As I'll Ever Be
Cullen had received letters from the Inquisitor and remaining members of the War Council, and even though he was still upset, he sat down after dinner to read them. Eleanor stood in the doorway, drying her hair with a towel.
“Why can’t they ever send candy? Or presents? Or beer?”
He laughed, cheered up for the first time since he had started answering the mail. He was on the couch, hunched over the coffee table, an ink pen in his hand as he made notes in a spiral bound notebook, composing his thoughts before he made any replies.
“Oh, but they did,” said Dorian, coming down the stairs.
“Huh?” Eleanor turned around.
“I wanted to give this to you earlier today, but it slipped my mind. And then I thought if I tried to while you were cleaning your gun, you might shoot me.”
“Will it make me want to shoot you?”
“Well, I should hope not.” He handed her the package he had in his arms. “It was a bit of a rush job, but I think you’ll find it satisfactory. Harritt and Dagna do good work.”
“You didn’t,” said Cullen from the couch.
“I did,” and Dorian smiled, a simple, honest smile. “I’ll go get the rest,” he said, and disappeared again.
“Who are Herritt and Dagna?” Eleanor asked, sitting beside Cullen, who moved his papers aside for Eleanor to set her package down on the table.
“You’re about to find out.”
Eleanor reached out and pulled the string that held the brown paper shut. The bow gave way, and the strings bounced open. She pulled away the paper, and in her hands, held something blue and shimmering.
“Oh,” said Eleanor, and picked the robe up by its shoulders. The body of it was blue, dark blue, and made of a material she couldn’t quite place; some kind of silk, but softer than she’d ever felt, and tougher too. The inside was lined with a soft, warm dark grey. The shoulders were a white leather, smooth and entirely unblemished. The color was pure and didn’t look dyed, just looked as white as snow. The neck was high and buttoned in the back with what looked like a pearl, but might actually have been a silvery-white metal. Attached to that, hanging down the back of the robe, was a heavy hood, so broad it looked like she could pull it down over her nose. The waist of the robe was cinched with a sash of the same white material, over which hung a little button-closure pouch, and on the chest in shining white embroidery was an eye, an eye like a sunburst, with a sword driven through it.
She turned to look at Cullen, and he smiled, but something about his expression was uneasy.
In the bottom of the parcel were leggings and gloves, and a harness of some kind, made of the same white leather as the shoulders and sash. There was a heavy dark blue cloak as well, made out of something more like velvet, but she couldn’t imagine that it actually was; rain would destroy velvet. And then she reminded herself that it didn’t matter, that even these objects were probably infused with magic.
Dorian came back again, setting something up against the stairs before coming into the living with a pair of tall white boots, boots that looked like they would lace up to her knees. Small embellishments on them were silver and blue. He set them down next to the coffee table.
“Compliments of the Inquisitor,” Dorian said.
“Oh, Dorian. It’s… beautiful, it’s all beautiful. I… thank you.”
Dorian smiled, looking smug as he said, “There’s one more thing.”
“Oh, you didn’t,” said Cullen wearily, as Dorian reached around the doorframe to the stairs.
“But I did.”
In his hands was a staff, a glistening white staff, made of some supple wood, whose top had been skillfully carved into a spiral cage, and resting in the middle of the cage was a polished black-blue orb of stone, or metal. The staff stood about four and a half feet high, too small for Dorian, but perfectly proportioned for Eleanor.
Eleanor stood, clutching the robe to her chest with her left arm, and she reached out and took the staff with her right hand. It was exactly narrow enough for her to wrap her fingers around it, and it felt like it weighed absolutely nothing, but in a satisfying way. It felt cold. It felt warm. She gave her hand a squeeze around the wood to feel the grain, looked into the dark metal.
“Everite,” said Dorian, “Fade-Touched.”
“You think?” said Cullen.
“I do,” Dorian answered.
“Hm?” Eleanor turned back to Cullen, clinging to her staff and robe. He shook his head with a dismissive frown.
