So first off - congrats to everyone who finaled. :)
In the meantime, here’s my entry - (no final, alas, but that’s okay.) Keep calm and carry on, as they say.
Posting under the break.
…the spider weaves as she waits
To strip the flies of their fates…
A spider slips through the tangled lines of her web, the precise bobbing of her abdomen almost dainty upon the silver strands. The design sings to me of a frail beauty, deceptive in its purpose and deadly in its means.
Like so many things.
Water trickles down the back of my neck, already chilled with the sweat of a nervous energy I cannot seem to quell. I stifle the urge to pace and resort to twisting the frayed edge of my cloak, ignoring the steady drip from the roof.
Abandoned farm houses make for cold comfort from the rain, but it’s better than nothing and I’m in no position to object.
Not that I ever have been.
I freeze at the scrape of a boot at the window ledge; the tension ebbs out of me when I see Bala crouching there. Mud encrusts the dark tangle of his hair, gathers black beneath his nails. His pointed ears are barely noticeable beneath his wool cap and his cheeks are smeared with soot.
He’s an odd bird, even for a former denizen of the Kirkwall alienage, but he’s easy enough on the eyes and a crack shot with a bow.
The former is a negotiable convenience. The latter is not.
Uncoiling from the sill with a grace I can only dream of, the elf tosses me a crusted chunk of bread from the sack on his shoulder, a fine dusting of flour still caught on the edges. My stomach growls in appreciation as I tear into it, heedless of the way he shakes his head at me in quiet amusement.
The bread fills my belly though it tastes like ashes.
Bala sets down his pack and attempts to light a fire on the hearth. The kindling stirs feebly as a thin breath of smoke rises with all the substance of a ghost’s sigh.
“I’ll do it.” I brush the last crumbs from my skirts. Crimson splotches stain the hem, but I ignore them. If I look too closely I’ll start screaming and there’s no time for that.
The elf bows with a sardonic flourish as I push past him. I don’t really need to be this close to the wood, but my control is wire-thin right now; the last thing we need is to set the place ablaze. I coax a flame to the tips of my fingers, watching as it dances golden upon my skin.
He whistles in appreciation and I spare him a wan smile, blowing the fire gently to the scraps of bark until it flares into something useful.
Such a simple thing, fire. Warmth on one side, destruction on the other.
Abruptly I pull my trembling hand to my side and retreat to the window. Smoke still rises in the distance, an ugly salute to whatever Kirkwall has become.
“Useful trait, that.” Bala’s accent is a slurred mess I can’t quite place, as though it’s the bastard conglomeration of wherever he’s lived. He’s certainly not born of Kirkwall, anyway.
“Not all would think so,” I retort sourly. He rummages through his sack to pull out a frying pan and a small bit of smoked pork. It’s heavily spiced. “Is it safe to rest here?”
He shrugs, peeling the thin strips apart to lay them in the skillet. “When is anything safe? If you mean are we safe from being followed? Aye. Perhaps.” He licks a bit of grease from his fingers and sets the pan directly on the fire. “For the moment. The city’s got bigger issues than a runaway mage or two.”
“Near enough. The Templars are buzzing about the ruins of the Chantry like hornets kicked from their nest.” His voice grows gentle. “If you had friends within, I cannot imagine they would have survived.”
“Does a marionette weep when the puppeteer no longer pulls her strings?” A moth has blundered into the spider’s web, its wings flickering like a mad thing.
For a moment I’m plunged into memory.
…jerked awake beneath the thundering crack of stone and magic, the ozone of it thick and pulsing through my veins with the strength to send me to my knees. The whites of Maggie’s eyes gleam in terror beneath the eerie light bathing us from the window…
…naked feet slapping against the stone, no time to dress. We’re being herded like rabbits through a warren of poison, the Templars biting at our heels with all the courtesy of snapping dogs, rabid with fear and anger and madness…
…Maggie’s fingers entwine with mine as we find an abandoned corner. Cinders fill the air, covering my tongue, my lungs. I’m sucking fire in with each breath. The world is ending. The world is ending. She’s shrieking it into my ear, but her voice comes from such a distance. The Gallows has become an abattoir, fulfilling its old promise to the mages forced to call it home…
…a soft whimper as Maggie is pulled away from me, her last cry muffled into nothing more than a gurgling moan. Her blood spatters my cheeks, filling my mouth, hot and metallic. Calem stares at her as though he cannot comprehend what he’s done, his Templar’s armor coated in gore. He turns to me, an apology on his lips, but I slap him. My palm bursts into flame and his flesh melts in my hands, the scent like charred meat…
Bala’s bacon pops in the frying pan and the odor of burning grease sends my stomach roiling. Sour bile rolls over my tongue and I retch against it. Food is too precious to waste for the sake of a weak constitution.
