Its Eyes Were Jewels
As way of disclaimer, I own none of Anne McCaffrey's characters nor do I own her world (though I sometimes wish I did), I'm simply borrowing them for the time being.
Blue eyes watched with a sort of apathetic detachment as Elrenia retold the story of the past few months, Rilow entertaining the young girl outside so as to give the adults some privacy. Earral held his younger sister almost dutifully when she leaned toward him, silently begging for a sort of comfort she simply could not get from the weyrfolk, kind though they were. Elrenia needed her older brother, but now that she had him it almost seemed to be lacking. He didn't say a word the entire time she spoke, didn't so much as gasp in shock or disgust. He just listened. And in the end, when Elrenia's tale was done, he nodded his head and said, "I'm very sorry."
It was as though she was speaking to Raid all over again, trying to make him understand the severity of what happened only to be brushed off like some mild pest. But such dismissal from her own flesh and blood had a white hot knife sailing into Elrenia's heart. How could he take this so lightly?
Hearing that H'val's father died had her doing everything in her power to comfort the boy—someone she'd only known for a few weeks at the time. It wasn't that she and Earral had entirely different natures. When she first learned that their meat came from slaughtered animals he was the one who consoled the distraught child. Where had that young, empathetic boy gone? Where was the love she so desired when she needed it most?
Wherever it was, it wasn't in the room with her, and the brunette sunk back into her blue rider despondently. Without question the boy wrapped a protective arm around her waist, leaning over to press his lips to her cheek.
I love you, small one.
I love you too. For good measure she also whispered, "I love you," to H'val. She needed him to hear it, even if he didn't need to.
Unprompted, the boy returned, "I love you too, Elrenia."
H'val knew, of this there was no doubt in Elrenia's mind. Even if he couldn't tell by himself, Koth was surely relaying her terrible thoughts to the boy. The fact that she was regretting coming to see her brother more than she'd regretted anything since arriving at the Weyr. Every time a particularly scathing comment crossed her mind, his fingers tightened convulsively against her hip. The boy was doing all he could to keep her grounded, and she couldn't help but appreciate it.
She appreciated the way that he sat beside her when Earral offered them seats, and didn't say a word when he went off to finish preparing dinner for everyone. It was so strange to feel unwelcome in her brother's presence, but she couldn't shake the feeling that she was in the way every time he glanced back at her. He was accommodating of course, as it was the way they both were raised. But clearly she was ruining something. Endangering his perfect little family. His home. His very existence.
The uncomfortable feeling stayed long after the man walked to the door of his home and called out, "Eira! Why don't you come inside? Dinner's almost ready." It stayed when the bright, happy young child arrived with a burst of energy, a smiling Harper behind her.
Almost the instant the child entered the house, she was clamoring to get into Elrenia's lap, demanding her aunt's attention with a wide smile and rosy cheeks. Laying her little head against her aunt's bosom, Eira didn't say a word. She didn't have to, taking care of the weyrbrats taught the young woman how to speak the language of children. Her niece was well aware that she was upset, didn't know how to make it better, but wanted to.
It was the thought that counted, and for what it was worth her mind was taken off of her brother's dismissive behavior. Staying mad was difficult when there was such a bundle of love in her lap. A niece she'd never even heard of. A pleasant surprise.
"You've done extremely well for yourself," Elrenia's voice was rough from her earlier crying, but her eyes were bright with curiosity. This was the life her older brother managed to carve for himself, and it was almost surprising. Better than Levic ever had been, with fields that stretched as far as the eye could see and a stable big enough for multiple runners. "What do you do in the winter months?"
"I save up crops over the year," Earral explained, staring at the woman holding his daughter only for a moment before turning back around to stir the stew he was preparing patiently. "I also have a friend or two down south that send me stuff that I can't get here. We've got ourselves a nice little trade set up. I send down my lame herdbeasts, and the older wherries, and they sent up fruit, and tubers, and out of season produce."
"We never did that in Levic."
"It was Arelia's idea."
