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Over the Sea to the Clouds Above

Chapter Text

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.

Perhaps, perhaps…

“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.

Chapter Text

Niamh woke to pain in near darkness.

Had she been fighting last? Her last recollection had been a blinding flash of viridian light along with a searing pain across her left palm. As her eyes struggled to adjust to the dim lighting, she cautiously flexed the fingers of her injured hand, but white-hot heat immediately lanced itself up her arm for her troubles. Niamh couldn’t stop the sharp exhale of breath that escaped her, and she immediately heard the frantic rustling of movement around her.

Somehow she had obtained guards, and they were unhappy with the fact she was now awake if the sound of shouting and multiple swords unsheathing was any indication.

To make matters worse, she soon discovered her hands were heavily-shackled, the weight of her restraints assuring she couldn’t readily retaliate if they all decided to jump her. Not that she could have offered a counterattack in her current kneeling position anyway. Bound as she was, getting to her feet would be trouble enough.

“No sudden moves, murderer,” a grizzled male voice warned from behind her.

The accusation chilled her to her core, and she turned to look over her shoulder in shock. “What did you say?”

No sooner had the words left her mouth, a boot met her side from the opposite direction, and the force of it was enough for her to crumple forward with a stuttering gasp. She turned her head, glaring up at the guard beneath a veil of disheveled, dark hair, but he merely jerked his chin up, unafraid and unrepentant.

“You ‘eard what m’ friend said. Not m’ fault y’ can’t listen.” He sneered, the scar at the corner of his lips wrinkling unevenly with the gesture. “Not like we can expect much from mages like you. Your ilk is already wreakin' havoc down in Th’ Hinterlands.”

So they know what I am. Niamh had noted the absence of her staff’s familiar weight immediately upon waking. She wagered it had either been confiscated or broken in whatever incident had caused the worrisome gap in her memory. Her brows furrowed. What had she been doing after meeting Ida and Mila? They weren't in danger last I can recall, but I was running somewhere, wasn't I? Where was I going? Her thoughts turned more pensive even as the scar-mouthed guard continued his tirade.

“What, too good t’ speak t’ us now?” His grip on his sword tightened to the point where the blade shook as he kept it drawn toward her. “Abominations like you don’t deserve t’ live among us good folk! When th’ Hands o’ Th’ Divine get through with you—”

A sharp crack resounded through the air as the door to the dungeons was kicked open, slamming against the adjacent wall. The torchlight outlined the forms of two figures. One hung back in the shadows, almost hesitating in their footsteps while another—a tall, dark-haired woman in unfamiliar heraldry—stalked forward. Given how quickly her captors sheathed their weapons, Niamh could only assume she was of considerable rank.

That brought her little relief as the woman slowly circled behind her. Niamh had to strain her hearing, constantly checking her peripheral vision, waiting for any indication that they would all attack her. Instead, the woman simply leaned down and growled next to her ear.

“Tell me why we shouldn’t kill you now? The Conclave is destroyed. Everyone who attended is dead.” She paced forward, her eyes never leaving their prisoner. “Except for you.

The woman’s glower told Niamh all she needed to know. It didn’t matter if she was innocent; she and her colleagues would never see anything past her being a mage. As far as they were concerned, Niamh was already guilty. It was an all too common injustice, and it made her want to clench her fists, but given her mysterious injury--a glowing mark, she realized now, that took up nearly the entire expanse of her palm--she forced herself to relax. If they had plans to torment her, she wouldn't start their task for them. She met the other woman's gaze evenly but offered nothing in defense. What would it accomplish? They’ll never believe me.

Seemingly infuriated by her silence, the woman reached down to roughly grab her marked hand. “Explain this.”

“I can’t.” How could she explain what she had no knowledge of?

“Then tell us who you are!”

“A dog lord who should’ve known well enough to stay away,” she ground out morosely between gritted teeth, but her response only sparked the other woman’s ire, and two hands shot out to grab her by the collar of her coat, pulling her forward. The woman’s expression twisted with a scowl, but Niamh met her incensed gaze with equally resentful eyes.

“None of this is helping your cause!”

“Cassandra, enough.”

Niamh jerked in the woman’s—Cassandra’s—grasp at the voice she hadn’t heard in over a decade. Slowly, fearing that she had perhaps been mistaken, she turned her head to the other figure still cloaked in shadow, who only then stepped forward before her searching gaze. Mouth dry, Niamh’s lips parted in disbelief.


“It’s been quite some time, no?” Leliana’s lips turned up almost imperceptibly into a smile, but the gesture did little to brighten the dullness that had settled within that once vibrant gaze.

Though she would always remain beautiful to Niamh's eyes, it was evident from the faintest hints of lines across her face that the years had hardened Leliana. With their shared history, Niamh knew all too well the reason why, and for a moment, her initial happiness upon seeing her—her long unrequited love—dimmed at the thought. Does her passing still haunt you as it does me?

Leliana’s eyes narrowed then, which gave her pause, but Niamh soon realized she was looking further down her body, inspecting the visible bootprint over the area of her ribs. Leliana remained quiet before slowly lifting her head, pinning each guard present with an implacable stare.

“This is Niamh Cousland,” Leliana announced solemnly, “Younger sister to the late Hero of Ferelden.” Her expression--still as stone--gave nothing away even as several voices raised all at once at the unexpected revelation.

Cassandra frowned in turn, but she carefully released her hold on her collar, allowing Niamh to settle her weight back against her calves. “You’re certain of this?”

Leliana’s brow arched pointedly at the question. “I never forget a face. While I’m certain the Teyrn of Highever would be grateful to hear word his younger sister is alive and well, I doubt he’ll be pleased to learn she was injured under our care.”

Niamh watched, both amused and impressed, as Leliana’s gaze settled purposefully on the scar-mouthed guard that had injured her. It led her to wonder if this hadn't been the first time he had mistreated a mage prisoner. In any case, she felt a wave of satisfaction as he paled instantly beneath the woman’s glacial eyes and backed further away from Niamh’s kneeling form as if burned. Seems your skills as a bard haven’t dulled any.

“Niamh, do you remember how this happened? How this began?”

She refocused her attention at Leliana’s beckoning, but the smile that had played briefly on her lips faded as she realized her former companion’s gaze hadn’t warmed any to her. There was a stiffness in the set of her shoulders and an impassiveness in her features as she stared down at her. Her heart sank, wondering if perhaps Leliana also believed she had played a part in whatever had shaken them all and led to her imprisonment. Did she truly think she was their enemy?

It isn’t implausible for her to assume such, Niamh mused reluctantly. A decade stood between them after all, enough for them both to have changed significantly since then. She forced down a sigh of lament, feeling a steady throbbing taking residence just behind her eyes. She needed a tavern's worth of drink or at least some elfroot to smoke. Already, she was regretting each second she hadn't just followed after Ida.

However, as much as Niamh certainly didn’t like her current situation, she couldn't deny her appreciation at seeing at least one familiar face even if it wasn’t necessarily a friendly one. She owed no one else there an answer, not if they had no intention of listening to her to begin with.

For Leliana though? Yes.

If it meant assuaging her concerns, Niamh would answer as best she could.

She could do it for her.


For whatever recourse is there? she asked herself as she stared into blue eyes that had enchanted her from the very first moment she saw them.

Chapter Text

Why didn’t I just stay in Rivain when I had the chance? That, or I could have just wandered over to the Free Marches, offering commissions, or strolled along the bays of Antiva, but no! she groused, trailing sullenly behind Cassandra. I somehow found myself in yet another world-shattering crisis instead.

And she could very well die because of it.

Cassandra summarized all that had occurred while she had lain unconscious. The murder accusation aside, the largest complication following it had been the Breach. Her eyes widened at the sight of the rift that was like a death knell from the heavens themselves, disturbing every manner of natural phenomena beneath it. Even from a distance, Niamh could see that entire mountain peaks had been torn asunder, made to float as if mere petals in the breeze.

Such was its power.

Worse, the Breach was also speculated to be linked to her hand. As the former grew, so too did the mysterious mark, made apparent from its backlash of energy—strong enough to bring her to her knees in agony—while the giant rift fluctuated ominously. The ever-widening tear in the sky had likely brought forth another wave of demons; such had been the case every hour since she had been imprisoned.

As dire as it seemed, however, Niamh found she’d rather face the Breach’s immense power directly than be met with Haven’s soldiers and refugees. She even found herself missing the dank dungeon she had woken up in as she was led—her hands still bound—through the center of the village by Cassandra, leaving her vulnerable to the sheer hatred and fury of the people.

They jeered at her, voices raising over one other, as they openly called for her death. She was the murderer of their beloved Divine although they had no proof to the contrary. In their eyes, they saw only a mage—a demon in human guise—and a prisoner. Such things only aided in tightening the metaphorical noose about her neck.

“They have already decided your guilt.”

Of course they have, Niamh thought bitterly.

Then, her head jerked abruptly to the side as something hard struck her jaw. She blinked rapidly to regain her bearings, but as she turned in the direction the blow had come from, a ball of dismay gathered in the pit of her stomach.

Multiple people were kneeling down to gather rocks at their feet, quickly looking to join whoever had thrown the first stone.

Niamh bought up her bound hands to bat away the oncoming projectiles or block them with her forearms. The thick material of her coat took the brunt of anything that couldn’t readily be deflected, but it wasn’t until Cassandra surged beside her—shield raised in defense—that the mob hesitated. Niamh didn’t know of the other woman’s reputation, but once it became unmistakably clear Cassandra wouldn’t allow any further attacks onto her, the crowd begrudgingly began to disperse.

It was a kindness she hadn’t expected of Cassandra, but Niamh hadn’t forgotten the woman had believed the same as they did not too long ago. A moment’s reprieve from harm would not undo an unwarranted accusation. If the people here found that she couldn’t close the Breach, they’d likely kill her out of principle as the lead suspect in The Divine’s death. Even if Niamh were to somehow slip away in the confusion, it didn’t change that her marked hand was still linked to the Breach itself. So long as it existed, the energy she was inextricably bound to would only seek to consume her until she withered away.

Executed to appeal the masses or death due to inaction... She worked her jaw over pensively. Both equally bad options.

Cassandra didn’t know what to make of Niamh Cousland.

She supposed she was grateful the other woman didn’t seem to care for small talk any more than she did. Whether her reluctance to speak was due to a more quiet, introverted nature or simple antipathy from her earlier mistreatment couldn’t be said. Not that she could blame her.

If they survived whatever the Breach had in store for them and Cousland’s identity was made public, it would be nothing less than a diplomatic nightmare, especially once the Teyrn of Highever became involved. Ambassador Montilyet would likely be working late into the evening to quell any flaring tempers once everything came to light.

A bridge to cross when we come to it.

Curiously, she looked over her shoulder and was pleased to see the other woman still following after her. Cousland had offered no complaint when they had taken to the trails, lengthening her strides to keep pace with Cassandra’s own. Time was of the essence after all. Still, as conversation seemed to be left to the wayside, it gave Cassandra time to simply observe her.

Cousland’s eyes were paler than the morning mist although one was half-obscured by the fringe of shoulder-length hair—darker than pitch—and despite the weariness in her features from the earlier events in Haven, Cassandra could see the youthfulness in them as well. The late Hero of Ferelden had been closer to Leliana in age, so it stood to reason that Cousland was at least a few years younger—perhaps just welcoming her third decade of life, give or take a season.

The woman was also intently studying their surroundings, eyes lighting up in brief intervals when she seemed to recognize a landmark, which Cassandra realized wasn’t far from the truth.

She would have trekked through these same mountains before in the past with her companions, seeking to find Andraste’s final resting place in order to retrieve her ashes. They were to be used to cure Arl Eamon from his mysterious illness during the macabre events that had befallen Redcliffe. The incident had been infamous at the time, involving a Desire Demon that had possessed the Arl’s son, leading to nightly attacks on the village from the undead and consequent countless deaths.

It had been nothing short of a miracle that the Hero of Ferelden’s party had managed to save the entire family at all. Originally, as Leliana had told her, First Enchanter Irving of Ferelden’s Circle had been summoned to deal with the demon, but as the situation lapsed drastically, Cousland had volunteered instead to enter the Fade and strike the Desire Demon down once and for all.

The Fade… Cassandra grimaced.

It was often a double-edged sword for any mage. Tapping into the Fade was necessary to conjure spells, and while it was possible for mages to linger within it with the use of lyrium, it left them vulnerable to demons, who could possess them if caught unaware.

As if reading her thoughts, the Breach chose that moment to discharge several large blasts. One destroyed the bridge beneath their feet, leaving them to plummet onto the frozen lake, while the other released a pair of demons for them to contend with. Cursing, she motioned Cousland to remain behind her while she drew her sword to meet their enemies head-on.

Before Cassandra could make it more than a few paces, however, a burst of heat sailed past her—a spear-tipped inferno—that exploded into a demon’s face upon impact. It shrieked violently, flailing amidst the flames overtaking it, and the nauseating stench of sickly, rotted gristle and sulfur reached her nose.

The commotion soon drew the attention of its companion, who began to swarm forward with quick lunges. The hairs at the back of Cassandra’s neck bristled on end, but it had little to do with fear. She had a lifetime of dealing with such creatures after all.

No. Lightning magic was in effect.

Cassandra’s eyes caught the flickering orb of energy high above the demons, which also created a perfect circle along the ground. It had a considerably large radius, and it trapped the demons within the electrical field, where the ebb and flow of its power forced them to its center. The scent of rapidly-heating air permeated the area, and that was all the warning she had before the deafening crack from a bolt of lightning struck down both the demons, destroying them instantly.

As she watched their essence fade into the ether with startled awe, Cassandra remembered Leliana had once told her of the mages she traveled with during The Blight. While they were all equally skilled in various forms of magic, Cousland had specialized more in the elemental aspects of it, which was abundantly clear now.

“Powerful but disciplined,” Leliana had said when describing her with some measure of sad fondness. “Had she remained following that final battle, she likely would have been named First Enchanter Irving’s successor once the time came for him to retire.”

Cassandra glanced up briefly at the Breach before turning around to face Cousland. Powerful indeed… she thought darkly.

The other woman's brows were knitted together with what appeared to be worry as she jogged forth to meet her with a staff Cassandra knew she hadn’t possessed before. “Are you alright?”

Cassandra flicked her sword up in response. “Drop your weapon. Now.

Her demand had taken Cousland aback, causing her to draw up short. The corners of her lips downturned into a frown, and what mild concern had been in her eyes faded into slow-simmering contempt. “Do you truly believe I need this staff to be dangerous?”

“Is that supposed to reassure me?!”

“Says the Templar with her sword still drawn!"

“I’m not a Templar!”

“And I’m more than just a mage!” Cousland growled back, just as infuriated. “Do recall that I came with you willingly despite my treatment from you and your colleagues,” she spat before flashing her hand, which crackled erratically with the Mark’s verdant light—a possible testament to her mood. “There’s more than just my life at stake. If you had wanted me dead, then you should have let your soldiers and those villagers finish what they started, or you can wait and see if I can actually fix the Maker-be-damned sky before you decide to execute me anyway!”

The fatalistic statement was ice water to her senses.

At once, Cassandra could see the jadedness that Cousland had hidden behind her eyes. It appeared the woman truly didn’t believe she’d be set free once all was said and done. No, as a mage, she would have lived all her life with the knowledge she was despised simply for existing. The barrage of pure venom and hostility she had experienced in Haven had likely only reinforced that belief. What reason had they given her to think otherwise?

Chagrined, Cassandra slowly sheathed her sword. “They won’t—"

“Why, because of my name?” Cousland scoffed. “You know I’m a mage. It doesn’t matter if I was born from nobility; I forfeited all claims to my family’s estate along with any titles the moment my magic manifested, so save. Your. Words,” she bit out between clenched teeth. “You don’t trust me; I don’t trust you. That’s the only truth I’ll accept between us as of now.”

With that, Cousland settled her staff behind her back and strode past her.

Cassandra said nothing as she watched her go, pausing to gather her thoughts. Cousland hadn’t once used her magic on any of her assailants earlier although it was evident now she had been more than capable of it. She had chosen to defend herself rather than retaliate.

Cousland didn’t seem to be a woman who could be easily provoked into fighting. If Cassandra hadn’t stepped in, would she have continued to endure the mob’s hate? Weathered every attack until she had been left battered and broken?

The thought--and its possible answer--didn’t sit well with her.

Cassandra exhaled in disgust. She had spoken of not lashing out, but in a moment of doubt, she had instantly gone back on her words. With a sigh, she hurried to follow after Cousland, hoping to salvage the situation.

If they stood any chance against containing the Breach, it was imperative they worked together.

Chapter Text

Cassandra did her best to ignore the blithe banter behind her. Whatever had been discussed, however, resulted in another round of guffaws, causing her to roll her eyes as she led their way through the heavy snowdrifts.

They had met with Varric and Solas through their trek deeper into the mountains, and for reasons she hadn’t been able to yet fathom, Cousland and the dwarf got along exceedingly well together. The other woman had warmed to his jovial nature instantly, going so far as to trade well-timed quips with Varric, delighting the renowned author to no end. Worse, she had even somehow managed to draw a few good-natured chuckles from the ever stoic Solas, who brought up the rear of their party.

Cassandra frowned at that.

She’d been suspicious of him the moment he arrived to offer aid in Haven; the timing had seemed entirely too coincidental. That he also seemed to possess great knowledge of the Breach was of equal concern, but it very well could have been tied to his considerable experience of the Fade, as both were interconnected.

She sighed.

Then again, she supposed there was more to magic she was likely ignorant of. She had never assumed there was anything powerful enough to open an immense rift in the sky after all.

As for Cousland, the other woman hadn’t initiated any form of conversation with her since reaching the outpost.

There, they had caught Leliana and Chancellor Roderick in the midst of a heated argument—one which likely had been going on for quite some time if the uneasiness of the soldiers and scouts nearby had been any indication.

Roderick was adamant their current position be abandoned less more lives be lost. He wanted to begin preparation in finding the new Divine immediately, ignoring the threat of the Breach to the incredulity of Cousland, who had said just as much. That had done little to appease the Chancellor’s mood, for he had objected to her presence entirely, calling upon her arrest and eventual execution.

It had been the wrong thing to say.

The subject was still too fresh a wound for Cousland, and Cassandra had watched as those grey eyes cooled remarkably. Atop the outpost, it was already near frigid—exposed to the elements as they were—but she could have sworn the temperature had dropped several degrees entirely within the span of mere seconds.

She glanced quickly at Leliana, who met her gaze. Sky blue eyes flickered briefly to Cousland before returning back to her, confirming Cassandra hadn’t been mistaken. It should have been cause for concern, but as their Spymaster, very little unnerved Leliana, who simply left Cousland be—an indication itself that Cassandra should likely do the same. If anything, whatever tension Cassandra sensed from her counterpart at all was due in large part to Roderick if her unimpressed countenance was any indication.

Thankfully, despite Cousland’s initial reaction, she hadn’t done more than sigh afterward, choosing to stare off beyond the ramparts rather than add to a conversation that was steadily going about in circles.

At least until it had been left to her to decide their path.

“Oh, my apologies,” Cousland had begun dryly as she crossed leather-clad arms over her chest. “You’re asking for my opinion now?”

“You have the Mark,” Solas interjected before Cassandra could. “As you’ve demonstrated earlier with its use, we won’t stand a chance of sealing the Breach without you. Such as it is, it should fall to you to decide the best course forward.”

It was a reasonable argument, and Cassandra was pleased Cousland seemed to take the matter into consideration rather than offer further reticence. She watched as the other woman studied the trail that would offer them the quickest passage to the temple. What relief she had soon turned to dismay, however, when Cousland turned her attention over to the route leading further into the mountains instead—Leliana’s suggested path.

“We have our way forward then,” Cousland announced, and Cassandra couldn’t help but protest.

“We’ve already lost contact with an entire squad there. As active as the Breach has been, we have no way of knowing if the pathway is even still there. Surely you can see the temple pass would be the best option.”

“True,” Cousland conceded mildly, glancing at her out of the corner of her eye. “But we'd risk playing into our enemy's hands.”

“You believe someone’s behind this?” Cassandra asked only to grimace when a dark brow rose languidly in response.

“You all presumed I was responsible for the Breach earlier, didn’t you?” she deadpanned before shrugging. “I was not—reluctant as some of you are to believe otherwise—but it also opens up the possibility that someone else is. If they went to the trouble of creating something on so massive a scale, couldn’t it be said they’d also be displeased to see their work undone?”

At that moment, Cousland’s Mark flared, energy crackling around her hand audibly enough that Roderick flinched violently. He backed away further as if the table between them would protect him from the mage.

Leliana turned to Cousland, frowning. “Are you alright?” Her eyes didn’t leave the Mark, and it occurred to Cassandra that the other woman had never seen it so active before.

“It’s nothing.” Cousland turned her hand over a few times, but her expression was calm, looking at the Mark like it was little more than a mere nuisance at best.

It didn’t make any sense.

Cassandra had seen the force of the Mark bring her to her knees before. Was the effect of it lessening, or had Cousland simply grown used to the pain? Could she be hiding it from them entirely rather than risk showing any indication of vulnerability?

“In any case, if there is some force actively attempting to divert us from the temple, then a direct assault will be exactly what they’re expecting,” Cousland continued. Her gaze turned to the skies, and as she took in the swirling vertex of energy that was the Breach, her placid features shifted to one of determined resolve. “Let’s prove them wrong, shall we?”

Despite her initial reservations, Cousland’s decision to take the mountain path had been a sound one.

Although they had run across demons again in their ascent, the numbers were negligible at best—far less than they likely would have encountered had they chosen to stay with the bulk of their forces below. As luck would have it, they had also come across the very squad they had lost communications with earlier.

“Thank the Maker you finally arrived, Lady Cassandra,” the soldier gasped as she was helped to her feet following the sealing of the rift. “I don’t think we could have held out much longer.”

“Thank our pris—” Cassandra stopped the rest of the word from forming when she saw Cousland staring at them both. Although the other woman’s expression had been relatively open as they fought the demons away from their soldiers, nothing was reflected at all in those ghostly grey eyes now as she retreated inwardly, walling herself off from their judgment. For a moment, Cassandra wondered all she had endured for this to have become such a practiced response. She wet her lips and cleared her throat, trying again.

“Thank Lady Cousland,” she corrected, tipping her head minutely in apology when the woman turned to her in apparent surprise. “She insisted we come this way.”

“‘Cousland?’” The soldier repeated in confusion. “But aren’t you the…?” Her voice trailed off as she eyed the mage, and Cassandra cringed internally, wondering if the situation would deteriorate once she realized who had elected to save her and the rest of her companions. Instead, she was relieved when the woman merely pressed a fist over her heart gratefully. “You have my sincere gratitude, my lady.”

“Yes. Well.” Cousland, for her part, canted her head as she stared at them both, bemused. Her eyes still held some measure of caution, as if she couldn’t believe she was being genuinely thanked. “It was worth saving you, if we could.” She mustered up a small smile before gesturing off to the side. “The path behind us is clear of demons for now. Please, do go while you still have the chance.”

The soldier nodded her assent, and she was quick to round up the rest of her comrades, leaving the four of them alone.

It was decided they would stop for the moment to catch their breath. They didn’t know what they would find upon reaching the temple, so they replenished themselves where they could. Cassandra pulled the stopper from a flask to down a health potion, and she could see Varric tending to his crossbow while Solas was kindly offering one of his lyrium flasks to Cousland when he discovered she had none of her own. As quickly as they had left Haven, save for the clothing on Cousland’s back and the staff she had found along the way, Cassandra realized with a guilty pang that the other woman had no supplies whatsoever.

She had never once heard her voice a complaint over it. Cousland had simply continued to fight alongside them without any expectation she be coddled in any way, adapting seamlessly to her companion’s tactics and offering equal measures of crowd control and offensive ability that left their enemies easy targets to her party’s own attacks.

Still, it was a matter that needed to be corrected, Cassandra decided, and once Solas left Cousland’s side to tend to one of Varric’s injuries, she sidled over to her. She cleared her throat, catching the woman’s attention from where she had been staring across the mountain, and offered her a health potion.

“Oh.” Cousland had blinked owlishly at it in surprise before gently taking the flask between her fingertips. “Thank you, but don’t you need it more? You’re in the thick of battle more than I am after all.”

“Yes, but your safety is more imperative. Solas was right; we can not do this without you, and…” Cassandra trailed off, hesitating. She had never been good with these things. “And your barriers have been most helpful. I haven’t found the need to use my flasks nearly as much, so I do not mind sharing them with you until we are able to get you some of your own.”

“I see. Well, thank you then.” Cousland didn’t necessarily smile, but she did tip the flask toward her in a toast before thumbing off the stopper and draining the contents in a few swallows. “I imagine we’re getting close now.”

Cassandra nodded firmly. “We are.”

“Good. Let’s finish this.”

Chapter Text

Niamh hadn’t been prepared for the destruction that awaited them.

Save for a few staggering bits of stone foundation, not much of the Temple of Sacred Ashes remained. Beyond its broken threshold, she could see the towering spires that had formed from the Breach’s epicenter. There was an almost macabre elegance to them as they curled out and above like skeletal fingers, reaching for the heavens as if in fruitless supplication. The air was also… uncomfortably warm—suffocatingly so—despite the high elevation. The ground and the peaks of the nearby mountains couldn’t even hold snow atop their surfaces as a result.

Unfortunately, the heat soon revealed evidence of something else as well.

The stench of charred flesh hit her hard, and she nearly gagged, smothering the scent by hiding her nose in the crook of her elbow. She heard similar reactions from her companions behind her, but as she looked about, her gaze soon widened in horror.

Everywhere she looked, she saw death.

Entire groups of people had been incinerated where they stood, arms raised in defense to an attack that no mere mortal could have ever hoped to survive. It was a grisly scene for even the most hardened individual, but what stilled her more were the bodies that barely stood waist-high. Most of the small forms had fallen to the ground, either in an attempt to scramble away or—worse—were trampled into the dirt by those who had been desperately trying to flee.

Their presence here at all made a terrible amount of sense.

Knowing Circles as well as she did, Niamh didn’t doubt there had been children within them when the war occurred. She had even met some on her travels to The Hinterlands and had the opportunity to speak with them. The adolescents were glad to simply be free, but of the sudden upheaval in their lives, many of the youngest were left largely confused. They hadn’t understood why they had to leave their towers any more than they understood why people were now always angry at them. It was a terrifying time certainly, but they found comfort in the safety of those they were familiar with.

The Conclave had been a bid for peace.

And for their participation, their lives were cut short, Niamh thought grimly.

She traipsed forward carefully amidst fallen debris with her companions, but as her foot nudged an object in the dirt, something bade her to look down. There, Niamh found an overturned basket that had managed to escape the Breach’s initial explosion—albeit barely—due in part to having likely rolled alongside the bulk of a broken pillar.

One side of the handwoven basket had been burned clear off, revealing partially-singed elfroot underneath it. However, as the clouds shifted overhead, she caught the polished gleam of something hidden further beneath the dark leaves, and her curiosity led her to kneel down and brush aside the foliage. Dried from the heat, the delicate limbs cracked under the slightest touch, but eventually, she was able to extricate a simple piece of jewelry from the pile:

A small bracelet with wooden beads.

A sickening realization washed over her then as she looked about frantically, trying to find any evidence that would prove her wrong. There, however, beneath a broken archway at just the edge of the blast zone sat a kneeling pair of bodies—one larger and one significantly smaller. The former had been cradling the child-sized form to them, likely attempting to protect them from as much of the explosion as possible, but it had clearly been in vain.

There was nothing to confirm the corpses had in fact been Ida and little Mila—charred beyond all recognition—but as Niamh felt the damning weight of the tiny bracelet in her hand, the beads began to rattle violently against one another as her body started to shake.

To have such evidence that so many innocents died here…

“And you thought I did this?!” Niamh screamed, unable to stop the arcing of electricity that raced once along her shoulders as she whirled on Cassandra.

The anger she had felt in their earlier argument paled to the utter fury suffusing her now. She was to be accused of such a heinous crime? She who had been taken screaming from her home as a child? Who grew up amidst the faces of strangers than that of her own kin? They thought her this much a monster?

Cassandra had done little more than move back a step at her sudden outburst. Her expression was tight—if not uncomfortable—but she hadn’t drawn her weapon again either although her gloved hand had tightened on its hilt. Niamh distractedly heard the subtle cracks and pops of lightning licking at the ends of her own hair, and it was enough that Varric shifted uneasily on his feet while Solas watched in quiet fascination.

“You’re here. Thank the Maker!”

Grey eyes flickered past Cassandra to see Leliana had finally arrived with her men and was quickly looking to meet them. The sight of her was enough to give Niamh pause, and although difficult, she made every effort to tamp down the storm that had been growing inside her. While others were free to judge her as they saw fit, what Leliana thought of her mattered, and Niamh wasn’t about to tarnish whatever reputation the other woman had built over the years by having people believe she had once freely associated with a mage who couldn’t control her temper.

Niamh wasn’t a stranger to being subjected to acrimony after all, but the circumstances surrounding the matter now were significantly different. After so long alone, she had found herself thrust into sudden notoriety due to a false allegation, and the masses would rather see her hang because of it. That there was a possibility she would still die trying to fix a wrong that had never been hers, and it was little wonder her patience was already fraying.

Slowly, soundlessly, Niamh released a breath, and as her shoulders relaxed, so too had the tempest inside her, allowing the lightning dancing across her form to dissipate.

Leliana seemed curious, for in the past, she had seen her magic on display before whenever her emotions flared. However, Niamh subtly shook her head and offered a faint smile, leaving her to converse with Cassandra to draw together a plan.

If Niamh survived this, there would be time to clear her name later. For now, there was work to be done.

It had been decided that Leliana and her men would take up positions around the ruined temple, providing cover when needed while Niamh’s party traveled further within. She walked past corpses whose expressions were held in a permanent rictus of terror and tried not to let the sight of them faze her. The image would likely still haunt her for years to come, and if they had been the only nightmare, she’d have been glad of it.

Varric, however, spoke of the red lyrium they saw lining the broken foundations, capable of driving individuals mad if exposed too long in their presence. It was worrisome enough, but she did wonder how they came to be here. Varric was unusually somber as he eyed them, and given his typical verbosity, Niamh determined it was a conversation for another time.

There were more pressing matters to attend to.

She led the way, dropping first onto the ground that would lead to the rift that encompassed the space several meters above them. Familiar verdant energy flowed from its center, but it distorted reality more vividly than any of the others they’d across thus far. Mirror-like crystals jutted out from the rift like a hungry maw, continually retreating and growing—the sound akin to shattering glass—as it offered brief, twisted glimpses of both the Fade and the world around it.

As she approached it, her Mark flared, and she gazed down at in confusion before a voice—full of desperate pleading—echoed in the space around them followed by her own. The latter had her staring back at the rift in stunned silence, even moreso when images appeared a moment later with a thunderous clap, showing Niamh, The Divine, and a mysterious entity. What is this? How is this possible?

“You were there!” Cassandra exclaimed behind her, and Niamh wasn’t certain if she heard relief or further accusation in her voice as the woman strode forward to stand in her line of sight. “Who attacked? And The Divine, is she…?” Those lips thinned, and fury shone in the woman's dark eyes. “Was this vision true? What are we seeing?” she demanded.

“I don’t even remember most of this happening,” Niamh growled back, stepping forward to Cassandra’s posturing. The woman’s heart was likely in the right place, Niamh knew, but she wasn’t to be intimidated. She gestured vaguely to the rift. “All I can clearly recall is hearing a cry in the distance. I thought someone was in danger, so I went inside to investigate, but everything that might have occurred beyond that?” Niamh sighed even as she tried to pull the memories forward to little avail. “I honestly don’t remember.”

Thankfully, Solas offered his insight on the matter then, interrupting the tension between them. As expected, the images they had seen were ones of the past, revealed due to the Fade’s influence.

“I believe that with the Mark, the rift can be opened and then sealed properly and safely,” he continued. “However, opening the rift will likely attract attention from the other side.”

And it had.

No sooner had Niamh opened the rift that a massive Pride demon was conjured into being. She and Solas barely had enough time to cast a barrier around their companions before they were immediately put on the defensive as the demon roared and slammed its massive fists down—just managing to miss them. As Niamh backed away to get her bearings, she could feel her teeth rattle with every step the demon took, and to make matters worse, none of their attacks seemed to affect it at all.

The demon had merely shrugged off the volley of arrows, fire magic couldn’t so much as mar its thick hide, and outright brute force had done little but amuse it. It laughed—the sound deep, sinister, and mocking—as it raised a foot and brought it down toward Cassandra. Niamh was just able to cast a barrier around her, granting her some measure of cover as the warrior dodged to the side to escape.

Quickly, the fight was becoming a battle of attrition—one she wasn’t certain they were prepared for.

“Lady Cousland!”

At the call, she turned to Solas, who was quickly flinging several fire attacks at the demon in an attempt to draw it further away from the rift.

“Use your Mark again!” he instructed. “The rift cannot be sealed again while the demon still lives, but it may be enough to affect its presence here in our world!” Solas casted a Fire Mine beneath the demon’s foot, which exploded, causing it to stumble as the mage moved to safer ground near Varric.

Niamh raised her hand toward the portal, and as energy poured from the Mark, the rift fluctuated rapidly before releasing a sudden shock of energy. At once, the demon shuddered and fell to one knee as if dazed, and as they proceeded to attack it once more, it roared with great furor as it raised its arms in defense--something it hadn't done prior. They could harm it now and so had succeeded in truly infuriating it for the first time since the battle began.

With their combined efforts, Varric and the other archers were able to distract the large beast as she and Solas sent wave after wave of fire toward their foe, further weakening its defenses. As they did, Cassandra snuck around behind the demon and struck at its legs to try and limit its mobility. However, the beast was as shrewd as it was powerful, and with a mighty bellow the demon was able to manipulate the rift and summon companions of its own to fight against them.

Niamh felt the malevolent presence behind her almost a second too late, and as she whirled about—fire in her fist—the Shade was already poised to attack. Then, to the surprise of them both, it convulsed in place, causing its unearthly growl to cut off mid-cry. Slowly, as if in disbelief, it reached up with trembling claws to touch the arrow suddenly impaled into the side of its head, but no sooner had it firmly grasped the end of the shaft that it simply keeled over, dead.

She looked about in confusion, wondering where the arrow had come from, but as she followed its most probable trajectory, her gaze was drawn up to a figure standing atop the highest stone perch. Leliana offered her only a simple nod before her attention was drawn elsewhere, reaching into her quiver for more arrows to keep their enemies at bay.

Some things never change, I guess, she mused with a faint smile.

Her brief mirth slowly faded as she considered the situation at hand, however. Although they had weakened it earlier thanks to the Mark, their foe had a considerable amount of stamina. The demon could certainly outlast them at this rate, and it was a situation they could ill afford.

Unfortunately, Niamh had discovered early on that she couldn’t even use her element of choice here, as the demon also harnessed lightning as a form of magical offense. It was frustrating to be certain, and she was just barely able to dodge another of its whip-like attacks, but the current was powerful enough that she felt the soles of her boots singe in passing. She cursed beneath her breath. “And here I thought that damned dragon was to be my final foe when I was here last.”

She paused in consideration.

Wait… Niamh thought, remembering a scene from what felt like a lifetime ago.

Quickly, her eyes darted across the battlefield to find Leliana’s form, and she placed two fingers in her mouth in a shrill whistle to catch the other woman’s attention. As soon as that head turned down toward her, Niamh tapped beneath one of her own eyes with a grim smirk, receiving at first a raised brow and then a firm nod once Leliana realized what she required of her.

“Varric! Cassandra! Keep those Shades off us as long as you can!” Niamh ordered. “Solas! Help me stagger it quickly!”

Although there was a brief pause, the warrior soon retreated from the demon’s hulking form to focus her attention on their smaller foes much like Varric had. With the immediate threats now off her, Niamh encased one of the beast’s legs in ice while Solas proceeded to set off a Fire Mine beneath its other foot. With its balance disrupted, it fell again heavily to one knee, much to its vexation. It threw its head back in another blaring groan, but Niamh merely smiled.

No sooner had a heartbeat passed that she saw several arrows burying themselves—dead and center—into each of the demon’s eyes, and it’s pain-filled screech was even more deafening. Now blinded, it reached up to try and rid itself of the source of its agony, but it gave a howling moan every time it so much as grazed one of the arrows.

From there, Niamh wasted little time in gathering lightning in the cradle of her hands, waiting until the mass of energy had attained a considerable size. It was only when she felt a familiar numbness building in her fingertips did she finally release it. At her bidding, the stream of energy surged toward the demon’s face, and with the arrows now acting as lightning rods, she was able to do devastating damage with the multiple points of vulnerability Leliana had opened up for her.

As its very eye sockets sizzled and and smoked, the demon bayed helplessly, its maw falling open to reveal some semblance of the powerful electric current Niamh was flooding to every core of its body. Jerking erratically, it then gave one final lurch forward, and its essence faded on the winds before it even hit the ground.

As to what came after, Niamh couldn’t readily say.

Perhaps it had been the stressful events of the day, the fact that she may have overexerted herself in the battle, or even a combination of the two. However, as soon as she had activated the Mark to try and seal the Breach, the rift before them had pulsed heavily with viridian light to the point of being blinding before a sudden shockwave took everyone off their feet.

Niamh had been flung sideways, and she felt her back immediately collide with something hard and unyielding, causing her vision to turn a searing white with the pain of it. As her body slid to the ground, she was vaguely aware of people moving toward her, but she found she couldn’t hear anything clearly. It was like she was underwater in one of Antiva’s bays, where sound warped and distorted itself beneath the waves.

Distractedly, she turned her head to where she had last seen Leliana and was dismayed to find the woman was no longer there. Had one of the demons managed to slip past them and get to her? Had she been injured as a result of Niamh’s inattentiveness?

She tried to get up against the hands that desperately urged her otherwise, but her efforts were borne of little strength, and she collapsed onto her back not long after.

She heard another shout.

Cassandra’s perhaps? The woman wasn’t paying attention to her though. Instead, she seemed to be yelling for someone in the distance. Solas was kneeling beside her, hands over her chest, and she could feel another’s magic trying to mend her aches and hurts, but it was for naught.

Niamh was so very tired, and as she stared at the skies above her, she realized night had fallen. Their mission had been a long and arduous one, and now stars had littered the heavens. They were all so very bright, and for a moment, her heart filled with painful longing. She remembered the nights so long ago where she had sat alongside Leliana at the campfire as the other woman told her tales of legendary figures whom the stars were named after. Niamh had cherished those quiet occasions. For a time, she could forget the burdens placed upon them as she soaked herself in Leliana's warm presence and the measure of peace she'd found within it.

What I would have given for even just another brief moment of that…

Her eyes distractedly tried to piece together one of the constellations from memory, but halfway through the exercise, the stars simply disappeared as pitch black night fell over her, and she thought no more.

Chapter Text

Leliana sighed soundlessly as she made her way through Haven’s main compound. It was late enough that many of the residents had already turned into bed. That she was awake at all wasn’t unusual given her role as Spymaster, but she had just left an emergency meeting with the newly-formed War Council. Granted, the establishment of the Inquisition had yet to be made public, but there were a multitude of matters to consider.

One of which concerned their would-be savior.

“Here to visit with the Herald, Sister Leliana?”

She glanced up to see Charter seated atop a stool, whetstone and dagger in hand. Although the elven woman’s demeanor seemed remarkably relaxed as she sharpened the edge of her blade with absentminded strokes, Leliana had no doubt she was giving her task—that being guarding the cabin where Niamh was currently recuperating in—all the due attention it deserved. Her grip on her weapon of choice was steady and assured, and while her eyes were half-hooded, giving the appearance of weariness, Leliana could see how alert they were despite the late hour, still keenly following her every movement.

To anyone else, Charter could be seen as little more than an easy target, but Leliana knew better. She always did. It would have been no different than what she would have done in the same situation. Sometimes it was far easier to weed out dangers by letting them approach at their own bidding than purposefully seeking them out.

A thread of satisfaction and approval filled her.

As one of her senior agents, Charter knew how to meet—if not outright exceed—her expectations. Granted, Leliana was well aware “Charter” wasn’t her given name; it was merely one of several aliases tied to her. The secrecy should have been cause for concern, but Leliana’s network had considerable reach, and with it came the knowledge that could topple entire empires if need be. Sifting through the history of one individual seemed inconsequential in comparison, but she had required someone of Charter’s skills and had said as much when approaching her several years ago after the woman had successfully evaded her other agents only to come face to face with the Nightingale herself.

She pulled herself out of her musings when she saw that Charter was still patiently awaiting a response. “I take it she’s still resting?” Her words were more statement than question. She and Cassandra had already given strict orders to the rotating guards on duty they were to be alerted at once when Niamh awoke.

“She is. The healer says her wounds are healing well, and he expects she’ll make a full recovery.” With a languid stretch, Charter rose to her feet but not before wiping at her dagger one last time with an old rag.

“Here.” Leliana pulled a soft, worn cloth from her belt and handed it to her. “Yours seem well past retirement.”

It seemed a simple enough gesture but folded underneath the cloth was a small note. While there was always a risk such messages could fall into enemy hands, the parchment was laden with codes that only her most trusted of agents could decipher. In this case, it was instructions to be relayed to Scout Harding’s group to surreptitiously guard Mother Giselle in The Hinterlands until a proper retinue could be sent.

“My thanks.” Charter nodded gratefully. She reached behind her to open the door for Leliana. “Should I make myself scarce for the next half hour?”

“If you wouldn’t mind.” Despite her words, she knew she had a handful of agents watching the cabin from a distance at any given time, but for her purposes, it was private enough.

“Of course. Have a good evening, Sister.”

She heard the door latch close behind her, and her steps were silent as she wandered over to the bed. As expected, Niamh was still asleep. She hadn’t regained consciousness since they brought her back to Haven several days ago.

The battle at the Breach had been a near thing.

Conventional means of attack had done little against their demonic foe, and it had taken Niamh’s clever thinking and both their combined skills to bypass its thick hide entirely and destroy the beast from within in one fell swoop. However, when it came time for the other woman to seal the rift, no one had been prepared for the powerful backlash of energy.

Leliana recalled the moment everyone had been blown off their feet, and although she hadn’t been active on the field in years, enough of her old instincts were ingrained in her that she instinctively backflipped off her perch to take cover just as the shockwave washed over her. The ensuing blast had been near deafening, and her ears had rung for several moments afterward. She rose shakily to her feet, struggling to regain her bearings, but she could dimly hear Cassandra shouting frantically in the distance.

“Quickly! Prepare a litter for Lady Cousland!” she had heard. “We need to get her back to Haven immediately!”

Pure ice gripped her heart, and fearing the worst, Leliana had begun racing to where the others were. As she rounded the corner, however, she saw several people huddled around Niamh, who was lying so very still…

Gemstone blue eyes blinked, and she found herself back in the present again. Her gaze trailed absentmindedly over her unconscious friend, noting the bandages around much of her upper torso. With as close as Niamh had been to the rift, she had borne the brunt of the blast, and so there had been little to stop her sudden momentum as she was sent sailing back into a pillar.

The healer Adan had assured them nothing had been broken surprisingly, but Leliana saw the deep, mottled bruising which marred the woman’s form. She’d likely be feeling her injuries for days to come once she awoke, he had said, but more than anything, her body needed the rest. Adan had also mentioned quietly that he saw evidence Niamh hadn’t been eating or sleeping regularly prior to the fight. It wasn’t uncommon a sight for anyone partaking in the pilgrimage to The Temple of Sacred Ashes; the journey itself was one of exceptional mental and physical fortitude. Between that and how much magic she had likely expended in the battle, it was little wonder she hadn’t collapsed long before then.

“If she is the Herald of Andraste, then perhaps it’s no surprise at all,” Adan had mused aloud while wrapping a new set of bandages around his patient.

At the thought, Leliana felt the exhaustion of the day settling into her own bones, and so she seated herself into the chair next to the bed. “I imagine you’re going to be very displeased when you wake up..."

During their travels together, Niamh had said she’d been raised Andrastian like the rest of her siblings, but she had admitted with reluctance to Leliana that after her time in the Circle, she had long stopped believing in the Maker or His Bride. She greatly respected Leliana’s faith, she had hastened to reassure, but she couldn’t abide the words of a god who would grant His children magical abilities only to have mages be so openly demonized and caged for gifts they had never asked for.

“As it stands, I will never care for the Chantry any more than I care for the Circles it constructed to bring others like me to heel out of simple fear.”

Leliana knew such ideology wouldn’t make her popular among the clerics. Already she had reports from her agents which denounced Niamh as the Herald of Andraste, and she closed her eyes with exhausted amusement, realizing the other woman would have been the first to agree with them.

Although many had thought ill of Niamh when she had first been imprisoned, her actions at the Breach had allowed them to see her in a new light. As such, they would likely look to her for guidance in the days to come, which she had no doubt would irk Niamh to no end.

She had never wanted the mantle of leadership.

Even in their travels together, Niamh had been more than content to follow in her sister’s lead. Granted, she was a far cry from the young woman they had liberated from the Kinloch Hold so long ago, but Leliana knew that Niamh’s conscience would not allow for the suffering of others to go unattended, especially if she held the key to their salvation. Niamh was more than capable of leading them even if reluctantly.

I suppose that was one of the stark differences between you both, no?

Although they were close, Saoirse and Niamh had been different as night and day both physically and personality-wise.

Her late beloved had said she had taken more after their mother with her fair hair—the length of which she often braided into a bun. As a warrior, Saoirse had spent a great deal of her time outside training with the castle guards, and she had the sun-kissed skin and the muscled physique to prove it along with a personality that was bold in both speech and deed.

Niamh, however, inherited their father’s dark-haired looks along with their brother Fergus, but all three of the Cousland siblings had shared their mother’s grey eyes—if in varying shades. Of the two sisters, Niamh was slighter in size but lithe in form and closer to Leliana in height than Saoirse’s more imposing one. Having lived in Ferelden’s Circle most of her life, Niamh’s complexion was also much paler, and while sociable enough, she was considerably quieter as well. However, such deep introspection served her artistic skill well, enabling her with a fine eye for detail, which Leliana had been delighted to discover. At the time, it had meant she finally had someone to shop with whenever they visited a new town, as Saoirse had sheepishly admitted she had no sense for fashion, Wynne had been ambivalent at best, and Morrigan—unsurprisingly—had wanted nothing to do with such frivolities.

At such recollections, Leliana felt the years weighing heavily on her, and she couldn’t stop the sigh that escaped her. In the wake of everything that had occurred, it was easier to return to the past sometimes than deal with the unknown dangers of the present. As Spymaster, it was a luxury she couldn’t afford, but it didn’t stop her from yearning for those simpler times, where she had been happy and free even if just for a short while in her life…

“Leliana?” The lethargic voice drew her attention to the head of the bed where sleepy, half-lidded eyes were watching her. Leliana mustered up a small smile, relief filling her.

“Awake now, I see. Are you alright?” She watched as Niamh swallowed uncomfortably a few times, her mouth likely dry from all the time she had lain abed.

“Been better certainly,” she rasped, wincing at the sound of her own voice but continued on. “I don’t suppose you tracked down the herd of druffalo that stampeded over me?”

“I’m afraid not.” Leliana felt a wan smile playing on her lips at hearing Niamh’s familiar humor; it meant she was well on her way to recovery. She reached over to the nearby pitcher on the bedside table to pour the woman some water. “Here.” She began helping Niamh into more of an elevated position. While she had taken care to be mindful of her injuries, Leliana had still caught the grimace out of the corner of her eye, but the mage had said nothing else of her pain. “Slowly,” she instructed, bringing the cup to Niamh’s mouth, and she watched her weakly drain the contents of the cup before gently laying her back down again. “Now rest. We’ll need that strength in the days to come.”

“I take it we felled the dragon then?”

The unexpected question gave her pause, and she turned her head sharply to Niamh. “What?”

“The dragon at the temple.” Grey eyes blinked languidly at her. She canted her head, brows drawing together with concern when Leliana continued to say nothing in response. “Did we not kill it?”

Leliana indeed remembered the dragon they had slain together, but it had occurred a full decade prior. That the incident seemed to be the last thing Niamh recalled at all, however, was terribly worrying.

Frowning, she grabbed the candle holder and brought it forward to shine its flame near the other woman’s eyes. Niamh was bewildered at such attention, but the tension in Leliana's shoulders relaxed when she saw both pupils dilate at the same time upon being exposed to the light. Good. Not a head injury then.

It did leave her to wonder if this was just simple memory loss or a side effect of the Breach. Neither options were reassuring, and it was certainly worth mentioning to Adan when she next saw him. Perhaps Solas would have some insight to give as well if Niamh's current behavior was a reaction of the Mark to the Fade. Leliana had been so lost in her thoughts that she had barely managed to keep herself from flinching when she saw the hand reaching out toward her.

“Has your hair always been so long?” Niamh asked with quiet, confused wonder, grazing the back of a finger against long, red tresses, and the touch was so delicate that Leliana could barely feel the drag of a fingernail along a lone strand. With the exception of perhaps Josie, she had grown ill-used to having anyone touch her with such familiarity, but when Niamh began to gently pull down her cowl, she firmly reached out with a gloved hand to remove Niamh’s own and settle it back against the bed covers.

“Yes," she replied with a tight smile. "It has been for quite some time.”

Her voice was hollow with her admission. She hadn’t kept her hair short since she was last in Ferelden, but even then, she had done so as a ruse to keep Marjolaine from finding her. Following the end of The Blight, however, she had found little need to keep up such appearances anymore—not when the loving hand of Saoirse was no longer there to appreciate the sight and feel of it.

“Has it?” Niamh questioned before emitting a thoughtful hum. “I suppose Morrigan hadn’t been exaggerating about the strength of the concoction she brewed for my pain.”

“I suppose not,” Leliana offered distractedly. She began to rise, wondering if perhaps Adan was still awake to tend to Niamh, but before she could even move away from the bed, she felt a small tug at the end of her hauberk. Her gaze fell to where Niamh was looking back at her with tired eyes.

“Would you sing something for me?”

She sighed, disapproval sitting at the edge of her tongue. There were still many reports awaiting her orders back in her quarters, and she closed her eyes at the mere thought. “Niamh, it’s late.”

“Please? Just until I fall back asleep?” she pleaded, her smile turning a touch sad and wistful. “I know you’re on watch tonight with Saoirse. I promise I won’t keep you longer than necessary. I just…” She shifted gingerly onto her side, but even that meager effort seemed too much as Niamh exhaled sharply with a pinched expression. “I need something else to focus on other than the pain. Morrigan said it was dangerous to take more than the recommended amount of the potion she made.”

