Nulla pax sincera: Chapter Two

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In his cage, he lost track of what was real. He knows this. Greagoir spoke of it to him before he—

Sent me away

—organised for the recuperation.

There is no shame in it, apparently. It is what demons do. They slide their fingers into your mind, soft and sinuous as spider-silk, and then they crack you open and read your heart. They take your secrets and turn them against you; bleed your fears until you weep for mercy.

They can turn the world into a mirror, and take it apart, shard by shard, and this they did to him.

He remembers it all.

From his cage, Cullen was forced to watch the corpse of his friend rise and walk towards him. The scorched and bloody skin had hung from his face and hands, the burned flesh bare where Cullen had tried to pull off his gauntlets and helm… had tried so very hard to help him.

At first, Badin-who-was-not-Badin simply walked, disjointed and lurching like a puppet, but then his head swivelled towards Cullen, and he gave a flayed, skeletal smile. It was horrific, but it was not real.

Worse than this were the visions that came after, when the corpse shambled over to him and sat, companionably, on the other side of his prison. The smell of charred meat seeped through the pulsing walls of light and the bars that held him—choking him, pressing down upon him though there were not even physical things (oh! How weak these mortals!)—were no defence against it.

Badin talked then. Amiable, cheerful chatter of the kind they had shared on endless days of patrol… and Cullen had known he was losing his mind.

Or, more accurately, it was being taken from him.

They had found his memories, and they were emptying them out, like children with boxes of ribbons, mixing up the shapes and colours with an innocent joy and curiosity… and yet there was nothing innocent about it.

He does not know how long he endured burned-face, eyeball-less, Badin-skull-creature telling the joke about the one-armed pirate and the qunari mercenary, over and over and over again. Each time, the movement of the creature’s mouth seemed to match the words a little better, and Cullen was almost distracted by that for a while.

They showed him horrors, indeed. They groped inside his head, and they found his mother and his brothers, and their wastrel of a father, drunk and scything the air with the broad strap of his belt, roaring incoherent anger at an unfeeling world. The memories of the blows rained upon Cullen’s body, and they felt just as real as they ever had. He relived his templar training, and the teasing of the other boys, and the disdain of the old Knight-Commander in Denerim, who had never believed he was good enough, and the demons tried to make him believe he had failed. His vigil, the night before taking his vows, returned to him, with all its doubt and insecurity, but all he had to do was look down at the armour he wore, and unclasp his sweating hands long enough to trace the sacred heraldry on the breastplate, and know that he belonged. That he was dedicated to the Maker’s work, to the will of something good and pure.

He angered them, he thinks. They would have preferred him to break. If that had been the case, his death would have been no less swift than Badin’s. Instead, they determined to taunt him, to stretch out his punishment and test his limits. He suspects they competed amongst themselves.

Certainly, the visions came in different flavours, as if wrought by separate hands, each as filthy and twisted as the last.

They were peopled with the faces he saw every day. There was Irving, naked and smeared with shit, screaming gibberish as he danced in circles, beating the head of his staff against the ground. Enchanter Wynne, rutting on the floor with Greagoir. Impossibilities and indignities alike were burned into the dark spaces behind his eyes. Men he’d spent years living alongside, whooping and yelling like lunatics… unreal scenes that, yet, in all their hideous surrealism, he could not forget, and could not pretend he had never seen.

He sees them now, in his sleep. Even the things he knows are untrue. They echo, like cries against cold stone, like the screams of men dying in flames, and he knows they are the memories put there by demons, the filth of their touch spreading like corruption even now in his mind, and he must resist, will resist….

And, with these thoughts, with these damp, fervid murmurs on his lips, he awakes in the small chamber in the infirmary of Holmar’s chantry, and it is dark and his sheets are wet.

There is shame, and anguish, and Cullen slides from the bed and curls up on the hard wooden floor, in much the same position as he spent those long, long days and nights, and he weeps in soundless, racking, breathless cries. He smothers his mouth and nose with his sweat-slicked hands, and rocks as his lungs scream for air. He does not dare let anyone hear, does not dare to make a sound.

