“Just say yes,” stated Briar.
Soletus knew that would be her answer. She was always so pushy.
“Do you want me to suffer alone at that dumb estate? I need all the friends I can get.”
He nodded as the burning ash in the middle of the vast plain caught his attention. The honor ash stood as a reminder of those who served the order and under its roots was a series of tombs. Personally to him, it was a reminder that his cousin deserved to be buried under it was in the middle of a gorge that he couldn’t sit foot in.
Briar thrust her elbow into his side. “Are you even listening to me,” she asked.
He swatted the air between them. “Would you stop hurting me!”
“Wouldn’t have to hurt you if you weren’t staring off into nothing. Focus!”
He let out a sigh. “Focus on what, exactly? The sack lashed to the stick?”
Below the mound they stood on, was a pole stuck into the ground and a sack tied roughly to it.
“If you were listening, I explained it. Anyway, I’m trying to teach you how to do this,” she said, lifting her bow.
“You know I’m a terrible archer,” he said, taking hold of his bow and notched an arrow. He peered down the arrow’s shaft and spied their target. It was a small sack of burning powder. Something he had mixed feelings about seeing. He had trouble looking at it and more trouble holding the weapon. It wasn’t a crossbow, like the one that killed his cousin, but it did the same thing.
“You know explosives are illegal without a license,” he told her.
Briar rolled her green eyes skyward. “Is there clay surrounding the burning powder? No. It’s just a harmless sack.”
“That you’re going to set off.”
The young woman bumped him with her hip. “You’re being extra frumpy today, Old Man.”
He gave her a dirty look.
“It’s not going to explode,” she said, patting him between the shoulders. “It’s just going to burn. Well, if Mien guessed correctly.”
“Mien needs to keep his ideas to himself,” muttered Soletus.
The young chanter had gotten his hands on a brick of a substance to study it. It reacted to burning powder much the same as flashing liquid did with it. The results were different, though. It didn’t cause a bang or in the case of a clay shell, an explosion. Briar, of course, was interested in it. She wondered if they could create a signal or even a way to burn a drass beast without the aid of a chanter. He didn’t want the huntresses fighting drass beasts. It was too dangerous. But Briar was making strides to make it possible for the huntresses no matter what he said.
Briar’s patting became rough, so he swiped at her to stop. She did as he liked to do and pivoted out of his reach. “You’re a fair distance from it. Imagine it’s just an apple on top of a pole.”
“And why did you need the pole,” he asked, inspecting the arrowhead that she had carved. It wasn’t proportioned correctly and barely took the shape of one.
“So, it can be easier to hit,” she stated. “Just shoot already.”
“Why don’t you shoot? You’re the better shot.”
Briar’s face lit up. “Little ol’me the better shot. Gasp,” she said, clapping her hands together. “I just wanted to hear you say it. Step back mighty warden. Marvel at the sniper I am.”
She stood, loading her compact bow and pulled the sting back. The bow itself was not the normal choice for a female, but she was physically strong given she could keep up with him. She took a long breath and released her arrow. The first shot whizzed past her target and buried itself a few feet behind it.
“I’m in awe,” he snickered.
“Practice shot,” she said, pulling the next arrow from her quiver. It only contained three more arrows.
“So, you only made six of theses,” said Soletus, inspecting the one he held again.
“That was all my hands could stand,” she said, taking aim again.
He tapped the tip with his fingernail and a bit cracked off. He then rolled it between his fingers. It crumbled. “You know this stuff is too soft for arrowheads,” he said.
“Pfff,” she said and sent another arrow, missing yet again grazing the apple sized sack. Undeterred, Briar shot another arrow. This time it hit it square in the bag.
“Okay, so where is this fire?”
“Give it a bit,” she said and then smoke started to rise in the air and then a shower of sparks spewed from it and spilled over onto the grass. The sparks then ignited the dried grass under it. Briar became transfixed while Soletus charged down the hill.
“Briar,” he shouted.
She followed him laughing and helped him stomp down the fire while he scolded her.
