A/N: This is a joint effort between the awesome Mackillian and I in response to the Cheeky Monkey Challenge "Different Wardens." The challenge was to take Wardens from different stories and bring them together. So, Mackillian and I decided to come up with something truly dastardly. Malcolm and crew are from Mackillian's stories "30 Dragon" and "In Peace we Lie." Elissa's crew hail from my owns stories "Shades of Grey" and "Here Without You."
Also, just a note: The changes and outcomes that have taken place over the years since the end of both stories aren't set in stone. It's possible none of these ideas will appear in future sequels. We're just having fun here.
Evilness is afoot. Enjoy!
Flemeth was bored. It had been over a decade since she'd meddled with her favorite little crew in any of the universes that she could influence. One group even assumed that she was truly dead, while another suspected her return at any moment. It was interesting, to her, that these two universes had once been so similar, yet one instance had changed them irrevocably, yielding entirely different outcomes thirty years later.
Well, they just needed to meet. That would be worth an afternoon's distraction, wouldn't it? Yes. Couslands and Theirins provided such wonderful entertainment.
She would make it happen. There were variances in variances, instances where all had survived and were reasonably happy, others where one or both had been killed, or met with death in some other way. No, those wouldn't do. She wanted them all to interact. What would be the fun, otherwise?
Ah, there they were. One instance where they were all there and she could easily influence the course of events to crash into another. Just one tiny nudge... and there they went.
Malcolm glanced over at the mounting block, where his ten-year-old son was supposed to be getting on his horse. However, Cáel had yet to make the effort, and instead stood on the block and studied the horse, as if assessing how he'd go about getting in the saddle. Malcolm's initial quick gaze became a longer look as he struggled with not showing impatience with the boy, but they had places to be—Highever, specifically—and were already late in leaving the Vigil that day. It wasn't like Cáel couldn't ride. He could, though admittedly not that well. Anora, on seeing Cáel trying his best to remain seated on his horse, and failing yet again, had once remarked that Cáel rode like his grandfather. Which was to say, badly. Cáel took no comfort in his riding inability being genetic and avoided riding at all costs. Yet, with their way of life and how much they traveled between Vigil's Keep, Highever, and Denerim, Cáel didn't get to avoid riding nearly as much as he would've liked.
"Just mount the horse," said a young girl's voice from the other side of the enclosure. "You're not making the time you'll have to ride any shorter by not getting on it."
Malcolm resisted a sigh and looked over at the source of the voice. His nine-year-old daughter, already primly seated on her own horse, gazed impatiently down at her brother. Ava, unlike Cáel, had almost immediately taken to riding, as if it was one of the most graceful and natural things a person could do. It was source of contention between the two children, and it wasn't like they really needed another thing to contend over. But it truly didn't help that riding came as easily to Ava as, say, breathing. "Let him be," said Malcolm.
"If we let him be, then he'll stare at the horse all day," said Ava. "And then we'll never get to Highever to see Uncle Fergus."
Cáel let out a noise of frustration, and before Malcolm could say anything further, his son finally mounted the horse. This time, it went without issue, the horse stood still—it was an older gelding, technically on the large side of being a pony, and used to dealing with Cáel's inabilities—and Cáel managed to stay in the saddle and not topple over on the other side. The groom handed off the reins after a moment, and Malcolm let go of a sigh of relief.
"That was five minutes less than it took you last time," said Líadan, leaping off the fence and heading to her own horse. "You're making progress."
Cáel looked momentarily pleased, and then rolled his eyes at his sister. "Probably not according to Little Miss Perfect Equestrian."
Ava rolled her eyes back. "I didn't say it."
"You thought it."
"I can't be held responsible for my thoughts! Just what I say!"
"Considering the family you come from," said Líadan, "the fact that your sister managed to keep her thoughts to herself is an accomplishment."
"I heard that." Malcolm mounted his own horse. "Come on, let's go before someone decides that we need to take a contingent of guards with us."
The rest of the day's travel went without incident. Cáel managed to stay seated on his horse, Ava mostly managed to keep from teasing her brother, and no darkspawn or bandits or other ruffians decided to attack them. However, within a couple hours of travel the next morning, Cáel managed to get thrown from his horse, ending up in a muddy ditch on the side of the road. Malcolm heard the thump and turned to find his son staring up from the ditch, looking a little surprised. As he dismounted, Malcolm shot Cáel's horse a dirty look. The horse, on his part, seemed confused as to why his rider was now on the ground.
The child on the ground seemed equally as puzzled. "I'm not sure how I fell."
"You never are," said Ava.
Líadan frowned at her daughter. "Hush."
Malcolm refrained from sighing, dismounted, and clambered into the ditch to lift his son out of the mud. "So you really don't know how you got thrown? Because if we could figure it out, chances are we could prevent it a little bit better next time."
"I think there was a bird," said Cáel. At Malcolm's dubious look, he waved his hand at the horse. "I'm serious. He balks whenever he sees a bird. I think that's what happened this time. Really. Stop giving me that look, all of you. I'm not making this up."
He didn't reply at first, mostly because he couldn't stop himself from thinking because of all those dangerous, horse-killing birds out there. Instead, he put his son back on the placid horse.
Which was when Ava decided to say, "Because there's all kinds of deadly horse-killing birds out there for your horse to be afraid of. Honestly, did you really think we'd believe you?"
"Shale would," Malcolm said almost absently, and then straightened in alarm. "Wait, did you see a bird? Was it a crow?"
"It was black." Cáel loosely held the reins Malcolm handed him. "But it's gone now."
Líadan swore under her breath in Elvish, and Ava looked properly scandalized. Malcolm glanced around for the crow—who could very well be Flemeth and not just any crow—but saw nothing. He grumbled, and then looked closely at Cáel's eyes, making sure the boy hadn't hit his head and didn't have a concussion. Matching pupils, so all would be well, aside from Flemeth's probable appearance, one they hadn't had to deal with in years, but whatever. He'd take what he could get, especially if that meant his kid stayed healthy.
Malcolm ruffled the boy's hair, earning him a scowl and Cáel frantically set to making sure his short hair was properly in place, reminding Malcolm distinctly of Alistair. "One more tumble from your horse, and the next time we ride, I'm wrapping you in pillows or something. I don't care who sees or how embarrassing it would be for you."
Cáel flattened his hands on his head. "There was a bird. Don't believe me all you want, but there was, and Teddy is afraid of them."
"Your horse should realize that he's about fifty times the size of most birds."
The boy rolled his eyes. "And you don't think I haven't pointed that out to him?"
"You can use my pillow if you want to start wrapping him up now," said Ava.
Malcolm urged his horse back into a walk, and the rest of the small party followed suit. "Such charity," he said as he drew past Ava. "But I was thinking of using that quilt you like so much."
Her eyes went wide. "The one Aunt Wynne gave me? Papa! Why would you want it covered in mud? Why would you do that?"
