I Don't Like It
Just as he promised, the following day Cullen brought everything down to the dining room table, all of the letters he had been exchanging between Leliana, between the Wardens, between anyone and everyone else who he planned on turning to for help. Dorian had more gathered up in his arms; he was returning to Thedas that day with correspondence, but Cullen gave everything a one-over to make sure he wasn’t leaving anything out when he put all the pieces together for Eleanor, after which they bid the mage adieu and sent him back through the Breach. It was always so strange to watch him go; one minute, a figure would be standing on the now-dead lawn below what looked like a swarm of gnats some indiscernible distance overhead, and then the swarm would expand and glow and become The Breach, and then the figure was gone. Eleanor wondered what it was like to make that trip.
Cullen cleared his throat and began, though there wasn’t much more to say. He told her the Grey Wardens were a shadow of their former selves and had been spending the past few years rebuilding their ranks. Blights in Thedas were sometimes decades but more often centuries apart, so they had expected to have more time to get their house back in order, but they understood the needs of a place plagued by a Blight more than any others would or could, so they were now recruiting as quickly as they could without being careless. Fortunately, the previous Blight had lasted only a year and so not many lives were claimed. Unfortunately, a few years after that, another incident, related to the one that had lead to the reconstruction of the Inquisition of which Cullen himself was a part, had lead to the demise of many Wardens and dismantled their headquarters at Weisshaupt. That was why Cullen had not simply immediately called for an army of Wardens to come to Indiana, flushed out the Archdemon, and been done with it. There were not enough Wardens to be had. If all of them died - not that he wanted anyone to die of course, but you had to plan for the worst, and anyway “all of them” just wasn’t that many right now - in an effort just to rouse the Archdemon, then they were in the same position as before but with a pissed off Archdemon that knew Grey Wardens were coming for it. The Wardens could sense the Archdemon thanks to the Taint, but the property was commutative: if the Wardens could sense the Archdemon, the Archdemon could sense the Wardens.
Until such time as he and the Inquisition felt that there were enough Grey Wardens successfully recruited - successfully being the operative word, as often the initiation ritual, The Joining, itself was fatal - and at least somewhat trained, Cullen and Dorian and the small band of rotating soldiers were there to observe the activity at the ravine and eliminate any darkspawn that ventured out into the surrounding countryside. For the past few months, then, that was exactly what they had been doing, with Eleanor’s help. There wasn’t much more they could do.
“That’s why I didn’t tell you sooner, El. There wasn’t anything else that could be done. And I didn’t… The Archdemon, it…”
She had her hands folded in her lap, and she put them up now, just a little flick of her wrists that said he didn’t need to say anymore. Did Eleanor wish he had told her? Of course she did. But if everything he said was true, and she had no reason to doubt him, then she understood. She doubted that he really could have told her about the Archdemon anyway. Could he have described it? Maybe. Told her its malignant purpose? He just had. But he couldn’t have explained the way that she would feel now knowing there was something that monstrous living beneath her feet. And it wouldn’t have mattered if he had. It didn’t change anything. Didn’t make anymore of these Grey Wardens that they needed.
Which made her ask, “How many Wardens will we need? A dozen? A hundred?”
Cullen sucked in a breath as though he were about to speak, and then let the air out quickly, putting one hand behind his head and turning away from her, his gaze going quickly to the ceiling.
“What is it?” she asked. “More than that? How long will that take?”
She watched him roll his shoulders, roll his head on his neck. “Ellie,” he said, still facing away from her, “That’s the problem. We don’t… we don’t know.” She heard him breathe through his teeth, a frustrated hissing sound, and then he turned back to her, to the table, and picked up a letter, handing it to her, though she couldn’t read the writing and he knew it. But somehow the gesture made his words seem more honest, his pained expression all the more genuine.
“Leliana wants more information. Not the kind of information you get from spies. The kind you get from soldiers. She wants…” he knelt down and gently took the letter back from Eleanor, holding it in one hand as he took Eleanor’s own hand in the other. The look on his face was not fear, was something more like irritation, but that wasn’t quite it either.
Eleanor reached out and put her eyes on the side of Cullen’s face, feeling more stubble there than she remembered from the bar, reached up and ran her fingers through his hair. “What’s up, Cullen?”
“I’m going to have to send our forces down there.”
The way he said it, the way his deep-set brown eyes stayed fixed on hers said that he was going too. Down into the ravine, the ravine that seemed as though it it no longer had an end, a bottom, was full to the brim of crawling darkspawn, darkspawn that his dozen soldiers hadn’t had an easy time taking down, and there could be hundreds, thousands of the things down there. From what he had told her, there could be even more still. The ravine had to be big enough to hide a dragon the size of a house. Who knew how much bigger it was?
Which was the point, wasn’t it. Someone had to find out. Someone who knew what they were looking for, someone who could report back to the Inquisition, to the Grey Wardens, who could tell them the scope of the situation. Cullen quite obviously was the man for the job. He was an experienced military leader, and he knew how to get what he wanted from his people, in no small part because they liked and respected him. He already had boots on the ground. All he needed to do was to take them deeper.
