Talking to Soletus that day was hard. I was afraid he wouldn't want to be around me after I told him the truth. Yet, he stuck around, and I didn't get hurt. That was what I was afraid of the most, getting more hurt. I didn't think I could take rejection on top of everything. I don't like pain. And then I found out that I don't enjoy seeing other people in pain. And that's goes for physical and anguish of the mind.
Soletus never imagined a single conversation would do so much for a person. Mien was better after getting all that off his chest. He figured it was probably the reassurance he gave. He didn't voice this to Brother Hickory. Why would he? The priest already saw it and was overjoyed at having Mien be talkative, well by Mien’s standards. He was still plenty reserved.
"He's a bit more comfortable around me," announced Brother Hickory after Soletus arrived early one afternoon. He was fanning himself with reed fan and wiping the sweat from his forehead. It was a roaster of a late summer day. Training had been cut short because of it, but not soon enough. Soletus followed Brother Hickory, trying to ignore the stinging sunburn on his forehead.
"He's more talkative," he agreed.
"And a lot bolder as well. The lad insulted my porridge by comparing it to brick mortar this morning."
Soletus couldn’t control the snicker that left his throat.
Brother Hickory grunted. “Yes, it’s the truth. When I was a combat chanter, my fighting brothers hated when it was my turn to cook. On the plus side, Mien does make a good bowl of porridge," he said, leading him to the back and stopped by Mien's room. The bed was neat. “And look, he finally knows how to fold his bed."
"I guess he's out back in the grass."
"Yes. He made it clear it was too hot to train. It's about too hot to do much of anything. It's a good day to head out to the river to swim."
Soletus took the hint. When he stepped from the chapel, Mien wasn't where he usually was under the tree. Instead, he was by the stone fence, talking to Lyndon with Doran sitting beside him.
"What are you two doing here," shouted Soletus and marched over there. The last thing Mien needed was Lyndon talking to him. For all Soletus knew, his cousin was asking Mien questions he didn't need to be asking. Lyndon didn't look as if he saw anything wrong with what he was doing.
"I felt like being social," Lyndon explained.
"Because we wanted to meet him and we knew you would come here, so we were waiting for you. Your fox-headed friend here was sitting looking bored, so I started talking to him."
"I wasn't bored," stated Mien.
Lyndon then pointed to the gift Mien received. "Well, it looks like you were doing some boring reading in that thick tome over there.”
Mien arched a judging eye at Soletus’s cousin. It was strange seeing him wearing it with a stranger.
"Have they've been bothering you,” asked Soletus.
The boy shook his head. "You didn't tell me you had friends," he said. He looked a little hurt.
"Well, I was going to introduce you to them at a more appropriate time," said Soletus, glaring at his cousin and Doran. Then he turned to Mien more friendly. "Anyway, I didn't think you enjoyed being around people."
Mien crossed his arms and said with a little of bravado, "Well, maybe I want to learn to like people now."
Soletus held up his hands. "Well, don't let me stop you," he said, happy to see he was trying. "You can either talk with these dunderheads—"
"I'm not a dunderhead," retorted Doran.
"Me thinks you protest too loudly," poked Soletus. "Or you can go swimming with me."
"Or we can go swimming together," offered Lyndon.
That was when Mien's newfound resolve faltered a little. "I don't know."
"It'll be fun," encouraged the young monk.
Mien didn't look convinced.
"If you want to roast out here, be my guest, but Brother Hickory is probably going to start on with the 'confidence' speech when he sees you still here alone."
The boy spun around without a second thought. "Let me put everything up," he said, walking over to his book and then back inside the chapel. As soon as he crossed the threshold, Soletus scowled at his friends.
"Really," he hissed, annoyed.
"Don't look at me," defended Doran. "It was Lyndon's idea."
Lyndon elbowed him roughly in the side. "If you didn't want to see him, then you could have marched back to dorms at any point."
"He's not some curiosity to be stared at," said Soletus.
"No need go all over-protective," said Lyndon. "You act as if you actually like him."
"Well, I wouldn't be coming here if I didn't," Soletus returned, and Lyndon gave him a look. "You act as if I just follow everyone's order like a dog without a care if I like it or not," he stated, and Lyndon continued his critical stare. "Well, that isn't the sole reason," he affirmed and spun around as Mien's head peered out of the door.
"There isn't a gate back here," he said.
Soletus vaulted over the rock wall and gestured for him to do the same. Mien left the door slowly and looked at the four-foot wall as if it were intimidating. He pulled himself up with a little effort and then planted himself on the ground, gesturing to Soletus to lead the way.
Lyndon and Doran didn't ask questions, but they were doing what Soletus feared as well. Telling him a bunch of things they shouldn't. They were pointing out places that Mien should eventually visit in town. Places where he could get a free bite to eat, places to work to get a little spending coin, that wasn’t so bad, and places where to spend it, which comprised mostly food and the general store. Then there were the things that Mien probably wasn't interested in or would get him into trouble, like who had the best-looking daughters to talk to. And they passed by the spot where bored warders of Lyndon’s variety could have a little fun scaring unsuspecting travelers and the places he could hide if he wanted to avoid training. Mien just nodded, tucking them away in memory, for better or for worse.
The swimming hole they went to was more secluded than the one everyone used. There was a group of boys there already and having a game of keep away at some poor tod's expense. Soletus was certain Mien didn't want that kind of chaos around him. Instead, they walked further down the road and then down a path that wasn't as large as the previous hole and the river current was a little stronger, with a steeper bank. The easy way to get into it was to swing into it by a rope suspended from a thick branch of a maple tree.
Soletus became worried when he saw the nervous boy studying the rope and then the water.
"You know how to swim right," asked Soletus.
Mien focused on the buttons of his shirt. "I'm a good swimmer,” he assured.
While Lyndon and Doran worked to braid their hair up, Soletus worked on getting undressed as his hair was always braided. He did have to take off the beaded tie he wore to hold it together. Mien undressed behind a brush and placed his clothing off the ground on a rock. His shot hair was convenient as he was first on the rope.
Soletus stopped him. "Have you ever done this sort of thing before?"
The boy gave him a rather expressive flat look that said, "really," before he backed up and shot toward the rope. He latched onto it, swinging out before Soletus could stop him. The boy let go and the young monk's heart stopped beating a second, even though the boy plopped into the water effortlessly. He come up a foot from where he landed, shaking the water from his hair.
"That's an affirmed yes," laughed Lyndon and joined him.
Soletus felt silly for worrying. However, it was Mien. He was still learning what the boy could and couldn't do. Then again, from what he told him, it should have been clear he had no fear of water. He had very little fear of the river's current. He even answered Lyndon's dare to swim out and touch one of the large smooth boulders that poked out of the water and then swam back. Soletus watched him as he started swimming upstream a little and then tackled the current. Any new boy would have dived in the faster current without a thought.
"He's not dumb," whispered Lyndon.
"He isn't," said Soletus, watching him drift to the rock with no trouble.
"But he's as shy as a cottontail. I got very little out of him other than one-word answers until you came."
When the boy returned, Soletus had to stifle a shout to tell him what to do. He would be on the receiving end of a Lyndon joke if he kept that up.
I need to let him alone, he thought. He's not helpless.
Someone who could push someone off a bridge and then try to drown them when they got to shore wasn't helpless. He didn't enjoy having grim thoughts about Mien, but that was reality. He watched the boy tapping his chin with his fingers, contemplating a moment before he just kicked himself from the rock and let the current carry him down to where the water slowed, and swam his way back. However, about midway back, he glanced over his shoulder and then did a double take. He bobbed in the water with his attention fixed on the opposite bank.
Soletus left Lyndon's side and swam beside him. "What is it?
Mien's eyes narrowed and Soletus saw the green color in his irises recede. From the center, they became back-lit with gold.
"I saw felt something and then I saw it."
"What did you see?"
"It looked like an animal, but felt like a shadow," he said, and pointed to the trees.
Soletus then caught sight of something dark moving in the high brush. In fact, it wasn't just one thing; it was three forms about the size of Onyx. His heart stopped.
"Start swimming slowly towards the bank," he instructed at a whisper.
"Just do it," Soletus urged, and he swam to Lyndon who was jeering Doran for his slowness. "Lyndon! There are three drass beasts in the woods."
He snapped his head to attention. "Where?”
Soletus motioned with his eyes in the direction, trying not to give them any more attention than he had too. If they ran to the river, they would be slowed down by the water and so would they. If they could get to the bank, they would have a head start. He waved to Doran to come over to them as Lyndon studied the three dusky forms that stared at them through white eyes.
"We need to get out of here," said Lyndon.
Doran started splashing his way towards the bank where Mien was at holding on to a tree root.
"Hey, don't go splashing getting their attention more," hissed Lyndon harshly. "Glide like a fish. Tell Mien to start climbing up, slowly though."