"And here I thought you wanted to protect your brother. I mean, we could wind that quilt of yours around him several times, it would act like padded armor used for sparring. Yes, I think that quilt would do nicely." Malcolm ignored the glare he could feel from Líadan at his goading of their child. But Ava had been teasing her brother about his lack of riding ability for nearly thirty-six hours straight, and she really did have something coming. He just hoped she wouldn't flash him one of her grins or a pleading look, especially with her bottom lip stuck out, or he might cave entirely and give up the whole thing. Cáel was far better at torturing Ava than their father was since he was immune to her charms. However, being inept at something threw him entirely off-balance, a trait he'd inherited from Morrigan. Luckily for him, there were few things he wasn't at least passable at thus far.
"Pillows are better. Thicker, so they're more protective. He can have all of mine when we get home. Just not my quilt, okay?" And there went the lip. Damn. Next would be tears. He had to admit, she was good, even if he fell for it every time.
He sighed. "Don't worry, I wouldn't have taken your quilt."
"I might," said Cáel. "I bet I could get one of the Warden mages to freeze it."
Ava whipped her head around to glare at her brother. "Freeze my quilt and I'll freeze you."
"No magic," said Líadan. "Not your own and no convincing someone else to do it for you, either."
Cáel's triumphant look at Ava faded at hearing the second pronouncement.
Ava stuck her tongue out at her brother.
Malcolm rubbed at his forehead. Maker's breath. They couldn't get to Highever soon enough. It only took an additional hour to arrive at Fergus' castle, but that hour had seemed endless in the face of the children's near-constant sniping that reminded Malcolm of the party he and Líadan had traveled with during the Blight. It certainly wasn't something he missed at all and found himself cranky by the time they approached Highever's gates.
The gates were closed, which was odd, and then he noticed that along with the Cousland and Highever flags flew the Crown's flag above them both. Huh. He hadn't known that Alistair was planning on visiting. Normally, his brother would have informed him. It wasn't like it was a surprise since he'd see the Crown's flag long before he'd see his brother inside. He called up to the guards to let him pass through.
"Identify yourself," the guard on duty shouted back from the top of the barbican.
Malcolm rolled his eyes. Even if this was a new guard, they should know who he was. "Malcolm Theirin."
The guard started slightly. "Did you say Theirin?"
"Yes. As in, the King's younger brother. Also the foster brother of Fergus Cousland, who is expecting me, so you probably shouldn't keep him waiting." He was also starving, thanks to his Warden appetite, tired, and wanting a chance to clean the mud from the front of his armor. Cáel, quite frankly, needed a bath already, and it was barely past noon.
The guard stared at him. "Hold on a moment." Then he disappeared for far more than a moment, though Malcolm noted that guards along the tops of the walls had arrows nocked and aimed for him, the only saving grace being that the strings weren't yet drawn. If this was a joke, it was rapidly becoming very not funny. After some untold minutes, the guard reappeared with another man in tow, this one wearing the mage robes of a Grey Warden, one that Malcolm had never seen before.
It was the new man who spoke this time. "Who do you think you are?" he asked.
"Prince Malcolm Theirin, also a Grey Warden and the King's brother, and I would quite like to see him." Mostly so he could pound his face in for this little prank, but he left that part out.
"And who is that with you?"
"Seriously?" That was it, he was going to let Líadan get even with Alistair for this.
The Warden sighed. "Yes, seriously."
Malcolm extended a hand toward Líadan and the two children riding between them. "Líadan Mahariel, another Grey Warden and my wife, and our two children, Cáel and Ava. And who are you, Grey Warden I don't know?"
"Thomas," the Warden said, who then turned to the guard next to him. "They're telling the truth about being Wardens, at least. I can sense the Taint in both of them."
The guard squinted down at the group. "He looks like a Theirin, too. And the kid. You see that kid?"
"His name is Cáel," said Líadan. "Not 'kid.'"
Thomas sighed. "Come with me. We'll escort you to see the King."
The gates slowly opened and they rode through. As usual, grooms appeared to take care of the horses after they dismounted. In departure from the norm, more guards appeared with the grooms, surrounding Malcolm and his small family. He glared, noting that none of them seemed familiar, yet they didn't seem bothered by his show of displeasure. Once inside, Thomas explained that they would be separating them and taking only Malcolm to see the King.
Malcolm crossed his arms. "I hope you don't think you're going to put my wife and children in a holding cell. Because if you do—"
"Of course not!" said Thomas.
"We'll be going with him," said Líadan.
For the first time, Thomas looked something other than puzzled, his look now bordering on nervous in the face of Líadan's ire. "My lady, it is simply safer for only Malcolm to see the King. Besides, it's just turned noon, has it not? Have your children eaten?"
Cáel and Ava, having no such thing as familial solidarity when it came to things like food, immediately started clamoring for the midday meal.
Líadan sighed. "Fine. If we are permitted to eat in a dining area or kitchen and not held in a cell, I will permit us to be separated. But I will not be separated from them unless Malcolm is with them." Then she gave Malcolm a nod. As guards led her and the children away, Malcolm heard her whisper to Cáel to get as much dried mud as he could on everything. Malcolm barely kept himself from laughing, and Cáel did nothing to mask his giggles as he gleefully did as he was told.
Two guards took Malcolm roughly by the arms, and Thomas led them towards where Alistair presumably waited.
Alistair was sitting in the study with a little girl in his lap, talking quietly to Anora. Another, ebony-haired woman Malcolm had never seen before was also there, as was Fergus.
"Finally." He shrugged free of the guard's hold. "Alistair, will you tell these morons that—" He stopped, having taken a good look at the little girl, one with dark hair and nearly black eyes, and definitely not the Princess. "That's… not your child. Where'd you get that one?"
Alistair raised an eyebrow, carefully passing the little girl off to the woman Malcolm didn't know. She eyed Malcolm reproachfully, holding the little girl with all the air of a mother wolf guarding her cub. Malcolm had seen Líadan react the same way many times with Ava and Cáel, and was definitely something to be feared.
Alistair got to his feet. "Don't take this the wrong way or anything, but who in the Void are you?"
"They claim to be Grey Wardens, your Majesty," Thomas said. "When we tried to check—"
"Alistair, this isn't funny," Malcolm said, exasperated at the lengths his brothers were going to in order to play a practical joke. "I'm tired and I'm starving, and if they keep Líadan away much longer, she's going to start hitting things with lightning."
Thomas went on as if he hadn't even spoken. "He claims to be your brother."
Alistair crossed his arms. "Ooookay... let's review. Do I have a brother?"
"No, your Majesty."
"Did I mention the part where I'm starving?" Malcolm asked.
The King went on with Thomas as if Malcolm hadn't said a word. "Then why are you bothering me with this?"
Malcolm began seriously contemplating in the ways he'd physically torture his loving brother. "Hello? Can any of you actually hear me? Mage blasting corridors with lightning? Ringing any bells?"
Alistair was quiet for a moment before finally addressing Malcolm. "You're with a mage?"
"Of course I'm with a... what's wrong with you?" He turned to Fergus. "Was this your idea?"
Fergus was looking at him with an expression he had never seen on his brother's face before. "Maybe you should sit down, friend."
"Friend? Dammit, I—why are you looking at me like I'm crazy?"
"Your Majesty," Thomas said, "they both carry the Taint. Whoever they are, they appear to actually be Grey Wardens."
"Get Aeryc to sit with the other one until we can figure out what's going on here. Now," Alistair finally looked at him again, crossing his arms, "what say we begin with you telling us who you really are."