It seemed a simple enough request, but it would have been better given to the woman Leliana was ten years ago, who still believed in the worth and goodness of others. Since then, she had mired herself in the world of deceit and deadly intrigue for the sake of a world long blind to such dangers, but with each new secret unveiled, she had sunk further into that darkness until light was but a distant memory.

It was necessary, she had told herself, for she couldn’t abide a world where sacrifices like Saoirse’s could be left in vain. However, with her death, Leliana’s reason for song and sunlight had long left her, leaving her only with an aching void in place of a heart and a fathomless sea of what-ifs and what-could-have-beens.


And now Divine Justinia was gone.

The Maker had taken everything from her, and for that, how was she to still believe He could be benevolent? What god would allow such tragedy to happen without recourse?

They sought the best for your world, so why is it that you would let them die than continue to let them safeguard its peace? Her eyes drifted over to Niamh, who seemed to be growing more concerned with her silence by the second. Is this what you would have her do as well? To have her right wrongs in your name and then cast her aside? Isn’t that why you refused to save your Bride?

“Are you alright? Leliana?” She could hear the distress in Niamh’s voice. “Was it something I said?” Despite her many pains, the woman seemed determined to rise into a sitting position to tend to whatever injury she had unknowingly inflicted upon Leliana. It was only her calming hands that kept the mage from harming herself further. “Leli—”



“I will sing to you but only if you will rest,” she informed her, brow raising as if daring her to argue. To her satisfaction, Leliana watched as Niamh frowned but settled back against the bed obediently. The watchful, ghostly grey eyes—a shade paler than her beloved’s own—sent a quiet pang through her heart, but she hid it behind a smile as she settled the blankets back over Niamh. “Sleep would come to you more easily if you were to close your eyes,” she quipped with what she hoped was convincing humor.

Niamh tensed as if ready to argue, but Leliana merely raised her brow again, and the other woman fell begrudgingly silent before finally closing her eyes as instructed.

As Leliana sat back in her chair, she drummed her fingers soundlessly against her thigh in thought. Despite her promise, no songs came easily to her tongue anymore. It had been so long, but as she closed her eyes, she began focusing intently on old memories of echoing laughter, a lover’s touch, and the murmured affections that had once convinced her happiness hadn’t been so far out of her reach.

Her words took flight, and her voice soon reverberated throughout the cabin as if her gift of song had never left her.

For with Saoirse, anything had been possible.

Until it hadn’t, and her world had consequently shattered upon that realization.

As a bard, she knew the tragic tales of heroes as well as she knew the songs of love. Still, Leliana had dared hope Saoirse’s own legend would continue on with her than end so very abruptly. Their love was still a fresh one, established after months of mutual pining, and it had been one she desired to see bear fruit for years to come.

But that—like so much in her life—simply wasn’t meant to be.

As she stood at the edge of Saoirse’s pyre, watching the flames whisk her beloved away into the Maker’s embrace, she had sung this very song with just as much painful longing. The desire to be with her lover again was never far from her thoughts, but her duties to the world were not yet done. It couldn’t be—not until she was released.

Still, she couldn’t help but wonder if she could do this again. How many more pyres would she have to watch burn? To watch as another of her friends died? Saoirse, Wynne, and Justinia were gone. Would Niamh then be next?

The thought didn’t settle well with her, and her song ended in a rougher chord than she had intended, but it had served its purpose. Niamh had returned to sleeping peacefully, and Leliana was relieved for it as she settled the covers more firmly around her.

“Maybe it would have best if you had continued to stay away,” she whispered. “Now we’re both drawn to a course with an end that only the Maker himself can foresee.” But she couldn't leave her friend to mere fate, not when He had proven so callous to it. Her jaw tightened with darkened resolve as she rose from the chair and swept herself out of the cabin.

So be it.

She nodded in acknowledgement to Charter, who had returned to her post, but she didn’t stay to make conversation again. The mask of the Spymaster had already fallen around her like a veil, and so Leliana’s mind was hard at work, making plans to have her agents scattered to the winds again.

With her network, she would uncover every lie and every scheming plot. If there were to be enemies of the Inquisition in the days to come, they would be found and dealt with, but they would not come to hurt her friend.

You will have enough to deal with as you settle into your new role, she thought as she returned to the chantry. And so I will carry your burden in this.

For the fate that befell her beloved and that of Divine Justinia?

Leliana wouldn’t let it happen again.

Chapter Text

A green void that shattered and regrew like living crystals.

A demon that offered only death.

A blinding light.

The white-hot agony along her back as she was swept aside.

And a song, while melancholy, that was a soothing balm against her pain.

Singing… Why do I remember someone singing? she thought blearily.

Her eyelids were heavy with fatigue, and it was with great effort that she was able to open them at all, finding unfamiliar surroundings. A cabin, it seemed. She could feel a perpetual warmth permeating throughout it from the nearby hearth, causing its flames to cast erratic shadows along the walls. As she followed them in their dance, she found an open window, where the distant scattering of voices entered.

Niamh grimaced, not at all looking forward to whatever crowd awaited her outside, but as far as prisons went, she supposed she could have done far worse than her current one. At least waking up wasn’t nearly as traumatic this time, she thought idly, turning her head at the sound of the opening door.

A young elf woman entered with a small box of healing items, looking about the cabin with an expression of giddy reverence, which seemed strange. It was only when her gaze turned toward the bed and met Niamh’s that the woman’s features shifted to one of fear. A sense of unease began to knot in Niamh’s stomach. Oh, here we go…

“Oh!” The box dropped from the woman’s hands with a resounding clatter. “I didn’t know you were awake, I swear!”

Niamh sat up in an attempt to reassure her—that despite her being a prisoner, she had no intention of hurting anyone—but the very moment she was upright, she instantly regretted it. The sudden wave of nausea that washed over her was overwhelming, and she groaned, nearly doubling over before she caught herself with a hand on the sheets.

“S-should I fetch the apothecary?!”

“No, please.” She pinched the bridge of her nose with a grimace to keep her vision from swimming. How long had she been asleep for her vertigo to have been this terrible? “It will pass. I’m more in need of answers than anything else right now.” The sound of rustling had Niamh reluctantly opening her eyes again just in time to see the elf drop to her knees, much to her bemusement and concern. The other woman’s forehead was nearly touching the ground with her prostration.

“I beg your forgiveness and your blessing! I am but a humble servant, and so I will my best to serve you,” she swore solemnly.

“‘Serve me?’” Niamh parroted, frowning. “Whatever for?” When had becoming a prisoner somehow warranted an elven servant to do her bidding? The thought of such a practice didn’t settle well with her, knowing full well the type of discrimination elves already faced. “Where am I for that matter?”

“You’re back in Haven, my lady,” the woman replied, raising her head, but with wide eyes, she soon averted her gaze with a reddening flush that nearly reached the tip of her ears.

Confused, Niamh looked down and saw the reason for such a reaction.

The comforter she had been resting under had fallen down to her waist earlier, revealing the multitude of bandages covering her upper body and little else. Physical modesty had never been a particular strong point of hers, especially with much of her adult years spent overseas. To ease the other woman’s plight, however, she reached down toward the foot of the bed to retrieve a light-furred throw blanket, which she proceeded to drape over her shoulders. She couldn’t hide her wince mid-motion as the muscles along her back were summarily tested.

That was going to be a bother for at least the next few days.

“They say you saved us,” her guest continued, relief evident in her voice now although her blush had yet to fade. “The Breach stopped growing just like the Mark on your hand. It’s all anyone’s talked about for the last three days!”

Niamh’s brows rose toward her hairline. “The people that tried to have me stoned to death the moment I left the dungeons?” she asked incredulously. “You’re saying they’re actually pleased with me?”

The woman paled, as if fearing she had somehow offended her, and pressed her head to the floor again in contrition. “I-I’m only saying what I heard! I didn’t mean anything by it!” She gasped then, rising to her feet and quickly making her way back toward the door. “I’m sure Lady Cassandra would want to know you’ve wakened. She said, ‘At once.’”

Cassandra… She mulled over the name curiously before realization dawned on her with the memory of a glinting blade and a seemingly permanent scowl. “Ah, yes. The not quite Templar,” she surmised dryly. “Where might she be now exactly?”

“In the chantry with the Lord Chancellor. ‘At once,’ she said!”

Niamh sighed once she was left alone, brushing a hand across the fur along her shoulders. She would have preferred to stay in bed, soaking in the warmth and comfort the cabin had to offer. It seemed a far better alternative than whatever awaited her outside. While her wayward guest said the people of Haven had somehow developed a change of heart in regards to her, she couldn’t help but have her misgivings. A sudden, unwarranted attempt at execution has a way of making people leery certainly, she thought with a roll of her eyes before carefully sliding her legs over the side of the bed to test her balance.

“But I suppose there’s no time like the present to investigate this.”

To say she was ill at ease was an understatement.

It was the silence that unnerved her the most, for the moment she left the cabin, the steady drone of voices she had heard throughout her morning preparations suddenly hushed themselves. As far as her eyes could see, soldiers, refugees, and men and women of the Chantry alike lined the perimeter of Haven, standing stiffly at attention and watching her with what appeared to be bated breath.

Given the atmosphere when she was last in the village, everything immediately had her on edge. Every shift in the crowd, every clang of armor, made her second-guess their intent, wondering if she was going to receive another rock to her head or simply a sword through her back. When she was finally convinced that they were merely content to watch her, she gave them all wide berth as she set herself on the path toward the chantry.

“That’s her,” she heard a voice whisper nearly beyond the edge of her hearing. “That’s the Herald of Andraste.”

The what? Already, she regretted not staying in the cabin. Niamh had hoped she’d simply misheard, but as conversation drifted back in amongst the crowd, she realized it had been a futile wish.

“They say that when she came out of the Fade, Andraste herself was watching over her!”

“Hush!” another voice rushed to whisper. “We shouldn’t disturb her.”

“But why did Lady Cassandra have her in chains? I thought Seekers knew everything.”

“It’s complicated,” a woman murmured. “We were all frightened after the explosion at The Conclave…”

And that was enough reason for you all to want my death, she thought unkindly although she was careful to keep her expression as neutral as possible.

Niamh nodded woodenly at their effusive greetings and praises but offered nothing of her own in return. She couldn’t risk a single misstep—verbal or otherwise—amidst such a heavy throng of people. She was hardly in any condition to fight again after her last battle. Although they knew she was a mage, they thankfully didn’t seem to care as much anymore even as she openly brandished her staff. Granted, it was being used as more of a walking stick as there was a lingering stiffness along her left leg, which she had discovered that morning. It would likely need to be looked at later along with her other injuries.

Not that she relished the idea of recuperating in Ferelden’s infamous Frostbacks.

The mountain range was notorious for its exceedingly cold weather throughout the year. As such, Niamh had been grateful her coat survived her last ordeal. Personally-crafted from the hide and fur of a Great Bear, it was a boon against the harsh elements, retaining warmth even without the use of her magic. Because of its thick material, however, she found that she couldn’t slip into it easily with her injuries. Her back had already spasmed terribly when she had pulled on a looser, button-down tunic she found in a clothes chest earlier, and so she had resorted to simply draping the coat over her shoulders.

Now where in the world is—ah.

As she rounded the corner of a building, she caught sight of the village’s chantry along with a curious scene of Cassandra arguing outside it with Roderick. Whatever their disagreement, it seemed that the Chancellor hadn’t taken kindly to its end, and he promptly stalked off, absolute mistrust in his eyes as he strode past Niamh with a pair of Templars in full regalia.

“Lady Cousland.”

“Lady Seeker,” Niamh greeted, smothering a small smile when she seemed to have taken Cassandra by surprise.

“You know of my title?”

“I managed to catch up on a few things,” she replied, jerking her head pointedly over her shoulder at the crowd. “As I didn’t wake in chains again this time and no one has outright called for my execution, I take it you all no longer believe me to be a suspect in the late Divine’s death?” she asked wryly.

Cassandra seemed decidedly uncomfortable as she shifted her boots in the snow. “There was no doubt Divine Justinia called out to you for help, and you were seen trying to aid her—strange as that vision was.”

“And this Herald of Andraste business... Was that your doing?”

“You recall that Leliana and I weren’t the only ones at the Breach with you, yes? Our soldiers and scouts were able to see firsthand what you were capable of. You achieved what no one else had in all the time the rifts have been present in our world. For them, that is proof enough of your divinity.”

My divini—” Niamh closed her eyes, using every last ounce of willpower to keep herself from raising her voice despite the incredulity she felt. She was already under enough scrutiny from the people of Haven. “You do realize I’m a mage, yes? That should be evidence enough I’m not chosen. After all, what is it that you people constantly preach in regards to us? ‘Magic exists to serve man, not rule over him?’” she quoted, voice thick with sarcasm.

“I have not forgotten,” Cassandra returned just as dryly before sighing, looking to her earnestly. “No matter what you are, or what you believe, you were exactly what we needed when we needed it.” Dark eyes turned to study the Mark on Niamh’s hand. “And I fear we need you still. The Breach was stabilized thanks to your efforts, but it is not yet sealed. There is a chance it could wreak havoc again unless we act.”

“What?” Her brows furrowed at the implication. “I expended everything I had the first time and nearly died for it! You’re saying it hasn’t even so much as closed itself?”

“I’m afraid so,” she confirmed grimly. “So long as it remains, this affects not only Ferelden but the entirety of Thedas. As the respective Left and Right Hands of Divine Justinia, Leliana and I declared the Inquisition’s rebirth to stop the threat.”

“The Inquisition…” Niamh repeated, eyes lidding briefly to turn her thoughts inward. The significance of the name certainly seemed familiar. “Ah, yes. It preceded the Chantry, didn't it? It was originally established as a means to restore order in a world lost to chaos. Your last Inquisitor was a man named Ameridan back during the age of Emperor Kordillus Drakon’s reign if I recall correctly.”

Cassandra blinked owlishly at her several times before the corner of her mouth curled up in spite of herself, impressed. “You’re well-read.”

Niamh shrugged. “I had a great deal of time on my hands when I was once part of Ferelden’s Circle, and then I had the chance to freely seek knowledge elsewhere once I left after The Blight. In any case,” she mused idly, turning her gaze to the path Roderick had retreated on, “it seems you’ve already lost support of the Chantry.”

The other woman couldn’t hide her grimace even as she agreed reluctantly. “It seems we have, yes…”

Niamh tilted her head, looking askance at her. “You do realize from a statistical point of view you’re already in a considerably weakened position? From what I can see, you’ve no leader, no allies, no internal numbers with which to handle the threat, and yet you’re asking me to help start a holy war against the Chantry?”

“I’m well-aware that as we are now, we are ill-equipped to handle the burden ahead of us, but we are already at war,” she growled with a noise between disgust and utter frustration. “So long as the Breach is still present in our world, we do not have the luxury of standing idly by while the clerics toil behind closed doors and the people they have sworn to protect suffer from their inaction.” The tension along the Seeker’s shoulders relaxed only by mere fractions as she looked to her worriedly. “I know we are already asking so much of you and that our path forward will not be an easy one, but you cannot pretend that this has not changed you. Please,” she implored deeply, offering her hand in truce, “help us fix this before it’s too late.”

Niamh stared silently at the proffered limb for several heartbeats, knowing full well the ramifications were she to accept it. The tactician in her railed against what would likely be a lost cause, but the part of her that still honored her sister’s memory knew she couldn’t simply walk away.

”Were I to ignore someone in obvious suffering when I knew full well I could have done something to prevent it, I feel that says something about me as an individual, and I would rather not have that weight on my conscience.”

Niamh stifled a wan laugh. It suits that you’re still capable of reprimanding me even in death… She turned her gaze back to the Seeker, who seemed to be second-guessing herself with her continued silence, but before she could awkwardly withdraw her hand, Niamh reached out to firmly clasp her forearm.

“I suppose I always did like a challenge.” She offered her a small smile. “Very well, Seeker. Lead the way.”

Dark eyes lit up with relief, and she clasped her hand more solidly with the other, shaking it gratefully. “Good. Please, this way,” she said before gently directing her toward the chantry. “If you are to work with us, then it would behoove you to meet the rest of our War Council.”

“So she’s awake then?” Leliana clarified, ignoring the sound of sudden spluttering behind her as Cullen had likely choked on his tea with the news.

Upon their return to Haven following the initial sealing of the Breach, she and Cassandra had informed him of the identity of their would-be savior. She remembered watching as his already exhausted pallor shifted to one of stark white terror. Given the shared history between him and Niamh during their days in Kinloch Hold and what had been said when they last parted, the man had been a nervous wreck ever since.

“Yes, Sister!” the elf confirmed, nodding eagerly. “I’ve already informed Lady Cassandra, but she was arguing outside with Chancellor Roderick, so she asked me to come tell you as well.”

“I see. Thank you.”

Beaming, the messenger left the room, and Leliana returned her attention to her colleagues. Josie was busy fussing over Cullen, worriedly wondering aloud if perhaps her latest batch of tea had been too strong for him, but the Commander only waved off her concerns between bouts of coughing.

While it seemed he’d been able to get his breathing under control, his nerves were still considerably frayed. As he returned to his place at the War Table, he fidgeted with his mug between eying the door every few moments, but as she had expected, his antics nearly caused him to upend his drink entirely over their expansive map, much to her amusement. Cursing beneath his breath, he soon abandoned the mug to the wayside before resolving to keeping his hands still by resting them on the hilt and pommel of his sword, clearing his throat with an awkward cough while studiously ignoring both of them.

Josie looked at him curiously, but when she turned her gaze to her, Leliana merely shook her head with a roll of her eyes. Her friend’s displeasure was obvious in the furrowing of her brows, but the ambassador soon returned her attention back to her board with quick, fluid strokes of her pen, likely jotting down ideas to make the latest addition to their Council feel more welcome.

It would be a blessing, considering how Leliana expected the meeting to go...

“And here is our War Room.” All heads within turned as the doors were pushed open by Cassandra, who led Niamh in. The other woman seemed to be taking in their surroundings with practiced ease, which Leliana knew from their travels together was her way of gauging all possible exits within a room along with any items that could be turned into an impromptu weapon were she to be disarmed. “May I present Commander—"


The hands Leliana held behind her back clenched in sympathy when she saw the exact moment her friend’s pale eyes had widened upon seeing their Commander. Surprise soon fell away to old hurt as parted lips closed themselves and then thinned, allowing a slow indifference to cascade over her features. What words Cullen may have had—whether a simple hello or a long overdue apology—soon faltered and faded as storm grey eyes averted themselves from him in reproach. He shifted uncomfortably in place with a muted clanking of armor before simply dropping his gaze, resigning himself to silence.

Leliana merely shook her head in the corner.

This wasn’t going well at all. With the addition of Cassandra, Niamh was already putting up a front to half their War Council. Josie’s introduction had at least fared better, and Niamh had been polite to her even if distantly so. The mage likely didn't know what to make of their ambassador thus far but had seen no need to be rude to her thankfully. No, she mused. You tend to withhold judgment unless given evidence otherwise to do so.

Her reaction to Cullen was proof enough of that.

“And of course you already know Sister Leliana.”

At her own introduction, she bowed her head briefly to Niamh, who nodded in acknowledgement. “My position here requires a degree of—”

“She is our Spymaster,” Cassandra continued on, unheeded, much to Leliana’s irritation.

Niamh, for her part, merely blinked at the revelation, but she didn’t seem particularly surprised. Grey eyes darted between her and the Seeker, but when they stopped to rest on her again, brow arched in question, Leliana found the familiarity between them was still evident despite their years apart. No tact at all with this one, hm? that gaze asked.

Leliana’s shoulders rolled in a subtle shrug. None whatsoever. More’s the pity, no? Her blue eyes turned to her counterpart with a blank stare. “Yes. Tactfully put as always, Cassandra…” she replied airily much to the other woman’s confusion.

The fur and leather spaulders atop Niamh’s shoulders shook with silent laughter, but her smile was more visible and relaxed as her attention was turned to Josie, who drew her deeper into conversation regarding their situation.

Leliana was heartened her friend seemed more lucid than she had last night. Despite the stiffness she had noted in Niamh’s gait when she had first walked in, she hadn’t noticed anything else amiss. There had been no notable confusion in those pale eyes beyond perhaps her sudden appointment as Herald, which she seemed less than enthused about as Josie relayed public opinion over the matter. It gave Leliana confidence that perhaps the memory loss she had seen last night was temporary.

It was one less thing to worry about—at least until it came time to discuss the best course of action to seal the Breach. She had already offered her opinion to seek out the rebel mages for aid, which Cullen—unsurprisingly—disagreed with.

“The Templars could serve just as well.”

“Oh?” Niamh intoned, crossing her arms as she leveled a cool, half-lidded stare at him. “And what would you have them do? Wave their swords about in a circle with a rallying cry at the Breach?”

Leliana turned her head away to smother a laugh.

Despite his nerves earlier against Niamh, Cullen bristled in indignation. “I was a Templar! I know what they’re capable of!”

“As do I, or had you forgotten when we last met?” she asked with such quiet solemnity that Cullen paled and dropped his gaze again, hands fidgeting with the hilt of his sword. Eerily-calm eyes turned to the rest of them. “The Breach itself is magical in nature; I’ve felt its effects.” She raised her Marked hand in response, letting its light waver before them briefly. “As such, who better than mages to use its force to seal it?”

“In any case,” Josie began hesitantly, trying to calm the tension in the room, “approaching either group is out the question. None of them are willing to even speak with us as of yet.”

“I don’t suppose that has anything to do with my sudden…” Niamh grimaced. “…appointment?”

Josie nodded reluctantly. “Among other things, yes. Beyond the many that still think you guilty of the Breach’s creation, the Chantry has openly denounced the Inquisition and you specifically. They refuse to acknowledge the Herald of Andraste could possibly be a mage.”

Niamh dragged a few knuckles along her jawline in thought, frowning. “Little surprise there, but they’re still ignoring the actual threat. I’m more concerned we don’t have any immediate allies to aid us. The Breach won’t remain calm forever, and my first encounter with it already proved I couldn’t seal it alone.”

“While our options are limited for now, there is something you can do for the time being,” Leliana offered, and she waited until Niamh’s eyes were on her to continue. “A Chantry cleric by the name of Mother Giselle has asked to speak with you. She is not far from here, likely still tending to the wounded out in The Hinterlands, and she knows those involved far better than I.”

Niamh tilted her head, humming thoughtfully. “And you believe her assistance would prove invaluable to us then?” Her question was phrased more as a statement, mulling over the fact aloud than truly asking for further inquiry.

Still, Leliana nodded. “That, I do.”

“You mentioned there were wounded?”

“Yes,” she admitted with a sigh. “After the explosion at The Conclave, the situation between the mages and Templars deteriorated. Now we have rogue groups of both meandering throughout the area, fighting one another with little care as to who gets caught in the crossfire.” Leliana walked forward to comb through a few of her reports on the table. “I’ve agents covertly watching Mother Giselle, so she will be safe until you’re ready to meet with her.”

“If there’s that much conflict, we should take a small party with us.” Niamh glanced over to Cassandra, who nodded approvingly, likely pleased they were being proactive now after days of utter standstill and indecision.

“Yes, I can have Solas and Varric ready to leave with us.”

Niamh glanced around the room. “And will the village be safe while we’re away? If there’s infighting in The Hinterlands, I can’t say I’d be comfortable leaving Haven undefended.”

“You needn’t worry, Your Worship,” Josie reassured, making a few notes on her parchment board, thereby missing the wince Leliana saw cross Niamh’s features upon hearing the title. “We’ve still a number of soldiers with us along with several volunteers who joined after they heard of your exploits. We need only tell them—”

“I’ll see to it!” Cullen announced suddenly, startling them all as he broke his long-held silence before proceeding to all but flee from the room, carefully keeping his eyes away from Niamh.

“I—” Josie seemed a tad flustered at the sudden departure. “Well. Yes. I suppose the Commander has that covered now.”

“Then I’ll see to our preparations to The Hinterlands,” Cassandra said before turning to Niamh. “Please meet us at the main gate when you’re ready.” At the woman’s nod, she soon took her leave but at a considerably more dignified pace.

“And I’ll see if I can’t expand our influence while we’re out there,” Niamh announced. “Granted, it might not immediately help with the Breach’s sealing, but some positive exposure could only do us some good at this point. If nothing else, we’d be able to gain some new recruits willing to aid our cause.”

“An inspired idea, Your Worship! Oh! And before you go,” she began, delaying Niamh’s departure, “we were actually in a meeting with a visiting dignitary prior to your arrival. He was quite insistent on meeting you.”

Dark brows drew together. “Truly? Even with the Chantry spouting blasphemy about us already, he isn’t hesitant about the idea of speaking with me?”

The ambassador offered only a reassuring smile. “I promise you, this will be a meeting well-worth attending, but he did mention you could visit him at your earliest convenience. He didn’t wish to trouble you more than necessary if you were busy.”

Grey eyes drifted to Leliana in question, but as she knew the identity of the dignitary in question, she merely smiled in turn, which seemed answer enough for Niamh.

“Very well. I had wanted to see the healer here for some items first though.” She gently waved off the ambassador’s vocal concerns regarding her health with a smile. “In any case, could you please send a messenger to inform our guest about meeting me in my cabin? I’ll try not to keep him waiting too long.”

"Of course!" Josie beamed, extraordinarily pleased Niamh seemed to be taking the matter seriously. She dealt with it so rarely with Cassandra and Cullen after all. They often wanted nothing to do with politicians, and it was often left to Josie to deal with any perceived offense.

“And Lady Ambassador?”

“Yes, Your Worship?”

Niamh’s eyes pinched a bit at their corners. “I realize you’ll have to refer to me as the Herald of Andraste when corresponding with other dignitaries, but if it wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience, could you please call me by my name outside of official duties? Or simply Lady Cousland if it would be easier for you?”

“Oh! My apologies!” She ducked her head in acknowledgement, smiling. “Of course, my lady. I would be glad to.”

Niamh nodded gratefully, more at ease.

“And regarding Cullen,” Leliana spoke up hesitantly, “I’m sure seeing him again was quite the shock. I’m sorry I couldn’t have informed you sooner. We only received word you woke up not too long ago.”

“Ah.” Niamh slowly rotated her staff in her grip, causing its blunt end to quietly grate across the stone floor with the motion. It was one of her nervous tics, Leliana knew. “No need to worry yourself over it,” she replied graciously. “Considering I’ve been unconscious for the past few days, I can’t see how you would have been able to inform me of anything.”

“True. I am glad you seem to be feeling better.”

Niamh chuckled quietly. “It’s nothing worse than what I suffered during my drinking benders in Rivain.”

“I see.” Leliana arched a brow but made no further comment to that point. “Well, I’m glad you also seem to be in better spirits. You had me concerned last night.”

Grey eyes blinked curiously. “Oh… Did you visit me last night?”

“You don’t remember?”

Niamh rubbed the back of her neck with a mild frown. “I honestly can’t recall much of anything beyond that battle with the demon and this morning.”

“Hm,” Leliana hummed, recalling the hand that reached out to touch her with such open, curious affection. “Such a shame. You were so bold too,” she simpered with seeming disappointment. She hid a grin as Niamh nearly choked on her next breath, pale eyes comically widening at her words.

“I... What…?” Her mouth opened and closed several times as she struggled to find her words. Leliana could see the panic in her friend's eyes as she tried to recall anything from last evening, but it was a futile effort, and the other woman swallowed audibly. “Did... did I say or do anything strange last night?”

“Hm. I wonder.” Her own crypticness regarding the matter only allowed Niamh to stew fretfully in place. It was so easy to tease her at times, Leliana thought with amusement. It had been one of her favorite past times, but she soon admonished herself, letting her expression smooth. There was still work to be done after all. “In any case, between that and the stunt you pulled off at the Breach, you owe me, oh…” Her gaze turned briefly to the ceiling in thought. “Let’s say a dozen arrows. That seems payment enough, no?”

Niamh nodded slowly, gripping her staff tightly in both hands now, as if it was the only thing holding her up. “I… I see. I’ll…” She coughed politely into her fist, averting her eyes with what seemed like a growing blush. “I’ll get to that when I can. Please excuse me.” She ducked her head and proceeded to slink away from Leliana as fast as humanly possible.

“Oh, honestly, Leliana!” exclaimed Josie once they were alone, gently smacking her shoulder with the back of her hand. “Really, you shouldn’t tease her so! She’s been through enough!”

Leliana merely laughed, shifting her body to hide herself from further abuse. “I couldn’t help myself! I merely wanted to see if I could or not. She’s been so serious since she came in here.”

Josie seemed distinctly unimpressed if her expression was any indication. She sighed then, leaving her be. “Well, were it not for your antics, I would’ve said her mask could rival that of any player in Orlais." That was high praise from Josie, and she couldn't help but agree. "She seems rather competent. She took charge of the situation quite well, yes?”

Leliana nodded, turning her attention to her reports. “Niamh’s always been exceedingly clever.”

“You didn’t mention visiting her last night. Was everything alright? The healer did say she was healing well, didn’t he?”

“Yes, yes. It was nothing serious, Josie,” she reassured with a smile. “She was a little out of sorts is all.”

As she looked through her latest missive, she found a message written there in a code that only she and a few select agents knew. Her humor was soon forgotten as she deciphered its meaning:

Leliana had a traitor within her network.

Chapter Text

“Oh, the meeting was a disaster!” Josie cried as she wrung her hands fretfully.

“It was fine, Josie,” Leliana insisted, trying to reassure her friend even as she watched her pace restlessly behind her desk.

They had returned to the ambassador’s office at Josie’s request.

The other woman had known something was wrong although not necessarily the specifics of her current dilemma. She had likely seen her drawn face and had grown worried with her sudden silence in the War Room. Although Leliana had tried to wave off her concerns, Josie had been insistent, offering an early “interlude,” which—despite the seemingly lofty name—was in actuality one of her friend’s quaint tea parties. She had made the rare mistake in pointing it out once and had been firmly corrected in prim fashion.

“These interludes are for us to connect as colleagues and friends lest we lose sight of our goals in the days to come.”

Not wanting her friend's feelings to be hurt by continually refusing, Leliana had reluctantly agreed but not before she’d been able to summon Charter, handing her a note filled with a series of coded instructions. It would take some time yet before she received the evidence she needed, and while there were several contingencies she’d need to take into consideration regarding them, she supposed it was better to table such thoughts for the time being.

A clear head made for clearer decisions.

“Niamh already has considerable history with two of us, and her initial introduction to Cassandra was rather…” The corners of Leliana’s mouth twisted unpleasantly. “…much.”

Not that Leliana hadn’t been equally incensed to learn that Divine Justinia had died along with everyone in attendance at The Conclave. In the aftermath of that realization, she had been so ready to sink the tools of her trade into the one who’d dare commit such treachery. She had sworn that death would be a blessing when she was finally through with them.

But rather than the faceless, heartless monster she’d expected, she had found Niamh in those dungeons instead, bound, weary, and already at the mercy of her captors.

In that instance, Leliana had known—even after so long apart from one another—that Niamh couldn’t have done the things everyone had already assumed of her. It had been apparent when she questioned her later. While the mage had been willing to wall herself behind her cool façade with the others and endure their abuse—she had seemingly resigned herself to such a fate—those mist-grey eyes had been nothing but open and honest with her.

As a bard and Spymaster, Leliana knew all the tics and tells of a consummate liar, but she saw none of those in Niamh. In her pained, exhausted gaze was just a simple hope that she’d finally be believed.

…or that her death would at least be a merciful one.

And that realization had stilled Leliana to her core.

If the suspect had been anyone else but Niamh, would she truly have been that cruel? Even without evidence to the contrary, would she have proven just as unkind to a stranger as her colleagues had?

When had violence become her initial reaction instead of an afterthought?

“Well, surely we can do something to make her feel more welcome,” Josie said, drawing Leliana out of her disquieting thoughts. The ambassador proceeded to pour freshly-steeped tea—a bold Antivan blend—into two cups for them. “That—at the very least—the burden of the Inquisition will not fall on her alone.”

“I wouldn’t worry so.” She reached out to take the cup and saucer from her friend. Her gloves had been removed for this occasion, resting on the arm of her chair, and she was able to feel the warmth emanating from the fine porcelain. “If anything, I think she’d feel most comfortable around you than anyone else in our Council.”

Josie, after all, was a summer’s ray compared to the bitter steel Leliana felt inside her these days. As an ambassador, she endlessly thought well of others and used polished diplomacy along with pen and parchment to fight her battles instead of deceit and daggers drawn under the cover of night.

“Oh?” Josie uttered in surprise as she took her seat, her own cup in hand. “Did you not say you were both companions during The Blight?”

“Yes, but it’s been over ten years since I’ve seen her.” Leliana gently blew at the steam rising from her tea before delicately taking a sip, humming in approval as she enjoyed the earthy notes she found within it. “I think Morrigan would have fared a better chance at getting her to open up. Of everyone back then, she was the one Niamh was closest to.”

She and Saoirse had been rather surprised that Niamh had managed to secure a friendship with the otherwise distant witch at all. Most of the time it seemed that Morrigan had wanted nothing at all to do with them and often pitched her tent well enough away from everyone else in emphasis of that point.

But despite her quieter nature, Niamh apparently had a knack for being rather charming.

“Some of the Templars in the Circle could be more difficult than others,” the mage had offered in explanation when she had asked her of it. “Some of them could be sweet-talked enough if you knew how to appeal to their egos.”

“I see.” Then, Leliana had smirked and gently bumped her shoulder against her friend's as they walked back to camp with some firewood. “And are you looking to appeal to hers?”

Although such teasing from her had drawn blushes from the mage before, Niamh had merely been amused—as if aware of something Leliana wasn’t—smiling openly. “Not entirely. I genuinely do find her intriguing. She’s such a breath of fresh air compared to any other mage I’ve ever met.” She sighed wistfully. “I bet she’s experienced things I could only ever dream about.”

Niamh’s focus as a mage had been elemental magic, but Morrigan’s specialty dealt with more of the arcane—a subject Leliana doubted was allowed within the Circle. As such, she could see how it would been of intense interest to her friend.

At one time, she had wondered if there had been every been more than simple studying afoot whenever they slipped away into Morrigan’s tent, but it was little business of hers. She and Saoirse were smitten with one another, and Niamh seemed happy with her own course in life, so all was well in Leliana’s small piece of paradise if for the moment.

“I confess I didn’t even know she was still alive until recently,” Leliana admitted ruefully upon coming out of her thoughts.

When she had been appointed as Left Hand of The Divine, she likely could have used her position to find Niamh’s whereabouts, but by then, crises were occurring near weekly with threats that needed to be contained. She was endlessly buried in her work, and after a time, she had simply stopped thinking about Niamh entirely.

“I suppose I assumed that had she wanted to contact any of us, she would have. Given that she didn’t, I took it to mean she wanted to be alone.” She stared into the dark depths of her cup. “Understandable, given what she lost the last time we saw her.” She didn’t need to look up to know that Josie was staring at her with sympathetic eyes.

“Well, you do have more knowledge of her than the rest of us,” Josie offered quietly. “Is there anything we can do to make her feel more comfortable, or—if nothing else—anything she’d find displeasing we should be aware of?”

“Hm. No. She’s never been really one to complain.” It had been an admittedly noticeable trait compared to some of their more eccentric companions back then. As Leliana lifted her cup to her lips again, she blinked, the pleasant scent reminding her of an older memory. “Ah. She does have an aversion to truly awful tea however. We stopped at an inn while traveling to Orzammar once, and while I’m not entirely certain how they managed it, the tea they served there had the aroma of particularly pungent cheese even from a distance.”

Josie was so aghast that she simply placed her tea down with a small clatter before recoiling back in her chair. She pressed a hand to her chest with the most scandalized expression. “Surely, you jest!”

“If only.” She smirked. “While the tea was abysmal, the innkeeper was this lovely old woman who kept refilling Niamh’s cup every time she came by the table. I think Niamh would have felt badly for telling her how terrible it truly was. Nevertheless, it was only after the second cup that she had taken to covertly throwing the contents of it outside the window whenever the innkeeper wasn’t looking.”

Despite herself, Josephine couldn’t help but giggle at the absurdness of the situation. Then, upon realizing she was laughing at another’s misfortune, she gasped, pressing a hand to her mouth with a blush. “Oh, dear…”

“It’s alright, Josie,” she replied blithely. “Niamh herself was laughing over the incident later once we were on the road again. Unless you’ve somehow taken to experimenting with your tea to a degree that would surpass even that inn’s, I doubt you’ll be able to offend her with what you have to offer.”

“Oh, but I’ve only a limited selection with me!” she bemoaned. “We rarely got traders here even before The Conclave.”

“It’ll be fine. I assure you, even if she did somehow find fault with your tea, Niamh wouldn’t be so crass as to be angry with you—not over such a small matter at any rate.”

No. You were never quick to anger, were you?

And given what the other woman had endured the past few days, she had every reason to be, but Leliana knew—at least back then—Niamh often avoided confrontation when she could help it, often to her own detriment.

Leliana had been furious to hear that their soldiers had been the ones to cast the first stone after Niamh’s mistreatment in the dungeon. The woman hadn’t done anything to retaliate in those instances, and although Cassandra had said the mage had snapped at her following an incident outside the village, the Seeker had also sheepishly admitted it had been entirely her fault.

”I’m not going to prove them right,” Niamh had once told her when Leliana helped clean a cut above her brow following a fight in a tavern. “I’m a mage, yes, but I won’t have them see a monster. I’ve no intention of causing more trouble for my sister—not when she has enough to deal with.”

And yet Saoirse never failed to come to your defense because you refused to let yourself be provoked even in the face of such ignorance, she thought sadly.

During their travels, the other woman knew how to hide in plain sight, making herself seem as nonthreatening as possible as a mage, but she had a presence to her when needed. It was eerily tangible, reminiscent to being surrounded by Niamh’s element of choice—hairs at the back of one’s neck standing on end right before a crash of thunder. The strength of it was dependent on her mood. It could be as calm as cleansing rain, or it could devastate—a maelstrom hiding behind the cool grey of her eyes.

And within the past week alone, she had seen evidence within that gaze that she—like Leliana—had hardened herself in order to live, ever escaping a past that continued to haunt her. Perhaps it was a consequence of spending a decade away from anyone she’d ever known, for without friendship—without support—what had the world turned Niamh into?

A part of her didn’t wish to know, but the other? The other simply hurt deeply for her friend.

You used to smile so much more easily...

What had she said to Leliana last night?! Surely, she couldn’t have been so out of mind on pain-numbing potions that she would have revealed anything intimate!

Despite her words earlier to Leliana, even her most adventurous tavern-hopping excursions around Rivain hadn’t left her with this foggy a memory the following morning. Niamh was certain she would have remembered if Leliana had visited or if she’d done anything that would accounted for her sudden boldness against her. She nearly staggered in place as she considered all that might have encompassed, given her long-held attraction toward the woman. Far too many things certainly and better off left in The Fade at any rate, she lamented.

There was also the possibility, however, that Leliana had simply said her words in jest, but given the woman’s experience as a bard, Niamh had never been able to tell when she’d been joking. No one had ever teased her so openly before when she’d still been in the Circle. While First Enchanter Irving hadn’t forbade such behavior, he also expected a level of discipline among them lest the Templars argue with him over the notion of lax leadership.

But even she could admit that teasing from one of her colleagues and teasing from Leliana were two different things entirely. Niamh never held so deep-seated an infatuation with anyone than she had with her after all.

It was made all the worse when she realized—even after all these years—her feelings had only grown stronger in the absence of Leliana’s company. The puppy loves of her apprentice years and even her occasional dalliances abroad had paled in comparison to how Leliana could effortlessly turn her head over the simplest things: the gentle twirl of a hand as she spoke, the graceful turns of her body as she shifted soundlessly on her feet, the lilting, dulcet tones of her voice…

And, Maker, those eyes…

In all her travels, Niamh had never seen eyes so blue. Were she a weaker woman, she could have fallen into their depths like a moth drawn to flame, utterly hopeless in the face of such beauty.

But Niamh couldn’t.

Not now, and certainly not then.

Not when Leliana still held Saoirse so dear to her heart.

Niamh sighed deeply. It was times like these that she truly missed Morrigan’s company.

In a desperate bid to deny her growing feelings, she had willingly sought out their resident Witch of the Wilds. Not for anything intimate; it had simply been the most logical choice at the time.

Niamh knew both Leliana and Morrigan had differing ideologies, and so it kept them at odds more often than not. If she joined Morrigan at her campfire, the bard wouldn’t be so rude as to interrupt, and it would provide a reasonable buffer against any teasing—at least for the time being.

Morrigan—of course—had glanced up immediately upon seeing that her personal space had been trespassed upon. Tawny eyes had narrowed, for save for Saoirse, who often came by to distribute her portion of any given meal, no one had really dared to intrude upon her.

The witch had told her sister that she needn’t have bothered, as she had her own fire and amenities. She certainly would not starve in their company, but unfailingly, Saoirse would still drop by with a winsome smile, a bit of light conversation, and a bowl of warm food before leaving Morrigan be.

While the meals had gone untouched at first, after a time—perhaps after Morrigan realized Saoirse had been sincere in her efforts—the bowl was often returned empty and clean alongside all the others, drying by the main campfire come morning.

Niamh had taken her sister’s role that night—much to Saoirse’s surprise—when she asked to deliver Morrigan supper in her stead. She didn’t question the matter as Niamh had originally feared. If anything, her sibling had seemed to approve of her initiative toward making another possible friend.

Not that Morrigan had made it easy.

Although their interactions had started for purely selfish reasons, Niamh couldn’t help but ask about her magic one night. How could she not when Morrigan’s was so very different from her own?

The witch had been taciturn to her prodding at first, believing her interest to be another subject in a series of roundabout conversations, for despite her lack of experience amongst other people, Morrigan was remarkably intelligent. She could tell that Niamh was beginning to withdraw further from Leliana’s company the more time she spent with her—not every night certainly but enough for the witch to take notice. Morrigan knew the reason why—silly though it was.

But when Morrigan had lackadaisically explained the concept behind one of her spells and Niamh had finished her thought—reciting a quote the other woman had told her in brief passing some weeks ago, word for word—the witch had turned to her with muted surprise. Niamh had merely smiled hopefully before continuing on with their conversation, offering her own contribution to it by linking the approach behind the spell’s use to that of another mage theorist’s works.

Perhaps realizing then her intentions had been truthful, Morrigan had begrudgingly extended an offer to teach her more regarding arcane magic.

Niamh knew Wynne disapproved of such lessons and would likely report it back to First Enchanter Irving when they both returned to the Circle, but what was the harm? Why not use all the knowledge at her disposal, especially if it could aid them in their quest?

After a time, Niamh realized belatedly their interactions together—while purely scholarly—could have been misconstrued, and it was proven when Leliana had gently teased them, having noticed that they had both slipped away into Morrigan’s tent one night.

Morrigan—for her part—had dealt with such behavior with her usual magnanimity, which meant she’d told the bard in no uncertain terms that whatever they did in privacy was little concern of hers. Leliana had simply smiled and raised her hands in surrender before returning to Saoirse’s side to begin the night’s watch.

Niamh had apologized for the incident later—especially once it became evident the rumor had spread to everyone in the encampment—but Morrigan had simply waved it off even if she didn’t necessarily understand her hesitation.

“I don’t see why you can’t tell her of your feelings. ‘Tis a simple enough thing to confess, even if she might not return them.”

“Saoirse already likes her. It would complicate things.” Niamh drew her knees up to her chest as they sat in Morrigan’s tent. She sighed. “More than I would like certainly.”

“And so the Chantry songbird would have more than one woman vying for her affections. If her tales sing true, then it would be quite the romantic notion of any Orlesian’s envy,” Morrigan drawled with a roll of her eyes.

“Again, I do apologize for this. I’ll make it up to you. Didn’t you say you still needed more herbs? I could’ve sworn I saw some by the waterfall we passed by earlier.”

“No need,” she had declined quietly. “The ones I have on hand will keep for the time being. Here, hand me that tome and those two satchels in the corner. I’ll show you how to put together a poultice to fend off a spider’s venom.”

Morrigan had been a good friend.

Niamh had never faulted her for leaving the night before that final battle. Nothing had been guaranteed then after all. Even with all of Saoirse’s strength, they still could have fallen to the Archdemon’s might, and its army of Darkspawn could have overrun all Thedas. As everything would have plunged into chaos, Morrigan could have still lived—if only a little longer than everyone else—to see the world’s end.

That hadn’t been the case thankfully, but she couldn’t help but wonder about her friend’s whereabouts some days.

Could she have returned back to the Korcari Wilds? Doubtful. While they hadn’t managed to slay Flemeth before she escaped, the chance of her finding Morrigan there was far too great a risk. Perhaps she had found a new forest to call home, safely continuing her studies now that the salvation of the world no longer required her attention.

In any case, Niamh merely hoped she was alright.

She sighed as she walked back to her cabin from the apothecary’s, carrying with her a small arsenal of potions that would keep her hurts at bay until she and her party returned back to Haven. All the while, she dodged the overeager soldiers and refugees, kindly declining their attempts to help her with her satchel. Niamh still wasn’t comfortable with them; she hadn’t forgotten how those hands—offered in reverence now—had reached out to strike her with such hate not too long ago.

Upon reaching her cabin, she found her guest was already inside as she’d requested. His back was to her as he stood before the hearth, likely warming himself, but she was able to catch the glimpse of dark hair and broad shoulders as she placed her belongings on a nearby table.

“I apologize if I’ve kept you waiting, my lord. There were a few matters I had to attend to, and I—” Then, as that dark head quickly whirled about at the sound of her voice, Niamh was able to see his face—warm, silver eyes set against familiar features marked now with the heavy lines of age—and she’d found she had no words left.

“Niamh?” he asked, tentatively taking a step forward, as if fearing she’d disappear in the next breath.


And before she knew it, her brother had crossed the room in two long strides and taken her into his arms. At once, Niamh was reminded of the many hugs he’d given her so long ago. The ones that spoke of how much he would miss her each time she had to return back to the Circle following a visit home. The hugs that warmed her right down to her toes and never failed in taking her off her feet with the strength of them—a considerably easy task given the size difference between them.

As Niamh wrapped her own arms around Fergus’s shoulders—returning his hug just as fiercely—she didn’t care he was holding her so tightly that her injuries protested. For so long, she had thought herself the last of her bloodline, but her older brother was here—alive and well—and she was so very happy to see him.

“Maker…” His voice shook with the emotions threatening to overtake it. “When I received word that you were here, I almost couldn’t believe it.”

“Merely at the wrong place at the wrong time,” she replied, murmuring into the shoulder of his doublet. Laughter escaped her in a breathless exhale. “Or the right place at right time depending on whom you ask here.”

Gently, Niamh then pushed at Fergus’ shoulders, and at her bidding, he lowered her back down, letting her feet touch the ground again. From there, she took a moment to merely study the man before her. He favored their father more in looks now, she noted, carrying his strong, square jaw along with a beard that was littered with nearly as much grey. His hair was still predominantly dark like her own, but she could see the silver strands starting to pepper themselves along his temples, granting him more of a distinguished appearance than she'd seen him last.

“Oh, look at you…” he breathed, and Niamh felt his hands gently cup the sides of her face. His eyes were filled with such joy and relief, but there was a wet sheen to them, as if he could scarcely believe she was standing right in front of him. “Maker, you’ve grown so much…”

“Fergus, how are you even here?” she couldn’t help but ask, touching his wrist. “Saoirse said you’d been killed with everyone else at the Battle of Ostagar.”

He merely shook his head. “My scouting party and I had been ambushed before we could even reach the battle,” he explained. “Only I survived, but I was deeply wounded. Chasind happened upon me and nursed me back to health, but by the time I had recovered enough to make the journey to Denerim...” His voice trailed off then, but he needn’t have continued.

They both knew how that story had ended.

“All this time, Saoirse and I never knew…”

“Given all that occurred at the time, I can’t very well blame you.” Fergus frowned then, worry in his eyes. “But why did you leave? Your companions said you were present at Saoirse’s funeral, but once her pyre was lit, you were nowhere to be found.”

Niamh turned away from him then, shame-faced. “…I thought I was the last of us,” she admitted. “I couldn’t bear to face that burden alone just as I couldn’t stand the cost of what was lost to set the world right again.”

“Have you been on your own this entire time?”

“It… hurt too much then to be around anyone.”

“And now?” he asked, concern evident in his voice. “Are you alright? Are they keeping you here against your will?” Fergus gently checked her over, looking for any evidence that she may have been mistreated. When he accidentally pressed too hard along her left side, Niamh couldn’t help but wince, especially as her brother drew back sharply in alarm. “Niamh?!”

“I’m fine,” she hastened to reassure, turning over her left palm, allowing Fergus to see the Mark there. “I was injured when I tried to seal the Breach a few days ago. It will pass.”

“So it is true...” he mused quietly as he studied the steady glow of her hand. “In her letter to me, your ambassador called you the Herald of Andraste.”

Niamh merely sighed, feeling exhaustion weighing heavy on her with the title. “Again, it was simply a case of me being at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“I see…” Her brother looked over her shoulder then, and although Niamh knew she had closed the cabin door behind her, she was also aware of how Fergus’ mind worked. He was likely taking into account all the people who could have been considered a threat to her.

When her magic first manifested, Niamh had been forever grateful that Fergus had been just as steadfast in his support of her just as Saoirse had. He hadn’t cared that she was a mage; she was still his little sister, and he loved her. Nevertheless, Niamh also knew that his adoration meant he was just as prone to overprotectiveness as their late sister had been. Such was the case now as he frowned deeply at her.

“You know you don’t have to do this, don’t you? Whatever title they give you, this isn’t your responsibility.”

“Then whose is it?” she countered.

“Surely with enough power at their disposal—"

“Fergus, right now the Inquisition is seen as no more than a heretical force. That they call me—a mage—Herald of Andraste grants us little credence at best.” When she saw Fergus’ jaw tighten with seeming frustration, she softened her voice, trying to be consoling even as she knew his concerns were valid. “I know you want to play the big brother and attempt to slay all my demons, but there’s nothing to be done.”

When he realized she had no intention of changing her mind, his shoulders sagged. With a heavy sigh, he ran a tired hand down his face, looking far older than she knew him to be. “And you’re certain then? This is what you want?”

“Not really,” she admitted with a humorless chuckle. “I never expected to be leader of anything. I never wanted to be, but Fergus…” Niamh looked to him, begging him to understand. “As imperfect and flawed as it might be, this is still the world Saoirse left us. If I choose to not help these people, then I’m damning all of Thedas by inaction, and I can’t let her sacrifice mean nothing. I won’t have that on my conscience.”

