A/N: I appologize for the 5 month delay. My current semester makes those before seem like elementary school levels of stuff. Actually finding time and energy to sit down and write... not easy.
For that reason, until I have more than ten minutes a day to write, the chapters will be rather short. Again, I appologize.
Chapter 1. The Wayward Son
The morning air permeating Denerim spoke of the approaching summer, already now warm enough that the stonemasons and carpenters who toiled away at its reconstruction, could do so without the coats, furs and jackets so necessary a mere month ago. It was the second of Mid Year, or Bloomingtide, as the Fereldans called it.
With Gaspard de Chalon, Emperor of Orlais, having signed a treaty of non-aggression with the Kingdom of Ferelden, and the Empire of Tamriel, most of the Legion's Immunes had returned to the Legionary Barracks beyond the city walls. With their return, reconstruction had picked up its pace. Already foundations were being laid where the old had been cleared away, streets were dug up as sewers were planned out and carts upon carts of raw timber and processed stone rolled through the northern and western gates.
For all the progress made, Denerim was yet sparsely populated. Even though it had been months now since the defeat of the Blight, most who had fled the city before the siege had not yet returned. Many had, and the streets were alive with throngs of humanity. But Talia had seen the city before the battle, before the Blight had reached it in earnest, and this was nothing like before.
"You are certain you'd not rather wait out the last few months here?" Anora asked, releasing Talia from her embrace. They had gathered for departure in the courtyard of the Royal Palace, circled by knights and courtly spectators. General Belisarius too, was present, though he stood in the background with the oddest of companies, to the unknowing eye at least.
"Thanks, but..." Talia shook her head, smiling to her sister-in-law. Who was also her Queen. Technically; "It feels right, to wait it out at home. Besides, Eleanor..."
"Would no-doubt stage a rebellion were I to hold you here and deny her the experience." the Queen laughed, a sound that still seemed to surprise those outside her small, personal circle.
"I could see that happening." Brelyna mused.
Of course, Anora had always been known as the calm, cool and collected head of the Crown, whilst Cailan was alive. When Talia had first met her, she too had initially only seen that facade; "I know, I know. Still, while duties hold me from accompanying you, do be so kind as to tell her to expect visitors soon enough."
Even with how the Queen had grown on Talia during their brief relations in the Blight, it had still been a shocking turn-about when they'd met again only a month ago. Life had returned not just to the city, but to its Queen as well. Though nowhere near her own, cumbersome size, Anora too was showing the unmistakable signs of blooming life.
"I'm sure mother will have the whole Teynir up in arms." Aedan chuckled.
"Hopefully not for the rebellion." King Fergus added, grinning in a way most unbecoming for a monarch, then embraced them both in full view of the court; "Take care now, little brother, sister."
"You too, Fergus." hugging her brother-in-law had become more difficult by the week, but she liked to think she managed alright. At least her new, more loose garments made it easier to move and stretch; "And thanks for the dress, again."
Anora snorted, amused. She of course suspected her husband was merely testing out what worked before it was her turn to be walking around with so much extra on the front. Seeing them together, like this, was no longer a strange or unnatural sight. Hadn't been for...well, months, really. It was always odd to realize how little time had passed, when it felt to her as years, since she'd met them.
"Majesties, if you'd permit." Belisarius had somehow mellowed in the time she'd known him, even if only by periphery. She of course had known of him before she'd met him, but scantily known what to expect back then. A loyal Imperial, and a man of apparently so strong a will that fire and death had no grasp on him. Scarred, still, but then who amongst them was not at this point?
Fergus nodded, beckoning him forward.
When he stepped forward, Fiona accompanied him, never straying more than a few feet from his side. Hers was perhaps the sole company Talia still found herself fidgeting in, though no fault of the older woman's. Alistair's mother was marred by more than time, and had brought nightmares back Talia had thought finally past.
"General. Serah Fiona." she greeted, nodding to both. Outside the eyes of bystanders, she'd have not shown such deference except to the General, but here... less certain; "Are you a man for goodbyes, Ser?"
"Fereldan by marriage you may be, Princess, but an Imperial Noble you remain by blood." he bowed his head; "It'd be rude were I to not wish you safe journeys. As well, to reaffirm that should you wish it, the Empire would also recognize your children as its own."
