Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Twenty-Four

by artrald

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*

Last time I opened this door I’d been showing off, the life-magic spilling out around the edge of my words to grow flowers and make the sun shine. Today? Less so. Much less. Maybe not at all. I couldn’t afford to waste power, whether with literal wastes of energy or with maundering about how my life had changed me. I looked sharply at Marethari’s ward and it winked out. No resistance. I breathed out and the gate was just there, no flash or show, nothing but what was there, a slightly sad little ruined arch with a little courtyard the far side, and the blood misted red on my breath.

And there she was. The light wasn’t coming from the sun, here. It was coming from her, head and hands and heart as she’d taught me. And she had in one hand her staff and in the other a simple wooden cup, and I couldn’t tell what it was she had in it. I couldn’t place this story. Marethari’s magic was all story and fable, and she’d never told me a story about a defender armed only with a chalice –

“Turn back,” she said. Ritual only, it was. I could feel her trying to impose her will on this place, pushing, pushing. Slipping. Like she was standing on shifting sand and I on good firm earth.

And “No,” I said, of course, and the thunder rolled above us, and the light dimmed.

She nodded. “It is just as I said.” And for just too long I didn’t understand.

And the world said, “Then we are agreed?”

“We are,” she said, and in the same motion she focused all of her power and her strength –

Unsure and wary, I hissed a word older than the Chantry and raised a hand in a counter-spell, but she wasn’t aiming at me –

And all she did with her strength was simply up-end and drain the cup, drink it dry. It looked like it had tasted horrible. “Done,” she said.

And the world shifted

and

It felt a little bit like throwing up and a little bit like picking a scab. And it wasn’t that she’d got something past my defences – it hadn’t come from inside me –

it had come from all around, all over me, all over this place –

and for a moment I didn’t know what was happening –

and for a moment I didn’t believe what was happening –

and that third frozen instant nearly killed me

because Marethari’s big sleepy eyes opened all the way and her features lit up with seeming glee and the sky itself shattered, and every razor piece fell onto me and Aveline sharp as shards of broken glass.

(But I was still the greatest young mage the Dalish ever made. And I took the same frozen disbelief that had nearly killed us both and I unpicked that spell and all that hit us was a gust of air.)

“Merrill.” Marethari’s mouth moved, but it was a voice I’d almost forgotten that I’d ever heard, the way you forget a dream. And tears stood in my eyes.

(But a part of me was noting that it was thinking that my magic could be weakened and broken by breaking my heart, and plotting my own response, and hissing “Varric!” between my teeth, and seeing the crystal on the end of Marethari’s staff shatter for no particular reason any of us could tell.)

It tilted Marethari’s head to one side like a child might. “Your initial offer, Merrill. I’ve had a better. D’you want to haggle?”

“I’ll do that.” I heard Aveline’s sharp intake of breath behind me. Pressed on anyway. “Let her go.”

(But a part of me focused still, saw what I was supposed to see, and my eyes stung, but  I knew)

“Why should I do that?” It smiled, wider than she should’ve been able. My throat hurt. “I’m welcome. I’m invited. For the rest of her life, was the offer.”

And I made a show of drawing in power, and it let me. Head and hands and heart. Spill-over from my magic earlier, the light was quite as red as blood. My voice was a poisonous hiss. “I can make that… short.”

“Can you, indeed?” The stolen smile didn’t waver. “And you with such a fragile little thing to defend.”

“Hurt the elu’vi’an and we both lose, look you.”

“Hurt me, and find out swiftly just how much I care.”

“Make me an offer.”

“I’ll swap your body for hers,” it said, and its eyes crawled over me and ended on mine.

I didn’t miss a beat. “Make me a real offer.”

(Bear with me.)

“Fine.” The smile didn’t go away. “Give me and her body ten minutes alone with the mirror and I’ll depart in peace.”

“Not a chance.” I was shivering all over and my heart was drumming like a scared rabbit’s. “I’ll give you ten minutes in her body, without the elu’vi’an. Then you’ll depart or I’ll burn you out. You think I can’t hurt you?”

