Recuperation, they call it, as if what ails him is something that may be mended, like a broken bone or the weakness that follows a fever. They don’t understand. Even Greagoir, a man whom he has always admired—a man whose leadership he always thought was sane, and sensible—seems changed somehow.
Cullen recalls the uncomfortable look in the Knight-Commander’s eyes as he suggested this little… rest. It is not fair. The others—the few of his brothers who survived the horror, and the templars mobilising in Denerim, and all across the Bannorn—they are marching to war. They will fight for their country, their freedom, and for the Maker, and it is likely they will die… and he will not be among them. He will be here, in this forsaken little blot in the middle of nowhere, forgotten and abandoned on the northwest coast, because they think him mad. Broken. Past repair.
It is not right. He told Greagoir this, told him it wasn’t fair, but it did no good. There, in the blood-soaked stone tomb that was once his home, he pleaded, begged the Knight-Commander to see reason, to let him do his duty, die a warrior and pay the blood debt he owes. He heard the panic in his own voice; the high, wailing fury of a child, and it shamed him. He fell to his knees, as he had kneeled for so many days, caged and captive while all around him was torn to screaming, bloody shreds, and he wept.
His commander placed a comforting hand upon his shoulder, raised him up… and Cullen had known there was no sense in arguing any more. He had sealed his own fate.
And so, he is here. The chantry is small, as is the village it serves. Holmar, they call it. No more than a dozen farmsteads dot the surrounding countryside, and the chantry stands between them and the sea. It is a centre for contemplation, apparently. The northerly tip of Ferelden, where the evening air is warm and soft, and the semi-distant cries of gulls haunt the air.
There are a handful of other templars here. Among them are Ser Gedwyn, a man in his sixth decade, who is all but lost to the addled, waking sleep of lyrium, and Ser Jonal, whose wounds are more physical. He was injured in the capture of an apostate, they say, but Cullen does not yet know whether it was honest steel or foul magic that put those bandages across his left eye, and robbed him of his foot. Then there is Ser Doran, who is, he has heard, also here to rest. Cullen knows no more than that; since he arrived, Doran has not left his room, and the sisters and lay brothers here are extremely lenient. They force nothing on anyone, least of all recovery.
Cullen isn’t sure that he likes it, so far. The place is made entirely of muddy greens and browns, and the constant salt smell of the sea makes his mouth dry. He isn’t used to it yet, though the warm evenings are pleasant enough.
It is evening now, and he sits on a bench near the vegetable garden, watching the dusky breeze ruffle the leaves of winter lettuces. The sisters are kind, though he hasn’t been here long enough to learn all their names. He doesn’t really want to. He’d like to pretend this is some passing dream, some temporary fancy from which he can wake, and return to the more urgent matters of life.
There is a Blight. He didn’t believe it at first. He almost doesn’t believe it now, but then everything he thought of as reality has been taken from him, sundered, and resewn into new, strange shapes that do not feel familiar. When they heard the first rumours, the darkspawn were still being dismissed as a minor threat. The Magi made more of it than they needed to, seizing the opportunity to leave the Circle Tower and fly to the king’s clarion, just as eager to snuffle up every last glob of glory as Cailan had been.
Well, it wasn’t as easy as they thought, was it?
The news of Ostagar had barely broken before… before everything fell apart. Cullen knows where he was that day: outside the mages’ quarters, walking the corridors with Badin, whose ready wit had sustained the both of them through long hours of drill, back when they were young initiates in Denerim. Friends, he recalls. Friends for a long time.
Cullen remembers how the templars joked about the pointlessness of ‘patrol’ in those long, empty hallways. All they ever had to watch for were students running late to their lessons, or the occasional experiment exploding in the laboratories. Every so often, some young apprentice would think it funny to cast Tronwheel’s Invisible Tripwire, or Lethbridge’s Cone of Flatulence, and there might be an opportunity to utilise the talents they’d honed for the purposes of negating dangerous magic… but those were few and far between.
Boredom characterised the majority of life in the Tower. Lots of it. Long, syrupy hours of boredom, broken up with the hundreds of little strands of lives that were not his, and were full of such very different concerns and fears.
Many of his brothers looked down on the mages. Some with pity, others with scorn. He’d seen enough of them to understand their complexity, to view them as individuals who struggled with their burdens, just as everyone did.
Cullen believed then, as he always had, that the Maker formed men with imperfections so that they might learn to rise above them. He did not think there would be anything in the world that could not be bested through faith.
He did not, he knows now, understand.
Evil will swallow the world whole, for it lurks at the heart of everything, inevitable and unstoppable. It is beneath the very ground. It is within all that seems to be good, and pure.
It was within her.
Cullen shakes his head bitterly, wishing he could displace the thoughts by so doing. To think there was a time— no. He doesn’t want to think of it.