"I know." she smiled, for the offer was a genuine one, and not borne from mistrust of Ferelden; "Thank you, General."
Fiona was the stranger to depart with, of the two. Though still ruined by grief, the elven mage had found some semblance of purpose once again, with the very people she'd been sent against.
"Will you be alright, with the Legion?" Aedan asked her. Less than herself, his trust was not entirely with the Legion or the Empire yet, but the mistrust he'd once confessed to her was lessened, if not ground into dust altogether. The Legion had shed its blood in defence of Ferelden, and he knew that.
"I believe I will." she said, her smile weaker but genuine; "It is not how I thought my talents would be put to use, but...I think it is a worthwhile cause."
"An Orlesian mage as an Imperial General's aide..." Talia snorted, unladylike and amused at the image, even now; "The Divine no doubt would be most displeased."
"She no doubt would, indeed." Fiona muttered; "It is more the thought of turning my back on his Excellency, that caused my hesitation. The Emperor is a man of heart, though I understand such is an unwanted notion in Ferelden."
"General Tullus told me much the same." Belisarius offered; "Hopefully, he'll clean up the mess in Orlais and solidify this peace. And the Legion can return to Tamriel."
"Then, if we do not meet again, General..." the words came with hesitation, given the ears around them, no-doubt outstretched for any morsel of gossip; "Divines watch over you."
"And you, Princess." His one eye landed on Aedan, who could not quite claim such a title. In Ferelden, the brother of a the man who'd married a dowager Queen was no prince; "Lord Cousland."
Talia felt some relief when they could finally turn to mount the wagons, no longer the simple, wooden cart they had arrived in. Anora had cast a single glance on it and nearly had a stroke, then insisted on the far less spartan carriages that now opened their doors to them.
Cushioned and insulated, with pillows so soft you could fall asleep sitting, it was a far cry indeed from how they had arrived. The old wagon was already being laden with gifts, most of them carpets, rugs and various items of luxury. Anora was going all out.
"We'll take the other one, give the two of you some rest?" Brelyna mused, already shoving a belligerent J'zargo head-first into the carriage behind theirs. Talia blinked at the show, momentarily uncertain what to even make of it, because what, did her sister think her perpetually lustful? She snorted at the idea, before Anora stole back her attention.
"Do give Eleanor my regards." the Queen said, offering them both a last embrace before the world outside vanished behind polished oak and glass.
When Castle Cousland's towers finally rose above the horizon, bringing with them the strong smell of ocean salt and fish, it brought as well a sense of relief Talia had not expected to feel.
Highever had become her home, but it was only when coming back from travels that she truly realized how much she'd grown to feel like she belonged here. It was the right place for her to be, as much as the Empire would always be her roots. This was where she was meant to be, and the screeching gulls, floating on the warm summer winds, only cemented it further.
Both sides of the road, no longer tiled and stone-paved but instead of dirt and the occasional cobblestone, bristled with farmers and peasants, toiling in lines and rows of potatoes, carrots and cabbages. Some paused in their work, watching as the carriage passed their fields by. Aedan snorred away where he sat, but when the salty air struck, Talia could no longer sit still. She slid the glass aside on its slide, and welcomed in the breeze of ocean and sand. Of home.
Farmsteads appeared in greater numbers by the minute, and so in kind grew the numbers of people bearing witness. She watched them all, waving and nodding to those she could see. Though she was, for now, a Warden, soon enough she would be free of it. They both would, and these people would be theirs to care for and govern.
The knowledge swelled in her chest, a sense of pride and exhilaration she could not put into words. Their convoy passed through orchards and by the small, tidy-looking gardens of villages along the road. Where there had been but buds when they left for Denerim, now every tree in the orchards bore fading, white flowers, having already bloomed and been pollinated in their absence.
So much life now, everywhere around her.
Within her too. A bump from her gut broke Talia from her thoughts of orchards and Teyrnirs. The little one was kicking, and like the times before, it brought her to a standstill, barely breathing as she felt the beats against her insides. Small, weak, but still with a ferocity that demanded attention.
"Easy, will you?" she hushed, more to herself than what was not yet fully a child. Still, though the kicking took several seconds to subside, she felt the connection. The love. It was a feeling she'd have never previously understood, this feeling of unadulterated, boundless love for a person that did not yet exist. Her child. Her and Aedan's yet unborn son or daughter, beating away with the determination of one gaining sentience; "You keep kicking me four more months and I'll be a mess, you hear?"
