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Backed by the great ivory butte of Broken Tooth, the faraway fortress rose before Valya's awed eyes. Silver-fringed banners flapped from its towers, their emblems indistinct at this distance, but Valya knew that they showed a steely gray griffon upon a field of blue. Beneath them stood a single gate of thick wood and steel. Brother Genitivi had written in his histories that it was wide enough for three horses to pass abreast, but from where Valya stood, it was so dwarfed by Weisshaupt's stony bulk that it seemed tiny as her thumbnail.
For weeks she'd dreamed of this place. Ancient stronghold of the Grey Wardens, final resting place for the heroes of ages, first and last bulwark against the horrors of the Blights … and now her home, too. The thought made her shiver with fearful delight.
None of that excitement was reflected on her companions' faces. The fear was there, though, despite their best efforts to mask it.
There were four of them besides Valya—an extraordinary number of recruits to be taken at once, she'd been told. They ranged in age from sixteen to nineteen, except for Senior Enchanter Eilfas, whose scraggly beard was more white than brown. All of them were mages, which was another extraordinary thing. By tradition, the Wardens took only one recruit from each Circle of Magi in Thedas.
But that tradition had been broken. Violently.
Beginning in Kirkwall and spreading swiftly through Orlais, the mages of Thedas had found themselves hunted and hounded on all sides. The Templar Order, supposedly their protector and defender, had turned against them. How and why it had happened, Valya wasn't sure; she'd been only an apprentice until a few weeks ago, so no one had told her much of anything, and the rumors were impossibly confusing.
What she did know was that Weisshaupt, and the Grey Wardens, represented sanctuary.
Elsewhere in Thedas, the world might have gone mad. Elsewhere, she'd heard, entire Circles of Magi had been destroyed. Their towers had been pulled to the ground, and every mage and apprentice inside had been slaughtered—even the little children—for no crime beyond being born with the gift of magic. Other Circles were said to have risen up in rebellion and joined an army of mages massing somewhere around Andoral's Reach.
But that was elsewhere. Not here. Here in the Anderfels, men and women remembered the true dangers of the world, and they did not waste precious lives fighting one another. When the first rumors reached their Circle, the Senior Enchanter had sent a swift message to Weisshaupt, and within days the Wardens' reply had come back. Any mage who wished to join the Grey Wardens was welcome. No such mage was to be troubled by the templars. The Wardens' Right of Conscription was inviolate—and that meant its promise of sanctuary was too.
Even so, few had chosen to accept the Wardens' invitation. Becoming a Grey Warden meant a hard life and a sure death, one way or another. It was a noble and ancient order, its tales sung by bards across Thedas … and no one, absolutely no one, save the truly heroic or the truly desperate, wanted to become a member.
Valya wasn't sure which she was. But she knew she didn't want to die fighting templars, and she knew the Grey Wardens, even more than the Circle of Magi, offered a place where an elf could stand equal to any human. Nowhere else in Thedas could give her that.
So she had packed her few belongings and announced that she would accompany Senior Enchanter Eilfas and a handful of other junior mages to Weisshaupt. To become a Grey Warden, or die trying.
Now, under Broken Tooth's shadow, she could see the others regretting their decisions. It was as plain as the fear they tried so hard to hide. Templars were fanatics, but they were still men. They could be reasoned with, cajoled, bullied, bribed. There would be none of that with darkspawn. Only a hard life, and a sure death.
Valya stepped forward, starting on the steep long road to Weisshaupt's gates.
* * *
It was late afternoon when they turned onto the path to Weisshaupt, but it was fully dark by the time they reached its gates. Twice Eilfas had called a halt for water and rest. Life in the Circle's tower, with all those endless spiraling stairs, had kept the Senior Enchanter reasonably fit for his age, but there was nothing in any Circle of Magi that approximated the road up Broken Tooth.
A thousand feet of vertical distance separated Weisshaupt's gate from the dusty earth. The path that climbed up all that stone was at least three miles of hard switchbacks punctuated by ancient carved steps where the slope was too steep to run smooth. Each step had been worn down by the boots of countless Grey Wardens through the centuries, leaving shallow bowls that sent up little puffs of bone-colored dust as the mages' robes whisked across them.