She betrayed everything he believed in. She aided the blood mage, Jowan, to destroy his phylactery and escape, and she did not even stay to answer for her crime.
He was glad when she was gone. Stung, and bitter, and wounded, and glad.
It was the judgement of the Maker, he thought. But what judgement returned her to them, after… after what happened, and all the things that went so badly wrong?
Badin died in his arms. So much blood. So much screaming, so much… pain. His friend’s body, a blistered mess where fire had engulfed him and welded his flesh to his armour. Every effort to help him, as they hunkered in the doorway of the Great Hall, chaos breaking out all around, had only made his suffering worse.
Cullen’s fingers flex slightly against his knees as he sits on the bench, staring out into the dusk. His back is straight, his posture positively regimental, though he wears plain civilian clothes now, and he remembers pulling off his friend’s burning gauntlets, and finding them full of blistered, bloody skin. He remembers the bubbling, grating death rattle that passed between flayed, fire-chased lips, and what is worse is not the memory, but the fact it is merely the first. It has lost its impact for him now. He recalls the terror, the revulsion and the panic of the moment, but they are feelings that some other man had, some other Cullen who lived then, and who is no longer here. He cannot call on that man—cannot truly draw upon his life, his past, his heart—any more than he can imagine what it is to be a blade of grass, or one of those lettuces that sit so serenely in the tilled earth of the chantry gardens.
Badin is dead. All of his friends are dead, or soon will be. The abominations are dead. She… she who walked guiltless from the carnage, who was rewarded for her misdeeds when she should have been sent to Aeonar, she was responsible.
It had been festering there, beneath the surface. That evil. Maleficarum, infesting every inch of the Tower, whispering—always whispering—but no one believed, did they? Or maybe they believed too readily. She had. Too quick to trust, too compassionate, too swayed by her allegiance to her kind.
She has doomed them all.
He should wish her dead, but he cannot.
Ayala Surana. Even now, with all that he knows, her name is an exotic breath, a whispered caress that comes in the night to taunt him with his weakness.
He loved her once, Maker forgive him. He loved her, and she betrayed him. And now, she’s betrayed them all.
He should have seen it coming.
Jocelyn tipped the heavy pail, and watched with satisfaction as the cool, clean water splashed into the copper. As the Chant said, there was a pure, humble joy to be found in hard work. Of course, it was easy to think that when Mother Cerys’ rota had her doing morning chores in the humid warmth of the laundry, instead of outside in the frost-ridden dark, mucking out the pigs.
Mother Cerys said it didn’t do for them to grow too settled in their routines, rooted to the same jobs. They must embrace change, she said. Another of her innovative ideas, that, and rumour had it also the reason she was out here in the middle of nowhere, instead of leading a more prestigious chantry in the Bannorn. Not that Jocelyn indulged in the frivolous inconsequence of gossip.
As for herself, she’d never had the opportunity to consider going anywhere else. Her people had farmed in the land surrounding Holmar for generations. She was lucky, she supposed, that she’d been the second of four daughters, with two brothers ahead of her and a baby sister behind. Her elder sisters and one older brother were all already married when she told Pa she wanted to take vows, and he’d agreed readily—quite possibly just out of relief at not having to finance another wedding.
It had been a vocation, though… of sorts. Jocelyn had always known she wanted something different from life, something that went beyond the annual patchwork of life on the downs. She’d trodden the year round enough times to know she loved it—every passing wisp and reliable repetition from shearing to slaughter, and the fairs and festivities that broke up the wheel—but it hadn’t called to her bones. She hadn’t wanted to take a husband from among the raw-faced, rough-kneed farmhands, and become a wife, a woman like her mother, all sinew and bony elbows tied up in a dirty apron.
Still, she was a part of the land. This place, precariously balanced between the mountains and the sea, with its great rolling swathes of green undulating softly away from the cliffs, as if to soothe the storms before they reached the plains. On a clear day, from the chantry’s bell tower, they could see the occasional ship caught on the crossing to the Marches, far beyond the Waking Sea. In her first years as a lay sister, before she took her vows, Jocelyn had wondered what it would be like to journey across those forbidding waters. She’d dreamed a thousand fantasies about the lands beyond, but they didn’t trouble her these days. Here, within the folds of her community and her cloistered life, she knew peace, and that was enough.
“Goodness’ sake, girl! Are you going to stand there all day, or get these linens on to boil?”
Jocelyn blinked, flinching guiltily at the sound of Sister Honoria’s strident tones. Though she was technically a lay sister, and in reality effectively a servant of the chantry, the woman had over the years become responsible for running the laundry and a goodly part of the kitchens. She was indispensable, extremely practical, and well used to having her commands followed to the letter.
“Of course, Sister,” Jocelyn said calmly, and set down the pail, readying to hoist the first bag of washing into the copper.
