Feathers Black as Winter Midnight

Ser Deryn bent to pick up another feather, the jackdaws in the winter roost above her screaming at each other and at the two-legged intruder below them.

At least I've this to show for today.

She straightened and tucked away the feather in her belt pouch, shouldering her bow. Her squad had been called from their post at Dragon's Peak by the rumor of a maleficar operating in the tiny village of Jorah's Ford. Knight-Captain Hopcyn had led them out here this morning to investigate.

Under a steel-colored sky promising snow, they'd tracked down and questioned an unpleasant farmholder. The woman had been frightened, but if she'd ever cast so much as a spark Deryn would eat her helmet. The rumors had probably been started by neighbors who coveted her land. Farmholder politics. As usual.

They'd passed this jackdaw roost on the way from the village, and Deryn had been granted permission to gather feathers for her fletching, the rest of her squad going on ahead. She'd easily found forty good primary feathers, enough to fletch twenty arrows with a little left over. Three things limit a hunter, her father had told her back in the days when she'd been learning his trade. Your bow's draw limits the game you can aim for. Your speed over terrain limits your range. Your ammunition limits the number of chances you have at your target.

She spared a moment to miss the old blighter—and what would he think of her now, a woman grown and a Templar of all things?—and hurried to the road. She'd catch up easily; even after five years in the Templars, she still moved faster than most of her compatriots, and she was in leather and chain instead of plate. Knight-Captain Hopcyn kept on offering to send her to Denerim, to the Knight-Hunters.

Her brothers and sisters lived in Dragon's Peak. She couldn't get so far from them—what would they do without her to come fix the cottage that was always falling apart round their ears? She shook her head, and quickened her footsteps. Outside the shelter of the trees, the wind was rising, snow beginning to fall faster. The storm was going to be worse than she'd thought this morning.

A sound from ahead caught her attention. More jackdaws, chattering and clacking amongst themselves. Another roost so close? That's strange—

She rounded a bend in the road, and froze.

Four armored bodies lay in the road, armor blackened in the distinctive patterns of lightning and fire magic. The smell of smoke overlaid the coppery stench of death hanging in the chill air. Jackdaws gathered in the trees, despite the rising wind and spitting snow. One perched on Ser Hopcyn's chest, eyeing his face.

Her squad.

How did this happen? One alone—maybe two—but four Templars?

Four Templars had to be a match for any one mage. There had to have been at least two powerful maleficar, to have accomplished this. Perhaps more.

Her stomach churned, and she closed her eyes, swallowing panic.

There was no sign of the mage who had done this, and any tracks were covered by the snow that was falling ever more swiftly as twilight gathered. Whoever had killed Deryn's squad had gotten away clean.

Numb, she pulled the bodies to the side of the road, closed their eyes, arranged them in something like dignity. It took an eternity, handling the bodies of men who had been her brothers in arms not an hour ago. The jackdaws screamed derisively overhead.

The snow was falling thickly now, the temperature dropping, and inside Deryn's gloves her fingers were going numb. She took a long breath, and then another.

Care for the living, Deryn, her father's voice whispered in the back of her mind. The dead have nothing but time. She could almost hear his creaking laugh at the joke.

She had to get out of the storm. Shelter was the first goal, and then warmth; everything else would wait. A jackdaw landed on a low branch nearby, clacking at her.

"Don't you start," she told it, and walked into the gathering gloom.

#

What little light was left was failing into bitterly cold, snow-pocked darkness. Beyond Deryn's flickering circle of torchlight, the world may as well have been made of wind and blackness. She occasionally paused and used her bow to prod the footing in front of her, silently apologizing to the weapon for using it in such a way.

The jackdaws were following her, though at a distance now, and the back of her neck prickled. The side of her foot brushed against something solid, and she paused, bending a little.

It was a snow-covered cairn, of the type that usually signified a side path that would lead to a residence. Deryn paused to weigh her chances. If there was a house anywhere close—even a woodshed would be better than nothing, or a barn.