Narrow benches were carved into the stone at two wider points along the path, offering a spartan respite, but otherwise there was no comfort to be had on the journey up. Nor was there meant to be. The thin black slits of archers' windows stared down at them, pointedly foreboding, but they hardly needed to be there. Anyone who tried walking up the path under the sun's full glare would have been defeated by heat and wind long before coming into bowshot. Even in the coolness of twilight, the walk was punishing.
At last, just when Valya thought her legs were about to give out and send her plummeting mercifully down the mountainside, they reached the final stretch of stairs. Above them, the moon shone white in a cloudless sky; below, the blasted land of the Anderfels stretched endlessly on in shades of gray and red. A smaller door, barely visible as a shadowed indentation in the massive wall, faced them. The Senior Enchanter rapped against it with the end of his staff, and after a moment it swung inward.
A bluff-faced woman in a gray tunic and trousers stood inside. The sleeves of the tunic had been torn off, showing arms as muscular as a blacksmith's. An old injury had split her lip; it had healed with a flat white mark over her front teeth, and the teeth themselves were made of silver that glinted in the starlight. A spiked war hammer hung from a well-worn loop on her belt.
"You'll be the Hossberg mages?" she said. Valya couldn't place her accent. Fereldan, maybe. She hadn't met many Fereldans.
Senior Enchanter Eilfas bowed his head graciously, despite his weariness. "We are."
"Come in. I'll show you to your rooms. There'll be wash water if you want it, and food. Rest for tonight. In the morning we can talk over what you'll be doing."
"Of course," the Senior Enchanter said. "May I ask your name? I am Senior Enchanter Eilfas of the Hossberg Circle … or I was. I suppose I don't know if I still am. My companions are Valya, Berrith, Padin, and Sekah. They are young, but all very good. We have come to offer our skills to your cause."
"Sulwe," the silver-toothed woman said. "We'll make good use of your talents." She stepped back into the fortress, receding into darkness. Eilfas lowered his staff, speaking a word, and the gem on its head began to glow softly.
In a gentle parade of light, led by the radiant gem atop Eilfas's staff and carried on by the lesser magic of the students, the mages of Hossberg passed into Weisshaupt.
* * *
At daybreak Sulwe returned and led Senior Enchanter Eilfas away for a private conference. She didn't tell the others where they were going, and no one asked.
A few minutes later a handsome young elf knocked on their door. He wore the Wardens' blue and gray with casual arrogance, but his manner was far less intimidating than Sulwe's military correctness had been, and he seemed scarcely five years older than any of them. His hair was the color of rich honey, and it tumbled to his shoulders in loose curls. An easy smile warmed his face. He carried a large covered basket, from which the tantalizing aroma of freshly baked bread wafted.
Berrith, shameless at sixteen, sat up straight on her cot and tugged her blouse lower. The elven Warden seemed not to notice, except for a slight smile that teased at the corner of his mouth. He looked carefully away from the young mage as he set the basket down on a table.
"Welcome to Weisshaupt," he said. Valya happened to be sitting on the opposite side of the room as Berrith, so the Warden directed his greeting at her. "My name is Caronel. I'll be handling your initial assessments and introductory lessons. Also, your breakfast." He gestured to the basket. "Help yourselves. Bread and goat cheese. Plain fare, but good. We're not much for luxury here."
"Thank you," Valya stammered, because someone had to say something. She felt a flush creeping up her cheeks. Caronel really was unfairly handsome. To cover the redness, she stood up hastily and retrieved a chunk of bread from the basket, then passed the basket over to Sekah. "What do you need to assess?"
If Caronel noticed her blush, he showed no sign of it. He sat companionably on the side of the Senior Enchanter's empty cot, turning so that he could see them all. "What you learned in Hossberg. What you know about the darkspawn and the Wardens and our duties in Thedas. How strong you are in your magic, whether you have any particular talents in the art, and whether you know anything that might be of use to us already."
"That's a lot of questions," Valya murmured around a mouthful of bread. She swallowed with difficulty, glad to have an excuse for her dry mouth.
