The Morgans


Young Ronaran Morgan, the Landholder-Knight's younger son, bent low over his horse's neck and galloped through Lynoc's single street as though Hounds were at his heels. The few people out in the road at that hour, midmorning of a bright autumn day, smiled involuntarily as he went past them, the gelding stretching in a huge, graceful leap to clear Varsa's milch-goat, tied in front of the widower Harkyn's house. One girl gasped, envisioning a fall and a broken neck, but the mahogany bay Canton was far too athletic for that, and took the goat literally in his stride. Tearing along in his wake came three spaniels, hopelessly outrun, but doing their best. It was a common enough sight to waken nothing but amusement or admiration, or a fond combination, depending upon the villager: Ari did that, and that was all. Had his brother come through the town like that, doors would have been bolted in anticipation of some trouble, but then, Roncallin never did.

Which was one of the reasons Ari did, that Callin didn't. The main reason was that their father had told him never to gallop through a village or a farm. Farms he didn't, he could see the sense of that, but villages... well, the only reason not to was to keep Sir Ronaldan from getting angry. And Ari didn't care if his father got angry. No, he did care; he just refused to live his life to stop it from happening. Let Callin do that. Ari wasn't as provoking as his sister Cassie, who went out of her way to irritate people, but he was blithely oblivious to what other people wanted him to do, especially his father. He could be charming, charming as a Demon if he tried, and amiable enough if it didn't matter to him, but he wasn't an obedient boy. And there was a certain edge to coming through a town that fast (particularly if it was bigger than Lynoc, with cross streets out of which anything could come) that made you know you were alive.

On the far side of Lynoc he began to rein in, looking over his shoulder for his dogs, and it was there that he nearly got unseated. Valaret, breaking his gait obediently but pulling against the bit to show he didn't really want to, suddenly rose to his hind feet and skittered sharply across the road. Ari, losing a stirrup but neither his seat nor the reins, caught only a glimpse of something huge and pale bolting under his horse's forequarters. A harsh voice swore from the side of the road, and a tall person, staff in hand came out of the shoulder-high grain. Lost livestock, Ari realized, and moving faster than a man on foot. "I'll head him back to you!" Ari called, turning Valaret in pursuit and plunging into the grain on the other side of the road.

There were too many Karelhi landholders this close to Summer for the grainfields to be fenced, which was unfortunate as a sheep or cow wouldn't have been able to jump a fence. That was what he was expecting, a sheep or cow. What he caught up with wouldn't have jumped a fence, either, but might well have smashed it into smallish pieces on her way through. It was a breeding sow, a huge, solid, surprisingly toothy beast that weighed more than Valaret and him put together, and she didn't look happy to see them.

"Well, this is different," he acknowledged to his horse as they manuevered in front of the sow, who squealed at them piercingly as she glared out of her little eyes. "I somehow don't think she'll scare easily, do you?" Valaret was more sanguine, because Ari had never yet asked him to do something that had hurt him, but he wasn't even a cattle herder, and boar-hunting tactics more or less assumed the presence of boar-hounds and spears. "Maybe whoever lost her has more sense than to actually wait?" he hoped, dancing Valaret in front of the baffled sow, who stood, head down, waiting for a chance to do something. And that hope was realised.

A pair of small tan dogs came down the track of smashed grain the sow had left, and she swung her long head back and forth between them as they took turns rushing at her and falling back. Then the swineherd was there, speaking gruffly but soothingly. "Ah, now, Arianna, there's a good wise sow, it's too hot for this nonsense on your nice white skin. Let's go and find your boar, now, Arianna." Ari carefully held Valaret still, and the dogs stood quiet as well, and after a few moments, the sow relaxed and the woman, for woman it was, was able to scratch her beast's back with her staff and head her back toward the road. She didn't speak to Ari, but he chalked that up to her having her hands full. He dismounted and followed, leading Valaret a respectful several yards behind.

On the road, his spaniels were sprawled in the dust waiting for him, too well trained to run into the fields on their own, even following him. The two bitches jumped at him, hunting his caressing hand; the dog bristled at the strangers. Ari snapped his fingers and reproved him, apologising to the woman with his incandescent smile. "Baran thinks we own the world, and it's his job to keep other dogs out of it," he said.

