Summary: A short series of fragments that examine Cullen's life, experiences and relationships, from childhood to the end of the game.
Author's Note: This was written as part of a DA:O ficathon on LJ for rubberbisquit, under the prompt 'fem!mage/Cullen' and 'whatever's clever.' I hope this fulfils that criteria. It's also my first time writing anything mage or Cullen related, so feedback would be lovely. Thanks and enjoy!
N.B. - Re-posted with slight formatting amendments to make the story clearer and easier to follow.
He is a child, fragile and innocent and utterly alone in the world. He does not understand, when they tell him that his family are gone and he cannot go back to his house because it is no longer there. A big gruff man takes him by the hand and says that from now on he'll be living in something called a Chantry and that he's not to be scared because he'll like it there. In the hand which is not captured by a gauntleted grasp, he clutches a rough sack, the kind that rubbish is often kept in, which contains the few possessions that were not destroyed in the fire. It is all that he has left.
As he is led through the small town, a sea of familiar faces peer back at him. Whispers spread among them, about how the fire had appeared so quickly and stayed confined to such a small area – very unusual. About how it was a miracle that he had made it out alive. About how it was all the little girl's fault, that she had always been 'a bit off', and how the Templars should have taken her away years ago.
Which is ridiculous, he thinks. Because even when his big sister flew off into one of her rages, she'd still loved her family. And people never hurt the ones they love…
The years pass, and in the Chantry he learns that he was wrong. Sometimes, people do hurt the ones they love, but it is not their fault because they were born with powers they can't control and that's why they need people like him – people to stop the mages from accidentally hurting other people. They are there to protect these people from themselves.
On the day he takes his vows, he and the other novices are addressed by Knight-Commander Greagoir himself. As he stands tall and proud in his resplendent new silver armour and listens to the man he admires above all others, he hears words like 'champion' and 'chosen' and 'worthy' and 'duty' and 'hero.' He likes the sound of that…
His first day at the Tower, and he has never felt so anxious. He knows it is an honour to be selected to serve in the Tower of Magi itself, that only the most devout and steadfast are chosen for such an arduous task, yet even though he knows it is for the greater good he is afraid of the mages. Not in what they can do – he is confident, almost arrogantly so, in his abilities to ward them off – but in how they may behave towards him. He understands that his role is a thankless one and knows how hard it must be to have every moment of your life scrutinised by faceless strangers caged in gleaming metal, but is surprised to find that the mages do not greet him with hostility or fear.
In fact, what surprises him the most is how very normal they all seem. The way they twitter together and float about through their daily routines reminds him of the calm complacency of the villagers where he grew up, and day after day it becomes harder to imagine that at any moment one of them might suddenly explode into a creature of darkness and hate…
Then, one day, inevitably, it happens. He is watching over a group of apprentices who are practising their first ever fireballs. Their faces are lined with concentration, and their focus is so great and the noise from the little bursts of fire they manage to generate so ferocious that at first the bangings from the chamber next door go unnoticed. One moment is peace and routine, and the next the tiny flickers of flame pale into insignificance next to the vortex of fire that comes roaring out of the chamber door. He hears the howling of one of the apprentices as they are burned to a cinder, he smells flesh roasting and burning.
Nothing he had been taught could have prepared him for the sight of the creature that came lumbering out of that doorway. Even when, unable to bear the sight any longer, he screwed his eyes up tight, he could still sense the wrongness of it. It was evil incarnate. A blight on the world. An abomination.
Without thinking, he did as his training demanded and dispatched of the vile creature. As it hit the ground, it transformed from twisted lump of a thing to the body of a newly made mage who he had helped move into new quarters just the day before last. Black blood trickles from the ex-apprentice's mouth and he stares back at him with empty and accusing eyes.
That night, he cries himself to sleep…
It is but a month or so later, and he has found himself beginning to notice her. He isn't sure when it started; all he knows is that one moment she was just another mage to cast his watchful eye over and the next she was something else. He finds himself looking forward to supervising her classes, or guarding doorways that he knows she'll pass through. They share only the smallest of moments together – a smile, a wave, a good morning – but he finds himself collecting them like precious gems, and admiring them in private with a smile on his face.
He finds himself thinking that, perhaps the Chantry is mistaken in keeping the mages locked up like prisoners in a cage. They have done nothing wrong. They were simply born with a remarkable talent, a talent the Maker must have given them because the Chant says that it is the Maker who gives each person their own unique gifts, and therefore being able to perform magic means you are still as worthy of the Maker's love as any other being. Yes, he decides, that must be the way it is. He wishes to share this revelation with her.
He doesn't even know her name…
Her name is Solona, and he is starting to think that he is in love with her. He has never been in love before and so he cannot be certain but the more time he spends with her, the more convinced he is becoming.
But you don't even know her, cries the small part of his brain which is still clinging to rational thought.
I know she is kind, the rest of his mind is quick to point out. And warm, and compassionate, and considerate and what more could I possibly need to know?
But what if she turns into an abomination? Or a blood mage?
