The following morning Alistair woke up alone, disappointed though not really surprised. The pillow he found himself hugging served as a rather poor substitute for the real thing. He wasn't really sure how long she had been gone. If she had left a warm indentation on the bed, he suspected he had unconsciously moved into it when she left. He covered his face with the pillow to muffle a yawn and then tossed it aside, rolling out of bed.
He opened the door to his room to greet the on-duty guards and directed them to have servants draw water for a bath. While they filled the stone tub, he sat down at the desk and absently flipped through some paperwork as he thought about the events of the previous day, oblivious to their stares at the sight of him dressed in the rumpled clothing he'd worn from yesterday. A bath, shave and change of clothes helped him feel much better prepared to meet the day's challenges. He emerged from his room and though he was of half a mind to ask his guards what how long ago Lyna had slipped out of his chambers, he decided against it after seeing Welborne's vaguely disapproving expression. Merrill was as impassive as ever but no doubt he was curious as well. In the five years Alistair had ruled, he had never had a woman stay in his bedchambers overnight, not even the Queen. He had always gone to her rooms to consummate the duties of their marriage.
He'd only taken a few steps away from his door when he heard childish laughter, punctuated by happy barks, both of which heralded the arrival of Nathan. The boy rounded the corner of the corridor, running straight at him and being chased—or quite possibly herded—by Bowen. Nathan slammed into his thigh with a joyous 'oof' of sound and he barely had time to swing the child up and out of the way before the Mabari followed suit, causing him to stagger back a step.
Laughing, Alistair gave his son a quick hug and said, "Well good morning to both of you. If I wasn't already awake, I'd sure be awake now."
"Your Majesty!" A red-faced and winded Terrance drew up short at the sight of his charge in the King's arms. "I'm sorry, Sire, he and the dog were playing and then all of a sudden they both took off running. I should have been watching more closely. I won't let it happen again."
Shifting the child to hold against his hip, Alistair scratched the top of Bowen's broad head and then insistently pushed him down before looking at Terrance. The guardsman's nose was still a little swollen from a couple of mornings ago, but at least it wasn't broken. He had half a mind to say that Nathan's brief escape from guard was nothing to worry about, but the image of Flemeth the Dragon reared her ugly head and he was abruptly reminded why he'd assigned guards to the child in the first place. Instead, he said, "Just see that it doesn't."
The guard paled at his tone and squared his shoulder, stammering, "Y-yes, your Majesty. I will guard him as closely as I would my own brothers and sisters."
It would have to do. Remembering his own attempts at evading his guards from time to time, Alistair looked at Nathan. "And as for you, no running off and leaving your guard behind, or I'll assign more than just Tamara and Terrance to keep an eye on you." The little boy sighed and nodded his understanding, his lower lip jutting out in a small but obvious pout.
Bowen barked sharply, wagging his tail and his eyes bright with intelligence. "Oh, you think he needs another guard?" he asked, and the dog barked again, ducking his head before sitting and staring up at the man and child.
Merrill cleared his throat and said, "I believe Warden Commander Lyna's already commanded him to help guard the boy. I heard her say something along those lines to him when she left your room this morning." He gave a discrete cough and all three of the royal guards seemed to be looking everywhere except at him.
"Oh," Alistair remarked, flushing even though he certainly had no reason to be embarrassed. Nothing had happened, for Andraste's sake! "Good boy, then." He gave the Mabari another pat on the head and Bowen stood up, panting with his mouth hanging open in a canine grin.
Nathan wrapped his thin arms around his father's neck, resting his head on his shoulder.
"Captain Lyndon told me that you came from quite a large family?" the King asked Terrance. "I think he said you had something like eleven siblings?
The guardsman seemed surprised by the question but said with pride, "Yes, Majesty. Actually, I have twelve brothers and sisters."
"Wait, there were thirteen of you all together?" Growing up alone and with no family, it was hard to comprehend living in a home with so many siblings. It had to be sheer insanity. "Maker's breath, that's a one big family. You'll have to introduce me sometime," he said without really thinking about it.
Terrance's jaw went slack. "You want to meet my family?"
Alistair hesitated. He knew he should probably retract the request but he really was curious to see what a family that had so many children was like. "Actually, yes I would, especially if you ever get them all together at the same time, that is. I imagine you're not the only one who's old enough to have moved out, are you? You're from the South Reaches arling, aren't you? Perhaps we can stop by when we're there in a couple of weeks."
The young guard still looked like he was trying to wrap his mind around the fact that the King of Ferelden wanted to meet his family. "Yes, Sire. My fa is the blacksmith. Made me my first sword when I was no older than Nathan there," he gestured at the little boy.
Nathan's arms tightened around him in a final hug before he began to squirm, wanting down. Alistair set him on the floor, chucking him a touch under the chin with his knuckles. "You're ready to spend a long day playing with Bryce now, aren't you?" Grinning at the boy's immediate nod, he straightened and his eyes drifted to the closed door midway down the hall. Gesturing at the door, he asked, "Where's Wynne this morning?"