Holmar’s chantry might have been small in comparison to more metropolitan parts of the country, but they still generated plenty of grubby smallclothes, and that wasn’t even touching on the bandages, sheets, and other laundry that came from by the patients currently residing in Sister Bronwith’s infirmary.
“’Ave you seen that new lad yet?” Sister Honoria asked, bustling up behind Jocelyn and wiping her meaty hands on a dishcloth as she peered over the initiate’s shoulder, into the steaming depths of the copper. “The templar?”
Jocelyn frowned. “Cullen? Yes. Yesterday afternoon.”
Honoria helped her empty the linens into the slowly heating water, and took up the long wooden paddle used to tamp them down. Her wide, red face creased into a worried frown, with pale, wispy curls frizzing in a coronet around her forehead.
“I ’eard he in’t right.”
“Shouldn’t think so,” Jocelyn said, bending to stoke the fire beneath the copper. “That’s why he’s here: to get better.”
Sister Honoria tutted. “That in’t what I mean, and you know it, Sister. You know… all that business at the Tower. Is it true?”
Jocelyn fed a few bits of kindling into the burgeoning yellow flames. They warmed her face; licking at the little brick furnace and dancing against years’ worth of accumulated soot and scorch marks.
“What, abominations and maleficarum running riot through the halls, until the illustrious Grey Wardens arrived to quell the damage? I shouldn’t think it’s half as exciting as the rumours make out, Sister. Things rarely are,” she added, straightening up and brushing her palms against her robe. “Besides, we mustn’t gossip.”
“In’t gossiping,” Sister Honoria said defensively, jabbing the paddle into the copper and giving the laundry a good prod. “I’m just curious. We know something went on, don’t we? Just that nobody’s saying what. Stands to reason that boy knows summat, and someone ought to—”
“Someone,” Jocelyn said pointedly, “should remember that we are living in exceptional times. We… should pray that they are less exceptional than certain rumours suggest.”
Honoria’s mouth tightened, and a moment’s tense, hot silence settled between the two women. The fire crackled, and the copper began to heat up, the water starting to roil. Sister Honoria churned the linens, her heavy jaw set into a gesture of implacable, defiant neutrality, and Jocelyn sighed.
These were troubling times indeed.
News from the south had been getting progressively worse over the past month. The civil war was one thing, but the other…. She hardly dared frame the word in her mind. Blight. No one up here had believed it at first. Mad follies, they’d said, until the first refugees started trickling through. The fear came with them, gusting up from the valley like a dark wind, and hanging blackly over everything, corrupting all it touched.
Holmar rarely got word of anything quickly, or accurately, for that matter. Not until a long while after it had happened, at least. Mother Cerys said they had to guard against seizing on snippets of information, and reading too much into this unrest and chaos.
She’d agreed, at first. Of course, that was before he arrived.
They hadn’t been told much about Cullen; they weren’t usually told much about any of the resident guests who came to them to convalesce, other than the most basic of information. Yet the templar who had accompanied him on his arrival—a large, heavily built man with a great, dark beard and a sealed letter from Greagoir, the Knight-Commander of the Circle Tower, addressed to Mother Cerys personally—had spoken of such terrible things! Abominations and rebellion in the Tower, demons stalking the halls… wholesale death and destruction. It was no wonder she had seen such a blank, haunted emptiness in the young man’s face, Jocelyn supposed. The things he must have witnessed….
His companion—guardian, perhaps—had said Cullen had been lucky to survive. He’d been rescued by the Grey Wardens, allegedly, but Jocelyn was aware Mother Cerys pretended not to know that, just as they were all to pretend they hadn’t heard it said. Nobody needed the association with an order so recently declared outlaw, although if the rumours filtering up from the south were even partway true—well, they couldn’t be, of course. A bastard son of King Maric and an elven mage, carrying the banner of the Griffon Riders, and moving across the country, perpetually one step ahead of the regent’s army… it was like something out of a storybook.
They said the Wardens were raising their own forces, and meant to move against Teyrn Loghain. Not that the people of Holmar and its environs cared much about politics. Anything that didn’t relate directly to the farming calendar was considered irrelevant to the serious business of life, and even Bann Ricard knew not to trouble people unduly for things like rent or taxes… especially after the year the two revenue men he sent ended up tied together and tossed in the mill pond in the middle of the village. The pond was less than a foot deep, of course, but they hadn’t known that.
No, Holmar had little time for strife and unrest. It got in the way of life.
Jocelyn worried, though. If things were truly as bad as people said, then their isolated existence would only protect them for so long. She’d been tempted to press the templar who’d brought Cullen to them for further details, but he’d left under cover of dark; heading off, apparently, back to the Tower and the war that he said was coming. Not just petty power struggles, either.
Before this ended, he’d said, they would all face their demons. Every last one of them—and they’d be lucky if they survived.