Historically, Sheldmartins and Shrikes were different. Sheldmartins were always stalwart monks with strong convictions. If there was something that needs doing, they would, even if it causes trouble. Death seems to find them because of it. They tended to have trouble surviving. Even the Late Arch Monk Solgard immediate family suffered a terrible loss as he was the only surviving son. Shrikes, on the other hand, were mostly as priests. A few of them held posts in chapels around the province. Some were never beholden to post. They traveled around as teachers of Dias. Doran was the first in a while who wanted to defend. He had something to prove and went about it in a misguided manner.
Soletus expected some form of retaliation, but Doran did nothing. The young monk figured he was biding his time or was likely busy as everyone else. New initiates came in and the dorm was full of unfamiliar faces. Lyndon and Soletus received new bunkmates. Their names were Gail and Wic. They were cousins as well. However, neither of them was very social. They would be in the common room in the corner talking to one another, watching the others as if scared to interact with them. From what Soletus gathered, they were the first members of their family to enter the Brotherhood. They were old enough to go into the army and perhaps trying to avoid doing so. He didn’t know if they would stay.
Lyndon and Soletus were involved in different duties. Lyndon was with the scouts. Soletus became a senior warder. It was his job to help new initiates find their way and help them through basic field training, not to mention help with information going to and from the dorm. He let the more experience seniors keep up the duty roster as he was still aiding Mien when he had time. Kiao filled in when he couldn’t be there. Soletus felt bad that his first few weeks weren’t steady enough to be with Mien, but the boy took it in stride. He didn’t seem to need his presence every day. However, it wasn’t unusual for Mien to stop by on his own volition.
Brother Hickory granted him the freedom to go to the monastery on his own. He handled it well, even though he was still tense and jumpy. No one took issue with him slinking through the dormitory. Sadly, Gail and Wic heard about him before Soletus could explain his situation. They didn’t take issue with him enough to say anything to him. No, they just wanted nothing to do with him.
When everything slowed down, Soletus and his friends saw little of Doran or heard about anything coming from his mouth. They stopped worrying about him as the days passed into the harvest festival. It was a time of for much deserved fun.
Soletus, Mien, Lyndon, and Kiao went together. Lyndon invited Gale and Wic out of politeness, but they declined and went with another group comprising mostly initiates. The four enjoyed an outing in a small group and started going to the food stalls before stopping to watch the wrestling tournament eating roasted sweet potatoes. It was mostly the masters participating and other older elves from the surrounding area.
Lyndon’s father was taking part and that meant listening to Lyndon jeering at everyone while cheering at his father.
“Booo,” he shouted when his father was getting pinned by an elf that was stronger than him. “You’re a cheap stoneless worm! Get your spindly arms off him go so we can see a real fight!”
Soletus doubted his Uncle Hart’s opponent wanted to let him go. Grappling him down was probably the best thing he could do. His uncle might’ve been strong from being a mason, but he couldn’t get out of the tangle of limbs that locked him to the ground.
Kiao let out a bored sigh from beside him. “You’re into this?”
“Yeah, I’m studying grappling techniques,” he said.
“Oh. I guess one day you will participate in this, eh…spectacle.”
Before he had time to respond, he saw his uncle tap out. That caused Lyndon to erupt again. “Aww, come on Pa! You could’ve had him if you waited a little longer. I’ve seen more muscles on a fat black slug.”
His father’s opponent glared at him. “Look here, you loudmouth, pony-tailed little crapper—”
“They’re warrior braids, you blind cheating moron,” shot back Lyndon.
Kiao started snickering. Soletus hid his face. Mien watched the entire exchanged with rapt curiosity.
The man then pointed inside the ring. “Why don’t you get off that fence and fight me, you wee-bitty little girl?”
“Why should I? You’re the one getting all hot over someone who’s more confident in his masculinity, you prickless dod!”
Kiao nudged Soletus. “How isn’t he dead yet?”
“He’s done this since he was little. It’s tradition,” he said with a dismissive wave. “Haven’t you come here before?”
“I don’t watch the wrestling. I like the stage performances. I’m surprised your father doesn’t take part in this lovely display of masculine prowls.”
“He’s never has. Acts above it. Besides, he doesn’t want to do anything that’ll keep him from dancing.”
Kiao brow shot up in surprise. “Dancing?”
Soletus nodded. “He likes dancing. He and Mama usually enter the dancing competition.”
“Imagine that. Do you like dancing,” he asked.
Soletus shrugged. “Never had reason to do it. I’m not entirely against it or interested in it. What about it you? You’re at age, young man status. Why hand out with a bunch of and hanging out with a bunch of tods like us. Shouldn’t you be with a stag group?”