“I think you might try, and I want that body in better shape. One use of the mirror and the ownership of this body for the rest of her life.”

“The elu’vi’an is not for sale, and you’ve always said you knew the secret of immortality. Throw that into the deal and you can have her body until it dies naturally.”

It chuckled, and it sounded obscene. “Be fair, my dear. If the wishing-mirror isn’t for sale, then it’s hardly fair to ask for one of the other lost magics. Give me the body and allow me to leave in peace, and I’ll leave you alone for the rest of this life.”

“I.” I swalllowed. “I’ll trade you one use of the elu’vi’an that affects not one single elf in any fashion, a-and that doesn’t touch Kirkwall.  For the, for the secret you’ve offered me. And then you depart from the body in peace.”

It shook Marethari’s head slowly, looking so much like her – “Mis-step; you ought to know I couldn’t do all of that. You’ve got no idea what your magic mirror actually does, have you? I’ll take no fewer than five minutes with the mirror, or your permission to keep this body for the rest of its natural life.” And then it raised her eyebrows – “Or if you ever want to deal with me again, dear girl, I’ll take both, and we’ll see if I can find it in me to forgive you.”

And I very nearly threw lightning at it, for that, and the bastard thing didn’t flinch when it saw the hate in my eyes, it laughed.

“All right, Merrill, dear. Let’s give you another offer.” And it face became entirely straight. “Challenge you.”

Blink. “What?”

“Challenge you. You think us equals? Prove it. Face me. Forms? Wordplay?” And behind the stolen body, once again it was as if the sun was rising. “Main force, perhaps? Or were all those words about the peerless strength of Elvhenan reborn in you, no more than the howling of the wind?”

I let it see my teeth. “You’re no peer of mine, spirit, or you wouldn’t even be trying to talk to me. And you’ve a knife to the throat of a woman I know better than my own mother, or I’d teach you your place for proper.”

(Nearly there. I could let myself feel again when this was over.)

“Even so?” It raised her eyebrow. “I’ll trade you her life for the mirror, then.”

“Still you take me for a bloody imbecile. You can’t use the mirror without a mage who’s invited you in.”

“And such opportunities are commoner than elu’vi’ain. My word on it, by my name and nature of Pride.” (Gulp. There’s a hierarchy of spirits. Pride isn’t exactly low.)  “I’ll leave her. I’ll haunt the witch-mirror. Short of breaking it, do what you like with it. Bury it, hide it, throw it in the sea. And I’ll leave your precious ha’hren well alone.”

“No way in this world or any other.For the last time. It is not for sale.

It smiled. “So we’ve that in common, then – the mirror is dearer to the both of us than the old lady, whatever else it may so happen that she be.”

Pale I was with fury. Didn’t matter that it was true. “What’s it they say? Negotiations broke down?” I lifted my hands before me where it could see and carefully laid open the vein in my right wrist with the first and simplest spell of blood magic. “You have until I finish speaking to leave Marethari. Or, as she said to me.” And all of the light around me went out, every last drop drained out of the world, except for the tiniest bubble of it around her. “Na’himai ir’abelas, elgar’len. Emma dirth da.”

And for answer it changed the world. It was inconceivable that Marethari could be harmed by me. There was  no path. There was no way. My magic was neither worthy nor capable. A defence few mortal mages could’ve had the sheer arrogance to use, and fewer still without a spell. A defence without a conventional counter.

And nevertheless I reached down within myself and the framework of the spell hardened like clear cold ice. (It was really spectacularly simple. The hardest part was keeping my focus, keeping my mind on the task and no more. But roughly speaking, if you can’t cast magic no matter how you’re feeling then you’ve got no business getting out of apprenticeship in the first place. It didn’t matter how many pieces my heart was in. I could break down later.)

