Mien scrambled to his feet and summed up another burst of energy to get out of range of one of Brother Nimbus’s hot light orbs. He could feel the closet one nipping at his heels.
“You’re slowing down,” shouted Nimbus and sent another barrage of orbs close to his back. Mien put all his focus on his next obstacle, the balance log and not the warm sensation he begun to feel. He clambered the log and tried to hurry across it as quickly as he could. He nearly lost his balance a few times, but the light orbs behind him gotten warmer and it encouraged him to go faster.
“Cross it faster,” shouted First Warden Oeric as he run backwards beside him.
They were trying to encourage him to decrease his time in finishing the course because average wasn’t good enough for the two madmen. They felt he had to be better than the average combat chanter. Towards the end of the log, he started to slip and ended up leaping off, instead of completing the last foot. The jump gave him more distance as he sped to the second log wall on the course. He scurried up it, no longer feeling the strain in his arms when he first started.
Soletus was right about his wimpy arms.
He raced onward towards the hurdles with ease. To him, they were the most trying part of the course. He made it over the first two hurdles and then he felt heat again going over the third one.
“You’re slowing down,” shouted the first warden, who was now ahead of him. Mien pushed himself to sail over the last hurdle. However, instead of flying over the long jump with the pool of mud, one foot didn’t clear the wooden post, and he flopped face first in the mud with a hard splat. He sucked the air back that was knocked out in a big gulp as he pulled himself from the mud. His entire body was jarred from that impact. His motivation was shot. However, he possessed a small bit of determination and he crawled forward a few feet before collapsing with his hand stretched out before him. All the determination he had was spent. He couldn’t will himself up again to scale the rope and ring the bell on top.
He felt a boot nudge him.
“Get up and try again,” said Oeric.
The man had been running alongside of him didn’t sound winded. In fact, he was never winded or tired. Mien was certain Soletus’s father was a being made of pure energy and one that was determined to see him made lifeless from exhaustion. Mien continued gasping for air as if he didn’t hear him. He rolled to his back and stared off into the overcast sky. Oeric’s scarred face eclipsed it.
“Are you giving up,” he asked.
Surely, his heaving chest was a clear sign that Mien was spent. He had warm-up exercises earlier that day with his three laps around the training field. It was usually two, and then chanting exercises with Nimbus that went on forever. Then it was the obstacle course.
Nimbus joined them and said to Oeric, “It’s clear if he’s chased, he makes mistakes.”
“But he needs to build more stamina to master this course and he will not do that by running slow,” said Oeric.
“He needs more magical stamina as well or he’s going to end hurting himself if he uses his abilities too much.”
“Indeed, average chanters have poor stamina,” said Oeric grimly. “Maybe it’s not his endurance that his problem, perhaps it’s his drive. We aren’t putting the right kind of pressure on him. Perhaps have him slay two live drass beasts in the pens daily for a week he’ll perform the way you want magically.”
Nimbus bobbed his head. “Sounds like a good idea. Maybe you need to start him around the town wall and chase him as a wolf. Nip at him every time he slows down.”
Oeric crossed his arms and agreed with a nod. “Teeth might be the better motivator.” Soletus’s father stared down at him. “Mien, we are going to start with the new strategy discussed until you are able to meet the demands of what a combat chanter is expected to do.”
“An above average combat chanter, get it right,” said Nimbus.
Mien squeezed his eyes shut. He hated it when they acted like two brothers. Soletus found it humorous when he heard them going at it one day. He wouldn’t have found it funny if he was ever the subject of their dry jesting. He was happy that his father had found a friend. Too bad Nimbus’s lightheartedness had rubbed off on Oeric.
The older combat chanter finally let out an amused chuckle and held his hand out. “Come on stand up. We aren’t going to push you anymore today.”
Mien ignored his hand. Be gone, I’ll get up when I please.
Nimbus then gauge the distance from him to the rope. “You almost made it and could’ve if you got up.”
Mien moaned and stood up wet, cold, and weighted down. He pulled off his shirt and Nimbus’s brow dipped.
“Have you been losing weight again?”
He didn’t know why every other chanter he came across seemed to notice his ever-fluctuating weight. Ever since he started training, he was either underweight or barely at an acceptable weight.