"She said she was feeling a bit under the weather and would likely be spending most of the day in her room," Terrance answered, though his attention was on Nathan as the child rubbed Bowen's ears before walking over to slip his hand in the guard's. "Ready to go find Bryce then?" When he got a nod as an answer, the young man bowed, "If you'll excuse us, your Majesty," and led the boy away, the Mabari hound following behind.
He briefly debated knocking on Wynne's door but decided against it. The surprises from yesterday were a lot of information to digest. He had little doubt that when she was ready to talk again, or lecture as it were, she would seek him out. Most likely, she'd grab his ear at a time when Lyna wasn't around to intervene. Sighing with resignation, he went on down to the dining hall to grab something to eat.
Wynne reappeared at lunch but her face was drawn with that same weariness that had strained it since last night. Bayard, Kaitlyn and Teagan both noticed the change in her demeanor but when they expressed concern, she waved her hand and said she was just feeling her age. It was an evasive response that didn't offer much of an opening for more questions. She remained somewhat distant from everyone over the next two days that the royal party wound down its visit to Redcliffe before preparing to go on the road again. A lot of time was spent in her room though she emerged for meals and would sit with Nathan and Bryce as they played together to give Kaitlyn a bit of a rest. Many noblewomen used nursemaids for such things but Kaitlyn had been a commoner and as such, was determined that she and Teagan be the ones to raise young Bryce.
He saw a lot more of Lyna during that time frame. She and her two Warden recruits joined in the morning sparring Alistair and the royal guards did in the courtyard. He'd forgotten how quick and nimble she was with her blades and she quite cheerfully reminded him when they dueled. Of course, he gave as good as he got with Starfang and shield, and when Lyndon finally called it a draw they were both breathless, but grinning at each other none the less.
In the evening, he made it a point to go to the Warden's Rest Tavern and Lyna and the Wardens all accompanied him, much to the dismay of Captain Lyndon. The captain hated it when his liege went tavern-hopping. If he had it his way, they'd close down the bar completely and do body checks on everyone who was allowed to go in. There was no way to protect him in such a casual atmosphere and the King was little help, because he wouldn't let them maintain a safe cordon around him. "What's the point of me trying to mingle with the commoners if I'm not actually allowed to do the mingling part?" Alistair had demanded, brushing aside his guard captain's concerns before going inside. It wasn't the first time he'd said it and wouldn't be the last.
Bella had done well for herself since taking over the establishment and still kept Lloyd on as the bartender. Drinks were on the house for the King and Wardens but he had learned long ago not to get too far into his cups and settled for doing little more than wetting his upper lip with the frothy brews without actually drinking more than a couple of swallows. Even so, the Fereldens who happened to be in the bar at the time were thrilled to be rubbing elbows and sharing drinks with the King, not to mention the much vaunted Hero of Ferelden herself. The recruits, Kendrin and Jameson, were unused to the endless supply of alcohol and got utterly smashed. To his surprise, Fiona had come along as well though she sat at the end of the bar, watching both Alistair and Lyna reminisce with some former militia about the battles fought at Redcliffe and later at Denerim.
When they left, Lyndon was a nervous wreck and had taken to just resting his hand on his sword and glaring at anyone who came close, for all the good that did. The royal guards Canfield and Welborne were commandeered into helping the recruits make it back up to their room to the castle.
Lyna, Fiona and Alistair were walking up the long hall toward their rooms, and when they reached the t-shaped corridor where they would part ways for the evening, Fiona said, "Good night." She'd taken half a step away from them and then paused, turning back to look up at him as she haltingly added, "You… are not what I expected. And that's not a bad thing, I've decided." The elf mage had walked off before he could even formulate a reply.
Alistair looked at Lyna and was pretty sure her confused expression mirrored his own. "What was that all about? Did I miss something?"
"I have no idea," she responded, mystified. "On the way here, she said she didn't really want to know anything about you, that she wanted to form her own opinion after meeting you. Since we've been here though, it seems as though you're all she wants to talk about. She wants to know about what kind of man you are, what it was like to travel with you and fight at your side, how good a King I think you are, that kind of stuff."
"Maybe the Grey Wardens in Weisshaupt are wondering about how I'm serving as King while still being a Warden. Wardens are supposed to remain neutral in matters of politics, you know," he suggested thoughtfully.
She gave a derisive snort. "They'd do well to follow their own advice, if that's the case. King Knud of the Anderfels is utterly useless. All he does is flutter his hands helplessly and wait for the Wardens at the castle to tell him what to do. And they seem to enjoy their control over him."
"Knud. What a terrible name. May as well call him King Dude," Alistair commented, wrinkling his nose. He thought about what she'd said regarding Fiona and cleared his throat before asking in a soft voice meant for her ears only, "So how much did you tell her about traveling with me? Did you tell her about, you know, us?" and felt his ears redden.
"No, I didn't tell her how close we were," she said, looking up at him. "Though I think she's got her suspicions anyway. She spends a lot of time watching people, and I get the sense that she doesn't miss much." Lyna gave a slight smile, "Hiding your feelings has never been one of your strong points."
He chuckled at that, "Eamon and Wynne take every opportunity to remind me of that, actually. I've gotten better at it though, don't you think? So then, with that in mind, how do you think I'm doing as King?" and squared his shoulders as though readying himself for a physical blow. "Seriously, now. Go ahead and lay it on me, I'm a big boy, I can take the heat."
