Nowhere in all of Ferelden smelled of here. Nor other parts of thedas he’d been sent on missions to, come to think of it. Sweet as fresh hay, the earthy life he ran from wafted on the winds as any good farm in the Hinterlands would. But weaved into every cow hide sunning in the warmth was a static bolt of magic. It hissed through the very bones of the place, following on the trails of an almost sterile medicinal smell. It smelled as if one were to shove your head into a giant basket of recently plucked corn and then menthol in one go. He never realized how much of his life was spent with magic around him until he stepped away from it.
Nowhere was like the little abbey out in the woods of Redcliffe, and nowhere was quite like home.
As Gavin stepped through the gates, he anticipated his father to be wandering around outside doing his best to keep busy and not watch for him. It’d been awhile since he’d last visited, duty always keeping him tugged in a thousand different directions. His parents would somehow find time to sneak on back to Denerim and see their boy when they could, but it wasn’t the same.
He’d been hoarding his leave, planning to head out to the farm in order to help during harvest. But then a letter arrived from his father asking rather cryptically if he’d consider a visit. Gavin put little thought to it for its vagueness, until the King popped his head in and all but dragged him out to the road. The entire week long trek he couldn’t shake away the growing concern in his guts even as they bounced on the back of a horse.
By the bend around Lothering, he convinced himself that it was either darkspawn or a fire. Seeing as how the abbey walls were standing without a hint of ash anywhere, and there were none of those dark creatures chittering about, he was left uncertain. Perhaps his mother used her influence to get a wish from the King?
Wouldn’t that be his luck? He wasn’t of high rank but enough in the order knew he bore some strange halo about him. The Princess wouldn’t make a great fuss about Gavin, but the King was a different matter entirely.
Heaving the traveling pack off his shoulders, Gavin stood in the courtyard that was whisper quiet. Afternoon, most people in hospice would be napping, while the fields were entering into a senescence themselves. The late summer heat tried to dig into his shoulders, most of the sweat already streaking down his back as he wrung against the neck of the traveling coat.
“Well, well,” a voice called from the stables. Gavin turned but instead of his father, old Albert stood by the wayside.
The man was a scarecrow come to life, to the point he would on occasion have straw stuffed up his cuffs and no explanation to give. Lean face, gaunt in the cheeks, but with a haunting sparkle in his eyes, he’d been a staple around the abbey’s farm for years.
“Young Master Gavin,” Albert snickered before slapping a hand to his thigh. Dust erupted from the move, burning in the air. “Sorry, lookin’ at ya, you ain’t so young no more.”
The man’s finger jabbed towards the weeks worth of stubble that was leaning to a beard upon Gavin’s jaw. He rubbed a palm over it and snickered. “There wasn’t much of a chance to freshen up on the road.”
“Get over here,” Albert waved wide, his hands extended far. When Gavin fell into them for a congenial hug, the old man snickered, “Or should I be bowin’ instead.”
“No,” Gavin stepped back, unable to stop the blush burning on his cheeks. “No, don’t be silly.”
“Ser Gavin,” he drew his fingers in a circle over his chin while staring up at the man who couldn’t cease fiddling with the scabbard at his side. “Expected you to be done up in all that fancy metal like a true Knight.”
“We only wear that when facing down a foe, this...” Gavin tugged up the riding leathers with a bit of padding and splintmail, “this is the more typical Knight outfit.”
“Suits you,” Albert smiled wide, patting Gavin harder in the shoulder as if to test Ferleden’s latest son. Suddenly his grin dimmed and the sparkling eyes clouded over, “Yer mom’s real proud. Been telling everyone about it.”
Gavin rolled his eyes and sighed, “That does not surprise me. Where’s my father?”
“He’s...” Albert swallowed hard, his head pivoting up to the second floor. The pit in Gavin’s stomach opened wider as he realized the old farmhand was staring right at his parent’s bedroom door.
“It’s why I’m here,” he shook off the dour thoughts in an instant, giving a bigger smile like a fool to throw Gavin off. “Your pa’s had his hands full so brought me in early. Keepin’ way too many mages in line is exhausting.”
The man was clearly giving it his all to distract Gavin but the trepidation inside of him was growing larger with every beat of his heart. “Albert...?”
“Go and see yer Pa. You, uh,” the scarecrow slunk back a bit, his fingers hefting up a pitchfork left lying in the sun. His father would have blown a blood vessel if Gavin had ever done something like that. Tools belonged in the shed, safe away from the elements.
What was going on that his father didn’t even care about such things?