I swallow hard, ignoring his questioning grunt. “Thank you, by the way. For going to check on things.” I hesitate. “You don’t have to stay, you know.”
“And how far would you get?” He raises a brow at me, his gaze raking me from head to toe. “You carry a staff and you’re wearing bloody rags, lass. You think the Templars won’t know what you are the moment they clap eyes on you?” His legs sprawl out before him as he eases against the edge of the hearth. “Besides, I owe you for saving my life. You didn’t need to do that, either.”
A humorless bark of laughter escapes me. How could he know?
…running, running, running, my feet bruised and cut, my mind gibbering because I killed Calem, shunted the power through him until his head burst like a ripe melon, viscous fluid bubbling from his orbital sockets even as Maggie’s emotionless face bears witness from the cobblestones.
I flee from the accusations, knowing I’d had no choice, but the hurt is wretched and awful and I’m alone. I trip over bodies and fallen rubble, corpses like rag dolls clutching at my ankles. The cackling laughter of the Knight-Commander fills the city, fills my ears until there is nothing left except her and the clash of battle in the distance.
I see the elf sprawled beneath a shattered pillar, his knee bent at the wrong angle, blood dripping from his temple. He winces, his breath hissing and somehow I hear that more clearly than anything else.
My instincts tell me to keep moving. I’m so close to escaping.
But he’s one of my people.
And I’m selfish.
I kneel, calm pooling over me from years of practice. There is only the narrow focus of the power and the wounded man in front of me. The healing rush skitters up my spine and through my fingers, the warp and weft of his limbs bending and knitting and setting…
He thanks me but I barely acknowledge it; my inner sense of self-loathing points at him. See? See? Not an abomination after all.
I stagger to my feet and my head spins as he attempts to stand. I’ve only healed him to prove to myself that I’m not what the Templars feared.
And that sickens me most of all.
“…after the Champion?”
I blink, realizing I’ve missed whatever he’s said. “What?”
He fishes out a piece of the pork with his dagger. “I said, do you intend to try to follow after the Champion?”
“And do what, exactly?” I glance at the spider’s web, snorting. The moth continues to struggle even as the spider skates over to wrap her intended victim in silk. “I’m no warrior. No fighter.”
“So what do you intend?”
“The Dalish might take me in. Assuming I can find them.” My toes curl in reflex at the thought. “Assuming I can even walk that far.”
“I’m sure our country cousins will love it when you lead the Templars straight to them for sheltering an apostate.” He chews thoughtfully. “I’ve always preferred a feather-bed over prancing barefoot in rabbit droppings, but I hear the halla are nice.”
I scowl at him. “I stopped playing ‘Princess of the Halla’ when I was five.”
“Aye?” His mouth twitches.
I ignore the jibe and slump on the ledge, the cold sprinkle of rain pattering against my forehead. “And where else would I go? Mages disappear on the run all the time. But for all our powers, we are so easily caught.”
“A sheep that’s never learned to fly can hardly be faulted for tumbling off a cliff when it’s pushed.” At my surprised titter, he sighs, rubbing his nose. “They train you to be captured, lass. Most of you cluster in little herds – it makes you easy to find.”
“You’d think we’d have better luck fighting them off that way.”
He rolls his eyes. “The Order dictates, remember? You’re being chased by hunters…immune to much of your power and indoctrinated to kill you. Hunters you’ve been conditioned to fear. Do you expect sheep to grow fangs in the presence of wolves?”
I gesture curtly at the smoldering remains of the Chantry. “Some do.”
