Artwork by KuraNova.
Cullen Rutherford, Knight-Captain of Kirkwall, pulled his horse to a stop as the scout approached him.
"Another false trail. It continues another quarter mile and then stops. I don't think our prey is in the area."
He gave a harsh sigh. He was weary, drained to the point of exhaustion. If not for his orders, Cullen would have issued the command to return to Kirkwall days ago. With Meredith now a statue of red lyrium, the city-state's Chantry decimated, the free-will mages throughout Thedas declaring their independence, and rampant insubordination rippling through the Order, his presence was needed in the ravaged city. He would try to keep the weave that was Kirkwall from unraveling further. He could grapple all the separating threads of leaderships and, through determination, through sheer force of will, he would bind and tie the strands together, keeping the city from descending into broadening chaos. If only ...
If only Seeker Pentaghast had not issued him specific orders: track and capture Marion Hawke, the Champion of Kirkwall or, failing that, to detain the dwarf Varric Tethras. He had silently added the directive to execute the mage Anders, the man solely responsible for the turmoil now threatening all of Thedas, should he have the good fortune of cornering the murderer.
Cullen rubbed at the back of his neck as he scanned the nearby hillsides. He had a more than passing knowledge of the area and knew that there were, pocketed nearly everywhere, caves and grottos which would allow his prey to stay concealed with little fear of discovery. Only a methodical and exhaustive search would have any chance of ferreting out his targets if they were still in the vicinity. Hawke was intelligent, devious, and desperate. A lifetime of living as an apostate had taught her how to elude even the most persistent trackers. He wouldn't be surprised if she had laid a seemingly false trail and then squirreled away to a comfortable cave, cautiously waiting until her pursuers moved their search to another area.
Plus there's someone out there. His years as a Templar had sharpened his senses as finely as all the sword training had strengthened his muscles. He knew there was someone out there, looking down from a vantage point. It could be nothing more than a shepherd drawn to the remarkable sight of a dozen Templars combing the countryside or it could be Hawke determining if her would-be captors fell for her trick.
Cullen looked up at the sky, noting that sunset was but a few hours away. Raising his voice in case the observer was the elusive Hawke, he addressed the other Templars. "It seems we have been fooled yet again. We'll make camp here tonight. Tomorrow we'll move our search to the west. Samson, take two others and see if you can hunt down some dinner for us. I'm sure we'd all appreciate something more than hardtack and moldy cheese for our sup." There was a quiet mumble of agreement from the squad as Samson pointed to two others before heading away from the group. "The rest of you start setting up camp."
He dismounted and dug through his saddlebag for the map of the region. Cullen had no intention of departing until he was certain that Hawke, or any of her friends, was not in the surrounding hillsides. He would quietly spread word through the evening that everyone be geared up by false dawn. They would then sweep through, checking every cave, every hidey-hole, and, Maker willing, come across an unprepared Hawke.
In the meantime he needed to keep up the appearance that he planned to move his search elsewhere. He yanked a log over to a flattish rock and spread out the heavy parchment. Settling on the log, he pretended to study the map, tracing his fingers along its worn surface as his men set up tents and groomed the horses. All the while, he circumspectly scanned the surrounding hillside, hoping to catch movement or the glint of sunlight on armor, any sign of the secreted observer. None came and when the hunters returned as twilight was falling, he abandoned his subterfuge.
Cullen barely kept his lip from curling with derision when Samson rode exultantly into camp. Samson, in his opinion, embodied everything that was destroying the Templar Order. Arrogant, cruel, gleefully delighting in harrying mages, and always just shy of outright insubordination to his superiors. Cullen had been conflicted about including him in this mission. In the end, he decided to keep Samson close rather than leave him unsupervised in Kirkwall to spread dissension and unchecked in tormenting the few remaining mages.
"We'll eat well tonight!" Samson tossed a brace of rabbits at one of the nearby men. "Enough for us to dine with gluttony and stoke our fires. We will surely need it tonight for those are not the only rabbits taken this evening." He reached behind and shoved to the ground what appeared to be a large sack draped across his horse's rump. "I also captured this little rabbit."