Kiao shrugged. “I’m a priest. I’m celibate until I prove my commitment to Dias. That includes dancing with girls. And yes, I’m aware it doesn’t stop others, but it’s a nice thing to hide behind.”
“Understandable, I guess you don’t find girls that interesting.”
“Something like that,” he said.
Soletus then caught sight of a familiar figure. They weren’t in the right clothing, so he could’ve been mistaken. They walked behind two people and vanished in a split second before walking out into a space in the crowd. Soletus recognized his acorn shaped head from anywhere. It was Valan. Soletus tapped Kiao on the shoulder.
“I’ll be right back.”
He nodded and Soletus hurried off towards the streaming crowd.
“Valan,” he shouted.
The tod stopped walking and looked around in the wrong direction before continuing.
“Valan,” he shouted again, and that was when the tall tod finally turned around and saw him.
“Soletus,” he greeted when Soletus was close with a forced smile on his face that started to sag.
“Long time no see,” said Soletus, noticing he didn’t look very happy to see him and ignored it.
Valan looked behind him. “No Lyndon?”
“He’s doing the usual. We are at the wrestling matches. Want to join us?”
Valan put his hands on his waist and shook his head. “Not really. I’m done with the Brotherhood.”
The young monk’s excitement waned a little. “Okay. I didn’t come here to talk you into joining again. You just left before I had a chance to say goodbye.”
Valan scratched the back of his head and shifted from foot to foot. “I didn’t talk to you because Doran said it was for the best.”
Soletus's brow furrowed. “Why you listen to him, of all people?”
“I did it because… well, because the way you are. You don’t realize it because you are you and you’re just…” he gestured to Soletus without words.
“I’m just what?”
The two stared at each for an uncomfortable long second. Soletus sighed and prompted his friend. “I’m too what?”
Valan squared his shoulder. “You would’ve begged me to stay, but I didn’t want to be part of some competition even when you weren’t around.”
He stared at the tod bemused. “Competition? What are you going on about?”
“It’s been that way from day one. Everyone wanted me to be another you. It was even worse at the culling! Kellas would go on and on about how I wasn’t you or how you would do better. I left because I was tired of being in your shadow.”
“But I never treated you like you were a lesser version of me,” said Soletus. “That was the masters, not me.”
Valan’s lips tightened in response.
The young monk moved on. “So, what are you are you doing with yourself now? Being a farmer,” he asked. Given how much he complained about the thought of being behind a plow for the rest of his life, he didn’t think he would.
“I joined the army,” he said. “I just come here to say goodbye to family. They’re shipping me off to Fort Heron in the east. I’ll be far away from drass beasts and not stuck guarding a wall with a bunch of zealots.”
That word caught Soletus off guard, zealots. It was an uncreative insult in his opinion. He never heard them out of anyone who spent time in the order. Maybe when they first entered it. It was strange for Valan to say it because he had spent time with them. Now he acted as if he learned nothing.
“Zealots, huh,” said Soletus. All the friendliness dropped from him. “We zealots have guarded this land so farm boys like you and their families and can till the land with relative ease. And this zealot’s family has been doing it since the order planted itself here.”
“You don’t have to take it so personally,” Valan exclaimed. “If you don’t like it, be something else.”
It was clear that Valan was a lost cause. He had been around army elves enough that they influenced his thinking. The army didn’t care for the order. They often called them soft-hearted cowards. Yet a pack of drass beast could tear a swath of destruction in a town right outside their fort. Instead of helping, they would sit in their forts, twiddling their thumbs until the order came and slaughtered them. Then complain about how long it took them.
Soletus had no time for someone like that.
“Enjoy you time in the army,” he told him. “But while you march down the roads in the east safe from a drass beast, remember the roads in the west coved in the blood of Brotherhood to make that possible.”
Soletus spun around and pushed through the crowd in a random direction, fuming. He passed by all the stalls and laughter until he found himself on the edge of the festival. He stopped. His hand ached from being in a tight fist the entire time he walked. He wasn’t as angry anymore and should’ve walked back to his friends; instead, he walked towards a rock fence and sat on it. Betrayal rested heavy on his shoulders.
He listened to the music and lost track of time. They went through three songs, so some time had passed before he heard Kiao call his name. He looked up and saw the young healing priest jogging towards him.
“We’ve been looking all over for you,” he said and then stopped short. He tilted his head. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, I just wanted to be alone for a bit,” he said softly.
“Uh-huh,” said Kiao with a dubious note in his voice. “My priest senses are telling me there is.”
“Do I smell or something,” he asked.
