It was an ordinary winter day, cold and clear. Callin, nearly 16, Lynna, just 11, and Cassie, 9 and a half, were all on time for the customary before dinner drinks-and-chat with their father. Their mother, eight months pregnant, was not there that evening; feeling unwell, she had gone to bed early. Ari, nearly 8, was late not very, but he did have to "scamper" to get changed in time to sit down to table. Ronaldan Morgan was jovial as the meal was served; no warning signs predicted the coming sudden and incomprehensible terror that was to rearrange their lives. He merely asked, smilingly, where Ari had been at all day that had been so fascinating. An ordinary day.
Where Ari had been was looking at the big cats being open-caged for a travelling troop's later performance in Summer, which Ari meant to beg to see although their father went to the nearby capital rarely if at all; as much as he got to say was, "We went to Summer". Maybe he got another word or two out, no one was ever sure; those four were the catalyst that changed their father from a cheerfully interested interlocutor into gods alone knew what: a raving lunatic, a passionately violent punisher, a man out of control.
As was typical of upper-class Novari households, the children sat at the table by sex first, then age, sons by their father and daughters at their mother's end. Thus, Ari was easily within reach when he father went after him, grabbing him by the shirt and dragging him across the corner of the table, scattering and smashing china and silver and crystal.
"Summer?" He was enraged, though what froze Callin for that vital moment was the panic that underlay the rage; never before had he seen his father truly afraid. "Summer? What have I told you about Summer? Never, never go to Summer!"
He was shaking Ari hard enough to make the boy's nose bleed, staring with wild blue eyes into his son's face while he shouted, and the other children sat paralyzed by astonishment as much as by fear. Something in Ari's grey eyes fueled his rage instead of calming it; Ari wasn't afraid enough, probably; almost spoiled, everyone's darling, rarely balked: afraid, yes, but not afraid enough.
There was a fireplace behind Ronaldan Morgan. And when he laid into his son with the poker, his other children's paralysis finally broke. They reacted according to their various natures: Cassie stood on her chair, shouting "No! Stop!"; Lynna began screaming, a high-pitched keening that went on and on, seemingly uninterrupted even for breath. Callin surged instinctively to his feet, knocking over his chair, his fists clenched so tightly that his forearms hurt; then, controlling himself with immense effort, he said, "Sir? Siryou're hurting him."
"He has to be hurt; it's the only way he'll learn; it's the only thing that'll reach him." Their father's voice was nearly unrecognizable. He struck again, and Ari's scream was louder than Lynna's, if much shorter.
Cassie lunged at her father, shouting "Let him go let him go let him go," and he backhanded her into his elder son, fortunately catching her face with the hand that held the poker and not the implement itself.
"Hold her, Callin," he ordered, "and you watch this, all of you! Watch this and learn! This is what happens, all gods damn it, never do that! Never go to Summer, never say you're Evenlyn, never risk it, do you understand, it's godsbedamned dangerous! The Karelhi will kill you, they'll kill us all, never go there, never say that..." and the poker rose and fell, again and again...
Lynna was crying, her breath coming in racking sobs as she sat, unable to take her eyes off their father and Ari. Cassie screamed and kicked and twisted in Callin's despairing grip; there was no chance she'd get away from him, no chance of that iron bar breaking her delicate bones as it was breaking Ari's... Callin was also unable to take his eyes off his father, and he could barely breathe. 'I have to do something,' he kept thinking. 'Oh, Erinna, stop this, I can't do anything, I have to do something... Please, Erinna, please...'
None of them heard the doors slamming back, none of them felt the sharp, bitter wind, but all of them heard the voice, cold and controlled and deadly with hatred. "Ronaldan Morgan!" it called, and every motion stopped, and all eyes turned to the doorway. And at that moment, Callin was more terrified of what stood there than he was of his father, for his father was masculine rage and power, which was familiar and almost comforting in the face of what saw now, alien and terrible; something he would have at that moment sworn he would never forget, something which ultimately proved too terrible to be remembered.
Hanaianah Morgan stood in the doorway, barefoot and greatly pregnant, her unbound blonde hair loose and blowing about her face and shoulders, her white nightgown, with the red lacings untied, blowing as well, her face set and fierce and distant, and in her hands, with the fingers bleeding from her struggle to cock the thing, was a loaded crossbow, pointed straight and unwaveringly at her husband. "Hear me now," she said. "If you hit him even one more time, I will kill you."
