Niamh had never imagined she’d return to Ferelden ever again; there were too many memories attached to the land to ever make it seem like home again. The advent of the Fifth Blight had begun with her family slaughtered, betrayed by a man whom they had believed to be their ally, and somehow its end had required that her sister Saoirse sacrifice herself. That Saoirse had done so without so much as a second thought was much its own pain.
When Morrigan had revealed to her knowledge of a ritual the eve before the final battle, it had admittedly given Niamh pause, but she couldn’t fault the end result if it meant the Wardens and her sister would live. Granted, Morrigan didn’t necessarily need anyone’s permission to begin the ritual as she pleased. Their victory wasn’t assured after all; Niamh had no doubt others would seek the desperate comfort of some last-minute intimacy before reality crashed in over their heads.
All Morrigan required was one male Warden.
It would have been an easy enough task. Their exploits throughout their journey had earned them infamy, and as leader of their group, Saiorse’s word held considerably more sway. Already well-regarded by the Wardens that had come to join them in Denerim, surely she could have convinced at least one to join Morrigan for the evening.
But Saoirse had turned down the proposal. No matter how the witch had spun her argument, Saoirse kindly, but firmly, refused her. In frustration, the witch had sought Niamh out in a bid to get Saoirse to see reason, going so far as to profess she’d take leave of them all if her ritual were not to be used.
That Morrigan had even offered it at all was its own answer to the desperation they all felt. Perhaps she would have offered it anyway, but Niamh had seen the look in her eyes. Although Morrigan had tried to shun the burden of familiarity and attachment, it had occurred anyway. She hadn’t wanted to lose a friend any more than Niamh wanted to lose her sister.
Saoirse had been stubbornly stalwart when she entered her quarters later that evening. Her older sister presented an air of nonchalance as she sat at the table, working the blade of her sword methodically over a whetstone. She didn’t raise her head at Niamh’s arrival; perhaps she had expected her not long after Morrigan had left. Her expression was resigned, emphasized by the flatness in her tone as she spoke.
“There isn’t more you can do to convince me otherwise.”
“Why will you not consider this? If the worse comes to pass—"
“My decision still stands.”
“Then ask another Warden to strike the final blow!”
Saiorse merely sighed. “I will not ask another to do what I will not.”
“What is this truly, Sister? Atonement?” she spat. “Why? Howe is dead, slain by your hands. Why do you feel the need to take another burden onto your shoulders when you’ve already avenged our family?”
“Don’t speak as if you were there—”
“Of course I wasn’t there!” Lightning sang along Niamh’s shoulders with her indignation, but Saoirse didn’t react, having long known her sister’s reactions were more expressive than most thanks to her magic. “Do you think I would have let you endure that nightmare on your own had I been? Don’t you believe I would have done anything to be at your side than stuck at the Circle, unaware if you were even alive for weeks on end? Is it not enough that I want you here?” she implored, ghostly grey eyes dimming with sadness. “Saoirse, you’re all I have left of our family.”
“I… I’m sorry.” Saoirse’s voice became contrite, stopping the practiced motions of her sword. “I misspoke.”
“If you can’t do it for me, then is it not enough to know that doing this will pain Leliana?” Niamh knew she had gone too far when her sister jerked her gaze up to instantly meet hers—a rare flash of anger within eyes a shade darker than her own.
“She sees stars where she once found an empty sky, and you’re damning her to a life bereft of it again!”
“I can’t force someone to agree to this!”
“Sister,” she pleaded, “if Alistair understood what was required of the ritual, he would do it in a heartbeat if it meant saving your life.”
“But it still would have been a choice made under duress.”
And Niamh had no argument against that. Tense silence drifted between them for several uncomfortable heartbeats before it was broken with the sound of a sigh and a sword being sheathed.
“Even were the ritual to succeed, I’m not going to damn the life of an innocent with such a fate. Niamh, you’re my sister and a mage.” Saoirse looked at Niamh with quiet consideration. “While I can’t profess to know what it means to be the latter, know that I have loved and supported you always, but magic of this nature…” She shook her head, eyes unbearably sad. “I can’t do it. I’m sorry. Please, for me, take care of them.”
