The usual disclaimer applies – most of the settings and characters belong to Bioware. This is not entirely a what-if fic, but I have taken some liberties with the plot and the human mage origin in order for some things to make sense. Also, this story is already entirely finished on my computer, so I will be uploading it every few days or so until it's all there, and it won't disrupt the progress of any of my others.
Chapter One: Meetings
"Bann Teagan." She uncurled her fingers slowly. "I…have a request, if you would hear me out."
He nodded. "As you wish."
"May I see the prisoner?"
"The mage?" Teagan scowled. "Are you certain this is wise?"
No, she thought. Not certain, and certainly not wise. "My lord, please. He…he was my friend, a long time ago."
"Very well." Teagan scrubbed a hand across his face. "He did help us. Just…be careful, my lady."
Yes, he did help us, she remembered. Came into the Fade with you, and helped you find the demon in Connor's body and drive it out.
"Thank you." Some strange apprehension fluttered behind her ribs. She had just seen him, mere hours ago, so why was she nervous now? But that was when he was flanked by guards, she thought, with Irving looking on in disapproval.
"Arenyth?" Very gently, Alistair touched her shoulder. "Do you want me to come with you?"
She turned, looked into his soft, earnest eyes and almost wished that she might say yes. But no, she could not, because Jowan was her friend, and a traitor, and a maleficar, and hers. "No," she answered. "No. I'll be fine."
"Alright." For a long moment, he looked like he wanted to add something, but then he shrugged, grinned. "I'll be here, taking advantage of Bann Teagan's hospitality. And food. Mainly the food."
They would leave with the dawn, she knew, off to Denerim and the scholar Lady Isolde was so sure knew of this Urn, and where it had been hidden. Still, that left her with another night at the castle, and her own thoughts, and Jowan, locked in the dungeon. Leliana had planned some song, she was sure, something sprightly and light, something that might cheer the arlessa. There would be a meal tonight, a feast even, and good company, but she found herself, well, not uncaring, but certainly disinterested.
She brushed past Alistair, murmured something about how she would see him later perhaps, at dinner. She felt his gaze following her as she stalked through the door and down the steps, but she could not explain.
He had been with her when they had first crept into the castle, edging through the filth in the tunnel, Teagan's signet ring pressed into her sweat-slick palm. Zevran and Wynne as well, and they had all seen how her face had fallen, she was sure of it. Had they also heard how her heart had thundered, and seemed to slam against her ribs, so painfully?
With a knifing kind of clarity, she remembered his face, that last day at the Circle Tower. How he had thrown himself between the templars and the girl he said he loved.
Did he? Had he loved her, the Chantry girl, the initiate?
Arenyth shook her head, tried to banish such thoughts. It mattered little now, in any case. He was treacherous and imprisoned, and had loved someone else, or so he said, and she was a Grey Warden.
She took the long way, threading past the armoury and the other big, empty hall and into the small kitchens. There, she coerced a plate of rye bread and cold chicken and crumbling cheese from the harried, tired-looking serving girl. She scooped up a flask of wine on her way out, briefly wondered if the girl had noticed, and decided that she simply did not care.
Not right now, not when the desiccated corpses that had prowled the castle corridors were still being shoveled out by the guards.
Underfoot, the floor changed. There were no lush carpets here, no tapestries adorning cold stone walls. She nodded to the guard, told him she had Bann Teagan's permission to speak with the prisoner. He waited, looked her up and down, and gave in, unlocking the door and motioning her through. The air was still rank, tasted of pooled, old water and mildew. Cobwebs thick in the corners, and the stone damp beneath her feet. A single torch, flickering nearby and sending the shadows wheeling madly. She paused by the archway, and called out, "Jowan? It's me."
She heard him shift and move, tentative footsteps.
Her heart was in her throat again. Did he know how the relief had swept through her, turned her all weak-kneed and shaky, when she had seen him? Beside her, Wynne had caught her elbow, steadying her, perhaps even understanding. Alistair had asked some of the questions, occasionally looking back at her, and she mumbled something about how yes, she knew him, knew this dark-haired, pale mage with the hopeless look in his very blue eyes.