“Are you trying to start a brushfire,” he exclaimed.
“I didn’t think it would spark that much,” she said, kicking up dirt to smother flames.
“You said flames, not sparks.”
“Details,” she said, moving on another spot in the grass and watched him. “You know, peeing on this would be quicker.”
Soletus rolled his eyes.
“Hey, you’re the warden here. You’re trained and equipped to handle all situations.”
Now that she mentioned it, he could, but there was no more smoldering. Briar inspected her handy work and found the bag on the ground deflated and burned. The powder spilling out caused the display.
“I don’t think this would work the way it did. Maybe I should drag Mien out here.”
“Please do,” said Soletus, walking past her. “Given that he’s had alchemist training. Unlike you.”
“And you know how the great alchemists of old became great, by experimenting,” said she, following him.
The young monk flopped down at the foot of the hill and stretch out. She settled down beside him with her legs outstretched.
“Come on, you know it’s a good idea,” she pressed.
“Sure. If we need a brush fire.”
The young woman patted his chest. “This is the best idea I had since someone doesn’t want to teach me how to kill a drass beast.”
Soletus swayed his head in disappointment. “Tsk, tsk. Your ulterior motive reveals itself. We’ve been through this. It’s dangerous. Some move incredibly fast, have armored bodies with fangs, barbs, and claws that are toxic and poisonous. They cause festering slow healing wounds.”
“Yes, I get it, Pa. No need to lecture me. But what if there are no wardens, just us and there is a drass beast?”
Soletus pointed to the tower above them.
“Towers aren’t everywhere. All I have is a tao stone knife. What do I do?”
“Don’t let it get to anything vital. Curl up on your side and hide your neck.
Briar let out a loud sigh. “Fine! There are children who need saving. I’m the only one there, no towers, and your little sister is leading them to safety.”
Soletus sat up and relented. “Fine, aim for the eyes. There are a lot of drass beasts that are armored and some with thick fatty flesh. The only place to get them is the eyes. However, you have to bypass teeth to reach them. Not to mention, you need a sharp and pointy object made from tao stone or this happens.” he said, pointing to his left forearm. The teeth mark scars were still there with discolored smooth pinkish purple skin.
“Your nasty scar doesn’t scare me.”
He then pulled her head forward and touched her forehead with his. “I don’t want to lose another friend. So, promise me you won’t start killing drass beast?”
“No promises,” said Briar.
She pushed him onto his back. “Fine, if you stop being touchy.”
It was his show of appreciation and care. He didn’t know how the young woman managed to become more than just an ally. She had become his friend. She no longer annoyed him and rather acted like a panacea. Someone who he could go to, and his troubles slowly lifted. Usually because she caused an immediate situation he had to deal with. It was like being around Lyndon but without a lot of the closeness he felt around his late-cousin. In fact, Soletus suspected he felt closer to Briar than she did with him.
“That wasn’t touchy. This is touchy!” Soletus grabbed her in a bear hug and pressed his cheek against hers.
“GAAA! Unhand me you,” she shouted, and he let go. She shoved him away from her and he shoved her back. They went back and forth until Briar tackled him. He let her pin him down to end their play scuffle. He figured he would be courteous.
“Ha,” she said. “I don’t think you’re prepared to go with my father if you allowed me to pin you like this.”
“Is that an invitation to throw you off me,” he said, grabbing her by her forearms.
She let him go. “No, I don’t want to continue this since you’re a sweaty ruffian.”
“The sun is literally roasting my back, in fact..,” she said, falling limply to her side. “As a frail indoor girl, I’ve succumbed to the heat.”
Soletus sighed. “So, we’re done here? I don’t want her ladyship to roast in the sun.”
“Yes. I need to be carried,” she breathed out.
Soletus flashed a mischievous grin at her when she peered at him through her eyelids. He gathered her up and tossed her over his shoulder.
“Put me down,” she shouted, laughing.
He started spinning. “No, no, allow me to carry you. After all, a lady like yourself shouldn’t sully her feet while walking.”
