When I first met Soletus, I didn't know what to think of him. I never heard that kind of clear voice before. It was like walking to the edge of a river and looking into the water and see all the stones. However, the problem with that is I didn't know what those stones were because I didn't know him. What I could hear and understand was the unease in his voice when he spoke to me. Yet, he tried to be my friend. So, I tried to understand him. Soon I learned when he was happy and when he was growing frustrated. When he was joking. His voice matched his mood. He was an honest person. He was predictable. Someone I had no reason to fear. So, I latched onto him
Soletus didn't make as much progress as he believed he would. In fact, he felt he made very little. The boy only spoke when he needed to, and he made sure it wasn't often. Though he was full of gestures and had easy to read facial expression only because he had the emotional range between nervous and unease.
During that span of time, Brother Hickory also taught him how to control his phrase of light. There wasn't a day when the boy wasn't chanting under his breath and winking a sun globe in and out of existence. He seemed mystified by it, and it gave him something to focus on, which made him a little less anxious. Soletus found it was easier to let the young chanter concentrate on what he could and couldn't do with the globe of light he wielded than getting him to talk.
When he wasn't doing that, he followed Soletus around like a skittish kitten. He was curious, but quick to retreat when seen. He would start to say something, but whenever Soletus made eye contact, he would shut himself and look away or down. The young monk wasn't sure what to make of him doing that. It was odd for a boy his age to be that shy. He was almost a tod and didn't act it.
When Soletus took him on a quick tour of the town and the monastery, he was certain that Mien would reach out for his hand, given how close he stayed by him. However, the boy wasn't fond of physical contact. That caused Soletus to feel awkward because he was, as other described, friendly. He was all hugs and arms over the shoulder. He never had an elf objected with near terror from something as small as a pat or even nudging before. There was little he could do about that so, he worked on what he could.
Soletus decided to first see what basic skills he knew. He didn't know what nobles did in their spare time. He heard they had people to do nearly everything for them. The young monk doubted that, so he got two horses to exercise for the stableman. He learned that Mien knew how to ride a horse. He had to get a little help with adjusting the stirrups, but he had no trouble with pulling himself up and swing on the back of the horse. That same day, he took him fishing, and Onyx joined them. Mien had no fear of dogs. He was delighted to have the large hound with them. She gave him a distraction. He was happy to scratch that spot between her shoulder blades, and Onyx sat beside him the entire time.
The following day, Soletus wanted to see how he reacted to an elven consort. All elves could learn to summon the magical companions. Most didn't, but all members of the order were taught and trained to use them. The summoned creatures provided an elf with a single magical ability. His took the form of a highland brown bear. However, unlike a real bear, Khodi had a round moon spot on his right shoulder where his fur was silver. And like Soletus, Khodi was a young leggy looking and not impressive looking like older members whose consorts were the same type of bear. Soletus expected Mien to be afraid of him. Many elves didn’t like them, but he wasn't. He found the consort fascinating. But not enough for him to ask anything. Though questions sparkled in his eyes. He patted Khodi on the head and the summoned creature nudged and examined him, sending Soletus impressions that there was an injured person in front of him.
The second week begun and Soletus expected no change. He came over after breakfast, as usual. Brother Hickory was in the center of the chapel, talking to townsfolk. The young monk snuck by them and went straight to the back. Before he walked in, he paused Mien’s room. It was empty, with the bed poorly made. There was too much blanket tucked at the ends and the sides, so it lay unevenly. It was something he needed to learn how to do. The masters weren't very fussy about it, but the priests were more meticulous.
Soletus found Mien at the small table. He managed to keep eye contact in his general direction. However, Soletus was certain he was looking at the wall behind him. It was a welcomed change. That didn't mean he was willing to talk. Soletus made his way to the table with the boy's eyes following him until he sat down in his chair backwards.
"Is there something wrong," Soletus asked.
Instead of shaking his head, he opened his mouth and spoke, "No."
Soletus was shocked that he answered. He swallowed his surprise. He didn't want to scare him back into hiding. Instead, he cleared his throat and said, "You're up early."
The boy’s eye contact faltered, dropped back to the tabletop. "I wanted food that wasn't burnt. Porridge isn't that hard to make," he said a little louder.
Now the mice and the crickets can hear him, thought Soletus and said to him. "Tell that to Brother Hickory."
The corner of Mien's mouth pulled up slightly.
It was good to see the boy smile. He hadn't done it much.
"What do you want to do today," prompted Soletus.
He wasn't expecting the boy to meet his eyes again, but he did. Mien raised an eyebrow at him. "Don't you have anything else to do?"