When sleep comes again, it is cold and unkind, and folds him swiftly into its grasp. He does not awake again until the fat lay sister with the double chin is banging on his door and threatening him with a tray of porridge. By this time, his joints ache and his muscles are sore from lying hunched on the boards… and there is still the matter of the soiled sheets.

The woman who comes in—he has been told her name, but did not really listen—and thrusts the porridge at him makes him sit at the small wooden table by the window. She puts a spoon into his hand and stands over him until he at least starts to eat. Maker, it is foul… like glue and sawdust. He struggles to keep each mouthful down, but she is a vile bulldog of a creature and doesn’t let him be until she can see he is eating, and swallowing.

It gives him something to focus on as she turns and, without a word, strips the piss-soaked bedding. She opens the tiny window before she leaves, saying something to him about eating the whole bowl of the Void-taken foulness in front of him, and the smell of winter honeysuckle drifts in on the cool air.

Cullen breathes it in and, slowly, turns his face to the window. He feels the touch of weak sunlight upon his cheek, and motes of dust spin gently above the table, trapped in the beautiful cage of a gold-tinged sunbeam.

~o~O~o~

Jocelyn whistled as she carried the buckets of scraps and turnip tops down to the pigpen. Gertie, Clarice, Cinders and Dorothy were, as usual, pleased to see her, and she found herself greeted by a chorus of snuffles, snorts and talkative porcine noises.

“Morning, girls!” she said brightly, tipping the swill into the trough.

The pigs ploughed in with tails twitching and great, floppy ears nodding enthusiastically. Jocelyn leaned over the fence and scratched one fat, hairy back as she eyed the four of them for general health and condition. Satisfied, she slapped Gertie cheerfully on the rump and straightened up, dusting her hands against her robe.

Across the yard, between the chantry’s collection of long, low outbuildings and the fenced-in vegetable garden, Ser Jonal was accompanying Ser Gedwyn for a gentle constitutional. Neither had been in Holmar for long, although the younger man already seemed to be forging a compassionate friendship with the other knight. Gedwyn’s fragmented mind rarely lingered in the present—it seemed to Jocelyn that he preferred the glories of past battles and the memories of long-dead brethren to the rather less dignified deterioration of his body—but Jonal dealt well with him. Hobbling on his wooden crutch, with the leg of his trousers pinned halfway down the shin to keep the stump clean, and the bandages still swathed across his eye, he managed to smile, and to keep the old templar anchored near enough in the real world.

Jocelyn watched as they headed down towards the pond, where ducks quacked and turned lazy figures of eight on the still, dark water, and the acid greens of lily pads and blanket weed cut across the reflections of the trees. Ser Jonal pointed, leaning heavily on his crutch, and Ser Gedwyn nodded, smiled… seemed to make some comment about something.

It was, Jocelyn decided, a good thing. It deserved encouragement. Mother Cerys often said how human nature was, at its core, a wonderful thing, and how the spirit was surprisingly resilient. People learned to heal if you gave them a chance, and gave them time. If you were lucky, all you needed to do was nudge them in the right direction.

A breeze picked up, stirring the skirts of Jocelyn’s robe. She shivered, a little surprised at the coolness of the air. Easy to forget, when the sun was bright and the sky so clear, that winter would soon be upon them. The autumn had stretched out into a long one, wound around with bright days and warm evenings. They would be planning for Harvest Festival before long. Brother Vintner had already been seen disappearing into one of the outbuildings to sample the parsnip wine he’d put down last year, and Jocelyn smiled at the recollection. The stuff was evil-smelling, virulently potent, and tasted faintly of socks—inasmuch as you could actually taste anything after the first sip—but it was an indelible part of the calendar, and she loved it. There was something so terribly soothing about watching the year roll round, and feeling the comforting lull of the seasons.

It almost made her forget the things they were hearing from the south.

Refugees were pouring out now. Sister Bethan, who had family across country, said she’d had a letter from her cousin telling of the scores of people fleeing straight north. The Blight had burst out of the valley, and those with any means of leaving were doing just that. Many seemed to believe Ferelden would fall, either to the darkspawn or the civil war. Holmar, remote as it was, remained so far untouched by either threat, but Maker alone knew how long that would last.

