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The Winter-Born Children

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9:7 Dragon
The winter-born children were all small, that year.

The winter-born usually were, of course. Too small and delicate by half, wide bony chests and knobbly, half-turned knees. Sometimes they were born blue and yellow and there was nothing the Chantry healers could do but commend their newborn souls to the maker.

Mother Atta said that you could tell a winter-born child even in adulthood; that the sway of their hips and thin, pinched skin is all you needed.

Claes Jonnasen was the winter-born son of a winter-born mother, and there should have been no hope for him. That spring there had been terrible storms, uprooting seeds and saplings alike, and the winter had come harder and quicker than was its custom. By the 9th of Guardian, many were dead and hungry—the cold, no matter how brutal, did not stop the Darkspawn, and the sheep milk had long since dried up. To give birth in such an environment should have been a death sentence.

Yet Jonna lived.

Poor, pretty Jonna Eîdnosdottir, with curling blonde locks, a soft complexion, and no husband to speak of. She had arrived alone at the beginning of Harvestmere, pledged herself to Farmer Àigin for some room in the barns, and he had agreed. She had chosen well- despite the poor harvest, Àigin was a kindly man, the loss of his own wife and daughter to the darkspawn too recent for him to turn away a young woman in distress.

When it became apparent that she was with child, he should have thrown her on the mercy of the Chantry- instead, he insisted that she take up spinning the slim wool harvest, and leave the weeding and hoeing to more able workers. He would not have her lose the baby.

And so Claes was born on the 9th of Guardian, a storm howling outside, a Chantry healer helping ably as Jonna panted and cried and bit down on a chunk of leather when the pains became too great. He had the small bones, the rounded legs, of so many of the children that winter, and the healer had shaken her head and gone to bless him, when Jonna had cried out.

“My baby! I want to see him,”

The others in the room—Healer Gàhte, Elder Liljà, and their assistants- shared a grim look. It was not wise to let a mother see such a child. It would only make it harder for her to lose him.

One of the assistants shook her head, and reached for the small, cold form. “At least let her see him,”
She said. “It can do no harm.”

The cord had been clipped and the boy wrapped, and so it was a small matter to loose him from his swaddlings and lay him on Jonna’s breast.

She smiled, and then frowned. “He looks like me,” she said, wonderingly. “It seems strange to see it in such a little body. He’s so cold.”

She began rubbing his back fervently, as though she could will him to warm, will him to live. She bent her head tightly against his neck and whispered something only he could hear.

And he began to cry.

Claes was the only living baby that winter, and it should have been enough—but times were hard, and it was not until his third name day that their stores had recovered sufficiently from the storms of 9:08 Dragon to celebrate it with anything other than thin malav soup and a tight hug.

He does not walk until his fourth summer. Even then, it seems to pain him—taking quick, rolling steps and falling too frequently to be of any use in the fields. Instead, Jonna sends him to the Chantry by the day, and at night he curls next to her on their pallet in Farmer Àigin’s home and whispers to her of the things he has learned.
The Chantry school taught the Chant, of course- but also herbalism and trapmaking, and his proudest moment came in his tenth fall when he brought a brace of gerbils back with him from traps he had set in the outfield. Jonna smiled, kissed his forehead lightly, and they feasted.

By then, Farmer Àigin had fashioned him a small stick to walk with, and it seemed to help. His balance was still poor, and sometimes at night Jonna would be woken with a growing wetness against her back as the boy tried to muffle his tears of pain—but he did well enough.

He was well liked, well-thought of, and Mother Atta took Jonna aside one day and asked if she had thought that he might be a Brother.

“He’ll be no good in a field or as a Templar,” she said matter-of-factly. “Not with those legs. But he’s so attentive in lessons. Sister Alis is teaching him to read and figure, you know.”

Jonna hadn’t known.

“She may teach him Common, if this goes well,” Mother Atta added.

As things happened, she never had the chance.
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9:33 Dragon, 3rd Cloudreach
"You're lying to him," the elf said flatly.

Anders bit his lip. "I'm not," He said quietly, turning to rearrange his stores.

"Glamours are not effective on me," Fenris said.

Anders blinked, and turned slowly to face him. "What do you mean?"

"I thought at first that you had been hobbled," Fenris said slowly. "But that is not the case, is it?"