Fergus had stayed in Haven long enough to see his little sister off on her journey to The Hinterlands. He’d promised he’d meet with the Inquisition’s ambassador and offer her a list of his contacts—of which he had a substantial number since becoming Teryn of Highever. Some had been established when their father still ruled, but much had been secured by his own hand after he helped take control of their lands again along with aiding neighboring ones following Howe’s betrayal.

All of them would be hers, he’d told Niamh, if she promised to keep in touch. Despite their reunion, Fergus hadn’t wanted to risk them becoming strangers amidst their respective duties. To his relief, Niamh had merely laughed and thrown her arms around him in a grateful hug, agreeing to his terms.

Although he was disappointed she wouldn’t be returning to Highever with him, he was still endlessly proud of her as well. With her words, Niamh had proven herself worthy of the noble Cousland spirit along with the same wild passion that came of their mother’s lineage.

Their mother was the Sea Wolf, a woman who had stood stalwart against churning waves as powerful as any invading force—a will of magic, some had whispered—but if she could command the tides, then Niamh was the storm itself, and hers was one to be respected.

Fergus recalled a memory of Niamh standing out in the castle courtyard amidst a raging downpour, heedless of their sister’s calls to return inside. After spending so much of her time within the Circle tower, he could only imagine how confined she felt to respond so earnestly to such profound moments of nature.

Niamh hadn’t feared the crashes of thunder or the flashes of lightning. In fact, she had reveled in it. She had continued standing in the deluge, head tilted back to the skies with a grin that was all teeth, unafraid, as if daring the heavens themselves to strike down her unabashed joy.

Then, when she had finally wandered back into the parlor—promptly receiving an earful from their sister for her recklessness—Niamh had merely smirked and exuded enough force magic to eject the water that had soaked through her robes. That Saoirse had been standing so close to her when that happened, well… Now it appeared the warrior was the one who had been foolhardily standing out in the rain instead of Niamh.

Here, as he watched her turn one last time to bid him farewell at the gate before leaving with her party, there was none of that playfulness or that easy smile of youth. He saw only a sense of determination in that gaze—tired and resigned though it was.

The Sea Wolf’s pup had grown, and she was powerful in her own right now. If their mother had tamed the waves, then Niamh heralded the brutal skies to her very whims.

Highever’s Storm Wolf, he thought with some amusement.

With the Circle of Magi dissolved, and perhaps once Niamh had managed to save the world, he might be able to convince her to come home. Convince her that it would always be open to her should she ever need a reprieve from her duties.

Fergus was still aware of the dangers in her life, however, and his expression hardened as he strode back to the chantry to speak with the Inquisition’s ambassador. He wanted to inform her of several concessions that needed to be made if he was to trust his little sister in their care...

Chapter Text

“And here I thought his obsession was over! Has he been drinking?” Leliana demanded of her agent, and the poor man looked as if he wished to be anywhere but near her, visibly shrinking from her ire.

“I… I couldn’t possibly say.” Weaver twiddled his thumbs before offering hesitantly, “Perhaps he felt—given the circumstances with the Herald here now—you’d have better insight regarding her? You were companions together for quite some time during The Blight after all.” He paled then, nearly choking on his tongue, when ice blue eyes simply narrowed at him. “O-of course, I’m only the messenger!” he added hastily. “You certainly don’t need my input on the matter, my lady!”

“Then kindly tell the Commander to drop the matter at once! If he feels the need to get back into her good graces again, he’d be better off asking her himself rather than cowering behind a third party.” She frowned. “To that point, why did he not ask me this in person?”

“You… make him nervous.” He cleared his throat, deepening his voice in a poor imitation of the Commander’s own. “‘Her eyes stare into my soul…’”

“He has a soul?” she deadpanned. When Weaver said nothing else in response, practically shaking in his boots, she waved her hand. “Nevermind. Tell him I will not play the messenger when the mistake was of his own doing nor do I have any intention of ever discussing Lady Cousland with him outside of Inquisition matters.”

“U-understood, Sister Leliana! I’ll relay the message to him at once!” As he turned, he nearly slammed face-first into one of the supporting poles of her tent, but he managed to correct himself at the last moment, all but tripping over his own feet in his retreat.

Merde,” she cursed as she turned back to her reports.

It would be easy for one to think her reaction petty, especially given it had been a decade since she'd last seen Cullen. He hadn’t been Leliana’s first choice for Commander or her second.

Or even her third for that matter.

No, they had all unfortunately perished in The Conclave, and so their burgeoning organization had been sorely lacking in suitable candidates. It was imperative they had someone to lead their troops, but Cassandra hadn’t wanted the position, and Leliana already had her hands full with her spy network.

While Cullen certainly wasn’t lacking in combat experience, her first meeting with him almost a lifetime ago had cemented an image of him within her that she’d never forget. For an Orlesian—for a bard—first impressions were a currency in and of itself, capable of making or breaking one’s status in society.

For Leliana, Cullen’s was nigh irreparable.

It had been a task even getting inside the sanctum of Ferelden’s Circle.

Knight-Commander Greagoir and his Templars had already been in the process of sealing off the first floor of the tower as abominations and demons had apparently run rampant throughout it not long after the Battle of Ostagar. At their arrival, Greagoir had announced his intentions to send word to the Chantry of Denerim and then call upon the Rite of Annulment. The latter, however, would mean the death of everything still locked behind the tower doors.

Saoirse had protested the decision immediately. “My little sister is still in there!”

“You can’t possibly know that. She could have been killed by the demons or turned into another one of those blasted abominations!”

“Niamh?” The warrior gave an incredulous laugh, but those eyes were sharp and damning. She crossed her arms over her chest as she stared the Knight-Commander down with a grin that was little more than the baring of teeth. “My sister’s a force of nature. She doesn’t willingly bend the knee to just anyone,” she growled.

“Be that as it may,” Greagoir bit out between clenched teeth, eying the woman who easily stood toe to toe with him in height, “this is a fool’s journey. If the situation has deteriorated as badly as I've been led to believe, then you’re risking your life needlessly.”

“I’m not going to abandon her.”

Realizing Saoirse couldn't be reasoned with, the Knight-Commander then reluctantly offered a compromise. “Very well, but be forewarned: while I will let you enter, I will not reopen those doors unless everything behind it has been purged or I’ve heard from the First Enchanter himself that the threat has been contained.” His eyes narrowed. “It will not matter to me if you found your sister or any survivors within alive and well. If Irving has fallen to those creatures, then there is no saving the tower. Choose carefully, Grey Warden…”

And then Greagoir left to give further orders to his Templars. Saoirse—for her part—had removed herself from them all, needing the distance as she considered the options at hand. Her expression was grim as she paced with quick, angry strides. Then, upon realizing she couldn’t afford to keep biding her time, she sighed.

“You still have the treaties, yes, Alistair? If I don’t return before the Annulment commences…” Her voice trailed off, glancing away. “You don’t need me to see our mission through.”

“Wait, wait, wait! You can't possibly be serious!” Alistair protested, eyes wide with panic. “Have you somehow forgotten we’re supposed to be scrounging up allies to fight against the Archdemon and his Darkspawn?!”

“Niamh’s all the family I have left. I’m not going to let her die.” Her voice lowered to a whisper. “Not alone at least…”

And then Morrigan had merely given a long-suffering sigh before offering her own input. “Have we not established that Alistair is dimmer than even that infernal hound of yours? You would trust the fate of the world to him? The dog lord who would sooner follow his own tail to our next destination so long as it meant that he didn’t have to be the one to lead?”

“Nice to know you care, Morrigan...”

“Care has little to do with it, fool.”

While Alistair and Morrigan began another round of their increasingly snippy comments toward one another, Leliana approached Saoirse, resting a hand on her arm. “I think what they mean to do say is that you’re noble in wanting to save your sister.” She smiled, gently coaxing her into seeing reason. “However, would you not be able to find her and the First Enchanter more easily with help on your side? Time is of the essence after all.”

Saoirse had blinked a moment as she stared down at her. Then, breathless laughter escaped her, relief greatly evident in its lingering notes. “You strike a fair point. Let’s not delay the matter any further, hm?”

Upon making their way inside, they saw evidence of murderous destruction everywhere.

The bodies of mages and Templars alike were strewn across the floors and walls like macabre decorations. The once grey stone now appeared as if they had been painted red—evidence of all the lives lost to whatever mayhem further awaited them.

As if in emphasis to that point, they heard the sounds of fighting in one of the rooms ahead. The walls practically shook—bits of debris falling from the otherwise unyielding surfaces—with the ferocity of the battle within. When Saoirse had immediately drawn her greatsword with the intent of slaying what she assumed to be a demonic threat, they kept their own weapons at the ready and followed closely behind her.

As soon as they stepped over the threshold of the archway, Leliana could feel every hair at the back of her neck raising in response. The room practically sang with the electricity pulsing through the air, and it nearly drowned out the gurgling roars of a Rage Demon on the verge of destroying a young woman with its flaming fists. Before Leliana could even fully draw the string of her bow back to offer some cover, she felt the energy in the room shift again to coalesce more heavily around the mage’s hands. As such, the demon couldn’t even get within a body’s length from her before lightning shot forth from the woman in a near blinding cone that encompassed her foe entirely. Instantly, it began to convulse with a litany of screeching roars, but it was rooted in place by the electricity coursing through its body.

Escape was no longer an option for it.

By the time the attack had subsided, nothing at all of the demon remained, and Leliana’s bow went slack in her hands. She had worked with mages before, but Sketch had specialized more in healing magic. While her former companion could be frighteningly capable when the situation called for it, what impressive displays of magic Leliana had seen from him were effortlessly dwarfed by the ease in which the woman before them utilized her own abilities. As her mind struggled to comprehend such power, the mage was soon turning toward them curiously.

She was young—no younger than twenty seasons, Leliana wagered—and her hair was as dark as the night sky, framing eyes paler than even moonlight. Lightning danced across the woman’s otherwise peaceful visage before dissipating entirely with a languid blink. With that, so, too, had the electric aura that permeated the air so intensely, and Leliana realized—stunned—that the mage had been the sole source of it all along. The mage, thankfully, seemed to have no interest in attacking them, but she did lift a brow in question, as if wondering how they came to be there.


The mage’s other brow immediately rose to join its twin when she turned to eye their leader. “Saoirse?” No sooner had the name left her mouth that she suddenly found herself in one of the woman’s infamous bear hugs, laughter soon escaping them as they both realized the other was alive and well.

That’s the Warden’s sister?” Zevran murmured next to her with clear surprise. “I never would have guessed...”

Not that Leliana could have blamed him for the thought.

Their golden-haired leader practically towered over her sister, standing over a full head taller and was nearly twice the mage’s physical size. Niamh, however, was closer to an average Fereldan woman in height and—from what Leliana could determine at a distance—was also a tad breathier in voice than Saoirse, who was always lively in speech.

“My, my… She is quite easy on the eyes, don’t you think?” Zevran asked, rubbing his chin thoughtfully as he looked Niamh over with a mischievous grin. “Do you think our leader would take it badly if I were to pay her the compliments she is surely due?”

“Stop it, you,” Leliana admonished as she playfully shouldered him aside, causing him to chuckle in response. “Let them have their moment.”

Introductions were soon made and acquaintanceships made anew when Saoirse and Alistair met with one of the older mages who had assisted them during the Battle of Ostagar. Wynne had told them that one of her fellow Senior Enchanters had been the cause of the demons and abominations overrunning the tower.

“Uldred had been trying to convince everyone in the Circle to ally with Loghain,” Niamh relayed uneasily. “He said we’d be given more leeway from the Chantry under his rule.”

“Yes, but I suppose he never took into consideration that he hadn’t been the only mage to survive that battle,” Wynne said. “Once I told everyone of Loghain’s treachery, Uldred no longer had the support he needed. Infuriated, he left that meeting not long afterward, and First Enchanter Irving and the other Senior Enchanters went to confront him. Unfortunately…” Her voice wavered as she gestured to their bleak surroundings. “This seems to be the aftermath…”

“Is there a possibility your First Enchanter survived the confrontation?” Saoirse asked.

“Irving? He is still very much formidable despite his age,” Wynne said of her friend. “And twice the mage Uldred could ever hope to be. On the basis of pure magical power alone, I’d dare say he would have the better edge, but against this…”

“It’s blood magic,” Niamh announced grimly. “But I fear this is far too widespread for Uldred to have done alone.”

Wynne turned to her, a frown marring her tired features. “What are you suggesting?”

“You already heard the rumors of blood mages within our ranks, but it was Uldred who rooted every last one of them out, wasn’t he? Irving may have applauded his efforts at the time for his vigilance, but I’m not comfortable continuing to call that a simple coincidence.”

“But that’s—” Then Wynne closed her eyes, sighing. “No, you’re right,” she admitted. “As Senior Enchanters, my colleagues and I should have been more mindful of the situation. We trusted that Uldred would know better, and now everyone is suffering for our mistakes.”

“As remarkably thrilling as this all is to hear,” Morrigan began, voice thick with sarcasm, “we shouldn’t tarry any longer, Warden.”

Saoirse nodded. “Knight-Commander Greagoir has already said he’d refuse to let anyone leave unless First Enchanter Irving is brought before him. If he’s dead, the only way my companions and I can leave is if we purge every single thing in this tower.” Her words were met with a round of gasps from the gathered mages—all still relatively young, Leliana noted—and Wynne immediately moved to stand before them, brandishing her staff with a glare.

“You can’t! They’re innocent in this! They should not have to suffer for the mistakes our council made!”

Only Niamh seemed calm about the matter.

Even in the face of such a threat, she simply settled her staff against her back—her intent of not using it against her sister or her companions vividly clear. Her gaze seemed curious at best instead of frightened. “If you went through all the trouble of coming here, I’m going to assume you have a plan then?” Her lips drew up into a small smirk. “Or at least the closest semblance of one coming from you, Saoirse...”

The warrior merely laughed goodnaturedly at the jibe, reaching out to playfully ruffle her sibling’s hair. “Well, that’s where you come in certainly. You already know the layout of the tower as well as the people within it. You’d stand a better chance of discovering any possible traps we come across as we try to find your First Enchanter.”

Wynne eyed the two sisters’ interaction and slowly seemed to relax at the sight of it. If one of their own felt at ease in such company, perhaps she had little to fear after all. “If your intent is to save the people within the tower then I’d like to accompany you. I want to help undo this,” she said only to be immediately met with Niamh’s concerned protests.

“No, Wynne, please. You were injured not too long ago.”

“I’m fine now.”

“Elina said you’d been unconscious for several minutes by the time I found you all. My healing abilities may not be on par with yours, but even with the apprentices assisting me, I feared we almost couldn’t bring you back. Please,” she begged softly, “for my peace of mind, let me handle this. I’ll lead them to where Uldred is, and then we can end this.”

Several heartbeats passed as the two women were locked in a silent battle of wills, but it was Wynne who finally relented.

“Very well,” she said reluctantly. “While you’re not yet an Enchanter, you’ve been a full-fledged mage for years. As such, you know the dangers you face on the upper floors better than the ones here who’ve yet to undergo their Harrowing.” Wynne placed her hand atop Niamh’s shoulder, and her expression was one of warm pride. “You no longer need me to guide you to do what is right. Be swift, young one, but be safe.”

As promised, Wynne had stayed behind to watch after the remaining apprentices. In the interest of protecting her young wards, she placed a barrier around the archway as soon as they left the antechamber. From there, they were left to their own devices against otherworldly nightmares.

When the entire party had found themselves in what appeared to be the tower’s mess hall, the multitude of corpses within sprung to life. Against such numbers they couldn’t afford to remain passive in their positions without being overrun. As such, Leliana had temporarily switched to her daggers, and without so much as a word being said, she, Zevran, Alistair, and Saoirse had formed a circle around the two mages in their party. It was large enough that it gave Niamh and Morrigan a clear line of sight toward their enemies with their respective spells but close enough to where the warriors and rogues could be healed if need be.

And then they were on the move.

As part of their offensive frontline, Leliana kept the bulk of shambling skeletons at bay, but as their enemies couldn’t feel pain, they couldn’t be easily staggered. They merely continued to stumble forward, heedless of any injuries they sustained in their mindless assault. It was soon apparent their situation could prove dangerous if Leliana and her companions weren’t vigilant. In the heat of battle, it was entirely too easy to be focused on one target while its brethren surrounded you.

She dodged one of the skeletons’ greatswords, and before she could even step back a pace to reconsider her angles of attack, she felt her daggers warm in her hands. Perplexed, she glanced down briefly enough to see her blades were surrounded in great licks of fire, and while she could feel their warmth, it proved harmless against her skin, merely dancing over her fingers.

She heard exclamations of surprise from Alistair and Zevran, and Leliana saw their own weapons had been set aflame as well, but Saoirse remained suspiciously quiet. One look at their leader saw that she had glanced over her shoulder, grinning in approval at her little sister, who returned it with a languid smirk of her own.

“See if that doesn’t help things along a bit, hm?” Niamh said as she gathered lightning in the palms of her hands. “We need to take their numbers down carefully. Morrigan and I can keep the larger packs of them at bay while you all deal with the ones closest to us.”

With a battle cry, Saoirse leapt forward and swung her greatsword in a wide arc against three enemies in front of her. With the flames dealing additional damage, she was able to slice cleanly through bone and gristle—the decaying flesh glowing briefly red with the blade’s pass—in a single swipe. Cleaved in half, the skeletons toppled limb over limb but soon moved no more.

Bolstered by the sight, Alistair and Zevran wasted little time getting back into the fight and neither did Leliana. With her daggers, she made short work of the stray enemies closest to her. With Niamh’s magic, it felt like her blades were cutting through mere parchment against the walking dead.

Against such numbers, however, the battle was long, but Niamh diligently kept rebuffing their melee weapons with fire in between providing crowd control. It seemed she had left the bulk of magical offense largely to Morrigan while she herself used her lightning to chain it through where the enemies were thickest. It was enough to stun the skeletons into breaking off into smaller groups, where they could then be picked off by the warriors and rogues without fear of being overwhelmed.

It was an arduous process to be certain, but they had succeeded in the end, leaving them to ascend to the next level of the tower.

The throngs of enemies there weren’t nearly as bad what they had encountered in the mess hall, but they had been almost caught off guard entirely by a group of blood mages, who had taken one look at Niamh and immediately began pelting her with a series of magical attacks. Unfortunately, in her need to dodge away from them, it left the mage closer to her sister, whom she was now nearly back to back with. In such close quarters, Leliana knew it could spell disastrous if the two weren’t careful in their respective attacks.

Pleased that they seemingly had the two sisters cornered, the blood mages began summoning demons to do their bidding, sending them after Niamh and Saoirse in droves.

Despite Leliana’s worries, however, it seemed she had underestimated how in-tune the Cousland siblings were with one another. Niamh’s spells were slipping seamlessly past Saoirse’s guard to electrify, scorch, or freeze the blood mages in the distance while the warrior parried and struck with brute force against the demons around them. Even as Saoirse swung her greatsword in wide arcs, Niamh seemed to anticipate her movements and shifted herself accordingly, never once faltering with her own attacks.

It was evident they trusted one another implicitly, and as Niamh summoned an actual tempest within the antechamber—the intensity of which nearly had Leliana stumbling in her footing—to strike down their remaining foes in one fell blow, she understood why Saoirse had earlier called her sister such a force of nature.

“Sifting through my thoughts… tempting me with the one thing I always wanted but could never have…” Cullen muttered as he knelt, hiding his face from them. “Using my shame against me… my ill-advised infatuation with her… a mage, of all things!”

Never had Leliana felt so awkward as she did then, watching the Templar before them share his innermost thoughts regarding their new companion, who only seemed to shift uncomfortably in place.

“Cullen, it’s me,” Niamh said softly, trying to soothe him, but when she tried to approach the barrier, the Templar sprung to his feet immediately with bloodshot eyes.

“No!" He flung his arm out, spittle flying from his mouth in sheer vehemence. “No! Begone from me, demon!”

“I’m not—” Niamh’s shoulders slumped, uncertain of how to prove her sincerity. “I promise; I’m trying to help you.”

“I want nothing you can give! You are still a mage, and I, a Templar! It is my duty to oppose you and all you are!” He gritted his teeth, looking at Niamh like she was little more than dirt beneath his boot.


“Do you realize what your kind has done here?! What they did to my friends?!” Grief cascaded over his features then, and he nearly collapsed with the weight of it, of what he had witnessed firsthand. “The mages caged them like animals and turned them into monsters, bodies and spirits broken, and I could do nothing for them…” He glared at her in righteous fury, chest heaving. “And to think I once thought we were too hard on you. I know better now. Only mages have that much power at their fingertips! Only mages are so susceptible to the infernal whisperings of the demons!”

And with every word that sought to hurt and belittle her, Niamh shrank beneath each one—her expression one of pained torment—looking for all the world like she wished she could hide behind her staff. She was grasping it so tightly that Leliana saw her fingers shaking, knuckles nearly turning white from the pressure.

Her heart hurt for her.

While she could scarcely imagine the torture inflicted on the Templar, Niamh had shown them nothing but kindness. She had gently guided them, mended their aches, and even helped Saoirse rescue them all from the Fade. As it was a realm of demons, Leliana knew Niamh had attempted the latter at great cost to herself. Given her caliber of power, Niamh would not gone unnoticed by the numerous monsters within it, but the woman had said she couldn’t simply leave them to their nightmares.

Not when they had been the only ones willing to help her people.

But Niamh was still a young woman.

Although remarkably brave—and even considerate to a fault—she could still be hurt, and that was evident as she was faced with such vitriol from someone she had clearly known quite well. She looked so small standing there—utterly and hopelessly lost—and not at all like the mage who could bend all manner of nature to her whims with negligent ease.

“We’re not all evil, Cullen,” Niamh whispered, eyes downcast when it was apparent the Templar would have none of her words.

From Saoirse’s expression, Leliana knew she was hurting deeply for her sister and was absolutely livid at the man who had purposefully inflicted such pain upon her. Had it been possible for the warrior to bypass the barrier, Leliana had no doubt she would have been the first to pummel the Templar into the dirt. Thankfully, her anger was tempered as Niamh rested a hand on her forearm.

“Let’s go,” Niamh said quietly, no longer looking at Cullen, but she winced as he vehemently called for the death of every mage behind the doors beyond them. With regret, Leliana saw what vibrancy had been present in those silvery eyes at the start of their journey was no longer there. “If what he says is true, then Uldred took the mages who opposed him into the Harrowing Chamber to be converted. The ones who willingly followed him have made their choice, but for the ones who continued in their resistance…” Her gaze turned beseechingly to her sister. “I ask that we save them if we can.”

By dawn, they had defeated Uldred and managed to free the mages he had imprisoned for his own malevolent schemes. That First Enchanter Irving had still been among them had been a blessing. For their mercy, they had the old mage’s undying gratitude, but such restraint had come as little surprise to them all.

Saoirse cared so deeply for her sister that—mage or no—she couldn’t willingly put them all to the sword for the mistakes of the few.

Nevertheless, when Irving had been informed as to why they had been in the tower to begin with, he solemnly promised needed aid for their cause. As a show of good will, he even went so far as to approve Wynne’s and Niamh’s leave if they desired additional help in their quest.

But Cullen had protested entirely.

“We can’t let them leave, especially not her!” he exclaimed, pointing viciously at Niamh, who backed away with wide eyes. “The demon spoke to her! I heard it outside the Harrowing Chamber!”

Leliana remembered the moment well. The words had slid like oil down her spine as they fought the possessed Uldred.

“Look at you, shining so bright, so brilliant. You’d be a glorious prize worthy of any of my brethren,” he crooned with wicked desire.

“And yet it did not tempt her into following it unlike Uldred,” Irving countered with grace before turning to Greagoir. “She vanquished it, striking the final blow. If things are as dire as they say beyond this tower, then her aid would prove invaluable to these Grey Wardens.”

The Knight-Commander rubbed at his jaw with a gauntleted hand thoughtfully. “I can understand you sending Wynne, but Niamh? She’s not even a designated Enchanter yet, Irving.”

“And yet she’s shown better judgment and fortitude than even some of my Senior Enchanters. I have no doubt she’ll set a fine example for us all.”

“No!” Cullen shouted, eyes wild. “She’s too powerful! Who knows what creature could possess her with the abilities she has access to!” When he drew his sword with the intent to use it upon her, Niamh gasped, but Leliana had immediately placed herself before the Templar's line of sight, blocking Cullen but protecting her. Then, all both women could see was Saoirse’s armored back as she moved to confront Cullen.

“If you even think of pointing your sword at my sister,” Saoirse began in a low growl, hand raised to the hilt of the greatsword over her shoulder, “I assure you, it will be the last time you have an arm…”

Ultimately, Cullen’s concerns had been dismissed as Greagoir publicly reprimanded him. The Templars hardly had the forces needed to stand against the Warden’s party were a fight to break out after all. That, and the Knight-Commander had proven thankful for their aid in ridding the tower of demons. As such, the remaining mages within were left alone, but having witnessed Cullen’s hate, Saoirse hadn’t felt comfortable leaving her sister there, so with Irving’s repeated permission, they left with Niamh and Wynne.

As expected, the younger mage had been terribly despondent for several days.

“He knew me for years,” she had said once they were miles and miles away from Ferelden’s Circle. “But even then, he still felt that I should—H-he tried to…” Niamh’s words fell like broken oaths upon her tongue as her voice trailed off.

“I’m sorry,” Leliana replied sincerely as they sat by the fire. “I… I know how much such betrayal can hurt.” She was at once reminded of a woman from her past who had shown her the world and had consequently destroyed it at her earliest convenience, spurning whatever affections they had for one another. But she was here to comfort Niamh; her own pain didn’t need to be shared. Not now. Not here. Niamh’s wound was far fresher, and it needed to be given the attention it was due. “Were you both close?”

“We were friends. Of the Templars, he was always well-mannered. Polite. Not very subtle however.” The barest smile played on her lips at that. “I knew he had feelings for me; I just didn’t feel the same. Still…” Her fingers idly spun about the charcoal pencil in her hand. “…I think it hurt more to know that he would think me capable of such a thing when I had been nothing but kind to him.” She sighed deeply. “But what is the point of kindness if it still means people are going to believe the worst of me no matter what I do?”

“I cannot speak for him, and I will not attempt to. I’ve no wish to invalidate your pain, and while facing such disappointment is always possible in life, it is not the only thing. Your sister cares for you a great deal; she would not have asked you to come with us otherwise, no?” When Niamh nodded—albeit hesitantly—Leliana smiled and gently placed her hand on her shoulder. “You are a remarkable young woman, and I am glad that you are also with us. First Enchanter Irving spoke highly of you and not just of your magical ability.”

Grey eyes blinked. “He did?” Curiosity settled in that gaze now, and Leliana was pleased to see the mage was slowly retreating out of her depressed shell.

“Yes, he actually mentioned you were a wonderful artist, and I can see why. Have you practiced it for very long?”

“Well, yes, actually.” Niamh actually seemed sheepish at the admission. “There’s not much to do outside of our studies and training, you see. I took up the hobby to occupy myself. I mostly sketch, but I’ve done woodwork before along with glasswork.”

“I see. Oh!” Blue eyes widened when she saw what Niamh was currently working on. She leaned in closer. “Is that Morrigan?” Surely, it could have been no one else with such sure strokes and lines detailing the witch’s feathery, raven hair and her bold gaze—filled with a familiar nonchalance.

“She’s… intriguing.” Laughter escaped Niamh in a small huff. “Although at this point, I’m hoping she doesn’t notice that I keep looking up at her every few minutes to sketch her. I’d rather not have my book set aflame if I can help it; parchment is a bit harder to come by these days. With her beauty, she’s worth more than a few pages alone.”

Leliana hummed in agreement. “I’ve noticed she doesn’t care much for material things though. Such a shame, really. I always thought she’d look absolutely gorgeous in a dress.” Her gaze turned to their wayward companion, who was reading alone by her own campfire. Leliana tilted her head, wondering what the latest in Orlesian fashion would best suit the other woman.

“I can certainly see that. Perhaps… in red velvet? With a low neckline?”

Startled, Leliana immediately swiveled her head back toward Niamh, who had somehow managed to mirror her thoughts on the matter perfectly. The other woman offered her a smile, which Leliana quickly returned, utterly delighted. “Yes! Exactly! Tell me,” she insisted, scooting closer to her, intrigued, “what are your thoughts on shoes?”

“Truthfully? I wish I had more other than the standard issue boots they gave us in the Circle,” she drawled humorously. Grey eyes lit up then. “Oh! I actually saw a pair in the window of a nearby shop before we came here. Knee-high in black leather with a thick heel.” Niamh turned her gaze skyward, as if recalling a memory while mimicking writing something in the air with her pencil. “And there was some lovely stitchwork at the top done in tasteful, silver threading too. Tiny crescent moons and stars I believe.”

Leliana clapped her hands together. “Oh, I do believe you and I are going to get along just fine! Come!” she announced, taking Niamh’s hand in hers, and she silently marveled at the sheer warmth of it. “Let’s go get those boots for you!”

“Sister Leliana!”

Leliana was drawn out of her reverie as Weaver slipped back into her test, near breathless as he carried a missive with him. From the coded writing along the exterior of the parchment, she could tell it was the message she had long been expecting from Charter. With keen eyes, she wasted little time in unfolding the letter and decoding it, but what she found, however, darkened her mood instantly.

She had hoped that she'd been wrong.

Here—as the letter entailed—Leliana had been betrayed, and she couldn’t fathom why.

With all her agents, she expected a level of professionalism befitting their position. She knew each of them by name and she was well-aware of each of their backgrounds—no matter how fervently they had tried to distance themselves from them. For their loyalty, she had offered them her trust in turn, but was such familiarity in actuality a weakness—a dagger in the back when she least expected it?

Had she been so very wrong this entire time?

“There were so many questions surrounding Farrier’s death. Did he think we wouldn’t notice?” Leliana murmured aloud, insulted at the very idea. “And now he’s killed Farrier—one of my best agents—and knows where the others are.” She shook her head in disgust but kept her tone even despite the rage boiling inside her. Ice blue eyes turned to Weaver. “You know what must be done. Make it clean—painless if you can. We were friends once.”

“Wait.” A voice called from behind them. “What’s going on here?”

Leliana turned her head to see that Niamh stood at the entrance of her tent, and from the snow slowly melting from the fur on her spaulders, she had likely been standing there for quite some time. She frowned. Was she losing her touch that she hadn’t noticed the woman’s presence at all, or had Niamh simply gotten better at hiding in plain sight over the years? She shook her head.

“He betrayed us. He murdered my agent.”

“And your immediate decision is to kill him?”

Leliana frowned in turn, crossing her arms. “Do you find fault in my judgment?” she asked, ice in her voice, to which Niamh simply shook her head.

“Simply that one,” she replied quietly, concern evident in her expression. “It’s rather abrupt even for you.”

Leliana couldn’t help but scoff. “You realize that a decade has passed since we last saw one another? I’m not the same woman you knew.” But her words had allowed the eyes across from her to cool, and what worry had been evident in their depths had dimmed to near nonexistence.

“I’m well-aware of that. I don’t need to remind you that I’m hardly the same mage who walked away from Kinloch Hold either. Given everything that’s transpired in the past few weeks, however, I thought your own situation could merit at least another look.” She shrugged, leaning against the supporting pole of Leliana’s tent. “It wasn’t that long ago your colleagues wanted me dead for a murder I never even committed.”

“We were able to clear your name of that.”

Niamh rolled her eyes. “Leliana, if it had been anyone else but you down there with Cassandra, I’d likely be dead by now. You can’t deny they weren’t even willing to listen to me objectively back then. If you hadn’t verified I was telling the truth, I’d be hanging from the gallows.”

“Most of that was hearsay to begin with, but here—” Leliana gestured emphatically at the letter atop her desk. “—I’ve evidence Butler’s betrayal put our agents in danger! I can condemn one man to save dozens!” She shook her head. “I may not like what I do, but it must be done. I cannot afford the luxury of ideals in a time like this.”

“What?” Niamh's brows furrowed, beyond baffled as she stared at her. “Now is precisely the time for ideals!”

Silence descended between them, interrupted only by the uncomfortable shifting of Weaver, who likely wished the ground would swallow him whole than be present for this confrontation. The tension was soon broken, however, when Niamh sighed, pressing her fingers against the bridge of her nose.

“No. I apologize. I won’t tell you how to do your job,” she amended. “If you truly feel he is a threat to your other agents, do as you wish. I merely ask that you consider the whys of his betrayal.” The woman shifted her gaze to eye a few passersby approaching the chantry, but she wasn’t focused on them. Not really. No, Leliana had seen it before in past instances. Niamh’s body remained alert, but she retreated within mentally, allowing the puzzle pieces of a situation to slide together neatly in order to make sense of it. “Was it by simple discontent that he chose to betray you, or was someone else orchestrating his hand?” she asked aloud, shrugging. “I would rather have a clear answer, especially in the wake of everything’s that happened. We’re already believed to be a heretical force; it wouldn’t be too surprising if someone was trying to use that fact to dismantle us from within.”

“Hey, Bright Eyes!” They both turned to see that Varric was hailing Niamh from the steps leading down toward the main gate. “Get a move on. Much as I wish it were otherwise, Val Royeaux won’t wait for us forever.”

Niamh snorted, a brief smile pulling at her lips. “Oh, well. Duty calls,” she said ruefully, reaching down for the satchel resting at her feet.

After several weeks of working through The Hinterlands—bringing forth new contacts and agents alike for the Inquisition—Leliana noted the woman seemed to be fully recovered from her experience at the Breach. Even the motion of casually swinging her pack over her shoulder didn’t seem to cause her any lingering pain. As dark boots shifted in the snow, Niamh turned to look at her one last time.

“I’m off now, but do feel free to send one of your ravens our way if there’s a matter that needs our attention. Good day to you, Leliana.” Despite the differences in their stations, Niamh—ever polite and respectful—willingly bowed her head toward her before taking her leave.

But the following silence only allowed Leliana to ruminate further within her own thoughts. She turned back to her desk, eying the seemingly damning evidence atop it. Pressing her palms against the hard surface of the wood, she leaned over the letter with narrowed eyes, wondering if there was something else there she couldn't see. She had doubts now as she considered Niamh’s words, but she couldn’t fault the sound logic within them.

“Your orders, Sister Leliana?” Weaver asked hesitantly.

She shook her head. Damn that woman. “Apprehend Butler, but see that he lives,” she said at last. Leliana saw him nod stiffly out of the corner of her eye before she heard him shuffle away.

“Um, Sister?”

Leliana rolled her eyes skyward and tried to keep her irritation in check to prevent herself from snapping at him. She sighed soundlessly. “Yes, Weaver, what is it?”

“I think the Herald left this for you.”

Blinking, she turned around to see her agent pointing to a polished wood cylinder. It had been sitting at the edge of the desk closest to the entrance of her tent. Curious, she wandered over, and—perhaps satisfied her attention was no longer on him—Weaver went off to complete his next task.

As Leliana picked up the canister, she could feel its warmth through her gloves. From the cork stopper at its wide-mouthed opening, she was able to surmise there was something inside it—either food or drink. With a few careful tugs, she was able to work the cork off, and all at once, a rich aroma filled her senses. Hunger made itself apparent within her then, reminding her that she hadn’t yet eaten—too engrossed in her work.

In what light entered her tent, she peered into the cylinder's opening and could see a few small chunks floating atop the otherwise thick, dark broth. Meat or vegetable perhaps? As there was only one way to find out, she brought the canister to her mouth and tipped her head back. The broth was as filling as she had expected, and when she felt something touch her lips, she seized it between her teeth. The tidbit fell apart in her mouth with barely any effort from her, and as she chewed thoughtfully, she realized she had bitten into the flaky flesh of fresh fish.

“I thought you all could use a reprieve from Alistair’s usual experiments at the cooking pot,” Niamh said in lieu of a greeting as she sat by her tent, handing her a bowl. It was filled with a thick, red broth along with an array of colorful vegetables and what appeared to be…

“Is this fish?”

Niamh hummed in confirmation, digging into her first bite. “It’s a recipe I learned from my aunt. She’s out at sea much of the year, but when she found out that I was a mage and was living in a tower essentially surrounded by water, she showed me how to make this. Normally I prefer my fish grilled over an open fire, but with the right ingredients, even boiled fish can turn out fairly well I’ve learned.”

Leliana soon took to sampling it as well, and her eyes widened. The richness of the fatty fish had coated her tongue instantly, and there was just enough spice within the broth that it warmed her instantly against the chill in the air.

“I hope the dried peppers weren’t too much," Niamh commented, carefully eying her expression. "It’s been some time since I’ve done this. The apprentices were usually the ones who traded off on who made food for everyone back at the tower. It’s supposed to build rapport and teach basic cooking etiquette.” Her gaze drifted askance. “Unfortunately, some of them were just as bad as Alistair in the kitchen. I took to just keeping spices on me in order to stomach some of their dishes.”

Leliana laughed. “Well, I’d hardly think you’d lost your touch. This is wonderful! Thank you!”

Niamh smiled, and as the flicker from the main campfire danced along the surface of her eyes, they almost seemed to glow from the compliment. “Glad you enjoyed it.”

A rustle of paper against her fingers pulled Leliana from her thoughts, and she looked down to see a piece of twine near the neck of the cylinder. She turned it carefully in her hands until she could see a simple piece of parchment paper—the edges of it torn as if from a book—attached to it. Written upon it was the flowing script of an artist’s hand.

Didn’t see you breaking fast with us at this morning’s meeting.


A smile lingered on Leliana’s lips even as she shook her head at the other woman’s gesture. Still, it didn’t stop her from bringing the cylinder back with her to her main desk, where she nursed the contents within it for the remainder of the morning in between working, warm and full.

Chapter Text

“Well, I can’t say I’m terribly surprised by your reception at Val Royeaux.” Josephine sighed, pressing her forehead against steepled fingers, as if it would somehow ward off the headache she could feel brewing behind her eyes. “I do realize it had been entirely my suggestion that you travel there to begin with, but all the same, I’m deeply sorry, my lady.”

“No need to worry yourself, Ambassador.” Niamh appeared completely at ease as she sat across from her, idly stirring her tea. Josephine wasn’t surprised anymore to see the bit of frost gathered around the spoon as it made slow, methodical rotations within the hot liquid. Just as Leliana had told her, Niamh greatly enjoyed tea, but she was often too impatient for it to cool down properly before sampling it. “The names Mother Giselle provided proved quite informative. We at least have a better idea of who might be willing to ally with us. That number may have even increased now that Revered Mother Hevara’s compatriots have scattered to the winds with the Templars’ retreat from the city.”

Josephine watched the brief smile that played upon those lips, apparently pleased her drink had seemingly cooled down enough to her liking. Niamh then gently tapped her spoon against the rim of her cup—mindful of the porcelain’s fragility—and placed it upon the saucer which sat atop her crossed knees before drinking deeply. Josephine had long learned the other woman had preferred no embellishments with her tea when she participated in these private interludes.

No sugar, no cream, or milk.

“It’s more out of habit than anything else,” she had told her when asked. ”I never bothered to carry anything more beyond the essentials whenever I traveled.”

Niamh didn’t seem to any aversion to sweetness however. She never objected to any small snacks that had been offered. In fact, she seemed to delight in the oblong, almond biscuits Josephine brought along this afternoon, which had been twice-baked for a drier, crunchier texture. Josephine had found they paired best with her stronger teas, especially for dipping purposes.

“Nevertheless, I’m sure the experience couldn’t have been easy.” Against a crowd of such magnitude, Josephine was almost uncertain it would have unsettled the other woman, especially given her experience with them the past few weeks. Save for her War Council and the members of her party. Niamh tended to keep a distance from everyone whenever she returned to Haven. She often avoided the tavern and the training grounds outside the village as those were the main areas of congregation.

Perhaps it had to do with the ill-treatment Niamh received when she’d first been imprisoned—a false charge as it later turned out. Nevertheless, Josephine hadn’t been the only one to notice her distance—polite though she was.

When the woman had left for Val Royeaux, the ambassador had found a line gathered outside her office the very next morning. Each supplicant there had begged for answers as to what could be done to be returned into the Herald’s good graces. Although they offered Niamh everything from a round of drinks to a wild assortment of gifts, everything had been summarily rebuffed. They were at their wits’ end.

As the number of voices had begun to grow in volume, Josephine finally announced that she’d talk to the Herald upon her return to see what could be done before they all began to hesitantly disperse, much to her relief. Although she had intended to keep her promise—she hated dealing with any type of deceit even if unintentional—she wasn’t entirely certain how Niamh would react to the news.

For the time being, it seemed the other woman was remarkably relaxed despite the very notion that an entire city hated her on merely the principle of being a mage.

Perhaps she could ask Leliana for her advice. Despite her words, she still knew Niamh a great deal better than anyone else they had on hand.

“Animosity may as well be an old friend,” Niamh quipped as she reached out for a biscuit to nibble upon. “Val Royeaux was nothing worse than what I’ve faced before. The only difference is that I couldn’t see their hatred and disgust behind those delightful masks. One might have almost thought it a proper masquerade to welcome the blasphemous Herald of Andraste,” she remarked with a languid smile, and Josephine couldn’t help but return it in spite of herself.

Niamh had a very dry sense of humor about her, and she could see why Leliana had spoken so fondly of her in the past. It played well with the mischievous trickster she knew her friend to be—even if such antics were infrequent these days.

“At any rate, I do appreciate your diplomacy in handling the matter. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated the Templars withdrawing in so public a spectacle.”

“I didn’t go to Val Royeaux with the intention of fighting anyone.” She shrugged. “Not if I could help it certainly. Regardless of what the clerics might believe, I’ve no intention of upending Chantry doctrine. My goal has always been to close the Breach, and any offer of support toward that would only prove useful.”

Josephine was suitably impressed with the woman’s restraint. “An admirable point, my lady. While the endeavor may not have gone as smoothly as we’d anticipated, you did in fact gain us a number of allies.” She shuffled through a few of the letters she received in just that morning that alone. “The aid we offered to Mother Giselle’s colleagues succeeded in raising their voices among the din of our detractors. With Revered Mother Hevara’s own compatriots scattered to the winds with the incident in the Summer Bazaar, I daresay we can confirm we have the majority of the Chantry as a political ally.”

Niamh’s lips pursed, disapproval dancing across the silvery surface of her eyes. “But their focus is still on deciding the next Divine, isn’t it? I can’t imagine they’d be of any use to us for the time being.”

“True,” Josephine conceded, “but even with their reluctant support, we have more legitimacy in the eyes of the public, which we sorely needed. I can’t even begin to tell you how much easier you’ve made my job in the past few days alone because of this, and I haven’t even mentioned the number of contacts we have now!” she exclaimed. “I never imagined we’d be working with Madame de Fer for instance! Why, she’s absolutely iconic in the upper echelons of Orlais!”

“I can certainly see why.” Niamh sat her cup back down atop its saucer over her raised knee. “Her history alone is most impressive from what Leliana tells me, and she wields her magic so effortlessly.”

“I’m sure you must have impressed her as well if she was the one to extend an invitation to help.”

“Perhaps.” A dark head canted inquisitively. “And what of Sera and her Red Jennies?”

“I—” Josephine frowned, mild embarrassment coming over her. “I confess I’m not entirely certain what to make of her contacts, let alone how they operate.”

“I don’t think anyone can, really,” Niamh replied with a droll smile. “They might perplex even Leliana at this point. There’s something to be said about having agents with individual codenames.”


“Speaking of contacts, however, I wrote to my brother recently about the situation in The Hinterlands. Did we receive any correspondence back regarding that?

“We did, my lady. There was one addressed to the Inquisition and another was personally addressed to you.” Josephine slid forward the letter in question, unopened, and Niamh eyed the thickness of it with raised brows.

“It seems he had a lot to say.”

“I’m sure he simply missed you all the time you were away,” she reassured with a warm smile. “In addition to providing us with a substantial number of contacts, the Teyrn also offered us of a small bounty of Highever’s harvests this year to help feed and clothe not just our troops but the refugees in The Hinterlands.”

Ghostly grey eyes merely blinked at her, expectant.

“He… may have also mentioned they would only be freely given so long as you were not to be mistreated in any way,” Josephine then admitted with a small wince. “He went to great lengths to explain he would return you back to Highever if he found any evidence we were abusing your good will.”

A sigh left Niamh in a nearly soundless exhale as she settled back against her chair, rubbing at her temples wearily. “That certainly sounds like Fergus… Not exactly a practical solution, given the Breach threatens the entirety of the world, not just Highever.”

“He means well. Is it not natural for an older sibling to be concerned?”

“I suppose not. It’s just a matter to suffer through with being the youngest in the family.”

“Ah. I can relate to him in that regard.

“Oh?” Niamh looked up at her, seemingly curious now. “You’ve siblings?” she asked to which Josephine nodded.

“Yes. I am the eldest, and my youngest sister tends to be rather…” She tilted her head to and fro, trying to find a suitable word. “…eccentric, shall we say? I wish she had a bit of your sensibilities certainly; I cannot help but envy the Teyrn for that.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Niamh drawled. “I did spend the better part of a decade essentially running away from home. She can’t possibly be that bad in comparison.”

“You haven’t met Yvette then.” She laughed, brief humor lighting up her voice. “Oh!” It was then she noticed Niamh’s tea was finished, and she silently cursed herself for her lapse in hospitality. “My apologies, my lady. I don’t suppose you’d care for more?”

Niamh’s eyes lit up with immediate interest as she tipped her cup forward in offering. “Please.”

“A moment of your time, my dear?” an eloquent voice called.

Upon making her way toward the chantry’s exit, Niamh saw Vivienne approach her from an alcove the other woman had allocated as her own. From within, she could see a desk which held a neat series of letters atop it along with a few tomes of seeming significance if their thickness were any indication. Ever the scholar, her restless mind churned curiously at the knowledge that could possibly be contained within them, but they were not hers to study. Ruefully, Niamh knew that she and the other woman weren’t familiar enough with one another for her to even ask for such a concession.

“First Enchanter Vivienne,” she greeted politely. “I do hope you’re settling in well much as I realize this might not be to par with your usual accommodations. If need be, however, I’m sure Lady Montilyet could aid in procuring a few items for you although we couldn’t promise every amenity.”

The other woman’s lips gently pulled up into an enigmatic smile—not unlike the one she had given her when they first met—perhaps either in approval that her either her ego was being played to or that she knew immediately that Niamh was being genuine in her hospitality. “Charming as ever, I see,” she observed before airily lifting a hand in a wave. “And you needn’t call me that. With the Circle of Magi disbanded, such titles are of little importance now.”

“Yes,” Niamh conceded reluctantly, “but I also realize that you’re a woman well-deserving of respect and should be treated as such. Anyone who bore such a title was often considered exemplary among their peers after all.” Still, Niamh also didn’t want to risk offending Vivienne by pressing the matter further. She canted her head momentarily in thought—searching for a suitable compromise—before refocusing her gaze on the other woman with polite inquiry. “If not First Enchanter, would simply Lady Vivienne suffice?”

Vivienne looked to her in consideration then—her expression the perfect visage of icy grace—before finally nodding in approval of her etiquette. Her amused smile from earlier turned the faintest touch more genuine, voice softening. “It would indeed.”

“Wonderful. What can I do for you, my lady?”

“You were once part of Ferelden’s Circle, yes? I understand that Senior Enchanter Wynne was a mentor of yours.”

“Oh.” Niamh blinked, not having expected such a turn in conversation. “She was one of several mentors I had at the time, yes,” she admitted with a small laugh. “During my last few years there, we hadn’t received many new apprentices. The ones we did were assigned to the mages who had already undergone the Harrowing before me. Without any of my own, however, I couldn’t advance to the rank of Enchanter, so I spent much of my time helping them and the Senior Enchanters with training their own wards,” she explained. “But, yes, barring First Enchanter Irving, Wynne was the one I spent the most time with certainly. She taught me a great deal of healing and spiritual magic, but I confess that I didn’t take to them nearly as well as the elemental arts.”

“Ah. Yes, I met with Irving in Cumberland during a gathering for the College of Enchanters some years ago. He spoke well of your discipline in magic. If memory serves, he mentioned you underwent your Harrowing at a relatively young age.”

“No younger than you certainly,” Niamh replied. “You were easily the youngest in the Circle’s history to attempt such a feat from what I’ve been told. I was merely seventeen at the time—roughly the same age as my mentor Wynne when she accomplished it herself.”

“Then it would seem Ferelden’s Circle trained quite accomplished mages.” Vivienne seemed suitably impressed as she dipped her head in acknowledgement. “As the College met so infrequently, your mentor and I were distant acquaintances at best, but I never met so wise a soul as hers. She had an amazingly strong sense of duty and an unwavering belief in the Circle’s purpose. Truly, you could have asked for no one better to guide you.”

Niamh had wondered if that were true at times.

Although she had remained diligent in her training and her studies back then, Niamh had also grown more jaded to the ideals the Chantry presented in regards to her people. Wynne’s own teachings only cemented that fact. She had strongly advocated for magic in the sense that Circle apprentices should be able to utilize their gifts in a safe environment in order to better serve the world at large. Such due diligence, however, served an ulterior purpose that Niamh hadn’t agreed with.

"Earn your place," Wynne had said to her many mentees over the years, "and you shall not be reviled."

But where was the fairness in such a notion?

That mages were so denounced both in Chantry doctrine and the overall societal hierarchy already implied they were hated on the simple basis of merely existing. There was little chance of equality with such ideology if her people automatically merited so low a rung in the world. As such, Niamh felt she could say with certainty that she no longer believed in the Maker or his blessings.

Not when it marginalized those most in need of his love and guidance.

While Wynne had been sympathetic—and perhaps even a touch disappointed—the older mage had never really understood her plight in regards to her lapse of faith. Perhaps she had been too old and set in her ways to see otherwise.

“She was a true advocate of her time. Her passing was a great loss to us all.”

At those words, Niamh found herself pulled back to the present with more force than even the Breach’s power. She suddenly found it difficult to even draw breath, body heavy as iron as she sank further beneath depths of uncertainty and disbelief with little strength to break through the water’s surface. Niamh could only imagine what she must have looked like to Vivienne then whose eyes had widened imperceptibly to her reaction.

“Did you truly not—I’m so sorry, my dear. No. Here, here,” she said, gentling guiding her toward the open chair at her desk upon seeing her waver against the pillar. “Come sit.”

“I’m sorry,” Niamh replied through numb lips even as she sat down, her energy all but drained with the sinking realization of her mentor’s death. “I don’t mean to intrude—”

“Hush now.” Vivienne poured her a cup of water from the nearby pitcher. “You needn’t apologize when the egregious error was of my own doing. As your Seneschal was present during the funeral, I thought she may have mentioned it at least in passing given your history with one another. Forgive me, my dear. That is not the way for anyone to find out about the loss of a loved one. Here.”

