Cat’s in the Cradle: Chapter One

Stunned, Duncan stared past the First Enchanter, the man’s last words playing and replaying in his mind as if they were stuck on a loop. Though his vision was unfocused, he could still see the old mage, looming just off to the side, a strange grin lighting his face. The Commander of the Grey had no idea how one was supposed to take that kind of news, and no matter how he tried he simply could not find the right emotions.

Shock. He was in shock.

He’d been to the tower more than once over the last twenty years, occasionally seeking recruits for the Wardens, more often than not finding himself turned away empty-handed. He’d spoken with Irving at least a dozen times since he’d become First Enchanter of the Ferelden Circle, and not once had the mage mentioned it before.

Why now?

When the world itself was on the brink, the unsubstantiated promise of the next Blight lurking on the horizon like a curse on the tip of a witch’s tongue. With the whispers of the end muttering in the back of his mind and the dark dreams plaguing his every slumber… Even if he didn’t live to see the next Blight, Duncan knew he was not long for the world. Soon he would answer the Calling, disappearing into the Deep Roads to spend his final days taking out as many darkspawn as he was able to slay.

Again, he found himself wondering, why now?

“I cannot possibly describe her to you, Duncan,” Irving went on, his shaky voice tugging him back to the moment. “Other than saying she is one of the brightest apprentices this circle has ever seen, I don’t know what else I could say. Just last night she completed her Harrowing in record-time, stunning Greagoir speechless. You know as well as I do that windbag rarely keeps his teeth together.”

“Hmm…” Was all the Grey Warden managed to say.

“I sent for her, of course, before I’d even heard you arrived. A marvelous coincidence, don’t you think?”

Perhaps it made him a bad person, but marvelous was not the first word to come to mind. “Irving,” he began patiently, “in all the years I have been coming here, during all my visits, you never thought to… She has been here all this time?”

“For the last fifteen years, yes,” the mage nodded. “It is not generally permitted by the Templars for apprentices to have contact with family members, and Solona was an orphan. Her adoptive family was lost to her when she was very young. As far as she knew, they were her family, and it didn’t seem prudent…”

“And… her mother?”

Truth be told, Duncan barely even remembered the girl. She’d been young, just an apprentice at the time he came to the tower with King Maric, Genevieve and the others. He hadn’t pursued her out of lust. She’d been a means to an end at an inopportune moment that nearly found him caught with his hand rifling through things that did not belong to him. And then Genevieve caught him doing more than just rifling through the young apprentices things and wrenched him from the warmth of her embrace before he even had a chance to ask her name. Had she ever told him? He couldn’t recall, and the shame of it made his cheeks feel flush with a sudden unbearable heat.

“Cecelia passed away in childbirth,” the First Enchanter said.

Cecelia. That had been her name, though he still didn’t feel as if he’d actually know that.

“The Chantry took the child, placed her with a noble family from the Bannorn. Unfortunately, as I said, they were lost when she was just around five years old. The tower is really all she’s ever known, but the girl deserves so much more, Duncan. She is an adventurous spirit, a bird with clipped wings, I tell you.”

Duncan held up a hand to stop the old man from going any further. He hadn’t come searching for family. The Grey Wardens were his family, and they had been for almost twenty years. He’d accepted that after their journey into the Fade during that reckless endeavor, after barely making it out of the Deep Roads when all was said and done.

No, he came seeking aid, to request more mages to help King Cailan in his fight against the darkspawn at Ostagar, to stop the incursion before it became a Blight.

But it seemed the Maker had other plans for him. Strange, how silent that voice was in times of doubt, and yet how loud when one least expected to hear its reassuring utterances.

“Will you at least meet her?”

He didn’t know how to answer that question, and for a few moments he said nothing at all. He was just parting his lips to speak when the Knight Commander burst through the doors of Irving’s study, armor clanging with every step, eyes alight with unspoken fury.

“How many times must we quell the Grey Wardens in their relentless pursuit of the mages? We have already sent an allotment, some of the most skilled mages this Circle has produced, and yet here you are prepared to ask for more!” Knight Commander Greagoir railed as if in mid-conversation. “And you, Irving. I’m sure you’ve muttered promises aplenty, but I’m afraid you won’t be keeping them. We will send no more mages to the aid the king, Warden Commander.”

“And if the king commands it?” Duncan posed, his voice steady and calm as he watched the two old men stare daggers at one another.

“You know as well as anyone the king holds no governance over the circle. It is for the Chantry to decide…”

“Now, Greagoir,” Irving began, “you speak to a Grey Warden, whose governance goes above the Chantry due to the Right of Conscription, reinstated by King Maric himself…”

“Enough!” the Knight Commander bristled. “So many of our numbers have already gone to Ostagar… Wynne, Uldred and most of the senior mages. We’ve committed enough of our own to this war effort—”

“Your own?” Irving challenged, a sly chill in his voice as he went on. “Since when have you felt such kinship with the mages, Greagoir? Or are you afraid to let the mages out from under Chantry supervision, where they can actually use their Maker-given powers?”