Anders bit his lip, tilting his chin towards his chest. Then he frowned, and lifting his face defiantly towards Fenris.

"I have been hobbled," Anders said.

"Yes, yes," Fenris said dismissively, "But that is not it. It's-- in Tevinter they call it the elvhen disease."

Anders closed his eyes and exhaled deeply. "Yes, and in Kirkwall they call it the darktown disease, and in Ferelden it's the alienage disease, and in Orlais it's the Fereldan disease. It's hardly surprising."

Fenris arched an eyebrow delicately. "And what do they call it in the Anderfels?"

Anders snorted. "The vinter sjukdomen. The winter disease."

Fenris nodded, slowly. "Why not just heal it?" He asked suspiciously.

Anders sighed, reaching down to grip his workbench tightly. "It cannot be healed. I see infants with it all the time-- they need good food and sunshine, not magic. I send their mothers off with an elfroot potion and whatever food I can spare. Sometimes it is enough. Other times, it's not. And if it is not healed when the child is still young, then it stays with them forever."

Fenris eyed him. "You hide it well."

Anders snorted. "Well, as you so astutely pointed out, there is a minor glamour on them. But aside from that-- it is possible to cast a sort of sustaining magic on it, like I sometimes do on you and Hawke in battle to make you take less damage. It does not heal it, not properly, but it does-- it can stop it from hurting too acutely, from causing more damage. I try to use such spells sparingly- they use a lot of mana, and with the kind of messes Hawke gets us into I need all of that that I can get." He shrugged.
"I don't cast anything on it when I'm in the clinic. The people of Darktown are used to such things."

Fenris nodded. "That is... understandable."

Anders pursed his lips. "Are you going to tell him?"

Fenris studied him carefully.

"It is not blood magic," Anders said hurriedly. "Just a simple glamour, you can make one even without magic, hell, Isabella can make them in her sleep. Please."

Fenris frowned. "Were you truly a Warden? Do you truly have these maps that he requires?"

Anders nodded fervently. "I was. I do. I would not lie about something like that. I knew the Hero of Ferelden from the tower- she would have recruited me, I think, even if I were not any good in a fight, but she knew that I could handle myself. Please. I have not lied to you. Not to any of you. Not about this. They simply did not ask. It is not hard to see through a glamour charm, if you look. Most people simply do not."

Fenris nodded. "I know. I was trained to do so. There is no sense in having a body guard who can be tricked by any third-rate assassin or rogue in Minrathous." He studied Anders carefully, who was stone-faced, the only sign of tension his white-knuckled grip on the workbench. "Very well, mage. I will keep your secret for as long as it is reasonable. If I think you are a danger--"

"--I understand," Anders said quickly. "I-- I would expect nothing less."

"Good." Fenris turned to leave, and glanced back over his shoulder. "I am watching you, mage."

"I understand," Anders said again.

The elf nodded, and walked out into the darkness of Darktown, leaving Anders alone with his thoughts.
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9:33 Dragon, 7th Firstfall

Winter was coming.

The winters in Kirkwall were nothing like those he had known as a child, when the cold winds and ice blew away the grass and sand until there was nothing but cold barren land and hunger as far as the eye could see. They were nothing like the winters in the tower, where the wet cold of the Ferelden winter seemed to permeate the very stone, but which was always held off by the tower's large fireplaces and the ever-present pots of tea in the dining hall.

In Kirkwall, it rained. It rained, and the wind blew, and the water levels rose until they threatened to flood. Darktown, at the bottom of the winding Dwarven streets, was where it all drained to.

The streets were muddy, soaked with several inches of water that crept up over shoes and soaked into legging, filthy water that carried with it not just the winter fever and the morphew, as was the case in every city in Thedas, but also the bronze jack and the jail fever and dysentry and cholera. Darktown was a river of piss and shit and death, and there was only so much he could do.
--
Every healer has a moment when they realise that they cannot save everyone.

For Anders, that moment came when he was very young-- 16 and screaming, locked in solitary without his staff to stand with, his knobbly right knee puffy and black and bleeding from the blow from a sword's pommel. He lay there for two weeks, that time, and by the time he got out he was red and yellow with fever, shaking fit to burst, and despite the shouting of Wynne and Karl and Irving the subsequent investigation ruled that he must have shattered his knee with a fall onto the stone floor. After all, Anders was always falling.
--

Darktown was a river of piss and shit and death, and he could not save everyone, but that did not mean that his failures were not writ large in his fragile bones.