"We have a lot of time," Caronel said with a wry smile. "Well, we have some time. Maybe not a lot. Let's start with the most crucial question: What do you know about darkspawn? Have you ever fought any?"
"I have," Sekah said. He was a small grave boy with straight dark hair and enormous eyes that made him look far younger than his sixteen years. "Before I came to the Circle, hurlocks attacked our farm. We couldn't hold them off with arrows or pitchforks, so I burned them. That's how my magic came to me."
Valya regarded her companion with surprise. She'd never heard that story before, and had no idea he'd survived such danger. Sekah wasn't even a real mage yet, strictly speaking; he hadn't undergone the Harrowing, which meant he was still an apprentice.
Or maybe it didn't. Maybe there wouldn't be any more Harrowings now that they were all apostates. Only Circle mages had to endure that awful ritual, and there were no Circles anymore.
In that case, maybe Sekah was the most accomplished mage among them.
Caronel certainly seemed to be impressed. The elven Warden nodded at Sekah with real respect. Then he glanced at the others. "And you?"
Mutely, Valya shook her head along with the rest of them. She'd read about darkspawn in the histories, of course, and heard countless stories from those who had fought the horrific creatures. No child of the Anderfels, elf or human, grew up without being terrorized by bedtime tales of hurlocks and genlocks and baby-eating ogres. But she had never personally laid eyes on one, much less faced a howling horde of them in combat.
"Then you'll have a lot to learn," Caronel said. "If you become Wardens, your primary duty will, of course, be protecting the people of Thedas from the depredations of darkspawn. Not only will you have to fight against them personally, but you will have to lead others in that fight. You will need to know everything about them: their types, their tactics, and all we know about their origins and abilities." The elf paused. "You're all mages, so I assume you can read?"
Valya nodded, as did her companions. Caronel gave them another approving glance. "Very good. Then, until it's time for you to undergo the Joining, you can earn your keep—and perhaps begin to learn something useful—in our libraries."
"Earn our keep how?" Sekah asked.
"The Chamberlain of the Grey has requested your assistance with his research," Caronel said. "You should be honored to assist. It's something to do with blood magic, I gather, although the chamberlain's being tight-lipped about the details. Old, whatever it is. But you mages love old books, don't you? You should have a grand time with it. All that … parchment. And dust."
"Blood magic?" Sekah echoed in a whisper, casting a nervous look to Valya.
She shared the younger boy's unspoken sentiments. Blood mages were feared and reviled across Thedas, for their magic drew upon pain and sacrifice, and could often be used to control the minds or bodies of others. If whatever this was involved darkspawn, too …
Valya had never heard of darkspawn possessing such magic. She had always thought they were mindless brutes, and blood magic required considerable sophistication.
"Something like that," Caronel said. "You'll be looking for accounts where Wardens acted … strangely. Disregarding their orders, abandoning their posts, things of that nature. You'll also be looking for mentions of unusual darkspawn—ones who could talk and think like men. These things may occur together or separately. It doesn't matter. Make note of both.
"Not everyone who witnessed such things would have recognized them for what they were, of course. The accounts may be cryptic, and prone to exaggeration or distortion. But any reference you can find would be helpful. I understand that it may be difficult to distinguish incidents where Wardens inexplicably absconded from ordinary desertions, or from outposts that were massacred during the fighting. I also understand that the language may present some difficulty, as you'll be focusing on materials that may be several centuries old. Do your best."
"When would you like us to begin?" Valya asked.
"Today," Caronel replied. He stood, brushing invisible wrinkles from his deep blue tunic. "As soon as you're done eating, in fact."
The conversation died out after that. Valya, alight with nervous excitement, had to force herself to swallow her food. As hungry as she'd been before, the bread and cheese now seemed as flavorless as sawdust.
When they'd finished eating, Caronel led them from their room down a long dusty hallway. To their right, the stone walls were hung with tapestries of plate-clad Wardens mounted on griffons and raining death down on armies of shrieking darkspawn. To the left, archers' slits allowed just enough sunlight to bring out the tapestries' faded hues.