"Well, better than Knud, that's for sure."
"Ouch, that bad? That's not saying much, you know," he accused.
Lyna laughed at that, her pale green eyes bright with amusement. "True enough." The smile fell away from her face and she studied him before she spoke, "I think you've made a fine king, so far. People believe that your rulings are focused on doing what's best for all of Ferelden, instead of playing favorites to particular nobles. Commoners adore you, but I'm pretty sure you knew that. You play dumb around the nobles a bit too much and you've a tendency to put too much responsibility in Eamon's hands instead of dealing with it yourself but when it comes down to making an important decision, when you put your foot down your word is final and that's that, there's no swaying you." She paused and added thoughtfully, "You should put your foot down more often."
Alistair tensed when she began to speak. No other opinion mattered more to him than hers and it was a relief to hear that she seemed to approve of his rule so far. "My foot has gained a permanent twitch from trying to resist the urge to give some of those nobles a quick kick in the pants, especially Bann Ceorlic," he confessed with exaggerated levity. "When they get to nattering at each other, I keep hoping they'll work things out among themselves without my getting involved. You can pretty much guess how well that goes."
"If you made abrupt and firm rulings that favored neither party when they draw you into such trivial matters," she pointed out, "they'd be more inclined to solve their petty disagreements without involving you and take more care to bring only major issues that neither side could compromise on to your attention." Inclining her head, she said, "Not that I'm trying to tell you how to rule Ferelden, but that's how the Keeper decided matters amongst the Dalish, and I've adopted similar methods as Warden Commander of Amaranthine. It ends up saving a lot of time and headache."
It did make sense, when he thought about it. That was one of the things he despised, that the nobles seemed to want his opinion on so many insignificant things. "Hm. I shall take your words into consideration." When she lifted an eyebrow at his inadvertently formal tone, he added in a lighter voice, "Though I will, of course, keep my idea regarding kicking them in the pants as a backup plan."
Lyna laughed, "Very well, my liege." She looked down the hall and then back at him, "I suppose I had better go check on Kendrin and Jameson. I imagine they'll be regretting their revelry during training in the morning."
"When were you planning on doing the Joining ceremony?" he asked. At some point, she'd need to take the two out to get the fresh darkspawn blood they'd need for the ritual, but he had little doubt that she'd prefer to do the Joining away from Redcliffe.
She hesitated a moment before lifting her chin, "I've been meaning to talk with you about that, actually. Bayard mentioned that you were intending to head through Lothering and down to Ostagar before you go to Gwaren? Would you mind if we traveled with you?"
"You needn't even ask," he responded with a grin and was inordinately pleased by her request, practical as it was. He was all for anything that prolonged the amount of time he got to spend with her. "The more the merrier, I always say. We'll need two more horses, though I'm sure Teagan won't mind if we borrow them from his stable. We leave the day after tomorrow, in case you hadn't heard."
"Good. I'll tell the others to prepare," she nodded.
They stared at each other in silence for a long moment until it was broken by the creak of metal over leather when one of his guards shifted position from somewhere behind him. Alistair finally said, "Well then. I…Goodnight."
"Goodnight," Lyna echoed.
Neither of them moved. When she quirked an eyebrow at him, he cleared his throat awkwardly and said, "I'll just, you know, be heading to my room." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder to indicate it, and then regretted the gesture, it wasn't like she didn't know, she'd been in there half the night before. The problem was that he wanted her to join him in there tonight. And the next night. And in his tent on the road, since he was on that thread.
Of course she wasn't going to let that lame gesture slide. "Is that where it is? I'd already forgotten," she teased. His witty response fluttered away when she took two quick steps toward him, resting one hand on his chest as she tiptoed and brushed a quick kiss to his cheek. "Sleep well," she murmured, adding a quiet, "Good night," for the guards as well before she slipped down the hall and into one of the rooms.
The following morning, Alistair was in the process of pulling a clean tunic over his head when there was a tentative knock at the door. "Just a moment," he called, his voice muffled by the fabric. He finished jerking it the rest of the way on and was walking toward the door when it opened. Nathan ran in, literally leaping up into his arms and laughed with delight as he was swung around in a circle. "Good morning! How're you today?" he asked the little boy.
Nathan didn't say anything, just grinned and hugged him as an answer, conveying the notion that he was doing quite well.
Wynne entered the room too, lines of weariness still etched in her aged face, but even so, she had a bit of a smile on her face as she watched the two. "Good morning, your Majesty," she greeted him formally.
"Good morning, Wynne," he returned, wondering if his voice sounded as uncertain as he felt. They'd barely exchanged two words with each other since the evening he'd told her the truth about Nathan's parentage, edited though it had been. The King looked between the boy and mage and asked, "Were you taking him down for breakfast?"
The old mage paused a moment and then said in a subdued voice, "Actually, I was going to let Tamara see to that. I was wondering if I could speak with you in private."
"Of course," he said, carrying Nathan over to the door and opening it. Tamara was waiting just outside and the King passed his son to the guardswoman, saying, "We'll be down shortly." After closing the door, he turned and went back over to Wynne, who was standing exactly where he had left her, stiffly formal. "Would you like to sit down?" he asked, gesturing at the settee.
