The Tainted Child
Screaming a fierce war cry, Kallian dashed up the mound of rolling blubber that comprised the Mother, a black knoll of a darkspawn with several gray breasts and a smooth, oily pimple of a head. She lifted Maric's sword as the war cry ended in her throat. The Mother had a millisecond to look up and gurgle a scream before her head was sliced clean off in one fell swoop. Pungent gases erupted from her spurting neck as Anders, Sigrun, and Nathaniel cheered below. The darkspawn children scuttled back into the shadows, squealing in terror as Kallian, covered in darkspawn blood and slime, made her weary way down the soft mound of the Mother's body.
"Commander, that was amazing!" Anders yelled as he and the others came running up.
Sigrun lowered her battleaxe and watched in concern as Kallian stumbled down the Mother's side. "Oh, no. She doesn't look so good."
Nathaniel shouldered his bow and said worriedly, "Commander?"
With much difficulty, Kallian lifted her head. The three faces of her companions were blurry and swayed out of focus. The wolf she had summoned to aid in the battle tilted its three blurry heads and whined at her. She wiped the blood from her eyes, and as soon as her boot touched the hard rocky ground, she dropped Maric's sword, fell to her knees, and vomited.
"Oh my," was all Nathaniel managed to say.
The three companions stood in shock as Kallian looked up at them then suddenly keeled over in a dead faint. "Commander!" they shouted.
Dropping his staff, Anders rushed forward and caught Kallian just before she hit the ground. He gathered her small elven body to his chest and turned to the others, his face creased with concern. "We've got to get her out of here!"
Sigrun's face hardened as she took command. "Come on. I'll lead the way. Nathaniel, you take the rear," said the dwarf, turning for the passage that would lead them out.
Nathaniel nodded, gathered Anders' staff, and the three companions made their way up through the darkness as the wolf followed behind.
"She's so beautiful and strong," Anders whispered as he held Kallian's limp body close. "But she's frail too. Kinda like a rose with too many thorns."
Walking behind Anders, Nathaniel smirked. "Another man already sees her as this frail but strong rose you describe, Anders. I'd be careful."
Anders' eyes grew wide as it dawned on him. "What? No! I was just making an observation she's beautiful, you can't deny that. Just -- an observation--"
"Rrright," sang Sigrun, rolling her eyes. Her battleaxe was on her shoulder as she led the way, listening keenly for darkspawn that were foolish enough to attempt to avenge the Mother. "Admit it, Anders: you love her. I've been in the Grey Wardens for two seconds and I can see it."
Anders' cheeks flamed the tiniest bit. "Oh, come on! I don't love her! You're being a bit ridiculous, Sig --"
"No, I think she has a point," interrupted Nathaniel. "I've been traveling with you for a long while now, Anders. I've seen the way you look at her when you think no one's looking. Kind of like . . . a hopeful puppy. You adore her. But my advice to you? Forget your feelings. Whatever fascination you have with the commander, end it now. There's only one man the warden-commander ever loved. And besides, she's the queen of Fereldan. You've got about as much chance as a snowball in a dwarven smithy."
Anders' face darkened but he made no reply, and the companions were silent the entire journey back to Vigil's Keep.
When Kallian awoke some time later, the world was still a blur. There was a burning pain in her lower abdomen, but somehow she knew it had been much worse before. She recognized the lavish bedroom she shared with Alistair at the palace in Denerim. She was in the grand double bed, and the curtains around it were drawn back. Ah, so they'd brought her home. She glanced across the room and saw herself in the vanity mirror. Shock held her eyes to her reflection, unable to look away. As Anders had said, she was quite beautiful, her skin a smooth rich brown, her long dark hair a mess in slanted green eyes, her full lips supple and dark. But her lips at the moment were ashen with sick. And she realized there was a thick musky scent filling the room. The scent of healing magic. Was she that ill? The burning in her abdomen made her wince and she closed her eyes.
It was seneschal Varel's voice. Kallian followed the voice and realized with a jolt that the room was full of people. Seneschal Varel stood at the double doors that opened upon the room, his arms as ever behind his back, a frown of concern on his face. Anders hovered in the doorway, looking miserable and defeated. A young elven maid was at her bedside with the washbasin she had used every morning while living with Alistair in the Denerim palace. The basin was filled with cool water, and the young elf dabbed Kallian's head with a washcloth and a sad smile. Beyond the maid, seated in a cushioned chair near Kallian's pillow, was Wynne.
Kallian smiled to see an old friend. She reached for Wynne weakly. The blanket fell away from her chest, and she realized for the first time that she was in her small clothes. She winced again this time from embarrassment and held the blankets up to her chin. She noticed Anders' and Varel's cheeks flame red at this clumsy revelation of her breasts, and the elven maid's lips puckered in an unfurled smile.
