Sorry for the long wait! I've been really busy, but I have at last managed this! I hope all enjoy this chapter, again rather long but it has a number of very interesting things go on so read carefully!
Also thank you to RM Quinn for your fantastic reviews and your encouraging message when I needed it. And to all who've put me on alerts and favourites in this time, and to all my readers of course.
Anyway, please, read on:
Cool morning sunlight glowed faint as a murmur upon her face, the slightest warmth stroked her cheek gently as the shadows and light played through high glass windows and silken curtains she knew were there even with her eyes closed and her head resting upon her own soft yielding cushion. The silken whisper of her bed-sheets brushed across her skin as she shifted slowly, and the faint, familiar smell of perfume and candle-wax floated in her nostrils and she took it in, a smile unconsciously lightening upon her lips. Enveloped in the startlingly heady flush from sleep into waking she basked a moment, her mind calm and still as the air about her…and then, as suddenly as a strike of lightning from the blue, she remembered. Eyes snapped open, and she flung herself instantly into a sitting position on the bed, her fingers desperately grasping at the sleeves of the thick gown she'd been wearing last night in the library and which she still wore now as though they simply couldn't believe it was real. Maker…she was here…back here, in the most familiar place of all, where she'd woken every morning of her life, and nothing was the same, nothing could ever be the same. She dug her hands into thick linen, trying desperately to find some calm, to ease the shudder running desperately through her shoulders as the whole horror flashed through her mind again. The Harrowing, the demon, the Fade…Mouse…horror after horror, she'd thought she would die there in that lonely, colourless expanse. After the Fade everything even in this most familiar of places felt suddenly so garishly intense, down to the feeling of air in her lungs as she breathed out headily, holding close to the feeling of physicality, of reality, as though it were some kind of shield from the memory of the Fade's dead emptiness. That memory…even as she shed her blankets from her shoulders, she felt the thought of the Fade heavy like a clasp of ice upon her back.
She knew well she should feel triumphant…she'd been Harrowed, she'd survived the testing, now, after all these years, she would be a true mage like she was supposed to be, but she there was nothing but a hollow ache in her chest. What had happened out there? She struggled to understand how she had ended up faced by something as wicked and powerful as that monster which had called itself Mouse. It must have been some kind of mistake, a subterfuge, a deception on the part of the Demon…there was no way they Templars could have intended such a thing, could they? She gasped at the blasphemy of the thought, and felt sickened, remembering the horrors that Mouse had told her in the Fade. All of it had to be lies, it simply had to be, but she couldn't shake her unease. No apprentice could have triumphed there, it was impossible, and yet here she sat: alive, free, her test was done. Something…someone…had saved her.
"Lillian" That voice…that name…she struggled through the shadow of terror, and finally found her blurred vision focusing upon the Apprentice Dormitory in which she'd slept for almost three years now. High, impossibly high ceilings, vaulted with splendid arches that swept gracefully upwards with the elegance of a dream. The walls were bare stone, neat cut blocks with the functionalism of a fortress, but since the Tower had become a home rather than a castle they'd been graced with a sweeping ornamental filigree, spirals in the stone that swept into vast, organic shapes, so complex and beautiful that the unprepared mind, dulled by sleep, could be lost within them for an instant. The windows were vast, and high, arched and nimble, but only at their very crown were they open to the sunlight that streamed into the room in a watery, glistening tide. The rest had been blocked with stone, something even the lovely carvings etched into the surface couldn't disguise…this was, after all, a prison. "Lillian, are you alright?" She blinked, suddenly remembering why she'd woken and turning her head from such thoughts, to see Jowan standing by her bed. If she was honest he wasn't truly surprised to see him in the girl's dormitory, who knew with whom he had spent last night especially after what had happened, but she was shocked to see him quite so…wearied, quite so slovenly. His normally fastidious robe was creased, and spotted with some stain of something across the hem, his hair was a mess, bristly and uneven, and his features were sallow, his eyes bloodshot. He smelt too, of sweat maybe. Had he too been up all night, Lillian wondered with shock, then her eyes narrowed…had he been drinking? "Lillian, say something, damn it" He snapped, and she was shocked by the sudden open anger in his voice…what did he want? Why was he here?
"Jowan…" She said quietly, at last. Shocking too, was how little she feared the sight of him. He didn't look fearful at all like this, or was it what she had faced had changed her? She couldn't tell… "I'm alright" She added hastily, remembering what he'd asked. She was so distracted, her thoughts drifted like falling leaves.
"Andraste's arse, you were gone all night" He sighed, but as Lillian blanched at the blasphemy, he didn't even notice. He wasn't looking at her, not really, even as he collapsed down on the bed beside her, he was about as unfocused as she was. He didn't even notice when she subtly shifted as far from him as the narrow bunk would allow. "I didn't know it took all night…bloody hell" He breathed, then finally he looked at her. "You know, Lillian, I knew the instant that bastard of a Templar arrived, what he wanted, what they wanted" He swallowed hoarsely "You…survived it, then?" Lillian nodded weakly, feeling deeply uncomfortable. Jowan was drunk…he never got drunk. "Lillian" He leaned in, and she froze, brittle with her embarrassment. "What was it like?" He licked his lips suddenly, as though tasting his longing. "Tell me…" Ah, the rush of understanding was a dull ache. Why was she even disappointed? He wanted to know about the Harrowing…that was all.
"I can't tell you" She murmured softly "You know it's forbidden" They all did, and now she understood why. She was bound to the Templars…their secrets were now her own.
