Inquisition, Indiana

One Hell of a Woman

“The Grey Wardens are on their way to Ferelden.”

The words left Cullen’s lips like an omen. A prophecy.

It took Eleanor some time to respond; neither Dorian nor Varric said anything either. She couldn’t imagine their reasons, but her own seemed small, shallow, unforgivable.

She wasn’t ready.

It had been six months. More. The year had turned, now, the past one gone and ushered in by more cold, more snows that had trapped them in the house for some time now, brought out only to meet the messenger at the Breach who had been sent to tell them the news. Yes, it had been six months and then some since Eleanor learned of the Blight, learned of Thedas, and now the Wardens were coming to end it. It could be some time yet, Eleanor knew that. But it felt so sudden. It felt like this was just beginning. So she did not respond.

“How many soldiers?” Dorian asked.

Cullen unfolded the wrinkled parchment in his hands, read it again though he knew it word for word. “They can promise us two hundred.”

“Two hundred Wardens!” Varric exclaimed.

“No. Two hundred soldiers. Twenty-five Wardens. And then as many of our own forces are able to leave Orlais. I’m hoping for another three hundred, but that might be more than we can spare. Anything might be more than we can spare.”

“The Inquisitor promised us -”

Cullen cut Eleanor off. “The Inquisitor is a good woman, make no mistake. But she promises easily. When push comes to shove, she may not be able - willing, certainly, but perhaps not able - to reduce her forces by such a number. No one is fighting in Orlais, and it is because they are too afraid to engage us. Until the tension breaks, in whatever direction, it may not be possible for the Inquisitor’s priorities to swing so wildly.” Cullen wrung his head. “As much as I want to tell her to damn Orlais, the last time that happened, well…” He shook his head. “Even if she would listen to me - and she might - I will not have that blood on my hands.”

Eleanor wanted to know how he felt about the blood that might be on those same hands should their efforts to stop the darkspawn army, once flushed out, fail. But of course it was pointless. She didn’t know that it would fail. And she knew that if it did, if they did, Cullen would be among the dead. He did not wear his title as some commanders might, giving orders and staying out of the way of danger. He had been there when the darkspawn had approached the farm, and he would be there when they spilled out of the ravine like so many rats from a sinking ship. There would be no blood on his hands but his own.

An image flashed through Eleanor’s mind of his blood on her hands. It was not a prophecy. It was a memory.

Or perhaps it was both.

She had to turn away from him then, put her hand to her mouth.

“El,” Cullen said, and reached out his hand to the one of hers that dangled still at her side, but she pulled it away.

“I need some air,” she said, and left the dining room for the porch.

It was cold outside, desperately cold, and it stole into her lungs. Eleanor wrapped one hand around her waist, the other remaining at her lips as she ground her teeth. She bowed her head, chin to her chest, and her hair fell around her like a dark hood. The snow was thick and glassy on the ground, broken only by Cullen’s footprints from when he had left to meet the messenger, and returned quickly after with the note in his hands. Her eyes lingered hard on them, their shadows against the white drawing her focus. She kept her gaze hard on the ground to keep the tears from falling from her eyes. She had been crying too much. It made her feel small, and she knew that that was ridiculous. She was human, and she was scared. But showing strength made her feel stronger. Surely everyone was scared. It was not because she was a woman, or because this was all new to her. It was because she felt she had to be strong for the others. On the farm, she was in command; it was something she’d come into slowly, realized slowly. When she was at home, anyone, everyone, answered to her. If she stepped into danger, if she went back into the Deep Roads, the directive was Cullen’s, without doubt. But here, they answered to her. So Eleanor pressed her hand hard to her mouth and focused on the long, dragging footprints in the snow.

“Eleanor,” Cullen opened the screen door as he pulled shut the heavy one behind it. “Talk to me.”

“We’re not ready, Cullen,” she said into her hand. She said “we’re” but meant “I’m.” If he knew, he let it go.

“We don’t have much choice.”

“I know.”

He put one arm over her shoulder, not enough to move her, but enough to let her know that he was there. “It would be hard to be much more ready. With two hundred dedicated soldiers, plus whatever the Inquisition can give us, we’ve got more going for us than… well, than I had eight years ago. And twenty-five Wardens is more than they had during the Fifth Blight.”

“How many did they have,” she asked quietly, not taking her eyes from the snow, not taking her hand from her mouth.

He paused. “In the end? Two.”

“And then one,” Eleanor answered.

“Yes,” Cullen said, “and then one.”

“A while ago, you had said… You had said that the mage you knew, the mage who became the Warden, she ended the Blight.”

“She… in so many words, yes.”

“So who died?”

Cullen shifted his arm from her shoulders to turn and face her, gripping her elbows and dipping his head to catch her gaze. “We’re not Grey Wardens, Eleanor. When we fight, it will be here, fighting an enemy we’ve already faced. We can take down darkspawn. Let the Wardens handle the Archdemon.”

