Transmutation, Chapter 4

Routine Disruptions

There were accusations and even proven incidents of Templars stepping over the boundary between guarding and abusing. The Order was no different than any other group: bad apples found their way into it. What was deemed a healthy fear of mages had been ingrained in each of them and some chose to prove their dedication by dominating their charges instead of monitoring them.

The long quiet that Cullen found in the Ferelden Circle tower fostered a sense of protection rather than oppression. It led to boredom more than violence but that lack of excitement posed its own dangers. Whispers circulated and he heard stories of beatings or more-subtle punishments for infractions real, imagined, or even invented for entertainment.

Half of those whispers in Cullen’s first days at Kinloch Hold concerned a young man brought to the tower by force at the unusually advanced age of twelve. From the very beginning the boy had tried to escape the Circle’s confines. He had taken advantage of the beach excursions novice mages had once enjoyed to swim away one afternoon.

Naturally that brought an end to one of the children’s few freedoms. Eventually the boy had seemed to settle in well enough but the young mages never let him forget what they thought of his selfishness. Though mischievous and out-going, he’d been an isolated young man among the novices.

The older enchanters, on the other hand, almost doted on him. They saw in his verve and puppy-like enthusiasm something they had lost, a joy that had withered with disuse as the decades crawled past in their stone prison. They petted and protected him where they could and his prodigious talent flourished under their collective attention. Irving considered that first escape merely a high-spirited mistake. The marked lenience he’d shown in his punishment made the other novices and the Templars equally suspicious.

It didn’t help matters that the young man had no name. He’d been reported anonymously and captured alone. The boy claimed his father had turned him in and refused to divulge what name his betrayer had given him. Because the Templars that had taken him claimed their source—and thus presumably his father—had been from the Anderfels everyone referred to him as “the Anders boy”. Eventually he was just Anders.

The other children’s acceptance of their fate in having been brought to the Circle had helped calm him for a time. He’d passed his Harrowing at the age of nineteen, young for a mage but still seven long years of training after he’d arrived. His affinity for healing made him a valuable addition to the tower’s economy and one the mage council attempted to protect, though over the years they became less and less able to do so.

The strain of being watched so mistrustfully became more apparent once Anders had become an apprentice. He escaped once at twenty and was brought back almost immediately. Less than a year later he snuck out of the tower again, though no one could say how he was getting across the lake. On that occasion he eluded the hunters for three weeks before he was again captured and dragged back, filthy and half-starved.

He became something of a legend among the Templars. When a mage managed to do something utterly incomprehensible, usually with dismal results, it was called “a feat worthy of Anders”. Each escape was different—and the explanation of what he had done while free more entertaining—but the end result remained the same: he was captured, beaten, and returned to the tower to be imprisoned. He was often beaten again after he’d been tossed into one of the dank basement cells. Still, with each attempt he wandered Ferelden for a longer period.

Because Anders had been confined in the lower level since Cullen had arrived at the Circle tower he’d never actually seen the mage. The First Enchanter had convinced Greagoir that the young man could be valuable enough as a healer that he should not be sent to Aeonar. That prison, specially built to contain dangerous mages, spelled the deaths of its inmates or at least the end of their sanity. If Anders could be tamed he could still bring substantial fees for his services. For the time being, however, he couldn’t be trusted to travel to where he was needed, even with a pair of Templars guarding him. His second-to-last escape had proven that.

The groups sent to corral Anders made free with their bragging and bitching. Each time the mage’s condition had been worse and the men and women who had hunted him more vocal about how badly they had treated him for making them spend weeks camping along the road. They openly resented being forced to spend so long away from the relative comfort of their positions at Lake Callenhad.

It surprised Cullen that the hunters hated doing their jobs. Even after so short a time he found the tower claustrophobic and looked forward to his weekly leave on shore, though it usually involved nothing more than ale at the tavern and the occasional hunting jaunt in the nearby forest. It brought the camaraderie he’d so wanted during his training, at least in short bursts, before the confines of the Circle made the Templars guarded and distrustful again.

Cullen felt a sneaking sympathy with Anders, who knew he’d spend the rest of his life within the tower’s windowless grey walls. How much worse would things be, knowing that you could not even wander the verge or sit on the narrow shingle of beach outside the Hold, much less leave the little island without permission and vigilant escorts?

The mage had already been in solitary confinement for three months and his release was nowhere in sight. Braden told Cullen he’d heard that Mr. Wiggums, the patriarch of the tower’s mousers, spent a great deal of time in the man’s cell. Repeated searches had yet to turn up a hole large enough to explain the cat’s presence but he kept turning up inside nonetheless. Eventually they’d given up trying to keep him out and let him come and go as he pleased.