“Stop it! You’re terrible. I hate you!” she cried, kicking her feet in the air.
He spun faster, cackling loudly. “I’ll stop if you ask nicely.
“Please stop or I’m going to throw up down your shirt,” she screamed, still laughing despite herself.
Soletus stopped and placed her down gently, with the world spinning around him. He stumbled towards the foot of the hill again and sat back down. Briar who stumbled to the side, steadied herself with her legs wide apart. He fell to his back, unable to breathe from laughing.
“Stop being playful and go back to being an old man,” she said, trying to steady herself.
Soletus’ stomach ached after a moment and he pointed up the hill, saying breathlessly. “Go on, hurry and get the bows.”
She glowered at him. “I really hate you.”
“Yet you always invite me on these excursions because someone needs to be the brains.”
“You think way too highly of yourself,” she said, trudging up the hill. “I’m going back to the society house to tell how much of a terrible fiend you are and my results.”
Soletus pushed himself up. “I can walk you there.”
“I don’t need you,” she shouted to him.
He watched her gather her things and his bow as well. She held it out and handed it to him.
“Why do I get the impression you don’t want me?”
“Because I don’t want you,” she said, shoving him away. “When was the last time you bathed? Last week?”
“I did yesterday.”
“You’re such a priss,” she retorted.
He threw his arm around her shoulder as he would any of his fighting brothers. “You love it. Don’t try to hide it.”
She would normally fight his arm off, she didn’t that time.
Soletus escorted Briar all the way back to the east entrance to town. From there, he walked home. The walk gave him time extra time to consider what he wanted to do. There was no reason for him to say no, and more reason for him to say yes. He wasn’t occupied currently. He also didn’t have his commission coming in.
For coin, he took on a few odd jobs at the masonry. His uncle said they needed an extra hand since they were preparing to rebuild their southern outposts. When they were repairing and expanding a section of the town wall, his uncle showed him the art of stone and brick laying. He knew it was an attempt to get him to consider the trade. However, he was no mason. That required a certain eye he didn’t have. He could haul bricks and use a maul like the best of them, though.
Aside from that, he continued his work with the huntresses. They still needed training and someone with more muscle. However, Briar was capable without him. It was very much like going on missions except smaller. They were such as helping shepherds and farmers with catching loose livestock, helping widows, and finding little ones than dealing with drass beasts. It was fulfilling work to help the locals, however, it wasn’t the same. He felt restless as it lacked a certain challenge and was never satisfied.
When he walked into his house, he spotted his father sitting at the table reading a letter, grim faced. Then again, there wasn’t a time when he didn’t wear some unapproachable expression. It didn’t help that he had the scars of a cur. For years, Soletus didn’t realize what they meant until he was told. Then he discovered how little he knew about his parents. His father especially. There was darkness in his past that he didn’t want him to know. It was embarrassment and fear that it would push Soletus away or entice him. It did neither and it did change their relationship. But it didn’t create distance. In fact, it was the exact opposite. The young monk felt closer to him.
Soletus knew his father was a was private man but learned it was by humility and shamed. He didn’t want Soletus to end up like him to the point it clouded the fact his son was different all together. The young monk watched his father learn to intervene when appropriate instead of overreacting and being overly harsh.
Soletus had learned to trust him to be understanding. Not to mention temper his own reactions and act more maturely. Because of it, they had gotten to the point Soletus was now comfortable asking him for advice confidently and not be so quick to defensiveness. His father was a bit freer about showing himself to his family, so it was easier to read his mood. At that moment, something was troubling him.
Oeric’s pale eyes jerked back and forth across the page, with his brow pulling together. Then his face twitched at the words. He glanced above the parchment, regarding him. Soletus waved and took in the room some more. His mother didn’t appear to be paying attention at all. She was too busy admiring the dress from a brown package. His little sister, Saedee, sat slumped forward on the table with her arms and pigtails stretched out in front of her.
“Oh, Varessa out did herself,” said Cordea and she beamed at her son. “Did Kharis speak to you yet?”
