A/N: This story came about from a short fanfiction about a pint-sized, quirky mage who foolishly gave a dance lesson to a Qunari; the sort of individual you wouldn't catch jigging about like a savage with a ferret shoved down their pants. The drabble seemed to work and Merran simply wouldn't let me rest until I'd told her story…and I did, right to the end and then I came back and re-read it.
Far be it for me to compare myself to directors of sci-fi epics, I've always wanted to go back and revise Merran's story; fix some formatting, grammar, spelling and pacing oopsies that really didn't sit very well with me. The spirit of the story hasn't changed. Merran is still Merran and this is still her story as she wanted it to be told…
Bioware owns Merran's world. She's just taking it out for a quick stroll in the forest.
Chapter 1 - Maleficars and Meatballs
"I'm going to faint…I'm going to faint…do something, quick!"
Merran Amell clapped one arm over her head; the other arm thrust at her table-mate; who looked at the hand being proffered with long-suffering exasperation. As a favour to a friend he squinted at the indicated finger intently, searching for the implied injury. There was the tiniest nick; the skin barely broken. There wasn't even any blood that he could see…Could she not even make an effort to make it look convincing, Jowan thought in disgust; squeeze some blood out perhaps? A paper-cut would have been embarrassed to be associated with the scratch on her finger…
A single dark eyebrow rose on Jowan's pale forehead. "What am I supposed to do about it?" he asked; irritation making his voice sound more high-pitched than usual.
"Heal me!" Merran warbled weakly. "Oh…Maker, the blood loss…I'm dying…dizzy…my life. Flashing. Before. My. Eyes…"
"Can you not for once take this seriously?" Jowan scolded, turning back to the task at hand. He glanced back once, warily. Her complexion was rather green and she was swaying on the spot, but this was Amell. She always looked a bit…odd and it paid to take anything she said, claimed or did with several oceans of salt.
He returned to his deathroot with a roll of his eyes. Barely a moment later there was a soft sigh and his table-mate slumped to the floor. Jowan completed shredding his pile of deathroot before prodding the heap of her motionless body with the toe of his boot. She actually was unconscious…
Shrugging, he muttered, "Pathetic…" under his breath before scooping the deathroot into the glass container on the bench. Stew gently over a low flame…his potion-making notes read…and so he did.
A rhythmic tapping announced Senior Enchanter Leorah on her rounds of the apprentices' tables. She barely startled when she came upon Merran and Jowan, sparing a dispassionate, almost bored look at the prone apprentice, appearing to be more interested in the male apprentice's work with the difficult herb.
She smiled serenely, giving the bubbling deathroot an approving nod. "Oh, well done Jowan. That's coming along very nicely."
"Thank you Senior Leorah…" Jowan grinned, pleased at himself.
Stepping lightly over Apprentice Amell's unconscious body, the Senior Enchanter continued her circuit of the room.
"Aw…look at it this way: at least I'd make a terrible Blood Mage, ah-ha-ha-ha!"
First Enchanter Irving rested his bearded chin in one hand, a gnarled finger tapping at his cheekbone while the young apprentice sitting before him laughed. A single thought kept butting the inside of his skull…the same one that inevitably raised its ugly, insistent head whenever this particular apprentice was in his vicinity. It was a desire-demon of a thought that wrapped enticingly around his mind with promises of peace and the ability to run a well-ordered, uneventful Tower…
Tranquil…make her Tranquil…and tranquility will once more return to your Tower…
The less persuadable, demon-resistant part of him however, reminded him turning Merran Amell Tranquil would be a waste of what was an incredible talent for magic as the girl, for all her troublesome ways had potential; a lot of potential. Her magic had come to her at an unusually young age and she had an uncanny ability to absorb lessons by simply being in the same room as other, more hardworking apprentices. Her magic was powerful; frighteningly so. Unfortunately for Merran's fellow students and the other, less important denizens of the Tower, fear was no reason to remove her connection to the Fade.
Peering down the length of his rather long nose, Irving mustered his best First Enchanter's voice. "Young woman," he reminded her sternly, "blood magic is not a topic for amusement. Why, if a Templar heard you saying such a thing…"
He left the threat hanging in the air, along with a warning finger, his brows sinking on his forehead as he realised she wasn't actually listening to him.
