A Brother's Price
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Electronic edition: December 2005
To Ann Cecil and June Drexler Robertson
Thanks to Ann Cecil, W. Randy Hoffman, John Schmid, and Linda Sprinkle for all their help.
There were a few advantages to being a boy in a society dominated by women. One, Jerin Whistler thought, was that you could throttle your older sister, and everyone would say, ‘‘She was one of twenty-eight girls—a middle sister—and a troublemaker too, and he—he’s a boy,’’
and that would be the end of it.
Certainly if a sister deserved to be strangled, it was Corelle. She was idly flipping through a magazine showing the latest in men’s fashions while he tried to stuff a thirty-pound goose, comfort a youngest sister with a booboo knee, and feed their baby brother. Since their mothers and elder sisters had left the middle sisters in charge of the farm, Corelle strutted about, with her six-guns tied low and the brim of her Stetson pulled down so far it was amazing she could see. Worse, she started to criticize everything he did, with an eye toward his coming of age—when he would be sold into a marriage of his sisters’ choosing.
She had previously complained that he chapped his hands in hot wash water, that trying to read at night would give him a squint, and that he should add scents to his bathwater. This morning it was his clothes.
‘‘Men’s fashion magazines are a joke,’’ Jerin growled, trying to keep the goose from scooting across the table as he shoved sage dressing into its cavity. If he hadn’t spent years diapering his seventeen youngest sisters and three little brothers, the goose might have gotten away
from him. The massive, fat-covered goose, however, was nothing compared with a determined Whistler baby. ‘‘No one but family ever sees their menfolk! How do these editors know what men are wearing?’’
‘‘Things are different with nobility,’’ Corelle countered, and held out the magazine. ‘‘It’s the whole point to a Season: to be seen! Here. This is the pair I want you to make for yourself.’’
Instead of good honest broadcloth trousers, the fashion plate showed kid-glove-tight pants with a groinhugging patch of bright colored fabric. Labeled underneath was
Return of the codpiece: it allows the future
wives to see what they are buying.
Jerin wrestled the goose into their largest roasting pan. ‘‘Don’t even think it, Corelle. I won’t wear them.’’
‘‘I’d like seeing you say that to Eldest.’’
‘‘Eldest knows better than to waste money on clothes no one will see.’’ Jerin worked the kitchen pump to wash the goose fat from his hands. Much as he hated to admit it, Corelle’s aim was dead-on—he wouldn’t be able to face Eldest and say no. Two could play that game, though. ‘‘Eldest is going to be pissed that you went to town and got that magazine. She told you to stay at the farm, close to the house.’’
‘‘I didn’t go to town, so there.’’ Corelle, nonetheless, closed the magazine up, realizing it was evidence of a crime.
So where did she get it?
Jerin swung the crying little girl holding on to his knees up onto the counter beside the goose. It was Pansy, when he had thought it was Violet all this time. ‘‘Hey, hey, big girls don’t cry. Let me see the boo-boo. Corelle, at least feed Kai.’’
Corelle eyed the sloppy baby playing in his oatmeal.
‘‘Why don’t you call Doric? It’s boys’ work. He should be learning all this from you before you get married. Your birthday is only a few months away—and then you’ll be gone.’’
A BROTHER’S PRICE
Luckily Pansy was crying too hard to notice that comment.
‘‘Doric is churning butter and can’t stop,’’ Jerin lied.
‘‘If you want to spell him, I’m sure he’d rather be feeding Kai instead.’’
Corelle shot him a dirty look but picked up the spoon and redirected some of the oatmeal into Kai’s mouth.
‘‘All I’m saying is that the—that certain families are making noises that they want to come courting and see you decked out in something other than a walking robe and hat. Hell, you might as well be stuffed in a gunnysack when you’re out in public—at least as far as a woman knowing if you’re worth looking at or not.’’
‘‘That’s the point, Corelle.’’ Jerin had gotten the mud and crusted blood off of Pansy’s knee and discovered a nasty cut. He washed it well with hot water and soap, put three small stitches in to hold the flesh together, and then, knowing his little sisters, bandaged it heavily to keep the dirt out. He ordered firmly, ‘‘Now, don’t take it off,’’ and unlatched the lower half of the back door to scoot Pansy outside.
