It was All Soul’s Day and the wildflowers were on fire.
Kate ignored the blaze. Instead, she stared at the man in bloody robes. He blinked at Kate once, then looked down at the ice shard that Kate had just rammed through his chest.
Kate swallowed and let her hands drop.
Well, that was ghastly, she thought. Ghastly, but effective.
Kate hadn’t meant to make the shard quite that big. She suspected she had punctured both of the man’s lungs and fractured most of his lower ribs. A smaller shard to the heart would have been cleaner and would have used less of her energy. As it was, Kate felt a bit drained.
But that might be a product of shock, she reasoned. Clearly, she was going into shock. Half of her mind had gone cool and rational, assessing the efficacy of her counterattack as if gathering notes for a paper. The other half of her mind was screaming. After all, she had just used her magic to kill someone.
Dear Maker, Kate thought. She had just used her magic to kill someone.
As Kate watched, the man crumpled to the ground with a groan. Behind him, his fires flickered out, their magic extinguished with his life. Kate let out a breath.
Right, she thought. Now, he was dead. Now he was dead and she had killed him and just how was she supposed to feel about that, exactly? Was she supposed to feel different? She didn’t. She felt a bit stunned, but that was all. Still, she mused, she’d just killed someone.
“By the Dread Wolf’s great, hairy bollocks,” a voice spoke into the quiet. “Ice first and ask questions later, aye Kate?”
Kate turned to find her friend, Colleen, standing by with a stunned expression. Coll’s elven face had paled in shock, her tattoos dark as iron upon her skin.
“Not that I’m complainin’, mind,” Coll added, still looking dumbfounded. “If you hadn’t done that, we’d be dead. And what’s more, our books would be burned.”
That would be Coll, Kate thought, always with her priorities in order. But Coll was right. They had been sitting out here just moments ago, reading in the sunshine on a warm summer’s day. It was rare that the small island enjoyed such fair weather. Connected to the Storm Coast by a thin, ancient bridge of Tevinter origin, the Ostwick Circle fortress was most often pounded by rain or shrouded in fog. Kate adored the murky, mysterious days when she could wander the Circle grounds for hours, pretending that she wasn’t a prisoner cut off from the mainland.
But Coll could never be persuaded to set foot outside of the library unless the sun was shining and the wind was still. So it had been a rare thing that the both of them were outside for the afternoon. And it was a completely unexpected that, out of nowhere, someone had run up to them, shooting fire from his fingertips.
Of course, flames weren’t the only thing he’d had in hand.
“Blood magic,” Kate said, crouching by the body. She gingerly took the dead man’s wrist between her thumb and forefinger and turned it over. Coll scowled when she saw the bloody knife clutched in the man’s grip. The man’s other arm was crisscrossed with cuts - both fresh incisions and many more scabs.
“That’s one of the Ansburg lot,” Coll said. “Refugees my arse. We should have known they were up to something.”
At that moment, the bells of the tower began to clang. Kate looked up, taking in the silhouette of the old castle. In all her years here, Kate had never heard the bells ring like that. They tolled to mark the hours, to signal events like Harrowings, to summon the residents to mealtimes. Kate had never heard them ring wildly, as if someone was yanking on all the ropes at once.
“What, are we under attack now?” Coll snorted. “Or have all the refugees gone mad?”
“They can’t all be blood mages,” Kate reasoned.
“Can’t they now?” Coll returned. “‘Cause if they are…” If they were, then Ostwick was in very big trouble. Kate took a step toward the tower, but Coll grabbed her arm.
“Are yeh daft, Kate?” the elf asked her. “If we’re under attack, we should run t’other way.”
“What, off the cliffs and into the sea? Not everyone in the tower can fight, Coll. Not everyone can run, either.”
Maker knew, Kate didn’t mean to defend the Circle out of any great love for the place. It was just that there was nothing else to be done - and there might not be anyone else to do it. As mages, she and Coll had no other option but to stand their ground. They simply had nowhere else to go.
Coll’s brows drew together. Then she threw up her hands in frustration.
“Fine,” she scowled. “At least let me get the books.”
