Losing someone is indescribable. To me, it felt like having my heart ripped in two. And I felt like I was bleeding out and nothing stopped it. You don’t want to eat, you can’t sleep, you feel as if your own life is draining from you. But that part of me, that logical part that is the warden. That part who became the man this order looks up to was very young at the time. He was still an infant. He knew that we were in a terrible position. He knew I couldn’t stay there. He knew that I should be grateful I had Mien. And for that whole day, it didn’t feel real he was alive until that moment. Then, I didn’t want to take my eyes off him because I felt, at any moment, I could lose him too.
-Interview with Master Sol written by Patriarch Lord Theris’Heron.
The gloom came in two forms the next morning. The world outside the earthen home air heavy with fog of anything other than the sound of dripping water off of leaves. Inside, three young wardens sat with draw faces and in a state of moroseness. Mien, unfortunately, felt it even without his abilities. It was their body language of bowed heads and sagging shoulders. It made him feel even more miserable on top of his confusion about how it all happened. He was certain that Soletus sobbing himself to sleep the night before, helped bring it on. However, Mien couldn't blame him. How many people did he bury on top of his cousin? At least no one mentioned it when he woke up. They just milled around and focused on doing what needed to be done. That meant lighting a fire so they could eat.
Mien watched, unable to do much of anything. He tested his grip a few times and was certain a month-old babe could hold tighter than him. He was on the edge of drowsiness. His body was too heavy for him to sit upright and take the bowl handed to him. Food was very important in getting his strength back, however, it tasted like dust. Lyndon lay heavy on his mind. He didn’t understand what had happened that made him unable to save Soletus' cousin.
He knew he wasn’t a strong healer, but even he could stop someone from bleeding out. Maybe he tried and it caused him burnout. Maybe his abilities weren’t enough. No one said anything to him about it and maybe that’s why they were so quiet. They didn’t want to look at someone who failed. He stopped his mind. He knew that wasn't true. It wasn't, right? Soletus didn't want to tell him. Maybe that was the reason.
Mien shook his head, stopped the thoughts. He studied the rest of his band member to give himself something to focus on. Soletus' father, Oeric, told him to focus on anything other than his thoughts we he started down his worrying. Focus on what he could do. On what actually mattered. What mattered in his case as a healer was making sure his bandmates were well or not. They all looked as if they had been dragged, but there was life in them. Tyrus nibbled a spoonful down before stirring and scooping up more. Overall, he looked well. Doran slurped down his food noisily, stirring it like Tyrus, albeit in longer intervals. Soletus took two bites from his bowl and ended up scraping the rest of the contents into Mien’s. He rose from the fire pit and stood at the window, becoming a brooding sentinel.
That was unusual for the monk. He never turned down a meal.
Mien spooned whatever it was that Tyrus had whipped up in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed like the others, thinking what he needed to do of it there was anything he could do for Soletus Doran then broke the silence.
“Kellas has the mule with our food supplies,” he stated. “I know we scavenged what we could, but we can’t stay here forever.”
Soletus let out a flat, “I know.”
Doran gestured to Mien. “He’s putting a strain on what we do have.”
“No offense,” said Tyrus to Mien.
Mien understood. Chanters recovering from a burnout required constant feeding and they didn’t a have lots of food.
“Noted,” said the young monk quietly. Mien could see the muscles in Soletus’s arm bulged. He was getting annoyed.
Doran then added, “We’ve only have three horses as well.”
The young man then dropped his spoon in his empty bowl and laid it aside. “Well, what are we going to do? Wait here for Kellas to come back or are we leaving?”
Tyrus let out a tired moan. “Tits, give it a rest.”
Mien then ventured to ask, “So, no decision was made on what the next course of action?”
Soletus regarded him. “No. We disobeyed his orders by not following him. He told us to wait here.”
Mien then summed up everything as he understood it. “Okay, so we got involved in feud, we didn’t need to. Then we were ambushed. Instead of leaving, Kellas went on further because of some misguided need for retribution?”
“That about sums it up.”
“So, what are we waiting for? We need to leave,” said Mien, thinking that was obvious.
“There are a few things holding us back like Doran mentioned,” said Soletus. “My horse was killed so we have only three horses. We don’t have a map. Cole took Lyndon’s, and he was sharing it with Doran.”