“Do I have a strange body odor I’m unaware of?”
Kiao tilted his head. “What?”
“Do I act like my father or maybe I’m just as stuck-up as everyone says I am?”
“No,” she said slowly.
“I’m trying to figure out why people whom I considered friend, end up hating me.”
“No, another ex-friend,” he said. “Though Doran didn’t help the situation. Anyway, I seem to I inspire others to blame me for the cause of their failures.”
“That’s on them, not you if their ego can’t handle someone like you,” said Kiao.
“Someone like me,” he said with an arch of his brow. “I wasn’t aware there was anything to make me remarkable.”
“Aren’t you one of the best fighters among the warders? Many a field warden have their eye on you because you are physically well-built for combat,” he said.
“So, anyone can achieve what I have. I wasn’t even ideal when I answered the call. They said I would be gone within a few months of physical training.”
The young priest paced in front of him. “But that makes you remarkable. You defied the odds and went over expectation. However, jealous folks don’t see that work. They just see the praise.”
“And a friend shouldn’t think that.”
“Agreed. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t gain new friends. There are lost of elves in the world. I mean, you have me. And you don’t have to worry about me being jealous of you. I doubt I’ve the ability to form half your muscle.”
A smile worked on Soletus face. “Have you even tired?”
“Tits no,” he exclaimed. “Look at me. I’m doomed to be lanky and shapeless.”
“One can be lanky and shapeless with strong core muscles,” he said patting his stomach.”
“I’ll die is from a normal sit-up let alone the upside-down sit-ups,” said Kiao. “I know what you muscle heads do.”
Kiao smiled and clapped his hands together. “Do you feel better to go back? I want to deliver you to Lyndon and get my giant pine nut pastry he promised for making me search for you instead of listening to music with Mien.”
“Is Mien looking for me too?”
Horror filled Soletus. “You left him?”
“I didn’t want too, but we couldn’t tear him away because he’s that kind of timbre sensitive where he’s affected by music,” said Kiao, leading the way.
Soletus followed him with growing alarm. “And you left him alone!”
“Calm down. There were no chanters on stage, but the woman singing had a very mesmerizing voice. Even I had a hard time tearing myself away. I know it wasn’t wise to leave him, but he was coherent. Besides, they had a flute, and he said he was memorizing songs to play so he’s not going to use the phrase of silence.”
Soletus followed him through the crowd of people. When they got close to the elves standing on the stage, the music stopped and Soletus then asked him. “Are you timbre sensitive?”
Kiao looked over his shoulder. “Dias blessed me with somewhat poor chanter’s ears. I’m the opposite of Mien. I’m nearly timbre deaf. My mind’s ear isn’t very acute.” The young man then stopped and stared into a corner off to the side with a heavy frown.
“He was right here.”
“Excuse me,” said a woman behind him.
Both Soletus and Kiao turned and saw one of the players on the stage gesturing to them to come towards her. “Are you referring to the older boy that was sitting there?” They nodded. “Your friend got him.”
“Did he have two warrior braids,” asked Soletus.
“No,” answered the woman. “He was wearing his hair like your friend in a low queue. His hair was a lighter flaxen than yours is, almost white.”
Soletus felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. “You didn’t happen to catch his name.”
She nodded and reached inside her the sash she was wearing around her dress. “Oh yes, Doran, I believe. He told me to give you this.” She handed him a slip of waxed paper from a confectionery from the festival.
“Thank you,” he said and walked away from her. He unfolded the piece of paper and it had something written in charcoal. It read:
Want Mien? Meet me in the oak grove. Bring your staff.
Soletus handed the paper to Kiao and stomped off.
I’m going to end him, Soletus thought.
Kiao caught up to him and jogged beside him to keep up with his stride. “I think we need to get someone.”
Soletus shook his head. “No, I’ll deal with it.”
Kiao jumped ahead of him and blocked him from going any further. Soletus nearly ran into the shorter elf. “You do realize this is a trap. The grove has plenty of cover and he’s his friends with him. All they’re going to do is gang up on you.”
“They can try,” said Soletus as he walked around him.
Kiao repeated his maneuver before, but this time standing as tall as he could without standing on his toes. He spoke, forcing his voice at him.
“Stop! Let someone else deal with him.”
The magical nudge caused the center of his chest to warm up as well as made it feel as if he hit him in his head. He didn’t like that and then returned firmly:
“No, I deal with this. He dragged Mien in this, so he made it personal.”
A jolted went through Kiao and he could understand why. His voice sounded off to his ears.
Kiao shock his head and blinked at him. “Y-y-your chanter gifted. How hasn’t anyone noticed?”