“Leave the books,” Kate told her. “We have bigger things to worry about.” When Coll hesitated, Kate added, “The entire library may be burning.”
“Good point,” Coll said, nodding. They took off at a run.
Kate couldn’t go very fast with her robes twisting and tangling about her legs. She nearly fell on her face twice in her race across the lawn. With a scowl of frustration, she grabbed the hem and hiked it to her knees. As she hurried across the grass, memory popped into Kate’s mind:
On a summer’s day similar to this one, Kate had taken off running across wide fields. But then, Kate had been wearing trousers - and she’d had her cousin with her. As Robert had wisely observed, Kate couldn’t run very well in a dress.
But then, the rest of Robert’s plan hadn’t worked out very well. Robert had learned his tracking skills from his father, and Uncle Edwin spotted their trail easily enough. The would-be apostates had been run to ground by nightfall. The morning after their attempted escape, Kate found herself in a coach bound for the Ostwick Circle and Robert…
Well, Robert was Robert. He had landed on his feet well enough.
Kate was drawn from these thoughts by the sudden quiet. The bells stopped ringing. The silence was more alarming than the alarm had been. Kate slowed her steps as she approached the low walls of the castle gardens. She carefully crept through the pumpkin patch and poked her head cautiously around the high tangle of blackcurrant bushes. Then, she stopped short.
“Oh, Maker,” she breathed.
With reverent steps, Kate entered the garden. Two bodies lay among the tomato plants, half a barrel’s worth of work between them. Another body lay crumpled in the open doorway that led to the kitchens.
“Mythal save us,” Coll muttered.
Kate approached the two bodies in the dirt, Coll right behind her.
“Dead,” Coll said at once. Kate nodded grimly. Coll had a better sense for these things than anyone else in the tower.
“Tranquil mages,” Kate murmured, recognizing the remains of the robes, even if the faces were too scorched to identify. She swallowed back against a wave of nausea and turned her head away. “They probably didn’t even fight back.”
“Of course they didn’t,” Coll said, bitterly. “I’m guessing the blood mage you killed did this.”
“Probably,” Kate said.
“That one’s alive, though,” Coll said, pointing at the body in the doorway.
Kate hesitated a moment. That body wore armor - templar armor.
Kate shook herself and strode forward across the garden. It shouldn’t matter if that survivor was one of the jailers, Kate told herself. The templar needed help, and Kate and Coll could offer it. She forced her legs to kneel at the templar’s side and forced her hands to reach for the templar’s helmet.
That was as far as Kate got, though, for she couldn’t get the helmet loose. Wasn’t it supposed to have some sort of catch or something? She had no idea how armor worked, much less how to remove it.
“Give over,” Coll said, crouching down and brushing Kate’s hands aside. The elf found some latch that Kate had not known to look for, and the helmet came free. Coll gently pulled it from the templar’s head, then both she and Kate blinked in mild surprise.
“Dar asha,” Coll muttered, tucking a braid behind her ear. “She’s a she.”
And so she was. A thick mass of brown hair unfurled like water and the still face was decidedly feminine in features.
“Fine thing fer a jailer, ain’t she?” Coll said.
“I don’t recognize her,” Kate replied. Of course, that was to be expected. The templars wore helmets most of the time, and rarely spoke to their charges.
“No serious burns,” Coll said. “Just a nasty bump to the head.”
“Can you heal her?” Kate asked.
“That I can,” Coll replied, her usual swagger reasserting itself. She rubbed her palms together, then flicked out her fingers. The movement sparked a blue-green glow in her hands. Coll gently placed them on either side of the templar’s face.
“Give me a moment,” she said. “She’ll come round soon.”
Kate nodded absently, her mind was already on another concern. “How many refugees were there?” she asked, looking though the doorway into the empty kitchens. “Ten? Fifteen?”
“Sure it don’t matter with their sort,” Coll replied, adjusting the angle of her hands so that they cradled the Templar’s neck. “One’s as bad as a mob.”
“I don’t hear fighting,” Kate murmured. “But the Veil is growing thin.”
