Spirit of Compassion

On a cloudless night west of Gwaren, two figures met in the darkness. The two men clutched their cloaks tightly around themselves against the night’s chill, their breath rising in the moonlight. “Wintermarch is fast approaching, Captain,” said Ser Presten, breaking the silence at last. “If your man does not return soon, I fear we will celebrate the First Day in the forest.”

Ser Kellin laughed. “You are not normally one so prone to hyperbole, Knight-Commander. You truly must hate the cold. It is a wonder that you ever chose to move so close to the sea. Gwaren nights set a chill to one’s bones even in the midst of Solace.”

“That they do, but we go where we are called. I do not mind the cold so much, yet it is times like these when one misses the warmth of his wife’s bed most. I have not seen Kathrin since my summons to the Circle Tower. The warden was undeniably a hero, but the lot certainly left a mess in their wake.”

Ser Kellin nodded, “how long have you been away?”

“Two months, twenty-seven days, eleven-and-a-half hours.” Ser Presten stared into the cloud of breath billowing away from his mouth and grew silent for a moment. Without returning his gaze to Kellin, he asked, “has she been well in my absence?”

Ser Kellin smiled warmly, “she misses you, but has been well otherwise. I promised you no harm would come to her while you were away and I kept an eye out for her every moment that I could spare it. I,” he hesitated, “I was sorry to hear about the baby. I know how hard it has been for the both of you these past years.”

Presten’s voice subsided to a distant whisper, “thank you, Kellin.”

“Do you think it has anything to do with . . . with what happened in the Denerim alienage?”

“I have often wondered,” Ser Presten breathed in deeply, “how differently our lives would have been had I arrived just moments sooner that day. When at last I had burst through the door to her family’s house, the blood on her lap was still hot. The corpses of her parents and brother were strewn about the floor, their ears hacked from their heads. Her golden hair was matted with blood where the point of her right ear had been removed and she was breathing hard with shock.

I remember the look in the Tevinters’ eyes when they saw me. It was one of irritation. I had spoiled their sport.”

“Bastards,” Kellin muttered under his breath.

“Before I ended it, I made sure their eyes were filled with fear.” Ser Presten looked up at Kellin, “Maker help me, if I could cut those men down again every day for the rest of my life, justice still would not be served.”

A moment passed before Ser Kellin spoke again. “My grandmother used to say to me,” he said, “there is light behind every shadow. Amidst that darkness, you and Kathrin found one another. She does not blame you for what transpired that day, nor should you blame yourself. The men who did this thing were wicked, and the world is better for the fate you delivered them.” Ser Presten did not speak, but a fleeting half-smile flashed upon his face.

The men exchanged few words after that. Instead, they passed the last hours of the night in silence until twilight crept upon them. “Dawn is nearly upon us, Ser Kellin, and your man has not shown,” said Ser Presten at last. “Should we be concerned?”

Kellin thought on the question for a moment. “No. The information he teased was too important to ignore, but our trust would be better invested in an Orlesian bard.” Rising from the ground, he stretched his arms outward and rolled his head gently from one shoulder to the next. “I am sorry to have delayed your return home even further than it had already been, ser. Let’s head back to town. If ever I see the scum again, it shall not be a pleasant experience for either of us.”

The two men turned toward the east and started for Gwaren when Ser Kellin’s plate mail was struck by a rock with a sudden clang. The projectile fell harmlessly to the ground, yet the knights cautiously drew their blades in unison. From off the path a short way, a voice called out, “My lords, come quickly!” With a sigh of exasperation, Kellin lead the way to the source of the noise with Ser Presten in tow.

They came upon a pale, greasy man, his face heavily pockmarked and his unkempt black hair and mustache weighted in oil. The man was crouched low to the forest floor and a rusted dagger dangled from the right of his belt beside a leather coin purse. As the templars approached him, the man’s green eyes darted rapidly between them and his lips moved with unheard whispers. The templars towered over the man and Presten–a big man by any standard–was a veritable giant before him.

In silence, the pale man scanned Presten with his eyes twice in rapid succession without meeting the knight’s gaze. When at last he spoke again, his stare did not deviate from Ser Kellin. “My lord!” he exclaimed once more, “I had feared you would not show.”