Soletus didn’t have time to question him one why he thought that and moved around him again and said, “Find Lyndon while I’m gone.” He then sprinted off.
He didn’t think Doran would hurt Mien. Then again, he didn’t know what his motivation was in taking him. He was also worried about Mien. Would he be the scared or the other side of him would come through? The one that wasn’t so innocent and helpless as he made himself to appear. That part of him that acted. In fact, Mien could hurt Doran if he wasn’t careful.
Soletus jogged all the way back to the monastery and went straight to his room. He picked his heavy stave from the wall and left. There was no one in the dorm, the halls, or anywhere on the grounds to question where he was going because of the festival.
Once outside again, he could hear the drums in the distance signaling that the Brotherhood was about to entertain the crowd with singing and acrobatic feats. He rather be there watching that than chasing a dunderheaded dod.
He headed toward the right side of the dorm, and passed the rock formation on the grounds. There was a small untouched area of trees for expansion. In the center was a monstrous oak with stretching limbs. The sun was down, so the area was cast in deepening shadows.
Soletus stopped his approach when he got to the edge of the trees’ canopy. He scanned the ground underneath it to see if anyone was hiding behind anything. He didn’t see anyone, but the year-old leaves on the ground had been disturbed and showed the damp ground underneath, making it darker. There had been a struggle there, especially around the base of the tree to the side where there was a rope. Soletus walked over there and used his staff to lift the rope up. Then ends were blacked. Someone had burned them with fire or maybe light. He then inspected the ground closer to the large, low limbed oak. There were twigs on the ground with green leaves. At the base of the tree was bark and lichen on the ground.
A limb above him shock. He walked in there looking at the ground. He didn’t look up.
I’m an idiot, he thought, gripping his staff and shifted his gaze upward. Doran and about five other tods were there, all armed and sneering at him.
Soletus laughed, flourishing his staff in his hand, and shouted up, “Well, fighting you all at once will make it fair.”
Doran jumped down to the lowest limb and then to the ground. The others followed, one at a time. Soletus decided to be polite and waited. It gave him time to figure out how he was going to fight six tods with five of them being junior wardens. Doran wasn’t a threat.
Once on the ground, all six boys they came at him once. They all struck him in different places on his body, as he couldn’t block them all. One struck him in the calf going for the back of his knee, so Soletus dropped to his back, and they all tried to swarm him. He ignored their strikes and protected his head with his arms. With his foot, he stuck the closest in reach in the side of their knee. That junior warden made the mistake of falling forward. All in one motion, Soletus caught him, rolled, and tossed him to one of his friends. Both toppled to the ground in a tangle.
Soletus rolled to his stomach and then had to roll again to get out of the way of Doran trying to hit him in the back. He rolled into the legs of another tod. He wrapped his arms around them. They lost their already shaken balance and fell. Soletus got to a crouched position, grabbed a fist full of dirt, and tossed it into the face to the next tod that came to him. He then used his staff to sweep his feet out from under him. Soletus was now on his feet.
“Where’s Mien,” he demanded just as another boy came in trying to jab him. The young monk pivoted on his left foot out of the way and struck him in the face with his fist. It stunned his opponent long enough for him to take the staff they were holding and kick them away from him. They crumbled to the ground, and he tossed the staff in the woods, taking his stance again.
“You five are supposed to be junior wardens. I expected better,” he mocked. He felt exhilarated and waited for them to take the fight seriously. Now they seemed very hesitant to get back into the fray after watching how easily he got out of them surrounding him. Doran didn’t. He just growled and came at him with everything he could.
The young monk parried through Doran’s tirade. Twice the others tried to interfere, but Soletus was faster than they were. He shifted behind them, causing Doran to hit them or he just danced out of their way. He even used the large oak’s lowest branch to maneuver out of their reach. They chose a poor area to fight, not to mention an even poorer time of day. It was getting darker. They were trained to avoid fighting at night. Unfortunate for them Soletus wasn’t bothered by the dark. He could see them just enough to know there location even with his impaired depth perception. Doran, being the horrible fighter he was, fumbled even more.
“Really, you wasted my time by baiting me here and you can’t even beat me,” Soletus jeered. “You’re just as slow and sloppy as my Papa said.”
Doran came at him, spinning his staff at him and then transitioned into a jab. Soletus parried the blow, then swung and struck him hard in the side. He took another step and struck Doran in the back. The tod went to the ground, sputtering.
Soletus froze. He knew that voice. All too late, he saw lantern light bathing the area in an amber glow. The Arch Monk stood there with two other masters at his side, holding lanterns.
Of course, he sighed to himself and dropped his staff. He was in trouble now.