With every howl of the wind and crack of thunder he felt the ache in his legs and back grow worse.

He had not travelled with Hawke lately-- fortunate, as he did not have the patience nor the mana to fight and keep the healing magic centred on his legs.

Besides, he was so busy it was unconscionable. There was no way for him to leave now, not with the state this city and her people were in.

If only he weren't so damn tired. It was getting hard to stand, and for the last hour of his clinic he had sat carefully on a stool and had one of the older Darktown children who hung around his clinic to assist patients in transferring themselves to the top of his cleaned work surface.

Well, it had started the day clean, at any rate. Now it was filthy, blood and shit clinging to it with an acrid odour. He had to clean everything, before he could sleep. He had to wash everything, had to make new poultices and potions, had to prepare tomorrows packages of salve and disinfecting powder that each patient with the jail fever got sent home with. Even if it was just a hovel or a lean-to in an alley way, cleaning the dishes and the kettles they boiled the filthy water in would go a long way to stop it spreading.

He was so tired. His bones ached, his legs shook, and with every tremor he felt the panic rising in his chest.

It happened sometimes. The cold and the pain reminded him of the tower- or maybe that wasn't quite right, and it simply made him anxious, reminded him of his relative helplessness, or maybe--

The truth was that he didn't know why it happened, only that it did. He hadn't really realised that it did until he was living in the tower, and Neria had taken him aside and told him that if he couldn't stop snapping at the trainees and his fellow wardens then he had best confine himself to making potions in the infirmary until the weather changed.

Neria had always been like that. When an Anders boy with shaking legs and not a word of Common had first arrived at the tower, she had befriended him immediately. She never managed to learn Anders, despite her many attempts, but as he progressed in his lessons in Common she began to tell him about books that she had read, about types of healing and sustaining spells.

---

"I can't do them, because I'm a force mage," she had said matter-of-factly, blinking up at him owlishly beneath heavy black braids. "But I bet you can! You haven't picked a specialty yet, right? You're still with the babies."

Anders had flushed, and said, haltingly, that he was still learning.

"You should be a healer, then." She had said brightly. "I bet Karl-- or, sorry, Enchanter Thekla, now-- I bet he would help you. He's a healing mage, too."

Anders nodded slowly. "I-- could. Yes. He has been-- very helpful. Nicer than the others."

Neria has pouted.

"Except you," Anders said with a smile. "You are of course the nicest. Even if you cannot say my name."

She had flicked him in the shoulder. "Nobody can say your name, silly Anders. There isn't a sound for it in Common, that's what Karl said."

"Karl—has too much forgiveness. There is a sound. You are just lazy."

She flicked him again. "Easy for you to say."

"Yes," Anders said simply.

---

He broke out of his reverie, leaning heavily on his staff. He was alone. He was alone. There was nobody else in the clinic, and the rain and wind were howling outside, and the dirt floor was growing suspiciously soggy. There was so much to do, and so little time, and he wanted nothing more than to dose himself heavily with embrium and poppias juice, until the pain grew hazy and distant and he could curl up tightly beneath his blankets, safe from the outside world.

Everything seemed so much harder when he was like this.

He cursed as he took a shaking step over to the table. His balance was not good right now. He was not sure that he could make it. He did not like to use magic for such simple tasks as cleaning or lighting a fire- lyrium was expensive, and between the many plagues of Darktown and Hawke's propensity for getting himself gnawed on by dragonlings he needed all of the mana he could get.

Tonight, he would make an exception. He really was so tired, and his heart was beating fit to burst in his narrow chest. With every bang and rustle and howl of the wind, he had to resist the urge to throw himself into a corner and call on his defensive magic.

It was stupid. It was ludicrous. Nobody was going to hurt him. The Templars did not even know he was there, and if they did, they would surely think twice before coming through the rivers of Darktown piss.

Winter was the safest time of the year, for him. Varric had paid of the Coterie this month, and Isabela had thanked him for some of his salves and potions by placing several defensive traps around his windows and the sewer grate and changing his locks.

---

"Only I can pick them now," she had said with a grin, "And you don't mind if I come in uninvited, do you pretty boy?"