In the protected play yard between the house and the barns, the other sixteen youngest sisters were playing reconnaissance. Apparently Leia was General Wellsbury; she was shouting, ‘‘Great Hera’s teat, you Whistlers call this an intelligence report?’’ According to their grandmothers, this was the phrase uttered most often by the famous general after their spying missions. Accurate, it might be—but too foul to be repeated in front of the three-through ten-year-olds.
Jerin shouted, ‘‘Watch your mouth, Wellsbury!’’ and went back to the goose. At least the goose had nothing annoying to say.
The same, unfortunately, could not be said of Corelle.
‘‘You need some nice clothes so we can show you off and make a good match. People are saying you’re not as fetching as rumored.’’
As if anyone cares what I look like, as long as I’m
Jerin made a rude noise and seasoned the goose’s skin. ‘‘Who said that?’’
Then it all clicked together. The criticism, the magazine, the clothes, and a certain family annoyed that the Whistlers were landed gentry—despite their common line soldiers’ roots—making them a step above their neighbors. ‘‘You’re talking about the Brindles!’’
‘‘Am not!’’ she snapped, and then frowned, realizing that she had tipped her hand. ‘‘Besides, they have a right to see what they’re getting before the papers are signed. None of them has ever laid eyes on you outside of a fair or a barn raising—which is hardly seeing you at all.’’
‘‘You better not be thinking of bringing them here while Eldest is gone. She’ll have your hide tacked to the barn! She doesn’t want them past the east boundary fence unless the whole family is here.’’
‘‘Nay neighborly of ’er,’’ Corelle retorted with such an up-country drawl that it could have been straight out of a Brindle mouth.
er.’’ Jerin heaved the goose up into the oven and slammed shut the oven door. ‘‘You sound like a river rat, half drunk on moonshine.’’
‘‘What does it matter, how we talk?’’ Corelle deemed herself finished with Kai, now that his bowl was empty. She drifted away from the high chair, leaving the mess for Jerin to clean up. ‘‘The Brindles think we’re putting on airs, paying so much attention to speaking correct Queens’ diction. All we’re doing is annoying our neighbors.’’
Jerin worked the kitchen pump to wet a towel to wash up Kai. ‘‘Who cares if we annoy the Brindles? None of our other neighbors are bothered by how we talk. And you know why we speak this way, even if the Brindles don’t. Our grandmothers paid with their lives to buy us a better lot in life—for their sake, we don’t give up an inch of what they won us.’’
A BROTHER’S PRICE
Corelle made a great show of rolling her eyes. ‘‘No one is going to marry you for your
. They’re going to marry you for your dic—’’
Jerin twirled the damp towel into a rattail and snapped it like a whip, catching her on the exposed skin of her wrist.
She yelped, more out of surprise than pain. Anger flashed across her face, and she started toward him, hands closing into fists.
He backed away from her, twirling up the towel again, heart pounding. When they were little, only Corelle would risk Eldest’s wrath to hit him, and now their older sisters were far from home. There was the sudden, tiny, fearful knowledge that Corelle was wearing her pistols.
‘‘Don’t make me get the spoon!’’
She checked and they glared at one another across the cocked and ready towel.
‘‘You be civil, Corelle,’’ he finally managed. ‘‘You have no need or place to talk low to me. Eldest will decide what I wear, whom I see, and whom I marry, so there’s no call for you to be fussing at me over it.’’
Corelle pursed her lips together as if to keep in bitter words, her blue eyes cold as winter sky. In the high chair behind Corelle, Kai started indignant squawking.
‘‘Take care of the baby,’’ Corelle snapped, to give herself the last words of the fight, and stalked out of the kitchen.
Jerin had just put Kai down to sleep when he heard the first rifle shot. He froze beside the cradle, listening to the sharp crack echoing up the hollow.
Maybe it was just thunder,
he rationalized, because he didn’t want it to be gunfire. He replayed the sound in his mind. No, the sound definitely came from a rifle. Who would be shooting in their woods? Damn her, had Corelle gone out hunting? Eldest had told all four of the middle sisters to keep at the house, to forgo even
fence mending, while their mothers and elder sisters were gone.
Another shot rang out from the creek bottom, then a third, close after the second. The back door banged open. His younger siblings spilled into the house like a covey of quail, the littlest sister running in first, the older ones doing a slower rear guard, scanning over their shoulders for lost siblings or strangers. Blush, second oldest of the youngest sisters, stationed herself at the door, tapping shoulders to keep count.
‘‘Drill teams! Prepare for attack! Shutter the windows, bar the doors, and get down the rifles. Fifteen! Sixteen!’’
