A/N: This story takes place in the same Reckoning AU as my previous 2 fics - Wizard's Fire and A Brand New Life, although it can stand alone. In this AU, Darken Rahl and Kahlan have a son, Nicholas, but he is significantly different from the Nicholas of the show.
This story takes place approximately 3 years after the end of A Brand New Life.
Darken Rahl's eyes blurred with fatigue as he dashed off his latest missive across the parchment, the slender quill clenched so tightly in his hand that pins and needles shot up his arm. Taking a moment to stretch his back and massage his aching neck, he fumed at his intractable subject's ingratitude before resuming his diatribe.
I have been more than patient with your over-reaching, but If I receive any further reports of misconduct, you will feel my wrath. Never forget that you serve at my pleasure, and mine alone. I raised you to this position due solely to your family's sworn allegiance to me during the war.
Kahlan had warned Darken from the beginning that Freyn was the wrong choice to hold Aydindril and the Midlands until their daughter, Dennee, came of age to take up her duties there as the Mother Confessor.
Darken had promised Kahlan that their child would exercise the power that her mother had never been permitted. It was a wish he cherished as much as did she.
Although he had sought out his wife's advice when choosing the interim governor for her beloved homeland, he had balked at Kahlan's suggestions. It was only natural that she would propose candidates honored and well-respected by the populace, but the possibility of another charismatic rival arising to challenge Darken's dominion swayed him against her choices.
It had been a short-sighted decision on his part.
Darken had always prided himself as a keen judge of his noble's strengths and weaknesses, on his ability to dangle rewards and favor in order to play each family against the other, thus preventing them from of uniting against him. It galled him that he had been so mistaken in Freyn.
Now, the prince's pettiness, greed and ambition might well goad the people of the Midlands into rebellion once again. After nine years of peace, Darken would not let his authority, or his daughter's inheritance, be threatened.
With a heavy sigh, he bent down to finish the task at hand.
I raised you up, Prince Freyn, and I can just as easily pull you down. If you force my hand, the punishment and disgrace will fall not only on yourself, but on every member of your family.
As you well know, I do not make empty threats.
Darken was scrawling his signature at the bottom of the page when his attention was caught be the padding of small feet against the marble floor.
"Isn't it a little late for you to be wandering around the palace, Nicholas," he asked, without raising his eyes from the parchment. "It must be after midnight. Where is Elyse? The woman shouldn't be letting you out of her sight."
As if anyone could keep track of Nicholas. The boy was a blur of motion from daybreak until he collapsed into bed at night.
"She's still asleep, Father. Anyway, it's not night anymore. It's morning and I'm hungry." Instead of barging into the room as he usually did, Nicholas had remained in the doorway.
Darken glanced over at the window in surprise, noting the first light of dawn filtering across the room. Absorbed in his anger at Freyn, he had lost all track of time.
Nicholas was still talking, his voice a little raspier than usual. "I had a bad dream and didn't sleep very well, and I wanted to visit you before you got busy telling people what to do. Mother's birthday is tomorrow and we need to talk about our presents so we don't give her the same thing. What are you getting her? Are you writing with blood again?"
Once Nicholas started rambling, the words tended to tumble out on top of each other as the boy's thought jumped from one subject to the next. Although now, compared to his normal exuberance, he sounded very subdued.
Darken chose to answer the simplest question first. "No, Nicholas. As I've told you repeatedly, my use of blood is greatly exaggerated by my enemies. I only use it on very special occasions."
He paused for the inevitable barrage of inquiries as to how and when, but Nicholas said nothing.
"That's a joke, Nicholas," he added, stung a little by the boy's lack of response.
Darken regarded his sleepy-eyed son, noticing for the first time the forlorn slump of the boy's shoulders.
"What's wrong, Nicholas? What did you dream about?" Darken was no stranger to nightmares. He had been plagued by them since early childhood. He never wanted his child to suffer that kind of torment.
Nicholas shrugged, a little too casually. "Nothing. I don't want to talk about it."
This was something new. Darken had yet to discover anything that Nicholas didn't want to talk about. The boy's reticence disturbed him.
"Come here and tell me what happened," he said with some impatience, motioning the boy to approach.
Once Nicholas would have flown into his father's arms without hesitation, but at eight years of age the prince made a point of informing everybody that he was almost grown up now. As a result, his once spontaneous displays of affection had become more formal and restrained. Darken expected Nicholas to appreciate the gravity of being heir to the throne, but he was still saddened at the thought of his gregarious, open-hearted son already being weighed down with expectations.
