room rippled slightly as she passed. As Emmit watched her burnished armour travelling across the room, he realised that she walked with the slightest of limps, one leg stiffer than the other.

Knight-Commander Althea stepped up onto the dais and turned to face them. She stood like a soldier; knees slightly relaxed, hands loosely behind her back. Creases in the corners of her mouth and eyes only added to what seemed to be a permanent hard expression. “This will not be a long speech,” she said evenly. “I was hoping it would be a few more months before I had to address you all like this again, but evidently that is not to be. Two weeks ago, mages from this Circle attacked and destroyed the healing centre maintained at Meike’s Crossing.”

Emmit heard Reece gasp beside him. Murmurs broke out all over the dining room.

“Several innocent townspeople died in this attack, as well as templars and mages,” she continued. “It was a despicable act, performed by mages who had allowed themselves to fall to the worst temptations of blood magic and demon pacts. They were brought to justice and will meet the Maker’s judgement.”  Her gaze swept across the hall, cold and hard. “Those healers who survived and were cleared of any immediate wrongdoing will be returned to your ranks tomorrow. But mark you, mages – each and every one of you bears the stain of guilt for what was done.”

There was a hushed noise, and it seemed as though half of the room had drawn in a sudden breath. Emmit didn’t turn to look, but he could feel Reece stiff as a board in the seat beside him. The mage opposite Emmit was clenching her fist on the tablecloth.

“It speaks to what sort of community you have formed here,” the Knight-Commander said. “It speaks to me, and it doesn’t have anything good to say.”

The hall was silent. 

“These maleficar were your own. I am disappointed with the Krisholm Circle, as I hope you are disappointed in yourselves. The shadow of guilt for what occurred lies over all of you, and if you wish to assuage it, you will commit yourselves to vigilance and compliance.” Her mouth turned down. “As you should have been doing already, of course, but I have found you somewhat lacking in that of late.”

Emmit glanced around at the tables of mages. Most had their eyes fixed on the Commander.  An elf at the next table was blinking, mouth fallen open slightly in disbelief. Another to his right was pressing his lips together in what looked like fury. But the most common expression he saw was a careful, wooden blankness.

“With that in mind, there will be more restrictions from here onwards. You are mostly accustomed to having the run of the Tower public rooms in daylight hours; this will no longer be the case. Mages’ movements between rooms and areas of the Tower will be monitored with more vigilance.”

Wait, seriously? Emmit thought in dismay. More restrictions? Also, bullshit, this is what she thinks is ‘having the run of the tower’?

“Curfew will also begin earlier, immediately after dinner,” the Commander continued. “Among other changes.” She swept the room with her gaze again. “As you can imagine, we will all be very busy. As such, no meetings, interviews, complaints, or other such requests will be entertained for the foreseeable future.”  She turned back to the head table. “That will be all, thank you, First Enchanter.”

First Enchanter Chiara bowed, her face as perfectly blank as an Orlesian mask. “Thank you, Knight-Commander. For the safe return of our healers, and your work.”

Whispers began as the Knight-Commander walked the length of the room to the main doors, watched by the body of hushed, incredulous mages.

“This is unbelievable,” the mage beside Emmit said.

“Destroyed? What does she mean destroyed, who – ”

“…are we supposed to… ”

 “More restrictions? More vigilance?” the blonde mage who had been needling Reece earlier hissed to her companion. “What did I tell you?”

Emmit groaned internally. This was going to make escape so much more difficult, if they were going to be paying more attention to people moving about the tower. “Wow,” he muttered to Reece. “That was… something. I really don’t think –”

He realised that Reece wasn’t paying attention to him. He was staring at his plate with a mulish expression, as the conversation further up the table continued.

“They have no right to do this,” another mage Emmit didn’t know said, his voice low. “How can the Knight Commander expect us to take the blame for something we didn’t even know happened until a fortnight after the fact?”

“It’s just an excuse. She’s been wanting to take away our access to the library and the grounds for months,” the blonde mage said. “She knows she couldn’t hold us if –”

“Voice down, Lea!”

Emmit glanced around the room; no templars were in earshot, but still. He turned his head to listen, interest piqued. 

“But you agree this is too far,” Lea said. She glanced around at the small huddle of mages at that end of the table, but she did lower her voice. “It's time and past time we did something. The templars have gone power-crazy. You heard what she said – as far as they’re concerned, we’re all to blame any time one of us does something. What’ve we got to lose now? What’s the point of kissing the ground for them when they’re going to grind us into the dirt no matter what we –”

Reece pushed himself back from the table with an uncharacteristically sharp movement. “I’m not going to be party to this kind of talk,” he said icily. He gathered his cutlery up into one hand. “Come on, Emmit.”

Lea cast him an annoyed look. “I’m heartbroken, you little toady. Leave already, then.”

“I am. Emmit?”

Emmit hesitated, looking between Reece and the other mages. “Well – oh, right,” he said reaching to collect his own cutlery.

“Oh, you don’t have to go, apprentice,” the other mage said. “Stay if you want.”

Lea gave Emmit a weighing glance. “You want to learn about how things really work here? Stay. You don’t have to leave just because it hurts Reece’s tender Loyalist feelings. Don’t let him push you around.”

“I haven’t joined a fraternity yet, actually,” Reece said stiffly.

“It’s not –” Emmit began, but was ignored. 

“Please!” Lea snorted. “As if you’re going to join anything other than the Chantry boot-kissing brigade!”

Reece flushed, but spoke deliberately. “What of it? I’m not ashamed that I sing the Chant.”

“Well, nor am I,” the mage who’d told Lea to keep her voice down said. “The Templars and the Chant of Light are not one and the same.”

“I’ll give you that when the priests speak out in our defence,” Lea said, her lip curling. “Does the Reverend Mother talk to Althea and tell her that we are the Maker’s children? I don’t think she does, no! Unless the Sisters in the chapel are going to tell the templars not to beat us and imprison us and murder us, then I –”

“Nobody is being murdered,” Reece said. “Who’s being murdered? Honestly, Lea – ”

“No?” she shot back. “Weren’t you listening? ’Those healers who were cleared of wrongdoing and are still alive’ will be returned to us?”

“What?” Reece demanded. “That’s not what that – nobody else – you don’t know what happened, Lea, any more than the rest of us.”

Emmit looked from Lea to Reece, a little surprised at the vehemence in Reece’s voice. He realised now why they had carefully avoided sitting beside each other. I’m not being much of a buffer, though, am I? he thought uneasily.

“They admit to killing several of our healers, and then use that as a way to cow us into obedience,” Lea said, addressing the entire table. “They want us to think that we’ll be next. That’s the only purpose of this little speech.”

The legs of the chair scraped on the ground, startling Emmit. Reece had got to his feet, eyes flashing. “I can’t believe you,” Reece said. “For shame. All of you! We hear news of this terrible tragedy, and not even ten seconds later you’re trying to use the situation to push your own political agenda!”

 “Um,” Emmit said, wincing. “Reece – Reece, okay, we can move, come on….”

“Go make that accusation to the templars, Reece!” Lea hissed over Emmit’s head.  “Whose political purposes does this tragedy serve? Maybe yours! Maybe Althea’s!”

How dare you,” Reece said, his voice strangled. “Innocent people died! And all you can think about is yourself and what consequences this has for you!

“So, what, because some mages I had nothing to do with killed a couple of villagers, I’m supposed to accept whatever the templars decide is an appropriate punishment for daring to exist as a mage within twenty miles?” Lea sat back in her chair, tipping her chin up to sneer at Reece. “What proof do we even have that there were any maleficars? How do we know this supposed blood magic attack wasn’t invented out of whole cloth to facilitate - ”

“If this is our response to hearing that some of us were possessed by demons, then maybe I am ashamed of us,” Reece said. Emmit glanced over and saw his hand shaking, clenched in a fold of robe. “The Circle is my home. I don’t like how it’s changed any more than you do, but it’s still my home and if anybody’s trying to harm it, it’s not the templars, it’s you!”

If Lea had a response to that, they didn’t get to hear it. A templar had noticed the raised voices and loomed up suddenly behind Reece.

“Siddown,” he snapped, punctuating his words with a shove. He pointed an aggressive finger at Lea. “Both of you, sit down, shut up and keep it civil, unless you want me to throw you in the cells for a few nights. I bet that’d improve your attitudes.” He glared around the table. “Don’t think we won’t, either. Watch yourselves.”

The table sat in simmering silence as the templar stalked away. Emmit had only lived in this place for a scattering of weeks. But he could read the mood of the mages around them, the mutters and the dark glances being thrown at Reece. His friend’s opinion was not a popular one.

 “Fine, then,” Reece mumbled, his face crimson. He stood up again without making eye contact with anybody, and walked away from the table.

Emmit hesitated for a moment, looking around him. If you want to get out of here, a voice whispered in the back of his mind, these people are a lot more likely to be useful to you than Reece is.

“Ah, shit,” he muttered, and stood, with a quick glance around to make sure the templar wasn’t watching. “Look, maybe I can talk to you people later or something, excuse me…”

He found Reece a few tables away, sitting with his face in his hands.

“Hey,” Emmit said, wedging himself in beside him. “Move, will you?”

“Oh,” Reece said, looking startled. “I didn’t think you’d – what are you doing here?”

“Following you, clearly,” Emmit said.

Reece gave him a sidelong glance. “Why? It’s obvious you don’t lean Loyalist.”

Emmit frowned. He probably should have been a bit more careful about that. “Look, um, all this… Loyalist, Separatist, whatever –”

“Libertarian,” Reece said. He was returning to a more normal colour. “Lea is – or was, anyway – a Libertarian.”

“Was?”

“They don’t… meet anymore,” Reece said, looking uncomfortable. “They used to be the fraternity that advocated a Circle independent from the Chantry. After a couple of things happened, though… they weren’t disbanded exactly, but all of the senior members got transferred away, and the templars made their meetings more and more difficult until they stopped trying to have them. I think that was how it happened; I was a little preoccupied at the time.”

“Right, whatever,” Emmit said, filing the information away. “Anyway, all of that stuff – I don’t know anything about any of it. I’ve been here scarcely five minutes and I don’t really want to get involved in any of that.”

Reece sighed. His head sank down into his hands. “That’s probably very intelligent of you.”

They sat in silence for a while until Reece spoke again.

“Lea’s just full of hot air,” he said, head bowed. “Lately there’s a lot of that about, but it won’t come to anything. She just thinks she’s being brave by talking about defying the templars. She isn’t actually going to do anything.”

Emmit eyed the top of Reece’s bowed head. “I guess if you think so,” he said. “You all right?”

“I’m – I don’t want to get anybody in trouble,” Reece said. “She’s just making a fool of herself. Nothing will come of any of it.”

Emmit blinked. “Are you – you’re not thinking of reporting her?”

No!” Reece looked distressed. “Of course I’m not. She’d get hurt. I just – you think I’m right not to worry about it, don’t you? Nobody’s going to do anything they shouldn’t, not after everything that’s happened.”

Emmit winced. “Reece, I don’t know,” he said uncertainly. He looked around the room, at dozens of other hushed conversations going on around them.  “I don’t know anything about what’s going on here. But everybody’s pretty mad. Collective punishment tends to do that.  For what it’s worth, though,” he added, “I definitely agree that you shouldn’t report Lea, unless you’re comfortable with being responsible for her having her face kicked in.”

“I’m not stupid, you know,” Reece said quietly. He had lifted his head and was staring at his clasped hands. “I know the templars. I’ve lived here most of my life and I know what happens to apostates and dissidents.”

“I don’t think you’re stupid,” Emmit said, a little guiltily. He felt off-balance; was that assurance supposed to make Emmit feel better that Reece could contemplate reporting her?

“I just – this maleficar who destroyed the Healer’s Centre – did they say something to someone, and nobody reported it, and then…” Reece shivered.

Emmit nodded slowly. “I think you’re buying into what the Knight-Commander said a little bit too much,” he said gently. “Just cause she says it was everybody’s fault, doesn’t mean you have to suddenly feel guilty for not doing enough.”

Reece looked a little bit reassured. He sighed heavily. “I just want the Circle to go back to how it was,” he whispered. “I don’t remember things being this awful a few years ago. It’s not supposed to be like this.”

                                                                                        ***

Hester sat at the head table, her clenched fists hidden in her robes. She took a deep breath and let it out. She focused on the one positive piece of information from the speech: the healers would be returned. At least some of the healers. They were not all dead or Tranquil; not unless the Knight-Commander had been spiteful about ‘returned to you’, which wasn’t her style.

She tried to piece things together. She mentally marked Andrew Vrays as the most likely culprit for attacking the town; she hadn’t known him, but the group had already decided he was involved after his mentor Kieran was taken. Had Althea implied multiple people were involved? They’d all assumed an escape attempt but an attack on the town was so much worse…

“Well, I hope we all got plenty of practice sneaking about after hours as apprentices. We’re going to need it,” Phelan muttered from beside her.

Hester couldn’t summon a witty response to him. Every time she thought things might get better if they could just endure for a little longer, something like this happened.

She looked up at a nudge from Phelan. A figure in polished plate was approaching her end of the table. Laurent. He gave a few orders over his shoulder in a harassed tone of voice, and continued around the table to stand beside her chair.

His face looked strained. She didn’t feel the least bit sorry for him.

“Senior Enchanter, if I could have a word in private,” Laurent said. “Please.”

She almost said no, until that last word. “You may,” she said haughtily, and kicked her robes aside to stand. They didn’t duck behind a pillar or anything so secretive as that; he just pulled her aside a short distance and turned his back to the rest of the dining hall.