A binding, especially with a mage involved, is normally a touchy thing. You’re not just bending your reality, you’re bending someone else’s. You need consent of all parties, if it’s to stick properly. You need to know the targets very well indeed. And usually, you’re going to need to spend halfway to forever (magically speaking) gathering all that power. Unless, say, you had some kind of alternative power source. Something known for giving brief but blisteringly powerful spikes of energy. Even then, of course, your spell would only last as long as your power, but by my reckoning it’d be long enough. And what everyone else saw was that I twisted both hands through a pattern in the air that was a projection into our reality of a pattern with a great many more angles and sides than is possible for most people to imagine, and my heart hammered and my vision greyed and the world spun, but the spell caught. And the defence was irrelevant, because my spell didn’t mean Marethari harm at all.

And Pride looked at me for one instant. Blinked, as the pattern of the binding settled onto Marethari’s skin and the spirit’s outline within the fade, as it pulled tight and bound the two of them together. Exactly correct. A perfect abomination, if such a thing existed. A slow smile spread across its lips – except that still I was standing there in the darkness showing my teeth like a cat, and I’d tried for a thing exactly and the thing hadn’t failed, and it knew that I wasn’t stupid –

And I saw it realise.

Just before the white froth started to show at the corners of Marethari’s mouth and the spasms in her muscles brought her down to her knees. Just as it began to understand this body’s newfound sensations and realise what the keeper had done in the instant she’d agreed to the deal. And far, far too late to counteract a chalice of henbane and monkshood and nightshade.

And I kept up the pressure and rode the dying abomination all the way down to the floor and my old teacher clasped the immortal spirit to her breast and let death take them both.

*

Aveline had my shoulder, stopped me falling over. I got my feet back under me properly, shook my head to clear it. I could – I – I could relax my focus when I was done, and I wasn’t done yet. I sealed the deep cut at my wrist, left the little one in my lip. Took up the elu’vi’an and carefully unwrapped it and I hung it in the middle of the air in the middle of the room, and meanwhile she’d knelt at Marethari’s side and checked the pulse in her neck and found none. Looked up at me. “Dead,” she said, simply, and her face was very carefully neutral.

And I was standing there staring at the mirror and marshalling my thoughts, and I could see the stained bloodied weeping wreck that was supposed to be the reflection of my face as I stood there unbowed and unmarked and ash-pale. And it must have been that I was standing there dumbly for quite some time because the next thing that I quite accurately remember is Aveline saying my name, as if that wasn’t the first time she’d said it. And I looked at her, and I said, quite calmly, “Yes?” And at the same time my reflection turned and through its floods of tears I could just about make out a series of detailed suggestions for what Aveline could do with her damned pity.

And Aveline got up and looked at me straight. “Are you quite all right?”

“No, Aveline, I’m not.” The question was laughable. But how exactly would you expect her to ask me whether I’d actually finally cracked? I glanced at my reflection in the mirror, who was struggling to stay on her feet. Its words were exactly the same. “But I’ll do.”

“Do what, Merrill?” Varric’s voice was a stone of reality placed on top of the tissue of lies that was this place. “You asked for my help, right? And I seem to recall that you helped me once, yeah? Okay.” He looked from Marethari’s body to the elu’vi’an and back. “We came, we saw. Bad things happened, we kind of expected that. You say you’ll do.” I could only see his reflection. Looking through the mirror, looking me in the eye. “So you’ll do. For how long?” He answered himself. “Doesn’t matter; long enough. Fine. You’ve set up your mirror. So do it. Use it. And let’s get out of here before something else breaks.”

And I nodded, sure and certain, and my reflection jerked her head in a manner that probably meant yes, okay, and we looked one another in the eye, deep breath, crack my knuckles, and –

And my mind drew a complete and utter blank. Ever reached for something in the dark, something you knew perfectly well was there, and found it missing?

