Transmutation - Chapter 7

Settling Down

The tower felt dank and empty after Kyla left with Duncan. Cullen dreamt of her often; the fleeting contacts and covert smiles haunted him. The other mages seemed dull in comparison and even overtures from friendly Templars could not tempt him. He focused on his training and renewed yet again his devotion to Andraste and the Maker.

Jowan’s display had shocked him out of the complacency into which he had so quickly settled. Between the proof that the mages needed closer watching and the removal of Kyla’s insidious, if delicious, influence he found himself more sure of his duty than ever. Events over the following weeks tested that new dedication.

The Warden’s sudden departure left all of Kinloch Hold on edge. The Templars who’d believed Duncan had been ready to recruit them groused about a blood mage and a slip of a girl, an apprentice mere months past her Harrowing, forcing him to leave before he could decide which of them to take.
The mages, defiant at first that one of their number had bested their guardians, were soon reminded that the power to punish them all for recent events lay in the hands of those same, frustrated jailers.

Greagoir and Irving circled one another like angry cats, backs arched. Each believed the other had failed him and their former easy friendship teetered on the verge of irreparable rupture. Their obvious frustration only encouraged their respective factions. For a time Cullen thought half the barracks had gone mad. The proudest of the knights, left out of the upcoming battle at Ostagar and now rejected by the Grey Warden, vented their disappointment on the mages. The retaliation proved they had rightly been left behind but no one was foolish enough to make that point aloud. Most of the others just stayed out of the way.

The Templars conducted more raids in the ensuing six weeks than they had in the previous six months combined. Jowan’s actions had taken them all by surprise and many found it difficult to believe the young man, barely trained and un-Harrowed, had taught himself blood magic. The Templars watched even the most senior enchanters closely. The laughter and chatter that had rung down the halls where the novices’ quarters lay disappeared almost overnight. Outbursts were quickly silenced lest they draw the attention of some disgruntled knight. Casual contact between the groups disappeared.

For nearly two months, the calmer Templars and the mages tiptoed around the tower, wary of triggering an outburst. A few times an apprentice turned up in an out-of-the-way corner, beaten or, to Cullen’s horror, raped. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them would name their attackers. They claimed that the men or women had worn helmets and gauntlets and had not spoken.

Cullen supposed that might be true but, given the bruised knuckles and bragging easily found in the barracks, it shocked him that the Knight Captain refused to discipline those obviously guilty. Of course, he thought to himself, the captain himself and two of the remaining Knight Lieutenants that organize patrols and duties around the Circle numbered among those who expected Duncan to choose them. Greagoir never bothered to investigate his ranks beyond sternly worded admonitions to the whole.

It was a trying time for everyone but few seemed to suffer the crisis of conscience that plagued Cullen. On one hand he’d seen for himself the danger that even seemingly ineffectual mages could pose. Had Jowan not been so badly outnumbered Maker knew what would have happened to those who had tried to stop him.

On the other hand, the Templars hardly stood blameless. They repeatedly overstepped their bounds after Jowan’s rebellion and Kyla’s conscription. They acted not as protectors or even jailors but as punishers bent on misguided vengeance. Some of the brothers and sisters treated the enchanters with chilly indifference but the rising tensions in the tower revealed how few of them regarded mages as more than some exotic species of poisonous animal, penned and trained perhaps but still wild and unpredictable.

The pressure made everyone snappish and it seemed only a matter of time before the storm broke. Cullen waited for someone to go too far, for fear to drive a mage to darker arts or a Templar to attack someone openly. He prayed nightly that Andraste keep everyone safe but he worried that even the Bride of the Maker could not stem the building tide.

Week after week dragged past without a major surge. The strain showed on every face but whatever restraint held everyone back from that last step too far continued. Eventually events outside the tower gave a different focus to the disagreements.

The battle at Ostagar, meant to drive back the Darkspawn horde, had turned into a slaughter. Teryn Loghain reported that the Grey Wardens had betrayed the army and that he’d withdrawn his troops before they, too, fell to the unexpected mass of the enemy. King Cailan had been killed fighting at Duncan’s side. The Teryn leveraged his position as the queen’s father to declare himself the crown regent. As his first royal act he designated the Grey Wardens enemies of the state to be killed on sight.

The Knight Captain and the others quickly changed their tune to one of relief at having escaped the fate of those in the battle. They claimed they’d known there was something shady about Duncan all along, storied history of Warden heroics notwithstanding. In private Cullen rolled his eyes with Braden at their transparent attempts to save face but they gratefully watched the conflicting currents in the Circle ebb as the winter passed.

Only one of the Templars that had gone to Ostagar returned, bringing three of the mages with him. Among them was Wynne, one of the most senior enchanters and a noted healer. The man credited her with saving not only his life but those of many badly wounded on the field, including Ser Wesley. In the chaos of retreat they’d lost sight of the Knight Lieutenant but he’d been with his wife, a formidable warrior in the king’s army. The pair had been forced south as part of a small group, away from the other survivors. Maker only knew if they still lived.

The knowledge that one of the mages had risked her own life to save the Templars with whom she’d lived for decades soothed the troubled waters of the tower. After three months no hidden nest of blood mages emerged and the knights ran out of people to investigate.