“Well, isn’t it a straight shot back to Crossing?”
“For the most part," admitted Soletus.
“So again, why is there anything to discuss," wondered Mien. He didn't understand his friend's hesitation. There was the obvious. He didn't want to leave Lyndon. However, there was no way they could take him with them. If they were closer to home or it was very chilled outside.
Doran then added, “Soletus said he would decide on what to do once we stopped burying people. Here we are. What are we doing?”
“Leaving,” said Soletus. “The rain’s letting up, so we leave.”
Mien shivered. His friend’s voice made him feel cold. He didn’t even know how he felt about it, he just did. It worried him that coolness was caused by him being angry with him.
“Sol, was Lyndon’s death my fault,” he asked. “Did I fail as a combat chanter?”
Soletus returned his question with a look of utter confusion. It didn't help that Tyrus, and Doran looked as if he were crazy.
Tyrus then let out a chuckle. “Tits, if what you did was failing, then I want to see you at your best.”
“He’s right,” said Soletus. “You are the only reason we survived all of that. Why would you think you failed?”
“You sound cold,” said Mien softly.
Soletus then run a hand through hair, ruining the poorly done braiding job he had. “I’m sorry,” he said, with the warmth returning to his voice. “I’m tired. We’re all tired. My mind is just on the dead. There was a lot of them in pieces with fragments.”
Mien was reminded of the dead woman with the burnt face. “Pieces? Fragments?”
“Yeah, they were throwing clay shells at us.”
Clay shells were an explosive made from burning powder and used in mining. The military also used them on occasion to clear barriers, but not as a weapon. Such combat was considered barbaric and thus illegal. Anyone discovered transporting, making, and distributing them as weapons was put to death.
“So don’t think Lyn’s death had anything to do with you,” said Soletus with a reassuring sagging smile.
Doran held his head down. “We, on the other hand, were a bunch of useless dods in that fight. We were too scared to do anything.”
Soletus then said. “We’re trained to kill drass beast and to fight to disarm and disable. We aren’t trained to kill men, and neither are we supposed to. It goes against our vows.”
Tyrus then muttered, “You’re just saying that, hoping you can believe those words after seeing what Kellas said and did. Maybe make yourself feel better, too.”
Soletus becoming rigid. Mien knew if Lyndon was there, he would’ve said something to help his cousin. Except he wasn’t and there would be no more Lyndonisms to lighten the mood or bring them back into focus. Mien's heart ached. He watched his friend, wondering what his response to Tyrus would be. If didn’t have one or agreed with him, Mien was going to worry.
Soletus pushed himself from the window and faced them. “I'm not making myself feel better. I'm stating a fact. Our order has rules. We took a vow. Kellas acted against them. I don't give a damn what he believes. And the other can follow him to the Maw if they want to. In the end, he has to answer to the same god and authority we do. We're leaving, hands dirty but not bloodied.”
Tyrus shrugged his shoulders. “We do whatever, First Warden," he said, a little surly.
“I think we do what best,” replied Doran as if he didn't care what happened. Mien suspected he just wanted something to happen.
“Good. I don't know how much time we have before Kellas returns. However, since they aren't back, we have a head start. It won’t be much because we have three horses. Mien will ride one and we’ll rotate who rides the other two.”
“Nope,” said Doran with a shake of his head. “I’ve a scout horse. She's small and doesn't carry a lot of weight. Not to mention she's very picky about who rides her.”
“And pets her,” added Tyrus. “I tried to rub her shoulder yesterday, and she snapped at me.”
Soletus rolled his eyes. “Fine, Tyrus and I will rotate.”
Mien didn’t think he was strong enough to ride. He could barely stand to relieve himself. Sharing a saddle with someone might’ve been better, but the next lightest person was Doran. He didn’t want to ride with him. Tyrus and Soletus were nearly the same height and build. They would just have to make do.
The sun broke through the clouds late morning and with it came mugginess. It made packing uncomfortable. It would clearly rain again, so there was an urgency to leave and grab all they could. The only thing Mien carried was his satchel and had his bedroll tied to his saddle. Doran had his shoulder pack along with his own bedroll. Soletus walked with his shoulder pack while Tyrus had his bedroll with his things, so no one weighed down.