Soletus had seen an actual drass beast out in the wild when he was young boy twice. Both times he was out with his father. He didn't have a clear memory of them. He just remembered his father's urgent and snappish tones about keeping quiet and not moving when he was told. One incident was a close call. His father had to leave him in a hollow of a tree and led the drass beast away. Soletus hide their scared and ended up falling asleep. His father came back covered in sweat mixed with dirt and blood. There was going down the full length of his shirt sleeve with a matching claw mark. It was red and angry looking wound. His father’s only words were that he took care of it, and they went home.
It frightened Soletus so much, he didn’t want to go out beyond the wall for a while. He was scared at that moment. Not to the same degree but his only knowledge and experience with them were the ones captured for training. They always called it Rat. The monster was declawed, spines cuts, and tusks sawed off so they wouldn't harm trainees. From what he could see of the ones behind them, they were small skulkers and they had all their claws, teeth, and spines. He glanced back to the bank, seeing Mien's boney body sliding up the bank and into the brush without a lot of movement.
Lyndon pushed him forward. "Go," he said.
The young monk left him swimming slowly to the bank and made it in time to see Doran making too much noise clambering up. That was the thing about drass beast, they became agitated with movement and noise. Lyndon monitored the opposite bank as they dressed quickly, pulling on pants and boots first. However, they didn’t get a chance to pull on shirts.
“They're coming, let's go,” hissed Lyndon.
Soletus looked over his shoulder to see the three skulkers were already in the water and were making a beeline towards them.
The four of them ran from the brush, going back towards the road.
"We need to get to the nearest signal tower," shouted Lyndon leading.
Soletus followed his cousin, making sure that Mien was keeping up with them. The tower they headed to was close, but they had training and could sprint faster than the average elf through brush. Mien wasn’t, and he was afraid the boy would lag or trip. However, Mien kept up. He had good footing. That was surprising, as well as the fact he wasn't panicking. He was wide eyed with fear like the rest of them; however, most untrained elves would be making unnecessary noise or do something stupid like going their own separate way. That was a good thing because it left the young monk with the ability to focus on what was chasing them. The monsters gaining on them.
When the four made it to the tower, they sent Mien up first. The boy knew how to climb a rope ladder. He was swinging badly, but kept going. As soon as he was right above their heads, Doran went next. Soletus looked behind him and saw the skulkers getting too close for comfort.
"Aren't there supposed to be a bow and arrows around here," said Soletus.
"Up top," answered Lyndon, now realizing how close they were.
The young monk did the only thing he could do. He called forth his consort, Khodi. Once the bear took shape from a translucent blue outline, he started impressing Khodi with his thoughts of hold them off as long as he could. The bear affirmed with a rumble and charged off. He bowled into the middle of the skulkers. The situation they were in was Khodi's specialty.
He didn't give Soletus any standard abilities such as minor healing or seeing and hearing through them. Instead, the consort had a trait that many a monk would have loved. The consort generally weren’t used in combat because they passed on pain from their injury to their summoner, Khodi didn’t. In fact, as long as Soletus was near him, he was immune to pain. He could feel some indications of it though.
Soletus was the last one to go up. Out of all of them, he was the tallest and heaviest, not to mention the slowest to climb. He always found rope ladders difficult because of the way the ladder swayed. To him, it felt as if it would give.
A horn blasted above him. Doran had found the horn and let out three short blasts of the horn, waited and then continued the series, signaling immediate danger. Khodi sent an impression of danger before he felt teeth sink into his calf. His fingers nearly slipped from the ladder rung from the pain as the monster trying to yank him down. He tightened his grip on the rope rung and spied down to see the drass beast dangling from him. He took his free foot and kicked it in the nose. The beast wouldn't let go. It took hold of the ladder in its claws to provide more leverage and started shaking its head like Onyx would play with a scrap of fur.
"Shoot it! Shoot it now," he cried.
Lyndon came to the side of the tower with a bow and an arrow already notched. However, from the angle, Soletus knew he couldn't get a clear shot. He kept kicking and trying to pull himself away. However, the muscles in his arms were straining and the palms of his hands were sweating. Keeping his grip was getting harder and harder.
"I can't get a clean shot," shouted Lyndon.
Mien's head appeared at the edge, looking down at Soletus with eyes wide with fear. That was the last thing the young monk saw as his hands slipped from the rung and he fell. He hit the ground hard. The breath was knocked out of him. For instance, he lay there stunned until he felt himself being dragged. Soletus tried to reach for the bottom rung of the ladder, but it escaped his reach. His mind was still clear enough to searched for something to grab hold. There was a loose fist sized rock covered in moss. He snatched it, then twisted around and tossed it square into one of the monster's white eyes as it dragged him through ferns. The skulker squealed and released him.
Soletus scramble to his feet, but his right leg protesting and sent up a stab of burning pain up his leg and he fell to the ground. He shouldn't have been able to feel it. Khodi might’ve been too far away. He needed more time to move and thought if there was a perfect shot, Lyndon had it. His cousin let loose an arrow that clipped the drass beast in the side of its head. It let out a yelp. The young monk wanted to strangle his cousin for missing.
He managed to get to his feet again and hobbled to the ladder. He was within reach and then felt something heavy slam into his side. Soletus found himself on his back. He didn’t have time to ball up. Instead, he offered the monster his left arm. He felt teeth stab into his flesh but felt little pain, but not as much as the first time. Khodi was closer. It allowed him the clarity he needed to reach his side to the hilt of his tao stone hunting knife. However, his hand grasped nothing. He didn't feel the braided leather handle or the sheath. The only place it could be was in the bushes where they had undressed. He was in trouble. In an act of desperation, he balled his fist up and started slamming it into the side of the skulker's head. It continued to chew his arm, ignoring his strikes.
"Shoot it," he cried, desperately.
No arrow came. Instead, his answer came in the form of a chant. A bright orb of light struck the drass beast in the neck. It let out a terrible squealing wail. The spot where is struck, was sizzling. Burn fur filled Soletus nose. He scooted away from it just as another golden ball crashed into the same spot, this time it exploded when it popped. Sending magical sparks everywhere. The force of it knocked the drass beast clean to its side. It didn't move after that. It lay there with its head smoldering at an odd angle.
Soletus twisted towards the towers. He saw Mien stand at the foot of the ladder. All the green vanished from his eyes, so was every bit of fear he displayed. His golden gaze stared hatefully at the body of the drass beast. Another glowing winked into existence. It pulsed from gold to almost white. The boy was ready to hit it again if it moved. It didn’t, and he closed his hand and the sun globe snuffed out. He ran to Soletus's side. The young monk fell to his back. His vision was blurring. That was not good.
Doran was shouting something. The drass beast that Khodi was dealing with had finally broken away from him and he chased it. He saw arrows trying to hit it, but Lyndon kept falling short of his mark. Soletus impressed on him to come back. However, his consort shimmered out of existence before he could make it to him. Soletus didn’t unsummon him. He must’ve been more injured than he thought. Then all the pain of his injuries hit him at once. His calf was on fire, and his left arm felt like it was torn in half. He cried out and curled up in agony.
"Sol," cried the boy, trying to push Soletus to his back.
The young monk pushed him away and closed his eyes to the world that started spinning violently.
"He needs help," shouted Mien to Lyndon. "Soletus, your arm is bleeding badly." He tried to take hold of it, but it made the burning worse. Soletus would have shared it if his jaw didn't become stiff, along with his tongue becoming dry and wooden. It then dawned on him that the monster he fought with was venomous.
My father? I can barely remember him. Too many decades. It’s all about what I know. I know he was brilliant. That's how he impressed my mother. She was matched to my uncle. But they were a mismatch. She, as she put it, couldn’t suffer to breathe in the same room as him. However, she liked my father despite the twelve years different in ages. She claimed he inherited had all the charisma and charm my grandfather had and was handsome to boot. Yes, I know, the apple stayed close to its tree. Yet despite his ease with people, he was serious about his work. He wasn’t a son living off the name of his house. He wanted a name for himself. He didn’t sit in an office all the time. Sometimes he would come home covered in dust from the mine. With us, it was always love and hugs. He was full of laughter. If he lived, I imagine he would be amazed with how alike and unalike we are.
According to First Warden Kellas, Soletus needed more building. To accomplish this, he assigned him to train with Master Tyr. Soletus didn't think he was an ideal trainer, though. Tyr was good friends with his father and his second warden. Like his father, he was one the instructor on rotation between a master and a field warden. However, the man never served as a grappler. Soletus assumed he would train with one of them. It was probably his father's doing, even though Kellas had come to him. It was clear this was his way of monitoring him and what better person to do it than Tyr.
Despite that, Soletus was happy to be doing something physical again. Master Tyr gave him the role of one of the test combatants his fighting brothers would face in the trials. In the actual trials, they had to face three wardens. They were usually senior wardens, one they would have to ability to defend, one they would have to attack, and one would not be gentle to show off their skill of doing both and show how they would adapt. Soletus was acting as the one who wasn't being gentle or fair and was making his fighting brother adapt.