You asked me for one thing, and I couldn’t even do that, she mused bitterly. I fled the first moment I could. Now I’m here, watching the world on the cusp of change once again, but this time, it will not have your hand in it. A pity.
Niamh sat quietly atop a felled tree, watching the Templars and mages move past her into the various encampments just outside The Temple of Sacred Ashes. She had no doubt the paths of the two groups had converged at some point during their travels. There were only so many different ways to get through the mountains after all. It was evident, however, that the shared trek had done little to endear themselves to one another. Clear animosity thickened the air between them.
They’ve already forgotten the peace you sacrificed yourself for. Her lips thinned, and she drew her gaze away to stem the sudden anger bubbling within her chest. Had this been what they had fought so hard for all those years ago? An illusionary peace that crumbled in the face of the next great tragedy? Would you have stood at the frontlines for this as well, Saoirse? Would you even begin to know how to dismantle the tension between them all any more than the woman here attempting to do so?
The Conclave was admittedly a lofty goal even for one declared The Divine. From what Niamh had read of her, however, Divine Justinia seemed to genuinely care for all and not simply the ones who had the coin to operate the world as they saw fit.
Perhaps that was why Niamh returned to Ferelden after her long, self-imposed solitude abroad. The next few days were bound to be eventful, and perhaps she wanted to see them through if only to hear whether the whole of mages would be used as a scapegoat following the disaster that befell Kirkwall. Perhaps the world could change more than once in her lifetime. Perhaps for the better this time.
“Are you a minstrel?”
Niamh blinked several times upon being drawn out of reverie, courtesy of another woman—also a mage if her Circle robes were any indication. “Pardon?”
“Oh! I didn’t mean to startle you. I couldn’t help but notice you were writing very studiously in your book there.”
“Ah. No, no. They’re just simple notes.” Brief laughter escaped her in a rush of breath. “Small things to help remind me of certain moments. The rest of the pages are usually filled with sketches.”
“I see.” The woman looked at her understandingly. “An artist then.”
“A traveling one certainly. It’s been my trade for the last decade.”
The woman’s brows raised almost imperceptibly in muted surprise. “Truly?” She watched as the woman’s eyes traveled to the staff over her shoulder before returning her gaze to Niamh with seeming embarrassment, dropping her voice a touch as she apologized. “I’m sorry. I could’ve sworn—”
Niamh merely chuckled, knowing where the conversation is heading. She didn’t see any of the familiar armor of the Templars within her periphery, so she revealed her hand. “You’re not wrong actually. I usually lead others into believing it’s a simple polearm.” Given the heavy, weaponized weight topping her staff, it wasn’t a far stretch certainly. Those who needed further convincing were left with more than just their egos broken when she demonstrated her capability with it in impromptu sparring matches. She tilted her head curiously. “You could tell at a glance it was a mage’s staff?”
Based on the woman’s reaction, she had seemed utterly certain in her assumption, which was disconcerting. Niamh prided herself on how well she could draw little attention to herself in a crowd, blending into the usual noise and background of everyday life. It was necessary, given she had otherwise been in hiding for the past ten years.
“I’ve always been very sensitive to magic,” the woman explained, brushing pale, corn silk hair from her eyes. “You hid yours very well. If I hadn’t sensed the barest trace of lightning around the bladed end of your staff, I likely would have mistaken you for a mercenary. Are you an apostate then?” Her question held no condemnation, only curiosity and perhaps a bit of wistfulness, evident by the yearning in those kind amber eyes.
The corners of her lips turned up into a smile. “Given the current state of the world, we’re all apostates technically,” she quipped, sharing a laugh with the other woman at that.
“Very true!” She gestured vaguely down at her own attire, consisting of pale blue robes with silver trimming, indicating her place in one of Thedas’ Circles. “I wasn't certain if you had decided to forego your own during your travels here. Barring your staff, you certainly wouldn’t look out of place from any other traveler we’ve come across.”
“That was certainly my intent. I’ve no travel companions with me.”
No, those days were long behind her.
“A solivagant then.”
“By choice more than circumstance.”
She hummed thoughtfully although her gaze seemed sympathetic. “That seems a lonely existence.”