Malcolm rolled his eyes. "Fine. I'll play along. I used to be Malcolm Cousland, at least until I was informed that my parents had taken me in as a favor to my real father, at which point I became Malcolm Theirin, and therefore possessor of two highly irritating brothers who don't know when to stop screwing with me." He couldn't imagine that Líadan was really doing any better, and he doubted she'd react well to this Aeryc's presence, especially if he tried to smite her or interfere with either of the children.
The room went dead silent.
"Alistair," the dark-haired woman said, quiet as she looked at Malcolm with a puzzled frown. "He... looks an awful lot like you..."
Malcolm was beginning to suspect they weren't joking. "What's the matter with all of you? Alistair, you've known about me for years! We fought an archdemon together."
Alistair paused, his eyes narrowing. "Who made the killing blow?"
"Riordan," Malcolm answered, but promptly realized that wasn't the answer his brother was looking for.
"Wrong." He gestured to the woman next to him. "Elissa made the killing blow. Everyone on Thedas knows that."
"Alistair, you've just kind of made a point, there," Elissa said, looking disturbed by this entire turn. "Everyone knows who killed the archdemon. Why would anyone make such a wild claim?"
"Because he's a raving loony?"
"People better stop calling me crazy! Especially since she's still alive. It doesn't work that way, you know. The only way she could have killed the thing would be if..." Malcolm's voice trailed off as the realization struck him, and he suddenly had the wild, hysterical urge to laugh. "Holy Maker. You took Morrigan's offer."
Malcolm got the rare opportunity of watching a crowded room of people all blanch all at the same time. Were things not so strange, it would almost have been amusing.
"I..." Elissa looked panicked. "I think we should get Morrigan. And send that other Warden in here!"
"Anora—out," Alistair said, ignoring the woman's huff of displeasure. "I'm serious. This just became Warden business."
Another huff, and Anora departed with an air of indignance. Or on it—Malcolm always had a hard time telling with her.
As soon as she was gone, Alistair turned to Malcolm, his voice now low and serious. "All right, you tell me who you are, and how you knew about Morrigan."
"How I knew about Morrigan? If anyone in this room knows Morrigan at all it's—" He broke off, because quite suddenly, the object of their argument was there, shadowing the doorway. Malcolm stumbled back a step. "You're not here. You can't be here. You went through the Eluvian."
"Curious." Morrigan looked annoyed rather than frightened. She stepped forward, calling out to no one in particular. "Mother! This is not amusing!"
Alistair stared at her like she had lost her mind. "What are you talking ab—" Realization seemed to dawn on him. "Oh no."
Then Malcolm caught on, his thoughts returning to the possible crow his son had claimed to have seen that morning. "Flemeth."
The sound of a throat clearing came from the doorway of the door Morrigan had left open behind her. "Your Majesty?" a man asked. "The other Warden refuses to come up here without the children she and this man claiming to be his brother brought with them."
"I'm not claiming to be his brother," said Malcolm. "I am his brother. And those children happen to be his niece and nephew. At least, they are where we come from. I'm starting to suspect that it isn't the same place as where we've ended up."
"You have the right of it," said Morrigan.
Elissa shifted the girl she had in her arms, and then placed her beside the man standing in the doorway. "Have them brought with Abbie to play with Kern and Daniel while we get an explanation from Morrigan." Before Malcolm could ask who Kern and Daniel were, Elissa looked directly at him. "Kern is Morrigan's son and Daniel is mine and Alistair's." She placed a hand on the dark hair of the girl next to her. "And this is our daughter Abbie. Your children will be perfectly safe with mine."
"If Líadan is fine with it, so am I," Malcolm said. "Otherwise, they'll have to be up here with us." He hoped Líadan would agree, because it would be incredibly awkward to have Cáel in the same room with Morrigan. He knew perfectly well what woman had given birth to him, even though it had been Líadan who'd raised him. Even though Malcolm now suspected that this Morrigan wasn't his Morrigan, there would still be the awkward questions, and looks, and general air, as if things weren't awkward enough as it was.
Elissa gave the man a nod. "See to it, Aeryc. And then bring the other Warden—Líadan, was it?—up so we can figure this whole thing out."
They waited quietly, and awkwardly, for Aeryc to reappear with Líadan in tow. When they did, Líadan's eyes widened slightly at the sight of Morrigan. "Not our Morrigan, apparently," Malcolm said when he caught her look. "This Morrigan didn't walk through the Eluvian. Or if she did, she came back."
"And apparently she has an explanation for all this confusion," said Alistair, who then looked at Morrigan. "If you would please?"
"Reality is actually far more unstable than you believe," Morrigan said, thoughtful. "It is well known, amongst those who would study such things, that the universe is constantly dividing itself, playing out every possibility it is presented somewhere in time. Parallel realities, those which have vast similarities, travel in a way that would make it quite simple for someone such as my mother to collapse them."
"Or Fen'Harel," Líadan pointed out.
Morrigan shrugged, unconcerned with details. "Many believe they are one in the same."
"Why would she do something like that?" Alistair asked. "For giggles?"
Morrigan shrugged again. "'Tis possible."
"So." He glanced at Malcolm, suddenly curious. "You mean this lunatic really is my brother?"
"Who are you calling a lunatic?" asked Malcolm.
"Indeed. It it not so far-fetched to believe that Maric's trysts produced more than one son, I suppose."
Malcolm nearly mentioned that they had the same mother, but stopped himself when he realized that this Alistair might not know who his mother was. Or, perhaps, might not even have the same mother in this reality. He also still felt awkward around this Morrigan, because she reminded him very much of the woman who'd disappeared through the Eluvian a decade ago. "How are we going to get back to our reality?" he finally asked.
"I will have to think upon it," said Morrigan. "My mother is not likely to make it easy to undo one of her little tricks until it's run its full course."
"Maker forbid she make anything easy." Alistair scowled. "Well, what do we do in the meantime?"
Malcolm mirrored the scowl, realizing that the only answer they had was waiting. "We—"
The door opened again, and a woman he hadn't seen in a very long time strode through it with a confused and slightly worried look on her face. He recognized the flame-gold hair and bright blue eyes at once, and gaped in shock. He'd watched her die in his brother's arms after the Battle of Honnleath. "You're... you're dead!"
Leliana seemed to take offense to this, shoulders straightening up indignantly. "I most certainly am not!"
"But..." Malcolm was having a hard time forming words, something he often didn't have difficulty with. This Leliana was already strolling over toward Alistair with an easy familiarity, but she stopped at a healthy distance from him. The look they exchanged was one of the intimacy of friends—not lovers, if his assessment was correct. He shook his head as if to clear it, and then asked Alistair, "If Leliana's alive, why are you still married to Anora?"
Alistair's eyebrows nearly reached his hairline. "Okay, there's, like, five disturbing things in that question."
"We all thought you'd marry Leliana. Even Eamon had to admit she wasn't a bad choice to serve as queen."
Elissa laughed. "Oh, I knew it. I knew you had a thing for her."
Alistair heaved a sigh and fixed her with a look. "You realize I didn't actually sleep with her, don't you?"
Malcolm shrugged. "Well... technically, you did."
Alistair looked a little desperate while Elissa continued to giggle at him. "You're really, really not helping."