No one else had noticed the young woman who stalked gracefully through the doors, her head held high though there was a certain aloofness as she strode toward them. Her black hair, cropped just below her chin, was adorned with several braids that bounced and swished with her movement. Duncan felt his breath catch in his throat, the sudden unreadiness of it all pressing down upon him like a mountain as he realized with a single glance that this was the apprentice… no, no longer an apprentice, a full-fledged mage of the circle… Irving had been talking about. The young woman standing before them now was… his daughter.

“How dare you suggest…”

“Gentleman,” Duncan found his voice, “please. Irving, I believe someone is here to see you.”

“Solona,” Irving passed a tentative gaze in Duncan’s direction before turning his full attention on the young woman who’d just walked through the door. “There you are, child.”

She was… there were no words, as Irving so astutely pointed out upon breaking the news to him.

Breathtaking came to mind. Spirited, and yet strangely muted, like a wilting flower that didn’t get enough sunlight. There was light aplenty in her golden eyes, a certain fire there that spoke of untold wanting and determination marred by confusion on how to embrace the things she longed for.

Suddenly there were clipped images rolling through his mind of a giggling young woman with soulful green eyes and a clever grin, her tingling fingertips tickling along the breadth of his back as she taunted and teased and delighted him in ways he hadn’t much opportunity to enjoy before he met her. As she turned a tentative smile toward Irving, yes… the face of his young apprentice came rushing back to him as if he’d only seen her in the hallway on his way to speak with Irving. He hadn’t thought of her in all those years, but there she was again, laughing and grinning and batting those long lashes at him just before she kissed him.

And then just as suddenly, in an awkward twist of reverie, he found himself thinking of another woman, one he’d loved with all his heart: his mother. This young woman looked quite a bit like Tayana, her dusky skin and exotic eyes flitting only briefly over his face before she returned her attention dutifully to her mentor.

“First Enchanter, Jowan said you wished to see me.”

“Ah, if it isn’t our new sister in the Circle. Come, child.” He held a hand out, fingers waving her forward. She obliged, stepping up as if expecting to be presented for some kind of inspection.

Duncan couldn’t take his eyes off her. It was remarkable how much she looked like his mother, how much she reminded him of… himself. He stammered over the words, “Is this…?” even though he already knew it was.

“Yes,” Irving said with such pride it emboldened the Grey Warden’s blood in his veins. “This is she.”

He was staring at her, and he realized it, but couldn’t tear himself away. Never in all his years had he imagined… He never dared to dream, and yet there she was. So… unexpected.

The Knight Commander cleared his throat over Duncan’s shoulder, his attention focused on the young mage as well when he said, “Well, Irving, you’re obviously busy. We will discuss this later.”

“Of course,” Irving nodded, befuddled momentarily by the distraction. “Well then… where was I? Oh, yes. Solona, this is Duncan, of the Grey Wardens.”

She stepped aside to let the Knight Commander pass, then walked toward them. “Pleased to meet you,” she extended her hand. Duncan ogled it for a moment, not sure what to do and then he swore the old man beside him ahemmed before rocking back on his heels. Duncan accepted the gesture, clutching her fingers loosely before allowing her to withdraw her hand.

“You’ve heard about the war brewing in the south, I expect, Solona?”

“A little bit. To be honest, I’ve been so absorbed in my studies of late, I haven’t heard much of any news from beyond the tower.”

“Well, Duncan is recruiting mages to join the king’s army at Ostagar.”

“Ostagar,” she nodded. “Right, I think I remember Cullen mentioning that the other day, but I wasn’t paying near as much attention as I should have been, I suppose. I was a little distracted. Who are we fighting?”

“Cullen is?” Duncan was surprised by the strange edge in his own tone, and the wary feeling that clenched in his stomach. She was a grown woman, older than he was himself when he fathered her, he supposed. What a strange thing life was.

“Cullen is one of the young Templars stationed here in the tower. A friend of Solona’s, I believe.”

“We play chess sometimes,” she nodded.

“I see.”

“So, who are we fighting?” she prompted again.

“The darkspawn threat grows in the south,” he explained. “We need all the help we can get.”

She looked almost helplessly to Irving before returning her attention back to Duncan with and odd shrug. “What do you mean?”

“The power you mages wield is an asset to any army. Your spells are very effective against large groups of mindless darkspawn. Frankly, I fear if we don’t drive them back, we may see another Blight.”