Niamh merely shrugged. “I like the quiet it provides me.” It gave her time to contemplate things—more often than she should, really. Rather than dwell on the pain that thought brought her, she offered what she hoped was a convincing smile. “But it seems my time alone has dulled my manners somewhat. Forgive me. I’m Niamh.”
“Ida,” she responded, returning the smile. “And think nothing of it. I was actually searching for one of my charges here when I spotted you first.”
“Yes.” She seemed amused. “In fact, you’re sitting at one of her usual spots, which likely means she’s had to find a different place to hide.” Amber eyes peered past her then, and they gleamed with a mixture of delight and relief a moment later. “Ah! Mila!”
Niamh turned to follow her gaze just in time to see a young girl peeking over at them shyly from behind a tree. As Ida called her over a second time, Mila quickly scampered over to her, giving Niamh wide berth before promptly hiding behind her guardian.
Niamh certainly couldn’t fault her skittishness, but she despised the reasons which caused it.
As young as the girl was, her world had essentially shifted overnight with the Templar-Mage War. Then, with the dissolution of the Circle of Magi, mages became more ostracized than ever with the general populace likening them to little more than power-hungry rebels. It was the case for some of them unfortunately, but given her nightmarish experience the last time she had been in a Circle Tower, she had never believed that the whole of a group should be judged for the misdeeds of a few.
“Now, now, Mila. Be polite. Come out and say hi,” Ida gently urged, attempting to draw the girl out from behind her.
Part of a dark head edged out from around Ida’s robes, brown eyes wide as she stared at Niamh. Small fingers flexed themselves at her in lieu of a wave, the wooden beads around her wrist jingling before she disappeared behind Ida again. Niamh was mindful to stifle her laughter as she leaned forward.
“What a lovely bracelet!” She grinned when Mila poked her head out cautiously at the unexpected compliment. “Were those birds I saw painted on the beads? Do you like birds?”
Mila blinked at her owlishly before hesitantly nodding once.
“Well, as luck would have it, I’ve a drawing of one here in my booklet.” She proceeded to flip through several pages until she came across the series of sketches she made during her time in Rivain. She turned the sketchbook over, revealing a small bird with vibrant wings colored in various shades of red. Warmth settled into her despite herself upon hearing the awed gasp. “Would you like it?”
Mila looked up with desperate eagerness at Ida, who only patted her head at first. The woman's eyes had dimmed somewhat with sadness as she turned to Niamh in reply.
“With as much travel as we took to get here, I’m afraid I don’t have any coin to spare…”
“No, no, please,” Niamh insisted, neatly tearing the drawing from her sketchbook and offering it to them both. “If it makes her happy, then that is payment enough for me.”
Mila searched her guardian’s gaze again for permission, and upon receiving a nod, she took the drawing from Niamh with both hands before hugging it against her chest carefully. Giggles spilled from her when Ida reached down to ruffle her hair affectionately.
“It’s always lovely to know there is still some kindness to be found in the world.” Ida bowed her head gratefully. “Blessings upon you.”
“And to you.”
The other mage offered one last smile before gently guiding her young charge away. “Come along, Mila. We still need to gather elfroot for our healers.”
With a nod, the girl latched onto Ida’s robes, toddling alongside her dutifully while still clutching the drawing in her other hand.
As Niamh watched them depart, old memories of Oriana and Oren slipped unbidden across her mind, but she steeled her thoughts immediately, pushing them away. With a sigh, she slowly rose to her feet, flipping her sketchbook closed before tying it to her belt with a few deft loops of her hand. Then, without really meaning to, she turned her gaze down the path Ida and Mila took.
“Elfroot, hm?” Longing surged within her. She hadn’t had the urge to smoke in years, but these were admittedly unusual times. Despite having being back in Ferelden for weeks now, Niamh was still deeply unsettled, haunted by memories. Anything that could help cut the edge of stress would only be a blessing. “Hm. Needs must, I suppose. Perhaps they’d like an extra hand with the gathering if nothing else.”
Before she could begin pointing her feet in the direction of her newest acquaintances, Niamh stilled. Something just at the edge of her hearing had caught her attention, and she frowned, listening more intently. A scream?
A quick glance confirmed no one was nearby to aid her, and with a curse, she started for the temple. Her footsteps grew more hurried as the voice behind the door became more frantic, and the telltale singe of powerful magic rippled through the air.