Carver is fairly young when he realises his father doesn’t love him.
He tells Bethany. Bethany gets upset, so Carver tries to explain that it’s not her fault, that’s not what he meant, it’s just that a mage father with two mage children obviously isn’t going to have that much time for the boring second son, the one who’s just ordinary. As evidence he offers the fact that Garrett and Bethany both spend hours with their father every day, while Carver usually only sees him at meals.
“That’s only because he’s teaching us!” Bethany says. “It doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you, Carver,” and then she starts to cry, which is not playing fair. Carver can’t bear to see Bethany get upset. One time they found a bird with a broken wing, and Bethany didn’t know how to heal it so they called Garrett, but when Garrett tried to heal it he blew it up instead. That was when Garrett was twelve, the year he started exploding everything. (Mother had packed away the good plates with a rueful smile and remarked to Father, “Well, we can do without porcelain until they’re both past puberty.”)
Bethany cried and cried and cried when Garrett killed the injured bird, and Carver had burned with fury that hadn’t diminished in the least at the guilty, horrified look on Garrett’s face. The next time Carver found an injured bird, he didn’t call Bethany to look; he set his jaw and carefully snapped its neck himself.
So when Carver’s theory about their father makes Bethany cry, Carver backtracks quickly. He pretends to be convinced when she insists he’s wrong, and then he suggests a game to play instead. She cheers up, so he assumes it’s worked, which is stupid of him. He and Bethany can’t lie to each other. They know each other too well.
Bethany tells Mother and Mother tells Father, and the very next day Father announces that magic lessons are cancelled – he’s going herb-gathering in the Korcari Wilds.
“Brilliant,” says Garrett, jumping up. He would. Garrett claims he saw a naked woman with golden eyes in the Korcari Wilds last time he went there, a witch who’d smirked and turned into a bear when he turned to stare.
Father says, “While I’m out, Garrett, you can write me an essay on the four major schools.”
Garrett deflates visibly. Carver sees Mother’s lips twitch.
Father turns to Bethany and tells her he wants her to memorise the properties of embrium by nightfall, and then his eyes fall on Carver. “Come along then, son,” he says gruffly.
Carver is so surprised he doesn’t say anything. He continues not to say anything while Mother makes a big fuss about making sure he has his belt knife and his jacket and an amulet that will let his father know where he is at all times in case there’s trouble. Garrett glares jealously, and remarks in his light, teasing, not-exactly-nasty look-I’m-laughing way, “Ready for a great adventure! Does Carver even know what elfroot looks like?”
“Garrett,” says Mother reprovingly. Garrett reddens, rolls his eyes, and pretends not to care.
It’s a long walk to the Wilds, and Carver has to jog a little to keep up with Father’s long strides. After half an hour or so of this Father notices and slows down. “Sorry, Carver,” he says.
Carver mumbles that it’s fine.
“We haven’t seen much of each other lately, have we?” says Father, falling into an easy slow walk beside him. “My fault, I’m afraid. I’m sorry, Carver. As your mother could tell you, getting all caught up in magic and forgetting about important things is an old bad habit of mine.”
“It’s okay,” says Carver.
“Getting caught up in magic is very easy for a mage to do,” Father says, his voice beginning to take on what Bethany calls the Teaching Tone. “But it can be terribly foolish and dangerous, too. Luckily your mother’s there to tell me when I’m getting too distracted by the far side of the Veil.”
Carver has his hands shoved deep in his jacket pockets and nods, keeping his head down. His boots are making prints in the weird spongy grass that grows around the Wilds. He concentrates on making the prints go in a straight line.
Father lets out a frustrated sound. “Maker help me,” he mutters. “Carver. Carver. Listen to me.”
“Far side of the Veil, got it,” says Carver, and suddenly he gets angry. He stops, takes his hands out of his pocket, and says, “Stop trying so hard. It’s fine. You’re a mage, Garrett’s a mage, Bethany’s a mage, it’s all fine. I don’t care. Don’t worry about me.”
Father falls to his knees in the spongy grass and puts his hands on Carver’s shoulders. His expression for some reason makes Carver think of Garrett, of the look of mingled shame and shock that Garrett had when he tried to heal the bird and killed it instead. “Carver, you are my son,” he says. “My beloved younger son, my – my irreplaceable son, and all my absorption in your siblings’ educations should never have stopped me from showing you how important you are.”
Carver ducks his head, not really believing it. “How am I important?” he says. “I’m ordinary.”
