An emotionally draining day wasn’t complete without a dream. Oeric stood in the field with his wife and three children, toddler aged, again. However, this time he didn’t run to them. Instead, he watched them from afar, armed with a staff in his hands, and waited until his brother appeared beside him. It didn’t take long for the image to manifest. “How’s it going, Oeric,” asked his brother, Soletus.
Oeric’s attention remained fixed in the distance.
“You had a reunion today with Clincher. Tsk, tsk tsk, brother, you nearly killed him.”
Oeric hands tightened around his staff. He didn’t give the image eye contact. The man circling him, sneering.
“Didn’t I tell you long ago to finish what you start? Instead, he’s sleeping right now like a baby. Protected by the order. Shame, shame, shame,” he said, circling him.
“Dias says not to kill,” answered Oeric, watching his family.
“That didn’t stop you from trying earlier. If not for your son, you would’ve.” Then his brother face engulfed his vision. “You’re still an animal who doesn’t deserve a family.”
“Leave,” Oeric snapped.
The figment became hurt. “Why? I’m your brother. I died searching for you. You own me.”
“I own you nothing.”
“You think naming your son after me fixes everything between us? Oh, right, you didn’t. You think he can do better by the name. That hate of me in your heart is going to eat you alive.”
“I don’t need you telling me what I am,” growled Oeric. He forced the tip of his staff into the man’s chest. Instead of him crumpling to the ground, it went through him.
Oeric clenched his teeth.
The figment smiled. “You think you’ve formed some resolve against your guilt? But how long will it be before you mess up again? Then we’ll start these conversations again.”
His brother's smile widened, revealing two rows of pointy teeth. “Fight all you want, but the Maw knows your heart, murder!”
Oeric spread his feet apart, ready to fight.
The figment guffawed loudly. The grating sound echoed, and the dream became a dark void.
“You want to fight me? Something you allowed into your heart. Fighting one battle in your mind isn’t going to help you.”
Oeric swung at him again. This time, his staff wiped the image of his brother away, and a gaping maw of darkness and fangs replaced him.
“You can fight elf, kaun, human, giant, and beast, but you cannot fight me. You are nothing. Tattered promises hold together your marriage. Your daughter drifts further and further away from you for a better life. You are a burden to your father, and he despises. And now you son is an echo of you. How long before he listens to my words and tumbles down,” said the Maw. It then lunged at him. “Give up and accept what you are, coward!”
Oeric became frozen. The best thing he could do was will himself awake. He couldn’t.
Then something unexpected happened. The dream shifted. The dark became a midnight sky lit with stars. Each one of them started getting brighter and expanding, breaking the darkness.
“Wake up,” shouted the light.
Oeric still couldn’t move. The Maw was slowed, but still coming towards him.
This time the voice got was more forceful and felt like a surge of water on his mind.
“First Warden Oeric, listen to me.”
A white featureless body with a set of glowing violet eyes blinked into existence beside him and pulled him backwards.
Oeric’s eyelids flew open. He was greeted by Kiao, fingers pressed on his temple with his irises glowing fierce lavender. He fought the hand off him and pulled himself into a sitting position. Another chanter priest hovered behind Kiao.
“Do I need to get—”
“No, I’ve got this, Alder. Go check in on our other guest,” said Kiao. He then soothed Oeric. “Calm down. You’re in the infirmary.”
The young healer touched Oeric shoulder gently. He flinched and Kiao withdrew. The young man’s perceptive gaze met his. “That was a very odd dream, First Warden. Not the first one of that nature, I guess.”
“How did you get into my dream,” Oeric demanded.
“Phrase of insight. I’m a dreamseer.”
Oeric knew most chanters who were gifted with the phrase of insight could see either the present, past, or the future.
The Arch Priest, for example, could see into the future, but his sight had grown weaker. However, Oeric didn’t think the Brotherhood had a dreamseer. It wasn’t a common phase for a male chanter to learn. Then again, he should’ve known there was something about Kiao when they tested Soletus's reaction to a drass beast. His father specifically asked Kiao to help if anything went wrong.
“It’s easy to spot someone having a nightmare. I prefer to wake them up than have them suffer through it,” explained Kiao. The back light that showed through his eyes died down and they became bluish again. His composed face became thoughtful. “And First Warden, I’m starting to see what your problem is. You don’t think highly of yourself.”
Oeric grew uncomfortable with that assessment. It was true. He didn’t.