"Forbidden?" Jowan fixed her in a bleary-eyed gaze, a mere shadow of the cool basilisk glare that normally could pin her to his every whim. "Lillian, don't be like that"
"Jowan I just can't…" She sighed, turning away, and brushing her hair from her face…it was for the best, it was as the Templars decreed, even if Jowan didn't understand that, she did.
"Because you're a mage now, and I'm nothing but a lowly apprentice who still hasn't been called up, right?" Jowan sneered, suddenly sober, and Lillian glanced back at him instantly, shocked by the sudden reminder. Of course, she was a mage now…yes…she was a mage. She stared at her long-time tormentor, her only friend, her lover, in shock for a long while, wondering at what that meant for her, for him. She would be gone from here tonight, away from the whispered taunts of the other girls and her secret envy of their effortless ease and beauty, away from the constant crowds that pressed and watched and tempted, and away from him, from Jowan. The upper corridors were forbidden to apprentices at night…he would not be able to come to her anymore, when the darkness pressed in on her, and her fear of sleep, and the demons that she knew lurked in her dreams was so intense that a part of her lay back and craved his touch, if only to obliterate her constant nightmares in the mingled shame and sickening pleasure. "You sound just like Irving Lillian" Jowan snapped. Lillian wondered if he was thinking the same as she was. "He's always held me back"
"Irving knows best" Lillian breathed softly, that she was one thing of which she was certain, and no Harrowing, no matter what she had witnessed and fought there could shake her faith in her mentor. He had the interests of the mages of the Tower engraved into his very core. She knew that was why he sometimes even went against the Templars, silently, secretly, subtly…of course, but still he did. It had to be a sin, but sometimes when she caught the end of a meeting with another enchanter and heard Irving's rough voice devising politics so subtle and so brilliant that she could barely understand, she wondered what she was missing. "It will be your turn soon Jowan" She promised at last, because there was nothing else to say. "Irving's just waiting until you're ready"
"I've been ready for a long time, Lillian" Jowan stood abruptly, and a mask of cool reserve settled over him again. "More than ready. If Irving doesn't see that…he's as much of a fool as the Knight-Commander, and I'll just have to show them all otherwise" Lillian gazed at him with alarm, and opened her mouth to ask him what exactly he meant.
"Lillian!" The squeal of joy and shock surprised them both. Lillian almost tumbled from her perch, and even Jowan blinked, as a flashing tumble of mauve and golden silk swept past them, in desperate eagerness, and reached the bedside in a flash. Two eager hands grasped at the pillars as though they wanted to grab up the shrinking Lillian in a furious embrace, and a bright, brilliant smile flashed before her. Petra…? "By the Maker, Lillian…" The girl, a fellow apprentice, gasped out breathlessly, as Jowan withdrew slowly towards the shadows, distant disgust passing over his cool features. "You're awake, you're alright?" Petra peered at her under fluttering lids, as though unsure of that fact.
"Yes…" Lillian managed to stammer outward, alarmed by the sudden exuberance of her fellow apprentice. Petra had always been one of the kindest apprentices here but that didn't mean she spoke more than a few words to Lillian on the average week. Few, apart from Jowan, ever did. Lillian was almost invisible, quite unlike Petra. With her red-gold hair neatly tied back and her graceful features, the other apprentice was a stunning ornament to the Tower and spent nearly all her time in a flurry of silks and excitement that Lillian could only watch from the side-lines, baffled and yet longing still.
"Oh thank the Maker" Petra breathed "We all knew when you didn't come back last night. Everyone was praying for you, Lillian" Lillian blinked, but she couldn't deny the glow that began in her heart…someone had noticed, at least.
"Well, some of us at least" Another apprentice, Kinnon slipped out from behind his almost constant companion with his usual sardonic smile. No one seemed to bother that the slim, acerbic Kinnon spent much of his time in the girl's dormitories either, but after some time trying to puzzle it out, even otherworldly Lillian had realised that he wasn't interested in girls at all. "But looks like it worked" He shrugged, as though in spite of himself. But still he looked pleased…for Lillian?
"Cullen brought you back at dawn" Petra confided "Looking half-dead in his arms." Lillian blinked, feeling a sudden rush of feeling she could barely keep from her face, as she imagined herself draped across the Templar's arms. He must have carried her all the way down from the Harrowing Chamber…he was strong enough to do it, she knew. Her arms tingled at the thought but she grasped suddenly at the sheets, clamping down on her sinful thoughts, and praying desperately that Petra and Kinnon wouldn't notice her discomfort. "He said…you deserved rest …" Petra added, with a kindly smile, utterly unaware of the effect her words were having on Lillian. "He said you were very brave"
"Well of course he did…" Kinnon smirked suddenly, but when Petra shot him a furious glance, he fell silent and had the grace to blush. Lillian foundered, what did Kinnon mean?
"I know when it comes to my own Harrowing I'll be scared stiff" Petra leaned in, with a bright smile. "But I'm nothing like as gifted as you are, well done Lillian"
"Thank you" Lillian breathed, a bubble of happiness rising from inside her despite herself. It was so nice to be noticed for once.
"So Petra" Jowan suddenly stepped forward, from the shadows, a spectre in his iridescent blue robes. "What is it you want this time? Favours from the Senior Enchanter, advice on the Harrowing, forbidden materials…Lillian can get it all for you and more, now she's a full mage at last" Lillian blanched, and Petra went white.
