Transmutation, Chapter 5

A Warden and a Worry

On an early-spring day of the sort that made Cullen wish the Circle tower had windows below the Harrowing chamber, a man arrived that threw the complacent residents into turmoil. The weathered little boat rowed across Lake Callenhad unannounced and a Grey Warden stepped onto the dock.

His dark beard jutted to a perfect point before him and his distinctive plate threw sparks of sunlight as he strode up to the doors with a dagger and sword gleaming prominently on his back, at least according to the men guarding the entry that day. Everyone in Thedas knew of the fabled order and their ages-old charge to protect their world from a threat unseen for four hundred years, no one at Kinloch Hold had ever seen a Warden nor expected to.

Even in the isolation of the Hold reports had come ever more frequently of skirmishes with Darkspawn, the tainted creatures that teemed in the Deep Roads the dwarves had tunneled beneath all the known world thousands of years before. The king himself, Cailan the Glorious, had called for a contingent of the Circle’s strongest mages to travel far south to Ostagar.
Seven of the most-senior enchanters and a dozen Templars had left only the week before. It had been centuries since the 'spawn had been reported in such numbers. Would an Archdemon appear, leading the fiends to destroy half the continent in another Blight such as had been fought then? The question was on everyone’s lips.

The Wardens gained powers through some mysterious ritual that allowed them to fight Darkspawn more effectively than even the finest warriors outside their ranks. They recruited only the best to join them, whether mages, warriors, or thieves. The order had outposts in every country, though they’d only recently been allowed to return Ferelden, after some ancient political intrigue no one even remembered. Everywhere, they operated outside the command of reigning monarchs.

A Grey Warden could conscript a fully-knighted Templar or any mage, even against Greagoir’s or Irving’s wishes. They could draft members straight out of the Chantry under the fury of a Grand Cleric or pull convicts from their crow’s cages without so much as a “by your leave”. Only the Circle shared the power to force others to join against their will, rare though such an occasion arose for the Grey.

The Circle buzzed with speculation. Had the Warden come to recruit someone in particular or to scout for possible new members? Would the glory of joining them be worth the danger of facing the ravening horde? None of the Templars Cullen talked to had ever seen one of the creatures, much less fought them, but that hardly dimmed the conjecture.

Knight-Commander Greagoir brought the visitor through the barracks and introduced him to the Templars around the tower. Duncan watched the knights on the training ground, his piercing gaze missing nothing, and he spoke to many of the hunters about their duties. He showed as much interest in the mages, however, interviewing the instructors and the apprentices. He followed their practice sessions as closely as he had those of the Templars, and visited the library to review what various enchanters were studying. Only the little novices escaped the Warden’s scrutiny.

Three weeks passed as the buzz of rumors rose to a fever pitch. Though Kyla had been assigned to guide the Warden around the tower Cullen would not presume upon their tenuous connection to ask her for any tidbits of gossip. From others he heard everything from Duncan being furious that so few suitable candidates were available to his having half the tower slated for recruitment.

Though he doubted his own skills were strong enough to catch Duncan’s attention Cullen found the possibility of others leaving to join the Wardens much on his mind. Many of the most-senior Templars, including Knight-Lieutenant Wesley Vallen, had gone to Ostagar. If more left with Duncan Cullen could find himself in a position of much more seniority than a man only months at the Circle would normally have.

Newer members of the Order would be reassigned to the hold over time to replace the knights recruited or killed in battle. He imagined fresh-faced brothers and sisters, their first doses of lyrium barely down their throats, looking up to him as a seasoned veteran.

He daydreamed thus as he patrolled the senior enchanters’ quarters, determined to be more welcoming to the imagined young men and women than his fellows has been when he’d arrived. If only the Ferelden Circle offered a little excitement, he thought, I would have stories of my own to impress them. He was so busy fretting about what-ifs that he barely registered the scuff of soft mage boots climbing the nearby stairs. He turned at the last moment to see the one person who could instantly drive such concerns from his mind.