“Now, I don’t know you very well. And I get the impression only a single person does. Yet you still hold her and your family at a distance while you fight alone with yourself. And the Maw wants your isolation so you can constantly feel you don’t deserve anything. And they say that life isn’t about what you do and don’t deserve. If Dias gave you a family, then that is something you need.”
Oeric didn’t know what to say to that. To be laid bare by someone so young. He didn’t know what to think about the young chanter priest. “Am I free to go,” he asked.
Kiao placed his hand over his heart and started chanting the phrase of healing. Oeric could feel him in his head prodding around. It wasn’t comfortable at all. His head felt no different. It still ached, but not as much.
“Now you are free to go. No physical activity for the next three days and I want you to come back tomorrow,” said Kiao, handing him clothing that Cordea left for him and pointed behind him with a slender finger. “You can use the screen to dress behind is you like.”
With that, Kiao went to the side where a warder was cradling his wrist.
Oeric made decent time to his father’s chamber. Brother Farley was there reading as usual and pointed towards the door without looking up.
“He’s not here, so you might as well go in too,” said the occupied priest.
“Too,” mouthed Oeric.
Sitting in one of the chairs was someone with a long braid slung over the armrest of the chair.
“Soletus, what are you doing here,” he asked.
His son stretched out his arm, holding something. Oeric walked over to him and realized he held a large napkin out.
“Mama told me to give this to you,” he said.
Oeric undid the cloth. Two rolls sliced and stuffed with fried duck eggs. There was another with butter and honey in it. He sat down beside his son and started on the honey one first.
“You haven’t explained why you’re here.”
Soletus leaned away from him, resting his head on his fist, staring at the desk in front of them. “Grandpa told me to come here.”
Oeric chewed. His father was overstepping again and pushing them to talk. Then again, Dias was really telling him that there were a few people who cared about his son. The only person who was missing out of the lot was Brother Hickory. Oeric rather not have waited for the priest to approach him. He could handle it. The problem was, he didn’t know where to start. So, he started like any old conversation they might have.
“You really need to cut your hair, son. Having it long like that, well… it’s not good looking, for the ladies that is.”
Soletus gave an exasperated eye roll. “Really! You leave for seven months and the first thing you do is complain about my hair?”
“I’m not complaining, I’m stating a fact. I mean look at me…” he said, reaching back of his head and felt smooth skin and the soft hair that grew on his neck. “I was about to say it was the appropriate length, but I look just like Mien. You might as well join us to make it an even three.”
Soletus let out a groan.
“I’m just saying it would be nice if you cared. It’ll give you a disadvantage fighting.”
“You know I tuck the braid down my jerkin. You wouldn’t even mention it if I had it tucked. Everyone needs to get over it. I like my hair long. End of story,” he snipped.
“Have you acted like this the entire time I’ve been gone, or were you saving for me?”
Soletus crossed his arms and stared ahead of him.
Oeric placed his food down on the desk. “I’m off to a poor start,” he muttered and then said louder. “Point taken. I know you didn’t come here to listen to me nitpick you. That’s what your mother is for.”
His son’s jaw remained tight.
“I suppose you’ve not forgiven me completely for hurting and lying to you.”
“You’re forgiven,” answered Soletus without looking at him.
“I don’t believe that.”
“Can you look me in the eye and say that?”
Soletus shifted in his chair so he faced him. “You’re forgiven,” the tod repeated, unblinking. “And don’t say that I said it because you wanted to hear it. I don’t hate you. I thought yesterday made that obvious.”
It then occurred to him if his son hated him, he certainly would not have come to his aid, and allowed him to touch him, or touched him back. That was good, though. That meant the rest of his speech was invalid. Now he had to think of something relevant to say. The room became quiet. This time, there wasn’t a convenient groaning cart to fill the space. Soletus then started to fill it.
“You know, you had months to think of something to say,” he said, dropping the curt note from his voice. “You can nitpick, tell me what to do, and teach me how to do something, so why can’t you just talk to me?”
“You assume I know how,” said Oeric, looking at the top of his father’s desk. He remembered all the times he sat there staring at the patterns in stained wood while being berated. That was how they spoke. “Your grandfather and I can’t sit in a room together and talk. He’s always been the Arch Monk to me. Not a just a father. And my brother, well, he was not a father to me either. I attempted to be what I felt I should be as a father to you. However, I never allowed myself to be open with you. I didn’t think you needed it.”
“Because you find your past embarrassing,” asked Soletus.
“Yes,” admitted Oeric. “I didn’t want you to see or know that person.”
“You know I don’t care about who you were,” said Soletus.
That got his attention, and he regarded his son.