“Duncan,” Irving scolded, “you worry the girl with talk of Blights and darkspawn. This is a happy day for her.”

“My apologies,” he conceded, “but we live in troubled times, my friend.”

“We should seize moments of levity, especially in troubled times,” he pointed out, his burrowing stare speaking volumes on things he had not voiced with actual words. He could almost hear the man muttering: Take this time, seize this moment, you may not get another chance to know your own daughter.

“It’s all right, First Enchanter,” she shook her head. “It is worrisome, but it’s equally fascinating. I know so little about darkspawn and Blights. Perhaps Duncan could tell me more.”

“Maybe another time, Solona. The Harrowing is behind you and your phylactery has been sent to Denerim. You are officially a mage within the Circle of Magi.”

Humbly, she lowered her head, the long, dark lashes that rimmed her eyes falling in to lay atop her cheeks as she blinked. “Thank you, First Enchanter.”

“I’m sorry,” Duncan interrupted. “What is this… phylactery?”

“Blood is taken from all apprentices when they first come to the tower and is preserved in special vials.”

Disgust roiled in his stomach, making the muscles quiver unexpectedly as he took a step back. “So they can be hunted if they turn apostate,” he declared.

“We have few choices. The gift of magic is looked upon with suspicion and fear. We must prove we are strong enough to handle our power responsibly. And you,” he returned his attention to the young woman, “have done this. I present you with your robes, your staff and a ring bearing the Circle insignia. Wear them proudly, for you have earned them.”

She took the items, brought them to her chest and once more lowered her head in humble acceptance of his praise. “Thank you.”

“It goes without saying that you shall not discuss the Harrowing with those who have not undergone the rite.”

“Of course,” she conceded.

“Now then, take your time to rest, or study in the library. The day is yours.”

A hopeful gleam lit her eyes up like two jewels and Duncan found himself smiling appreciatively. “Can I leave the tower?”

“Not yet,” Irving sighed. “Remember, the tower’s walls protect us as much as they protect others from us.”

“As you say, First Enchanter.”

Such respect and grace, and though she seemed compliant, there was a hint of willfulness about her that Duncan sensed had brought both frustration and admiration from her tutors and mentors. This was his daughter. The blood of his tainted blood, and he knew nothing about her save for that hint of stubbornness he saw flash briefly in her eyes. How could this even be? His… child. And she wasn’t even a child at all, not really.

“Now, would you be so kind as to escort Duncan to his room, child?”

The Grey Warden found himself once more glancing helplessly at the First Enchanter. He couldn’t possibly be planning to send them off alone together. What would they talk about? He didn’t’ expect him to confess the truth to her, did he? He’d only just found out the truth moments before she walked through the doors and he was still having trouble swallowing it.

“It would be my pleasure,” she agreed, then looked expectantly to Duncan before turning toward the door and heading out.

He glanced one last time at the First Enchanter, who didn’t even acknowledge he was silently pleading for a rope, a line, anything. Instead, the old man smiled wistfully, almost vacantly, and stared after the young woman who’d just walked through the doors and stopped to wait for Duncan on the other side of them. When he realized Irving wasn’t going to give him so much as an encouraging glance, he picked up his feet and left, falling into step beside the young woman as she started down the hall.

They walked for some time, an odd discomfort lingering between them that Duncan was relatively sure he wasn’t just imagining. Each time he glanced sidelong at her, he saw her stare trained almost preternaturally ahead. She must be exhausted, he realized. Irving claimed she’d completed her Harrowing in record time just the night before, that she’d been asleep when he sent for her. He knew only a little of the Harrowing, that it sometimes involved the Fade, and he wondered if that dazed look she wore was the lingering aftermath of her time there. He’d been to the Fade and the haunt of it lingered for years after that grievous experience.

“Thank you for walking with me,” he managed. She snapped immediately to attention, a slow smile dawning on her lips. “I am glad for the company.”

“You’re welcome,” she nodded. “Would it…” Hesitating, her gaze flitted away, passing quickly across a young templar standing guard outside the mage’s quarters. “Would it be all right if I ask you a couple of questions? I wanted to talk with you a little more.”

Irving said she didn’t know, but it made his gut clench nonetheless. He’d known a few mages in his time, and he knew what they were capable of, but every one he met managed to surprise him just a little more. What if this one had a gift for prophecy, or some uncanny ability to read other’s minds? What if she knew the truth and simply wanted him to tell her? Could he? Should he?

“About what?” he wondered aloud.

“The darkspawn,” she began. He was relatively sure he audibly sighed relief. “Why does the king need an army to fight them?”

“A horde has formed within the Korcari wilds in the south,” he explained. “If they are not stopped, they will strike north, into the valley. We Grey Wardens believe that an archdemon is leading the horde.” This he knew. Darkspawn, archdemons, Blights. He could talk about those things without falter, and as the words began to flow from his lips he temporarily forgot why he was so nervous with her.

