Better Make the Whole Pot
The map was spread out wide on the dining room table. Eleanor hunched over it, hands pressing the curly edges flat. Even in the dark morning, the early August heat, the humidity, made the edges of the map roll up defiantly. Cullen leaned over from the other side and pointed, their foreheads almost touching over the center of the table.
“For the past month, the darkspawn movement has been fairly confined to the ravine,” he said his finger tracing a long, dark gash on the brown map. It was a map of Indiana, but it had been made in the Frostbacks, and the vellum that it was printed on looked like something out of the Middle Ages, even though it had been made no more than a few months prior. Indeed, the parchment was in too good of shape, the ink too fresh, too pale, its iron-based blackness not yet fixed with time, to be something truly old. In the watery morning light, however, the brief cognitive dissonance that Eleanor had felt as she walked into the dining room and saw the map spread large was hard to shake. This was here, she reminded herself. This was now. This was home.
“Right,” she answered, and scootched her own finger over to the northerly opening of the valley, where earth had banked and created a ramp. It was a natural formation, and had been there for years, but it created a sudden drop down into the old riverbed and made the ravine look as though it had been gouged from the ground by a giant plow. The map somehow captured that. “Except for last week -”
“Yes,” he agreed. “The darkspawn headed north toward the - the, uh, m-motorway. Our troops quickly cut them off, but the sudden movement was unexpected.”
“And?” She knew there was an “and.” He wouldn’t have knocked on her bedroom door at four fifteen in the morning if there hadn’t been an “and.”
Still hunched, he looked up to meet her gaze, and moved his hand to a small acreage of fields, just a few miles from the land Eleanor had sold to the power company - still no windmills, she thought, which would have irritated her if she weren’t dealing with this Blight shit. “This morning, at about -” he glanced up to look at the clock that hung from the dining room wall, “- about one-thirty, my troops spotted movement while on patrol.” His stern delivery relaxed a bit when he disclosed, “Thank the Maker Annisa has good eyes, and that it was a full moon. I never would have seen it.” He looked tired, the circles under his eyes darker than usual. Cullen seldom went on patrol with his soldiers, but he would from time to time to get a sense of morale and make sure he knew as much about the area as they did. He couldn’t afford to get rusty, to get complacent. “It was only a small group of darkspawn; a few genlocks and a hurlock. But to be so far from the ravine, to have escaped our notice…” he sighed and stood, straightening his back with his knuckles in his spine. “We had a few minor injuries, but nothing a tight bandage and a cold drink can’t fix.”
Eleanor stood and let the map curl back on itself as the commander concluded, “I’m sorry, Ellie. We shouldn’t have let them get this close. I don’t know how…” he shook his head, looked at the floor. “It doesn’t matter how. I won’t let this happen again.”
She rubbed her eyes, her forehead with the heels of her hands. Her leftover makeup was smudged; hair in disarray. “Cullen, this isn’t your fault,” she said, looking at the black streaks on the white skin of her palms, wondering if she’d just smeared old mascara up to her hairline. But it wasn’t important. “You, your soldiers, did exactly what I need you to do. Frankly, I’m glad of it.” She wiped her palms on the front her black tank top, jeans, hastily-adorned, askew on her hips. She glanced up to the clock. “Too late to go back to bed. Coffee?”
“Better make the whole pot,” Cullen groaned.
Eleanor washed the old makeup off of her face and tied her hair back in a matted braid. Cullen had quickly showered and pulled on the clothes Eleanor had begun to supply for him: a white t-shirt, the kind that came in packs of five, and jeans. He wore his same rough leather boots, but still, the effect was striking. He looked like a linebacker and sounded, to Eleanor’s Hoosier ears, like Sherlock Holmes. It was weird to watch him speak without all that armor on.
Face down in her coffee, Eleanor said, “I’m going into town today. Your people need anything? First aid supplies? Rations?”
Cullen shook his head wearily, then something struck him. “Flames, I’d entirely forgotten.” He got up and left his coffee, and Eleanor craned so far as to see him go up the stairs. His footsteps sounded like he’d gone to his room, and then started back. A moment later he was back at the table, a thick parchment envelope in his hands.
“It took Leliana a little while to figure out how to exchange currency, but she must have found someone. Here you are. Stipend and expenses.”
Eleanor set down her coffee cup and opened the envelope as Cullen resumed his seat. He seemed unphased. Eleanor began to count, but when she’d spread out enough money on the table to lose track, she looked at Cullen with a disbelieving expression. “Is this… the whole thing? In one go?” She was wondering if she should invest it.
Mid-drink, Cullen shook his head. “Mm. No, no. A few months, I should think, if only because of the difficulty with the exchange.”
“Cullen, this is like thirty thousand dollars.”
He narrowed his eyes. “I don’t…”
“Just what… kind of currency do you people use?” she asked, stuffing the bills back into the envelope.
“Gold, silver mostly. There’s some trade in precious gems, but -”
“Never- never mind. I get the picture.”
“It’s enough, then? I was concerned, with you helping to support our people...”
Eleanor blinked at him, dead-eyed.
She slapped the envelope on the table. “It’s about what I make in a year.”
“Well, then,” said a voice from the doorway. “Buy yourself something pretty.” Dorian slipped into the room wearing only black flannel pajama bottoms. “Breakfast?”
“Why, are you offering?” Eleanor gently jabbed, the tiredness pouring back into her like a dam had broken.
“Ooh, testy this morning.”
“We’ve been up for a while,” Cullen defended.
Dorian took a quick moment to survey the pair, both with dark circles under their eyes and slumped posture. His tone immediately shifted from badgering to serious. “What happened?”
“Darkspawn,” Eleanor mumbled, reaching for her coffee.
“Near the farm,” Cullen clarified, pressing his thumbs to his cheekbones under his eyes and rubbed them in circles, knuckles from his fingers pressing into his lips.
Dorian sat. “Leliana will want to hear about this. The Inquisitor -”
“Then draft a letter, Dorian,” Cullen said, and it would have been sharp if it were not softened by the hour.
Dorian took it in stride. After so many years, he was used to the commander and his temper, and he knew that most of the things he said in anger were not things he meant, or meant to say. When Cullen was really cutting, it was when he was calm. Dorian thought possibly it was still a side-effect of the former templar’s system being free of the lyrium it had grown used to feeding off of for so long. Or perhaps the commander was exactly what he appeared to be: a short-tempered man who below the surface could probably never hurt a fly, unless that fly had an army. Or was a mage. And he might still feel bad about it.
Pavus stood and said, “Well, I can make some toast.”