Mr. Wiggums kept Anders quiet, at least. When he had nothing else to distract him the mage had taken to singing bawdy tavern songs—badly off-key—between diatribes about the quality of his scant meals and defiant proclamations that the tower could not hold him, current evidence to the contrary.

The most recent complaints came from the guards responsible for patrolling the basement cells, the rest of which nearly always sat empty. The majority of the men and women who ended up on duty in the clammy tunnels found the man’s antics a welcome distraction from tedious pacing in silence but a few grew increasingly angry at his insolence. Anders had boasted himself into rather a lot of beatings. Cullen wondered if the young mage preferred even that to being alone and ignored.

Other disturbing incidents occurred from time to time. Templars, forced into close quarters with one another, gossiped like magpies. The oldest had been apart from their families for decades. Even Braden, only seven years older than Cullen, had little desire to visit his family. Many in the Order were so addicted to lyrium that they feared more than a few days away from the hold for any reason.

Outside of the little inn built to serve rare visitors to Kinloch Hold and its guards themselves, only a few farmers lived within the few hours’ travel distance a day off allowed. The Templars had grown into an insular community with little interaction beyond their fellows and their charges. They took out their stresses and frustrations on their charges or one another because they had no other outlet.

Cullen heard discussions on how to disrupt—in the most humiliating ways possible—a couple caught indulging themselves, how to punish a mouthy enchanter without leaving marks, and the occasional decision to make some agitator an example by taking turns shadowing him or her closely until the poor mage was driven to some drastic act just to get a moment’s privacy. There had been raids in which cells had been stripped of the inhabitant’s personal belongings, few though they were. Children were regularly intimidated, fully-armored Templars looming over them unexpectedly as they studied in the library or walked the halls between classes.

Despite appearances, these actions did not generally come from people intent on torturing their charges. They were the choices of a group that had been taught for generations that they kept the mages afraid and respectful—at least outwardly—and kept peace in the Circle. Cullen couldn’t help but wonder whether the Chantry and the Order went too far in subduing their charges, particularly in the face of the quiet that mostly reigned in the tower. Boredom caused more trouble than illicit magic and the Templars seemed to jump at shadows from the same cause.

Their tactics did seem for the most part to work, distasteful though they were. Cullen found himself on the occasional raid and once had even found suspicious writings implicating the mage in the study of blood magic if not its actual practice. The tales of the other Templars—of times they’d been proven right, of plots and fiends, of maleficarum stopped as they’d been summoning demons, of failed Harrowings at which the novices were slain as they’d turned into abominations—chilled his blood.

Everyday life in the tower refused to bear out these dire stories, however. Browbeating the little ones left a bad taste in his mouth and the pitiful reactions of the most powerless victims only worsened the shame. Braden sympathized readily enough but pointed out that the system had worked for centuries. Unless someone found a workable alternative, things were hardly about to change.

Cullen learned as time slid by how the Circle worked. He grew into his role, mostly trusting those he saw daily, Templar and mage, but never allowing any of them too close. None, that was, but Kyla. She slipped through his defenses, evoking neither pity nor fear as the other mages did.

Her cheer and impish daring infected him. Cullen often caught himself smiling after she’d passed him with a wink. She’d stand beside him for a moment if no one was around, mocking his serious posture, then bump him with a hip in friendly greeting before continuing on her way. Once, to his horror, he caught himself returning a little waggle of the fingers across the dining hall.

They rarely spoke for more than a few seconds. Every few days Kyla found a moment to tease him without giving him a chance to respond. She had a second sense for when someone approached along the curving hall or when one of the doors that dotted the walls was about to open. Her savvy with the workings of the Tower’s politics and schedules gave her reason to visit its upper floors often and enough people lived within the confines of the Circle that no corridor was empty for long.

Cullen’s acute awareness of his standing kept him teetering between responding and ignoring her until she’d already gone. Some days he thought her intent on driving him insane with these constant, tiny frustrations but each time he resolved to coldly ignore her approach he found his heart beating faster and the corners of his lips giving in to another grin at the sight of her dancing eyes.

He trained hard with the other Templars. He practiced warding off magic, striking hard and fast with his sword, taking blows with his shield. He learned to summon and control the power to disrupt spells. None of that diligent preparation taught him how to guard his heart. Kyla was stealing it an inch at a time.

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