“What are you playing at?” replied Kellin. “We arrived in the dark of night per your instruction and nearly froze to death waiting for you. Be glad for the weight of my plate mail, Torrin Blash. If my shoulders weren’t so stiff, I’d beat some punctuality into you now.” Kellin sheathed his sword before asking, “I trust you haven’t wasted our time?”

“Forgive me, lord,” Torrin sniveled, “but I assure you your night was not spent in vain. I have discovered that our apostate is, in fact,” he said with the corners of his mouth turned ever so slightly upward,” a maleficar.”

“That is not an accusation one should make lightly,” Presten cautioned. “Are you certain of this thing?”

A frown returned to Torrin’s lips at Presten’s warning, but he did not otherwise acknowledge the comment. Still addressing Kellin, he said, “when you and I last spoke, I’ll admit that my suspicions were less certain, but my doubt is erased.”

“Go on, then,” Ser Kellin said, “we’ve not slept all night and my patience is waning.”

“I beg your pardon, noble ser,” responded Torrin with a slight bow of his head. “I was at the Drunken Dwarf a fortnight ago when my eyes happened upon a most peculiar exchange between a sailor from Kirkwall and a knife-eared wench I had not seen before.” Presten cringed at the term, but bit his tongue as Torrin continued.

“At a glance, no one would have thought anything of the two of them, just another sailor looking for anything he can get to warm his bed. Not my eyes, though. They see everything. The two of them kissed and she traded a pouch of coin for a small package below the table. After concealing the coin purse, the man drug a finger along a scar she bore from her neck to her,” he licked his lips as he considered the word, “chest. She then slapped the man and stormed from the inn. Needless to say, I was . . . intrigued. The elf was alone as I tailed her through town until she passed through the western gate and met a robed man.”

“To what purpose did you follow the woman, exactly?” asked Ser Presten with a hint of venom in his voice. “What concern was she to you?”

At last, Torrin looked Presten in the eye and coldly said, “I have a sense for such things,  Knight-Commander, and to your good fortune, I assure you. The man was an apostate, I was sure of it, and so I followed them. They lead me to this very trail and then turned north. They entered a cave not far from here where I dared not follow them alone. That’s why I contacted you, Ser Kellin.”

Kellin considered the tale for a moment and then said, “while the circumstances are certainly suspicious, I have heard very little to suggest that either the man or the elf were even apostates, let alone maleficarum.”

Torrin smiled slyly, “I neglected to mention one thing, my lord. Before they entered the cave, the elf drew out the package she had received at the inn and forced it into the robed man’s hands. I could hear very little of what was said between them, but I distinctly heard the elf demand that he ‘do it immediately’ and that she ‘couldn’t bear to take another step before it was finished.’ The man drew from the package a small knife the likes of which I had never seen. The blade was black as jet and the man held it as one would a quill.

From his hands, a glowing orb took flight and in that light, he traced the elf’s scar with the blade. Blood trickled from the re-opened wound, but she did not seem pained by the process. Once finished, the mage placed his hand upon the elf’s chest and called something out in a tongue I do not know. A bright, blue flash of light filled the area. It was blinding, but I thought for moment that my eyes perceived a third figure among them. The elf then collapsed to the ground. After a moment passed, the mage helped her to her feet. They embraced, and the two of them entered the cave.”

Kellin looked to Ser Presten. “If this is blood magic, I am uncertain as to its aim,” he said.

Ser Presten nodded, “my thoughts exactly. As Andraste taught, magic’s purpose is to serve man. Its uses extend beyond mindless destruction, and I sense there is more to this story than we have been given. Regardless, I have no knowledge of this mage. We should see to him at once.”

Kellin turned back to Torrin. “Blash, you implied that a more recent development had confirmed your suspicion.”

“That is true, noble lord. As I set out to meet you last night, I spotted the elf exiting town with another of her disgusting kin.”

“Mind your tongue,” Ser Presten interjected, but Torrin paid him no heed.

“Once more, I followed them to the cave, but this time I crept beside the entrance and listened to learn if they were alone.”