The young monk was used to being matched with someone of his skill and strength level. Sometimes Master Marth liked to set him against those who were weaker, on the rare occasion, to remind him of restraint. He knew how to restrain himself and had to unlearn some of it. Not only was he allowed to use his staff, but Master Tyr gave him permission to use his hand-to-hand training, as well as kicking, punching, flipping, and grappling with them. He enjoyed it. Some of his fighting brothers didn't take to it well. There was a lot of whining and complaining about what he did, and they purposely tried to get the best of him. As a result, even with padded leather armor he wore, he got bruises on top of bruises.
Most days he ended up smarting so bad, he had no desire to see Mien. It was fine, as the boy wasn't doing very well. His nightmares continued. Hickory became very concerned when Mien stopped eating. Then he became distant again, saying very little and slowly looking back up. The young monk thought it was because he changed his visiting frequency. However, Brother Hickory assured him it wasn't the case.
"There's something else bothering him. I'm going to see if he tells me without me having to prod it out of him," he told him one day.
Soletus was certain he would wait for a few decades before that happened.
After a week of Soletus's new training regime, he didn't feel as sore as he did when he first started. He felt he could do something other than collapse on his cot and went to the chapel. There was a surprise for him as it came into view. Mien was sitting on the front steps of the chapel. He sat in a beam of late afternoon sun. It highlighted his copper hair with gold, making him stand out against the dark stone of the chapel's walls. The closer Soletus walked, the more apparent that all wasn't well with him. The boy looked thinner and griped his hands in a tight clasp. Mien peered up at him through the strands of his hair that had grown longer to the point they obscured half his face. It didn't stop the boy from watching Soletus from the arch gate up the crushed stone path until he sat beside him.
"I've not seen you out here before," said Soletus.
Mien leaned forward again and rested his forehead on his fists.
"I'm sorry I've not been able to come over often," Soletus said, hoping that would be the boy's issued.
Mien let out a long exhale and said, "Tonight, there will be a star shower. They happen around this time every year."
"I guess it's a sign for something," said Soletus, uncertain where he was going with that fact.
Mien stared up at the sky. "Every year my father would wake me up and we would watch them together since I was a little. We would count them."
Then Mien's voice started quaking. "Three years ago was the last time he did that with me. Three years ago, he stayed up all night with me and I went to bed. He left that morning and never came home. This day, three years ago, I died."
Soletus didn't know what to say to that. He glanced at the chapel door, wishing Hickory would open the door and help. Mien continued his confession without noticing the young monk's discomfort.
"I cracked and broke apart. The world ended. Everything hurt. But I thought if I did something to Dalaen, if I killed him, then the pain would stop. I thought if I could make my uncle feel pain, then he would understand and stop. Now I don't even know why I believed it was a good idea."
Soletus became immobilized by that statement. It was one thing for everyone to tell him what Mien did. It was another thing for him to say the reasons.
"But that did nothing and made everything worse. I still feel hollow and stuck at the bottom of a pit. I don't want to feel this way anymore, but I can't even feel anything else," he said. He leaned forward, folding his arms over his knees, and buried his face.
Soletus sat wordlessly. His mind took a bit to free itself from its shock. When it did, he realized that Mien just told him more than he ever had. The cracks in the shell were deep enough that he could break off pieces. However, he was a little afraid to say anything. He didn't even understand why the boy suddenly told him what he did. Maybe it was what he wanted to tell him days ago, but never did. However, knowing that didn't help. He could only guess what the best course of action was. First, he reached a tentative hand out. At that point, he never touched Mien after his first response, but he rested his hand down anyway between Mien's shoulder blades. The boy was shuttering. He didn't enjoy seeing it and then realized then he didn't like to feel it either.
No one should be made to be like this, he thought.
Soletus lightly patted him and said soothed, "Mientheoderic, calm down. If you don't want to feel the way you do and you're at rock bottom, then climb back up."
Mien snapped his head up. "Why? My father's dead. I messed everything up for my mother. I'm an embarrassment to my house. My sister doesn't need me. I'm going too—" he stopped and then looked away again and muttered, "No one needs me."
"Well, what about you then," said Soletus. "Don't you think you're worth enough to not be like this? Brother Hickory and I have been trying to help, but you're going to have to help yourself a little too and stop going into pity-patties!"
The young monk clamped his jaw after that spilled from his mouth. He didn't mean for that to come out the way it did, but he was getting frustrated. Mien continued down a path of what he saw as self-destruction. The boy was clearly not eating and not sleeping. Now he said he felt as if he wasn't worth anything. However, he shouldn't have said that. Soletus tried to apologize, but the boy did so first.
"I'm sorry," he said earnestly. "I didn't mean to be ungrateful." He cast his gaze down at his feet. "I thought maybe I could just tell someone, say it all and it would come out right. It isn't. I never know what to say."
He then buried his face in his arms again.
I might as well be proving Papa right, Soletus thought, and then said aloud to Mien. "I'm sorry if I sounded mean. You just spoke what was on your mind and I did too. That's how people talk to each other."
Mien lifted his head, showing a single eye. "But you keep giving me this strange look."
"Because of this," Soletus gestured at him. "The way you act. I've not met anyone before who wasn't normal." The young monk then pressed his lips together. I'm an idiot dod. Where's a hole to swallow me up?
Mien didn't take offense at the statement and further explained. "I tried to be normal for three years. I tried to be all right. It was easy at first. My mother told my sister me to be strong for her. I didn't want to show her I wasn't."
Mien looked at Soletus as if the reason was obvious. "She's my mother. My father’s death devastated her. That alone caused issues. She didn’t need problems from me. I would cry in my room at night so she wouldn't see me sad. I never stopped though, I just cried over everything."
Mien paused, squeezing his eyes shut. Soletus thought he finished regaling his past. However, he only swallowed hard once and took another deep breath so he could continue.
"Then my uncle came to live with us, shortly after my father died. She thought it was best, politically, if she married him. He inherited everything, and she didn't want him to lose what father worked so hard to build. My sister and I didn't like him. We didn't want to live in the house with him there. She won a scholarship to attend the university in Eroden. I didn't want her to leave but, I pretended to be happy for her just so she wouldn't worry about me."
"Aren't you smart enough to have gone without a scholarship?"
Mien's face filled with shame. "I failed the entrance test. After my father died, I couldn't think as I did before. Then Uncle and my cousin Dalaen came to live with us. I couldn't focus. I knew then something was wrong with me, but I never said anything."
Again, Soletus found it difficult to respond other than just listen and observe. There wasn't a tear in Mien's eyes, however, there was regret on his face and in his voice.
"Then Dalaen tossed the flute father gave me in the river. It was his gift to me. After that, all I felt was rage," said Mien.
"You feel really bad about it now, don't you?"
Mien nodded and went on. "It seemed so logical to hurt them both. I planned it all out for about a week. I waited for him on the bridge between my house and town and I followed my plan to a point. I let him get in one insult before I pushed him against the rails of the bridge, and we fought. Somehow, I managed it, but I flipped him over the rail, and he fell into the water. That's what I wanted. For him to drown. He's a horrible swimmer, but instead of sinking under, he flayed his way to the shore."
That statement made Soletus's stomach twist. Brother Hickory told him it was a pre-meditated attack. He just didn't realize it was that much.
"I remember little after that," admitted Mien. "This red haze formed over my vision. I've never felt enraged before, to the point I felt nothing else. I was told what I did. Apparently, I jumped him when he got to shore and pushed his head into the mud. It took his friends and an adult to pull me off of him," he said, then paused and became distraught. "There's that look again. You're probably scared of me now."
Soletus swayed his head. "No, I'm…" he searched for a word and settled on, "surprised."
"But I tried to murder someone because of a flute," exclaimed Mien.
"I would be more worried if you didn’t see anything wrong with what you did," he returned.
"Well, you probably think I'm weird now."
Soletus gave the boy a consoling pat on the back. "No more than I already did."
"Really? You still sound like I’m horrible."
"Well, you did just explain to me how you went about trying to kill your cousin. That’s disturbing."
Mien whimpered. "I'm sorry."
Soleus winced. "No, don't apologize for the way people think. I'm not scared of you, but I never met someone like you,” he said, hoping that repaired everything.
Mien stared at his feet. "Because no one is crazy like me."
"No, you're not. You're just…" Soletus stopped to think of a nicer word but then realized there wasn't. Mien was, and he felt sorry for him.
"If you want to go, I understand," said Mien, burying his head again.
Soletus put an arm around his shoulder to try to make him feel better. "I'm not. Why do you think I will?"
Mien pushed away from him. "Sometimes… I-I get the feeling you're just here because you were told to be."
"And how can you tell that?" He didn't think he was that transparent.
Mien just blinked at him.
Soletus laid his hand on Mien's forearm. "To be straight with you this is hard for me. I had the opportunity to get out of this more than once. But I don’t like the thought of abandoning you. If I left, who will then be your friend. Everyone needs at least one.”
Mien peered up at him briefly before his eyes watered up. He buried his face again.
Soletus bent down and heard him sniffling. "Are you crying? Why are you crying?"
Mien said something garbled.
He lifted his head up and said between sniffles, "I was afraid you were going to leave if I told you the truth."