The truth had come slowly, pained words from a man in tattered robes that were splashed with blood. His own, she learned, and not, this time, through some forbidden rite. Rather the simple, brutal tactic of torture, and she wondered at how many scars might map the white skin beneath his clothes now.
There were none that night, or any of the others, she remembered. Back when you were both so young, and so unscarred, by life or anything else.
"Arenyth." He said her name again, and she almost stepped back when he approached the bars. "What are you doing here?"
She forced a smile, ice-bright and just as brittle. He looked so tired, she noticed again. Tired and so thin and wrung through, deep shadows around his blue eyes. "I thought you might want some company."
"Oh." His face clouded with confusion. "Oh. I…what about your friends?"
"They'll be eating. With Bann Teagan, I suppose."
"Oh," he said again.
"I brought you some food."
The plate would not fit, so she lifted the bread off first, slid it through the bars to him. Watched the agile motion of his fingers as he accepted it. She said nothing, only passed the cold meat through next. Wordlessly, he took the cheese, broke the chunk in half, and passed the bigger portion back to her. Arenyth smiled, nodded slightly when she bit into the cheese. Left with the flask, she shook it at him questioningly.
The ghost of a smile pulled at his mouth. "Do you intend for me to have a hangover as well as all my other troubles?"
She grinned properly, tugged the cork out. Took a deep, heady swig from the flask, shuddered as the wine seared down her throat. "More for those of us who want it, then."
"I didn't say I didn't want it." He reached through the bars, and his hand brushed across hers. "Thank you. For the food."
She nodded again. Let herself slide down the wall until she was sitting. He gazed down at her for a long moment before copying her. The silence stretched, broken only by the sound of the wine sloshing as he lifted the flask.
She wanted to ask him…Maker, so many things.
How was he caught by the templars? Had it hurt, the first cut he made in service to his blood magic? And when had he first done it, as a matter of fact, and why had he not told her?
The Tower and the templars and Lily lay behind them, but she could not quite find the words she needed. So instead, she reached out for the flask again, and said, "Do you remember that time we spent the whole evening sitting on Irving's windowsill?"
Jowan laughed, a small, spluttering noise of surprise. "Yes," he answered. "Of course I do. How could I forget? The height. It was horrible."
But it had been wonderful, too, sitting with their legs dangling over the edge, backs to the casement, and staring out over Lake Calenhad as the sun set and the moon rose behind thin skeins of white cloud. Irving had discovered them eventually, she recalled, and startled them when he whipped the curtains open and growled something about young and stupid apprentices who were lucky that it was not a windier night.
"You dared me to do it," she pointed out.
"I never thought you'd actually take me up on the suggestion."
"How old were we?"
"I was seventeen."
Meaning she must have been around fifteen or so, she supposed. So long ago, it seemed, that they had sat up there, looking down on the lake and the whole world, free of templars and spellbooks and regulations.
"Well, you didn't have to come up there with me."
"Oh, really?" Jowan shifted closer, leaned his shoulder against the bars. "I was meant to pace around in Irving's study just waiting to get caught, was I?"
"Instead you got grabbed by the scruff of the neck and dragged back in through the window. And you screamed."
"I didn't scream."
How easy and how simple, she thought, to fall back into this wonderful rapport, this effortless back-and-forth of words that had nothing to do with the fate of Ferelden, or blood, or darkspawn. Words that had to do with friendship, and silliness, and childish mistakes.
"Do you remember when you caught two of the senior enchanters getting far too friendly in the library?"
She giggled, but even to her own ears, it sounded strained. "And I came running to get you and tell you."
"But by the time we got back there, they'd gone."
"And you never did believe me."
"Yes, I did," Jowan said, sounding vaguely affronted.
"Well, you said you didn't."
"Well, yes, but you said you hated me nearly every day of the year you were fourteen."
"Fourteen-year-old girls hate everything. It's part of our charm."
That word again, and she cringed. Hate. Why did he have to say it, and why did she have to say it back to him? Stupid woman, she thought fiercely. She glared at her fingers, locked around her knees.
"Where will you go next?" Jowan asked.
