During that rush was when I met Kellas’Rook. The time when he was a good man. He lived in that town. No family, an orphan who grew up there and didn’t leave. We got along the moment we met. A rarity at that age. He was outspoken and loud, but not bossy like Talore. He tried to rally the town into agree with us. When it was clear that the dam would fail, he was the first one to join us to help with the evacuation. He pulled his weight and went above and beyond to save everyone. True warden material and the first person I recruited. He was with Talore and me as we gave one final sweep of the town. I sent him on with the rest when Talore decided to search for any stubborn elders. I had Tyr count the people as they crossed the bridge, so I knew everyone was there. However, he wanted to make sure. That thoroughness
made him a good leader. However, that was the one time it cost him.
The arboretum had always been a place of sanctuary for Kiao. It was one of the first places that Hickory took her to help her feel at peace. Once a week, they went to the pond so she could feed the red carp that swam in the water. However, she wasn't going to her favorite bridge, where she would meet her friends. Instead, she wanted to go beneath the stretching arms of one of the largest trees there. It was the place where Soletus confided with her about being neth. After that, it served as a place where she and Mien to meet privately and out of the prying eyes of Elnos. Mien would settle down in a crook between two roots to play his flute. Any song that he had heard, he would play it for her. Usually reels, as she loved hearing him play a furiously fast dance tune.
The walk there was calming her down from Elnos's visit. The sense of peace solidified as she crossed beneath the archway at the entrance. There were few people there, as most were working at that time. It was perfect for privacy and a little meditating when she got to her tree. However, when she rounded the bend, she heard voices come from the other side of the tree. What they said made her stop in mid-stride.
“Kellas, we have to do something,” hissed a man who sounded distressed.
Kiao eased forward and stretched her hearing.
“What if they come back?” It was Valhart.
The young woman veered off the side of the path and into the moss and grass. She sunk down, crouching, and listened from behind a thin tree.
“We have the advantaged seeing as they’re lost.”
“How,” snapped Valhart. “I’ve got Icus breathin’ down my back. He knows somethin’ ain’t right.”
Kellas sighed. “Look, Soletus and his bunch are minor a concern.”
Kiao heard him hit Kellas. It sounded like a slap on his arm or shoulder.
“Dammit Kellas, stop trying to soothe me like I’m some old vexed biddy!”
“Then stop acting like one,” returned Kellas laughing. “We have this. Just keep repeating what we rehearsed. If you are worried about the gorge. Don’t. There is nothing linking us to the gorge. It just looks like in-fighting that turned deadly. The Arch Monk will focus on the boys for insubordination.”
“Yeah, but still—”
“Look, I know Icus. He’s hard on junior wardens. Just stick to the plan. Also, I'll talk to them as soon as I have access to them. I do it alone and not send in Cole to screw it up. And if you can't handle Icus, just request to go in the mediation chamber because of guilt.”
Kiao crept closer. She glimpsed the two through the fine leaves of the bush in front of her. She saw the back of Kellas’s boots. She tried maneuverer to see Valhart’s face, but her foot settled on a twig, and it snapped. She held her breath to listen if they noticed. However, Valhart was to upset and spoke over the cracked branch.
“And what about Oeric?”
“What about him,” asked Kellas at the same time Kiao thought it.
“You know how he is,” said Valhart.
“Don’t worry about him,” Kellas dismissed.
“Once that nose of his catches wind of something he can sink his teeth into, he will.”
Kellas shifted, making Kiao back up slowly.
“I’ll talk to him. I have the perfect thing that’ll stop him in his tracks,” he said nonchalantly, which was in sharp contrast with Valhart’s agitation.
“Are you even taking this seriously? We broke at least a dozen rules doing what we did. We’ve been too lucky. It going to run out.”
“What are you afraid of? Dias punishing us? We did right by what we did.”
“N-n-o,” he stammered and then cleared his throat. “I’m afraid of ol’Wolf-eyes making sure that the worms can’t even a piece of me to digest if he ever finds out the truth.”
“So, how’s not acting like vexed biddy working?”
“Above and below, Oeric isn’t going to kill you. As long as you stick to the plan. Look, I’ll talk to him today so you’ll never have to worry about him.”
Kiao had to talk to Oeric first. She stood out of her crouch, backing until she was back on the dirt path. Once she heard the crunch of dirt under her slippers, she hurried off towards the Sheldmartin home. The young woman cut across the main street and through the market, jogging and walking as fast as she could. The markets weren't crowded. However, she managed to bump into two women with arm loads of goods twice and apologizing profusely for what she had done. Once she arrived at the lane he lived on, she slowed down.
