Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Twenty-Three

by artrald

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*

Merrill

The People of Kirkwall had thought me just a little odd, that I’d spent a while working at every trade they had, but there was a method in it. I’d taught myself to whittle, but I learned to carve with a toymaker; I’d learned a little about metal among my old tribe, but I learned to work wire and metal foil mending cheap broken pretties to sell back at the night markets; they were more than a little curious when I wanted to learn lace-work and everyone knew that I didn’t know more needlework than to darn a tear for myself. More than one kindly old mother had taken me quietly aside and told me that I didn’t need to learn all this craftwork to find a husband, that all I would need was to look twice at one and he’d fall at my feet – and more than once I’d smiled and thanked them and said that no, it was just another skill I was after.

Then there was the work nobody could help with. The keeper, my housemate, I swear he was a little disappointed that it wasn’t secret visitors keeping me up late enough to say midnight most nights. Enchanting isn’t magic, it’s more like writing a spell, except that the dreams that are running through that spell aren’t yours, they’re your lyrium or whatever. The humans make their Tranquil do it, because they don’t dream – the dwarves just treat an enchanter like any other jeweler. An elf can’t touch lyrium unless they’re Gifted, it hurts them – and a mage will sour the whole thing with a stray thought – no wonder that our enchantments are works of obsession. And in the privacy of my little garret room I’d taught myself to enchant, first with careful drops of blood and then finally with tiny pieces grudgingly shaved off my store of lyrium; I’d learned to draw lyrium wire, which in that fragile, brittle stuff is itself no joke; I’d carefully assembled what else I needed, from the diamond I’d got from the Deep Roads to an ounce of gold Isabela gave me as proceeds of a theft, to a pound of lead that I picked up in the night market by asking no questions, and a dram of quicksilver I finally got by buying a very surprised shem doctor out of a table-full of potions and cooking them carefully down. And all of these things and more and all my heart I’d poured into the mirror, and it was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen in this world or the other.

It looked so fragile, with its gilded delicate carvings and its thin, thin metal face and its lace-fine curls of lyrium wire – it looked like a thing out of a dream, and I suppose in a way it was – but just like any other dream of mine, it was stronger than steel and not by a little. It was finished; it was complete; to all my senses it was perfect and beautiful and I couldn’t stop smiling. I was so sure that it would work perfectly. It logically couldn’t do anything else.

But, well. Outside of a few places in the world, all it really did was bewitch. You hear tales of witching mirrors – if they’re true ones, they’re about the elu’vi’an. You can look into it and see what you want to see. Who’s the fairest, you can ask, and it’ll show you something that’s clearly your face, if you’re just fishing for a compliment, or maybe it’ll show your lady-love and feed your desire, or maybe your rival and feed your envy. Depends why you asked. Or you can look for your heart’s desire in here – I saw a delighted smile on my lips, because the final layer in the enchantment was to look upon it and realise that it was my heart’s desire fulfilled.

But of course, it was a thing of the Fade, a thing of magic, and it couldn’t break the rules any more than I could sprout a pair of wings and fly. That is to say, it’s no surprise that a dream-mirror would reflect your dreams. And it doesn’t put anything there that you don’t know already, in your heart, and it’ll cheerfully show you all your illusions and prejudices as quite true. Which is nice enough, but you wonder why I’d bother.

But of course, that isn’t what the mirror was for. Because take it into a place of power, take it to a place where the Veil is thin – like the top of Gallows Tower, or that thaig we found, or the heart of an old elvish city – and – well. This is where it gets complicated. My old mistress Marethari, she’d have said that the dream-mirrors of our great cities were the unified truth of our tales: they let the elves of Arlathan tell the gods’ tales and make them real. That the tale would let the gods work through you, lend you their strength. So you could bring the sun’s fire down to the earth or make day into night, make the world grow green or mould it like clay, and she said that this was how we built our greatest works, how we tamed the wilds of Orlais and carved the Dales of Arlathan and grew our great forests.

And let’s be charitable and say that the old lady just made a mistake, rather than that she was deliberately telling me something that wasn’t right in order to slow me down. Because the gods don’t do that. The Maker who built the world is silent or dead. The gods who nurtured and sheltered it are sleeping or fled, all but Fen’Harel the Dread Wolf, of whom I’ll not speak. The only things out there that answer a mage’s prayer are things you don’t want to ask a favour of. Tell a god-tale for your spell right and the power comes from you, and while it’s just as strong as your faith is, there’s nothing miraculous about that. Tell the tale deliberately wrong and, yes, you might get a spirit, and hands up anyone who wants to pray to the spirits of the Fade for miracles?

