It was Summerday and the roses were frozen.
A sheet of ice coated the entire back garden. Blooms of red and pink stood preserved as if under a layer of spun glass. A honeybee lay trapped against the petals of an embrium blossom, and the central fountain had stopped, mid-spray. At the edge of the path, the marble statue of Andraste sparkled under a dusting of frost.
It was pretty neat, actually. Robert Trevelyan grinned, then snapped off one of the frozen roses that grew at Andraste’s feet. Robert had always liked roses. They were pretty and prickly, all at the same time. He knew boys weren’t supposed to like things like flowers, but he always had. Coated in ice, the rose looked even more interesting. It looked like it might stay fresh forever.
Looking down, Robert spotted another interesting flower. A single blossom of Golden Grace grew at the base of the statue, overlooked by the gardeners. Robert plucked up the little weed and held it up to the light. Through the ice, the petals glowed like amber. When Robert glanced up, he noticed that the statue of Andraste was looking down at him. The sun sparkled off her lips and she seemed to be smiling at him.
Robert smiled back. He’d take that as a good sign. As for the rest of the signs, he could read those easily enough.
Robert placed the flowers in his coat pocket, shifted his pack on his shoulders, and set off across the gardens. The first part of the trail was simple. There was a clear line of ice on the path that quickly faded to a thinner line of snow. Once the snow ended, Robert just followed the footprints. The markings were about the size of his own feet, the toes dug in deeply and the heels not even touching the ground. Clearly, Robert thought, those feet had been running.
Robert glanced over his shoulder, noting that the garden was still empty and the Trevelyan House appeared quiet. Robert knew better. Within those stone walls, it was chaos. Someone had been shouting for smelling salts and someone else was crying and there were a lot of servants standing about, all whispering to one another. Robert had slipped out of the manor rather easily. He suspected that no one had even noticed that the cause of that uproar had already fled.
Robert hurried now, passing raised beds of white lotus and delphiniums, carnations and crystal grace. He quickly came to the edge of the gardens, where the gravel path disappeared down a small embankment and then gave way to a wide lawn. At the far end of the grass was a field of barley. To the south, Robert could see a shimmering inlet, winding its way out to the sea, but to the north stood a large copse of beech trees. Behind them, a pine forest marched off into the hills, and far in the distance lay the snow-capped peaks of the Vimmark Mountains.
Robert didn’t hesitate. Even if he hadn’t seen the footprints fading off toward the north, he would have known where to go. After all, he had been the one to find the hiding spot in the first place.
Robert did his best to walk lightly, as he’d been taught. There were, he supposed, a few good things to be learned from the so-called ‘noble art’ of hunting. The killing part he could do without, but he did like the tracking bit. Within a minute, Robert was in the forest. He wound his way deeper and deeper into the wood - over root, under branch, until at last, he came to a small clearing.
There was a little stream here, and a bridge. The bridge was just two small logs over the water, but it was all Robert could manage when he’d built the thing two years ago. Now that he was nine, he could probably craft something better. But then, Robert realized, he wouldn’t have to. He was never coming back here again.
With that thought, Robert’s eyes went to the two rocks on the far end of the bridge. He had rolled them into this clearing last summer: two seats to serve two friends. Right now, one of the rock-chairs was occupied. A young girl sat on the stone, her head buried in her hands. Her long skirts were covered in mud, as were the toes of her slippers. Her shoulders shook and she was making the most horrible snuffling and weeping sounds that Robert had ever heard.
Well, Robert thought, that wouldn’t do. His cousin never cried. He couldn’t very well let her start now.
“It’s alright Kate,” he called to her. “I’m here.”
Far from comforting Kate, this pronouncement seemed to alarm the girl even more. She looked up, revealing a reddened, tear-stained face. While Robert had dark hair, brown skin and striking eyes of Rivani gold, Kate was fair, with fire-red hair and eyes of muddy gray-green. But ignoring the differences in coloring, the two had very similar features. They shared the same straight nose, the same high cheekbones, the same long lashes and the same tendency to freckle from even the smallest exposure to sun.
Kate looked at Robert with wide eyes and held out a hand in warning.
“Go away, Robert,” she said, her voice breaking on a sob.
Robert just ignored her demand. He placed one foot in front of the other, balancing his way over the bridge, then jumped off the logs to land right in front of his cousin.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Kate said, scrambling off of her rock and backing away.
“I know that,” Robert replied. He plopped himself down on other stone. “And I know you won’t.”
“I might,” Kate swallowed. “You saw what I did to the garden.”
“I did,” Robert said. “It was incredible.”
“Incredible?” Kate blinked at him in surprise, her voice a squeak. “Robert it was… I cast…”
“Magic,” he finished for her. “I know.” He fished the two flowers out of his pocket, then frowned as he realized they had already begun to thaw and wilt.
“Aw,” he frowned. “They were prettier frozen.” Kate just stared at him.
“But,” she said, slowly, “I cast a spell.” She said it like it was a dirty word, the kind of word they sometimes overheard their older cousins say, but were cautioned never to repeat.
