Transmutation, Chapter 1

First-Day Jitters

Cullen’s first day at the Ferelden Circle of Magi in Kinloch Hold was nothing like what his Templar training had led him to expect. Instead of slavering fiends waiting for a moment’s inattention to burst into full demonic flower he found children carrying books, elderly women who looked more like his grandmother than dangerous maniacs, and young people studying and engaging in lively debates.

He had first joined the Order as a recruit at the age of fourteen, fresh from the farm, filled with self-assurance and love for Andraste. The good Sisters had cropped his red-gold curls short, fit him for long skirts and his first shiny breastplate, and given him a sword. He and a dozen others had sworn to loyalty and devotion to the Maker and his bride. It was, in short, as thrilling as he’d expected…for about a week.

Then he discovered that most of his time would be spent studying and learning Chantry history and scripture. Lessons began with reading. None but the wealthiest young people recently accepted could make out so much as their own names much less the ornate and dusty tomes containing the Chant of Light. Rote memorization and long lectures filled the hours between chores and meals.

The learning included memorizing and understanding the Chant and serving in the Chantry itself lighting candles and incense burners. Recruits scrubbed stone and polished towering gold statues. They cut wood and fetched water. They were taught to make and bind paper for the endless copies the clerics made and the piles of correspondence shuttled to and fro between the Revered Mother and the Grand Clerics in Val Roueaux. Farm kids like Cullen relished the physical labor after the hours droning Andraste’s words for the fiftieth time.

Those sent by their parents as a last attempt to curb their children’s wicked ways took much longer to accept that one’s nobility held no sway inside the hallowed walls. The Sisters and Templars spent months breaking those kids down until they accepted obedience in their roles as servants to Andraste—at least most of them did. A few troublemakers and arrogant rich boys proved much tougher to crack. This did not appear to trouble those tasked with their training nearly as much as it did the young men and women who faced their laziness and bullying.

After a full year the recruits had finally been allowed to start learning sword craft and shield tactics. It took Cullen that long to realize to what he had committed himself. The initial training lasted up to five years and would be followed by as many as ten more standing guard in various Chantries in out-of-the-way little villages.

The Chantry tried to teach their Templars patience and forbearance, mostly by boring them to tears and making them wait for every anticipated thrill until they were ready to scream. Cullen supposed it was best that the men and women face mages as ready as they could be, despite the excitement to which he had looked forward when he’d entered training. He’d always been a devout and obedient boy. Those traits served him well in his first years of training.

Daily services were mandatory but Cullen would have attended them anyway. Many of his fellow initiates chafed at the study and found creative ways to escape devotions. The sons and daughters of rich households made up only a portion of those reluctant recruits. He couldn’t understand why some of the others stayed in the Order, if they held to no more than a superficial faith. In some he saw a desire for power and others seemed merely interested in a position that fed and housed them for the rest of their lives. Those seemed to him flimsy reasons to devote your life to anything, particularly such a dangerous calling as finding and controlling mages.

He’d been terrified by the Chantry instructors’ tales of demonic abominations slaughtering whole villages and creatures summoned from the Fade, the land where humans and elves traveled in their dreams and journeyed after death, luring the unwary into possession or death. His parents had raised him on such fables and had encouraged his interest in joining the “mage coppers”, as his father had called them. How much more powerful were the accounts of scarred men and women who had actually fought such beings than childhood legends? Cullen and the other young recruits were fed these anecdotes as a regular part of their training.

It took two years of religious and physical training before the young men with whom he lived were allowed to learn the more-practical Templar skills that would protect them from many spells. Though they were not given the lyrium that full Knights took, the instructors assured them the ability to control magical energy worked without it, if not as powerfully.

Near the end of their third year Circle mages began coming to give the boys a taste of how a real battle would feel. Cullen and the others argued far into such nights about whether a blood mage trying to control your mind would be harder to tame than someone tossing liquid fire at you. None admitted to the thrill of fear that Cullen felt every time he faced a mage, wondering whether this one would turn out to be a maleficar in disguise, whether he would suddenly explode into the writhing flesh of an abomination or she would slice her arm and subvert his own will with a word.

In this, too, he felt alone. The others blithely assumed that any mage brought in by their elders would be safe and trusted in their own growing abilities seemingly without doubt. Cullen’s deep devotion and instinctive fear made the rest wary, as though he were weak and might somehow taint them by association. They failed to recognize that his concern kept him attentive where they relaxed, kept him on his toes when they joked and treated their practice sessions as chores nearly as dull as scraping wax from the candelabras which dotted the enormous building.

After four years of seclusion, living in the Denerim Chantry with the other initiates near his age, he was assigned to a tiny village near the shores of Lake Callenhad. It lay in the region ruled by Bann Teagan Guerrin, the king’s uncle and brother to the widely-loved Arl of Redcliffe, Eamon. Though the Circle Tower lay on the inland sea’s opposite shore it was invisible across the grey expanse of wind-ruffled water, so near and yet so far for Cullen.

Trainees patrolled the rural expanses of Ferelden, watching for signs of illicit magic use and continuing their education. They could be awarded full knighthood and, just possibly, assigned to guard the Circle itself or they could end up sworn brothers and sisters in echoing Chantries who rewrote the Chant over and over again while their former fellows moved on without them.

Cullen had remained at his first post for two years. The crawling months taught him one lesson most thoroughly: few Fereldens would willingly interact with a Templar. People generally feared mages, in an abstract way, but most farmers or village innkeepers never actually saw one. They all knew that the Order trained men and women to withstand, subdue, and even kill apostates, however. The armed and armored Knights they saw every day intimidated them more than some mythical enchanter that never materialized.