Jolted out of her thoughts, Arenyth blinked. "To Denerim. To see a man called Brother Genetivi. About finding the Urn of Sacred Ashes."
He shook his head slowly. "You're a Grey Warden, and you're saving Ferelden, and now you're going to go and find the Urn of Sacred Ashes. Maker above, Arenyth."
And he was in here, with his own blood drying on his clothes, and she did not know what she could say to that.
"Don't." She shook her head, stared vehemently at the cold stone between her feet. "Please don't."
"I'm sorry," he began, but she cut across him again.
"Don't. Just…talk to me about something. Anything. Anything else."
"Do you still drink too much red wine?"
"Only when I can afford it. Are you still ticklish?"
"Utterly," he answered. "Right down…"
"…under your ribs." She grinned. "I remember finding out."
He groaned. "You tormented me."
"I was young and bored."
"So crashing into me, slamming me into the wall and tickling me was the best way to alleviate your boredom?"
"I remember enjoying it at the time."
The soft feel of his robes under her hands, and the way he just buckled and gave in, did not even retaliate, only gave a high-pitched shriek. She ended up sprawled across him, and cringed when she heard one of the templars snap at her to stop her damn horsing around and get off the poor boy.
"Do you still talk in your sleep?"
"What? Jowan, I did that once."
"Not according to the other poor apprentice who had to sleep in the bunk next to yours."
"Huh. I'm surprised anyone would hear me talking over that stupid girl who used to snore like a dying hog."
The silence returned, deep and cloaking and terrible. She stared down at her linked hands, and wondered again why she ached so much. She did not want to speak of hatred, and darkness, and what might happen when she left for Denerim, or what would happen when he was taken back to the Tower. She wanted tales of that time he had hopelessly tried to bluff his way around an instructor, and failed, or the time they tried to sneak into the store room, or all those nights they spent awake until dawn, back when they were children, and young, and knew nothing of the world.
She turned, reached out blindly for the wine flask. Her hand bumped against his sleeve, pushing aside damp fabric and revealing thin, white scars, webbing across the delicate bones of his wrist.
Jowan shifted uncomfortably, but she held on. Used her other hand to pilfer the wine flask, and did not let go of his wrist. "Oh, Maker. Jowan…" Gently, she peeled his cuff back, saw that the scars swirled down the inside of his arm. "When did you start doing this? When was it?"
And how is it that I didn't know?
"It was a few months before I met Lily." His blue eyes darted, avoiding her. "I was…you know I was struggling with the lessons."
"So I…there's a lot in that library, if you know where to look. And the rest...well, it's instinctual. Once you start. And Maker's wisdom...it's very easy, once you start. I think that's maybe why there's not too many books on it, but still plenty of blood mages. It just...I just thought…I thought maybe it might help. "
"Help what? You to get her into bed?"
He flinched. "No. Well, yes, but not just that. I wanted…something of my own. Something I could study, and make work for me."
"But you never told her about it."
"No. I never told anyone."
Not even me, she thought. Gently, she traced the tip of one finger down the inside of his wrist. Even now, her stomach flipped over when she remembered that terrible day at the Tower. When she had allowed herself to be pulled into his harebrained scheme, only to find that it was serious, very serious, not at all like it had been when they were younger, and he meant to escape, somehow, any way he could. That he was going to be made Tranquil against his will, and he had chosen exile instead.
"They're going to destroy me," he said, his voice wavering. "All my emotions, all my memories…"
Coldness chased down her spine. She knew, then, that if it was true, and he was to be made Tranquil, she would help him, for how could she not? She did not want to see him speaking in nothing more than a monotone, blank-faced and hollow, even if it meant never seeing him again.
But then he had thrown himself in front of Lily, and she had seen the dagger in his hand.
He lifted it, and she knew, she knew suddenly that he had been lying. He had lied to her, and probably to Lily as well, and then the blade came arcing down, driving into his palm and the air was full of sharp scent of fresh blood.
"Jowan," she said, close to a whisper. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because…" He shrugged. "Because I was afraid you'd try to stop me."