"Shut up Jowan" Kinnon snapped, with open disgust. "We just wanted to say congratulations, that's all"
"Can't you just leave us all alone?" Petra seized Lillian's shoulders in her two thin, graceful hands, as though to draw her to a protective embrace "Lillian's been through enough without you hovering like a vulture over her the whole time." Jowan's eyes narrowed at the girl. Lillian shifted with surprise…she'd always assumed that everyone was as charmed by Jowan's cool magnetism as his devoted admirers. If ever she saw him, and he wasn't alone, he was with that cadre of his, Uldred's favourites, those rebellious thugs, and the beautiful, brazen girls, all of them together committed to malice, disrupting classes, tormenting the weaker mages, and to vice, those secret gatherings in dark places that you heard whispers of sometimes. Well…and to even darker things, too, if Lillian's keen suspicion was anything to go by. She'd just assumed that they were the popular ones, the ones everyone wanted to be, but it seemed others found their antics as distasteful as she did. She'd never have known.
"I'll leave you to it then" Jowan nodded his head mockingly. He seized Lillian's hand before she could withdraw it, and bent to kiss it, his arid grey eyes fixed upon her, pinning her to silence. It was a courtly gesture that dripped with contempt, as if to say I own you, no matter what you are, mage or apprentice. His lips were dry, like the scales of a lizard, and Lillian's skin crawled with revulsion. She knew Petra and Kinnon were watching, and knew what they were thinking, what Jowan wanted them to think, and was relishing that brute fact…but she couldn't let go. "One more thing Lillian, Irving asked me to tell you that you're wanted in his study" He added suddenly, as he raised himself and stepped back in a shifting whisper of silk. Lillian felt a rush of helpless frustration; he'd kept that from her this whole time, playing her like a puppet. "No doubt he wishes to congratulate you upon your elevation as well…" Then he turned his back upon them, and was gone.
"Why do you put up with him, Lillian?" Kinnon leant on the bedpost, glaring at the door through which Jowan had disappeared. "He's such a creep…"
"Quiet, Kinnon" Petra hushed him, and Lillian shuddered, thinking that Petra must suspect the truth. There was no such thing as privacy in the Tower. What must Petra think of her? But the other girl's smile was kind, and it still didn't waver. "Better not keep Irving waiting" She said "But if you need any help, you know, with moving everything up to the Mage's floor, we'll be happy to help." She paused, and beamed encouragingly "It…won't be the same down here without you, Lillian" Lillian shifted uncomfortably, of course it would, for Petra and for everyone else. She might be the novelty now, having just graduated to full mage, but how long would it take for Petra to remember she was still the same Lillian, painfully shy, awkward, unfashionably obedient, dull, who she and Kinnon had simply ignored every other day?
"I'd better go and get dressed to see him, then" Lillian stood awkwardly "Thank you though…" She remembered to say abruptly, drawing her robes around her like a shield, a carapace. She read it in their faces, the frown touching Kinnon's smooth and handsome face, Petra's blank smile: what's the matter with her, why is she so strange, why doesn't she understand what everyone else does? Lillian rubbed her sleeves, biting her lip…she had her own questions, where were you all this time? If you care now, when it's far too late, why didn't you step in sooner and tell me I wasn't alone? Before she said anything, though, she turned herself around, and walked quickly to the privacy of the wardrobes, before the whispering began, before she heard the murmurs that followed in her footsteps, the stares, the pointed fingers. Now she'd passed the Harrowing, no doubt there would be others curious, others congratulatory. But there was only one person she wanted to celebrate it with, only one who had been with her through the worst times and only one who she now wanted to share the happiness of her passing the Harrowing with…only one…Cullen…
Cullen was utterly exhausted. The duty of the Templar necessitated long, almost completely uneventful vigils, watching over the mundane activities of their charges each and every identical day in the Tower, every ordinary routine observed with the same, unshakeable vigilance, every minute detail contemplated in the same crystalline clarity. Constantly alert, constantly on guard, that was their way. Some found that easier than others, many a time discussion in the Templar Quarters had turned to ways to stop the blade of your vigilance dulling over the long hours. The older Templars recommended prayer, one or two had memorized nearly the entire Chant of Light and apparently went over the entirety of the vast scripture in their heads when on duty over a few days. Cullen's friends preferred, amongst other things, thinking up riddles and wordplay, scandalous verses from flippant Orlesian bards, or increasingly complex games of I-spy to somehow play with yourself. Ser Carroll had even claimed unfailing vigilance through a system of carefully rating the female mages, but Cullen hoped his disapproval had convinced his friend of the error of that serious lapse in judgement. Cullen found it easier than some, though, contemplation had always been easy for him, he could think back over the scrolls he read during his breaks: military strategy mainly, and lately the testimonies of former Templars who'd encountered the darkest aspects of magic. He could think over what he'd read, how the heroes of the past glorified the Maker, what he would have done in the same situations, while he watched the mages passing by with a suspicion kept keen by their example. But today, after…last night, he couldn't concentrate as he normally did. He'd barely slept, normally after a Harrowing there was time for a snatched couple of hours before duties began again in the morning, but Cullen had lain awake in his bed that whole time, haunted by the echo of Lillian's body in his arms, and by the strangeness of what he'd seen…and the horror of what he'd almost done. Greagoir had assigned him to one of the easiest posts, a corridor on the Enchanter's floor near the First Enchanter's Office, but he wouldn't have used that as an excuse for any kind of lapse if his head wasn't so blurred and his judgement so confused. Under his weary gaze the flurry of busy mages passing by blurred into one, and in every unguarded moment his thoughts strayed back to last night, and what had happened in the Harrowing Chamber.