“Indeed. Some do.” He pauses, staring at me as though weighing his next words against some inner measure. “My older brother was a mage,” he says finally.
“Yes.” He doesn’t elaborate, and I don’t press. The silence stretches, time sliding between each drop of rain until every wet plop on the ledge seems to mock me with its cadence.
My head tilts toward his nearly empty skillet. “Grand escape aside? I’d settle for not being hungry anymore.”
He finishes up his bacon and takes out a pipe, tapping it gently against his thigh. “Small goals are admirable,” he agrees.
“My whole life has been nothing but small goals.” Bitterness seeps into my voice.
“Maybe you ought to start looking for something bigger.” He fiddles with the pipe to light it, sucking on the mouthpiece for a long moment. “Life’s too short to be constantly playing ‘Find the Phylactery’ with your prison guards.”
I flush. “I wasn’t some sort of whore. I did what I had to.” Calem’s face rises high in my memory and I push it away. “We all did.”
“It wasn’t an accusation.” An ethereal smoke ring emerges from between his lips and he scrapes his boot in the rotting straw on the floor. “We’re all of us whores, you know. The elves.” A wry smile kicks up one corner of his mouth. “Trained from birth to spread our legs for whoever holds the leash.”
“And yet it doesn’t seem to bother you,” I observe dryly.
“Makes my job that much easier. We’re invisible, you and I. Men see what they wish to see and ignore the rest.” He pulls his cap down, his eyes growing wide as his voice changes to a shy country drawl. “Please, ser. Have ye seen my master?” He smirks, the accent slurring into something Orlesian and haughty. “Presenting my mistress, the Arlessa of WhoGivesAShite.”
“And that works for you?”
“Sometimes it earns me nothing more than a kick in the nugs.” He pulls out a small vial of silvery blue liquid from his vest and tosses it to me. “Sometimes more than that.”
I turn the vial between my fingers. “Who are you really? A spy?”
“I’m whatever I need to be. An opportunist, let’s say.” He stabs the pipe in my direction. “And you are an opportunity.”
“I’m a liability. You know it’s only a matter of time before the Templars track me down.”
“Perhaps.” His attention is drawn to the moth. Its wings have slowed to a slovenly pulse. “You’re small potatoes compared to the Champion…or her companions. An easy risk. Besides, as a Circle Mage you can read and write – both skills I have need of. Not to mention the whole healing thing.”
“You’re not afraid of what happens if I…make a deal with a demon? Become an abomination?” The words spill unbidden, my nostrils flaring.
The elf’s blue gaze grows flinty. “I’ll put an arrow in your eye, same as I did for my brother. Then neither of us has to worry.”
“I can blow smoke up your arse if it soothes your conscience, but the choice is up to you.” He nudges the sack with his foot. “Clean rags and an escort to the nearest Dalish camp as payment for my life.”
“Or what? I go with you?” For a moment I dare to dream of something beyond the Circle. Beyond chilly hallways and the stink of fear. Mutters and accusations from the shadows. Longing for the warm touch of trust.
He flexes his filthy knuckles. They’re oddly elegant beneath the grime. Refined. “I hear Val Royeaux is nice this time of year.”
I frown. “Are you mad? The White Spire is there. The Divine…there are rumors of an Exalted March.”
Bala rises to his feet, the sweet scent of his pipe lingering as he crosses the room to where I stand. “Aye.” He pauses to watch the spider as she twists the moth into a cocoon. “Funny thing about the Chantry. They’re like dogs on a bone. So focused on what’s before them and on what they desire” – whip-fast, he flattens the spider between his thumb and forefinger – “that they’ve become blind to all else.” His voice sobers. “Make no mistake, mage. Change is coming. The question is, will you ride the crest of the wave, or be crushed by it?”
When I don’t answer, he chuckles and flicks the dead arachnid to the floor. “Choice is a heavy burden for those who’ve never had it.”
I clutch the vial of lyrium, my gaze falling on the moth. It’s still squirming within its silk prison. With the faintest of breaths, I ignite the white strands and blink back a sudden rush of tears as the tiny insect flutters drunkenly away.