Niamh was handed the cup, and she was surprised at the chill of it. She glanced down into its depths and found there were little spheres of ice floating atop the water. Given the already freezing locale, she wondered at the decision of it, and she looked up at Vivienne questioningly, who merely smiled.

“Ice jolts the senses,” she said simply. “It anchors you more deeply into the present even if everything may fall apart around you. Useful trick, that.” The older mage waved her hand airily. “You may, of course, warm it at your choosing should you find you no longer need that as a catalyst. I feared you were going to faint on me a moment ago.”

Niamh smiled weakly, raising the cup to the other woman in thanks. The cold water was a shock against her teeth, and she only manage a few swallows before it felt like it felt like ice had gathered uncomfortably at the back of her throat. As the sensation spread to the rest of her body, however, Niamh couldn’t deny she felt more physically present than she had a few moment ago.


“Much.” She sighed wearily. “I suppose I should have expected her death at some point while I was away. I knew Wynne had been getting on in age, but she was ever formidable.” The corner of her lips turned up into a half-smile. “So much so that I thought she could live forever if only to spite the apprentices who willingly tested her patience.”

Vivienne actually spared a small laugh at that. “Ah. A fate destined for any Senior Enchanter unfortunately. We should all be so lucky to live nearly as long and as fulfilled as she did.”

“May—” Niamh winced as her voice cracked. Clearing her throat, she wet her lips to try again. “May I ask how she died?”

The older mage sighed as she crossed her arms, leaning her hip against the desk. “It’s quite the tragic tale, my dear…”

Vivienne had quietly explained that the incident occurred not long after the explosion that destroyed Kirkwall’s chantry. Although its destruction had been the work of one apostate, the Knight-Commander had declared a Rite of Annulment against the city’s entire Circle, which—Niamh knew—would have ended in the deaths of every mage within it. That the mages within were doomed to die for the actions of one man was deemed abhorrent to those within the other Circles, which later culminated in an uprising all throughout Thedas. Although the Templar Order had tried to mitigate it by banning any gatherings of mages, the College of Enchanters had managed to meet in secret, leading to the eventual dissolution of the Circle of Magi by Grand Enchanter Fiona.

As it turned out, Wynne only became involved in the matter at the request of Divine Justinia.

Wynne and her son Rhys—whom Niamh had been surprised to hear about—along with a few of their associates had been on a quest to rescue a Tranquil named Pharamond, who the older mage had been familiar with. In doing so, they had hoped to gather any information against the Lord Seeker of the time—Lambert van Reeves—for The Divine had suspicions he had been hiding crucial information regarding the Rite of Tranquility. Although Divine Justina had called for a conclave to discuss matters further, the Lord Seeker had shown up in force, for he had perceived every support of the mages as a threat against the military forces meant to subdue them.

In retaliation, he had slain several of the First Enchanters present and imprisoned the others before openly annulling the Nevarran Accord, which led in the withdrawal of the Templar Order and Seekers of Truth from the Chantry. While Wynne and her team had managed to rescue the mages still in detainment at the Templars’ White Spire stronghold, they hadn’t been able to stop the Lord Seeker from escaping, and Wynne’s life had been lost in the ensuing battle as he fled.

“I see,” Niamh murmured, processing everything carefully. “So she gave up her life to save one of her son’s companions.”

Having known about the spirit of faith that had dwelled in her mentor during their travels together, Niamh hadn’t been terribly surprised at the cost of such sacrifice. Although she had initially believed her mentor’s sudden revival during Uldred’s crazed dominion of their Circle had been miraculous at the time, the spirit had likely been the only thing keeping the woman alive all these years. When it had returned to The Fade, so, too, had Wynne finally left for the Maker’s embrace.

“A life well-lived indeed. Thank you for telling me although…” She trailed off, looking up at the other woman then. “I can’t imagine this is what you meant to stop me for earlier.” While it had been a clumsier segue than Niamh would have preferred, Vivienne accepted the subject change with utmost grace.

“You would be correct. I understand you had intentions of heading off to the Fallow Mire once we’ve all had a chance to recuperate from our travels?”

“Yes. One of our reports stated a small platoon of our soldiers had gone missing in the area, and Leliana’s scouts found it was the work of the nearby Avvar. From what I’ve gathered, their leader did it under the provocation that it would draw my attention. He claims I serve a false god and that his victory over me would prove that notion.” Niamh resisted the urge to roll her eyes as she sullenly drank the remaining water in her cup, wishing for a moment it was something far stronger. “Normally I wouldn’t even bother indulging the whims of a violent madman, but as it’s affecting our troops directly, I couldn’t abide it.”

“A noble sentiment on your part in any case. I trust you’ll be needing help for this?”

“I…” Niamh blinked several times, caught off guard. “Well, yes. I… suppose I didn’t wish to presume if you wanted more beyond an advisory position with us.”

“My dear, when I approached you in Val Royeaux, I meant it when I said I would offer you aid in any and all aspects needed.” Vivienne’s brow arched, but there was enough of a smile lingering on her lips for Niamh to know that she hadn’t unintentionally offended her. “I was not always part of the royal courts after all, or did you not believe I knew how to fight with the rabble when necessary?”

She laughed lightly. “Given what I saw you do to the Marquis at your soiree, I wouldn’t dare suggest such a thing, my lady.”

Although Niamh and her party had been back in Haven for several days, Leliana noticed the other woman had been her usual absent self apart from War Council debriefings. Otherwise, the mage could often be found within the quiet solitude of her cabin or traipsing about outside the village once the bulk of its residents had turned in for the evening. It seemed to be the latter that night as Leliana strode past the main gate and across the snow to the woman overlooking the lake.

Niamh’s back was to her as she sat across a low boulder. Her staff—a newer, heavier version to replace the simple wooden one she’d originally picked up during her trek to the Temple weeks ago—laid within arm’s reach of her, but Leliana doubted her need of it. Still, she couldn’t fault her precaution, wary as she as was these days.

As she approached her friend, she could see lingering wisps of smoke, and for a moment, she wondered if Niamh had returned to one of her old vices. She had smoked elfroot infrequently during their travels together years ago—well enough away from Wynne, of course, but Leliana suspected the older mage had always been aware of her habit.

Niamh had said she found the pleasurable buzz relaxing. Her need for such a reprieve had been obvious following her departure from Ferelden’s Circle, but it had been heavily apparent again after their adventures in the Deep Roads, where they had discovered the appalling origins of a Darkspawn Broodmother. Then, Niamh had taken up the vice yet again with almost frightening dependency in the final days leading up to the battle at Denerim.

Upon padding closer, however, Leliana realized the woman was simply exhaling small licks of fire into her cupped palms. She watched as ghostly-grey eyes blinked at her presence, pulling her hands away far enough that Leliana could just see the barest trace of smoke escaping the corner of her mouth. She arched a brow in question.

“Are you simply warming yourself or are you doing that for your own amusement?”

An easy grin met her words, warming Niamh’s otherwise placid expression. “A bit of both actually.” She shifted her cupped palms so that Leliana could see the shine of something metal between them under the moonlight. It appeared to be a clasp of some sort. “Mother Giselle said it bent and broke off from one of her books when her belongings had been relocated here, so I offered to fix it.”

“Kind of you to offer certainly.” Curious, Leliana bent closer in observation, and although Niamh had said the metal adornment had been broken, she couldn’t even begin to tell where the fracture had originally been. The clasp had been bent back to perfectly straight angles, still warm from the mage’s fire. “Does it not hurt when you do that?”

“No. To me, it may as well be as warm as a spring sunlight. As for Mother Giselle, well… She has been kind. I hadn’t expected that.”

Niamh’s gaze had retreated out to the frozen lake, where the surface nearly gleamed beneath the moonlight—reminiscent of her friend’s eyes in some ways. To her words, however, Leliana pondered over them. Given her polite distance with everyone, perhaps it was less of a surprise than it should have been. The mage’s first impression of Haven hadn’t been the best one after all.

“It seems the villagers are under the impression you haven’t forgiven them,” she said, recalling an earlier conversation with Josie over the matter. “Some wish to personally apologize to you, but as you’ve often made yourself scarce, it’s fallen to our ambassador to fend them off. She seems to think much the same, but she does her best to soothe their anxiety.” Leliana canted her head curiously when Niamh merely sighed.

“People can often be… terrifying. Truly, it’s disconcerting how easily a person’s nature can change when faced with a fact they otherwise had been unaware of—no matter the kindness shown to them.” With the clasp now cooled, Niamh slipped the iron bit back inside her coat, likely with the intent to deliver it to Mother Giselle before she departed for the Fallow Mire in the morning. “They could be a traveler, caught sick from the weather, and I—another vagabond—could offer my aid as a healer with poultices to tend their ills.” Pale eyes dulled then, her words becoming more stilted.

“Now imagine that bandits had come across us, looking to earn some quick coin, but against such superior numbers and an otherwise downed companion, I couldn’t resort to simple melee attacks to fend them all off. Instead, envision where I turned to magic, succeeding in subduing our attackers but earning the utter revulsion of the traveler I had been with for revealing my nature as a mage. Imagine then, that when I went back to tend to him as planned, I received a knife for my troubles as he recoiled from me, cursing me for what I was when all I tried to do was help.”

“You… speak as if from experience and not just an imagined possibility,” Leliana offered hesitantly.

Niamh laughed, but the sound was humorless and effervescent as she idly rubbed the base of her neck beneath the thick collar of her coat. Her attention drawn, Leliana could just barely see the thin line of a scar there, faded near silver with age. She had seen it before that night the woman had initially woken up following her attempt at sealing the Breach. She had wondered how it came to be there, and it seemed she had her answer.

“It’s safer sometimes to lower my expectations of people,” Niamh explained quietly. “It leads to less disappointment certainly. As noble as my intentions could be, some part of them will always fear me for possessing that which I never asked to be granted.”

“So you learned to hide your magic then?” she asked to which she earned a simple nod, saddening her. “Is that why you also hide your pain from us? Cassandra said the first time your Mark flared, you collapsed from it.”

“It’s more bearable now that I know what to expect.

“But it still hurts you?”

“The pain ebbs and flows some days, but yes.”

“Niamh…” Her tone was all disapproval, but she received a weary sigh in response.

“You already know I don’t like drawing attention to myself more than necessary. For me, it wasn’t so bad that I needed everyone to be aware of it.” She turned to her then, gently arching a brow. “But I imagine you didn’t come out here to simply reprimand me. If it has to do with the villagers, I’ll…” She frowned somewhat, hesitant. “I’ll try to be a little more sociable if it will ease Lady Montilyet’s concerns.”

“No need. Josie would be beside herself if she found you forced yourself to do something on her behalf. As for your other question, well…” She moved to sit, and the other woman immediately adjusted her position on the boulder, making room for her. Leliana then pulled out the polished wooden cylinder Niamh had given her some time ago. “I meant to return this to you, but as you’ve been busy as of late, it’s been difficult.”

“Oh.” Grey eyes blinked at her as she gingerly took the container back. “I nearly forgot about this.”

Leliana rolled her eyes, knowing full well Niamh wasn’t known for being absentminded. “No. You thought I was still angry at you,” she countered pointedly, earning herself a wide-eyed gaze of alarm.

“No! I wasn’t—I didn’t mean…” Pausing, Niamh swallowed almost nervously. “I… wasn’t trying to avoid you--not intentionally at least. While I was away, however, I realized how awkward of a position I put you in, questioning your motives when your agent was standing right next to you.” Her tone was full of remorse, and her expression was equally repentant as she stared down at her lap. “It wasn’t the time or place for me to call attention to a situation I clearly knew nothing about. It was disrespectful.” Silver eyes turned to her then in clear apology. “I trust you; I do,” she murmured quietly. “I never meant to imply otherwise. I’m sorry.”

Leliana knew that—as considerate as she was—Niamh had likely been reprimanding herself for the slight ever since she left for Val Royeaux. She shook her head, a feeling of almost exasperated fondness settling over her.

“Did you already forget that you apologized? You never directly ordered me to do anything; you merely asked that I give the matter another look. Even when you had your concerns, you gave control of the situation back to me without weakening my position of authority with my agent.” As far as diplomacy went, Leliana admitted it had been remarkably well-done. Josie likely would have applauded the effort had she been present at the time, which gave Leliana the indication Niamh would get along quite well with their ambassador. “There is nothing to forgive,” she pressed the other woman to understand. Then, as the events of the last week danced across the surface of her mind, Leliana sighed. “If anything, I owe you my thanks for allowing me to see the situation more objectively.”


“Yes. I discovered evidence of something new while interrogating Butler.”

It seemed Butler had been blackmailed into accepting his apparent betrayal.

While Farrier had still unfortunately died in the plot, her agent hadn’t been murdered by Butler’s hands as she—and her closest circle of spies—had been led to believe. He, however, had the misfortune of stumbling upon the actual assailant:


Behind the codename, however, Painter was simply Abernale Harish—a traveling artist who had once been of minor nobility. When several business investments fell heavily during The Fifth Blight, his family soon became destitute as his parents had refused to accept their dwindling fortunes and continued spending lavishly on a lifestyle they could no longer afford. As they had been unable to pay their debts, the local municipality soon stripped them of their titles and lands.

With their fall from grace, his father had drunk himself into madness, and his mother had been killed following a burglary gone wrong in the hovel they could barely afford to keep. Before Harish was even an adolescent, he became orphaned, but the institution he had been given to was overcrowded and often riddled with endless abuses. He ran away not long afterward, working the streets in whatever way he could over the years until he had mastered seemingly every aspect of them. From such experiences, he became quick-witted and just as agile, capable of charming friend and foe alike before escaping with their possessions, leaving them none of the wiser.

When Harish came to her attention and consequently became Painter, she had thought well of him. While he didn’t necessarily rise through her ranks to become a part of her inner circle, he advanced enough that he was well-admired by his peers. He had even earned Leliana’s recognition of his skills in espionage, but it seemed that she had deeply underestimated him...

Butler and Painter had been stationed in Nevarra near the border of the Tevinter Imperium, but the latter had been there months longer, keeping an eye on some of the nobility in the country on Leliana’s orders. Following the Breach’s appearance, they were then also to gather any information of note—no matter how inconsequential—that could lead them into finding the culprit behind the rifts. Leliana had later sent Farrier along to offer them further aid.

Butler confessed Farrier had found something of interest, but the other man had seemed disturbed by the evidence he had gathered and asked to speak with him at a private location. By some luck, Butler had managed to arrive early to their meeting point, but by then, Farrier laid dead across the floor and the one standing over him with wicked blade in hand was Painter.

Butler had every intention of telling her of the matter, he swore brokenly as he kneeled before Leliana in chains—watched under the vigilant eyes of her inner circle—but Painter had caught him unaware, saying he knew all about Butler’s own betrayal.

The secret?

Butler had been stealing from the homes of many of their targets for months. At first, it had been mere trinkets that were likely to go unnoticed, but by the time he had joined Painter in Nevarra, he had gotten too greedy. A noblewoman had noticed one of her miscellaneous pieces of jewelry missing. Painter had said that her being aware of it at all meant that Butler was risking their exposure in the country.

Under any other circumstance, Leliana would have agreed, and so she asked Butler why he had committed such misdeeds.

Ashamed, he merely stared down at his shackled hands and admitted his daughter had fallen under some unknown illness over the past year and his wife had been taking care of her ever since. His family didn’t know he was a part of Leliana’s spy network. They knew his profession simply to be that of an actual butler, which paid well, given he often worked for nobility.

It just hadn’t been enough to pay for the medication his daughter needed, and so he had grown desperate.

Faced with being outed for his crimes and having his family killed by Painter, the traitor had offered him a compromise then: admit that he had been the one to kill Farrier instead and Butler’s family would be taken care of.

Apparently, Painter had been working for someone else outside of Leliana for several months, and the information he had been gathering for his new employer often proved exceedingly valuable. As such, for Butler’s silence, his family would be paid handsomely upon his death, disguised as a gift from an anonymous benefactor who felt deeply for the widowed woman and her daughter.

As Leliana stared down at her agent—kneeling not unlike Niamh had when she had first been imprisoned—she forced herself to see past the pain of betrayal and the raging fire of injustice within her. When she did, she merely saw a spirit broken by circumstance.

Butler had resorted to petty larceny, risked the Inquisition’s reputation, and had willingly taken the blame for Farrier’s death because he had seen no other alternative if it meant keeping his family alive. Leliana understood the intent behind his actions even if she didn’t necessarily agree with them.

She expected professionalism of all her agents, but they had always been aware they could discuss any concerns of theirs to her. Loyalty—after all—was not simply a one-way path. While she might have not always been able to help in the moment, Leliana did her best to make sure their worries were heard and assuaged at the earliest opportunity.

That Butler felt he couldn’t come to her was much its own pain, but perhaps along the way, she had lost sight of her earlier ideals amidst a life spent in shadowed duplicity—so much so that he hadn’t felt comfortable admitting to the matters of his personal life.

What enraged Leliana more, however, was that the betrayal hadn’t come from an outside source as Niamh had suggested.

It had been from within.

“In light of your confession,” Leliana began at last, keeping her voice even, “I do find that you willingly endangered the Inquisition with your actions.” Butler never raised his head in acknowledgement of her words; if anything, he seemed resigned in the knowledge that his death would soon come upon swift wings. As such, Leliana continued on. “However, faced with the evidence now presented to us, actions will be taken against Painter so that you and your family will remain unharmed.”

At her words, life seemed to return to Butler’s form as his breath caught raggedly in his throat. He jerked his head up at her then, eyes wide. His gaze was equal parts shock and relief, and he didn’t seem to notice nor care that the tears which had rimmed his lashes throughout his confession had finally fallen in rivulets down his cheeks. He understood then what she was saying.

Leliana was forgiving him.

“Thank you,” he murmured shakily. “Thank you!” Although still chained, he shuffled forward on his knees and prostrated himself, kissing the ground before her feet in utter gratitude. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” became his mantra between choked sobs, which grew louder when Leliana kneeled before him to rest a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“This will be an extended investigation,” Leliana said firmly, looking up at her inner circle of spies. “The one we seek is a master of his craft if he’s remained out of my notice for so long.”

That he had nearly succeeded into getting her to believe one of oldest and most trusted agents had betrayed her was troubling to be certain. Nevertheless, she was certain she could still turn the situation in her favor.

They simply needed to act swiftly.

“As such, we must act accordingly to his own assumptions so as not to draw any suspicion from him. Butler.” She waited until the man raised his head to look at her. “Until the matter is resolved, you will need to be declared dead. Your family will be notified of your death, but they cannot be any wiser to the contrary. You will not be able to contact them until Painter has been subdued.”

His expression was grim—and there was pain in his eyes as he realized that he would be kept away from his wife and child for an indefinite amount of time—but he nodded in acquiescence. “If they will be kept safe, then I accept.”

Leliana then motioned to Charter, who brought out a bowl filled with a dark red liquid. “This has to be believable,” she said. “Grave enough that those outside our circle will understand what they risk by betraying me, and our traitor will know it as well. Once we’re through, your body will be carted off in full view of our remaining agents, but from there, you’ll be transported to a safehouse. The location of it will be known to only the people within this room. Supplies will be brought to you on a weekly basis, but you will not be allowed to leave the safehouse until we settle this. Do you understand?”

“I do.”

“Good. Let’s begin.”

“I see,” Niamh said simply when Leliana told her what came of the confession.

It was admittedly a risk letting anyone outside her inner circle know, but while Niamh was many things, deception of this nature was well beyond the other woman’s capabilities. Leliana needed only to look back on their journey together to know that she was loyal to a fault.

“Do we know yet who this double agent might be working for?”

Leliana shook her head. “No. It may be some time before we do. We can’t risk him knowing that we’re already aware of his betrayal. For now, I still have him stationed in Nevarra investigating something that has little ties to our current objective.”

Niamh hummed vaguely before releasing a soft breath of incredulous laughter. “Knowing what it is you do now, sometimes I wonder if I really do have the harder role here.”

“They both have their difficulties,” she replied simply. “Are you not going to the Fallow Mire tomorrow? Shouldn’t you be resting in preparation of it?”

“Sleep eludes me tonight. I thought being out here might relax me enough to attempt it again.”

“So long as you don’t fall asleep out here amidst the snow then. Josie would have a fit.” Leliana spared a small smile at that. “Who will you be taking along this time?

“Lady Vivienne actually volunteered, and while I think having Sera along might be cause for a disaster between them, it’s a good enough test as any to see how they fare on the field together.” She rubbed a thumb against her chin thoughtfully. “I’m certain I can wrangle the Iron Bull into helping. Between the two of us, I imagine we can provide a reasonable enough buffer to keep both of them from strangling one another,” Niamh finished with a laugh, and the sound was infectious enough that it drew laughter from Leliana as well as she pictured the very thought.

“I see. Truthfully, I’m surprised you managed to attain even a Ben-Hassrath during your travels.”

“Ah. Well, it certainly wasn’t a hardship.” Niamh’s smile was all amusement. “Bull has a considerable interest in red-haired women apparently. With his connections, he likely already knew of you and your reputation.”

“Unsurprising. Their network is rather formidable if not varied.” Tallis had been the last such agent she’d seen while investigating matters around Kirkwall. “I suppose even something like the Breach would be of worry to the qunari.”

Her gaze turned to the immense rift in the sky just as a breeze blew over the surface of the lake, bringing its chill to them. Although she was dressed well enough for the weather in the Frostbacks, she still felt the ice in the wind against her face. As such, Leliana drew her cowl closer around her, but she noticed movement out of the corner of her eye, and she turned just in time to see Niamh reaching out to her.

At the attention, the other woman paused—fingers half-recoiling—but when it seemed Leliana was more curious about her intentions than disapproving, she slowly reached out to gently tap her shoulder. At once, Leliana felt the cold around her dissipate instantly as if fire were coursing through her veins. When she looked down at herself, however, she saw no visible evidence of any magic being used. She turned to Niamh then in question, who only smiled modestly.

“Do you recall how I could ignite your daggers in battle but kept the flames from harming you? Over the years, I took the same principle and applied it in other forms.” She gestured to Leliana’s hauberk. “It’s not nearly as evident, but I simply used your clothing as a catalyst. Wherever you’re covered, the effect takes place beneath it discretely. I’ve found it works just as well with ice magic too." She groaned then, as if recalling a distant memory. "That proved especially useful when I was traveling across Antiva and Rivain during the peak of their summer weather...”

Leliana was remarkably impressed by such ingenuity. “And this doesn’t drain your energy?”

Niamh shrugged. “It’s negligible at best—no more different than me drawing breath. I probably wouldn’t be able to pull it off with several people however; my mana wouldn’t replenish itself nearly as quickly.”

“And how long does this effect last?”

“As long as you’re within reach of my magic, I can continue rebuffing it if need be.”

“Then the distance from here to the main gate…?”

“I could still maintain it,” she reassured. “Once you pass my cabin, however, it’d likely break.”

Leliana hummed thoughtfully, hiding her smile. “But I still need to walk to the chantry to get to my chambers. Would you rather I be cold the remainder of the way?” she asked Niamh, who looked startled at the accusation.

“What? No! I—” Then, after a slow blink of realization, those pale eyes soon narrowed. “How did you manage to turn this entire conversation around on me?”

Leliana chuckled as she rose to her feet. “You haven’t been trained as a bard.” She smirked. “Or you’re merely more tired than you believe if you couldn’t find a suitable argument against me. Come.”

She beckoned Niamh to follow, who did—albeit begrudgingly—once she picked up her staff and the returned wooden cylinder. For several heartbeats, only the sound of the snow crunching beneath their feet interrupted their otherwise companionable silence. As they approached the main gate, however, Leliana turned to her friend with a raised brow. “And I do expect you to return back to your cabin once you’ve escorted me back.”

Niamh raised her own brow in challenge as she replied dryly, “I suspect one of your spies would just tell you if I did otherwise.”

“You’re beginning to see how this works now. Good.”

Chapter Text

The situation in Redcliffe was… troubling to say the least.

It was also giving her more of a headache than she truly needed, especially as her War Council argued amongst themselves. Leliana and Cullen were—once again—at odds with one another over which group to support whereas Josephine sought to provide a more objective view, but even Niamh could tell the woman’s near infinite patience was beginning to fray.

“Even if we could assault the keep, it would be naught,” the ambassador explained, frowning deeply at her fellow advisors. “An Orlesian Inquisition’s army marching into Ferelden would provoke a war. Our hands are tied!”

And her logic made a great deal of sense.

The two nations were on distant terms at best, given their deep history with one another. It had only been a decade ago that Loghain had brought up such divisions again, turning away desperately needed aid against the Blight simply because of their Orlesian roots. She'd wondered sometimes if more numbers could have prevented the utter devastation that befell Denerim. Could they have saved more lives with the services that had been offered? Would it have changed anything in the end?

At the back of her mind, she could still hear her sister’s final battle cry as she struck the Archdemon down.

Suddenly light-headed, Niamh rested a hand upon the map—leaning her weight upon it heavily to catch a breath—even as Cassandra spoke up in argument.

“You cannot possibly tell me you’re comfortable leaving a foreign power of that magnitude here! The magister—”

“—has outplayed us,” Cullen finished in a harsh clip. “Our chances of sealing the Breach may well be drawing to a close. We cannot afford to waste more time. Surely you can see we’ve only the Templars to turn to now.”

“No.” And with the weight of a single word, Niamh had the whole of the room looking to her for the first time since she began debriefing them on situation in Redcliffe. She winced internally at the sudden attention but continued on with a sigh. “Have you already forgotten the Lord Seeker abandoned Orlais? He saw it beneath his protection and openly denounced me and the Inquisition—both of which he sees as less than nothing.”

“But his men—”

“—did nothing,” interrupted Niamh much as Cullen had earlier to Cassandra, pointedly arching a brow at him. “One of his own struck a Revered Mother of the Chantry down in broad daylight, and none of the other Templars offered so much as a rebuke before they all retreated from the city. An ally who will not speak up against such transgressions is no ally at all as far as I’m concerned.” Her lips thinned when she saw the flush of anger overtaking his features.

“And what of the mages that rebelled in The Hinterlands?” Cullen demanded. “We’ve hundreds of refugees displaced because of their actions! Are you willing to see past their crimes as well?”

“Don’t act as if they were the only ones at fault, Commander,” she replied coolly, never so much as raising her voice against him. “The same can be said of your renegade Templars, who cut down anyone in their path for even the slightest notion of mage sympathy.”

Niamh called him only by his title just as Cullen only referred to her as Lady Cousland. In theory, it should have worked well as a sign of respect or a cleaning of the slate between them, but their last confrontation years ago had proven too deep a wound. Niamh couldn’t readily say if it would ever heal. Let it fester then, she thought bitterly. There’s too much at stake to do otherwise.

“The mages who rioted in The Hinterlands cut ties with Grand Enchanter Fiona’s group in Redcliffe when it became clear she wouldn’t seek retribution against the world they long saw as an enemy,” she said. “To my knowledge, the mages in the village haven’t attacked anyone. That speaks well of their temperament.”

Of course, that wasn’t to say there was an easy coexistence between the mages and Redcliffe’s residents. While some offered sympathy to their cause, there were others who were more on edge, uneasy with the notion of there being so many mages congregating in one place.

And they had cause for such concerns, given their last experience with magic.

Meeting Connor there again had certainly been a surprise.

He had grown into a capable young man although perhaps leery with displaying any use of his magic even amongst his people. She couldn’t fault him for his caution. He hadn’t wanted to return to Redcliffe at all, and he certainly hadn’t wanted the Circle to be disbanded, but with nowhere else to go, he followed his fellow mages. Guilt, however, had hung heavy around him like a noose as he walked the lands that had once been his entire world as a child. What sweet sense of nostalgia could have been awoken in him left promptly when he eyed the waters that had once run red with the blood he had shed upon their shores.

When she had confronted the Desire Demon that had possessed Connor all those years ago and got her to relinquish its hold on him, the boy had lived, but after seeing him at that village again, she wondered if he had ever come to resent her for her mercy.

“I’ll forever be the boy with Redcliffe’s blood on his hands…”

“Let’s not forget the fact that even with an ominous tear in the sky, the Templars chose inaction above all else,” she said, continuing on her previous argument without pause despite how unsettled she felt. “If they would not defend the institution they were sworn to protect or even the very people within it they were meant to serve, I cannot see them—the Lord Seeker especially—willing to work with me. Based on what I saw of them in Val Royeaux, they wouldn’t hesitate to use force against anyone, especially those unable to defend themselves.”

While Niamh may not have agreed with Revered Mother Hevara’s words, she certainly wouldn’t have wished violence upon her in such a way.

“Surely some of them would be amenable to working with us,” Cullen tried again. “The Templars don’t accept just anyone into their ranks. These are men and women of great mental and physical fortitude!”

“Ah,” Niamh nodded, brows raising as she feigned mock-understanding. “And such discipline would surely be enough to keep them from drawing a sword on me when I did nothing but try and offer aid, yes?” she finished dryly. She saw Cassandra flinch out of the corner of her eye, but her gaze never left Cullen’s who soon drew his own away from her in what appeared to be shame.

There was no doubt now that Niamh had neither forgotten or forgiven his actions.

“If…” Cullen’s eyes never left the table before them, but his voice had lost some of its hard edge. “If you go to Redcliffe, you’ll die, and we’ll lose the only means we have of closing these rifts. I won’t allow it.”

“My autonomy isn’t your choice, Commander,” she replied. That it was even a point of discussion did little to alleviate her current mood, and she didn't bother to hide it in her expression. “Unless I’ve somehow been oblivious while in hiding for the past decade, the general consensus on Thedas is that my people are barely even tolerated as a whole if not outright hated. Your suggestion that I approach one of the main military forces whose entire purpose is meant to subdue mages by any means necessary hardly gives me any confidence in the matter.” She moved a few of the unused map markers—the raven-like ones that Leliana favored—over Orlais and a few locations around Ferelden.

“We have the support of the Chantry and the local populaces here now, yes, but that doesn’t change the fact that I—a mage—am somehow still the figurehead to this Inquisition. That alone is something they won’t take kindly to.” Niamh knew from his expression that he wasn’t willing to let the matter go, and so she sighed deeply. “Commander, if you've any evidence other than your gut instinct I won’t have my magic suppressed or be outright skewered by arrows or any number of weapons upon entering those gates, then by all means, show it to me.”

She waited several heartbeats for him to offer anything to her, but when they passed in sullen silence, she continued on with a small, satisfied nod.

“Good. I’m not going to continue to argue over the Templars with you.”

“Lady Cousland?” Cassandra called to her hesitantly then, and she turned her attention to the other woman. “While I understand the Commander’s feelings on the matter, is there still not a chance we could be walking into a trap with this magister as well? Him specifically asking to meet you alone for negotiations is one matter, but the former Grand Enchanter admitting she never recalled meeting you in Val Royeaux is suspicious enough, is it not?”

“Yes, but that’s hardly her fault if she’s been manipulated as deeply as I believe she has.”

“And you would have us believe what then?” Cullen asked derisively. “That the magister or any of his new mage allies have somehow managed to find a way to distort time and that's how he managed to take the rebels out from under you?” Incredulity seeped through every word he spoke—along with the barest fragments of fear—and Niamh could hardly blame him.

What they saw in Redcliffe spelled absolute disaster if Alexius could harness such an ability for his own purposes.

“You weren’t there, Commander. You didn’t see the rifts we closed along the way to the village. The ones closest to it were clearly distorting the space around them in unnatural ways. There were witnesses outside our party from the village guard who saw it as well.”

“But you would still trust the closing of the Breach to the mages with the clear threat they now pose?”

“I’m not convinced Fiona’s group is in any way connected to the time distortion. Remember: they’ve only recently broken away from the Chantry and the very institution that has kept them in place since the reign of Emperor Drakon. It’s already an unprecedented moment in history, but they’re very much in the infancy of their independence.” Niamh rested an elbow in the palm of her hand as she reached up to rub at one of her temples, trying to quell her headache. “With numbers like theirs, I’m not surprised at the lack of oversight over any possible issues they could be causing in Redcliffe, especially if they’ve yet to set up a hierarchy beyond having the former Grand Enchanter at its head.” She shrugged. “After my meeting with her, however, I had a chance to meet with many of her people.”

It was likely her own status as a mage that had even granted her such an audience with them. Most had seemed reluctant to speak to anyone, even Redcliffe’s own residents. With Niamh, however, they had seen one of their own raised to power and respected. She hadn’t disclosed that hadn’t always been the case, but drawing them into conversation was her best chance at determining what all had happened to them since the Circle’s dissolution.

“If anything, the majority seemed largely unhappy they’ve been signed away into servitude without any chance for input otherwise.”

“Why join the magister at all then?” asked Cassandra, brows furrowing in confusion.

They likely saw no other choice. You have to realize that while Ferelden’s King and Queen may have offered refuge, Fiona’s mages don’t have any further resources needed to sustain a population of their size. Some have never known life outside the Circle, and some had never wanted to abandon it to begin with. It was either join in secession or be left to fend for themselves.” She frowned. “As a whole, there are few among them who have any marketable trade skills to even start a new life.”

Turning to anyone—perhaps the only one then—who had offered aid seemed a logical choice as any, but as she recalled further conversations, which showed the mages’ discontent with the situation, Niamh revealed something equally troubling.

“Given how he was behaving, it seems Alexius and his Tevinter accomplices have the most to benefit from the situation, but it was only made possible because he allowed several of his own mages to infiltrate the ranks of the rebels.”

“You’re certain of this, my lady?” Josephine asked, quickly writing down a note on her parchment board.

Niamh merely nodded. “Yes, I’ve several eyewitness accounts. As chaotic as the Circle of Magi’s disbandment was, it would’ve brought together mages from all ends of Thedas to The Conclave. Add in more than a handful of apostates whom have no history to any Circle but have an apparent interest in a future of equality for all mages, and you at least have a viable connection to start some semblance of familiarity,” she explained, but she bit down the urge to grind down on her teeth in frustration. “That the Venatori preyed on that trust for their own purposes is rather damning as far as morality goes...”

“Wait.” Leliana spoke up then. “Did you say the Venatori?”

Niamh blinked. “Yes. Alexius’ son along with his former apprentice confirmed the Venatori are Tevinter imperialists—no less than a cult truly. They seem to have an invested interest in me, which I assumed had to do with my ability to close rifts, but as to why they went to so much trouble to recruit the mages in Redcliffe right from under us, I couldn’t say. Why do you ask?” She tilted her head in question, but when her Spymaster merely narrowed her eyes tellingly, Niamh’s own slowly widened. “You found something in your investigation?”

“What?” Cullen looked between them, clearly perplexed. “What investigation?”

“There’s a traitor within my network."

“What?! Why were the rest of us not informed of this then?” he demanded.

“For the same reason Leliana wouldn’t approach you in regards to any sensitive military operations regarding your soldiers; they are not a part of her responsibilities just as her spies aren’t yours.” Niamh never once turned her head to address him. She kept her eyes instead on Leliana—who seemed almost amused she’d come in defense of her—but her words were no less reprimanding to the Commander. “And I suspect she needed more time to gather the information we needed.”

Leliana tipped her head to her then, impressed. “As you say, my lady.” She turned to the rest of their colleagues. “The double agent in question isn’t on any missions related to our current objective, but that these Venatori have grounds in Tevinter at least gives me an idea as to when and where he decided to betray me. I don’t know the why to his motivations as of yet, but I suspect I’ll find out soon enough,” she muttered solemnly while writing a small note on a piece of parchment paper to be delivered to one of her agents later.

“Hopefully you’ll find something of interest by the time I return from Redcliffe then.”

To Niamh’s words, Josephine’s expression filled with great concern, pausing briefly in her writing to address her. “But marching there in force would spell a diplomatic disaster, my lady!”

“True, but we hardly need an army for this—Orlesian or otherwise. While the Commander is right in that the castle has repelled innumerable assaults by invading forces—” She looked fleetingly to Leliana again, who was beginning to smile, likely having determined her plan. “—as I recall from our adventures a decade ago, we only needed a handful of individuals to retake it. Leliana, do you know if the pathway we took to get inside is still usable?”

“As it’s used as an escape route for the family in times of emergency, I imagine so. It would be too narrow for our troops to navigate, but I can certainly get my agents inside without trouble.”

Cullen frowned, his unease still evident. “But wouldn’t they just be discovered before reaching the magister?”

“Normally, yes.” Leliana gestured to Niamh with a nod of her head. “But that’s precisely why we’d need a distraction.”

Niamh rolled her shoulders in a mild shrug as the remainder of her advisors turned to look at her. “Alexius did ask for an envoy after all. Whatever his plans are with Redcliffe’s mages, we can only assume it involves me somehow. With his attention turned away, however, it should give your agents time to take out enemy reinforcements within the castle before doubling back to rendezvous with my diversion team.”

It was then she began to see Cullen’s shoulders relaxing in several small increments. His eyes filled with a new determined light, finally beginning to see the merits of their plan—enough to believe it could actually work—and she smiled.

“But as we are dealing with Tevinter mages, I’ve obtained an expert to explain how to best get past their defenses.”

When her advisors started in place at the sound of doors to the War Room suddenly swinging open, Niamh had remained nonplussed. She needn’t have glanced over her shoulder to know that Dorian had strode in with easy confidence to stand next to her, eying them all with gleeful amusement. Hiding a smile, she held out a hand to motion toward her latest companion.

“May I introduce Dorian of House Pavus?”

“Most recently of Minrathous,” he finished. Dorian grinned winsomely at Cullen, who had frowned deeply at that revelation, likely realizing then where he had hailed from. Hardly the least bit perturbed by the Commander, however, he soon turned back to her. “I don’t suppose you explained the mage from Tevinter and magister of the Magisterium bit yet?”

Niamh chuckled. “It didn’t really come up in conversation. In any case, Dorian, you’ll be working closely with Leliana’s agents regarding anything we might encounter now that Alexius has control of the castle.” She watched as the mage nodded politely to Leliana, who returned the gesture with a careful, neutral expression. “Truly, take all the time you need to debrief. Once you’re both satisfied the information’s been efficiently retained, we can proceed with our plans. Understood?” She was satisfied when she received a chorus of confirmations.

“Oh! Can we talk about my accommodations while we’re here?” Dorian asked then. “Could you at least give me something more lively to spruce up my tent? Our location here is already depressing enough to look at,” he bemoaned before releasing a long-suffering sigh. “Truly, I sometimes wonder how you Southerners put up with such dreadful weather. Is that why you’re all as ornery as you are? It would explain so many things honestly...”

From the expressions on Cullen and Cassandra’s faces, Niamh could already tell Dorian wouldn’t be making anything beyond a distant acquaintanceship with them anytime soon. From their travel back to Haven together, she knew this was his way of testing boundaries, especially given his Tevinter roots. She shook her head in mild fondness, but she was pleased to see that Josephine was adapting to the situation with ease, drawing Dorian into conversation to make him feel more welcome.

Niamh felt another’s gaze on her then, however, and she turned to see Leliana staring at her beneath the shadows of her cowl.

You trust this one then? those blue eyes asked, unblinking.

Niamh inclined her head minutely. I wouldn’t willingly put you or your agents in danger if I thought otherwise.

Sera thought Niamh was a bit of an oddball honestly.

She was Andraste’s Herald, but wasn't it such a hilarious kick in the pants that the woman wasn’t even the least bit religious? She snickered, betting the tits in the Chantry had choked on a big, stiff one when Niamh had told them that.

Sera also had some other Jennies check her out beforehand though. Had to be careful about who she was joining up with after all.

Apparently, Niamh came from some pretty posh, noble stock. Normally, that’d be enough to steer her away from offering any of her services, but her contact also mentioned Niamh had been taken away to Ferelden’s Circle as a child when her magic manifested. As a mage, she would have lost any and all claims and titles attached to the Cousland land. That anyone in her inner circle called her ‘Lady Cousland’ at all was merely out of respect since Niamh didn’t much care for being referred to as the Herald of Andraste.

Niamh looked like nobility, yeah, but she definitely didn’t act like any one of the prissy nobles she had seen around Val Royeaux. Case in point: when Sera had watched from the rooftops as Niamh walked into the Summer Bazaar, she hadn’t once tried to use that “Do you know who I am?” shite that every uppercrusted tit seemed to be familiar with.

If anything, Niamh had seemed uneasy at the crowd’s size, but her voice was calm as she tried to explain her intent was merely to fix the hole in the sky. Should have been a friggin’ concern to everyone in Sera’s opinion, but no! The Chantry git in the stupid hat still tried to turn everyone against the only person who was just clearly trying to help.

Then, after trying to sic the Chantry attack dogs on them, the woman had caught what looked like a painful blow to the back of her head by one of those said dogs. Instead of acting pleased at how the tables had clearly turned, Niamh had angrily criticized the Lord Wanker for his actions before turning to attend to the injured woman once she made sure the Templars wouldn’t be causing more trouble in the packed plaza.

That had impressed Sera—enough that she was willing to offer her skills should Niamh need them. Then, when the other woman had arrived at their meeting location later than evening, she’d been even more impressed.

It had been clear Niamh was used to being in the line of fire.


The noble she had sent Niamh after had conjured several blasts of fire upon her arrival, but the other mage had merely dodged the first one with negligent ease. She never even flinched. In fact, she hadn’t bothered pulling out her staff during the entirety of their confrontation. When another fireball was sent her way, she merely waved a hand, and the attack had disappeared in a shower of icy crystals, cooling the immediate area around them as well as Niamh’s own expression.

And then Sir McNoble Pants started monologuing, and the woman couldn’t have looked more unimpressed if she tried. Thankfully, they got rid of him and his cronies easily enough, and while Niamh had seemed largely curious about her intentions to join the Inquisition, her questions hadn’t been rude. The other woman hadn’t drawn attention to the fact she was an elf, and she didn’t stare through her like the other pompous snobs in Val Royeaux did. If anything, she seemed pleased to have the extra help.

So, yeah, Niamh was different. A good kind of different though.

…even if she did use magic.

She was kind, too, but over the weeks, Sera had noticed her reactions around regular people—crowds especially. When they had returned from Val Royeaux, Niamh had become increasingly more withdrawn as they approached Haven. As they entered through the main gates and passed the groups of well-wishers in front of the tavern, Niamh had shifted her path so that she was using the bulk of the Cassandra’s armored body to distance herself from them. Niamh politely waved to the ones that had celebrated her safe return as the women made their way to the chantry to debrief her War Council, but she otherwise didn’t interact with them very much.

If anything, they seemed to scare her with how often she avoided them.

Baffled, Sera had asked Flissa about it once, and the woman’s eyes had widened, nearly dropping the drink she had delivered to her table. Nervously, the woman had looked to and fro around them before leaning in to whisper what had happened to Niamh not long after the explosion at The Conclave, and by the end of it, Sera had felt her face pucker up more than Vivvy’s usual expression.

What they did to Niamh hadn’t been at all right.

As such, when the other woman had begun dropping by the tavern more frequently to see her, Sera always made sure they got the corner table next to the window. That way, Niamh could see all sides of the room and wouldn’t worry about anyone getting the jump on her. If Niamh was willing to push aside her fear of crowds just to check in on her, then the least she could do was make her feel a little more comfortable. After awhile it seemed to help; Niamh wasn’t as tense anymore.

Looking up, Sera saw a familiar head of dark hair and realized Niamh had finally gotten out of her meeting. She watched as Niamh nodded politely at a few of the tavern patrons who offered their greetings but didn’t otherwise stop the long, graceful strides she took to reach the table. As she finally sat down, those pale eyes had blinked, apparently surprised to see there was already a cup sitting in front of her.

“Tea, yeah?” Sera asked. “That’s your thing, innit?”

The corners of Niamh’s lips turned up into a small smile, touched. “You remembered.”

“Course I did.” How could she not? Whenever they made camp at night, the other woman practically inhaled the stuff like a fish to water. Didn’t know why. It was just hot, leaf juice as far as she was concerned, but it made Niamh happy. “So what did you want to talk about? We still going after the mages, yeah?”

Niamh sipped at her tea, humming pleasantly in answer. “We are.” It only took another moment or two for the other woman’s expression to fill with concern. Sera could always tell when she got those little furrows between her eyebrows. “You’re still certain you want to go? Dorian is accompanying us as our Tevinter expert, and as Lady Vivienne is…” Niamh trailed off with a wince. “…skeptical of his intentions at best, she also insisted on coming along. As well as those two get along with one another—” Translation: they didn’t. “—I can’t imagine the journey to and from Redcliffe is going to very fun. I won’t take it personally if you’d prefer to back out.”

It was a good argument, but Sera knew what Niamh was doing.

Niamh was smart. The “I break my fast by eating books!” type of smart. The other woman likely knew that magic was weird to her, but Sera didn’t hate Niamh. Sera just didn’t understand her power, and anything that couldn’t be readily understood was scary sometimes.

But Niamh didn’t use her magic to intimidate people. Not like the other mages she’d come across in Orlais. In fact, Niamh rarely used her magic at all outside of battle or training. She was plenty capable with just that staff of hers.

Out of curiosity, Sera had asked to hold it once because she had never seen a mage’s staff up close, and she had never seen one quite like hers. The head of Vivvy’s staff was more elegant with its curves, and Dorian’s was simplistic but no less grand in its craftsmanship.

Both exemplified their owners in some way, but Niamh’s was blunt in a way that the mage clearly wasn’t. Both ends of her staff held weaponized weights, but their edges were blocky and flat. It couldn’t impale anything like the sharp staff points Vivvy and Dorian preferred for theirs, but Sera imagined it’d still hurt if someone got smacked in the face with one of those.

While Niamh had been bemused by her request at first, she still held out her staff for Sera to take.

And Sera had nearly fallen flat on her face with it.

“Shite!” she had cursed with a yelp, caught off guard with the unexpected weight of it. She had to hold the blasted thing with both hands to keep from toppling over again. “How the frig do you cast spells with this when it’s so friggin’ heavy?!”

Sera had seen the woman wield it effortlessly before in battle. There was never any stiffness in her movements. Every gesture was always fluid and self-assured—like the staff might as well have been as light as a feather in her hands.

But Niamh had merely blinked at her in confusion. “Momentum, I suppose, as well as practice? The point was to make sure no one knew I was a mage, so I had to ensure I knew how to protect myself without magic.”

Looking at her alone, Niamh seemed like a slight woman, but given the heavy leather coat she always wore, it was harder for Sera to imagine just what type of physique she had if she used such a staff like this on a regular basis. Her arms at least must’ve been rock solid. She wondered if she could outpunch the Seeker if pressed. She’d have to find a way to get them to test that out sometime. Still, Sera narrowed her eyes at her suspiciously.

“You telling me this ain’t the least bit heavy for you?”

“I got used to it.”

“Friggin’ oddball.”

“Gotta show you mages up somehow,” she replied playfully to Niamh’s question. Sera tilted her head then. “That the only reason you came here though?”

“Well, not quite…” Sera started to worry when Niamh became more hesitant to talk. In fact, she seemed almost embarrassed. “Could you… Would you be willing to show me how to make arrows?”

That, she hadn’t expected.

“Uh…” Sera idly scratched at her head in confusion. “Unless you’ve been really good at hiding it the past couple of weeks, you ain’t an archer, yeah? Unless you’re using your staff as a bow or something?” Sera’s eyes widened, and she leaned in closer. “Wait. Is that a thing? Can you actually shoot arrows with your magic somehow?”

“What? No!” Niamh retorted, utterly baffled. “It’s just… It’s for a friend. She did something to help me sometime back, and I owe her some arrows.”

“Well, if she’s an archer, she can make her own, right?” She shrugged. “Or just buy some off a merchant if she’s being a lazy arse.”

“Yes, but I thought it would mean more if I made them myself…” But just as quickly as Niamh started speaking, her words slowly began to trail off uncertainly. Sera was still lost over this whole conversation, but it seemed like the other woman had taken her lack of words as an answer of rejection. “Oh, nevermind. It was a daft idea to begin with,” she murmured, keeping her eyes away from her as she made to leave the table.

Nope, nope. Now Sera was going to feel bad for making the sad, magic woman even sadder.

“Wait, wait! Don’t get your knickers in a twist! Didn’t say I wouldn’t help, now did I?” she asked, and she waited until Niamh reluctantly sat back down again. Sera nodded then, satisfied. “Okay. So these arrows, yeah? Who are they for?” she asked, drinking from her mug of spiced wine.


And Sera nearly choked on her drink. Damn if the tavern’s brew didn’t friggin’ burn if it went down the wrong way.

“Hold it! Back up!” she exclaimed hoarsely once she got over her sudden coughing fit, eyes still watering. “You talking about Knifey Shiv-dark??”

Niamh’s dark brows knitted together. “Yes…?” she confirmed almost hesitantly as if she was trying to match the nickname to the Inquisition’s intimidating Spymaster.

Right. Leliana. The same woman who set up a workstation in front of the bleeding chantry like a daft bugger. Who did that honestly? Sera’d be freezing her tits and arse off if she’d done the same thing. She shivered at the thought as the other woman continued talking.

“When we took down a demon together some time ago, I ended up incinerating her arrows by accident right after she blinded it.” Her fingernails tapped nervously around her cup of tea. “I thought if I could make some on my own—and perhaps find a way to enchant them—she wouldn’t have to end up replacing them as much.”

“You know how to enchant things?”

“Well, no,” she admitted reluctantly. “But I thought I could ask Ambassador Montilyet or Lady Vivienne if they might know anyone among their contacts who would be willing to help with that.”

Sera blew a long raspberry that ended in a string of laughter as she waved her hand dismissively. “Right, no. Don’t bother going to them. In fact, don’t you worry your Harry Harold head off.” The ridiculous nickname pulled more of a genuine smile out of Niamh, and Sera was glad for it. “I know a Jenny who can help.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. I mean, I don’t use enchantments myself obviously. Don’t really understand the stuff, but some of the other Jennies swear by it.” She felt her own smile growing as she watched Niamh do the same. Her lips parted as if to thank her, but then—

“Praise be to our beloved Herald!”

Niamh had been outright startled out of answering when one of the tavern’s regulars bellowed his praise upon noticing her there. The woman had blinked and raised her hand almost tentatively in acknowledgement, which seemed to appease the man as he headed off to his table of companions, but then Niamh had hunched her head and shoulders back down as if she was trying to disappear into the corner. Sera frowned at that, concerned.

“They haven’t bothered you again, yeah? No more stones and such?”

“No,” she murmured with a half-smile that didn’t quite reach those pretty, silver eyes. “It’s silly; I know. Some of them have already apologized, but… it’s not always easy to forget how willing they were to hurt me back then.” She sighed. “I understand why they felt the need to do so, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to be the slightest bit wary of their intentions. Honestly, sometimes I wonder if they’re only apologizing to me because of my title or if they’re actually the least bit remorseful.”

