You Wanna Help, Commander?
It was getting on for evening when Eleanor felt like she had enough pieces to start putting the puzzle together. After Dorian had, at length, explained to her all of the finer points of the Fade and how it contributed to dreaming and magic, Cullen did his best to describe how the Breaches and rifts must have caused a more permanent weakness in the Veil, which separated Thedas - which contained Tevinter and Ferelden and plenty more besides - and the Fade, and apparently Thedas and Earth. Apparently Cullen and Dorian considered Thedas to be their own earth, even though there were apparently lands beyond the boundaries of this continent, but both Cullen and Eleanor had had a bit too much to drink at this point and it was either a failing of their vocabularies or their Weltanschauungs that kept the discussion from going any further, even when Eleanor stumbled through a brief tutorial of Google Earth on her phone.
There were additional Dalish - elven - artifacts that allowed for a strengthening of the Veil, and the rifts, the original Breach, were eventually closed thanks to the Anchor - a piece of the original artifact - lodged like a sharp piece of pencil in the hand of the Inquisitor, the leader of the Inquisition, unsurprisingly, who was also thought by many people to be a messenger from some kind of goddess. But when Dorian explained that the Inquisitor herself didn’t buy into that, Eleanor was relieved. She was ready to believe in a lot of things but a God or any gods weren’t yet one of them. The upside was that the Inquisitor could use the Anchor to willingly create pathways between Thedas and Earth, now that the two worlds seemed to have merged inseparably.
The takeaway from this, Eleanor surmised, was that the Veil had torn, and tears in the Veil were hard to heal, and some sort of metaphysical scar tissue had allowed her world and Thedas to merge, and at some point the Blight must have slipped through. What else might have slipped through besides, neither of the men could say. So far it was just they two, some soldiers, a few of Leliana’s most trusted agents sent to places far away from here, and a horde of malignant demons.
They never mentioned the Archdemon. Both were agreed that dragons best wait until the following morning. Or week. Or month.
Now the six pack was gone and they had started in on another. Most of Eleanor’s new pack of cigarettes had been smoked and the ashtray looked like a filter graveyard
“Do you… how do you… what are you…” It wasn’t that she was drunk, it was just that she was trying to think of a way to phrase the question. “Do you folks plan on staying the night?”
“We… um…” Cullen answered equally hesitatingly.
“We would never dream of encroaching upon your hospitality, fair lady,” intoned Dorian, and lifted his nearly empty can of beer in sort of salute, a toast to her kindness.
Eleanor shrugged. “No bother. I’ve got three empty bedrooms upstairs. Might need aired out a bit, is all. As for your soldiers, the barn out back’s been renovated into bunks for my farmhands during harvest season, but right now it’s empty. It’s not lush, but all I have to do is unlock the door and flick on the breakers.”
“Ah…” Cullen grasped, not fully comprehending.
“For power. Lights.” She gestured to softly glowing bulb above them, to the hum of the running fridge. “There’s a little kitchen in there as well, but the pantry probably doesn’t have anything more than canned goods. Can’t trust more than that, not with field mice.”
Cullen stood and gave an appreciative bow. “We were planning on spending the night in the field; my soldiers have packs and provisions.”
“What the commander means to say is, we would much rather sleep in a bed with a roof over our heads,” Dorian blurted, then caught himself, “since you’ve said it wouldn’t be any trouble.”
Eleanor smiled crookedly, inebriated enough to let all of the weird roll off of her back while grasping on to the humor of a stranger. She stood, tamping out her last cigarette and scootching her chair back from the table. She gestured to the end of the hall, near the front door. “My room’s down there, to the left. Er, well, to the right from here; to the left when you come in.” She pushed her beer can a little further away. That was plenty, she realized. “You can knock if you need me. You both can head upstairs and pick a room. I apologize in advance; they’re all a bit… floral. Mom was… Anyhow, I’ll go unlock the barn for your people.” And she was up and off to play hostess without another word.
In her absence, Cullen turned to Dorian and remarked, “I think she took that rather well.”
“I’m sure the ale helped,” Dorian replied, crushing his can in his hand. “Still,” he offered, “she seems quite resilient.” He looked up and around, and out the window to the empty field, stars peeking out now from under a crisp, blue blanket of sky, the very edges still tinged with the red-orange hue of a long summer day. “I wonder what Leliana would think of this place.” The words held more meaning than to suggest the curiosity of an acquaintance who might like to see an Indiana farmhouse.
“You don’t mean… an outpost? But this is her home!”
“I’ve seen worse,” the mage remarked glibly, and tossed his empty can into a blue recycling bin where the remains of their previous six-pack had already been resigned.
Eleanor woke the next morning to find that she was still wearing her clothes. Then she found that her clothes were still splattered with blue paint.
She had completely forgotten. In all the chaos, the fact that her shirt and jeans - and her arms, and, god, she hadn’t even looked at her face - were still spattered with blue oil-based paint.
The tin of which still probably sitting open on the ladder, if it hadn’t fallen over. She wondered how much of it was salvageable.
Eleanor looked toward the bathroom, then toward her bedroom door, wondering if it was even worth it to put away the paint now before she got in the shower. Giving her armpit a tentative sniff, she decided that the cost of the paint was worth the trouble of waiting five more minutes to scrub the blue off of her skin.