Nicholas trod over to his father and permitted himself to be pulled into a one-armed embrace against Darkenes shoulder . "I had a fight with Ethan yesterday evening," he muttered, gazing down at the floor. "We were playing. He cheated at a game and I yelled at him, and he yelled back. Then I got really mad at him."
Now that the boy was so close, Darken could see that it wasn't just sleeplessness that shadowed one of his son's eyes. The right lid looked painfully swollen and bruised, and another crescent-shaped bruise had formed at the crest of the boy's cheekbone. There had been more than a verbal exchange in this dispute. He fought down his initial protective ire at anyone who would dare harm his son. Ethan, like Nicholas, was still only a child.
Darken had the blood of too many children on his hands.
"What happened after that?" he urged gently. Taking Nicholas's chin between his thumb and forefinger Darken turned the boy's face to his. A gnawing unease was building in his chest.
"Then – I shoved him and he shoved me back and we were still yelling, and then I hit him and he hit me back – hard." Nicholas's voice caught in a sob. "And then I pushed him down and – "
"What? What did you do to Ethan?" Darken's was harsher than he intended. He didn't want to hear what he knew his son was going to tell him.
It seemed as if Kahlan's worst fears were going to be realized after all.
Nicholas was so young, too young to be held accountable for his powers.
Yet he had been cautioned repeatedly by Kahlan about the dangers of confession. The boy should have known better.
It had been was an accident. Nicholas wasn't responsible .
But yet he was.
Nicholas himself had admitted to acting out of anger. Almost from the cradle, his mother had taught him the importance of control, of how to protect other's from his touch.
Children were impulsive. Surely some allowance could be made for that.
Nicholas struggled to force the words out through his anguish. "Then I pushed him down and I was going to put my fingers around his throat. I was going to do it, Father. I was going to confess him….but, then – I knew that I couldn't. Ethan's my friend and I couldn't do that to him." Tears streaked his son's cheeks. "He promised not to tell and I thought we would both forget about it and everything would be all right, but then I had the dream, and now I know that it's never going to be all right."
At first the relief was so overwhelming that Darken was speechless. He could only pull his son tighter against him, then the implications of his son's last words began to reach him.
"They're right, aren't they, Father? Everybody's right about me." Nicholas's voice was muffled against Darken's chest. "I'm bad. I'm turning into a monster just like all of the others."
So it had finally come to this.
From birth, Nicholas had been a happy out-gong child, gazing out at the world with wonder and excitement, trusting that the world would return the same to him in equal measure. But despite the affection that his personal charm elicited, the boy had also been surrounded by a cloud of resentment and suspicion, whispers not about who he was, but about what he might become.
Male Confessors were monsters – always. For thousands of years they had been killed at birth because of the devastation they had wrought in the dark days of the distant past.
Even Kahlan had wanted to kill Nicholas at birth, had called Darken a fool for insisting that his son live. She had been shrill in her unfounded accusations that he had used magic to ensure that she bore him a son.
He wondered if she still suspected him, even now, despite his assurances over the intervening years.
Darken had never denied his pleasure in having a male heir, but he was not a fool. He was aware of the dangers a male Confessor might pose to his realm, and to Darken himself. But he had killed one son at birth. He would not kill another.
Darken knew, with more acuity than most, what it was like to grow up under the shadow of prophecy. If he had averted the doom foretold for him, then he could do the same for his son.
As Nicholas had grown into a toddler, then into boyhood, it was impossible to believe that he was destined to become evil. Despite her dread at his birth, and her continuing fear at what the future might hold, Kahlan had come to love her son with a fierce protectiveness, although Darken couldn't help but notice that she never left little Dennee alone with her older brother.
It was in their shared devotion to their son that husband and wife had finally been able to reach some degree of accord. Because Darken, who had always before scorned love as meaningless, as weakness, since he had always feared he would never receive it, loved his son with a ferocity that both terrified and humbled him.
It had not consumed him all at once, this devotion , but had crept up on him, gradually eroding his defenses, eating away at the cold hard knot of bitterness, cruelty and hatred at his core.
In Nicholas, Darken appreciated that he had been granted a gift beyond price, beyond his ability to repay or even comprehend. For the first time in Darken's life, someone other than himself was the center of his world. His son was no longer a means to an end, but was the one true joy of his life, and Darken would willingly die to protect him.
In loving his child, Darken had been able to begin to comprehend the torment that his wife had suffered, was perhaps still enduring, over the loss of all she had ever known or loved.
He had tried, as difficult as it was, to understand Kahlan's silent grief at losing Richard – Darken's enemy, his doom , his brother.
How could she bear that loss and go on living day after day with such grace?
Darken knew that if anything happened to Nicholas, he would probably go mad.