Jocelyn watched the two templars meander out of sight, Ser Gedwyn smiling cheerfully at whatever version of reality he was currently enjoying, and Ser Jonal coping better than he had with the crutch, and the lop-sided, weighted way of walking that he’d adopted.

There was a great deal of gossip filtering through the chantry concerning the civil war. Bann Ricard would, Sister Honoria reckoned, come down on Teyrn Loghain’s side, because better the devil you knew, but it depended on which way West Hill went. Jocelyn was inclined to agree. Ricard’s lands were sparsely populated, difficult to defend, and needed the protection of larger neighbours. If the things people spoke of in the south were even halfway true, and they spilled this far north, they’d be lucky to see a blade of grass or a scorched tree still standing.

A chorus of grunting and snorting alerted Jocelyn to the girls having finished their breakfast, so she grabbed the pig board and yard broom from where they were propped against the flint-knapped wall, and ventured into the pen.

It was, she thought, like the man who’d accompanied Ser Cullen had said. Things would get worse before they got better.

She’d prayed for a quick resolution. Mother Cerys said they all should; pray for the soul of poor King Cailan, and those lost to this evil, and pray that Ferelden’s strife came to an end and that the suffering of the innocents was eased. There was something in the Chant about that… the light of the Maker’s blessing comforting the destitute, and His mercy succouring the needy.

Jocelyn frowned down at the tide of slurry washing ahead of her broom, and wondered how their sister chantries in the south were managing the influx of refugees. The Bannorn was wealthy, certainly by comparison, but the needy and destitute still needed food, clothes, and somewhere dry and warm to sleep and, for all His mercy, the Maker could be a bit shaky on the practical matter of providing clean blankets and bread.

That was one of the things that bothered her about this Grey Warden business. All right, so—allegedly—there was a son of King Maric’s involved. Rightful heir to the throne and all that. Thing was, even if they pitched battle against the Regent and won, what would it mean for the country in the long term? Heroes were all very well, but people needed solid governance.

Of course, it wouldn’t end up mattering at all, either way, if the war dragged on and there was no one left to fight the darkspawn. She’d asked Mother Cerys about that, too: didn’t the Chantry have a responsibility to weigh in and try to settle matters? The Revered Mother had just shaken her head and said it wasn’t their place to question, and the Grand Cleric would understand things far more clearly than they did.

Jocelyn supposed that was probably true. She got on with her chores, in any case, because until there were actually monsters teeming across the downs, there were still stalls that needed scrubbing, laundry that wanted doing, and the vegetable garden to be weeded.

She was busily engaged on that last task—kneeling in the dark, soft earth, mucky apron on and trowel in hand—when she spotted a surprising figure on the path that led back up to the chantry. Jocelyn wiped her wrist across her forehead, squinted, and smiled.

“Ser Cullen?”

The young templar stopped guiltily, a panic-stricken look crossing his face. Jocelyn started to get to her feet, and held out a hand, brandishing the trowel at him.

“It’s all right… I’m just weeding.”

He stood awkwardly, like a man caught mid-way between flight and protest, his dark eyes wide and his chestnut hair ruffled by the breeze.

“Good to see you out and about,” Jocelyn said, which was true. He barely left his chamber most of the time. “You sit out here of an evening sometimes, don’t you?”

He stared at her and, not for the first time, she suppressed a shiver at the look of desolate blankness in his face. After a moment, Cullen blinked, cleared his throat, and nodded.

“Y-yes,” he managed, then turned pale and looked at his feet.

Jocelyn’s smile widened and she nodded at the vegetable garden. “How d’you think the squashes are doing? They’re healthy enough, but they look small to me. Sister Elspeth always grows her own for Harvest, and she manages to get them big as you’ve ever seen. No idea how she does it.”

Cullen raised his head. “Squashes?”

Jocelyn gestured to the neat rows of plants beyond the winter lettuces, all dark, broad leaves and small, regular fruits. Some were deep, glossy viridian, striped with paler green, and some a creamy tan colour, their tough skins concealing vivid orange flesh.

“They’re good split and roasted, with butter and sage,” she said helpfully. “Or rosemary.”

The young templar looked nonplussed. Jocelyn exhaled, and propped her hand on her hip. The things they said that boy had seen didn’t bear thinking about. He wasn’t all that much older than her, she realised. She tipped her head to the side.