"Not really trying to help. I mean, you didn't rave about it, but you wouldn't stop grinning for days. You were insufferable. I suppose you could say that a version of you slept with a version of her, but it all gets very confusing when you say it like that."
"We certainly wouldn't want to tax your intellect overmuch," said Morrigan.
Malcolm glared at her, and wondered if this was how Alistair had felt during the entire Blight. It did explain why Alistair had never taken much of a liking to her, if it had. Those barbs she flung, when not laced with some sort of undertone of caring and a smattering of possible love, really stung when they struck. Then what Alistair had said registered, and Malcolm returned his attention to his brother. "Wait, so you didn't marry Leliana? Who—"
Alistair held up a hand to forestall him. "If you're my brother, then... I'm the elder, right? So, shut up a second."
Fergus started to chuckle. "Right. Since we all know how often Elissa takes that order to heart."
"That's another thing. Who is Elissa?" asked Malcolm.
"My wife," Alistair said with another meaningful glare. Malcolm could only grin at his inadvertent success at getting his brother in trouble. "And apparently, your sister." He paused, looking a little ill. "Oh, Maker... I just realized how very wrong that is."
Fergus collapsed into a fit of laughter.
Malcolm gave Elissa another look, this one more approving. "I always wanted a sister." Then he turned to Alistair. "Wait. If Elissa is your wife, why is Anora here if she isn't the queen?"
Alistair sighed. "Anora's married to Fergus."
"That's mean of you." He couldn't think of anything else to say.
"I thought so."
Fergus finally brought his laughter under control. "She isn't that bad."
Malcolm nodded. "That's what the Alistair I know says about Anora."
Alistair's head nearly snapped off in his haste to look at his brother. "Wait, what? Why would... why would your version of me say something inane like that?"
"Probably for the same reason that any version of you says anything inane, Alistair," said Morrigan as she leaned easily against the wall next to the door. "'Tis the most intelligent thing your feeble mind can come up with."
"You know, I like you a lot better when you're hiding out in the woods with Aeryc," said Alistair.
"My dear friends," said Leliana, "I did have a reason for coming up here. It seems none of you have noticed that I was not surprised in the least to see this Malcolm and this Líadan or to hear of other versions of Alistair."
Elissa sighed and folded her arms under her breasts. "Let me guess. Aeryc sent you up? Something with the children? Has someone set something on fire? Or, Maker forbid, someone?" She sighed again and looked at Morrigan. "Is Kern having trouble controlling his magic?"
Morrigan's eyebrows drew together in a show of indignance at the insinuation. "Of course not. My son has very good control of his magic, even if it's an Old God's magic. If there is a problem with a child not controlling their magic, then I would suggest it to be someone else's child." She straightened slightly and flickered her eyes toward Malcolm. "Which of your children is a mage? Or is it both?"
It was Líadan who answered. "Our daughter. Her magic is much stronger than mine, though she has good control for a nine-year-old. However, I'm not sure about her ability to control the opportunity to show off, especially if her brother dares her to do something."
"We should at least have them brought outside, where wayward spells have less of a chance of burning down buildings."
Alistair sighed. "Come on, let's go chat about our situation outside, then. Aeryc will want to weigh in his opinion, too. And if we've got two tiny mages running around, we're better off with more templars watching them, just in case."
"Wait," said Morrigan. "I wish to know something." She fixed Malcolm with a serious look, and he did his best not to squirm under her imperious gaze. Then she asked, "How was the ritual done in your reality? I imagine the other version of myself would find you far more palatable than your bumbling brother—"
"Don't worry, no offense taken," Alistair said with a grumble.
Morrigan ignored him. "So was it you who went through with the ritual?"
"No." Malcolm tried not to flinch as he met Morrigan's hardened look. "I mean, we were, she and I, but..." He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair.
"You do that," Elissa said to Alistair.
"Shut up, I want to hear this," the King replied, lowering his hand from his head.
"But," Malcolm said, determined to continue, because he really wanted Morrigan to stop looking at him like that, "I said no."
This didn't seem to affect her as much as he'd thought, but it made sense, in a way, as this Morrigan had never been in love with him, or possibly even loved romantically at all, ever. She merely seemed puzzled. "And yet you are alive, and so is your brother. You say that Riordan took the final blow? Did he die? Was the Old God killed with the Archdemon?"
"No. Um." Suddenly, he found it hard to talk, to explain what'd happened.
"Our Morrigan went and convinced Zevran to go through with the ritual," said Líadan.
"Zevran?" asked Elissa around Alistair's poor attempt to conceal his sudden glee at that little bit of information. Morrigan was already glaring at him. "How would that even work?"
"He became a Grey Warden," said Malcolm. "We recovered a Joining kit from Ostagar and Riordan taught us what to do. Wynne, a mage who traveled with us, she knew how to make the Joining potion, and she helped us with that part. So, we made Wardens as we went, folks who volunteered and we thought could make it. Zevran was the first, and then Líadan to save her from the Taint, and then Oghren, after we traveled in the Deep Roads—"
"Wait, wait, wait," said Alistair, holding up both his hands. "When did you find Riordan? I mean, in our reality, during our Blight, Riordan was—"
"Useless," said Elissa.
Alistair frowned at her. "You know, he was a brother Warden. You don't have to be so harsh."
Elissa seemed unaffected as she lounged against the back of her chair. "Really? I was actually trying to be polite. I can tell you my true opinion, if you really—"
"No! No, not necessary." Alistair looked back toward Malcolm and Líadan. "Um, so we didn't find the Senior Warden from Jader until right before the Landsmeet. When did you find him?"
"Way earlier than that," said Malcolm. "Right after Zevran found me to warn me about—"
"He didn't try to kill you?" asked Alistair.
Malcolm gave his brother an incredulous look. "No. Why would he do that? I'd known him for years at that point. He was a friend of Oriana's family. When the Crows accepted a contract on the two remaining Grey Wardens' lives, he took the contract so that he could warn me, and then he helped me after that. Almost quite literally right after that is when he helped us get Riordan out of Fort Drakon."
Fergus stroked his goatee. "That must be the family friend Oriana kept telling me about!" He turned toward Elissa. "Remember? She kept talking about him and saying we needed to meet him, but we never got around to arranging a time."
Elissa frowned. "And instead, during our Blight, he tried to kill us."
"He must've been a pretty bad assassin in your reality to have obviously screwed that up," said Malcolm.
"Or we could be extraordinarily good fighters, you never know," said Alistair. "You really made him a Grey Warden?"
"You did, actually. I didn't want him to become one since I thought the Joining would kill him. But you argued and eventually told me to shut it and we didn't speak for days."
"It must have been a wonderfully quiet time for the other version of myself," said Morrigan.
Alistair smirked at her. "That version of yourself had Zevran's child."
Elissa started to giggle, and the King followed suit shortly after.
Morrigan ignored the laughing in favor of questioning Malcolm further. "If you refused the ritual, then why does it feel like your older child has been touched by the soul of an Old God?"
Malcolm shifted his weight from one foot to the other. It seemed every version of Morrigan knew how and when to ask the most pointed, painful questions ever. "Because he shared a womb with the child whose soul was the Old God's. I'm not sure how it happened, but Cáel was a twin and a half-brother to the Old God child, Cianán. He's my son, and Zevran is Cianán's father, but don't ask me to explain how that worked, because I have no idea. Anders tried to explain it to me once, but—"
Morrigan waved him off. "I know how such a thing could occur. You need not continue to stumble toward any sort of explanation."