Cullen pushed his way through the men encircling Samson. He knelt, gently rolling over not a sack of provisions but a figure. That she was a mage was in little doubt as he sensed her struggling to connect to her mana. A livid bruise was purpling the left side of her face, its gauntlet shape darkening the pale skin. Her breaths came in harsh, desperate gasps, and when he gently lifted one eyelid, he was alarmed to find the light in her eye dimming to near lifelessness. "Lyrium, now!"
Samson scoffed, disdainfully replying, "There's no need. The little rabbit will recover withou..."
Cullen's roar of "NOW!" cut him off abruptly. Declan, the newest recruit, reacting quicker than any other, returned with a draught of the precious liquid before the other Templars had managed to move more than a single step.
The recruit pulled the stopper from the glass vial and handed it over before sinking to the ground, nestling the mage's head on his knees. Cullen pried open her mouth and let a single drop fall to her tongue. He waited and then let another drop fall, knowing he couldn't rush it. An influx of lyrium when she was this drained could be as lethal as denying her lyrium altogether.
"How many times?" he asked hoarsely as he tipped another drop to land on her tongue.
There was no need for explanation. All of the Templars surrounding him knew he wanted to know how many times their power of leaching a mage's mana away had been used. Sula, one of the Templars who had accompanied Samson on the hunting expedition, spoke up. "Four, ser."
Cullen's head whipped up quickly, staring with disbelief at the woman. "Four? She's that powerful?"
"Powerful, yes," she began, "but ..." She broke off abruptly when Samson threw her a potent scowl.
Nodding, he turned his gaze back to the mage and let another drop fall from the vial. He would question Sula at length later, away from Samson's menacing presence. For now, though, he needed to continue to nurse the young woman.
It was not until the tenth drop that the mage finally began to respond. Her eyes fluttered open while one scar-covered hand reached blindly for the lyrium. He poured more of the glowing blue fluid into her eager mouth, allowing a sip's worth to be swallowed. Another sip, then a gulp and the lyrium was drained. There was no argument when he demanded another vial. This was consumed quickly as was a third vial but, finally, the mage seemed to have recovered. She managed to sit up, shaky and uncertain. Her eyes were still dazed and unfocused but Cullen knew the danger was past. The mage would live.
"What's to be done with her?" Samson asked with a predatory lick of his lips as Cullen rose from the ground. His tone keen as he eyed the recovering mage with a sadistic hunger.
Cullen wiped the dirt from his knees and gave a quick glance at the woman in question. "She isn't our quarry. She'll recover here tonight and in the morning we'll release her before continuing our hunt for Hawke."
Samson strode forward with heated steps. "The Chantry dictates that all captured apostates be killed, made Tranquil, or Claimed. Those are the only options. Apostasy is not to be condoned for any reason. Are you suggesting that we ignore our duties as Templars?" He sneered and threw the Knight-Captain a look that was just shy of an outright challenge to his leadership. "Are you proposing we finally throw off the shackles of the Chantry and lead ourselves?"
There were grumbles of agreement. Since Meredith's fall, Samson had been busy sowing dissent and had been considerably more successful with his seditious talk than Cullen ever imagined. Only four of the surrounding Templars appeared to support Cullen's decision. The rest were clearly siding with Samson.
Though he had been doubting his place with the Order even before Meredith's fall into madness, despite his strong objections to the mandates from the Chantry leadership which allowed for harsher and harsher treatment of the mages in their care, and in spite of his vehement opposition to Claiming, he would not become the rallying cry for those Templars who wished to rebel against Chantry control. Without a doubt, Samson was trying to maneuver him into saying something, anything, that would spark mutiny. Cullen could not allow that.
Maker, I have no choice. It is a mandate of the Templars, Chantry law. He looked at the mage, the sacrificial lamb, who would soon be Claimed by one of the men or women encircling her. "Any who already have a Claim or do not, for whatever reason, wish to Claim this mage, step back."
There was shuffling and movement, a few hesitated but in the end only two men stayed in place. Declan, a good man. A man who would not ill-treat her but a new recruit of not quite a year. And there was Samson looking exuberant, who strode over to the recovering mage and gripped her jaw, forcing her head back viciously.