“Well,” said Pavus, nodding his head toward the stairs. “You know where to find me if you have any questions.”
“Thank you, Dorian.”
“The least I could do,” and he went back upstairs. He left Eleanor standing there, her face plastered with a smile. She felt like a kid on Christmas.
“Do you want to try them on?” Cullen asked. He didn’t sound enthusiastic.
“No,” Eleanor said. “I can wait.” She propped the staff up against the bookshelf and folded the robe, setting it back on top of the brown paper, bundling it all together before moving it to the side with her boots. She sidled up to Cullen, saying softly, “Why put them on just to take them off?”
Now Cullen smiled, and he took his attention fully away from the letters before him to sling an arm over her shoulders and pull her close. “Oh, it’s gonna be like that, is it?”
“It absolutely is,” she assured him. He kissed her on the cheek.
“Can you wait until I finish these up?”
“Can you?” she said with a wink, and rose from the couch. “I’m gonna put these things away. Come to bed whenever you’re ready.” Tucking her staff under one arm, dividing the garments up between her hands, she went off to her room, closing the door gently behind her.
Come to bed. He liked the sound of that.
Eleanor cinched the sash around her waist and reached for her staff. She opened the drawer of her wardrobe, where inside a mirror hung, and she looked at herself. She couldn’t believe she was looking at herself.
Eleanor was not the kind of person who would use words like “noble” or “commanding” to describe herself, her small frame, brown hair, awkwardly-tanned skin - a farmer’s tan, indeed. But draped in shades of blue and white, hair braided firmly against the back of her head, she looked… impressive. The cloak, she found, attached with small hooks to the leather pauldrons of the robe, and to a small spot beneath the draping fabric of the hood. She pulled the cloak around her, pulled the hood up over her head, and reached for her staff, which she’d had propped up against the wardrobe. The mysterious leather harness that at first she couldn’t figure actually gave her a way to attach the staff to her back and retrieve it easily, so long as she pushed her cloak to one side. But for now, she wanted to hold it, wanted to rest her weight against it.
Pursing her lips, she looked up at the polished globe of - what had Dorian called it? Everite? Fade-Touched Everite, whatever that meant. She could suss out the words, knew what the Fade was, of course, but how the Fade could touch a metal and what that imbued the metal with, she didn’t know. She just knew that two conflicting sensations seemed to fill her body when she grasped the staff: a cold that really was just cold, the feeling of being outside on a brisk winter’s day, not unpleasant, perhaps even playful, and a strange warmth, but this was not warmth like heat, not warmth like the summer sun, but warmth like a swelling of joy, or like waking up and feeling well-rested.
She bit the edge of her lower lip and looked in the mirror, not at herself, but behind her. The door was shut. Twiddling the gloved fingers on her left hand, she tightened the grip on the staff with her right. Should she do this? Dorian would take her out to practice in a bit; that’s why she had gotten dressed, dressed up. But she wanted to experience this by herself, this first surge of channelled power. She had no idea what it would be like, what it would do, but it should be hers, she decided.
Filling her lungs with air, Eleanor reached down into that strange, glowing place inside her chest, her belly, the place that a doctor would not find if he cut her open from neck to navel but was so irrefutably there, she reached down and for an instant, just an instant, let the mana swallow her up. It came over her like a choking, grasping thing, held her body, her limbs, her very cells in its embrace, and changed her into a powerful thing. But she stopped it. She pressed into it, pressed around it, knotted it up into something she could control, and she sent that burn, that tingle down her arm and slowly, slowly into the staff.
The everite began to glow.
Eleanor gasped. It was such a simple act, this night-black orb now emitting a dim blue light, but it was her simple act. She had done it. She had taken control of a physical object and made it her own. Changed it.
“Just a little more,” she said under her breath. She had seen Dorian’s staff in action, had seen it shoot dripping missiles of fire, had seen it ignite huge crescent-shaped swaths of land. She didn’t think her staff was the same, didn’t think she was at risk of setting anything alight, but whatever it did, however it worked, she didn’t want to chance it. She just wanted to know.