Sera frowned even more deeply. Little People could suck as much as Big People sometimes, but someone nice like Niamh didn’t deserve to live her life constantly looking over her friggin’ shoulder.

They needed to fix that.

Having finished their drinks, Sera quickly pulled Niamh out the door. “You know what this situation calls for? Payback.”

Niamh seemed apprehensive however. “Sera, my being wary of the people here doesn’t mean that I would wish harm on them.”

“No harm at all!” Sera reassured. “Look, remember how we met? With the idiot I didn’t know for manners?” Niamh just merely nodded slowly. “And how I breached their breeches? We’ll do that! Imagine it!” She placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder and emphatically waved her other hand out to the cabins and tents beyond them. “Smallclothes on every door and tent flap! ‘Whose breeches are they?’ they ask. ‘Who knows?’ I say!” She paused, shrugging.

“Or if they somehow didn’t have breeches before—the weird buggers—they do now! Little bit of fun, see? Just enough to keep people wondering about the mystery, and you get to realize that people can just be people. Stupid people maybe, but still people.” She gently elbowed Niamh in the side. “C’mon! Y’know you want to!” Sera sing-songed with the most winsome smile.

Niamh opened her mouth as if to protest, but Sera caught the tiny waver at the edge of her lips as she tried not to smile, and the validation of it thrilled her! She knew she had a fellow prankster on her hands even if Niamh didn’t necessarily act on it.

Sera had seen it when they had been caught out in the rain on their way back Haven.

Niamh had taken to the constant downpour like a duck to water—the weirdo—but Dorian had complained the entire way through, moreso than the rest of their party. When they had been drying off at camp that night, Sera had seen the barest hint of a mischievous smile as Niamh used a little force magic to gently push the water from her clothing. That Dorian had been sitting in front of her—desperately trying to dry his hair—it almost seemed like she had wanted to douse the other mage with it.

But—to Sera’s disappointment—the water had just been ejected back to the soaked ground around them, and Niamh had simply retreated back to her tent for the evening after dinner.

But this! This changed everything!

“Ha!” she crowed with delight. “Knew it! Knew I was right about you!” Sera grinned while Niamh could only laugh helplessly, aware now that she’d been caught.

“Look,” she began, still chuckling, “don’t tell anyone you heard it from me, but if you are going off on this little raid of yours tonight, just put what you find in a bag and have one of the runners deliver it to Leliana. She’ll know what to do with them.”

Both of Sera’s brows raised to almost her hairline at that. “Yeah? Sounds like a right story there.”

“Hm. Maybe I’ll tell you a bit of that over some arrow-making lessons, yes? My cabin after supper?”

“Absolutely! There’s no way I’m missing this! Hey. You want in on the fun?” she asked. “Bet we can find some fancy underthings from your ambassador,” she added, brows waggling, trying to sweeten the deal.

Niamh offered only a mild grin. “Perhaps next time. I wouldn’t want to slow down your efforts. I’m not nearly as stealthy as you rogues after all.”

Sera pursed her lips, deeply doubting that. Despite the fact the woman’s staff was probably a boulder magically disguised in stick form, Niamh always seemed very light on her feet, but she wouldn’t push it.

“Right, right. Maybe I’ll just start collecting them tonight and just hold off on giving them to Knifey Shiv-dark until we get back, yeah? I want to see my handiwork in action.”

“As you wish.” Niamh turned her eyes skyward briefly, considering something. “Ah. If you run into any trouble from Leliana though, just tell her it was my idea. She wouldn’t think it too odd.”

Sera’s curiosity was definitely piqued by then. She couldn't wait for night to fall. “Oh, this is going to be good!” she giggled maniacally.

In the end, it had only taken Dorian another day for him to fully prepare Leliana’s agents for what they were likely up against.

As such, after she and Dorian had debriefed Niamh on the situation, the woman had personally written a letter to Alexius, telling him she would be pleased to discuss further matters of negotiation with him. Niamh had then given the message to Josie for further review, but their ambassador had seemed most pleased at the polite formality in which it was written. It had required no further editing on her part, and with her approval, Leliana had attached the letter to one of her most trusted ravens to be delivered to Redcliffe.

Evening had fallen by the time Leliana had a chance to step out of the chantry and make her way down toward Niamh’s cabin. The woman was scheduled to leave the following morning with her party, and she felt the need to check on her. While several precautions had been taken into account, this was all still an incredibly risky maneuver, and it left Niamh in the middle of potential chaos if even one thing went wrong.

As Leliana reached the bottom of the stone steps, she heard a door closing up ahead, and she was vaguely surprised to see Sera leaving Niamh’s cabin. The other woman seemed equally startled at her presence, but after a moment, she grinned, jovially jogging past her with clear mischief in her eyes. She raised a brow at that.

The woman was planning something. As to what, she likely wouldn’t learn of it until later if her past reports regarding Sera’s antics were any indication.

In any case, she continued on to Niamh’s cabin, knocking politely and entering once she heard the confirmation of welcome.

“Did you forget some—Oh.” Niamh looked up briefly from where she sat on the bed, sketching something. Upon seeing Leliana at the doorway, however, the practiced motions of her charcoal pencil stopped against the parchment of her book.

“I haven’t seen you do that in some time,” Leliana remarked, moving closer, and Niamh shifted herself further along the bed, inviting her to sit next to her.

“Ah. I still practice it when I’m outside the village.”

Yet, it wasn’t a portrait or even the more detailed sketches of fauna or flora sitting on the page—the types of subjects that Niamh tended to favor. Leliana leaned in closer and saw that the other woman seemed to be drawing designs of some sort. They all ran in thin parallel lines across the parchment, making use of silhouetted imagery and the concept of both positive and negative space rather than anything truly elaborate:

A bird with a line a fire following in the wake of its wings.

A wolf padding across snowy terrain, leaving behind icy pawprints.

An ominous cloud of thunder that spanned from one side of the page to the other, with long, intricate chains of lightning spreading out beneath it.

“Not your usual work, I see.”

“It’s for a project I’d like to work on once I return from Redcliffe. I feel I may need something relaxing to look forward to once this whole matter is sorted,” she said, idly flexing the fingers of her left hand, as if relieving herself of the stiffness in its joints.

Leliana couldn’t help but turn her attention to it as well. The green that filled Niamh’s palm was muted in its glow, and she wondered if it was an indication of the Breach’s state or a reflection of the woman’s own mood.

“It doesn’t have any of the answers you’d seek.” The words caused Leliana to look up, where she could see the amusement in Niamh’s gaze. “Believe you me, I’d love nothing more than to shake it about and suddenly have the solutions to all my plights written across my palm, but alas, that is not the case.”

The absurdity of the image caused her to huff out a brief string of laughter. “Brat,” she murmured, the teasing nickname coming easily off her lips, and it only served to widen Niamh’s smirk further. “I was wondering if it was causing you pain.”

“Hm. Not as of late. I don’t expect that to last indefinitely however.” Niamh closed her sketchbook and placed it atop the bedside table. She returned her gaze back to Leliana then, seemingly curious. “Did you come here to check on me?”

Leliana worked her jaw over pensively before carefully responding. “Barring that situation with the Breach and the demons it spawned, I haven’t been on the field in years. This won’t be like our travels together back then. I won’t be there to help see it through.”

Despite the confidence she gave in her agents’ respective abilities to handle the situation, Leliana couldn’t guarantee the outcome of it. It was a fact that grated on her endlessly.

“If you trained them, then I’ve no doubt I’ll be in good hands. Alexius seems to be the larger threat here, and as he’ll be occupied with me, it will give your spies all the time needed to play their part.” Gently, she placed a hand over one of Leliana’s leather spaulders, pale eyes turning steel-like in their profound sincerity. “While I can’t promise this will be an easy mission, I’ll do my best to ensure your agents return safely.”

Leliana couldn’t help but smile at her reassurance.

Even after all this time, it seemed Niamh could still be as kind to a fault. During their adventures together, if one of their companions had been hurt, the mage had felt it as if the wound had been inflicted upon her as well. Compassion lingered within her—tried as she might to hide it from others.

In comparison, Leliana had wondered where her own had retreated to over the years. Had it also gone up in flames alongside Saoirse’s pyre all those years ago? Did it dwell within her still, buried in depths she felt she could no longer navigate? Was there anything left at all of the young bard within her who had once preached non-violent means to an end? Rather than delve into increasingly uncomfortable questions, she rested a gloved hand over Niamh’s own.

“You’ll be careful, won’t you?”

Amusement danced across the surface of silvery eyes—breaking the gravity of the moment—as Niamh arched a brow. “When have you ever known me to be reckless?”

“Your answer doesn’t fill me with confidence,” she drawled, unimpressed.

“You wound me so.” Despite her words, Niamh’s voice was all light laughter. She shook her head. “No, if this all goes well, you shouldn’t notice my absence for very long, and then we’ll finally have allies who can aid me in closing the Breach. We’ll be one step closer to ending this nonsense once and for all.”

Leliana wondered if it could truly be that easy however.

Even with the Breach sealed, where would that leave Niamh next? Would she leave them once the world was no longer in danger? Would her Mark finally fade, ending the threat on her life? Would it continue to linger on afterward instead, an illness that would simply kill her in increments rather than with flashes of brimstone and fire? For every answer she had, there were more questions than she truly cared for—a bane for any Spymaster.

But she couldn’t voice these concerns—not when Niamh already had enough to deal with. She could only nod, trusting in her words.

“Then I’ll pray for your safe return.”

Chapter Text

Niamh coughed heavily as the guards’ charred corpses fell into the darkness of the the stagnant water around them. The cell they were in was practically flooded up to their waists, and each movement they made only allowed the pervasive, rank stench to waft up around them. There was little they could do to remediate that—even with magic—so they both pressed forward, wading carefully past the now open door.

“Dorian, where—no, let me rephrase that—when are we?” she demanded, eying the stone walls around them with no small amount of trepidation.

She knew them for what they were.

Niamh had walked these very halls before almost what felt like a lifetime ago, but that adventure and even her most recent return to the castle paled in comparison to the foreboding atmosphere surrounding them now. It hung thick in the air, almost oppressive in how it stuck cloyingly inside her lungs with each breath. She had almost assumed the sensation to be from the disturbing multitude of red lyrium stalagmites around them, but Niamh had been in the presence of so many more at the Breach.

No. Something else was at work here, and it was unlike anything she had ever experienced. The tangibility of it disturbed her magical senses so much that it settled across her mind like tar.

“You feel it too then,” he said, taking her hand gratefully when he nearly tripped over something unseen in the dark waters. “As Alexius set off his spell inside the castle, we’re likely to still be in it, but the when is certainly the bigger concern.” He frowned, taking in their surroundings. “I can’t even begin to tell if we’ve been moved forward or backward in time.”

“Equally bad options either way,” she muttered as she arched a brow at him. “What in the world was he trying to accomplish?”

Dorian merely chuckled. “My friend, for as much as Alexius planned, he knew he’d been outplayed by you, but I suppose he didn’t know the extent of it until his Venatori had lain dead around him. You made him reckless—enough that he tossed us into the rift well before he was ready.”

“And your countering of it with your own magic…?”

“Likely made the rift even more unstable, which leaves us in our current and rather unfortunate predicament,” he finished with a sigh.

At the very sound of it, Niamh couldn’t stop her own from escaping her. She’d hoped she’d been wrong. Alexius’ trap had been expected as had been his ability to subvert the very nature of time to his whims, but to actually have been caught in it? How could anyone plan for such a contingency?

Worse, with no knowledge as to where they were in time, she and Dorian couldn’t safely bide their way through. If they were too far into the past, they’d risk years or even decades passing them by before the Breach’s actual appearance, but if they were somewhere in the future, it meant doom if not outright destruction. While the Breach had been relatively stable since her last attempt at sealing it, she knew that wouldn’t be the case for long. Without access to the Mark on her palm, the Inquisition would be without any options to deal with such an eventuality.

Would the Breach then steadily grow larger, or would it become like the rifts Alexius could summon on command—dangerously unstable?

Niamh still remembered the fearsome Pride demon she and her party had encountered before, and their numbers almost hadn’t been enough to subdue it. She couldn’t imagine how other forces around Thedas would have fared if such a creature—and likely many more of its brethren—freely walked the world.

“This castle has seen better days, but they must still have records of some nature here—enough to give us a date to work with if nothing else,” she reasoned as she found a set of stairs that would lead them out of the dungeons. “And if we’re near the cellars, we could certainly see if they’ve left any wine about if nothing else. It’s starting to vastly feel like one of those drinking days,” she remarked dryly.

“I knew there was a reason I liked you.”

As they continued their explorations, they encountered scattered groups of Venatori but not nearly as many as she had expected. It should have been concerning, considering the numbers she saw milling about the audience chamber before she and Dorian had been thrown through the rift. As they came across the prisoners their enemy kept within the dungeons, however, she understood why.

Niamh remembered speaking to some of them within the village before she had departed back to Haven. They were familiar faces, but their expressions were far gaunter and slacker as they sat within their cells, staring blankly into nothingness no matter how much she tried to prod them for the answers she was in desperate need of.

Others had been more active in their mannerisms, but it was madness that sat lonely on their tongues. It had been as evident as the red of the lyrium which practically spilled from their eyes or the abuse which clearly marked their broken bodies. In one way or another, they had all lost their minds to whatever cruel tortures they had endured under the Venatori.

In the end, it hadn’t even mattered when she and Dorian opened their cells. They gave no recognition of their freedom. Within their cages they still remained, imprisoned mentally just as much as physically. As such, they had no choice but to leave them behind as she continued the search for her companions.

The ones who Fiona had weakly mentioned were still alive.

When she heard the telltale murmurs of a poem being recited, Niamh almost mistook it for the lunacy of another maddened prisoner, but the familiar scattering of curses interspersed between the lines filled her with a sudden, buoyant hope. She dashed ahead, following the sound to the only occupied cell in the room, but what she saw within caused her heart to sink immediately.

Sera stood within the cell, yes, but she gazed back at Niamh with as much horror as she herself felt.

Her friend had all the telltale signs of malnourishment and maltreatment, but the effects of the red lyrium poisoning were far more advanced on her than any other prisoner—save for Fiona—they’d come across thus far. Sera’s eyes were wide, the whites of them nearly overtaken by the eerie crimson glow that had replaced the once dark grey hue of her pupils. When she began speaking, protesting Niamh’s presence—objecting to the very notion she could possibly be there with her—it was like the lyrium forced through her veins sang. Her voice continually echoed back on itself in an otherworldly manner as she retreated further into the cell, running bone-thin fingers through matted blonde hair, which had grown long and shaggy from months of inadequate care.

Niamh kept her steps small and slow as she approached Sera, who had backed herself up against the large lyrium stalagmite behind her as if it would somehow save her from the specter she was convinced was before her. “Sera?” she called, softening her voice.

“N-no! No! You can’t be here!” she replied hysterically. “You’re dead, and they don’t come back!” Her voice broke upon the words even as her eyes filled with tears yet to be shed. “And why would you? Why me? Why would you come here to me when I… when I failed you so badly?” she asked—inconsolable—as she gradually slid to the ground.

Much as Niamh would have tried to argue otherwise, she understood the implausibility presented before her friend. In this world, Niamh had already been gone a year—long enough that it now sat on the very brink of destruction. For Sera to have endured that knowledge—and relived every moment of her supposed failure—she might as well have been as good as dead in her mind.

By no fault of her own, Niamh had still left her friend to face this world alone.

“Sera.” She knelt before her, but the other woman refused to raise her head. “Sera, look at me. Please?” she entreated quietly, and Niamh waited when those bloodshot eyes hesitantly peaked out from over the crest of her knees, which she held tightly to her chest. Niamh’s gaze softened.

“The day before we left for Redcliffe, do you remember when we had drinks at the tavern? Something happened there that upset me, but no matter how much I had tried to hide my discomfort, you recognized it immediately.” As wild as some considered Sera to be—so much so that Niamh was half-convinced it was a ruse—the other woman was almost frighteningly observant at times. She tried to inflect some humor into her voice as she recalled the memory from yesterday although she knew it would have been far longer for her friend. “You wanted to cheer me up, so you asked if I wanted to go on a midnight raid with you—preparations for a celebration after we returned from here.”

Tried as she might, however, Sera still hadn’t said so much as a word. She simply stared at her with almost the same amount of apathy she had seen from the other prisoners. With each second that passed, it felt like Niamh was losing a part of her friend to the madness Alexius had willingly unleashed upon the world, and she berated herself for not having been better prepared for it. If she was even half the tactician she thought herself to be, then, surely, she could have done something to save Sera from the fate that had broken her so terribly.

“I'm sorry for taking so long to get back to you. I considered you a good friend, but I should have been a better one,” she admitted, looking away. “Even when I knew your reservations regarding magic, you still volunteered to come along just for me.” Niamh grimaced. “I should have tried harder to convince you otherwise. You wouldn’t be in here suffering if it weren’t for—"

And Niamh nearly landed flat on her back when Sera suddenly lunged forward to enwrap her in the tightest embrace she had ever given her.

“It is you,” Sera whispered.

Niamh’s own arms came down around her with almost shaky disbelief. “You… you can tell now?”

Sera nodded before letting out a wet laugh against the thick leather of her coat. “Yeah, ‘cause you’re still the same idiot who’d blame herself for something stupid like this when it wasn’t even your friggin’ fault. You’re smarter than any of the smarty pants I’ve ever known, but you can be as dumb as a sack of druffalo shite sometimes, Neevy...”

The comment drew a startled laugh from her, but she smiled upon hearing one of the other nicknames Sera had bestowed upon her. “I know.” She hugged Sera carefully, mindful of the injuries she likely had beneath the dirty tunic and breeches she wore—typical of all the prisoners in the dungeons—which hung loosely on her disturbingly-thin frame. “I’ll try to read up on how to be better about that.”

“You’d better.” She paused with the quietest sniffle. “Neevy?”


“The day you died? I ran out of arrows making them pay, and then it didn’t matter anymore…”

Niamh swallowed hard, finding it difficult to speak around the ball that had suddenly welled in her throat, knowing that her friend had likely suffered dearly in these dungeons for trying to avenge her. “I’m so sorry...”

But Sera merely shook her head before finally drawing back, wiping at her eyes and nose with the backs of her hands. “You’re here now; you’ll make it right.” Sera stated it so matter-of-factly, but so much had gone wrong in such a relatively short amount of time that Niamh wondered if it could be that simple. Still, Sera’s gaze narrowed with determination as she pulled both of them to their feet. “And I’ll friggin’ die to spit in their faces for what they did to all of us...”

“What is this supposed to be? A pretend rescue to gain my trust?” Vivienne asked with a regal tilt of her head even as the words spilled from her mouth like venom. “Do you think I’d fall for that?”

As Niamh began unlocking her cell, she noted that Vivienne was in just as dire a state as Sera with how much red lyrium she’d been exposed to. “This is no trick, Lady Vivienne. It’s me,” she replied, soft and sincere. “I’m here to help.”

At once, she felt the temperature of the room drop as Vivienne outright glared at her, but the magic Niamh sensed within the air was… tainted. There was still that cool edge she had come to associate with the other mage. Her aura could cut as sharply as any blade, but there was now a sickly tinge to it, spoiling the touch of winter’s kiss with something that bled sluggishly like a festering wound.

“You were obliterated; I was there,” she said derisively. “You can drop this pathetic ruse.”

“Lady Viv—” And Niamh suddenly found herself shoved unceremoniously out of the way—nearly crashing into Dorian—courtesy of Sera.

“This is getting us nowhere!” The elf then settled herself within the cell’s doorway—hands on her hips—with a pointed glare at Vivienne. “Let’s go, Pucker Face!”

“Sera!” Niamh objected.

“No!” Sera pointed a finger at her without even bothering to take her gaze off the other mage, who was watching their interaction with some faint semblance of vexation. “You were going to be all polite about it, and it would have taken too friggin’ long!”

“She has a point, you know.”

Niamh rolled her eyes. “You’re not exactly helping here either, Dorian...” she deadpanned, but the man only raised his hands in mock-appeasement.

“Well, pardon me for trying to provide some constructive criticism!”

“What part of that was even remotely constructive?!”

“Clearly, I’m to be saddled with the nonsense of witless demons for the remainder of my days. Marvelous,” Vivienne mused dryly, sounding fatigued at the very thought.

Sera snorted. “No. Neevy’s real, and so’s Mustache over there,” she said, thumbing over her shoulder at the two mages behind her still arguing. “That piece of shite magister sent them forward in time, and now they’re trying to fix it so this doesn’t happen. Weird as anything, yeah, but this ain’t a trick because in no version of this frigged up world would you ever imagine me here trying to convince you of anything.” She narrowed her eyes balefully. “Now get out of the damn cell because Neevy’s not gonna leave otherwise, and the longer we’re down here, the less time I have to shove my foot down someone’s gullet. So again: get off your bleedin’ arse, and let’s friggin’ go!”

Silence settled between them both for several tense moments before it was broken by a sigh.

“The world has clearly come to an end if even you are starting to make a great deal of sense. Very well.” She strode forward, and Sera moved out of her way. Vivienne then eyed Niamh, who had stopped bickering with Dorian the moment she realized the former First Enchanter was out of her cell. “Was this meant to be a fate worse than death if Alexius sent you to this time?” she wondered aloud, crossing her arms over her chest.

The mere mention of the magister’s name was enough to send a prickle of lightning across Niamh’s shoulders. Whatever intentions Alexius had with this new terrifying world of his, it had come at too dear a price. Her companions shouldn’t have been used to balance the weight of such scales.

“It was a mistake he’ll come to regret,” she swore solemnly. It had also apparently been the very response Vivienne was looking for, as she nodded in approval.

“Such confidence. You hide too much of that storm within you at times; you’ll need every bit of it if you’re to survive here, my dear.” Something began to unknot within Niamh upon hearing the familiar endearment, but as Vivienne turned to her again with a quiet sadness in her eyes, the sensation stilled immediately. It was replaced then with a gnawing worry. “Since your death in the throne room, do you know what’s happened?”

“No. We were only told that Alexius serves the Elder One—a being said to be even more powerful than the Maker.” It should have been an alarming thought, but Niamh had long stopped concerning herself with a God who continually ignored the plight of His children.

“Then you’re aware of the cause but not of the factors that led to it.” Vivienne shook her head with a sigh. “The Venatori assassinated Empress Celene, and in the chaos that followed, they invaded Orlais.” A fire settled into her eyes, disturbing the already unsettling red glow of her lyrium-riddled gaze. “Their army was not just mages but demons—countless demons. With no one capable of challenging him, their Elder One ascended, and now there’s nothing left. Truly, you couldn’t have come at a worse possible time, my dear, but if you’re determined to end even a fraction of this madness, I’ll lend my aid to you until my last breath.”

“As always, I would be grateful for it.” Niamh began rifling through the inner pockets of her coat, searching for lyrium vials to lend, but Vivienne waved away her kindness.

“No need, my dear. Those have little effect on me anymore; the red lyrium flows too thickly through my veins. You’d best keep them for yourself.”

Niamh’s brows furrowed, unaware the different types of lyrium could counteract each other in such a way. “Has it affected your magic?” she asked, worry evident in her voice.

“My attacks aren’t nearly as potent, and my mana doesn’t replenish itself as quickly anymore, but for our purposes, they’ll pass muster,” she reassured. “Now then, lead on unless you’ve another reason to be lurking about the dungeons so.”

“There is actually. Do you both know where Leliana is?” When Vivienne and Sera only looked to her in surprise, Niamh felt her stomach sink, realizing they likely hadn’t even known the woman was a prisoner within the castle as well. “Fiona mentioned she was here, but we’ve yet to find her.”

“Fiona?” Vivienne scoffed with no small amount of disdain, and Niamh realized the older mage likely blamed Fiona for their current predicament as much as Alexius. Her involvement with the Venatori had set forth the disturbing chain of events that led to the world’s undoing. “She’s still alive, is she?”

“Not for much longer,” Niamh admitted quietly. “As much as we could tell, the red lyrium is practically eating her alive. She’s nearly encased in it now.” At that, some of the anger in Vivienne’s gaze cooled somewhat, for the fate that awaited Fiona likely wouldn’t be a swift or dignified one.

“I see… Not much to be done there then. Let’s press on, my dear.” Vivienne waved a hand dismissively at their surroundings. “Anywhere is better than this place.”

They eventually found themselves out of the main dungeons, but the hallways they trespassed upon weren’t any better. They weren’t jail cells which laid either empty or filled with the broken husks of the Venatori’s prisoners. No, these were entire rooms filled with endless tortures for the ones unfortunate enough to be caught within, and despite the thickness of their wooden doors, they did nothing to muffle the screams of the victims behind them.

They’d learn that by mistake when they encountered a few Venatori torturing a Revered Mother Niamh had met in Redcliffe the other day.

Her heart panged with painful regret that they’d been unable to save her, but Niamh’s only consolation in that harsh truth was that Revered Mother Eglantine would have died near instantly from such grievous injury. The woman had fought to her last breath, however. From what she had heard of her conversation with her captors, she had offered nothing but her complete and utter disdain of them.

It hadn’t surprised her. Niamh’s first impression of the woman was that she had been one of considerable constitution. Despite having had many of her colleagues forcibly removed from the village by Alexius, she had stayed behind to tend faithfully to her flock despite the threat the Venatori posed.

“Mages are children of the Maker, no less than the rest of us. They struggle with questions of faith as much as we do.”

And Niamh had known then that she’d been sincere in her words; it hadn’t merely been a charade.

No, Revered Mother Eglantine hadn’t shunned Niamh upon their meeting. She greeted her willingly as she had with any of the mages under her care, never once using Chantry rhetoric to bind and belittle her as other priests had. She was kind albeit somewhat skeptical of Niamh’s role in the world, which was understandable given they lived in times of such uncertainty.

Yet, when she had heard Niamh’s intention was to save people and restore peace before the threat of the Breach could consume them all, she had taken Niamh at face value. She had believed in the ideals Niamh presented just as much as she believed that her people should be given the opportunity to seek their freedom.

Revered Mother Eglantine was the rare sort of ally she’d never thought she meet within the Chantry, but then again, Revered Mother Giselle had been a surprise to her as well with her calm wisdom which soothed more than irritated. Perhaps had she met such individuals earlier in her life, she wouldn’t have turned so easily away from the Maker. As it was, however, Eglantine’s death was a loss upon the world, but Niamh could only be grateful that the other woman was finally free from suffering.

“How did Cousland know of the sacrifice at the Temple?!”

Niamh paused, holding her arm out to signal the others to keep behind her as she pressed her back against the wall, carefully looking around the corner. There was no one there, but her ears remained alert for any other sounds. A moment later she heard what seemed like flesh impacting upon a flesh—a punch perhaps?—followed by a sharp groan of pain. All were coming behind the door that stood at the end of the hallway.

“Tell me!” the torturer growled, likely infuriated by the silence of his victim.


Niamh’s breath caught in her throat as she heard the familiar voice full of angry defiance, and she looked behind her, knowing her companions had recognized it as well. Vivienne nodded firmly, knowing her intentions, and it was enough that Niamh began to press forward, carefully leading the way as they crept down the hall even as her mind urged her to move faster.

Leliana was still here.

She was alive.

And she was hurting.

Because of me… Niamh thought miserably.

“There’s no use to this defiance, Little Bird,” the guard within sneered just as the sound of a slap rang out, drawing yet another cry. Niamh bit her lip to the point of bleeding to remain silent. “There’s no one left for you to protect.”

“You’re wasting your breath,” Leliana growled out before grunting in pain from likely another blow.

“Talk! The Elder One demands answers!”

Niamh heard Leliana laugh, but it wasn’t the same sound that could simultaneously thrill and warm her on even the coldest mornings in Haven. No, it was unbelievably bitter, made all the more brittle and sharp with her pain.

“He’ll have to get used to disappointment.”

Another crack of a hand met her words, and Niamh couldn’t let Leliana suffer on her behalf any longer.

With a few strides, she pressed her hand against the wood of the door, forcing her magic through every grain and open crevice. She flooded it with the fire of her rage until it had no other choice but to bend beneath her power, exploding amidst a shower of sparks and ash.

When Niamh stepped through the cloud of smoke, time almost seemed to slow to a crawl. Two people turned to her in the aftermath of the door’s sudden destruction, but the lone Venatori was of little concern to her.

From there, it took only a fraction of a heartbeat for her gaze to find Leliana’s, but the image that met her was far worse than anything she could have imagined.

Her hair was longer now, free of her usual cowl, but the color of it had faded prematurely to a brassy orange tinged with grey instead of the deep red she recognized. The unkempt strands framed the once vibrant blue of her eyes, which now held a milky tinge to them, made all the more apparent as they sat within nearly hollow, darkened sockets. She was also as gaunt as any other prisoner they’d come across, but there was a sickly, cadaverous nature to Leliana’s thinness, and Niamh saw the multitude of bandages along whatever expanse of skin hadn’t been covered by the prison garb. They were old—soaked through with blood to the point that it left them almost black in some areas.

This wasn’t the effect of red lyrium poisoning that the rest of the prisoners below in the dungeons had been exposed to. As her eyes roved across the dark blotches resting over the stretched skin of Leliana’s face, Niamh’s mind immediately flashed back to the Deep Roads, where she and her companions met Hespith—a dwarf within Paragon Branka’s unfortunate expedition party who had an appearance not unlike Leliana’s now—as she revealed to them the true creation of a Darkspawn Broodmother.

They infected her with the taint… her mind whispered in horror.

And then the heartbeat passed, and time resumed itself.

Leliana used the distraction of her entrance to wrap her legs around the Venatori’s neck. He put up a considerable struggle, frantically trying to pry her away from him, but despite her haggard appearance, there was still more than enough fight left within the other woman, and she held him easily in place. The man soon began choking as Leliana tightened her thighs around him, and with a swift jerk of her hips, his neck audibly snapped before he fell dead at her feet.

In the silence that followed, Niamh quickly began searching through the dead man’s pockets, finding the key that would likely undo Leliana’s manacles. She was able to unlatch one of them in relatively short order, but considering the other woman was suspended well off the ground by chains, Niamh carefully wrapped an arm around Leliana’s waist so that she wouldn’t be left dangling by one wrist. She felt Leliana tense up against her immediately, and she couldn’t fault her reaction. Given what she endured in these rooms, she likely didn’t care for the touch of others. Niamh could only murmur an apology against her, but Leliana merely grunted softly before moving to wrap her free arm around her shoulders, providing a bit more leverage. Niamh shifted the key to one hand, and after a bit of maneuvering, she was finally able to undo the last shackle.

She tossed the key from her as soon as Leliana was freed, shifting to hold the other woman more comfortably within both arms, but Niamh was disturbed to discover just how light she felt in her embrace as she carefully lowered her to the ground.

“You’re alive…” The words were said so softly that if Niamh hadn’t been standing so close to her, she likely would have never heard them.

“Yes,” she confirmed grimly, but as she stared down at the evidence of all that Leliana had endured in her time here, despair filled her. “I’m sorry it took me so long to get back…” At such a close distance, Niamh felt the full weight of her glare, and she shrank away from it.

“If you can end this, then that’s all that matters,” Leliana rasped caustically, features shifting into an impassive mask Niamh hadn’t seen since they had first reunited in Haven. “Do you have weapons?” When Niamh only nodded meekly, Leliana returned it with a satisfied curtness. “Good. The magister’s probably in his chambers.”

“You… you aren’t curious how we got here?” Dorian asked, incredulous, as Leliana simply strode past them.

“No.” She picked up a knife off the table of instruments and idly flicked off the dried blood dusting its edge before pocketing it. “While you were still largely an unknown mystery to me back then, I’ve known Niamh long enough to realize she wouldn’t have willingly abandoned us in our hour of need. If you’re here and can help undo the damage done, then I don’t care to know the details.”

“Alexius sent us into the future,” he still tried to explain to Leliana, who had remained utterly indifferent. “This—his victory, his Elder One—it was never meant to be. We just need to reverse his spell. If we can get back to our present time, we can prevent this future from ever happening.”

Leliana sneered at him. “And mages always wonder why people fear them…”

Niamh couldn’t stop the soft gasp from escaping her, feeling the utter sting of the comment. At the sound, Leliana turned to her, and for a brief moment, something flickered in her eyes. However, the moment where she might have said something soon passed, and so she simply clenched her jaw, shifting her glance away. The gesture left Niamh bereft, and the painful void which had been growing in her chest from all the horror she’d witnessed thus far only seemed to deepen.

“I agree that no one should have access to this type of power. It’s dangerous and unpredictable, but before the Breach, nothing we did ever—” Dorian was cut off mid-sentence when Niamh suddenly reached out to clasp his shoulder with such force that he winced.

“That’s enough.”


“Look at them, Dorian!” she demanded with such sharpness that lightning crackled in the air between them. Infuriated, she gestured toward their companions. “This is still the world they had to live through, and yes, it was magic that got them here! While it’s true we can go back and change this from ever happening, it doesn’t mitigate the fact they suffered dearly for all the time we were away, and I am not going to invalidate their pain by implying otherwise!” She glared, emphasized by the snap of electricity dancing before her vision. “Are you?”

Dorian closed his mouth with a muted clicking of teeth and slowly shook his head, contrite.

“Good.” Niamh turned to the other women in the room, who were watching everything unfold quietly. Vivienne and Sera had never seen her lose her temper in such a way before, and it was evident in their stares—filled with varying degrees of surprise. She shifted uncomfortably beneath their eyes before clearing her throat, willing away the burning there—a familiar fire readying to spill out. “Is there anyone else down here we should help before we confront Alexius?”

“Niamh.” She turned her head at Leliana’s beckoning. “You should know... After you disappeared into the rift Alexius conjured, we had to inform your brother of the fact. The Teyrn was utterly distraught, but when we received word the Venatori were marching toward Haven, he brought his forces from Highever in full without hesitation. What we didn’t anticipate, however, was that there was something far more powerful than even Alexius…” The other woman sighed.

“In trying to avenge you, Teyrn Cousland fought until his last breath, slaying a legion of demons before being overwhelmed. He saved countless lives in an attempt to draw us time to further regroup, but against the likes of Alexius’ master, there was nothing to be done. Over weeks and eventual months, our inner circle fell, and as kingdoms followed suit, no one could stop the Venatori or their Elder One any longer.” Leliana shook her head, looking at her with quiet sympathy.

“There’s no one else down here, Niamh,” she said, motioning toward herself and then Vivienne and Sera. “As much as I wish we could offer you otherwise, we’re all that’s left of the Inquisition.”

Niamh’s heart immediately broke upon learning of her brother’s fate. Their reunion had only been a few short months ago, and she couldn’t have been more thankful for it. She had a piece of her family back—small though it was now—and the loneliness that had been her constant companion of the past decade found itself replaced.

In this world, however, she had inadvertently left Fergus to flounder amidst a world that had cruelly taken everything from him, alone in the knowledge that he was once again the last of their bloodline. And now the mantle falls to me if we can’t find a way to fix this…

“I see,” Niamh said, a familiar melacholy seeping into her. “Thank you for telling me...”

“Of course,” Leliana replied quietly. “Come. I’ll lead us to Alexius’ chambers.”

Vivienne and Sera followed after her, but Niamh kept her gaze on the other woman, observing the obvious limp in her gait—likely an older injury that the Venatori never allowed to heal. To them, it would have been a weakness they could exploit, keeping Leliana more pliant to their whims.

At least in theory.

In truth, Niamh knew that—no matter the battlefield—Leliana was a force to be reckoned with. Her continued defiance even in the face of a world utterly shattered by inhuman means was proof enough of that. Despite it all, however, Leliana was still human—mortal—and now apparently Blight-sickened. Even if she and Dorian succeeded in returning to their own time, it would likely mean the Leliana here would still die.

And the very thought settled like a weight in her lungs, robbing her of breath. Quickly—worriedly—she followed after Leliana, determined to keep the dangers of this world away from her even if meant only delaying the inevitable. So single-minded was her focus that she didn’t even notice Dorian’s searching gaze at her back.

The Venatori they encountered there afterward suffered terribly beneath Niamh’s fury. To face it was to welcome death incarnate, for the destruction she delivered upon Dorian’s former countrymen was nothing less than absolute.

When they approached the open courtyard, they were immediately beset by Venatori and demons from the nearby rift. From atop near-dilapidated scaffolding, marksmen were aiming toward them, but their arrows harmlessly met the towering ice wall Niamh summoned.

It had been a clear tactical choice on her part, for other than the knives Leliana and Sera had picked up within the dungeons, the two women were otherwise unarmed. Even with them, however, Leliana couldn’t move as quickly with her limp, and they clearly weren’t Sera’s weapon of choice.

Their group was stationed near one of the courtyard entrances, so the wall provided cover while also serving as a bottleneck of sorts if their enemy tried to press an offensive attack. They wouldn’t run the risk of being overwhelmed, and that likely had been Niamh’s intent, for she was already on the move.

Dorian turned the corner of the ice wall in an attempt to catch up with her—Vivienne hot on his trail—and he had just enough time to see the air around Niamh shifting instantly. She enrobed herself within the magic lingering in the atmosphere and simply Fade-stepped forward into the throng of enemies.

They had been unprepared for such a tactic, as had Niamh’s own party, who knew she preferred to keep a distance from their foes on the battlefield. It soon became clear, however, that such a preference hadn’t been one borne from discomfort.

It was a mercy.

Dorian saw only Niamh’s back as she swept her hand out before her sharply. Instantly, a ring of fire mines laid around her, and her enemies had only a moment to see them glow an ominous red beneath their feet before they were blown away by the force of the explosions. With the high stalks of grass within the courtyard as dry as they were, they caught fire immediately. As the wind around Niamh buffeted violently, it was akin to being caught in a spiraling inferno, and he felt the intense heat of it even from a distance.

Desperate, the archers fired again at the mage, but whether in close quarters with her or from long range, they suffered the full weight of Niamh’s ire. The arrows burnt to crisps upon contact with the towering blaze before it swirled out, swallowing anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in its path. Dorian felt the electric charge in the air before he even saw the woman raise her hand, lightning flowing from her fingertips toward the marksmen in the distance. The arcs were incredibly thin in width—almost coming to fine point with the precision Niamh displayed—but the effect was no less devastating as the archers convulsed heavily upon being struck by the attack.

A warrior foolishly tried to rush her with his sword, but he soon found himself tripped as one of his feet became encased in ice. Balance lost, the Venatori tipped forward, but he found his descent suddenly halted by the blunt staff point at his throat. He choked on the pressure of it there, and Dorian watched as his hands scrabbled at the length of Niamh's staff, trying to push it away even as he struggled to regain his footing.

From their position, Dorian could just see Niamh’s profile as she canted her head, looking at the warrior with seeming consideration. Then, with a deft flick of her wrist, she shifted her staff point so that it rested under the man’s chin, holding him in place there. She met the warrior’s gaze impassively then, and with a blink, a bolt of lightning struck down from the darkened skies, the width of it encompassing his entire body with a deafening crash. Dorian threw up an arm to shield himself from the blinding flash, and when it subsided, he watched as Niamh merely twirled her staff in her grip, moving it out from the beneath the corpse of the Venatori warrior, which then fell into a smoking heap at her feet.

“I specialized as an elementalist,” she had once told him, exhausted resignation evident in her features as she explained her magical expertise. “With the Blight's end, I had no intention of using my powers in any further wars ever again, but it seems I've no choice now.”

But this?

This wasn’t the careful use of power from an apostate who’d forced herself into hiding for the past decade. This was a mage in her element—pure and unrestrained—and the knowledge of what she was truly capable of left him speechless. Niamh was a kind soul—he knew it despite only being recently acquainted with her—but as he watched her stalk toward their remaining enemies with all a predator’s grace, he understood that while she could accept abuse of herself from others, she would never allow it to be extended to her companions.

For the Venatori’s sheer abuse of them in this world—although Dorian strongly suspected it was about one companion in particular—they had earned the terrible gift of Niamh’s absolute displeasure, and as such, she demanded nothing less than a complete annihilation of their forces.

“Can’t we bring them with us?” Niamh asked, turning to Dorian with desperation once it became clear they were quickly running out of time in this world now that Alexius laid dead. Her heart sank when the other mage merely shook his head.

“The magic in this world is already wildly unstable. Trying to influence the amulet to allow more individuals through would be nothing short of disastrous.”

“But they’ll die here, Dorian!”

“Niamh.” The voice that called to her was soft, but even with its weak rasp, it never ceased to draw her attention. Leliana gestured to herself then and their remaining companions. While her gaunt expression was stern, her words were not unkind. “Look at us. Blight-sickened and riddled with red lyrium… We’re already dead. You’d just be prolonging an end we were already prepared for.”

As the castle walls shook again with the magnitude of the Elder One’s power, Niamh watched as Sera exchanged a glance with Vivienne, who nodded in whatever agreement passed within their gazes. The older mage turned to her then.

“We will do whatever it takes to keep them at bay.”

Every cell within Niamh’s body screamed in protest of such a pronouncement, but as she studied Vivienne’s resolute expression, she understood this was the only suitable end the other woman desired. Dying in a cell beneath the bowels of the earth or suffering Fiona’s fate as a mere vessel of red lyrium were loathsome options. To deter her from this would have been little more than an insult to them both. Nevertheless, it was with great effort that Niamh was able to keep the misery she felt within her from touching her expression as she bowed low and respectfully in deference.

“It has been an honor fighting alongside you, Lady Vivienne.”

The other woman’s eyes softened a touch as she tipped her head in acknowledgment. “The pleasure was all mine.” She paused then, tilting her head. “My dear?” She waited until Niamh looked up again. “Whatever path that awaits you, know that you are more than capable of surmounting it. You needn’t hide behind another’s approval, let alone mine. It is imperative you continue to move forward on your own convictions, but in finding them, I ask that you do not let us—or the memory of all that occurred here—become a crutch to you. Do you understand?” At her tentative nod, Vivienne slowly turned on her heel and strode toward the exit.

“Neevy?” Niamh turned to Sera then, who was walking backwards in the direction of Vivienne. The woman was grinning as she nocked an arrow on the bow Niamh had retrieved from one of the marksmen she’d killed earlier, but there was a sadness in her gaze that she felt just as strongly. Even in the midst of such chaos—even as she marched off to face what was likely her own death—Sera was still trying to offer her some semblance of comfort. “Remember your promise when you get back to the village, yeah? I’ll be waiting! Don’t forget!”

With creaking finality, the imposing doors closed behind the two women, leaving the remainder of their party alone in the decrepit audience chambers.

“Cast your spell,” Leliana said to Dorian as she adjusted the quiver along her back. “You have as much time as I have arrows.”

“Leliana?” Niamh swallowed as those eyes slowly turned toward her. “I… I swear, I wouldn’t have abandoned you to this.” In the dim lighting, she was almost convinced that the corner of the woman’s mouth curled up briefly into a faint, sad smile.

“I know,” she said quietly. “You’ve still a kind heart despite all the years that passed; I’m glad you never lost sight of it.” A sound between a laugh and a sigh escaped her. “Despite it all, there is almost a strange irony to this, no? After so long, I finally have the chance to save someone dear to me. I couldn’t change Saoirse’s fate, but I can have a hand in saving yours.”

A knot of misery wound itself within her chest, and it must have been evident from her expression, for Leliana was soon shaking her head in response to it.

“Go back to your own world, Niamh. I am but a relic long forgotten by the Maker. If you’ve any pity for this broken soul, make it so this—” She gestured to the empty chamber around them. “—will never be an outcome.”

With a heavy heart, Niamh nodded in acquiescence. “I promise...”

“Then I will hold you to that.”

Niamh shifted back toward Dorian as he began infusing his magic into the amulet, but she never once took her gaze off Leliana, who stood guard near the base of the steps, intent on protecting them for as long as possible. The woman’s own gaze remained on the stone doors ahead of them, where Niamh could hear the battle continuing to rage on outside. After a time, however, the sounds of the fighting seemed to shift closer. Perhaps upon sensing that, Leliana began reciting a chant as she took careful aim at the entrance.

And then the doors burst open.

Niamh’s lips parted in horror when a Terror demon emerged first through the opening with Vivienne’s lifeless body impaled on its claws. Behind it, Venatori and other demons surged forward, and although Leliana was carefully whittling them down with her arrows, Niamh knew that she’d eventually be overcome by their sheer numbers.

“Please, for me, take care of them.”

Her sister’s last words to her rang loudly in her head, and with them, she moved forward almost out of her own volition, but a hand frantically wrapped itself around her bicep, pulling her back.

“You move, and we all die!” Dorian shouted as the rift began conjuring itself with a growing roar, nearly drowning out his words.

“But I—" I don’t want her to die! I can’t abandon her again! was the remainder of the thought she couldn't bear to choke out. The grief she felt must have shown in her eyes, however, as Dorian’s own turned sympathetic.

“I know," he said consolingly, "but we can stop this all from happening! We can still save them, but I need you to stay with me, or all we've done here will be for naught!”

A shout of pain drew her attention away from him, and she saw Leliana’s body jerk back from the arrow in her shoulder. Niamh’s stomach dropped at the sight, but she wet her lips anxiously. “What…what do you need? What can I do to help?”

Dorian cursed as he shifted the amulet in the air with his magic. “Alexius must have used a great deal of energy when he activated this the first time! We need more magic powered through it!”

As exhausting as their journey had been, it was a substantial request to make. Still, despite her nearly depleted mana, Niamh offered her hand readily, magic surging weakly at her fingertips.

“Here! Take whatever you need! Just hurry!”

A loud clattering filled the air, and she looked up just in time to see a Venatori pull Leliana’s arm behind her back—her bow lost—as his brethren surged forward with swords and daggers in hand. However, it was the Terror demon moving toward the woman with wicked intent which drew the most fear from Niamh. Despite it all, however, as she met Leliana’s gaze over the throng of enemies, she saw a calm serenity settling across her face, seemingly at peace for the first time since she and Dorian entered this twisted future.

“I believe in you,” Leliana mouthed, smiling.

At the corners of her vision, Niamh saw the green of the rift surrounding her and Dorian. There was a roar of thunder within her ears—whether of her own doing or the power of the portal itself, she didn’t know—and she felt the sensation of something pulling at her fiercely from behind.

She should have felt relieved that they had succeeded in their mission.

Instead, she could only watch helplessly as the demon’s claws pierced the flesh of the woman she loved, and Niamh felt like her soul was dying along with Leliana. She felt the sting in her eyes as her mouth fell open with a scream of anguish, but like everything in this world, it was soon taken from her as the sudden rush of the rift enveloped her and Dorian completely.

Chapter Text

The audience chamber devolved into complete chaos the moment Niamh and Dorian had disappeared.

The remaining Venatori were now fighting against Inquisition agents, but they were subdued in short order thanks in large part—reluctant as Vivienne was to admit it—to Fiona and her malcontents joining in on the fight. Although they were still considered indentured servants to the Imperium, the knowledge that their masters may have just destroyed the only person in all Thedas who believed in them seemed to be something they couldn't abide. They were furious in their onslaught—rightfully so—and Vivienne turned her own anger against the woman responsible for the ridiculous debacle to begin with.

“If you’ve had any part in endangering Lady Cousland—” Vivienne began only to be interrupted as Alexius sent a line of fire down their path. She immediately snapped an ice wall into place, shielding herself as well as Fiona and Sera, who were closest to her position. Her eyes narrowed as she waved a hand, reinforcing the barricade even as the magister continued sending barrages of flames their way. As expected, however, her wall held easily against the assault.

“Of course not!” Fiona protested heatedly against her initial claim. The woman paused briefly to cast a bolt of lightning toward a line of charging warriors, who had been looking to take advantage of their preoccupation to little avail. “The Herald was willing to help us despite everything! I would not have put her in danger had I known of Alexius' machinations!”

Vivienne's ice wall lit up briefly from the burst of heat that hit its opposite side, but from the magic she could sense in the air, she easily determined it hadn't been nearly as powerful as the other projectiles sent their way thus far. Whatever spell Alexius had cast against Niamh had taken much of his mana—so much so that even the frequency of his attacks were beginning to wane. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Sera used the lull in spell-casting to sneak out from behind her wall, bow already drawn.

It was the sharp cry from their enemy that led Vivienne to withdraw from her barricade just in time to see Alexius collapse from the arrow he had taken to the knee. Sera was already marching up the steps of the dais, nocking another arrow as she went.

“Next arrow goes in your other one; I don’t even give a shite if we gotta drag you across all the rocks from here to Haven! Now bring her back, Arse Face!” Sera snarled, pulling her bowstring taut. “I won’t ask again!”

Before Alexius could even respond, a deafening boom resounded across the entire room as the space over their heads suddenly tore itself apart. It was a rift certainly, but it was fluctuating as madly as the last one Alexius had conjured. Every rip as it widened was a clap of thunder, and by the time it reached its full size, the final blast of it sent everyone flying off their feet.

Even with a barrier she had thrown up on sheer reflex alone, Vivienne's ears were still ringing as she hastily pushed herself up to an elbow, anxious to see what horrors the magister could have possibly summoned. As the rift disappeared, however, she caught the silhouettes of only two figures dropping from beneath it. One fell to an exhausted slump upon the floor, but the other rushed up toward the dais with a speed that was absolutely inhuman. A Fade Step, Vivienne realized. Following on the figure's heels was the scent of rapidly-heated air, which encompassed the entire room, and the sudden shift of atmospheric pressure was so intense that it was nearly suffocating.

The sound of splitting wood filled the air then, and as Vivienne struggled to her feet, she could now see that Alexius had been thrown back against the throne with such force that it had broken against his spine. He laid amidst the debris, gasping desperately for breath as he feebly tried to claw at the fingers around his throat, for looming over him like a harbinger of death was Niamh.

And there was nothing less than absolute fury in her eyes—lightning arcing almost casually across their pale depths—as she peered down at him.

A storm was brewing in more ways than one, and as Vivienne heard thunder again, she turned her up toward the high ceilings, watching in mild disbelief as clouds began to coalesce along the banners and columns, darkening with each passing second. Distractedly, she heard the awed gasps from others in the chamber as another ominous rumble filtered through the air, but her attention was solely on Niamh.

For as long as they'd been in one another's company, Vivienne had always known Niamh to be a woman of impeccable poise—something Vivienne herself approved of given the Herald's position—but here? She had never seen her so angry...

“Do you realize what you’ve done? What you subjected our world to?!" Vivienne watched as the young woman then grabbed handfuls of the magister’s robes and shook him with enough force that she could’ve sworn she heard his teeth rattle. “What you took from me?!” she shouted, the sound of it reverberating throughout the room just as another peal of thunder shook the ground.