“When?” she asked him.
He stood, dropping her hand, letting her fingers slip away from him. “Soon. I’ll only take a small party, enough to hopefully escape too much notice. But some of the troops are due to go home, so it’ll probably be after the next rotation.” A rotation was expected in about a week or so, but if this was as urgent as it seemed, Eleanor knew that Leliana was perfectly capable of sending more soldiers early; she had done it after the darkspawn had come so close to the house the first time - the only time, thank goodness. Fresh eyes, fresh bodies. The only people who never got to go home were Cullen and Dorian, and Dorian was the one who reported back to the Inquisition, to Skyhold, since he was not under the same obligation as Cullen to command troops in case an emergency situation arose. Dorian was never gone more than a day, maybe two, but it also never seemed worth the risk.
Eleanor wondered if he missed it, and if he did, if he’d ever have the chance to go back, just for a day or so. But if this situation, this probe down into the ravine revealed the best-case scenario, that the Wardens were nearly ready or already ready, and they could be reached quickly and easily, maybe he would be able to go home soon for good. Eleanor somehow knew that the odds of that were slim, but even still, it made her a little sad. She didn’t want to keep Cullen against his wishes, but the man had made no mutterings, had given no homesick laments. Perhaps, being a soldier, being the kind of man he was, having been brought up in the environment that he had had been, perhaps he was just inordinately flexible. But Eleanor didn’t think that that was the case, or not the whole case at least. Maybe he liked it here. Not just because of her, she was not that vain and did not think, could not know if his feelings were that serious. She wasn’t sure hers were - she wasn’t sure they weren’t, but even still. No, she thought it seemed as though he almost liked this quiet, flat place, this simple, solitary life, insofar as it was isolated from the outside world. When she found him sitting in the off-puttingly floral room that had become his own over the past months, writing letters and gazing out of the small second-story window, she thought she saw a wistful contentedness on his face. It could have been that she imagined it simply because she enjoyed having him here, but she never once heard him complain, not even in the small, bored ways that Dorian had complained and did complain still. Either he was just that stoic, or he had no complaints to share.
She wanted to go with him, but she knew he would say no. She didn’t know what she could offer; all she had was her gun. Her magic wasn’t even strong enough to defend herself, let alone others; even the night in the bar she hadn’t hurt John, only pushed him away. And the effort had left her exhausted. Eleanor was no good to them, no good even to herself. Eleanor reached up and ran the ends of her long hair through her fingers. She tangled up a little knot of stray strands that she pulled free from the rest of her hair, and looked away as she twiddled her fingers and let the shed hairs fall to the floor.
“I don’t like it,” she said quietly, but she knew it was a useless thing to say.
“This…” Cullen said, putting his hands on the back of his neck and staring out of the dining room window, “is my job. This, more than anything, is why I was sent here. I knew it was coming. And it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever done. But,” he let his hands drop, turning back to her, “I don’t like it either. There could be anything down there. I’ve fought darkspawn, but not on a scale like this. I trust my troops. This is what they’ve been trained for. But it doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to putting them into this kind of danger.” He smiled a little sideways smile then, perhaps to placate her. “Maybe there’s nothing down there. Maybe we haven’t seen very many darkspawn because there just aren’t very many darkspawn around.”
She knew the look on his face. The look that said it was a nice thought, but he knew there was no substance to it. It was the kind of expression people got when they said, “Maybe I’ll get that raise,” or “Maybe one day I’ll move away from here.” His maybe was not quite so big or distant, and at the same time, it was even more so. This wasn’t such a long-term goal, but it was a much more dangerous undertaking. Eleanor didn’t know how far the Blight was capable of spreading but she wasn’t ready discount it as being confined to this little patch of land, this little place that she called home. Maybe it could spread to the whole state. The whole country. Cullen had seen a Blight spread with his own two eyes, seen how far it could reach. He would do his job.
Eleanor leaned forward and started to roll up the papers on the table, returning them to their original configurations. Some had been sealed with wax which didn’t seem to restick, but others had been tied with small bits of twine, and those she put careful little bows around before stacking the documents into an awkward pyramid for Cullen to take back upstairs. She let her gaze rest on the little stack, piled up there on the dining room table. She wondered how big a stack like that could grow before this all was over.
“How long do Blights last?” she asked him. “You said the most recent one only lasted a year?”
She didn’t get an answer.
After another moment of silence, Eleanor turned back around, and saw that Cullen had returned his gaze to the window, out the window, in the direction of the ravine. He had one hand pressed against the window frame, his head hung low in a display of utter resignation.
“Cullen?” she took the half a dozen steps to his side, reaching up and resting one hand on his shoulder.
She knew the answer would not be good.
“The Fifth Blight, the last one, yes. A year. The Fourth lasted twelve, and the Third, fifteen.” And then he stopped.
“The Second?” she asked.
“The Second Blight lasted ninety years,” he said quietly, not taking his eyes away from the landscape. “The First Blight lasted two hundred.”
It wasn’t the Archdemon that Cullen had been keeping from her.
It was this.