There was so much of Kahlan in Nicholas. Their son had her eyes and freckles, and he exhibited little telling gestures and habits that constantly reminded Darken of his wife.
He sometimes wondered if, when she looked at Nicholas, Kahlan ever saw her husband, and if so, whether it only brought her grief.
Husband and wife had grown closer over the years, but there were some things too painful to share.
Darken was well aware that his own Mord'Sith looked askance at his child. Although he would never acknowledge it openly, he was grateful to First Mistress Garen, who for some inexplicable reason, perhaps beginning with an exhausting afternoon she had spent caring for Nicholas three years earlier, had developed a stoic but deep devotion toward Nicholas. She never spoke of her feelings, she didn't need to. It was there in her eyes and in the fierce glare she gave to any who might speak against the boy.
But there were those she couldn't silence.
There were murmurs even Dakren could not suppress.
He couldn't track down the source of every rumor. There were hundreds of servants in the Palace, thousands of soldiers serving in his armies, nobles and retainers constantly coming and going, all talking, gossiping, all with opinions.
Even General Egremont, his closest friend and advisor, had been quietly appalled at Nicholas's birth. Although he, like Mistress Garen, had developed a gruff affection for the boy over time, the general was still very careful to make certain that his own grandchildren were never alone with the boy.
So it had been for years, and Nicholas must have absorbed the fear and suspicion like the air he breathed, never giving any sign that it bothered him. The boy had always taken Kahlan's constant watchfulness and admonitions in stride, and unlike his ephemeral attention span with his tutors, his fencing instructor and his governess , Nicholas had been diligent in remembering the rules of confession.
Darken understood the need for caution, the potential danger Nicholas posed, but he hated feeling so helpless in the face of his son's sadness and remorse. Nothing he could do or say would ever change the fact that Nicholas was a Confessor.
"Listen to me Nicholas," Darken said firmly, locking eyes with his son. "You are not a monster. I've been called that, but for good reason. You're nothing like me."
"You're not a monster! Who said that? I want to be just like you." Darken's throat tightened painfully as his son, even mired in his own unhappiness, sprang to his defense. There would come a day when Nicholas would have to confront many harsh truths about his father, but Darken prayed that the man his boy would become would never know the full extent of Darken's crimes. The thought of Nicholas someday hating him beyond the grave was unbearable.
"Never mind about me, Nicholas, that doesn't matter now. This is about you." His son's face clouded over again. "Everybody gets angry sometimes. You and Ethan had a fight and you both lost your tempers. When you had him at your mercy you could have confessed him, but you didn't."
"But don't you see, Father? I wanted to do it! I wanted to confess him, and I almost did. Then I dreamed that I had confessed Ethan, and Mother told me that she always knew this would happen and that she would never let me see Dennee again, and you were so disappointed that you wouldn't even look at me, and Garen was mad at me because she said I would confess her, too, and then she would die, and Ethan's family hated me, and everybody was afraid of me and….then I was just all alone, forever."
"But you didn't do it." Darken was desperate to reach his son, to make him stop hurting. Nicholas's recitation of a future in which he was feared by all, but loved by none, cut too close to the bone. "You stopped yourself. You made the right choice. That's what's important."
"But what if it happens again? What if I don't stop the next time?" Nicholas was all attention, eyes earnest, hanging onto his father's every word for reassurance, still too young to understand that Darken's wisdom was not infinite.
"You'll do the right thing, Nicholas. I trust you. I believe in you." Darken had no better advice to give his son. He had no idea when the next crisis would occur, only that it would, and when it did, they would deal with it as best they could.
Darken was intimately acquainted with evil, and if there was one thing he did know – better than Kahlan, better than anyone – there was not an evil bone in Nicholas's body.
The boy's expression had brightened somewhat, but his brow still furrowed with worry. "Please don't tell Mother about this. I don't want her to know. Promise me that you won't tell her."
Darken considered his son for a moment as he debated the matter with himself. In all fairness, Kahlan had a right to know about what had happened. In fact, she should be told. But Darken, like Nicholas, suspected that once she were made aware of what Nicholas had almost done, Kahlan would never look at her son in the same way again. Darken didn't want his son to feel that loss.
Finally, he nodded his head. "Agreed. It will be our secret."
Rising to his feet, Darken took Nicholas's hand in his – such a small, vulnerable hand to contain such power.
"Let's go to the kitchen and have Cook fix us some breakfast, and then we can discuss what we're going to give your mother for her birthday."
For the first time that morning, his son's face broke into a smile. "She always likes my presents the best though, Father."
Darken nodded in agreement. "And I hope she always will," he said softly.