Soletus nodded while taking his corner by the right of the door instead of a seat.
“Are you coming?”
He heaved his shoulders.
“You should,” she said and went back to admiring the gray embroidery on the bodice of the purple dress. “I’m going to have such fun dancing in this gown.”
“I wish I could go dancing,” muttered Saedee.
Oeric tapped the surface of the table, getting her attention. “Sit straight and stop pouting. When you’re bigger, you can come with us and find out how truly boring this all is.”
The girl sighed and sat back in her chair. “How big do I have to be?”
“When you’re as tall as your brother,” he answered.
Saedee looked at the top of Soletus’s head, brushing against the ceiling. Her lips puckered and became uncertain. “Mama, when will I get as big as Soletus.”
She stopped admiring the fabric of the dress and gave her husband an exasperated look.
“Never is an appropriate measure of time,” he said, crumpling the letter up and tossing it into the hearth. It landed in the middle of the remains of a burnt log.
Cordea then amended. “What your father means to say, you can come along when you’re better behaved and mature like your brother.”
Saedee looked at him and he crossed his eyes. “Yep, totally matured like me.”
Their mother sighed and supplied a better reason. “You’ll be bored and all alone. There won’t be any children there.”
“But Sol will be there.”
“If I go, then I’ll be on duty. I can’t play with you,” he told her watching her become crestfallen back into a pout. He knew she felt left out of a lot of things. She was just too young. “Tell you what, while I still have time left, we can go look for a thick river cane to make you a flute?”
She shook her head.
“How about a set of canes to fight with,” their father offered.
The girl perked up. “My own set of whip canes?”
She beamed while Cordea looked anything but pleased.
“I believe your mother told you to pull up weeds in her garden, so do that first,” said Oeric and the girl fled from her chair skipping to the backyard.
Cordea sighed. “I thought, with this daughter, I will make certain she likes the same things I do. But no, my husband is determined to make her every bit like him because she looks like him.”
He flashed a smile at her before it sagged down to wistfulness.
“Anyway, I assume your sister’s letter is just about as warm and heartfelt as her last one a decade ago,” she asked.
Soletus knew his aunt and father didn’t speak to each other. Alacai, his late uncle's son, was the only family member who made regular visits. They grew up together, being a month apart in age like Soletus and Lyndon were. He served as a warden for a bit before leaving because of his father’s death. He was still a member of the order. If need be, he would serve again. Now he helped run the winery. Soletus liked him and his oldest son. They were great and would share stories about how everyone was doing. However, in all the decades, he could never mend the rift between brother and sister. Soletus’ older sister Fern claimed had done her magic and softened their aunt, however, he wasn’t sure.
Soletus then asked. “What did she want?”
“Her letter, at least was unique,” answered his father. “This time I completely failed as a father as opposed to just a person. More importantly, your sister says hello. She’s moving back to town and wishes for us to meet someone.”
Soletus arched a brow. “Meet someone?”
“The young man who’s caught her fancy,” he said with little enthusiasm.
“We’ve a wedding to plan,” said Cordea, clasping her hands together, making up for her husband’s lack of enthusiasm.
“So, Fern’s really getting married,” Soletus asked, surprised. She was old enough for it, he supposed. However, they weren’t exactly close siblings, and it felt a little strange. He clearly had missed out on something.
“Yes. We’ve had to read letter after letter about this young man for ages,” said Cordea. “Never has he come with her to visit, which is bothersome.”
Oeric snorted. “Don’t you realize I’m a terrible feral rabid cur and he’s too afraid to come around. We shouldn’t even allow him here. He’ll see that I’ve completely subjugated you into submission.”
Soletus knew that sardonic tone. His father was upset. He looked at his mother.
She then said in her reasoning tone. “So, her letter upset you that much?”
“She’s being ridiculous,” stated Oeric, no longer holding himself back and becoming exasperated. “She’s held this grudge for how many decades now? I apologized multiple times. I can’t be sorry anymore. I’m tired of being sorry.”
