Author's Note: Well, it's certainly been a long journey (okay, so 12 days isn't that long, but...)! I want to thank you so much to everyone for being such loyal readers and for reviewing as often as you did. You were the driving force behind me finishing this story so quickly, so thanks a lot for all the encouragement and support. I'm sure going to miss me some Howeland interaction now. Sniff sniff! ;)
The weary travelers trudged up the long road in cloaks of pale grey. The mottled road turned and twisted, sending them in all directions before they safely navigated their way back to the main path. There before them, Castle Highever stood in all its beauty, a lonely, melancholy sight on a landscape that had since known the touch of pestilence and famine. Where gardens once flourished, a jungle of weeds and brambles now thrived, tumbling out across patches of brown earth. Cattle grazed the grass-covered hills and farmsteads of the region.
It was almost deplorable, the condition the city was in, though Aeryn had to remind herself that Fergus was not quite so young anymore, and he had greater concerns on his mind than the tending of his farmlands.
Nathaniel walked quietly at her side. His face was older, its planes more defined yet still handsome in a rugged sort of way. A long winter's illness had etched permanent lines into his face, lines which gave him character, she decided. She liked the way he looked with the extra bit of age on his face—distinguished, like some conquering hero of ages past.
She had changed too. Somewhere beyond her fortieth year she had stopped looking in the mirror; she never quite liked the sight that stared back at her. All wrinkles and grey hairs and faded skin. Although Nathaniel was quick to reassure her she was still incredibly beautiful, she knew the long black plait she still sported was an attempt to hang on to her youth—in vain, for it had gone, and there was now no disguising that fact.
As they drew nearer the castle, following the path until where the road forked, a surge of contentment filled her. It had been years since they visited Highever, and even longer still since they had last seen Fergus and Delilah. The two had shortly married following her own nuptials, and Aeryn couldn't have approved of the match any more than she already did. Delilah had been like a sister to her, sharing her hopes, dreams, and fears for the future over many a cup of tea. It was almost sinful that they had made so little time for them in the years that passed, but duty had called them away from home on more than one occasion.
She had only just recently relinquished her title as Commander of the Grey, realizing that she had come at last to the end of her time here. As her body continued to absorb the taint of the Darkspawn blood, she had felt the call of the Deep Roads, and so had Nathaniel. The time had come to end their lives with purpose—though not before this one last important visit.
The boys—she couldn't really call them that anymore; they were nearly thirty years old!—were already awaiting their arrival outside the castle walls. Thomas, a great strapping fellow who had inherited Delilah's pale eyes and kind disposition, waved back and forth in greeting. William, the son Delilah had borne to her brother Fergus, stood quietly by with a mysterious smile on his face. He resembled her father Bryce in both appearance and manner—so much so that Fergus had taken to affectionately calling him "pup." The nickname, much to the boy's chagrin, had struck throughout childhood and well into his adult years.
"If it isn't Auntie Aeryn and Uncle Nate!" Thomas bellowed at the top of his lungs, cupping both hands over his mouth.
"Thomas, look at you!" Aeryn said as she was encompassed by his huge, hulking form. He lifted her off her feet, spinning her around with glee. "My, but you've grown so big! I can hardly believe my eyes!"
"Sad you can't pinch my cheek and call me a child anymore, are you?"
"You're not too big for a thrashing, mind!" Her eyes darted to the quiet boy standing to her right, shy as a wild rabbit. He went forward and embraced her tentatively. "And you, William! Look how you've grown. You're so handsome. You look very like your father."
"It is good to see you, Auntie. Mother and Father have been looking forward to this visit for a long time," William said quietly.
"Where are your parents?"
"Come, we will lead you to them!" Thomas said effusively, like an overgrown child. He darted past with sprinting steps, leading them through a maze of overgrown, twisting, formidable roads within the castle walls. Before long, they came to the courtyard, where two gleaming white statues had been erected in their honor, depicting them as they were in their days as young Grey Wardens. The statues never failed to take her breath away with their impressive level of craftsmanship, the marble so smooth and sculpted, perfectly capturing every little contour in their faces with a startling amount of detail.
"I always love seeing Auntie Aeryn wielding her sword like that," Thomas laughed as he turned to face her. "It's hard to imagine her ever being that fierce now!"
"Your aunt was a force to be reckoned with in her time," Nathaniel said in a gruff manner. "You boys were too young to remember, of course."
"Yes, yes, we've already heard the stories, Uncle," Thomas said, "Of how you two helped defeat a Blight, brought peace to the kingdom, killed a lot of Darkspawn, et cetera, et cetera. I could recite it by heart at this point."