"No. Hickory asked me to do this, so this is my duty for now. If I didn't want to be here, I wouldn't," he answered, not sure what to think about the sudden trust shown to him. It didn't last. The boy focused his attention out the small grimy window.
"It's quiet here," he remarked.
"I take it you like that?"
"I couldn't imagine you would like some place more bustling."
"I mean in the chapel," corrected Mien.
"Of course it is. It's a chapel. I mean, it's not like an estate that throws parties and servants running around."
Mien cut him a glance. "My family's estate is small, with a tiny staff compared to most. We don't host parties a lot. But that's not the quiet I mean."
The young monk tilted his head. "Then what do you mean?"
"It's calm. I'm calm."
Soletus looked out of the window with him and tried to sort out that last statement. What state was he before that classified his current behavior as calm. Brother Hickory stepped in, wearing a frown of displeasure.
"Sorry to interrupt, but Mien, I need to say something to you."
Mien turned from the window slowly to Hickory's feet. "Yes."
Brother Hickory started scolding him. "That bed is awful. Go in there and try again. I've only shown you how to do it a dozen times."
Without even a cringe, the boy got up from the table and vanished. Hickory took Mien's spot.
"So, was he holding a conversation with you, too?"
"Same with me this morning. He opened up. Still with fidgety eyes, but talking," said the priest. He appeared pleased, as if that was major progress.
"How did he manage before if he can't look someone in the face," said Soletus.
"Your guess is as good as mine, seeing as he was also an alchemist's apprentice. I couldn't imagine him being so shy around his master."
Soletus’s brow jumped. "An alchemist's apprentice at his age?"
"He's a smart lad in the academic sense. He’s smart enough to get an invitation to take the entrance test to the university in Eroden," he told him.
"Maybe I should introduce him to someone else since he is talking."
Hickory swayed his head. "Not yet. I don't want to scare him back into his shell like a scared turtle. This is more than the lack of talking skill."
Soletus didn't think it was possible, but for the rest of their time together that day, the boy was quiet again. The boy only had a small energy reserve for talking. If he was going to be reserved, Soletus decided that Mien should do something that didn’t require speech. So, he taught him how to fight with a quarter staff.
The next day, he brought over his light training staff and the heavy staff he preferred. He knew the boy was getting chanter priest training and they didn’t receive weapons training. Neither did the few combat chanters they had. Soletus believed they needed to learn a little something to be better-rounded. Mien didn't understand it at all and stared at Soletus when the young monk told him what they would be doing.
"It'll be good for you," Soletus encouraged. "You've skinny arms and wimpy shoulders. How are going to do anything with those?"
Mien's eyes tightened. He parted his lips as if he was going to say something. However, he retracted and settled on becoming offended.
"I meant no offense, but it's true."
Soletus knew Mien was thinking something by the way his gaze scanned him up and down but he didn't share those thoughts.
Soletus handed him the staff he would be using. "I need the practice, so you can help me."
Mien took it in his hands and inspected the wooden weapon as if it was a foreign object.
"It'll be fun."
Mien gave him a dubious look.
"Don't worry, you'll be fine," said Soletus.
The session turned into a practice in teaching the bare basics of using a quarter staff. He wasn't ready to be called a master yet because he wasn't sure what to do about a student who wasn't eager to learn. He was too timid, too hesitant, and too slow. If anything, the young monk got a great lesson in restraint that day. So many times, he wanted to take advantage of an opening with a sound strike. He softened his blows because the boy flinched a lot, blocking with his arms rather than his staff. After observing the action a few times more, Soletus planted the end of his staff into the ground, and asked,
"Were you hit on?"
Color drained from Mien's face. He looked to the side and said quickly. "No!"
Soletus narrowed his eyes. "You know, it isn't a good thing to lie. I can ask Hickory because I'm sure he knows."
Mien became owl-eyed. "What did he tell you?"
"He hasn't told me much. He probably expects you to tell me."
"It isn't like he beat me every day, but please don't tell anyone," he begged. "He might find out I told and make things worse."
"Who," Soletus asked confused. When Mien didn't answer him, he repeated the question again. "Who will make things worse for you?"
The boy looked at the ground. "Not me, my mother."
"So, he hit her too?"
"No," exclaimed the boy with his voice becoming high and manic. He waved his hands in front of him. "He doesn't. He can't. She won't let him, but he can hurt her other ways. He can still make things miserable for me, thus making things worse for her."
That cleared nothing up for the young monk. "Who is he exactly?"
The boy clamped his mouth shut with his teeth clicking.
Soletus pushed his hair to the side that fell into his face. "You need to tell me so I can understand."
