Soletus was nervous. He wished it was the nervous excitement he felt when it was his first official mission. The anticipation of doing something he spent years training for and doing something good in the world. No, what he felt was anxiety. That something terrible was going to happen. That the entire trip was doomed to failure on his part. It made his stomach knot up and it got tighter when he faced the men who would be under him.
They were all over a hundred and seasoned wardens. The only one among them that wasn’t was Mien. He was only there because he volunteered his skills since he was Kiao’s number two. The young monk watched him as he stood by his horse adjusting the folds of his cowl nonchalantly. While it was nice seeing the tod comfortable, Soletus was envious. He felt what he imagined what Mien would feel at times. Soletus decided to distract himself by tugging at his riding gloves, and smoothed out the long sleeve shirt he wore.
Master Yunus, who was his first warden, leaned towards him and suggested. “How about you address the men?”
He knew very little about Master Yunus. He taught Brotherhood etiquette but was never placed in his classes. He has seen him around as he was easily spotted. The master’s hair was a sheen of silver, but his face was that of a middle-aged elf. It was mild and friendly compared to the solemn and weathered face of a field warden. He had seen him in the halls but never spoken to him.
“And don’t be afraid,” he encouraged.
Soletus shoved himself in the back of his mind, forgetting himself, and exhaled relaxing.
“Alright Brothers, we are going to be on the road for only three days. Two and a half if we make good timing. I’m not expecting any drass beast encounters or highway men. However, keep weapons near and our attention sharp. My biggest concern is the weather. A lot of the northern roads are prone to flooding and since we are crossing a marshland and since we’ve noncombatants with us, our priority is to help and protect them if anything should happen.”
Soletus felt a tap on his shoulder. “Yes, Master Yunus?”
He gave him a cordial smile. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but it would help if you introduced yourself.”
“Oh,” said Soletus lamely. Warmth spread across his face. He figured it was quite visible given the muffled amused snort he heard. He hid what embarrassment he could by laughing at himself. “Before I go on further, I’m Senior Junior Warden Soletus’Sheldmartin. I will be your Second Warden for this mission. This is Master Yunus’Redbeck. He’s your first warden. If you have issues, bring them to my attention and I’ll bring them to his if I can’t be of help.”
A hand, attached to the tallest among them, rose in the air. Soletus pointed to him, bracing himself.
“So let me get this straight, they’re letting a whelp lead?”
Soletus folded his arms behind him, gripping one hand around his forearm so his tension went somewhere. “Have you ever had an obsidian hound puppy?”
“What are you going on about?”
“I’m asking you a question, Warden. Have you ever had an obsidian hound puppy?”
“I don’t see what the point—”
Soletus cut him off. “My point is that an obsidian hound puppy is very intelligent. You can teach one anything. In fact, at 6 months old a puppy can and will protect you from a bear. And do you know why?”
He crossed his arms. “And why’s that.”
“Because a person trained it to recognize a threat. And from that it learns more and more about what to do when presented with a threat.”
“Then it’ll go chase its tail making itself dizzy,” muttered someone.
“Well, that is what puppies do. And I too can be a bit playful,” said Soletus with a smile and then let it drop as well as his tone. “But make no mistake, I’ve a set of teeth and I don’t have soft jaws. Work with me and we’ll get along. Anything less than that, you’ll be treated to my bad side, and I can get downright nasty. And I don’t like getting nasty. Is that understood?”
In a perfect world, he would’ve gotten a simple affirmation. However, the man said, “Yes sir,” mockingly.
Soletus had two options at that point, fall for the bait or ignore him and continue his brief. Soletus shifted his gaze away from his face and continued talking.
“All of you will be helping the women when we stop, so be courteous. Lady Maelyra is among them, and I don’t want to hear any of you being rude to her or the Patriarch. Now get mounted up and wait for the signal to get going.”
They all gave half-hearted salutes and wore sour looks on their faces. Soletus turned his back and felt another tap on his shoulder.
“Yes Master Yunus?”
“It’s nothing much, but a bit of advice. I understand why you pushed back there but don’t push too much. You have to show a little respect to them and assume they know how to conduct themselves.”
Soletus walked to his horse with his head high. “Assumptions have gotten me in trouble and respect goes two ways. I’ve put up with being treated like an idiot long enough. I’m not allowing it again. So they can prove themselves. If they can’t do that, well I’ve no time for them,” he said hearing his own bitterness.
The older man laid a heavy hand on his shoulder, and he rolled it off. Yunus, in turn, gave him a disarming thoughtful smile.
“This is a test. They don’t give someone your age this opportunity.”
“I figured it was.”
“Do you know why?”
Yunus threw his arm around his shoulder and walked him towards his horse, keeping his voice low. “Someone wants you promoted. They want you to become a second warden.”
“What,” he said, confused. That wasn’t what his father told him.