“I know what you’re going to say, and I’m sorry,” he said. He spoke rapidly, his lips barely moving, and he glanced back at the rest of the room as if to reassure himself the Knight Commander wasn’t watching them. “Please understand, this wasn’t what I envisioned when I spoke to you all last week.”

Hester let out a furious breath. “Well, you didn’t do much to stop it,” she snapped. “Did you? Althea’s done it now. Absolutely nobody is going to be ‘keeping calm and assisting the templars’ after that little speech! It’s going to be force or nothing from now, and you know you don’t have -”

“I tried,” he hissed, and again that guilty glance behind him. “Do you think the Knight-Commander runs her speech drafts past me?”

You said–

“I wasn’t being dishonest with you and the other mages. But as I’ve tried to make clear, I’m very hesitant to make promises, and now you see why! This was not my choice.”

“You’re losing them,” Hester said. She made a tiny furious gesture behind him at the room of sullen mages. Two or three low, ugly arguments had broken out as they spoke. “This is all going to blow up in your hands, Laurent, look at it happening!”

“I know,” he said, and for a moment he looked at her with his face set and grim. “I know it is, Hester. Listen to me – I need your help.”

She crossed and recrossed her arms. “What am I supposed to –”

“Talk to them, Hester,” he said, urgently.  His accent softened the edges of his voice, as it used to sometimes when he was angry or frightened. “I’m asking you now because I know things are going to go downhill from here. Be a… a stabilising voice. Please. I know you’re angry, I know you expected better from us. But if we want to prevent more violence I need mages like you to calm the hotheads down and get the Circle through the next few months.” He made a frustrated gesture in the space between them, and then put his hand out, stopping just shy of touching her arm. “I need you to try and hold things together on your side, as I try and hold things together on mine.”

Their eyes met and for a moment she felt an echo of the Blight between them.

“I’ll try,” she found herself saying. She shook her head. “I don’t know if I have that kind of influence. And the Circle isn’t going to take this quietly no matter what anybody says. But you know I won’t support anything stupid and reckless.”

“That’s all I ask,” he said. “That, and be open to talking to me still.”

She searched his face. “Both ways, Laurent.” 

He nodded, and gave her a small, tired-looking smile that didn’t shift the crease of worry between his brows. “It means a lot to me. If I can still get through to you, surely there is still hope. Now – I have so much work I need to do – good night. Thank you, Hester.” He stepped away from her, his hand lifting briefly in a farewell gesture.

She could see him making an effort to straighten his shoulders as he turned. He beckoned for a handful of other templars to come to him, and strode off into the room talking briskly and indicating around the room.

“So what was that?” Phelan murmured as she threw herself back into her seat. “An apology for lying his ass off the other day?”

She rested her elbows on the table and pushed her fingers through her hair. “Actually,” she said slowly. “Yes.”

“What? You’re joking.”

“Althea didn’t tell him this was how she was going to play it.” Hester had got the impression that Laurent was angry; that Althea’s speech was ill-considered, or just that she hadn’t given him enough warning ahead of time? “He still wants to talk to us, I think.”

Phelan sat back and gave her a carefully crafted lift of his eyebrow. “And you believe that, do you, Hester?”

 

Chapter Text

The congregation in the chapel was small, but then, it was fairly early in the morning. Mostly templars – some of whom were probably on their way to bed after pulling night shifts. Reece caught one young woman with mussed brown hair and sleepy eyes yawning surreptitiously behind her hand. A scattering of mages; their number had been dropping steadily over the past few months.

Combined voices rose into the chilly morning air, thin and pure and beautiful enough to raise the hairs on Reece’s arms. He reflected wistfully that if you just closed your eyes, you couldn’t tell the difference between mage and templar voices; couldn’t see the wide distance that the two groups left between each other.

He caught sight of Ser Petyr, on the other side of the chapel. Instead of inclining his head slightly, which was more normal, he caught Reece’s eye and mouthed a few words as if trying to tell Reece something.

Reece was startled enough to drop the line of harmony, singing entirely the wrong note and causing one of the Chantry sisters to frown at him. He ducked his head in embarrassment and avoided looking at the templar side of the congregation for the rest of the service.

He hung back after the service to light a candle, as was his habit lately.

When he left the chapel, gently closing the heavy carved wooden door behind him, he found Petyr leaning against the opposite wall waiting.

“Hey,” Petyr said. He stood away from the wall and fell in beside Reece. “Hold up a minute, walk with me.”

“Good morning, ser,” Reece said. Petyr had brought him a few more letters, while patrolling the library. Reece was a little heartened by the fact that not every templar was looking at them with distrust and frustration these days, and found a smile.

Petyr smiled back briefly, but then looked serious. “Good morning. I’m glad I caught you, Reece. There’s something I need to talk to you about.” 

“Oh,” Reece said, a little alarmed. “What do you – is something wrong?”

“Sort of,” Petyr said. He walked beside Reece in silence for a few moments, and then cleared his throat. When Reece glanced at him, he looked concerned. “I notice you’ve been hanging around with that apprentice a lot. The short blond one, the one they brought in a few weeks ago.”

“Emmit?” Reece nodded “Yes, I suppose I have? I mean, we sit together at meals, but I -”

“I think you should stop.”

Reece stopped, startled. Petyr met his eyes, his mouth a flat line.

“I – I’m sorry, ser,” Reece said faintly. “But what do you mean?”

Petyr scowled and made a shrugging motion, his armour scraping. He looked away and then back at Reece. “Look, maybe this is stepping out of bounds, Reece. But I like you, and I don’t want to watch you make this mistake. All right?”

“Mistake?”

“Making friends with the hedge mage,” Petyr said, exasperated.  “Come on. Don’t do this to yourself. His lessons have been going terribly. He can’t learn to control the magic. He’s going nowhere good.”

Reece took a deep, slow breath. “You – you’re worried he’ll hurt me? I don’t think -”

“Well, yes, that too,” Petyr said. “But that’s not what I mean.” He shook his head. “Reece, he won’t pass his Harrowing. He probably won’t even make it to the Harrowing. Sooner or later, probably sooner if I’m any judge, he will be made Tranquil. And after what happened with Cora Delancy, I would have thought you –”

Reece pulled back from the templar as if he’d been stung by an insect. “What?

“Hush, Reece,” Petyr said, glancing around. He spoke in a lower voice. “I would have thought you had had enough of that, that’s all.”

Reece stared at Petyr, his head swimming. Of all things, he had not expected this. “You weren’t even here then. You don’t – Cora wasn’t… How do you know about Cora?”

Petyr looked discomforted for a second. “It – it’s in the records, Reece, for anyone to see,” he muttered. “Krisholm hasn’t done many Rites of Tranquillity in the past year. It sticks out.”

“But…” Reece’s throat was closing up. “You know she was my friend…”

“Someone mentioned it,” Petyr said. He touched Reece’s shoulder, making a calming gesture with his other hand. “Look, now I’ve upset you. I’m sorry.” He looked worried. “I shouldn’t have brought it up like that, I just don’t want you to get yourself hurt, all right? That’s all.”

Reece held still, the templar’s hand heavy on his shoulder. “You think I should stop spending time with Emmit,” he repeated, trying to make sure he understood. “Because you think he’ll be made Tranquil. You don’t think I should be getting attached.”

“Yes,” Petyr said firmly. “I know it sounds cold, but –”

 “You don’t know for sure Emmit’s going to be made Tranquil,” Reece said, trying to control his voice so it wouldn’t climb. “You don’t.

Petyr made an exasperated noise through his nose. “Well, nobody knows the future, Reece, but I’ve seen enough to make a good guess.”

Reece said nothing. He turned his face away so Petyr wouldn’t see it. “May I go, ser?”

Petyr shook his head and lifted his hand. “Sure, but Reece, think about what I’ve said.”

“Of course,” Reece said, backing away. “H-have a good day, ser.”

He went to where he had always felt safe: the corner room of the library. The templar on duty at the library door – that was new, there hadn’t been one there last week – grabbed him by the shoulder when he almost walked past without seeing her. He stammered something about the morning service, and she let him go grudgingly.

He made his way to the corner behind the shelves and put his head down on the desk, amid the familiar smells of parchment and ink and paper preservation spells. If people could hear it when you cried back here, nobody had ever bothered him.

Despite what he’d thought back then… things had gotten better. He hadn’t thought about Cora, really thought about her, in weeks and then Petyr just dropped it into conversation like he was talking about the weather. Like he hadn’t just pushed Reece back eight months, into dumb grey misery where nothing would ever be all right ever again.

He felt a pang of guilt – was he that selfish that he had forgotten about it? If he really cared, wouldn’t he hurt this much all of the time?

And now Emmit? It wasn’t fair. They’d barely given him a chance!

A little later he sat up and blotted his face with his sleeves, staring around at the ranks of books on the shelves. No. This time – this time there must be something I can do.

 

                                                                                        *****

 

Emmit drummed his fingers on the table he was sitting at, listening with half of his attention.

“Lastly, children,” the teacher was saying brightly. It was the same spectacled young man who had taken Emmit’s blood when he first arrived. “The correct hand motions of this type of spell are of utmost importance. We won’t be doing any in earnest for some time, but it’s very important you understand this idea, as it is what will allow you to instruct the Fade clearly as to… ”

Emmit wondered where the spectacled mage had taken his phylactery after it had been finished. Actually escaping seemed possible, if tricky to do without killing at least one templar. But the phylactery was the real sticking point. He’d need to do something to deal with it if he wanted the escape attempt to be successful. Would it be suspicious to ask the teacher about it? Probably.

He watched as the teacher demonstrated hand positions for the class. Some of them were familiar from his tattered spellbook, others he’d never seen before. He echoed them with his own hands half-heartedly; a few of the children around him were doing the same.

Hand gestures were fine; hand gestures he could do. There seemed to be so many more of them than he’d realised, though. Emmit ran his thumb over a scar on his forearm and chewed his lip.

A pair of little girls with identical brown plaits were looking at Emmit over their shoulders and whispering; he pulled a horrible face at them and then winked. They stifled fits of giggles and turned back to the front.

He’d nearly ruined another desk yesterday, trying to do a simple water manipulation charm. Emmit had bitten the inside of his cheek and refrained from telling the perturbed teacher that he knew how to make little whirlpools and globes of water; he’d done it plenty of times. He just hadn’t done it using their method, which involved a lot of breathing and focusing on about five things simultaneously and intoning words at exactly the right moments.  If he could have done it his way, it would have been fine; instead he had bored a hole in the desk surface and peppered the ceiling with ice fragments.

The lesson finished up uneventfully and Emmit left along with the children, who were chattering among themselves. The teacher shepherded them cheerfully out of the room.

“Settle down, quiet,” he chided a small apprentice gently. “Oi! Hands off, Maree, I saw that – oh, Emmit. Sorry, not you. Everything all right?”

“Just fine,” Emmit said, carefully, smiling. He didn’t ask about the phylactery.

 

                                                                                                   *****

 

Reece was among the shelves of the main room of the library, adding a few extra books to the stack he had already assembled, when he heard the chattering of the little apprentices as they came in from their morning lesson. He felt a painful twist in his chest as he remembered that when he had been their age, he’d been let out to play in the grounds before lunch.

He peered around the shelf and spotted Emmit, following the group of children like a gosling that’d been hatched with chickens by mistake. The apprentice had sleek blond hair in a plait that fell over one shoulder, and he wore his robes like they belonged to somebody else and he didn’t like them -  always rolling the sleeves up and down or hitching the skirt up with one hand.

Reece hurriedly collected his armfuls of books and went out into the main space to meet him. “Emmit,” he said, somewhat out of breath. “You’re back. I was waiting for you.”

Emmit looked startled and slightly cornered. He glanced around the room before answering, and Reece winced internally.

“What’s wrong?” Emmit said, cautiously. His gaze flickered over Reece’s face. “Did you get into another, uh, discussion with the Libertarians?”

“Oh! No, but thank you for your concern,” Reece said, a little hectically. Calm down. He obviously already thinks you’re a little unstable after you got into that shouting match with Lea, you don’t need to jump out at him from behind a bookshelf and hit him in the face with a stack of treatises as well.

“Listen, Emmit,” he said, careful to speak slowly. He put the books down on one of the long tables in the centre of the room, meant for general use. “Sit down over here, I want to talk to you.”

Emmit eased himself into a seat on the other side of the table. He sat there and eyed Reece with what seemed to be trepidation. “Okay…”

Reece took a minute to divide the books into a couple of separate stacks, squaring their corners neatly while he thought through what he wanted to say. Then he cleared his throat and sat forward. “Look, Emmit. You’ve been having trouble with your magic lessons. Haven’t you?”

Emmit’s brows, dark and striking, immediately lowered over his eyes in annoyance. “Maybe,” he said grudgingly. “I guess.”

 “I wish I’d thought of this earlier,” Reece said. “I want to help you! We can go through the things you have trouble with together. Obviously you have your classes, but maybe what you need is a little more individual attention. Tutoring, you know? I can be a tutor!”

 Emmit was startled out of his scowl. “Reece… thanks. But you don’t have to do that.”

“I know I don’t,” Reece said. “I want to.” He laid his hand on the first stack, a series on introductory techniques. He’d looked through them earlier and didn’t think their language was too simplistic; he had a suspicion that Emmit, defensive and sharp-tongued, would probably be offended at being taught out of children’s books no matter what Reece said to placate him.