And I’d had every single other step in my mind like a shining path.. Every step from finding a broken piece of a broken frame in a ruined fane, to reconstructing what it must have looked like, to the long and bitter struggle to learn not just what it did and what it was but how it was made, the studies both asleep and awake, the thing that had been my life entire – and then I was to bring it here – and then –

And my reflection was looking me in the eye. Like I was a student staring at a simple problem. A student who’d realise the answer in just a moment. And it didn’t matter any more that she was streaked in sweat and blood and tears and her hair was plastered with the rain, because she was looking me steady in the eye and it was starting to hurt, and –

and –

The reflection spread her hands and turned the world and the mirror inside out and I crumpled to the uneven stony floor and Aveline wasn’t quick enough to catch me.

I didn’t know why I was here.

I’d never known.

I’d never had one single idea for what to do with the mirror.

I hadn’t been building this mirror for myself at all.

All this time Marethari had known. She’d been so clear that my path was wrong. She’d been so clear that I was working for the spirit when I brought it here. Because I had to be. Because the final step of the creation of the mirror didn’t work if I’d had any plan to use the thing.

But I’d been too strong. Too resourceful. Too damned proud. She couldn’t dissuade me. She threatened me with exile and I went right on. She kicked me out and I found people among the half-elves of the city whose crafts were close enough to what I needed. And the tribe couldn’t keep me away and her words couldn’t keep me away and she couldn’t persuade my friends and she’d just the one option open. Kill the demon. Kill it the only way that she’d the power to. And I might as well have put a knife in her myself.

I took Aveline’s hand and I leaned on it and I got to my feet. And I didn’t say anything because neither did I have the right to make an apology nor she the right to accept one.

“Wait, that’s it?” Varric frowned. “Half a decade, a couple of thousand crowns and Stone knows what else, and you just stand there and look at it? What did you see?”

I looked at him and it was a mercy that I didn’t really need to use my eyes to see, in that place, because I wasn’t seeing so well at all just then. “Ir’abelas,” I said. “Just like she told me,” and my voice cracked a little. “I – dispelled some illusions. Help me, Varric. Carry the mirror for me, I daren’t touch it like this. Everything about this is wrong. Get it out of here. We’re leaving.”

He looked at me a moment. “Right,” he said, and picked it up as if it wasn’t anything at all to touch it.

And that should’ve been an end to it.

*

Tobias and Isabela were sitting about halfway down the slope, on a rock, the picture of relaxed calm, and they were talking apparently unconcernedly with a fellow from the tribe who my memory supplied as Darmid. And the rest of the tribe were right out there watching. And the three of us stepped back through the arch from the halam’an, and I was carrying Marethari’s body.

Tobias was first on his feet. He’d hardly even seen me before he’d stood. Isabela slid off the rock and to her feet in the moment after, just as Darmid did, and he’d put a hand to the hilt of his dar’misu; she looked down at him and quirked a smile that said go on, try it. And like that the three of them pretty much froze as we came down the steps.

And this was a thing I really didn’t want to do. Nobody was going to be happy by the end of the day. But there wasn’t any going back. This was a consequence, just another consequence, like or no.

I stepped down and by the time I’d got there the shock had worn right off him, and all that was left was staring hate, and you know, he could get in line. It just all felt like a dream might. Nearly like my body wasn’t moving to my command, just dancing to its own tune. And I walked up to them and I laid the body of my foster-mother gently down upon the rock and I looked Darmid in the eye.

“Is she…?”

“Dead,” I said.

“How?” His voice was flat and cold.

“Defending us. A-all of us. A spirit came. She killed it and it killed her.”

“And where were you?” He couldn’t take his eyes off what I wouldn’t look at.

“I didn’t see it.” My voice cracked and I swallowed hard. “I didn’t see it until it was too late.”

“You brought it here.” It wasn’t a question.

I didn’t answer it.

He looked down at the body and his face was in shadow. “Why?” He said it softly.

“My fault,” I said. Or at least, my lips moved. But he didn’t hear me.

“Why?” He practically screamed the word at me and I flinched.

“For me,” I said. “My fault. She did it for me, Darmid.”