"Well, see, I didn't. And just so you know, you shouldn't be afraid to tell me anything. The worst thing you get from me is me putting my foot in my mouth."
Mien scrubbed his eyes. Soletus noticed his shuttering abated.
"Are you okay now?"
Mien straightened up, hugging himself and rubbing his arms. "I feel cold."
"Do you want to go back in?"
"No, I want to feel the sun," he said just as the door creaked behind them. Soletus twisted his head to peer over his shoulder. The wooden door closed instead of opened. Brother Hickory had been listening.
I had a rough start as a chanter. I didn't know how to handle it. It didn't help that I didn't like the sound of my voice. I could tell there was something wrong with me. Also, one could say I had a little trouble with my perceived lack masculinity then. Especially around Soletus. He was what boys dreamed they could be tall and deep voice. And he was far more put together compared to me. At that point, I thought him better than me. Here I was small, lost in a dark place. I was scared. I felt alone with the entire world just bearing down on me. And I wanted it to stop. And while Soletus and Hickory help me out of the mind space, it was Oeric who showed me how to not go back to it.
Soletus wasn't in the best of moods when he returned to the chapel the following day. He thought he wanted to listen to all the other warders and junior wardens talk about their experiences. He had done so every year that he could, however, that year, no. It stung that he missed the experienced and lost the offers many other got to join beds. Not to mention training that would help them pass the trials. It annoyed him then, and he woke up aggravated. He honestly shouldn't have come to the chapel day, but the alternatives were doing nothing or help Doran and he wasn't easy to train with. He complained a lot. Soletus knew being grumpy would give him more reason to complain. So, he went to the chapel instead.
Brother Hickory was polishing one of the long brass candle holders at the side of the altar and greeted him with a joyous smile on his face. It faded as Soletus grew to concern. "You seem glum today. What's the matter?"
"Nothing," grunted Soletus. Only the fact that all my brothers are training for the trials or getting assignments elsewhere and I'm here babysitting.
"So, your cheery disposition has nothing to do with all the warders training for the trials while you're here," asked the all-knowing priest.
"A little bit," he admitted.
"I'm sure you father reinforced your mood. He told me what he thought of our arrangement yesterday."
"Of course, he’s an opinion about everything,” muttered Soletus and realized that was supposed to be a thought.
The priest stopped his polishing and regarded him thoughtfully. "He means well, as do a lot of parents. Part of a parent’s duty is to make sure a child knows how to navigate the world. I think of it as the age of listening. However, when a child gets old enough, the age of listening is over. The age of acting starts. It’s time for them to take knowledge learned so they can learn on their own. Some parents don't know when that time comes. That’s your father."
The old priest was a neth. A child of Lenneth. He didn’t live the life of a customary elf and lived a solitary life. No marriage and thus he raised no children. Soletus guessed it was years of looking from the outside int that made him insightful.
"That being said, maybe it's time for you to cut the leash your father has on you."
That rendered Soletus speechless. He never expected that would tell him that. He thought he would say something about sitting down and talking with him to build some sort of understanding. Be patient. Be understanding.
"You aren't a child anymore and I know you know that. Oeric doesn't see that. He doesn't see someone who is independent of him. Asserting yourself might be the only way for him to realize that."
Soletus only blinked. Pushing his father wasn't something he wanted to do just because he wanted to live a ripe old age. Soletus struggled for words for a second before he found his voice again and said, "I don't think causing conflict with him is the answer."
Brother Hickory raised an eyebrow at him. "I’m not taking about started a conflict. I’m talking about putting your foot down. Don't you feel he comes off controlling at times?"
Soletus now gaped at him, dumbfounded. He heard others say that before, that his father was controlling. He never expected those words from Brother Hickory. Truth was, Soletus didn’t feel controlled. His father rarely made him do anything he didn’t want to do. However, he wasn’t above holding him back. Sometimes it was good just to help him catch up. Other times, it was annoying when they didn’t let him do something most tods his age did.
The biggest was the bonfire held in the spring and fall. There was little to no adult supervision, and most would spend the entire night outside of the wall. The excuse was somewhere between not mature enough and wasn’t something a son of Dias should want to do. Yet a few young monks would attend. They didn’t have strict parents, or their parents weren’t present.
"He's strict," said Soletus.
"Yes, but you're at that age of action. You need to walk your own way down the path. You decide what you do along it, not your father."
Soletus crossed his arms. "I get that. But when he thinks he’s right, he doesn't listen."
The priest continued. "When he came here yesterday, he said he didn't want you to come back here. Said it was a waste of your time. Do you intend to listen to him when you've done a lot of good?"
"No," said Soletus despite the fact, he was uncertain about continuing but he couldn’t just leave. Something inside him really wanted to keep going if just to prove his father wrong. “This is my assignment."
The aged priest smiled. “Good, this is best for Mien. If you leave, it’ll hurt him. He’ll probably think it’s his fault and convince himself he’s undeserving of friend. Besides that, I don’t want another tod. Out of all of them, you were my choice.”
Soletus felt a twinge of guilt for even thinking about leaving. He didn’t know that Hickory specifically chose him.
"Anyway, refresh your mind today. This isn't exactly a good day for the lad."
Soletus groaned. "He didn't turtle up again," groaned Soletus".
"No, why would you think that," said the priest and then he reconsidered his statement. "Never mind. I can understand why you would, but that's not the case. Mien didn't sleep a wink last night. He had nightmares. Sadly, he didn’t share what they were about. I've tried to give him some lavender and chamomile to calm him, but he refused. Eventually, exhaustion will take him. He was still awake the last time I looked in on him. He told me he wanted to at least say hello to you today."
Soletus nodded walked to the back. It was dim in the foyer as Mien's room door was cracked instead of open. Soletus pushed it open and found the boy stretched on his bed with his eyes shut. The curtains over the window drawn. However, when he heard Soletus take a step into his room, he opened them. They were red.
"Hello," he greeted after a long yawn. He didn't move to sit up.
Soletus leaned against the door frame. "I come to say hi."
Mien looked grateful he was there. "I wanted to talk to you about something, but I can't keep my eyes open right now. Maybe another day?"
"Sure, whenever you can."
Mien then gathered his blanket and rolled over to the wall. Soletus left the chapel and did as Brother Hickory advised him to do. He was certain the man meant for him to meditate or something. Instead, he went back to the dormitory for his pair of padded leather gloves before going behind the front buildings of the monastery. There, the area opened to the log buildings. One was mess hall, the others were for indoor training. He chose the smallest of the buildings that was dedicated to combat practice. His choice method of reflection was by slamming his fist into one of the training stands.
He fell in love with using the wooded and leather sand filled stand when he started his hand-to hand training. After that, he found it was good to pour his frustrations on the training device. Most of his training brothers knew when Soletus entered and walked straight to the bag, he wasn't in a talking mood. They glanced in his direction but continued to spar with one another.
He went about punching with very few thoughts run through his head. He kept light on his toes and danced around it. Then thoughts leaked in his mind. Why he was even bothering. He had worked hard to get what he wanted and was unrewarded for his efforts. Did Dias even want him to be a monk at that point? He felt the was answer yes, but why was it hard still.
Soletus wasn’t an ideal candidate when he joined. He wasn’t like the lean boys or tod around him. He was chubby, according to his father. To others, he was fat. The only advantage he had was that he had fast reflexes and power behind his moments, but he was timid. He was shy. Everyone called him Oeric’s “little lad” in a patronizing tone that suggested they didn’t expect much from him. “Too much of a boy” was the phrase Marth like to use and others picked up on it.
His father was the one who encouraged him the most, saying it took time. That he needed to practice. And so, Soletus did. He practiced when other wouldn’t. A lot of his spare time at one point was him either with his father or Valen when he arrived. And things changed. He was never short but ended up being the tallest in his training clutch. He was also the most muscular. And then no one wanted to spar with him because he was the humbler. When a warder thought too much of himself, he sparred with them. He became the one they called out because of his extra effort and tell the initiates he was what hard work looked like.
Yet, somehow, his father held him back despite his achievements.
Soletus slammed his fist in a series of punches that caused the stand to bend. Everyone when sight, paused and stared at the nonverbal tirade and ended it all with a hard kick that could’ve broken a stand that wasn’t so well made.
"I would have loved some of the lads at the culling showed your ferocity on a drass beast," said someone behind him.
Soletus glared at the person who spoke to him coldly. First Warden Kellas stood there, unaffected by the chilled look. The young monk then straightened up quickly to greet him properly, but the warden held up his hand.
"No need for formalities," he said. "I just come over to sate my curiosity. I didn't mean to interrupt, maybe later."
The young monk wiped the sweat off his brow. "I'm not doing anything important, just thinking," he said, wondering what Kellas wanted. The man never spoke to him before. His father didn’t care for him. He told him he had shadows following him. He never went into details other than they were once friends and the man did something he didn’t like. Though his grandfather favored him because he was the warden, they sent out to deal with difficult situation and problems. His bands always saw a lot of actions. Soletus found him and his band kind of appealing. He didn’t know if he would like someone like his father’s brand of being a first warden. He was hard and cautious.