Another stack was for Reece himself, on teaching techniques and education. Also a few books on hedge mages and non-Circle magical traditions, like the Dalish. Reece knew better than to hope for “A beginner’s guide to teaching hedge mages”, but you had to start somewhere.

Emmit was looking bewildered, but his face had lost the hard lines of annoyance. “That’s – that’s really nice of you, honestly, but I don’t think I need you to tutor me,” he said. He began to fiddle with his plait. “Don’t you have your own studies you wanted to do? Like healing, weren’t you going to go and work on your healing? You don’t have to spend your time walking me through beginners’ exercises.”

“I can do both,” Reece said firmly. “Didn’t you say you had trouble with Spirit in particular? I can help with that, Cassia left me some very good exercises.” Cassia had told Reece he was good at teaching; he wasn’t sure if she was just trying to be nice or not but she had said it.

“I don’t want to bother you,” Emmit said. He sat back, crossing his arms and propping one foot up on the chair beside him. “Besides, I don’t need you to. I’m doing all right.” 

Reece paused. Sooner or later, probably sooner, he will be made Tranquil. His fingers spidered nervously across one of the books. “I really don’t think you are, actually,” he said.

Emmit cocked his head, and stopped slouching in the chair. “What’s going on here, Reece?” he said suspiciously. He put his foot down. “Did someone say something? Did one of my teachers put you up to this?”

Reece fixed his eyes on the books in front of him. “No, none of your teachers,” he said, the pitch of his voice drifting upwards despite his best efforts. “I mean… nobody.”

When he shot a glance upwards, Emmit was still looking at him. “Reece…”

“Kind of?”

“Reece.”

Reece sighed, his shoulders slumping. He knew he was an awful liar. “A templar I sort-of-know told me,” he admitted. He traced a line on the spine of one of the books. “I didn’t want to scare you by -”

Emmit looked at Reece with wide eyes, and Reece thought he saw fear take root in them. No, that’s exactly what I didn’t want!

Emmit sunk his head into his hands. “Shit,” he mumbled. “He said it was bad?”

I’m not telling you that. “I don’t know.”

“I thought I had a few months,” Emmit said. “But if they’re already saying...” He looked up at Reece and gave a sickly smile. “I was told when I got here that I was on probation. And that if I didn’t do well enough at the lessons, I might be made Tranquil. Which I guess is better than dying, but they explained it to me and I… well, yeah.”

Reece stared at his piles of books for a long moment, feeling the greyness closing around him again. Tranquil. Now that Emmit had said it, he could picture it with sickening clarity, the brand on Emmit’s forehead, empty brown eyes and I can see you are distressed. There is no need to apologise, Reece

Then he took a deep breath and looked up, pushing the greyness away. “That isn’t going to happen,” he said, his voice level. “Because we’re going to hit these books together, and we’re going to fix it. All right?”

Emmit laughed, loudly, and sat back in his chair. His eyes were dancing. “Reece, you really do think books can solve everything, don’t you?”

Reece flushed. “No! I don’t mean just the books, obviously. I mean I’m going to teach you. Like I said, one-on-one attention, a slightly different approach, we can spend as long as it takes.” He took another deep breath, calming himself down. “You’re not going to be Tranquil.” 

Emmit flicked his hair back over his shoulder and smiled. “Okay, then,” he said. “Since you insist. Where do we start?”

Reece pulled a sheet of paper towards himself, smiling himself with an odd mixture of relief and anxiety. “Okay, first off, let’s talk about the things you have trouble with,” he said. “I’ll take notes. No more of this ‘oh, Spirit magic isn’t my friend, I’m not going to elaborate’, okay?” 

“Right,” Emmit said reluctantly. He scooted the chair in closer, folding his arms on the table, and watched Reece write as he spoke.

“Well, this is something to start on,” Reece said, some time later, regarding his page of notes. They had relocated to Reece’s corner desk. “You have trouble touching the Fade when you’re distracted … even though you can do it just fine if you don’t think about it. I think we need to start there.” He wondered if the exercises that were supposed to be making it easier to find were actually distractions in themselves?

“That sounds right,” Emmit agreed, slumped forward, his chin propped on his folded arms. “Hey… Reece?”

“Yes?”

Emmit bit his lip before speaking again. “Not to pry, or anything. But you seem really upset by something. And I notice that you… well… before I got here, you mostly seemed to be just hanging around the place by yourself.”

“Oh,” Reece said, taken aback. “Well, I…”

“So I was just wondering.” Emmit raised his eyes to meet Reece’s. “Who was your friend, before that?”

Reece looked away. “The other apprentices told you,” he said quietly, after a moment.

Emmit shook his head. “No. The apprentices don’t really talk to me.”

Reece sighed. Why was Emmit so perceptive? It wasn’t fair. He didn’t act like someone who should be perceptive. He put the notes away and scrubbed his eyes; he’d been working in something like a haze of purpose and energy, and it was only now that he realised how much time it had been since the early morning Chant.

“Yes,” he said finally. “All right. Her name was Cora.”

Emmit nodded. When Reece didn’t speak again for a while, he sat up. “She died?” he asked gently.

Reece shook his head. “She was made Tranquil. She was… a bit like me, I guess. We both liked books. Poetry. We were friends.” He fidgeted absently with a piece of paper, folding it over and over itself, as he spoke. “I didn’t – notice. I mean, I knew some things didn’t come as easily to her as they did to me, she, she tended to get flustered and confused and sometimes she made mistakes if you pushed her too hard. But I didn’t think….” He twisted the paper in his fingers tightly. “I didn’t know about it until one day she was just gone from her dorm, and the Rite was set for the next day. When I found out I went to the cells, but they didn’t – I wasn’t allowed –”

He pushed the paper away, tried to finish the story past the lump in his throat. “I don’t understand why they wouldn’t let me say goodbye,” he said, imploring, as if Emmit would have an answer. “I couldn’t have done anything!”

He felt a hand pat his elbow, awkwardly. “I’m sorry,” Emmit said in a hushed voice. “That’s – that’s awful.”

Reece took a deep breath and looked up. “Anyway. That was about a year ago now,” he said, trying to move the conversation on. “I passed my Harrowing, since then. I’ve actually… been thinking a lot, ever since, about ways we could prevent people from being made Tranquil. Things we could do instead, or… Maybe I should have realised that I could do that best by teaching people.”

He pulled the book of introductory exercises towards him. “Okay,” he said firmly. “Have you done any of these yet?”

 

                                                                                                             *****

 

Hester looked around. The air smelt of smoke, ale, and people crammed closely together. She was in the common room of an inn, or a tavern – something like that. Too many tables crammed into too small a room, the floor sticky wooden boards strewn with rushes… even the light was different to night within the Circle, hazy fire and lantern light.

Most tables were crowded with people – humans mostly, farmers and common folk mingling with people in armour or padded undershirts. A babble of talk filled the room, although if she listened to the words, they were talking nonsense.

Hester had wandered through enough memory-scapes to recognise the Fade. But this one was unusually coherent.

“So we’re back in Ferelden tonight,” she said aloud. “I guess if we must, this isn’t one of the worst days. There’s a striking lack of stinking mud and darkspawn hordes, anyway. Which is something.”

As she looked around, she realised she knew where she was, or rather when specifically she was. All the small dirty Ferelden towns the army had passed through blended together after a while, but she had a feeling she knew what she was supposed to be looking at.

She turned and made her way through the room, edging past elbows and backs to reach a table tucked in the corner. Three templars and two mages sat there, deep in discussion – their presence was apparently intimidating enough for nobody else to want to take the empty space on the bench.

“I don’t agree,” the elf in the centre said, lifting her chin and tossing back her hair. She had mid-brown skin, tangled curls that straggled down to her shoulders, and eyes that looked huge in a terribly thin, sharp face. Her collarbones were starkly visible under the collar of her robe.

Hester stared at that mage and felt exceedingly old.  I’d forgotten I used to do that with my hair.

“Well, this is a campaign, not a leisurely stroll,” the templar across from her young self said. His Orlesian accent was thick. “Knife-ears.”

Hester’s stomach dropped, even now, a decade later. She worked her way around the table to get a better look at his face as the discussion continued. Laurent looked so young, although in the opposite way to Hester. His face, darker brown than hers, was fuller, young and handsome and… well. Insufferable.  

She only vaguely remembered what had started this argument: just that she’d had a strong opinion on it. The other mage – it was Quill, she realised with a rush of fondness and grief, that was right, he’d been here for this – was rolling his eyes a little, focussing on draining his drink.

The templars were a little into their cups too, truth be told. They’d let their charges stay in the common room for an extra few hours, mostly because they had wanted to be here in the warm themselves.

“I wasn’t asking you. You are from an alienage, so I suppose I cannot expect you to understand,” Laurent said. He gestured with the cup he was holding, and turned to ask his neighbour, one of the other templars, a question.

Hester saw her younger self’s hands curl into fists on the tabletop. 

Laurent paused to take a swallow of ale from his cup, while the other templar answered him. Young Hester lifted one hand.

“Hey,” the third templar said sharply.

Laurent made an indescribable noise, and doubled over, bracing one hand on the table. The other clutched his half-full cup to his face – frost spreading across the ceramic surface with a thin crackling noise. 

“Call me knife-ears one more time,” Young Hester said lightly, pulling the hand back as if to say ‘that was all I wanted to do’.

There was a short breathless moment of silence.

The templar beside Hester broke it by laughing. He let his own hand, poised to grab Hester’s shoulder, fall back to the table. “Well, that’s one way to shut him up,” he chuckled.

The other templar laughed too, but he put a hand out to steady Laurent, who was making unintelligible whimpers. “What’d you do – freeze it? Well, shit, remind me to be careful eating and drinking around you from now on…”

“Well, don’t call me names and you won’t have to worry,” Young Hester shot back.

All three men at the table apart from Laurent were laughing now, earning suspicious looks from the rest of the tavern. The Hester who was watching from the background shook her head at her own foolishness. If the templars had been more on-edge, if she’d picked on anybody but the newcomer from unpopular Orlais… that little prank could have had very unpleasant consequences.

It made her sad to think that the templar beside her – Charls, she thought his name had been? – hadn’t reacted with violence. A mage had reached for the Fade beside him and his first thought had been to warn her off and his second to grab her shoulder. He hadn’t called on lyrium or struck her. Even though this was scarce months after the horror of Kinloch Hold.

Hester doubted any templar would hesitate so nowadays.

Back in the tavern, Quill was offering to help melt the ice trapping Laurent’s tongue.

Charls screwed up his face. “Maker, no, you’re drunk. You’d just as likely melt his face off. Leave off, mages, you’ve done enough.”

Eventually, with much laughter and spilled water, they managed to free Laurent. Back then, as now, she could see the “how dare you” and “You can’t do that, I’m a templar” lining up behind Laurent’s face. But either he decided it would only make him look foolish, or it hurt to talk, because he didn’t say them. He nursed the new drink somebody brought him and sulked.

The other people in the tavern, along with all the noise and smoke and commotion, faded away in wisps and streaks, like fog being wiped from a cold window. Leaving only Hester and Laurent, young, stupid and proud, giving each other black looks across the table.

The Hester who knew she was dreaming watched them for a few moments before turning away.

“That’s not fair, you know,” she remarked to the empty tavern. “This isn’t a fair representation. He’s better than that.” The Fade – or rather, whichever of its denizens was lurking around here somewhere – said nothing.

“So what’s your point? A templar’s a templar?” She scowled. “Are you trying to be backup for Phelan and Farha?”

Still no answer. Hester shook her head. Maybe she was wrong and there was no spirit directing this Fade-dream, no grand thrust of argument she was supposed to get. Maybe it was just her own thoughts, bringing her here.

“He did apologise for that, you know. Later on. Can I get back to sleep now?” she said. She closed her eyes resolutely, and willed herself out of the Fade and back into more mundane dreams.

 

 

Chapter Text

"So, which one is it?" Carl said, stifling a yawn behind a fist.

It was so early the sky outside was still dark gray. There were an extra four templars in the guardroom, in addition to the normal guard shift coming off duty, so the guardroom had more templars in it than there were chairs. Kelly had shifted out of her seat at the table to make room for a pair from the night shift; one gave her a tired nod of thanks and then sat blowing on a mug of tea.

The other seats at the table were filled by Carl and Rhesa, two full templars a couple of years older than she was; a few other templars sat on the benches, or leaned against the walls.

Rhesa finished bundling her hair back in a rough knot, then leaned forward and pulled the paperwork towards herself across the table. "Apprentice Hayden Tapsell."

Carl looked as if he had slept badly. "Which one's he again?"

"The stuck-up snot with the dark hair," one of the guards said. "Nobility. Right?"

Kelly herself felt wide awake; she crossed her arms and restrained herself from pacing, which would only annoy everybody else. Today she would be observing a Harrowing. She bit her lip, the abomination in the forest cottage flashing back into her mind – spindly charred limbs and unearthly shrieks of pain and rage. Would there be a repeat of that today?

Rhesa frowned. "Didn't we do that one already? A few weeks ago?"

"Nah, not that one, the other noble," the templar said, snapping his fingers. "With the nose. You know. Thinks he's something special with lightning."

"Oh, yeah, that one. Can't say I'm very impressed with him either." Rhesa flicked through the paperwork, and then looked up and studied Carl for a few seconds. He was staring into his own tea with a faintly queasy expression.

Rhesa sat back and raised her eyebrow at him. "So. Carl. How about it? Bet this one's toast."

Carl considered for a few moments. Then he pushed his mug away and smirked. "Two gold says he lives."

Kelly blinked, lifting her head. What?