Fearful incomprehension filled Alexius’ gaze, even moreso as the chamber began to crackle with the steady thrum of building electricity. In quiet alarm, Vivienne watched as the staff along Niamh’s back began to rattle as if with a life of its own. The metal of the shaft almost seemed to give beneath an unseen pressure, pressing itself flat as parchment before completely warping in place.

As if also realizing the danger of the situation, Dorian had rushed up the steps to the woman's side, but he recoiled instantly with a sharp cry the moment he touched her shoulder. Vivienne soon realized why as she moved closer herself and felt the sheer heat radiating off Niamh's body. It became far worse when Niamh bent the flames of the hearth behind the throne to her own will, urging them forward violently. As a consequence, the large shadow the woman cast along the back wall of the chamber seemed almost a sentient beast that loomed ominously over them all, waiting with bated breath for the kill. At Niamh's continued bidding, the flames swept forward until they wrapped around her forearms like chains of molten fire, circling down them until they were nearly in contact with Alexius’ body, smoldering against the fabric.

“Wait, please!” urged Felix as he rushed forward in an attempt to save his father, but Sera automatically raised her bow at him.

“One move, and this one goes right between your eyes!”

“No!” Alexius cried out. “Please! Don’t hurt my son! I’ll do anything you ask!”

Yet, the words did nothing to appease Niamh. If anything, they seemed to enrage her even more if the flames along her arms flaring out were any indication. Simultaneously, the onyx gems along the weaponized ends of the woman’s staff began to vibrate, and Vivienne pursed her lips worriedly in response. She'll burn her magic out at this rate...

“You’re expending too much energy, my dear," she murmured urgently once she took the remaining steps to reach the other woman's side. While the heat of her ire was still palpable, Vivienne gave no outward indication that it bothered her, using her own magic to counteract it to more bearable levels. She waited until she had Niamh's attention, but her brows knit together in bemusement when the other mage nearly did a doubletake upon seeing her. "You’re drawing on far more than just your mana now to power your magic, and your staff won’t be able to maintain such equilibrium for long. It’s already at its limit.” With Niamh's gaze turned completely toward her, Vivienne knew then she was listening, and so she softened her voice with a gentle demand. “It’s enough. Rest assured, he will be made to pay for his crimes, but we needn’t have you hurt to do so.”

Slowly, as if in answer, the flames along Niamh's arms slowed to a barely-flickering simmer. Her grip on Alexius loosened then, and she let the magister fall back against the broken wood of the throne beneath him, robes charred from where her fingers had been. Vivienne backed away a step to allow the other woman to straighten to her full height, and she watched with quiet fascination as the storm within the room dispersed to nothingness and the fires surrounding her fled back into the hearth with a slow—albeit deliberate—roll of Niamh's shoulders.

“Are you alright, my dear?” Vivvy asked, allowing her eyes to roamed over Niamh’s form carefully, but what she saw only added to her concern.

Niamh had only been gone for several minutes, but her appearance was somehow so much worse for wear. Her hair was in disarray, and there were scattered traces of ash and blood staining her face and even embedded beneath her fingernails. All were unsettling signs, considering the other woman preferred to keep a distance from their enemies. Vivienne suspected that if Niamh's leather coat weren’t as dark as it was, they’d likely have seen a better visual of the challenges she’d faced while gone.

And her eyes…

Vivienne frowned.

Beneath the clear exhaustion within them, Niamh’s eyes seemed absolutely haunted as she looked upon both her and Sera.

“It…” Grey eyes slid askance as she turned to look at Dorian, who only shrugged wearily, clearly letting her lead the narrative in whatever way she saw fit. Niamh pursed her lips, wetting them briefly to soothe the dryness there. “It was… difficult finding our way back here,” she said at last, reluctant even in admitting that. “I can’t say too much. Not yet at least. It’s too fresh a wound, but I suspect you’ll both have the report soon enough once my War Council goes over the details.”

“I see…” Vivienne said. She didn't approve of such secrecy, especially when it was so clearly tied to Niamh's current mental and emotional well-being, but she couldn't fault the caution. She sighed then. “Very well. See that you don’t let such an injury linger too long unattended, my dear. Here; let me have a look at you.”

She withdrew a handkerchief, which she draped over a palm. She waved her fingers over it, causing the piece of fabric to frost over, and as the hand beneath it glowed a faint red, the ice began to melt. With the now damp handkerchief, Vivienne then tilted Niamh’s chin up before she carefully swept the cloth over where the soot and dried blood were heaviest. Grey eyes blinked in mild surprise at the treatment, but Niamh otherwise said nothing as Vivienne continued to clean her.

“There we are.” Vivienne carded her fingers through the other woman's hair to help settle the dark strands into place before nodding, satisfied. “You’re looking a fair bit better now, but we must keep up appearances. Our forces were at a loss when you suddenly disappeared. They will look to you for guidance, and you must stand ready to lead them.”

Niamh blinked—as if suddenly remembering where they were—and Vivienne watched as she looked over her shoulder to see a number of agents milling about. Some were dragging bodies out of the castle, others were ensuring the perimeter was kept safe for their Herald, but a few of them were also injured and had to be half-carried off to the side by their companions.

Dark brows knit together. “Lady Vivienne, could I ask you to tend to some of our agents? It was rather chaotic, but I recall seeing a fair bit of fighting when I returned. I’d like to begin preparations to head back to Haven as soon as possible once we settle things here.”

“Of course, my dear.”

“You really alright, Neevy?” Sera asked Niamh, settling her bow over her back as Vivvy made her down the dais.

“For right now, yes.” It seemed she was going to say something else, but she was interrupted before long.

“Your Worship?”

Niamh turned her attention to a few nearby Inquisition agents, who were looking at her with varying degrees of awe and fear. The latter was likely to hurt her, Sera knew, and she was proven right when those grey eyes turned more guarded, hiding behind the stiffer public persona Sera never liked.

It wasn’t the Niamh she knew.

Not the one who would indulge her pranks with quiet humor and a warm smile.

Not the one who went well out of her way to help people even when she had nothing to gain from it.

It was a mask, and Sera hated masks.

“See to it that the magister is kept under guard until we’re ready to return back to Haven. Should he give you any trouble,” Niamh flicked her eyes coolly toward Alexius, but the man miserably kept his gaze downturned, “come and find me. I’ll remedy that personally.”

“And him, Your Worship?” the agent asked, jerking her head toward Felix as her compatriots rounded Alexius up in chains.

“His son gave valuable insight in our being able to perform our mission as well as we did. He’s not a prisoner. Let them both talk to one another if they wish to." More quietly, she added, “I suspect they’ll need that solace in the days to come.”

“Aye, my lady.”

Sera watched as the two Tevinter mages were led away before frowning deeply at her friend. “Alright, I've got a bone to pick with you. Look, I know you regularly pit yourself against demons and even huge as shite dragons like the one in the next valley over, but you really need to learn to stop scaring m—”

And her words left her in a rush as she was suddenly enveloped in a tight hug. Niamh was so close that Sera could clearly feel the faint trembling in her limbs, and she wrapped her own arms around her worriedly.


“Sorry, sorry…” she murmured over her shoulder. “I was… As I said, it was difficult getting back here to all of you.” Niamh pulled back then, settling her hands atop her shoulders as she offered a faint half-smile that seemed more pained than reassuring. “I just wanted to see for myself that you were okay.”

Well, now Sera was even more worried. Before she could even voice her concern, however, the entrance to the audience chamber was thrown open, allowing a small battalion of soldiers to march through. As they came closer, Sera realized she had seen the heraldry on their banners and armor before years ago, and it was made all the more evident as a man and woman in absolute finery strode through the middle of the room.

Well, shite.

“Maker, it is you…” Alistair breathed.

Niamh saw the moment his eyes lit up in recognition as she went to meet him and Anora. She smiled at that, but as decorum was still called for—although she knew he would have been the first to protest—she bowed low in the presence of him and his queen.

“Your Highnesses. It is an honor to have you both here with us.” Although Anora dipped her head in appreciation of her words and etiquette, Alistair was the first to lay his hands on her shoulders, urging her back up to full height.

“Please, we fought in the Blight together for Andraste’s sake. There’s no need for formalities,” he said before drawing her into his arms. Alistair wasn’t nearly as tall as her brother, but she remembered that his hugs had always been just as warm and full of affection, and she smiled upon feeling it again after so long apart from one another. “It’s good to see you, Niamh.”

“And you as well, my friend,” she replied, returning his hug with a few gentle pats to his back. “I take it you’re here regarding the situation with the mages?”

“Yes.” When he drew back, Niamh could see the frown marring his expression, and it deepened as he saw Fiona, who hovered just beyond the edge of their circle of conversation, fingers worriedly wringing themselves.

It was then Niamh knew Alistair had no intention of letting the mages stay in Redcliffe any longer. Despite their friendship, he couldn’t allow such a concession, especially given all the events that had unfolded since then.

“I offered them refuge here in large part because I was reminded of you,” he admitted, eyes filling with a quiet sadness. “When you left us, I always wondered if you were alright. If there was something I hadn’t seen, if there was something more I could have done to help you through the pain before you slipped away from us all…”

“Alistair, no,” she hastened to reassure, remembering the kind, gentle heart of the man before her. “My leaving was never your fault. No one within our party was to blame. My pain was my own.” And it had been for years afterward upon realizing that her sister was forever lost to her and that their family’s bloodline had been reduced to a mage the world would never accept. “I didn’t wish to burden anyone with it. In truth, I doubt anyone would have prevented my leaving save for Saoirse herself,” she sighed, and she saw the sympathy in his eyes at her words.

Just like with Leliana, Alistair felt the passing of his friend just as strongly even after so many years.

“I realize you can’t let the rebel mages stay here, but I need you to understand that the judgment they made was done in error. They were fed lies due in large part to the Tevinter mages—these Venatori—who had convinced them no one would be able to help them. They believed they had no choice but to sign their lives away, but all that occurred in their wake? The displacement of Arl Teagan and the members of the chantry in the village? All were perpetrated by the magister and his Venatori.” She looked between both Alistair and Anora fully. “Your Highnesses, if you would permit me, I can offer assistance in both matters.”

“Does this have anything to do with the Breach near Haven?” Anora asked, concerned.

“Yes. If you both would also be willing to return correspondence with me, I’d like to establish a joint effort between Ferelden and the Inquisition—one would that allow us to cumulate resources and information. I’ve reason to believe the Venatori are connected to the Breach or are at least aiding the one somehow responsible for its creation.”

“And you’ve no problem working against them, Your Worship?”

“Not at all, Your Highness. They’re an absolute disgrace to all mages, and what they represent is a threat to our entire world,” she admitted easily, frowning. “If they were able to infiltrate this deeply into Ferelden, then it’s possible they’re capable of doing so elsewhere. If left unchecked, we risk opening up every nation to sabotage from within, and I needn’t tell you the consequences of such a thing occurring.”

Anora and Alistair shared a glance, and while both had been relatively uncertain of their marriage to one another a decade ago, it seemed they had developed an unspoken rapport with one another. She watched as her friend chuckled then, turning back to her, rubbing at his jaw thoughtfully. “I see you’re still every bit as clever as I remembered you to be. It was always endless plans with you, wasn’t it?”

“And have I ever steered you wrong with them?” She folded her arms over her chest, leaning back to place more of her weight on her right leg as she arched a brow at him pointedly. “Honestly, between you and Saoirse, I don’t know who I was trying to keep more out of trouble back in those days...”

Alistair tipped his head back, laughing fully at that, and Niamh was heartened to see he still had some of the same humor she remembered. The years had hardened him some, yes. The responsibility of ruling a nation was much its own burden, but he still offered her a smile, weary though it was. He looked to Anora then, who only nodded with her consent.

“We’ll do what we can to help, Niamh.”

“Wonderful. Get in contact with our Inquisition ambassador when you're able, and she'll likely be more than happy to go over the finer details of our arrangement.” She paused, her expression sobering. “Again, the closing of the Breach isn’t guaranteed even with the additional help here.” Niamh turned her gaze to the lingering pockets of mages, who looked at the three of them with wide eyes, wondering what their fate would be. “For now, please just have your defenses in place at Denerim. Be prepared to offer refuge to anyone fleeing in the event this somehow does manage to go wrong.”

“The double-edged sword in trying to save the world,” he drawled. “You’d think we’d be done with this by now.”

“If only, my friend.”

“We’ll take all you’ve said into great consideration, Lady Cousland,” Anora assured. “We’ll be in touch soon. Safe travels to you and your Inquisition.”

Leliana had already been aware of some of the events that had transpired in Redcliffe by the time Niamh and her party had returned. The first message she received by raven had come from one of her agents. The quick, frantic script had only said that The Herald had disappeared along with the Tevinter mage following a spell cast by the magister. It had happened so quickly that no one had been able to stop him.

Leliana’s heart had immediately stopped, wondering if she had yet again been too late to save someone dear to her.

At the news, Cassandra, Cullen, and Josephine turned again to arguing amongst themselves over the next steps that should be taken, but without Niamh’s Mark to seal the Breach, few options seemed viable. Upon that realization, the tension in the room sank to utter despondence until they received another messenger raven within an hour of the first:

Herald returned with Tevinter mage. Magister taken into custody. Heading back to Haven with mages. Herald named them Inquisition allies.

The juxtaposition between the utter shock of the first message and the startling relief of the second was palpable. Leliana, however, suspected the latter emotion would shift to disbelief soon enough in regards to both Cassandra and Cullen. Given their ties to their respective Orders, they’d have the most issue with the mages being offered a full alliance.

Her spies had been the first to arrive back at Haven—at the urging of the Herald, they said. Some of Leliana’s agents had been injured, but thanks to Dorian’s lessons, they had come through without a single fatality to be counted among their ranks whereas other than Alexius and his son, the Venatori who had occupied Redcliffe were now dead.

Not that it hadn’t been a near thing in the end, Argent—one of her elite assassins—had said, as Alexius was determined to fight to the death until the Herald had made her reappearance.

It was like the end of days, another of her agents had reported. The air within the room had heated to uncomfortably stifling levels as the Herald had dropped first from the portal before rushing up the dais with lightning-quick steps to subdue the magister. It had been both an impressive and terrifying takedown, for the woman had actually raised her voice to her foe, and the fury behind it nearly rivaled the tempest that had been brewing inside the audience chamber.

The Herald had looked unharmed, they said. Not a scratch on her. But the magister had clearly done something to her, another reasoned, for she had been fine before being thrust into the portal, but whatever had transpired inside it had her seeing red faster than any territorial High Dragon.

And Leliana saw evidence of that now as Cassandra and Cullen confronted Niamh the moment she stepped foot inside the chantry. From the coolness settling into those wintry-grey eyes, her patience—and she had demonstrated a considerable amount of it thus far as their Herald—was quickly beginning to fray under the interrogation. Those outside their War Council were wise to leave them be, skirting the edges of their group before fleeing out the doors.

“What were you thinking, turning mages loose with no oversight?!” Cullen demanded. “The Veil is torn open!”

“Commander, I’ve been a runaway apostate for the last decade, and I’d wager my left arm by saying I’ve seen the Breach more intimately than any other mage on Thedas to date. Yet, have I been turned into an abomination?” she drawled, profoundly underwhelmed by his logic.

“No, but…” He became flustered in trying to find his words. “Lady Cousland, you’re more powerful than they are.”

“Powerful enough that I’d be seen as the better option to possess than the rebel mages now within our ranks, yes? Aren’t I the ideal candidate for one? Isn’t that what you implied the last time we saw one another in the Circle?” she minced out between clenched teeth. “Tell me, Commander, should I consider every Templar and Seeker I meet to be simple butchers on sight simply for the heraldry they wear? Killers capable of little more than thinking with their swords than their minds?”

“No! Of course not!”

“Then why would you automatically assume the same of my people?” Niamh snapped, the flames along the wall sconces flickering briefly as if in an unseen wind. It hadn’t gone unnoticed by their party, but while Cassandra and Cullen seemed uncomfortable now that the interrogation had—rightfully—turned on them, she and Josie were more concerned about Niamh’s well-being. “When I led my party through Kinloch Hold years ago, I did everything I could to try and save everyone. Regardless of what you may have thought of me back then, that also included the Templars,” she revealed before sighing deeply.

“And whether you believe it or not, these people were being woefully misled by the Venatori. There were over a dozen Circles, and barring the Enchanters, most of them had never interacted with one another. They didn’t know their ranks were being filled with frauds, who spilled lies inside their heads to get them to lower their defenses and accept aid from the only ones who had bothered to help. Yes, I’m well-aware it was the Tevinter Imperium, but I also know what desperation can lead a person to do.”

“I know we need the mages for the Breach,” Cullen tried again, “but they could do as much damage as the demons!”

“Enough!" Niamh glared at him, and Leliana felt the barest prickle at the back of her neck—a quick-shot of lightning irritation. When Josie reached up toward her own nape to rub at the skin there, she knew the others must have felt it too. “As Knight-Captain of Kirkwall’s Templar Order, you were witness to the rampant abuses that went on in the Circle you were sworn to protect, and you did nothing! Not against your Knight-Commander who had innocent mages turned Tranquil on a whim, and certainly not against anyone under your command who committed other heinous atrocities beneath your nose! When your superior demanded a Rite of Annulment—knowing full well the explosion of Kirkwall’s chantry was committed by one man—you didn’t even so much as object to the idea of every mage in the Circle being put to the sword whatsoever!” Her gaze narrowed further even as she saw how he paled beneath each accusation. “And you truly wonder why the rebellion was as chaotic as it was?” Keen eyes turned to Cassandra then, who stiffened beneath the attention.

“And you, Seeker… You had the reports. You had the proof, and you let it go on just as much as Kirkwall’s Order did. If you want to be upset, then by all means, go right ahead. That is well within your right, but realize that none of you were present in that chamber,” she said, turning to face each member of her War Council. “I made the best decision I could with all the information I had available, and that meant making sure the mages knew they hadn’t been abandoned by the world at large even if I was the only who would stand by them. Don’t even imply that this was entirely their fault, not when the institution they were bound to did nothing but systematically oppress them at every turn since it’s conception...”

Silence passed within the hallowed halls of the chantry, and it was only the flickering of the flames around them that offered any true noise in the quiet din. However, it seemed to be enough to calm Niamh, who only sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose wearily.

“Nevertheless, closing the Breach is going to require a great deal of magic, and that means lyrium. I had some contacts overseas I can ask to get in touch with us, but I’ll be the first to admit they’re not the most…” Niamh canted her head thoughtfully, searching for an appropriate word. “…legitimate source available.”

“I take it we’re dealing with smugglers then?” Leliana couldn’t help but ask. When she received only a nod, she returned it with her own. “Send word to them. You may have full use of my messenger ravens to do so. We need every advantage we can get.”

“And if we can keep it under the table, I’ll do what I can to quiet rumors,” Josie said, making a note on her parchment board.

“Ah.” Niamh blinked when she turned to their ambassador. “Before I forget, expect to receive a missive from the King and Queen of Ferelden within the next few days. I took the liberty in asking for their cooperation in some of our endeavors.”

“Truly?” Josie stopped writing entirely as she looked at Niamh with wide eyes, but the other woman merely smiled.

“Yes. Both King Alistair and Queen Anora were pleased by how we dealt with the Venatori threat. They were equally concerned similar situations could be occurring elsewhere in Thedas, however, and they’d like to offer aid in whatever way they can.”

“Oh!” Josie seemed utterly pleased. “This is wonderful then! Open cooperation with the Crown of Ferelden grants the Inquisition further legitimacy. Thank you for taking such initiative, my lady.”

Niamh nodded in acknowledgement. “Given we’re on borrowed time, it was necessary. The Breach won’t wait for us indefinitely, and the longer it remains in the sky, the more my life is in danger with this damned Mark.” She opened her hand, allowing them to see the rivers of green running across her palm, radiating with gentle fluxes of light before she closed it. She turned her gaze to Cullen, who had been quiet for quite some time.

“As for you, I need to know that you can still act as the Commander this Inquisition needs. If there’s too much history between us for you to do that, do me the courtesy of letting me know now so we can at least find someone who can.”

“No, I—” He swallowed and nodded. “I can. I will.”

Her eyes flickered between him and Cassandra, expression as neutral as ever. “Both your complaints have been duly noted, so unless you have more to add, I’d rather you save it until I can at least get our latest allies settled. Now are we done here?” They both merely nodded. “Good. Leliana, if you’ve the time, could you ask a few of your scouts to help set up some tents for the mages? We can use the area near the old apothecary’s cabin if need be for space.”

“Of course.”

Niamh then blinked several times in slow succession, as if trying to clear exhaustion from her vision. “And I apologize for my abruptness in the matter, but I’d like some rest if you wouldn’t mind.” She reached over her shoulder for her staff, and the clearly warped shaft of it caused Leliana’s eyes to widen. Niamh merely frowned as she looked at it. “Or to at least see if Harritt might be able to fix this,” she continued in a mutter. “I swear, this is the second time in as any months I’ve had to commission something from him…”

Leliana had only ever seen Niamh’s staff damaged so severely one other time before.

It had been when the other woman had returned from the Fade following her encounter with the Desire Demon in Redcliffe. The elegant curves of her ironbark staff—a gift from an elvhen clan in the Brecilian forest—had been twisted like a gnarled tree root while the summer stone gems that had been embedded along it had nearly been cracked in two. Niamh had merely said the demon had proven a stubborn adversary, and that had been the end of any conversation regarding the matter.

Wynne had once told her that a mage’s staff served as a catalyst for their magic. It could help direct energy for better casting, but it could also serve as a last means of protection against themselves should they expend their abilities too much.

“Better to have a staff bear the brunt of such a backlash of power than the wielder of it,” she had said.

But to have had it happen again?

What could have caused Niamh so much trouble that it drove her to the point of putting herself in harm’s way?

“Of course, my lady,” Josie said, drawing Leliana out of her reverie. “I’m sure it was a rather difficult task to deal with.”

“That it was,” Niamh remarked quietly before slowly turning on her heel to march out of the chantry. “You’ll have my report in the morning.”

“Come in,” Niamh said distractedly when she heard the knock at her door, writing fervently across the pieces of parchment in front of her as she had been doing continuously for the past several hours. Some detailed all that had occurred while she had been in that… horrific version of Redcliffe, but others were bulletpoints of plans that could be implemented to prevent that future from coming to fruition. She was adamant that no possibility be left unchecked in regards to that goal, and she was hesitant to just leave them be, but when she looked up to see who had entered, her eyes had widened in surprise. “Lady Vivienne.”

“I apologize for the rather late hour, my dear.”

“It’s no imposition. I was hardly asleep at any rate, and...” Her gaze drifted briefly to the reports she had promised to give her War Council come morning. “…Well, I suppose I could do with a break,” she admitted reluctantly, sheepishness settling over her. Ever the hostess, she gestured to the chair adjacent from hers, which Vivienne settled herself into elegantly. “I’m afraid I don’t have any wine to offer; I try not to imbibe this late at night. Could I interest you in any tea however?”

“That would be lovely.”

Thankfully, the latest pot—of several that evening—had just finished steeping, and she quietly poured a cup for the other mage. “There we go. What can I do for you this evening, Lady Vivienne?”

“I don’t think it needs to be said our… allies—” She said the word with great reluctance on her part as she took the cup of tea from her. “—need to be properly trained. Our Commander, however, lacks the number of Templars to really aid them in that fact.”

“Ah.” Niamh refilled her own cup, somehow wishing she had something stronger after all with the conversation the other woman was looking to have with her. “I suppose someone has confidence in their abilities.”

“It is not a matter of confidence, my dear.” She pursed her lips. “Reality does not change based on feelings. Magic is dangerous just as fire is dangerous. It would behoove us all to see Fiona and her malcontents properly taught. Abominations within their ranks are inevitable otherwise.”

Niamh didn’t believe the matter was so clear cut, but there was no denying there were several young mages among the allies she had gained. Most were likely to still be apprentices; they always made up the largest population of any Circle. What few full-fledged mages and Enchanters there were among their ranks would likely have trouble managing them all. She hummed thoughtfully, giving the matter more consideration as she sipped at her tea.

“In my adventures during the Blight—and even beyond that—I’ve seen mages who turned themselves into abominations because they felt they had no other choice in the matter. Just as any individual forced into a corner, they grew desperate, either due to the fact they didn’t have enough power to defend themselves or because no one had ever taught them how to properly do so,” she explained to an attentive Vivienne. “As chaotic as the world is now, I don’t want demonic possession to be their first thought of defense when faced with any conceivable threat. It should never be an option to begin with. You’re right; they should be taught how to better defend themselves. We set them up for failure otherwise.”

Vivienne’s eyes filled with approval. “I knew you would have a proper grasp of the situation, my dear.”

Another thought mulled about in her head then, and with it came an idea that proved too intriguing to leave unattended. “Might I impose a request upon you, Lady Vivienne?”

The other woman merely arched a brow, sipping at her tea. “What might you need, my dear?”

“Forgive my bluntness in pointing this out, but you’re a Knight-Enchanter, yes?”

“Indeed I am.”

Niamh tapped her fingers against the wooden surface of her desk, working out her thought and searching for how to best word it. “I don’t suppose you’ve any associates within that class who would be willing to come here and train the mages, would you? You are right in that the Commander is sorely lacking in needed numbers to offer proper guidance.” She gently gestured toward the other woman then, subtly appealing to her ego. “As reputable and formidable as I’ve known the Knight-Enchanters to be, even just a few amongst the Templars here would prove a boon, and I strongly suspect the mages would also be more receptive to another like them—regardless of class—guiding their training.” She shrugged then. “Even my word can only go so far with our allies, and my work keeps me well away from Haven more often than not—loathe as I am to admit it. I don’t want my absence to keep them from seeking their full potential, especially if they are to aid us.

Vivienne smiled, seemingly impressed. “A sound argument. I’ll give our ambassador the means to contact my other associates as part of a formal Inquisition request, but tell me something, my dear. As you will no doubt have a hand in shaping it, what future do you see for mages?”

Niamh blinked at the sudden inquiry. She idly stirred at the depths of her tea. “I don’t think it comes as a surprise that I was never a proponent of the Circles as they were. If they are to ever be implemented again, I’d rather see them be used as institutions of learning—universities where mages can come and go as they please to learn about their magic—rather than a prison. A soldier doesn’t have a secondary organization watching their every move for a simple misstep after all.”

“And you don’t believe these new institutions have the potential to be misused?”

“I’m not arguing for a complete dismissal of supervision, Lady Vivienne,” she said reasonably. “If anything, Kirkwall’s Templar Order proved what a negligent lack of oversight could cause. However, if both the Templars and mages are to ever coexist peacefully, it cannot be as the Chantry is now. Both the Order and Circle of Magi were bound to it in ways that cannot be readily unwound. One sees the latter as mere wards instead of companions, and it becomes more of a duty instead of a partnership. That isn’t a foundation that can be built upon as equals.”

“I see. And how would you see the Chantry changed?”

“No one knows the dangers of magic better than a mage, yes? Let them have a place within it. Let them have their voices heard rather than have one forced upon them that has no actual understanding of the true plights they face in regards to the world.”

“Mages within the Chantry, you say,” Vivienne mused. “A curious idea. Such interesting twists and turns your mind takes. It’s something to consider certainly.”

Niamh hummed in agreement. “I’ve had enough time on my hands over the years to think about it certainly.”

“Indeed.” Having finished her cup of tea, she slowly rose to leave. “But I’ve taken enough of your time, my dear. I thank you for the conversation. Please know you’re always welcome within my company should you ever need a listening ear.”

“Likewise, Lady Vivienne,” she said, already turning back to the pieces of parchment in front of her, rearranging them as she had before she had been interrupted in her planning mid-thought. She frantically chased after her last idea, pulling it forward like a line that had been cast out to sea. It was imperative she finished writing these notes. Niamh couldn’t run the risk of forgetting anything that could help them in turning the tide against that awful future. “Enjoy the remainder of your evening,” she offered distractedly, dipping her quill into the inkwell to rewet the tip before tracing out her thoughts, unaware of the concern in the other woman’s eyes as she closed the door behind her.

Niamh was nothing if not thorough in her written reports, highlighting several points of interest, such as the assassination of Empress Celene—a shocking turn of events—and how to best prevent them. They had already taken a portion of the Venatori’s planned mage army thanks to Niamh’s timely intervention, but it didn’t mean their enemy didn’t still have the numbers needed to invade Orlais. It was, however, a piece of a growing puzzle they didn’t have before, and Josephine was hard at work with informing the Empress of the threat to her safety.

But the other events that had unfolded in that horrifying future of Redcliffe… They seemed almost impossible, but neither she or the remainder of their War Council could deny the change it had wrought in Niamh. She and Dorian had been whisked away into a world of nightmare on a magister’s desperate whim, and though they had successfully escaped after suffering hours of the torment within it, it was clear the woman hadn’t been left unscathed.

There was a sharpness to her that hadn’t been there before, and the woman who could match both wits and finesse with the likes of Lady Vivienne, Leliana, and even herself had somehow turned into someone who gave blunt observations that bordered more on ham-handed, shocking even Cullen, who wasn’t nearly as diplomatic as his colleagues. It was often Leliana’s more practical hand that led to anything being accomplished in the War Room, for Niamh had now taken to deferring to her in matters of planning than offering any insight of her own as she once had.

Following Redcliffe, beyond initially working with Lady Vivienne to set up training for the mages, it seemed Niamh also couldn’t stand to be in Haven for longer than necessary. She kept her meetings with her War Council as brief as possible before scattering to the winds again with her team, leaving for one mission after another. While Niamh largely left Lady Vivienne to help oversee the mages with the aid of her Knight-Enchanter associates, it was clear she held a great deal of respect for her, and so in a bid to help, Josephine sought her out.

“Madame Vivienne, if I could trouble you for a moment?”

“No trouble at all, my dear,” Vivienne offered graciously, closing a thick tome upon her desk before turning to the ambassador. “How can I help you?”

“Has Lady Cousland spoken to you at all regarding the aftermath of Redcliffe?” Her hands wrung themselves worriedly. “She doesn’t offer as much of her thoughts anymore, not to our War Council at least. Not beyond an initial debriefing when returning from a mission.”

“Hm. I’m not surprised,” Vivienne admitted. “Truthfully, I wasn’t pleased that she offered the mages a full alliance without any repercussions as to what they did. I’m still not for that matter, but she’s never struck me as an impulsive woman, and the reasonings she gave me in regards to them afterward were as sound as any.”

If anything, Niamh was incredibly methodical. Paired with such innate magical discipline, had she returned to the Circle following the Blight, Vivienne had no doubt she would have risen through its ranks to become one of Ferelden’s finest Enchanters. Moreover, she had the type of tenacity and cunning that would have made her an elite player within Orlais’ Great Game should she have chosen to partake in it.

Such coveted traits spoke well of her as an individual, but Vivienne supposed it had blinded her to the fact that the other mage likely cared little for such things. She wasn’t the type of woman who actively sought power—strange as that concept was to her. Then, when she had made the rare slip in revealing Enchanter Wynne’s death—not having realized Niamh hadn’t known of the fact—Vivienne also saw then how young she truly was. Her calm, neutral façade had fallen in the shock of her words, leaving her hopelessly adrift in the face of them. For as carefully-constructed as her mask could be, she could still nonetheless be hurt.

Niamh had also moved from the status of a reviled prisoner to a very reluctant Herald in an astonishing short amount of time. To have such responsibility thrust upon her was its own burden. That she had borne it well had no bearing on the fact that it had clearly taken its own toll on her, evident in how she buried herself in her work than face the trauma she faced in that dreaded version of Redcliffe, distancing herself from everyone.

“While I’ll make every effort to ensure her well-being, Ambassador, do take care in remembering that it will not be a solitary effort that will undo the pain she’s suffered.”

“You should speak with her.”

Leliana looked up from her reports, turning to face her friend as she walked into her tent. “Quoi?” she asked, furrowing her brows in confusion.

“Lady Cousland knows you best, Leliana. Perhaps she’ll appreciate someone more familiar approaching her with this. She’s become…” Josie paused, frowning. “I wouldn’t necessarily say skittish, but…”

It was good enough of a description as any however. Niamh’s interactions with the War Council remained as courteous and professional as always, but entire chasms seemed to exist between them now, allowing no one into the private refuge of her thoughts.

“She’s keeping everyone at arm’s length, even her inner circle. With the eventuality of what we have to face now, I don’t need to tell you how crucial it is that we have her at her best.”

While Leliana would have otherwise agreed, Josie’s words pulled sharply at old memories. She understood fighting for the greater good just as much as the sacrifices that came intertwined with such an ideal. But were you not always more than just your duty, my love? she thought with painful longing, but she soon wrenched the feeling away, burying it once more.

“She’s more than just her Mark, Josie,” she said flatly in rebuke. “She’s not a simple tool the Inquisition can use as it pleases. Niamh is—and will always be—her own person.”

Josie’s eyes softened, an apology within them as she acknowledged that she had chosen her words poorly. “I merely meant that if she is suffering, she shouldn’t have to do so alone. There are those who care for her if she would but let us in.” She turned her gaze in the direction of Niamh’s cabin, where she had once again hidden herself in following her return from the Storm Coast. “Given that she’s been alone for so long, I wonder if she perhaps forgot that. Please—if nothing else—remind her that it isn’t true.”

When Sera had seen Knifey Shiv-dark make her way toward Niamh’s cabin for the evening, she had headed back to her own tent, stuffing needed supplies into a spare bag. She had made out quite well with her raid the last time she had attempted it. She lifted the satchel, giving it a good shake to settle the contents within it. Good. Full. Gotta get this to work.

It had to because her attempts to cheer Niamh up had done little good. If anything, they were often met with distracted, monosyllabic answers. The mage had remained as attentive as ever with ensuring her party was covered on the battlefield, but beyond that, she spoke very little, often lost behind the depths of those silvery eyes—quiet and so unbearably sad.

Sera would have given anything to see that change.

She wanted Niamh to be able to smile and laugh again, but she couldn’t because some stupid magister had done some frigged up shite and made her see all those terrible things in a world that should never be. It had torn her friend apart, and she could still remember the absolute rage that ran wild in the woman’s eyes as lightning and fire sparked across her entire body.

The Neevy she knew?

That hadn’t been her. It was all fury and hate, and as her fingers pressed down on Alexius’ throat, Sera had been afraid, but her fear had been for Niamh—the kind soul who would have offered her last potion to a person in need and more than done anything to make anyone so terrified of her.

And now she wasn’t talking to anyone.

Sera hated the man they kept chained in the basement instead of being spitted on her arrows. She hated that he had hurt her friend for his own shite reasons.

But she was going to make it better, she resolved as she pushed her bag into the hands of one of Knifey Shiv-dark’s spies as he passed by on patrol, pointedly telling him to give it to his boss when she came back.

This is going to work, she thought determinedly as she watched the agent—full of flustered confusion—take the satchel and head off in the direction of the Spymaster’s tent. It has to…

“How long do you intend to let this behavior go on?”

“No subtlety at all this time, Leliana?” Niamh asked as she sat up in bed, wearily rubbing at the bridge of her nose when the woman had simply strode into her cabin. Her Spymaster’s irritation was very much evident in her expression.

“If you had wanted a gentler approach toward this, then surely the last few weeks of our companions trying to cajole you out of hiding would have worked, no?”

“And you believe it that simple for me to forget that future of Redcliffe? Where I lived simply because others gave their lives to see it through?”

“If it means saving the world, isn’t it worth the cost?”

“I have had enough of others sacrificing themselves for me in this lifetime and the next!” she snapped back, utterly livid at the thought. “I know I’m making a mess of everything while wallowing in here when there’s still much to be done! I’m also aware Cassandra or Cullen would have preferred a warrior’s touch to this—an active hand willing to do what’s needed!” She gestured sharply out the window into the darkness beyond, scowling bitterly. “Saoirse would have already wandered into the next foray to get the answers we needed. I'm well-aware it should be her here, not me…”

“What?” Leliana’s voice turned incredulous. “Niamh, no one is trying to compare you to her.”

They should. Niamh’s thoughts only turned more sullen as she pressed the meat of her palms against her eyes with a sigh. They should realize the utter fraud they have in their midsts.

“What you’ve been through is not what anyone should have had to deal with. What you discovered in that future gave us more information than we could have hoped for in the days to come. We know what to expect now, and we can better prepare ourselves for it.”

“And now all the eyes of Thedas are upon us, watching to see if we can rise to meet the challenge. Worse, they look to me, expecting their supposed Herald to be able to fix this, but how can I when I couldn’t even keep a simple promise?” she muttered out behind the shield of her arms. “To her. My own sister! Saoirse asked me for one thing before that final battle, and that was that I look after our companions, but I didn’t.” Pain swelled in her chest as she swallowed around the lump in her throat. “I didn’t because I was selfish, and like the coward I was, I fled the first moment I could.”

And I abandoned you, she admitted morosely. I’ve always abandoned you. I fled from my own feelings when you fell for Saoirse. I fled when she died and left you alone, bereft in that knowledge. I’m not the heroine you need or deserve. How can I be? she asked, something painful within her shattering at the mere thought. In that unforgiving future, I abandoned you to a world that had taken everything from you, where you were tortured and turned into a bitter husk of the woman you once were. Worse, I left you to die, and I can’t escape the guilt of that.

Those were the things she wanted to say, but they were lost in the swirling grief of her thoughts. What came out instead is, “What I saw there… What I saw happen to you—to everyone—” she amended almost too quickly, stumbling over the correction. “—I can’t allow it to happen again.”

“You realize it wasn’t me there, yes?” She heard footsteps approaching the bed, and Niamh lowered her hands to see Leliana looking down at her in concern. “Whatever she said to hurt you, it wasn’t me. I’m not her.”

“A part of me knows that; yet, another part of me knows I wouldn’t be standing here without her. She said the world crumbled because there had been no one to stop the Empress’ assassination. And without anyone to stop the Breach, the world soon became overrun by demons. That woman and that world still suffered because I wasn’t there, and yet I can’t help but feel I was unworthy of that sacrifice.”

The Venatori had taken Leliana and abused her to inhumane extremes. Although she had kept to her fiery spirit, the flames of it, however, were fueled more by hatred than simple determination. While Leliana had looked at peace with her own death, whispering her final words to her, Niamh had doubts. Had such serenity come to her because she truly believed in Niamh and her ability to set the world right again, or was it because she finally had the chance to rejoin Saoirse in death?

“Is just my being here meant to solve this? To stop a force that took all of Thedas hostage within a year?” she asked, rising from the bed to begin pacing slowly in front of the fireplace. She ran a hand through the dark length of her hair wearily as she spoke. “I don’t know what I’m doing any more than anyone else does, Leliana. I was just supposed to help seal the Breach, and I thought finding the right people to do so would be enough, but how am I to fight an entity I know nothing about?” She sighed in resignation. “My sister would have known what to do.”

“Saoirse led as valiantly and as bravely as she did because she had you,” Leliana countered with a frown. “Were you not the one she went to for tactical advice? Did she not seek you out in matters of negotiation? She knew all that you were capable then, and that still exists in you, but you do not have to bear that duty alone,” she implored. “We would share in your burdens if you would only let us.”

“Leliana, I’m terrified of what it means should I fail in any of this… I’ve seen the cost of it, and I don’t know what I can do to stop it.”

It was with shame that she admitted that.

A victory that came at the cost of losing those closest to her? She couldn’t allow it. She wouldn’t be able to bear the crushing weight of it again.

For a time, Leliana said nothing. Then, the other woman moved directly in the path of her pacing, stopping Niamh abruptly.

“We can start with this. You say you expressed remorse when you ran?” she asked. “Then stop running from us here. Let us help you, Niamh.” The soft call of her name bade her to look up into brilliant blue eyes, and it was kept there by the gentle hand on her jaw. “You’ve been alone for so long. As much as you’ve tried to believe distance would make the pain abate, has it truly? Would it really have made the loss of us any better?” As she thought upon it, Niamh bit her lip before reluctantly shaking her head. Leliana nodded. “The attachment you feel for those around you is already there. That has always been a part of who you are, but you must realize that hurting yourself this way is not what any of us wants. You needn't sacrifice all that you are just to try and keep us safe.” She tilted her head, looking down at Niamh's left hand. “We want you here, and it has nothing to do with the titles or even the Mark you bear. Do you understand?”

Niamh merely swallowed and nodded again meekly.

“Good. Now come here.”

Leliana’s hand slid from her jaw and came to rest on the sleeve of Niamh’s shirt, gently tugging her forward, and she followed along, confused. Then, her nose was filled with the scent that was purely Leliana—roses, incense, and the sweet notes of wine—as she was pulled into a hug, leaving her gasping at the sensation of it, of being pressed this close against the other woman.

“You looked like you needed a hug,” the other woman murmured simply next to her ear, and it took everything she had not to shiver. “Has it been so long since you last had one?”

“No,” she admitted, her answer partially muffled into Leliana’s shoulder.

Truthfully, she could count on one hand the number of hugs she’d received in the time she’d been away from Ferelden. Niamh had always remembered Leliana’s though. Niamh had treasured such casual intimacy, and the other woman had initiated them freely with her back then.

Then, Saoirse had died, and Niamh had left.

With the knowledge that the Leliana here was so different—yet so similar—to the woman she knew a decade ago, it had seemed… unwise to ask for such a simple comfort. She hadn’t even known if the suggestion of it would have been welcome, but Niamh had missed her hugs all the same.

Slowly, she wrapped one arm around a waist while the other snaked up along the expanse of Leliana’s back to cup a hand around a leather-clad shoulder. Niamh hugged her for all she was worth, and as she did—inhaling the scent she had long associated with contentment—the tension that had nestled into the crevices of her soul for weeks on end finally began to retreat.

“Sister Leliana?”

She looked up at the hesitant voice calling out to her just as she had been ready to turn into the chantry. Although it was late into the evening, it was still considered an early hour for her—given her role as Spymaster—but after managing to convince Niamh to finally rest, it seemed a good enough idea to follow by example. Still, when she saw Weaver lingering near the edge of her tent, she turned her steps in his direction instead. She arched a brow in question, and the elf merely held out a bag to her.

“One of the Herald’s companions asked that I deliver this to you,” he said nervously.

Leliana backed up into one of the torches near the chantry as she opened the satchel, using the flickering light to peer curiously into the contents inside. Laughter fell from her lips then in a quiet rush of breath. “Sera obviously,” she determined easily. “Who else would send me frilly underthings by runner?” She waved her agent off. “I’ll take care of this, Weaver. Thank you.”

He seemed beyond grateful as he went back to his usual duties with relief. Meanwhile, Leliana retrieved the note that had been laying atop the collection of smallclothes. It was written in a harsh, hasty scrawl:

She said you’d know what to do with these, so do them. She needs a reason to smile again. No sad Harry Harolds allowed!

Drawn around the words were various amusing caricatures of Sera shooting arrows or breathing fire. In one corner was a drawing of Alexius laid out on the ground—eyes exed out in death—while his rear had apparently been used a pincushion for cartoonish arrows. Other doodles around the perimeter of the parchment were of several underthings surrounding a smiling Niamh. The hairstyle had been a clear giveaway to the woman’s identity. She smiled, looking down at the satchel again, but she tilted her head curiously as she found something of significant interest from within.

“Wait… Are these Josephine’s?” she mused aloud, impish mischief filling her then.

The following morning, Leliana surreptitiously tracked Niamh’s movements from her tent as the other woman made her way up the stone steps toward the chantry. The fading circles beneath her eyes suggested she had slept some in the night but not nearly as much as she should have. Still, there was more of that familiar alertness within them—a keenness of mind that allowed her to locate anything unfamiliar within her surroundings almost immediately.

As a shadow flickered across Niamh’s path, Leliana watched as the woman turned her gaze above her and did an instant doubletake. Slowly, the mouth that had once been downturned with muted exhaustion began to curl up into a smile. Then, after several seconds, Niamh’s lips parted as her startled laughter carried across the courtyard—a sound so light and joyful that it stopped all manner of activity for a moment as eyes turned to their Herald in complete astonishment. Leliana realized that they likely had never heard her laugh before or even been this remotely carefree among them. She grinned when several heads turned up to see what had caught Niamh’s attention with such amusement.

There, atop the courtyard’s banner pole, was a fine line of undergarments dancing in the cool breeze.

“My lady, you should know that your Spymaster is an incorrigible prankster!” Josie exclaimed—beyond miffed—the moment Niamh stepped into the War Room.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Leliana remarked blithely, already lining up a few of her map markers along the edges of the table.

“No?” her friend demanded, a small flush overtaking her cheeks. “My… My things! In the courtyard!”

“The ruffles were very festive.”

At her words, Josie stamped a foot, giving a small whine. “Leliana!”

Their antics only seemed to feed Niamh’s amusement as she chuckled upon reaching her place at the War Table. Her smile was still evident as she spoke, but there was a sheepishness in her expression as well as she regarded Josie. “Before we begin, could I ask if we have any more tea, Lady Montilyet? And perhaps some of those almond biscuits? I’m afraid I didn’t have a chance to break my fast this morning before our meeting.”

It had been Niamh’s excuse of late when they had pressed her to eat before. Her appetite had been worryingly bird-like the past few weeks. That she was actively asking for food again was a positive sign of her improving mood.

“I… Yes.” Josie had blinked at first at her request, but then her smile widened, likely coming to the same conclusion Leliana had. “Let me prepare a small plate for you, my lady.”

“Thank you. How are we coming along in regards to what we asked of our allies?”

“Teryn Cousland’s forces in Highever as well as that of his contacts’ are ready to move at our word should we need them,” Josie said, handing her a cup of tea and a small tray of biscuits. “In addition, the King and Queen of Ferelden have offered further supplies for the refugees in The Hinterlands. The people there should be relatively comfortable for the time being as some of our scouts aid in rebuilding the homes lost in the initial fighting.”

Niamh nibbled idly on one the almost biscuits given to her. “Did we ever manage to get a map of the land around Master Dennet’s farm? He wanted aid regarding a few things before he agreed to release some of his horses to us.”

“I have it right here,” Leliana said, unraveling it on her side of the War Table, placing her raven map markers at the corners to help it rest flat against the wooden surface. She motioned for Niamh to join her there, and the woman took a sip of her tea before she made her way over. “This details more of the topography around Dennet’s farm. As such, we’ll have a clearer idea of where we can begin putting up the watch towers he requested.”

“Hm,” Niamh hummed thoughtfully as she peered down at the map before flickering ghostly grey eyes over to her. “Would you mind if I made a few suggestions regarding their locations?”

Leliana straightened in place at the words, pleased that the other woman was taking an active role in their meetings again. She offered up her remaining markers freely, and Niamh took one gently.

“Now, as I see it…”

As Niamh began relaying her thoughts aloud, Leliana exchanged a glance with Josie. While the other woman’s excitement was more evident than her own, it seemed they shared a common relief over Niamh’s improved well-being. She nodded along quietly to Niamh’s words as she moved other markers to a few strategic points along the map.

“There’s a choke point between these two valleys here, but the copse of trees would allow the tower to be otherwise invisible from anyone traveling through them. Enough to sound an alarm to the other towers if needed,” Niamh explained.

Leliana had no complaint regarding the location—it was one she would have chosen herself—and she nodded in approval. Not that she had been surprised at all by the decision. Leliana had long been aware Niamh was the type of woman who could uncover a riddle wrapped within the mystery of an enigma. They were both extraordinarily clever in that way, and their strengths had always played well to one another, especially when they had a common goal in mind. Leliana leaned down to point at one of the secondary locations, voice low as she shared a comment with her.

“What do you think of this location here?”

“Out near the open field?” Niamh rested an elbow in her palm as she rubbed a knuckle along her jawline in thought. Then, her eyes widened minutely in realization. “Ah. If enemies see the obvious target first, they’re less inclined to pay attention to ones that aren’t nearly as apparent.”

The corners of Leliana’s lips lifted up into a smile, ever impressed. “Precisely.”

"Very well.” Niamh nodded in approval, moving a free marker there. “I do like the idea of these watch towers. Could we implement something similar in the village we met Revered Mother Giselle in?” That pale gaze turned to her then. Thank you, they said even as she launched into another explanation. “With as often as we traveled to and from Redcliffe, I spotted a few noteworthy locations for them.”

“With the resources we gained from our contacts, I’m certain we can,” Leliana assured. And to Niamh’s silent comment, her own gaze softened in answer. Always.

Chapter Text

“Today’s the day then?” Leliana asked as she and Niamh strolled around the perimeter of the lake outside Haven. Enough of her own duties had been seen to—an admittedly rare lull in activity—that she allowed herself the small break, and it seemed that her friend also appreciated the company. Niamh nodded to her inquiry although she kept her gaze on the mages sparring in a nearby field.

“Between me, Lady Vivienne, and her Knight-Enchanter associates training the mages, we’re as ready as we’ll ever be.” The corner of her lips quirked up into a small, amused smile. “Granted, I think Commander Helaine would rather fine-tune a few things in regards to staff stances and striking techniques, but for our purposes, they’ll pass muster.”

Leliana eyed the woman in question, who was busy supervising the large number of apprentices through various drills, staff point striking the earth to the rhythm of each motion. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, Commander Helaine was of slighter stature—typical of most elves—with stern, angular features. She was dressed in the Circle robes suited for an Enchanter but hers held varying shades of grey along with more solid, earth-based colors. Like all the visiting Knight-Enchanters, however, Helaine also wore intricately-crafted gauntlets and greaves, which Leliana learned was by necessity, given their preferred methods of close quarters combat compared to other mages.

She was powerful and exacting in the standards she expected of her trainees, for barring Lady Vivienne, Helaine was also the one largely overseeing everything in regards to their mage allies in terms of training. While the other Knight-Enchanters—a diverse mix of humans and elves alike—seemed just as capable in their abilities, they deferred to her out of respect, and it was one well-given.

“That woman is a force of her own, isn’t she?” Leliana mused, watching as Commander Helaine stepped forth to correct a young mage’s stance with verbal instruction. Her features had been as neutral as ever, but her words apparently hadn’t been unkind, as the girl was quickly nodding with determination as she switched the positioning of her feet into a more appropriate one.

“Yes, Vivienne spoke highly of her—for good reason, it seems.” Niamh frowned lightly then. “Given the social stigma that elves face as well as being a mage, I’m sure it would have proven difficult to advance to her current ranking. It speaks well of her perseverance. Much like how Vivienne elevated her position as a mage within the Imperial Court, the Commander has built a reputation all her own.”

“There’s a mutual respect there, I think. I normally see them within each other’s company.”