The woman actually looked at him for the first time, long and hard. Ari didn't preen; he was secure but not vain, an odd combination for a 16-year-old, and one that made him even more attractive. After a moment, she smiled back at him. It was a smile that altered her face radically; normally, she wasn't particularly attractive, tall and almost gaunt, with big hands and feet more like a man than a woman, and her face was angular and weather-beaten, her hair a muddy blonde. Her eyes were her most striking feature, a brilliant but hard blue. But her smile transformed her into, not a pretty woman, but one you wouldn't soon forget. Her voice matched her, somewhat harsh, not musical, but compelling. "He's got his work cut out for him," she said. "Still, I expect your father agrees with him more often than not."

Ari laughed out loud. He took it for granted she knew who he was; everybody did. What was nice was that she wasn't overwhelmed by it. Of course, she was old, maybe more than 30, and unmarried by her hands, and she didn't look like much of anything overwhelmed her. "Nice pig," he offered, coming up to walk beside her.

"Your young lordship's eaten a plentitude of her offspring, I expect," she said.

"Likely. I love bacon, and roast pork. She doesn't know those words, does she?" he asked as the sow grunted loudly.

"She might. Not that she cares about her pigs after they're weaned," said the woman, adding, "a truly rational attitude." She switched lightly at the sow's legs, turning her into a lane.

Ari smiled at her again, more somberly. "But a good mother till then, I bet."

"Oh, aye. Fierce as a dragon," she scratched the sow's back. "You're a good mother, Arianna," she soothed.

"And are boars good fathers?"

"Worse than most," she snorted. "They'll eat their farrows if they're not kept off, by the sow or me."

"No moral parables there," Ari remarked, trying to keep his tone light.

She glanced sideways at him; her eyes seemed to cut through to the back of his soul. "No," she said after a moment. "But then, them as try to make moral parables for folks out of the actions of beasts aren't the brightest on the green earth. Farm boars don't know their get, no more than stallions or dogs; how should they, the way they're kept? Wild boars can be real different." She stopped abruptly, and he tried to think of something to say. But she spared him the necessity but saying, as abruptly as she'd fallen silent, "You ride real well; like a young lion."

"Well, thank you," said Ari, finding it necessary to add, "though I've never heard of a lion on a horse."

"It's just a saying," she said. She might have said more, but the sow suddenly began squealing loudly. A deeper, more thunderous voice answered her from a pen on their left, and the woman laughed. "There's what you want, Arianna: Camber's old red boar." She unhooked the gate and the sow entered at a trot. "You'd have been sorry to miss that," she called after the animal, latching the gate again securely."They'll be two days at it," she said to Ari, cocking her head at him. "Will you come to my place and have a drink, Little Lion?"

"I will — if you'll tell me your name," he answered.

"Margaine. Margaine Farla."

Margaine Farla. As in "that wild woman, Farla." As in "no daughter of mine will ever speak to her." As in "some people have no shame." Ari was definitely intrigued. And the day was definitely looking up.

He went to Margaine's and had the drink, but she didn't take him inside. Not that day. That day she brought him out a hot mulled wine and they sat on her fence and talked. Margaine was willing enough to steer clear of any serious topic, and so they talked about dogs and the weather, and she told him several bawdy stories that threatened his balance so that he nearly fell off the fence more than once. And then it was growing dusk, and Ari mounted Valaret and rode homeward, his mind singing from the wine and the conversation, and the fancies.

Ari put Valaret away, as he always did. Callin came into the stable while he was doing so, and Ari told his brother about chasing the sheep that turned out to be a pig. Predictably, Callin, who, at 24, was more responsible and more serious than Ari, saw no humor in it at all. "Damn it, Ari; can't you think? What if it had been a bull? What would you have done then?"

"Callin," Ari leaned his weight on Valaret's back and shook his head, his grey eyes dancing at his brother's earnestness. Callin always worried so. "Callin, nobody takes a bull anywhere by themselves. There'd have been three-four people out there, not just one. And Valaret is faster than a bull, any day."

"You say that now. Admit it, Ari, it never crossed your mind."

"No, it didn't. Why should it? It couldn't have been a bull."

"Ari, you could have been badly hurt."