Weapons were mounted between some of the tapestries. They looked like darkspawn weapons: savagery crystallized in black, cruel and clumsy and terrifying. Old stains covered their blades. Blood, maybe. Or something worse. Valya couldn't tell. Shivering, she averted her eyes.
"You have to look," Sekah whispered by her elbow. The boy's eyes were fixed on a dented, bloodied shield. "You have to bear witness and understand why it is so important to stop them. The Joining, the Calling … it's all worthwhile if it holds back the darkspawn. Once you understand what they are."
Valya shook her head, her lips pressed tightly. But she looked up, briefly, at the ancient weapons nailed to the walls, and the tapestries that commemorated the grisly battles in which those weapons had presumably been taken. And then she cast her eyes downward, shivering again, and kept her gaze fixed on her own toes as Caronel led them away through the hall and down a sweeping flight of stairs and into Weisshaupt's great library.
It was an awe-inspiring sight, more of a cathedral than a library. Huge vaulted windows overlooked an adjacent courtyard and flooded the interlocking chambers with cloudy sunlight. Rows upon rows of gray stone shelves, all heavily laden with yellowing books and bone-encased scrolls, stretched for a seeming infinity in front of the mages. Chandeliers of scented candles hung from creaking iron frames overhead, filling the library with the mingled fragrance of beeswax, cedarwood, and old smoke. The walls were richly carved with heraldic griffons and ancient coats of arms and ornamental plants—oranges, pomegranates, and plump juicy grapes. All the fruits that the sculptor missed in the arid Anderfels, Valya guessed.
"You'll begin with materials from the Fourth Blight," Caronel said, leading them to a smaller chamber that opened off the side of the main library. "The older records are beyond most of us. If you've made a study of ancient languages, we'd be glad to have you look at those … but I'm guessing that you haven't, in which case the chronicles from the Fourth Blight will be difficult enough."
He stood beside the archway and waved them in. Leather-bound books in uniform rows covered the shelves that lined the chamber's upper halves. They had the look of official histories, recorded after the fact by scribes in quiet rooms. Underneath those neat gray tomes, enormous ironbound trunks rested against the walls. Two of them were open, revealing a clutter of books, papers, scraps of parchment, and other miscellany that appeared to have been loosely sorted by size but was otherwise unorganized.
"The trunks contain primary materials. Original reports, notes from the field, letters from Wardens and soldiers. It's most likely that you'll find what we're looking for in there," Caronel said from the archway.
Valya barely heard him.
In the center of the room was a glass sarcophagus raised up on a dais of gilt white marble. At its head, a pair of enormous black horns spiraled up almost to the ceiling, their tips lost in shadow. The sarcophagus was obviously very old; although slightly tinted, the panes of glass set into its walls and lid had been painstakingly cut to avoid bull's-eyes, ripples, or other flaws common in older glass. The panes in the coffin were no bigger than Valya's palm, but each one was flawless.
Feeling as though she'd fallen into some kind of trance, the young elven mage stepped through the archway and approached the sarcophagus. Through the lattice of glass and lead, she could see a suit of silverite plate mail gleaming faintly in the wan gray sunlight. It didn't look like ceremonial armor. The Wardens' griffon was etched upon the breastplate, and there was some simple chase work on the helm and pauldrons, but it had the look of hard-used service mail. Old sweat stained the leather straps, and whoever had last polished the armor hadn't quite been able to get all the dents out.
The armor's empty gauntlets were folded over two weapons: a long knife in a plain leather scabbard, and a graceful, swooping longbow with a pair of gray-and-white feathers tied to its top end like a tassel. It was the sight of those mottled feathers, brittle with age, that made Valya suck in a sudden breath of recognition.
Those are Garahel's.
Garahel was the greatest elven hero that Thedas had ever known. As a Grey Warden, he had been crucial in rallying allies to fight the Fourth Blight—and he himself had struck down the Archdemon Andoral, giving his own life to break the darkspawn horde.
