Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental. As well, be advised that this work contains elements of violence, domestic violence, and child abuse. Reader discretion is advised.
Haylee own Kahnuh
Sage of Land Dragon Mountain
Book One of The Children of the Revolution
by C. E. R. Ellwood
When Haylee saw her parents that evening, a sense of foreboding chilled her. They were standing frozen before her. Haylee had left the house when her father started yelling, so this still silence was the last thing she expected to return to. The front door shutting behind her echoed through the house.
It was as if they were playacting to confuse her. Haylee wavered in the doorway, waiting for their ruse to fall, for them to move, to turn on her and tell her to just go to her room, but they didn’t. Their eyes didn’t even flicker in her direction.
Her mother’s unblinking, horrified face drew her forward. Her mother had frequently turned unresponsive after a fight, but nothing as still as this. She couldn’t be dead, could she?
“Mother? What’s wrong? Are you okay? Please tell me you’re okay.” Her plea was met with silence.
Haylee raised a trembling hand to her mother’s shoulder. The moment her finger touched the blue fabric, her world turned upside down. The living room disappeared and sand replaced the hardwood floor. Haylee stepped back, flailing in shock. Dunes of sand rolled as far as she could see—which wasn’t far, with heat rippling the air and sand whirling in her face.
She rubbed her eyes, scraping sand deeper into them. She blinked painfully, then noticed her feet burning. She danced from one foot to the other. Sweat dripped down her face as she tried to get her bearings.
Despite her obscured vision, the mountains surrounding her and the rolling sand dunes looked exactly like a painting of the Fire Desert. Few had ever seen the wild land to the west of Panoi; ever since Emperor Jedidiah exiled sky dragons to Wailaz, it became a perilous country. Only one explorer, Tedaway, had journeyed so far west and survived to catalogue his journey.
If she was trespassing on dragon land, they could eat her! How had this happened? Haylee looked around for the dragons she would have to run from, but instead found her father standing a few paces away, grinning like he was winning at a game. His short black hair styled toward his face, along with his angular chin and red robes, gave him a dangerous, driven look. His mouth twitched in contempt at something to the right of Haylee. There, kneeling in the sand where she had been standing a few wavers ago, was her mother—or at least, what looked like her. She had the same blue common robes, and the long black hair, but it obscured much of her upturned face. A scaly tail wriggled, protruding from her parted lips.
Haylee’s gut froze and dropped. Haylee tried to convince herself it was just a realistic statue, but when she brushed Kahnuh’s hair aside, her mother’s wide green eyes finally met hers and she couldn’t fool herself anymore. Haylee doubled over and retched, her eyes tearing up as she imagined the snake in her own throat. How could this have happened? Wind roared in her ears.
“What are you doing here?” Yuhnoo bellowed. One look at her father’s face shocked her nausea away, along with the desert landscape and every grain of sand. The walls and ceiling of the living room reappeared and the cold floor seared her burnt feet.
They were home again.
A gasp brought Haylee’s attention to the floor where Kahnuh had fallen, heaving for air. The snake was gone, but when Haylee knelt and touched her shoulders, they were drawn tight, as if the fight wasn’t over. “Mother, what’s going on?”
Kahnuh wiped away her tears, some hitting the hardwood floor. She remained on all fours, staring intently at a particular knot of wood, even when Haylee’s face was in front of hers. Distress strained her mother’s face.
How had they gone to such a faraway place without moving? It must have been a spell she had never heard of. It couldn’t be her own fault; she hadn’t manifested a gift yet, as far as she knew. Besides, she would never put her mother through something so horrible! That left her father, which would explain why he had looked so confident until he saw Haylee. It would also fit her longstanding theory that his yelling was magical, in that it hurt her mother in a special way. Except now, it had affected Haylee, too.
She glared up at her father and demanded, “What did you do?”