Shaking her head, Wynne said, "No thank you. For this, I prefer to stand," and inhaled and exhaled a long slow breath before speaking again. "I wanted to apologize to you for the things I said the other night. While it may not be unusual for me to speak my mind, especially to you, many of the things I said were cruel. Deliberately so at times, I am ashamed to admit."
He gave her a weak smile and pointed out, "Just because they were cruel didn't make them any less true, when you get right down to it. There were consequences for what I did, the choices I made." Turning away from her, he walked over to the settee and sank down onto it, "It's just that I should have been the one to suffer the effects of it though, not Nathan."
After a moment, she made her way over to sit down beside him. "Even so, it was unfair to blame you for her deeds. The things that Morrigan did to him—her own son, for Andraste's sake!—are unthinkable! Not even I would ever imagine that she'd be driven to such a despicable act," she seethed furiously and drew in a few quick breaths to calm her ire. It was a long moment before she could trust herself to speak again, and she confessed, "To be honest, it hurt my feelings as well. That you did not seem to trust me enough to tell me about something so important until you had no other choice in the matter."
"It wasn't that I was deliberately trying to keep it a secret from you so much as I was trying not to think about doing it—that especially—with her at all. I'd done my damndest to completely blot the whole thing out of my mind." Alistair rested his elbows on his knees, knitting his fingers together and staring down at his hands. "You had the right of it though. I knew she couldn't be trusted. We all knew."
Wynne rested her hand on his forearm to draw his attention and when he looked at her, she said, "If I can't imagine that she'd have done such things, there's no way you could have either. Don't torture yourself over the things you didn't do when you could be focusing on every precious moment of time you have with him from here on out."
"Is that your official advice given in your capacity as the Senior Court Mage of Ferelden?" he asked, mustering a smile from somewhere.
"No," she shook her head. "Those are the official words of the wise from a very dear friend of yours, if you're still willing to have me as one that is."
He made an exasperated sound and shifted on the couch to give her a hug. "I really do think you're getting senile in your old age, saying such ridiculous things."
The mage's laughter was muffled against his shoulder, and she returned his embrace before withdrawing to recompose herself. "Perhaps." She gave him a warm smile, "I was right, by the way. You are making a good, loving father. Nathan is very lucky to have found you."
Alistair grinned, "Thank you. This is likely to be my one and only chance at it, and I'm determined to get it right the first time. Now what would be really handy would be if he could help me find Morrigan the same way he found me. I've got a few choice words I'd like for her to hear," he stated with bitter amusement.
The smile faded from her lips and worry flickered in her blue eyes. Her aged face may as well have been set in stone as she said sharply, "You must never ask him to do that for you, Alistair. Not under any circumstances, do you understand me?"
He was taken aback by her sudden shift in mood. "And why not? Don't you think she deserves to be punished for what she's done to him?"
"Of course I do, don't be an idiot," Wynne waved her hand with a dismissive gesture. "Just don't use Nathan as a tool to help you achieve that goal, is all I'm saying." Sighing, she tried to explain, "If you did that, you would force him to betray his own mother, and no matter what she's done to him, believe me when I tell you this, he still loves her unconditionally, as any other four-year-old would love their mother, in spite of her flaws."
Rising to his feet, he ran his fingers through his hair in a quick frustrated gesture and demanded, "So what, I'm just supposed to leave her be? Live and let live, after the monstrous things she's done to him? I can't do that. Not as a father or as a king."
"I'm not saying that at all," she said, standing up as well. "I'm just saying don't turn your son's gifts into a tool of vengeance. Find her by other means. Or let her find you," she amended with a wave of her hand. "I'm sure she's been looking for him since the moment she realized he had slipped her grasp. It's quite possible she already knows he's in your care and is simply waiting for an opportune moment to swoop down and carry him away."
His jaw clenched at that suggestion. "Yes, swooping is bad. And I've no intention of letting her swoop anywhere near him."
Of course, her words came to him later during lunch. It was a beautiful spring day with nary a cloud in the sky. Lady Kaitlyn had come up with the bright idea of letting the boys have a picnic in the garden instead of eating in the dining hall for their last afternoon together.
Alistair eyed a distant bird circling in the sky above and Wynne came over to stand beside him, lifting her hand to block out the sun as she squinted at the black speck. "You know, when I said that thing about her swooping down, I was being more figurative than literal, right?" she commented, giving him a sidelong glance.
"Well, she is a shapeshifter, you know," he reminded her almost sulkily. "That could be her."
Their birdwatching drew the attention of both Lyna and Fiona, who joined them.
"What exactly are we all looking at, here?" Lyna asked after a moment and looked upward as well in curiosity.
Fiona studied the black dot, her sharp elvish eyes able to pick out details too fine for a human to see. "A hawk. With black bars on its wings and a yellow stripe on its tail."
"Hm. So it is," the other Warden agreed, peering at the raptor. "I've seen that particular type of hawk many times. They're quite common in Ferelden, as far as birds of prey go."
"Alistair worries that it might be Morrigan," Wynne informed her.
Lyna's eyes widened. "Oh." She eyed the hawk more carefully, "If it is, we'd have no way of knowing one way or the other. How do you know it's her?"