The young monk felt like he shouldn’t be there and looked for a route to escape.
Cordea worked on folding her dress. “True. It’s been decades now. And since she doesn’t want to forgive you. Then you should do what I had to do to be at peace. Let her live her life and be done with her.”
“But she’s my sister,” he said quietly. He then stood and stared at the surface of the table before his gaze fixed on Soletus. The young monk had scooted behind his mother to join Saedee. “Anyway, are you going or not? It’s not going to be a difficult mission. In fact, this is good way to jump back in.”
Soletus shrugged. “Can you tell me why am I going as a second warden? I’ve no experience.”
“Because you were supposed to have leadership training. Kellas failed to do that. Consider this a correction. Don’t worry, this is the easiest mission you will ever have as a warden. Most of what you are doing is on the road. After that, you sit around and be bored.”
The young monk felt hesitant, even though it sounded easy.
His father’s expression softened. The annoyance he displayed earlier had flowed out of him. “I’m going to be over everyone. Right under the Arch Monk. If I can do something that makes me uncomfortable, then you can do the same.”
Soletus bobbed his head. Not because he wanted to, it was because he didn’t want to. “Okay, I’ll go.”
His father gave him a curt nod. “Good. I start with final arrangements can be made.”
He stepped away from the table, kissed Cordea’s ear and then left as if he was running away. The moment he shut the door, she made her way to the hearth and plucked the letter he tossed. Her eyes skimmed the page. She grimaced and muttered. “What right does she think she has to tell him…” she crumbled the letter back up and cast it back in the ash.
“So, it’s that good then,” he said.
“Oh, it’s just wonderful,” his mother said, mimicking her husband’s sarcastic tone. She went to a small chest of drawers in a corner and pulled out her in, pen on top, paper for letters. “I put up with her self-righteousness long enough. This nonsense stops.”
“Well, while you work on that, I’m going to go,” he said, gesturing behind him.
“Could you help your sister before you run away?”
“Sure,” he said, edging away from her slowly just in case she wanted to add on more thing.
“You know, you don’t have to be so evasive. You can talk to us right,” she said and sat her supplies on the table.
He always avoided talking to her because it made him squirmy. In the past, her compass in determining what was wrong with him was broken. It annoyed him. Now it righted itself, bringing a different discomfort. “I’m not trying to be evasive, really. I’m not. If I want to talk to you about something, I will,” he assured her.
“Where were you earlier?”
“Out with Briar,” he said slowly wondering where the question come from.
Cordea gave him a curious look. “You’ve been spending a lot of time with her.”
“Imagine me wanting to spend time with someone who I have something in common with, shocking I know.”
She sniffed at him. “It’s just an observation. Seems like you’re closer to her now than you were when you were pretending to be together,” she said.
He shrugged and said, “It’s actually easier to be around each other when we aren’t spending so much energy trying to look customary. We had to plan things out.”
She stared at him, stunned. “Did you two really think like that?”
“Yeah. If we planned nothing something like you taking me aside and giving me hints. Remember the try kissing her knuckle advice? I did it to humor you, and all Briar could do was laugh at me for a week.”
She then looked over her writing at him. “You could’ve saved yourself some embarrassment if you told us sooner.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. A twist of guilt stung his heart. If I had told them, a lot of things would be different, he thought.
She lowered her pen when she realized what she had said. “I didn’t mean it like that. Don’t start blaming yourself again. We love you no matter what.”
“I know sometimes it might not seem that way. I have a little trouble understanding your ways.”
“You don’t understand,” he asked confused. His father seemed to have a good grasp of it.
She gave him a weak smile. “Being neth is an unknown concept to me. So much of my life surrounded marriage as my future.”
“Okay,” he said slowly and pointed behind him. “I’m going to go now.”
“I really want you to remember that, okay?”
“Okay,” he said, waiting for her to explain it further. However, she made a shooing motion for him to go instead. He wanted to ask her why, but he was freed and he fled.
Well, this is kind of familiar. This was a purposeful echo back to Hy'ruh-Ha chapter 2