“You are no more ordinary than your mother,” says Father, “and Leandra is the most extraordinary woman in the world. Carver, every day of my life, I stand on the border between the waking world and the Fade, and creatures both fair and horrible try to call me to the other side. Every day, because I have no choice – just like every other mage in Thedas, just like your brother and sister. And every day, your mother stands beside me and summons me back, and I know, I know, that if it wasn’t me that came back, if I let myself be seduced by the promises the Fade makes – if I became a demon – Leandra wouldn’t hesitate to have me put down like a dog. And because I know that, I am safe.” He shakes Carver gently by his shoulders, and then wraps his arms tight around him. Carver returns the embrace awkwardly. Father doesn’t usually do hugs.
“You and your mother,” Father says in his ear, his voice shaking a little, “are the best of this world. People like you, Carver, stand between mages and madness. Forgive me if I spend long hours with Garrett and Bethany. No one is more at risk from demons than young mages like them. I love you all equally, believe me, I do, but the thought of waking up tomorrow to find your sister swallowed up by a desire demon –“
Carver’s feels his eyes go wide as he thinks about it, really thinks about it. He imagines Bethany wandering through the Fade – in his mental picture, it’s a melty shimmery silver fog – and getting pounced on by a cunning spirit. Bethany’s so nice, so kind, that all a demon would have to do to get her attention would be to pretend to be in trouble – like a bird that needed healing – and she would offer to help without even thinking about it. And then there’d be a monster in Bethany’s skin let loose on the world –
Carver swallows hard and steps backwards out of his father’s arms. Father stands up slowly, watching him. “It’s all right. Take care of them. You can count on me,” Carver promises, as seriously as he knows how. Father seems to understand. He nods.
Carver can’t sleep that night, even though he should be exhausted after the long trek to the Wilds and back. Bethany and Garrett both drifted off ages ago – away in the Fade, Carver thinks suddenly, with a little shiver – but he lies awake, looking at the ceiling, and finally gets up and goes to sit at the top of the stairs. He can see the firelight flickering on the wall, warm and homey, and most of his attention is on that. His parents are talking to each other quietly; Carver can hear their voices, and he pictures them sitting in their usual places in front of the fire.
“Ah, Maker, Leandra, sometimes I think we should never have left,” Father is saying. “The Circles are used to dealing with young mages, they have procedures, lesson plans – they have lists of warning signs, built up over centuries. I have no idea what I’m doing. The research enchanters always looked down rather on the teaching wing, we thought they weren’t doing serious work, you know – I swear sometimes I think of the snooty little prig I was and I want to hex him.”
“I wanted to hex him too the first time I met him,” Mother says. Carver can hear her smiling. “I can’t even hex people. He improved on closer acquaintance.”
Father chuckles. There’s quiet for a moment. Then Father says, “The Circle’s not so bad here in Ferelden, I’ve heard. And freedom – ah, freedom’s been hard work, hasn’t it?”
“Freedom’s been worth every moment,” Mother says.
“It has,” says Father. “But there are days when I would give it all up just for a chance to talk about Garrett with someone like Calenhad’s Enchanter Wynne.”
“Is Garrett really in danger?” Mother says.
“He’s in a lot more danger than Bethany,” says Father. “Bethany, Maker be praised, has sense enough to be afraid. Garrett’s too damn talented, is the problem. And too clever. He thinks because he remembers everything I tell him he understands, and so he pokes his nose into things he shouldn’t even be thinking about yet, when the truth is that clever, talented mages make pride demons laugh. And Leandra, when I think of the power a pride demon could wield through our boy it turns my hair white.”
“And mine,” says Mother quietly.
Carver sits on the stairs and hugs his knees and thinks about his older brother. He has always known that Garrett was clever and talented. Garrett knows it too, doesn’t make any secret of it. When Carver goes back to bed and falls asleep, Garrett is in his dreams, but his eyes are glowing with horrible inhuman colours, and Carver thinks with a terrible sinking feeling that it is too late. Then the dream shifts and he’s back in the Wilds his father, who goes to his knees and begs Carver to promise him something – though he never says what. In the background, a she-bear with golden eyes prowls among the twisted trees.
In the morning as they sit around the breakfast table Carver looks at his family. Father is reading a book, pushing his hair back out of his eyes with the hand not turning the pages. Bethany is trying and failing to braid her thick hair; she looks up when she feels Carver’s gaze and offers him a good-morning grin. Garrett tilts his chair back onto two legs and twirls his fork around and around his fingers like a staff. “Garrett, stop that,” says Mother as she sets a plate of toast down on the table. Carver sees her eyes do the same thing his just did, going round the table from Malcolm to Bethany to Garrett – watching. Checking. Making sure. For a family of apostates, love is in the watching.
Carver butters his toast on both sides the way he always does, and fixes the look on his mother’s face in his mind, slotting it in next to the memory of his father’s hands on his shoulders yesterday. He knows he’ll never forget.
They can count on him.