I’m not going to lie. The dread I felt was immense. I never wanted to go back and stand in front of the Arbiter. That meant I had to face what I did. I had to hear it again laid out in front of me. If I could’ve run, I would have. And I know that was against everything that Brother Hickory and Soletus prepared me for. I wanted a miracle to happen where I didn’t have to speak. I was too afraid to. And not think they did a poor job in helping me. They did an excellent job, but just so much fear. So much shame. It strangled me tight in my throat. I needed a year, not just a handful of months. Maybe then the fear of dying in some cell in the Pit wouldn’t have haunted my dreams. However, Dias didn’t answer my pray like I thought. I did have someone there to help me.
Soletus felt a little freer after the test. He felt alive and the need to be active. He wanted to test himself on the training field and find an unsuspecting warder to spar with. However, he was stopped with staff in hand by one of the senior warders. They had a message for him and that was to go to the chapel as soon as possible.
He found the aged priest and Mien in the back, sitting at the table. The boy had his head down with his hands around his tin cup with worry hanging on his brow. That wasn’t an unfamiliar sight, however, Soletus knew something was wrong, as Hickory was a grim face. There was a letter in front of him with a judicial seal stamped on it in red wax.
“This is from the Arbiter office,” said Brother Hickory.
“My summons,” explained Mien softly. His hands trembled a bit.
Soletus glanced down and saw the official crisp document as if it had been just sighed and handed to them.
“I thought we had until the first of winter,” he said.
“It’s not the same Arbiter. They abruptly transferred the old one to another region. The new one is getting through all his old cases quickly. We need to leave tomorrow, and I need you to come with us,” said the aged priest.
The young monk's eyes snapped back to Hickory. “Really, why?”
“The Arbiter may need you to testify on Mien’s behalf. He probably won’t call you. However, I need to make sure I’ve everyone I need on hand for this. This particular Arbiter has a reputation for harsh sentences.”
“I need to tell my parents I’m going to be gone,” said Soletus, glancing at Mien. The boy looked as he was on the way to a noose.
“Do that. Your mother came by earlier this morning. She was concerned.”
Soletus’s shoulders sagged, and he turned around. “I’ll go to her.”
He avoided going home after his resting in his grandfather’s room. He avoided talking to her after being whipped. In fact, he avoided being alone with her purposely for a long while.
Time to be a man and face your mother, he told himself as he walked down the road as slowly as he could. Right as he stepped on the path to his home, the door opened. His mother stepped out with her favorite red paisley embroidered scarf around her head and a basket in her hand. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw him. The two took met each other’s gazes. Her face was hard with a no-nonsense sharpness. In return, he put on an apologetic smile. He looked like a little boy standing there, sorry for the shenanigans he had gotten himself into. Her face softened, and she met him where he waited.
“Honestly, you couldn’t have left your grandfather out of it,” she said giving him a hug.
“I had to talk to someone who listened,” he said and held his hand out for the basket she was carrying. She placed the handle in his palm and the two of them walked together towards the market.
“Last I checked, your father still has ears.”
“Well, they don’t work,” he returned.
His mother sighed. “I remember the day you were born.”
Soletus stifled a groan. He didn’t think his coming there would lead to her telling the same tired old story he heard many times before. It was one of her favorite openings for a talk.
“Your father and I just barely managed to set foot in the infirmary because you came so quickly. I would’ve had you standing up,” she said, looking forward. She didn’t catch him mouth every word she said. “Before that, you were so quiet inside me. Then you made such a fuss coming out. Then you were quiet. Until you started wanting to walk. Once you had a taste of it, you didn’t want to stop or to be stopped.”
Soletus grew impatient. “I’ve heard this before, Mama.”
“Oh,” she said, spying him sideways with a slender stare. “So, what am I going to say?”
“You’re going to tell me about the time Papa let me walk around on my own and there was a poison viper of some kind waiting in the grass. I didn’t see it and he snatched me up before I was bitten. I need to watch out before I do things.”
His mother looked forward again, undeterred by her ruined story. “Well, my point is you shouldn’t be so quick to do things without thinking. Your father just wants you to be safe. I do understand what you are going through.”
Soletus was certain she did not.
“My parents were tough to please. I wanted to break free from them. And you’re doing the same.”