"But I wasn't. Callin, honestly," Ari hesitated, looking into his brother's deep green eyes and then gave it up. "I'm not a baby," was all he said, and ducked under his horse and left the stable, leaving his brother staring after him worriedly.

The subject didn't come up at dinner. It wasn't surprising, considering. Not only did Ari never bring anything up, but Callin didn't bring up things about Ari. Anyway, the Morgans were occupied with Rhonlynna's marriage a in a few week's time. Lynna was quietly happy—her betrothed was a Tolleran some six years older than she, a grave man with an elegant turn of phrase and a gentle touch. Cassie, in between Lynna and Ari, was much less happy about it, though she thought she was hiding it well. It was as well that Demarist Evarian had done most of his courting by mail, for Cassie tried to provoke him into argument when they were together and, paradoxically, wasn't made any happier by his soft answers to her attacks. Little Rhonda had always looked at Lynna as her mother, and was already missing her. Callin was glad she was going, and ashamed he was glad. Only Ari and their father were simply glad she was getting married, though no end to the world was portended by this unity: Sir Ronaldan was glad to get her off his hands at last, glad for the bride-money, and glad for the more than 300 miles that would lie between him and his eldest daughter; Ari was simply glad because Lynna was.

And although Ari fell passionately, madly in the truest sense of the word, in love with Demarist Evarian's little sister when they came to take Lynna away, that, although intoxicatingly wonderful, was and had to remain a deep secret. So Ari didn't change anything in his way of life. And thus he rode back out to see Margaine Farla a week after the wedding.

Their friendship deepened over the next year and into the second spring, but Ari never got it shifted into bed. She laughed, kindly, whenever he made a pass, and told him he was way too young for her.

"Hell and Chaos, Margaine, I'm not a baby!"

"You're half my age, Little Lion. That's too young," she'd pat him on the head and he'd swear again, because it was only a dozen years difference, but in a few minutes they'd be talking politics or horses and he'd let it go for the moment. Sometimes he was just as glad; Margaine was wild. She was strange, and given to odd declamations that were almost prophetic. Sometimes she put the hair up on the back of his neck, and three or four times he'd wakened with nightmares spawned by something she'd said in those moments when her blazing eyes were glazed with foresight or madness and she said things she didn't remember afterwards. But he shook those moments off, and came back to drink and talk. And inevitably, Callin one day found out.

Callin was riding along, quietly, hoping (forlornly, he feared) that he'd made the right choice when the shop had been out of the color cloth Cassie had asked for, when his horse pulled toward a lane, whickering a greeting. Looking down the lane, he saw Valaret grazing, riderless, near the road. His heart went straight to his throat, and he kicked his mare towards his baby brother's horse, visions of Ari, thrown, injured, dead, filling his mind. By the time he got there, rationality had reasserted itself: the bay's offside stirrup was run up, and the bit was out of his mouth, bumping gently against his lower jaw as the gelding cropped the new grass. Ari had left his horse deliberately. Callin's heart didn't return to normal, though, until he found his brother, sitting on a fence and talking to a tall, blond woman older than Callin.

When he saw his brother, Ari waved cheerfully. Callin rode up to him, and asked if he was going to be introduced. The look in Ari's eyes should have warned him. "Certainly," Ari said. "Callin, this is Margaine Farla; Margaine, my brother Roncallin." Callin said something polite and noncommittal and rode away, and Ari nearly fell off the fence laughing. "Poor Callin — so straitlaced," he sputtered at Margaine, before catching sight of her face. "He doesn't really mean to be rude," he began; she looked so serious, though usually it was she throwing her reputation at him.

She watched Callin another minute, and then turned to Ari. She put her hand on his knee, gently, and said, "Little Lion, why didn't you tell me you were related to the Kings of Novamer?"

Ari did overbalance at that, falling to the ground in as nearly a graceless maneuver as he was capable of, and lying there a full minute staring at her, his grey eyes gone wide in shock. Then he scrambled to his feet onto the lower railing of the fence to put his eyes level with hers and said, "I am not related to them. I am not Evenlyn. Not even a tiny bit. Not under any circumstances whatsoever."

Margaine looked at him with that expression in her eyes that meant there was no arguing with her and patted his cheek almost maternally. "No, no. You haven't ever said anything to make me thing you a bastard."

