I Think You Might Need a Bigger Map
It was less than an hour later when Cullen followed suit, but Eleanor had kicked off her soft black shoes, loosed the laces on her trousers, undid the first few frogs at the top of her shift, and slid under the blankets, promptly falling asleep. Cullen smiled; he felt as tired as she looked. He pulled back the heavy blankets to slip in beside her, and found Eleanor clutching the soft, thick shawl she had been given like a child.
Swiffer, he thought. Eleanor must be missing the cat terribly. Even he had appeased the feline with extra pets and scratches in the days before they left; he loved the creature too, but Swiffer was not his. Swiffer was Eleanor’s, and Swiffer was alone. They would have to get back to Indiana no matter what, especially now that they knew what might not even be the full scale of the Blight, and it was huge, but Cullen would press to leave as quickly as possible, for Eleanor. For the cat. Love was making him soft, he knew, but he didn’t have the heart to fight it. Or perhaps it was precisely because he had the heart that he couldn’t fight.
The air around him was chilly, and he quickly found space for himself under the covers, reaching out to clutch Eleanor to him. They had survived. He had taken her, this unprepared human thing, this infant mage, into what had somehow turned out to be the Deep Roads, and they had lived. They had all lived. And Eleanor had performed admirably, not just in combat, but mentally. She was so strong. She had seen so much, so much strangeness, and instead of tucking tail and running, or shooting at them and screaming for them - at them - to get off of her land, she had invited the strangeness into her home, her world, become friends with it, and now… this, he thought, as he pressed his cheek against her still-damp but immaculately braided hair. She smelled like roses, most likely from the water of the bath, but whatever the reason, it was enchanting to him. Soothing. He found himself suddenly unable to imagine a world without it, without her - well, no, that was only half true. He could imagine a life that had him here, alone at Skyhold, returning to his old duties, and Eleanor going home to her farm, maybe once the Blight was over, and he hated every moment of it. It was a foolish thought, and he knew it. Anything could happen.
But he didn’t want anything to happen. He just wanted this.
He was tired, and he knew it, and he was thinking sentimental thoughts that he might still agree with in the morning, but which wouldn’t affect him so powerfully.
Cullen was beginning to allow himself to drift off when Eleanor seemed to rouse a bit, turning over in his arms to face him.
“Hey, you,” she said, softly, her voice broken with sleep.
“‘Lo, El,” he answered.
She hugged the blanket tighter, and mumbled, without opening her eyes, “You told the Inquisitor about us.”
“That’s…” she yawned, lost her original thought. “So this is a real thing.”
Did she mean their relationship? The Inquisition? Thedas? All of it was real - at least, he thought so, wanted to think so, regarding the first point, so he only answered the half-asleep woman, “It’s real.”
“Good,” she said, “I like it,” which helped him discern her meaning not at all, but it didn’t matter. Her breathing shifted and she was out again, fast asleep.
“Sweet dreams,” he breathed to her, kissing the top of her plaited head before joining her in sleep.
They stood around a massive table, covered with a giant map. The Inquisitor was there, as was Cullen, and Dorian and Varric. There were two other women who had been quickly introduced to Eleanor as Leliana - so this was Leliana, this smiling woman with flaming red hair, not like the Inquisitor’s coppery locks, hair almost like Eleanor’s mother - and Josephine, a beautiful brown-skinned woman with thick black hair and lovely grey eyes. Women everywhere, Eleanor thought. Certainly this was the biggest difference between Thedas and her world, her Earth. She couldn’t say she didn’t like it.
Then the door swung open behind them and the sound of harried, heavy breathing entered, as if someone had just sprinted up a few flights of stairs to meet them.
“My apologies, Inquisitor,” said an incredibly tall woman, the kind of intimidating person Eleanor had thought the Inquisitor herself would be, “Divine Victoria,” the woman gave a small bow to Leliana as she found her place at the table beside Josephine.