Cullen knew something was wrong the moment he saw Kyla. She was subdued, her brow furrowed as she made her way down the hall. Such was her preoccupation that she nearly collided with him though he stood stock-still, bracing himself to stand his ground after the recent encounter from which he’d so humiliatingly fled and unwilling to give up the opportunity to talk to her, however briefly.

She stopped just short of his elbow and shook her head a little. A half-smile lifted one corner of her mouth but her eyes still held the worry that had her so inattentive. “Good day, Cullen,” she said warmly, laying a hand on his arm for a moment before continuing on her way to knock on the door of First Enchanter Irving’s room.

He resisted the desire to call after her, to ask if he could help. What could he do for a mage that the First Enchanter couldn’t do a hundred times better? Yet her worried face stayed with him as he paced the nearby corridor. Unconsciously, he stayed near Irving’s door, not eavesdropping but hoping to catch Kyla as she left. Only a few minutes later she emerged, looking more concerned than ever.

She gave Cullen a wan smile as she passed and he couldn’t help but ask, “Is there something you need help with, Kyla?” Just saying her name aloud gave him such a scandalized thrill that he felt the blood rush to his face.

Her smile widened as he flushed, a little of her normally playful nature emerging. She wrinkled her nose a bit as she said, “I wish you could, Cullen, but I’m afraid I’m on my own in this.” She gave his armored shoulder a little shove. “Thank you, though.” She disappeared down the stairs as Cullen imagined himself affectionately pressing a finger against the tip of that pert little nose in an attempt to cheer her. He shook his head hard to rid himself of the image and returned to his patrol.

He put the encounter out of his mind as best he could, though his dreams that night took things quite a bit farther than a simple tweak. That woman was going to be the death of him. Nothing could come of this infatuation, whether she returned it or not, yet he could not put her out of his mind for long.

Two days later, he was sitting on his bunk reading a history of Lake Callenhad when Greagoir tore into the barracks looking for knights to assist him. As he found only a half-dozen men and women in the barracks he asked all of them to come. They hurriedly strapped on their armor and helped one another buckle pieces into place as they debated what could have their commander in such a fury.

Cullen dashed down the corridor and across the entry behind the others, skidding to a clattering halt with them at the top of the basement stairs. Is Anders escaping again? he wondered as the group spread out and drew their swords. Irving crossed the empty space to stand next to Greagoir, a clear signal that—whatever the situation—the mages were working with their guards. Duncan stood off to the side with his arms casually crossed. He looked entertained by the Templars’ disorganized arrival but otherwise unconcerned.

The First Enchanter spoke urgently to Greagoir and Cullen heard Kyla’s name as well as Jowan’s, one of the young men who scuttlebutt had slated for the Rite of Tranquility. He was certainly of an age when most had chosen for themselves whether to face the Harrowing but, of yet, he’d put off making his final determination. Mages could not remain novices forever, though, so making no choice made the choice for them.

Greagoir’s coldly furious voice rose above the murmur in the room. “They will have destroyed his phylactery, Irving. It’s gone too far.”

Irving responded calmly. “We are here to prevent an escape. Jowan will be made Tranquil and we will no longer need the phylactery,” he said. “I had to let them go this far as proof of their intentions. Would you condemn Lilly on anything less?”

With a start Cullen remembered a Chantry Sister named Lilly, a plain woman who served in the chapel up on the third floor. He’d often seen Kyla with Jowan at meals and in the library; they were clearly close friends. How had a sworn sister gotten involved with her and a mage’s escape? The whole situation had his head whirling.

Oh, Maker, he thought, what has she gotten herself into now? Braden had told him about the phylacteries, vials of a mage’s blood that the hunters used to track those who went missing, whether they escaped from the tower as Anders had or simply failed to return from an assignment in the outside world. Every child brought to the tower had one made but only the ones belonging to those who had not yet passed their Harrowing were kept in the tower’s lowest level…and Anders’s, of course. Each year those deemed no longer needed were sent to Denerim under heavy guard to be kept with the hundreds of others stored in the Grand Cleric’s care.

Greagoir opened his mouth to respond to Irving’s question but the massive door to the basement began to open cautiously and he held his tongue. The Knight-Commander signaled for silence as all eyes turned to the entrance.

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