“Agreed.” Grey eyes blinked then, vague surprise filling their depths then as she considered something. “I think her presence might also be rubbing off on our own Commander. I’ve noticed his own troops seem more energized as of late. Perhaps having others oversee the mages helped eased his own anxiety a bit.”

Upon her arrival with the other Knight-Enchanters, Commander Helaine quickly earned a reputation among the mages and soldiers alike, but while she was strict in her instruction, she wasn’t unreasonable.

“You would not have been able to cast a spell that far when we first started,” were the words Niamh had caught while walking through the training grounds following a mission. A few body-lengths away, she had seen the other woman kneel before a girl no less than a decade old, who had been quietly sniffling over what she had thought to be a failed conjuring of ability. Commander Helaine had smiled considerately then. “You are making progress—slowly but surely,” she reassured. “That in itself is its own accomplishment. Well done.”

Another day, she had caught the final fragments of a disagreement between her and an apprentice—an adolescent boy, who had been infamous about the encampment for his stubbornness. From what Niamh had been able to piece together, the boy had likely objected to having to change his method of fighting when it had suited him well for years.

Commander Helaine had calmly looked at him before simply waving a hand, which led the other Knight-Enchanters into clearing the other apprentices off to the side for the impromptu sparring match between her and the obstinate apprentice. Helaine held her staff in a relaxed grip behind her back, shifting into a stance that left her feet evenly spaced apart while her opposite shoulder angled itself toward her opponent, who stood facing her directly. The woman merely gestured at him with a few crooked fingers—allowing him to start the match at his leisure—and he did so with relish.

Immediately, a barrage of fireballs were sent the Commander’s way, but with subtle shifts of her body, she was able to evade them without overcorrecting her position one way or the other—something that had been evident in the boy's own fighting style when Niamh had been watching them all earlier. As Helaine continued dodging, she was also making her way toward her opponent with alarming speed.

The apprentice realized this, and he only continued to backtrack, not bothering to hold his ground. Desperately, he cast a line of fire in her direction in an attempt to recreate the distance between them, but before the flames could even reach their peak, Helaine had simply jumped over them. With her sudden forward momentum, she stretched out a hand, which struck the boy in the chest, and without a grounding stance to aid him, he soon fell onto his back with a hard thud. He grunted from the impact, and he found a staff point at his throat a moment later. He swallowed hard beneath it before his gaze nervously followed the shaft of it up to the Knight-Enchanter’s cold, dark eyes.

“Had you found yourself against an easier target—a mage with no training for instance—you likely would have had the advantage. Realize, however, you will not always have the luxury of range to your advantage and that your opponents will not always be fellow mages. If I was able to close the distance between us as well as defeat you without resorting to magic, imagine what would have happened had you found yourself up in close quarters against a warrior or a rogue.” Her lips downturned into a deep frown before she moved her staff away from him and settled it against her back. “Even if such situations might prove a rare occasion at best, I’d rather you practice good habits that will save you in the long run than enforce bad ones that may very well leave you dead the next day. Understood?”

Chastised, the boy merely nodded obediently, rubbing at his throat as he rose to his feet.

“Good.” Helaine raised her head to the rest of the trainees as she made her way back to her usual position at the end of the field. “Alright. Pair up for sparring practice. Remember: no theatrics. I want to see precision in your casting. Explosions of pomp do nothing but waste your energy, and in a battle, every last bit of your mana matters.” She held her hands behind her sternly before casting a critical eye over each mage. “Begin.”

It became evident that Helaine exercised patience for those still learning their craft and applied pressure when needed to those who felt they knew better than her teachings—an iron hand within a velvet glove of unwavering confidence.

From this, Cullen had an example to follow, as he would shadow her at the Commander’s own insistence, and Niamh had been present for such a lesson when she wished to see the progress of their allies. She had noticed that while some mages spared him a glance, they continued to train diligently under the Knight-Enchanters in their midst, and she was pleased to see how quickly they had improved since finding them at Redcliffe. As her gaze continued to span across the field, she was mindful of the conversation behind her.

“Look at them as you would any of your soldiers,” Helaine had told Cullen. “See past their differences, and you will see what they’ll be able to offer and more. Coal may turn to diamonds with enough pressure, but you must understand that some may never have a true gift for magic just as some recruits will never have an art for war.”

“But that… That doesn’t help us with our current objective, does it?”

“In an ideal world, positions like yours and mine would never have to be needed. Would you want Thedas filled with only soldiers instead of those who can help carry the world forward from day to day? Is that not what farmers, bakers, blacksmiths, and men and women of various other trades do?” Out of the corner of her eye, Niamh saw the Commander turn more fully to Cullen then. “The ones ill-suited for war may not be able to fight on the front lines as we do, but that does not mean they cannot aid in the peace that follows. I ask that you remember that.”

“Honestly, I’d take the woman as an advisor in a heartbeat were she open to the idea,” Niamh drawled, brushing aside the long fringe her hair from her eyes when a passing breeze unsettled the strands there.

“You could always ask her.”

“We’ll see.” She sighed. “Honestly, of our War Council, Cullen may be the least-adjusted to all of this. In relatively short order, we saw the mages freed from the Circle of Magi and then consequently made allies. He swore his life to the Order because he admired them, but it also means he had no way of properly preparing himself for this type of likelihood.” Almost reluctantly, however, she added, “He is showing some improvement in how he carries himself around the mages though. That is progress—small though it might be. He says he remains committed to his duties as Commander. How true that proves remains to be seen.”

Leliana followed alongside Niamh as they finished their walk around the lake’s edge and began making their way back into Haven’s compound through the soldiers’ training ground. As they did, she saw how Cullen tried to covertly watch Niamh out of the corner of his eye. While the other woman hadn’t been aware of his attention—she always seemed preoccupied by other things on her mind—Leliana always was. She pursed her lips, wondering if perhaps he had incentive to prove himself a better man now. It was hardly a notable bar to surpass given his behavior in Kinloch Hold years ago.

“His anti-mage sentiments do prove worrisome, given who we have as allies now,” Leliana said reasonably as they entered Niamh’s cabin, and the other woman merely sighed, conceding to her point.

“Had he not shown any progress at all, I would be more adamant about the idea of replacing him outright, but a change in the organization’s structure this close to one of our goals coming to fruition might do more harm than good."

“Hm. Well, I suppose they say even the oldest of Fereldan dogs can learn new tricks when pressed.”

Niamh arched a brow at her as busied herself with something on the table. “You do realize he’s close to my age, don’t you?”

“Hush,” Leliana chastised, rolling her eyes at her friend. “I doubt you were ever a poor student.” Her smile turned a touch more indulgent when Niamh laughed, the lingering notes of the sound filling the cabin with as much warmth as the lit hearth.

“In any case, perhaps after we close the Breach and begin gathering more information about this Elder One, I’ll be able to give the matter the proper diligence it is due.”

“A fair point. Now what was it that required my attention?” Leliana padded closer when Niamh gestured for her to join her at the table, where the woman was beginning to unwrap a package encased in rawhide.

“I meant to give this to you earlier, but I suppose with things being as hectic as they are as of late, it managed to slip my mind,” she admittedly ruefully before unfolding the length of the leather, revealing a bundle of a dozen arrows inside. “Still, I hope you’ll like these.”

Leliana leaned in closer to inspect them curiously. They were all finely-crafted, she could admit, but she noted more than a few stunning—and familiar—details on them. “These designs here…” she trailed off, tracing the image of a wolf charred onto the surface of the shaft. “Didn’t I see you draw them before?”

“Ah. Before Redcliffe? Yes. I was trying to figure out what I wanted before I committed to doing the pyrography,” she said, and the admission of that had Leliana looking toward her, both brows raising.

“You made these yourself?”

“Yes.” The corner of Niamh’s turned up into a sheepish half-smile. “I asked Sera to teach me, and once I had the burn marks on the arrows completed, she sent them off to one of her Jennies.” She shrugged. “Apparently one of them knows a thing or two about enchanting. She was able to place elemental runes on them for me, so you have four of each element. Fire.” She pointed to an arrow shaft that had the bird with flames engraved into it. “Lightning.” The image of the storm. “And ice.” The wolf Leliana had seen earlier.

“And you made these for me?” she couldn’t help but ask, stunned. “Why?”

Dark brows simply furrowed themselves at her question. “Because you told me that I owed you a dozen arrows.”

It took only a heartbeat for Leliana to recall the incident the other woman had been referring to, but when she did, a small rush of incredulous laughter escaped her in a single breath. “Oh, Niamh... You didn’t need to go through all the trouble. I was only teasing.”

Niamh only rolled her shoulders in a shrug, smiling. “Yes, but I felt badly anyway that I incinerated your last batch of arrows with my lightning. These, on the other hand, have been enhanced to withstand most magical attacks. With the exception of the arrowhead, which you’ll have to sharpen on occasion to keep the edge needed, you likely won’t have to replace these from wear and tear—provided you don’t lose them, of course.”

The woman then handed one of the arrows over for her to properly inspect, and Leliana took it delicately in both hands, testing the weight of them. Even with the runes—small and evenly embedded throughout the shaft—they weren’t particularly heavier than the normal ones she used, and the balance seemed perfectly manageable.

“Hm. I should have planned this better,” Niamh murmured, and Leliana looked up to see her friend staring at the thick gloves she wore with mild concern. “I’m not certain if you still use archery gloves, but in any case, to activate the secondary effect on the arrows, you need to touch your bare fingertips to those runes there.”

“Any one of them?” she asked, as she settled the arrow back onto the table with the others and began removing her gloves, laying them neatly over the back of a chair.

“Any will do, yes,” Niamh confirmed. “Once you do, they’ll be attuned to only your touch. As such, even were an enemy to somehow retrieve these, they wouldn’t be able to activate the runes—not without another enchanter going through a myriad of steps to remove and re-adapt them at any rate.”

“Some days I feel you’re far too clever for your own good at times,” she teased even as she followed Niamh’s instructions, taking an arrow and pressing a fingertip to a fiery-red rune. It, and the remaining runes along the shaft, lit up instantly with a muted glow before returning to their natural luster. As they faded, the arrowhead immediately became engulfed with flame, and though she had expected it, Leliana remained remarkably impressed. She had seen enchanted bows and other magical weapons over the years, but arrows? These were a first for her. “Far too clever indeed,” she repeated, running the thumb over a rune again to extinguish the fire. “We’re lucky to have you working with us. I can only imagine how our enemies feel when they're matched against you.”

“Hardly. The Inquisition has you here as well after all,” Niamh insisted, but from her smile, she seemed pleased her gift was being well-received. She jerked her chin toward the remainder of the arrows on the table. “You just need to repeat the process for the rest of them, and they’ll be ready to use should you need them.”

“I do appreciate the gift, but why did you decide to give this to me now?” she questioned even as she began picking up the arrows one by one to attune them to her touch.

“Well, originally, I planned their creation before Redcliffe, but given everything that happened there…” Niamh trailed off with her thought, and Leliana knew to just let the matter be. There was no need to drag the other woman through such painful memories again—not when she almost hadn’t been able to help her last time. Niamh had been so deep in her misery and guilt back then, and she felt a flash of pain upon remembering that night. “I wanted you to have every advantage you could possibly have on the off-chance we can’t seal the Breach.”

“You’ve doubts that you and our allies will be able to manage it?” Leliana frowned, but Niamh simply shrugged.

“I’m a tactician. I have to at least plan for the possibility even if it’s one that can’t be easily swallowed,” she replied sensibly. “Commander Helaine and half the Knight-Enchanters will be accompanying me with the bulk of the mages to the Breach. I’ll have Lady Vivienne leading the remaining forces here along with the rest of her associates—a failsafe in case the rift does unleash a slew of demons.” Her teeth worried at her bottom lip briefly. “Strategically, Haven isn’t really a suitable location for the Inquisition’s base of operations, and it certainly isn’t built to handle a heavy, sustained assault for that matter.”

Leliana was inclined to agree, but even with the weeks they had to prepare against the Breach, attempting to move their organization elsewhere in addition to that likely wouldn’t have been an easy feat—not with the bolstered numbers they had now. “It’s something to look into thoroughly when you get back. We’ll make due at any rate.”

“I’ll see if I can’t ask my brother for some advice on the matter.” The barest hint of a smile—one filled with hesitant worry—graced her features then. “I’ve no doubt you’ll all be able to see to the village’s safety. I’ll try not to be gone too long.”

Niamh felt her very bones rattle as she began harnessing the power of the Mark. Fire had never harmed her, but she had always felt the heat of her own abilities. This, however, was just on the edge of searing, waiting to freefall into manageable relief or descend further into twisted agony. Her magic had protested the very idea of the Mark when it first appeared—trying to envelop it and quell it like a disease—and she felt the effect more heavily each and every time the strange energy flared along her palm. In recent weeks, however, the sensation had become tolerable—albeit marginally so.

Her magic hadn’t suffered thankfully. She could still conjure spells with all the force she had at her disposal, but she feared the longer the Mark remained branded upon her, the more her magic would become intertwined with it. Would there come a day when she could no longer distinguish between one or the other?

“On your call, Your Worship.”

Niamh drew herself out of her thoughts to see Commander Helaine approaching her side. The woman spared a brief glance at the power building within her palm. There was enough energy that it caused her hand to veer out a place a few times as her fingers shook even with her concentrated efforts to keep it steady. Faint worry lingered in the other woman’s eyes, but her demeanor remained as professional as always—a fact Niamh could appreciate. She nodded then.

“Have our allies ready themselves. As soon as the Mark interacts with the Breach, that will be their signal to act,” she said, and she received a nod of confirmation as Helaine moved back beyond her line of sight.

Niamh could dimly hear the orders being called out behind her. She felt the energy singing within the air as the other mages began building up their own magic, but she kept her gaze firmly on the rift before them. It almost seemed to taunt her with how it fluxed rapidly in reaction to her Mark with the familiar sounds of shattering glass and crystal, reminding her of her failure when she last attempted this.

With what was at stake—a shiver of fear trickled down her spine when she recalled Future Redcliffe—she couldn’t abide the unspoken insult. Resolve surged within her, and she held her hand out toward the rift. Pain lanced up her arm immediately, and she grit her teeth, suppressing the cries so prevalent on her tongue. When the magic of the other mages then combined with her own to pour into the ever-shifting portal, it was almost a balm against her senses, but she couldn’t afford to loosen her control.

Niamh had to make sure there was no doubt it was closed this time.

She would not allow its presence to threaten the world and those she cared for.

Leliana would never have to sacrifice herself for her again.

And then the rift above them brightened to blinding levels as magic continually flooded into it. The resulting shockwave thereafter was what took Niamh—and her nearest allies—off their feet, but as the dust settled, she no longer sensed the telltale magical instability of a nearby rift. Grey eyes turned to examine the heavens, and Niamh was relieved there wasn’t any evidence of the Breach’s presence at all, save for the vortex of clouds continuing to swirl overhead.

Perhaps that was evidence enough the immense tear had been properly sealed this time. She would have to ask Solas to verify that fact later when he next entered the Fade, but as Commander Helaine helped her to her feet—an expression of utter approval on her features amidst the cries of victory in the background—her worries were appeased for the time being.

One step at a time, Niamh reminded herself. For now, we can rest easy.

Festivities had commenced upon their return to Haven. Even from a distance, the absence of the Breach was obvious, and it was further proof their heroes had succeeded in their endeavors.

While Niamh had allowed enough of her presence to be seen those first few hours of the celebration, she had retired back into her cabin before long. She could still hear the fanfare outside her walls, however, and she expected it would continue long into the night.

When Leliana had asked to join her, she had offered no objections—inwardly, she had been thrilled by the request—and they both sat at the table before the warm fireplace, drinking alcohol and enjoying each other’s company. Save for the location, Niamh could almost imagine it was another night's watch together at the campfire back during their more adventurous days.

“Where in the world did you get this?” Leliana asked as she eyed the bottle that had nearly been caked over completely in dust.

“You’d be surprised how often I find these out on the road.” Amusement filled her even as she worked a thumb over the label, trying to discern any notable dates. She turned it over to Leliana for inspection. “I think this one might be a good year. It tasted fine to me at any rate, but I’m hardly an expert on the subject.”

“Hm. 8:69 Blessed. A good year indeed.” Red brows rose minutely then as Leliana brushed over something near the base of the bottle. “Ah. This is an Orlesian liqueur.”

“How can you tell?” she asked, but humor only flashed in the crystal blue eyes across from her as Leliana turned the bottle over to show her the… very erotically-carved peach pit she had uncovered along the glass. Niamh’s eyes widened in increments as realization slowly dawned over her, and she cursed inwardly when she felt the heat rising to her cheeks in reaction. “Oh,” she uttered, hiding her grimace behind the curve of her wooden cup.

“Not to worry,” Leliana reassured with a small laugh. “It’s a good bottle. While I’ve more a preference for sweet wines, I’ve never been disappointed with a glass of Charnelle the few times I’ve had it.”

“Ah. That’s the name of it then?”

“Yes. It translates to ‘carnal’ in Common,” she said simply, crossing one leg over the other at the knee as sipped at her own cup. “It’s the type of liqueur meant for the daring, or those who want to seem so at least. It’s also said to enhance sensation.”

“It...” She swallowed. "It is?"

“Mmhm,” Leliana hummed in confirmation even as she rested a cheek in her hand, pure mischief in her gaze as she smiled. “In bed preferably, but I suppose any flat surface would do if the need were urgent enough.”

Maker’s breath, she cursed with an inward groan, utterly certain her ears were burning now. It was made all the more evident when she saw Leliana’s eyes dart in the direction of one with unerring precision. She is never going to let me live this down...

“I... I can get you something else to drink,” she offered, mortified, even as she racked her mind over what bottles she had collected over recent months during her travels. “I honestly just liked this for its sweetness. I wasn’t trying to imply—” She bit her lip, unable to look the other woman in the eye. “I think there’s a few bottles of brandy or whiskey left if you’d find that more preferable. Let me just—” The hand on her forearm stopped her before she could get up.

“No, no. This is fine,” Leliana insisted even though amusement was still evident in her voice, but her eyes—still such a startlingly pale shade of blue even after all these years—were sincere. “I’m sorry; I forgot how easy it was to tease you. I can stop if it makes you truly uncomfortable.”

“Oh.” Her blush was finally starting to fade, and she was thankful for it. “No. It’s alright.” Niamh admittedly liked that Leliana still felt comfortable enough around her to try such a thing. She could endure a bit of teasing at her expense if it meant she could see the other woman this open with her. “I suppose given how often I spent away from others over the past decade, I forgot that this—” She gestured to the space between them both. “—was commonplace.”

Leliana’s gaze softened with her smile. “I’ll try to be more mindful about reminding you then.” She refilled her cup before holding it up, and Niamh obligingly clinked it against her own before they both drank. “Commander Helaine says you and our allies performed admirably at the Breach.”

“High praise indeed, given she’s one of Lady Vivienne’s associates.” With the Breach properly sealed now, it was certainly one less thing to worry about; yet, she couldn’t help but turn her attention to her left palm. Even with her gloves—a fingerless set that allowed her to wield her staff more deftly—she still felt the presence of the Mark there. She could see the rivulets of green in her mind’s eye. “I had hoped… Well. No matter.”

“Niamh.” She looked up to see Leliana staring at her with concern. “We’ll find a way to remove it. Lady Vivienne is apparently quite the alchemist in her spare time. If not her, surely we can find someone among our growing number of contacts who can help. More will only continue to pour in once word spreads of your heroism.”

“It’s not like I sealed the Breach myself, Leliana. It was a concentrated effort—a test of alliance—and it was only unfortunate luck that happened to put me in the center of it all,” she said, idly flexing the fingers of the hand which held her Mark. “I’m glad we were able to succeed in this. I just wanted…” She sighed, knowing that she sounded unappreciative. When a hand gently laid itself over her palm, she drew her eyes up to Leliana.

“At one point, this was a threat to your life,” Leliana said softly, understanding in her tone. “You had every right to worry then, and perhaps now you still do. We don’t yet know in what new ways the Mark will affect you, but we can be there to help you so long as you are willing to let us.” She paused then, frowning. “Tell me, if the Mark had disappeared with the Breach and there wasn’t an Elder One left to find, would you have left us?”

“Wouldn’t that have been the logical conclusion?” Niamh asked, a frown of her own forming although hers was one borne of confusion. “What use would the Inquisition have for me if the goal sought has been completed?”

“You think yourself so easily replaced?”

“No, but the Chantry came about because of the previous Inquisition’s end, didn’t it? Ours may fall under the same fate one day, and with it, there’s no guarantee everything won’t just return to what it was.” She rotated the cup of liqueur between her fingertips—slow so as to not let it grate against the surface of the table—as she gathered her thoughts. “Honestly, in all the Chantry’s history, have you ever heard of a mage within it that hadn’t been turned into a cautionary tale? Of the dangers we pose to society if left unchecked? Even recent events with the destruction of Kirkwall’s chantry and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the former rebel mages in Redcliffe don’t paint my people in the best light. I expect such an institution to change our story to suit its own needs when the time comes, perhaps when they finally finishing arguing amongst themselves over the Divine Election rather than helping the people most in need of their guidance.”

Her words had ended on a more bitter note that she had intended, but her thoughts regarding the Chantry had long been tumultuous at best. When Niamh looked up to see Leliana, there was an expression on her features that she couldn’t place. She took it to be disapproval, and she chided herself for not leaving the matter well enough alone when she had the chance. Even as tired as Niamh was, that was no excuse for her to insult Leliana’s faith—not when she kept it so close to her heart. She wet her lips nervously.

“But to continue on from your earlier question, yes; I would have left once the Inquisition had no need of me. As to where, I can’t readily say. I spent so long across the Waking Sea, avoiding all the problems I left behind here in Ferelden. I didn’t expect there to still be some good left after my departure.” She smiled then, remembering a letter her brother had written to her recently. “Fergus has never been shy about reminding me that I could return to Highever whenever I pleased. Perhaps I might visit there when all this is through.”

Leliana allowed the change in subject with more grace than Niamh felt she deserved. “A visit, you say?” Curiosity was evident in her voice. “Do you no longer feel like Highever is home to you then?”

That was admittedly a difficult question to answer.

Even since she had been taken away to Ferelden’s Circle as a child, she had spent more time in the Tower than she ever had on the lands where she had been born. Visits back to the Cousland estate had been infrequent at best—occurring every year at first and then every other year in between—but it was enough that she couldn’t hold a conversation with her mother or the maternal side of the family in their native tongue anymore. Not like her siblings could. Her mother had only begun to teach her the proper linguistics of it before her magic had developed. Then, without anyone in the Tower there who spoke the language, what knowledge she had of it was left to languish in disuse. When Niamh visited home, her mother and siblings translated phrases more into Common for her whenever she had been lost in the conversation. Her father had tried to sympathize, as the learning of languages had never been his strong suit—fantastic Teyrn though he was otherwise.

It never changed the fact Niamh loved her family dearly—and the sentiment was returned equally—but she still felt she had lost some deeper connection with them as a result of their forced separation. The thought of it had always been an ever-present thorn in her side no matter how impressive her mastery over her magic was. Had such power been worth losing a part of her identity?

“No,” she said distractedly, answering Leliana’s question even as more of her own arose. “Home is…” Niamh drew her gaze away from Leliana and focused her attention instead on a grain pattern along the table. “Well, it’s a moot point at best. Maybe when this is all over, I’ll finally know.”

But she had long known the answer.

It was simply something she could never reveal. Not then, and certainly not now. That they were sat together like this, enjoying one another’s company, while a fire roared nearby to keep them warm…

Home will always be wherever you are.

And then the warning toll of the bells stole them both out of the quiet peace of the cabin. They exchanged similar grim expressions before rushing to their feet, drinks forgotten in the adrenaline of whatever could have trespassed upon them.

“Gather your agents. Be prepared to help any civilian evacuate into the chantry,” Niamh said even as she picked up her staff that had laid against the nearby wall, situating it across her back. She could already hear Cullen’s call of enemy forces approaching the gate in the distance, and she gritted her teeth at the news. “I’ll join the Commander to determine what’s going on.”

Leliana nodded in answer and was out the door in a flash while Niamh cursed her luck as she headed toward the main gate. I suppose a night’s reprieve had been too much to ask…

It had seemed the Templars had taken offense to her siding with the mages, and for such a slight, their answer had been to attack the Inquisition’s base of operations in droves, heedless of the innocents who could have been caught in the midst of it all. It should have been surprising, but Niamh was no stranger to Templars and their prejudices. She could have repelled a small force of them on her own, but against the numbers she and her party were up against? She couldn’t guarantee an easy victory, especially now that their enemies had all been enhanced by red lyrium—a gift of the dreaded Elder One they had sworn allegiance to.

With the trebuchets situated around the perimeter of the village walls, they had managed to turn the tide somewhat, burying a large bulk of the now designated Red Templars in the ensuing avalanches. In doing so, they had reduced the Elder One’s invading forces and barred any attempts for them to gain quick access to Haven, which was a boon, as Niamh feared that the twisted fate of their enemies likely would have been the same for her mage allies had she not gone to Redcliffe to help.

That would have been the beginning of the end, she realized of the Elder One’s sinister motivations. With all the mages and Templars under his control, no one would have been able to stop him.

The only option was to continue to remain several steps ahead of him, which she had succeeded in thus far by denying him the mages he desired and sealing the Breach that would have given him a demon army at his disposal.

What she hadn’t expected, however, was the High Dragon—twisted as much as the Templars with the red lyrium embedded across its hide—under the Elder One’s control. As Niamh eyed its immense, hideous form, she felt a sinking sense of horror settling within her. No… It can’t be.

But the apparent Archdemon hadn’t been content to let their momentary victory linger, and it quickly proceeded to turn the tides of battle, laying down plumes of destructive fire in its wake. Niamh and her party had no choice but to retreat back to the chantry and regroup, helping surviving stragglers along the way toward safety.

“Even from a distance I could sense how powerful he was, but the magic around him was…” Niamh grimaced. “…distorted to a degree I can’t possibly fathom. Nothing about this Elder One is natural, and I can’t imagine conventional methods of war are going to be enough to stop him.” She sighed as she eyed Cullen, who was equally upset about their situation. “Not that it matters at this point. He has us cornered, and he knows it.”

"Agreed. Whatever that beast is, it’s cut a path for that army, and they’ll kill everyone in Haven.”

“The Elder One doesn’t care about the village,” Cole—a most curious, young man who had come to offer them aid at the start of the Red Templars’ approach—said with seemingly absolute certainly. “He only wants the Herald.”

Niamh’s brows furrowed. “Whatever for? Was this attack a punishment for what I had taken from him?”

“I don’t know. He’s too loud; it hurts to hear him,” he said, which only puzzled her even more, as it implied Cole was capable of reading the Elder One’s mind—a feat she hadn’t realized was generally possible. “He wants to kill you. No one else matters, but he’ll crush them and kill them anyway.” He bowed his head further, hiding his face more behind the brim of his hat. “I don’t like him,” he murmured.

“Lady Cousland.” Cullen’s voice had her turning to him then, and his expression was grave. “We may only have one option available to us. There’s still one last trebuchet yet to be launched; we could use it to cause one last avalanche.”

“You’re suggesting we bury Haven to stop them for good?” she asked, disbelief filling her.

“We… We’re already dying, but we can decide how,” he told her softly, resignation in his voice. “Many don’t get that choice.”

And he was right in the matter, reluctant as she was to accept defeat. The tactician within her protested the very thought of being outplayed, but the woman beneath it all was saddened that so many lives—all of whom had looked to her for safety—would die in the place that they flocked to for sanctuary. It was a cruel irony, and a final twist of a knife in her back.

“Wait. Chancellor Roderick can help,” Cole said then, and Niamh was drawn out of her reverie. She frowned as she looked to him and then Roderick in confusion, having not heard a word from the latter.


“There is a path,” Roderick rasped as he looked to her earnestly. “You wouldn’t know of it unless you made the summer pilgrimage as I have. The people can escape. She… Andraste must have shown me so that I could tell you. It was whim that I walked it to begin with. I did not mean to start; it was overgrown,” he said, clutching his side in pain, and it was reflected in the watery sheen of his eyes. Still, there was… a hopefulness within that gaze that bade her to listen and consider his words. “Now, with so many in the Conclave dead… To be the only one who remembers, I… I don’t know. If this simple memory can save us,” he entreated, “then this could be more than mere accident. You could be more.”

Niamh, however, wasn’t quite so certain. Although it seemed Roderick had come to believe in her with what would likely be the final hours of his life, she wondered if simple faith was enough to overcome the obstacles pressing upon them. She turned her gaze away from him to stare at the crowds of people gently being ushered further into the chantry by Josephine and Leliana, who were doing their best to keep everyone calm despite their circumstances. Could she deny them this chance—the hope that they would live to see another day?

She knew the answer as soon as she drew her attention to the wooden doors that marked the entrance of the building.

“I’ve seen that look enough times before. What are you thinking?” Cullen asked curiously, coaxing her back to the present.

“With our War Council, our inner circle, the villagers, and our troops and allies…” She trailed off, working her jaw over pensively. “It’s a considerable number of people who need to be evacuated, but we won’t have time to get them all to safety if we don’t act against the Elder One first.” She narrowed her eyes, a well of fire burning inside her chest in anticipation of what awaited her. “Go. Help guide them out,” she said to Roderick, and at that, Cole helped the Chancellor to walk toward the back of the chantry and begin the trek toward what was hopefully salvation.

“Wait! What about what happens when the mountain falls?” Cullen pressed anxiously. “What about you?”

Niamh merely stared at him in silence, allowing him to come to the likely conclusion for himself, and when he did with horrified realization, she glanced away with a sigh. “A lifetime ago, you once told my sister that mages were unlike anyone else—weapons capable of lighting an entire city on fire in a fit of pique. In all the years I’ve lived, I’ve never forgotten the dangers of magic, but I’ve never fallen to the lure of the demons within the Fade either.” A short breath of exhausted laughter fell from her lips then. “How could I when there was nothing within that could possibly tempt me more than what I had found outside of it?” she asked, her mind’s eye drawing forth several images.

A flash of crimson hair more brilliant than the sun’s rays.

Eyes that were the most piercing shade of glacial blue.

A voice and—with it—the gift of song that could still all of Thedas with its beauty.

Cullen looked absolutely stricken. “Lady Cousland, the things I said—”

“—were true,” Niamh finished ruefully. “Although I’ve tried my best to let others see otherwise, I understand why people fear me. Right now, however, that’s precisely what we need. A monster capable of our world’s destruction beckons us at our gates, so…” She idly flexed her hand, conjuring lightning which interweaved itself between her fingers. “…better to let another monster of equal caliber face it.”


“Commander!” she snapped, stopping his words cold. She didn’t want to hear her name fall from his lips, and she didn’t want him to dissuade her. “With as much borrowed time as we have, you’ve still a duty to the people under our protection. Find Roderick’s path. Get them out. Survive.”

“This is suicide!”

And it was.

She didn’t deny it.

Niamh knew Future Redcliffe had only occurred because she’d been lost to time, and the Inquisition had been woefully unprepared against the threat of this Elder One. With her reports of the incident, however—and what hints they had as to what had occurred in that timeline following her loss—Niamh only hoped it would be enough for her War Council to continue the fight in her stead and succeed where their future counterparts hadn’t.

There was no guarantee she would return from this battle, not when it was clear she was the main target. She could use it to her advantage however. Niamh just needed to buy them time. And if all else fails… I suppose I get to see the rest of my family again. The thought, however, didn’t bring her as much comfort as she had expected, but as she eyed the man standing morosely at her side—his expression one of pain and ever-present guilt—she realized it would have to be enough.

“Commander, please,” she implored. “Continue to protect them.”

As Cullen reluctantly retreated from her—a promise on his lips—Niamh hated how badly she wanted to be selfish. She wanted to stay with Leliana if only to make sure she made it through. There was so much she needed to say—so much she needed to do.

But she couldn’t.

They had no other options left.

The Leliana in Future Redcliffe had nearly been broken beyond all repair by the torment inflicted upon her. It had been little more than sheer hatred holding her together, but she had seen the blame in her eyes the moment they reunited. For a moment, she had found fault in Niamh for her abandonment—unintentional though it was—leaving them with a world too far gone to be saved.

She couldn’t do that to Leliana again.

Niamh would give all she had to let them see another day to regroup and rebuild the Inquisition to something far greater than what could be obtained from a reluctant figurehead of faith. Martyrdom had never been something she readily sought out, but of everything that had accompanied her sister’s legacy, Niamh had hoped this would have been something she never would have followed Saoirse in.

But if it can save them all, then so be it…

The blast of fire from the Archdemon had sent her tumbling across the ground, and her staff flung itself out of reach of her. Niamh shook her head sharply to rid herself of the sudden disorientation, but when she saw the figures of her companions scrambling back toward her in a bid to help, she had enough mind to place an ice wall that spread from one side of the field to the other. She could just barely see their silhouettes through the nearly opaque surface, but to her dismay, they were reluctant to leave her. Blackwall was determinedly using his sword and shield to try and pick away at her barricade while Dorian summoned a flash of flame to try to melt the wall before them.

“Just go!” she ordered.

“Neevy, this is shite—” Sera emphasized her words with several furious whacks of her bow against the ice. “—and you know it!”

“I need you all to live and fight another day! I won’t be able to use my magic to my fullest potential if I fear I might hurt you all in the process!”

Of her current party, Dorian and Sera were the only ones who had been witness to the terrible might of her powers—testament to the consequences of provoking her too far. Niamh was more than capable of devastating all within her path, and while she had always been reluctant in displaying her magic in such a way, she couldn’t deny it was needed here. For them—for everyone who had dedicated themselves to serving the Inquisition’s cause—she had to. With relief, she saw her companions begin to back away—albeit grudgingly so.

“Don’t you dare die on us, Cousland,” she heard Dorian call out, but she said nothing in return. She couldn’t afford to make promises she couldn’t keep. It seemed cruel to offer them such a false hope.

Then the world shook as the dragon landed within close proximity of her, maw opening with a putrid roar. Its eyes were aglow with the lyrium corrupting its veins as it stalked forward, and she had no choice but to put some distance between them as she backed up hesitantly. She found the gnawing, twisted magical presence behind her more distasteful, however, and she gritted her teeth against the sudden nausea she felt. Is he truly powerful as he claims, or am I simply reacting to the utter abnormality of his magic?

“You stand in awe before a god."

“‘In awe?’” she repeated with a scoff, lip curling in disdain. “No, I’m afraid it’s more that I couldn’t decide who was the more hideous beast between you two."

The archdemon took exception to the insult, and it reared its head back before shooting burst a wave of fire. Niamh sent forth a stream of her own from two fingertips with enough force that it parted the flames until they simply diverted themselves to either side of her, scorching the ground but leaving her ultimately unharmed. Still, she had to be careful; she no longer had a staff to fall back upon as a catalyst. If I expend too much magic here… She let the thought trail off as the dragon growled—smoke still falling from its muzzle—as it paced away from her with baleful eyes.

“How intriguing,” the Elder One mused, “even with all the energy you put into sealing the Breach—what I had intended to assault the very heavens themselves—you still have more to give. No matter. Know me. Know what you have pretended to be. Exalt the Elder One—the one who is Corypheus.”

“You’re a fool to think your pet can put an inkling of fear into me. I’ve faced an Archdemon before.”

“And yet you are not a Grey Warden,” he said, confident in such knowledge, which led her to frown. From the age and design of the tattered robes, this Corypheus appeared to be ancient; yet, he was somehow aware of the existence of Grey Wardens? “Even were you to cause this Archdemon considerable harm, you would not be able to slay it. Your efforts would be futile. Now bend the knee."

The blood of the Couslands and the Mac Eanraigs flowing through her protested the very idea, and her lips lifted into a sneer. “You’re going to be sorely disappointed if you believe I have any intention of doing so.”

“You will resist,” he stated in simple observation of her. “You will always resist, but realize your bravery won’t save you against the likes of me, foolish creature. Your kind will either bend the knee to me or simply fall beneath my might. One way or another, I will have my due.” He raised an orb within his hand that began to emanate an eerie, red glow, and she felt her Mark instinctively react to it. She steeled her expression even as the sensation of a fire being lit against her palm only grew more pronounced. “I am here for the Anchor, and the process of removal begins now.”

Corypheus only had to wave a hand before the burning sensation increased to the point where she saw white flash across her vision from the pain. She hissed sharply as she staggered in place, pressing a hand to the inside of her elbow in an attempt to stave off the path of agony the Mark—no, the Anchor—was trying to navigate. The metallic tang suddenly coating her tongue alerted her to the fact that she had bitten her lip too hard, but Niamh wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of hearing her scream.

“It is your fault, Herald. You interrupted a ritual years in the planning, and instead of dying, you stole its purpose…” He sneered as the magic within his own hand grew, and a rush of breath left her through gritted teeth as the heat along her palm began to swell further out. As it flared an otherworldly red—nearly overtaking the viridian light that had been present before—Niamh had to lock her knees to keep from keeling over with the pain that raced white-hot along her spine.

“You killed the Divine for this, and it led to the destruction of everyone within the Conclave! You caused so immense a rift between the mages and Templars that the world almost suffered dearly for it! Why?!” she demanded. “What was the point of all this chaos?!”

“Chaos will empower me and ensure we no longer beg at the feet of the invisible,” he revealed before stalking forward to take her forearm, and Niamh was helpless to stop him as she dangled above the ground within his torturous grip. Her magic was already overtaxing itself from keeping Corypheus' corruptible power at bay. Faced with that knowledge, she had nothing to give in terms of offense. “I once breached the Fade in the name of another to serve the Old Gods of the Empire in person. I found only chaos and corruption—dead whispers,” he hissed. “For a thousand years I was confused. No more. I have gathered the will to return under no name but my own to champion withered Tevinter and correct this blighted world. Beg that I succeed, for I have seen the throne of the Gods, and it was empty!”

Niamh frowned upon hearing such a revelation. Tevinter? Could he be a former magister? If his claims of living for over a millennium spoke true, it was entirely possible, but despite his longevity, he was still a man grasping for divinity. He cared not for the lives of those that would be upended in his pursuit, and she couldn’t abide such greed. And what do we say before a false god? she mused to herself, glaring into the amber eyes across from her with a humorless smile. “Not today.”

For her insolence, Corypheus saw fit to flung her toward the frame of the trebuchet with enough force that she almost felt the wood against her back give. She couldn’t stop the cry of pain that escaped her then, but she had enough sense to shift back into a fighting stance. Quickly, she grabbed a sword that had fallen from one of the Red Templars she had killed earlier, brandishing it against her foe as he strode forward, his fury evident.

“The Anchor is permanent. You have spoiled it with your stumbling,” he ground out between clenched teeth, displeased. “So be it… I will begin again and find another way to give this world a nation and god it requires.”

Her breathing was labored—escaping her mouth in visible plumes amidst the cold—as her body and magic struggled to repair itself against all the harm inflicted upon her. Strategically, she was already in a considerably weakened position now, and as her mind frantically sought for any possible solution out of her current dilemma, she saw something in the distance beyond Corypheus and his dreaded Archdemon.

An arrow lit in flame, lighting the inky darkness of the world around it as it ascended—a phoenix fire of hope. With it, she released a small breath of laughter—one filled with relief—at what it symbolized, and the sound had her opponent frowning deeply.

“Herald,” he continued on, undeterred. “I will not suffer even an unknowing rival. You must die.”

“A word of advice if you do intend to take this world for your own?” she drawled out quietly, straightening her back against the trebuchet to find some strength in what reserves her body had left. “If you’re going to monologue, don’t do it for so long that your opponent can think their way out of a situation. That—” The corners of her lips raised themselves up into a weary smirk. “—and you would do well to never mistake my patience for weakness.”

With the lash of an arm, Niamh shot a burst of fire at the chains holding the counterweight of the trebuchet together, and as the metal links melted beneath the heat, the load of the boulder it had held in place was then sent rocketing forward into the nearby mountainside. As Corypheus’ head turned in the direction of the projectile, she tossed her borrowed sword into the air, and as it descended back down into her open palm, she switched her grip on the hilt to hold it like a spear. The metal of the blade super-heated itself into an angry red at her bidding, and—with force magic to guide the way forward—she threw it toward her opponent with such speed and precision that he was only barely able to bat it away.

For his startled preoccupation, however, Niamh was already on the move, making her escape as the avalanche was nearly upon them. She felt the rushing cold at her heels, and with a final effort borne of sheer stubbornness, she launched herself forward with a Fade Step, using the momentum to carry herself through what appeared to be a mine shaft. With it, however, she had no way to correct her movement as she descended rapidly, and she felt her mistake grievously as multiple points of pain flashed across her mind one after the other.

By the time she hit solid ground again, she was already unconscious.

“Charter! Is this everyone?” Leliana called just as the last of the stragglers made it past the treeline beyond her.

“Yes, the chantry’s been completely evacuated, Sister Leliana.”


Leliana took a moment to remove one of her gloves—setting it alongside her belt—before reaching into the quiver behind her to pull out one of her newest arrows. She ran her thumb across a red rune as she nocked it into place on her bow, and the arrowhead set itself aflame a moment later. Aiming high, she waited until strong gusts of wind around them shifted before readjusted her trajectory briefly to the right and releasing the arrow.

“What are you doing?” Charter asked, watching as it soared high into night sky.

“Making sure she knows we made it out safely.”

Several long moments passed before the arrow finally descended in the distance. Worriedly, however, she wondered if Niamh even had a chance to see it amidst the cacophony of the avalanche. It roared even from so far away, and for a moment, doubt filled her.

A woman was once again giving her life for the greater good.

It was a noble deed—a page out of tales she had heard and retold a thousand times before—and yet… Leliana wanted to believe the outcome here could be different.

Please be safe. She settled her bow against her back as she gestured for Charter to follow along if they were to catch up with the remainder of the fleeing refugees.

They wandered the uncharted mountain pass for hours before deeming themselves far enough away from any dangers to begin camping out for the night. It was another several hours later that the group Niamh had been seen with last finally arrived at their location, but to Leliana’s dismay, the other woman wasn’t among them.

Niamh awoke in pain as snow fell upon her cheeks in gentle drifts from above—a winter’s kiss welcoming her back from the Fade of sleep. Vaguely, with half-open eyes, she could see the opening of the broken mine shaft overhead, announcing that night had fallen, but she had no real indication as to how long she had lain there. Had another evening come to pass? Was this still the same day as when she’d last been conscious?

Gingerly, she shifted onto her side before summoning enough strength to raise herself to her feet. The sudden sense of vertigo she felt upon standing upright, however, nearly led her to collapse back to the floor again, but she forced herself to press forward into the darkness of the mine caverns beyond her.

There was a moment where she thought she’d be overrun by the Fear Demons that stood between her and the exit, but by no real effort of her own, the Anchor had flared in response to her desperate need to escape. In awe, she watched as the power of it sundered the Veil open and pulled her would-be enemies screeching into the rift before closing itself moments later. It was only the disturbed snow and ice around her that marked that anything had happened at all.

Useful trick, she admitted to herself, given that her mana reserves weren’t replenishing themselves beyond a mere trickle now.

The healing spell she had used not long after regaining consciousness was enough that she could walk relatively unimpeded, and the agony she felt along her upper torso dulled to a slightly more manageable throb at best. Niamh was certain she had sustained more than a few cracked ribs in the fall, but there was nothing else to be done.

Her mentor Wynne had always been far better-skilled at the healing arts; knitting together broken bones and even perforated organs had been a minor inconvenience to the older woman at best. Even Morrigan had proven more proficient at the craft than Niamh, who had been admittedly average with the other houses of magic at best outside the elemental ones.

I suppose I can try to use that to my advantage now, she thought as she left the mine only to be met with blistering chill of the night air.

Niamh used enough fire magic to keep herself warm as she trekked through the thick snow. The wind, she had realized, came in ebbs and flows, and rather than keep a constant barrier up—she only had so much mana left in her injured state after all—she only conjured up a temporary shield whenever she felt the breeze shift and tried to batter her into the ground.

It was admittedly a slow process, and as she traveled through the pass, she came across evidence of a few camps that seemed to have been quickly abandoned—no doubt an attempt from the fleeing refugees to keep as much distance between themselves and Haven as possible.

Amidst the quiet, Niamh saw mounds piled in various locations, disturbing an otherwise even layer of snow. Bodies, she realized grimly upon inspecting one. They were likely individuals who had been too injured to continue and had been left where they fell—an admittedly cruel fact but one needed to ensure the overall group’s survival.

Wolves howled in the distance then, reminding her not to linger too long. While she wasn’t bleeding terribly, Niamh was surprised she hadn’t been attacked by the animals long before then, but as she thought of the half-buried dead around her, she supposed there were easier meals to be had.

As she trudged forward through the nearly knee-deep snow, she caught the glimmer of something out of the corner of her eye beneath the moonlight. She padded toward it, wondering if it was perhaps a weapon she could use to defend herself if the wolves proved too impatient for a warmer target. When her fingers brushed over the surface of the object, however, she smiled in relief.

In the snow, there laid a familiar arrow with red runes embedded into the shaft.

She was going in the right direction.

Now to just catch up with them before the weather takes a turn for the worst…

“My apologies!” Harding announced as she ran up to the table that Leliana and the remainder of the War Council had appropriated for their own purposes. “The watch scouted movement along the perimeter!”

“More wolves?” Cullen asked, sounding fatigued at the very thought, but Harding merely shook her head as she fought to catch a breath.

“No. A person,” she clarified before widening her eyes. “They think it’s the Herald.”

Silence lingered between them all for a long moment before she, Cassandra, and Cullen were rushing out toward the edge of the camp, but she had outpaced them all before long as she ran out into the snow. Unfortunately, the light from the torches they'd stationed around the perimeter could only stretch so far into the night beyond them, and as Leliana rounded the corner of two large boulders which marked the path into the encampment, she slowed carefully.

It wouldn't do to injure herself in the search after all.

Had her eyes not been expecting it, however, she likely would have lost sight of the black-clad figure stumbling toward her amidst the darkness. As it was, Leliana was just barely able to wrap her arms around Niamh as the woman collapsed to her knees.

“Oh,” the other woman crooned with weary delight. “You’re a sight for sore eyes. I owe you my thanks for the signal.”

Leliana’s brows drew together in confusion at the remark until she spotted the enchanted arrow in Niamh’s hand. She shook her head, exasperation filling her. “You didn’t have to return that to me.”

“On the contrary,” she murmured, eyes lidding themselves halfway. “You would have been left with an uneven set, and it would have disturbed the artist within me to no end.”

As she spoke, Leliana’s eyes roved the other woman’s form anxiously. Maker, even with the heavy leather coat she wore, Niamh was absolutely freezing beneath her hands, and it was evident in how she shook against her constantly. Leliana knew the mage was able to combat most elements, but after such an ordeal, even Niamh would have found difficulty in keeping up such an attempt. She had likely exhausted her mana just in trying to reach them.

“Sorry,” Niamh sighed. “Didn’t mean to worry you. Just let me…” Her words trailed off with a whisper, and Leliana watched in alarm as grey eyes simply rolled back into their sockets before Niamh slumped forward against her, succumbing to exhaustion at last.

“Leliana!” Cassandra had finally caught up to her as had Cullen. Worry was clear in her gaze as she stared at both her and Niamh, and then she held out her hands. “Here, let me—"

“I have her.”

“But I can carry her.”

Leliana rolled her eyes. She hadn’t trained with a sword as her colleagues had, but there was a resilience borne in the fine art of archery as well. It was a methodical rhythm—a precise dance—that focused heavily upon a bow’s taut string. How long the pull was determined both force and distance, but the repetitive nature of that simple motion would have led to an assurance of steady strength, and Leliana had been an expert on the weapon for over half her life. As such, she was able to arrange her arms beneath Niamh’s legs and back before simply standing in one fluid movement, cradling the other woman close to her while raising a pointed brow at Cassandra.

“So can I,” she deadpanned before turning to one of her senior agents, who had followed them out into the cold and had been mindful enough to bring a torch to help light their way back. “Charter, see if we’ve any suitable tents left; if not, rearrange one for privacy. We can’t risk keeping the Herald under an open canopy when she’s this cold.”

Leliana looked down at the woman in question, and grimaced when she saw the faint tinge of blue lingering on her lips. It was imperative they kept Niamh out of the elements as much as possible and warm her up slowly. To rush the process and attempt to flood the cold out of her body would likely prove too much for the mage’s heart, especially as weak as she was now. She couldn’t allow that to be a possibility.

“Find any available mage healer we have and then see if Lady Vivienne would be willing to part with one of her Knight-Enchanter associates to help keep guard,” Leliana added before her eyes narrowed. “We are not going to risk that anyone might be able to harm the Herald while she’s this vulnerable.”

“Aye, Sister!” Charter nodded. “At once!”

As expected of her senior agent, Leliana found an enclosed tent waiting for her by the time she found herself back in the encampment again. She ignored the murmurs around her as she carried the unconscious woman inside and placed her gently atop the available cot. Then, to her immense reluctance, she found herself led back out of the tent as the healers began to rotate themselves over the next several hours to tend to the wounded woman's injuries.

Dorian had not been far behind them, anxiously looking to offer aid to Niamh as well, and as one of the mages’ mana began to deplete, he relieved her with gratitude before disappearing into the tent. Although there had been some initial misgivings by some of her companions regarding Dorian, Niamh had kept him as part of her inner circle. Leliana had offered no counsel of her own regarding the matter, remembering a rogue from an also distant land who had long proven his worth before the Battle of Denerim. Perhaps this was much the same.

That, and as quiet and introspective as Niamh was, Leliana had always known her to be an excellent judge of character. She was not one to give her friendship easily. If she believed Dorian’s intentions were good, then Leliana had seen no reason to argue against that.

Vivienne, however, went into the tent not long after seeing Dorian enter. While largely left unsaid, it was clear she didn’t trust the Tevinter mage with the safety of their Herald. There had been notable tension in the air when Leliana had went in later to check on Niamh’s progress, but both had been steadfast in their focus of tending to the injured woman beneath their hands.

Unsurprisingly, Niamh had a multitude of injuries—broken bones among them—that either had been sustained against her fight against the Elder One or during her long journey to their current encampment. As she'd been later told, it had taken some time for them to properly knit the pieces back together where they wouldn't cause Niamh further harm. It was a task that consumed much of their mana, so more superficial wounds such as various abrasions and bruises had been largely left alone. As a result of her lingering aches, they anticipated that the Herald would likely still be bedridden once she woke up. Niamh, however, had remained unconscious for several days following the treatment, but every few hours, Vivienne or Dorian—for they had established a schedule by then—would come to check on Niamh and tend to her as needed.

As for Leliana, she had visited Niamh often enough that she had found another cot along with a small desk and chair waiting for her in the tent on the second day—courtesy of Josie who had only raised her brow pointedly as if daring her to argue before proceeding to tend to the refugees around her.