"You'll soon be mine, little rabbit. I can't wait to hear you squeal as I fuck you until you're raw." His spiteful smile grew. "And you'll continue to squeal as you pleasure every person here who wishes to use you. I'm not a greedy man. I will delight in sharing you with any who wants."
Cullen strode forward and pushed Samson away from the woman. "You already have a Claim."
"I did. He displeased me," Samson said with a uncaring sniff.
"As did the all others you've Claimed?"
"What does it matter? They were only Claimed mages. If they displease me, I have the right to punish them. If they don't survive, it's of no concern. And as I have more seniority than Declan, she is mine to Claim."
He hated the idea of Claiming, had sworn to never Claim a mage, but he could not sanction Samson having this woman. "It goes by seniority only if there isn't someone of higher rank who wishes to Claim."
"You?" Samson scoffed at the Knight-Captain. "You want to Claim her? You don't even know what to do with her."
"Tread carefully, Samson," Cullen said with fury seeping into the words. "Do you truly wish to be expelled from the Order? How long would you last with your access to lyrium cut off? How long before the cravings drove you mad? Is this apostate truly worth that?"
Samson glanced around, judging how much support he had from his fellow Templars. While many of them were close to revolting against the chokehold of Chantry rule, largely due to Samson's whispered rabble-rousing in their ears, they were still not prepared to take that step just yet, especially not over a lone apostate.
Knowing he had lost, Samson addressed the Templars. "Someone get our Knight-Captain a Binding collar and a Claiming draught."
Within a few heartbeats, Cullen found himself holding the Binding collar, an unbending curve of dull steel with a rune made of a large chalky white stone where it would center on her throat. He knelt down in front of the mage. She had been silent during his confrontation with Samson but aware of what was being decided.
Tears were beginning to pool in her eyes as she trembled with fear. "Please don't," she whispered entreatingly.
"There is no other option," he answered.
"You could make me Tranquil," she said with stuttering breath, "or kill me."
"Only if a Templar does not want to Claim you. It's either me or him." Cullen waited. She had to make this choice herself. He would not deny her that. It was cruel and unforgivable that he was forcing her to choose her captor but he found he could not take this final moment of freewill away from her.
The mage took in a ragged breath then slowly raised her face to gaze at him. And though fear lurked in her eyes, there was bravery evident as well. Her hands rose shakily to lift away her hair from the back of her neck.
Using his considerable strength, he stretched the metal collar wide enough to slip around her throat. There were a series of interlocking loops where the two ends met through which he slid a tiny pin to lock it in place.
A hand, whose he did not know, held out the Claiming draught and a small dagger. With a quick flick, Cullen nicked his thumb on the blade, allowing a single drop of blood to fall into the milky white brew. The droplet sank into the fluid, slowly changing the white into a pale pink as it traveled to the bottom of the vial. The moment the white fluid was entirely stained pink, the liquid pulsed before settling into deep crimson.
He took the vial and was surprised when the woman reached out courageously to cover his hand with her own. Together they lifted it to her lips and she drank, not quite willingly, of the potion. He didn't know what to expect for he had never witnessed a Claiming before but he'd anticipated some sort of change to come over the mage. Instead she was staring at him as before, with that unusual mix of fear and bravery swimming in her eyes. Still the Claiming isn't complete yet.
Cullen stood and held out a hand to help the mage to her feet. Addressing Declan, he ordered, "Take her to my tent. Sula, with me." He strode away from the camp with Sula following not too far behind. As soon as he was sure there were no prying ears nearby, he turned abruptly. "Explain what happened."
Sula looked about with concern. Samson would retaliate for this but she was loyal to the tenets of the Order and loyal to her Knight-Captain. "We came upon the mage as she was watching the campsite from one of the higher hills. When she realized we had discovered her and all escape routes were blocked, she tried to surrender but Samson ..." Her voice trailed off quietly.
"He attacked with no provocation."
"Yes, ser. The mage, she never once attacked us directly, only casting spells to defend herself. Even when she was weakened to the point she could barely stand, Samson would not relent. He struck her so hard I thought he'd killed her."
Not a blood mage. Not a violent rebel. Mostly likely just a mage who wishes freedom from her Circle. Yet another brutality by the Order and I must be the one to do it.