He protested, "I never said that it was actually her. I just said that it could be. She is a shapeshifter, so it's not unreasonable to think that she might take the form of a hawk, or a frog, or any other animal that struck her fancy."
"A shapeshifter?" Fiona said with surprise. "By all the accounts I read at Weisshaupt, that particular school of magic went extinct centuries ago."
"Not quite. A few linger here and there, hedge mages and witches for the most part. One of our traveling companions during the Blight had the gift. It came in handy at times," Wynne admitted with grudging respect.
The elf mage studied the trio of grim faces and observed, "I take it that she's fallen out of favor in the time since the Archdemon was slain?"
"You could say that," Alistair growled, rubbing his neck to get the crick out as he diverted his attention from the hawk to Nathan. The two boys were both crouched down and staring intently at a row of plantings. Remembering his own forays into the garden as a youngster, he strongly suspected that either bugs or worms were the reason for their complete focus. Neither would be in short supply.
Kaitlyn was reclining against Teagan's chest, watching the children with an indulgent smile. The Arl leaned down to whisper something in her ear and she stifled a giggle and then poked him in the arm in retaliation for his words.
Alistair looked away, finding himself almost jealous of their easy comfort with one another. It had been a long time since he'd been able to indulge in moments like that. His gaze settled on Lyna and a wistful sigh escaped him. Things had been so much less complicated between them during the Blight, which was rather backwards when he thought about it. One would think times of peace would lend themselves better to such occasions.
"What did she do?" Fiona was asking Lyna.
The Warden Commander flicked a quick glance at Alistair as seeking his permission to divulge details of Morrigan's wrongs, and he lifted one shoulder in response, leaving the decision up to her. Shifting her attention back to Fiona, she said in a low voice "She's Nathan's mother."
Fiona's dark eyes sharpened. "She's the reason for all the scars on his legs?" When the others looked surprised by her knowledge, her smile was tight as she said, "I watch and I listen. It's surprising, the things you can learn from servant gossip," then directed a knowing look at the other two Wardens.
Alistair flushed in reaction, remembering what Lyna had said the night before about the mage already suspecting the nature of their prior relationship. He suddenly wondered if any servants had seen her leaving his room the other night and had a sneaking suspicion the answer to that question was a resounding 'yes'. No doubt they'd drawn their own conclusions, right or wrong, as to what had happened behind closed doors.
A polite cough emanated from Wynne, who then nodded, "Yes. There's no other logical explanation for them that we can discern."
"What kind of mother would use her own child for blood magic?" the petite mage demanded.
Lyna grimaced, "You never met her, so I can't really explain it any better than that. During our travels, we got to know each other a little, though we were never what I'd call close. Still, it seems extreme even for her."
"And the father? Where was he when all of this was going on? Looking the other way?"
The question was out there and so unexpected that no one had even considered evasive ways to answer it. Wynne's lips tightened and Lyna's eyes flashed with anger, but before either of them could say a word, Alistair said quietly, "I was right here. Being the King of Ferelden." His gaze darted over to Teagan and Kaitlyn but they were so focused on each other it was obvious that neither one had heard what was being said. "I had no idea what she was doing—or that I even had a son—until a few days ago, but that doesn't absolve me of guilt or make me any less implicit in what's been done." He met Fiona's shocked gaze and his lips twisted with sardonic amusement. "I suppose that pedestal you had me on just crumbled to dust, didn't it? If you ladies would excuse me?"
Turning, he walked away from them so he didn't have to listen to them talk about it anymore, since it seemed like they'd done little else for two days. The guard Tamara was standing beside a vine-covered trellis watching the boys play a few feet away and Alistair made his way over to where she was to ask, "Are we having fun?"
"We are playing with worms, your Majesty," Tamara returned stoically. He suspected she would have used the exact same tone were she being debriefed or tortured.
"Well then, that's definitely a yes, isn't it?" He thought he saw her lips twitch and grinned with satisfaction. Remembering how upset the guardswoman had been at her 'reassignment', the King said more seriously, "Tamara, you know I would not have asked you and Terrance to do this if it hadn't been so important to me, right?"
Her alert gaze swung away from the children meet his as she answered, "It is precisely because it is so important to you that it is important to me, Majesty." Ducking her head a touch, she returned to watching Nathan and Bryce and amended, "To both of us."
The guardswoman's initial choice of words came across as so personal, it caught him off guard. Did she mean…? He thought to himself and studied her out of the corner of his eye. She was staring straight forward, looking utterly focused on her duty as Nathan's bodyguard, but there was a faint hint of redness darkening her cheeks. "Thank you," he said, not really knowing what else to say.
Tamara gave a quick nod but didn't speak, keeping her expression aloof.
Alistair stood in silence beside her, peering over the garden. Lyna, Fiona and Wynne still had their heads lowered in quiet conversation, so he had no interest in wading back into that mire. An excited exclamation from Bryce drew his attention and curiosity compelled him to go see what new creepy crawly they had discovered now. He came up behind the pair and crouched down to their level. "Did you find anything interesting?"