Eyes narrowing slightly in disbelief, Elrenia crossed her arms. Because while the man hadn't asked her permission to leave so many years ago, he had asked her father, and Arelia was not the name of the woman he'd left them for. Kara or something of the like was. A beautiful redheaded little gem whose laugh (and according to Renzal, this was a quote) flitted through the trees like a gentle summer breeze, and made the stars burn in the sky. The entire family had mocked him greatly for weeks over that one, but it didn't stop him from leaving. If anything it drove him away even more.
No. They hadn't driven him away. Elrenia refused to believe it and quickly continued speaking when her brother failed to explain a moment later, though the expression on his face told her that he understood she had questions. "Arelia?" she repeated incredulously. "Your wife's name is Arelia?"
"My second wife," he amended softly, sparing a glance for the child. "Eira's mother didn't make it through childbirth."
"I'm so sorry," Rilow spoke softly, moving in swiftly to fix the potentially volatile situation when Elrenia floundered at such horrible news.
Maybe it wasn't callousness that had him brushing off her situation then. After her own mother died her father was never quite the same again. It wasn't what she wanted to happen, but it was understandable. More so than her older brother not caring what happened to them. "I… I'm sorry, Earral."
Nodding solemnly in acceptance of the apology, blue eyes drifted over to where the little girl was staring longingly out the window at Koth from her aunt's lap. His love for the little girl was most striking, and Elrenia hated the fact that she'd brought such darkness into an otherwise peaceful home in that moment. She needed Earral perhaps more than she needed anyone else, but he obviously didn't need her.
"Arelia was Kira's close friend, and helped me with Eira as much as she could," he continued on to explain. "I didn't know anything about actually taking care of a baby. Holding you or Renzal when mother was too busy with something else really doesn't count. She's the only mother Eira's ever known."
"Where is Arelia now?"
"With family on Southern. Her brother got hurt a few weeks back, and she's been trying to help them out a little."
It was so strange to Elrenia that she was only just hearing about all of this. There had been a time when she knew absolutely everything about her older brother, but now he was stranger. A man she only distantly recognized living a life that had no room for her.
The thought was massively painful, but she fought the visceral reaction to cry quite viciously. She refused to give into the pain, and the distinct sense of betrayal as they ate, and purposefully discussed anything and everything save the subject on hand. The reason for Elrenia's sudden appearance. Eira, though young and naturally trouble free, could sense the tension in the room and squirmed all through dinner. Asking H'val question, upon question about the Weyr, and dragons, and flying thread as she failed again and again the get her father's attention. He focused on his bowl the entire meal, rubbing the fingers of his right hand together in an old anxious tick periodically.
It was when the tension was getting too much even for her that Elrenia said, "Earral." Voice so soft that the man didn't immediately respond to her. Rilow was the only one who even realized she was speaking at first, but when he cleared his throat the holder turned with a smile. An expression that faded once he saw the look in his little sister's eye, narrowed nearly to slits and creased most unpleasantly at both corners. Clearly the girl was displeased, but the man wasn't sure why.
"I need you to be the man of the family."
"Excuse me?" The man's eyebrows scrunched together in confusion as his little sister ran her hands through her hair, snagging her fingers on the thick braid at the base of her skull. Except realization seemed to dawn a moment later, and he narrowed his eyes, looking sharply over at his daughter as she stood and wandered over to the window before he asked, "What do you mean?"
Not a conversation she wanted to have, especially not while her niece was in the room, but she needed to. None of them were eating anymore, and it was just hanging above their heads. So, closing her eyes, the woman allowed a serene calm to wash over her. Every loving, protective, understanding she'd ever gotten from Koth, or Arlith, or any of the other dragons. The dragonmen and women. The Weyrfolk. She allowed these things to comfort her as she said, "Raid refuses to listen to me. He claims a lack of evidence, which I would understand save for the fact that one of his men investigated, saw the bodies, and knows that at least one of them was brutalized. That's no accident. He says he knows nothing about this, but we all know it's because I'm a woman and he's a crabby old bastard."
With a tone just on the side of stern, the man said, "You shouldn't speak of your Lord—"
"Raid is not my Lord Holder." No room for questioning sat within her tone of voice as she rolled her shoulders back and looked her brother in the eye. "He never was. He never will be."
Earral clearly wasn't sure how to respond to this statement, but neither were any of the other men in the room. Even Rilow, Harper Journeyman and good friend, just sat back and stared at her. When no one spoke for several more seconds Elrenia asked, "Will you stand up for me, or not, Holder Earral."