The confident way he spoke that simple word made her want to believe him. Her mind filled with thoughts of all the times she had seen her mother staring off at nothing after a fight. She wasn’t spacey. She was terrified. All those times Haylee had run outside because she couldn’t stand to watch her father intimidate her mother… What if, each of those times, he was torturing her invisibly?
Haylee gasped. Anger pounded through Haylee’s veins until she stood, creating a barrier between her parents, for once. She let the anger fill her as she mirrored her father’s posture, squaring her shoulders to look strong. Despite her intent to sound calm and put-together, apprehension made her voice quaver as she said, “You’ve been using your gift against Mother.”
“No, of course not!” However, the way he looked at his wife betrayed his fear that she would speak against him. He needn’t have worried, though. Kahnuh was staring off, wide-eyed, until she caught him looking and bowed her head, as if admonished.
Haylee pressed, “What was that, then, in the desert?”
“It was nothing,” her father soothed.
Haylee cradled her forehead and stared at the hardwood floor, imagining the knots and whorls could portray the desert scene. “No, it was definitely something. There was a tail, and it looked just like a grass snake. And you were… Did you force it down her throat?”
His eyes set in anger.
She glared back. A rush of pressure flooded her head until a grass snake flashed before her eyes. She backed down and the snake disappeared as quickly as it had come.
Haylee instantly regretted provoking him, fearing he would stuff the snake down her throat, next. It’s not that she was afraid of snakes, but the mere idea of swallowing one made her gag. She wanted to run, but how could she, knowing what her mother was up against? Her mother wasn’t about to stand up for herself.
Haylee knelt. Kahnuh was trembling, but looked unharmed. Her black hair masked her face again, brushing the floor. Reluctant to provoke her father further, but unwilling to drop the subject, Haylee settled for stating, “Well, at the very least, you didn’t stop it, and you know she’s scared of snakes.”
Yuhnoo covered his face as if to hide his guilt. Every time a harmless grass snake slithered into the house for warmth, Kahnuh screamed and ran outside. Haylee would always fetch the snakes and put them out in the orchard next door, then reassure her mother that she was safe. Haylee would do anything in those moments to lessen her mother’s fear. Evidently, Yuhnoo would do the opposite, using her fear against her as punishment. And he never ran out of reasons to punish her.
He approached, his brows crinkling in feigned concern. Or perhaps the worry was genuine, but Haylee had a hard time believing that possibility. He towered over them. Haylee stood to protect her mother again, flinching as Yuhnoo reached toward her face.
He touched her forehead with the back of his hand, deceptively gentle, and asked, “Oh, Haylee, are you feeling ill? Are you sure you didn’t imagined it all?”
Haylee felt her shoulders sag with uncertainty as her argument deflated with that one confidently spoken statement. She did feel sick. And she did have a good imagination—one that had gotten her teased at school. Like the time she prayed to see a unicorn, and one appeared, but none of the other children could see it. They laughed at her. She used to think they were her friends, but was it really their fault, if she just imagined it?
A part of her wanted to believe her father, now. What if she had imagined a snake tail in her mother’s mouth? That might explain why she’d never seen it before, in all her eleven suns of life.
Relief coursed through her veins. She hadn’t wanted her accusations to be true. She hadn’t wanted to believe her father was a monster. After all, he was the best father she could imagine.
Yuhnoo’s expression turned welcoming and he flung his arms wide, as if he knew she thought he was innocent. “C’mere, princess.”
Unable to resist the warm invitation, Haylee leapt into his arms, instantly feeling warm and safe. She loved her nickname. She practically worshipped Princess Yahnee, and her father encouraged her to dream big.
Why had she ever doubted him?
A vivid image invaded her mind: her mother choking on a snake’s tail and her father smirking. That was why. She couldn’t have imagined it. It was too vivid, and she couldn’t just imagine something so horrible.