"Ser, if I didn't have Kheilen, I would have stood for her. I know you oppose Claiming but it is far better to do this than let Samson get his hands on her."
He took little solace in her words but still answered with a quiet "Thank you." He ran an agitated hand through his blonde curls while saying, "Go back to camp. And Sula, be careful of Samson. He will try to get revenge."
"He'll not catch me unawares. I'm wise to his ways." Before she turned away, she laid a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. Speaking not as a Templar to her Knight-Captain but as one understanding friend consoling another, she said, "It will be alright. Remember you're doing this to save her life."
He nodded as he lifted his eyes to the star-filled sky. Since the moment he'd made the decision to Claim the mage, he'd been filled with an unease that wouldn't subside. He'd once been an eager young boy in Honnleath who had looked to the Templars as saviors, as holy warriors, as champions for all that is just. That hero worship had not abated when he was sent to begin his training, and only intensified when he took his vows.
Then the Kinloch Circle fell and his idealism twisted, darkened. He had stopping viewing himself as protector, as guardian but as jailor. Where once he believed that a Templar's trust in and leniency towards mages could be rewarded with understanding and mutual respect, he'd began to deem otherwise. Mages were deceitful, untrustworthy, weak, and often malicious. Few, if any, could resist becoming abominations or turning to blood magic. Clouded by the nightmares of Uldred's depravities, Cullen's idealism of the Templar Order warped into a loathing of mages.
The transfer to Kirkwall had only perverted his perspective even more. With Meredith's whispered venom in his ear, he'd begun to view mages not as people but rather weapons. Weapons that needed to be strictly controlled. Weapons that had to be watched and monitored because they were weaponry who could rip the world apart in a moment of pique. And the world had been rendered apart. Grand Cleric Elthina dead because of a mage gone mad. Mages and Templars throughout Thedas declaring their independence from Chantry rule. Kirkwall, already struggling to recover from the Qunari attack, now forced to rebuild after mages and Templars brought their war to its streets.
And Meredith. Meredith who had embraced her madness. Meredith who had helped cause the conflict that led to the war. Meredith who had forced the confrontation with Hawke. And Meredith who was Cullen's wakeup call. In that fateful moment, he clearly saw what he might become. Fanatical, cruel, irrational, and unthinking except for unfounded hatred. So he had stood with Hawke against his Knight-Commander, helped to strike her down. Permitted Hawke, who had a hand in the chaos, to depart peacefully in the aftermath.
In the months since he had struggled to find an equilibrium. Memories of Meredith's poisoned whispers still rang in his thoughts when he spied one of the Tranquil or Claimed mages that remained in Kirkwall's Gallows. Distance from the events that led to the mages declaration of freedom had helped to somewhat curtail the rage, the distrust he felt, but he still had moments when the frenzied emotions threatened to erupt.
That struggle was about to become that much more difficult now that he'd Claimed a mage for his own. He was about to be tied permanently, intimately so, with a mage. Their lives would be irrevocably twined together and he feared what that kind of power would do to him. He'd already seen the best of Templars fall to the lure of absolute control of their Claimed mages.
And I am hardly the best of Templars anymore. The only thing I can do is to keep temptation at bay. Nothing in Chantry law or Templar mandates requires me to keep her by my side. Once we return to Kirkwall, I will put her in the mages' quarters and I will rarely have to interact with her. She'll be safe with all her needs met. I just need to get through tonight. Cullen gave a deep sigh. Maker, give me strength.
Cullen turned and trudged back to the campsite. Stopping first to retrieve a healing potion and a small dagger from his saddlebag, he dismissed Declan, who was standing guard outside his tent, with a curt nod. Outside his tent, he began the process of removing his armor. Once he was in nothing but the thick padded shirt and soft leather breeches he wore under the layers of metal, Cullen pushed aside the tent flap, relieved to find that Declan had already hung a lantern from the central brace. At least she has not been in the dark with her fear.
She was standing at the far corner of the space as far from the sleeping furs as she could. With the flickering light of the lantern, Cullen finally got a good look at the woman who was about to be tied permanently to him. She was young, barely into her majority. Her bland brown hair limply laid around her face while its mass was captured in a snarled mess at the back of her head. Dirt darkened her skin making it hard to determine in the flickering light if she was fair-skinned or olive-toned. The fist shaped bruise purpling the left half of her face had darkened to near black since he'd left her side. Her time as an apostate has not been kind.