However, there was something about Kellas Soletus didn’t like. He and his father shared the same start iris color. However, his father eyes were expressive with depth. Kellas's eyes were insipid. Even then, as he stood there smiling, it never really reached his eyes.
"Those must be some intense thoughts," remarked Kellas. "Maybe Oeric's tall lad isn't as placid as they say. Then again, a cool head is not something to snuff one's nose at. I like cool heads. They see things I don't." The smile dropped from his face, and he became serious. "Why weren't you at the culling?"
"Papa kept me from joining," Soletus answered, swinging at the bag again.
"You could have just run away and followed."
Soletus gave him an exasperated look.
"Ah yes, Master Dour, harsh and strict. Likes to keep his son on a short leash, they say."
Soletus's brow became a flat line. “I’m not a dog. He just doesn’t think I’m ready.”
“Then you shouldn’t let him think that and act on keeping you held back.”
"I'm not letting him," exclaimed Soletus. He turned back to the bag and started slamming his fists into again. "Fighting against him wastes my time. He doesn't let up."
"Because he knows you will back down or walk away to avoid conflict with him. That is something you need to learn not to do so easily," returned Kellas solemnly, but his exuberance welted back up into his features. "However, that sort of thing can be learned by becoming my grappler."
Soletus lowered his hands and gaped a him. To receive an offer like that wasn’t for someone unproven.
Kellas took him by the shoulders and spun him around to face all the others practicing around him.
"Look at them. They are tall and lean like any elf, but I need someone with some bulk. You have that, or as bulky as an elf can get. The other one, Dias bless him, pissed in his pants when I told him to jump on a back of a skulker."
Soletus could understand that response. They reserved the job of a grappler for the rowdiest of men. Few would wrestle with a drass beast purposely. The idea wasn't something Soletus had given much thought. It certainly wouldn't sit well with his father. He was too smart in his eyes. However, he was certain one had to possess a certain amount of intelligence not to be killed doing something so dangerous. It wasn't as if he were going to go out bare-chested in a lion cloth and a javelin made from a cut sapling. He would have armor. The thing was, it sounded challenging, and he liked challenges.
"Do you really need a grappler that badly," he asked.
"Yes. I need one as my band goes in very close to the Drass Wall and I see to the Trap throughout the year. No one has applied or tested in for the position for this coming trial. Not that there are many who enlist in the Dias Brotherhood these days. Most of these lads are from families who have been here for far too long. They don't want their kin having such ‘lowly’ duties. However, I need a grappler. I need someone large, collected, and smart. You fit the build."
"But I can't take the trial coming up."
"There is one in the Spring, and I will push you in," he promised.
That meant that he didn't have to wait an entire year. He could train all winter for the spring and breeze through the trial. However, he wasn't sure how he was going to train for a grappler position when there weren't that many. He voiced his concerns and Warden Kellas slapped him on the back.
"Don't worry about the training. I'll arrange it. You can start tomorrow. You'll be helping everyone else training for the trials, but some training is better than none."
Soletus's excitement drained. "Tomorrow? In the morning or afternoon?"
"Morning of course….ah yes, the one Brother Hickory's been helping. Perhaps you should let someone else deal with that."
The young monk felt as if Dias was testing him at that point and gave him another opportunity to back out. It would be easier on him if he did, however, his conscious screamed no.
Soletus shook his head. "No, I don't want to just abandon him seeing how hard as it's been for him."
"Hmmm," said Kellas, rubbing his chin. "Well, maybe it'll be worth it if I can get a combat chanter out of him. Do what you need to, just meet me bright an early after the daily prayer."
Soletus beamed brightly. He finally found a way in.
When I first met Oeric, I didn't see him yet. All I saw was him and Soletus. And I envious of what I saw. He had his father. There was never a day when I was young that I didn't want one more hug from my father. I wanted that badly. Because the world feels wrong when you saw someone early in the day, spoke to them, but you were too sleepy to give them a hug. Then they never came home to receive that waiting hug you wanted to give them. My heart ached for years. I could never forget that I didn’t give him that last hug. It would pop up and remind me, only to make me sad it seemed. However, I felt peace when let Dias take that regret from me. He gave me people who I needed and need me. You can’t change the past. Or, as Oeric told me, you can’t change the past, you can’t control the future. The only thing you can do is move forward.
Mien surprised Soletus that he wanted to have another go at the quarterstaff. So, he came back with them in hand.
"I started swordsmanship, but I wasn't very good at it," he explained. "Maybe I can be good at something else."
"Well, you do get better with things with practice," said the young monk. He tried to be encouraging, though the boy was horrible at it. Soletus figured he just wanted something to do. He imagined all his time spent reflecting in the chapel was very dull. During their session, he was still unfocused and constantly flinching. However, he looked as if he was enjoying himself. Even with being knocked to the ground a few times didn't stop his meek enthusiasm. He dusted himself off and tried again.
After a while of teaching him how to block, Soletus switch his style of instruction and thought Mien needed to know how to perform a simple jab.
"Just mirror my movements for now," he instructed, and Mien took his position beside him, watching him a few times, then tried to mimic. The boy's movements, while a nice attempt, appeared more like politely tapping than jabbing. There was no power behind his movements.
Everything about him is timid, thought Soletus, before he caught Mien jumping out of his stance in the corner of his eyes. About the time the young monk was about to ask him what happened, the wooden door to the back of the chapel open. Brother Hickory greeted them with a guest in tow. He had to admire the boy's sharp hearing, but it caused him to be strung tight. He didn’t know if it was the surprise of seeing someone new there or what the elf looked like.
The elf that accompanied Hickory was fresh off the road. He had a scared face. The largest going from his right ear that traveled parallel to his jaw line. His nose was crocked as well, and his left ear was missing its pointed tip. His stoic gaze locked on Mien. Stark and unwavering as that of a wolf, pale and blue. A person had to move past his face to see that he wore the brown jerkin of the order and a golden barred tasseled sash that marked him as a master first warden. To Soletus, he had seen that face since he was born. His face lit up at the sight of his father.
Despite his annoyance with him, he could help but be excited to see him. With little thought, he threw his arms around him. His father grunted but didn't pull him off or even fuss at him. Thought he told him he was getting a little too old for hugs all the time.
He let go, still beaming. "Hey Papa," he greeted.
The sternness faded a little from the first warden's face and a little warmth revealed itself in that winter's gaze.
"Sol," he greeted and patted Soletus on the shoulder.
"You're going to have to reach up to pat him if he grows any taller," said Hickory.
That was very true. The difference in their heights was becoming less noticeably. Not to mention their build was differentiating. The young monk was filling out to be heavier than his father. He had wide shoulders and thick neck compared to most elves. Elves described themselves as grace stags, but Soletus would likely be a powerful bull elk. Soletus would grow to be more like a graceful and powerful ram than a lithe and mighty stag.
"Mien," called Hickory.
Soletus forgot about him. He looked behind him and saw the boy was clutching the staff across him like a shield. At least he wasn't standing there with his arms wrapped around himself.
Oeric's brow went flat.
Soletus walked backwards, put his hand in the middle of Mien's back, and pushed him forward.
"Mientheoderic, this is Master First Warden Oeric'Sheldmartin, my father."
The tall elf held out his hand. Mien reached out, hesitated, and then shook it.
A critical glint sparked in Oeric’s eye.
"That's no way for a man to shake another man's hand," he said in measured teaching voice. "Grip my hand, like you mean it."
Mien appeared to follow Oeric's advice, as that infamous expression that gave him the name Master Dour lightened a tad. Soletus wanted to be upset at other warders and junior wardens calling him that. But he directed at him far too many times to claim it to be untrue.
"That’s better," he said, and then regarded Soletus. "You've been keeping him busy, I see."
"Yes, it's good for him and he enjoys it, right," said the young monk, giving Mien an encourage stare to prompt him into speaking. He didn't. Mien only nodded.
"Mien, you need to speak. You can’t act like a mute every time you see someone new," said Brother Hickory. "Confidence my boy."
"Sorry," said Mien in a small voice.
"Speak up, you aren't talking to mice."
"He's timid a one, that's for sure," commented Master Oeric.
Soletus found what was going on in front of him a little hard to watch.
Mien held his head down became more distressed. "Sorry," he repeated a little louder.
Brother Hickory looked satisfied. "I hate to break up your fun, Soletus, but your father wants to speak to you and Mien and I need to do some more training."
Mien's shoulders sagged.
"Could I have a bit more time? I just need to explain something to Mien and then I'll come," said Soletus.
Oeric gave his son a sharp nod and Hickory followed, leaving the two boys alone. Soletus waited until they vanished before he spoke. He was about to face Mien when he saw them watching through a window. He ignored them and turned his back to them.
"Why are you so afraid to speak?"
Mien shrugged at his feet.
"Is it because you were forced to stay silent?"
"No, I just don't like talking," he murmured.
"Well, sometimes you have to, especially when you're addressing others. It's courtesy and expected."