If they come across a drass beast, they were still well armed for the encounter. Tyus had his standard tao stone hunting knife, spear, and lasso. Soletus didn’t have his staff, but he had his lunge daggers and his curved bladed hunter knife. He appeared to have his armor for slaying drass beasts. Doran had his bow and a full quiver as well as a tao stone and steel alloy made dirk. It wasn't a standard Brotherhood weapon. They were unideal. They were entirely too hard to make and a one-time use weapon when it came to drass beasts. The alloy made it possible to make a fatal wound on a drass beast. However, the steel would still corrode in contact with drass beast blood and it would still change colors with elven blood. The only advantage that the dirk had was less chance of it shattering if Doran came into contact with a sword. Which was the reason he had it as a scout.
Before they left, Soletus took Mien to Lyndon’s grave. On the side of what earthen dwellings, and sod houses, were the graves that Soletus and the others had dug. They were dug in a mass line where each head was marked with a stone. However, there was one plot that was separated from the other fifteen markers of the mass grave. It was Lyndon’s. There was a stone and two broken arrows crossed together that marked it.
“It’s wrong leaving him here,” said Soletus, holding what appeared to be Lyndon’s shoulder sash. His thumbs rubbed the brown sash right above a dark stain of blood.
“It does. I feel bad that I don’t remember how he died,” said Mien softly.
Soletus’s eyes became dark and distance. “Remember after I was bitten when you first arrived, and we were sitting eating that melon behind the chapel?”
Mien nodded. He was given that melon from widow Saffron for being brave. He loved melon and could’ve eaten the entire thing himself, instead shared it instead because he liked the cousins.
“He promised that the next time I needed saving, he’ll do it. He did.”
Mien grimaced. He understood why Soletus was acting the way he was. The young monk probably wanted to exchange places. He didn’t have to say it, but Mien knew that was likely how he felt. It made him wonder how much of Lyndon’s death did Soletus see.
Soletus grasped his shoulder. “I promise to tell you everything when we get home. Right now, I think it’s better all around.”
Mien nodded but there was a part of him that desperately wanted to know why he couldn't he save him.
Why couldn’t I save him, wondered Mien.
Mien reached up and held the wrist attached to the hand on his shoulder. It wasn’t a gesture for everyone, and certainly not another male. Soletus was the exception. Where he could do such gestures and he would understand. Mien didn’t have words to say. He couldn’t say anything. Words were stuck in his throat and threatened to choke him.
“I didn’t bring you here to start crying,” said Soletus with his own voice shaking.
Mien didn’t bother correcting him. The young man knew perfectly well he wasn’t and didn’t cry. Well, only when he was very happy, and he wasn’t happy then. He patted his hand to get him to remove it. It felt like a vice on his shoulder.
“You think they can come back for him,” he asked. “I mean, if he saved you, he needs to be buried under the Honor Ash.”
“It not something the Brotherhood normally does, but maybe I can see to it,” said Soletus. “Come on, time to leave.”
Mien looked back at the long lump of soil. Saying goodbye in his mind. There was no point in saying aloud. Lyndon wasn't there. His soul was long gone. He closed his eyes, turning away. He should’ve said a pray being a priest. However, his thoughts were on the three of them again.
Lyndon and Soletus were the friends he wished he had while growing up. They did everything he imagined other boys would do together. Lyndon was the mastermind to all their adventure for the most part. They would get into minor trouble, picking on each other, roughhousing, arguing, and getting into minor trouble him and his sister would get into. It was all boy stuff and he liked it.
Somehow, Mien just blended in with them despite being weird compared to them. The two took his oddities in stride and, as Lyndon said, they were going to make him a man-boy out of him. Other times, he didn’t blend in well at all. The cousins would forget he was there. They knew each other too well and Mien didn’t know how to insert himself into a conversation without being awkward. However, Lyndon helped him out with that. He was boisterous compared to Soletus. The young monk had the ability to be just as animated but mostly, he was the reasoning calm one. The one having to reign Lyndon back in.
Soletus wasn’t that person currently.