Every elven child knew the story. Garahel occupied a special place of pride in their hearts. As an elf, he had suffered all the same indignities that they had. Outcast, spat upon, considered utterly beneath respect, he had nevertheless risen above that contempt and had not only forgiven his old enemies, but had spared them from sure doom.
Alone, he had ended the Fourth Blight and saved Thedas.
Valya passed her fingers reverently over the coffin's glass facets. She didn't dare touch them; leaving smudges on Garahel's memorial would have been impious. But even that light brush sent a thrilling tingle through her skin. The hero of the Fourth Blight.
The other mages had filtered into the room behind her. They, too, looked at the coffin with its crown of ridged black horns. Their expressions shifted from confusion to awe as each of them came to the silent realization of whose arms and armor lay in that glass casket—and whose horns those were standing like a headstone above his memorial.
Behind them, Caronel smiled. "We keep relics from all the blights here. This isn't just a library. It is a monument to honor the fallen." He stepped away, taking his hand from the arch. "Call out if you need anything. There are always Wardens in the library, and the chamberlain's office is nearby. There is a washroom near the back on the right, behind the case of ogre horns. I'll be back to summon you for dinner."
Then he was gone, and the four of them were alone with the books and the trunks and the Archdemon's horns.
"Do you think those are really Garahel's arms?" Padin whispered. She was the oldest of them, and the tallest, a gawky blond girl with pock-scarred cheeks and a habit of hunching her shoulders inward in a futile attempt to make herself small.
"Of course they are," Valya said. "The Wardens wouldn't have fakes."
"Where do you want to begin?" Sekah asked. "With the official histories or the trunks?"
Valya hesitated. She knew very little about the real history of the Fourth Blight. Garahel's heroism was a familiar tale, and she'd heard old songs like "The Rat-Eater's Lament" and "The Orphan with Five Fathers," which dated from the infamous siege of Hossberg, but the details of troop movements and battles were a mystery to her. The Fourth Blight had lasted more than a decade, hadn't it? That was an enormous span of fighting. Where should they begin looking for traces of abnormal darkspawn, or Wardens who had absconded from their duties?
"We'll start with the battle maps," she decided. "We might be able to tell something from the Wardens' troop movements. A picture's supposed to be worth a thousand words, isn't it?"
"If you know how to read it," Berrith muttered. The pretty blonde still seemed to be sulking after Caronel had ignored her.
No one else protested, though. Padin lifted the oversized book containing the official versions of the Wardens' battle maps and began leafing carefully through the pages. The book was very old, but it had been designed to withstand the march of ages and had been reinforced with spells for that purpose, and the colored lines denoting rivers and forests on the tough beige parchment were as bright as the day they'd been drawn.
Almost from the start, the darkspawn hordes overwhelmed the maps. Their forces were rendered as simple black sigils, menacing in their starkness. They marched on and on, swallowing kingdoms, erasing the names of villages and towns and cities under their onslaught. But the uniformity of the markings told Valya nothing about which darkspawn they'd been, or how they'd effected their conquests.
She turned her attention to the Wardens' movements instead. Perhaps it would be easier to divine a pattern in their responses to the horde.
Unlike the darkspawn, the Wardens were not all marked with the same map symbol. The griffons were designated with a stylized eagle's head, sometimes rendered in blue and sometimes in red; she supposed those were the forces headed by two different commanders. Cavalry were horse heads, again in varying colors, and infantry were marked by spearpoints. Little pennons sketched under the spears designated whether they were Wardens or allies from various nations.
But there wasn't much of a pattern to those, either, at least none she could tell from looking at the maps without context. Gradually the other mages reached the same conclusion and drifted away, opening trunks and beginning to sift through the primary documents.
Valya stuck doggedly to the maps. She wanted to at least get to the end of the book before giving up and trying another tack.
A note in the margin of one map caught her eye. At first glance it looked like just another town or village somewhere outside Starkhaven, right on the edge of the darkspawn horde and doubtlessly soon destroyed by the same. Nothing noteworthy.