"Two gold?" Rhesa said archly. She made a show of looking at the form with pursed lips. "If you're sure…"

"Carl's putting money behind the spoiled brat?" someone scoffed. "Thought you didn't like the rich ones."

"I don't," Carl said. He stretched his arms out behind his head, grimacing. "But hey. Maybe I'm gonna be optimistic today. Give Tapsell the benefit of the doubt."

"Wow, good idea," Rhesa said dryly. "It always ends well when templars do that."

Carl and a few other people laughed. Kelly looked around the room uncertainly. The others didn't look surprised or disapproving; just either tired or bored or amused. They spoke as if this was an accepted thing, something they'd done before – wagering money on a Harrowing as if it was a card game or a horse race.

"Give him the benefit of the doubt? I didn't know you'd named your sword, Carl," someone else said as they came into the room. The templar who'd spoken dropped onto the bench near Carl amid laughter. "Bit pretentious, isn't it?"

One of the templars, a young man named Petyr, put his tea down and groaned. "Ugh, Julien, that isn't funny."

Carl pointed one finger threateningly. "Hey, if the Harrowing fails, I will start calling it that. Watch me."

"How about you, Kelly?" Rhesa asked, turning to put Kelly in her line of sight.

"What?" Kelly said, startled. She'd thought nobody was paying any attention to her. "What about me?"

"Where would you put your money? Think Carl gets to add a notch to his swordbelt today?"

"Uh," Kelly said, frozen. She uncrossed and recrossed her arms. Rhesa was grinning at her. What was her face doing? Grimacing? No, that wouldn't do, but… She settled for a short awkward smile. "Don't – don't really gamble. Sorry."

"Hey, don't look so worried, girl," Julien said amiably. "You'll be fine. Demon has to get past us before it can get to you."

"Ugh," someone said. "Rhesa, you realise that, by dawn, you either have to fight a demon or give Carl two gold? That's not a good morning either way."

"Hey, I'm primary, I'm the one who's supposed to kill the little bastard," Carl said. "If any of them ends up fighting the demon I'm probably dead. So I don't want to hear any complaining about it."

Rhesa reached across the table to thump him on the arm. "You still have to pay up if you're dead, Carl."

He gave her a wan smile and a rude gesture.

"Get in first, that's my advice," Julien said, shrugging. "Don't wait for it to start flinging magic at you. If you think something's off, soon as it opens its eyes, just gut whatever's looking at you. Maker can sort them out when they're dead."

"Hey, why wait that long?" someone else murmured. "'Oops, Knight-Lieutenant, the mage was snoring in a demonic way', haha…"

"By that metric I should've killed you in your sleep a long time ago…"

"Worst thing about Harrowings is the mess," Rhesa said, nudging Carl. "Mage gore is really damn hard to get out of your skirt, you know that?"

There was a chorus of surprised laughter; Carl covered his grin with one hand. "Fuck, Rhesa, that's awful," he laughed.

"Don't even talk to me about it," Julien said. "Or your hair. Eugh."

"At least the skirts are red."

"Heh, funny story, did I ever tell you about the time I - "

"I am very interested to see," a voice cut across the room. "That our work today is a joke to some of you."

Kelly startled, looking around. She followed the eyes of the other templars to the door of the guardroom.

Knight-Captain Laurent stood there in the doorway – his dress uniform robe clean and pressed, armour shining, alert despite the hour. His eyes were narrowed with anger. He looked around at the room and let the silence sit for a moment.

There was a scrape as Rhesa's chair was pushed back. "Knight-Captain, ser – we were just –"

"I could hear what you were just!" Laurent snarled. A handful of the templars flinched or jumped as his voice boomed in the small room. "Placing bets on the outcome of a Harrowing! Which I happen to remember explicitly forbidding while under my command!"

Rhesa had stood, and to give her credit, she remained standing and didn't back away as Laurent glared at her. She met his eyes, her face set. Carl, still seated beside her, had gone pale and was staring at the tabletop.

"As for the rest of it!" Laurent continued. "You should all be ashamed."

Kelly tried to keep her head and her gaze up, but it proved almost impossible in the face of Laurent's anger, even directed at the room as a whole rather than her specifically. She had found it a little hard to credit when others had told her he was a tyrant, but if this was what they were talking about, it was easier to understand.

It's not my fault, she thought desperately. I didn't say anything where he could hear – did I? I didn't say anything at all! I don't have anything to feel guilty about.

"The situation in this Circle is tense enough as it is without this kind of behaviour. I had thought," Laurent said, "That I made it clear what my expectations were for how templars under my command would behave. Are we petty prison guards? Well? Are we?"

"No, Knight-Captain," Rhesa said, still looking ahead. "Ser. We're not on duty yet, ser, we - "

"I - don't - care!" Laurent snapped. "On duty or off, you were being completely inappropriate! Our duty requires that we take lives. It does not require that we take them lightly." His jaw tightened. "I am deeply disappointed in all of you, for treating both the mages and our responsibilities with such blatant disrespect."

Julien straightened up in his seat. "Ser, it was just a – "

Laurent turned on him, pointing one finger forcefully. "Do not talk back to me, Julien, I have already heard reports of your conduct that do not impress me. If I were you, I wouldn't compound matters by being insubordinate!"

Julien subsided, his face flushed. "Knight-Captain," he said stiffly.

Laurent took a deep breath and let it out slowly, apparently trying to leash his anger. "Apprentice Tapsell – like all of the mages in this Circle – is the work of our Maker's hands," he said, quietly but forcefully. "As are we all. Should he fail his Harrowing, it is a necessity and a mercy that we kill him. If you can't manage compassion or respect, he deserves at least the basic decency of not mocking his death."

Carl and Rhesa looked as if they wanted the floor to open up underneath them. Carl swallowed and stood, collecting his helmet as he went, and stood to attention beside Rhesa. The rest of the templars in the room followed his lead and stood as well; Julien a second later than the rest, his face still red and his jaw clenched.

"Yes, Knight-Captain," they said, in a ragged chorus.

"All right," Laurent said. His fingers drummed on his sword hilt for a moment, then stilled. "We don't have time to talk more about this now. I don't want to hear any more talk like that out of anybody here. Carl, you're primary?"

"Yes, ser," Carl mumbled.

Laurent looked for a moment as if he was going to say something else, but then he just sighed and made an impatient gesture. "Go and collect Apprentice Tapsell from his dorm. Respectfully. The rest, I expect in the Harrowing chamber in ten minutes. Dismissed."

He turned away and stamped out the door, the hem of his robe swirling.

The templars all stood, exchanging glances with each other.

"Stuck-up bastard," Julien whispered, his voice a little strangled. "The fuck's his problem?"

"Exactly what we need right now," someone else grunted. "Mage-lover for a Knight-Captain! Ugh."

Kelly winced and eyed the door. "Er, maybe don't – " She took a few steps and leaned so that she could see out of it into the hallway. There was no sign of the Knight-Captain. She shook her head in response to the questioning glances one or two people gave her, and the room relaxed.

"'Deeply disappointed,'" someone muttered. "Screw him."

"Maybe he should go to one of his precious healer mages and get them to remove the stick up his ass." Julien stood and kicked the table, his face still red. "Come on, Kelly, Rhesa. Better not be late. That'd be inappropriate."

One of the night shift clapped Carl on the back as he headed for the door. "Good luck, Carl. Don't forget to be respectful when you're chopping the mage's head off," she said.

Carl gave a slightly forced chuckle and waved her off as he left.

 

The Harrowing chamber was in the templar wing of Krisholm, near the rooms where Kelly had been told the phylacteries were. It was on the fifth or six story, Kelly couldn't remember – but a lot of stairs, in any case.

Kelly had gone to stand in a corner of the room, when she was directed, without speaking. Somehow silence felt more right. The floor was blank, smooth stone that radiated coolness. Once Kelly had noticed that, in the light of the conversation she'd just had, it was difficult to avoid wondering if it was unadorned in order to make it easier to clean afterwards. Her stomach squirmed nervously.

It was not a grand chamber, as these things went; the most ornate thing in the room was the basin First Enchanter Chiara had set on the central table as she entered. The contents of the basin sent little shards and ripples of bluish light over the high ceiling, overpowering the grey that peeked in through the slitted windows.

The apprentice – Hayden Tapsell – was standing in the centre of the room, by the table and the basin full of blue light. He had been composed as Carl led him in to stand in the centre of the room, his head held high and his eyes bright.

Kelly was behind him when he stood at the basin, so she couldn't see his expression. But when the First Enchanter, a reserved woman with a colourless voice, had finished explaining what was going to happen, he lost some of that proud bearing.

"But a demon!" he repeated, not for the first time. "Does everybody – I can't - what if – "

"Everybody has undergone this," the First Enchanter reassured him. "All of your teachers, all of your older friends. If you are resolute and strong of will as they were, you will prevail."

The apprentice half-turned to look around, to where Kelly, Julien and Rhesa were arrayed around the rim of the room. His gaze passed over Kelly's face without really taking it in. He looked frightened. "And if I don't prevail…"

"The templars assigned to you today," Laurent interjected, "Will ensure the safety of the rest of the Circle. I'm sure you prefer that to the alternative."

Kelly could see the apprentice mage's shoulders straightening again. "Yes," he said firmly. "To both alternatives. Tranquillity or possession. Very well. I'm ready."

He shook his sleeve back, looked at his bare forearm as if in apprehension for a moment, and thrust his hand into the basin. Its glow dimmed.

The apprentice's knees folded and he crumpled; he would have hit the floor hard, if the First Enchanter hadn't been ready to catch him and let him down more gently.

Carl stepped forward and took Hayden's weight from the First Enchanter. The apprentice's head lolled against Carl's shoulder in an unsightly way; and suddenly he looked dreadfully young.

Whatever Carl was thinking now, his face was calm. He was careful as he pulled the apprentice back a few steps and laid him out flat on the floor. He murmured something under his breath. With a flicker of a glance at Laurent, he drew his sword and took up an alert stance beside the prone body.

"I appreciate your presence, Knight-Captain," the First Enchanter said, quietly. "The commanding officers of the Order are all so busy, of late. It is courteous of you to spare time for a formality such as being present for a Harrowing."

Laurent made a noise that was barely a hmph, neither agreement nor disagreement. "It's not an onerous requirement," he said. "There aren't that many Harrowings, and they are important."

The First Enchanter nodded in acknowledgement, and retreated to the other side of the room. She sat on a bench that had been placed there in a graceful rustle of robes.

Nobody spoke, after that. The eyes of the six people in the room were all fixed on the limp body lying in the middle of the floor. Carl shifted slightly from foot to foot, occasionally, but his bared blade didn't waver.

Knight-Captain Laurent looked… contemplative. Kelly wondered whether he was still thinking about Harrowing jokes and wagers. Her stomach dropped again in remembered secondhand shame. Having seen Hayden in front of her, alternately cocky and terrified, a teenage boy like so many she'd known back home… the comments about mage gore and gutting whatever woke up seemed even more monstrous. How had Laurent managed to put that feeling into words so well?

As the minutes wore on, what had been a slight coolness became an unpleasant chill that wormed its way up through the soles of Kelly's boots and in the joints of her armour. She breathed slowly and tried to keep from shivering. She found herself watching a sliver of light from one of the windows as it shifted across the wall; slowly edging from one stone block to the next, becoming ever so slightly brighter as the sun rose higher.

She snapped herself back to alertness when she realised how long she'd been watching it, with a mental rebuke to herself. She should be focusing!

She fixed her gaze on the apprentice's face. It was wiped blank of any fear or determination now. Tangled brown hair against the cold stone of the floor, an aquiline nose. His eyes were shifting around behind the lids, which was unsettling, but probably normal. Carl watched them intently.

Would it be the eyes that would show first, she wondered. Would they open, glowing with unearthly power? Or would the templars not get that warning?

Somewhere just a breath away, she thought, as she stood here, the boy in front of her was fighting a demon. Fighting it in a rumpled robe and – she noticed suddenly and had to stop herself from giggling nervously – bare feet. Surely we could have let him have some slippers to fight the demon in?

Kelly wondered what it would be like to be woken at dawn and told you had to fight a demon by yourself, unarmed and unarmoured. Probably it was different for mages. Mages didn't need such things. Mages walked the Fade since they were children; mages and demons were cut from similar cloth in ways that people like Kelly would never understand. So she'd been told.

The quiet of the Harrowing Chamber was disturbed as the boy on the floor took a deep, sighing breath.

A dozen tiny metallic sounds filled the chamber as all of the templars tensed. Kelly's heart just about jumped into her throat. Carl lowered his sword, the tip hovering a few inches above the mage's collarbones.

The mage shifted his head, chest rising with another deep breath, and opened his eyes. They were normal and human, and they widened at the sight of the sword.

"Wh-whoa!" he said, his voice a little hoarse, but also normal and human. "Wait – it's me – I'm fine, it's me!"

Carl raised his sword and stepped back. The First Enchanter rose and crossed the room to kneel on the other side of the mage, turning his face towards her with a gentle touch under his chin. Apparently satisfied with whatever she saw, she nodded. Her face broke into an unusually genuine smile.

Carl sheathed his sword and dropped down to one knee, apparently to check himself; he scrutinised the mage's face and body, face tense, one hand grasping him by the shoulder. "All clear," Carl said, his voice still stiff and cold. Then he leaned back and repeated himself, his voice a little shaky. "He's all clear."

Everybody in the room relaxed. Kelly couldn't help blowing out a breath of relief. Only now did she realise that her shoulders were aching from the tension, and had been for some time.