“Just head up, Gavy,” Albert nodded his head and turned back to the hay that didn’t need any stirring.
Flexing his fingers and doing his best to stop the hitch of a breath burning through his lungs like fiery acid, Gavin began what felt an unending climb up the stairs. Barely any doors opened, or were left open. There seemed to be fewer and fewer residences as the years went by. Some of that was due to his mother’s skills, some to the march of time. It was hard to imagine this not being a place of healing, but who knew what the future could have in store. Perhaps it’d finally be a chance for his parents to retire properly, instead of their half assumed one when they moved out here.
He was trying to distract himself. To focus on other matters that didn’t matter instead of the gaping hole burning in his brain. Doing his best to disguise the tremble in his fingers, Gavin clamped down on the door latch hard. It didn’t entirely work, the lift rattling in his grip, but he prodded open the door and stepped into his parent’s room.
Darkness seeped into the normally sunny bedroom. The shutters that were thick enough to stop the breath of the Maker were all drawn shut. A single candle danced upon a nightstand, casting a haunting glow upon the man sitting on a chair beside it. He had his head tipped down as if he was less catching a few winks than deep in prayer.
Gavin turned from his father to the bed, when all the fear he’d been carrying since leaving Denerim bloomed. Skin of a grey ash, her eyes sunken deep into the sockets, hair thin to the point it appeared as if clumps fell out, she looked as if she was already across the veil. Tucked into the great bed his father built, his mother looked so frail and tiny, like a quail bone about to snap in half.
He must have made a sound at the sight, as his father’s head snapped up. It took a moment for the weary eyes to find the intruder before Cullen wiped across his face to try and snap a semblance of normalcy into it. “Gavin!” he called, the voice splintered in half. Turning to the weak body in bed, he whispered, “Lana, our son’s come home.”
Death drew its icy claws away from its hold on his mother as her lips rose from the news. Slowly, her eyelids opened and she stared in rapture at her boy left dumbstruck in the doorway. Cullen rose from the chair, his bones creaking and back hunched as he no doubt sat there for hours watching over her.
“Son,” he moved to wrap a hand around Gavin, when the boy met him with both. Trapped in a full hug with his father, Gavin’s heart gave out a single sob. It was only one, while a multitude sat chained inside, but his father tightened his grip. Did he not want Lana to see her boy come undone or was he trying to find his own strength from his son?
“We didn’t think you’d be out here until later into the year,” Cullen said. Scratchy stubble claimed most of his jawline, what used to be white as snow now an ashen grey from dirt he hadn’t taken the time to clean off. The bags under his eyes lengthened down his cheeks and he teetered a bit from his underused legs.
Why didn’t he tell him? Why didn’t he warn him how dire things were?
Gavin wanted to scream them all at the man, but his father looked as if he too was about to drop from a dead faint. Trying to shake the anger away, he rubbed his neck, “I had a bit of a lull and thought it’d be nice to see you.”
“We missed you,” his dad said softly.
“Sweetie,” the brittle voice cracked, but even the pain inside couldn’t deny the joy on her lips. His mother struggled to sit up a bit, her head rising from the pillow as she took him in.
“Mom,” Gavin tried to smile in response, but his stomach was tying itself in knots. How long had this been going on? And no one would tell him?
“Come sit by me,” she turned to gaze at the vacant chair. By the candle light it looked as if his father’s shadow was permanently etched into the surface. Gavin glanced over at Cullen, uncertain if it was wise, but he gestured a hand to it.
Bundling up his limp fingers, Gavin curled up onto the chair when he was struck by a far too familiar smell. Not of candies and cold tea, but rot and illness. His mother didn’t seem to be aware of it, her head tipping a bit to the side as she looked up at him.
“Look at that beard, Maker’s breath.”
“I...” he absently scraped a hand over his jaw, “I didn’t have a chance to shave it.”
“It suits you,” his mother smiled and nodded her head. “Far better than anything your father could ever grow.” Instead of a barb, she smiled serenely at her husband who shrugged.
“Dark hair makes that work far better. You’re lucky in that department.”
There were a thousand unsaid words seeping through the floor. Each one crowded around his legs begging to be voiced, but looking at his father -- broken, hungry, terrified -- he couldn’t speak a one. Instead, Gavin focused fully on his mother who wasn’t about to let this opportunity pass her by.
“How was the trip?”
“Good, not many out on the King’s Highway this time of year. Too hot for most,” he paused and reached into his bag, “I did bring a few things from Denerim, um...” Rifling over the satchel, Gavin’s fingers glanced across a few foolish bobbles he thought to snatch up for his parents. Books, candies, a fresh whetstone, it all seemed so trivial.