The truth is a lot simpler. As my hands shaped the mirror, my dreams and hopes were shaping something very similar on the other side; that is, there’s two sides to this mirror, and I’m not talking about the back. Look at it from the waking world and see the Fade; look at it from the Fade and see the waking world. So, yes, in a place of power, or if you could somehow arrange to be in the same place as your body while you were dreaming, it’s a scrying-mirror. And just like you can see your heart’s desire with the mirror, you can see the world the way it truly is. The eye of a god, you might say.

But that’s just the start. Calling this a scrying-mirror is like calling a sword a thing with a pretty handle. What you do is, you use the mirror to recreate the piece of world you’re interested in in the Fade, where change is easy. You can put it together like you were creating the world. And of course, because it’s yours, you can change all the bits you want and none of the bits you don’t. And then – quite literally – elu vi’an da, make an open way for the dream. You turn the mirror – a thing of perfect symmetry – inside out. Your bit of Fade comes and replaces that bit of world. The most efficient way a spell could possibly happen. The elu’vi’an is a lever. The place of power is somewhere to stand. And with the two of them you can move the world.

And yes, I did know what I was doing, thank you very much. Yes, the thing I had made was dangerous. That’s somewhat why they were guarded. Why they were kept at the centre of our cities as much for defence as because we built our cities around the shallow places of the world. Anyway, I had to take this thing to a place of power; not like the Circle would let me into theirs. But there was the place we’d taken Asha’bellanar’s ring, before I came to Kirkwall; it’d be perfect. It had been the People’s, once before. So it was there I’d go.

And I’d be a fool to ignore that I could see my old mistress standing watching me in the corner of the room. Only in the mirror, she wasn’t there when I looked around. She wouldn’t understand. She’d do everything wrong. She’d try and take it away from me. And as for the tribe

I wasn’t alone. I had markers to call in. And if they cared so much about me bringing my shemlen friends with me to the old halam’an, they shouldn’t have thrown me out on my ear in the first place, should they.

*

“Merrill?” Tobias mostly just sounded amused. We were halfway up a slope that didn’t look nearly so steep from a distance.

“Still here.” The tightly wrapped mirror wasn’t heavy.

“I seem to recall you taking us a different route last time. Picturesque. Babbling brook with waterfall. Trees and such. Ancient ruins.” He looked up at the remaining half the slope. “Stairs.”

“Uh-huh.” It was, to be fair, a little steeper than I’d remembered. And climbing scree in the mist and drizzle isn’t a lot of people’s idea of a good time. “This is a shortcut.”

“Disbelieve.” Varric and mountains. I mean, he wasn’t so much unable, but for sure he’d complain. “If you weren’t Dalish, I’d say you’d read the map wrong.”

I gave a bit of an artless shrug. “I didn’t want to disturb my old tribe. We shouldn’t meet them on this road.”

“Road, is this? Like to see your idea of impassable.” Isabela was sweating. “What you mean is, you’re going around, because what we’re on isn’t the popular kind of errand.”

I shot her a look. “What, you want me to tell you what I am in words? I don’t want to seem like I’m crawling back, all right? I don’t want to go see the tribe. I just need to use that place of power they live under.” That wasn’t a lie.

“And they wouldn’t understand.” She returned my look. “And they’re fools, and you’ll show them all.”

I frowned. “I know exactly what I’m doing, and I’d rather not do it with them looking over my shoulder, see?” I mean, it was pretty much true. “Long story short, if there’s a path and they all turn left, I go right. Always have. We don’t get on.”

“And we’re here to watch your back.” Aveline was the only one not out of breath.

“If you’d like peace in this world, prepare not to get what you want, see? I’m not expecting them to try anything -” well, you know, the trouble was going to be Marethari, and even she might think twice – “But on my own might be a different story.”

“Seriously?” Tobias’ eyebrows went up. “I mean, I wouldn’t fancy tangling with you if there weren’t lives at stake, and you’d’ve thought that they’d have a pretty good opinion of your capabilities. It’s a lot of favours you’ve called in just to have a bit of peace from people who aren’t a threat.”

I pulled up short, turned around to look at him. “You ever been bullied, Tobias Hawke?” Met his eyes. He looked away. “Yes. It’s no more that I’m the ill-favoured friendless head-in-the-clouds apprentice who was the butt of every joke anyone ever made. But I’d rather not learn what it was I was prepared to do to teach a bunch of idiots how much I wasn’t scared.” Again, every word I said, it was quite true. And he put his hands up in surrender and we went back to our climb.