“Cassandra,” said Leliana in a chirpy voice, bright with an accent and lovely too, “I have told you time and time again that you don’t have to call me that. Especially not here,” she put her hands out in front of her, open and welcoming. and whatever being Divine meant, Eleanor could see why she was it. Her face was creamy and radiant, and the small lines that had begun to take hold around her eyes only made her visage all the more friendly, playful, and maybe a bit secretive.
“Of course, Leliana. Habit,” the woman called Cassandra said, but gave Leliana another almost reverential bow as though in deliberate defiance of her own words. Leliana only smiled, shaking her head and rolling her eyes.
“Our final introduction then,” said the woman called Josephine, reaching her hand out to indicate Eleanor. “Cassandra, this is our liaison, Eleanor Redgrove of Indiana.” Good lord, did that sound awkward, Eleanor thought as Josephine continued. “Lady Eleanor,” more awkward still, “this is Lady Cassandra Allegra Portia Calogera Filomena Pentaghast, Seeker, Hero of Orlais, and as always, Right Hand of the Divine,” and as Josephine spoke, Leliana gave the stern-looking woman a wink.
“Yes, well,” Cassandra said, dismissing her own titles, “‘Cassandra’ is fine. She extended her hand over the table to Eleanor. She had an accent all her own, and it made her strong voice seem all the more powerful. “A pleasure to meet you, Lady Eleanor. I’ve heard much about you.”
“It seems everyone has,” she said, and gave Cullen a mock-serious look.
“Now that we’ve got that over with,” the Inquisitor now took charge, “let’s get down to business. Cullen, you and your people engaged in an exploratory mission into the ravine in Indiana,” she said, pulling another map across the table and unrolling it on top of the map of a portion of Thedas. Using two heavy stone markers, she weighed down the edges, and pointed at the ravine. “Care to tell us what you found?”
Cullen took a deep breath and opened his mouth, then lifted his eyebrows and said, “I think you might need a bigger map.”
There was some confusion from the occupants of the room who had not taken part on their excursion, and so Cullen began, speaking slowly, trying to put his thoughts in order. Josephine immediately began to take notes.
“We entered the ravine at the northern end,” he pointed on the map, “and traversed the length of the ravine toward the south. We encountered no darkspawn for… hours?” he looked to Varric and Dorian who nodded, “and the first group we encountered we were able to avoid; they were in a side passage and we heard them before we saw them. I can’t say for sure how many may have been in this group, but it’s our belief,” he looked to Eleanor now, “that this must have been a routine patrol due to…” he paused and looked for words, “...to what we saw later.” He stopped, put his hand to his mouth, took a deep breath. Eleanor knew two things: that this was who Cullen was, and that, still, even the memory of what he had seen disturbed him.
“We continued for some time, until the ravine closed overhead. There were side passages along the length of the tunnel, but without knowing for sure where they might lead, and with limited light and supplies, as well as threat of getting lost, we continued along the main artery until we stopped to rest. I would say we had been in the ravine for eight to twelve hours. Maybe a bit more. We found a deeper recess in the wall to rest in. Dorian and Varric kept watch and woke Eleanor and myself when they heard sounds. They were deepstalkers, not darkspawn, and we took them down handily, I would say,” giving a small nod of acknowledgement to Eleanor.
“Deepstalkers?” asked Cassandra. “How -”
“Let him finish, Cassandra. We can talk about details later,” the Inquisitor said.
Cullen nodded his thanks.
“After the deepstalkers, we continued on, until the composition of the tunnel itself seemed to change. Whereas before it had been entirely dark, now there was light that Varric suggested was from lava flows, as he had knowledge of such things in and around the dwarven city of Orzammar. His intuition was correct, and we soon found ourselves in what appeared to be…” here Cullen paused and took off his glove to rub his brow, looking down and away, as he said, “...what appeared to be a section of the Deep Roads.” He put out his hands to silence the entire War Council and continued before they could object. “This… well, I won’t say that this will become more clear, because quite frankly, it won’t.”