"But I don't like it," he held.
"I know, but you shouldn't be afraid, especially if you're a chanter. What is it? Oh, Dias give chanter's his power, while a chanter's voice is the instrument of his will."
"I know. Brother Hickory keeps telling me that, but I sound like a girl."
Soletus arched a brow. "Why do you think that?"
"Well, my cousin—I mean my step-brother would tell me that all the time," he admitted with his shoulders sagging in shame
"Is this the same one you…"
Mien bobbed his head. "He also said I acted like a girl too because I played with my sister all the time."
I wonder if that cousin of his didn't deserve a little of what happened to him.
"Well, you'll be happy to know you don't sound like a girl," said Soletus. He left out the fact that he had a distinctive sounding pitch to his voice that could be mistaken as a young woman. Then there was the chanter's lilt he had. All chanters sounded one. Many described it as them sounding empowered, and Soletus had to agree. If Mien spoke loud enough, it would have been more audible. "You also don't act like a girl," he added. Just plain strange.
The older boy wore a very dubious expression. He then leaned to the side to peer around Soletus. His large eyes widened. "Why are they watching us?"
Soletus gathered his staves before placing them both over one shoulder without looking at the window. "Because adults don't know when to leave well enough alone.
Mien reached for his shirt sleeve to stop him. “Also, that’s your father?”
“He’s strong looking.”
Soletus smiled. “Yeah, he’s one of the best.”
Mien looked impressed and followed him back into the chapel. The two adults had ambled their way to the table and were discussing something. Soletus only caught the tail end of it.
"I just wanted to make sure," said his father. He glanced at Soletus and added. "This isn't what I had in mind."
"Talk to him about it and let him decide," said Hickory.
Soletus stopped by the door, getting a sinking feeling they were talking about him. The fox-headed boy darted by them all and going straight for the foyer. He said goodbye to Soletus with a lopsided smile. When Oeric started to walkout, he ducked into the shadows.
The young monk waited for his father and the two of them exited the chapel side by side in silence until they were out of the chapel's yard and walking along the paved road.
"I'm not sure what you think will come of this, but he's not something you can handle," said his father.
Thanks for the confidence, Papa, thought Soletus and stated more amiable. "You've met him for an instant and you already think that."
"Once an elf loses their grip on what's rational, it’s hard on them and other around them. Many of them become burdens. Sometimes it’s themselves holding them back or because the right person doesn't help them," stated his father.
Soletus felt insulted.
"He's weak and—"
"Aren't we here to help the weak,” interrupted Soletus. “And help encourage their own? Is it not our duty to Dias to help those of this world to hear his voice? It isn't just the burden of the priests, but we as monks?"
"True. What you are doing is for someone more experienced. You aren't a teacher, Sol," he said. "A more mature elf would be better. You're barely ready to be a junior warden, let alone helping someone through their turmoil."
And then he was reminded why he was unhappy with his father.
"I would have more experience if someone didn't make it impossible for me to gain it," Soletus snipped back.
"I don't appreciate that tone."
"Well, I don't appreciate being blocked without explanation," said Soletus and then he realized he said what he was thinking aloud. He swallowed his annoyance and spoke more mindfully. "Can you explain to me why I can't take the trials this year?"
His father stopped walking. "You aren't ready," returned his father bluntly. "Certainly, you have the skill, but there’s a still a bit of boy left in you. You can't be a boy as a warden."
Oeric continued onward. Soletus followed with the tight ball of irritation blooming in his chest.
“I'm a tod now and I’m not the boy I was,” challenged Soletus.
His father stopped again. "Certainly, there is a lot about you that has changed, however you aren't there yet. There are a lot of things you must be ready to face. And you are not there yet."
Soletus let out a snort. He didn't like getting into arguments with his father. He could never win. He never knew how to win. This one appeared to be unwinnable because there as no dissuading him.
"At least Brother Hickory doesn’t think I’m a boy. He would've chosen someone else if I were," he told him and left his father's side.
He was lucky that the side path to go the back door of the dormitory was there or it'll look as if he was only marching off in frustration. Well, he was, doing so and was surprised his father didn't stop him.
There was a time when the two of them could talk with ease. Well, they had their own way of communicating because the two of them didn’t saying much. His father wasn't exactly a conversationalist and Soletus wasn’t talkative as a boy. He was a bit like Mien, shy. He also didn’t see reason to open his mouth at every opportunity. However, his training demanded so much communication that he learned to talk with his ease.
His father was glad he was more vocal, however, that didn’t make him more talkative. In fact, it just made Soletus realize how hard it actually was to talk to his father at times. He was a man of few words until he wasn’t. Then it was many and usually critical. It didn’t help that at the beginning of the year, an unnamed tension formed between them. He didn’t know what to do about it. He suspected something was wrong with his father. But, his parents never let him be privy to their problems.
When he entered the dorms, Soletus's irritation dropped. All the other tods and young men brought life to the dormitory again. It was stuffy and smelled of sweat, unwashed clothing, and road dust. Soletus smile. He couldn't wait for the stories. Most of the boys weren't out in the common area of the dormitory, though. They were in their rooms talking or resting. As he walked by the rooms, most of the curtains weren’t drawn and revealed most of them stretched out on their bunks, exhausted. Soletus went to his room in the back. He noticed only two of his roommates were there, Doran and his cousin, Lyndon. They were both laid out but perked up when they saw him.
"What happened," demanded Lyndon from above him from his bunk. "We waited as long as well could and then First Warden Kellas said you weren't coming. He was pretty upset about it too."
"What do you think happened," said Soletus, placing his staves behind the bunk bed and then flopped down on his bed.
"Master Dour," stated Doran with understanding. "We could have had so much fun. Lyndon and I started a killing competition. I won, of course."
Soletus looked across from him to the empty bunk. "Where's Valan?"
Doran and Lyndon exchanged grieved looks.
"He didn't get killed did he," asked Soletus, thinking the worse, but the two wouldn't have been so cheerful to see him. In fact, that would have been the first thing they told him, as it wasn't unusual for someone to die during a culling.
"No, he got the shivers an' shakes and hid in his tent the entire time," explained Doran. "Master Tyr tried to get him to take another position in the order, but he packed his things and headed home as soon as he stepped foot here."
That was disappointing. Soletus really liked Valan. He was a good friend and sparring partner. Both of there were the same build, strength, and skill level. He was someone to talk to because he came from a strict family too and a father that was hard to please. He was a farmer who rather Valan stand behind a plow. He had something to prove and was excited about going to the culling. His enthusiasm got them all eager. It was disappointing he left.
"It always happens to someone," sighed the young monk. He lay down on his bed and folded his arms behind his head. Why hadn't he waited to say goodbye? If I was there, I could have kept him here.
He felt uncomfortable and cracked his eyes open. Doran was staring down at him from his bunk and Lyndon's head was hanging upside down, with his two braids dangling on the side of his head.
Soletus regarded them. “What?”
"We heard about you and the newest nobling, the one who killed his brother," said Doran.
"His step-brother is plenty alive," corrected Soletus.
"So, what is he like," asked Lyndon with interest. "Does he talk to himself? Have fits? Tear wings off of flies?"
Soletus gave his cousin a bewildered look. "Why would anyone want to tear wings off of flies?"
Lyndon shrugged. "Because he's mean. He attempted to kill someone."
Soletus rolled his eyes. "He's not mean, just very shy and awkward."
Lyndon looked disappointed. "Awww, not that interesting, huh?"
"Sounds like another boy the order is going to toss out when he does something stupid then," muttered Doran.
"He's a chanter. They'll keep him as long as they can," said Soletus.
"That little fox-headed nobling is a chanter," asked Doran, surprised.
"How do you know he's a fox top?"
"I saw him when they first brought him here. The Arch Priest was laying down the rules for him. I just saw his back. Why is his hair cropped?"
Soletus shrugged. "I don't know. I've not bothered to ask because it's not worth getting him upset over. He not well in the head and gets all shaky when he doesn't want to talk about certain things. I don't like it. It's hard to be around him."
Lyndon then gave him a funny look. "Then why keep helping him?”
Soletus narrowed his eyes at his cousin. “What I want to know is how you know that I’ve been helping him?”
“Fern was out on the road. She and the huntress rode back with us. She told me about what you were doing.”
Soletus swung his pillow at his cousin. “Stay out of my business.”
Lyndon pulled his head up in time. “I just wanted to know if you have free time because Doran needs all the help he can get training for the warden trials," suggested his cousin.
"What about you?"
Lyndon’s head appeared again. "No staff for me. I get to train with the scouts now," he said, beaming proudly.
"Congratulation," said Soletus. He was happy for his cousin. That's what he always wanted. However, that gladness was overshadowed by jealousy nestled in his heart right beside the frustration of missing out on an opportunity.