"Cianán?" asked Alistair. "That's the name of the Old God child? Are you sure Morrigan named that one?" He switched his gaze from Malcolm to Morrigan. "You choose 'Kern' for your son, and your other self goes and names her sons perfectly acceptable things like 'Cianán' and 'Cáel.' So, this naming inability thing seems to be something that only you possess and not your—"
"I wouldn't go that far," said Líadan.
Malcolm blinked. "What? What do you mean? Morrigan did okay naming our son." It felt strange to him, recognizing the duality of the 'our' in that he meant both his and Líadan's son, as well as his and Morrigan's son. Líadan had done as their Morrigan had asked and Cáel was as much her child as Ava was, and Cáel, though he knew Morrigan was his natural mother, never saw her as more than that. If their Morrigan ever came back through the Eluvian, she would be, if she chose, part of his life, but not as his mother. His mother, as even the boy had said many times, was Líadan.
Líadan laughed. "No, she didn't. The Dalish gave Cáel the name everyone calls him. I remember what you said was what Morrigan insisted was his true name."
"Oh," said Malcolm. "Good point."
"Come on, what is it?" asked Alistair. "You can't leave us in suspense like this. My kid got Kern. What'd your kid really get?"
Malcolm sighed. "Cináed." He continued speaking over the giggles and light laughs that went through the room from everyone except Morrigan. "The Dalish who helped nurse him when he was an infant decided it was too much name for such a small being, so they called him Cáel because he was lanky or something like that."
"I do not see what is wrong with Cináed," said Morrigan. "It is a fine name. It means 'born of fire.' Perfectly acceptable."
"Maybe in your mind—"
Elissa interrupted Alistair. "Let's not start this argument again, all right? We've all heard it enough, and I'm sure even Malcolm and Líadan have heard their own version of it enough, as well. We should get ourselves to the yard with the children and discuss our situation there, if we're done talking about the ritual that none of us really wants to speak about anymore?"
"I'll have to explain Morrigan's presence to Cáel," said Malcolm. "Or he'll be more than a little confused. He knows who Morrigan is, but he hasn't seen her since he was an infant." He then quickly explained Líadan's role in their son's life. "So, it would help for him to know that this Morrigan isn't the same woman who disappeared through an Eluvian with his brother over a decade ago."
Morrigan nodded. "I agree. I am... surprised that he is not a mage, considering that a version of myself is his mother, and Flemeth his grandmother. You have tested him?"
And Fiona is his other natural grandmother, Malcolm thought. "Tested and re-tested every year. He still shows no signs of magical ability or talent, and considering that his younger sister showed her propensity for magic at a far younger age, I doubt he will ever become a mage. The Morrigan from my reality had thought he would not become one." Part of Malcolm wanted his son to become a mage so that he would never be in line for the Fereldan throne, but another part of him wanted his son to be free from magic and the problems it brought with it. Líadan and Ava already suffered from what turned out to be a curse in human society, even though among the Dalish, it was still considered a blessing. "It would seem that she is right."
"I would expect no less." Morrigan nodded again, more to herself than the others in the room.
Elissa stood from her chair. "Come on, let's go find the kids and bring them out to play before they burn the castle down." Then she focused on Malcolm "You were really raised here?"
He nodded. "Yes. You... didn't exist in my reality. Which was unfortunate, really. I think that it would've been great fun to grow up with a sister."
Fergus narrowed his eyes at both of them. "So, instead of a terror of a little sister, I got a Theirin?"
"What's wrong with being a Theirin?" asked Malcolm.
"Who are you calling a terror?" asked Elissa.
Malcolm grinned at her. "You tell him, sis."
"Really," said Fergus, "explain to me how the universe can decide to give me a brother in one reality and a sister in the other, and yet they're both still as mouthy as a desire demon."
Elissa rolled her eyes. "Well, you can stop bitching that you wished you had a brother. It doesn't improve anything."
"I bet you there's a version of poor me who's tormented with the both of you. And, somehow, the Maker has seen fit to make sure that through my brother-in-law or adopted brother that I am connected to Morrigan in some way, no matter what reality I'm in." Fergus headed for the door. "Outside is sounding better and better."
Malcolm watched him exit, and then looked at Elissa. "You really married him to Anora?"
"It seemed a good idea at the time," said Elissa. At Malcolm's dubious look, she shrugged. "I guess you had to be there to truly understand. I'm sure, to you, it sounds as horrific as it sounds to us that your Alistair is married to Anora."
"My feelings on the matter go far beyond horrified," said Alistair.
"It was his idea," said Malcolm. "Alistair's, I mean. He was the King for almost a year before he decided to marry her."
"So, the other me is the King, as well? No last minute brilliance from anyone there to save me, either, huh?"
Malcolm nodded, falling into step beside Alistair as they trooped out the door and into the corridor. "Yeah. He didn't like the idea at first, but eventually, he accepted it."
Alistair shook his head. "That... figures, actually. I really wasn't going to get out of this, was I? Any version of me."
"No," everyone within earshot chorused.
The King sighed.
"You're also a good king in my reality, too," said Malcolm, wondering if it'd help this Alistair to know. "So, obviously, you were just a gigantic wuss about the entire situation for no good reason, since it seems you were destined to become a good king no matter what."
"I didn't have far to go to be better than Cailan, though," said Alistair. "Just not die in the midst of a hopeless, yet apparently glorious battle."
Malcolm winced. "Oh, your Cailan had that problem with glory, too?"
Elissa laughed softly, and then sped up to walk with Líadan, Morrigan, and Leliana.
"Yep," said Alistair. "So, what's the deal with your Alistair and Leliana? From your reaction to seeing her, I take it she isn't alive where you come from?
"No. In my world, Leliana died during the Blight. I don't have a foster sister. And... you ended up with Anora."
Alistair took a moment to absorb that. "Wow. I... I actually have an evil twin." He rubbed at the scruff on his chin, something Malcolm had noticed was consistent between the two realities. "She's not plotting to kill him in his sleep or anything, is she? Because that's something I feel like I should warn myself about. Maybe I should ask the Anora here."
"I dare you to next time you see her."
This Alistair sounded so much like Malcolm's brother that he missed him. "So, since you had to... you know... with Morrigan... here's a question," Malcolm said in an effort to change the subject, and for a little universal chance at getting even.
Alistair seemed understandably wary. "What?"
Malcolm lowered his voice. "Did she turn into a spider for you?" The entirely horrified expression on Alistair's face gave Malcolm small revenge in knowing that this version of Alistair would be forever haunted by the thought, something Malcolm's own brother Alistair had inflicted on him in their reality.
"That is... that is not even funny. In the least."
"I think it's at least a little bit funny," Líadan called back.
Alistair narrowed his eyes. "How did she hear that?"
"Elven hearing. I'm sure Zevran heard way more than you ever intended when he traveled with you." He paused, wondering if his next question would prove impertinent, and then found that his curiosity overrode his manners. "Where is Zevran? He died, in my reality, during the battle with the Archdemon."