“That’s all everyone would talk to me about who you were. They wanted to make me disappointment and angry with you when all I wanted was to move on. And again, you are forgiven.”
“I’ve a hard time believing you want to let all of that go, given your words the last we talked.”
Soletus’s face flushed, and he rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, that was then. This is now.”
“That sort of betrayal of trust sticks with you. It doesn’t just go away.”
He knew that all too well.
Soletus exhaled. “It doesn’t hurt so much when you have something else that hurts more. I just wanted Kiao to kill me and wishing I never agreed to Ealdred’s experiment, I kept thinking about when you first started teaching me defense.”
Oeric winced. “I don’t see how that made it better.”
“Well, you were used to training older boys, so yeah, you would keep knocking me down and give me bruises. It’s not like I didn’t have extra padding. But you kept telling me ‘shake it off, the more time you spend on the ground the more time they have to hurt you’ over and over again. The more time I stayed on the ground, the more everything would hurt, and I didn’t want to be the ground.”
Oeric was impressed he would see it like that.
“And I’ll be lying if I said there weren’t moments where I loathed thought of you. Tyr’s words would get into my head, and I wanted to hate you. But then they would nitpick me and felt like when I became an initiate and just started training. All the boys would make fun of me for being fat and the other masters agreed.”
“You weren’t fat! You had a little extra weight,” said Oeric, annoyed that he was made to experience that embarrassment all over again.
“That’s my point,” said Soletus. “I remember you taking me aside after training to tell me that it was okay.”
“You weren’t eating!”
“And Marth wanted you to take me on an extra run. Make sure I ate smaller portions.”
“And at the same time, he would tell me you weren’t confident enough. It amazes me that half of these monks can’t understand the simple fact that picking at the one thing that makes you unconfident will not make you confident.”
“And you did.”
“Because I knew for a fact you would eventually drop it. I wasn’t skin and ribs either when I was younger. Your uncle would get on my back about it, and I wasn’t about to treat you like that.”
A grin spread on Soletus’s face. “You know why he stopped saying anything about it, right?”
“Other than growing out of it, no.”
“He was the one who would go on and on about elves are built like deer, not bears. So, when it was time to choose a consort, I picked mine first and choose a bear.”
Oeric found himself chuckling at that. “Now I remember. He came to me later that day telling me that you had a bit of impudence in you. I told him that was your mother coming out.”
Oeric realized that one thing in the swamp. Soletus had not only his mother’s face but took on mostly her personality as well. She was a quiet child who secretly who did what she was told. Then Oeric showed up in her life and showed her she could do what she wanted. And discovered she wasn’t this mousy little girl. She was strong-willed but hindered by her family. However, that changed when they married. It made the first few years of their marriage were interesting. She was frustrating to deal with. She would kiss him and while going over his head to prove him wrong in the same instance. Learning to dance with her was challenging, but he learned the steps.
Soletus, was a little different. He wasn’t repressing his personality due to them. He likely didn’t know how to show it. He was hesitant, a little like him. However, he didn’t hold back for very long. If pushed, he would take charge. Soletus was clearly going to be the warden that would follow orders until someone showed too much weakness. He wasn’t a follower, if that was the case. He was first warden material. Marth saw it too and warned him his son didn’t need controlling. He needed someone to mentor him in being a leader.
Oeric felt very unqualified to be that person. His son needed a first warden that was just as intelligent as he was and not judgmental. A tall order given that Oeric could think of a few for one or the other, but not both.
Oeric reached for his breakfast to eat and Soletus told him,
“You’re not as bad as you think you are. You remind me of Mien, to be honest.”
Oeric stopped in mid bite. He didn’t like the fact his son could see that comparison.
“The both of you are uncomfortable with who you two are. You because of your past and Mien because he doesn’t think he’s male enough. I mean he’s short and skinny and I know he isn’t going to be me, but he’s still growning.”
“And I really don’t have an excuse,” stated Oeric. “I was hiding from you, and I wasn’t doing so because I was afraid of your walking down the same path. Also, an excuse. I was afraid of you knowing the truth.”
“And that I would what, hate you for it,” laughed Soletus as if it was the most ridiculous thing he had heard. “I would rather you tell me than having to hear secondhand stories.”
“They aren’t stories I want to tell you. They hurt. They are hard to talk about. Some of it, I don’t like thinking of. Maybe, I’ll share something.”
“Like you and the Patriarch’s wife. I always thought you were friends because she was friends with Mama not because you watched over her.”
“There’s not much to tell that you haven’t heard.”
