They had commandeered the largest bench in the tavern in lieu of a war table, map stretched a little too large for the aged wood, Cassandra bearing down on it like some great, irritated predator.
"The Templars are coming out of the north, and a small horde of abominations has been spotted to the east. We're on level ground here, completely exposed. We have two options: we can attempt to evacuate the village and give them time to flee by holding this position as long as possible. Or, you can move ahead, toward our original destination, while the rest of us remain here to split into multiple factions, evacuating the village and leaving false trails to spare as many lives as possible. The Red Templars, of course, won't stop once they realize the apos—the mages are gone. The best we can hope for is confusion to cover our tracks: that the abominations and the Templars will arrive at approximately the same time." Her gauntleted fingers traced the contours of the map. "South-west is our best chance."
Leona frowned across the table. "We'll be hunted like dogs or slaughtered. I want to lose as few as possible."
"Inquisitor, we have only six men aside from ourselves, little better than town militia. We cannot hold this plain—there are no walls, no hills."
The mage's fingers tightened at her belt. "So even if we began evacuations now, the Templars and the abominations could see us and follow immediately."
"That is why we would remain here to keep the Templars back, give the refugees time."
"The ten of us?"
Cassandra averted her gaze. "Seven or eight. You would have to move ahead—you must close the breaches in the Veil."
Leona peered down at the map, smoothed her hands across the crinkled surface. "How many Templars are there, exactly?"
"Fifty, at estimate."
"And the abominations?"
The mage dropped her arms to her sides, fingers twisting in the soft fabric of her sleeves. She tipped her head up to the hulking qunari at her side, hunched to avoid catching his horns in the rafters. "Bull, I suppose you volunteered to stay for this course of action?"
He opened his mouth to reply.
The warrior in question stepped away from the wall. "Aye. I'll be where I'm needed."
"And I would guard your escape." Iron bull nodded.
"It's suicide—both of you!" Leona's eyes flicked between them. "Are you so willing to die and let the Templars trample your corpses as they catch up to the villagers—and me, since they'll surely discover that I was here—anyway?"
Cassandra shook her head. "We can attempt to divert the paths—"
"There's a third option."
She pursed her lips. "What would you suggest, Inquisitor?"
Leona frowned. "There are six militiamen, four of us—don't argue, just listen, please—and fifteen apostates. Add to that maybe twenty or twenty-five able-bodied villagers with the motivation to defend their homes. Our odds just increased." Leona danced her fingers across the village's image on the map. "We use the time we might have had for organizing an evacuation to fortify the area with available materials, magic. If the abominations aren't moving as fast as the Templars, we lure them in—and now, odds are even: we stand about forty-five strong, and the fifteen abominations make sixty adversaries against the incoming Templars. We get the children and those unable to fight out of the village, let them head for the city, while we stand our ground. With any luck, casualties will be at a minimum, and if we need to, we can always use the confusion caused by the abominations to escape."
Cassandra leaned across the table, brows drawn tightly together. "You believe I didn't already consider that?"
Leona straightened, tucking her arms into her sleeves. "I didn't hear it in our list of available possibilities. It's an option, is it not?"
"I deemed it too risky. These aren't soldiers—they're farmers, merchants… hunters if we're fortunate. We cannot lose you here when the Veil is still torn. The best chance any of us have is to flee."
The mage frowned. "The best chance you have for me, you mean. I won't have anyone run down by the Templars for my sake. We have a true chance if we would only take it! These people don't want to leave their village any more than I want them slaughtered—they'll fight with everything they have. We'll be smart, Cassandra: magic, morale, and tactics."
The Warden shook his head. "Those people will lose heart as soon as the abominations come in sight. It happens with the Darkspawn—it'll happen here."
"Listen to Blackwall if you won't listen to me: this is foolishness."
"And the abominations won't just make adversaries for the Templars—they'll come for us as well," rumbled Iron Bull. "It makes sixty against the Templars—but it also makes sixty-five against us."
"We'll have the advantage of fortification."
Cassandra struck the table with a gauntleted fist. "Enough! This isn't a fort, Trevelyan. This is a dusty little village on a flat plain. We will all be killed."
"At least this way you have chance of survival! The refugees might barely outrun the Templars since they're slower-moving, but the Templars have discipline and endurance the refugees don't. They could be slaughtered in their camps in the night while your corpse is rotting in this dusty little village. Maybe they outrun the Templars. But can they outrun abominations that don't require rest and sustenance beyond blood and lyrium?"
"My life is forfeit," the Seeker growled. "It is your duty to be responsible with yours, and it is mine to make sure you set Thedas to rights." She pushed off the table. "We are done here."
Leona followed Cassandra's steps to the door with her eyes, waiting until the warrior's hand touched the latch. "You can't do that if you're dead."
She froze, turned. "Inquisitor?"
The mage shrugged. "You can't make sure I fix Thedas if you're dead." Her lips curled in a half-smile. "And if you try to make Iron Bull carry me out of here… you won't be able to control my reaction, either. None of you are Templars."