Alistair shrugged. "I have no idea. He disappeared a long time ago. Elissa gets a scribbled note, on occasion, just to let us know he's still alive. I really don't see him being killed by anything less than an Archdemon, honestly."
"Bastard jumped on the Archdemon's back. Stupidest thing I ever saw. Brave, but stupid, especially when he fell off."
"Interesting. That's how Riordan died, with us. A damned waste of a Warden. But your Riordan lived? Really?"
Malcolm nodded. "Yeah. Well, until his Calling. We saw him off in the Deep Roads, months after that final battle. It sucked."
"I can imagine."
Sadness twinged at the edges of Malcolm's emotions, and he had no desire to deal with any of that. So, he went back to the hilarious and disturbing idea that Alistair had been the one, in this reality, to sleep with Morrigan. "No Morrigan turning into a spider, then? Maybe it could've been another time. Was there another time, or—"
Alistair was quick to put a stop to that line of questioning. "Maker, no! It was only the once." He shuddered. "Morrigan's with Aeryc. And seeing how he actually seems to like her, and she's pregnant, I say more power to him."
"Morrigan's pregnant?" Malcolm nearly fell over.
"Yep. Being around Kern all the time seems to be having an effect on the Taint in Aeryc. It's dissipating. I won't call it a cure, yet, but a daresay he'll outlive all of us." Alistair seemed to remember something, and then looked over at Malcolm. "So the lessening Taint explains how a Grey Warden with Morrigan created a child with her without using her ritual, but I have to wonder at your own."
"I already explained Cáel as best I could. You'll have to ask a healing mage or Morrigan for a better explanation."
"I meant the other one. What's her name? Ava?"
"Oh." Malcolm laughed uneasily. "Not sure how she came about. Our best guess is that it's never a good idea, even if you're a Grey Warden, to engage in any sort of sexual congress while on or near Sundermount unless you like the idea of magic of some kind interfering with your inability to have children. Or something like that. Maybe it was even Keeper Marethari. We don't know, but with how much Ava resembles both of us, and the fact that Líadan gave birth to her, we know she's ours. Other than that, you've got me. Morrigan might have a better guess. We didn't have a chance to ask our version of Morrigan because, by the time we found out, she was already gone through the Eluvian. And it would've been awkward, anyway, to ask. It was awkward enough as it was."
"You mean, when your Morrigan left, you and she weren't..."
"No. She left me and the rest of us after I refused her. Her choice was quite clear. It got more than a bit muddied afterward, for all of us, when we found out about Zevran, and then again when we found out about Cáel, but things were eventually settled. Morrigan and Líadan were as close as sisters."
Alistair nodded. "Though they would be loath to admit it, Elissa and this Morrigan are, as well. They fight like sisters, too. Remind me to tell you about this catfight they once got into that Aeryc and I had to break up. Aeryc had to smite Morrigan to keep Morrigan from doing something magical to Elissa, and I had to bodily pull Elissa off Morrigan and throw her into the water to keep her from going back after Morrigan. It was... well, in retrospect, it was kind of awesome."
"Really? And not frightening in the least?"
"Okay, possibly a little of that, too. They are two very strong, powerful women."
"I think it's a Theirin thing, to be involved with strong, powerful women, or just to be a strong, powerful woman, if you take Queen Moira into consideration. Then you add in Queen Rowan, Queen Anora, Morrigan, your Elissa, Líadan—"
"My daughter Abbie is quite headstrong," Alistair said, nodding in agreement.
"So's Ava." Then Malcolm remembered Alistair's line of questioning earlier, about how two Grey Wardens could have a natural child of their own. "Is Abbie—"
"Not ours by blood." Alistair's voice took on a note of sadness. "We found her in the home of her family years after the Blight. Her family had been killed by a darkspawn attack on their village. We were going to give her away, but we fell in love with her. She might not be our blood, but she's ours, make no mistake."
"I understand." Malcolm did. He'd seen the same feelings in Líadan, and the same feelings with Bryce and Eleanor Cousland when they'd raised him as their own. Family wasn't just about blood relations. Quite often, it had nothing to do with it.
"I figured you would. And, for as much as I might have participated in the ritual that made Kern, Aeryc is the one who has raised him. He's the kid's father, for all intents and purposes." He sighed. "And I think I'm okay with that. There wasn't really any other way."
"Not without threatening your rule of Ferelden and the kingdom itself, no."
"You understand that quite easily, you know. More easily than most."
Malcolm shrugged. "My brother is the King of Ferelden, remember?"
"How can I forget when I'm apparently him?" Then the small group stopped outside a door with plenty of shouting going on inside. However, to Malcolm's ears, it sounded like children shouting because they were having fun, and not anything more sinister. Alistair considered the door for a moment, and then turned to Malcolm. "Are you trained in Templar techniques? I want to know how many Templars we have, just in case."
"I am," said Malcolm.
Hearing that, Elissa raised an eyebrow Morrigan, amused. "What is it with you and Templars?"
Morrigan crossed her arms, scowling. "I hardly think I can be held responsible for the proclivities of another me in another universe."
"Your track record in this universe isn't exactly going to clear you. Alistair and Aeryc. You have to admit there's trend fashioning here, Morrigan."
"Do shut up, Elissa."
Líadan sidled up beside Malcolm, a smile plying at her lips. "How does it feel, knowing that a version of your brother slept with Morrigan?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Honestly? I'm caught somewhere between giggling and gagging."
"So am I," said Alistair. "But... it's not exactly a new reaction."
Malcolm resisted a sigh. "I'll go talk to Cáel first, before he sees Morrigan." The others nodded their assent, and he ducked into the room. He found Aeryc, looking tired and haggard, standing in a corner with his arms crossed. Five children were grouped in the middle of the room, playing with what seemed to be a large collection of blocks made into a remarkably good replica of Highever Castle that they were putting finishing touches on. Abbie and Ava were shouting out ideas, some that Cáel and the other boys, whom Malcolm surmised to be Kern and Daniel, mostly took. Seeing the other two boys brought Malcolm's forward progress to a sudden, startled halt. They each had Theirin features, in the nose and chin and the shape of the eyes. But, in one child, who must have been Kern, the coloring was all Morrigan's. He had same yellow eyes and hair the color of a raven's feather, but seeing him standing next to Cáel, and then Daniel, one could not deny that the three were closely related through their fathers. Rather creepy, really.
"It's uncanny," said Aeryc. "Theirin blood runs curiously strong in your line. I usually forget how much Kern looks like Alistair until we stop by to see the King. Normally, I think he looks like Morrigan."
"He does look like Morrigan," said Malcolm. "Far more than my son, anyway." The gaggle of children were so preoccupied with playing that they hadn't even noticed the appearance of a new adult in the room.
Aeryc turned to face Malcolm, though his gaze occasionally checked back on the playing children. "So what brings you down here?"
"Leliana mentioned something of a possible problem with errant magic." However, Malcolm couldn't feel anything out of control in the least, or that Ava had been drained. It was harder to tell with Kern due to the amount power he could sense in the boy.
"Soon as I mentioned smiting, they shaped right up." Aeryc surveyed the children as they dismantled one tower the boys had become unhappy with. "However, I did think it best if there were more than just one person watching them, and that outside would be safer than inside."
