I feel as if I’ve not said a lot about my predecessor. My appreciation for Brother Hickory grew as I got older. It wasn’t until years later that I asked him why he became the Brotherhood’s counsellor. He gave me a sad smile and told me: “There were several reasons. The main reason, I needed to do something different. And the actual drive to keep going was that wanted to give back. The order did so much for me as an adult. And I thought, I do what I was never given, support. When I was a tod and a young man, I would’ve done anything for someone to help guide me.”
Soletus recovered from his whipping and, as expected, they sent him to Brother Hickory. It was better than his parents. They allowed him to leave without saying much. What he expected was a mediator session to fix the issues between him and Doran. Instead, when he walked into the back of the chapel, he found the priest alone. That was much worse.
He sat at the table while Hickory was at his stove, gathering two saucers. The aged priest didn’t start out talking about him. He was too busy talking about Mien and the progress he was making. Soletus figured that was his attempt to keep him relaxed.
“I’m rather impressed with both Kiao and Mien. They get along better with each other than I thought. Perhaps if everything goes well, I can shift your responsibilities of helping Mien to him.”
“It almost feels as if that’s what’s happening now,” commented Soletus right as Hickory placed a slice of apple pie made by Saffron in front of him. He then started pouring Soletus a cup of tea as well.
“Good. I don’t have to worry about an adjustment period. Then I can stop focusing on Mien so much. I feel I’ve been a little neglectful tending to others.”
“I don’t think you have,” said Soletus, knowing where that segue was leading.
The priest sat his teapot down when he finished filling his cup. “Oh, I have. We all have troubles sometimes, Soletus.”
Soletus leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “I like to handle my own troubles myself, thank you very much.”
Brother Hickory leaned forward on the table. “Sometimes it’s not wise seeing we aren’t always a perfect judge of our actions.”
Soleus pinched piece of crust off his pie with his fingers. “What do you want me to say that I’m ashamed of my actions? That it was the wrong thing to do?”
“It would be nice to hear that you are aware that wasn’t something you would normally do,” said Brother Hickory.
“I think this is well within what I would do,” he held.
Hickory’s brow became a line of concern. “Your lack of remorse is a little troubling.”
“I know what I did was bad seeing as I was whipped—” said Soletus, stopping in mid-sentence at the sound of water sloshing. Mien then come through the doorway with a bucket in hand. His head capped with a kerchief made from a dark cloth. It made boy’s eyes stand out brighter. They looked like new leaves lit by the sunrise. The gift that burned him in was clear that day. Other than that, he looked unremarkable wearing the clothing that Hickory had him wear to clean the entire chapel. He dropped his cleaning bucket by the door and announced, “I’m done.”
The old priest heavily scrutinized him. “You cleaned the windowsills already?”
“It’s hard to clean something that’s already clean,” answered the boy.
“Did you at least wipe the windows down?”
Mien let out a long-suffering sigh. “Yes, I removed the dirty air from them.”
Hickory brows met, and he stared directly at Soletus. “There are always consequences for one’s actions, good or bad. One reason I didn’t choose Kiao to help Mien as his sass is a little contagious.”
Soletus was certain that Mien already had a bit of that in him. Kiao just encouraged it to come out.
“You gave me busy work,” said the boy, lifting his hand and wiggling his fingers at his friend. “I think you just didn’t want me here so you could lecture Soletus.”
“He’s not stupid,” added the young monk.
Mien smiled a little.
Brother Hickory rubbed his forefinger and thumb over his lowered eyelids. “I’m swiftly regretting all the decisions I made over the last few months.”
“He’s being good and vocal like you wanted him to be,” said Soletus.
“Yes, and thank you for that, but the sass and your recent behavior aren’t appreciated,” he said seriously. He motioned Mien to go out back. The boy did so without question.
“I’m not acting different. Doran’s been a real dod. He’s had a problem with me for a while. And I didn’t care about that until he dragged Mien into it. I had to do something.”
Brother Hickory rested his back against his chair. “I understand why you took action. That shows initiative. It’s an excellent trait coupled with thoughtfulness. The problem is you didn’t do that. You went out and picked a fight with someone. Instead, could’ve gotten your father, your grandfather, even me to come. Then there would’ve been no doubt of Doran’s nasty behavior.”
Soletus knew he was right. He didn’t bother trying to make an excuse for it.
“It’s clear under that gentle, patient, and dutiful exterior is someone who can be the exact opposite.”
Soletus sunk deeper into his chair. “But I was constantly told I was too gentle, too hesitant, and I don’t make a decision fast enough when training. That I don’t act on my own without people telling me. Maybe all that talk had just started to settle in.”