She turned and started down the narrow path, glancing back to memorize where she had left the road. Out of practice, she chided herself. The old man would have your head for not being prepared for snow.

The thought of her father scowling at her never failed to make her smile. But what brought a grin to her face was a trace of woodsmoke on the brittle air. There was a house nearby, and someone was home.

Another quarter hour of careful travel brought her to the door of a small stone house, snow beginning to pile on the stoop. Light seeped out from between the shutters on the windows. Deryn knocked gently on the door, the sound of it muffled by her gloves.

Maker in your mercy, please.

The latch rattled and then the door opened a little. "Bad night for a walk." The woman's voice was low, rough around the edges. "What do you want?"

"Shelter," Deryn said. "Got caught out in the storm. If you've a barn or somewhere I can spend the night out of the snow, I'd appreciate it. If I can claim a place by the hearth, I can pay for the trouble."

The woman looked Deryn up and down with sharp eyes, the narrow opening hiding her expression. Then she opened the door. "Wouldn't leave a soul out on a night like this. Come in."

When Deryn stepped inside, the smell of the place wrapped around her, fragrant herbs and smoke and an undertone of mushrooms. Herbwife. The place was lined with shelves on which bundles and jars were crowded together, and drying herbs hung from the rafters. On a perch in the corner, a jackdaw sat and watched her with pale eyes glinting in the dark grey of its hood. It shook out its wings and settled, grumbling to itself. It was a handsome bird, though one wing did not fold all the way closed.

She felt herself relaxing, the scents and sights of the herbwife's cottage recalling the days when Da would send her and some of the littles to the herbwife who lived outside of their farmhold. Maddy would make up possets and let Deryn and her brothers play with the carved wooden toys she kept for their visits. Deryn had thought to apprentice to her when she was old enough, but Maddy had died in her sleep when Deryn was eleven, and afterwards there had been no warm fire in her cottage, no refuge.

The woman took Deryn's cloak from her and hung it on a peg by the fire, and Deryn set her weapons by the door. "I'm Alis," the herbwife said. She was a tall, angular woman of indeterminate years, greying hair braided back. "Bird's named Fitz. Sit. I'll get you a bite."

Deryn sat at the table, next to a mortar and pestle with some unidentifiable powder in it. "Thank you," she said. "My name's Ser Deryn. You live out here alone?"

Alis gave Deryn a narrow-eyed look. "Husband died these five years ago."

"Blight?" Deryn asked.

Alis shrugged one shoulder as she cut slices off a dried sausage. "Ran into something in the woods meaner than him," she said. In the light from the hearth and the lamp on the table, the lines around her eyes and mouth were soft but still present, and there was something in her expression that spoke of pain that would never heal. She set the wooden plate down in front of Deryn. "You carry your bow like a hunter. How's a wood-wise girl end up joining the Templars?"

Deryn bristled a little at the girl, but took a bite of bread rather than comment. It was good to hear a voice like this, full of the music of the Fereldan countryside. Deryn had gotten used to the educated rhythm of Templar voices, but it always rubbed her fur up a little.

Alis was settling herself in a chair, pulling a basket out from under it that was full of what was apparently mending. Deryn pulled off her leather helm and set it beside her on the bench. "Same way a lot of people join. Ma was Chasind, and she ran back to her tribe and left Da with six littles, the youngest barely weaned. I'm the oldest. Da was a hunter, and I was like to follow, but—" She looked down at her plate. "Blight happened. Da died, and the darkspawn made game scarce. Couldn't support five weans on my own with just my bow, so I had to apprentice. The Order pays recruits more than I could get anywhere else."

"Just like that." Alis pulled a stitch through the shirt she was mending. Deryn remembered nights sitting in front of the fire, watching her mother darn socks. It had been a life of unrelenting work, for all of them, but there were days she missed it. "So you didn't join out of religious fervor?"

"I believe," Deryn said. "And I've seen the danger that apostates pose. I'm out here now because my squad was slaughtered out there on the road by what must have been three or four." The jackdaw grumbled to itself and preened a wing.