She won't, he continues to rationalise to himself. She understands that this is how it must be. She'd rather die than let herself become something like that.
And so it goes on and on, bouncing from one side of his head to another, until, eventually the ultimate argument emerges:
But she is a mage, and you are a Templar.
And he knows there is no counter to this…
She says his name and he almost falls over in his suit of armour. It was only a passing greeting – same as every morning – but the addition of that one word makes it all the sweeter.
He wonders sometimes, when he sees that warm, winning smile play across her features whenever she turns a corner to see him standing at the end of the corridor, if she feels the same way. If beneath her demure appearance and innocent eyes she could be hiding a yearning as powerful as his own. Sometimes, when she flutters her eyelashes or hitches up her robes, it is almost as though she is encouraging him. The idea seems so delightfully impossible that once it has settled into his brain he cannot make it go away. He wonders how she would react if, next time she glides past him, he were to grab her and push her up against the nearest wall and kiss her with the full force of his feelings. The thought of it exhilarates him and terrifies him in equal measure…
He is standing in the Harrowing Chamber, watching her body twitch on the cold ground before him, and trying not to vomit. A feeling of intense helplessness washes over him, and he asks himself why, of all the mages, it had to be hers that he must watch over.
He drags his eyes away and finds them meeting those of Knight-Commander Greagoir, a man who had devoted great time and energies to training him personally since his arrival at the Tower all those years before, sees the steel within them and knows.
Solona is not the only one being tested here today.
Grip on the hilt of his sword tightening, he gives Greagoir the slightest of nods, and for the briefest moment he gets the impression that the older man understands. He knows what it is to love a mage and know that love is impossible. He too has felt the intense weight of that burden on one side while his duty weighed heavily on the other.
Then her eyes flicker open and all thoughts of Greagoir are chased from his mind as relief rushes in to fill his consciousness…
It is months later, and such powerful emotions feel alien to him now. Since she left, he has continued his lonely vigil with the same sense of duty that has driven all of his actions since entering the Chantry but without those brief encounters with Solona to brighten his day it has all begun to blur into one.
He has long since forgiven her for conspiring with a blood mage. It was obvious to him that she had been misled by that maleficar Jowan. It was all his fault. Because of him, Solona had betrayed everything she'd believe in. Because of him, she had been forced to leave the tower and become a Grey Warden or face prison. Because of that thrice-damned apostate, she had died at Ostagar, and he had been left all alone for the second time in his lonely life.
And all he thinks about, as he makes his rounds down never ending corridors of lifeless grey stone, is that he never did kiss her…
They are kissing, long and deep and as though they will never stop. She tastes of honeysuckle and raindrops, freshly cut grass and newly baked bread. She whispers in his ear that she is his forever, that even death could not keep them apart, and that he will never be alone again.
It is then that he knows this is all a lie.
For a moment, he wavers. It is so very tempting to loose himself in this, for it is a very beautiful lie, and accept a happy ending that he has always known could never be achieved in real life. But it is a lie nonetheless.
He rejects her and she vanishes, yet the demon does not give up so easily. The creature comes for him again and again, wearing Solona's face. Sometimes it would try and seduce him, with innocent words, provocative movements, or the promise of a family and reaching old age together. Others, it would appear injured or trapped, crying out for his aid, weeping and writhing and calling his name again and again. On other occasions still it twists that beautiful face into ugly, hateful expressions and screams at him every failure, every secret shame, every darkest wish that is stamped on his soul.
Time and again he defies the demon but as he kneels there, surrounded by the bodies of men he had known for most of his life and feeling more of them dropping with every minute that passes, he can sense his sanity slowly slipping away…
"No! Be gone, demon!" he screams, his voice hoarse and broken. But this time the image before him does not vanish and he can feel himself buckling forwards, lacking the strength to resist this new trick.
But this time it is not a lie, it is her, she has returned and he knows it is not a vision because when he begs the woman he loves to kill the mages – for his safety, for hers, for everyone's – she refuses. There is pity in Solona's eyes as she turns her back on him, and when he thinks he sees a cut deep in her palm and a bloody knife in her other hand, he cannot tell whether it is real or a product of his fevered mind…
Time passes and they still can't see, they still don't understand that this is wrong, this is all wrong. Mages are not docile cattle to be penned in and gently guided; they are wild beasts that must be broken before they can be tamed. But no one will listen to him – they keep him away, say it's for his own safety – his safety! The idea makes him laugh for hours in the dark of the night as he wonders where concerns for his safety were when he was knee deep in the blood and piss and gore of his friends – keep him in this tower, like he's a mage, like he's the one who should be kept in a cage. No one understands, no one, he tells it to the walls and the mice and the owls and not even they can hear the words he makes for what they mean. Dimly in the back of his mind he remembers that he used to believe his time as a Templar was lonely and now he thinks no, no, this is what it is to be lonely, trapped in a great howling chasm of alone…
He is calmer now. He has accepted that no matter what he says they shall not listen. The Tower will burn down around them and still they will be unable to heed his cries. Yet again he finds himself believing the Chantry was mistaken: mages are not people. People do not have the potential to rob other beings of their own minds, to unleash carnage and devastation on such a scale, to transform into hideous beings of hatred and sin. Mages are the Makers' punishment on his sinful creations, and he is content to sit here in his tower as they all burn together.