Eleanor funnelled a little more of herself through the wood as though she were electric and it was conductive, and she heard a faint tinkling, a cracking, a sound that reminded her of something, a sound she knew but couldn’t quite place until the air around her grew cold, so cold, and Eleanor recalled the sound of icicles hanging from eves in winter, disturbed by gusts of wind, singing and chiming in their distress. It was the sound of cold. Of ice. Of winter.
She withdrew quickly, sending her mana back into the place from whence it came, and the staff remained cold in her hands, but the air around her heated back up.
There was a knock at her door.
“Come in,” she said, knocking the hood down from her head and quickly shutting the wardrobe door.
“Well, aren’t you just a sight to behold,” said Dorian, and there was nothing wry, nothing sarcastic in his voice. There was laughter, there was almost always laughter, but it was not double edged. It was honest.
Eleanor smiled, filled with pride.
Dorian closed the door and approached her, lowering his voice. “I have one last thing for you,” and he reached out, not handing the items to her, but unbuttoning the little pouch on her sash and slipping something small, something glass - somethings, she realized, little glass tubes clinking against each other - into the bag. “I want to tell you, it’s not that I don’t trust Cullen. I trust the man with my very life. And it has been a long time since he was a part of the Order. But… perhaps don’t let him know that I gave you that.”
“I don’t,” began Eleanor, before it hit her. “...this is lyrium?” Somewhere in her head now, there sang a dim song in a language she had never heard before, though maybe it wasn’t language at all. Her eyelids drooped and she reached down to the pouch at her side.
“Exactly,” Dorian said, and pulled Eleanor’s grasping hands into his own. He couldn’t imagine what it was like to become a mage as such a comparatively late age, could imagine even less what it was like to come into contact with lyrium after having grown up in a world entirely without it. Dorian had never known a world without lyrium; it even existed in the Fade, even in the places untouched by spirits and dreamers, which were few and far between. But here on this plane, there was no such thing. He wondered if perhaps it would have some unexpected effect on Eleanor, but she might need it today, would definitely need it in the future. There was no point in keeping her from it until the last moment, when she might need it and not be able to handle exposure. Cullen might accuse Dorian of being rash, but in truth he wanted nothing less than to have to force Eleanor into training abilities that should be allowed to come naturally. But they were on a bit of a tight time budget, given that Cullen wanted them in the ravine in a matter of days, wanted them down there before the Archdemon surfaced again. Dorian knew it would be better to get this intelligence to the Grey Wardens sooner rather than later, but he felt unready. Or maybe he just felt like he didn’t want to die, not quite yet.
But while Dorian hadn’t been expected to head into the ravine, he at least was not entirely unprepared. Here was Eleanor who was only months into the knowledge that the Blight existed, that the Fade split her world and the next - though that one was admittedly new to Dorian too - barely weeks into knowing that she could harness that power and feed it back into the world. And the Inquisition had said, “Well, she’s a mage, send her down there,” and Dorian had said, “She can’t even summon enough mana to knock an enemy down,” and the Inquisition had said, “You said she did exactly that,” and he tried to explain that it was a fluke, and that it had exhausted her, and they said, “Train her. You’re running out of time. And we’re taking away your soldiers.” And Dorian had said something that had started with an “F” and ended in a “U” and they had sent him to Dagna and Herritt and gotten robes for Eleanor that were beautiful and a staff that might be way beyond her and he had sighed and taken them back through the Breach. Because what else was he going to do. He had fought them for days.
But he had helped design the staff. He had insisted on everite. He thought Eleanor might not be the offensive type at all. And he was going to test that notion.
“Are you ready?”
“As I’ll ever be,” Eleanor answered.
He started to walk back toward the door, but with his hand on the knob, he turned and looked at Eleanor, sizing her up from head to foot. He gave her an approving nod.
“You look… lovely,” he said, and went ahead of her, into the hallway and out the door.