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The Hard Road of Our Present

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He couldn't drag his eyes away from the broken young man who sitting on the other side of the shattered remnants of the Circle library. Originally when they had found him trapped at the top of the Tower he'd thought him older, taller, a templar of some years. Now, seeing him sitting in the wreckage of the books without the plate of his Order, Jarriad could see all too clearly that he was nothing but a boy.


A broken boy attempting to realign the shattered fragments of his life.


Grimacing, he tried to turn away but couldn't as he watched the young man lean down to pick up another book. As he carefully leafed through it, head bowed, before he set it aside, he knew exactly what he was going to do. It was a hard certainty because he'd been there before.


Even with all the years between, Jarriad recalled all too well his young life spent in Gwaren's alienage. He still remembered the sickly scent of his father's blood as it poured from between his fingers while his mother and sister screamed even as they were carried away. And he remembered waking up the next morning, exhausted and half-broken in spirit, to find their bodies dumped on their doorstep like simple trash. It had nearly broken him when the guards had come for the bodies because he knew there was no burial for elves.


If it hadn't been for the rebellion, he'd have died in the alienage. Instead of escaping the city, learning the skills of stealth, the feel of bowstring and arrow beneath his fingertips, he'd have probably been killed as well. He'd found a purpose there and after it had been gone, when he'd wallowed again into the worst places, Duncan had given him another.


Perhaps he could help the boy do the same.


"Boss," came a soft voice from his hip and Jarriad looked down to see Natia there, her eyes focused on the young man going through the books. She eyed him for a moment and he could tell how she was assessing him because it was similar to his own manner. They shared a kinship through stealth and subtlety despite the fact that she used blades while he preferred the bow. "You gonna ask him?"


"I am certainly contemplating it." Smiling, he waved a hand towards the boy and asked, "What is your assessment?"


"I'm just a Duster, Boss."


"You are a Warden and my second. Thus I would have your opinion of our possible recruit."


Natia pursed her lips for a moment then said sharply, "He's wounded deep, Boss. Scars like that, they don't heal easy or quick."


Nodding, he said quietly, "I am well acquainted with such wounds, Natia. What else?"


"Well, he's a templar, so he's got to have some skill. Least that's what I figure since you topsiders put so much store in 'em guarding mages. Plus it'd be right nice to have someone to distract the darkspawn while I stab them in the guts."


Jarriad smiled at her commentary, resisting the urge to note that she was a topsider now as well, and asked, "And what of the two mages?"


Wrinkling her nose, the dwarf answered, "Girl seems alright if a bit skittish. Heard a rumor she'd been locked up for helping a blood mage escape but not sure if I believe it. The other one's shifty."


"He's apparently an escape artist."


"Oh?" she chirped, suddenly interested judging by the brightness in her green eyes. "A sneaky mage? I think I might like 'em. How many times has he escaped?"




"Yeah, Boss, nab 'em."


Jarriad chuckled then asked, "What is the guarantee he won't run on us?"


"We're offering freedom, right?" she replied. "Wardens can't be touched by any authority but Wardens. Means they'd both be free of this place."


Inclining his head, he glanced towards the doorway closest to them and said, "Why don't you go and offer them the recruitment speech then? I'd rather have their acceptance than have to invoke conscription." Honestly he was more than a little wary of putting the Rite to use despite knowing the way of it as Duncan's second. He was only the unofficial Warden Commander of Ferelden with everyone else gone and people such as Greagoir and Irving would be aware of that.


The last thing he needed to do at the moment was step on toes.


Grinning brightly, Natia chirped, "Aye, Boss!" As she snapped off a sharp salute and disappeared as silently as she'd come, Jarriad shook his head with a smile. She was certainly an interesting character and he could see why Duncan had recruited her.


With the slight smile still on his face, he started across the room towards the young man and when he looked up, Jarriad began, "Ser Cullen, if I could have a word with you?"


"C-certainly," came the stammered response as the young man stood, running a hand through his reddish blond hair nervously. The boy looked much better than he had only five days previous when they'd liberated the Tower. There was still something tired hanging about him as there were dark circles under his eyes but he didn't look half-crazed anymore. "How can I help you, Commander?"