Coll looked up sharply at that, and the two of them exchanged a worried glance. Changes in the barrier between this world and the Fade were never good.
At that same moment, the templar gave a soft moan. Her eyes fluttered open, and she turned her head to one side.
“What…?” she murmured.
“Sure, that’s our question for you,” Coll said. “What happened here?”
“Blood mage!” the woman cried, her eyes flying wide as she remembered. “A blood mage came running down the hall, headed for the gardens…” She tried to sit up, and winced.
“Here now,” Coll said, placing a glowing hand on the woman’s breastplate. “Give yerself a moment.”
“But the blood mage…”
“I killed him,” Kate said, quickly. The templar looked at Kate, then nodded in satisfaction.
“Well done, Lady Trevelyan.”
Kate started at that. “You know my name?”
”‘Course they know our names,” Coll said, finishing her healing and letting the spell flicker out. “Got papers on every one of us, I don’t doubt.”
The templar did not deny it. Instead, she gingerly sat up, stretching out her arms to make sure everything was in working order. Kate glanced nervously into the kitchens again, then back to the templar.
“Look, miss…er, ser…” Kate faltered there.
“Lysette,” the woman replied, the hint of an Orlesian accent lacing her words. “Ser Lysette.”
“Ser Lysette,” Kate repeated. Judging from the woman’s title and the charred insignia on her armor, Kate gathered that this was one of the lower ranking templars. That was also to be expected. The lower ranks were all that remained at Ostwick.
Two months ago, many of the templars had left Ostwick. It wasn’t quite clear why they had done so. The templars weren’t exactly in the habit of consulting with the mages about troop movements, after all. But Kate had heard rumors. It seemed that a summons had been sent for the senior officers - not from Divine Justinia, but from some other seat of authority in the Chantry hierarchy. The templars had been called to hunt down apostates from rebel Circles - and there were a lot of rebel Circles out there, if rumors were true.
Of course, rumors were all the Ostwick mages had to go on these days. Cut off from the world as they were, it was difficult to tell what was happening out there. Then again, Kate thought, it was difficult to tell what was happening on the other end of the castle.
“What happened, Ser Lysette?” Kate asked the templar. “Why were you attacked?”
“No idea,” the woman replied. “I heard the bells ringing…” she cocked her head. “They’ve stopped.”
“So you know as much as we do,” Coll said, sitting back on her heels. “Grand then.”
“Then we need to get to the bell tower,” Kate said, standing. “Find out why the alarm sounded.” The bell tower was by the main gate, on the other end of the fortress. Kate didn’t much like the idea of wandering around without knowing what they would face, but she didn’t see any other option.
“I’m coming with you,” Ser Lysette announced.
Coll frowned at that. “Oh. Well that’s grand now, isn’t it?” She gave Kate a pointed look, but Kate just shrugged.
“This is my home, too,” Lysette said, pushing herself up onto her feet. “I swore to defend it.” With that, she reached down and collected her sword and shield.
Kate considered that. Kate had never thought to fight alongside a templar. But Lysette was right. The Circle was home to the templars as well as the mages. That made this Ser Lysette an ally at present.
What a peculiar thought.
“Let’s go, then,” Kate said, heading into the castle. She heard the clank of Lysette’s armor behind her, and then a mutter of “Aw, bollocks,” from Coll. “We don’t even have our staffs with us.”
“Seems to me you don’t need them,” Lysette replied, practically.
The three of them made their way through the empty kitchens, then stepped out into the hallway. Kate saw no one there, and she heard nothing either, but when she reached out for the Fade…
“That way,” she said, pointing.
“The Great Hall?” Coll asked.
“Right by the bell tower,” Lysette observed.
“Something’s going on up there,” Kate said. “Let’s be careful.”
“Shields up?” Coll suggested.
Kate nodded. And while Lysette held up an actual shield, Coll flicked her hand out. A sheen of blue-green light flickered over all three of them, settling on their skin like water. Kate didn’t even blink at the touch of Coll’s magic, but Lysette sucked in a breath in surprise.
“Maker’s tears!” she gasped.
“What?” Kate asked.