“Maybe I need to feed them more. D’you think that’s it?”

Cullen blinked. He frowned slightly, but he did look at the vegetables, and seemed to actually see them, which was a step up from the way he appeared to coast through most of his waking hours.

Jocelyn watched the way his brow furrowed, as if the incipient lines there were carved into his skin, set patterns for his face to follow. As if he always waiting for something to frown about, maybe. He blinked again, and raised his dark eyes nervously to hers.

“We had a garden,” he said, his voice hollow. “Behind the… behind the tower. Our gardener, he… pinched the tops off.”

He raised one hand, and his fingers made a tentative pincer movement in the air, as if it was something he’d seen in a dream. His face seemed to cloud over, and Jocelyn leaped on the trailing opportunity of the words.

“Ooh, that’s a good idea, isn’t it? Pinch ’em out so they put all their growin’ into the fruits, not the leaves. I see. Well, now… I bet that’s what Sister Elspeth does. I shall try that, ser. Thank you.”

Cullen smiled faintly, though it didn’t reach his eyes. It was a gesture of politeness, she realised, a reflex reaction he probably didn’t even know about. She bit the inside of her lip and looked down the row of winter lettuces.

“’Course,” she said thoughtfully, “I’ve all this weeding to finish first. I know it’s an imposition, ser, but I don’t suppose you can spare me two minutes to help? I’ve a spare trowel, if you want.”

That look of confusion came over him again, and she supposed she’d overstepped the mark… but then he nodded slowly, and made his way down onto the soft tilth. Jocelyn guided him, put the trowel into his hand, and a canvas kneeler between his clean civilian trousers and the mud.

He was clumsy and inept, like a child. She had to show him what needed to be grubbed out, and what was to stay, and she chatted to him as they worked, talking about everything from the pigs to the lettuces, and the vagaries of the work rota in the chantry’s laundry. Mother always said she used to run off at the mouth when she didn’t know what to say to someone.

All the same, Cullen seemed happy enough with it. He worked until the job was done, the dirt ingrained into his hands, smeared into the lines of his palms and fingers, and ground into the beds of his nails. They didn’t mention the Circle Tower, or the war, or the Blight, and yet none of those things seemed very far away. Jocelyn could taste them on the air, like the bitter metal of an approaching storm.

“Thank you,” she said when they were finished, and Cullen laid the trowel back in her tool basket. She winced at his grubby fingers. “Maker love us, look at the state I’ve let you get in, ser. Here, let me—”

Jocelyn reached out with the flannel cloth she kept in amongst the tools for wiping hands clean, and took hold of his wrist.

Cullen flinched away, and she pulled back, alarmed by the way he caught his breath… as if he was truly afraid of her. Wide, dark eyes met hers, stained with uncertainty, and he rose to his feet, wiping his hands awkwardly against the tails of his shirt.

Jocelyn’s lips twitched into a moue of disapproval as she watched the smears of mud appear across the pale fabric. She twisted the cloth in her fingers, and inclined her head.

“All right, then, ser. Well… thank you. Perhaps we’ll see you in the refectory for supper?”

Cullen’s arms hung loosely at his sides. He started to shake his head, and Jocelyn inwardly cursed herself for pushing him too far, too fast, but then his slack lips began to bend themselves around small, tentative words.

“I… maybe.”

It was a start, she thought, as he turned and fairly fled back up the path.

~o~O~o~

The shame, he can bear. The anger, the guilt… he owes these things. He owes them to his brothers-in-arms, who died while he lived, and he owes them to Greagoir, his Commander, to whom his loyalty does not waver, despite the confusion and resentment that lingers in his heart.

Yet there are other things—cruel, secret, wicked things—that he cannot withstand. They are what make him turn and run from the initiate with the clear blue eyes and the fresh-scrubbed, round face.

She was kind to him. She asked him to help her, instead of offering the trowel like a medicine, and she talked to him as if he was a man, not a husk… a shell, dried up and useless, as detached from all that he knows he is—knows he has been—as the moultings of a snake are from the litheness of its serpent’s body.