“If it is not far from here, Torrin, why did you not come for us then?” Kellin asked him.

Presten finished the thought. “Or was the thought of two elven women alone and far from prying eyes too hard for you to pass?”

The pale man smiled impishly. “Noble sers, you pain me with your words. You have mistaken my intentions entirely. Besides, I would sooner die than spoil myself in that soil.”

Ser Presten lifted the point of his blade to Torrin’s throat. “Your ignorance has exhausted my tolerance, Blash. Tell us what you found at that cave and pray to the Maker that you never meet me when I’m alone.”

The smile vanished from Torrin’s face. “I heard the elves speaking with the mage. They were discussing a ritual that the newcomer was planning to undertake. He asked her if she were certain she was willing to take the risk. When she agreed, a fourth voice spoke. The voice was feminine yet powerful and utterly otherworldly. I’d bet my life that it was a denizen of the fade. The demon told the elf that her desire for motherhood was ‘noble.’ What she meant by ‘motherhood,’ I haven’t the faintest idea.”

A look of horror fell upon Ser Presten’s face. “The elf’s name?” he asked. “Did you hear the elf’s name?”

Torrin shrugged and said, “the scarred one referred to her as Kathrin.”

“Where is she?” Presten demanded of him.

“Due north.”

“Andraste’s grace!” cried Ser Presten as he bolted toward the cave with Kellin trailing behind him. The cave was not far from the road, a half-mile at most, and the templars arrived after a few minutes of running. In spite of the distance, however, the men were breathing hard and beads of sweat were forming on their brows.

“In all my life, I’ve never run so hard in full plate,” said Kellin outside the cave. “What’s the plan, ser?”

“Steel yourself, Captain,” Presten panted. “We must assume the mage will resist. Capture him if possible, but show no mercy if Torrin’s suspicions prove true.” The men kneeled only briefly in prayer as they ingested the lyrium kept ever on their belts. As they rose, they unsheathed their blade, and with a knowing nod to one another, the templars entered the cave.

The mouth of the cave was narrow and wound sharply westward, deeper into the mountain. In single-file, the men followed the corridor in utter darkness until at last they rounded a corner into a large, round and well-lit chamber. Great wooden tables topped with all manner of alchemical devices lined the walls of the chamber. At the center of the room, a smokeless fire roared, and beyond it laid a large bed surrounded on either side by the mage and the elf where Kathrin rested.  A blue light emanated from the mage’s eyes and outstretched hands which hovered above Ser Presten’s motionless wife. Her abdomen was exposed and a crimson puddle had formed upon it and he noticed that she was no longer drawing breath.

As the knights came upon the pair, a sudden flash of light filled the room. In it, the mage appeared transformed, his appearance large and jagged. The standing elf motioned to stop the knights, but Kellin restrained her as Ser Presten yelled out, “Maker take you, maleficar!” and brought his sword down upon the mage’s head. The pained spirit’s cries echoed throughout the cavern as the mage’s body crumpled to the cold stone floor.

The elf slipped free of Ser Kellin’s grasp and rushed to Kathrin tearing cloth from her dress as she did so. She put her hand to Kathrin’s neck while she pressed the cloth into the wound, but the lying woman did not move. “What have you done to her?” asked Ser Presten, his voice quivering. Tears rolled from the elf’s eyes as she turned to face the templar, and he noticed that she was no longer scarred.

“Not all spirits of the fade are malevolent, Knight-Commander” her glistening eyes fell upon the slain mage. “He was right,” she said. “The templar’s heart holds no room for compassion though it may cost the one he loves.”

2 thoughts on “Spirit of Compassion

  1. Ashton Post author

    If anyone should happen to read my story, I’d be especially interested to know your thoughts about the ending. In my original draft, the story ended with what is now the second-to-last paragraph. Upon reading this iteration, I think I should have ended the story after the line

    “Not all spirits of the fade are malevolent, Knight-Commander” her glistening eyes fell upon the slain mage.

    Any feelings one way or the other?

    1. Ashton Post author

      I’ve thought a lot about the last couple of lines in the story and decided to strike through it. I left the text there, though, to encourage some feedback about the change.

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