"Andraste's flaming sword, you're right I would've stopped you." She glowered fiercely at him. "You didn't need to…" Her eyes blurred, and she scowled. "You're an idiot."
"I know," he said, softly.
"You should've told me, and then I could've helped you, even if I had to hit you over the head with the heaviest book I could find, you stupid man." She rubbed her knuckles against suddenly stinging eyes. "I would've helped you. But now…"
"It's over, Arenyth," he said, as quietly. He pushed the wine flask into her hands. "It's over." He eased himself closer to the bars, so that his shoulder was pressed against hers. "Do you remember when you first arrived at the tower?"
This was better; this was what she wanted. Safe words, and old stories that they both knew, with predictable, nice endings. "Of course I do. You couldn't stand me. For at least half a year."
"Lies and slander."
"I'll give you that." He hooked the wine flask back, bumped his elbow against the bars and winced. "You were so annoying."
"And you were so melancholy. I swear you did nothing but sigh when they made you look after me." She grinned at the sudden memory, of a tall, skinny, black-haired boy of around eight years old. Folding his arms and grimacing, and declaiming again and to anyone who would listen that he was just so out of luck, and why did they have to make him look after a girl in any case? Could they not have found someone closer to his own age and tastes? He had been soundly ignored, she recalled, and told in no uncertain terms that he spent too much time on his own, and the company would do him good.
"Jowan. If we hadn't gone back to the Tower, if there hadn't been time, would you really have..?"
He sighed. "Would I have…? What? Killed Arlessa Isolde? If that was the only way."
"What would have happened?"
"Almost the same as what did happen, Arenyth. You would've gone into the Fade, but without me, and rescued Connor."
"You know what I mean," she said.
"There would have been a lot of blood, and the arlessa would have died, quite painfully." He brushed a hand across his face. "Please don't…I don't want to talk about this. Please."
She nodded silently. "I understand."
He lifted the wine flask, tipped it to one side thoughtfully. "We got through that rather quickly."
She laughed, a little raggedly. "I think we have an excuse or three, don't you?"
"Unlike when you made off with those three whole carafes." And suddenly, he was her Jowan again, all weary-sounding voice and slightly timid smile, those black eyebrows furrowing together. "I can't believe you drank most of it."
"You drank the rest."
"And paid for it," he added mournfully. "My head. I wanted to die."
She bit her lip. She wanted to reach through the bars and touch him and tell him that she would help him escape, help him leave. Except you won't, she thought coldly. He's Bann Teagan's prisoner, and responsible for nearly killing Arl Eamon, and he's going to be sent back to the Tower for execution. "Jowan?"
She tried to move closer, but the bars were cold and damp and flaking bits of rust onto her tunic. Still, she managed to hunch near enough that her shoulder and side aligned against his, and when she leaned her head against the bars, he copied her.
"Did you love Lily?" The question fled from her lips before she could reconsider, and she wondered if he might shy away, ask her to leave, refuse to answer.
"I don't know. I thought I did. I thought was saving her, taking her away." A strange, dreamy smile pulled at his mouth. "I….don't know. That's the truth."
His hand moved, and very gently cupped over the crown of her head. When she did not shake him off, he threaded his fingers through her hair. She smiled and let her eyes close and remembered. Remembered how she had been maybe seventeen, and how they had found themselves in some dreary, dusty corner of the library, in search of some scroll or other.
The high shelves, all warm mahogany and smelling of vellum and ink and the heat from the fireplace in the adjoining chamber. Tiny oil lamps dangled above, throwing flickering light over the iron-banded edges of old tomes. She reached past him, grabbing for a book, and realised just how close he was. Close enough that she could see the silver threads along his collar. Close enough that she could count his eyelashes when he blinked and looked down at her.
"Yes?" His voice wavered.
"You have very blue eyes."
"Yes." She lifted a hand to touch his face, changed her mind, and grinned nervously. "I just never…really noticed before."
He had done nothing that day, she remembered, except wind his hands through her hair and mumble something about how good it smelled.
Her eyes were still closed, half lost in memory, and she could feel the soft cloth of his robes beneath her cheek. "I missed you."