“Why not talk to her?”
“Because I was afraid I would tell her everything about me. She was an innocent pretty thing. Someone who looked like they would listen. And I would turn to a lamb in her lap crying. Something I couldn’t do. I had a reputation to hold. I was the toughest son of skane there and not the terrified young man I really was.”
Soletus sighed. “So, Mama was right. I made a mistake in fighting you like I did. I’m sorry. I thought I had everything figured out. Maybe one day I can challenge you again.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Oeric.
“Not right now,” said Soletus and he looked down at his hands. “I need a bit more time before I can do that again.” He then raised his head back up and pleaded, “Don’t feel bad about it. It’s just that…I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what you’ll do because your instincts become stronger than your reasoning. You have to be ready to tackle that again, but don’t give yourself too many excuses. Then you’ll be me.”
“Then you should learn so when certain people try and put you down, the whole of the order doesn’t agree with them,” advised Soletus.
“I suppose you mean Tyr?”
“Yeah, and Grandpa is just letting him say anything he wants about you,” said Soletus.
“That’s because I’m a big boy and he shouldn’t have to swoop in and stop all the other lads from picking on me. No need to worry about me. You should think about your future.”
“My future,” he said, making a face.
“You’re a junior warden. You’ll soon be assigned to a training band. Then you get to go out on missions, see a bit of the people, and learn about the world. You should aim to become a Senior Junior Warden. That opens doors to become a Second easier. Grant it, grapplers rarely jump rank, but it’s a challenge I believe you can overcome.”
“Oh, you mean work my way up in the ranks. I thought you met other things,” he said, looking relieved.
“Mama kept going on and on about how I need more friends and claims I need a friend that’s a girl. Why would she do that?”
“For obvious reasons.” He remembered Cordea saying that there was that concerned her about his behavior outside of his unhappiness. She didn’t elaborate on it. He wondered if this was it because their son couldn’t look more confused.
“What obvious reasons?”
Oeric thought that was an odd, but innocent question. “To get you comfortable with being around them. I mean, you’ve only been around your mother and sister. It can be an issue from training as young as you have. You’ve mostly been around men.”
His son’s bewilderment didn’t lift. “Okay. That doesn’t explain why I wouldn’t be comfortable around them? They’re elves too.”
“True, but you need experience so you can learn to interact with a variety of young lasses. Some are pushy and like to tease and fluster young monks, but most your age are awkward. And since you are male, there is an expectation you should be the experienced one.”
“Okay,” he said slowly as if he didn’t understand and then said very quickly. “That’s silly. That I have to be the one to know what to do. I’ve no interest in girls.” He then took a deep breath and said in a normal, talking voice. “Anyway, can you tell Mama, I want to focus on getting in a band and focus on rising in rank?”
“Yes, I will,” said Oeric. He could see what maybe his wife was referring too. Someone his son’s age would act a little different on talking about girls. Maybe overconfident or awkward. He imagined him denying needing help or advice until he needed it. However, he was suspecting that something they had been ignoring, was at the point of presenting itself. He didn’t know how to feel about it. He wanted to question Soletus about what he said. However, the door opened and the Arch Monk strolled rubbing the knuckles of his right hand. He shot the two a glare before he dropped in his chair, letting out a drawn-out exhale.
“I hope you two haven’t been just lounging in silence while you waited,” said the Arch Monk.
Oeric took a bite of his breakfast and said to his son between bites. “Were his instructions for you to talk to me or him?”
“I was only told to come to his office. I wasn’t told to speak with you,” returned Soletus with the corner of his mouth working its way up despite himself.
Oeric gave his father a dry look. “You’ve still not improved your clarity after all these years.”
Solgard gave his son a flat stare. “I’m not in the mood for your jesting, just as much as I’m not going to tolerate you causing unnecessary grief!”
“I’m sorry about what happened, Sir,” apologized Oeric. “I shouldn’t’ve gone after Clincher, but, Papa—”
The elder elf gave him a dismissive wave of his left hand. “Don’t worry about it.”
Oeric’s stiffened in shock. “What?”
“The source of your misbehavior is leaving. The Patriarch is handling the legal matters this all entails. The most you likely have to do is testify at a trial.”
“Thank you,” said Oeric, feeling a great sense of bewilderment. He expected a long triad from his father on the matter.
The Arch Monk swung his eyes to his grandson. “Soletus, step out a moment.”
The young tod left without a fuss. When the door shut, the Arch Monk leaned back in his chair and started tapping the top of his desk, all the while studying Oeric.