They were still trying to settle on a name, even now. It was damn hard too, much more than she'd thought something simple and straight-forward like a person's name was. Mom and dad had just named them different versions of the same munch of letters, more or less. Aveel, Talia, Alai, not exactly the most inventive sorts, my parents...
If it was a boy, what then? She didn't know a lot of Fereldan boy names, and what she knew from home hardly fit in amongst people here. Her child would grow up among Fereldans, might as well have a fitting name for it. One that had plagued her mind for days now, though she wasn't sure how to even broach it with Aedan, was Alistair. Of all the men she'd met in Ferelden, in Thedas, after Aedan he'd been the most noble, selfless and admittedly sometimes even funny one. The last one more so than her husband, whom she could admit was a dry bastard unless he actually tried. But Alistair had given his life for them, for Aedan. If he'd not shoved him out of the way, she wasn't sure what would have happened.
She'd not wanted to broach it, because it seemed a morbid thing, to name their child after the man who'd given his life for Aedan. The part of her that yet believed in such things even nagged on about names and curses and fates. Even though it was nothing, the feeling still stuck. The same problem rang when Onmund came to mind, the thought of naming her son for her murdered classmate, her friend, had briefly appeared. It had seemed just as morbid though, and she'd pushed it aside.
What about a girl, then? She'd known more women than men in Ferelden, oddly. Eleanor might appreciate a girl being named after her, and the name wasn't too far from what could be considered common in Bankorai, either. Leliana wasn't a Fereldan name, but... it felt like it could be, that she could remember her friend like that. But, like with Alistair for a boy, it felt... morbid, almost wrong at the same time, to place that kind of memory on a child, least of all her child.
Then there was Aelia, a merge of her and Aedan's name, and honestly pretty damn close to how her own mom would do the namings. Wasn't all that Fereldan though, far as she was aware, so... maybe?
Talia sighed, resigning herself to a stalemate for now. She kicked her feet up and rested them on her husband's across from her. Aedan heard or felt nothing, evidently, still soundly asleep where he sat, nestled on softer cushions than she'd thought Ferelden even had.
He slept all the way to the gates of Castle Cousland.
Escaping Eleanor's embrace was the next challenge, almost suffocating as it was. She'd grown used to them, at least, and knew to hold her breath when her mother-in-law went on the attack.
"You had a safe journey?" she asked, continuing before the obvious answer could be given; "It is good to have you home. Come, come, you've probably not eaten properly for days, I'll have the cooks prepare something for you, a warm meal, after that trek. We must celebrate your return, I think. Ale? No, no, wine, yes."
"None for me, please." the look of momentary befuddlement on Eleanor's face was pretty funny, though; "Well, food, yes. Meant the alcohol."
"J'zargo still thinks a demon must have replaced her..." the Khajiit muttered, amused, wiping his shoes off on the granite floor.
"Demon's inside, alright." she shot back, tilting her head sideways; "Kicks like one, anyway."
Eleanor froze in her steps at those words, eyes widened and centered on Talia's belly. It was a mistake to utter those words, she realized that in the very same moment. With a speed that didn't really fit a woman of her age, Eleanor was on her, kneeling before she'd even come to a full stop horizontally. She pressed an ear against the bulging dress.
It was all so sudden, not to mention damn surprising. For several long, awkward seconds, no one spoke a word. Talia glanced down, to Eleanor's closed eyes, her face deep in concentration.
"Well, not right now, I mean." she muttered; "I can't exactly do it on command, anyway."
The Teyrna stood, slowly, suddenly seeming to remember her age, and her knees. A tear was forming in the corner of her eye, though Talia couldn't tell if it was joy or the ache of standing.
"Highever hasn't had the sound of children since..." Eleanor trailed off, smiling through the unspoken words. She was thinking of Oren, of course, Fergus' murdered son; "It will be good, to have that kind of life within the castle walls again. Now, come, come, we must dine, and you must tell me of your stay. Anora, is she well? Fergus?"
"Definitely." Aedan said; "Can't help but notice it now anyway, with that belly. Haven't seen her glow like that...ever, really."
"Well, Cailan, Maker rest his soul, never could give her children. We wondered, many of us at the Landsmeets, as the years went on, if she was infertile. The Theirin line has always been strong..."