Walking out into the hallway, the house was quiet. Everything was quiet. The sun hadn’t quite risen, only showed its pale face enough to color the sky with a bit of grey haze, allowing her to see her way to the front door and out onto the porch where Swiffer was sleeping deeply in a cushioned wicker lawnchair. Eleanor didn’t have a cat door, she had windows, and the kitten was clever enough to know which ones had screens in them. The little ball of fluff let herself in and out at her leisure, except in the event that she wanted Eleanor’s attention, when she would paw at the screen door and make pathetic noises, which earned a momentary stink-eye from Eleanor, but which always faded quickly when she swept the kitten up into her arms and smooshed her face against the soft fur of Swiffer’s belly, soft and warm like the remains of laundry left in the lint trap, which had earned the kitten her name. But for now the cat was self-satisfied and snoozing deeply in the pre-dawn morning, and Eleanor stood on the porch in the quiet morning and took in a deep, healing breath. The air was still cool; summer had not fully taken hold, not in the small, early hours of the morning, and Eleanor lost herself for a moment in its fleeting sweetness, knowing soon that the hot, dry mornings and unrelenting days of July would be on their way before she knew it.
And knowing, she reminded herself, what awful bleakness lay just beyond the horizon.
But now, in the cool, dewy morning, she couldn’t feel or taste it, and with a stretch, she shook it off as best as she could, stepping down from the porch and onto the lawn in her bare feet. As she rounded the house on the right, a soft, swishing noise came to her. She halted in her tracks a moment, curling her bare toes around the cool grass, and then proceeded on slowly to where her ladder was, and the paint, which looked like it was still mostly a liquid and might be thinned out with a bit of turpentine… But her attention was taken away when her eyes were drawn up and out to the back lawn where she saw the commander swinging his sword through the still air, each cut making a slashing sound.
She watched him for a little while, watched his arms swing as he gripped the sword, sometimes with one hand, sometimes with two, watched as his feet in thick-soled boots danced elaborate patterns on the grass in what were probably prescribed series of moves that Eleanor could never hope to identify.
She watched him with her arms crossed, hands rubbing the bare skin below the shoulders of her t-shirt, picking little pieces of blue paint from her skin, until he turned on his heel and caught sight of her. He froze for a moment, then gave a nod and slipped his sword back into its sheath with an oiled precision.
Cullen put one open hand up into the air and hailed her from the small distance across the lawn, “Good morning!”
“Morning, Commander,” she called back and began to walk to him. As she approached, she could see the sweat that had collected on his brow from his exertions. He shrugged his shoulders in his armor folded his arms across his chest. “You’re up early.”
“The soldiering life. But I could say the same to you.”
“The farming life, Commander. Plus, I’m not sure how much more sleeping I could have done after… well…” she let her words die off but Cullen understood.
“I hope I didn’t disturb you,” he added, and she shook her head.
“Not a bit. Came out here to pick up some things I’d left lying around yesterday.” Yesterday. It seemed like ages ago. “Be making some breakfast in a little bit, if you think you’ll be hungry.”
A warm smile spread across Cullen’s face, and in an instant, he looked like an entirely different person. “I do believe I will be,” he said.
She gave him a nod. “Let me put this paint away and, well, wash this paint off,” she gestured to her shirt, her arms, “and I’ll get cooking. You can wake Dorian, but I’m not sure I’ve got enough eggs for your troops…”
He waved her comment away. “They’re already gone. Out to patrol the ravine.” Cullen saw the concerned look that darted across Eleanor’s face and quickly said, “Don’t worry. Leliana has them under strict orders not to interact with the locals.” He flushed, then realizing just who and what he was talking to. “Ah, well, you know… for…”
Eleanor gave a sly grin and shook her head, “I’ll just have to trust you, Commander. Coffee’ll be on in about ten, fifteen.”
She turned and walked back to the paint, only half-realizing Cullen was following her as she picked up the lid from the grass and fitted it back onto the paint can, holding it securely as she pounded the two metal seals back together with her fist. A fresh line of blue rubbed off in a circle from her elbow to underneath her ribs.
“I just wanted to say,” he began, and Eleanor almost jumped out of her skin, knocking the paint can against the run of the ladder and nearly dropping it for the second time in twenty-four hours. She sucked in a quick, steadying breath as he finished, “that I really appreciate this. I know that this can’t be easy for you.”
She turned to face him, putting one hand to her chest to calm the sudden thumping of her heart, “It’s no problem. Really. I guess I would have found out about this whole thing one way or another.” Eleanor wiped off her hands on her shirt. “At least this way I get in on the ground floor.”
Cullen’s smile turned crooked and he said, “Well, if there’s anything I - we - can do to help you, just let me know.”
“You wanna help, Commander?”
He nodded, and she thrust the paint can into his hands.
“Shit’s heavy. You look strong. You wanna help, you can take that down to the basement. End of the hall, door’s on the left. Don’t get any blue on your...” she moved her hands in an up and down motion along the shape of her body, indicating his armor, or whatever he called it; she didn’t know.
Briefly baffled, Cullen quickly regained his composure and held the can by its stiff, wire handle, and he bobbed his head in assent again, if more tentatively this time, and began to walk back toward the porch.
“Oh, and Commander? Don’t track mud on my floors.”
“Cullen,” he called back. “You’re not under my command. Call me Cullen.”
“Ellie, then” she hollered to him. “No one calls me Eleanor.”
She heard his boots on the steps and the screen door slammed. If Dorian wasn’t awake before, he would be now. Nothing about Commander Cullen was subtle. Especially not his footsteps.
Eleanor looked down at herself, extra blue now. The ladder could wait. No point moving it if she were just going to come back and paint more soon. Or even not so soon. The effort to haul it back down into the storm cellar was more than she was prepared to exert at the moment. Not before a shower, and certainly not before coffee.