Her hands fisting and unfisting fretfully into her mud streaked robe, her tearful gaze flew to him as he stepped in and tied closed the flaps. "Please, don't do this." Her voice was soft but terrified. "I swear to Andraste that I will harm no one if you let me go."
"You know I can't do that." Cullen, incapable of meeting her gaze, stared at a point slightly over her shoulder. "Remove your clothes and get on the sleeping fur." When she didn't move, his voiced roughened as he Commanded, "Now."
The mage scrambled to obey, hands flying to rip off her robe and smallclothes while settling on the thick fur situated in the center of the tent. He moved over to her, taking in her rigidly held body, feeling his gut clench in self loathing. Softly, gently, he told her, "Open your legs." When she complied, he sank to kneel between her knees, setting the healing potion and small dagger to the side. Using one hand to unlace his breeches, Cullen moved his other to prepare her, to try to lightly stroke some need into her protesting body. The moment his fingers touched her, the woman tensed and tried to shift away. Cullen's hand lashed out, grasping her hip tightly. "Don't! Until this is done, don't move away."
I could kiss her, could coax her slowly into compliance with gentle touches. Enough of the Claiming is in place that I could whisper an Order into her ear that she relax or that she welcome my touch. I could Command her to want this, to feel such longing that she begs me to take her but it would be a fallacy. Less about reducing her fear and pain and more about assuaging my guilt. This is rape. I would rather she hate me for forcing myself on her than turn this into a farce of two passionate lovers longing to be in each other arms.
Cullen pushed his breeches and smalls down before firmly seizing his flaccid cock. There was a brutality as he tried to force it into hardening. An almost painful grip slid up and down, twisting occasionally, trying anything that would garner a response. Sheer determination and methodical ministration finally overcame his emotional reluctance. His cock began to stir, with each stroke lengthening, hardening. Still, he did not stop. He kept at it, with harsh movements, until he felt himself close, wanting to lessen her trauma as much as possible. With a great unwillingness, he moved over her, bracing himself as he slide into her. He kept his gaze averted from her tearful face but he couldn't drown out her whimpers or the cry of pain as he broke through resistance. Yet another thing to regret this night. She is a maiden no more. His self-loathing grew, wanting nothing more than to pull away, to stop this cruelty, but he knew he had no choice but to continue. The Claiming must be completed.
Cullen gritted his teeth, fighting to keep from losing his erection. There was no finesse, though he tried to be gentle, as he continued to move in and out of her, just doing what he must to come as quickly as possible. It felt like an eternity as he tried to ignore her soft whimpers, to not look at her tear-streaked face, or feel the flexing of her legs as she struggled to move away before his earlier Order took over, forcing her to remain motionless under him. There was no pleasure from his climax when it finally came, only regret, shame, and despair.
With the spilling of his seed, the white rune on the Binding band began to pulse with increasing brightness. Cullen pulled out of her, reaching quickly with a shaky hand for the dagger sitting close by. He, as he had earlier with the Claiming draught, nicked his thumb with the sharp edge, and pressed a single drop of blood against the rune. It continued to pulse with an inner light, though the gleam took on a redder and redder shade.
Speaking quietly, he issued the rules that would now control the mage he had just tied permanently to his whims. "Under no circumstance may you cast a spell or use your magic. You will do no action that reflects negatively on me, on the Order, or on the Chantry. Until we return to the Circle, you may not venture out of my sight without permission." As soon as he finished speaking, the rune gave one final pulse, the chalky white stone transforming into hardened crimson. A distinct clink could be heard as the Binding band melded permanently closed.
He stood, not quite looking at the crying mage as he laced up his breeches. Finally released from his order to not move, the woman rolled to her side, curling her body as she wept and sobbed. Cullen bent over, regret growing as the mage flinched in fear, to cover her with a sleeping fur. Pointing to the healing potion, he said, "That will ease your pain." And then he left her, stumbling out of the tent, away from the camp, to seek isolation, to cry out his shame to the Maker and Andraste.