Something had been wrong from the beginning, he should have known it: the First Enchanter arguing with the Knight-Commander, Lillian taking so long under the spell of the lyrium, Cullen's own weakness and his struggle. And then…it had happened. He still shuddered to think of it, and nothing of the wise words of the Templars who had come before could even begin to explain it. It had begun an hour before dawn, when Cullen had grown increasingly conscious that every second brought the moment when he would be ordered to fulfil his charge closer. And then, suddenly, without warning, Lillian had moved in his arms. He'd felt his heart leap in a way that staggered him now as he thought back. What disturbed him more though was how much he could recall the moment with exact clarity, the feeling of Lillian brushing up against his armour, her head rising slowly, deliberately from its limp slumber on her shoulder. He'd opened his mouth to announce the welcome news, then he'd seen something, something that stopped him in his tracks. Lillian still looked fast asleep, still in her trance, pale as ice, the flush of her lips deep black against the whiteness of her skin in the darkness, her hair like a raven's wings. But there was a light under her skin, a pale, white, diffused glow that arose like a corona from within her. He'd let her fall away from him in astonishment, one gauntleted hand holding her an arm's length away from him as he stared into those most familiar of features and saw the light burn within them. And as Greagoir and Irving had advanced slowly, astonished to silence, Lillian's hair had risen in a cloud of dark strands like static, and the light had begun behind her closed eyelids, flickering, fluttering light that seemed to move with her eyes. Cullen had been aghast, possession had come to his mind first, of course, but he'd read dozens of accounts of demonic influence, and none had ever been anything like this. Greagoir and Irving's reaction of shock had only confirmed it. And there was something gentle, something…he hesitated to say it now but it was he'd first thought, something holy about the light. And Lillian smiled, with a wonderful freedom, with a sudden pure and radiant happiness that he'd never seen before on her usually solemn, closed features. He'd never realised how haunted, how sad, Lillian usually looked until he'd seen her then. And he had stared at her in wonderment, he'd always known she was beautiful, but he'd never realised just how much until she stood glowing, with her hair about her. His sword fell to his side.
"Cullen, kill her" Greagoir's order had stopped everything, and he knew exactly what his superior was thinking; no matter what this was, this was no time to take chances. And Cullen knew, down to his core, what he was meant to do now. But his muscles, let alone his stunned mind, would not obey him. The sword seemed impossibly heavy, he was mesmerised by the glowing Lillian.
"No!" Irving's voice had never been so strident, so commanding, so formidable. Cullen knew he should already have obeyed the direct command of his Knight-Commander. Obedience was his duty. No matter what the First Enchanter said, he was supposed to do the will of the Commander without thinking, but he was paralysed. "Listen to me Greagoir, this is no demon…she is fine, let it be" Greagoir frowned, stepping back, but the order he'd given Cullen still hung heavy in the air, he hadn't rescinded it. Lillian should already by dead. And all of them knew it. Instead she was glowing before Cullen, and then all of a sudden she sagged, and fell back over Cullen's arms, and her hair cascaded back down against her cheeks. The light drew back into her and in an instant it was gone. It was over, and Lillian's eyes fluttered a little, she shifted against him, and he knew instantly that now this was her, alone, no power behind her. She was not possessed.
"Cullen…" His name escaped her lips, so quiet only he could have heard it, then she was lapsed back into unconscious, a hale, healing sleep, not the unearthly trance of the lyrium. The Harrowing was over. She had passed. She was herself again.
Neither Irving, nor Greagoir, had said another word, except the Knight-Commander had gruffly ordered Lillian returned to her rooms, and admonished Cullen firmly not to speak of what he'd seen to anyone, and especially not to Lillian herself. He'd looked into his Commander's eyes, and seen the guardedness there. Whatever they'd briefly witnessed, and Cullen knew enough about magic only to know that there were mysteries they'd never understand, it had not been possession. But none of that should have mattered to a Templar. Even if he had known for certain that Lillian was not possessed, he should have still cut her down. Greagoir had ordered him. A Templar obeyed his superior instantly and without question, no matter the circumstances. If he did not believe, if he had doubts, it he questioned, even for an instant, an abomination would surely arise under his watch. Cullen's insubordination was enough of an excuse for Greagoir to have him stripped from the order, and rightly so. And that was even before he began to think about what he'd seen from Lillian. Irving seemed to know, or have some suspicion. No doubt he'd already shared it with the Knight-Commander, and since Lillian had not been Tranquilled it seemed the explanation was satisfactory.
"Cullen!" And then he heard her voice, and all he could think of was the creatures of the Fade that were summoned to the pyre of desire in the heart of a man, tempting, teasing them. He turned, and saw her hurrying down the corridor. She was wearing white again, a somewhat more formal robe than usual, her long dark hair pinned up, and he knew immediately that she was on her way to seeing the First Enchanter. She looked…harried. He immediately thought of the long journey down from the Harrowing Chamber, he'd carried her to her room, and through the whole of the long, slow, silent journey down through the sleeping Tower. It had been unsettling…how easy it had been, how right it had felt, how his life had seemed to contract around him until all it contained was this young, thin, fragile body in his arms. He forgot the strange things he'd witnessed, what Lillian had just endured, and he'd left behind the hum of desire that had possessed him those long hours. Then it had just been her, quiet and asleep, dependent on him to protect her, to carry her to safety. She had been so light but when he had laid her down again in her bed his arms had ached with a tangible emptiness. Seeing her gliding towards him now down the corridor, awake and alert once again, a full mage of the Circle now, he felt that emptiness again "Cullen, oh Cullen…I did it!" She smiled joyfully, reaching him with a spring of happiness. She came to a halt in front of him, beaming, and he nodded slowly, shifting on his feet. He was uncomfortably aware that the situation, or her, demanded something more of him…the compulsion arose to congratulate her in some way more suited to her achievement, to what she deserved, but a touch was the most forbidden thing of all, an embrace utterly inconceivable, not after what he'd learned about himself last night.