Of course, it was too much to hope for that her brother would simply step back into the role of protector, defender, voice of the little family that lived at Levic. He'd never been that person when he lived there, when their father was still alive. And now that everyone, everyone was dead, and he was all that she had left, he had more important matters to tend to.
"Papa!" Eira broke the awkward silence with a shrillness that only a little girl could muster. "Papa! The dragon yawned!"
Are you almost done in there?
"He's bored," Elrenia explained immediately, no longer fighting the hunch of her shoulders as she turned toward the window as well, giving her brother her back.
"How could you possibly know that?"
"Because he's trying to hurry us along," she spoke softly, running and catching her fingers in her hair once more. She could feel the braid starting to pull apart, but what did that matter? "Why are you staring at me?"
The question was all but ignored in favor of Earral asking, "What do you mean he's trying to rush you? He's not doing anything?"
This wasn't a conversation she wanted to have either. None of these were conversations that she wanted to have, at all. With anyone. Least of all Earral. An older brother she'd had people searching day and night for only to find out that she was unwanted. But this… this especially wasn't a question she wanted to answer while Earral was so indifferent toward the slaughter of their kin. He hadn't shed a tear. Barely batted an eye. She wanted him to scream, and throw things, and maybe hit something. She wanted him to be outraged, but he just stared at her like the fact that this dragon was speaking to her was the only problem.
"He talks to me."
"That's very nice of him," the man murmured absently. "I understand that it's not very often dragons speak to people that aren't their riders."
"They speak to Lessa all the time."
"But you don't hear all dragons."
Of course she didn't, but that didn't change the fact that Earral was not phased. She wanted to hit him, and scream, and shout until he couldn't just ignore it anymore. She wanted to make him react to the bad news, but he was picking Eira up, telling her to wish everyone a goodnight before he cleaned her up and put her to bed. Angry though she was, Elrenia couldn't very well tear into the man while he had his young daughter in his arms.
As soon as he left the room with the little bundle of squirming joy, Elrenia was out the front door. Storming through the darkness to where Koth was lifting his head, eyes shifting from blue, to yellow, to red as he searched through her mind for the source of her mounting distress. With every step that she took toward the blue dragon tears welled more, and more, and got closer to slipping silently down her face. By the time she was close enough to wrap her arms around the beautiful blue's neck, and sob was bubbling up her throat.
Don't cry. Not a request made out of concern. A demand. Koth was angry. Do not give him the satisfaction.
So she didn't. She remained completely stoic as H'val rushed out of the house toward her, knowing exactly what was wrong before he even hopped up Koth's leg and pulled her up behind him. "Rilow is staying behind to talk to him," he explained as they took to the air. "Arlith wants you home. Now."
"Arlith?" That… was not what she expected. The brown? Really? Did that mean that Z'den already knew what was happening? He was going to be even more furious that he hadn't been allowed to join them now!
Except when they landed on Arlith's ledge Z'den, who was leaning against the large beast, didn't so much as flinch. Not even when H'val helped Elrenia down, and disappeared into the sky once more. She'd been standing there for several seconds, unsure of what to do when, "What happened?" rumbled from the man's chest. He didn't even open his eyes as Elrenia sunk to the ground beside him, leaning back against Arlith. The brown wrapped his tail immediately around the tall woman, pulling her in close to his body. Close to his heartbeats. The gesture itself was soothing, but the voice in her mind ensuring her that everything was okay, and she was well loved here was even more so.
"He didn't cry."
Green eyes cracked open slightly as Z'den turned his head toward her then. "I'm not sure I understand."
"I told him that everyone was dead, and he… he… Earral didn't even care. He didn't ask how, or who. He just… nothing. He just gave us dinner, and didn't… How could he not care, Z'den?"
"You didn't see him," Elrenia insisted, running on hand through her messy braid. "He didn't care. I've known that boy since the day I was born. I grew up with him. I… I don't know when I stopped knowing him. He… Z'den…"
"Hush." One strong arm wrapped around Elrenia's shoulders then, pulling her close into his side. "It's okay to cry."
"I don't want to cry."