"Just Jarriad is fine," he said with a kind smile, working to hide the ache the title caused. Duncan was the Commander, not him, and he didn't think he'd ever warm to the title if the position stuck. Folding his arms behind his back, Jarriad rocked backwards on his heels and asked, "Have you not been placed back on duty?"


Cullen ducked his head at that, cheek flushed with clear embarrassment and his eyes heated. "Commander Greagoir doesn't trust me," he breathed out after a moment.


"Which frustrates you."


"Yes!" exploded the young man. He flushed darker then and mumbled an apology before he spoke in a breathless rush. "I just want things to be the way they were. This...not doing nothing does things. I think too much."


He didn't have to ask about what because he knew from his own experience with pain and the guilt of being the lone survivor.


Nodding, Jarriad said, "You seek a purpose."


"I...yes." And suddenly the boy was looking at him in wide-eyed understanding, an expression he's sure was on his own face when he'd been years younger. Only it had been a young man who'd only been a few years his senior who'd been the one he'd shared his grief with and who'd first given him purpose.


"I am going to make you an offer, Ser Cullen," he began firmly, holding up a hand to still any comment as the young man's mouth opened. "But before that there are things to be said. Should you choose this path, it will be hard. It will be dark and unforgiving and most often done without the thanks of others. Like your current Order we work together often but that will also include working with those who are unlike you."


Jarriad smiled as he paused. "I will be honest and tell you that while many think the Wardens a noble thing, we are anything but that. We fight a war few are capable of even comprehending and that involves taking on both the noble and those that much of society shuns. This will include mages, Ser Cullen, and if you cannot work with them, I cannot take you on."


Cullen started to open his mouth then he shook his head, bowing it as he let out a harsh breath. When he looked up again, there seemed to be something changed in the boy's hazel gaze.


"Not all mages are bad," he breathed and the words made Jarriad relax in a way he hadn't even known he was tense.


"Those would not have been your words five days ago."


Pain erupted across the young man's face and for a moment he'd thought he'd gone too far. Then Cullen nodded, saying, "Aye, ser. I was...more than a little mad then." He then straightened as he continued, "I remember now the mages we tried to help. We tried to get them out, we honestly did, but the others...they..." He trailed off, eyes haunted, and Jarried stepped forward to gently touch his arm.


As the young man's wide eyes locked on his own, he nodded and softly said, "I know."


Cullen sagged, sudden thanks blooming on his face as he gasped, "Everyone's thought me mad."


"And it feels like you're going so," Jarriad uttered quietly, "when everything goes quiet and there's nothing to focus on. When there's only the pain of what you've lost, of what you've gone through, and it seems like there's no way forward." As the boy looked at him in surprise, he nodded just slightly. "I've been there, many years ago when I was barely past being a skint-kneed boy. And yet here I stand."


"Now," he continued as he stepped back and extended his hand, "can I trust you to act as a templar should, to protect his charges and defend them against all that would come against them?"


"Even themselves?" breathed Cullen, obviously thinking of magical circles, of illusions and blood and death that seemed to go on forever.


"Should it come to that."


" you really trust me to do this?"


Jarriad just smiled and leaned forward slightly, saying, "It isn't a matter of whether I trust you, son. Not really. It's a matter of whether you trust yourself."


Silence reigned for a moment after that then Cullen's hand grasped his own and he could feel the calluses that spoke of the young man's use of a sword.


"I'm willing to try."


"And that's all you need to survive this, I promise you that."


The young man smiled - an honest smile that was the first that didn't seem to have an aura of pain lurking behind it - and Jarriad nodded before relinquishing his hand. Tilting his head towards the doorway, he said, "Go ahead and get to gathering your things. I'll speak to the Commander about you and the others joining us."


"Others?" repeated Cullen. He then paled and breathed, "Amell?"


"And a lad. Anders, I believe. Will there be an issue?"


", ser. I don't think so."


"Good. I'll see you tomorrow then, Ser Cullen. We leave in the afternoon."


Turning on a heel, Jarriad left the library and made one solitary glance back towards the young man who was still standing there next to the stack of books. Before he'd passed through the doorway, however, Cullen had straightened with a determined - if fearful - look on his face and strode off on his own path. Smiling to himself, he went to go find Natia and see how much luck she'd had with her own recruitment.