It seems the autumn crashes in over them after Loghain leaves.
When Elissa and the others return from the Blackmarsh the season is irrevocably there, around them, as though the time they spent trapped in the Fade had in fact dragged out more than it could possibly have done. There's a chill in the air, a crisp tone of dusk early in the afternoons and the nights, Elissa thinks huddled under double blankets and strengthened by whiskey, are endless. She dreams of broodmothers and darkspawn every night; sometimes it feels as though she is being pushed over the edges, falling into her own fantasies and lured into the shadows and she wakes up sweaty and terrified and sits in the windowsill until it dawns.
It's not like they suffer from a lack of things to do during the days, so she could use the rest but sleep insists on eluding her.
In the weeks that pass after Loghain's departure, Elissa speak to the lords and ladies, rallies the soldiers and pretends to have more answers that she does about how they will withstand the forces of darkspawn that are eating through their flimsy defences. She shakes hands and performs the badly rehearsed play – the Arlessa of Amaranthine and her Arling – as the duties escalate and the dissatisfaction becomes a tangible, forcible presence around them.
The freeholders suffer, the commoners starve and the small numbers of soldiers crumble under the weight of their tasks; Elissa has never felt more alone or more useless in her entire life.
That's when the messenger arrives.
At first, Elissa thinks it's a letter from Loghain – her expectation a stab of impatience in her chest – and crosses the courtyard to meet the incoming rider. But as the woman dismounts her horse, all but falling off it in an ungraceful move and dragging herself upright again with what appears to be sheer willpower, that prospect leaves rather quickly. No ordinary messenger would have travelled in this frenzy.
"Are you the Warden-Commander?" she asks, the Orlesian accent thick around her words.
Elissa nods. "I am. Who are you?"
"Name's Leonie, sister." She pauses, briefly, to catch her breath. "I'm with the Wardens in Verchiel. Or I was. There's not much left of them."
A chill runs down Elissa's spine. "Go on," she urges, keeping her voice loud and heavy so it won't break.
"There's... a war, I suppose you'd call it. The darkspawn, they're breeding armies, they're... changing. They're going to invade us. And they've... from what I have seen, they have got help." Leonie exhales loudly, gazing up at Elissa who feels frozen, like her limbs have grown into the ground and she can't move an inch. "When they attacked us, they had Wardens among them. Mages."
"But the Order have commanded Wardens to come to Orlais," Elissa says, half-protesting as though that would change what this woman is telling her. "The First Warden-"
"The First Warden is dead," Leonie cuts her off, shaking her head. "Rumour has it he's been dead since the Blight. They... just before I escaped, I heard the news that they had sent his head to our headquarters in Montsimmard."
"They?" Elissa rubs a hand across her forehead, trying to force her thoughts into calm, coherent streams inside her head and suppress the urge to shout at this stranger.
"I don't know who they are," Leonie says, her voice sounding desperate now. "I don't know anything. Everyone I was in charge of was killed. I... ran in the opposite direction and now I'm here. That's all I know. Well, apart from the fact that something is very wrong and that I think Orlais is going to fall."
"But..." Elissa lets her words vanish in the cool air outside the keep, as she meets the other Warden's gaze. "When did all of this happen?"
"Now. Very recently. I... it must have been brewing for a long time, underground."
"If the darkspawn truly have evolved," Leonie presses on; Elissa wonders if she has spent her journey refining her arguments for this very conversation because she is a force. "If they have strategy and armies underground, if they can plan their attacks... forge bonds and make allies. They are capable of everything."
There's a moment of silence as they look at each other, Leonie's strength faltering a little and Elissa reaches out an arm for her to steady herself on.
"What do you propose?" Elissa asks eventually.
The other woman gives her a long look. "At the moment, nothing. I don't know what we can do. I am, however, asking for your assistance."
Elissa looks out over her fortress – that still doesn't feel like hers in any sense of the word – and the bustling courtyard, full of servants and soldiers and Wardens. She thinks about Loghain, the image of him pushing hard against her composure and forced calm, and with a wince she turns to Leonie again. This is a complete stranger, Elissa reminds herself. And even so, she may prove an ally yet. She may even prove to be a necessary ally.
"I have an arling to defend," Elissa says, feeling as old as the fortress behind her. "I could use an extra pair of hands. Once that it done, I'll lend you mine."
For the first time since she arrived, the ashen surface on Leonie's face lightens up – very briefly – as she nods.
"You have a deal, Commander."
A/N: And that, my wonderful readers, is the end of Cartography.
I must thank ALL of you for your support and enthusiasm during the months I've spent writing this long, long story. Those of you who have alerted, favourited, reviewed, e-mailed, PM:ed or in any other way taken the time to let me know that you're reading and appreciating the efforts. It has meant so much to know that you are out there.
I must also thank CJK a billion times over because she's a terrific beta and inspiration who pokes with sharp daggers at my epic walls of text, discusses plot with me, entertains me when I'm bored and convinces me that I can, in fact, write. Without her, this story wouldn't be the same. Another big thanks goes out to the impatient, cheering and sometimes teasing IRC regulars and everyone who has offered opinions, ideas and thoughts. You are all awesome.
Anyway. Raise your hand if you think Elissa is going to remain in Ferelden, braiding her hair and patiently awaiting news from Orlais. Yeah, me either.
(Well, you know there is going to be one.)