Chapter One: Origins
The Mages' Circle tower stood on a remote island in the centre of Lake Calanhad. Accessible only by boat, it served the dual purpose of discouraging both visitors and potential fugitives alike. Vast and forbidding, six floors of Free Marches stone dominated the horizon, visible as far as Redcliffe Castle. Its architecture was neither skilful nor beautiful, but solid and imposing. There was no doubt to any onlookers that it was a prison as well as a fortress.
Grand Enchanter Irving had been in charge of this particular Mages' Circle for the past seventeen years. Wisely, he had cultivated a relationship of guarded civility with the resident Templar commander, Greagoir. By mutual understanding, the Templars guarding the tower allowed the mages within unprecedented freedom of activity and movement, and likewise the mages did nothing to jeopardise this extended trust. The Chantry military arm, despite remaining uneasy in the presence of the magic users, at least did not mistreat them.
One cool, crisp morning Irving and Greagoir were seated together in the First Enchanter's study; a surprisingly sparse office on the fifth floor of the tower. Although it lacked fine furnishings or rich fabrics, the study was crammed full of curiosities and oddities from every corner of Thedas. Despite having been in there most mornings for the past decade, it still made Greagoir a little uneasy.
"First day of Parvulis tomorrow," commented Irving, pouring a silver vessel of tea into a hovering cup. Greagoir sniffed, his own cup remaining stubbornly on its saucer.
"What is it the Common folk call it?" continued Irving, glancing out of the leaded window at the watery sunlight reflecting off the lake water.
"Kingsway," replied Greagoir, shifting slightly on his seat, wanting to get the social part of the daily meeting out of the way. "So, what is the schedule for today?"
Irving smiled behind his grey beard, sensing the Templar's discomfort.
"What is disconcerting you this time, Greagoir? It can't be the skull, for I've turned it to face away. Is it the sight of so many books, all at once?"
Greagoir refused to rise to the subtle jibe, drawing his thick eyebrows together. His armour made a soft, metallic chink as he sat up straight in his seat.
"Evidence of blood magic was found over in Kirkwall," the soldier continued, fixing the Mage with an inscrutable stare. "Three men dead, and the Malificarum fled into the Marches."
Irving let out an imperceptible sigh. Every time there was an incident of this sort anywhere in Thedas, accusatory glances turned to the other Circles. He knew better than to try and protest, however.
"I'll ask Wynne to form an inquiry," he said, placating. "She's busy with research, but she can make time."
Greagoir gave a stiff nod. "I'll send the new lieutenant to accompany her. Cullen. Keep him from mooning around the apprentice quarters after that gluttonous girl."
Irving tapped his nails against the wooden table, thoughtfully. "And as for other business, what do we have? A delegation from the Chantry, no doubt asking for our help in translating some old scroll. Deliveries from Denerim, though of course you will know about that." Seeing as you search every package that comes through the iron gates.
"Ah, and another Harrowing," he finished, as it occurred to him. "Speaking of your lieutenant. It's the turn of that girl he has a fancy for. Let's see..."
He turned around, reached for a wooden box of record cards on a shelf behind him. Flicking through the neatly inscribed parchment, he paused, and nodded.
"Here we go: Flora Chastity Cove."
Greagoir nodded, vaguely recognising the name. Young Cullen had mentioned her over-casually in passing once or twice. She had an abundance of dark red hair and solemn grey eyes, often found sneaking out of the kitchens with food smuggled in her clothing. For a slender girl, she had the reputation of being a notorious glutton.
"Do you think she'll succeed?" he asked, recalling the unfortunate apprentice who had fallen prey to a demon the previous week, whom he'd had to slay on the spot. Irving shrugged, raising his eyebrows ruefully.
"Her parents, simple village folk, tried to hide her; she's only been a student here for four years. Maker knows if she's had enough training."
Greagoir shrugged, setting his cup back in the saucer with a clatter.
"We'll see tonight, at any rate."
Meanwhile, Flora Cove herself was blissfully unaware of the discussion taking place two stories beneath her. She was sitting on the Circle tower roof, shielded from the wind by a stone buttress, facing north across the Lake. Her legs dangled over the edge precipitously but she didn't appear to mind. Instead, she was drumming her feet absentmindedly against the stone as she squinted towards the shore, and further still to the dull grey ridge known as Glorfin's Spine.