"I want to hit him. I… I… I want to hit him until he does cry. I want… he didn't care Z'den! My older brother didn't care that our family was murdered. And he didn't care that I was raped. And… I'm angry."
"Anger is good."
"No it's not."
"Yes," the man insisted, kissing her cheek. "Anger is excellent."
"It means you're moving past sadness."
"Look at me, Elrenia." So the girl turned to face her brown rider, forcing herself to making eye contact with him as she did so. Eye contact was important. And when he reached out to push hair out of her face, she took a deep breath, turned into the touch. "You've suffered a lot. Lost so much. You're grieving. Anger is the natural progression."
"When I lost my parents, I swear I just about skipped sad. I was upset, and then I was angry. Furious. At the people who built the bridge that collapsed, at the miners that were working the cave below it, the people they were traveling to visit. I was mad at Arlith, Elrenia. And eventually I stopped being mad."
Quietly the girl asked, "What comes after mad?" Because she didn't like it. Didn't like the bubbling fire in her gut that made her want to scream, and shout, and break things. Didn't like the way it made her feel sick, and destructive all at once.
The man sighed slightly, cupping the back of Elrenia's head softly as he did so. "Grief is different for everyone, flitterby. I've seen many people lose many things over the course of my life, and no two react the same."
"What came next for you?"
Squinting slightly in confusion the girl asked, "What?"
"I never moved past anger."
"I'm still angry. Every single day I'm angry."
"If I'd been there… if I'd just visited more often. Offered to fly them to where they were going—"
"You're angry with yourself," she interrupted immediately. "Just yourself?"
"There's nothing anyone else could have done."
"There's nothing you could have done either," she informed him then, believing it with all of her heart and cringing at the parallel with her own situation. Her own guilt. "No matter what, eventually, they would have had to travel that road. Z'den, will you look at me?" And when green eyes rose to her face, Elrenia smiled brightly. "Guilt is just as bad as sadness."
"Don't give up on your brother, Elrenia," the man requested, turning to lean back against his dragon. "He needs time to process and grieve as well."
So Elrenia waited. She went about her days in the Weyr, and helped with the children, and the dragons, and the meals. Every moment she could spare was spent working on one project or another before Rilow showed up with a request for her presence. Her brother wanted to speak to her, and she realized that Z'den was right. Everyone did grieve in their own way, but just like her, Earral needed some time to himself. He needed time to accept that horrible things had happened, and it was too late to change them.
But it wasn't too late to help her.
When H'val and Elrenia arrived at the little Hold in Fort, it was to the sight of Eira running across the cold barren fields again. Covered head to toe in dust and dirt, an out of breath Rilow following her as best he could. The sight of her aunt slowed the child immediately though, and the harper was more than happy to pass responsibility off to the young woman.
"She's a handful."
"I bet," Elrenia laughed, sinking to the ground beside a small stream and pulling the girl with her. "Tell Earral I'm here, will you?"
It was peaceful at this little hold, with no one around to bother them. Elrenia was willing to bet it was a so much more beautiful when it was warmer though. After the grounds thawed, and the greenery started to grow again. It had been a hard season on everyone, but hopefully the harvest would be fruitful for it. The food hardier. The effort worth it.
"Papa cries at night, sometimes," Eira's little voice caught Elrenia entirely by surprise, breaking her from her thoughts. The little girl, with cheeks just on the side of chubby and the brightest eyes Elrenia ever had the pleasure of seeing looked almost stern as she sat there. Deep in thought. Resigned to the fact that she couldn't currently, if ever, stop the tears. "Usually mostly around the time my mother died. My real mother, not Arelia—she's a good mama, though."
"I'm… I'm glad." No that was wrong. "I'm sorry." No, that was wrong too.
The little girl scooted closer to her aunt on the ground, kicking her feet in the cool water in much the same way that her aunt did, smiling brightly up at her after a few moments. "He was crying real bad the other day, after you left. He tried to be real quiet, so's to not wake me up, but I couldn't sleep. Why was he crying?"