The area’s residents had afforded him respect but he had barely gotten to know the people with whom he lived. He’d acted mostly as a constable enforcing the rulings of the local Revered Mother on various matters of law. On his most exciting days he shoved drunkards and thieves into a crow’s cage or retrieved a stolen pig from some family’s disgruntled neighbor. He had never caught even a hint of illicit magic use. Occasional accusations made out of spite or fear had been quickly disproven.

Despite the increasing populations of the areas to which he was assigned as he progressed, Cullen found himself mostly alone. The Templars with whom he shared duties were nearly always much older and none of them seemed interested in camaraderie with a young pup not even dosed with the weekly lyrium yet. Some served their time in quiet backwaters because they neared the end of their lives while the Chantry had stashed others away as unsuitable. Lyrium addiction addled their brains after a few decades and many of the eldest could no longer defend themselves well in battle or sometimes remember where they stood that day.

Cullen’s visions of evenings spent in taverns telling thrilling stories of his latest brush with blood-slicked apostates faded into the dull reality of days spent standing outside the doors of various Chantry buildings and nights of prayer and study. He drank the occasional tankard of ale at a table in the corner of a tavern where he could at least see other people, even if most of them shared nothing more than a polite nod as they passed.

He fought the occasional group of bandits, the men most often malnourished and untrained fighters that posed little threat. He’d have thought these encounters would have brought some appreciation from the villagers but many of them knew the bandits and the desperation that had led them to crime. Some days it felt like he could do nothing right, try as he might to follow the example of Andraste.

Though he’d not yet taken his formal vows, Cullen found himself shying away from the few women who approached him and unable to make overtures to the young ladies that lived around the villages he occupied. His only experience with girls had been a fumble or two in the shrubbery around the Chantry’s courtyard in Denerim and the disapproving glares of chaste, avowed sisters. Though he’d been tempted more than once over the years he knew Andraste would disapprove of such wanton behavior.

He had come closest when he’d been just past twenty, with the daughter of a man who owned a little store. The merchant had been accused of cheating local farmers, keeping a set of shaved weights for his scales so as to pay less for the goods they brought him. Cullen had gone to arrest the man only to find her instead. She’d sidled around the counter, licking her lips, her hips swaying beneath her snug skirt. His voice had faltered as he’d tried to ask where her father hid, her beguiling approach stealing the authority he’d tried to project.

“Surely we can come to some…arrangement,” she’d drawled, running a finger along her neckline to draw his attention to her endowments. Cullen blinked in response, frozen with indecision. Then the woman placed her other hand on the skirts of his armor, knocking the chain mail hidden behind the rich cloth into delicate flesh unused to the touch of another.

She’d pulled back with a muttered oath and his fascination shattered as though he’d cleansed her of a spell. He saw her bad skin and the smell of her unwashed body rose to affront his nose. Temptation had nearly overwhelmed him and his anger with his own weakness lent the lost command to his voice as he demanded she turn in her father.

The incident had fueled his unease with women and created doubts that consumed every seed of attraction. So many of the young ladies living in tiny villages, making their way through life by dint of hard work in lieu of coin, had no leisure for grooming and no money to waste on fine clothes. Most were too ignorant to discuss much more than breeding livestock and what the weather was doing to their family’s crops. Cullen found himself repulsed as much as anything when such girls, fascinated by his armor and the danger that common myth attributed to his position, threw themselves at him.

There must exist something deeper than the mere spasms of flesh these girls sought with him, yet the few who talked of more all had visions of sovereigns dancing in their eyes when they did. They cared not a whit for Cullen himself but saw him as a doorway to adventure or easy living. None seemed interested in who he was beneath the shining plate. Few even bothered to learn his name.

He did not lack the desire to accept these invitations. Some nights even the most fervent prayer could not draw his mind away from picturing what might have happened with the merchant’s daughter, had his armor been nothing more than chest plate and cloth, had she touched him as she’d intended. His flesh warred with the knowledge that he would eventually pledge himself to Andraste.

He reasoned that indulging himself would only make holding to that pledge all the more difficult but he still found himself giving in, easing that pressure in the few times he could find a little privacy. The Chant did not prohibit such relief but Cullen couldn’t help but wonder if finding it didn’t make succumbing even more attractive.

Such concerns came intermittently, however. His time at various Chantries around Ferelden was occupied with reflection and light duties, for the most part. He learned about the depths of poverty in which most of the country’s citizens managed to build lives, scratching out what happiness they could with their families and their neighbors. The Chant gave them something to which they could look forward, a reward for the trials they endured in this world.

He was constantly reminded of his family and the little farmhold on which they’d lived, no more prosperous than most. He’d hardly known just how little they’d had until he’d gone to Denerim. When he saw parents desperately trying to feed half a dozen children he wondered whether his own hadn’t been as relieved at as they had been proud of his choice to join the Templars. Though he hadn’t felt pushed into the decision he could, with hindsight, see that he’d been groomed for it.

He and his older brothers had helped work their land and his sister had been engaged to a neighbor’s eldest boy before she’d turned twelve. Cullen realized as the years passed just how much his parents must have given to let him make his own choice rather than shoving him into Chantry training at the age of seven or eight as many others did. Those children often had no more interest in serving the Maker than they had in apprenticing to the local tanner but they were taken in nonetheless. They were taught and housed until they were old enough to make their way into the world, should they choose to do so.

Some of those dedicated so early to the Chantry became Templars and some remained as brothers and sisters. Others chafed at the yoke that religion imposed on them and broke free at their earliest chance. Cullen wondered how different his life would have been had he been forced into service so early, much as he liked to believe that he would have found himself in precisely the same place.

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