"Lillian…" He began awkwardly, unable to bear the silence a second longer. "I'm glad…it all went smoothly last night" Silently he cursed his inarticulacy, knowing he should be firm and distant, the Templar, not the man.
"I'm a mage now, Cullen" She beamed, twirling her hand dreamily in the folds of her robe. "Isn't that wonderful?"
"Yes, it is…wonderful" He stammered "You deserve it Lillian, you've worked so hard…" He paused, swallowed, tried again as she glanced at him expectantly. Maker curse him, why was this so hard? He never did this with any other mage, he never made such a fool of himself. "I…wanted to say…well done. The Harrowing is a very great test" She paled, her smile gone in an instant, and he cursed himself again. You didn't speak about the Harrowing, not again, going through it once had to be bad enough.
"Yes" She breathed, and a shudder touched her shoulders as though she were suddenly hearing a whisper of the Fade. "Cullen…I saw such things, heard such things…" Her gaze, still upon his face, suddenly went distant, she was looking through him, and she saw something terrible. "It was…awful" Cullen swallowed again, he would never see the Fade with waking eyes, thank the Maker, but this was Lillian's curse. Whatever he'd seen in there, whatever she had been forced to endure, it was His will. He had to remind himself of that.
"We obey the will of the Chantry, and of the Maker" He said softly, at least that was easy enough to say. It was what duty commanded, the mandate of the Templar.
"Yes, of course" Lillian blinked, straightening her sleeves nervously. "Thank you…for being there last night" She continued, quietly "I'm so glad it was you…"
"So am I" He answered, before he could stop himself, and she smiled sweetly.
"I don't know what to begin with" She said "Now I'm a mage, I mean. There's so much…research, new books, new materials…and it's all open now." Cullen listened leniently, as he always did when she went off about magic, things he didn't want to understand. But then a shadow passed over her face "But I did think I should start with Thaumaturgy"
"Spirit Magic?" Cullen glanced at her sideways. You picked up some things, standing in on the lessons the enchanters gave to their apprentices. Cullen had even been there for a few of Lillian's classes with the First Enchanter. He didn't have much inclination to understand magic as the mages did, and, truth be told, when Lillian came alive under Irving's tutelage sometimes the pair of them soared to levels of discussion that he couldn't even begin to understand. But he knew this, that Spirit Magic was one of the most dangerous schools, the most suspicious. Manipulating the very substance of magic itself, why would you want that? Magic wasn't meant to be understood, it was meant to be harnessed, yoked to the Maker's will. But he said none of it out loud, not to her.
"Yes" She nodded "The Fade, there was something there, something I need to understand" Cullen frowned, if they had come from anyone else, those words would have been a sign, a warning to the trained Templar in him. He would have taken them to the Knight-Commander immediately, reported the offender's name, and they would be isolated and watched more closely. Mostly nothing came of it, mostly…
"Do not toy with the Fade" But it was Lillian, and so he simply warned her instead and knew he would do nothing. He was helpless. "It's too dangerous"
"I do believe" Lillian said quietly, looking up modestly from the slender arms folded across her chest. "I know that better than you do" Cullen was silenced. He was right, the Fade had changed her. "The First-Enchanter called for me" She said at last "I suppose I'd better go to him"
"Wait, I will walk you there" Cullen offered, not sure if he was doing this because it was his duty to try to find out more about what Lillian's intentions were, and what she had experienced in the Fade, or whether he just couldn't let her go. Templars could leave their posts at their discretion, it just was not encouraged.
"If you like" She smiled, clearly pleased, and Cullen thought, too late, of what might occur if they were seen. A Templar escorting a mage alone would be unusual, but not unprecedented. There were any number of reasons and yet he couldn't help but think how obvious it must be to all that they passed that he was following Lillian and not the other way round. He just wanted to protect her, his vows…he wouldn't break his vows, he would never. But his protests were so very hollow. He was living in sin, Maker forgive him, and after the Harrowing, it was so clear now. But he didn't know what to do.
"What does the First Enchanter want anyway?" He asked uncomfortably, to fill the silence that fell over them as they left his post, that might have been companionable but seemed now to be conspiratorial.
"I'm not actually sure what he wants" Lillian spoke humbly enough, but it did matter to her, Cullen knew. She had always wanted to make Irving proud of her. And he already was, there was already so much to be proud of, but of course Lillian didn't see that. "A private audience in his study…?" She paused briefly "Perhaps he wants to give me another lesson?" Or perhaps more likely, he too wished to uncover fully what had occurred during the Harrowing, Cullen thought. The First Enchanter wasn't afraid to use his students if he had to, there were compromises of which Lillian knew nothing, back-room deals that kept the Tower functioning. Cullen sometimes wondered why the Templars allowed things to stay that way, the Tower could be so much purer if they oversaw it more directly. Why let there be any chance, when the consequences of laxity could be so dire?