He does not want their pity. These women, they come at him with smiles and kindness, and he does not trust it. He is afraid of it, afraid of them… afraid of what hides in the dark.

The dreams come again that night, but they are not the bright, screaming insanities of visions he knew to be false. They are not the mad blades of surreal horror, the things with which the demons beat him, blunt and ineffective as they were.

She comes.

It is just like it was in the Tower. He had already withstood so much, and he expected more. He was prepared for that… and yet there is no great roar of madness. No naked Irving, no bloody corpses dancing as their entrails burst. There is just a small, slight figure, at first a shadow in the dimness, and then a whisper of movement.

Her robe is blue; the jewel-like blue that illuminates manuscripts and ancient maps, but a little paler. Gold embroidery chases the cuffs, and her belt is worked in delicate filigree. Soft leather slippers encase her small, fine-boned feet, and her hands stretch before her like twin birds, graceful and elegant.

Her dark skin has a subtle sheen to it; a slightly golden hue that warms the deep brown tones. She wears her hair oiled, pulled back and pinned at the crown of her head, where it fountains in a mass of tight curls. If she unbound it, he is sure it would reach her shoulders, and it would have a life of its own, and wrap itself around him.

Her heavy-lidded eyes are perfectly almond-shaped, and dark enough to be considered black. It is hard to tell what thoughts lie behind them but he knows that, when she is happy, they grow warm and lively, and she throws back that beautiful, beautiful head, and lets out a light, musical laugh, and she is the embodiment of joy.

She smiles as she sees him. That wide, full mouth that he cannot help but call sensuous—because it is, Maker save him… it is a mouth that bites into berries, and lets the juice run down its lips, voluptuous and unrepentant—curls so deliciously, and her small, white, even teeth glimmer like pearls.

“Cul-len….”

She calls his name, sing-song, as if he is a recalcitrant child, unwilling to come to her. He wants nothing more. She tilts her head, and her long, delicate ears beg to be touched. Her slender elven body, outlined so clearly by the robe that seems tighter now than it did before, is an impossibly voluptuous blend of slim lines and powerful curves. Her hips and breasts strain at the fabric, yet he could cup her waist with two hands. He itches to do so, to rip off his armour and pull her into his arms, to crush her to him and feel her warmth against his flesh. He has thought of it so many times… woken, sweating and stained with his shame, the proof of his sin enfolding him in this irresistible lust.

Those small, pretty hands trail down the front of her robe, tracing the path his fingers would take. She sighs as she touches her breasts. He swears he sees her nipples peak beneath the fabric, but he is ashamed of looking, of wanting to look… and yet he does. Then she places her hands flat against her ribs, pointed together so that they form an arrow. Her nails are dark pink and perfectly oval, buffed to a glossy shine. The arrow slips down her belly until she reaches her crotch, and she gives a soft gasp of desire before pushing one hand between her legs, bunching the fabric of her robe in her palm. She twists it, as if she is in the grip of an urgency she cannot bear, and flexes her hips. He stares, and thinks she may lift the robe and pleasure herself right there before him, but she does not.

“Did you miss me?” she croons, as she takes the hand away, and allows the robe to fall back into place, albeit slightly crumpled. He can’t stop staring at that creased ‘v’ of fabric. “I’ve missed you. Why won’t you come to me?”

Cullen shakes his head, but does not reply. The dream does not require him to; she does not require it. This is not real.

He repeats those words to himself, until they thrum through the core of the dream, and yet it does nothing. Ayala Surana still sways closer to him, and he still smells the jasmine oil she wore, and she kisses him the way no woman has ever kissed him. Her mouth is an unquenchable flame, an endless pool…. She snares his lower lip between her teeth and tugs upon it, and the lust rises in him, because he is weak and base and profane, and he wants her.

Somehow, in the dream, he is no longer wearing his armour. His protection, his shell, is gone, replaced by the worn nightclothes and the tangled sheets of his bed in the room at the top of the chantry’s infirmary wing. Ayala Surana straddles his lap, and he swears he can hear the thin mattress creak in the dark chamber.

She takes his hands, presses them to her breasts, and he can feel the weight and the supple, yielding warmth of her flesh through the smooth, slippery fabric of her robe. Her nipples harden against his palms, and she groans approvingly into his mouth.