Her attention – most unfortunately – was arrested by a black leather-bound tome on his desk. She gasped, turning wide brown eyes up at him. "First Enchanter Irving…" she waggled – actually waggled – a finger at him, "are you a Blood mage?"
"What?" Caught off his guard, the word exploded unexpectedly from him.
Amell's bottom lip turned down in an unhappy pout, for all appearances hurt at the harsh tone of his voice. She pointed to the book that caused the question. lrving pursed his lips, quite aware that this was his fault. The book lay on his desk, in his office and the Fates had dictated that of all the clutter, oddments, missives and confiscated items piled upon his work table, it had been this particular item that had caught her attention.
It had been a gift from the Knight Commander; a joke shared between two highly competitive, but idealistically-opposed colleagues.
The ominously heavy book in large, flamboyant lettering read 'Blood Magic: The Forbidden School'.
Overcome by a sudden streak of rebellion, Irving eyed the young apprentice beadily. "Yes," he replied in a voice devoid of expression. "My secret identity has been revealed. I am indeed a Blood Mage and tonight at midnight I shall wreak a frenzy upon this Tower to slay all in their sleep." Starting with the apprentice floor...
"Golly!" Merran exclaimed, brown eyes shining in admiration. "That would be just brilliant!"
"Yes, I'm sure you of all people would think so," Irving's mouth twisted resentfully.
"Of course, I know you're just pulling my leg," Merran added in a knowledgeable voice. "Greagoir's got a pretty good nose for Maleficars and Blood Mages." She gave a snort of amusement. "Huh, if you were a Blood Mage, I'd be standing here talking to a headless corpse."
"That's Knight Commander to you, apprentice," Irving reminded her sternly.
He rose from his desk. Keeping the barrier of wood and clutter between himself and Amell, Irving paced the threadbare rug behind his lumpy, high-backed chair. One would think that an inmate of such long residence at the Tower of Magi would show signs of her time here. It had been…nearly seventeen years. Seventeen years of exposure to other mages and all the rules, regulations and unspoken understandings that experience came with. Merran Amell was not the very model of a modern mage apprenticing.
No, she was very much something else…and what that 'something' was; he had as yet to find out.
She was…if pressed to provide a description now…a contradiction of herself. Meek, never outspoken, always courteous, neat, precise, obedient…she was also rebellious, cynical, argumentative, sloppy and defiant. She could recite the Chant of Light backwards in four different languages. Her spellcasting was superb, faultless. Her ability to absorb vast amounts of knowledge was impressive.
Yet…if there was itching powder to be found in the Templar uniforms, exploding meatballs at dinner time, or a sparring dummy dressed in an evening gown sitting in the Knight Commander's chair…She would unerringly be the suspect at the top of everyone's list…and mystifyingly, always the first to be cleared of any wrong doing. She was a conundrum; a puppy chasing its tail for no other reason than it could. It was also difficult to dislike the girl. It would have been like kicking that loyal, large-eyed puppy as she treated all she encountered without distinction, inequality and with an annoying familiarity that made his jaw ache.
"Tell me, Amell," Irving paused, regarding the nearly invisible pattern of the rug. As First Enchanter he felt obligated to understand her. "Do you enjoy being a mage?"
She stared at him unblinkingly with her large brown eyes. Irving was completely unaware that she was at present, not contemplating his question, as he expected, but a bit of fluff on his shoulder. After a while, he felt it necessary to prompt her. "Well?"
Amell appeared to give herself a shake. Cocking her head to the side, she tapped her chin with a thoughtful finger. "Do I enjoy being a mage?" she repeated, turning the sentence over in deep consideration.
"Why yes, First Enchanter!" she clapped her hands like an enthusiastic three-year old, causing him to startle from the unexpected noise and sudden movement. "I just love being a mage! It's the best!"
Is she being sarcastic? Irving glared, waiting for the mask of bright enthusiasm to dissipate under his penetrating, see-all, know-all, First Enchanter's gaze. Disappointingly, it remained fixed in place. Turning his weary attention to the bookcase opposite, he sighed to himself. It disturbed him to think that had he been asked the question, he would have replied with a similar response, if not so…animatedly.
What is the use, really?
"Very well, Apprentice Amell," he said finally. "Thank you for your time. In future I expect you will endeavour to be more careful with sharp implements in Herbalism, yes?"
"Oh, I didn't cut myself on a knife, First Enchanter!" she informed him cheerfully. "It was a leaf cut!"