It was a weak argument, but Soletus tried to use it.
“Every situation requires different appropriate actions. Do what’s appropriate and not what frustration lead you to do.”
Soletus hung his head down. There was no denying that fact. Even Kiao saw what he was doing was a bad idea and tried to stop him. That didn’t mean he needed to be reminded and lectured as if he was problematic. He didn’t need to be there listening there of something he wasn’t planning on doing again. Well, next time, he would be more careful.
“Would it help if I say my concern isn’t that I believe you're some miscreant walking down a rebellious path,” said Brother Hickory gently.
Soletus straightened up a little.
“It’s just something had disturbed you.”
He slumped again. He didn’t want to talk about.
“Clearly, it’s more than one thing. Your father is the likely start of it. But then you were bitten, and some sort of irritation is below rolling below your surface.”
The words his father said entered his mind. The tone.
“I didn’t seek you out after the attack because you sounded steady then, and I hoped you would keep it up. Not so much now.”
Soletus kept his gaze on the table. He didn’t understand why it bothered him so much. The masters said harsh things when training sometimes. He shouldn’t left his knife. It was a dumb mistake. It just wasn’t what he expected after he nearly died. He felt bad about being am idiot leaving his hunting knife behind. However, what could it have done? The monster’s jaws would still be on him. Chewing, gnawing, growling, uncaring for his life.
His left forearm began to ache.
Soletus reached under the table and held it, hoping that the all-knowing priest didn’t see him clench his teeth. He threw those thoughts from his mind. Hickory rose from his seat and scooted it over, so he was beside him and then sat again.
“Let me see your arm,” he said.
Soletus obeyed. He twisted in his chair and raised his left forearm. He kept the wound covered in a bandage. The skin had healed enough that he didn’t have to do that. But some days it was tender and pressure around it seemed to help. He winced as Hickory unwrapped it and studied it. The pain grew worse, his skin grew pale. In the edge of his mind, he felt that sinking dread of pain engulfing him.
Then Hickory spoke. He said something in Melodic. Something he didn’t understand. It was just a couple of soothing syllables, not a phrase directly, however, a phrase was in them. The young monk just felt a warmth. The teal eyes of the older elf were a burning blue as they examined the wound. Soletus could feel him examining him from the inside. Yet he didn’t have to go through his heart to do it. That was only for the old and the powerful.
The pain in Soletus's forearm ebbed down. It was still there, but it was not sharp and consuming.
The priest’s brow furrowed. “This wound, this scar, isn’t ever going to go away. The skin is going to be thin and discolored. The bone here will never feel right. That doesn’t mean you have to let this have a permanent place in your heart.”
“I try not to.”
“Trying is good, finding and peace takes time. But wounds that become scars that fester in the mind are the worse. And there is a strong chance that brave heart you’ve been blessed with will pull you through the worse. Just remember, you are a son of Dias. A monk, a manifestation of Dias’s strength. That’s not something just for show but to use and trust.”
He let go of his arm and then clasped a hand on his shoulders. “I’ll tell the Arch Monk you’re ready to see how you react to seeing a drass beast now. I believe you are ready because you need to continue your training as a monk. This is the only thing holding you back.”
“I’m not being a priest if I fail,” said Soletus. He knew he would be okay, but he just wanted to cut off him off before he said it.
Hickory chuckled. “Of course not. You’ve muscles for brains and follow the practice of beating others with a stick until you can talk sense with them, given your dealings with Doran. We priest aren’t so, pointed.”
Soletus smiled despite himself. He couldn’t deny that.
“You can go if you wish.”
Soletus sat up, eager to leave. “Really?”
Hickory let out a short chuckled. “Yes, but before you go. I need to ask you one more thing. Is part of you agitation is because you feel different from others?”
The young monk became confused. He didn’t know how to answer it. “Sometimes I feel like I’m under heavier scrutiny than others. But I don’t feel like I’m that different.”
Hickory considered that with a nod. “I was just wondering. Also, take Mien with you. Despite what Meric said, the boy needs to be out as much as he can. I don’t want him to be afraid to go out.”
With that in mind, Soletus took Mien to town. It had been a bit since he had gone. He didn’t go often. Doing so ended with him spending money from what little he had. Most of his coin came from doing odd jobs. Once he was a warden, he would get a commission every month. He hadn’t worked in some time and was using up what he had saved up. Soletus spent it on food. There were few things he bought. However, he wondered if he could save his coin and get a large tao stone knife. He was a little jealous of the knife his sister had.