Her mother still sat on the living room floor, looking unsettled and jumpy. If Haylee had only imagined it, why had her mother been trembling? Maybe she hadn’t imagined it. Maybe she hadn’t seen it before this candle because she hadn’t touched her mother while she was frozen.
Fear snaked into her mind. If Yuhnoo found out Haylee didn’t believe him, would he turn on her, too? If he was capable of such things with her mother, there was no reason to think he wouldn’t do the same to her, and she didn’t want to give him a reason to start. She resolved to pretend that she believed him, and avoid facing him, lest he read the doubt in her eyes.
When he let her go, she knelt to give her mother a hug and said, “I love you.” She desperately wanted her to recover. Kahnuh finally pushed her hair aside and rewarded her with a warm look, a flicker of love growing in her eyes.
Then Haylee retreated to her room to make a plan. She would talk with her great-grandmother, Nanuh. She was the wisest person Haylee knew, especially when it came to the gift. Nanuh would be able to explain the desert vision. There was something about her parents, a piece missing from their puzzle, and Haylee couldn’t figure it out on her own.
She opened her door, still pensive. As a giftician, her father ranked higher in society than her mother. Because of his gift, he could do things his wife never could, but Haylee never thought he might use them against his own family.
Until now. The truth was out.
If he could hide his treatment of her mother for so long, how much more had he kept hidden? Who was the man she called “Father”? Was everything she knew about him a lie? All those times he’d been good to them, were those false?
Haylee sat on her bed by the window and pulled back a little flap of oiled parchment to stare out at the falling darkness. The cold night air invigorated her skin and the fresh scent of apple trees calmed her mind. She wished life would go back to the way it was before. Back when life was simple and her parents at least seemed normal.
At least Nanuh would know what to do. Nothing ever surprised her, and she found a solution for everything. Maybe Nanuh knew about the torture already, and maybe that’s why she didn’t get along with her grandson-in-law. But if she knew, how could she let him continue? Haylee felt a pang of betrayal at the thought.
A floorboard creaked and someone pounded on the door.
Haylee leapt off her bed, her heart jumping in her chest.
“Haylee, it’s story time.” Her father’s voice came in a sing-song, muffled by the wooden door.
Revulsion coursed through her veins. She wanted to shout at him to go away, but then he’d know. She held her breath, hovering by her bed, unable to shake her fear. She considered an escape through her window, but running might alert him and get the same result she was trying to avoid.
His voice turned playful as he coaxed, “Come on, princess, I’ll be reading our favorite story…”
The story he referred to starred her heroine Princess Yahnee. It was his favorite, too, because his father was one of the children who was saved.
“Okay!” Haylee ran to the door. If anything could distract her from what she had learned, this might be it. Even though she heard the fairy tale “Prince Edwah and the Missing Gifticiates” every minor moon during the summer, the offer was still irresistible.
Besides, it would help her act like she’d dropped her suspicions. She told herself she was just pretending to be on his side, but a part of her still couldn’t believe he could be bad.
As Haylee opened the door, Yuhnoo smiled smugly before retreating to the living room, making the floorboards creak again. Haylee hopped over the troublesome boards and followed, ready to resume the family’s nightly bedtime ritual and reclaim a sense of normalcy. They would gather around the hearth, the crackling flames warding off the summer cold. Kahnuh would hold Haylee in her lap, and Yuhnoo would read a fairy tale from Valiant Gifticians of the Past Age.
In the living room, her mother was already a pace away from the hearth, sitting still as a board on a drab brown cushion. The tension in the air was palpable. Yuhnoo picked up his childhood storybook from the bookshelf by the hearth, then pulled up his armchair to face Kahnuh.
Haylee crossed the room cautiously. When she passed her father, his suspicious eyes didn’t leave Kahnuh, whose eyes were averted. As Haylee got ready to sit in her mother’s lap, she feared arriving in the desert, witnessing torture once again. Her skin tingled in dread.