When I first met Soletus, I didn't know what to think of him. I never heard that kind of clear voice before. It was like walking to the edge of a river and looking into the water and see all the stones. However, the problem with that is I didn't know what those stones were because I didn't know him. What I could hear and understand was the unease in his voice when he spoke to me. Yet, he tried to be my friend. So, I tried to understand him. Soon I learned when he was happy and when he was growing frustrated. When he was joking. His voice matched his mood. He was an honest person. He was predictable. Someone I had no reason to fear. So, I latched onto him
Soletus didn't make as much progress as he believed he would. In fact, he felt he made very little. The boy only spoke when he needed to, and he made sure it wasn't often. Though he was full of gestures and had easy to read facial expression only because he had the emotional range between nervous and unease.
During that span of time, Brother Hickory also taught him how to control his phrase of light. There wasn't a day when the boy wasn't chanting under his breath and winking a sun globe in and out of existence. He seemed mystified by it, and it gave him something to focus on, which made him a little less anxious. Soletus found it was easier to let the young chanter concentrate on what he could and couldn't do with the globe of light he wielded than getting him to talk.
When he wasn't doing that, he followed Soletus around like a skittish kitten. He was curious, but quick to retreat when seen. He would start to say something, but whenever Soletus made eye contact, he would shut himself and look away or down. The young monk wasn't sure what to make of him doing that. It was odd for a boy his age to be that shy. He was almost a tod and didn't act it.
When Soletus took him on a quick tour of the town and the monastery, he was certain that Mien would reach out for his hand, given how close he stayed by him. However, the boy wasn't fond of physical contact. That caused Soletus to feel awkward because he was, as other described, friendly. He was all hugs and arms over the shoulder. He never had an elf objected with near terror from something as small as a pat or even nudging before. There was little he could do about that so, he worked on what he could.
Soletus decided to first see what basic skills he knew. He didn't know what nobles did in their spare time. He heard they had people to do nearly everything for them. The young monk doubted that, so he got two horses to exercise for the stableman. He learned that Mien knew how to ride a horse. He had to get a little help with adjusting the stirrups, but he had no trouble with pulling himself up and swing on the back of the horse. That same day, he took him fishing, and Onyx joined them. Mien had no fear of dogs. He was delighted to have the large hound with them. She gave him a distraction. He was happy to scratch that spot between her shoulder blades, and Onyx sat beside him the entire time.
The following day, Soletus wanted to see how he reacted to an elven consort. All elves could learn to summon the magical companions. Most didn't, but all members of the order were taught and trained to use them. The summoned creatures provided an elf with a single magical ability. His took the form of a highland brown bear. However, unlike a real bear, Khodi had a round moon spot on his right shoulder where his fur was silver. And like Soletus, Khodi was a young leggy looking and not impressive looking like older members whose consorts were the same type of bear. Soletus expected Mien to be afraid of him. Many elves didn’t like them, but he wasn't. He found the consort fascinating. But not enough for him to ask anything. Though questions sparkled in his eyes. He patted Khodi on the head and the summoned creature nudged and examined him, sending Soletus impressions that there was an injured person in front of him.
The second week begun and Soletus expected no change. He came over after breakfast, as usual. Brother Hickory was in the center of the chapel, talking to townsfolk. The young monk snuck by them and went straight to the back. Before he walked in, he paused Mien’s room. It was empty, with the bed poorly made. There was too much blanket tucked at the ends and the sides, so it lay unevenly. It was something he needed to learn how to do. The masters weren't very fussy about it, but the priests were more meticulous.
Soletus found Mien at the small table. He managed to keep eye contact in his general direction. However, Soletus was certain he was looking at the wall behind him. It was a welcomed change. That didn't mean he was willing to talk. Soletus made his way to the table with the boy's eyes following him until he sat down in his chair backwards.
"Is there something wrong," Soletus asked.
Instead of shaking his head, he opened his mouth and spoke, "No."
Soletus was shocked that he answered. He swallowed his surprise. He didn't want to scare him back into hiding. Instead, he cleared his throat and said, "You're up early."
The boy’s eye contact faltered, dropped back to the tabletop. "I wanted food that wasn't burnt. Porridge isn't that hard to make," he said a little louder.
Now the mice and the crickets can hear him, thought Soletus and said to him. "Tell that to Brother Hickory."
The corner of Mien's mouth pulled up slightly.
It was good to see the boy smile. He hadn't done it much.
"What do you want to do today," prompted Soletus.
He wasn't expecting the boy to meet his eyes again, but he did. Mien raised an eyebrow at him. "Don't you have anything else to do?"
"No. Hickory asked me to do this, so this is my duty for now. If I didn't want to be here, I wouldn't," he answered, not sure what to think about the sudden trust shown to him. It didn't last. The boy focused his attention out the small grimy window.
"It's quiet here," he remarked.
"I take it you like that?"
"I couldn't imagine you would like some place more bustling."
"I mean in the chapel," corrected Mien.
"Of course it is. It's a chapel. I mean, it's not like an estate that throws parties and servants running around."
Mien cut him a glance. "My family's estate is small, with a tiny staff compared to most. We don't host parties a lot. But that's not the quiet I mean."
The young monk tilted his head. "Then what do you mean?"
"It's calm. I'm calm."
Soletus looked out of the window with him and tried to sort out that last statement. What state was he before that classified his current behavior as calm. Brother Hickory stepped in, wearing a frown of displeasure.
"Sorry to interrupt, but Mien, I need to say something to you."
Mien turned from the window slowly to Hickory's feet. "Yes."
Brother Hickory started scolding him. "That bed is awful. Go in there and try again. I've only shown you how to do it a dozen times."
Without even a cringe, the boy got up from the table and vanished. Hickory took Mien's spot.
"So, was he holding a conversation with you, too?"
"Same with me this morning. He opened up. Still with fidgety eyes, but talking," said the priest. He appeared pleased, as if that was major progress.
"How did he manage before if he can't look someone in the face," said Soletus.
"Your guess is as good as mine, seeing as he was also an alchemist's apprentice. I couldn't imagine him being so shy around his master."
Soletus’s brow jumped. "An alchemist's apprentice at his age?"
"He's a smart lad in the academic sense. He’s smart enough to get an invitation to take the entrance test to the university in Eroden," he told him.
"Maybe I should introduce him to someone else since he is talking."
Hickory swayed his head. "Not yet. I don't want to scare him back into his shell like a scared turtle. This is more than the lack of talking skill."
Soletus didn't think it was possible, but for the rest of their time together that day, the boy was quiet again. The boy only had a small energy reserve for talking. If he was going to be reserved, Soletus decided that Mien should do something that didn’t require speech. So, he taught him how to fight with a quarter staff.
The next day, he brought over his light training staff and the heavy staff he preferred. He knew the boy was getting chanter priest training and they didn’t receive weapons training. Neither did the few combat chanters they had. Soletus believed they needed to learn a little something to be better-rounded. Mien didn't understand it at all and stared at Soletus when the young monk told him what they would be doing.
"It'll be good for you," Soletus encouraged. "You've skinny arms and wimpy shoulders. How are going to do anything with those?"
Mien's eyes tightened. He parted his lips as if he was going to say something. However, he retracted and settled on becoming offended.
"I meant no offense, but it's true."
Soletus knew Mien was thinking something by the way his gaze scanned him up and down but he didn't share those thoughts.
Soletus handed him the staff he would be using. "I need the practice, so you can help me."
Mien took it in his hands and inspected the wooden weapon as if it was a foreign object.
"It'll be fun."
Mien gave him a dubious look.
"Don't worry, you'll be fine," said Soletus.
The session turned into a practice in teaching the bare basics of using a quarter staff. He wasn't ready to be called a master yet because he wasn't sure what to do about a student who wasn't eager to learn. He was too timid, too hesitant, and too slow. If anything, the young monk got a great lesson in restraint that day. So many times, he wanted to take advantage of an opening with a sound strike. He softened his blows because the boy flinched a lot, blocking with his arms rather than his staff. After observing the action a few times more, Soletus planted the end of his staff into the ground, and asked,
"Were you hit on?"
Color drained from Mien's face. He looked to the side and said quickly. "No!"
Soletus narrowed his eyes. "You know, it isn't a good thing to lie. I can ask Hickory because I'm sure he knows."
Mien became owl-eyed. "What did he tell you?"
"He hasn't told me much. He probably expects you to tell me."
"It isn't like he beat me every day, but please don't tell anyone," he begged. "He might find out I told and make things worse."
"Who," Soletus asked confused. When Mien didn't answer him, he repeated the question again. "Who will make things worse for you?"
The boy looked at the ground. "Not me, my mother."
"So, he hit her too?"
"No," exclaimed the boy with his voice becoming high and manic. He waved his hands in front of him. "He doesn't. He can't. She won't let him, but he can hurt her other ways. He can still make things miserable for me, thus making things worse for her."
That cleared nothing up for the young monk. "Who is he exactly?"
The boy clamped his mouth shut with his teeth clicking.
Soletus pushed his hair to the side that fell into his face. "You need to tell me so I can understand."
Mien dropped the staff on the ground and covered his face with his hands, trembling violently. Soletus reached for him. Mien slapped it away and took a step back away from him, frightened.