Callin didn't doubt it for a minute. 'Oh, Erinna, please,' he prayed silently, despairingly. 'What can I do, I've got to do something... Please!'
The moment stretched out forever. Callin was barely aware of servants standing staring from the hallways, of Lynna subsiding to gasps, of Cassie going still in his hands. Their mother never moved, her eyes and her aim steady. Nor did she repeat herself, which her husband might have taken for weakness or indecision. 'Please, Erinna,' Callin begged, knowing he was going to have to do something if no one else did, and terrified of having to choose what. And then the sanity came back into Ronaldan Morgan's eyes, and he laid the poker down on the hopelessly stained tablecloth. Callin closed his eyes briefly.
"Put him down on the table and step back, toward the wall."
Not taking his eyes off hers, Ronaldan did as she commanded, unconciously straightening his clothing as he did.
"Roncallin," said that voice, as unrecognizable as their father's had been earlier, "let go of your sister." Cassie pulled from his now loose grip. "Lynna" not 'Rhonlynna'! Callin flinched as if she'd hit him "you and Cassie get your brother and take him up to his room. Don't get between your father and me."
The girls, Cassie sliding between Callin and the table and then scrambling under it to join her sister, picked up Ari's still form. Lynna was crying again, and Cassie glaring. They carried him, somewhat awkwardly, out of the dining room. Callin wanted to help, but he felt unable to move, pinned to the floor by that voice, so drained of warmth and not asking for him. Their mother backed out of the room, closing the door behind her, and the heard footsteps on the stairs.
Callin swallowed convulsively, and then his father spoke. "Women," he said, and Callin was trapped, 15 and male and almost involuntarily ranged on his father's side his father's peer, that unreachable goal men against women.
"Sir... Sir," he started, trying to find something to say that would stop his world from spinning, disintegrating, and put him back where he somehow knew he ought to be, needed to be, but couldn't find.
"You understand," Ronaldan said reasonably, man to man. "You understand, even if she doesn't. It had to be done. The Karelhi would kill him, kill all of us, even her, though she's Darya and doesn't understand it. Don't marry foreign, son," he added as an aside, and crossed to the undisturbed end of the table. He sat down and poured wine into clean goblets from himself and his son, who, bewildered, followed him. "But you do understand, son, I can see you do. We can't claim itever. We can't claim it, we can't flaunt it, we can't ever... Red as foxes you; black as ravens him; Novari kings... It's just not safe, and they had to learn it. Women... women, son, are soft sometimes."
Soft was not what she had looked like to Callin, but he couldn't find the words to say it, his usual inarticulateness falling even more completely apart in the face of this sudden appearance of reasonableness and equality in his father's demeanor. "You hurt him, sir," he tried a different tack, but could get no further.
"He'll be all right," Ronaldan stated firmly. "And he won't do that again. He's not like you, Callin; she's spoiled him. Reason doesn't work, he doesn't listen to orders; only pain works. But he'll be all right, you'll see."
But he didn't see. The next five days were, even then, blurry with fears and conflicting loyalties and turbulent emotions that tore at his mind and heart. But he didn't see Ari being "all right." For two days, he didn't see Ari at all; then he saw him unconcious and broken. His sisters glared at him and his mother ignored him when he looked in on his little brother, but at least he looked in. Their father didn't (sickrooms are women's work), which might explain why he could repeat his litany of "He'll be all right. It was necessary and he'll, they all will, learn from it" on the fourth day, when their mother had confronted him in the first conversation they had had since that evening. Callin heard part of it, they unaware of his presence.
"He will die if you do not get him a priest," insisted Hanaianah, standing bolt upright in front of her much taller husband, one hand pressed protectively over her swelling belly and the other clenched so tightly that the tendons stood out halfway up her arm. "Are you so stubborn that you will let your son die rather than admit to a healer that you beat him? I will lie about it if that's what it takes...."
Callin slipped away, not wanting to hear his father's repetitive words, up the back stairs, and went to Ari's room. Lynna's eyes were hot on him, but he didn't notice. Ari lay, pale against the sheets except for the bruises, black and purple, that covered so much of his thin body. It would literally be decades before Callin could see Ari tall and strongly built; he would see him thus, frail and broken and small, frighteningly vulnerable, without recognizing the picture or its source. But now the picture was real: Ari was bruised and broken. Bright blood flecked his lips; Lynna reached over to wipe them, and left to get new cool cloths. For a brief moment, Callin felt better. Then Ari coughed, and the vivid scarlet showed on his mouth again. His grey eyes opened; Callin wasn't sure if he was really awake or not, but he licked his lips a couple of times and his breathing, which was very shallow, quickened slightly, which made him whimper softly. Callin glanced at the bedside table and found a damp cloth; dipping it in the pitcher of water, he dribbled a few drops into his brother's mouth. It seemed to ease him. Callin touched his brother's dark, damp hair and swallowed, his gut hurting.