When she arrived at the foot of the path to the house above her, she leaned on her knees, winded. Before she could straighten up, a graying black snout greeted her. Onyx, Oeric’s obsidian hound, tongue lashed the tip of her nose. She patted the large dog on the head and ears while she caught her breath. When Kiao was done, she turned her hair back to its normal color and shuffled her aching legs to the door.
She looked at the dark windows. It didn’t look as if anyone was home, but she knocked anyway. It cracked open slightly. There was no one standing at eye level with her, so she looked down and she saw the top of Saedee’s head.
“Hello,” said the girl with a bright smile on her face.
Kiao crouched down. “Hi Saedee, is the First Warden here?”
She held a tiny finger over her lips. “Shhh. Papa’s sleeping.”
“Oh! Is he feeling bad?”
She nodded, looking sad. “He’s still sick from me making him sick. I tried to make him feel better with flowers. They aren’t helping much.”
“Well, sometimes flowers take their time to work,” said Kiao.
The girl looked doubtful. “I think Papa’s really sad about Sol, too. Is he dead?”
The priestess stared at the girl‘s large innocent pastel eyes with uncertainty.
“No, Soletus isn’t dead,” said Kiao at length. “Just missing.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?”
“Well no. Missing is just being lost. Dead is when someone’s soul has left their body.”
“So could his soul be gone and him be missing at the same time?”
“Yes, it could happen. But we don’t know that for sure,” she said, not wanting to scare the child into thinking her brother was gone.
The door then opened wider and Kiao saw a pair of trousered legs appear behind Saedee.
Kiao looked up to see Oeric looking down at her curiously. “Sorry First Warden, I was trying to be quiet.”
Saedee hugged her father’s legs. Oeric patted the wispy hairs on her head down.
“I was just lying down. What brings you here?”
“I need to talk to you. I went walking in the arboretum and overheard Kellas and Valhart talking.”
Oeric motioned for her to come in and as he closed the door, she explained what she had heard. Oeric settled in a chair and listened, with Saedee sitting between them. When Kiao was done, he leaned back in his seat and folded his arms over his chest.
“Good job. This confirms they’re hiding something. Makes you wonder about the gorge.”
“We need to go straight to Enforcer Icus or the Arch Monk about this!”
“No,” he said sharply. “I don’t want to risk Kellas finding out you were the one who heard the conversation. Trust me when I say, this is for the sake of your safety. We wait. We need to learn more.”
“What else is there to learn,” she exclaimed. “We know Kellas lied, that something happened in the gorge, and Lyndon is dead.”
Oeric smirked. “To start, I’m curious what he has that’s going to get me to stop me from investigating.”
“Kellas was very sure that he could. Do you to know each other well or something?”
Oeric nodded. “We used to be good friends.”
“And he’s not now, why?”
The wry grin on his face sunk. “I found out what kind of warden he really is.”
He said that right as there was a knock on the door. The man sighed and used the table to push himself upright before walking stiffly towards it.
“Coming,” he shouted and opened it.
Kiao turned to see Kellas smiling at him.
“Oeric, I know it’s been a long time since I walked through your threshold,” he said, stepping and looking around. “Nothing much has changed here.” His attention then fell to Kiao.
She waved at him.
His brow rose and gave Oeric a questioning look. Kiao then realized her bright and colorful clothing wasn’t anything close to her work dress and smock. However, Saedee being there, should’ve told him that Kiao was doing nothing more than just a home visit.
“If you have a guest, I can come back,” he said.
“You’re fine. What are you doing here, Kel” asked Oeric.
“Well, there’s been something weighing on my mind that I need to talk to you about. It’s about your son,” he said looking somber. A clear act in Kiao’s opinion.
Oeric turned his back to him and went to sit down. “Didn’t Icus tell you not to come in contact with us?”
“Yes, but this isn’t just about what happened. I’ve not told him this yet,” he said. “You see, your son is hiding something from you and it’s going to ruin any chance he has left in the Brotherhood after this.”
Even with that dramatic announcement, Oeric remained inexpressive. The only indication of annoyance that Kiao could see was that he didn’t offer the man a seat. It was then she noticed something interesting about Kellas and Oeric. They looked a bit alike. They had the same sandstone hair and the same pale blue eyes and shape. If they were related, they might’ve been cousins and probably not from the Sheldmartin side. Kellas didn’t look like the Arch Monk. She wondered if Kellas was a relative of Oeric’s late mother.