Rage drew the color from Cassandra's cheeks. "You would dare—"
"I just want us to have the best chance." Leona left the table to fetch her staff from where it lay, propped in the corner, silver blade hidden beneath its leather sheath. "I don't need anybody dying for me." She schooled her features into a grin, leaning on the comforting length in her palms. "Now we're done here. Blackwall, Bull—round up whoever you can to start fortifying the village square. Anyone who has weapons should fetch them, and anyone who doesn't should fashion or find some. I'm sure even a place as small as this has a blacksmith. And Cassandra, you and I can speak to the mages."
Leona's first stop was the stable as Cassandra sought out the mages that had taken refuge here. Originally, the Inquisition party had stopped here as a recruitment attempt—Leona extended a chance of a safe place to sleep and an opportunity to aid… well, the world. Missives had gone to the mages' rebel alliance as well, and to this point, responses had been tentative but favorable. Fifteen mages hiding in a farming village was small in comparison, but it was on the way to another, higher-priority destination (as most of her advisors put it), and she could not in good conscience pass by without so much as an attempt.
This left her gently petting her horse's dark, golden snout, wondering whether or not to send the gelding home before battle, and perhaps just a little concerned that she should have selected a more intimidating mount for this venture. "You're a sweetheart," she told him, fetching a carrot from one of the pouches at her waist.
The tall bay stomped and flicked his ears.
"I know you disagree, being bred for breaking bones and biting ears and all, but it doesn't mean I can't spoil you."
Her teeth clacked painfully together as he tossed his head right against her jaw. "Agh—all right, all right." Leona offered the carrot and kept her fingers out of harm's way, and absently rubbed her cheek. "If you don't want to be nice, how do you feel about stomping some Templar skulls?"
Dark eyes gleamed as though he understood exactly what she suggested.
"No—you should really lay off Cullen for a day or two. I'm talking dozens. Twenties of Templars. Ones that need their faces irreparably smashed. Or, I can send you back to the Keep and you can get a nice bath."
"The mages are assembled, Inquisitor." Leona attempted not to wince at the title as Cassandra stopped just inside the stable. "You should keep the horse; we may yet need to flee."
She sighed in the heavy, straw-and-muck musty air. "Answers that question." She stretched on tip-toe to scratch the gelding's ears. "Be ready, boy."
The fading daylight saw the party directing and working alongside some thirty new individuals to construct fortifications. Pits filled with tinder and dry straw, makeshift pikes driven into the ground between buildings, sharp and deadly defense against unwary attackers, low barricades, and a shallow, empty moat were among the quickly-handled projects.
Leona instructed the younger mages in runes, crouched at the bottom of the shallow moat—only three feet deep and as long as four men stretched on their bellies. She drew a stone from one of the satchels at her belt. "The power of an element or action resides in its symbol." She flashed a grey stone, etched with careful, black ash, triangular in shape, with harsh, curving tendrils. "Fire. The smallest spark of magic can be used to trigger the dormant power—and spring the trap. I carry these with me, but tonight, we'll draw them outside the perimeter, etch them in the soil, carve them into wall and stone, and the magic will be just as effective."
One of the older students, a dark human with serious, tired eyes, asked, "Did you learn these runes in the Circle?"
"No." The boy was unsurprised, but some of the others shifted curiously. Leona nodded. "I know some runic magic is taught in the Circle, as I—ah—borrowed a few books in my time, but I've never actually been in the Circle. Most of the runes I've learned from artefacts, and some from the Dalish." But now was not the time for those stories, even when six pairs of eyes glittered and as two of the older students crossed their arms defensively over their chests.
"An apostate? The Inquisitor is an apostate?" The eldest—a woman nearly Leona's age, hooded, pale brows drawn tight—seemed affronted.
She lifted a careless shoulder and offered a smile. "Well, we're either all apostates now—or we're all mages."
The first boy shrugged. "I suppose it doesn't matter now."
Leona raised a hand. "It always matters. The world gives language power and language returns that power tenfold: it's the magic of runes, but also the magic of words." She turned to each of them, frightened, weary, robes travel-stained. "What you call yourself will give you power. What will it be?"
There was a flame that gleamed in the eyes of a young woman, perhaps seventeen. She stepped forward. "Mage."
The boy nodded. "I agree, Inquisitor. They want to call us apostates, I say there's no time for it."
She resisted the urge to wave off the title physically. "Trevelyan," she offered. "Leona."
The older students balked at that.
"We're going to be fighting together—I'd rather we called each other by name." A dazzling smile.
The first nodded, the corner of his mouth sneaking up. "Tytus."
"Rina." Her dark eyes did not lose their excited edge. "Can we try the runes?"
Rina's strokes were graceful and quick, with chalk and charcoal and salt and stave alike as she etched each new symbol. "I always liked runes," she confessed. "But there weren't many books, and I'd only just completed my Harrowing when…" The girl frowned. "Will we kill them?"
Leona surveyed her handiwork: a sweeping ice rune etched into one of the makeshift barriers. She could feel the sealed power radiate from the dark rings, a sharp vibration beneath her skin. "As many as we possibly can. That I can promise you." A wicked grin captured her lips.
"Good." Sweat glistened on Tytus' dark forehead. He leaned on a simple staff, likely given to him as a newly-named mage. "And they can't take the power from these?"
"They can dispel magic as many times as they like, but the runes will never lose their potency. But you have to be careful." Leona traced the edge with her fingertips. It only takes a spark to set them off, but you need to make sure you have the magic necessary. Conserve your power, and the traps you set won't betray you."