The man put his fists on his hips. “I’m not going to accuse you of not eating as other’s have, but I didn’t see you in the mess hall last night.”
“I ended up falling asleep in my room and missed the horn, Sir. Kiao brought me something,” he stated softly feeling embarrassed.
“Good, maybe he can also make you devour a whole side of deer every week before the trial. I can give you the magical knowledge and Oeric can train your body, but if you are underweight when they weigh you, we can’t help you there.”
Mien grimaced. It was out of his control.
“I know it not your fault either,” assured the older chanter. “I think every chanter struggles with their weight at your age. It’s just these muscle-headed monks are going to take one look at you and send you back to wasting your time meditating.”
“I’ve no issue with his build,” said Oeric.
“That’s because you don’t have standards,” Nimbus retorted.
“Like you’ve room to talk. You’re out here with me,” returned Oeric and then looked dead at Mien. “He’s fine. Since I was given permission to lead a training band, he would be what I would look for.”
Mien's face lifted into a bright smile. “You want me to be in your training band?”
The first warden nodded. “It’ll give you the opportunity to make a reputation for yourself. When it’s time for you to transfer into a band, there won’t be hesitation.”
“Thank you, Sir!”
“It won’t matter if you don’t pass the trials,” he said. “I need you to work hard. They’ll be looking for any reason to disqualify you. So, you must give them zero reasons not to.”
That was something Mien was determined to do. He wanted to be part of something bigger. While he liked the infirmary, it just didn’t seem like enough for his penitence. Not only that, Soletus and Lyndon told a lot of stories. He liked the sound of being part of a band. Not to mention, Soletus kept on encouraging him to at least try. Brother Hickory thought it was a good idea. However, the other priests were trying to talk him out of it because they thought him to be too incapable. Not enough strength of mind or so they claimed. The Arch Priest told him if he could find a first warden or master who was willing to get him field ready, as well as find a combat chanter, he would let him.
Mien was certain the man said that to pacify him. Soletus suggested he ask his father to get him field ready. Mien didn’t want to do it. Oeric was intimidating and was tough to please, according to anyone who trained under him. They were right; however, he was also fair. Kiao talked Nimbus to train him under the terms that if he didn’t believe that Mien could do it, he could withdraw his support. Nimbus never withdrew his support.
Mien, of course, had to confront his fear of speaking to adult men. He was never comfortable around men before his uncle married his mother. Afterwards, that discomfort turned into a fear of them hurting him. Oeric and Nimbus were no exception to the rule. Oeric more so than Nimbus. He had a lot of physical power, not to mention he was fierce. He didn’t want that vicious need to protect his own, to be focused on him.
Then an incident made it clear that his fear was irrational. He was out training with Oeric on a hot day, and he passed out from the heat. When he woke up, he got the full brunt of the man’s criticism for not telling him he wasn’t feeling good. Mien would’ve never come back for training if not for the fact he felt the man’s concern. It was so strong and close to a panic. Also, Soletus told him that Oeric carried him from the far field all the way to the infirmary concerned he went too far. Kiao thought it was touching, though she didn’t appreciate his hovering around until Mien woke up.
It scared Mien to come back to training, but Oeric picked up where they left off at as if nothing happened. However, he made sure Mien had plenty of water and breaks. The man never insulted him or talked down to him. He was nothing like his uncle. However, he was too serious to be his father. The man was a very jovial and boisterous man. People would say they could hear his father before he was seen. Mien was thankful that Oeric wasn’t like that. He didn’t want to allow himself to think that anyone could replace him.
They excused Mien after that, so he went to the infirmary to meet Kiao. However, to his surprise, Alder was watching with two more patients in their care.
“Where’s Kiao,” Mien asked.
“Off and resting today, Brother Oli’s orders,” said Alder.
Mien studied the first of the new patients, a woman who was lying on the bed curled up and crying softly.
“She was just picked up off the streets. Claimed she didn’t know who she was and hadn’t had blighter in three days. I’m not sure when the last time she ate or drank give she was also dehydrated,” Alder then pointed to the man from the previous day. He was lying in bed perfectly still with his blood-shot eyes wide and unblinking. “He’s not said anything. I figure he might be too embarrassed to speak.” Alder then pointed to a corner to a boy. “He took his first dose and reacted badly.”