“What could Soletus hid that would do that,” said Oeric. Kellas had paused at the table with his gaze fixed on Kiao.
She then stood up. She wanted to leave because she didn’t think she could stand listening to him lie. “I should leave. I can come back later,” she said.
Oeric stopped her. “Are you sure? It’ll be an inconvenience if you leave and have to come back. We’re not through yet.”
He gave her a meaningful stare.
“This is a private conversation,” she said, not wanting him to ruin his chances.
The door to the house opened and in stepped Cordea with her shopping basket full. She took in everyone briefly and went about her business.
“Ah, we’ve a meeting going on here,” said the woman. Kellas stepped out of her way as she glided passed him. “Greetings Kel, it’s been a long time since you visited. I’m surprised to see you here, given I thought we weren’t to have contact with you.”
“Well, I wanted to talk to you about something before I talked to the Arch Monk about it.”
Cordea sat down everything down she was carrying in the kitchen and told Saedee. “How about you go to your room?”
Without a word of protest, the girl slid out of her chair and vanished through the doorway leading to the backside of the house.
Kiao then smiled. “I’ll be on my way.”
“Sister,” said Oeric firmly and not taking his eyes off of Kellas as a predator would another of its kind and pointed to her chair.
Cordea gave her a puzzled look and then to her husband. He flicked his gaze down to the chair empty chair beside him and back up to her face.
“You might as well stay, Kiao,” said Cordea, taking a seat. “This is important.”
If Kellas was caught off guard, he didn’t show it. He only shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I suppose Sister Kiao will hear about this anyway,” he said and pulled out a seat and told them the same thing that Oeric read. It made Kiao’s blood boil. Keeping her expression austere was never a problem until then. Being objective benefited her and everyone around her more than her wearing her feelings. She wanted too then. She didn’t know how Oeric could sit and listen with his hands on the surface of the table with his finger woven together loosely. Kiao’s hands were fists balled in her lap.
“Besides, his distrust of Valhart spawns from another problem, Oeric,” said Kellas. “Soletus is neth.”
Kiao’s eyes became so wide they nearly rolled onto the table.
Oeric’s hand crumbled apart.
Cordea, who had her hands tucked into her lap, came above the table to grip the edge of it. “Why would you say that,” she hissed.
“I know the idea sounds silly. He’s been with the Patriarch’s daughter for what, two years. But it’s true.”
Kiao watched Soletus’s parent’s gaze shift towards one another for an instant, communicating something and then look forward at Kellas.
Oeric then said in a low voice. “I don’t see the relevancy between that and Valhart.”
“Valhart gets under certain people's skin because they let him. Your son became his favorite target,” he explained. “Soletus smarted off to him one day and made him look stupid. Valhart refused to let it go. He started watching him. One day he tells me that Soletus was neth and wanted me to confront him on it to embarrass him. I refused. Valhart decided to take it on himself to punish him and become a thorn in your son’s side.”
Kiao wanted to know if that was the truth or not. Soletus never told her the details why he and Valhart never got along. He always claimed that Valhart was an idiot and Kellas was lax and let him continue being an idiot.
Oeric didn’t look convinced. “You know, a few thought I was when I was younger.”
Kellas arched an eyebrow. “I remember, but you had your fascinations. It might’ve not been with every stone. But he goes beyond that. I know he’s with the Patriarch’s daughter, but he never talks about her. Has yet to once pine about her being gone for so long.”
Cordea then countered that with, “Soletus has always been private about his personal life. He would find that sort of bragging awkward.”
Kellas then supplied another reason. “He avoids drinking alcohol of any kind no matter how mild to maintain focus. I’ve yet to meet a neth who likes being under the effects of alcohol.”
“He got that from me,” returned Oeric. “Alcohol makes you stupid. And Soletus doesn’t like being seen as stupid. Also, it’s against the rules. No drinking on the road.”
Kellas then leaned forward. “Valhart put lovelace in his drink one day and he had the neth reaction to it.”
Kiao winced. If there was anything that was condemning, it was that. She only knew about it from Edithlyn, the wisewoman. She gave it to patients who were having trouble conceiving. It was a last ditch effort. Among nobles, depending on the type, it was a very strong philter. All of it was easy to get a hold of. You just needed to know what to get. It was also seen as a cure for nethism. However, it didn’t work the same in neth as it did a customary elf. In fact, it was a cruel thing for Valhart to do.
