Transmutation - Chapter 6

A Heart Conscripted

A young man in worn novice robes emerged. He’d clearly outgrown them—his thin ankles and wrists showed where the size intended for young people hadn’t kept up with his adult size. His head was turned as he spoke to someone behind him and for a moment he remained unaware of the threat facing him.

When Jowan faced the room he stopped cold, his greasy black hair tumbled across eyes widened in fear and anger. In a fraction of a second he'd pulled a little blade from its sheath at his belt and drawn it across his wrist.

The room erupted into bedlam. The Templars reacted with their abilities made to suppress blood magic, their training overtaking their shock at being confronted so boldly. Irving flung a spell of paralysis at the younger man. The homely woman in yellow Chantry robes behind him screamed and flung herself away, burying her face in her hands.

As he moved into a defensive stance Cullen could see Kyla, her normally mischievous face transfigured into a mask of fury and shock. She stood frozen in the doorway. He wondered briefly if she were self-possessed enough to know that any use of magic, even against another mage, would draw the power of the Templars down on her as well or if she was simply frozen in surprise. Then he turned his attention back to the blood mage.

Cullen thought that heartbeat between breaths would never end. He looked at his arm, outstretched, felt the power flow out of him exactly as it had so many times in training. This time it found resistance. The moment would continue in his memory forever, no matter how many such encounters he had.

The frozen instant let him observe the other knights in similar postures beside him and Greagoir poised with both hands high to call down what was known as a “smite”. Kyla’s grey-green eyes were wide and her dark hair, where it normally spilled over her forehead, had been tossed back by the force of so many spells focused just feet before her. Lilly curled herself into a corner as though she could hide there.

And then the moment broke, the flow of power ended, and everyone started to move. As the First Enchanter withdrew his spell Jowan fell to his knees. Blood pattered beneath the slash on his arm, staining the faded blue of his robes. His head had been thrown back by the force of the Templars’ counters to his spell. For a moment he arched backward from his hips even as they settled onto his heels. He regained control in time to save himself from toppling over entirely and took half a second to survey the scene around him.

His narrow shoulders slumped. Unless he could kill a dozen, including the most powerful people in the Tower, his bid for freedom was ended almost before it had begun. The Chantry sister he’d drawn into the escape cowered in the corner, staring at him with revulsion clear on her face, and his best friend glared, aghast, at his back. His grand scheme lay in ashes around him and he found himself kneeling, alone. Cullen almost felt sorry for the man until he reminded himself that Jowan was a maleficar, the most dangerous sort of mage and one who had just shown his willingness to use his power against others.

Greagoire gestured to the men behind him. “Take the three of them down to the cells until we can arrange for transport to Aeonar,” he said. Irving and Kyla both snapped their heads to face him. Before anyone could move Kyla stamped across the room until she stood nearly toe-to-toe with the Knight-Commander. She looked almost frail in her green apprentice robes, confronting a man in full plate with a naked blade in his hand.

“You must be joking!” Her aggravation almost covered the tremble of fear in her voice. From the corner of his eye, Cullen noticed Duncan standing straighter, his arms falling from their relaxed crossing to hang loose and ready at his sides. Cullen’s curiosity at this change in stance flickered dully under the desire to drag the woman he feared he loved away from the man who would throw him in a cell next to the blood mage if he did.

Kyla defiantly tossed her head before Greagoir, her eyes flashing. She held her righteous anger before her like a shield, staring straight into the Knight-Commander’s face. “I acted at the behest of the First Enchanter,” she said furiously, flicking a hand in Irving’s direction without so much as a glance. “Would you jail me for a ‘crime’ intended to lead your prey straight to you?”

Oh, Kyla, Cullen thought, now is not the time to aggravate him. He saw Greagoir’s hand twitch and wondered for a moment if he would strike her. The head Templar controlled himself, however, and opened his mouth to speak. Before he could get out more than the first syllable Irving leapt to Kyla’s defense.

“She came to me as soon as she heard Jowan’s request. I told her to bring them out this way,” he said. Kyla had long been a favorite of his, as close to a daughter as any mage was allowed. “Please, do not punish the girl for doing as I asked.” His quavering voice was too gentle to affect the Knight-Commander’s determination, though his emotion was plain.

Greagoir glanced about to see his Templars watching and a number of mages clustered about the nearby door into the tower itself. Cullen could see him harden his resolve and decide that appearing strong before the assembled took precedence, no matter how reasonable Irving’s request. “Nevertheless,” he said firmly, “she helped in an escape attempt and purposefully assisted a blood mage. She cannot escape the consequences.”