With a dozen of their number killed in battle some of the biggest complainers received promotions, salve to their bruised egos that further defused the tension. Eventually children ran again in the halls of the lower levels and mages became willing to spend a late night researching in the library once more. The frosty distance between Irving and Greagoir thawed as well, though they never quite returned to their easy friendship.

The renewed sense of peace, tentative though it might be, allowed Cullen far too much time to wonder whether Kyla, too, had been killed. If she had survived the battle all reports had the whole area swarming with darkspawn. Even should she have escaped them, the regent’s proclamation about the Wardens meant she couldn’t stay alive long.

Sadness shaded his days as he became convinced she must be dead. He’d never expected to see her again but the idea that she’d gone to her death so quickly, conscripted so young and under an undeserved cloud, struck him as monstrously unfair. He prayed to Andraste that Kyla had not suffered, that she had died quickly and was now at rest with the Maker, and promised to put her out of his mind entirely. It was a resolution he was hard pressed to keep in the quiet upper halls of the Hold where every quiet corner reminded him of her.

In the calmer days of the new year the winter meeting of the Senior Mage Council was announced. Greagoir considered standing guard at such meetings more a matter of form than necessary security. None of the Templars ever volunteered for the dull duty so he assigned two of the newly appointed Knight-Lieutenants and the two newest of his men, Cullen and Ser Harold.

Though the job held no real prestige Cullen was excited to be privy to such a high-level group’s deliberations. Harold moaned about it at every chance, more because the promoted Templars lorded over him the authority they now had than any real dislike for their assignment.

Harold had come to the tower two months after Cullen, his blond hair freshly snipped close to his scalp making his prominent blue eyes seem all the bigger. He’d known only the flurry of activity that had accompanied Duncan’s visit and the tightly-wound aftermath. The new, relaxed atmosphere bored him to death and Cullen detected a sneaking excitement in those complaints. Whether the young man thought something would happen at the meeting or he was simply that desperate for distraction, Cullen could only hope he would be disappointed.

Senior enchanters held formal meetings only a twice a year. They worked closely enough with one another that more structured gatherings were unnecessary. This was only the second since Cullen had come to the tower and he and Harold were both curious to see what it was like.

The afternoon of the meeting arrived and the four Templars, in freshly polished plate, clanked up the stairs to the Harrowing Chamber well before the senior enchanters began to gather. The long table on which Cullen had first seen Kyla now stood surrounded by chairs with high backs and embroidered seats. For Harrowings these were moved to crowd the room at the base of the stairs so they could not be used as weapons by a newly-possessed novice who failed the Harrowing.

The mages filtered into the room, taking seats in some hierarchy Cullen could not distinguish. He knew most of them by reputation, if not personally, and their greetings helped him put faces to names. The First Enchanter arrived last and took his seat at the head of the table. He greeted the fierce-looking man in crimson robes to his left. Uldred nodded coolly at Irving as he finished his comment to the woman seated across from him.

The first hour of the meeting was dull in the extreme. The whole room was reduced by the slit in his helmet to a band that allowed Cullen to see no lower than the top of the table without moving his head and not much higher than the ridiculous had of the tallest of the mages. His hands felt like blocks of stone taken from the walls around him in the unaccustomed gloves but he resisted the desire to flex his fingers or crane his neck. The others stood stiffly at attention around the room and he could do no less.

The enchanters discussed overall trends in the Circle like the average age at which the students were prepared for their Harrowings and the percentage of those who chose or were forced to accept being made Tranquil. They showed each other carefully-drawn graphs and discussed the trends shown by them. They debated library acquisitions and reviewed the tower’s funds, received for various magical services and spent mostly on the tools of their trade and on books.

Eventually they moved on to more interesting topics, however. The discussion turned to Anders, the resident escape artist, and how long he would remain in solitary confinement. He’d led the hunters on a merry, weeks-long chase around the Bannorn and been tossed in a basement cell upon their return nine months before. It had been the sixth time he’d fled the tower and the mages were split on whether that was enough or too much time for the man to have learned his lesson.

It’s a good thing they didn’t see what condition he was in when they finally dragged him back to the tower, Cullen thought. The team that had eventually caught Anders had boasted that he’d have plenty of time in solitary to heal his injuries and consider the consequences of yet another escape. Though it had happened weeks before Cullen had arrived at the Circle tower the stories still circulated in the barracks. Irving must have known but he was savvy enough to keep the details to himself.

A mage named Karl spoke out strongly for Anders’s release and several of the others agreed that the lengthy confinement was excessive punishment. No one had ever accused him of anything darker than his oft-demonstrated desire to live outside the Circle’s confines. He’d never hurt anyone and had actually been caught because he’d stopped to rescue a stranger from a burning farmhouse.

Though the decision was to petition the Knight-Commander to release Anders, Cullen knew that the mages had no real power over the situation. The First Enchanter enjoyed a great deal of respect from the head of the Circle’s Templars but in the end it was Greagoir’s decision whether the would-be apostate could be trusted to roam free within the tower once more.

By the time the senior enchanters had reached their conclusion Cullen’s feet were beginning to complain. He stood for hours every day but normally he patrolled rather than standing in one place, particularly with the added weight of his helmet and shield. Despite his growing discomfort he remained still, flexing his toes as much as he could without scraping the plates of his boots on the floor. This assignment was meant to test him, he knew, and he intended to pass.

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