Anders had frowned, lips set in what he hoped was a disapproving purse. "You keep telling yourself that, Izzy. I may have many fond memories of you, but some things are better left to be reflected on, don't you think?"

"You're just out of practice, or you wouldn't be saying such a thing," Isabela had responded with a laugh. But fair enough. Keep your virtue, if you had any to begin with."

"My virtue, as you so delicately put it, hasn't been on offer since I was 14."

She laughed. "I'm surprised you had it in you."

"I'd only been at the tower two years. Never underestimate the power of novelty."

"I wouldn't dream of it, sweet thing." She had kissed him on the cheek and sashayed out of the clinic.

For two weeks after, the Darktown children told stories and played gamed pretending to be 'the beautiful lady pirate with a heart of gold'. Anders had not had the heart to dissuade them, although he had taken note of some of the more outrageous dialogue the children had invented to tell the others at their next game night.

---

So he was safe, and he was alone. He was safe and he was alone and he was in his clinic in Darktown, not back home with hunger gnawing at his belly and his mother lying next to him on the bed, skin hot and fever-dry. Not in the tower, nor on the run, nor in one of the cells deep beneath Lake Calenhad where he had spent so much of his adolescence crying and puking and fearing and bleeding. He was alone, in his clinic, in one of the first places he could call his own.

In Vigil's Keep, he had known a spirit of Justice. Nice guy, really. A bit stiff on human interactions, and inhabiting a man’s corpse, but nonetheless nice enough. He had come upon Anders one evening, pacing shakily in the Great Hall, leaning heavily on his staff.

---

"You do not walk like other humans."

"Very observant, Justice."

"Why is this the case? I have seen in Kristoff's memories the results of great battles. Some of the warriors were maimed such as you. In which battle did you fight? Was the cause just?"

Anders had smiled, quicksilver-bright and fast, and replied. "Oh, I wish, Justice. It would have done me a great service with the ladies and gentlemen."

Justice had frowned. "You did not answer the question."

"No, I suppose I didn't. Humans do that sometimes, you know. Avoiding the question when it is not something they wish to talk about. Don't spirits do the same?"

"No"

"Fair enough." Anders had swallowed, his stomach clenching. "I was born like this. Or so I'm told. In the land where I was born, many such children are born each winter, especially when there has been a poor harvest and the mothers' milk runs dry. Most of them die young. I did not. Or I haven't yet, anyway. I'm only on my twenty-sixth summer, I'm sure that if I were to die tomorrow that is sufficiently young for the bards to deem it a tragic loss of youth."

"Why would this happen?"

"Right, spirit, you don't understand about food or sex or anything. That's unfortunate. Or fortunate, really, since I guess that would make you a demon. I don't like demons very much. They were nasty sods when I was ten, and they're nasty sods now."

"You are avoiding the question again."

"Right. So, humans need food. You know that at least? Good. Well, when a pregnant woman is unable to eat enough, or eat the right things, sometimes her baby is born-- different. The Chantry teaches that it is a curse the Marker places on the children of the unworthy, but that's not true-- the winter disease has been around for thousands of years, and it doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything except the state of the harvest and that harshness of the winter. When the winter is particularly harsh, or food is particularly scarce, you get children like me, born with knock-knees."

"Is there such hunger in your land that many children are born like this?"

"In my land? Absolutely. Here? When we were young, Neria told me that most of the babies like me in Ferelden are born in alienages, but I'll bet the Blight has changed that. There's not much food in being a refugee, especially with so many of the fields ravaged by the 'spawn."

Justice had nodded. "I thank you for telling me of this injustice. I must think. Leave me."

"What? You were the one who interrupted me?"

Justice had stared at him impassively, and Anders had sighed and gone to his quarters anyway.

--

Vigil's Keep had seemed like home, and he had been happy- despite the Darkspawn and the bandits and the thrice-blighted Deep Roads, he had been happy enough working with Neria, alternately flirting and fighting with Nathaniel, and mostly avoiding Oghren on grounds of scent alone. When Neria had helped him destroy his phylactery, it had only secured what he had been feeling all along. He was good at running, but he would stay with the Wardens.

Then Neria left, on a mission which stretched from days to weeks to months, and the new Warden Commander had been an Orlesian former Templar, who was keen to fill the ranks with other Orlesian former Templars. He had questioned Anders' right to be there, Anders' capabilities, insisted on relieving him of his stick and staff and salves, because if he couldn't complete missions without them then he wasn't worthy of being a Warden. He had made him abandon Pounce, and Anders had cried bitterly and convinced Nathaniel's sister to take him in so that he could at least visit his pretty orange cat.