*

So I could feel them watching us the moment we put our feet onto the stair for the final climb. Well below us. Keeping to the dark of the trees, quiet and still and watching, like ghosts. Clearly been told to keep out of our way.

And there was still something here that called out to me, look you, something in the wilds that warmed the heart, still something in these old stones that made me smile to see. Just – it was all kind of soured. If there was any justice in the world I’d be coming up here at the head of the tribe with Marethari at my side, and she’d be recognising this as quite literally my masterpiece and together we’d be going in there. But the tribe were scared of me, and where they weren’t they thought I was half of everything wrong with our people, and there they were just watching.

And my old teacher herself. She hadn’t just refused to teach me; everywhere I’d looked at something she’d taught me, I’d found something about it she hadn’t taught me. And now she’d been watching over my shoulder when I finished the greatest work of enchanting for a dozen generations. And her reaction to what she saw had tasted like bile in the back of my throat.

And she was there standing in my way. Nothing figurative. She’d put herself above the waterfall, just in front of the old archway, just outside the halam’an; and her eyes were hard and she had her staff in her hand, and she could see plainly what it was that I was carrying under my arm. She spoke then, soft, and her voice carried to us. Cheap trick. “Shemlen,” she said. “I don’t recall sending an invitation.”

“We’re here with our friend.” Tobias didn’t speak louder than Marethari had. She could hear him. “She didn’t want to do this alone.”

“You’ve no conception of what it is she’s doing.” Just a level didactic statement it’d sound like to him. To me that was a bald-faced threat she was making.

Tobias shrugged. “You’ll recall who my sister is, sera. I know mages. People might not like what it is they set out to do. But the time to worry isn’t when you get a polite reasoned offer to do something odd. It’s where the reason ends, when they start to feel instead of think.” He spread unarmed hands. “You know that as well as I do. So where’s the other shoe?”

There was the slightest hint of approval on Marethari’s features, not that my companions could see that from there. “You’re missing something there. Not surprising if you’ve only ever seen other mages cowed or desperate.” Even now she wouldn’t use my name. “You’re missing just how wrong a person’s reason can go.”

His voice was soft. “Keeper, there really aren’t many people in this world that I can trust. Almost everyone has an angle or a scheme or a plan or a slice or something that they want out of me. And Merrill never has, and – if I were one to keep accounts, to keep score as it were, then you’d see for certain that she was well in credit with me. She came to me and asked me one simple favour. And you’re surprised I granted it?”

“So very civil,” she said, and I didn’t know if Tobias could feel the thin ice under her words. “So very rational. If you truly believe what you just said, Champion of Kirkwall, then I’m afraid that saddened is what I mostly am, because you’ve been sold a lie.”

I held my tongue. But if you know anything about me and mine then you know what we think of lies.

“You know what?” Tobias threw a glance at me, then back up at Marethari as if she weren’t a couple of dozen yards away. “I don’t really feel like being a go-between any more. You want to talk about my friend like that, say it to her face.”

Marethari said nothing a good long moment. Looked down at him. If she could’ve averted her eyes from me, she would’ve. “I’m not yet so old that my memory fails me,” she said coldly. “It’s not yet too late for ye. The way home is quick, straight, easy, and it’s downhill even. For the sake of your life, shem, and your friends, and your poor sister-”

Uh.

I didn’t even twitch, and nor did Marethari. All that was visible was that a muscle worked in Tobias’ jaw and my old mistress’ mouth snapped shut. But some little instinct in the back of my head was busy reminding me just how big the human was, and how broad, and the way he could probably break my neck with one hand, and it was telling me to freeze like a coney. That anger I could feel from him, that – pain

And he took in a breath, almost violent, and in the same moment had himself under control. And anyone who knew Tobias knew that his smile never had a thing to do with his emotions. “Merrill, is there a particular reason we’re standing here listening to this?”

And, well, by the time I realised he wasn’t being literal I’d started already. “There was one thing I was ever good at.” Measured. Quiet, even. Controlled. Didn’t reach my words out to Marethari. She’d hear if she willed it. “One thing I could do, see? Really do, like a proper talent. Not just a little bit good, not just a bit of old learning to keep alive o-or a trade to make things for the clan’s needs. It’s just – you need to understand I’m not spouting arrogance – I’m more than merely good, at what I do. You’ve seen it. And it’s not just talent and Gift, it’s practice and discipline and it’s work and study and you’ve got to keep it trained or you get lazy.” I didn’t look up at the old woman standing over the waterfall. “And, and a keeper is supposed to be – everything else. It’s a sideline, she taught me, the Gift. It’s hardly even important. My single true talent in this world was naught but a distraction in the way of the duty I owed. It’s what you do when all else fails. Certainly a keeper is too busy settling arguments and making judgements and singing old songs to do something as controversial as study the High Art.” Bitterness overflowed into my words. “And I’ve got a voice like a reed whistle with a hole in it. And the only way I ever solved people’s quarrels was when they’d join forces to stop me trying to help.”