"Well, I suppose it will become clear" Cullen added neutrally, at last. They rounded the next corner together, and the passageway curved towards the familiar door that led into the First Enchanter's office. The tower was, of course, richer here, with the gilded crimson tapestries on the walls and some delicate ornaments, old useless Tevinter things excavated for the most part, on display on pedestals lining the corridor, all a show for the mages. Cullen opened his mouth to bid farewell to Lillian, deciding it was judicious to leave her before Irving saw them together. He wasn't sure what the First Enchanter would do, but Irving always saw more than it seemed. But then he paused, suddenly hearing the Knight-Commander's voice from the office…
"Many have already gone to Ostagar" Greagoir was saying, and Cullen who was attuned to his superior's tones knew instantly that he was deeply frustrated, and more so than he was letting on. They were discussing the war. As if by an unspoken signal between them, both he and Lillian paused at the doorway, just where they could hear. They shared an interest, clearly in the war. "Wynne, Uldred…and many of the senior mages" Greagoir continued, and Cullen wondered that he seemed so annoyed. Irving rarely provoked him, and when he did the matter could easily be settled by application of the authority of the Knight-Commander. "We've committed enough of our own to the war effort"
"Your own?" Irving snorted, and Cullen wondered at his boldness. Something was going on here, there was some other force at work. "Since when have you felt such kinship with the mages?" The First-Enchanter asked "Or are you simply afraid to let us beyond Chantry supervision, where we may actually use our Maker-given powers?" Lillian drew breath, short and sharp, and Cullen shared her astonishment. An accusation of that boldness…it was inconceivable insolence.
"How dare you suggest…?" Greagoir growled like an old lion.
"Gentlemen, please" And then a third voice joined them, someone Cullen had never heard before. The voice was quiet, rough, but commanding, it had strong authority and quiet, but absolute, confidence. The hint of a foreign accent, buried deep, and the throaty richness of a man getting into middle age…a guest? "Irving, I do believe you have guests." The man continued "There are two people waiting just outside the door" Cullen and Lillian both reared back in shock, how in the Maker's name had he known?
"Do come in" Irving murmured from within, and Lillian shot Cullen a brief, guilty glance, a flush rising in her pale cheeks. In that moment, when their eyes met for a brief instant, he knew he would walk in there with her, even though the Knight-Commander would see them together, and he could possibly have escaped, which would no doubt mean less trouble for them both. But he wouldn't, he would walk in with her…
"Ah…our newest sister in the Circle" Irving beamed the moment they entered, a world away suddenly from the withered, desolate man who had stood beside Lillian during the Harrowing, sincere affection glinting in his eyes. "Lillian, welcome"
"And Cullen…" Greagoir added coldly, there was no hint of what he thought of the scene beneath his now suddenly glacial exterior. "What are you doing here, boy?"
"Lillian wanted some advice, Knight-Commander" Cullen bowed his head respectfully to his superior, even as the half-truth stung his tongue. He didn't know what else to say, and he tried to tell himself it was for Lillian, in situation like this the mage was almost always held responsible. "On the restrictions she's under now as a mage…I offered to walk her here to discuss it"
"I see" Greagoir answered impassively, but he fell silent then and Cullen realised that no one else in the room was paying attention to them. Instead Lillian and the First Enchanter both seemed to have shifted their attention to a single axis, to the line that ran between Lillian's dark and troubled blue eyes and the darker still, almost black, but stoic and hard as rock gaze of the stranger in the room. Cullen had never seen him before, had never seen anyone remotely like him. But he felt his shoulders tighten automatically as Lillian stood, as though unable to look away, beneath that gaze, a gaze weighted with significance, considering, assessing. Even here he could feel the force of it, imbued with a purpose that was solemn and uncompromising, a purpose that somehow, Cullen knew with every protective instinct in his body, involved Lillian.
"This is…?" The stranger said softly, in that craggy voice of his. Cullen's first instinct had been correct, he didn't look Ferelden at all: swarthy-skinned, with his features weathered and worn by exposure, and an unruly mane of black hair tamed back into a ponytail behind his head and a thick, rough beard, just as dark, over his chin and cheeks, he looked like a Riviani pirate. He even had a small gold hoop in one ear. Or at least he might have looked like a pirate if his features weren't carved into an expression of such grave solemnity, such austere dutifulness, that any Templar would have found it impressive. Incongruous too was the richness of his armour. It was all of flashing, glinting steel polished to a brilliant sheen and carved across the cuirass and the shoulder plates with a delicate spiralling pattern that showed a considerable artistry. A warrior's functionalism ruled the leather straps clasped at his waist, another over his chest from which the two blades that he bore across his back hung. Swords…in the presence of the First Enchanter? But from the waist too hung an open robe, of white, that encased his armoured legs to the ankle in swathe of priestly purity. Cullen didn't know what to make of it all, but he decided immediately that he didn't much like this man.
"Yes" Irving answered, he seemed to draw something from the stranger, strength, or a sense of purpose. Something passed between them, even as the stranger kept his eyes fixed on Lillian and she on him. "This is she" Lillian…what did they want from her?