Mien didn't know what he was currently. He would've given anything for his abilities to be back for a moment to hear friend’s voice as he normally did. Instead, he sensing what little he could. However, Mien didn't know why. When they got back to the others, it was more clear. Soletus was no longer showing his vulnerability. Instead, he was acting far too the point and ordered Doran and Tyrus to their horses. The two exchanged looks at his snappy tone. He sounded angry, but Mien could feel the young man's aching heart in his own chest. He shouldn’t have been able to do that recovering from burnout. In fact, there was something off about the way he was receiving the emotion. It was distinctly Soletus' emotion.
Doran retorted sourly, "Yes sir.”
Mien tilted his head, trying to figure it out. Normally, a From Doran's reply, he there should have been a sour taste in his mouth from the young man’s tone, but he didn’t. His head still felt like there was a bucket over it. However, he could feel Sol. It wasn't the first time. The young monk was chanter gifted, meaning he had minor chanter-like abilities. He couldn't use phrases, but there was a lot more to being a chanter than phrases. So, it wasn't a far stretch that maybe what he felt was Soletus projecting. Mien wouldn’t know until he was well enough again.
Soletus led them quickly away from the empty dwellings. After they vanished from view, they fell into listless silence. No one else seemed to eye the trees and dark places for someone to hide. But Mien watched. He might not have his enhanced hearing, but he could still see. He guessed that only certain parts of the gorge was inhabited. The rest was covered in growth. He imagined the entire place being desolate. However, the red and tan sheer rock wall towered each side of them, didn't keep out vines with scrub bushed clung to the sides in some places. The floor was covered in thick growth of grass and wildflowers.
Grey and black rotten stomps announced where large trees had been cut and harvested. There was even a broken weathered ax handle leaning against one of the trees. It had been there for years given how sun bleached and thin the handle looked. Ahead of him there was a dark tree line that appeared unwelcoming. Mien focused his attention on that wondered around him because there wasn’t anything else to do. No one was speaking. In fact, there was more life in the trees as squirrels darted from tree to trees bringing down water droplets on them.
The young chanter liked natural noises as they were softer. If anything sounded out of place and sharp, it could be heard. However, he didn't enjoy it then because of the heavy atmosphere around him. Lyndon would be the one lightening it up. He would start with Tyrus, as he could help liven things up. Then the both of them would say off-handed things to Doran to poke at him to the point Soletus would join in trying to wrangle chaos. Mien would watch the entire thing play out, amused. It happened before when they were riding to Crossroads. The memory made Mien smile. It waned as they travel along in a tight quiet pack.
It was mid-afternoon when the group came to the winding road that led out of the gorge. Mien followed the zig-zagged path going upward in a sickening narrow and angled slope. Ill ease gripped his stomach. Not because he feared heights; he just didn’t like high unsafe places.
“Why ya wearing that expression again,” asked Tyrus, bringing his horse to a stop beside him. “We’re going up not down this time.”
“That doesn’t change the slope or narrowness of the road,” returned Mien.
“We’ll rest before tackling it,” announced Soletus.
Doran eyed the slope and then the sky. Like a good scout, he made his assessment and said, “I don’t know if that’s safe to go up on horseback.”
Soletus crossed the distance between them and spoke to him in a hushed voice.
Mien swung himself off the back of his mare and his legs buckled. He caught hold of the saddle right as Tyrus grabbed him. He guided him to a flat rock.
“Here,” said Tyrus, unwrapping a cloth and provided him with a single stale travel cake. Mien took the disk. Before he bit down, he tested a corner of it with his teeth and was met with rock solid resistance. He gave Tyrus an unhappy look.
“Just break off a piece and suck on it,” instructed Tyrus. “That’s what I’ve been doing.”
The young chanter wasn’t sure how he was supposed to do that. He would need to treat is like hardtack and dip it in a mug of something. He started licking it because he was hungry, but an old travel cake wasn’t going to sate him. Rest would have been nice as well as his entire body ached with his head throbbing the loudest.
“Can you walk, Mien,” asked Soletus.
Mien jerked his head up and then regretted it. A stab of pain traveled from between his eye and the back of his head. “No.”
Soletus studied their path with discontent. “I didn’t want to linger down here. We’ve a better view up there.”
“Then I ride,” he told him.
The young monk’s head swayed. “It’s not safe. I don’t want to lose you to stupidity.”
“And I’m holding the band back,” Mien said with as much finality as he could muster.