Alis had put down her mending, her dark eyes narrowing. "I know." The air was taking on a slick, staticky feel, reddish light gathering around Alis's hands, and Deryn's stomach twisted.

Magic.

She shoved herself to her feet. "You're not just a herbwife," she said. Her bow and knife were less than ten feet away from her. She could smite the apostate and cut her down—

Alis looked at her steadily, utterly unafraid. There was a dark bead of blood on her thumb where she'd pricked it with her needle. Something cold threaded through Deryn's gut.

"If you try it, you will die," Alis said softly. "Ser Hopcyn killed my husband in cold blood for the crime of healing a little boy. It took some doing to get him out here again. Killing healers doesn't make for a popular Templar." She paused. "I'm sorry about your squadmates. They got in the way."

The stares of the villagers. The nasty farmholder and the unfounded rumors that had brought their unit out to this Maker-forsaken village in the middle of nowhere.

Vengeance, served cold.

The jackdaw chattered harshly, tk-tk-tk. Deryn flinched. "You knew I was coming."

Alis looked over at Fitz, who shuffled from foot to foot on its perch. "Hush, Fitz," she said, her voice still soft. She turned her attention back to Deryn. "Of course I knew. My friends, they tell me many things. Had I not wished to speak with you tonight, you would have lost your way in the woods."

Deryn shifted a little where she stood. "Why?"

The drop of blood rolled from Alis's finger and fell to the floor. The eerie red light around her hand had extinguished. "Templars like Hopcyn create apostates like me. Perhaps I wished you to understand that." She smiled thinly, and glanced once more at Fitz. "Hopcyn was my enemy. You are not. You have a choice, Ser Deryn. You can pass the night in safety here and leave on the morrow. Or you can attack me, and fill a shallow grave tomorrow evening. I do not care which."

Deryn cast a glance at where her weapons leaned against the wall by the door. She could not possibly trust a maleficar. Foul and corrupt are they who have taken His gift and turned it against His children.

If the woman had wanted to kill her, she could have done it in the woods, her approach covered by squabbling jackdaws. Or on the path to the cottage. Or poisoned the food she'd given Deryn.

She wants you alive, a small voice whispered. To carry the news back to Dragon's Peak. To let the world know that her vengeance is complete.

Deryn turned back to the table and sat down in the creaking wooden chair. With an effort of will, she folded her hands.

It was a long, sleepless night spent in a tiny cottage with an apostate, the wind whipping around the windows and whistling in through cracks. After Alis retired to the small back bedroom and Deryn wrapped herself in a blanket before the hearth, Fitz the jackdaw watched Deryn steadily from its perch, muttering to itself expectantly.

#

When she led a troop of Templars to Alis's doorstep a few days later, she expected to be greeted with lightning and fire. Instead, the door to the cottage hung partway open, and the inside was cold and largely empty. The apostate and her pet were gone, and the undisturbed dusting of snow on the floor stood mute testimony to the fact that they'd left soon after Deryn had stumbled out into the open air, brilliant post-storm sunlight reflecting sharply from the fresh snow.

On the otherwise empty table was a bundle of black feathers, tied with a silk ribbon. Deryn picked up the bundle, turned it over in her hands. There was no note, but the feathers were all good ones, stiff primaries with smooth vanes.

"What's that?" the newly minted Knight-Captain Heilyn asked.

A gift. A cruel jest. I don't know.

"Just trash, I think," she said. When he looked away, she tucked the bundle into her belt pouch.

The weans were getting older. Perhaps she'd go to Denerim after all. Surely a skilled Templar could rise quickly through the ranks of the Knight-Hunters. They could teach her the tricks of tracking down particular apostates, even without a phylactery to work with.

Some day, she would find Alis, and she'd get answers to all of the questions posed by a bundle of jackdaw feathers and an empty house.

She followed the Knight-Captain and the others down the road, heading for Dragon's Peak and home. Everywhere she looked on the road there were jackdaws, ink-black and storm-grey against the snow.