The new recruits were suspicious of him on principle, as a free mage. They took great delight in poking at his legs and back, and clapping his shoulder with blows just this side of painful but too nonchalant to be considered anything other than friendly by witnesses. They moved his things and laughed when he had to find them on shaking legs.

One of them had taken his embrium and poppias potion, and ordered him to pleasure him if he wished to have it returned. He refused for a week, until he came back from a routine patrol that had left him shaking with pain.

He did it, and added another strike to the litany written across his useless body of reasons to hate himself.

He had run, then. It was too much like the Tower, too much like solitary, too much like a lifetime of being kicked and stepped on and stepped over and mocked. It was too much.

He had felt guilty about doing so-- had told nobody, leaving in the dead of night. The only thing left in his quarters were two sealed and signed enveloped addressed to Nathaniel and Neria, enchanted to be unsealable by any but the intended recipients.

--

Now he was here, alone and in the only place he had properly called home since he was 12, and he was terrified. It didn't make any sense, but so much about him didn't make sense. Maybe he had lost too much.
(He saw that sometimes, with the Blight survivors sprinkled amongst the Darktown refugees. Even the youngest ones seemed too old by half, and those who had seen their villages and homes burn would never forget it. Anders didn't know what that was like. He had never had a home to burn.)

He felt pain crackle along his nerves, extending out from his bowed hips like the shadow left in the night air by a spark or a lightning bug.

A thundershower had begun, and with every bolt of lightning he felt his hair stand up and his legs twitch in agony.

With a great effort, he limped over to his cot, and pulled his stash of lyrium potions out from under it.

Sitting down, he could actually see the soft and emaciated flesh of his hips twitch in time with the lighting, like some kind of macabre Orlesian firework.

He cast a cleansing charm over the infirmary, and the smell of shit and blood began to fade. Leaning on one arm, forcing himself to sit upright, he cast several small, controlled fireballs at the iron bowl which contained his filthy instruments, and the sickly-sweet caramel smell of burning blood descended over the clinic. With a tired wave of his trembling hand, he cast another barrier at the clinic door, preventing more water from rushing in from the flooded streets outside.

He collapsed back onto his cot, exhausted. He would have to rise early the next day to restock his potions. Right now, he did not think he could sit long enough to do so, or even if his shaking hands would obey him well enough to follow the proper preparation.

He did not sleep well, normally, and the pain only increased that problem. He did not like taking the embrium and poppias potion-- for all that it dulled the pain, it also dulled his wits, made him pliant and confused, and he knew that it would be all too easy to take advantage of him in such a state. It wasn't safe, doing that regularly.

Tonight, however, he would not sleep otherwise. He felt his lips part in a low, involuntary whine as another pulse of pain echoed down his legs.

He wanted to scream. He wanted to die. He wanted to sleep.

Last week he had performed some discrete services for the city nobility, the kind that a wayward younger son would not dare take to a Chantry healer. With the three sovereigns he had earned from the task, he had restocked his meagre stores and used the last 20 silvers to have Worthy enchant a piece of polished silverite to vibrate after a period of time, which could be set by knocking it against a wall to indicate a set of sixty. He knocked it against the sandstone walls of the clinic four times. That would be enough, surely. There would be patients here by daybreak, and he needed to be ready.

He reached under his bed again and pulled out his bottle of embrium and poppias, and drank deeply.

Within seconds, he could feel its cloudy fingers pressing over him, as the pain was muffled and he fell, exhausted, into a dreamless sleep.

The potion did its job, and he woke with groggy, sleep-filled eyes and a cotton-mouth only after the silverite had been vibrating beneath his pillow for several minutes.

He was still feeling quite hazy, which is why he did not notice the presence in his clinic until he turned to push himself off of the bed with the assistance of his staff and found himself staring into bright, grass-green eyes.

"Oh, hello, Anders. I'm so glad you're finally awake. I've been standing here for nearly an hour." Merrill trilled.

Anders blinked.

Sensing she had put him ill at ease, she hastened to reassure him. "Don't worry, I didn't dismantle your traps or anything. Isabella's in the front room."