She sat and waited. Only this time, touching her mother didn’t make the desert take the living room’s place. The fire still hissed and popped like nothing had happened. Then she realized her mother looked tense, but not horrified. And her father was opening his book, no longer staring.
Yuhnoo opened the book in his lap and read, “Many suns ago, in the last minor moon of the summer, Panoi held its annual celebration of the gift rites…”
Having heard the story more times than she could count, Haylee’s mind drifted off with the story. She breathed a little sigh of relief until Kahnuh’s torso quivered against her back. Haylee shivered at the reason behind her reaction, but it was too late to take back what she’d seen. She didn’t know who to be the most angry with: her father for torturing her mother, her mother for not protecting herself. At the very least, Haylee was frustrated with herself for not realizing it before now.
She pushed away the inner conflict and slipped back into the story, mentally reviewing what she had missed. As the gifticiates celebrated alone after the gift rites, they were abducted. The parents looked all over the capital city for them, but found nothing and insisted that Prince Edwah should find their children. He argued privately with his mentor, Nanuh, over his appointment. Princess Yahnee, motivated to find her niece, showed up and volunteered to go with him. At first he refused to let her come along, calling her a “useless feckle.”
The memory of her mother’s torture vied for her attention, and her father’s actions soured the gifted prince’s words like vinegar. Anger simmered under Haylee’s skin until it tingled. If Nanuh hadn’t forced him to let her go, the story would have turned out differently, and the quest would have failed, all because the gifted prince hated feckles.
Much like her father did. He wore his gift patch on his chest with pride: a diamond-shaped patch with an extra diamond border to represent his experience. Half the diamond was veiny, while the other half was blank, representative of a cracked item on the mend. All gifted repairmen wore that patch. More than his trade, it represented the advantage he had over his wife.
The unpleasant feeling faded as her father read on and the princess proved her worth in subtle ways. Vivid scenes came to life as Haylee mentally inserted what she knew from Nanuh’s telling of the real story. Princess Yahnee saved the land dragon from peril, when the prince and his men were about to attack it. She was more compassionate, rode faster, and fought harder than the prince, being unbeatable with a sword. The sage of Land Dragon Mountain, Sage Danoo, helped them locate the children. Then Princess Yahnee continued to prove her worth, even won over the prince. Haylee imagined what she could accomplish at the princess’s side, then finally tuned back in to her father’s reading of the story.
“He awarded Prince Edwah with a title of valiance for a quest well done, and dubbed the rest of the team heroes…”
He was rewarded, but she wasn’t. That couldn’t be right. How had she not noticed before? “Wait! What about Princess Yahnee?”
Yuhnoo’s eyes narrowed and he growled, “Let me finish. The next part is the best.”
Haylee fell silent and crossed her arms, her objections seething beneath her skin, making it hard to sit still. She squirmed in her quivering mother’s lap as she listened, knowing he was about to insert his own ending, as he always did. Kahnuh’s arms wrapped around Haylee’s chest, constricting her torso.
“The gifticiates, rescued from spending the rest of their lives as Nihenen slaves, went on to become celebrated gifticians in Panoi. And one of them was my father.”
Yuhnoo beamed, a kind of euphoria clouding his eyes. “He went on to become a renowned gifted persuader, working for the emperor himself! He married a beautiful healer and together they had two boys. The… end!”
Haylee waited a few wavers, then asked, “Father?”
“What?” he snapped, his grin falling as his eyes refocused on his daughter.
Haylee’s face heated and she shifted, fearful he would punish her for making him angry. In a subdued voice, she defended herself, “Well, you said wait till the end, so I did.”
He took a steadying breath and looked her in the eyes. “You’re right. So, what is it, princess?”
Haylee leaned away from her mother’s quivering chest. “Why did Prince Edwah get all the credit, and not Princess Yahnee?”
Yuhnoo unconsciously held the book tighter to his chest. “These stories are about gifticians saving people, not feckles—as if they could,” his eyebrows punctuating each phrase.