The First Enchanter helped the mage to his feet, murmuring congratulations. The mage himself looked shaken – but as he got his pale bare feet under him and looked around, some of the bewildered look left his eyes, and pride touched them instead.

"Congratulations, Hayden Tapsell," Laurent said, warmly. "That was well done. You have successfully passed your Harrowing, and are now a mage of Krisholm Circle in good standing."

"Thank you, Knight-Captain," Hayden said, his voice barely wobbling at all.

"As you know, the process of a Harrowing is not known by those who have yet to take it," Laurent said. "Failure to abide by this rule will be punished. Understood?"

"Yes, ser."

"Be sure to use this new status wisely," Laurent said. "I will leave you to the First Enchanter."

As the templars filed out of the room after the mages, Kelly saw Carl lengthen his stride to walk beside the newly minted mage for a few moments. "Well done," she thought she heard him say, under the noise of other people talking. Then he peeled off to walk back to the guardroom with the other templars to prepare for their shift.

 

                                                                                                         ***

 

"All right. How does that feel?"

Emmit squinted his eyes shut. His foot tapped nervously under the desk, and then stilled. "Fffffine?"

Reece held back the urge to say 'open your eyes, what use are you if you can only work magic with your eyes shut?'. It was a statement he'd heard many times as an apprentice, and he was a little surprised to find it jumping so readily to his tongue now. His teachers had had a point. But he'd realised that Emmit was liable to freeze up if given too many instructions at once.

"Okay, then. So just do the last step of the gestures, and as you do, let go of the power."

"Right. Easy." Emmit's fingers shifted, slow and precise.

And a ball of roiling green flame appeared in the air over the desk, with a loud slap of hot air that made both of the mages thrust themselves back in their chairs.

Reece, shielding his face with one arm, managed to work a dousing spell; the green flame shrank, and guttered down to little tongues licking the edges of the desk, and died away.

They both stared glumly at the tiny shreds of shrivelled black in the middle of the table. They were all that was left of the feathers Emmit had been using as practice material.

Emmit reached out and prodded them with one finger. "Hmm," he said critically.

"Could have gone better," Reece said, in a slightly strained mild voice. He looked around, biting his lip. "Please don't burn this part of the library down, Emmit. I'm pretty sure I'm the only person who actually spends any time in here so they might not replace the books."

Emmit reached over and attempted to pinch out a smouldering cinder on Reece's robe, using a fold of his own. "The books? The books might burn? Reece, you are like something out of a comic play."

"Ow!"

"Sorry. Is it bad?"

"No," Reece said, looking mournfully at his sleeve. He had liked this robe. "I'm okay. But what was that? That spell shouldn't have been able to make any flames."

Emmit shrugged. "I don't know. It's magic."

Reece frowned at him. What an odd thing to say. "Yes. So it should be predictable. Were you thinking about fire?"

"I was thinking about light, like you said. That's… kind of like fire?"

The Tranquil who shelved books in the library walked past their desk. He glanced at them, not registering any response to the small pile of charred material or the scorch marks on the desk, or the fact that he had presumably just seen a flash of green light around the shelves. He carefully shelved the single book he was carrying, straightened the spines of the books around it, and left.

Reece sighed and cleared up the mess. "At least we're getting closer," he said, trying to be cheerful. "We've got you onto the right school, at least. This happens a lot when you do Spirit or Entropy spells, not so much when you do Primal. Maybe you're just really strongly inclined towards Primal as a school?"

Fire was proving to be a recurring theme of Emmit's miscasts. Reece had discreetly refreshed his memory on some dousing spells while Emmit was in class after their first lesson.

Maybe they shouldn't be practising in the library. But Reece couldn't think of anywhere else relatively private they could go, short of asking the templars to let them go use an empty classroom. Once they wouldn't have needed permission to do that, but currently templars were stationed at doors in most of the commonly used rooms and didn't let you leave without giving a satisfactory answer as to where you were going.

"That – that was a Tranquil, wasn't it?" Emmit said, his voice low, as if he was worried the person he was talking about might hear him.

"Oh. Yeah," Reece said uncomfortably. "He shelves books. Has done for years. I didn't know him before he was made Tranquil."

Emmit glanced after him. "They do a lot of work around the Circle? Even though they're, like… " He trailed off.

Reece understood – Emmit hadn't grown up with them around, so it made sense he was curious. It still made Reece uneasy.

"The Tranquil are good at some tasks like that," Reece said. "They work in areas that need a lot of focus. And things they don't trust mages with. The kitchens, equipment making… Cora works in the gardens most days."

"Wait, hold on," Emmit said, frowning. "Cora's still here? In Krisholm? You didn't tell me that. Don't they let you go and see her?"

"I don't know," Reece said. "They – um, they used to. Let me, I mean. Nobody ever tried to stop me. But that was a long time ago, and things have changed a lot in the last few months. What with restrictions like they are now… I don't know." He leant over to pick his teaching notes back up from the floor. Why had he brought this up? He berated himself silently.

"You haven't been to see her in months?"

"No. I don't see her at all anymore."

"Why not?"

He looked up and found Emmit giving him a look of profound confusion and disappointment. That hurt. He struggled to come up with an explanation that would make that look, and the guilt it made Reece feel, go away.

"Because it's upsetting," he mumbled eventually, opening the book he was holding. "She's not her anymore."

There was a long silence, in which Reece didn't look up from his book. When Emmit finally spoke, his voice was measured. "That's a pretty rotten thing to say, Reece. And I'm assuming there's something I'm missing, here, because this doesn't sound like you. Whatever happened to her, she's still the same person. She's still your friend. You don't just abandon friends when something terrible happens to them."

Didn't sound like Reece? What made Emmit think he knew Reece? What made him think he knew anything about anything? Reece looked up from a long silence of his own. "How about," he said, keeping his voice low and controlled, "You assume that I know what I'm talking about when it comes to my own life, my own friends, and my home, in which you arrived a couple of weeks ago?"

Emmit winced, but looked stubborn. "Reece, I'm just saying – "

"How much do you know about Tranquillity, Emmit? Have you spoken to any of them?"

Emmit looked uneasy. "No, I…"

"Then you don't understand. She is not the same person anymore. That's not just me being melodramatic about it, that's what Tranquillity does. Ask anyone." Reece shifted his papers around his half of the desk pointlessly. "Being Tranquil strips you of your emotions, your personality, your bonds with people. All of the things that make you the person you are."

"Wait, but –"

Reece spoke over him. "So, yes, Emmit, I did go to see Cora a couple of times a week at first. But she doesn't want visits. She doesn't care. It was all one to her whether I came or not, but it was hurting me. So I stopped going. I guess that makes me a terrible friend and a terrible person, doesn't it?"

"All right. I'm sorry." Emmit shifted and ducked his head to look at Reece's face. "I'm sorry, okay?"

Reece turned his face away from that worried expression.

"Listen, I'm a busybody sometimes, Reece," Emmit said apologetically. "And sometimes I put my foot in my mouth. I didn't mean to pick at your wounds. I'm sorry I suggested you were just being uncaring. But, I mean… not seeing her ever again doesn't seem that good for you either."

Reece sighed. "Talking to Cora as she is now doesn't give me closure, Emmit, it does the opposite. You just don't understand." He pulled out the piece of paper he'd been looking for and changed the subject with as much firmness as he could muster. "Ah. Here we go. I have this list of thought exercises I want you to do tonight before bed, okay? We'll try the light spell again in a few minutes."

Chapter Text

Hester made her way through the corridors, walking with calm purpose to minimise the likelihood of being bothered. She’d already been stopped by two templars, but the most recent one had just waved her onward, looking bored.

When she found Farha, in one of the common workshops up on the higher levels, she was with another mage, standing at a window as if they were going to use the telescopes and equipment there, although it was the middle of the day.

“Ah,” Farha said, holding a hand up to forestall the other mage’s question for a moment. “Hester, you made it; I’m glad. I wanted you and Ellaria to touch base.”

“Hester,” the other mage said. Hester knew her, slightly – not to talk to at length, but well enough to nod hello to. She was an elf woman, a few inches taller than Hester, with deep brown skin and black hair that fell to the level of her chin. She grinned, and extended a hand. “We’ve worked together before. Ellaria.”

Hester clasped it, cautiously. “We have,” she agreed. “Are you – ”

“I’m a representative of the Krisholm Circle Libertarians,” Ellaria said, still grinning.

Hester’s eyebrows climbed before she could stop them. She had not realised Ellaria was Libertarian; she’d had a vague idea the woman had been Isolationist. “I… wasn’t aware the Libertarians were meeting again,” she said. There used to be a lot of them in Krisholm - but templars had cracked down hard on that fraternity over the last few years. Hester was pretty sure it was the same across Thedas.

“Officially speaking, we aren’t,” Ellaria said. “But we have our ways.”

“Ellaria and I were speaking of making some sort of response to the Knight-Commander’s speech the other day,” Farha said. “Silence reads as a tacit acceptance of the blame.”

Hester nodded. “I agree,” she said warily. She flicked her gaze between Farha and Ellaria.

“As do we,” Ellaria said. Her smile was starting to get on Hester’s nerves. “We must show the templars we are not cowed by their new security measures, and we do not accept their narrative of lack of discipline on our part.”

“Nothing too confrontational,” Farha cautioned. “We must think of how things appear to the outside world, to Althea’s superiors in the Order, and to the Chantry.”

“What about a memorial service?” Hester suggested. “For the dead of Meike’s Crossing.”

“That associates us with the event,” Ellaria said. “Don’t we want to distance ourselves from it?”

“Not if we phrase it right,” Farha said. “Andrew Vrays will not be on the list of the dead, of course. Or Lisbeth Markeri. We will try and get in touch with Meike’s Crossing to learn the names of the townsfolk. Hester, do you think you could get the names of the templars?”

“Should be able to,” Hester said. It was a small enough favour to ask. And Laurent couldn’t possibly object to a memorial service.

Ellaria looked annoyed. “I don’t see how this helps us.”

“Well, it’s a reason for us to request for the mages to leave their rooms outside working hours,” Farha said thoughtfully. “The templars have to allow us that. Can they forbid all of us to go to the chapel for a memorial?”

“If they do, that gives us sympathy with the Chantry,” Hester pointed out. “I don’t think the Chantry would be pleased if the templars start restricting us from worship.”

“It’s a small thing,” Farha said. “I doubt it will change much. But, it is a start.”

Ellaria looked slightly put out, but the grin came back. “I admit I was hoping for something a bit more… active. But very well. I have a contact in Meike’s Crossing; I will get a list of names to you. And we will make sure as many mages as we can reach attend the service, once it’s arranged.” She stepped away from the other pair, her hand raised in a flamboyant farewell gesture. “And here I must leave you. If you need my help in any way, Farha, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

“Of course; thank you for your time.”

Hester smiled and said nothing as the Libertarian left.

“Farha,” she said, once the sound of Ellaria’s footsteps had receded away down the corridor. “Why did you want me to meet Ellaria, particularly?”

Farha gazed out the window for a while before answering. She slung her arm around the telescope. She had done some work in that area, Hester remembered – astronomy, and the like. Doubtless that was why they had met here. “The mages in this Circle are fragmented,” she said. “Disorganised. There are half a dozen little groups all meeting in the shadows, whispering to each other, all thinking that they’re the only ones. Which is what the templars want, of course. They want a quiescent population that doesn’t have anybody to listen to except for them. We need to start working together if we don’t want them to succeed. That means no more hiding away in little cliques.”  She glanced at Hester over the telescope. “You’re dubious. Is it the Libertarian part that’s bothering you?”

“Not… as such,” Hester said.

Farha rested her hand on the barrel of the telescope thoughtfully. “Hester, what happened at Kinloch…”

Hester sighed. “Oh, that’s not the problem,” she said testily. She liked Farha, but she had only known the woman for a year or so. Not long enough for her to be bringing up ‘Kinloch’ to Hester as if she knew what she was talking about. “That wasn’t Libertarian ideology. I’m not prejudiced, I had some friends in the Libertarian fraternity here.”

“Before Althea transferred them, you mean.”

“Well… yes. That’s the thing,” Hester said. “I knew the old Libertarians. I thought most of them were naïve dreamers or absolute loons, but I knew them. The templars gutted the group. Who the hell are these new people?  Whoever wasn’t high-ranking enough to draw the templars’ attention? New converts? Some group that’s fringe even for Libertarians? I don’t know, and I don’t like it.”

“I think it’s a mix of all three,” Farha said. “Recent events have been pretty good at turning once apathetic people political. And political people more so.”

“I just didn’t like the way she looked when she said that about showing the templars we won’t be cowed,” Hester said. She leaned against the wall beside the window. “You know all it’ll take is one idiot throwing a fireball at the wrong moment, and…”

“Hester, you want to show them we won’t be cowed either,” Farha pointed out. “Don’t you?”

“Yes, but…” Hester waved her hand. “Farha, we don’t want war. We want a better Circle.”

“Some people would say that war is the only way we’ll get a better Circle,” Farha said. “You’re obviously not one of them. But if every other method fails, what are we left with?”

Hester dragged a hand through her hair. “Well, I really hope not,” she said. She grimaced. “Bah. I mean, if we have to, then.... I just think it needs to be our last resort. Like you said, the outside world is watching.” She thought for a moment. “If violence is necessary, it needs to be controlled. Measured. Reasonable. That’s the only way we get to build something worth having out of it.”

“And you don’t feel the Libertarians are conducive to that.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Hester objected. “I just...” Hester tended to trust her instincts on some things, and this was one of them. She had a bad feeling about Ellaria. She shrugged. “Call it a hunch. I just didn’t like it.”