"What are you talking about?" Ari asked in near despair.

"Oh, Little Lion," she said, smiling in what looked like satisfaction, "I am going to have children by that son of the red-haired Novari Kings."

"Callin?" Ari didn't know what to react to, her Evenlyn obsession or the notion that Calllin would... "Oh, no, Margaine. You're wrong there."

"No, I'm not. I will." She sounded confident.

"I'll bet you anything you like — Valaret against Arianna, even — that you won't." Ari was sure she'd never get within arm's reach of his brother.

And the hour-long lecture Callin treated him to the minute he got home reinforced his conviction. Callin harped on her age and her reputation, even dragging in their mother, which showed his sincerity. Ari listened very politely, and paid Callin just as much obedience as he ever did, which is to say none.

The next time he saw Margaine, neither of them mentioned Callin.

And then, a few weeks later, it was Seasonturn.

Spring Seasonturn was the Corn Queen's most sacred festival, the day the year turned away from death and into life, and the day that farmers celebrated the fertility of their fields and flocks, houses and herds. Celebrated and ensured, both. The Karelhi blooded their fields with offerings of the finest livestock, but the Novari offered themselves in anonymous couplings under the moon of that night. Cassie always went and had since she was 18, though their father felt it was below her station and Lynna never had; and Ari and Callin both, as a matter of course, went after they turned 16. Callin had always been tired on the next day, but this year he seemed more disturbed than tired. And he stayed that way, jumpy and irritable, for the next week, after which he settled down again.

Perhaps coincidentally, for that week Ari couldn't find Margaine; whenever he rode past her place she wasn't there. And then she was, though she was somehow different from before. Nothing Ari could put his finger on, a little more easily distracted, a lot less inclined to drink.... And then, a couple of months later, Ari rode past her place on his way to Summer; well, he was going to Summer and he rode past her place. And he was rewarded by her coming out of her house and climbing onto her fence to wave him to stop. He rode over and she asked him where he was going.

"Summer. A man has a horse I want to buy... I don't have to go."

"Yes, you do. Don't stop here on my account, Little Lion."

"There's no one on whose account I'd rather stop," Ari said, from force of habit.

"Ahhh... Little Lion," she said, sounding as though she'd just made up her mind to something. "Try not to want things as much as you do. Things are not as good as you think they are, and they're not as bad as you think they are, either. Remember: fire warms, but fire burns."

As so often happened, Ari hadn't a clue what she meant. But he forgot about it, because she followed up her words by climbing higher onto her fence and kissing him. It was the first time she'd kissed him, except sisterly on the cheek or the top of the head, and he almost climbed off his horse then and there. Except that when she was done, she smiled at him tenderly and said, pushing at his arm gently, "Don't be late for Summer, Little Lion."

And Ari rode off with triumph in his heart: at last!

But when he came back, she wasn't there.

He rode over to Lynoc three more times that week, and she wasn't there any of them. Someone was feeding her pigs, but he didn't know where she'd gone, or how long she'd be away.

Then a letter came from Velma, 200 miles away across the Phari River. There was no sender's name on it, and Ari had never seen her writing, but somehow he knew before he opened it who it was from. He read it in his room, and burned it, but he never forgot what it said.

Little Lion:
I'll not see you again, nor you me. Live and grow strong. You'll need to.
Remember not to want too much. But if you must — and I think you will — learn to let go.
Follow your heart, but watch your steps.
Good luck.
Don't get too close to the fire.
Ari never went back to Lynoc again, nor mentioned Margaine's name. It scarcely blighted his life, but he never quite forgot her. He wasn't really sure what she'd meant to him, never his lover but certainly more than just his friend. But neither was he certain what her leaving like that meant. Had he pushed her away? Or had she just "passed from west to east" as she'd once said, while he was going to go the other way? He remembered her words, and he puzzled over them sometimes, but then other things claimed his time and attention, and they, and she, faded.

Two years later he rode to Valerad Town to claim his bride.


PART ONE: Ari 1 | PART TWO: Ari 2 | PART THREE: Desilyn | PART FOUR: Ari 3 | PART FIVE: Ari 4

Original Prose:
  Autumn Afternoon | Ilya's Wedding | Something... | Last Corner | Morgans |
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