“Wow,” she muttered thoughtfully. “That sounds ominous.”

“Darkspawn do attack the surface in ragtag bands, but archdemons are capable of rallying them, turning them into an unstoppable force. A horde of darkspawn…” He allowed that to hang in the already discomfiting air for several minutes, made all the more ominous by the echoing sound of his boots on the hard stone floors. “A veritable army. It is dire news indeed. I fear this is what we will have to face.”

“I’ve heard about darkspawn sightings, but an entire horde?” She shuddered at the thought, momentarily distracted by a body flitting through the corridor. Her stare lingered on the mage for a moment, then returned to narrow over him in serious concern.

She really was a lovely girl. He wished he knew what to say to her, that he had known about her long before coming upon what were quite possibly the last days of his life. The nightmares, the Calling… his time was near. It didn’t seem right to have her dropped into his lap that way, when there was so little time and still so much in need of doing—things he might not have time to finish before all was said and done. He didn’t need another piece of unfinished business, and yet… there she was.

“They usually move around in small groups,” he drew himself back to the conversation. It was all too easy to talk about darkspawn and hordes, archdemons and the taint. It hadn’t always been so, but he’d come into himself as a Warden, the experience had made him a man, and he took his duties so very seriously now. He never thought all those years ago that he would be Commander of the Grey, that he would hold a hand out to others, recruit them to his cause with a manner of deception that never failed to make him feel guilty and ashamed. It was an honor, being a Grey Warden, just as much as it was a curse. Being a Warden came at a heavy cost. “But there are always more of them lurking underground, biding their time.”

The manner of her bluntness caught him off his guard when she posed her next question rather abruptly. “Why were Irving and the Knight Commander arguing about the war?”

“I…” he started, then stopped himself. “It is not my place to comment.”

With an almost angelic flash of her exotic gold eyes, she grinned and noted, “I don’t think it would really hurt, do you? After all, I heard most of it…”

Duncan drew in a breath that lifted his ribs and then dropped them as he sighed it out. “Greagoir serves the Chantry, and the relationship between the Chantry and the mages has always been strained. You’ve realized by now the Chantry merely tolerates magic?” She nodded almost furiously, a flicker of fire in her eyes. “They watch only because they feel they must.”

“Yes,” she agreed, “but they were arguing about the war.”

“Any mages who join the king’s army can unleash their full power of the darkspawn. In fact, I’m counting on it. Greagoir may be afraid of what will happen. What if the mages decide they no longer want to be governed by the Chantry?”

“I can see why that would concern him, but if magic is able to help stop the Blight, then the Knight Commander should be willing to at least give the mages that chance.”

Intelligent and well-spoken… He couldn’t help the swell of pride that lifted his chest again. She was so unexpected, and yet there he was completely enamored with the idea of being her father. That young woman, the child who had completed her Harrowing in record time, who seemed to be the very pride and joy of her mentor… she was his daughter. How could he have gone through half his life, through her entire life and never known about her? It seemed unfair in the most childish of ways.

“That is a very astute assessment,” he noted.

“And what are you opinions on the matter?”

“I believe we must defeat the darkspawn, and my opinions end there.”

“A wise standpoint,” she said, gesturing toward the open door leading into the guest quarters. “And I believe we have arrived at our destination. Is there anything else I can get for you, Duncan?”

“No, Solona. I believe that will be all. Thank you for escorting me,” he lowered his head respectfully, adding, “and for the enlightening conversation.”

“You’re welcome.”

And then she left him. She didn’t even pause to look back when she reached the door, but fell into step beside a tall, dark-haired apprentice, fidgeting and whispering as he turned shifty eyes through the corridor. The last thing he heard her say before he closed the door was, “You’re not supposed to be up here, Jowan. What is going on with you today?”

A child.

The marvel of it was overwhelming. The fact that she was no longer a child and had not been one for quite some time was painful. He had missed every moment of her life. He might have missed it anyway, given the nature of her talent for magic and the Chantry’s refusal to let a single mage slip from their grasp, but knowing about her, having the opportunity to be there for her… it would have been something indeed.

The question was: now what?

Was Irving’s revelation of this information meant to spur him on? The old mage was obviously trying to unite them on some level, but what exactly was his angle? Did he think Duncan would accept his own flesh and blood into the Wardens, or was he hoping he might at least spirit her away to the king’s army, where she could live free and put her talent to good use in a world that desperately needed it?

Duncan had no idea what he was supposed to do, and with a muted sigh he sat down on the edge of the four-poster bed in the guest room.

About erica

Erica North is the fanfiction pseudonym for fantasy/romance author Jennifer Melzer.
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