Haylee glared. “Well, Nanuh says Princess Yahnee was worth many gifticians put together.”
Yuhnoo raised his eyebrows and leaned closer, wordlessly challenging her.
Haylee continued, despite her fear. “She said Princess Yahnee was even more heroic than Prince Edwah.”
He settled back in his chair. “Oh? I wonder if she caused his flaws by the way she raised him. It’s ironic she would belittle him, considering she was his mentor and nursemaid.”
Her heart skipped a beat and she reached out as she defended Nanuh. “She wasn’t really… Just… More like pointing out Princess Yahnee’s merits.”
“What does that matter, anyway?”
Haylee slunk down, shaking her head, daunted by the response that overshot her words. Haylee mentally gathered up her courage and her argument. “Still, she deserved a title of valiance just as much as Prince Edwah, if not more! Why couldn’t she get it, too?”
He snorted and puffed out his chest. “Tch! She made it into the book, didn’t she? What more could a feckle ask for?”
Haylee stood abruptly. “But she’s a princess! She’s important!”
Yuhnoo huffed and put down the storybook. “Gifted blood is more important than royal blood.”
Anger bubbled up in Haylee and she demanded, “Says who?”
Yuhnoo stood, matching her as he stated, “Emperor Jedediah decreed that gifticians are more valuable than feckles, even in cases of royalty. Your favorite princess is no exception to that rule.”
She felt compelled to say, “Worth should be judged by actions, not abilities or giftedness.”
He laughed. “Where’d you hear that nonsense? I just know you couldn’t have come up with that on your own,” Yuhnoo retorted with the contemptuous tone he normally reserved for his grandmother-in-law.
Even though she knew his hostility was directed at Nanuh, it still hurt. Haylee’s anger deflated and she sat back down in her mother’s lap, hugging her, hoping for a feeling of safety that didn’t come.
When she didn’t answer, Yuhnoo smiled and sat, too. “Your great-grandmother told you to repeat that nonsense, didn’t she? That feckle sympathizer ought to side with her own kind.”
Haylee buried her head in her mother’s robes and hugged her, feeling sorry she said anything, sorry Kahnuh had to hear his answer. Kahnuh hugged back, tight, kissing her daughter’s forehead. Haylee tried to think of something to say, but Kahnuh beat her to it, albeit in a whisper. “Yuhnoo, I don’t like where this is going. Can’t you just leave them alone?”
“Kahnuh, you can support me, or you can go to bed,” Yuhnoo countered with a scowl.
Haylee’s teeth ground as she stared sullenly at the popping fire. It wasn’t fair. Her mother let him walk all over her, and she always gave in eventually. Haylee’s old frustration with her mother pressurized like a steaming pot waiting to boil over, and some escaped in tears.
Just as she predicted, Kahnuh gave in and leaned over to reach for their pewter storytelling bowl. Haylee leaned with her, feeling let down. Kahnuh gathered a pinch of dried invocation blossoms from the bowl and tossed them into the flames to show support for her husband.
As the blossoms ignited, the fire released a spicy cloud of fragrance toward him. His head swayed serenely as though he had done nothing wrong, and the blossoms intensified his voice as he said, “What Nanuh doesn’t want to see is that feckles are weak and need saving, even and especially from themselves.”
Haylee cringed at the insult, clenching her fists. Fearing her hands would act of their own accord and do something she would regret, she stuffed them under her legs. The official version of the fairy tale Yuhnoo always read, as well as the emperor’s broadcasts, strongly influenced his opinion. Haylee, on the other hand, knew the truth about the stories that were distorted in favor of gifted protagonists.
Haylee insisted, “What about all the feckles out there who save people, like Princess Yahnee did?”
“I thought we settled this.”
His condescension and surety made her doubt her stance for a waver, but she recovered. “No, I don’t think so. I mean, she saved Prince Edwah from breaking the law and attacking the land dragon.”