Kyla stepped back, head high, and defied them all. “I refuse to accept that simply having been near Jowan when he attempted blood magic requires me to be jailed.” She flipped a hand dismissively again. “Is it catching, now? Do you presume a demon seized me without any of us having noticed just because I witnessed such a thing? Then we should all of us be clapped in irons, posthaste!”

Her contempt was palpable, even though Cullen could see how badly she was shaking. The First Enchanter moved a bit then reconsidered. Perhaps he, too, wished an answer to what sounded to Cullen like a perfectly reasonable question, though one Irving may not have had the nerve to phrase quite so scornfully.

Andraste’s ear, she’s brave, Cullen thought. That or she’s a total idiot. His breath caught in his throat with a combination of fear and admiration. Even the two Templars hauling Jowan's slumped form back to the basement stairs stopped to watch the confrontation.

Kyla’s eyes flicked between Irving and Greagoir, waiting for an answer. The Knight-Commander paused, visibly taking himself in hand before he spoke. Seizing the moment of silence, Duncan stepped into the tableau.

“I have a solution to this dilemma.”

All eyes turned toward him. Irving alone seemed to know what was coming and shook his head sadly as the Warden continued. “I hereby conscript Kyla Amell as a recruit of the Gray Wardens.”

Greagoir’s face darkened but he knew the ancient order could not be denied. Cullen saw confusion on that beautiful face. It did seem terribly unfair that she faced reprisals for following the First Enchanter’s direction. Her surprise at Jowan’s use of blood magic had been as clear as anyone’s. Committing the rest of her life to the mysterious Order must give her pause but, between fighting Darkspawn and madness or worse in the mages’ prison where Greagoir seemed intent on sending her, surely the choice was clear.

The look she gave Duncan made her feelings on the matter as clear as her words did. “Conscript me?” she asked, acid in her tone. “So it’s a death sentence instead of a jail term, then, and me with no say in the matter?”

Irving stepped forward as, at a gesture from Greagoir, two more Templars moved to pull Lilly from the corner in which she was still curled. The two holding Jowan moved as slowly as they dared back down the steps up whence he’d come. That left Cullen and another woman standing uncertainly on either side of Kyla, waiting for a resolution before either laid a hand on her.

“Kyla,” the First Enchanter said quietly, his voice soft with the depth of his care, “there is a time to push and a time to bend. Now is not the time to push.” A message flashed in his eyes, something that his favorite student read clearly.

All the fight drained from Kyla and the defiant tilt of her head wilted. She looked as hopeless as Jowan but her voice still sounded strong when her low answer came. “There will come a day when I push, Irving.”

She sighed and then turned abruptly. As she trudged past the Warden she gestured for him to follow. “Come along, then. I’ve not much but you’ll need to get your things.”

Duncan nodded a hint of a bow to Irving and Greagoir before he followed. As they passed into the mage’s area of the tower Cullen could see the Warden place a reassuring hand on Kyla’s shoulder and a spike of jealousy pierced him even as she shrugged it off. In its wake he felt sorrowful relief. Enjoy it as he might, the slow torture of seeing her every day would now end and she would not rot under whatever enchantments constrained and tortured those consigned to Aeonar.

Though he was off-duty, Cullen lingered near the massive doors at the base of the tower, chatting with the Templars stationed there about what had happened. In less than an hour Duncan emerged, wearing a heavy pack, with Kyla in tow. The Warden looked well satisfied and not the least hesitant to travel into the night with naught but his blades and an untried young woman.

Kyla, on the other hand, was pale and drawn. She still wore the same robes, likely the only ones she had. The resignation on her face made Cullen ache to draw her into his arms, just once. She glanced up as they neared the edge of the whole of the world she’d known since she was a small child, the smooth and fitted stones that outlined what had been her life. Her eyes met his as they neared and she contrived to drop her cowl just at his feet.

He stooped to retrieve it and their fingers met. “Thank you, ser,” she said, politely inclining her head, then whispered, “Goodbye, Cullen.”

His heart stuttered as he nodded. “You’re welcome…Kyla,” he said, under his breath. She gave him a sweet frown. Her eyes filled before she turned to make her way into the night. Again, he fought back an overwhelming desire to pull her to him. He wondered if he would ever see her again.

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