Soletus held his hands up. "Sorry. I didn't mean to pry."
The boy hugged himself, backing away, reaching out behind him until his back was to the bark of the burning ash tree.
"Mien," Soletus called, but his voice didn't reach the disturbed boy. His breathing became short and shallow. Mien put his hand to his chest and stared glassy eyed at the ground. Soletus was torn between getting Brother Hickory or staying. He didn't know if he could do any good, though. However, he tried and took slow steps towards Mien, making sure they were loud enough for the boy to hear that he was coming. He eased forward and stopped an arm's length in front of him.
"Seriously, I'm sorry for whatever I did," he said.
Mien was unresponsive. He hugged himself tighter.
The door to the chapel opened and Brother Hickory beckoned Soletus to come towards him. They exchanged places. Brother Hickory tried to console the boy. Soletus made a beeline to the table and sat down. He didn't know why that made him ill at ease, but it did. Never in his life had he seen someone react to a question like that. He didn't know if he needed to help, leave, or stay there and wait. In the end, he waited. The priest was out there for a long time before he came back in. Soletus tried to explain himself, but the priest held up a hand.
"Don't worry about it. What did you ask him?"
"I asked him if he was hit on," said Soletus.
Brother Hickory bobbed his head in understanding. "I should have warned you not to do that. He doesn't enjoy talking about what happened or anything connected with it."
"Well, it's made him afraid of someone," said Soletus. "He wouldn't even name the person."
Brother Hickory sat down and explained. "I know who he speaks of. Don't you worry about and don't press the matter anymore. He might stop speaking again. That's what caused him to turtle up the first time and I had to bring you in."
Soletus blinked at him with disbelief. He started talking. "He's not well in the head if that's all it takes to get him to clamp up again."
"I never said he was, well that is," said Brother Hickory somberly.
"So, he's cracked in the head?"
"No. What you see results from fear. Fear is a powerful thing. It can control a person and force them to act in ways that seem crazy to us."
"But you face your fears."
"It isn't always that simple. Most people can do such a thing. For others, it's a lot harder. I've found that the deep-sated fears are harder to deal with. Right now, the wounds are too fresh. Once we get him to trust us, then we help him lift all those painful emotional scars. Every time it hurts, he's going to retreat. However, I don’t want him to retreat, thinking he’s alone. I want him to learn that he has Dias and us here.
"You might as well go now. He will not be up to doing anything for a while. Try again tomorrow. But don't get discouraged. These cases are the hardest. You must be persistent to get through so many barriers he’s created to get to the heart of everything,” stated Hickory, and then added. “In fact, the first individual I was assigned to was much like him. They were hurt, distrustful, and fearful. However, they didn’t behind silence, though. They were very surly."
Soletus didn't know if he would like that anymore. Then again, at least someone who was surly was responsive. However, when he left, he didn't know if wanted to come back. Mien's behavior troubled him. Shy was one thing, but what he saw, that was different.
With nothing else to do, he settled alone in his room to think. He was patient, but not enough to be around someone who would start getting better and suddenly tumbled back down to start all over again. It hurt a little that his mother was right. However, he liked helping people, but usually helping people met doing something tangible. Something that could be fixed with physical strength. What he was doing wasn't anything like that. This was something of the mind. And while he received some training to aid his mind to deal with ugly and terrible situations, it didn’t extend to someone else.
Soletus rolled on his back, wishing his cousin was in the bunk above him so he could ask his opinion on the matter. Everyone should be back in a few more days. However, he didn't feel as if he could wait. The stubborn part of him wanted to stick it out, the practical part of him wanted to excuse himself and do something that was a lot more productive.
However, he failed to come up with an excuse by the next morning and continued his new routine of going to the chapel. First, he checked the boy's room. It was empty and his bed was better, but not there yet. He wasn't at the table either. Instead, Hickory was there sipping on a mug of tea with a lettering his hand.
"He's out back," stated the priest without looking up, his brow a line of disapproval.
"Is he talking?”
"He said nothing to me this morning, but I told him not to be so inconsiderate," said Hickory, annoyed by what he read. The priest gave Soletus his full attention. "That isn't the right word. I told him you are trying to help and that he needn't make it more difficult scaring you. That he needn't be afraid. Like I said, it's fear that holding him back."
"And what did he do?"
"The usual, he stared at his feet and nodded his head."
Why would I think anything different, thought Soletus.
"A package came for him, and he's been outside pouring over it. So, he might be distracted, but don't be afraid to talk to him. I know you got a bit discouraged yesterday. However, it was only stumble."
The priest was trying to reassure him. However, Soletus couldn't wait to be done with this duty. When he reached for the door latch, Brother Hickory added, "I appreciate what you are doing."
Soletus squeezed his eyes closed and sighed. He wouldn't be able to excuse himself easily.
When he stepped outside, the boy sat in the grass under the tree with a book in his lap. He glanced up and then looked back down, turning the page. Soletus crossed the yard, closing the distance between them by taking measured steps. Mien was still reading when Soletus eased himself down in front of him, minding the letters spread out in the grass.
"Hello," greeted Mien.
"Hi," replied Soletus. "I see you've something from home?"
Mien looked through his fringe of red hair. "My mother forwarded a package for me from my sister."
"Is she older than you?"
"No, we're twins."
Soletus couldn't imagine a female version of him would be a good thing or that he would start rambling.
"Her name is Mienerva. She's lives in Eroden and goes to the University," he said, closing the book and looking up at him. "She doesn't know what happened yet because she didn't yell at me in her letter."
"Okay," Soletus wasn't sure what to make of his talkativeness.
Mien's pale face flushed. "I'm sorry about yesterday. It's just easier if I don't talk about things because that happens. It’s not that I don't like you. I do. You're nice. You don't point out things like my hair and say I'm crazy. Well… you probably do now. I'm not! I don't think I am. I just… you ever get so scared that your heart starts beating really fast?"
"Well, I feel like that, a lot, but not here. This place is quiet. Nothing's here to hurt me," he said, sounding like he was trying to convince himself of that fact.
"Well, there isn't anyone here that would hurt you," assured Soletus. "Grace's Hope is kind of a sanctuary. People come here for refuge, and we don't tolerate those who bring trouble with them. Besides that, outside influences don't have much power here. There's nothing to be afraid of."
"Brother Hickory says the same," returned Mien.
"Then you shouldn't get so nervous about talking to me."
Mien looked down, ashamed. "I wasn't always like this. Things changed, and I became different."
"Well, what exactly changed," Soletus asked.
The book in Mien's hands started shaking.
Soletus started to stand. "Should I get Hickory?"
"No," cried Mien, alarmed. "It's alright, this is good. Talking I mean, I think."
Mien loosened his grip on the book he had and placed it beside him. He leaned against the tree. "You know my father had blue eyes like yours, not as bright though."
He became quiet after that and left that thought unfinished. Soletus didn't know how to reply. The boy said "had" meaning his father was dead. So, whoever had hurt him wasn't his father. Instead of fishing for details, Soletus looked beside the boy at the book and read the title.
"Wrenhold's Comprehensive Guide to Alchemic Compounds, sounds like a great bedtime story."
Mien's green eyes lit up. "It's the best guide out there for alchemy. My sister must have done something magnificent for her to get a copy for me."
"So, you understand this," said Soletus, amazed as he flipped through the book. It was nothing more than a jumble of words, numbers, diagrams, and descriptions that might as well be in another language.
"This is simple stuff. Alchemy is nothing more than what a wisewoman would use to cure people. Alchemists, however, don't just use those compounds to cure people."
It was a crazy man's trade as well. From what Soletus understood, alchemist did dangerous things to get what they wanted, even dying for their work. Their fellow alchemists might see such a thing as a success.
"So, what do you want to do today," asked Soletus.
"Rest," answered Mien, as he closed his eyes.
"I take it you didn't get much at home?"
Soletus realized what he asked after it was out of his mouth. He was not good at avoiding speaking about things he shouldn’t as well.
The boy's eyes cracked open. He denied nothing this time. "No, I didn't."
"Surely your mother didn't like it."
"She didn't have a choice. She did what could without making it worse. I probably made it worse for her."
"Everyone has a choice," returned Soletus.
Mien shook his head. "You don't understand because you don't know."
"You can tell me,” prompted Soletus.
The boy regarded him warily.
"Or we can save it for another day."
Mien regarded him graciously. He then asked in a meek voice. "Can I call you, friend? I didn't have many before. Most thought me strange."
"Sure," said Soletus a little too slowly and Mien caught his tone to his surprise.
"Why you say it like that?"
Mien then gave him a look. "I'm not stupid. I know what I must act like to you."
Soletus was speechless. He didn't want to deny it to be polite, but, at the same time, the boy showed awareness. He was sure a crazy person wasn't very aware, or their awareness came and left. Maybe Brother Hickory was right.
"You're different," he said, not refuting that. "I'm not used to different, but I can handle it."
"That's why I like you," announced Mien, but didn't explain himself. He became silent again and Soletus didn't prompt him again. He figured that Mien had spoken enough for that day.