Malcolm nodded. "Everyone else was inclined to agree. We're about to take them outside. With you, of course, because Elissa wants your opinion of this whole mess. But, before we do, I need to explain to my son about how the Morrigan he'll see outside isn't the same Morrigan who gave birth to him."
Aeryc raised an eyebrow. "I thought he was yours and the other Warden's."
"He is, all except for the part where Morrigan gave birth to him." Malcolm took a breath to ready himself. "Give me a minute." Aeryc ducked outside the room, and then Malcolm called his son over. Ava looked up as well, and shot her father a grin, but stayed next to the other little girl instead of her usual running to him for a hug. Malcolm felt a frown trying to form. Apparently, they needed to have Ava and Cáel around more children their age more often.
Cáel placed another block then walked over to Malcolm, who had knelt down so he'd be at his son's height. "Is something wrong?" the boy asked. "I heard some of what Aeryc said to that other woman who was in here earlier. I think her name was Leliana. It sounded confusing, but I think I understand that we aren't really at Highever? Not the Highever we were meant to go to."
"Pretty much," said Malcolm. "And the people here who look like people we know aren't the same people we know. Fergus isn't your usual Uncle Fergus. Same with Alistair. There's also people who are around here that aren't around where we're from. That woman, Leliana, for example? Where we come from, she died before you were born."
Cáel looked a little troubled. "That's too bad. She seemed nice."
"She was nice. One of the nicest people I've ever known." Also one of the deadliest, Malcolm thought, but didn't see the need to tell his son that. "Also, here in this reality, Morrigan didn't go through the Eluvian. So, she's here. I didn't want you to be caught by surprise. She didn't have you in this reality, either. She had Kern instead, if you hadn't already figured that out."
The boy chewed at his lip for a moment, momentarily serious. Then he asked, "Is Kern like my brother that she took with her through the Eluvian?"
"I think so. He has an Old God's soul, like your brother."
"That's kind of neat." Then the seriousness was gone and Cáel smiled. "I kind of like him. And the other boy, too. Daniel. They're really nice. The girl, Abbie, she's okay, but you know..." Cáel leaned in closer to Malcolm, his voice becoming conspiratorial. "She's still a girl."
Malcolm chuckled. "Girls aren't that bad."
Cáel rolled his eyes. "You only say that because you love Mamae. So, can I go back to playing?"
"Yes, but we're going outside. Kern is a mage like Ava, and we figure we'll be better off with you barbarians destroying things out there rather than in here."
"We haven't destroyed anything!" Cáel pointed over at the replica of Highever Castle. "See? We made the—"
Then with a great shout of alarm, Abbie sprang forward and demolished the block castle by pushing it over.
Daniel yelled his dismay at his sister, the blocky rubble pooling around his feet.
"This is why brothers are better," said Cáel.
"Maker's breath," said Malcolm, as Daniel and Abbie continued to argue. It slowly became apparent that something other than the want to destroy her brother's work had been the reason behind Abbie's destruction of the castle. The reason, Malcolm imagined, was what kept Daniel and Abbie from coming to blows, because, as he knew from his own experience with Cáel and Ava, often the two would already be wrestling each other on the floor.
"There was a spider!" Abbie yelled at her brother.
Daniel jumped out of the blocks, nearly falling on his rear in the process. "Where?"
Kern rolled his eyes, looking an awful lot like Morrigan as he did. "Why didn't you just ask me to freeze it or something?"
"I forgot. You aren't around as much," said Abbie. Then she pointed frantically at a spot near Daniel's foot. "There! It's right there!"
"I don't see it," said Kern.
"I do," said Cáel.
"Freeze it, Cáel! Quick!" said Daniel, looking more and more panicked, but seemingly too afraid to move.
Cáel took a couple steps closer, eyes apparently on a spider Malcolm couldn't see, either. "I can't. I don't have any magic."
Kern frowned, and then looked at Cáel in absolute bewilderment. "I thought your natural mother was Morrigan, too. How can you not have any magic? That shouldn't even be possible."
Cáel shrugged. "I just don't."
"I have magic! I can do it!" Ava said, eyes on the same place as Cáel's. Then before Malcolm could stop her, she summoned an ice spell and froze something near Daniel's foot. "Got it!"
The door burst open, Alistair and Aeryc rushing inside first, smites at the ready, presumably having felt Ava drawing on the Fade.
"No need to panic," said Malcolm. "It's just a spider."
"That's the first time I've ever heard you say that about a spider," said Líadan.
Alistair glanced over at Líadan, and then Elissa. "Is a fear of spiders a Highever thing? Were you terrorized by spiders as children in this castle? Is that it?"
Elissa scowled at him and didn't deign to answer.
"Not sure what happened to my sister, but I'm not afraid of spiders," said Fergus.
Alistair crossed his arms. "Well, there goes that theory."
Malcolm frowned at his daughter. "You could've squished the spider just as easily. Or your brother could have." Technically, Malcolm figured he could have if the situation had desperately called for it. But his children had proven to be remarkably less afraid of spiders than he was, and both of them were well aware of it. "You know, instead of resorting to magic, which you're only supposed to use when in your lessons or your life is in danger."
"Squishing is messy." Kern wrinkled his nose in disgust. "Freezing them and bringing them outside is much neater and a far more preferable a solution."
Malcolm ran a hand over his face. "Holy Maker, you sound like your mother."
Aeryc snorted. "Now you see what I go through every day." Then he looked over at the children. "Come on, let's bring this little party outside. One of you, I don't care who, pick up that poor frozen beastie and bring it outside with us."
Once they were out on Highever's grounds, on a remote grassy area within Highever Castle's walls, the children were once again allowed to walk without holding hands with an adult. The four older children had seemed highly insulted at having to hold hands like little kids, but Abbie had been happy enough to let Alistair carry her. Happy until she saw the grassy field, however, whereupon she'd started wriggling and squirming in her father's arms.
As the children started running, playing some game where the rules constantly changed and were known only to the young, Elissa shouted, "First one to cast a spell gets put in a corner and we're not kidding!"
A chorus of disappointment sounded from the kids.
Alistair exchanged a look with Aeryc and shook his head. "Enough of that." Then he called out, "The first one to cast a spell gets drained, and we're not kidding!"
Malcolm raised an eyebrow, surprised and slightly grateful to know that he wasn't the only father who occasionally had to smite their mage child. "When your kid gets hit with a smite, does he nap for hours?" he asked Aeryc. "Mine does."
"Are you kidding me? If I tried to smite Kern, Morrigan would wear my testicles as earrings." Aeryc watched as Morrigan, contented with the safety of her child, wandered away to speak with the other women. Then he said, "Yeah, he does. Offensive parenting, I like to call it."
Meanwhile, Alistair, wearing a thoughtful expression on his face, was watching the children play. When he noticed the other two men studying him, he asked, "So, Kern and Cáel... are they cousins or brothers?" Then he shook his head. "You know what? I'm not thinking about this anymore."
"I'm completely with you on that," said Malcolm. The children had split into groups separated by gender, with the boys roughhousing in the one muddy patch on the entire field, and the girls chatting amiably away on some rocks they'd climbed up on. Malcolm could hear them, but he still couldn't really get what they were actually saying. He frowned and looked at Alistair, indicating toward the girls with his head. "Do you understand a word of what they're saying?"