“I know,” Robert nodded. “Ice on everything.” He cocked his head at her. “With your hair, I would have expected you to cast fire.”
Kate shook her head miserably.
“I like ice better,” he added quickly, hoping that would make her feel better. “Seems more useful. And less dangerous.”
“It’s all dangerous,” Kate wailed. “I killed the entire garden just by running through it.”
“The flowers die every winter anyhow,” Robert shrugged. “The gardeners can replant.”
“Robert…” Kate’s despair momentarily gave way to a more frustrated expression. Robert decided that was a good thing. He quickly held out the flowers.
“Can you do it again?” he asked.
Kate opened her mouth as if to protest, but Robert cut her off.
“Go on,” he said, eagerly. “I want to see.”
“Magic is evil,” Kate murmured, speaking more to the flowers than to him.
”‘Magic exists to serve man’,” Robert said, quoting the one of the many Canticles that had been drilled into them as children. “And this would serve me. I’m a man. So there you go.”
“You’re a boy,” Kate corrected, her eyes narrowing. “And I’m pretty sure that isn’t what Andraste meant when she said that.”
“Why not? Go on, Katie. I want to see it.”
Kate looked at Robert doubtfully, then back at the flowers. She raised her hand, reached out for them, then dropped her arm to her side.
“No,” she said. “I can’t do it. I might…” She shook her head. “I only touched the fountain and then…”
“Come on, Katie,” Robert said. “I know you can do this.”
Kate looked at him, then at the flowers. As cautiously as if she was reaching for an open flame, Kate stretched out her hand. She took the flowers between her thumb and forefinger, and held them up before her face. Robert watched as her gray-green eyes narrowed, her red brows furrowing in concentration.
For a moment, there was nothing. Robert waited patiently. It never occurred to him that Kate might fail at this. After all, Kate was ten, a full year older than Robert. She was better at chess, faster at climbing trees, and just as good on horseback as he was. Robert might be the faster runner and better with a bow, but Kate was clever. He knew she would succeed.
His cousin didn’t disappoint him. Slowly at first, but then with growing speed, frost began to form on the flowers. Little silver crystals stretched out like sprouting grass, flickering out from stem and petals until both the rose and the wildflower were coated in a fine, sparkling sheen. After a moment, Kate let out a breath and stared at her work.
“You did it,” Robert said, grinning.
“I guess I did,” she said, her voice soft and filled with wonder. Robert thought she almost looked pleased. Shyly, Kate tucked her hair behind her ear. With the other hand, she held the flowers out to Robert.
“Amazing,” Robert said, taking only the rose. “I wish I could do that.”
“No you don’t,” Kate said, her face falling as she considered the wildflower still in her fingers. She sighed, then sat down on her rock. She placed her elbows on her knees, the wildflower stem clasped between her pressed palms. She slowly rubbed one hand against the other, making the flower spin between them. In the thick copse of trees, the only sound was the trickle of the little stream.
“Mother cried,” Kate said after a moment. Her voice came out very small.
“She was still crying when I left,” Robert idly poked at one of the frozen thorns on his rose.
“She said the Maker cursed me.” The words were a whisper, ragged and hurt. Kate’s wildflower stopped spinning. “She said I must make peace with my fate.”
“Aunt Evelyn doesn’t speak for the Maker,” Robert told her. “My father said so.”
Kate stared into nothing.
Robert frowned. Whenever his cousin got that wide-eyed, absentminded stare, Robert never knew what to expect. Kate could sit like that for a second and then suddenly make up her mind about something. Some of their best and worst misadventures had begun with that far-off look. But other times, Kate could stare like that for an hour and then say that she had been thinking nothing at all. Robert wasn’t sure if that was something Kate did because she was a girl, or something she did because she had always been a little strange. Then again, he supposed it might be something she did because she was a mage.
“Well,” Robert said, willing her to snap out of it, “What does it matter? I mean, who cares if you’re a mage? You’re still you.”
“Don’t say it,” Kate said, her face falling. Robert frowned at her.
“What?” he asked. “That you’re still you?”
“No! That I’m a…”
Kate took a great gulping breath. “Now they’re all afraid of me,” she breathed.
“I’m not afraid of you,” Robert said, stoutly.
“You should be,” Kate told him. “I can cast magic. Demons will try and use me. And I’ve already started to have dreams of the Fade. Dreams where I know I’m in the Fade.” She stared at her wildflower, her reddish brows furrowing.
“I can feel it, Robert,” she said, solemnly. “I’ve always been able to feel it. I didn’t know what it was before, but it was there. It felt a bit like the wind, only it was there even when the air was still. And now, all of a sudden, it’s different. Now, it’s like I can reach into the Fade. I can use it to change things in this world. I can grab hold of it with my…” She placed a hand on her chest.
“Boobies?” Robert suggested.
“No,” she scowled at him. “My heart.”
“The point is Robert,” Kate said, sounding once again like her lofty old self, “I could kill someone. With my magic.” She gave him a pointed look, as if to emphasize how very serious this was. Robert just shrugged in reply.