Mien walked over there. Indeed, the boy had reacted badly to it. A red rash covered his arms. A flash of a memory he would’ve liked to have forgotten, appeared in his mind briefly and the bitter tastes of blighter filled his mouth then it gradual sweet. Then another bitter chuck touched his tongue.
He flashed back to the present. His hands were shaking. Mien pushed the memory from his mind. He didn’t want to lose himself there.
Focus on the sickness not the patient and not me, he repeated to himself again and again.
He then noticed something else odd about the boy. The rash was only on his arms. Mien lifted the collar of the boy’s shift. There was none on his neck or his chest as far as he could see. Mien picked the boy's arm up and noticed that the redness stopped where his sleeves stopped. And that the rash was very odd. He examined the small bumps closer. They appeared to be blisters than rash bumps.
Alder manifested beside him. “I figure you would go to him.”
The boy was young. Not even eighteen yet. He still had freckling around his nose.
“Does blighter really cause that amount of rashes?”
“It can when it’s not processed correctly,” he said, putting the boy’s arm down.
“Don’t get too involved with Kiao,” said Alder abruptly.
Mien tilted his head up. “Huh?”
“She’s been getting too friendly. I mean, it's fine she speaks with you, but Lyndon and Soletus not so much.”
Mien stared at him. He wasn’t following.
“Because their monks.”
“You know how they are. They’re unrestrained sometimes. I’m not saying that all of them lack self-control, but most of them like to push the Brotherhood's boundaries. Lyndon can be one of them.”
Mien still didn’t understand.
“You’re friends with him.”
The young man crossed his arms. “Kiao will hang out with you more now that you know, so she’ll be around him and he likes her. I’m afraid Lyndon will distract her from work and ruin what she has.”
Mien stared at him. Is he being a protective idiot?
Mien realized his surroundings and felt better if they didn’t talk about Kiao around patients, not even sleeping ones. He motioned for Alder to follow him. He led the young man to the basement stairs.
“You do realize she’s going to do what she wants,” he told him. She was beyond the age of accepting being looked after.
“I’m trying to keep her from being found out. The more people who know, the harder it is. Have you ever thought about what would happen if the order knew?”
“She said there were no hard rules say that a chanter priest needed to be male in the Brotherhood.”
Alder sighed. “Yes, the rules are a little ambiguous and she could fall into a loophole, but that doesn’t mean she’ll be okay. I mean, did she tell you everything about herself?”
“She told me more than I wanted to know,” said Mien.
Alder rubbed the back of his neck. “But did she tell you everything?”
Mien couldn’t imagine anything more, so he nodded his head.
“She wanted to tell you a year ago but, I was afraid you might give her away and still am. In those moments when she’s going through her issues, it’s hard to cover up for her sometimes.”
Mien quirked an eyebrow at Alder. He didn’t see why he would be a problem.
“And it takes you forever to adapt to change. You’ll be awkward around her. And Kiao hates awkwardness. You were so uncomfortable yesterday she ended up coming to your room to talk to you.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m going to give her away.”
“But you’re transparent without meaning to be. You display everything about yourself all the time.”
Mien gave him a flat stare. “I let you see what you need to. There are plenty of things you don’t know.”
“I don’t think that’s a bet you want to make.”
The young chanter stared straight into Alder’s gaze. He was getting annoyed. Alder always believed he knew everything. “I don’t think that a bet you want to make. And getting back on subject, Kiao is just one more thing I have to get used to. I mean, imagine having your life turned upside down where you go from life in an estate to a monastery. From the way I’ve been going, you would think they are completely the same.”
Alder became rueful. “You’re upset with me.”
“Your powers of observation are keen as ever,” he said, and started to leave. Alder grabbed him by the upper arm. Mien jerked away and slapped his hand.
Alder held his hands up. “Above and below, calm down. I wasn’t trying to hurt you. Look, I don’t want her to go through what she went through with me again.”
Mien inquired him with an arch of his brow.
“It was hard for me to accept her when she first arrived. I suppose I thought little her,” he said and dug into his smock sleeve. He handed Mien a slip of parchment. “Kiao wanted me to give you this.”
Mien took it.
“I told her I would not give it to you if I thought it would be a bad idea, but here.”
Mien took the paper and unfolded it. It read:
Meet me in town, in the arboretum on the bridge.
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