Brother Hickory told her of his experience with it. His family gave it to him in the effort of cure him. He claimed all it did was give him a nasty rash, made it hard to react, and he had no control of his already poorly controlled chanter abilities. He was awake for an entire day because his sense of hearing was so acute, he could hear the entire world. When exhaustion finally claimed him, he woke with a headache so bad he thought, he was going to die. If it was that bad for him, she couldn’t imagine what Soletus experienced. However, it worried her more for the fact, he never told her about it.
Oeric shared her sentiment, and even more so. He became owl-eyed from disbelief before he slapped his palms on the table and snarled.
“How can you be such a tottering idiot! It’s one thing to torment someone, it another thing to taint another’s food or drink. You should’ve reported him to Icus for that.”
“It was your son’s responsibility to tell,” reasoned Kellas. “He’s an adult. And he clearly didn’t want you or Cordea or even his friends to know about it. I didn’t even know what was wrong with him. I thought he caught some nasty fever rash. He couldn’t move didn’t want anyone to touch him. We camped an extra day for him to rest. The following day, the rash cleared, but he had a terrible headache. Then I knew something was up. It took me forever to figure out it was Valhart.”
“And you didn’t reprimand him for it, now did you,” growled Oeric.
The man held his palms up. “I know. I should’ve done more. I wanted to confront your son on the matter, but he doesn’t trust me either.”
“I can’t imagine why," muttered Oeric.
“It’s not that. You know what they say about neth male? They don’t like customary male authority.”
“Or he just lost all respect for you,” said Cordea sharply.
Kellas swayed his head. “You’ve clearly not witnessed this part of his behavior. It’s a very special level of stubbornness and a certain look in his eyes. He usually directs at Valhart, but the last time I spoke to him, he did it to me. It's like he's think he is above everyone else, looking down on us."
“You’re being ridiculous. Brother Hickory doesn’t act like that," countered Oeric.
“You’ve been around him too long to notice how he looks at people,” said Kellas.
Kiao bit her lip to keep herself from retorting. Hickory never acted differently from another elf for the most part.
“He’s a chanter,” exclaimed Oeric.
“Oeric,” sighed Kellas. “Stop denying it. Your son is the most typical of unicorns.”
“I’m not denying it! I-I-I’m s-s-saaay—” Oeric then stuttered out something garbled after that. The father’s face turned red and he grit his teeth.
“I didn’t mean to make you upset,” apologized Kellas.
Cordea then spoke. “What he is trying to say is that you’re being ridiculous. Sure, you have some solid evidence, but now you’re citing assumptions and misconceptions.”
“These assumptions have truth to them,” Kellas told her. “It’s enough for the Arch Monk to look into it, and Valhart wanted me to tell him. So, I told Valhart to keep his trap shut.”
Cordea tilted her head and frowned. “Why?”
“To keep your son safe. I like Soletus. He’s an excellent grappler and has a good future as a warden. But there as many assumptions about neth in general. Ranging from them not having emotions to them being weak and repressed. The order is no exception. No one is going to take him seriously. Notice how there isn’t a single openly neth warden in the ranks. Once he returns and this blows over, you need to teach him how to act normal no one knows. Because the moment they do, he’s going to be singled out.”
Kiao watched Cordea eyes narrow, and she bristled. Kellas was good at playing on their concerns.
“It’s true. You know how Solgard is about this matter,” said Kellas looking at Oeric. “All men need to have families. And you, Oeric know firsthand how firmly he holds that believe. History will just repeat itself. That tension between the two of you will just jump right over to him.”
Oeric stared at the grains of the table hard.
“I’m willing to keep it secret,” offered Kellas, as if he were giving them a gift. “No one will even have to know.
Oeric drew his fingers to his pathen raised his head looking dead at Kellas. “Tell Icus,” he said firmly.
Kellas’ brow shot up in surprise. Kiao suspected that was the first sincere expression he wore the entire time.
“I know you’ve never been easy on Soletus, but that’s harsh, even for you.”
“You tell Icus or I’ll tell him what you told me,” returned Oeric.
Kellas looked a bit like he lost a piece in whatever game he was playing.
“Oeric, you’re setting up you son for disaster! Icus is your father’s right hand. His successor. He’s going to come down on Soletus with the force of a landslide.”