Eleanor let her hand fall from her mouth, crossing it around her middle to match her other arm. She found his gaze, her dark eyes watery. “But who died?”

Cullen pursed his lips thin. “Alistair. The future king, who never sat his throne. He… gave his life for the Warden.”

“He loved her?”

“So they say.”

“She must have been one hell of a woman.”

“I’ve made a habit of being in the service of incredible women, it would seem.” Then he looked up quickly, a thought crossing his mind. “And a mass-murdering bitch. But just the one.”

Eleanor laughed.

It started as a small shake of her shoulders, despite Cullen’s firm grip on her arms. Then her lips followed, turning slowly up. She closed her eyes, bowed her forehead against Cullen’s chest and began to laugh, loud and hard, letting out all of the stress inside of her that had wanted to come out as tears in a fit of wild, rolling giggles instead.

“Oh, sure, but it wasn’t funny at the time, believe me. It really wasn’t,” he insisted, but even he was grinning. “Let’s go back inside. You’ll catch your death.”

Breathlessly, Eleanor answered, “Okay, Mom.”

“Oh, don’t start with me,” he said, mock-firmly, and ushered her back into the house, Eleanor still laughing.

“This waiting is terrible,” Dorian said, head in his hands at the breakfast table. He stared down into his milky coffee, elbows on either side of his empty plate.

“Sparkler, we’ve been doing nothing but waiting for months now,” Varric pointed out, pushing a bit of egg around on his plate with a fork.

“Yes, but this is a special kind of terrible,” Dorian insisted, not looking up.

“We know they’re in the Deep Roads,” said Cullen, eating his final piece of toast with gusto. Only he seemed to be reacting well to this latest piece of information. “Now we just have to keep our eyes peeled.”

“Are all of our reinforcements going to arrive through the Breach at once?” Eleanor groaned. “Where am I going to put them? Jesus, what am I going to feed them? What if it takes them months to traverse the ravine?” her own plate sat mostly untouched, but she drank down cup after cup of coffee, got up, paced, smoked, sat down. Only then would she take a bite of bagel, a forkful of egg, and then she would have to get up again and do a lap.

“I’m sure they’ll bring plenty of their own supplies, and tents to boot,” Cullen reassured her. “As you’ve said, this isn’t the Inquisition’s first... r… radio?”

“Rodeo,” Eleanor said, standing, pushing in her chair, taking a quick hit from her cigarette. “Not your first rodeo.”

“That’s the one,” Cullen said, pointing at her enthusiastically. “Rodeo. That’s with horses.”

“Cows. ...And horses,” she allowed.

“Farm Girl, sit down. You’re making me nervous,” Varric said, pushing his plate away.

Eleanor remained standing, but ceased tapping her fingers, her feet.

“El, please eat something,” Cullen asked gently, even as he reached over her plate to steal her untouched toast.

Eleanor took the cigarette from her mouth and chewed on her lips, as though this alone would sustain her. Subconsciously, she began to tap her fingers again.

“I think she’s going to burst,” said Dorian, though he did it with sympathy. He looked as though he were about to deflate.

“It’s gonna take them at least the time it took us to get through there, Eleanor,” Varric said, using her name as a rare comforting gesture. “Probably longer. Maybe a lot longer. There’s a lot more of them. And they’ll be stopping to fight. On purpose,” he added, as though the very concept were unheard of. “And your soldiers will be here soon to protect this place. You should relax, Farm Girl. Do it while you can.”

Still tapping, she insisted, “I have to get ready.”

“Get ready how?” Varric stood, and went to her, reaching up to put one reassuring hand on her elbow. “Sit around in your robes for a week? Come on. I’ll help you with these dishes,” he nodded back to the table, “and then, well, I say we have a drink.”

“It’s nine o'clock in the morning, dwarf,” said Dorian.

“It’s now or never,” Varric answered.

Eleanor seemed to mull it over, then nodded, finishing her cigarette. “Alright. Alright. We can have drink,” she allowed, “once the soldiers get her. Get settled in.” She thought of the hundreds of tents that were about to pop up in the field around her home, and was suddenly very glad the place couldn’t be seen from the highway. She wondered if the planes that flew overhead would notice, or care. Would they think she was having some kind of festival? Worst festival ever, she decided.

“Fair enough,” said Varric, and began to pick up dishes to put them into the sink.

Cullen picked up her barely-nibbled bagel and rose, offering it to her by bringing it about an inch from her lips. “First, you eat.”

She rolled her eyes and whipped her hand up to snatch the bagel, shoving half of it into her mouth in one bite. “There,” she said, around a mouthful of carbs and cream cheese. “I ate.”

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