“A keeper,” said Marethari mildly, “is the heart of their people. It’s a child’s decision, to do what you like and not what you must.”

I nodded. “She’d say that and send me back to try again, and if she saw that everyone hated the sound of my voice, sung or spoken, she never said. And eventually it was enough for me, and I said I wasn’t cut out to follow her. And for that I’m homeless.”

“Oh, and the rest,” Marethari said to Tobias. “We’re not the Chantry, to throw someone out for a few ill-spoken words. There’s a danger to the Gift, and to spend your time playing with it to the expense of-”

Playing?” I stamped down on the bitter scorn that might’ve come out there. “Coming from one whose magic is nothing but fairy-tale, well-wishing and children’s stories all through? I won’t have it.” Yes, she was trying to rile me, to harm my focus. Maybe to further remind the tribe why they got rid of me. I kept my expression reasonable and my voice polite. “Yes. What I do is not an easy thing. That’s exactly why I-”

And she spoke to me. Directly. “Lin’era, Merrill. The blood magic. It’s poison.”

Aiyah! Do you tell the tribe not to poison an arrow, to take a bear? Would you dig out every purple berry in the forest, in case the People decide to pick nightshade for their stew?”

“And your analogy changes nothing. Black magic is addictive-”

“Listen to yourself! Black magic.” I made a noise of disgust in the back of my throat. “There’s no such thing. The shemlen templars burn the spirit and the soul out of a living breathing innocent with nothing more than perfectly normal than’era. The durghen make abominations of stone and metal and stolen souls with nothing more than a hammer and anvil and the dreams of the earth. And you’d see me spend my literal blood for our people and call it blacker than either?” I made a face. “The fairy-tales have rotted your mind, Marethari.” And yes, I did mean to call her by her given name.

“I might say the same of your supposedly ancient arts, da’len. Letting your blood? Learning from your dreams? To say nothing of your recent work.”

“What are the Dalish if not hunters of glories lost?” The mirror was tight under my arm. “Take away our studies of history, take away our work, and what you’re left with is a bunch of dirt-poor bandits and their fairy stories. If any other craftsmen of ours had re-discovered anything else of this magnitude-”

“Call it what you please, da’len. There are dead things in this world that are buried for a reason.” She went on before I could respond to that bit of blasphemy. “Your path is wrong. I tell you so, and you throw irrelevancies in my face. I send you away from the resources and training you’ll need, and you find – substitutes. I send to warn you of your destination and you ignore me. There is one path left open.” And it was like the sun was rising behind her as she drew in her power.

“So you’ll break the vir adahl’en in the worst way. Cast aside I don’t want to know how many of our laws, to stop me breaking one that you personally made right up just for me?” I didn’t need to gather power to me visibly. Biting my lip was enough. “And you’re truly convinced you can take me?”

“Oh, child.” She shook her head sadly. “I shall raise no hand against you.”

“No? You think you could raise a ward I couldn’t break, then? Shatter my will and send me home?” Sudden terrible thought – “And I swear, Marethari, if you turn your hand against my creation, I, I -” my voice rising as the humans’ tongue failed me – “abela’hima se’amaï da-”

“Not the work of your hands.” She lifted her staff. “Not you, at all. Just the one who stands behind you.”

“You’re delusional.”

“For true?” She showed her teeth. “Where’d you learn your lore, da’len, absent our relics and our books?”

“You know perfectly well,” I hissed.

“Aye. I do.” She nodded seriously. “And there’s no elvhen word for a deal with a demon.”

“You’re at it again!” I stared her down. “As if a spirit of justice or love wasn’t ten times worse than a spirit of pride! Or maybe you spent too long talking to some shemlen missionary until you thought that demons and ghosties and boogiemen were more than a tale to scare the humans?”

She shook her head. “There’s no talking to you when you are like this, child. But I’ll warn you. This game you play today can end only in horror and suffering. For the very last time. I forbid you to come.” She took one step backward, and the light she’d gathered spread to fill the archway. “Follow me and you’ve my word.  Na dirthan, Merrill. Na’himai ir’abelas. Emma dirth da.