“Look, all I’m saying is that I know a statue of Astyth when I see one,” added Varric helpfully. When he received only confused looks in response, Cullen assisted.
“There was a statue, perhaps seven feet tall, of obviously dwarven make. Varric identified it as Astyth the Grey, Paragon and founder of the Silent Sisters.”
“Spot on, Curly.”
“Alright,” Cassandra accepted their testimony with a hesitant sigh. “Go on.” She crossed her arms and frowned.
“Again we travelled some distance along this new road, before we heard a rumbling in the depths. After some moments, the Archdemon appeared, and we,” Cullen paused to take a breath, the words seeming to be difficult.
“We fled for our god damned lives,” Eleanor inserted, sensing Cullen’s hesitation, “I’m not at all ashamed to say.”
“No indeed,” said Leliana. “Commander? If you’re able.”
“Of course, Leliana,” but his voice was shaking more now. “We quickly found a tunnel that seemed more finished than the other we had passed and utilized it as a matter of necessity. From the tunnel, we saw the Archdemon pass - to where and what end, I cannot say, as it was followed by a veritable army of darkspawn from which we saw fit to -”
“Run like hell again,” Eleanor said and then slapped hands over her mouth. She wasn’t trying to interrupt him, only to ease some of the tenseness that seemed to be radiating from the man, and when she shot him a wink and he stifled a laugh, she considered her work done. Behind Cullen’s back, Dorian gave her a small thumbs-up.
“Alright, alright,” he said with a deep breath. “Yes, we ran. But not before we watched the army pass, and decided it would be ill-advised to follow. It was impossible to count but, Inquisitor, there were hundreds. At least. Maybe thousands.
“Unable to go back the way we came, we proceeded further into the tunnel, and came upon an antechamber with several other tunnels leading off in other directions around the room. Unable to decide a better method, we, well, we went straight.” He clicked his jaw from left to right. “Some distance down this passageway was a broodmother, which we fought, as well as a few darkspawn.” Well, thought Eleanor. That was abridged. “Once the darkspawn were defeated we made our way through an opposing passage and eventually found ourselves above ground once more, but due to the late hour and the snow clouds obscuring the stars, we had no accurate way of discovering our location without further travel. We were exhausted, and so passed the night in a small cave. In the morning Eleanor encountered a creature which it turned out was a nug, and after a mile or so walking we found a road marker that informed us we were not terribly far from Redcliff.”
The silence was palpable.
Josephine was the one to break it. “Pardon me, Commander?”
Cullen’s military resolve cracked. “I know what it sounds like.”
“Well, I’m glad you do, because I certainly don’t,” said the Inquisitor, looking at the map of Indiana, then picked it up, knocking over the markers as she found Redcliff on the larger map with her finger.
“Well,” said Dorian, offering assistance, “I present you with the fact that we, after only walking, admittedly for some days, are here.”
“I guess I can’t argue with that,” said Trevelyan, letting the smaller map of Eleanor’s home fall once again to the table as it curled up on itself.
“But how can this be!” asked Cassandra, throwing her hands up in the air. “I’ll admit, I almost couldn’t believe it when this rift passed through the Fade and to - to -” she looked to Eleanor for help.
“Indiana, I guess?”
“Indiana!” The disgust in her voice was thick, and Eleanor hoped it wasn’t for her home but for the absolute breakdown of reality that seemed to be occurring. “But at least there was precedent for that! People have stepped into the Fade! But to get here from there just by walking? Unheard of!”
“Yeah, well, now it’s heard of, Seeker,” said Varric, dismissively. “The question is… Actually I’ve got a couple of questions, and I’m pretty sure you people will have a lot more.”
“To be sure,” answered Leliana.
“And I can tell you we certainly don’t have any answers,” assured Cullen.
All eyes seemed to turn to Eleanor. Her own eyes widened in shock. “Well, don’t look at me,” she said, partially indignant, partially ashamed. “I didn’t know that there was a Fade until June.”