And he hit me. His hand was a blur. Not a cuff or a slap. A punch, a right hook, and it took me off my feet, and in the instant I’d got the world the right way up again Aveline was between me and him and Isabela was on one side of her and Tobias the other. And while I was remembering how my legs worked again, Aveline spoke. “Enough,” she said, and she held Darmid’s eyes. “My sorrow for your loss. But violence will not make this go away.”

His voice was a snarl. Prove to the shems he wasn’t scared. “You think you can steal the life out from the heart of our people and leave alive?”

“I think that this is a damned tragedy. But so would it be if you raised your hand in return.” She didn’t blink. “You know who we are; you know what we are. Even if you could make good on that threat of yours, you know precisely what it would mean for any one of us to show up dead in these woods. You want to ask me ‘me and whose army’, Darmid?” And she put a hand to the hilt of her own blade. Quieted her voice and went deadly still. “Whose army? My army.”

His response was a ragged yell, and lucky it was that Aveline’s nerve held and her sword didn’t budge from its sheath – “Give me back my keeper!

And I came to stand at Aveline’s side so Darmid could see me and I waited until the echo of his voice had died away. “Don’t ask me that again, da’len,” I said, and my voice shook a very little. And the blood drained right from his face at what it was he’d said to me, at the fact that I’d taken it the way I had. And I waited another long moment and then I opened my mouth again. “Now I’ve got to say this, I’ve got to ask.” And I made my voice carry to the tribe as they were listening. A cheap trick. “The keeper is dead. And – to everyone’s regret, but even so – I was her mah’el, I-I was First here, and she taught me my duty. I was an exile. But I won’t leave you to wander alone.”

For answer there was the high shriek of a whistle-arrow, nearly straight up. And the note went down, and the note went up, and the arrow buried itself in the turf, and as it did so a second arrow landed to pierce its shaft. And Darmid turned his face from us, and he spoke no more. And we left, and it rained all of the way down Sundermount.

*

Aveline

Friends are important to those whose friendship is a valuable commodity: that was the founding principle of Tobias’ unlikely little band in the first place. There was no question of allowing the poor thing to go back to the alienage alone; she ended up spending the evening in Aveline’s company. Aveline was no stranger to grief and loss herself – nor, indeed, to sitting up with the grieving – yet it didn’t ever become easier, it didn’t ever become less painful. The elf would ask about once an hour where the mirror was, and she’d go and unwrap it and look into it (something she’d warned Aveline against doing), and then burst into tears and the cycle would start again.

For sure, there are a dozen horror stories about what a mage will do in the depths of grief, but that wasn’t why she wasn’t being left alone – she wasn’t ‘a mage’, she was Merrill, who’d been an irrepressible point of light in the lives of those around her for long enough that for sure she’d earned a little consideration in return. She was a friend in need. And it wasn’t like Aveline was going to have got much sleep anyway.

Still, to have one’s front door knocked upon before the very crack of dawn – Aveline peeled herself off the floor and opened it the merest crack, with her foot behind it because you never know, even in a Hightown tenement. And there was an elf there, one from the alienage, a person of good character by Aveline’s lights, standing there all uncertain with that air some elves have of being halfway poised to flee, and she bobbed a little curtsey.

“Sera, I’m, that’s to say, I.” Her eyes darted. “I’m sorry if this is out-of-place, sera, but you’ve a reputation as a fair one. And, and I’m not just here for meself, like.” Like she was trying to see around Aveline. “And we’d like to know how much, like.”

Aveline frowned. It wasn’t so much the hour, as it was the lack of a good night’s sleep before – “I’m sorry. You woke me. How much?”

“Aye. She hasn’t done no wrong that any of us ever saw, and someone was sayin’ maybe you’d thought that she was one of them heretics, like, but it’s only stories, and you do know it’s only stories.” She blinked like an owl. “You did take her, didn’t you?”