A pause while I swallowed what she said and the others looked at me to see if those were fighting words. And Marethari took another measured step and the light hid her from my view, and my pulse caught up with me and I shivered convulsively. Felt sick to my stomach. She was going to do something terrible.

“Um. Merrill?” Aveline looked from the archway filled with light to me and back again. “What does she mean?”

“She said, she said that I’d grieve the rest of my life if I came. An oath, it was, like, she’d make me if I wasn’t.” I swallowed. “Nobody get between me and her. I can and will protect you, but -”

“But she didn’t mean to threaten us, did she.” Tobias was giving me the careful look he gave me after the first time I saved his life. “Appreciate she’s not the best of witnesses, but she did say a couple of worrying things. Accusations I’ve never seen a mage use without cause. D’you mind shedding some light?”

“I suppose that’s fair enough.” I nodded, a little birdlike nervous dart of my head. “I uh. She thinks I’ve run mad.” Swallowed. “This is kind of a secret, you know? The kind that isn’t good for the health of a lot of innocent people?” And Isabela met my eyes on that, and I knew it was safe to tell. “The Exalted March on the Dales. When the Orlesians burned us down? The reason the Exalted Age is named that? It wasn’t just because we were pagans. I-it was because of how our elders of the time learnt our history.”

“Demons,” Varric said, raised an eyebrow. “Seriously.

I shot him a look. “The word isn’t clever. There are more dreams than just bad ones. And the spirits – the things your Chantry says are tempters and blasphemies. Time doesn’t exist for them. When Elvhenan was falling, we spoke to them. We sang our songs out into the Fade and we taught them our language and – yes – we taught bits and pieces of our lore to creatures that would remember it for our grandchildren.” I tightened my grip on the elu’vi’an a little. “And, yes. If you don’t know what you’re doing? You might as well bed down with the asps and the vipers and save everyone the trouble.” Met Tobias’ eyes like a human would. Tried to make him see. “But if you’re careful, and you’re competent, and you can stare them down and not blink -”

“You can learn things nobody knows,” he said. “Learn to make, among other things, magic mirrors?”

I nodded. “And she doesn’t understand. And she’s convinced I’ve gone bad. Convinced I’ve traded away what nobody should.”

“And she’s wrong.” He phrased it as a question. I glowered.

“You’re not amusing. Me, possessed?” I shook my head. “You’ve seen what Anders can be when he has to be?”

“I have. You’re serious?”

Slight corner of a smile that wasn’t funny. “No, you don’t understand. Anders is a diviner, a scholar originally, and being a Warden gives him no more magic. The justice-spirit is ancient and it’s clever, but -” I raised my eyebrows. “A spirit in possession of-” the elu’vi’an – “my body? Could blow him out like a candle. You’ve never heard a mage talk easily about possession or insanity, and you never will. But when I say that I’m likely the greatest prize that a spirit could get its little claws on?”

He nodded. “So what’s she doing, in there?”

I looked. It was too bright to keep my eyes on for long. “I don’t know.” It wasn’t a lie. I mean, it’s possible. It’s quite possible that I didn’t know what it was that she was doing. It’s quite possible that for all my grand words she did actually know something that I didn’t. I’ve been known to be wrong. “I don’t know,” I said, and it made my throat hurt.

“And we’re still going in? Even knowing that she’s waiting for us? Even after what she’s said?”

I could taste blood from where I’d bitten my lip. “I won’t ask you all to, I, uh. Varric.” I met the dwarf’s eyes a moment. “She can’t magic your mind and she’ll have trouble with your body, I’d like you to have my back. And you’re the best shot I’ve ever seen. There’s a crystal at the top of her staff. If, if she does offer violence. I’d like you to break it.”

“I can do that.” He owed me. I’d helped him with his brother. It had been bad, it had been wrong, there had been nothing right about it at all, but I’d been there. I’d seen him through. And now here he was for me.

“Aveline.” She looked down at me. “I know it sounds silly, but if you do come in, stay behind me; there’s nothing she can do to you that I can’t stop. I’d like you to catch me if I should fall down.” She nodded, like, I shouldn’t ever have doubted that she would. “And uh. Neither of you. Neither of you raise a hand to her. Don’t do it. The only way to stop her if you’re not a mage, would be to, to kill her. And nobody wants any of what would happen if you did, not me, not her, not my kin, and not you.”

“And, what, we convince your cousins that joining the party wouldn’t be a great life choice?” Isabela eyed the woods, and the many pairs of eyes in there.

“Please.” I looked from each of my friends to the others. “And – well. Whatever happens. Thank you.”

And there wasn’t any going back after that.

*

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