That’s what everyone expected out of him, even in Oeric’s training band. Early on, they thought he was the weakest member. A few of them pointed out every fault they could to make that statement true. Most of the time, it was their own action that caused issues, and First Warden Oeric had no trouble pointing it out. However, Mien tried to be the best he could be, and he wasn’t going to be a burden then.
“We need to keep going, Sol,” he reasoned. “That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but I’m not taking any risks.”
“The air is moisture ladened. It will rain and when it does, we can’t make it up that incline. Without waiting. Then what do we do, wait for Kellas to catch up?”
Mien thought Soletus would be placated logic, but he swayed his head, stating, “I just don’t want to do anything reckless.”
“And I don’t need my stupid big brother sheltering me,” he returned.
Soletus glowered at him.
“Look, I know you’re upset about Lyndon—”
The cords in Soletus’s neck tightened. He spoke in a low defensive voice that suggest otherwise. “I’m not upset.”
“You’re clear as a river. I don’t need my abilities to know you are,” he told him gently.
Mien didn’t want a confrontation with Soletus. His friend wasn’t as much as a steady rock as he had thought. After the fight with his father that he lost, released a more visceral part of him. Pain caused him to have little self-restraint in the months following. He became sharper tongued and hostile at points. He lashed out and in a way, it was better than how Mien dealt with it. Keeping it buried inside of him until it exploded outward.
Kiao was better at handling him when he was at his most surly. Honestly, a gentle touch on his shoulder or arm got his attention and Kiao talked him down. Lyndon could do it too because he was Lyndon. Mien was good at calming scared people. He wasn't sure about the sorrow fueled anger.
“Lyndon has nothing to do with my decision. You’re weak,” reasoned Soletus.
Mien sighed and gave him his best look of annoyance. “Wow. So, I guess all these years of training hasn’t raised your opinion of me.”
Soletus' bow lifted in confusion. “What are you going on about?”
“I’m burned out. Not weak. So, stop holding my hand and being over protective.”
“I know that,” he said and then pushed a hand through his hair and Mien could see his lips forming and was about to tell him “but” and stopped him.
“I’m serious! We can discuss it now or do I hit you to get you to stop?”
Mien was indeed serious, but he more or less wanted the young monk to stop thinking just about him but the bigger picture as well. They needed to get home and he didn’t need special treatment.
“Can we talk about this later,” said Soletus.
“If you let me ride, then yes.”
“Fine. I’m going with Doran to see the how bad the trail is. You two stay right here.”
Tyrus saluted him. “Yes Sir, First Warden.”
Soletus shot Tyrus a dirty look before he followed Doran up the hills to the foot of the trail.
Tyrus then stated, “Tits, how did you tame that beast? I can’t reason with him without a spat.”
“That’s because he doesn’t like you,” said Mien plainly and then thought, I’m not sure how much I like you.
The young man rubbed the back of his neck. “I guess I’ve given him more than a few reasons not to. But I hung out with Lyndon a lot. That should count as me being okay?”
It didn’t. Soletus was growing apart from Lyndon a bit. It wasn’t because they stopped liking each other, it was the fact you could count on Soletus for more work than play. His time was split between his band and the huntresses. The most socializing he did was take Briar with him when Mien and Kiao wanted to do something together. Lyndon gained a separate set of friends who liked to spend their free time being young men.
Tyrus was Lyndon’s friend after they come to terms. They were a lot alike, but the young man in front of him didn’t have his grace, was louder, and sometimes crass. Many girls in town loved him. Kiao claimed it was because of his dimpled rascal smile and unrestrained behavior.
Mien felt inadequate in comparison because he wasn't handsome like Tyrus or Soletus. Yet Kiao wasn't bothered by it. She said she didn't want a rascal of a young man and dimples were an overrated feature. In fact, she found Tyrus annoying. He came into the infirmary one day and tried his charm on her into doing a favor for him. It went about as far as an oak branch would through a sowing needle. In fact, Kiao had taken that oak branch and verbally beat him with it. It was one of the most glorious and terrifying things Mien had ever witnessed. Though from that day, Tyrus and several of the other junior wardens dubbed her Sister Spice.
“Soletus has a long memory,” Mien told him. “He’s a nice fellow but, you have to prove that you’re okay.”
Tyrus chuckled. “Ya know, I imagined you to be a lot different.”