Merrill was a ghost within the darkened room. She’d made no noise at all in getting up. She’d have spoken if she’d wanted to. Aveline looked down at the little woman on her doorstep. “Take whom?” She wiped sleep from her eyes.

“The hahren.” The elf bobbed again. “Short dark hair, pale as an ash, green eyes, about so high? Talks?”

“‘Take’ wouldn’t be my word for it. But, yes. I do know where she is.”

A nod. Down to business. “Right. So, how much?” There was a pause, mostly while Aveline processed that. “You, you needn’t doubt we’re good for it, you do know?”

The silence from behind Aveline got, if anything, quieter.

“She’s not in that kind of trouble,” said Aveline, after a moment. “She just needed a place to stay.”

Sigh. “Sera. Uh. Captain. As I said, they say you’re a fair one. And I’ve never before heard anything from you that wasn’t true, and like I said, we’re good for the price.” She took a little half-step forward. “And let it never be said we let you have her, not while there’s one square foot of room for her or one pointed ear to hear the tales. Let it never be said we forgot our own.” She put her hand on her purse. “Thrice said, sera. Whoever’s paid you for her, be it Meredith herself, I’ll beat them out.”

Another moment given. Merrill was now standing literally behind the door. Looked up at Aveline, shook her head convulsively.

So Aveline pinched the bridge of her nose, leaned against the doorframe. Too early for this. “No money. I don’t do extortion, as you rightly say – and anyway, we both know what would happen to someone who kidnapped her. I’ll try and make sure-”

Innama harel da, sera.” Aveline was ready to bet that that hadn’t been polite, and from Merrill’s expression she wouldn’t have lost that bet. “And you’ll do as you please, we’re sure.” The elf took another half step forward, almost as if she was making to push her way inside, if that concept weren’t quite so ludicrous. “Just listen, see? There’s one of her. Just one. And yes, all right. Maybe I’m going on where I don’t need to be, maybe I’m being too long and too loud.” She put a hand on the door, palm flat, looked at it a moment. “But you went away with her.  Bring her back.” And she turned and left without another word.

Merrill shut the door. Leaned on it, looking up at Aveline. “Thank you,” she breathed.

“I’m not sure what for.” Aveline went and put her sword away. “So. What’s the order of things today?”

“I don’t know.” The elf stared into space. “All my plans stopped yesterday.” She hugged herself. “And I’ve no right. None. And I’m not what she called me. They’ve got themselves an elder already, and Wolf knows I’m not worth that name.”

Aveline nodded. “Well, as I said. You can stay as-”

“I can’t.” She was still staring. “Not really, I mean, it’s good of you to trust me, but you’re not doing so on evidence.” She withdrew a little more into herself. “Look, there’s no call on you to get more involved, I mean, you probably saved my life yesterday. But there’s no need for you to make people hate you by making out that it’s your fault I left.”

“And go where?”

Merrill turned away. “Not your worry.”

Sigh. “Merrill-”

“You’re going to tell me I’m wrong about that?” She scowled. “You’re going to tell me some sort of moral homily, some sort of story of your silent god or his bride? Maybe a personal tale, a story of how you stood strong and -”

“No.” Aveline didn’t snap at her friend. It wouldn’t have been fair. She just kept talking, calm, quiet. “I’m going to tell you what happens when you run. Because I did that, once. I ran away.” She wasn’t even looking at the elf. “I ran from the walls. At Ostagar. I wasn’t a footsoldier, you know, I was a sergeant. A professional among volunteers. I trained people. They looked to me for direction. And it wasn’t that I told them to abandon their posts.” She shut her eyes. “I abandoned my own. I ran. I never saw a one of them again. I ran and found my husband and we ran some more. And he died and I wasn’t blameless and I ran from that. I could’ve joined back up. I could’ve turned around and faced it. The army that eventually defeated the Blight, it was recruiting. Even back then I was good at what I do. I could have done a deal of good. But I didn’t. I abandoned my oath to the crown. I ran all the way to Kirkwall. I ran until I couldn’t run any more.”

“And?”