“This tea,” he selected the tin which was actually a gift from Ms. Sayer.
“Ooh,” his mom’s clouded eyes focused on the green box. “What is it?”
“Some special blend, apparently a few of the college brewers are gathering together to create their own Ferelden themed teas. This one’s for the, uh, memory of the Hero of Ferelden.” He thought it’d be a lark, drinking her memorial tea same as all the times she’d insist they stop by her memorial in Denerim when she was in town. His mother seemed to enjoy walking around her old things telling him about them.
Looking at her now, her skin pocked and hanging like wet sacks off her brittle bones, Gavin felt like a demon for even bringing it. But his mom’s hand skirted over the tin and she lifted it free. “Sounds delightful. I can’t wait to try a cup.”
His father scurried forward and picked up the blend, “I’ll go and get a kettle and some cups while you two catch up.”
“Thanks, love,” Lana called with a small wave of her fingers.
It was a simple task, but at the door his father paused and turned back. Broken eyes skirted over the woman in his bed as if...as if he feared he’d never see her again. When the door closed, his father off to perform his duty, Lana sighed.
“I’m glad you’re here. Your father needs a break but will he take one? Of course not.”
“Mom...” Gavin shifted in his seat, his lip trembling at the wave of accusations building inside of him. “Mom, why wasn’t I...?”
Her shoulders dragged even further downward, elongating the far too thin neck as she sighed. Cloudy eyes turned to him, “I assume you’re here because of Ali?”
“Yeah,” he nodded, clinging to whatever he could. “Yes, the King he ordered me out here. Why didn’t either of you? How long has this been...? Mom?”
“Over a month now,” she groaned, fingers slumped onto her thighs. Gavin hissed at the thought. He’d received at least three letters from his parents since then, none of them mentioning her illness. Sensing the change in her son, Lana glanced over, “You know your father. He can’t fight this, he can’t slay it, he can’t... Sweetie, he can’t save me, so he’s denying it.”
“Mom!” Can’t save her? Was it truly that definite? Was she...?
Maker, even he couldn’t think it. His heart constricted tight in his chest, Gavin struggling to suck back in the tears that began as the truth crashed against him.
“What is it? Maybe I can...I know people. They know things that...”
“Gavin,” her paper thin fingers fell into his. She couldn’t grip onto them, and they felt cold and so fragile in his trembling grasp. “It’s okay.”
“It’s not fair.”
She tipped her head to the side and a smile flitted about her lips. “That may be, but it’s also okay.” He wanted to bawl on her shoulder, to bury his face into her stomach and cry ugly tears the way he did when a child with a skinned knee. But she was far too fragile to take such a beating, and she needed him to be strong.
The door opened, Cullen stepping in quickly with a tray in his arms. “The kettle’s not at boiling, but considering your tea issues I didn’t think it’d much matter.”
They both did. His dad was trying to smile in his own pinched lip way, but that denial wasn’t reaching his eyes. All his life, his father looked at his mother in open awe, as if she was the only person in the room. Now, he risked furtive glances from the side, terrified that at any moment she might flee from them both. Flee so far neither could reach her.
While the tea steeped, his father took a seat on the bed beside his mother’s legs. He kept patting a hand near her while jostling a cup until it was ready. “How long will you be able to stay with us?” Cullen began, acting as if everything was normal.
“Nothing with the dwarven kingdom on the horizon?”
As the abnormalcy of it all struck hard to Gavin, he accepted the cup of tea from his father. “Ah, no. The Queen is in commune and she’s opened up negotiations to more than just me. Hopefully I won’t be required to visit out there as often.”
“Maybe you can finally get a place of your own,” his mother said with a smile. She had to circle both hands around her cup of tea and slowly brought it to her lips. “Ooh, tangy.”
“There’s a raspberry swirl to try and bring out the chocolate undertones,” Gavin said. He tipped the lip to his mouth, but couldn’t taste anything of the hot leaf water washing down his gullet. Everything smelled of ash burning on a hot pyre.
“Gavin,” his mother suddenly turned her head to him. “Is that a scar on your bottom lip?”
“Uh,” guiltily, he thumbed the deep cut and gulped. “Yes. From a landslide, one of the falling rocks struck me in the face.”
Lana chuckled and turned to her husband, “Another lip scar?” She moved her hand forward a bit, and Cullen met her first. Locking her hand tight in his, they stared deep into each other’s eyes. “It must run in the blood.”
Quietly, Gavin sipped the tea doing his best to not think that each breath from her could be the last.