“If you haven’t noticed, I’m getting a little old,” he finally stated. “I’ve spent many decades never saying certain things because I felt they went without saying. However, it occurred to me that these things need saying before the end springs up on me.”
Oeric found himself subdued by those words. The thought of his father getting old to the point of death never crossed his mind. The man was strong in mind and even strong in body for his age. He didn’t know what his father was getting at.
The man then pulled out that old bloody golden sashed trimmed with red. Oeric groaned inwardly. He studied the familiar brown blood stains as his father displayed with disdain.
“Tell me what you are thinking, because you’ve got this amazing gift of being completely unreadable when you don’t need to be.”
“You already know what I think about that sash,” he answered.
“You’ve voiced your opinion, yes, but why have that attitude for a keepsake? You act as if it hurts you when I bring it out. It does, doesn’t it?”
“It doesn’t,” he denied.
“You’re lying. You always tighten up around me and even more so if I put this in your line of sight,” he said, holding up the sash. “And maybe you’ve a right to feeling that way. I suppose I’ve never dispelled that notion that I’m always lamenting the favored son I lost and wishing you were he. You’re wrong, of course. I don’t want you to end up like this.”
Oeric examined the sash again.
The Arch Monk rubbed the fabric between his thumb. “He was nearly torn in two and unrecognizable surrounded by the carcasses of the pack of skulkers that fell on him. His spear broken in half with each end in two different drass beasts and his dagger through the skull of another. All that to save a group of travelers.”
“An act worthy of a Fenndish monk and one I will never equally repeat,” replied Oeric.
“Giving your life up selfishly for another is one of the greatest acts in Dias’s eyes. However, that isn’t something I expect out of you. Your late brother had one of the highest casualty rates as a first warden. He wasn’t afraid of death, and it made him stupid.”
Oeric sank back in his chair, stunned. He couldn’t ever say he ever heard his father call his brother stupid.
“One should not fear death. We all die; however, we shouldn’t tempt it either. He would make stands when he should’ve run. Give chase to bandits when he was better off leaving alone. It was all driven by personal pride. He believed he was doing what was best for the order. He was arrogant. After his death, I learned that the people he had saved were well onto safety. He didn’t need to engage those drass beasts. He faced them because he thought what it would be a good show of strength.”
Oeric reached out and picked up the sash. He rubbed the worn fabric of the sash between his index finger and thumb. He remembered watching his brother tie around his waist proudly.
“Now, you, my son, you’ve one of the lowest casualty rates among all the field wardens. I never have to tell you to fight smart and never worry about you not coming home in the same way I worried about your brother. You never try to act alone or rashly on duty. What you do on your own is a different story.
“You know what a band is and that a first warden is nothing without his band. We are brothers. We work together not for glory or honor or pride, but for the people so they might hear Dias’s voice. You understand that and that makes you the superior monk. You can see it in how you raised Soletus.”
Oeric didn’t know what to think about his father’s praise. When he was younger, that’s all he wanted was acknowledgment. His father met it as encouragement, but being the diffident person he grew to be, all it did was make him uncomfortable.
His father went on. “He enlightened me on a few things this morning. The one you call Clincher. He thought I would be interested in what he had to say about you.”
Oeric arched his brow.
“Seemed to be under the impression you are livestock. He was trying to convince me you weren’t worth the trouble to keep around here. He told me several tales about how he kept his prized wolf in a collar and chain to accentuate his point.”
Oeric clutched the sash. “I would’ve told you whatever he said to you, eventually.”
The Arch Monk leaned forward. “He tried to make a deal with me. If I let him go, he’ll take you off my hands, so I wouldn’t have to worry about you losing your mind. I then I had to explain to him pointedly that my son wasn’t for trade.”
Oeric’s gaze dropped to his father’s right hand. His knuckles were red and raw looking from the bruises that covered them.
“Yes, he was scheduled to leave in two days. Our discussion may have led to him being held in our possession longer than intended. I’m sorry.”
“You’ve nothing to apologize for,” said Oeric, folding the sash, making each fold as neat as he could.
Solgard watched him. “I remember when I taught you to do that. You showed very little care for ceremony.”
Oeric grunted and concentrated on what he was doing. When he was finished, he placed the sash gently on the Arch Monk’s desk. His father’s hand took his and said,
“Oeric, you don’t live life in a bubble away from me. You’re the only child of mine who hasn’t left my side by death or by choice.”
Oeric squeezed his father’s hand in return. “I don’t intend to. You deserve that, at least.”