He has no idea how much time has passed. The ones who come to feed him tell him things sometimes. They say that there was a Blight but that it ended before it had even begun. It means nothing to him until they say the name of the mage Grey Warden who saved them all. He whispers her name to himself and hugs his knees to his chest…
He awakes from dreams of death and destruction to see her standing over him. She does not say his name as she once did. Solona's voice no longer holds warmth and compassion, her eyes do not show kindness and consideration. She bends down to his level and he sees the criss-cross of scars on her pale white arms, with one still fresh on her palm.
He smiles as his hands close around her throat and he smiles as he squeezes the life out of her.
It is only afterwards, when her cold lifeless eyes are staring up at him with no goodness or pity or fear left in them, that it occurs to him that he may have imagined the scars, as he has been imagining so much lately. It does not matter, he decides; he was merely pre-empting the inevitable. The door opens – three mages, his guards, irony of ironies, come bursting through. They are young, still apprentices. Two young men, one woman.
He looks forward to cleansing them of their sin.
The fight is barely a fight at all, more a culling of disobedient animals. He is about to leave his prison when the faintest whimpering catches his attention. He turns to see the young female is still alive. As he raises his hand to deliver the final blow, his acute Templar senses make him aware of something unexpected and he steps back, just a little. Something shifts within his head. He feels as though he has done this before.
"Please," begs the young woman, tears trickling down her face. "Please just end it."
Confusion clouds her expression now. "Why not?"
"Because… because you are pregnant."
He takes another step back, and it is as though the world has changed for him, just a little bit. Now he sees the bloodied and broken bodies of the two male mages. Staggering under the realisation of what he has done, he lets out an animal howl, drags himself to Solona's prone form and buries his face in her hair, weeping at the monster he has allowed himself to become…
Solona Amell watches from across the chamber as Cullen writhes on the ground. His face and body is coated in a sheen of cold sweat, and the past months have clearly taken their toll. His once powerful physique has withered away to a frail shadow of its former self, and the innocence that had previously graced his features had been replaced by a haggard, world-weary look.
"Here again, I see," murmurs a voice at her ear, and she nods, not needing to turn to know that it is Senior Enchanter Irving stood behind her.
Irving sighs heavily. "I am afraid not." Clearly sensing her disappointment, he adds, "But at this stage I would not expect there to be. To fix a mind as damaged as poor Cullen's was when you found him takes time, my dear, it cannot be rushed."
She looks tired, the Senior Enchanter notes as Solona rubs her temples. And much older than she had last time she'd been at the Tower.
"Explain the process to me again," she states, and he knows that is not a timid young mage barely out of apprenticeship addressing him but the Hero of Ferelden.
"As you know, what happened with Uldred did more damage to Cullen than any of us had anticipated. It is lucky that when you returned you were able to spot the warning signs, otherwise he may very well have murdered those three apprentices before running off to Maker only knows where. His madness seems to stem from an innate fear and hatred of mages, and so in order to help him recover from this we decided on a form of immersion therapy. Essentially, when a Templar goes through lyrium withdrawal one of the symptoms is seeing one's life flash before one's eyes – much as those close to death sometimes do – and we then used magic to augment this, making the most important moments in the development of Cullen's feelings about mages the focal points. Finally, we added in a false memory, to assess whether or not his mind is beginning to heal itself."
"And that's repeating itself, right now? Cullen is living his entire life over and over in his head?"
"About five hundred times so far, by last count."
"And the results?"
He frowns. "As I said, there has been no change so far. At the crucial moment he has still chosen to take your life, as well as those of the three apprentices, including the young pregnant woman. I must confess I am still not entirely certain why you insisted on that particular addition – surely a mage who has chosen to procreate is in his eyes worse than any other?"
Solona shakes her head, hugging her arms into her body. "No. I know Cullen. An unborn life is pure and innocent. He wouldn't hold it responsible for the sins of the parent."
"I hope you are correct." He sees the flicker of anxiety behind her eyes, and rests one hand on her shoulder. "It is not your responsibility to fix him, you know."
She gives a hollow laugh. "Oh no? Come now, Irving. We both know that I'm the one who broke him, in one sense or another."
Irving nods, and opens his mouth to continue when the Templar's body jerks unexpectedly and he thrashes from side to side, muttering something inaudible. Motioning for Solona to stay where she is, he approaches Cullen, bends down next to his limp figure and listens.
"No… won't kill an innocent life… not right… sorry… oh Maker, forgive me… so sorry… Solona…"
"What is it?" Solona asks, unable to wait any longer. The Grey Warden's eyes are filled with trepidation as he returns to her, but the elder mage graces her with a smile.