"Those two could do with a lesson in manners," Nathaniel muttered in an undertone as the boys passed on ahead of them, laughing quietly amongst themselves.
"But who is going to teach them, my love, you?"
As she said this, she patted a hand to his clean-shaven face, which still—after all these years—sported a small soul patch just beneath his lower lip. His hair was shorter, pulled taut into a ponytail at the back of his head. The style suited him nicely.
They moved through the crowded cobbled streets and across the sprawling castle grounds toward the atrium. Just as Thomas was about to reach out to turn the iron ring and push the door open, a dark-haired girl in her late twenties with big brown doe eyes rounded the corner and planted both hands on her hips in an imposing stance. She was wearing a simple suit of armor with a rusty chestplate and hole-filled chainmail. She reminded Aeryn of herself at that age—full of spunk and life, fearless, wanting to take on the world.
Or at least all of Ferelden.
"Tom! Will! Where in the Maker's name have you been hiding my mother?"
"Carys!" Aeryn opened her arms to the young woman, who was quick to rush into her embrace. "My darling, you didn't tell me you were planning on surprising me with a visit."
"When I heard you were coming, I convinced them to let me leave for a little while," she said. "Being a Grey Warden is not at all exciting like I thought it would be. And to think, Mum, that you've been doing this for thirty years!"
"Aye, my sweet," she answered her with a pat to the cheek. "Your grandmother and grandfather had their reservations about my conscription, but—looking back—I wouldn't have changed a thing. That doesn't mean I'm not glad it's at an end, though."
"Then it's true," Carys replied breathlessly, her eyes misting. "You have felt the calling?"
"We both have. That is why we've made this final visit."
For the first moment since arriving, she took notice of her father's presence beside her as he stared down fondly upon his daughter, his flesh and blood little "miracle" that they had conceived in their first year of marriage. The Maker's blessing had been upon them that year; after Carys, no children followed. And though they, doubtless, would have loved to add to their brood of Howes, they delighted in the gift that was given, realizing how fortunate they were to have even one daughter.
"Father," she said, winding her arms around Nathaniel's neck as he patted her back gently.
"I knew," he said with conviction. "I knew you would come."
"Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss it for the world," Carys said, pulling away as she smiled up at him. "I had to pull a few strings, but I made it, and that's all that matters."
"Indeed it is, my love," Aeryn replied. "Indeed it is."
"Come on—Uncle Fergus and Aunt Delilah have been awaiting you for what seems like forever!"
The sound of their footsteps striking the cobbles echoed through the cavernous throne room as they entered. A single scarlet carpet flowed from the entrance to the hearth, where Fergus was standing with a single cup of wine. Delilah stood beside him attired in a simple gown of ivory silk, her mop of dark hair styled in the manner of her mother as she had appeared in her family portrait. A simple circlet inlaid with pearls and precious gemstones was her only adornment.
At their entrance, Delilah made a point of rushing forward to kiss Aeryn on the cheeks and throw her arms around her warmly. The other woman looked as though she had not aged a day—perhaps a combination of good genes and a rather dormant lifestyle.
"Aeryn! It has been too long."
"Tell me about it! You look well."
"I could say the same for you. I've never seen you look this happy and healthy in years."
"I have much to be happy about, dear sister," she said, squeezing her hands fondly as she cast a glance in her husband's direction. He had thrown an arm around Thomas' shoulder and was talking to him in hushed tones.
"Carys only just arrived this morning; I was so glad she was able to make it to see you. The Grey Wardens have certainly kept her busy, haven't they?"
"Too busy. Thank you for inviting her."
"Anything for my dearest sister."
Again their hands tightened with affection.
"Stay awhile?" she asked pleadingly.
"I wish we could, but… unfortunately we're planning on leaving straightaway."
"Well, you shall, until such time, avail yourselves of our hospitality. I wouldn't dream of sending you away to wherever it is on an empty stomach…"
"Well, that is the reason for this visit. You need to be informed of what is going to happen."
"You look so serious when you say that."
"You'll probably need to be sitting down for this… But give me a moment with my brother."
She turned and went to Fergus, folding him into a warm and scented embrace. He released a very happy sigh, pulling away to hold her at arm's length and look her over.
"Little sister, it is good to see you again."
"Your young boys have become strapping men."
"They have, haven't they? I am proud of them both."