“I…nothing,” the woman muttered. She paused a moment, then said, “I’m just not used to magic.”
“And yet, yeh live in a mage tower,” Coll said, sarcastically. Lysette blushed a bit.
“Well, yes,” she hedged, “but I’m not used to… Never mind.”
They had scarcely reached the end of the corridor, when a clanking sound echoed down the hall. A templar rounded the corner then, running as fast as his armor would allow. He wore no helmet, and his eyes were wide with fear. Kate shrank back at the sight. But Lysette strode forward in concern, her shield and sword drooping by her sides.
“What’s going on?” Lysette demanded of the templar. “Are the mages…?”
But she got no further than that. The templar snapped his shield up, his eyes suddenly murderous.
“Lysette!” Coll cried, but the woman had no time to react. The templar barreled into her at full speed, bashing her against the wall. The sword was knocked from Lysette’s grip, and her head was smashed against the stones. Lysette fell limp, too dazed to move. Then the templar raised his sword over his head, and Kate didn’t even think.
Magic shot from her fingers, encasing the man in a thick sheet of ice. Lysette stared up in horror. The other templar’s sword now hung frozen, just inches above her face.
“Maker’s breath,” Lysette choked out.
She shuffled back, then climbed out from under the shadow of her attacker. “Why did he do that?”
”‘Cause he’s a feckin’ loony,” Coll replied. “An’ didn’t I just get done healin’ that head of yours? Don’t go breakin’ it again right off.”
“It’s a good thing Coll put a barrier on you,” Kate added.
Lysette frowned. “But why did he attack?” Lysette wanted to know. She stopped there, her eyes narrowing as she considered the man inside the ice. “Wait. This man…”
“Isn’t one of the Ostwick templars,” Kate finished for her. “That armor isn’t like yours.”
“No, it’s not,” Lysette said. “Who is he? Is he enthralled?”
“Oh, sure,” Coll rolled her eyes. “‘Cause the only reason templars go ‘round the bend is if blood mages make them do it.”
“No trace of magic on him,” Kate said, solemnly.
“Right, then he’s a fecker of his own free will,” Coll said. “So lesson learned, aye? Next time, keep your shield up and keep that pretty head of yours on your shoulders.”
Lysette flushed at Coll’s words, though whether from embarrassment or irritation, Kate couldn’t tell. Kate reached out a hand to calm both the elf and the knight.
“It’s alright,” she said. “We’re still alive. And now we know that both mages and templars are attacking the Circle.”
“Not our mages,” Coll said, petulantly.
“Not our templars either,” Lysette replied, defensively.
“Then let’s find out what’s going on,” Kate said, taking a step forward.
“What about this maggot?” Coll asked, pointing at the still frozen templar.
“Oh,” Kate said, frowning. Her ice spell would hold for a while, but not indefinitely. But before she could answer, Lysette stepped forward.
“We kill him,” Lysette said, coldly.
“Sounds good to me,” Coll nodded.
And before Kate could say anything - before she could even she could decide if mercy or caution was the better course, Lysette struck the templar down. There was a shattering sound, like glass breaking, though it turned to a juicy squelch at the end. Kate turned her face away, but Coll looked on in grim satisfaction.
“Well now,” Coll said, eyebrows raised. “That was a hell of a thwack. Good on you, templar.”
“Thank you,” Lysette said, slanting her a glance. “I think.”
Kate kept her eyes averted from the body. In a way, this was her second kill of the day. Even though she hadn’t landed the final blow, Kate felt like this death had changed something.
“You alright, Lady Trevelyan?” Lysette asked, noting her silence.
“Fine,” Kate lied. She shook away the unclean feeling that had settled over her and nodded down the hall.
“Come on,” she said. “It’s beginning to look like we’re under attack from the outside.”
“Looks like it,” Lysette agreed.
“So,” Coll said, rubbing her tattooed hands together. “Blood mages and crazy templars? This day just keeps getting better and better.”
Kate led the way down the hall, calling back over her shoulder:
“Then let’s make sure they get a proper welcome from the Ostwick Circle, shall we?”