“Well, any unified movement we try to make is going to have to make an attempt to fold slightly more radical people into it,” Farha said. “Otherwise they just act out on their own and you have no control over them.”

“I suppose,” Hester conceded. “If you think you have it under control.” She chewed her lip, staring at a point past Farha’s hip. “I take it you aren’t reaching out to the Loyalists.”

Farha grimaced. “That’s a no,” she said wryly. “Even if I thought they’d listen, there just aren’t enough of them to be worth the hassle.”  

“Probably not,” Hester sighed. She pushed herself away from the wall. “I’d better be back. Told a templar I was fetching something from my room, so I shouldn’t be too long in case he thinks to check.”

“Be safe,” Farha said softly as Hester went to the door. Hester smiled and mock-saluted, and left.

 

                                                                                                            ***** 

 

Kelly brought her arms swinging down in one of the standard forms. She felt the satisfying tension in her wrists and shoulders as the weight of the sword turned in the air, her feet planted firmly, everything sliding into place just right as she brought the exercise to its conclusion.

The templar practice yards were outside of Krisholm Circle’s walls, squares of bare packed earth lined with short fences. There were mandatory hours of swordwork here, of course, just like there had been at her previous posts, but there seemed to be less supervision.

Kelly was almost finished her exercises for the day, and she was breathing hard, her shirt sticking to her skin with sweat. She stepped back into the ‘ease’ position and contemplated going back inside.

She realised there was someone watching her from the side of the practice yard, and stiffened.

“Hey, recruit,” Raine said, smiling crookedly. He was unarmoured as well, and he had leaned a bow and a quiver of practice arrows against the fence as he watched. “Want to spar? I can fetch a practice sword.”

Kelly chewed her lip, and shook her head. “Thank you, ser, but I’m going to head in soon.”

“You just don’t want the embarrassment of having your ass handed to you by an old man.”

“No,” Kelly admitted frankly. “No, I do not. Thank you for understanding.”

Raine chuckled, leaning against the fence, and pulled a small flask out from a pocket somewhere. He took a swallow from it and put it away.

Kelly, feeling a little awkward, started a series of stretches to cool down before she went back inside. She had seen Raine around the tower a few times, since their conversation in the library. He generally nodded to her. They hadn’t really spoken. She had been turning his advice over and over in her mind.

If you want to survive here, pick your battles… Do your own job the best you can. That’s all anybody can do.

To some extent, it did seem like the only way she could make what she’d heard in the cells fit tolerably into her mind.

The healer, Targold – Kelly had seen her the other day, in one of the common rooms near the senior mages’ quarters. She wasn’t injured: even the broken arm she’d suffered in Meike’s Crossing was gone. Kelly wondered how bad her injuries had gotten before she’d been allowed healing. That train of thought felt like prodding a bruise to see whether it was gone or not.

When you’re a full templar, you’ll do better.

Raine was humming tunelessly under his breath. She wondered if it was advisable to drink whatever Raine was drinking at the same time as taking lyrium.

Kelly almost wanted to ask him about the report he’d handed in about Meike’s crossing. She had heard Althea’s address to the mages, and had been a little startled to find that it didn’t match what Kelly had written. The Knight-Commander made it sound as though Lisbeth and Drew had worked together to destroy the healing centre and kill all of those people. That wasn’t true.

 “So,” Raine remarked. “Heard you all got a tongue-lashing from the Captain the other day.”

Kelly startled, turning to look at him. She mopped up sweat from her face with a sleeve. “You heard about that?”

“Well, yes, it’s been all over the tower,” Raine said. “You don’t listen to gossip?”

Kelly flicked back her hair and changed positions, stretching out the muscles in her legs. “You do? Seems a bit frivolous for you.”

“Well, I don’t go out of my way,” Raine said. “But it doesn’t really speak well of your, what do you call it, social standing if nobody tells you anything that’s going on.”

“I guess,” Kelly muttered. “Anyway, I wasn’t doing anything.  It was Carl and Rhesa that really got it. And Julien. I think they all got pulled out of duty for a talk later, too.”

“Big mistake, that,” Raine said, shaking his head. “He should know better.”

Kelly looked up, surprised. “Who?”

“Knight-Captain Laurent,” Raine said, disgustedly. “Ugh! Everybody’s tired and pulling longer shifts to keep up with tighter security. The last thing they need is some stuffed shirt officer crawling up their asses about petty stuff like ‘disrespectful language’.”

Kelly straightened up. “Well, I happen to agree with the Captain,” she said flatly. “I heard what they were saying and he was right. It was disrespectful and they shouldn’t have said it.” She set her jaw and looked at Raine apprehensively.

He raised his eyebrows, stood back a little and resettled his arms. “Oh, really,” he said mildly.

She gritted her teeth, a little nettled by his lack of response. “Raine, you didn’t hear what they said, it was really – ”

“Off-colour?” Raine chuckled. “If you think I’m going to be shocked by it, you probably don’t know me very well.”

Kelly scowled at him, unable to come up with a response. She felt a chill as a slight draft blew across her shoulders and stirred her sweaty shirt.

She supposed she wasn’t surprised. She’d already seen how Raine handled most subjects with a layer of detached sarcasm and carelessness. But something about the Harrowing conversation had struck her as ugly in a way that Raine’s comments usually didn’t.

“Look,” Raine said, taking another swallow of his flask. “I know what you’re getting at, really, I do. But templars make light of fucked up things. That’s a consequence of needing to do the fucked up things in the first place. You have to laugh at it sometimes, or you’d go crazy.”

“No, you don’t,” Kelly said, putting her hands on her hips. “I don’t see how it’s relevant that…”

“Templars die in failed Harrowings,” Raine said in exasperation. “Andraste, girl, I’ll bet most of you going into that Harrowing chamber were scared shitless. People deal with that by turning it all into a joke.”

“Some things aren’t funny.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll especially make jokes about those things. That’s the point.” Raine sighed. “I can see why you don’t understand that yet, because you’re young and you haven’t experienced it. But Laurent should.”

“Maybe Laurent just expects better from us,” Kelly said sullenly. “Better from people sworn to the Maker.”

“It was Rhesa, wasn’t it? And Carl?” Raine looked thoughtful. He turned his flask around in his hands for a few moments, and then put it away and gestured for her to approach him. “Get over here, Kelly, and I’ll tell you about them.”

Kelly sighed and came over to the edge of the practice field. She hopped up to sit on the short fence, bracing a foot against the crossbeam.

“Carl, now,” Raine said. “Carl’s not been here that much longer than you have. I think he took his vigil… six, seven months ago? Yesterday was the first time he’d ever been primary for a Harrowing.” He sat back. “Now… I wasn’t there, of course, but I got the impression he was scared stiff. If I were Rhesa, I’d want to cheer my partner up a bit too.”

Kelly thought back to Carl’s wan face and the way Rhesa had nudged his arm, looking for a smile. “Yeah, but it doesn’t have to be so – so – ” Kelly fumbled for words. “Talking about the apprentice like he was worthless. Making jokes about getting blood out of robes!”

Raine shrugged. “Carl’s one of us, the mage isn’t. Make one of our own feel better at the expense of an outsider? Psh, yeah, every time.” 

“But it’s not fair to the mage,” Kelly said. “He’s in even more danger than us and we’re supposed –”

“Did they say it in the mages’ hearing?” Raine asked.

“Well, no… ”

“Then big honking deal! If they’d actually said it to his face, then yeah, that’d be cruel. But what the mages don’t hear can’t hurt their feelings.” Raine raised a finger, as if anticipating an objection. “And the guardsroom is templar territory. We shouldn’t have to watch what we say there. If any mage is hanging around there eavesdropping, then they deserve to be offended.”

Kelly hunched her shoulders. “Whether they can hear us or not,” she said stubbornly. “I don’t like what it says that we can laugh about killing them.”

Raine made a soft ‘hmph’ noise. He tapped his hands on the fence. “Like I said. Consequence of having to do it in the first place. Last year Rhesa just about died in a failed Harrowing; you can see some of the scars when she puts her hair up.” He touched the back of his head and temple.

Then he turned around to look behind him, and leaned with his back to the fence, gazing out into the darkening practice yards. His voice dropped. “And this doesn’t go any further than here, understand. But after that? I walked in on her in the middle of the night sobbing with a bottle of whiskey more than once. One of those times, she told me the mage she killed was named Tabitha, and had two sisters, and liked sewing.”

Kelly looked up, sharply, and found Raine giving her a grave look.

“So you’ll excuse me if I think that maybe Rhesa does give a damn, actually.”

Kelly squirmed a little. She fixed her gaze on her foot. “I don’t understand,” she said, her face hot. “Then why – I don’t get how one person can have two such different reactions. You’re saying making jokes about it and pretending it doesn’t matter is better?”

“It’s not better,” Raine said. “It’s just how it is.”                  

Kelly grimaced. “Well, I didn’t mean to – I guess Rhesa seems like… she’s a good templar. It’s…” She chewed her lip. She’d never seen Rhesa hit a mage around the Circle, which was more than she could say for Julien or some of the others. Spare the tears, robe, you’re not fooling anyone…

She thought back to the conversation in the guardroom and realised that the templars knew the mages in Krisholm, by appearance if not by name. They watched the apprentices grow up, the ones who’d been here long enough. And then some of them turned into monsters, and would kill you if you didn’t kill them.

“I still don’t think jokes are the right way of handling it,” she muttered.

“Well, I’m not saying you should do it,” Raine said, with a shrug. “Just don’t go around thinking people are heartless for blowing off some steam.” He drummed his fingers on his arm, hummed a few notes, and chuckled as if he had suddenly realised something funny. “Look at me. Giving you a lecture like I’m some sort of instructor. I’m not trying to make this into a lesson, I’m just saying, try to be a little less… rigid.” 

Kelly frowned at him. “That sounds like a lesson to me,” she pointed out.

“Some friendly advice, then. Take it or leave it. Maker knows you won’t learn that from the likes of Laurent.” Raine stood up and stretched, and then collected his quiver from where he’d leaned it against the fence. He looked back, and gave her an odd look. “You’ll be coming up on your vigil soon,” he remarked.

Kelly swung her leg over the fence to join him on his side.  “Yes,” she said. “I am.”

He nodded, slowly. “Make sure you think about it very carefully,” he said. “Very carefully. All of it, not just the noble parts and the parts Laurent and the Chantry sisters will try to sell you on. After the vigil, it’ll be too late to change your mind.”

 

                                                                                                       ****

 

Emmit lay in his bunk, listening to the sounds of the other apprentices breathing in their sleep. The room was faintly lit with a blush of light from the other rank of bunks; an object enchanted to glow throughout the night and tucked into somebody’s nest of blankets.

Emmit shifted under the scratchy woollen blankets. He found himself turning thoughts over in his mind as he waited.

Ever since Emmit had realised that Tranquillity was possibly looming closer than he thought, he’d been paying more attention to the white-robed Tranquil he saw around the halls of the Circle, with their placid expressions and unhurried strides. Surely Reece couldn’t be correct, about his friend not wanting to see him anymore. That didn’t make any sense.

The mages here didn’t actually see the Tranquil anymore, he’d realised. They preferred not to. Like Reece, they liked to pretend that they weren’t there, that their books were shelved and their food cooked by – hah – magic.

But the Tranquil were still just people, weren’t they? Unsettling people, crippled in some way that Emmit didn’t really understand, but still people. Losing your magic and your dreams didn’t make you not a person anymore.

Emmit heard the heavy tread of templar boots outside the door to the dormitory, and tensed. He closed his eyes and tried to lie limp under the blanket, just in case the templar decided to open the door and check on the dorm, which they’d done once or twice before that Emmit had seen.

But not tonight. The footsteps continued down the hallway and faded out of earshot.

Emmit waited a few more moments, and then slid carefully out from under the blanket. He pulled his shoes on by feel and ran a hand over the tools he had hidden inside his robe, checking they were all there. He heard a noise and tensed – but it was only one of the younger apprentices muttering in his sleep. He did that often; creeped Emmit out but he supposed the boy couldn’t help it.

Emmit padded the short distance from his bunk to the door, eased it open a crack, and waited and listened for a couple of seconds.

Nothing. If the patrols were still on the schedule they had been for the past few weeks, he had at least fifteen minutes before the templar would be back this way.

He slipped out the door, closed it gently behind him, and set off down the corridor, placing his feet carefully to avoid making noise. He made it down two flights of stairs and then ducked into a disused room to wait for the next patrol to pass by. By periodically stopping and hiding, he made it out into the main halls, past the dining room and assembly rooms, and finally out the door into the grounds.

He side-stepped out of the main path and pressed himself against the wall among the greenery immediately; he didn’t know anything about the patrols the templars had out here, apart from the fact that there almost certainly were patrols.

“So far so good,” he muttered to himself. The stone was cool and hard against his back and leaves tickled his arm. He tipped his face up to the dappled moonlight and grinned, letting himself enjoy the cool breeze against his face for a few moments.

There was no sign of movement in the grounds. Emmit avoided the paths and made for the trees where Hayden had led him for their ‘duel’.

I really am lucky they’re so damn noisy, Emmit reflected as he stood frozen behind a tree, listening to stones crunch under the boots of a patrolling templar he almost hadn’t heard in time. And that they apparently don’t think to look too closely at the trees. He was sure Raine had been better at moving stealthily than that. Ugh, I bet he’s out here somewhere. Better be careful. Emmit looked around nervously - he could imagine it all too easily. The smarmy ass would step silently out of a shadow and say something sarcastic, probably with a blade to Emmit’s throat.