Although Thomas was not his own flesh and blood, he treated him no differently than he had William, welcoming the boy into his life with open arms and a big heart. Aeryn had never thought him capable of such love for another man's son, but he had surprised even her.
"Now then, there is the matter of what we've come to talk about."
Nathaniel drew nearer her, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. Thomas, William, and Carys all planted themselves before the fire, jostling each other with a bit of friendly pushing and shoving in order to get the best spot. Thomas at one point had Carys in a headlock, and her arms flailed as she screamed that the Maker's wrath would rain down upon him should he not desist. Eventually the three of them were brought to obedience by the somber look in Aeryn's eyes. Even Delilah and Thomas, having taken notice of the import of the moment, seated themselves by the fire.
"Nathaniel and I have both felt the calling upon our lives," Aeryn said. "Nate… why don't you tell them?"
He crossed both arms behind his back and stepped closer to their audience.
"What do you mean, the calling?" Thomas echoed. "Is that some sort of special Grey Warden thing?"
"Shh, you ninny," Carys silenced him in annoyance. "You know what it is."
"Indeed it is, Thomas. When a Grey Warden comes to the end of their life, they start to lose the battle against the corruption as the taint spreads inside of them. When that happens, they must answer the calling."
"But what is a calling?" William echoed.
"A ritual as old as time itself. The Grey Warden—or Grey Wardens, as the case may be—journey to the Deep Roads, where they will enter the warrens alone for one last time, to kill as many creatures as they can before dying honorably in battle."
"How do you know you're being called?" Thomas interrupted.
"You can just feel it in your blood," Aeryn answered. "Each day, a little part of your soul whiles away… and then one day you just wake up and know it's time."
Carys folded her hands in her lap respectfully, as though she were grappling with thoughts of her own calling, of the fate that awaited her at the end of the long journey she had just embarked on.
"No offense, Mum, but you do not look to form for such a task."
"But, my love, we do not intend on returning. There is little need to train for this moment. All of our years have been leading to this."
"So you came to tell us you're leaving—just like that?" William whined.
"We don't intend on staying very long. At the very least, we will be leaving tomorrow. We've a long journey to the Deep Roads," she said, hushing him in a softer voice than she ever normally used. William was such a sensitive sort that she worried this news would greatly upset him.
"It doesn't seem fair!"
"That's enough, pup," Fergus shot at him. "Fair or not, that's the way it must be. There is no changing the Maker's will. Better you learn that now than later." He looked at Aeryn with eyes that were slightly red-rimmed and puffy. Was he holding back tears? "Do you know what awaits you in the Deep Roads?"
"It is difficult to say," Nathaniel answered for his wife, holding her gently when he noticed how she was reacting to Fergus' mistiness. "In the days before the Blight, there were Darkspawn, but I haven't even seen any in the last decade… though that's not to say they aren't still at large. The Deep Roads call to us in our blood; surely there must be something stirring from deep within, something we can hopefully put out before our time here is done."
They held hands.
"Which brings us to the matter of our land holdings that you were so kind to give us, Brother," Aeryn said to Fergus. "The estate belongs now to Thomas. Understand, Will, that when you were gifted Castle Highever as a child, we had this in mind for Thomas. And you, Carys, your place was with the Wardens—not at home."
"I never much liked the place anyway," she joked. "Thomas deserves it."
"I am humbled," Thomas said. "Thank you… it is extraordinarily generous of you."
"Just promise you'll take good care of it, clean off the portraits every once in a while," Nathaniel said to him. "There's a great deal of history there. As a Howe, it is your duty to safeguard the family possessions. I went through a great deal of trouble trying to steal them away from your aunt once…"
They exchanged a knowing look.
After a few more glasses of wine and some companionable conversation, Aeryn arose and cast a glance at the others.
"The hour is late," Aeryn announced while stifling a yawn. "We should go to bed."
"Must you?" Thomas complained aloud. "The evening's only just beginning."
"If it's really to be your last night with us…" William pressed.
"Then surely you can stay awake just a little longer," Carys interrupted. "Mum, please."
Nathaniel smiled down at her, the silently pleading look in his eyes begging her to sit and enjoy the fire just a moment longer. For the first time in many years, she felt joy beyond compare. Just knowing she was surrounded by those who loved her was comforting, enough to wash away the fear that had gripped hold of her at the thought of entering the Deep Roads, the place where they would die.
With a smile, she sat down to indulge them in another story before the morning came, squeezing Nathaniel's hand with possessive tenderness.
It had been a good life, and now it was at last to be over.
She welcomed the restful darkness with open arms.