"Wynne --" Kallian began but stopped to hear her own voice so raspy and thick. She cleared her throat and tried again, "Wynne, what . . .?"
"Shush," Wynne whispered, shaking her head. She took the elven maid's hand and whispered kindly, "That's enough, dear. I can manage for you."
The elven maid bowed her head and hurried meekly from the room.
Wynne set to work dabbing Kallian's head with all the care and concern of a mother. Or grandmother, Kallian reminded herself. Wynne must have been pushing seventy.
"They said you collapsed after the battle with the Mother," Wynne said quietly. She shook her head. "I couldn't believe it. I saw you kill the archdemon, for Maker's sake, and you weren't so much as out of breath afterwards. That's when I knew something was wrong."
"But what are you doing here?" Kallian managed at last. "The College of Magi --"
"Can wait. One of my dearest friends needs me," Wynne cut across her, and smiled lovingly. "It can't have escaped your notice that I am very old, child. And in all this time, I have learned the value of a true friend. Keeping you and the baby alive is what matters right now."
Kallian's eyes wandered guiltily to the window. So they had figured it out. It wasn't that she hadn't known. In fact, she had realized she was pregnant during the journey to Vigil's Keep. When Alistair's carriage dropped her off on the road leading to the keep, she had run to the bushes and vomited. And her suspicions had been confirmed. How it had frightened her to know! A baby! And, oh Maker, not only that but a tainted baby. The realization had terrified Kallian. And once Alistair caught up to her at Vigil's Keep, she had wanted desperately to tell him. But he had so much on his mind, why trouble him further with this grim news?
Lying in the bed as Wynne eyed her wisely, Kallian wondered why knowing she was pregnant had frightened her so. Wasn't having a baby all she had talked about for the past year? She and Alistair had stayed up nights worrying about an heir for the throne worrying and trying vigorously to create one. And now that they had succeeded, she should have been overjoyed . . . shouldn't she?
"You knew," said Wynne shrewdly. She had sat in silence for a long moment, watching Kallian's reaction. "I dare say you've known for quite some time. But you kept it to yourself. Same old Kallian."
"I didn't want to worry anyone," Kallian said guiltily. She felt herself relax when Wynne stroked her hair.
"Oh, Kalli," said the old mage, shaking her head. "Same old Kallian. You are not alone. When will you learn to let your friends help you? I guess you're not used to anyone helping you. Since the moment you joined the Grey Wardens, you've spent all your time helping others. I know it is your duty as a warden to devote your life in service to others, but Kallian . . . I think in this case it's time to let others help you. It is long time Fereldan returned the favor."
"The burning . . .?" Kallian asked when the burning in her abdomen began anew.
"Is the child dying," Anders said miserably from the doorway. "I tried to heal you so many times on the way here I tried so hard, Commander but my magic wasn't enough --"
"Anders," Kallian said soothingly and reached out her hand.
Anders hesitated but came to the bedside. With her chair still pulled close to the bed, Wynne dipped the washcloth in the basin, watching Anders with something like pity. Not noticing Wynne, Anders took Kallian's offered hand and knelt near her.
"Anders," Kallian repeated again, as if to calm him, "you have done more for me than I could have asked. You have been a true friend. Do not trouble yourself with my condition anymore. It is my own fault for not alerting someone to my situation much sooner. I appreciate all you've done for me, but you must go and rest now. I will be fine with Wynne at my side."
Looking relieved, Anders nodded, muttered "Yes, Commander," and left the room with his cheeks still flaming. It was only after he had gone that Kallian realized her blankets had fallen away again. She hastily pulled them up and couldn't meet anyone's gaze.
"If you have no further need of me, I will go as well, Commander," Varel said from the doors, and Kallian noticed his cheeks were just as red. He seemed to be squirming against his own embarrassment, and when Kallian excused him from the room with a nod, he seemed only too eager to be gone.
"Your seneschal will never look at you quite the same way again, Commander," teased Wynne, dabbing at Kallian's forehead with the wet cloth.
"Well, if the servants had at least left me in my nightgown," Kallian complained. "I mean, leaving me in my small clothes with a bunch of men standing around my room? What were they thinking?"
"No one was thinking at all," said Wynne gravely. "When I arrived to heal you, the palace was in a state of confusion over your condition. They were all like chickens running around with their heads chopped off until I instilled some order. By the Maker, had you died I believe they might have all jumped off the battlements."
Kallian laughed weakly. "Not a comforting thought."