Mien cocked a brow at him.
“Just from what everyone has said about you,” he said. “Well just Quill. You know Quill?”
Mien nodded. He was the scout in Oeric’s training band.
“He’s sleeps in the room beside me in the dorms. He would tell me all sorts of stories about you.”
That jackass, thought Mien.
“He kept talking about how strange you were. Said that you went from mouthy to tongue tied in an instant or anxious to the calmest one among them.”
Mien was comprised of contradictions. Being under Soletus’s father’s wing started to highlight the contrasts in his behavior. On the field, everyone noted some situations didn’t bother him as much as others. Right now, their current situation didn’t worry him too much. They were a couple of days from town and they could get supplies. It was mostly Lyndon’s death that concerned him. What was going to happen when they come back? Who was going to tell his parents? What would he say to Kiao? When was Lyndon’s death finally going to hit him? He didn’t want it to. He didn’t want that feeling of loss to strike him as it did when his father died.
“That’s how I am,” said Mien. He felt nauseous suddenly, and he slumped forward.
Tyrus got down on his knees in front of him. “Remember, I’m crossed trained as a field medic. If there is something I can do, tell me.”
Mien nodded. “How about food and a bed?”
“I want a good dose of that too,” he said, and he turned his head. “They’re back.”
Indeed, Soletus and Doran were.
“The road looked fine as far as we could see,” stated Soletus. “Doran will be leading followed by Tyrus, and Mien and I will take the rear.”
Mien scowled at him.
“I’m not being a mother hen. Logically, the strongest person should take hold of your horse if something happens,” he said.
Tyrus looked insulted. “You saying I’m not strong?”
A wry grin quirked the corner of Soletus’s lips. “I didn’t see you scale the back of that behemoth.”
“That’s ‘cause I don’t like soiling my shorts,” returned Tyrus. “I’ve my dignity, you know.”
The trek up from the floor of the gorge was slow going. The incline wasn’t bad at first. Mien was able to handle his weight being pulled behind him. However, his legs were getting weary, and his horse was getting restless the more they traveled. The creature kept letting out nervous snorts and jerking her head at every time it slipped just a little.
The young chanter’s hand gripped the saddle horn until his knuckles turned white. He looked to the side and saw they were a good hundred feet in the air. It was a straight drop parallel sheer rock with nothing to slow down his descent if he fell. He swallowed the lump in his throat that was determined to choke him and looked forward.
When they made it to what appeared to be their last turn. Doran, who was leading, stopped. His attention was fixed across the gorge. Mien followed his gaze and saw smoke rising in the air.
“Soletus,” shouted Doran.
“I see it,” he returned. His eyes tightened.
“What do you think it is, a camp,” Tyrus asked as the smoke started to thicken into a great dark, billowing cloud. “Not a camp then,” he concluded.
It’s a structure, thought Mien. No multiple structures. All of them wooden to cause a place like that. Maybe some kind of oil involved as well.
They all stood there watching the smoke becoming ominous as it thickened. Then a boom shook the air causing birds to rise from the trees in terror. Mien and the others flinched at the sound. The horses got restless again. Mien placed his hand on his horse and gazed across the tree canopies troubled.
Tyrus then guessed. “It sounded like a clay shell. A really big one.”
"Close," stated Mien. "That was a rock buster."
Before Tyrus could ask him what that was, there was another explosion not as loud as the first, but a series of smaller explosions went off. Dust rose in their air mixing in with the smoke. "Rock buster bust rock, huh," he finally stated.
Mien’s mare tossed her head, yanking Soletus' arm in the process snapping the entire groups attention off the rising smoke. “The horses are getting nervous,” he said, rubbing her neck. “Let’s keep going, we’re almost to the top.”
“What that were Kellas is at,” Mien asked.
Soletus nodded grimly. “Probably. He said, he was going to clean and burn the filth out of the gorge."
“I hope that includes himself,” muttered Tyrus.
The young chanter twisted back into his saddle and watched the black smoke billow upward reaching for the sun. His heart felt sick. He got the sinking suspicion many met their deaths down there.
And I'm back. I started this earlier today and was hit with fatigue and then had to go pick up our truck from the shop. Then the day spiraled into distractions with multiple instances of disappointment.