Emmit didn’t want to make an attempt at the wall tonight - that should wait until he had some sort of rope made up. Emmit was pretty sure he could scale the wall using magic somehow, but what if a templar came and cancelled it out while he was fifteen feet up?

He scouted around the small copse of trees, though, getting an idea of the layout. He also found a little hollow in the trunk of one of the trees – a triangular space with a packed dirt floor, probably used as a hiding space for generations of mages. It was empty now.

Pleased with the progress he’d made, he made his way quietly back through the grounds to the same door he’d used to get out.

As he was closing the door behind him, it made a distinct, drawn out creak. Emmit winced and crossed the hallway, his feet scuffing slightly on the carpet.

“Hey,” a voice rang out across the empty space of the hall. “Who’s there?”

Emmit froze. The voice had come from – where? Upwards? He tamped panic down into the pit of his stomach and looked around carefully.

Nowhere easy to hide presented itself. A long expanse of carpeted floor. The door behind him. Two more doors, both closed. The stairs, two sets, both upwards – no, he’d be seen if he tried to go up those. He’d have to pick a door.

He darted across the room, long strides, no longer trying to be quiet – stupid robes got in his way again – he chose a door at random and pulled it open. 

“Hey- ! Stop right there!” he heard behind him as it opened.  “Mage, stop – ”

He threw himself through the door without looking behind, but he knew he’d been spotted. His heart pounding, he looked around – he hadn’t been here before. There was a long corridor, dark and windowless, that turned a corner and continued to the left. A handful of doors were along it, some with light shining under them.

The closest door was dark; he tried the handle. Locked.

He hissed with frustration. Running out of time…!

Emmit ran down the corridor and ducked around the corner. The only door there was also locked. Past the sound of his own rapid breathing, Emmit heard the templar starting to move down the corridor.

Well, that did it. He didn’t have much other choice. Emmit pressed himself against the wall and felt inside his robe. Carefully, with two fingers, he drew out the shard of glass there.

He pushed the robe’s cumbersome sleeve up, having to do it twice before it worked properly. His hand was steady as he pressed the sharp edge of the glass against the skin of his upper arm.

The templar was close – any second now. Emmit gathered the welling blood up and daubed it hastily across his forehead and hands, and then wound his sticky fingers together in front of his face.

“Don’t see me,” he whispered, his exhaled breath flowing from deep inside his chest and carrying warmth out with it. The blood felt hot against the skin of his face and the shallow cut burned.

He waited, his arm stinging like crazy, for one long second, and let his hands fall.

The templar rounded the corner. Emmit held still while her eyes passed over him.

She looked at him without so much as a flicker of interest, and turned to scan the rest of the corridor. That was the thing that had always seemed odd to Emmit about this spell. People’s eyes often moved as though they were looking at him, not through him or past him. They never seemed to realise they’d done it, though.

“Huh,” she said, sounding annoyed. Emmit stepped out of her way as she went to the door and rattled the handle. Satisfied it was locked, she turned and strode back around the corner.

Emmit breathed a sigh of relief.

He went to wipe his fingers on his robes, and then made himself stop. Sure, show up to class with bloody handprints on your thighs, that’ll go down well. Andraste.

It wasn’t like he’d had much other choice, though. The templar would have caught him otherwise, and he couldn’t let that happen, because that would end in Tranquillity for sure. It wasn’t as though he’d used her blood. It wasn’t like he’d done anything bad to her.

He edged around the corner, holding his hands away from his clothing. One of the doors was open, shining a wedge of pale light on the carpet. The templar was leaning into the room, one hand resting on the doorframe with an air of casual intimidation.

“Surely you heard something, healer,” she was saying disapprovingly.

“I heard you,” Emmit heard from inside the room. “I heard you calling out, just now. I can’t say I heard anything before that.”

“What about after that?”

Emmit slowed as he went behind the templar, and glanced into the room under her elbow. An elf in mages’ robes was sitting at a table; he couldn’t see much of her. The room seemed to have a lot of beds in it. Oh, I bet this is the infirmary. Good to know.

“Somebody ran past the door,” the healer was saying, puzzled. “That wasn’t you? I’m sorry, ser, but as you can see, there isn’t anybody here but me, and –”

“Well, you won’t mind me looking, then,” the templar said, stepping into the room.

Emmit decided to leave them to it. He hoped the healer would be all right – but there wasn’t really anything he could do about it if she wasn’t, was there? What was he going to do, hit the templar from behind? That’d only get the healer in more trouble.

Emmit wouldn’t be visible – or, well, noticeable – for at least half an hour. Now that he’d gone and done it, he might as well get some use out of it. He wondered if the templars kept their patrol rosters up somewhere – there should be time to have a bit of a wander around the areas that were off limits to mages, clean himself up, and be back in bed to catch a few hours of sleep.

He touched the drying blood and grimaced. He was going to be so tired in the morning. Just like old times, eh?

 

Chapter Text

“Emmit, would you please let it drop,” Reece said wearily.

“No,” Emmit said. They were walking down the stairs from the residential areas of the Circle. The stairs weren’t empty - there was a steady stream of mages in the halls at this time of day. Emmit paused and waited for Reece to catch up. “I’m not going to let it drop, until you go and visit her again.”

They had been arguing about Cora off and on for a few days. Emmit hadn’t been able to believe it at first; if a friend of his had been… hurt… you wouldn’t have been able to keep Emmit away from them. But he’d realised it was more complicated than that. He tried to soften his voice, because he didn’t want what he was saying to come across as an attack. “Look, I understand why you stopped. But you can’t stay away forever.”

They stopped talking briefly, as they reached a choke-point at the bottom of the stairs, where a small group of mages had gathered. A pair of templars, making sure every mage was heading in an approved direction. Emmit had a class to get to, while Reece was going to the infirmary to inquire about lessons. It was probably good for him to go somewhere that wasn’t the library, Emmit thought dryly. Otherwise he’d start wearing a path.

Then again, he wasn’t sure where else there was for Reece to really go here. Presumably the older mages had to do something with all of their time?

“They wouldn’t let me anyway,” Reece said once they were past. He gestured at the templars behind them. “You really think they’re going to let me go wandering the tower trying to find some random Tranquil?”

“You said she spends most of her time in the gardens,” Emmit said. “She can’t be that hard to find. Anyway, you could at least ask.”

Reece winced. “Emmit, I don’t want to bother the templars with it. They’re really on edge lately. Maybe when things have calmed down a bit I might - Oh, hold on,” he said, interrupting himself. He was looking over to the other side of the corridor. “I have to go speak to Hayden.”

Sure enough, the other young man was there, walking ahead of them; Reece broke into a half-jog and cut across the corridor to catch up.

“Well, that was transparent,” Emmit muttered.

Hayden looked up, his face taut and frightened for a moment as Reece got his attention; then he relaxed when he realised who it was. Reece held his hand out. Hayden smiled, and actually swung his own hand to meet Reece’s in a slap, shaking it warmly.

Interesting. It was a while since the fight in the grounds, but since then Hayden had never said anything even remotely complimentary about Reece in Emmit’s hearing.

Reece and Hayden lingered in a doorway, speaking quietly for a while. Emmit sighed, crossed his arms and leaned against the wall to wait. His sleeve was annoying him, and he went to push it up – but he stopped himself just in time. Emmit bit his lip, feeling a twinge of unease. It wouldn’t do for somebody to catch a glimpse of the scabbed-over cut a few inches above the crook of his elbow.

Of course, small scrapes were easy to explain away; Emmit had a tendency to find completely innocent ones all over his arms and legs. But he had a suspicion people here would be more alert about such things than the caravan members had been. He hunched his shoulders and looked around.

Sure enough, there were a half dozen templars within easy sight, without even craning his neck obviously. Emmit sighed.

Reece had come back. “I just had to say congratulations,” he said, a little out of breath. 

“I thought you didn’t get along,” Emmit said.

“We don’t. Not really.” Reece made an ambivalent gesture. “But, well, we sort of grew up together, and our families know each other. His mother is very nice, actually,” he added. “Anyway, we’re kind of like really irritating cousins at this point. And he passed his Harrowing! I can’t not say something.”

“Oh, so that was where he went,” Emmit said, a little annoyed. Couldn’t he have said? This place was unnerving enough without people disappearing from their beds in the middle of the night. Half the dorm had been convinced they would never lay eyes on Hayden again. Emmit cast a glance over his shoulder at Hayden. “He looks... twitchy.”

“I’m not surprised,” Reece said with a shrug. Emmit looked at him, but he didn’t elaborate.

“Because of the Harrowing?” Emmit prompted. “How come?”

“It’s a big deal,” Reece said.

“In… what way?”

Reece frowned at him. “Emmit, I’m not allowed to tell you. You know I’m not.”

“Right,” Emmit said glumly. Maybe if he asked later, when there weren’t so many people around. They resumed walking; they weren’t far now from where Emmit had been chased by the templar.

“Look, don’t worry about the Harrowing, Emmit,” Reece told him. “One step at a time. It’s a long way off, and I actually think you have an okay chance once you’ve earned the right to take it.”

“You do?” Emmit looked up at his friend, but again, Reece didn’t elaborate. “But you can’t tell me why,” he sighed.

No.”

Emmit wondered what that implied. Strength, maybe? Reece had matter-of-factly stated the other day that Emmit was a lot stronger than he was. Emmit had tried to brush it off, but Reece hadn’t seemed like he was envious or putting himself down, just objective.

Surely Reece couldn’t be so far in denial as to think Emmit would have an ‘okay chance’ at a Circle-designed test of skill. Maybe Reece was just trying to get him to focus on not being made Tranquil in the next few weeks.

 “Listen, you should at least find out if you’re allowed,” Emmit said, returning to their previous topic.

Reece gave him a pained look. “Emmit…”

Emmit returned an equally pained look. “Reece?”

They reached the place they would have to part ways, Reece continuing downstairs to the infirmary while Emmit went to his classroom.

Reece stepped aside. “Why is this such a big deal to you?” he asked.

“I’m just…” Emmit hesitated. Why was it a big deal? Was it because the way everyone here treated the Tranquil like furniture was starting to creep him out? Did it just annoy him how passive  Reece could be about things? “I don’t know, Reece, Cora isn’t dead, and I don’t think it’s right to act like she is.”

“She doesn’t care,” Reece said. He put his hands up, obscuring his face, and spoke in a slightly muffled voice from behind them. “Honestly, I get that you’re trying to make sure she’s okay. But you don’t understand the Tranquil. There is nothing there anymore to not be okay.”

Emmit folded his arms. “Tranquillity gets rid of your emotions. Right?”

Reece dropped his hands and looked tired. “Yes.”

“But that’s not… everything,” Emmit said. “So there’s not nothing there.”

“There might as well be.”

Emmit frowned. “I don’t think I’d agree. I mean… emotions are a part of who I am, but there’s still a lot of me that isn’t emotions. Tranquil still have thoughts, right?”

“I suppose,” Reece said. “They have memories. They remember everything that’s happened to them, they just… have no emotional response to it. They don’t know why it was important.” He shuddered, and folded his arms. “Why are we talking about this, Emmit? It’s awful.” 

“I’m sorry. I don’t want to upset you, but…” He kicked his foot on the floor, chewing his lip as he tried to put it into words. “It’s what’s right. Isn't it? Even if she doesn’t really miss you, isn’t it the right thing to do to go and see her?”

“Maybe,” Reece said. He sighed. “I don’t know.”

“It’s obvious you think you should go see her, too.”

“Why do you say that?” Reece said dully. 

“Well, you sounded like it was bothering you,” Emmit said. He was pretty sure that was the whole reason Reece had reacted the way he had the other day.

“Look, I’ll… I’ll think about it. Okay?” Reece unfolded his arms and flapped a hand at him. “Look, you need to get going, you’ll be late. I’ll meet you in the library before lunch.”

 

                                                                                                ****

One of the healers on duty in the infirmary, and the only one free to talk to Reece, turned out to be Senior Enchanter Targold. Reece felt unexpectedly anxious as he asked her for a word; he hadn’t really expected to have to ask a minor hero for magic lessons.

Reece had met her once or twice. Prior to all the upheavals, she hadn’t been especially notable. She taught sometimes, but Reece had never taken her classes. She was just one of the senior healers of Krisholm – quiet, industrious, generally well liked by the other mages.

And she had saved Meike’s Crossing. She, personally, unhelped by the templars, had put down the horde of shades and monsters to do battle with Andrew Vrays. She refused to talk about it, but the other healers hadn’t. Even Reece had heard the story – which meant it really was everywhere, he thought wryly, since he barely noticed anything people were talking about.

She listened as Reece explained why he was there, and smiled. “That sounds fine, Reece. I don’t think you’re ever too old to learn new skills, and it’s a poor mage who focusses on one school to the exclusion of all the others. I would be happy to teach you Creation magic. When do you want to start?”

“Thank you,” Reece said, a little knot of tension relaxing between his shoulders. “The thing is, I have other commitments as well, at least at the moment. Could I come to you a couple of times a week?”

“Well, I’ve already taken on Lillian and Rico,” Enchanter Targold said. “They’re apprentices, but they’re much further in Creation than the others their age. You could come to their lessons, if that suits?”

“That suits me fine,” Reece said, relieved.

She smiled. “I’m sure we can come up with a schedule that doesn’t interfere with your other lessons.”

Reece was confused for a moment – what lessons? – but then he realised she meant his tutoring Emmit. “Oh! You know about that?”

“Was it supposed to be a secret?” she said, raising one eyebrow.