The children grinned in turn, their hands, faces and clothes all dirt streaked from their post lunchtime play. Bryce raised his grubby hand to show off his find while Nathan watched. A small green caterpillar inched its way across his hand, pausing now and again to raise the front half of its body up and look around, no doubt in search of the plant it had been plucked from. The little red headed boy giggled and said, "It tickles!"
"Does it?" Alistair exclaimed with feigned surprise. "Let me feel," he said and put his hand alongside Bryce's much smaller one when the caterpillar started crawling again. He could just feel the pull of the thing's sticky feet as it crossed from the child's hand to his own. "It does tickle a bit, doesn't it? You two know what this will turn into when it gets a bit older, right?"
Bryce frowned uncertainly but Nathan exclaimed, "Butterfly!" beaming up at Alistair before moving his own hand over for the caterpillar to walk onto.
"That's right," the King said, tousling his son's head after the small green creature exchanged ownership again. He was reminded of that day on the road from Orzammar when he'd first seen the little boy, kneeling down, his smock filthy but his face bright with excitement as he showed off his prize to the stunned man. 'Butterfly' had been the first word he'd ever heard the boy say.
Bryce suddenly gasped and leapt to his feet, pointing across the garden. "Lookit! A butterfly!"
The large blue and black butterfly wafted closer on its delicate iridescent wings as though it'd been summoned straight out of his memory. Casting a quick glance down at Nathan, he saw the boy was studying the caterpillar in his hand. The child reached out and trailed his small fingertip gently down the worm-like back, almost as though he were petting it.
Kaitlyn and Teagan both laughed when Bryce giggled and began chasing the fluttering insect around the garden, leaping up into the air trying to catch it with his hands. "That'll never work, Bryce," his mother called. "If you want to catch a butterfly, you have to let them come to you by standing perfectly still. Hold your hand out so it's got a place to land."
The little red haired boy gave his mother a dubious look but stopped to stand still, stretching out both of his small arms for good measure, providing a maximum amount of room for the butterfly to land on. He inhaled with anticipation when it winged closer, dipping in erratic flight down right in front of his face.
"Now you've got him, Bryce," Alistair whispered loudly at the youngster, "Just stay still!" The child gave a quick jerk of a nod, which startled the blue and black insect into fluttering further away. Nathan stood up to watch as well, turning his hand over as the caterpillar continued to crawl over the edge of his dirty palm.
Of course, few three year olds are content to remain still for long, and Bryce was starting to pout with disappointment when the butterfly changed course and dropped down, landing on his forearm. The boy beamed, his entire body stiff with restrained excitement.
"Butterfly," Nathan said again with happiness, watching his friend.
"Yep," the King agreed, and then he saw another flicker of blue from the corner of his eye. It was another butterfly, identical to the first, winging its way over the garden wall. A moment later, two more appeared, and then a few more, until there were a dozen or so of the delicate insects, all dancing in the air around Bryce. One by one they landed on him, to his delight, one even perching on the top of his head.
"More!" the little boy demanded, quivering with delight and suddenly there were more—a lot more—black and blue butterflies pouring over the high stone wall encircling the garden. There had to be scores of them, or more like hundreds, all darting and diving in a loose maelstrom that Bryce stood in the middle of, and he was loving every minute of it, laughing with joy, his chin uplifted to watch them fly all around him.
"Teagan?" Kaitlyn said, starting to get alarmed by the sight of her young son surrounded by a virtual whirlwind of gossamer wings.
"Easy, they're just butterflies," he said, but rose to his feet anyway, his eyes wary.
Lyna, Fiona and Wynne had stopped their quiet discussion and were watching in amazement. "They must be migrating?" Wynne suggested, her blue eyes wide and uncertain.
"I've never seen so many, not of this kind," Lyna said in a low voice.
Alistair gaped for a moment and then glanced down at Nathan. The little boy was grinning with pride and satisfaction as he watched his only friend's jubilant reaction to the sight and feel of so many butterflies encircling him and instinctively, the King realized his son had something to do with the dancing, fluttering display. Crouching down, he did his best not to draw the attention of anyone else as he rested his hand on the boy's thin shoulder and said very quietly, "That's enough, Nathan."
The boy's smile faltered and he looked at his father, biting his lip with worry.
"It's all right," Alistair said. "It's just time to let them go back home or wherever it is they came from."
Nathan gave him a shaky nod, and the amassed butterflies began to veer away from Bryce in a fluttering stream of blue and black, flowing over the stone wall. A few moments they were out of sight, all save one—the first one that had appeared—that finally launched itself skyward from the child's arm and made its way across the garden with lazy wingflaps. The insect paused to land on a budding flower, sipping up a bit of nectar before continuing on its way until it too was gone.
"Wow did you see that?!" Bryce's excited shout broke the uneasy silence and he ran over to throw himself into his relieved mother's arms. "That was the bestest thing ever!" he said and began chattering non stop about how incredible the whole experience had been.
Taking care to release the green caterpillar he was still holding onto a leaf frond, Nathan then turned and gave Alistair a tight hug.
The King released a long breath he hadn't even realized he was holding as he returned the embrace. Lifting his head, his eyes landed upon Tamara. Everyone else in the garden had been focused on the amazing sight of so many butterflies swirling all around. The guardswoman's training, however, dictated that she be focused on her charge and judging from the perplexed expression on her face as she regarded Nathan, she had seen and heard everything.