She shook her head. “It didn’ t change anything. I ran at first because it was that or die. And then I ran and told myself I was running from the danger. And then I ran and told myself I was running from my troubles. But it wasn’t true.” Silence stretched. “I – My husband, he’d taken the blight of the darkspawn, he’d got their blood into his mouth or a bleeding cut or, or something like that. He was dying. I ended his life rather than leave him for them. And I ran from that. And I’d abandoned my men to die the same way or worse, and I ran from the chance to do that again. And I ran all the way to the Kirkwall gutter and got a job breaking heads and taking bribes.” Deep breath. “But what I was really running from was my own shadow, and what d’you know but it followed me everywhere that I went.”

Merrill tilted her head, birdlike. “And so you turned your back on it, like you should on a shadow, and you made good, and I can do the same, you’ll say, and I know that’s well meant, but-”

Will you let me finish?” Aveline bit the words off as Merrill flushed. “No. My shadow’s still here. I can see it every time I look around. Every time someone comes to me for an order. Every time I wake up alone in a narrow cot half a thousand miles from home.” She turned to look at her diminutive friend. “But at the end of this or any other day, that isn’t what matters. The past has happened. We can’t change it. It’s an explanation, perhaps, but there’s a country mile between that and an excuse. Me, I decided that I had a duty. And it has served.”

Merrill’s eyes glistened in the dimness. “I don’t have a duty, Aveline. Ha’hren, it’s not a job o-or some kind of noble title, it’s a, well, it means ‘elder’, but what they mean by it is ‘keeper’.  And that’s not a duty, it’s an honour, it’s supposed to be the biggest of all things when people first start calling you keeper and the first one to say it should be the old keeper, and you spend the rest of your life living up to the-” Her voice cut off with a squeak and she put her hand over her mouth a moment, and Aveline waited till she started talking again. “I’m not worth it. I can’t live up to a thing I never earned. They only want me because they don’t have anyone else to do it.”

“And do you?”

“C-come again, sorry?”

“D’you have someone to go in your place?” Aveline didn’t let up. “Who could do what they need, so you can run away? And I don’t mean the magic.”

“What else is there? You’ve seen me.” Her teeth were white in the gloom, but that wasn’t a smile. “Parlour tricks and fairy tales and basic literacy and they treat me like a saint when they aren’t treating me like a mascot.”

“Yes, Merrill. I have seen you. And I’ve heard you talk about what you’re supposed to be, and a little of your old teacher talking about the same.”

“Then you’re a good and kindly soul, Aveline Vallenn, but you’re blind as a bat.”

“I didn’t say that I thought you measured up.” The same tone she’d take with a new recruit. “I said you’re all there is.”

“And that’s wrong! I – I wouldn’t be a proper keeper like they deserve. I’d be a teacher and an entertainer and a – more like one of the humans’ priestesses – I’d be an apostate running a bloody school. And every time they called me a title I didn’t deserve it would hurt.”

“Why?” Aveline pulled on this thread. “They wanted you back, enough to beard me in my own lair and offer what you just heard. Why can’t you just go back and live on your own terms?”

Silence.

Aveline let it go on.

Small voice. “Because my shadow wouldn’t let me.”

And, in the end, yes. She went home.

*

Merrill

But you aren’t going to leave me at that, are you. You want to know a thing. A thing that I know. A coda, you might say, but we’re neither of us fooling anyone, because unless I come out of retirement one day there’s one thing alone that anybody listening to me is interested in.

And again it’s perfectly simple.

We wrapped the elu’vi’an in silk and I carried it under my arm to Varric’s, because it wasn’t physically possible for me or Aveline to do it and I’d fight to the death before I’d allow a Templar even to lay eyes on it. And still with the thing wrapped, Varric just put a centre punch in the corner where the mirror meets the frame and I made myself watch him hit it with a jewelling hammer, and the metal shattered like glass.

And I’ve never undone those wrappings, not in all the years that I’ve kept the thing.

*

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