Alistair listened for a moment. "No, but they seem happy enough about it."
"Doesn't that mean they're up to something? That's usually the way it is with adult women, anyway. I mean, look. Elissa and Líadan are chatting away with Morrigan and Leliana right now. What do you suppose they're up to?"
The King's gaze moved over toward the women, and their conversation carried over to the men.
"Does he talk in his sleep, too?" Líadan asked Elissa.
"Are you kidding? He never shuts up," said Elissa.
"That's where the ability to shoot lightning comes in really handy," said Líadan.
Elissa's face practically lit up. "Wait, lighting works? Explain."
Alistair swallowed noisily and turned to Malcolm. "...I think I'd rather not know."
Aeryc grunted his agreement. "Best course for everyone, I think."
Fergus, who'd stopped to fetch Anora on his way outside, made his way back out of the castle with his wife at his side. It felt strange to Malcolm to realize that even in this reality, Anora was still, in a way, his sister-in-law. However, this version of Anora seemed much colder than the Anora he was used to. This Anora barely even glanced at Líadan, something Malcolm didn't much appreciate, and he was fairly certain Líadan felt the same way. As nice as it was to have a sister in Elissa, and for his children to have more playmates, they really needed to turn their attention on how they'd get home.
As soon as they noticed Fergus and Anora, the women started converging on where Alistair, Malcolm, and Aeryc stood.
Alistair almost pounced on Anora once she was within earshot. "Quick question," he said. "Say that there's a probable reality where a version of me is married to a version of you. Now, the question is, is she plotting to kill him in his sleep?"
Anora blinked at the King, but recovered her composure remarkably quickly. "How would I know? I can't comprehend any version of myself who could or would tolerate you in the first place."
"You actually took my dare!" said Malcolm. "I can't believe it. Well, yes, I can. You are Alistair."
"In any reality, it seems," said Morrigan.
Alistair scowled at the witch before turning to his brother. "How many times have I slugged you, anyway?"
Malcolm pursed his lips in thought. "Um... I lost count?"
Alistair nodded. "Good."
"Alistair," said Fergus, "you do realize that he's a bit reminiscent of your wi—"
"Fergus, you finish that sentence and I'll hit you, too," said Elissa, now glaring at her brother. "I'm not kidding."
Morrigan sighed. "If you are quite done with your sibling rivalries, I have come up with a solution to your dilemma of being stuck in the wrong reality."
"And that is?" asked Malcolm.
"Simply go back from whence you came."
He gaped at her. "You're kidding."
Elissa shook her head. "No, she isn't. It's the best thing we could think of. Go back on the North Road in the direction of—where was it you rode from?"
"Vigil's Keep," said Líadan.
"Right. Go back toward the Vigil and you should end up, at some point, back in your reality."
"We believe that Flemeth has gained enough of her amusement in this mix-up," said Morrigan. "Her entertainment would be found in our discomfort and not in coming up with some elaborate plan in order to return to your own reality. 'Tis a simple enough solution."
"We can have your horses saddled and ready soon," said Fergus, stepping forward. "Hopefully, any supplies we give you should last the switch from this reality to yours."
"Would it be better to wait until morning? Depart at the same time we departed this morning to try and get a match?" asked Malcolm. He was also thinking that it was fairly late in the day, and soon enough, the children would be hungry for dinner, and after that, they would start getting cranky in their need for rest. With the day he'd had, Malcolm was wondering if he would get cranky, too, if he didn't get some sleep.
"It wouldn't be good for the children to turn right around and try to go back," said Elissa, her thoughts apparently in line with Malcolm's. "They'll need dinner and a good night's sleep, or it will be one long cranky ride home."
"It wouldn't help Cáel stay in his saddle, either, if he's overtired," said Líadan.
Elissa raised an eyebrow. "Your son has trouble riding? I'd heard from my father that King Maric was never the best rider."
Líadan nodded. "I was told the same."
"You are certainly welcome to stay the night," said Fergus. "We have more than enough room, and I, for one, would certainly like to hear stories about your Blight and the rest of your reality." His gaze shifted over to the children. Ava and Abbie had joined in with the boys, and now all of them were practically covered in mud. "Perhaps after baths are given and the little ones are asleep in bed."
The evening passed quickly afterward, stories exchanged again and again as they regaled each other with tales from their separate Blights. Malcolm took note of how happy and at ease Alistair was with this Elissa. While his Alistair was close with Anora, they didn't have the same easy rapport as this Alistair had with his wife. From the stories they had told, he knew their close relationship came at the cost of some very trying times, and almost hadn't happened at all. After Teagan and Leliana left for their room, Elissa announced that she was departing for bed, and gave Alistair a deep kiss on her way out.
Malcolm let out a whistle at the scene. Then he said to Fergus, "Oh, look. My brother and sister are kissing again."
Alistair broke away from his wife, glare already in place and falling unerringly on his smirking brother. "I will trade all the gold in the treasury for a promise that you will never, ever say that again."
Then Elissa whispered something in his ear, and Alistair followed her out of the room without saying another word to the others.
"Is that normal?" Malcolm asked.
Aeryc sighed. "Yes." Then he and Morrigan disappeared shortly thereafter, leaving Fergus and Anora, who weren't long before they were also off to bed. Malcolm and Líadan made their way to the room they'd been given for the night, one attached to the chamber where Ava and Cáel had long gone to sleep.
Dawn arrived too soon, and sleepy children were put on almost as sleepy horses as the group made ready to depart for Vigil's Keep, hopefully in their own reality. They exchanged good byes with the others, Malcolm and Líadan both exchanging extra-long hugs with a Leliana they'd never thought to see again. Leliana, after having heard the entire story, seemed to understand. The children had exchanged sad farewells at breakfast.
Then Alistair stepped closer to Malcolm as he made ready to mount his horse. "When you get back," said Alistair, "tell me that he has my deepest condolences about Anora."
Malcolm raised an amused eyebrow. "Actually, you're pretty happy with Anora."
"Oh. Well, then tell me that he's a freak."
"The last time I told him he was a freak, he put me in a headlock."
Alistair gave a slow nod. "Funny, I had a thought or two in the same direction."
"Now you're thinking like a proper older brother," said Fergus.
Malcolm laughed and got into the saddle. Then they left Highever and their strange little adventure behind them, on the road for home.
Not an hour outside of the castle, Líadan suddenly asked, "Malcolm? Isn't that your brother again?"
Malcolm glanced up the road and saw a figure that did look suspiciously like Alistair coming towards them, with another rider whom he didn't know beside him. "Maker's breath! What now?"
Once the other group was close enough, they shouted standard greetings, mostly to reassure the other riders that they weren't bandits. The one who looked remarkably like Alistair stared at Malcolm for a long time, and then he said, "Look, we're trying to get to Highever, but we seem to have gotten... turned around."
"Lost, you mean," said the woman riding next to him. Then she blinked, leaning forward in her saddle. "Líadan?"
Líadan stared back. "Lyna?"
"Okay, here's what you do," Malcolm said, not wanting to get even more entangled in whatever it was that Flemeth was doing. "First, turn around and go back the way you came. And if you see any crows, kill them. I'm going home."