"Irving, you're clearly busy" Greagoir muttered, somewhat begrudgingly, making his way to the door. "We'll discuss this later." Cullen shot Lillian another glance, but she didn't even notice. Why was Greagoir leaving her here with this man, and the First Enchanter who had some plan in mind? They should put a stop to it, all of it, right now. "Cullen" Greagoir barked abruptly, peevishly. "Come along, boy. You have a watch you're neglecting" Cullen moved slowly, resentfully, dragging his feet as much as his duty allowed. He didn't appreciate that this stranger could see the Templars cast out by the First Enchanter. As he passed Lillian, she tore her gaze from the stranger's momentarily, and for an instant their eyes met once again. Again the depth, the purity of the blue in Lillian's eye struck him, like looking into the night sky on a starless night. She was nervous, but not afraid, and yet he longed to stay, to protect her if he had to, in case, since there was something wrong by the order and rule of the Tower here in this room. But duty commanded him, and duty was his life. He looked away in an instant, an instant in which something so much longer had passed between him and Lillian, and found Greagoir once again. His mentor beckoned, and together they left the office in the cold and functional silence of the Templars, his steps unconsciously falling into the steady beat of the march that defined both their lives. Duty, once again, called…and damn him if he didn't crush his heart under its iron command.
First-Enchanter Irving had always counted on his instincts. You needed them, after all, to rise this high in the seething morass of the Tower's politics. And all his instincts told him that the young girl who stood before him nervously, as slender as a young sapling, and gowned all in pristine, icy white, was the one who the Tower would choose to succeed him on his death, if he did nothing to stop it. He had resisted it at first, it had seemed utterly unlikely that a creature quite so naïve, so child-like, could ever ascend so far, but it had become clearer as time had diffused his clouded vision. She'd have the support on the strength of her magic alone, her enchanter tutors, him least of all, were already awed by the subtlety, the grace of her power. She had an untapped well in her, and Maker alone knew what she could accomplish in the years to come. There were many who'd vote by that alone, as was strictly the traditional way to do things. She'd have the Templars too, and that counted for a great deal. A very great deal…if the lumbering machine of the Order ever got into gear it could bludgeon the whole Tower into submission, and if anyone could make the Templars move, it would be Lillian, especially if young Cullen had the helm. Most importantly, she appeared relatively inoffensive, and easy to control. The Aequitarians would take her as a compromise candidate, the Loyalists would actively embrace her as one of their own…even the Liberterians might condescend to supporting her. Uldred knew his possibilities were too radical for his own bid to succeed, no matter his ambitions, but Lillian seemed easy to control, manipulate, and he would take that chance once Irving was no longer alive to hold him in check. That was enough of the Tower for a healthy majority and someone as quiet and studious as Lillian, who could believe that anything would ever be wrong with that? But, looking at Lillian, whom he loved like his own daughter, Irving knew to his core that this young woman would destroy the Circle entirely.
"Well, then…where was I?" Irving realised that both Lillian and Commander Duncan were patiently waiting for him to settle his thoughts. Damn his age, it was becoming more and more difficult to focus on what needed to be done. "Lillian, child" He stepped forward, stretched out a hand to direct his young student's gaze back to his old friend. Lillian obeyed dutifully, as she always did. "This is Duncan, of the Grey Wardens" He saw the shock flash over Lillian's features for an instant, and knew the child's quandary. The Grey Wardens, the legendary warriors, figures from tales and songs, sworn enemies of the Darkspawn, and reputed to be as extinct as the creatures against which they'd fought since the last Blight some 400 years ago. Reading Lillian's features as intimately as he could, he saw the moment when the spark lit and she understood. If this was a Grey Warden, here, then the tales and rumours were true, and the war in the South was actually against the Darkspawn.
"A pleasure to meet you, ser" Lillian hid her shock under an antique curtsey and a polite greeting. By the Maker, what an odd girl she was.
"You've heard about the war in the south, yes?" Irving continued, as Duncan nodded back to the girl. Irving had already told him a little about Lillian, a little, not everything, of course, but enough to pique his interest. Mages were of such demand for the Grey Warderns, that their commander in Ferelden made it his business to know something of magic, enough to make sure that he found Lillian a catch indeed. "Duncan is recruiting more mages to join the King's army at Ostagar" Lillian blinked, and her eyes flashed back over Duncan. She must know that this was one of the only ways a mage could leave the Tower, as some had done over the centuries. But the prospect, one that would have thrilled so many others in her situation, filled her with an unspeakable dread. Forgive me, child, Irving thought again, for what I must do.
"With the Darkspawn invading, our Order needs as much help as we can get" Duncan leaned towards her. He was not the most human face to present for the Grey Warderns, but after so much time spent recruiting for his order he knew how to calm and charm a frightened and bereft child. Practically dead to the world in all other things, Duncan could show great affection to a student and inspire it in return. It was something Irving had always aspired to emulate. "Especially from the Circle"
"The Darkspawn…really are invading?" Lillian gripped her sleeve. She was frightened, and more so than most. After all the Darkspawn were the spiritual ancestors of the mages, at least the Chantry said so. It was sometimes best not to take what they said too seriously.
"They've formed into a horde in the Korcari Wilds" Duncan nodded curtly "And they threaten to invade north into the valley" He was always most at home speaking of such things, tactics, battles… "I fear if we do not push them back" The Grey Warden continued "We may see another Blight"
"Duncan" Irving chided, as Lillian flinched visibly. That was enough of that, far too much, she did not need to know that yet. "You worry the poor girl with talk of Blights and Darkspawn. This is a happy day for her"
"We live in troubled times, my friend" Duncan answered briefly. He was far too direct, this would have to be a great deal more subtle if they had any chance at all of pushing Lillian into place.