"Bryce is probably beside himself wanting to tell you about what it felt like to have the attention of so many butterflies," the King said to Nathan and indeed, the red-headed little boy was squirming out of his mother's embrace to reach his friend. Nathan gave him a tentative smile and slid down to the ground to join the younger child.
Watching him go, Alistair edged back over to Tamara's side. He happened to glance skyward and saw that the hawk was circling directly above the castle, though it was even higher up now than it had been when he first saw it. They stood together in silence, listening to everyone else chatter about the unusual migration they had just witnessed, that conclusion drawn courtesy of Wynne.
"So. 'Certain characteristics', you said?" Tamara said in a bland tone, repeating the deliberately vague words that he had used when explaining exactly why Flemeth would be interested a child like Nathan.
Wincing, Alistair allowed, "That may have been a poor choice of words. 'Gifts' is slightly more accurate."
Inclining her head, the guardswoman was solemn when she said, "I see. And since I doubt that Flemeth intends to overwhelm Ferelden with flocks of butterflies…."
"Rabbles," he interjected without thinking about it.
Gesturing with one hand, he explained, "Not flocks of butterflies. Rabbles of butterflies. A group of butterflies is called a rabble. You'd think it'd be something that made more sense, like perhaps a flutter of butterflies, or something along those lines. I've read that they are sometimes referred to as a swarm, though that tends to refer more to bugs in general instead of one specific type and…"
"Your Majesty, you are babbling," Tamara interrupted him before he really got going.
"Ahem. Yes, so I was." He inhaled and exhaled, trying to slow his racing thoughts. It worked to an extent, well enough for him to say, "No. I'm pretty sure that whatever Flemeth has in mind, it's got nothing to do with butterflies."
"Hmm." She made a noncommittal sound and gave the boy a speculative look. "So he has other 'characteristics' that she must find interesting, then."
Alistair shrugged. "Yes, we believe so, but we're not one hundred percent sure, to be honest. Hints of certain immunities. But just that, hints. The only thing we know for certain is that he is immune to healing magic."
Tamara drew in a slow breath. "That is an unsettling thought. So if he is injured, Wynne wouldn't be able to heal him?"
"No," he answered bleakly. "That we do know for sure. We're just not sure if that resistance to healing magic extends to include all magic, for good or bad. And it's not a theory we're willing to test. The rest is, well, speculation at best." Alistair grinned, thinking about their suspicions regarding the child's invulnerabilities and gave her a sidelong glance, "If we're right though, guarding him will be the easiest job you've ever had."
She glanced at him, arching one eyebrow. "I don't suppose his Majesty would care to elaborate?"
He thought about it for a moment and shook his head. "No, he doesn't. Let me know if you notice anything, well, out of the ordinary. Or extraordinary, for that matter. I think it best that we learn more by observation, rather than speculation."
"His Majesty is too kind," Tamara grumbled.
The picnic came to an end a short time later and they all went inside for the afternoon. By that time, the hawk had receded to a distant speck in the eastern sky. It folded its wings and began to angle downward, faltering momentarily when a sudden upsurge in the winds aloft buffeted it with surprising force. Instead of letting the breeze push it along, the bird headed straight into the airstream, flying westward and back toward Redcliffe. The closer to the treetops it flew, the less of an effect the wind had but it did not seem to matter. The raptor's mouth still gaped half open with the effort to stay airborne and the broad black-banded wings beat more and more raggedly until finally it dove down and landed on the grounds in a small clearing.
No sooner had the taloned feet gripped the ground than its form shimmered and expanded, and where a hawk once stood now crouched a woman with fierce golden eyes and a staff clutched in her hand, hunched and every muscle in her body shaking with complete exhaustion.
It had been eight long days since Morrigan had woken up alone in that rickety shack and realized the child was nowhere to be seen. At first, she thought he might have been hiding and called for him repeatedly. When she found his tracks leading down to the river though, she felt a burgeoning feeling of dread in her chest. She searched up and down river for hours, looking for any sign of him. The further she got from the hut, the more she had to widen her search range, and even tracking across the land in wolf form she had been unable to find any trace of where he had left the stream, or even if he had left the stream.
The longer she went without finding a sign of his passage, the more helpless and desperate she felt, and they were two emotions the witch despised with every fiber of her being. Finally she had discovered his tracks by the river bank more than eighty miles away from where he had entered the river. His spoor went up the riverbank to the road connecting Orzammar to the rest of Ferelden before it was lost again, this time amid the tracks of animals and humans and dwarves. She could tell that for a short time, he had walked along the road toward the dwarven city, but he had also walked south toward Gherlen's Pass as well. Precious time had been wasted when she went to Orzammar first, and when she had heard of Alistair's recent visit to the city, she started to worry. What were the odds of the two meeting?—but that was an utterly ridiculous question to ask when dealing with a child who possessed the spirit of an Old God.