"Callin?" his father's voice came from the doorway.
"Sir," he said, turning. Lynna was paused in the hallway, hovering, clearly unwilling to push past their father. Callin exhaled slowly and then exited his brother's room, carrying Ronaldan Morgan with him down the hallway. After a silence heavy with unspoken words he finally ventured, "Sir? Couldn't you let him have a priest? He's hurt... I mean," he corrected himself, "he's hurting. He's in pain."
"He needs pain. He has to learn from this," said his father, reasonably. "He must learn, because I wouldn't want to have to do this again."
And Callin looked into his father's eyes and realized: but you would, though. You would do it again. In a heartbeat. And his throat closed on his words, and his heart grew cold.
And the next day, Hanaianah was not to be found. Every horse was still in the stable, and Ronaldan refused to worry about her "sulkiness." And she did in fact return, at dusk, but accompanied by a Grey Priest nearly speechless over her trek, and put into cold fury by what he found in Ari's injuries. No words were spoken between Sir Ronaldan Morgan and the priest then on that or any topic, nor between the landholder-knight and his wife on the topic of the priest then or ever, but the next day, while Ari lay, at last quiet, in his healing trance, the other Morgan children heard their mother's last words on the incident.
"What you want to pretend, what you want to hide, what you want never said: I will pretend it, I will hide it, I will never say it. I will go along with you , with your fears and your ruses and all that you do. I will share your bed; if it happens that way I will bear more children for you; I will honor and respect you; and in all all things I will be a good and faithful wife except for this thing: if you ever again for any reason lay your hands on any of my children I will kill you."
Their father had nothing to say in return to that. And within the week Ari was up and about, behaving as if nothing had happened. Except that he never again told his father anything. And Lynna and Cassie never trusted their father again, and sniped at their older brother; and Lynna mistrusted men, and Cassie provoked anger to see its limits.
And Hanaianah became silent, almost submissive, and gave birth to Rhonda, murmuring "Thank you, Erinna, for a daughter....". She never regained her health, and died before summer's end.
And Ronaldan puzzled over the distance between his younger son and himself, and tried to overcome it by bribes and indulgences, and yet never really seemed to expect that to work. He never seemed to notice that his daughters no longer liked him, but he spent more and more time with his elder son, who did.
And Callin himself forgot the whole week; it was simply too terrible and overwhelmingly intense to be remembered. He became even more obdedient and responsible than he had been, which had been very; his one fling at rebellion, significantly, was an almost nonexistant flirtation with the Sons of the Wolf and the old Novari royalists, a terrifyingly delightful defiance of his father that he nonetheless kept as secret as he could. He viewed Ari as delicate, breakable, precious, in need of protection, and he protected him, covering for behaviors he would never have dreamed of indulging in himself. He accepted as somehow, intangibly but somehow inevitably, right that his sisters never believed in his care for Ari, and that they sniped at him when they did. But in the overt, waking moments of his mind, he remembered none of it at all: the dreadful beating, his terrifying archetypical mother, his brother's pain, his father's cruelty... none of it at all.
And none of them, none of the four of them, ever discussed that week with any of the others, except the girls with each other sometimes, though Rhonda heard about it from her sisters, and from Ari, too, when she asked him outright. The two older girls hoped Ari didn't remember it but he did, all too well. They also thought that Callin did. Ari suspected Callin didn't, a feat he rather envied his brother, especially later in life, but he didn't blame him the way the girls did. He didn't listen to him, either, but then, he didn't listen to anyone; his life was never, if he could help it, going to be in anyone's hands but his ever again.
And what their father did or didn't know, or feel, or remember, they never knew. Nor, really, cared.
|PART ONE: Ari 1 | PART TWO: Ari 2 |||PART THREE: Desilyn | PART FOUR: Ari 3 | PART FIVE: Ari 4|
|Autumn Afternoon | Ilya's Wedding | Something... | Last Corner | Morgans|
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