The roof was the one place in the Circle Tower which was not under constant scrutiny by the Templar, and so far no one had caught her using the old maintenance stairway to access its lofty seclusion.
When she had arrived at Kinloch Hold four years earlier at the age of fifteen, Flora had been disconcerted by the constant, glowering presence of the Templars. Their unrelenting presence accompanied everything the apprentices did; daily chores or specialised training. At first Flora had felt their accusatory stares heavily; but they did not interfere with her in any way and so as the months slipped past they faded into the background of her life.
It was more the senior mages who had the capability to make the apprentices' lives a misery. Whether it was ordering them to perform mundane tasks or insisting that unnecessary chores be repeated; if a mage took a grudge against a particular apprentice it could cause far greater misery than a Templar's accusing stare.
Fortunately, Flora had managed to avoid the ire of any of the senior mages in her four years at the circle. Uninterested and thoroughly incapable of the more aggressive forms of magic, she had a rare gift for creation. Her remarkable skills as a healer were much in demand by the older students, although her instructors often grew frustrated at her apathy for the other schools.
"Do you think you can heal a demon to death?" a teacher had demanded angrily during the previous afternoon's tutoring. In response, Flora had shrugged apologetically, aware of the fact that that she was unable to conjure even a simple match-flame. The teacher had growled in frustration and sent her away; Flora had returned to her bunk eating a sandwich.
She recalled the teacher's scathing words once more and scowled. In an attempt to banish the memory, she dug in her pocket and retrieved a crumpled paper bag. Inside was an Orlesian sugar mouse, only slightly dented from the journey. This had been a payment for a senior student using her shielding services while experimenting with some new spell.
A nearby crow eyed her with interest as she held up the mouse, and she scowled at it.
"Go away!" she muttered, her words snatched by the wind. "This rodent isn't for you."
Below the unsuspecting Flora, preparations for her Harrowing ceremony were taking place. First Enchanter Irving and his senior aide Wynne were conferring beside the font, waiting for the alchemical reaction to take place.
"Maleficarum again," Wynne was saying irritably as she gave the mixture an anti-clockwise stir with a long-handled spoon. "Surely the Chantry have learnt by now that we despise blood magic as much as they do?"
Irving gave an eloquent shrug of his shoulders, watching the cloudy grey liquid simmer and broil in the stone vessel.
"I can understand their concern. Blood magic is a great threat to Thedas, and they must remain vigilant, whether we think it fair or not. Is it just the Cove girl tonight? I thought there was another apprentice of age."
Wynne nodded, adding two drops of Deathroot essence to the mixture. It hissed, then began to coalesce into a translucent silver.
"Just the girl. I am not confident in Jowan's ability to pass the Harrowing."
The master enchanter and his senior aide shared a mutual glance of understanding.
If he is not ready soon, the Templars will have to be told. The Ceremony of Tranquilisation is kinder than being thrown from the top of the tower.
"Will the girl pass?" asked Irving, watching the now clear liquid bubble in the stone font, despite lacking any clear source of heat. Wynne let out a sigh, placing a hand on the small of her aching back.
"I'm not sure, Irving. Her creation skills are quite astounding for an apprentice, but she has no affinity for offensive spells. It's remarkable how resistant she is to leaning anything from that field."
Irving sighed, conscious of the silent Templar standing six feet behind them, arms crossed, never permitting himself to lean back against the stone. An early seasonal rain drummed gently against the leaded windows, the sky a pallid grey.
"The Fade offers unique challenges," he said at last, fingering the heavy gold coin he always wore around his neck. "Perhaps it will test her differently."
"Maybe," replied Wynne, clearly unconvinced. "Or she'll heal herself to exhaustion, then the demons will take her."
Irving frowned, idly inspecting the contents of a pale blue vial of liquid.
"Don't damn her so quickly," he murmured, replacing the vial in the rack. He felt Wynne sigh, then pause. He could hear the hesitation hanging in the air between them, like a thick grey cloud.
Irving closed his eyes for a moment, then lowered himself into one of the comfortable armchairs that stood at the edge of the Harrowing circle.
"I know what you're going to ask me, Wynne," he said evenly, his eyes wandering to the vaulted ceiling. "Greagoir tells you all the details of my private correspondence."