"We should seize moments of levity, especially in troubled times" Irving quipped. Duncan was too grim, a fault of many of the Grey Wardens, but what did you expect from the Order? And they treated their recruits with all the respect and sensitivity one would never find from the Templars. That reminded him…Lillian… "The Harrowing is behind you" He addressed his student with a note of pleasure he couldn't conceal. She had done well, poor girl, very well. The glow of pride was a small comfort, as he thought of how he would seize everything out from under her. "Your phylactery was sent to Denerim last night, and now you are officially a mage within the Circle of Magi" He continued in the same vein. He had said these words many times, but never quite with such joy.
"Forgive me, what is this phylactery?" Duncan asked curiously, as Lillian bowed her head humbly to accept his praise with a heart that would never quite believe herself worthy of it.
"Blood is taken from all apprentices when they first come to the Tower" Irving explained to his friend. Strictly, this was a secret of the Tower, but he didn't mind bending the Templar's rigid rules sometimes. He needed a way to amuse himself. "It is kept in special vials, here, in the Tower, until they come into their own."
"So they can be hunted if they turn apostate" Duncan understood, as he always did. A man of the world, this one, he knew its dirty compromises so well, mainly because his one grim and final purpose compelled him to rise so completely above them.
"Indeed" Irving nodded. The phylacteries were tools, a necessary evil. He had seen them used a number of times in his tenure, every time the unfortunate apostate had been tracked down by their magic and slain. One of those compromises… "Lillian, child, I simply wished to congratulate you on a job well done" Irving said at last, no need to alarm her. He wondered how much she suspected there was more to it than that. She was an innocent, but she wasn't stupid. And if this Tower ever made the mistake to think she was…well…the consequences would be extremely dangerous. "And to inform you of this development in your progress here. The rest of the day is yours, and I imagine you would like to probe what new sources are available to your studies on your elevation" He paused and glanced at Duncan, as though the idea had just occurred to him. "Would you mind escorting Duncan back to his room in the guest quarters, first though, child?" He requested, with a smile at his student.
"Of course" Lillian looked surprised, but complied instantly, as always. "Thank you for everything First Enchanter…" She breathed, with that aching sincerity that crushed Irving's heart. "I couldn't have done any of it without your help" Irving shrugged, though he knew it was true. Her magic was so subtle that it had needed the most careful guidance. But the world was the best teacher of all, as Lillian would soon discover, no matter how unwillingly. "Ser Duncan, would you like to follow me?" She bowed courteously to the Grey Warden, and Irving smiled with amusement. Of necessity he knew nothing of the apprentice's circumstances prior to the Tower unless it was absolutely crucial. But he liked to suspect that Lillian had noble blood.
Yet, as Duncan nodded his farewells, and turned to follow Lillian away, and she said something to him that Irving no longer could hear, and Irving's gaze fell upon Lillian's slender back in that gown as delicate as a wildflower, his smile faded away entirely. All his life he had served this Tower, and he had sacrificed much to see it one of the safest, most accommodating, most welcoming Circles on Thedas, especially compared to that nightmare in Kirkwall. He had maintained its pride, with the deals and compromises that had been passed on to him from those who had come before, and re-trod their steps to lightly defend the rights of its students to learn, to live, to enjoy and take pleasure in what small things their fate had afforded them. Never had he made a sacrifice as painful as the one he was planning, and never had any decision he had made been so torturously doubted. But he knew it was necessary.
Lillian could not be First Enchanter, not as she was. He had tried so hard to heal her, to get through to her, to teach her what he had learnt, but he had failed. She would turn the Circle of Ferelden into a prison, a shadow of the guilt and grief within herself. Cullen was to be Knight-Commander then too, if Greagoir had his way. Never had a Knight-Commander and First Enchanter ever shared a bed, thank the Maker, but those two…they would not be able to resist each other for ever. And Cullen would have her, and by the Maker that young man would speak the Chantry's harshest whispers in her ears and she would take them to her wounded heart. Under his direction she would slowly, but surely, with the best of intentions and the sincerest of beliefs, force change and restriction upon the Tower that would break it entirely. The Liberterians wouldn't stand for it, the Aequitarians might even rise with them, and they'd have civil war in this place Irving loved so much. She'd win, of course, with the Templars, but it would destroy her too. And the Tower would be left a shadow, with many whom Irving had himself trained and whose objections and points of views he understood so well, murdered for their beliefs. And Lillian would stand alone with harsh and bigoted Cullen, broken and bitter, and she would lash out at last against the world which had treated her so ill. Every student which came after would feel the sting of her wrath. Irving could not allow it. He loved her so much, too much, but he could not let her destroy everything so many had given so much to build.
So…Duncan…and this sacrifice, this one great sacrifice, of Lillian herself. If she joined the Grey Wardens she would leave the Tower behind. She would not become First Enchanter, another, Petra, maybe, or some other inoffensive student who nonetheless had the know-how and the understanding to take over would take her place. Things would go on as before, and Irving could die knowing he had saved the Circle but had sacrificed the girl who was like a child to him. Lillian might die, he knew that full well, and even if she lived it was a life no one would envy, the Grey Wardens, well…no one would envy it except a mage imprisoned in a shadow of her guilt. Maker willing she might find some happiness, some way to accept who she was. She would never find that here. Irving turned away, walked haltingly to his window, and looked out over the lake under the morning glow. Lillian would never join the Grey Wardens willingly. But he had a way…