Mien dropped the staff on the ground and covered his face with his hands, trembling violently. Soletus reached for him. Mien slapped it away and took a step back away from him, frightened.
Soletus held his hands up. "Sorry. I didn't mean to pry."
The boy hugged himself, backing away, reaching out behind him until his back was to the bark of the burning ash tree.
"Mien," Soletus called, but his voice didn't reach the disturbed boy. His breathing became short and shallow. Mien put his hand to his chest and stared glassy eyed at the ground. Soletus was torn between getting Brother Hickory or staying. He didn't know if he could do any good, though. However, he tried and took slow steps towards Mien, making sure they were loud enough for the boy to hear that he was coming. He eased forward and stopped an arm's length in front of him.
"Seriously, I'm sorry for whatever I did," he said.
Mien was unresponsive. He hugged himself tighter.
The door to the chapel opened and Brother Hickory beckoned Soletus to come towards him. They exchanged places. Brother Hickory tried to console the boy. Soletus made a beeline to the table and sat down. He didn't know why that made him ill at ease, but it did. Never in his life had he seen someone react to a question like that. He didn't know if he needed to help, leave, or stay there and wait. In the end, he waited. The priest was out there for a long time before he came back in. Soletus tried to explain himself, but the priest held up a hand.
"Don't worry about it. What did you ask him?"
"I asked him if he was hit on," said Soletus.
Brother Hickory bobbed his head in understanding. "I should have warned you not to do that. He doesn't enjoy talking about what happened or anything connected with it."
"Well, it's made him afraid of someone," said Soletus. "He wouldn't even name the person."
Brother Hickory sat down and explained. "I know who he speaks of. Don't you worry about and don't press the matter anymore. He might stop speaking again. That's what caused him to turtle up the first time and I had to bring you in."
Soletus blinked at him with disbelief. He started talking. "He's not well in the head if that's all it takes to get him to clamp up again."
"I never said he was, well that is," said Brother Hickory somberly.
"So, he's cracked in the head?"
"No. What you see results from fear. Fear is a powerful thing. It can control a person and force them to act in ways that seem crazy to us."
"But you face your fears."
"It isn't always that simple. Most people can do such a thing. For others, it's a lot harder. I've found that the deep-sated fears are harder to deal with. Right now, the wounds are too fresh. Once we get him to trust us, then we help him lift all those painful emotional scars. Every time it hurts, he's going to retreat. However, I don’t want him to retreat, thinking he’s alone. I want him to learn that he has Dias and us here.
"You might as well go now. He will not be up to doing anything for a while. Try again tomorrow. But don't get discouraged. These cases are the hardest. You must be persistent to get through so many barriers he’s created to get to the heart of everything,” stated Hickory, and then added. “In fact, the first individual I was assigned to was much like him. They were hurt, distrustful, and fearful. However, they didn’t behind silence, though. They were very surly."
Soletus didn't know if he would like that anymore. Then again, at least someone who was surly was responsive. However, when he left, he didn't know if wanted to come back. Mien's behavior troubled him. Shy was one thing, but what he saw, that was different.
With nothing else to do, he settled alone in his room to think. He was patient, but not enough to be around someone who would start getting better and suddenly tumbled back down to start all over again. It hurt a little that his mother was right. However, he liked helping people, but usually helping people met doing something tangible. Something that could be fixed with physical strength. What he was doing wasn't anything like that. This was something of the mind. And while he received some training to aid his mind to deal with ugly and terrible situations, it didn’t extend to someone else.
Soletus rolled on his back, wishing his cousin was in the bunk above him so he could ask his opinion on the matter. Everyone should be back in a few more days. However, he didn't feel as if he could wait. The stubborn part of him wanted to stick it out, the practical part of him wanted to excuse himself and do something that was a lot more productive.
However, he failed to come up with an excuse by the next morning and continued his new routine of going to the chapel. First, he checked the boy's room. It was empty and his bed was better, but not there yet. He wasn't at the table either. Instead, Hickory was there sipping on a mug of tea with a lettering his hand.
"He's out back," stated the priest without looking up, his brow a line of disapproval.
"Is he talking?”
"He said nothing to me this morning, but I told him not to be so inconsiderate," said Hickory, annoyed by what he read. The priest gave Soletus his full attention. "That isn't the right word. I told him you are trying to help and that he needn't make it more difficult scaring you. That he needn't be afraid. Like I said, it's fear that holding him back."
"And what did he do?"
"The usual, he stared at his feet and nodded his head."
Why would I think anything different, thought Soletus.
"A package came for him, and he's been outside pouring over it. So, he might be distracted, but don't be afraid to talk to him. I know you got a bit discouraged yesterday. However, it was only stumble."