“It’s a bit of a shock, I know. So, you do need to watch yourself. You are among the best of the best. They know what to do and some have done this before.”
Soletus then felt bad. Master Yunus appeared to be a good man, though he wasn’t sure about the others. “I’m sorry, Sir.”
“All is good,” and he said then something caught his attention. He chuckled. “I think your friend has something he wants to tell you.”
Soletus saw Mien staring at him with a worried knot on his brow. He made his way towards him.
“What,” he asked.
“I should be asking you that. You’re a giant knot of everything,” stated Mien.
While Soletus appreciated his friend’s sensitivity, it annoyed him. He wasn’t even that in-tune with Kiao’s emotions as he was with him. As much as he claimed he didn’t like it, Mien did little to stop it.
“You know you could ignore me,” Soletus advised.
“Then stop projecting,” he returned.
Soletus narrowed his eyes at him in more or less mock annoyance.
Mien grinned lightly “Anyway, you’ve been tense since I’ve arrived. Whoever that dod was made it worse.”
The young monk glance around, then whispered to Mien. “I’m not ready for this. I thought I would be okay on such a simple mission playing second. But I didn’t know they would be older than me and they’re going to push and I’m going to push back. Everything is going to go wrong.”
Mien blinked at him clearly, listening and feeling out his words. “Aside from making sure everyone is safe, why does it matter?”
“Because someone wants me promoted to a second warden.”
If Mien was surprised, he didn’t show it. “Do you want to be a second warden?”
“No,” he denied, and Mien cocked a brow at him critically. “Push that brow down. I did but I don’t want it now,” he said thinking about is and ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t know what I want. Why are they even doing this?”
Mien was about to answer him when he pointed over his head.
He turned around to see his father walking up the line briskly. Soletus pulled himself on his saddle and situated himself beside Yunus. Master Tyr and Brother Nimbus flanked him as he was giving everything a quick eye over. When he came to them, he stopped.
“Soletus, I already told Yunus I’m going to try to push as far as we can go today. Dias willing, we’ll get to the eastern fork today and cross the marsh first thing tomorrow. From there our road will be easy.”
“I want you to stay back with your men. Who is your acting scout?”
“That would be Warden Boras, Sir,” he answered. He was briefed before on who was doing what, but he didn’t get names to face. He probably should have done that when he was addressing them.
“Alright, he’ll need to stay with the group. I don’t see the need to send him scouting back unless we come across something concerning. However, have him see to those in the carriages and carts. If there is trouble, have him report to Tyr.”
His father the told Tyr and Nimbus. “How about you two go ahead and see and make sure everything is ready to go and tell the Arch Monk we’ll be off when I get there?”
Nimbus nodded without a word. Tyr lingered and eyed both father and son before leaving.
“And what do you need to say to me that you couldn’t say around them,” asked Soletus.
The corner of Oeric’s lips pushed up. “I know this is going to be rough but, I and a few others want you here. So, you display all your good and bad.”
“If this is a test, shouldn’t I be at my best?”
“That goes without saying however, I don’t want you to hide. If you have a problem, there’s none of this keeping it to yourself. You come to me, Tyr, or Nimbus. Understood?”
The young monk nodded.
“Good, enjoy what you can of this experience. And be safe.”
Soletus couldn’t help but smile and salute him with a hand over his heart. “I’ll do my best, Sir.”
His father patted his leg and stepped back. “You better because your ability to be safe is poor. I rather not feel the wrath of your mother where there is no place to hide. See you at our first rest point.”
“I’ll try my best, Papa,” he said.
Soletus saw the other corner of his father’s mouth lift upward before he turned. It then occurred to him how strange it was to see him smile like that. One might say he was eager. It could have been the “road anticipation” as many field wardens called it. There was something exhilarating about being on the road. It didn’t matter if the day was long or not, but the first day on a mission was the best day. Soletus didn’t realize how much he missed that feeling. It might’ve been because the destination was unknown, however, it made him relax. He had been avoiding the road. His experience several months ago sucked the joy out of being a warden from him. He was afraid it would never come back.
As they started, Soletus found himself deep within his thoughts. His mind sorted through different scenarios on how he would handle them. He was in the middle of deciding the best course of action if they were assailed by a pack of drass beast when Master Yunus cleared his throat.
“Those must be some intense thoughts,” he said.
The young monk’s mind snapped back to the present. He was going off to the side of the road and tugged on this horse’s reins to get back on it. “Sorry,” he said lamely.
“When I was young, that would happen to me. I would get into my thoughts and worry about everything. Then one day I let them go. I let Dias handle it all. So, you should stop over-thinking and use that naturally given focus on what is right in front of you.”
Soletus looked forward and saw the caravan going around a bend.
“These people depend on you being at your best. Whatever is bothering you, you need to set it aside.”