Unfortunately, they were now quickly approaching day four, and the morale around the camp was slowly beginning to wane again as they wondered if the Herald would ever wake up. She dismissed their concerns. They didn’t know Niamh as well as she did after all—how stubborn the woman could prove when pressed.

“You were never one to give up, were you?” she asked quietly as she sat near her. “Even if the odds were stacked well against your favor? We need that type of determination, Niamh. We need that more than ever now.”

Leliana never expected a response, knowing the other woman was using whatever energy her body had left to heal. As had been routine for her, Leliana often went back to reading her various reports in between looking up at Niamh on occasion, checking her condition. This time, however, she frowned when she caught a few strained words just at the edge of her hearing.

“…ast time. Please…”

The messages in her hands forgotten, Leliana leaned forward in an effort to better hear the other woman amidst the labored breathing. “Niamh?” she called anxiously.

“Sing for me please?” she whispered at last. “Just one last time?”

Leliana couldn’t stop her sudden intake of breath at the words—dread settling within her stomach—fearing that this was perhaps the sign Niamh was beyond their saving.

Those final moments before Roderick had revealed to them a path to salvation had been unsettling to say the least. The enemy they faced was exceedingly powerful—almost impossibly so—and Leliana had been half-convinced that they would die slowly beneath the weight of Haven’s unforgiving snow.

“Is this punishment?” a young Chantry woman had asked, shaking in her heraldry as she sat on the ground, knees pressed up against her chest.


“For what we did to the Herald before she tried to seal the Breach the first time? W-we—” She wetted trembling lips as she looked up at her. “We had thrown stones at her. She never once fought back against us, but the Maker and Andraste… They know our sins!”

It was an absurd thought, Leliana knew. Madness brought about by a situation they could all scarcely comprehend. After all, hadn’t the Maker and His Bride long stopped looking upon their children?

Then a path out of the chantry had been found, and Leliana had been saved from having to give an answer.

Even as they escaped into the quickly-growing night, however, some had turned to look back at the figure of their Herald in the distance, facing off against two creatures of unimaginable being.

Niamh hadn’t run away.

She hadn’t shirked her duties.

Instead, she had stood tall against her foe, unwilling to bend the knee.

And for a moment, amidst the reverent whispers around her as she viewed the image of Niamh standing against flame and smoke—head held high even in the face of such an unforgiving enemy—Leliana had felt something inside her give. The ever-present winter within her soul had been there ever since Saoirse’s death, and the chill of it had continued on with the passing of The Divine. It was a constant companion to her, coming to her as easily as drawing breath; yet, instead of adding another layer of ice across her heart, she felt it thaw into something light and effervescent.

Just enough for her to want to believe again—believe that there could possibly be a different fate for their fated heroine. It was admittedly an uncomfortable reminder of her past, for she had long doubted the Maker’s kindness in anything. Leliana had been too spurned by Him to believe He could even consider turning His eyes away from taking yet another companion from her.

But she believed in Niamh, and as she led the last of the refugees out, she prayed such faith would be enough.

At Niamh’s request, she was once again reminded of when the woman had last asked her for such a thing. Although songs rarely came easily to her anymore, she reasoned that she could search within the depths of herself to find one. If it meant that it would keep Niamh there with them—if it was incentive enough for the other woman to continue fighting—Leliana at least had to try.

“Why do you insist on asking me these things when you won’t remember them later?” Leliana asked quietly, an exhausted amusement overtaking her before brushing a few disheveled strands away from Niamh’s face. “I will sing for you, but you have to promise you will make every effort to return to us here. Do you understand?”

The woman’s eyes had remained closed, and Leliana wondered if Niamh had been conscious at all, or if she was simply speaking to her from beyond the Fade. Slowly, however, the dark head laying against the cot inclined itself minutely, and Leliana took it to be as much of an answer as she could possibly expect.

“Very well. Just don’t stray too far to where we can’t follow,” she whispered before her lips parted once more to sing.

Dimly, she could hear the faint crunch of snow outside the tent—a Knight-Enchanter who had been dutifully standing guard—and from the corner of her eye, she could see a silhouette turning their head briefly turning in her direction with surprise. Leliana continued on interrupted, however, for it didn't matter to her if others were present for such a rare moment.

It only mattered that Niamh could hear her.

If this will lead you back to us from the Fade, then I can endure a small audience.

Perhaps it was her own exhaustion over the last few days, but Leliana could have sworn that those tense features had relaxed more visibly just before she reached the first refrain. As Niamh’s breathing had slowed to a more peaceful rhythm, she was pleased to see the other woman was no longer moving as fretfully beneath the blankets either. She hoped it was an indication that the fevered dreams that had stalked the Niamh for days on end had finally relented, releasing hold of her at last. If so, it was sign of progress, and for that, Leliana was grateful.

Come back to us soon, Niamh.

Chapter Text

“Thanks for helping me keep watch tonight.”

Niamh nodded kindly in answer to her sister while she tended to the fire before them. Winter was settling in quickly across the region, and it would do them well to keep the flames well-stoked for their vigil. The night ahead would prove a cold one if the chill she sensed upon the wind earlier was any indication.

Alistair had already been forced to bed early thanks to a cold that racked his body for days with wheezing coughs and a stolen voice. His lethargy had sunken so deep into his bones that he nearly collapsed on the road that afternoon following an ambush by trained mercenaries. After managing to dispatch their foes, Saoirse had then outright scolded him for his stubbornness when it became clear he had been trying to hide the severity of his condition. As such, it had been decided they would camp and recuperate for the next few days before meeting with the elves in the Brecilian Forest regarding an alliance.

Alistair had originally protested against the order. Niamh reasoned he had wanted to prove himself to Saoirse, but he needn’t have bothered. Her sister always thought endlessly well of everyone within their ragtag group of companions, and when it came to their individual well-being, she took the matter quite seriously.

“A hand that rules in fear will only breed resentment,” their father had once said. “While the foes we face may not always appreciate such sentiment, understand that a hand offered in friendship is not a weakness of the heart. A castle is only as strong as the connections forged in its creation.”

Although Alistair had been apologetic for their delay in travel due to his condition, he seemed remarkably grateful for the reprieve. He disappeared into his tent not long after supper to rest, practically collapsing into it.

The corner of her lips quirked up in amusement upon hearing a rattling snore in the distance. Lorcan—her sibling’s absolute beast of a mabari—had raised his head and pricked his ears briefly in curiosity at the noise, but he soon went back to chewing at his prize of a thigh bone from some wild game they had caught earlier.

“I suspect you had another reason for requesting my presence tonight,” she said, using a bit of force magic on one of the logs within the fire, adjusting the length of it as it cracked in half beneath the heat, distributing the flames more evenly.

Although they all rotated regularly on who kept watch in the evenings, Niamh had long noticed her sister had a preference for Leliana’s company when they were paired together. Not that she could blame her. The bard and her collection of songs and stories often made the night pass by much more quickly.

Saoirse chuckled as she sat beside her. “Ah, Little Niamh, I swear, one might actually be able to see the wheels turning within that head of yours with how often you analyze everything.” She smiled so as to show her words were meant in light jest. “Thankfully, I’ve a need for that mind of yours tonight. Tell me, what do you think of Leliana?”

“Does your current line of questioning have to do with the ambush earlier in the forest? It was hardly Leliana’s fault that someone from her past tried to have her harmed, Saoirse.” A brief flare of irritation filled her as she frowned at her sister. “Do you somehow suspect her sincerity?”

“Of course not,” the warrior protested with a scoff. “You and I both knew from the beginning there was more to her than meets the eye. No one’s that talented with both blade and bow by chance. While we may not know the actual details of her past, I would like to think that her willingness to use her skills to help a cause like ours—as impossible as it might seem—speaks well of her.”

Niamh was inclined to agree. Leliana demonstrated a great deal of mercy toward their foes, much to the annoyance of their more pragmatic companions. Niamh had originally assumed such compassion had been due to her faith despite the fact that Leliana was exceedingly masterful with her weapons of choice, especially the bow.

Truly, Leliana easily outclassed every archer they had ever come across, for on the battlefield, she never allowed herself to be a stationary target—a tactic that most archers preferred. There was nothing less than utter beauty in the precision of the woman’s shots even while on the move, and she didn’t even always keep herself at a distance with her bow either. Niamh had seen the woman shoot an arrow right between an Ogre’s eyes just as she slid between the bulk of his legs before moving forward to shoot down two Shrieks without so much as missing a beat.

To her continual astonishment, she had discovered the other woman was also ambidextrous. Even earlier in the ambush, Niamh had seen her shoot from behind the cover of a tree with one hand while switching effortlessly to the other as she moved around the the enormous trunk to expertly pin another target beneath another arrow.

“Simple necessity,” Leliana had told her with gentle amusement when she had first asked her of her skill. “When I first started training with daggers, I wanted to be more balanced with both hands. After a time, I adapted the same principle with my bow techniques, which I like to think has served me well over the years.”

“And I… Well.”

Niamh was drawn out of her thoughts as her sister spoke again. She looked over and was surprised to see her looking remarkably sheepish as she rubbed the back of her neck. In the flickering light, she could also see the tinge of red on her cheeks that had nothing to do with warmth of the fire.

“I think she’s wonderful,” Saoirse finished, grinning at the admission. “And it has more to do than just her beauty. A woman so fine as her deserves to be recognized for more than such a single platitude. Oh, Niamh, the way she moves… The way she speaks!” She sighed then, the sound one of absolute bliss and contentment. “She thrills me in ways I can’t even begin to describe.”

Her sister spoke with such tenderness regarding Leliana that it stilled her heart, but it was not one of happiness.

It was dread.

Dread upon realizing where this conversation was headed.

She had stumbled upon a conversation weeks ago, where Wynne had quietly been chiding Saoirse over her close relationship with Leliana. The older woman had advised how it would have been in both their best interests not to pursue such a thing further. Death could darken upon their path at any given time after all, and she feared what consequence it would bring upon their party if either woman had succumbed to such a fate before the end of their long quest.

Now, however, it seemed Saoirse was determined to not allow whatever time remained pass her by.

Then, as she continued speaking of Leliana, her words poured out with such gentle fondness that Niamh slipped her hands beneath her cloak to hide how they clenched and shook with the emotion suddenly overtaking her. She kept her gaze on flames before her even as her heart pounded so incessantly in her ears that she wondered how her sister couldn’t hear the suddenly deafening beat.

Her sister was genuinely in love.

In love with the same woman that Niamh also desired.

If she had ever believed in the Maker, she suddenly felt like screaming obscenities at Him. Did He find her life to be little more than a game of passing fancy—one where He could topple the pieces of it at His bidding? Was this her punishment for forsaking Him? She had never asked the Maker for anything—save for perhaps a single moment of happiness amidst a routine lost to utter monotony as she languished away in a Tower.

Just a single moment for her to cherish before she feared she’d be forgotten by the world around her. Had that truly been so much to ask? Perhaps it had, for why else would He try to take away the one person she had ever truly wanted for herself?

“I see.” Niamh painstakingly forced herself to utter calmness so that her voice wouldn’t break, and as she turned to Saoirse, she could only hope the look in her eyes was sincere as she smiled. “Yes, she’s perfect for you,” she said to her sister, who had no inkling to her sudden internal conflict even as her heart quietly shattered.

Of course, of course.

How could the Maker possibly favor her when Saoirse was every bit the figure of a heroine? She was a true warrior with a kind soul and penchant for bravery, but Niamh?

She… She was just a mage—a figure to hated and reviled by the world at large.

Even had Leliana accepted the notion of a relationship with her, it wouldn’t have had the same freedoms as any other couple. It likely would have been one filled with fleeting moments at best. Should they even succeed in their quest, Niamh had no doubt she’d be chained to the Circle again once everything was said and done, and Knight-Commander Gregoir hardly ever allowed outside visitors.

Their love would have been reduced to mere letters between them, and Leliana was worth so much more than that. She deserved the type of love that she often talked about in her tales—the ones that filled her voice with such awe and reverence.

Niamh couldn’t possibly offer that. She was a mage with nothing to her name. How could she ever have been a worthy suitor in Leliana’s eyes?

“I wouldn’t even know how to bring this up to her,” Saoirse admitted reluctantly as she stared toward Leliana’s tent with quiet longing, and Niamh couldn’t help but sigh. Irritation welled within her.

“You’ve talked with her enough these past few months. Surely you haven’t been so self-absorbed in our quest that you’ve somehow learned nothing about her…” She found herself jostled lightly as her sister snorted out a laugh and pushed at her arm for the comment.

“Of course not! But I… I want this to be special. I know our lives are constantly filled with danger, but I want her to know of my utter sincerity regarding this.”

“Hm…” She supposed she couldn’t fault Saoirse for her thinking, and she couldn’t help but want to assuage her worries despite how Niamh's mind raged at the thought. She forcibly quelled it to silence. “Sometimes the most exceptional of gifts can also be the simplest of things. Didn’t she mention there was a flower that she was fond of? One that grew here only in Ferelden?”

“Ah. Andraste’s Grace, you mean?” The warrior rubbed at her jaw distractedly for several moments—dark grey eyes turning skyward with her contemplation—before raising a brow at her in question. “The simplest of things, eh?”

“It wouldn’t hurt to try. At worse, she’ll simply turn down your affections, but I doubt she’d be so crass as to belittle you for sharing them.”

“Hm. Well, I suppose no one ever fell in love without being a little bit brave.” A large hand then reached out to tousle Niamh’s hair affectionately. “You’ve always a good head on your shoulders, Sister. I’m glad to have you with me.”

Niamh shared her smile even as a throbbing pain settled over her heart. “Likewise.”

The following morning, her sister had left to go find the flowers they had spoken of with Lorcan happily trotting along beside her. As the pair departed, Niamh looked longingly to where Leliana sat polishing her daggers, ensuring they would be ready for any obstacle that awaited them in the days ahead. Niamh made to rise from her place near the campfire.

Surely it wouldn’t be a difficult thing to walk over to Leliana and just—

But no.

She could never hurt Saoirse in such a way. Although Niamh had been born a mage, her sister had never found fault in her for it like the rest of Thedas had.

She had loved and supported her always.

Thus, Niamh could never be so underhanded as to steal Leliana away. It hadn’t been her sister’s fault that Niamh had been too nervous to express her feelings for Leliana first when she had the chance. Warrior that she was, Saoirse had taken her leap of faith, daring to balance both love and duty in a world that could fall to destruction at any given moment.

She could support them, Niamh promised herself.

It was better this way.

But she couldn’t deny the way her heart tightened in pain when her sister returned to offer Leliana an Andraste’s Grace. Upon seeing the gift, she watched as the bard’s eyes lit up with such delight and genuine affection for Saoirse, who grinned bashfully beneath such warm attention.

It was then that Niamh had to accept the notion that she had tried to convince herself of the night before:

Leliana would never be hers.

Later, when Niamh had volunteered to go into the Fade to save Connor and his father, the choice itself was very much a gamble, but there had been no other viable option. A demon who could summon all manner of the undead to its bidding was far too powerful for just any mage to attempt the feat. That a Desire Demon was behind it all was much its own challenge, as they stood as one of the most powerful in the hierarchy of such inhuman creatures.

As such, it would be test of absolute fortitude for anyone attempting such a task, and despite the experience of both her mentors Wynne and Irving, their combined power was best suited to sundering the Fade open for her with the other mages present while she traversed within it. Among her peers and superiors, it was agreed that Niamh had both the youthful spirit and magical aptitude to see the matter through.

If she could avoid being tempted first.

Unfortunately, there apparently hadn’t been enough salt in the wound of her broken heart. The Maker Himself laughed at the folly of her innermost desires, so was it any wonder that the demon of such sin could see through to her as well? It had met her immediately in the middle of the Fade, wearing the very form that had haunted her dreams for nights on end.

Niamh could do nothing but stare in horror as Leliana—no, the demon—sauntered over to her with a smile of wicked sin. The imposter wasted little time in leaning every curve of her body against her own while pressing lips so soft against her own that she trembled beneath them, her veins set aflame with the sudden desire coursing through her. She closed her eyes to block out the sight of creature who would dare impersonate the woman she loved, but that only made the matter far worse. Her other senses were now enhanced, and she understood that fact painfully when she felt lips gently nibbling at ear followed by soft, distinctive laughter.

The demon then whispered endless temptation to her, offering the image before her—the woman she desired above all else—pleasure beyond her imagining, and power no mere mortal could ever hope to comprehend. All would be hers, it told Niamh, if she would but offer everything that she was in absolute fealty.

“Truly?” she asked, voice shaking when the familiar scent of roses, incense, and wine reached her nose, and she opened her eyes at last, much to the demon’s delight. “You would give me anything?”

“If you would be mine, then yes. What need would I have with a boy who fumbles with the very idea of magic when I could have you? The world shall offer a more enticing lens when seen through your eyes, dear artist of mine. Of that, I’m certain. After all…” It trailed off, and then the image of Leliana was suddenly bare before her, and Niamh’s mouth immediately went dry at the sight. The demon offered a bewitching smile paired with a sensual, come-hither gaze. “Am I not your heart’s desire?”

Against her better judgment, Niamh’s fingers twitched at her side. Then, helplessly, she found herself tentatively reaching out toward the woman that was salvation and torment all in one.

“Aw,” the demon cooed with mock-affection before it simply took her wrist and pulled her forward, guiding Niamh to cup a soft breast. Niamh gasped when she felt the gentle weight of it beneath her hand, and the visage of Leliana chuckled. “For such a powerful mage, you’re such a timid thing, aren’t you? You can touch me more. I won’t bite.” That blue gaze flashed to a cat-eyed lavender, amusement dancing across them. “Unless you desire such a thing, of course.”

Niamh swallowed, and although she knew the offer was likely a sincere one, she simply leaned forward to rest her head against a slim shoulder wearily. The hand she kept over the demon’s heart didn’t move, and she didn’t protest when slim fingers carded themselves through her hair with languid indulgence.

“Sing for me please?” Niamh pleaded quietly. “Just one last time.”

“Was that all I needed to have you?” It asked with incredulous laughter. “My, my. Are you so starved for touch and attention, sweet morsel?” When Niamh nodded, shifting minutely to rest her chin on a pale shoulder, she could hear the smile in the demon’s voice. “Very well. I can be benevolent when need be.”

And Niamh found that the demon could sing as sweetly as Leliana. It was a balm against the sudden restlessness of her mind, and as the waves of her uncertainty calmed, resolve settled within her just as sure as the steady pulse beneath her palm. It remained there even as fingertips beneath her chin directed her back far enough to where she could look up at Leliana.

“Tell me you love me.”

Niamh found herself sinking into the depths of vivid blue eyes—the same ones that even her artistic hand struggled at replicating. As she did, she felt the smile pulling effortlessly on her lips, and she was pleased when the other woman returned it. The gesture then widened as she offered her reply without question.

“I love you.”

“Very good, ma chérie,” she purred, sinking her hand back into the dark waves of her hair. “Now tell me you're mine…”

“I am yours. Always.”

“Excellent. Now we can—AH!”

The sudden, gruesome scream was like a dagger upon her ears as it echoed across the Fade. Niamh watched then as blue eyes widened—that familiar visage contorting into an expression of absolute agony—before looking down at the spike of fire she had used to pierce the demon’s heart. It grew larger as the point expanded beneath the middle of her palm, and her foe winced with every incremental expansion. The demon jerked its gaze back toward her, and pain, betrayal, and outrage flickered across a surface of wintery sapphire.

“How?!” the demon demanded, and Niamh was mildly amazed to hear a mixture of its own voice along with Leliana’s shouting at her as its borrowed form seemed to slough away from it—burning leaves scattered on the winds. “You said—"

“My words were true.” Resignation filled her at the thought. “They just weren’t meant for you.”

“Impossible! I had you!”

“Hardly. Granted, your tricks were enchanting, but when I heard you sing, I knew you could never truly replicate her. I could close my eyes and know that you were but a mere candlelight against the sun of her aura, for that which sets one’s blood aflame from the mere thought?" She laughed, brief incredulity welling within her. "I could scour every inch your world could have to offer and never find anything that would come remotely close to her. Thus, you’ve nothing with which to keep me here, do you?”

She offered a humorless smile in consolation as she willed the spear of fire to consume the flesh beneath her hand, heedless of the ghastly screams it elicited. It was well-deserved punishment for a being who had taunted Niamh with the image of her heart’s desire and subsequently thought she could be tricked into falling under its thrall so easily.

She stayed long enough in the Fade to watch the demon’s body be turned into nothingness. As she did, she heard the cries of Connor and Arl Eamon disappear, and that seemed proof enough for Niamh that she had succeeded in her task. As she turned on her heel to return to the portal, however, she thought she could hear Cullen’s words ringing back to her, reminding her that mages were always susceptible to the whisperings of the demons. Whether it was a trick of one of the possible creatures nearby or simply just a memory that had no intention of leaving her be, Niamh had long resolved that for all her power, she would never allow it to be used against the ones she loved—unintentionally or otherwise.

She wasn’t a demon’s puppet.

She wasn’t a monster.

Her power was her own, and she would seek only to help right the world with it.

Niamh allowed that knowledge to lead her back home.

She awoke to the sound of turning pages along with the gentle hum of a low lullaby. Her eyelids felt heavy, and it was with great effort that she was able to even move them partially open. As it was, she was more than a little disorientated as she saw a brown tarp overhead when she had last seen a dark sky. Then, as the hummed song entered into another refrain, she looked out of the corner of her eye—it hurt too much to shift her head even the slightest bit—she saw that Leliana was sitting on a chair beside her, apparently reading through various messages. Still a far sight better than any dream… she mused, a smile of tired fondness pulling at her lips.

“Were you just singing something to me a moment ago?” Niamh asked with a tongue that seemed too large in a mouth far too dry. The rasping sound of her voice made her wince—evidence of lack of use. How long had she lain abed this time around? Leliana’s head snapped up toward her immediately when she spoke, and Niamh mustered more of a smile for her when she saw the familiar glacial blue of that gaze. “Well?”

“No,” the other woman admitted although there was some measure of affection to be found in an expression that was usually so closed off to others. The relief flickering across it was more evident however. “I did sing to you last night however. You’re remembering more than last time. Good.”

Niamh blinked. Last time? she thought in confusion, which only grew as Leliana rose from her seat and moved away.

“Let me get the healers to check in on you. They were pleased when your fever finally broke last night. They’ll want to know you’re finally awake.”

“But—” Niamh stopped the utterance as soon as it left her lips.

While the memory of the Fade and the demon that had taken Leliana’s form was ever an unpleasant one—one that left her disquieted for days afterward—it wasn’t a burden to be pushed onto the other woman. She had already seen the pile of missives Leliana had gathered with her; surely, she had other matters that needed her immediate attention.

A nightmare was the least of her Spymaster’s concerns.

Yet, Leliana paused at the entrance to the tent, that cowled head turning to look back at her. Whatever had been evident on her expression had Leliana’s own softening a fraction of a touch.

“I won’t be too far. If you have need of me, you can have someone ask for my presence,” she reassured before moving aside the flap of the tarp to make her exit, “but we really need the healers to tend to you first.”

Despite Leliana’s words, she found that she didn’t even have the time to call upon her with the combination of healers and her inner circle coming into her tent for the next several hours. She dealt with the endless prodding of the former with as much patience she could muster in her tired state. Niamh knew they meant well with their attentions, but it wasn’t long before she felt more like a caged specimen as they spoke of her progress with one another like she wasn’t at all present there with them.

At least her companions had proven far better company. They stayed long enough to express their relief at her continued well-being and offered some light conversation, but they knew better than to overstay their welcome when she was still recovering.

…Not that Dorian and Sera hadn’t both given her quite the earful for the incident back in Haven.

“I swear, you have taken a decade off my life! A decade, Cousland!” the other mage exclaimed as he flustered over her injured form like a mother hen, tending to some bruising with little bursts of healing magic. “Never again! Do you hear?”

“Friggin’ right! Stop scaring me like that, Neevy!” Sera scolded in turn, and Niamh felt guilty at seeing the frustrated tears in her friend’s eyes. “I will chain myself to your leg if you ever do something that stupid again!” The other woman jabbed an index toward her several times in emphasis although she was careful not to actually touch her, as if fearing she’d break her with even the slightest gesture. Soon, however, she was turning to Dorian with a frown. “Can I hug her now?”

Dorian nodded solemnly. “Just do it gently. We repaired all the breaks and fractures, but the muscles around her ribs are still healing.”

Sera winced upon hearing that, but not one to be easily deterred, she still leaned down to wrap an arm around one of her shoulders in a loose embrace. Niamh—for her part—could only muster enough strength to lift her forearm enough to where she could pat her friend’s back gratefully for the gesture. It seemed to bring more of a smile to Sera’s face when she finally pulled back, and she was thankful to see it.

Vivienne had been one of the last of her inner circle to see her, but she had likely been waiting for the lull in activity to die down first before making her appearance. Nevertheless, Niamh was pleased for her company even as the other woman fussed at her in her own graceful, understated way. She felt a cool tinge along her bandages, and Niamh released a slow breath of relief when she felt she could suddenly breathe more easily now that the fire around her ribs had subsided.

“Better, my dear?”

“Much.” She smiled, but it soon faded as concern filled her. “How have things been faring while I’ve been asleep? Is everyone alright?”

“Our situation is going as well as can be expected,” Vivienne revealed as she sat primly in the chair next to her cot, crossing one leg over the other at the knee. “The faithful prayed daily toward your continued recovery, and their morale has increased now that word has spread you’ve awakened. The scouts and soldiers continue to keep our perimeter safe from any of the local fauna, and it seems they've taken to hunting to improve our reserves. Regarding our mage allies…” The older woman trailed off somewhat as she arched an elegant brow at her.

“I don’t think it need be said that I was wary of them being offered a full alliance, but your request to have my associates help oversee them has proven an invaluable one. They have all proven committed to the training we’ve provided, and even the youngest among their ranks grows with leaps and bounds. Still,” she sniffed briefly as she eyed the entrance of the tent, knowing the cold that waited beyond them, “few are suited to the weather of the Frostbacks, but I imagine we could have done far worse without the overabundance of allies with us. Snow proves ever plentiful here. As such, with a bit of magic, we won’t be left wanting for clean water. The apprentices have even taken it upon themselves to ensure the civilians within our care have a warm campfire available to them while the Enchanters have taken to fortifying our defenses with ice walls. It won’t stop another attack, of course, but for the purposes of keeping stray beasts out, it’s suitable enough. Thus, we are secure for the time being, thanks in large part to you bringing Fiona and her malcontents to your side.”

“Why, Lady Vivienne, you seem almost astonished by the idea. I don’t think my heart can take such an unexpected pleasure so soon,” Niamh quipped with humor, and she smiled when her words drew gentle laughter.

“My dear, when it comes to your varied accomplishments, I imagine you will never cease to astonish me.” Vivienne then reached out with a gloved hand to brush aside what Niamh was sure was a mess of a dark hair from her eyes. As the other woman then smiled, Niamh realized—almost unexpectedly—why she had always found herself searching for it at times. It was a gesture of maternal warmth—one she had been without for over a decade. “Circumstances aside, I am pleased to see you are faring well, but please don’t feel you need to force yourself to full health for our sake. Now then, much as I do enjoy our talks, I fear I’ve taken enough of your time. I’m sure others also yearn for your company; I won’t keep them from you.”

Of course, by the time her last visitor left—a healer who had the bedside manner of an oblivious bronto and perhaps the same grace of a three-legged druffalo—the sun was already high at its apex, and Niamh was left staring irritably at the tarp above her. When the flap to her tent opened yet again, she didn’t turn to greet her visitor. She merely exhaled soundlessly, wondering what she was to be subjected to next. At the flash of red hair, however, jubilant relief filled her as she saw Leliana seat herself beside her, a bowl of soup in her lap.

“Revered Mother Giselle tells me you’ve yet to eat anything today.”

Niamh grimaced. “No, I was too nauseous to even make the attempt. I can’t even sit up properly without wanting to keel over immediately.”

Leliana hummed as she looked down upon her. Then, she simply set the bowl on her desk before reaching over to grab the pillow on her own cot, which she used to begin propping up the one beneath Niamh’s head. She promptly hushed any forthcoming protests. “You do realize we’ve slept on the ground before, yes? Sleeping on a cot without a pillow is hardly what I would consider torture in comparison,” she drawled. “In any case, we don’t need to raise your upper body up the entire way. Just enough for us to get some soup in you. Now here, you’ll need your strength.”

When the other woman then proceeded to spoon some soup toward her mouth, Niamh’s eyes widened. From the sudden heat overtaking her features, she knew there was no possible way she wasn’t blushing bright red. She stared up at Leliana incredulously, who merely arched a brow at her.

“If you can hold onto this without spilling the soup all over you, I’ll be more than happy to let you feed yourself,” she answered wryly.

Niamh couldn’t, and Leliana had been more than aware of that fact, or she never would have brought up the option to begin with. With a sigh, she leaned forward and reluctantly pressed her lips to the wooden utensil before her, allowing herself to be fed. The entire process was carried about in relative silence, and the bowl was soon half-empty before Leliana finally spoke again.

“How are you feeling otherwise?”

“Were it anyone else asking me that, I’d immediately just tell them to leave me be.” She rolled her eyes in utter aggravation. “Physically, I feel as meek as a lamb, and Lady Vivienne, Dorian, and the other healers have already strongly advised that I not use my magic as of yet. Laying here abed doesn’t exactly appeal to me however. From what I can understand, we’ve stalled any further travel through the mountains because I’ve been unconscious the entire time.” She turned a frown to Leliana then. “Surely, we have to be running out of rations by now. I can’t imagine we’d have left Haven with much other than what was necessary.”

“We’ve enough,” Leliana reassured, setting the unfinished bowl aside when it became clear Niamh hadn’t the appetite for more. “And we can make due. There’s enough game around that my scouts shouldn’t have any trouble hunting for food should we need to restore our reserves. You’ve just recovered from an ordeal none of us can even comprehend, Niamh. No one here is going to fault you for needing time to properly recuperate.”

Yet, Niamh couldn’t help but remain pensive—a fact that Leliana quickly took notice of.

“What is it?”

“I’ve learned some new information about this Elder One…”

Niamh went on to describe the encounter that had nearly resulted in her death. She speculated the High Dragon that accompanied the Elder One—this Corypheus—was an Archdemon. She didn’t have any proof that suggested otherwise, but she had to consider every possibility. Like with their new Red Templar enemies, however, the beast’s strength and power had been twisted to a degree from the corrupted lyrium, and it was even more of a danger than the last one they had faced together—impossible as that notion seemed. That such a terrible creature was somehow also under the thrall of Corypheus didn’t bode well for them at all. Then, as she further relayed her foe’s ranting…

“Wait. You’re certain of this?” Leliana’s eyes widened in absolute disbelief. “He claims to be one of the magisters who sundered the Veil to reach the Golden City?”

“The age and design of his robes certainly suggested they were of older Tevinter origin. Even his dictation was rather… overly formal.” She shared a look with Leliana, brows furrowing. “In any case, we’ve known it’s possible for mages to extend their life to unnatural lengths; our discovery of Avernus back at Storm’s Peak was proof enough of that. Perhaps Corypheus’ own twisted magic grants him a similar gift, or perhaps he actually spoke true, and his presence within the Golden City reacted with his powers in such a way that it allowed him to survive throughout the Ages.”

“Hm. Both possibilities are something to be considered. Our War Council should be made aware of this.”

“Agreed. I should—"

“—be resting,” Leliana finished for her in a tone that brooked that argument, but the notion irked her to no end. Niamh desperately wanted to help, but the other woman would have none of it. “Niamh, you fought against a would-be god and his personal Archdemon, survived an avalanche that nearly buried you alive by plunging down a mine shaft where you proceeded to break almost every rib on the fall down. Then, even with such grievous injuries, you journeyed out into the middle of raging blizzard, where you would have succumbed to the elements if we hadn’t found you first.” She folded her arms across her chest before narrowing her eyes down at her—the icy blue of them somehow even more intimidating beneath the shadows of her cowl. “Did I somehow miss anything that would suggest you were somehow invulnerable to such clearly minor incidents?” she deadpanned.

Niamh had the courtesy to look chagrined even as she shrank beneath the woman’s glare. “I’m not trying to make light of my injuries, Leliana. I just can’t stand the idea that…” She sighed then, raising a hand—one that shook unevenly much to her disdain—to gesture vaguely down at her injured form.

Understanding flashed across Leliana’s face then, and she chewed on a lip in apparent thought before she shuffled through a few of the papers on her desk, separating them into two piles—one of which she handed over to her. “Would you be open to a compromise then? While I go inform our War Council of the new details you’ve told me, why don’t you see if you can’t find a solution to some of the problems my agents have presented in these messages? You shouldn’t need any codes to decipher these.”

Niamh blinked in mild surprise even as she took the offered stack. “Are you certain you want me to look at these? They’re for your spy network, aren’t they?” she couldn’t help but ask, worried, but Leliana merely smiled reassuringly.

“Your insight has proven invaluable before. If you find the reading to be too dry, however, I can always ask if Josie might have some other messages with her. As I recall, she was corresponding with several dignitaries before the attack.”

Niamh felt a chill travel down her spine, and she cringed. “Please tell me they aren’t more marriage proposals…” When the other woman’s smile transitioned into more of an open smirk, she couldn’t help but whine. “Leliana!”

“I haven’t said anything!” she protested, not even bothering to hide the laughter in her voice. “If it will put your mind at ease, however, I can ask her set aside messages that have nothing to do with matrimony.”

“Maker’s breath,” Niamh muttered before lifting the papers in her hands. “I can make do with these for now. I’ll see if I can’t find a solution for some of them, but…” She looked back up at Leliana curiously. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could you also ask the mages from my inner circle to come meet with me at their earliest convenience?”

Leliana seemed curious. “Planning something, are you?” she asked, which drew a smile that sat askew and playful on the other woman’s lips.

“Aren’t I always? Honestly, if I’m to be stuck abed for the time being, I can at least begin in starting the research against our foe. I’d like to ask Dorian if he knows any contacts back in Tevinter who might know of this Corypheus. He claims to have entered the Golden City, but as far as I recall from history, there was no magister by that given name.” She shrugged. “I suspect it to be one he made for himself. What magic I sensed from him beyond the twisted nature of it was undeniably powerful, so he may have come from a reputable House, and Dorian likely would have access to that type of information.

“Solas, of course, is our lead expert on the Fade. He’s seen so much of history unfold within it, and I’d like to see if he can also find out any further information about Corypheus that way. It may not be completely accurate as he often states the events within the Fade are subjective at best, but it may give us a lead into where we could find more credible information.

“As for Lady Vivienne…” Niamh sighed as she displayed the hand bearing the Anchor to Leliana. “I need to discuss this with her.”

Her friend frowned. “Is it hurting you?”

“No, but right after I woke up from the avalanche, I was able to sunder the Veil open with it—something that hadn’t been possible for me before then.” She stared down worriedly at her palm. Although the energy emanating from it wasn’t flaring out, she could feel the steady throbbing beneath the rivers of green. “I think it’s… evolving—a possible consequence of Corypheus trying to remove it from me. I need to see if she can find a way to help me contain it.”

“I’ll pass along your requests.” Before Leliana could completely exit the tent, however, she glanced over her shoulder to pin her with a knowing, unamused look. “And before you even think of doing anything else, be aware that there is always a Knight-Enchanter constantly standing guard out here. You are not to leave this tent without an escort.”

Niamh promptly scowled before using the papers in her hands to cover her face with them, muttering a series of blasphemous curses beneath her breath.

“Has Lady Cousland been faring any better these last few days?” Josie asked, settling her cloak more firmly around her as they walked the perimeter of the encampment—a small break from their duties.

Leliana released a long-suffering sigh. “All things considered, her condition certainly could have been far worse…”

“But…?” Josie pressed, likely believing there was more to be said.

“Hm? Oh. It’s nothing, Josie. I just nearly forgot what a terrible patient Niamh could be when bedridden.”

Her friend’s brows immediately knitted together in consternation. “We… We are referring to the same woman, yes? As in Lady Cousland who’s as renowned for her calm, patient demeanor within the Inquisition just as much as her magical ability?”

“The very same,” Leliana drawled with a roll of her eyes. “I'm debating whether or not this rivals her recovery period following our takedown of a High Dragon at the Temple of Sacred Ashes a decade ago."

Niamh had suffered similar injuries then as well, having taken the brunt of the dragon's lashing tail before she had garnered enough energy to both blind and nullify the beast with her lightning. Unfortunately, following the retrieval of the famed urn, she had been confined to their camp for nearly a moon to properly recuperate—a fact that she hadn't cared for.

She had driven Morrigan, Saoirse, and her to their wits' end by how often she snuck out of her tent until Niamh had finally snapped back:

"I spent nearly twenty years of my life looking at the same damned walls! I won't somehow have it substituted with a tent of all things! I promise I'll go back inside after I get some fresh air; now leave me be!"

"Honestly, if I hadn’t been sharing the same tent as her or we were somehow without a Knight-Enchanter guard constantly on rotation, she likely would have found a way to sneak out by now in an attempt to help. Not that Sera is exactly helping matters on that end either…” she murmured upon remembering the reports from both her agents and the entirety of their Knight-Enchanter allies.

“Oh, dear...”

Leliana inhaled deeply, letting the cool mountain air settle within her lungs and temper her irritation regarding Niamh. “It’s hardly her fault; I know,” she amended. “She saw the bodies on her way to our encampment here, and I think she feels each loss keenly. That she’s stuck abed now—unable to aid anyone as she knows she can—likely grates on her more than anything, especially with as much as we’re limiting her workload.”

While Leliana attempted to ease the woman’s boredom by having her oversee some matters detailed in whatever non-coded letters her agents had sent, Niamh had gone through them all within a day and a half. Unfortunately, she hadn’t regained enough coordination in her hands yet to write on her own, which also meant sketching—her usual method of relieving boredom—was out of reach of her. As such, she had needed the aid of either Leliana or another scribe to help transfer down her thoughts, which only seemed to remind her of her current helplessness.

Niamh had always been a very active woman—both mentally and physically. Since the latter couldn’t be readily tended to, Leliana reasoned she’d have to lean more on the former to temper that ever restless mind of hers. And is it ever a relentless thing… she mused in partial exasperation before she spotted Weaver leaving an area of the encampment that her agents had claimed for themselves.

Besides his usual duties, she recalled that Weaver had a penchant for making intricate puzzles from time to time—ones that stumped even the canniest of her inner circle of spies. He had confessed that it had been a way to while the hours away when he’d been in an alienage before, and his creations really were such clever, little things…

“I have something for you,” Leliana said upon entering their tent—present in hand—and both her brows shot up in amusement at the groan of profound relief that immediately fell from the other woman’s lips.

“Oh, thank you! I was bored to tears reading these!” Niamh offered the impressive stack of papers over to her eagerly, and Leliana proceeded to trade them for the wooden puzzle she had received from Weaver, which her friend quickly took considerable interest in.

“What exactly do you have here?” Leliana asked curiously, testing the weight of the documents in her hands. It had surprising heft to them.

“Hm?” Niamh looked up briefly from where she was already turning the puzzle about in her hands, inspecting every angle of it carefully. “Ah. Lady Josephine was kind enough to pass that along my way when she visited earlier. It has to do with a trade agreement between our Inquisition and the merchant princes of Antiva. That’s merely a copy she kept for record-keeping purposes.”

“That certainly sounds like her. I take it the subject matter wasn’t to your liking?” She smothered a laugh when Niamh merely wrinkled her nose in absolute displeasure even as she played with the moving spokes of the wooden device.

“She told me to set aside three days and a dozen candles if I felt I needed to go through every detail of it,” she deadpanned. “Granted, pursuits of knowledge may be a favored past time of mine, but there’s only so much I can endure regarding the dozens of obscure trade laws between the respective countries involved before I feel my time is better spent staring into the sun. In any case, Lady Josephine already had her best diplomats reviewing the matter. My looking it over was merely a formality at best.” Niamh then proceeded to test the give of the string connected to the puzzle. “Now where in the world did you find this? I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“One of my agents made it,” she replied. “As he tells me, the goal of that puzzle is to remove the stringed ball and metal ring from the interconnected spokes. As you’ve been reading constantly the past few days, I thought something a bit more tactile would be a nice change of pace for you.”

“You know me so well,” Niamh mused distractedly, the sound of wood shifting against one another as she began figuring out the puzzle in earnest. “Have I told you how much I value your presence here?”

“No,” she said simply as she moved to sit at her desk.

“I’ll make it a point to say it more often then.”

And it seemed Niamh greatly appreciated the distraction of something different with which to occupy her time, as she dedicated the next several hours in trying to solve the wooden contraption.

There had only been one incident where Leliana needed to remind her to eat, and when the woman’s eyes shifted out of their sudden focused intensity, she watched as Niamh then darted her gaze outside their tent to the darkening sky with some semblance of surprise. It seemed she hadn’t noticed how quickly time had escaped her. It would have been amusing if Leliana hadn’t admitted they both seem to share the rather unfortunate habit of accidentally forgoing meals at times in favor of searching for the solution to some matter or another.

Niamh had recovered enough to where she could eat on her own now—a fact she was likely more than thankful for. The days where she spoon-fed the other woman was always met with some level of mild embarrassment from her friend, and while Leliana never would have found fault in her for needing help with such a task, she also reasoned that such reluctance to accept aid had to do with Niamh becoming so self-dependent over the years. After all, it was only recently that the mage had grown reaccustomed to the notion of having people that cared about her again.

It was a thought that saddened Leliana, but she kept her emotions at a distance. There was no need to bring up such a matter when Niamh was already making considerable progress toward opening herself up again.

Once dinner had been finished, they soon returned to their respective projects, and Leliana listened to the faint jingling of metal and wood in the background as she continued responding to various missives from her agents. The documents before her were the most heavily-coded, but she had long remembered the ciphers needed to understand them by heart. As such, it was little trouble for her to respond with messages of her in a variety of seemingly obscure symbols to be sent later.

To her immense satisfaction, she came across a letter regarding Painter. She allowed a smile to grace her lips as she read that he’d been apprehended and detained, and he would remain under careful watch until she next gave word regarding his fate. And he will have much to answer for… she swore.


Leliana drew herself out of her thoughts and looked up just in time to see the stringed ball and metal ring fall free of the wooden puzzle Niamh had steadily been working on.

“I’ve got it!” Niamh announced, remarkably pleased with herself as she turned to her then with a smile. “And you said one of your agents made this? Could you pass along my thanks then? That was absolutely wonderful.”

“I’m sure Weaver will be pleased to hear it.” Her own smile softened a touch when she saw the other woman turn her head briefly away in a yawn. “Tired?”

“Hm. Annoyed,” Niamh replied flatly. “I woke up almost a week ago. One would think that would be sufficient enough rest.”

“It’s never unwise to listen to the needs of one’s body. Not many could have survived what you’ve been through after all.” Seeing that the other woman was going to prove to be her usual stubborn self, Leliana turned to face her, believing perhaps another type of distraction was in order. “Would you care for a story?”

At the offer, that grey gaze filled with considerable—albeit surprised—interest, but as they darted toward the pile of missives atop her desk, the depths of them shifted into uncertainty.

“I wouldn’t want to keep you from working.”

“I could do with a break, and you could certainly do with some more rest,” she said dryly, arching a brow at Niamh, who only smiled winsomely beneath her mock-ire. “Now then, have you ever heard of the tale of The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods?”

Niamh settled back more comfortably on the cot. “I know of it, but I’ve never had it told to me before. Honestly, the reading material we had in the Circle rarely involved any subject matter outside of academia. Sometimes the older apprentices would bring some stories with them, but other than that, we were rarely exposed to fairytales.”

Leliana frowned upon hearing that. It was disheartening to hear that the Circles wouldn’t allow children the luxury of simply being children. It was yet another failing of the Chantry, and she suppressed a sigh at the thought.

“Hm. Well, it’s been some time since I’ve told this one. Hopefully, I can still do it justice,” she said, moving her chair closer while mulling over a few details of the story in her head before reciting it.

To her surprise, the words spilled from her with greater ease than she had anticipated, and though her audience was but one woman, she knew she had her friend’s undivided attention. Grey eyes had widened in delight whenever she spoke of several scenes regarding magic, and then that interest had shifted into one of worry as she detailed how the story’s princess had fallen under a spell of slumber. As to be expected, however, that gaze soon filled with tired exhaustion despite Niamh’s attempts to stay awake, and she was asleep by the time Leliana recounted the moment a prince had come to waken the sleeping princess.

Satisfied the woman seemed to be resting peacefully—no labored breathing or rattling coughs like those first few days—Leliana set aside the pieces of the puzzle Niamh had been working on before proceeded to tuck the blankets back in around her. She bit back a smile when Niamh gave a small grunt of displeasure at the slight jostling, but she settled back down again soon enough. With that, Leliana returned to her desk and proceeded to work again—this time with a clearer mind.

“We cannot simply ignore this! We must find a way!”

“And who put you in charge?! We need a consensus, or we have nothing!”

The heated voices outside her tent slowly drew Niamh out of the realm of sleep with much confusion. Everything had seemed to be in order when she’d last been awake. What had changed since then? Blearily, she tried to regain her bearings as quickly as possible even as further argument ensued.

“Please, we must use reason! Without the infrastructure of the Inquisition, we’re hobbled!” Josephine pleaded, but it seemed Cullen would have none of it as he audibly snapped back.

“That can’t come from nowhere!”

“She didn’t say it could!” She heard Leliana speak then, unsurprisingly coming to their ambassador’s defense, but she could hear the clear irritation in her tone.

As their Spymaster, Niamh knew the woman didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve with as much regularity as she had in the past. That she was revealing any indication of her current mood at all likely meant it had been simmering for quite some time. With a grimace, she gingerly sat herself up in the cot, a hiss falling from her lips as her ribs protested the movement immediately. She felt a hand on her arm then, helping to steady her, and she looked up in surprise to see Revered Mother Giselle there, who was looking at her in gentle concern.

“You need rest, young one.”

“How long have they been arguing?” she asked, ignoring the advice offered although she knew it was meant well.

“Too long,” she admitted wearily, “but they have the luxury now thanks to you. Our enemy could not follow us, and with time to doubt, we turn to blame.”

Niamh gritted her teeth, looking down at herself in disgust. “I knew my being bedridden was going to lead to this.”

“This is hardly your fault. You certainly did not ask for events to unfold in such a way or be met with an enemy beyond our comprehension.” She shook her head. “Still, I fear that infighting may lead as much to our downfall as this Corypheus.”

“Ah. I suppose news of who he actually is has spread through the encampment?”

“It has. Mind you, I find some of the things he claimed to be questionable.

“You believed he was lying then?”

“Mortals such as ourselves were never meant to sunder the Veil in such a way. That he and his colleagues tried to reach the Golden City and were consequently cast out from it as darkspawn is… both a fitting punishment and a curse upon mankind. It was for their hubris that we suffer the Blight and had the eyes of the Maker turned away from us. If even what a shred of what he says is true, then this Corypheus is a monster beyond all imagining.” The Revered Mother turned to her then in consideration. “But then would it not also make sense as to why Andraste would choose someone to rise against him?”

The continued claim had Niamh glancing away in aggravation. “But I’m not her Herald! I have never claimed to be anyone beyond a woman unfortunate enough to be marked with the key to our every problem since this entire disaster began! Misfortune has always been more my companion than divinity, for it certainly was not the hand of the Maker or His Bride that saved me; it was my own!”

“Of course,” the other woman said lightly, seeking to soothe her anger. “The dead cannot return across the Veil after all, but the people know what they saw, young one, even if the truth is not as you or I would make it. The Maker works both in the moment and how it is remembered. Our people keep to their faith because it is sometimes all they have left to keep them afloat amidst such uncertainty.”

“With all due respect, Revered Mother, faith has never been anything more than an unwelcome reminder that I was never wanted in this world,” Niamh replied sullenly, and when those dark eyes turned to her with sympathy, she sighed at her own blunder. She didn’t tend to filter her thoughts very well when she was exhausted. “Regardless, we need more than that if we’re to survive any of this. Corypheus is still very much a real, physical threat, and without a plan of defense, a base of operations, or even an indication as to where we even currently are…” She grimaced. “I don’t see how we can even hope of defeating him.”

Heedless of her injuries, she quickly rose from the cot and donned the coat that had been left folded at the foot of her comforter before escaping out in the cold. A Knight-Enchanter stood to the side of her tent as had been commonplace for nearly a fortnight now. As Niamh was just standing there, however, the man didn’t move to intercept her. He merely nodded in acknowledgment of her presence and allowed her the peace she so clearly sought, which was she utterly grateful for as ice settled in her lungs at the first breath. She focused on that sensation—gladdened to feel anything beyond her physical pains and the gnawing doubt in her chest.

She turned her attention to her War Council, who had thankfully stopped arguing, but their new alternative didn’t seem any better. Although they stood or sat within relatively close distance from one another, the interpersonal chasms between them seemed almost fathomless, tangible as their resentment. Her heart sank at that, knowing it was yet another problem to an ever-growing list of them.

As bleak as everything seemed, she began to wonder how she was supposed to solve any of this.

“Shadows fall,

And hope has fled.

Steel your heart,

The dawn will come.”

Niamh immediately jerked her head behind her to see Revered Mother Giselle moving to stand alongside her, voice raised in reverent song, and as the sound of it echoed throughout the encampment, the gaze of the people turned to meet them with varying amounts of surprise and awe. It was then that Niamh realized that most hadn’t seen her walk outside her tent in all the time she’d been there, and she felt a sinking sensation within her grow as they moved toward her, their own voices joining in song.

“No, please,” Niamh began when many took a knee before her. “You don’t have to bow to me! Please, this isn’t necessary!” She reached out to beckon them back to their feet, but the hands she raised to deter them were grasped reverently in their own. There, she found herself held in place beneath the weight of the faith they reserved for the one they viewed as their savior.

A lie.

This is wrong, she wanted to say as they turned their song and their absolute conviction toward her. Willingly, they knelt in utter supplication of her, as if she were truly blessed—Andraste’s Herald—and not a complete fraud like she felt.

She met Leliana’s eyes then across the crowd, for the bright, dulcet tones of her voice resonated more strongly within her than any other offered to her in reverence. It was ever a balm against her soul, and she clung to it desperately, even as Niamh saw the message in that gaze: I know you don’t believe in Him, and I know this isn’t the destiny you would have chosen for yourself, but you were exactly who we needed in our darkest hour.

Niamh wanted to shy away from that certainty. It is another burden to bear, she responded resentfully.

Yes, those eyes said, but you will not bear it alone; I promise.