This was not the way Elrenia intended to spend her day. H'val took her to Earral Hold so that she could have a serious conversation between two adult. So they could come to an understanding. An excellent choice considering how close she'd come to literally pulling her hair out just the other day, but how was she supposed to explain death to such a small—She understands. It occurred to her so suddenly that the girl was able to matter-of-factly explain her father's reaction to her mother's death, and acknowledge that because of it she got a new mother. This…
"Your other aunt, and… and uncle… and a few other people very close to your father and me… they…" Words sticking in her throat, Elrenia took a deep breath and tried to stay strong. Her sensitivity was starting to wear, and she couldn't comprehend how the weyrfolk had put up with her for so long.
Little fingers sliding up and around her own brought Elrenia out of her thoughts rather abruptly, looking down to where the child was holding her hand, petting her palm to comfort her.
"They died," Eira spoke in a whisper, as though it was a secret. "I know. Rilow told me when I asked him. But when I asked papa, he said that wasn't why he was crying. He was crying because of you, and I don't understand why. You're alive. He should be happy."
Truth from the mouths of babes.
Wrapping an arm around her niece's shoulders, Elrenia tried to figure out the best way to go about explaining the situation. She didn't want to lie to the child, but she definitely didn't want to over step her bounds. Did the child understand rape? Did she even know what sex was? It wasn't something someone so young should ever have to hear about, but would it be worth it to hide the horrible truth of the world outside of her father's protective embrace?
Yes. It was worth it.
"The man who killed our family hurt me very badly," she spoke very carefully to the child. "He did very bad things to our family, but he hurt me very badly and let me live."
"Are you okay?"
Elrenia wanted to say yes, she was okay, but she honestly didn't know if she ever would be. Sometimes she felt better. Sometimes she was almost able to forget that any of this happened, but then it all came crashing back down on her. Every time she started to feel okay again, something happened that made her remember. Every time.
"I'm still healing," she admitted softly, smiling when the girl snuggled closer to her side.
"I'm sorry he hurt you."
"So am I." Taking a deep breath, she pulled away from the child, and turned to look her in the eye. "But he can never hurt me again. And most importantly, he can never hurt you."
"Papa would never let him."
"And neither will I. Neither will any of the dragons, or any of the dragonriders anywhere. You're part of something now Eira, do you know that?"
Eyes widening in surprise, the girl asked, "What am I a part of?"
"You're part of a Weyr now."
The thought of being part of something so big and amazing had the girl rushing off to where Koth was resting in the sun. It prompted her father to approach hesitantly. Fingers rubbing together anxiously. Lowering himself to the grass beside her, Earral didn't say a word for a very long time. What was there to say, really? He was sorry? Of course he was. Just like every person who'd had the misfortune of hearing Elrenia's story. Everyone was sorry. Sorry it happened to her, sorry they couldn't stop it, sorry they couldn't do more to help in the aftermath.
She was tired of sorry.
But she was also tired of telling people to not be sorry, that shouldn't have been her job. Why did she have to comfort people who were upset by her pain? Why did she have to worry about how they would react to her? She was done. Done worrying, done being sad, done being sorry.
"I should've been there to protect you," the man whispered, voice shaking as he did so. Earral was a strong man, he always had been, and seeing him shatter into a thousand tiny pieces broke Elrenia's heart. As quickly as she made up her mind to stop caring about how others reacted to her, she realized that she simply couldn't. But she could stop being hurt by it.
Drawing her older brother into her arms, the young woman cooed at him. Rubbing his back as she tried to soothe the tears away. As much as she'd wanted to make him cry, when she was furious and ranting to Z'den, actually watching it happen… "I'm glad you weren't there," she whispered. "I'd be all alone if you were. Now I have you and Eira. Arelia too, if you'll let me meet her. I still have family."
But the man insisted, "I should've been there," running his hands roughly through his hair. "What he did to you, I… I want to kill him, Elrenia. I want to tear his balls off with my bear hands."
"So do I," the words were soft, and blue eyes searched out her own stormy grey. "I want to do horrible things to him before I watch him die. But crying about this now isn't going to make it better. Scaring your daughter isn't. Look at me, Earral." Holding the man at arms length then, Elrenia smiled. It was weak, but genuine, crinkling the corners of her eyes and brightening her cheeks. "I'll be okay." And just as firmly as she'd thought she wasn't yet, she realized that she would be.