The old woman stopped pacing the outer ring of the circle and peered at him, her gaze sceptical.
"What do you think?"
Irving made no reply, allowing apprehension to constrict his heart for a moment. The griffon seal on the Grey Warden's letter materialised at the forefront of his mind.
By the old treaties, you are obligated to provide assistance when requested. There is a Blight coming. The darkspawn already seethe on the surface. It is only a matter of time before they swarm.
Duncan, Commander of the Ferelden Grey Wardens.
"I hope he is being over cautious," the First Enchanter said after a few moments, leaning back in the armchair. His eyes drifted over the pedestal and chalice set up for that evening's Harrowing.
"The signs indicate that he is not," countered Wynne evenly, folding her arms across her scarlet robes of leadership. Irving sighed, mentally laid the letter to one side.
"He is coming tomorrow, so let us not brood on it now. There is nothing that can be done tonight."
Wynne shot him a glance that told him exactly what she thought of procrastination, but bowed her head obediently and headed for the stairwell. The Templar guarding the doorway stepped back with guarded respect to let her pass.
"Blessed are those, fair lady, who feel the touch of your lips!"
The soldier looked up beseechingly, clinging to the ivy trellis beneath her balcony. Flora laughed, plucking an apple from a nearby bowl and holding it up.
"Is this apple blessed then, because it has felt the touch of my lips? I am far more interested in this apple than you, anyway."
"Stop lying around! Get up!"
Flora, somewhat confused, glanced over the balcony at the soldier, only to find out that her bulky mercenary's adoring expression had been replaced by Skaldia's scowl. The older apprentice was glowering up at her.
"Hurry up! We don't have all night."
Flora woke abruptly, sitting bolt upright in the narrow bottom bunk assigned to her in one of the apprentice dormitories. Skaldia was bending over her, clutching a flickering candle in a brass holster, looking disapproving as per usual.
"It's time, Cove," she hissed in an undertone, making a half-hearted attempt not to disturb the three other students currently snoring in the bunks. Flora stared up at the slender girl in shock for a moment, not fully comprehending the significance of her words.
"Time for what?" she asked stupidly, her words punctuated by a yawn. Skaldia raised her eyes to the stone ceiling, just as two Templar arrived in the doorway.
"Your Harrowing, idiot," she hissed, yanking off the blankets and pinching at the girl's arm to hasten her movements. Flora, clad in the simple linen nightwear assigned to all initiates regardless of gender, stumbled to her feet.
"It can't be tonight!" she hissed at Skaldia as the older apprentice chivvied her towards the spiral staircase that wound between the different floors of the Tower.
"I still haven't learnt how to use primal magic!" Flora continued, panting slightly as she pleaded with Skaldia's unsympathetic back.
She could hear the metallic footsteps of the Templar escort behind them, falling into a conjoined rhythm. She realised with a small lurch of alarm that if she failed to complete her trial, one of these two men would execute her.
"You'd better hope you learn fast, then." Skaldia threw over her shoulder as they began to climb. For several moments the stairway was devoid of sound, save for the heavy metallic chink of boots against stone, and Skaldia's laboured breathing.
Flora, who was still in a state of mild shock, followed her numbly. The Harrowing trials were an unavoidable element of life at the Tower- apprentices were summoned to the top floor at least once a week. Some would return in exhausted triumph for a last night's rest with their former peers, before ascending to the initiate's floor the next morning.
Others did not return at all, and those who had cared for them needed to persuade the Templars who had been on duty that night to provide them with the full details. Inevitably, they had failed in their task and had been struck down as an abomination; or they had taken the unenviable but far safer route of agreeing to become a Tranquil. Those who underwent the Tranquillisation process were usually assigned drudge roles, in stock rooms or kitchens.
"I'm not ready," she bleated again at Skaldia's back, stumbling on one of the uneven stone steps. Skaldia cast a pitying look over her shoulder as she came to a halt before a pair of high wooden doors, the stone stairs ending abruptly.
"Good luck," she said, finally showing a glimmer of compassion and flashing the girl a wry smile. "Hopefully I'll see you in the morning."
She proceeded to knock smartly on the wooden door; before nudging Flora forward.
OOC Author Note: Thank you for reading! Character art etc at thelionandthelight dot tumblr dot com