Travelling south toward the Imperial Highway, the child's scent seemed to be clustered with Alistair and Wynne's familiar spoor as well in a campsite right by the river at Gherlen Pass, a place that she had inadvertently bypassed to her frustration and dismay, so focused was she on searching the road. The King of Ferelden's travel plans were not much of a secret so Morrigan journeyed on to Redcliffe. After eight days of searching for the child without rest, pausing only to eat and drink, expending all of her precious power to sustain her shape and strength for so long and when she finally found the boy, he was with him. If she could have mustered the strength to kill that ungrateful buffoon, she would have done it right then and there, but it was all she could do to stay in the air.
She'd never liked him, not from the moment they'd met nearly six years previous at those Grey Warden ruins near Ostagar, but over the years, dislike had twisted into something far more malevolent. The sight of Alistair and his precious Lyna together, when one or perhaps even both of them would not even be alive were it not for her intervention, had rubbed salt in the wound. And all she had asked of him in return was to simply be left alone to raise the child however she saw fit, and the interfering moron could not even do that.
The child was hers, and hers alone. Without him, she would be reduced to feeling the corrosive taint eating away at her body and mind until nothing remained—nothing human, anyway. And the boy himself, smiling more in the brief time she had watched him with her hawk form's sharp vision than he had during the entire four years he'd been with her, laughing and playing with Teagan's whelp, the way he sought out that blond idiot king's affection… The betrayal was surprisingly painful, especially after all she had done for him and how much she had suffered. Were it not for her, he would no longer even exist! Yet this was how he repaid her for the multitude of sacrifices she had endured on his behalf.
Morrigan needed to rest and regain her strength before she wrested the child from Alistair's grasp again. With Wynne and Lyna present, the endeavor would be all the more difficult, but the godblood still pulsed in her veins. Her current state of physical and mental exhaustion subdued its potency, but on the morrow after a full night's rest, it would be restored and she would reclaim that which was hers.
The witch quickly made camp, swallowing down a few bites of dried meat and fruit. Then she mustered the last of her energy reserves to set a protective ward around herself and then eased down on her bedroll to sleep.
It seemed she had barely closed her eyes before she was in the Fade, the Black City looming ominously in the distance. The hazy glow of a campfire shone near and she made her way toward it, pausing when she saw the distinctly familiar figure tending the two rabbits roasting on a spit over the flames.
"Come join me for supper, Child," Flemeth invited.
Over the past six years, Morrigan had seen her mother in the Fade more times than she cared to remember, but she instinctively knew that this dream was more than just a dream. "Hello, Mother," she said, claiming a seat on one of the logs beside the fire.
The old woman gave a soft cackle, her mad eyes gleaming in the low light. "You always were my favorite daughter, did you know that? So sharp of wit and tongue! You remind me so much of myself!"
Sniffing, Morrigan gripped her staff in her hand. "Your favorite daughter. Of how many?"
"Too many to count, and none of them is alive to matter, regardless." Flemeth waved her hand, sending out a gust of cold air at the rabbits to cool them enough to eat and then pulled one of the hindlegs free with a crunch of bone. She bit into the meat greedily, grease and juices dribbling out the side of her mouth as she went on, "You did well, girl. Better than even I could have anticipated. I've been waiting for this day for a very long time," she said, giving her daughter a predatory smile.
So my turn has finally come round, Morrigan thought to herself when she saw that smile. "You should have expected no less of me, dear Mother, but you will not find me to be as easy to push aside as my 'sisters' have been," she said sharply, rising to her feet.
Flemeth laughed outright at her open defiance, tearing the last chunk of meat off of her meal and chewing it as she threw the bone over her shoulder. "What a vessel you shall make for me, Child!" she crowed with glee, licking her greasy fingers with her tongue. "And with Urthemiel's blood coursing through my veins, I shall be a Goddess, the likes of which Thedas has never seen before!"
With a swift gesture of her hands, Morrigan drew at her power but resulting surge was so weak it was all but ineffectual. Fighting down rising panic, she cast her will forth again to pull from that vast pool of godchild energy but it slid and danced just out of her reach, as though she were grasping at rays of the sun that she could see but not touch.
"Foolish girl, your desperation and fear of losing Urthemiel to Maric's bastard whelp has compelled you to push yourself too hard and too long," the old witch gloated. "You're as weak as water! Why do you think I've come to you now, of all times?" She stalked around the edge of the fire, her eyes glowing with an unholy light.
"Stay away from me," she warned, raising her staff up with both hands to swing it like a club at the graying head, but Flemeth spoke a single word of power and Morrigan's entire body froze in place. She could speak, but nothing more.
The Witch of the Wilds reached her daughter's side and lifted one gnarled hand to tenderly brush across her cheek. "It will all be over in a moment, Child. Mother just wants a good night kiss," she whispered in a soothing voice, pursing her lips.
Morrigan fought with every bit of strength and will she possessed, desperately trying to summon enough magic to do something—anything—that could help her escape, and all the while that familiar wrinkled face drew ever closer. "Mother, please…" she pleaded, hating the terror she heard in her own voice and then Flemeth's greasy, chapped lips pressed against her own in a gentle kiss. She convulsed as something thick and black and cloyingly sweet surged into her mouth and her body, both in the real world and the Fade, expanding and spreading through her like gangrene eating at rotted flesh until she felt her consciousness, her wits, her soul, all being devoured by the dark, malignant presence until there was nothing left.