A leaf cut…? His eyes narrowed at her, but he did not feel inclined to pursue the subject. There were only so many hours in a day.
"Be…" he swallowed the sigh. "Be careful all the same…"
"Aw, thanks First Enchanter…I will!"
"Very good, very good. You are dismissed," he waved at her hastily; keen to have the serenity of his office returned to him by having her leave it.
He heard her skip to the exit. The door swung open then shut; the click of the lock mechanism sending a wave of relief over him. Returning to his desk, he moved a sheaf of correspondence from the innocuous brown box beneath. He lifted the lid, peering inside, smiling. His afternoon cup of tea awaited him; golden brown and still steaming, it would be at the perfect temperature for drinking.
At some time during the course of his fairly recent leadership at the Head of the Circle of Magi in Ferelden, a rather annoying tradition had been established amongst the apprentices and younger mages in the Tower. He had no idea where this particular idea came from (though that name came to mind), but it made his once serene, civilised moments of the day fraught with anxiety and tension. Every day he vowed he would not be bested.
Every day he failed.
Today would be different.
Removing the cup from the box, Irving raised it to his nose. He sniffed. Nothing unusual. He inspected the colour. It was a perfect dark caramel brown with just a hint of cream. Confident nothing was amiss, Irving set the cup to his lips and took a sip. It tasted like tea. Emboldened, he drank more deeply, feeling something large and round bump against his upper lip. He froze.
Lowering the cup he took a deep breath before flicking his eyes downwards. The enchanted glass eyeball rolled over helpfully and winked at him, before bobbing back down below the surface of the tea.
Irving placed the cup quietly onto its saucer. Tomorrow…he told himself with grim determination. I will not fail tomorrow…and…I did not see her do it, but I'll be damned if I wasn't sure it was Amell…
Judging by the volume and frequency of Jowan's snores reverberating from the top bunk, Merran guessed the time being an hour or two after midnight. The First Enchanter had not come to slaughter all in the Tower as he had stated. Of course, she knew he wouldn't, but she could not help feel disappointed all the same.
Death by blood mage…It would have been an interesting fate for anyone who had never been allowed to live. In the still, cabbage-scented atmosphere of the apprentices' dormitory, Merran wondered yet again what life would be like if she simply accepted being here. If she simply accepted being surrounded day after day by lifeless cold rock and lifeless cold men in plate armour. Accepted the inevitable routine of waking up, washing, eating, studying…eating again…studying again and then finally, sleep to rest for the next day of much the same. Even the threat of random incineration, electrocution or possession did not add any particular colour to the routine.
She was destined to exist in a world of grey the rest of her days, it seemed.
She had once considered escaping. Just the once. It had been a nice dream to pursue; slipping into the shadows of the forest during a supervised field trip…jumping into Lake Calenhad for a quick swim to freedom…or hiding in one of the many, anonymous barrels that appeared to be exchanged between the kitchen and the outside world…
The problem with any of these schemes was that apprentices were supervised by the most suspicious, sneaky, distrustful individuals in Thedas. If an apprentice strayed one millimetre from a set area, they would be herded silently but firmly back towards the others. The shores of Lake Calenhad were also diligently patrolled and apprentices reminded that were they fortunate to survive the freezing temperatures of the lake, the unusually aggressive aquatic denizens might not be so forgiving.
As for the barrels…The Templars used them quite frequently to test the sharpness of their longswords. Occasionally, the barrels would bleed…
"Porridge! Glorble, ngnnnnggg…snorrrkk!"
Failed escapism aside, Merran knew that mages left the Tower from time to time and not just Tranquil either. What was the secret to being trusted to travel outside she wondered?
There was the Harrowing of course. Apprentices rarely – if ever – were to be trusted in public, but Ferelden mages were not confined to the country of their origin. They travelled abroad, gathering information, meeting with other mages, discussing magic…There were even mage-run establishments that sold merchandise of an arcane nature. Clearly there was a market. If people were buying, then despite the fear and abhorrence surrounding a mage's existence, a fascination with the magically afflicted existed enough for the ordinary person to purchase a cursed monkey's paw or a lucky rabbit's nose.
Then there were the other type of mage, Merran thought with some pain; mages that assisted Templars to search for unregistered mages or those showing early signs of magic. Some mages even found gainful employment serving nobles and the community – even the Crown – as healers, battle mages…which was a concept that made Merran shudder in distaste. Use her magic to destroy, to kill? She didn't know whether she could abuse her magic in such a way.