She undresses him slowly, trailing her smooth, sharp nails against his skin. He shivers, and it pleases her to tease him. She is silk and jasmine and desire, and she kisses his chest, tonguing and biting his nipples as she squirms above him. He is hard enough for the smallclothes he still wears to be an uncomfortable confinement, and he feels her heat, her want, pressing down on him in a way that is more real than any torment in the Tower.

Her long, slender fingers work busily at the laces of her robe. He reaches out, but he doesn’t touch her. His hands are lost in the cold emptiness of a void, and there seems to be metal and stone beneath them. He groans, twists his head against the coarse-woven pillow, and his mind is full of treacheries. She touches his forehead, her words a gentle whisper, and she murmurs his name, tells him all will be well… he just has to wake up.

Cullen opens his eyes, and the dream engulfs him.

A handful of times, he had heard templars boast in the barracks rooms of favours given them by mage wenches. It did happen, though it was frowned upon. Those who entangled themselves with mages—whether in consensual affection, or the more serious matters of demanding obligations—were soon reassigned elsewhere, or recalled to Denerim. There was little tolerance of indiscretions. It undermined discipline.

She was like that. All the austerity, the authority… she accepted it, but only because it did not truly touch her. All the Circle’s rules, she treated as if they were merely something to abide by until she changed her mind; as if it was all some kind of game. He cannot help but recall how she used to speak to him. She had none of the reticence so many of the students did, no qualm about talking to a templar. If she wished to pass the time of day with him, she would do so, and what was the harm in that?

He wonders, now, if she was testing him, gauging him for weakness. She knew nothing of propriety, of discipline or rules… look how easily she threw them off, how little she thought of the Circle, to betray everything they stood for in one moment. It was wickedness, he knows. He is sure.

Perhaps wickedness is what drew him to her in the first place. Perhaps the core of darkness in her pulled him, speaking in twisted whispers to the things that lurk in his soul.

It seems a rational explanation. Yes. Sin shall find thee out, and sin shall find out sin. He does not recall the exact canticle, but the meaning seems clear.

She is naked now, her body shrouded by the shadows of this strange little room where he has been sent because they do not want him. She wants him. She is gold-toned and soft, her slender elven frame a poem of curves and delicate planes. She throws back her head as she sinks onto his length, and cups her breasts in her hands, a fierce and tender smile wreathing her face.

He whimpers, racked by the intensity of feelings he has never known in his waking life. The demons sought these desires from him, these terrible things he would indulge in the secret, dark spaces of the night, when he touched himself and thought of her. They took his foolish fancies, and they gave them life, flesh… power.

She draws him to her, her legs wrapped around his waist and her arms around his neck, and she is ruthless and unstoppable.

Cullen clings to her, breathes her in, tastes the sweet, perfumed sweat on her skin and feels the shaking, panting gasps that echo between them. He kisses her, seeks her lips the way he never dared to do, because he could not bear to pollute her. His sin was not hers, and yet now everything about them is joined. They are one, and he loves her. He can admit it, and her name is dragged from him over and over again, a prayer amid the blasphemies that drop from his lips as she rides his body, cresting his pleasure with her own.

She pulls his hair, scratches his face and back… bites his shoulder when her climax breaks over the two of them, and her long, low growls of animalistic fury sear into his soul. He is bleeding, he thinks. It hurts. Her moans grow sharp and raw, and she lifts her head to rake his mouth with a hungry, jagged kiss. He loses himself then, the last shred of his self-control gone as he arches against her, inside her, his hands clutching hard enough to bruise, and a dry, hoarse cry breaking from his throat.

You are mine, Cullen. Do not forget it.

When he wakes, he feels cold. The chamber is wreathed with the thick, heavy darkness that comes between the moon setting and the sun rising, and the sheets are dry.

Cullen sits with his arms wrapped around his knees, and watches the small, narrow window for the first smudges of light to begin breaking the dawn. His lips move softly around the remembered shapes of morning prayers, and he lifts his hand to his shoulder, absently fingering the place that bears no bite mark, and yet feels sore to the touch.

Slowly, the sun starts to rise.

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Chapter Three
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