"Balls!" Cullen cursed under his breath as he tugged at the handle of the big wooden door. He had completely forgotten that the door opening to the rotunda from the kitchens was locked at that time of night. Now he would have to go all the way back around to get to the staircase leading to the templars' quarters.
He walked at a brisk pace as he retraced his steps through the great hall, keeping an eye on the large grandfather clock that stood against the wall as he went. Only ten minutes left to reach the Harrowing Chamber on time. He quickened his pace as much as he dared without calling attention to himself.
Earlier in the day, Knight Commander Greagoir informed Cullen of an apprentice's Harrowing scheduled for that evening. Cullen also discovered that he was the one chosen to be executioner if things went awry. It was an important job, and it was the first time it had been entrusted to the young templar.
Cullen had attended the ritual with other apprentices before, of course, but only as a witness. This would be his chance to finally prove himself as a templar. He wasn't told which apprentice would be going through the Harrowing that evening, but it made little difference. Cullen was ready to do his duty.
It wasn't as if he looked forward to killing anyone, but if he was forced to, it was only because the apprentice had become an abomination. Protecting the world from such evil was the reason he became a templar in the first place, and he was proud to fulfill his sacred trust. If he didn't make it to the chamber in time, however, it would likely be the last time he was given that particular assignment.
Once he was back in the corridor, he took a quick scan of the area ensure no one was watching before breaking into a run. Although the heavy plate armor he wore made the task arduous, he made good time. He cursed his own procrastination for spending far too much time lingering near the door of the dining hall to see Serena as she left. He hadn't encountered her since that morning and hoped to find her after supper.
Serena and her constant companion, Jowan, were always among the last to leave the hall in the evening, but when Cullen realized it was nearly nine and she still hadn't appeared, he began to get nervous. He waited as long as he could before finally deciding to take the shortcut through the scullery which lay on the other side of the hall. At least that way, he might be able to catch a glimpse of her as he passed. Much to his dismay, neither she nor Jowan was there, but there was no time to dwell on it. He had to get to the Harrowing Chamber as quickly as possible.
He rounded the corner into the center room to find a tall blonde mage leaning against the wall next to the staircase leading up to the Harrowing Chamber.
"Hello Cullen. I see you're in a hurry. Off to send another apprentice to the Maker?"
The templar sneered. "Do you want something, Anders?"
The other man smirked. "I'm just waiting here to tell our friend good luck when she arrives. You know, before she's sent to her death." Anders waggled his head. "It would be a damned shame to kill her, though. She's a pretty one." He took a step toward Cullen. "In fact, I've had my eye on her for quite some time. If she survives, I think I'll just have to convince her that we should get to know one another more...intimately. "
Cullen fought the instinct to punch the blonde man between his eyes, and stole a glance at the clock on the wall. Five minutes and counting. As it was, even if he made it on time, he was still going to get a lecture from Greagoir. The last thing he wanted to do was actually be late.
The templar pushed past the taller man, and jogged up the stairs, leaving Anders to do whatever it was that Anders did. The mage had a reputation around the tower for being a philanderer, so much so that it seemed his favorite past time was taking the virtue of newly harrowed females. It was rumored that, once Anders had his way with the young ladies, he would immediately move on to his next victim. As he gripped the handle to the Chamber's door, the young templar wondered if he should warn that night's apprentice of Anders' less than honorable intentions, assuming she even survived.
The tower clock rang out its last chime to signal the hour as Cullen closed the Chamber door behind him. Knight Commander Greagoir scowled at him with disapproval.
"Cutting it a little close aren't we?"
Cullen presented a deferential bow to the older man. "I apologize, Knight Commander. I was unavoidably delayed."
Greagoir folded his arms over his chest. "For future reference, templar, nothing is more important than your orders. Especially when those orders are given by me. Now, go take your place by the pedestal...and try to gain your composure before we begin."
The young templar performed another sharp bow. "Yes, Knight Commander."
Once Cullen secured his position, he became aware of the beads of perspiration making their way down his brow to his cheeks. Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, he removed his metal gauntlet and attempted to clear the sweat from his face with his bare hand. When he heard the door creak open, he shoved his hand back into the glove, the sensation of his wet palm inside the cold metal making him cringe.
He saw the aged First Enchanter enter the Chamber with a woman trailing close behind. At first, he couldn't see which apprentice was about to take part in the Harrowing ritual. When Irving stepped aside, Cullen's knees buckled and he almost lost his balance. It was Serena.
Suddenly, it all made sense. Apprentices who were to take their Harrowing were put into solitary confinement for the twelve hours preceding the ritual. That's why she hadn't been in the dining room and that's why he hadn't seen her since early that morning.
As the Knight Commander spoke about the rite of passage, Cullen couldn't keep his eyes off Serena . Her dark brown hair was cut into a long, softly layered bob which caressed her jawline. Her bangs, which touched the bridge of her nose, perfectly complemented her twinkling, bright blue eyes. She was absolutely stunning. In every other Harrowing Cullen had witnessed, the apprentice was visibly terrified. Not Serena. Her confidence and calm demeanor spoke volumes about her intelligence and magical talent.