Mages had served in the war with Orlais. That was just basic history; important but hardly of interest to her. They had also been involved in some way in the last four Blights fighting alongside the Grey Wardens; even been Grey Wardens, which was far more fascinating. Unfortunately for her curiosity, despite the Tower of Magi's library being one of the most extensive in Ferelden, there were few books about the enigmatic, mysterious Order. Most of the ones she had found had read like collections of Fairy Tales; great people who appeared when they were needed, disappearing when they were not. Little to nothing could be found about how one became a Grey Warden and even less about the creatures they fought.
The word was both thrilling and terrifying.
So what did Grey Wardens do when there wasn't a Blight on? Did they just go somewhere to rest up and train for the next one? Were they magically put to sleep, waking up at the first sign of Darkspawn amassing…? For that matter, did Grey Wardens ever grow old, heading off to that big castle in the Anderfels…? Weisshaupt Fortress; retirement home for Grey Wardens…?
"My turn at the net, Algy! glorble, glorble, num num num…snrrk!"
Merran considered aiming a lightning bolt at the bottom of Jowan's bunk, even if he was better than one of those new-fangled time-measuring things that went ding every hour on the hour with a bell…Instead she rolled over, wrapping her thin pillow around her head.
When was she ever likely to meet her Harrowing, if ever? Was the First Enchanter still collecting enough offences to justify making her Tranquil? She could have sworn he had been fingering the dreaded Red Book this afternoon while she had been in his office…
Merran rolled her eyes. That had been unusually loud for Jowan, but if her bunk mate had descended again into indecipherable utterances, it would be dawn soon. Once again she would be too tired to sit through…and she had to really think what day it would soon be and what delights would be in store for her…Huh…Potions, poultices and poisons…Not Enchanter Leorah's informative lessons, but Senior Enchanter Mallim whose unrelenting drone was guaranteed to put even the most wide-awake into fits of head-nodding. Well good. Maybe I can do a bit of catch up at the back…All she had to do was get Jowan to cast a glyph of silence around her. There was no sense in disrupting the rest of the class with her snores…
"I say pip, pip old tadpole! Off to the briny drink, eh wot?"
What kind of stupid Fade dream is he having anyway? Merran pondered as she finally allowed her mind to release her hold on consciousness. Sinking deep into the darkest and lowest depths of her mind she closed her eyes…and then closed her eyes, floating silently towards the fluttering, smudged tears in the Veil to the Fade…
Wings of midnight soared in the starless, bleeding sky. The creature circled, trailing fire and smoke and death, burning a trail across the landscape with rotting, decayed breath. It was once alive this creature; twisted and malformed; enslavement transforming it into something barely resembling the proud and noble dragons of old. Once, it would have ruled the skies; had domination over the earth, but now it was little more than a mockery of what it had once been. A vile creature. A dread beast. A harbinger of destruction.
The end of all things.
It was an old god shackled by invisible, unbreakable chains within its own mind; hungry for escape. It remembered freedom; a time when time meant nothing; having a will of its own. Merran raised an arm, intangible fingers testing the flow of the wind. Freedom…She felt sorry for the poor creature…to never have had a life of one's own was easy in comparison. To have known it and then had it stolen away…
Rancid air burning her nostrils, Merran bent down, touching the rock at her feet. It was warm, as though heated from beneath. The glowing river of fire just beyond was exactly that; a river of molten fire and rock, oozing lazily along the bottom of the narrow canyon. She could see moving shapes along the ledges and banks, impossible as it seemed in the intense heat. Oddly shaped humans, dwarves, elves…the combined cacophonous roar of their voices echoed eerily and as unhuman like as anything she could ever imagine. And above it all; the fiery river, the sundered landscape and the masses of dark, shouting figures; a single voice screamed.
Tears flowed hot down Merran's scorched cheeks. "I can't help you!" Merran shouted back, her voice small and weightless. "I don't know how…"
"Well, if I haven't heard that a hundred times or more in the last decade…every time I've asked you for notes or a bit of a favour…" Another voice spoke. "Huh, it's not like I've ever asked you to commit murder for me or anything..."