Reece paused. “I guess not,” he said. “I just… didn’t think anybody would notice.”

She shook her head, a fond but exasperated look on her face. “Ah, everybody has their noses in everybody else’s business in this place, Reece. It can’t be helped. Forgive me for prying, I think it was a very good idea to help him out. Our next lesson is tomorrow, in the afternoon. Can you make it then?”

Reece smiled at his feet. “Okay! I’ll see you then. Thank you!”

 

                                                                                                       *****

 

When Reece next went to chapel, he found Petyr waiting for him outside again after the service.

He jerked his head for Reece to follow and began to walk away down the corridor. “Reece,” he said. “We need to talk.”

Reece followed, with an uneasy lurch of his stomach. He hadn’t seen Petyr much for a while, he realised. The last time they had spoken had been… right here, actually, when Petyr had told him that Emmit would be made Tranquil. “All right, ser,” he said aloud. “What do you…”

“You’re still hanging around with the hedge mage,” Petyr said, interrupting him. His voice was low and angry. “In fact, you’re spending almost all of your free time with him! What do you think you’re doing?”

Reece cast an anxious glance back at the chapel as he trailed behind. He wished somebody else had stayed back to light a candle as well. Even another templar, maybe, because although that would have meant Reece was alone with two templars, he wouldn’t have had to deal with this conversation.

That realisation made him blink for a moment. Would Petyr have broached this subject, in this way, with another templar around? No. He wouldn’t have.

He tried to marshal his thoughts. “I – well, I – ”

“We talked about why you should stop!” Now that they were out of hearing distance of the chapel, Petyr stopped and turned around to face Reece. He frowned at him, then pushed a hand through his hair, looking away. “I thought you’d listened to me.”

“I never said I was going to stop,” Reece said defensively. “I said I’d think about what you said, and I did, and I  – ”

“Decided to do the exact opposite, apparently!” Petyr snapped.

Reece stepped back. “Well, you … you were right that he’s in a lot of trouble,” he said. He spread his hands, trying to appease Petyr. “I didn’t see it before. Once you’d pointed it out, I saw you were right. But I thought about it and I decided that I needed to help him.”

“That’s not what I wanted you to do. I told you to back off!”

Reece stepped back again, and found his heel hitting the wall. Why had he backed up that far? “I’m sorry,” he said. He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. “I’m tutoring him so that he doesn’t get made Tranquil. I know what’s not what you meant, but it’s what I’m doing.”

Petyr stared at him, a crease of consternation in between his brows. He didn’t seem to know what to say. “That’s a really bad idea,” he said, after seeming to consider and reject several possibilities.

“Why?”

“Because you’re getting yourself all… all entangled in his problems,” Petyr hissed. “You’re going to get hurt. For a start, everybody knows he keeps blowing things up. He’s also an apostate. You’re a good mage, Reece, you sing the Chant and do as you’re told and don’t make trouble, but believe me, spending time with untrustworthy people makes you look untrustworthy too.”

“Untrustworthy?” Reece protested. “I’m only trying to help!”

“Well, you can’t,” Petyr said. “And it’s making you look bad.”

“It doesn’t make me look bad,” Reece countered. “Enchanter Targold said I was doing a good thing.”

Targold?” Petyr demanded, incredulous. “Maker, how can you be so oblivious? Her good opinion is less than worthless to you! You need to worry about how things look to us.” He tapped the sword of mercy etched into his armour. “Things are changing in the Circle, Reece. Trust me, in this new world that’s coming, you don’t want to be known as someone who hangs around with apostates and troublemakers.”

Reece frowned, looking down so Petyr wouldn’t see. The Circle was changing? It had been changing for months, it made him sick with worry, he wasn’t so ‘oblivious’ he needed Petyr to spell that out for him. But he didn’t see how he could possibly get a reputation as a troublemaker just for tutoring someone.

“Thank you for the advice,” he said, slowly. “I… I always heed the templars. Of course, that goes without saying. But Emmit’s my friend and he needs me. I’m not just going to –”

“Oh, Reece, you idiot,” Petyr said, in exasperation. “That’s very admirable, and friendship is nice and all. But you aren’t going to achieve anything. Do you really think you’re going to be able to make up six or seven years of schooling in a matter of weeks? It’s not possible. In a few months he’ll be Tranquil, and there is nothing you can do about it. Letting yourself get close to him is only going to make it hurt more when it happens.”

Reece set his jaw. A part of his mind, the grey hopeless part, thought that Petyr was probably right. Emmit had missed so much, how could Reece possibly make a difference? But he’d heard that voice for a long time and he was done listening to it. “I’d still rather try than not,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Petyr gave him a flat, infuriated look. “You’re being unbelievably stupid about this, Reece, and I don’t have the time or the patience to argue with you about it.” He stepped back, looked up and down the corridor again, and then back to Reece. He pointed one finger at Reece’s chest. “I’m going to repeat what I said. Stop spending time with the hedge mage. Do as I say this time.”

He turned and strode away.

Reece took a deep breath. He spoke carefully, hesitantly, every word coming out sharp and clear and distinct. “Are you – is that an order?”

 Petyr, who had been a few metres away, turned to look back. “What?”

“Because I – don’t know if – you can do that,” Reece said.

This was it. He was going to get hit. The absolute minimum he could expect was to get hit. Reece battled the cringing, horrified, unfamiliar feeling of being about to get seriously in trouble.  Petyr came back towards him and he braced himself, his gaze fixed ahead of him as he spoke.

“Neither of us has done anything wrong. And I don’t think random templars can just go around ordering random mages who to be friends with, based on what you think is wise.”  

Petyr was just standing there, not raising a hand, not saying anything.

“So I don’t think you can order me to do that.” Reece had seen people beaten quite badly for much less disrespect than this. Any second now, Petyr was going to hit him. He locked his hands behind his back. “With all due respect. Ser. If I’m wrong, of course, then you can always take me to your Knight-Lieutenant and I’ll deserve whatever – ”

“Reece, don’t,” Petyr interrupted. “I don’t – look, it’s not an order. Not as such. I didn’t mean it like that.”

Reece said nothing; he shifted his gaze to see what Petyr was doing, and found that Petyr was staring at him, looking baffled.

“Look, I’m trying to help you out as – as a friend,” Petyr said. “Not as a templar.”

Reece swallowed. “I’m sorry, ser,” he said. “Either you’re giving me an order or you’re not.”

Petyr stood in silence for a few moments. “Not, then, I guess,” he said shortly.

Reece nodded. “Okay,” he said, uncertainly. I’m going to keep helping Emmit, then. It didn’t seem wise to say that out loud. 

“Fine,” Petyr snapped. He threw up his hand, and Reece flinched, but it was only a frustrated gesture. “Do what you want. Why did I bother trying to help you?”

He left. Reece watched him go, feeling a little shaky with relief. I don’t know why, he thought. I never asked you to. Templars aren’t supposed to do things like this. 

                                      

                                                                                           ****

 

The fledgling fire crackled and snapped in the dusty hearth, a small blaze surrounded by ashes. Laurent knelt beside it and fed it small sticks.

Since what little furniture was left in the abandoned farmhouse was splintered wreckage, the mage sat on the floor. Apart from this small corner that they had cleared around the hearth, the wooden floors were strewn with detritus and stained with mud and blood. 

Laurent remembered how resentful he had been, when he had first arrived here, with an ache of shame. Transferred to the Fereldan templars? To spend months or years wading through their stupid civil war trying to stop mages from burning the whole uncivilised backwater down around their ears? It wasn’t what Laurent had wanted. It wasn’t what any Orlesian would have wanted. He knew his superiors thought he wasn’t fit for a nobler task.

He’d been ignorant. Selfish. Regardless of what his superiors’ intentions had been, there was real suffering here. This was the most valuable work he had done in his life, and he hadn’t wanted to come.

The wind howled outside the walls of the farmhouse, and shadows wavered unnervingly in the gaping darkness of the empty doorways. Laurent tried not to imagine darkspawn creeping up to encircle the building.

The mage leaned her back against the wall and began to peel layers of wadded cloth away from her shoulder. She hissed in pain and clamped her teeth firmly in her lower lip, as the deeper layers started to come away crusted with dried blood that looked black in the flickering light.

“We’ll bury the body in the morning before we set out,” Laurent said, breaking the silence. The body had been in one of the bedrooms, swollen long past the point of identification and covered in a cloud of buzzing insects. “Or at least lay them out and say some words. We want to be moving as soon as it’s light.” When he’d found it Laurent had leaned his forehead against the post of the doorway for a moment, fighting dizziness and nausea. The skinny elven mage hadn’t been there to see his moment of weakness, but she would have heard it if he’d thrown up, and Laurent felt he had been laughed at enough by her.

She glanced up, eyes dark and piercing. Her hair had been bound back from her face for the battle, but loose curls had begun to pull free and one straggled across her cheek. For a moment he thought she’d argue, but she didn’t. She only nodded.

Why did it have to be this mage? he complained internally. The one that doesn’t have an ounce of respect for me? Part of him thought, grimly, that he could change that if he tried, but the rest of him was just really tired and queasy and didn’t want to have to.

What’s she even doing here? Elf women always look like you could break them in half over your knee, whose bright idea was it to send them off to battle?

No, that was a stupid question. How could he even ask that, having just seen the whirlwind of fire and ice and crackling power she had brought to bear against the darkspawn?

The wound in her shoulder was deep and black and ugly. She explored it gingerly with her fingers, jaw clenched.

 “Can’t you do something about that?” Laurent asked, indicating towards the wound with one hand. “You know, magically.”

She cast him a poisonous look. “Oh, yes,” she snapped. She pulled the torn edge of robe up to cover the exposed skin. “I can fix it any time I like; I’m just sitting here with a gaping hole in my arm because I enjoy it! Just taking a few moments to savour the experience!”

Laurent raised an eyebrow at her and tapped the stick he was holding against his palm. “All right, just asking,” he said. “You’re out of magic?” She looked like a wreck. Laurent supposed he probably did too, but her eyes were sunken and there was an unpleasant greyish tinge to her thin face. He didn’t imagine she had much magic left in her.

“What do you care, templar?”

He threw the stick into the fire impatiently. “Well, we’re supposed to be in this together, mage,” he said. “Excuse me for expressing a modicum of concern for your welfare. Do you want help?” He gestured at her shoulder again.

“No,” she said coldly. “I don’t.”

“Well, you should probably leave it alone, then.” He turned away, to tend the fire, so she wouldn’t have to worry about the robe falling down when he could see. “If you have magic in the morning, maybe you can do something to it. Until then you’re only going to make it worse.”

She sighed. “I won’t be able to do anything in the morning,” she said, reluctantly, after a few moments. “I don’t have any power left, but that’s not the only problem. I don’t have much healing ability.” She let out a pained chuckle. “If you give yourself a splinter on all of this mess, I could possibly help you out with that, but that’s about it.”

“Ah. I see.”

She cursed and he heard a ‘thunk’ noise. When he looked around, she had let her head fall back against the wooden wall. “I can’t bandage this stupid thing.”

Not surprising. He took a mean sort of satisfaction in turning his gaze back to the fire and crossing his arms, eyebrows raised. If she’d changed her mind she could ask.

“Can you help me?” she said, through gritted teeth. Her face was drawn in the flickering firelight.

He immediately regretted his pettiness. Just because she was a pain in the ass, didn’t give him leave to be unprofessional. “Of course,” he said, getting up.

Laurent found a blanket that approached being clean, and tried not to think about the people who’d lived here and used it last. He hoped at least some of them were alive.

“It was very courageous of you, distracting the darkspawn like that,” he said, awkwardly, as he tore the blanket into strips. “You, um… you fight well.”

“For a knife-ears, you mean?” the mage shot back.

He winced and looked away. He worked on the bandage in silence for a few minutes. She glared at her lap, where her good hand was clenched into a shaking fist. Truth be told, there were a lot of regular soldiers who wouldn’t be alive if she hadn’t been there today. It pained him to admit it, but he was probably one of them. Leaving aside the fact that if she wasn’t here, you wouldn’t be either, since your whole purpose is to keep an eye on her.

Ugh. He had to say something.

“Ah. I was thinking… I mean, I’ve been meaning to say...” he managed to get out. Maker, this was embarrassing. What the hell was he doing? “I know elves don’t like the word, but I didn’t mean any offense by it.”

“Didn’t mean any offense?” she scoffed. “Fucking liar. You just didn’t expect me to do anything about it.”

“Most elves in Orlais are not nearly so mouthy as you,” he said, before he could help it. “Probably because the nobility hang them if they are, I suppose.”

The mage drew herself up against the wall, eyes flashing. “Oh? Do they? How civilised! Get your fucking hands off me, why don’t you just shove - ”

“Can you hold still,” Laurent said irritably. “I’m trying to apologise to you. And finish this bandage.”

Are you? Some apology! Didn’t mean any offense, my ass!”

“Fine!” Laurent snapped. “I did mean offense and I should not have. It wasn’t called for. I…” He tightened the last knot with great concentration. “I’m sorry.”

 

Laurent rolled over and blinked at the ceiling of his quarters. He supposed it wasn’t that surprising that he should dream of the Blight, even now, years later.

Things were simpler, he found himself thinking as he tried to get back to sleep. Back then. Not that he thought the Blight had been easy to deal with, or preferable to his current duties. But he’d never been confused about what his job actually was back then; the enemy was clear, and his mage charges were an ally against it. That’s still true. Mages are still my ally against the enemy.

Mages were allies and enemies, both at once. He wondered if even they knew which they were day to day.