Soletus narrowed his eyes at him. He didn’t like that assumption that something was bothering him. On top of that. The tone of his voice and the charming smile Yunus gave him was a good indication the man was trying to win him over. Kellas did the exact same thing in the beginning.
The man sighed. “There’s that critical look of distrust again. Kellas ruined you more than I was told. I really do want to earn your trust. I feel that the order needs more like us. And by us, I mean like Brother Hickory and Enforcer Icus.”
Soletus became stunned. Yunus was neth.
“You have so many questions written on your face. I can answer a few while we are here.”
There was only one question that Soletus had. “Why hide it,” he said softly so no one heard him.
“I wouldn’t say I hide it so much as I just don’t mention it. It’s very unimportant in the grand scheme of things, don’t you think.”
“So, you aren’t like Icus and married someone.”
“Yes, I did get married. I wanted to. Marriage is a sacred act of two individuals becoming one in the eyes of Dias. It doesn’t state those two have to be customary.”
Soletus didn’t understand why any neth would. “Marriage isn’t something I desire, at all.”
Yunus didn’t look surprised. “Easy to say when you’re young.”
“This has nothing to do with age. It isn’t something I want.”
Yunus chuckled. “I figured there was a reason why Hickory, was keeping you to himself. I offered to speak with you, but he declined the offer.”
That struck Soletus as strange. Hickory talked Icus into speaking with him and it went poorly. However, the priest never mentioned Yunus. He said there were other neth in the order and he did ask them to speak to him. Most of them declined and rather just observe the events unfolding. Yet here was one that Hickory refused.
“And that reason is?”
“You’re like him. He held his refusal to marry and even when forced to, he didn’t keep it sacred and refused to make it work. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a conviction. But, you shouldn’t be afraid to bend. He could’ve made his life easier if he did.”
“But his marriage was forced, and he didn’t have a trust built between him and his ex-wife. He didn’t even know what it was or how not having one would affect him,” said Soletus.
Yunus brow arched. “I see he’s been educating you in our ways. Trusts aren’t that hard to build. You just have to put in the effort of learning about your significant other. It’s an option you shouldn’t turn your nose up too given the unwritten rule of the Brotherhood. Now more than ever, we need to provide the order with future wardens and supporters.”
Soletus rolled his eyes. He knew what Yunus purpose was. “Did my grandfather tell you to speak with me?” The Arch Monk had issues with Soletus being neth and he didn’t know why.
“He did,” answered Yunus. He wanted me to talk to you. To see what I thought of you.”
“No, he wanted you to convince me to do things his way. You claim you don’t bring attention to it. But what if, I shouted to everyone you were. Would you deny it or own it.”
The pleasant smile dropped off Yunus face and was replaced with something more neutral. “You’re never going to amount much in the order if you treat everyone as if they are your enemy.”
Soletus then hissed at him firmly. “Then don’t sell me a goat and call it a sheep. You want me to trust the men of this order again, how about you act trustworthy yourself.”
Yunus bobbed his head. “I apologize. I didn’t mean to be insulting. Truth is, Solgard thought I would be able to sway you to a customary life like all the other neth wardens in the order. They get to live in peace without being treated as inferior. He just wants you to be treated equally.”
Soletus wanted that before it all came out. He did so by hiding using Briar. He wanted to keep it a secret as long as he could and then Lyndon was killed by it. He didn’t want to be ashamed anymore. Pretending further would make Lyndon’s death be in vain.
“It would be better if neth males weren’t seen as deficient. Seriously, how hard would it be to teach initiates about us than just glossing over it or making us sound deficient? It would stop the ignorance.”
“I don’t know if Solgard would want that.”
“He want’s everyone in this order to be treated equally and follow the same rules. He doesn’t want special treatment.”
“And I don’t want it,” Soletus exclaimed. “I just don’t want to be forced to do something I don’t want to. I feel so much better right now, than I ever had pretending to be with the Patriarch’s daughter.”
“But you do have her as someone to choose.”
“No. She would hate me for it. I would hate me for it. It’ll be like being with my sister,” he said, disgusted at the thought.
“What if you met someone who could fit your personality and allows you to have all the freedom you want?”
Soletus shook his head. “I’ve better things in life to focus on.”
“It will eventually cause trouble in the future being unmarried and around a bunch of females as you’re often seen with. Their future husbands may not like your presence. In fact, some customary young men in this order are jealous of you because you are around a group of young women they can’t approach.”
“That’s their fault, not mine.”
Yunus sighed. “You want to do this the hard way. Perhaps, it’s wise to check in on our other men. We’ve been talking for a long time. You should see to them now.”
Soletus became even more annoyed.
“I don’t want to spend my day arguing with you,” said Yunus mildly. “I don’t want to be your enemy.”
But you are, thought Soletus. Anyone who was in support of his grandfather’s wishes certainly wasn’t an ally.
It's all well-meant, Sol, it's all well-meant.