"Cousland line was stronger, seems like." Talia grinned, elbowing her husband; "Didn't take long for the charm to work on her either."
"Fergus was always better with women." Eleanor hummed; "Not that Aedan didn't pick up on it eventually, at least..."
"Mother..." he groaned, staring at the ceiling like it could salvage his dignity.
"Anything interesting here?" Talia asked, stifling a laugh. It was always a treat when the boy in Aedan, the one she'd first met here, came to the surface. The Blight turned Alistair to stone, but spared at least her husband that much.
"Nothing much, no. The Banns bicker, as usual, trying to bribe us against each other." A frown took the Teyrna's face; "There's rumors of a pox outbreak in Upwold, down south... I've already dispatched Ser Edhardt with his retainers to investigate."
"Pox?" the word drained Talia's mood of humor; "Fuck."
Pox was one of the few diseases you could not ward against with potions, no matter how much gold you threw at the potioneers. The only preventive measure known to actually work was variolation, and even then it wasn't a sure-fire treatment. That, and the fact that it required materia from already infected victims.
There was no regards for the social standing of the target either. Pox struck wherever it pleased, announcing its arrival with tiny, red marks that covered the skin like hornet-stings. At that point... it was hit or miss, and usually it was hit. Not even restorative spells had significant effects on the damn thing.
"Rumors." Eleanor repeated, pressing on the word; "It's not unusual for peasants to take every other misshapen mark or case of rashes as pox. We see it almost every year."
"It's true." Aedan supplied, and it did ease her mind a little; "There's not been a real spread of it since the Occupation."
"So not all of Aldous' lessons were lost, it seems?" his mother huffed. She smoothed the wrinkles in her dress, and looked them over once more; "I suppose he'd be glad."
Eleanor led them to the main hall, where several benches were taken up already by people foreign to Talia and, it seemed, to Aedan as well. A few of them raised their heads - and tankards - at their entrance. The rest seemed too engaged to care that their liege had just entered the hall.
One head, however, remained raised.
"Wait." Aedan grabbed her shoulder before she had a chance to stop on her own, having noticed it as well; "Look. Is that...?"
A barely kempt, black beard, and hair that only just managed to seem like he'd made an effort of keeping it civilized. His cheeks were gaunt, more so than she remembered, and his eyes seemed deeper set, like they'd sunken into the skull. He definitely stood out amongst the rest in the hall, looking a beggar next to nobles and knights.
Talia watched him, unblinking, as he slowly stood from the bench. His clothes were torn in places they hadn't been before, and so it was hard to tell they'd once been mostly green. She wanted to smack him, hard, and the urge only grew as he approached. Mostly because he'd just left them without a fucking goddamn word for months.
He was their leader, and now he was here, at last, and looked like an absolute bum? She smacked her own face instead, pressing the palm over her eyes in the, admittedly hopeless, hope that when she removed it he'd at least not look like he'd been hauled out of the Alienage two minutes prior. That fucker.
Brelyna was the first to speak, before he'd even come to a stop. For once, at least, their fellow Warden didn't look like he actually knew what to do, or what to say. Honestly he looked more like a kicked stray.
"Hey Brelyna... Aedan, Talia...Cat"
"Maker's fucking knickers..." Aedan muttered.
Daveth was hoarse, much more than before. It was as if he'd spent his voice yelling, screaming and roaring, and now left with nothing but a scratchy whisper. She still wanted to smack him, but the urge was definitely lessening now. Fuck. She still had to make sure she understood she was fucking pissed at him for that stunt.
He wasn't getting off the hook just for looking like the world had decided to be extra cruel these last few months.
"Where the fuck have you been?"
Of course, the accusatory tone probably would have had a greater effect if she hadn't also hugged him. Probably shocked and somewhat confused, because why the fuck wasn't she slapping him for having been such a fucking prude about her wanting to leave the Wardens and then he just up and vanished himself? He did eventually return the embrace.
"...kind of... all over...?"
"...you smell like sewer." she frowned, removing herself somewhat from his shoulder.
Daveth, though weakly, did chuckle at that. It was dry and sardonic and lacking any real mirth. But, right now, just to hear his voice again was welcome, no matter its state.
"Yeah..." he shrugged, revealing a missing tooth in his smile; "That'd fit alright."