She rarely talked about her folks for personal reasons. However, he doubted they were as strict and didn’t have an entire order hovering over him because of his father’s watchful eye.
“Nothing I did was right to them. In fact, they didn’t even want me to marry your father.”
Soletus was surprised. “But they let you in the end or I wouldn’t be here.”
“No, they didn’t. I did so without their blessing, without an apology to them, or backing out. In return, they disowned.”
Soletus was flabbergasted. He didn’t know what but, suspected it. His sister told him that one day. He was never curious enough to find out is she was right or not. The only answer he was likely to get was a change in subjects.
“You don’t know how lucky you are to have so much support,” she said. “That we allowed you to choose to become a warden. Though you could’ve chosen anything and we would’ve been just as proud.”
“But it matters to me,” he exclaimed, and stopped walking.
A jolt went through his mother as if she weren’t expecting to hear that. Soletus wondered if they even saw him as an individual or he was still a child to them. She walked up to him and touched his cheek with her hands. That warm touch would’ve been a comfort for him, but now he found it obtrusive.
“I understand you want to become a warden, but everything about being one is dangerous. Your being mauled proves how dangerous a beast can be. That scared us more than anything ever had. Yet here you are, like nothing has happened to you and yesterday proved that not everything is okay. That scar hidden behind that bandage is going to bother you for the rest of your life.”
Soletus tried not to touch it. He didn’t want it to be there.
“When your father told me what happened, I worried that this might be too much. I don’t know if you should continue this. Not that you don’t have the will and drive to do it. You do, but sometimes you have to know when to stop or you’re going to hurt yourself more.”
Soletus felt bad. That was why he avoided talking to her. He didn’t want to feel bad. He didn’t want to be told to give up.
“I want to do this because I’m not good at anything else,” he told her.
“Sol, you’re a bright, sturdy lad. You can learn to do something else. There are plenty of trades out there. Your Uncle Hart can teach you masonry work.”
He shook his head. “That’s Uncle Hart’s job. That’s what he needs to do. Being a warden is something I need to do,” he then held up his forearm. “And being attacked and bitten is something you expect to happen. Yes, this hurts time to time. Yes, I’ve had bad dreams, but that isn’t enough to stop me. Me being so intolerant to the point I can’t even stand the sight of the beast isn’t going to stop me either.”
She took his arm and held so to avoid touching the wound directly. “You shouldn’t keep it bandage all the time.”
“I take it off at night. Though it feels better if I have it wrapped in something,” he told her. “Plus, Kiao told me to keep the sun from touching it.”
She petted his hand and released his arm. “Sometimes getting what you want has consequences. Good and bad,” she said at length.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said, wanting that to be the end of it. “Anyway, I wanted to talk to you for a reason. Mien got his summons and Brother Hickory wants me to come with them just in case the Arbiter wants me to testify.”
She became confused. “Is that necessary?”
“I was assigned to help Mien. That duty doesn’t end until I’m told he doesn’t need me anymore,” reasoned Soletus.
“I see. I’ll pray that all will go well for Mien,” she said.
“So, you’ve nothing against him,” he asked, remembering what Fern had told him.
Her mouth remained a flat line and took a little too long to answer before asking. “What’s the best outcome for him?”
“To stay here until he’s at age. He likes it here anyway, so no harm in that.”
“Well, that’s good. I would worry about someone like that being out in the world,” she said.
“What I find worrisome is what someone did to make him like that,” he countered.
His mother patted his shoulder. “I see why your father has a hard time talking to you. You always have a response now.”
“It’s true though. He would be just like any other boy if not for his uncle,” then Soletus thought that. “Okay, he would still be a little weird. He’s a chanter.”
“And that strangeness doesn’t bother you?”
“No. It did at first. But I don’t know. He’s grown on me. I like him. I think once this is over, he can grow, and he’ll be just as like Lyndon and me.”
His mother smiled and took her basket from his hand. “Another one like you, huh and Lyndon. I’m not sure if our house can take that. When you two come home, tell Mien I’ll like to have him over for dinner again.”
“I am proud of you for helping Mien and sticking with it,” she said and then took his head and kissed his check. It pleased him she said that. At least one of his parents saw value in what he was doing.