Merran blinked her eyes, the Fade dream lingering too close to consciousness for comfort. She banished the last of it, mentally 'stitching' the torn tendrils of the Veil back together as she returned out of the Fade. Jowan had not appeared to notice her distraction; too busy keeping a wary eye on the Templar standing guard by the door. A Templar always stood on guard at every entry to the apprentices' dormitories, just in case a mage woke up as something other than a mage…Mages were like that. Here today, an abomination tomorrow.
"You've been requested to attend the First Enchanter," Jowan hissed at her, tugging at her arm when she made no attempt to move. "And it's well past morning."
Sleep-fogged and reluctant to move, Merran groaned. Rolling over she tried to hide under the blanket by wrapping it around her head. "I saw him yesterday…" she muttered indistinctly. "I'm not scheduled for another office visit for at least a week…Go away Jowan."
"You're the last one here, Merran," Jowan informed her. He ripped the blanket ruthlessly from her curling, resisting form. "Everyone is already downstairs at breakfast. If you don't hurry you'll miss out and trust me, if your stomach gurgles during Theory of Enchantment and Stalker-Templar thinks you've turned into an Abomination, I'm not going to stop him from taking…steps."
Steps? "That's 'Ser Cullen' to you," Merran yawned. Yanking her pillow out from under her she threw it at Jowan. "And he's kind of cute," she added affectionately. "Don't you just want to pat the top of his curly little head and give him a great big hug?"
"Are you trying to get me killed?" Jowan demanded, throwing the pillow back. "He loathes me."
"Loathes you, loves you…" she sang. "It's all the same. He just looks like he needs a hug."
"Don't change the subject."
By taking a hold of both her arms, Jowan hauled Merran out of the bed. She gasped when her feet touched the chilly stone floor, teeth chattering loudly. Jowan was unsympathetic to her discomfort.
"Come on," he urged. "Get up already. First Enchanter remember? His office. Now…"
She blew a raspberry at him. Jowan's nose wrinkled in distaste, waving a hand in front of his face.
"On second thoughts, you might want to brush your teeth first," he suggested.
"Oh that's rich, coming from you and your nightly explosions of bottom bubbles…" she groused unhappily.
Jowan was undeterred, hustling her towards the shared wash area and placing a lump of chalk in one hand and a willow twig in her other. Halfway through, he threw a mostly clean apprentice's robe over her head, shuffling her out of the door before she had managed to put her arms through the sleeves. By the time the two of them had made it to the lower mess area however, meal time was over, so he hustled her back up the stairs to the First Enchanter's office, snagging a single, stale bread roll from the main table on the way through.
Berating her the entire way for her tardiness and lack of enthusiasm, he parked her squarely in front of the door to the First Enchanter's office. He knocked on the door then bestowed a parting pat on her head.
"Good luck with the Harrowing!" he said cheerfully, turning towards the stairs.
Merran woke up.
"WHAT?" she exclaimed, the colour draining from her face. She leapt after Jowan, feet skidding across the stone floor when she clamped her arms firmly and limpet-like around one of his. He kept on going as though she were nothing more than an inconvenient pimple.
"Wah…wait…Jowan…Harrowing?" she asked breathlessly.
Only now did he stop, resting fists onto his hips. "You sound as if you don't know…Wait, you saw Irving yesterday," he frowned at her. "Didn't he tell you?"
"He said nothing about it!" she whined. "He just asked me…" her voice trailed away into a blur of bafflement." He asked me whether I liked being a mage…Now does that seem like an odd question to you?"
"And…what did you tell him?" Jowan asked, afraid of the answer.
"Meh," she shrugged, "I told him it was a blast."
Jowan groaned, dropping his head into his hands. "Can you not for once in your life take anything seriously? Seriously…you said that to the First Enchanter?"
Merran threw her hands helplessly into the air, completely unrepentant; "He asked me a stupid question and I answered in the spirit in which it was given. I even did a little dance…Hey," she frowned abruptly, "you don't think he forgot to tell me on purpose, do you?"
Jowan merely groaned as though in pain. Merran observed him briefly then sighed. "Oh…never mind," she conceded. She pointed to the First Enchanter's door. "So…Harrowing, now?"
"So it seems…" Jowan murmured faintly.
Dragging her feet, Merran returned to the entry to Irving's office. Her shoulders slumped, but she reached out for the door handle anyway. Feeling slightly envious, Jowan continued on to the stairwell, turning back briefly to call: "Yeah, and if you come back possessed, I'm claiming the lower bunk!"