But the name was the Elvish word for "griffon," which seemed an unlikely choice for a human village, and there was a subtle shimmer of dust rubbed into the parchment underneath it. Lyrium. It was only a tiny amount, and very dilute, but after years of apprenticeship in the Circle of Magi, Valya recognized lyrium dust immediately. That green-blue glow, constant through the world of the living and the Fade alike, was utterly unique in Thedas.
She glanced over her shoulder. No one was paying her any mind; they were all immersed in searching through their own letters and journals.
Cautiously, but curiously, Valya drew a thread of mana from the Fade and tried to view the map through the shifting lens of magic. The pale blue agate in her staff gleamed, just faintly; she could pass it off as reflected sunlight if anyone looked her way.
No one did, though, and when Valya glanced down at the map, she was very glad for that. A single line of Elvish script shimmered on the map, glowing pale blue as magic flowed through the lyrium-laced ink in which it had been written.
Valya released her hold on the Fade as soon as she saw the words. They faded back invisibly into the parchment, but they stayed bright in her mind. Lathbora viran.
The spelling was archaic, as were the forms of the letters, but she understood the words all the same. There was no exact translation into any human tongue, so far as Valya knew, although the phrase could be clumsily reduced to "the path to a place of lost love." It was a quote from one of the few great poems to be remembered through the oral traditions of the Dalish and the alienages, and it described a wistful wish for beauty that one had never actually experienced in life. It was a sweetly painful sensation, akin to nostalgia but laced with greater bitterness, for a nostalgic man remembers the pleasure he has lost, whereas one experiencing lathbora viran longs for a thing that he can never really know.
"Under the blackberry vines, I felt it," Valya muttered under her breath. That was how the poem opened: with the musky fragrance of ripening blackberries, bitter and sweet, and a wish to remember the long-lost scents of Arlathan.
The poem itself was lathbora viran, because no elf she'd ever met remembered it in the original Elvish. The elves had a few fragmented words and the skeleton of the story, but the poem itself had been haltingly re-created in human tongues. No alienage elves knew enough of their own history or mother language to recall their civilization's lost works of art. They didn't even know the original title. "Under the Blackberry Vines," it was called, because no one knew the true name anymore.
It was a strange thing to find on a war map from the Fourth Blight. There was no question in Valya's mind that the lyrium-laced message was contemporaneous with the map's original drawing. Indeed, the spell that hid it from casual view might have been woven into the same enchantment that preserved the map's more obvious markings.
But why? Why would someone conceal a snippet of poetry so that it could be found only by a mage and understood only by an elf? Unless it wasn't just a line of fanciful nostalgia …
Had there been blackberry vines among the carvings in the other room?
Valya went back to find out. The main library was mostly empty, with just one gray-haired Warden looking through the windows at birds singing in the inner courtyard. Valya moved quietly around him to examine the carvings of fruit upon the walls.
They were as she'd remembered: figs, pomegranates, citrus fruits … and one solitary blackberry vine with broad-petaled flowers blooming alongside tight buds and lush berries. The carved vine encircled a torch sconce tucked between two shelves, then trailed down to a gray stone bench built into the wall.
Valya peered under the sconce. Nothing stood out to her there. Under the bench, however, there was another faint shimmer of lyrium dust rubbed into one of the stones in the walls. This time it was so light that she would never have seen it if she hadn't already been holding on to the Fade.
With another backward glance to ensure that no one was looking, she touched the Fade again and channeled a second wisp of magic into the stone. It vibrated as her magic touched the lyrium-rubbed rock, and the block shifted outward an inch.
Tense with nervous anticipation, Valya gripped the sides of the block with her fingertips and awkwardly wiggled it loose. When it was almost out, she eased it down to the floor carefully, and exhaled in quiet relief at how little sound it made.
Behind the loose block was a little hole in the wall, and in that hole was a single book, small but thick. Its cover was scuffed and bloodstained, and its pages were warped with old moisture, but it seemed to be in good condition. Biting her lip, Valya pulled it out, and then she carefully replaced the stone block and sat on the bench as though nothing at all were amiss.
She opened the book, unsure what to expect. It was filled with script in a fast, careless hand, feminine but not soft in the slightest.
In the year 5:12 Exalted, it began, my brother, Garahel, and I flew to Antiva City.
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