She glanced over the men forming a half circle around the pedestal, but stopped when she spied Cullen standing in the middle. Her full lips curved into a small smile when her eyes met his. He swallowed back a lump which had formed in his throat as he returned the gesture.
The sound of Irving's voice called her attention away from the young templar, forcing Cullen to return his focus to the grim task ahead. He watched Serena as she sashayed toward the podium directly before him.
The sway of her full hips drove Cullen to distraction. On most people, mages robes were unflattering, dowdy things. But Serena made them look alluring as the material clung to her ample hourglass curves in all the right places. When she placed her hands upon the dais, he could smell the sweet aroma of her perfume and it almost made him dizzy. He closed his eyes and said a silent prayer to the Maker asking Him to help her resist temptation and make it through.
When the apprentice finally entered the Fade, Greagoir looked up at the large clock in the corner and noted the time. "Ten after nine." He stared at Cullen gravely. "If she hasn't defeated the demon by ten after ten, you will strike the killing blow."
Cullen steeled himself before answering lest he betray his feelings for the mage. "Yes, Knight Commander."
Only twenty minutes passed before Irving announced that the demons that had been put in the Fade with the girl were gone. She actually did it. It was the first time that Cullen had ever been part of a successful Harrowing. Greagoir looked down at the girl lying unconscious on the floor before speaking to Irving.
"You will need to get one of your mages to come collect her and take her back to her dormitory."
Irving nodded. "Of course, Greagoir. Anders actually volunteered for the job. He's waiting right outside."
Cullen blurted out, "No!" before stammering his explanation. "I…I apologize, First Enchanter, but I believe that Anders' intentions toward this mage are rather nefarious. I will take her back to her room…If the Knight Commander wishes it that is."
The Commander regarded young templar thoughtfully for a moment before agreeing to his offer. Cullen gently gathered Serena in his arms and carried her through the door and down the stairs. Anders, who was anticipating Irving's call to complete the task, was standing at the bottom of the steps looking bored. He held out his arms.
"It was nice of you to deliver her to me. I'll take it from here."
Cullen shook his head. "No, Anders. I'm taking her back to the apprentice's quarters. You can go crawl back into your hole."
The tall mage snickered at the templar. "I should have known that you'd end up taking this job away from me Cullen." A crooked smirk played at the corners of his mouth. "That's okay though. You go ahead and carry her all the way back to her room. Seems like a lot of work to spend time with a girl that's passed out cold. I'll just see her tomorrow when she's awake…much more fun that way anyhow."
The templar sneered at him. "Stay away from her, mage…if you know what's good for you."
Anders looked up the stairs, above Cullen's head and grinned. "First Enchanter, how very nice to see you again. Young Cullen was just telling me how he was willing to take charge of our young friend here."
Anger flashed in Cullen's green eyes before he hissed, "Excuse me" at the condescending mage. Anders moved to the side and bowed low to the templar, the cat-like grin never leaving his face. Cullen wanted nothing more than to lay him out cold on the stone floor, but continued on his way. It would do no good for anyone to see how much Anders had gotten under his skin when it came to Serena.
He kept his eyes forward while he made his way through the templar's quarters. When he reached the landing on the third floor, he stopped and peered down at the woman he was carrying. She was a vision of loveliness, cradled peacefully in his strong arms. He said another silent prayer to the Maker, this time thanking Him for bringing her through her trial safely. She stirred a bit which made him realize that he needed to start walking again.
When he reached her dormitory, he took her to her bed and laid her down gently. He glanced around the room to make sure that all of the apprentices were sleeping. When he was sure it was safe, he bent and gently kissed her forehead.
"Goodnight, Serena." He whispered as he covered her with the thick blanket that was folded at her feet. The moonlight shining in through a nearby window shone its heavenly light on her face. Cullen sat down beside her and watched her breathe evenly as she slept.
He removed the plate glove from his right hand and brushed her hair back as he recalled the first time he saw her. He had not yet taken his vows when he was assigned to the Circle. He was only sixteen and he was nervous about working alongside much more seasoned men. Even though he had lived there his whole life, he had only trained as a templar at the Chantry in Denerim for three years before he was sent to the Circle.
He had been there less than a week and he was walking the corridors of the apprentice's floor when he quite literally bumped into Serena. She was coming out of her dormitory reading a book and he was looking around trying to gain his bearings when she hit him like he was a brick wall. The force of the impact knocked him back a step and knocked her to the ground. He apologized and held out his hand to help her to her feet. When she looked into his eyes and smiled then took his hand, it was all over for him. He fell head over heels right then and there.
Since that morning six years ago, he had spent every day trying to find ways to be near her. He even took on extra duties in hopes that he would be able to catch a glimpse of her. It always brightened his day when she would on occasion actually speak to him beyond their usual short friendly greetings, which usually consisted of her walking by and smiling with a cordial "Hi Cullen" and him only managing a sheepish grin.
He knew his feelings were wrong and he knew that he had no chance with her, but he just couldn't help himself. He was a templar and his whole life revolved around one mage who probably didn't even know he existed beyond the guy she just happened to pass by several times a day. She had no idea that she secretly held his heart in her hands and she never would.