“That’s not true. It’s not in the book. Where did you hear that nonsense?”
“Nanuh told me, and it’s not nonsense, she knows the real story. They wouldn’t have saved the gifticiates or made it back to this country without her.”
“Preposterous,” he said through gritted teeth, eyes narrowing.
He could deny it all he wanted. Still, there was a story Kahnuh told her, one Yuhnoo couldn’t deny because it involved him personally. When her parents had shared a language class in grammar school, Yuhnoo’s unruly behavior got him put in a sound-proof booth. Kahnuh liked him, and felt sorry for him, so she asked the teacher to release him. The next moment, he mocked the teacher behind her back, and Kahnuh ceased to feel sorry for him.
“Well how about this one? Mother said she saved you, once.”
Kahnuh’s form stiffened against Haylee’s back. Haylee tensed, too, anticipating what he might do. She wished she could take back her words, but it was too late.
“Did she now? When did that happen?” he asked, his eyes bulging.
Haylee answered cautiously, “In a language class. She got the teacher to release you from the sound-proof booth.”
Yuhnoo raised his voice at Kahnuh, asking, “What makes you think I ever needed you to save me?”
Haylee felt a hot flash of guilt in her cheeks and immediately wished she hadn’t mentioned the story at all. Kahnuh rarely talked about her childhood, but when she did, she often cut herself off. It’s like she was censoring a part of her stories. Haylee twisted to face her mother and whispered, “Why didn’t you tell me he’d be upset?”
Kahnuh ducked, trembling like a leaf in a high wind. Haylee’s feelings of guilt redoubled. She hadn’t wanted to get her mother in more trouble. If only Kahnuh was strong like a tree, then she could stand up for herself, not let Haylee do it for her. Then Haylee remembered the heat of the desert and the snake. The torture would explain why Kahnuh always gave in, let him have his way. The fear of being tortured again would be enough to shut Haylee up, too.
“I think it’s time for bed, don’t you?” Yuhnoo suggested to Kahnuh with a meaningful look. By his tone, it was not a request but a command.
Kahnuh nodded and asked, “Wanna go, little one?”
Haylee unwound her body to jump to her feet, anxious to help Kahnuh escape Yuhnoo’s fuming presence.
Kahnuh stood, her breaths coming shallow and fast. Haylee grabbed Kahnuh’s sweaty hand and pulled her to her room. Her mother squeezed back, but trembled, following slower than Haylee wanted.
Haylee’s mind went ahead of her. If she was alone with her mother, Yuhnoo might claim they were plotting against them, and use that as an excuse to punish her mother again. It might be best to keep her distance, then.
As she approached her door, Haylee imagined herself as a strong wood nymph, who could turn from a person to a tree at will. She turned in the doorway and blocked it, saying, “It’s okay, Mother. I’m eleven suns old, now. I don’t need to be tucked in, anymore.”
Kahnuh nodded with troubled eyes as Yuhnoo shoved past her in the hall. Haylee hoped she had saved her mother some pain by not inviting her in. She whispered, “Good night,” before gently closing the door behind her.
If only Nanuh knew what was going on, then she could teach Yuhnoo a lesson.
Haylee ran to her bed, once again peeling back the triangle of parchment to look outside. Holding it open, she studied the way the light of the waning minor moon bathed her blue blanket in cold light. Haylee shivered more from her thoughts than the cold. She inhaled deeply, trying to banish the guilt she felt. When that didn’t work, she ripped off her pink common robes and flung them at her wardrobe. Leaving her undershirt and leggings, she jumped into bed. Then she shut her eyes hard against the possibility that she had hurt her mother, trying to convince herself she was innocent.
She flopped back, covering herself with the blanket and clutching it close. Her long hair cascaded over her face, tickling her eyes and making them itch. Agitated, she frantically brushed the hair out of her face.
And then the yelling began.
End of Excerpt, End of Chapter 1
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