Blush snapped, and tagged Jerin. ‘‘Three.’’ Then pointed to the cradle. ‘‘Four?’’
‘‘Four boys,’’ Jerin said automatically, although stunned. Sixteen? There should be seventeen youngest, and the four middle sisters.
Blush dropped the bars on the upper and lower halves of the back door. First downstairs, then upstairs, the shutters banged shut and their bars rattled into place. Little girls moved through the shutter slats of sunlight, working in teams of mixed ages to load two rifles and guard every window.
‘‘What’s going on?’’ Jerin asked. ‘‘Who’s shooting?
Where are Corelle and the others?’’
Blush gave a look of disgust that only a twelve-yearold could manage. ‘‘Corelle, Summer, Eva, and Kira went over to the Brindles’, courting Balin Brindle. Heria said she thought she heard riders in the woods. She took her rifle and went out to have a look-see.’’
‘‘Heria!’’ The fourteen-year-old oldest of his youngest sisters had more courage than sense. ‘‘Holy Mothers above!’’
‘‘Eldest is going to skin Corelle alive,’’ one of the youngest whispered.
There was a ripple of agreement.
‘‘Watch the windows!’’ Blush barked.
Too precious to risk in a fight, the boys were left with
A BROTHER’S PRICE
nothing to do but whisper. Liam complained about his blocks, left outside in the sudden retreat. Doric speculated that it was only Corelle in the woods, doing a bit of hunting while coming home from courting. Jerin would have liked to believe that—but Corelle knew perfectly well there was no need for fresh meat with the elder half of the family gone and a thirty-pound goose in the oven. Most of the youngest still ate like birds.
‘‘What do we do?’’ a youngest asked Blush after several minutes of silence. Blush clutched one of the family’s carbine rifles. ‘‘We stand guard until Corelle comes back.’’
A thunderous pounding at the back door stopped them cold.
Blush scurried to Jerin’s side, the soldier training that had been carrying her vanished, leaving only a frightened twelve-year-old. ‘‘Jerin?’’
Jerin swallowed his fear and whispered, ‘‘Identify the enemy and establish numbers.’’
Blush nodded rapidly, her eyes wide and rounded with fear. Still, she managed to shout, ‘‘Identify yourself!’’
The pounding stopped. ‘‘Let me in! Let me in! Let me in!’’
A sigh of relief went through the room.
‘‘It’s Heria!’’ Doric cried and was immediately hushed.
‘‘Everyone, get to posts.’’ Blush struggled to return to their training. ‘‘What’s the password, Heria?’’
‘‘I don’t remember!’’ Heria wailed beyond the door.
Blush looked at Jerin, unsure what to do.
‘‘Use the spyhole.’’ Jerin gave Blush a slight push toward the kitchen door. ‘‘Make sure she’s alone. Then let her in, but only open the bottom half of the door.’’
Blush had to fetch a stool to reach the spyhole. She covered the delay by calling out, ‘‘You know we can’t let you in without a password, Heria!’’
There came a minute of cursing that would have made their father blush and their grandmothers proud. Finally,
Heria remembered the week’s password. ‘‘Teacup! It’s
‘‘Well, the whole county knows it now!’’ Blush complained. ‘‘She’s alone! Let her in.’’
Heria pushed her rifle and ammunition pouch in first, then scrambled in on hands and knees. Once inside, she remained crouched on the flagstones, panting, as the door was bolted shut again. The red stain of blood on her shirt made Jerin forget to stay out of the way. He dropped down beside her.
‘‘Are you hurt?’’ He tried to get her up so he could see where she bled. ‘‘Did someone shoot you?’’
Heria shook her head, squeezing his shoulder comfortingly, and gasped. ‘‘Not my blood.’’ She swallowed hard.
‘‘The—they didn’t have guns, only clubs and sabers. There’s a soldier—in the creek!’’
‘‘Did you shoot her?’’ Jealous admiration tinted Blush’s question.
Heria shook her head. ‘‘No. Riders chased her down out of the woods by the bend. They knocked her off her horse, into the creek. I thought they were going to kill her, and we’d get blamed, so I shot at them. The first shot just startled them.’’ Which meant she probably missed, and they hadn’t realized how lucky they had been. ‘‘They didn’t start to run until the second shot. I winged one of them.’’
This got a murmur of admiration from the others. Jerin hushed them. His youngest sisters might not see the danger remaining with the riders gone. ‘‘But they didn’t kill the soldier?’’