The priest was trying to reassure him. However, Soletus couldn't wait to be done with this duty. When he reached for the door latch, Brother Hickory added, "I appreciate what you are doing."
Soletus squeezed his eyes closed and sighed. He wouldn't be able to excuse himself easily.
When he stepped outside, the boy sat in the grass under the tree with a book in his lap. He glanced up and then looked back down, turning the page. Soletus crossed the yard, closing the distance between them by taking measured steps. Mien was still reading when Soletus eased himself down in front of him, minding the letters spread out in the grass.
"Hello," greeted Mien.
"Hi," replied Soletus. "I see you've something from home?"
Mien looked through his fringe of red hair. "My mother forwarded a package for me from my sister."
"Is she older than you?"
"No, we're twins."
Soletus couldn't imagine a female version of him would be a good thing or that he would start rambling.
"Her name is Mienerva. She's lives in Eroden and goes to the University," he said, closing the book and looking up at him. "She doesn't know what happened yet because she didn't yell at me in her letter."
"Okay," Soletus wasn't sure what to make of his talkativeness.
Mien's pale face flushed. "I'm sorry about yesterday. It's just easier if I don't talk about things because that happens. It’s not that I don't like you. I do. You're nice. You don't point out things like my hair and say I'm crazy. Well… you probably do now. I'm not! I don't think I am. I just… you ever get so scared that your heart starts beating really fast?"
"Well, I feel like that, a lot, but not here. This place is quiet. Nothing's here to hurt me," he said, sounding like he was trying to convince himself of that fact.
"Well, there isn't anyone here that would hurt you," assured Soletus. "Grace's Hope is kind of a sanctuary. People come here for refuge, and we don't tolerate those who bring trouble with them. Besides that, outside influences don't have much power here. There's nothing to be afraid of."
"Brother Hickory says the same," returned Mien.
"Then you shouldn't get so nervous about talking to me."
Mien looked down, ashamed. "I wasn't always like this. Things changed, and I became different."
"Well, what exactly changed," Soletus asked.
The book in Mien's hands started shaking.
Soletus started to stand. "Should I get Hickory?"
"No," cried Mien, alarmed. "It's alright, this is good. Talking I mean, I think."
Mien loosened his grip on the book he had and placed it beside him. He leaned against the tree. "You know my father had blue eyes like yours, not as bright though."
He became quiet after that and left that thought unfinished. Soletus didn't know how to reply. The boy said "had" meaning his father was dead. So, whoever had hurt him wasn't his father. Instead of fishing for details, Soletus looked beside the boy at the book and read the title.
"Wrenhold's Comprehensive Guide to Alchemic Compounds, sounds like a great bedtime story."
Mien's green eyes lit up. "It's the best guide out there for alchemy. My sister must have done something magnificent for her to get a copy for me."
"So, you understand this," said Soletus, amazed as he flipped through the book. It was nothing more than a jumble of words, numbers, diagrams, and descriptions that might as well be in another language.
"This is simple stuff. Alchemy is nothing more than what a wisewoman would use to cure people. Alchemists, however, don't just use those compounds to cure people."
It was a crazy man's trade as well. From what Soletus understood, alchemist did dangerous things to get what they wanted, even dying for their work. Their fellow alchemists might see such a thing as a success.
"So, what do you want to do today," asked Soletus.
"Rest," answered Mien, as he closed his eyes.
"I take it you didn't get much at home?"
Soletus realized what he asked after it was out of his mouth. He was not good at avoiding speaking about things he shouldn’t as well.
The boy's eyes cracked open. He denied nothing this time. "No, I didn't."
"Surely your mother didn't like it."
"She didn't have a choice. She did what could without making it worse. I probably made it worse for her."
"Everyone has a choice," returned Soletus.
Mien shook his head. "You don't understand because you don't know."
"You can tell me,” prompted Soletus.
The boy regarded him warily.
"Or we can save it for another day."
Mien regarded him graciously. He then asked in a meek voice. "Can I call you, friend? I didn't have many before. Most thought me strange."
"Sure," said Soletus a little too slowly and Mien caught his tone to his surprise.
"Why you say it like that?"
Mien then gave him a look. "I'm not stupid. I know what I must act like to you."
Soletus was speechless. He didn't want to deny it to be polite, but, at the same time, the boy showed awareness. He was sure a crazy person wasn't very aware, or their awareness came and left. Maybe Brother Hickory was right.
"You're different," he said, not refuting that. "I'm not used to different, but I can handle it."
"That's why I like you," announced Mien, but didn't explain himself. He became silent again and Soletus didn't prompt him again. He figured that Mien had spoken enough for that day.