"They stripped your armor to get at some wound that wasn't there. They thought the Mother had mortally wounded you. They had Anders standing over your half-naked body performing spells to make you well. None of them worked not because Anders isn't a formidable mage. Nothing is farthest from the truth, in fact. He has a talent that rivals the Amell girl, Irving's star pupil. No, his magic didn't work because he hadn't a clue what he was trying to heal. When they told me you vomited before collapsing, I guessed the real reason for your illness not some curse or internal wound, but a result of one of those long steamy nights with our Alistair."
Kallian looked away, wanting to sink into the floor and disappear. After journeying together in their fight against the Blight, Wynne had become rather good at knowing just how to make Kallian and Alistair squirm. She looked upon their love with amusement, and because they were like children to her, she wasted no opportunity to tease and torment them even now when they were married and such things shouldn't have caused them embarrassment.
"Anders never left your side," continued Wynne somberly. Her voice carried such a serious tone that Kallian looked at her quickly as she went on, "Sigrun and Nathaniel told me how he stayed at your side when his magic failed. Held your hand and talked to you while you were comatose. He even summoned some kitten of his, hoping it would wake you."
"That explains the cat hairs in the bed," Kallian said wearily.
Wynne set aside the washcloth and looked at her solemnly.
Kallian caught her eye. "What? What is it?"
"You have a knack for not realizing it when people care. More than care. It's like watching Alistair fall in love with you all over again."
"Wynne! Don't be ridiculous Anders isn't I haven't even known him long --"
"You didn't know Alistair very long either," cut Wynne across her. Her blue eyes were still as grave. "Don't you realize what you are? You are like some living legend, the hero of Fereldan beautiful, strong, intelligent. There are consequences for it, one of those consequences being that men are going to fall in love with your greatness. With you."
Kallian's eyes drifted to some distant point as she answered miserably, "You're telling me to send him away."
"You don't want to send him away," Wynne said. It wasn't a question. She watched Kallian closely, as if she was analyzing her feelings.
"Well, no," Kallian admitted. "I really enjoy having him around. I wasn't being the gracious queen when I called him a true friend. It's just . . . I'm tired of my friends leaving because I'm not in love with them too."
Watching Kallian's miserable expression, Wynne realized for the first time how alone the queen must feel. Once Alistair was crowned king and their honey moon spent, it was rare that Kallian ever saw the king except in passing. Rebuilding a kingdom after a Blight was something that took a great amount of effort and a great many years. There wasn't time anymore for Alistair to be giving the queen roses in the moonlight. And all of Kallian's closest friends Zevran, Leliana, Shale, Morrigan had all left soon after the battle with the archdemon. It was common knowledge that both Zevran and Leliana had been in love with Kallian, and so it was only natural that they would have taken their leave of her. During all the scramble to set the kingdom to rights, the queen was truly and utterly . . . alone.
"I'm sorry, Kallian," Wynne said, the guilt stinging her. Much like the others, she had left Kallian's side, had left her to bear such a heavy burden alone.
Kallian glanced over at Wynne and managed a sad smile. "No, Wynne, don't apologize to me. You left court because the Circle needed you more than Alistair and I. I admit there were times we wished you had stayed on as advisor, but we both knew that letting you leave was best." She squeezed Wynne's hand to reassure her.
"Well, look at the bright side," said Wynne, busying herself with the washcloth and basin, "if this child survives the taint, you won't be alone much longer."
Kallian laughed bitterly. "Yes, if it survives."
"I can't guarantee its survival, you know that, Kalli. But I will stay at your side until it is born, doing all in my power to care for you."
"Yes, Alistair would want that."
"Don't be foolish. I'm not only doing this for Alistair. I'm doing this for you too."
Kallian was still staring miserably at the opposite wall. "But what will happen to Anders if I send him away? He won't understand. He'll be angry."
"But he must go. He must before his feelings ripen into that first kiss. For a queen to have an affair is treason, my child. Death by hanging. And while I know you don't feel the same way toward Anders and while I know you would never harm Alistair with an affair you have many enemies who would use Anders' feeling for you as evidence of a supposed affair. The fact that you are unwilling to send him away would only further support their claims."
Kallian sighed. "You're right," she said wretchedly. Another friend gone. And once again, she was alone.
"There is still Sigrun and Nathaniel and Valenna," Wynne said by way of comfort. She began dabbing Kallian's forehead again, and Kallian rested back in the pillows as her fever slowly ebbed away. "And there's Oghren."
They looked witheringly at each other, and Wynne said, "Never mind."
"Well, here's something that should cheer you up," Wynne tried again. She dabbed at Kallian's forehead as she said with a small smirk, "Alistair is coming home."