“Tell him or I will," held Oeric.
Kellas then pleaded with Cordea. “Are you just going to let him do this?”
Cordea’s stricken eyes sat on her husband, pleading with him. Oeric, however he fixed his unyielding gaze on her.
“Oeric, please,” she said. “We need to confront him on this first. If he’s hide it this long, he’s scared. He should never be scared to tell us anything.”
He looked her in the eye and bobbed his head once. “Trust me.”
Cordea stared at her husband as if she received some answer. “Do what Oeric says Kel.”
Kellas arched his eyebrows. “What’s going on here? You’ve never been a woman afraid to tell her husband when he’s wrong.”
Cordea regarded him. Her river eyes turning dark. “It’s called trust, Kel. I’m trusting him in good faith that he’s going to explain himself. He doesn’t have to do that in front of you.”
Kellas stood up from his seat. “Alright, I’ll tell him. I doubt Soletus will be happy with you.”
Kiao figured that was his last piece he could play. And Cordea trilled out a laugh.
“I’m his mother. He’s not been happy with me since he discovered he wants to be a man about things and mothers are the most unmanly things in the world to someone his age.”
Kellas looked unfazed by his lack of power over them. “I hope for your sake, Soletus comes back soon so we can sort this all out. The longer he’s gone, the harder it’ll be.”
“He’ll be okay,” said Oeric standing. He escorted Kellas to the door. The two of them stood outside for a little bit before Soletus’s father come back in and shut the door softly. He turned around and leaned against it in contemplation.
Cordea didn’t let silence settle and said, “Oeric—”
She was hushed by her husband’s hand. He lowered it after a bit and angry words rushed out of her mouth. “I can’t believe you would let that lying slithering bastard in our house! Are you going to let that skane’s spawn paint our son in more of his lies as well as go against what we agreed on. Soletus needed to us first on his own and not be confronted!”
Kiao looked between them both. She wasn’t entirely surprised they already knew.
Oeric stared at Cordea as if gathering his thoughts.
“Seriously, am I missing something here? Why would you let him do that,” she demanded.
“Sister. What you heard. Tell her,” he ordered clearly l having trouble with his words still.
Kiao shared to her what she had overheard. Cordea listened, frowning heavily.
“Why not just tell Icus all of this,” she demanded.
“And trust Kellas to not to find out who eavesdropped on him to tell me. He will figure it out as he knows was Kiao here for some reason. This does complicate things, but it’s better this way.”
Cordea wasn’t convinced. In fact, she remained furious.
“Cordy,” he crooned. “Trust me.” The woman’s face softened a little. He then walked over to her and wrapped his arms around her from behind. He rested his head on top of hers. “I know Icus. He’s a smart man. This is the best way to help our son. I can’t. Not for this.”
Kiao then felt that pang of envy in her chest. Mien loved to wrap his arms around her and hold her. It was almost like he was afraid that she would vanish, and he would hold her as tight as he could. Then sound evaporated.
She managed to say, “Not again,” and the world became blurred and vague as the channel the timber bond created sought out Mien. Part of her wished it would latch on to him. However, there was nothing grasp. She knew there was movement going on in front of her. She felt pressure and the feeling of maybe someone shaking her, followed by the faint sound of her name. She tried to follow it, but the channel searching drowned it out. Then covered it in silence.
Kiao fought against it but, it wouldn’t let up. Anxiety started to tighten her throat. She pressed against the magic induced paralysis holding her. It felt like she was pounding her fist against a brick wall. It was a sensation she felt was familiar with. Her first couple attempts at learning to walk into dreams ended like that. She became trapped in her mind, stuck between being awake and asleep. There was trick to getting out. She had to find an anchor to herself. But all sensation was lost to her. The channel blocked it and continued searching. It wouldn’t let up. She was trapped.
There was a lot of clarity editing here. So much of it. I wish I didn't have to do so much of it. It's made me wonder what it is like being a writer who can just write words straight from their mind and it comes out perfectly. To actually have proper word recall and all that.
Just so you know, that's always been a struggle of mine. Putting my thoughts down clearly. Why I take my stance on editing and not be one of those writers who believe that editing and revising your work leads down a path to destruction and ruins your work. I feel it makes my work better. It's like painting. You start with an indistinct blob of colors. The more details you all like lines and shading, it takes shape. To me, editing is part of the process. You write, you revise, and edit until you have the story you want.
Also, I am working on getting some semblance of chapter navigation up. Soon.