Mien was quiet as they walked. Soletus wanted to assume that nothing was wrong with him. However, the boy stared absently as if he was in his head the entire time. He didn’t seem to notice the crowded marketplace to get distracted by anything. The only time he looked up was when they stopped in front of the pastry stand. It was the place that Soletus and his father like to buy sweet pastries when he was younger.
“What do you want,” he asked.
“Whatever you’re having.”
He requested two honey buns wrapped in sweet leaf. After that, they walked toward the large burning ash tree in the center of town to eat. Soletus picked off the honeyed walnuts from the top of his pastry to eat first. The boy took a single bite before asking, “Do you think I’m a wimp?”
Soletus felt the walnut in his mouth turn into a tasteless pebble.
“I feel like a wimp,” muttered Mien.
That’s because you are wimpy, snapped the young monk’s mind and he kicked himself for the thought. At least it managed not to make its way out. However, there was truth to it, and he wasn’t sure how to make it into a constructive remark.
“You’re taking a long time to answer,” observed the boy.
Soletus groaned. “Why are you asking that? Is it because of what happened?”
Mien picked at his pastry. “I should’ve done something instead of running and hiding. And then Kiao had to find me shaky, and I didn’t want him to see that.”
“Well, what would you have done differently?”
“Stopped you,” he said. “Then you wouldn’t have been whipped and your mother wouldn’t hate me.”
“She doesn’t hate you.”
“I know an angry mother when I see one,” affirmed Mien to the ground.
Soletus looked around for some place to sit and guided him to the base of the large burning ash tree in the center of town. Soletus picked a spot right near the base of a tree between two knobby roots that flared on the tree's side. Mien seated down first and followed by Soletus.
“I would’ve done it anyway. He had it coming,” he told Mien.
The boy picked at his pastry. “But being whipped had to hurt.”
He shrugged. “It did, but it was worth it.”
“I put him in his place. You’re less of an easy target now.”
“But wouldn’t it be better off if you didn’t bother with someone like me?”
Soletus paused in taking a large bite of his pastry, and lowered it from his lips. “No.
“Your mother thinks you’ll be better off, or at least, that’s what it sounded like.”
Soletus let out a long, growling sigh. “Look, I’ll be friends with who I want to be friends with. And I don’t blame you for what happened.”
“But nothing! Besides, Mama’s used to boys like me and Lyndon. She doesn’t know you at all. Give her time. Anyway, I need to teach you some self-defense.”
Mien looked uncertain. “But I’m short and my wimpy arms.”
“You don’t have to be tall or strong to know how to fight someone. Hold out your arm.”
Soletus placed his fist on a spot in the center of Mien’s forearm. “This is a pressure point. If you hit this spot right here hard enough, it’ll cause your opponent’s arm to go numb. They’ll lose their grip on you.” He then sat up. And pointed below the center of his chest. “If someone grabs up from behinds, use your elbow and jam it right here. You’ll knock the wind out of them.”
“How do I remember that? If I panic, I’ll just forget.”
“Not if you practice enough until it all becomes muscle memory. Learning to fight properly is a lot of muscle memory and being able to recognize the situation you are in. Sure, any dod can use their fists. However, there is a difference between someone who can swing their fist and a person who’s trained. You need to be able to stand against both. Until you do, I don’t mind being that person who will defend you. I mean that my purpose as a monk, to defend those who can’t defend themselves and inspire them to get stronger.”
Mien frowned. “I rather you didn’t.”
Soletus was a little surprised by that answer, but then again, he still had a sense of pride.
“Well then, learn so you don’t have to worry about me worrying about you. I’ll start teaching you what I can after your trial.”
Mien’s face brightened. “You’ll do that?” And then his face sagged. “That only matters if they let me stay here.”
“Then work on speaking for yourself and you don’t have to worry about it. Like you were the other evening. You didn’t even stutter.”
“I was focused on helping you.”
“Then focus on helping yourself so you forget yourself.”
The boy opened his mouth and then shut it. He tilted his head and said, “I don’t know if that works.”
“Of course it does. You’ve done it before. You ignore your shyness and focus on a goal you want.”
Mien let out a snort. “Yes, that works. In order for me to help myself, I have to forget myself. But then I’m still thinking about myself because of my goal.”
Soletus frowned. “Why are you being difficult?”
“Why aren’t you making sense?”
“I am making sense,” Soletus exclaimed, and then realized Mien was wearing a smile as he took a bite of his pastry. “You’re giving me a hard time, aren’t you?”
“No,” he denied with an impish grin. “I wouldn’t dare.”
Soletus pushed him with his elbow, but not too hard. Mien continued to smile and ate his pastry.