“So what?” he said. “Uncle Maxwell was going to train us to become templars. Templars kill people. How is that any different?”
Kate opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “It just is,” she replied. Robert rolled his eyes. Sometimes, Kate could be just as stuffy as all the other Trevelyans. Thankfully, she usually got over it. But the rest of them were always serious. And that was why Robert was out here now.
“You don’t have to be a mage,” he told her.
“I will not become Tranquil,” Kate said, shuddering as she looked over at him. “You remember that one we met in the market, selling enchanted rings? I won’t end up like that, cut off from dreams and all dead inside. I won’t.”
“Of course you won’t,” Robert said. “I won’t let them.” But Kate wasn’t listening. She swallowed and her shoulders began to shake again.
“They’re going to take me away, Robert,” she said, miserably. “They’ll take me away, and put me in a tower and I’ll never…” She buried her head in her hands again, and Robert could think of only one thing to say to make her stop.
“I won’t let that happen,” he told her.
Kate said something, but as her hands were over her face, Robert couldn’t understand it. He didn’t need to hear it anyhow. He said again:
“I won’t let that happen.” He pulled his pack from his back and began opening it. “After all, they can’t send you to the Circle if they can’t find you.”
“What do you mean?” Kate said, looking up and wiping her nose. Robert reached into his bag and handed her a wad of clothing.
“We’re going to run away,” he told her.
“What?” Kate stared at him, then at the clothes in her hand. “Robert, I can’t…”
“You don’t want to go to the Circle,” Robert explained. “And I don’t want you to go to the Circle. And I don’t want to become a templar, either, so…”
“You have years of training before you become a templar,” Kate said. “Anyhow, they can’t make you take vows. But me, I have no choice…”
“Sure you do,” Robert said, holding open his pack. “Look. I have what we need: clothes, sleeping roll, some food, all the money I could steal.”
“You stole from our parents?”
“The locks on Uncle Max’s desk were easy to pick,” Robert said. “Anyhow, it’s your money, if you think about it. Since you’re a mage, you can’t get married. So they won’t have to pay for your dowry now.”
That was evidently the wrong thing to say, for Kate’s face screwed up and went red like she would start crying again.
“Anyhow, that’s not the point,” Robert said quickly. “I have my bow and arrows and you have your magic. We’ll head down the coast or into the mountains. There are lots of caves out there.”
“You want to live in a cave?” Kate sniffed, “Like a pirate?”
“We always wanted to be pirates,” Robert said.
“Not really,” Kate said, doubtfully.
“Why not?” Robert shrugged. “Just put on those clothes. You can’t run away in a dress.”
“Robert, this isn’t a game,” Kate said, sighing. “I have to go to the Circle. That’s just what mages do.”
“Why?” Robert asked her, growing frustrated by her arguing. “Because your family says so? Because the Chantry says so? Do you really want to be locked away and never be free again?”
“I might find a way out,” Kate said, though she didn’t seem to believe it. She looked at the clothing, then looked at the flower. “Some mages get to visit home, I hear. Some of them can leave if they get permission. It might not be that bad…”
With these hesitant words, Robert felt something tighten in his chest, something that just might be fear. He didn’t want to admit that though. Robert hated that emotion more than any other.
“Look,” he said, “If they take you away, then you belong to them - forever. They’ll take your blood for a phylactery so they can track you down if you try and escape. Then someday I’ll be a templar and it might be me who has to track you down.” Robert didn’t mean to go on, but the words came tumbling out anyhow. “Katie,” he said, pleadingly, “you’re more like my sister than my half sisters. If you leave…” He tried to think how to explain himself, but all he could come up with was:
“No one else in this family laughs, Katie. You’re the only one who laughs.“
Kate seemed to consider that. She chewed her lip. “Mother laughs,” she said after a moment. “Well, sometimes,” she amended. Kate looked dejectedly at the flower.
“She won’t laugh after this,” Robert said. Kate swallowed and her eyes grew sad.
“I wonder if they ever laugh in the Circle,” she murmured.
“Katie,” Robert pressed. “Someday they’ll make me a templar. Then I’ll never laugh. I won’t laugh, and you won’t be there, and the house will be quiet and it will feel too big. Even if they plant new roses, it won’t be the same.”
He didn’t know how to explain it beyond that.
“Please Katie?” he begged her, looking down at his pack. “Please run?”
Robert looked up to find Kate was gazing off into the woods with that far-off stare again. But this time, it lasted for only a moment.
“You’re right,” Kate said. She set the frozen flower down on the ground beside the stone. “If I have to be a mage, then I might as well be a free one.”
“You’ll do it?” he asked, grinning. “You’ll become an apostate?”
Kate flinched at that word, but she nodded all the same. “Yes,” she said, standing and clutching the borrowed clothing to her chest. “Let’s go.”
“Great!” Robert said, cinching up his pack and slinging it over his shoulder. “You won’t regret this, Kate. Now we can live our lives however we want.”