I felt stepping back and letting Soletus have freedom was what he needed. He needed to make his own decisions and decide for himself if they were good or bad. I felt him choosing to be in Kellas's band would provide a good lesson. It just wasn’t the lesson I wanted him to learn. I wanted him to learn the good points of Kellas. To see that specific drive about him. He could make hard decisions and remain steadfast. Soletus was a timid boy. He was growing out of it but need that extra push. Not to mention being a grappler, despite how much I hated it, could do it as well. Reality was very different. He learned some of that, but most he learned not to trust authority and those ranked above him. Then I learned a lesson myself, Kellas hadn't changed. He was still that kind of warden. The one who becomes arbiter and executioner.
Mayor Halvus'Shrike was a wonderful host. Kiao had a room, bathed, and was invited for to a large meal. Oeric had no trouble eating. Clearly, Soletus got his bottomless appetite from Oeric. Then again, there were no dainty eaters in the ranks of the order. Even Mien who started out with an appetite of a songbird could devour a feast by himself. the order was known for having no dainty eaters in the ranks. However, Kiao sat at the table stirring her roasted vegetables. The man’s death lingered in her mind. She still felt it in the air. She was cold still despite a fire in the hearth in the connected sitting room.
The mayor talked mostly to Oeric, thankfully. The jolly man wanted to know about everything going on present in the order and Oeric's smooth baritone filled the room with news and stories. She listened to the sound of his voice than his words. She became lost in the rhythm of it. How he pronounced some words fluidly. Others, you could hear a slight stumble as if his tongue didn’t want to work. But she forgot it as he sounded so intelligent.
She just listened because she didn’t want to think about the elf. Listened because it interest her. Not in the same way that Soletus’ voice interest her. However, it was close. What broke her out of it was Oeric stopping and him calling her.
Hearing her name sent a jolt through her. She focused on his face and found his pale gaze hard with concern.
“Sister, are you okay,” he asked.
Kiao placed her fork down. “I’m tired. Not even hungry it seems,” she said and shuddered. She had grown more cold despite a warm bath and meal.
“Then go to bed," Oeric advised. "We’ve a long day ahead of us tomorrow. I want to get as far as we can.”
“Agreed Sister Kiao. I’ll have a bed warmer brought up to you,” said the mayor.
She was going to protest, but she was met with the stern face of a fussy father and the earnest eyes of a generous host. She excused herself and went to bed. Sleep, of course, proved elusive, and she lay awake in bed well into the night. All she could think of was the cur. When she closed her eyes, she saw his thin body motionless on the ground.
Surely, he had a family or someone out there than loved him. Or was he just that alone and wretched? Did Oeric have to deal with the sort of assumption about his character because no one present realized who he was. He clearly carried that medallion for a reason. And was it why he insisted on being a wolf or influenced that decision? So many thought, no answers.
When she did fall asleep, her sleep felt brief. Because as soon as she had, there was a tap on the door to her room. Kiao plucked her trousers off the floor and pulled them on. She tugged down her wrinkled shirt and expected Oeric being the one knocking. Instead a young soldier waited on her.
“I was told by Captain Gyrfalcon to wake you and escort you to the docks,” he said with his eyes on the mane of bed hair that framed her face.
She nodded too sleepy to care and closed the door. She walked to the window and pulled the curtains back. It was still very dark, with only a hint of morning towards the horizon. It was clear Captain Gyrfalcon didn’t want anyone to see them on the ferry. She imagined there were troves of people upset by the decision to let them cross.
When she walked outside, she was joined by Oeric who was, once again, on four legs. Her horse had been brought to her, already saddled with Oeric’s whip canes tucked by her saddle bags. His packs had already strapped on. She yawned frequently while he displayed his natural state of being reserved. However, his gait was smooth and unhurried and showed that he wasn’t in any pain.
At the docks, a very groggy ferryman stood with a lantern in his hand. Beside him towered his fellow ferryman, a giant. It was an odd sight to see one so far north and working with elves. He was over twice the height of Oeric, and his arms had enough bulk on them that he could toss them across the lake. He inhaled the damp morning hair and slapped his fellow worker on the back when they were close. The elf nearly tumbled flat on his face with the lantern he held flying from his hands. The giant tipped his hat at them and spoke with a rich, booming voice.
“Mornin’. Hope ya ready for travelin’ in this stew pot of a day.”
Kiao smiled. “Morning, I’m ready as I will ever be."
Kiao pulled her horse aboard the raft like ferry and Oeric followed without any acknowledgment.
“That a nice wolf you’ve have there,” said the giant. “Reminds me of the desert worg my pa used to have. So gentle you could feed him raw meat from your fingers.”
Kiao looked down at Oeric. “This one might get insulted if you do that.”
“If he bites you, he’ll make a handsome throw,” said the ferryman.
“Try to turn me into a throw and I’ll do more than just bite,” Oeric retorted.
The ferryman nearly leapt off the dock and into the water. The giant’s large brown eyes went wide, and then he let out a whoop and held his shaking belly.
“Got yourself one of those shifting elves, I see,” said the giant between laughter and walked on to the craft they would be riding.
“He’s for protection,” said Kiao.
“You’ll need him. Not so nice over the river,” stated the giant. “Plan on stoppin' early ta'day. The sky is gonna to drop.”
Despite his size, the watercraft only wobbled a little. Then again, it was made to carry two fully loaded large train wagons. He untied a rope and traded places with the other ferryman. Kiao didn’t see the giant wheel and gears to the side until the giant started rotating it. The giant launched them forward with series of rope suspended above them propelling them forward.
Oeric joined her and saw her looking up at the device that was pulling then forward as well as holding them in place.
“They only have a handful of these cable ferries in the entire country. They can only make these kinds of ropes in a single factory and it takes a long time just to braid one.”
Kiao then turned her attention of the vast dark water calmly stretching out and catching the light of morning. She couldn’t wait to see the sunrise.
“This is beautiful,” she said.
Oeric attention was on the dark shore across from them. “Enjoy it now. It’s all forest from here.”
The sun rose above the horizon by the time they made it to shore and sat down the road winding through a thick forest. Oeric sat a steady pace until the rain stopped them. He pulled off the road and found an embankment with an natural overhang. He shifted back to put up the tarp. There was no fire that day, and the two of them ate a meager meal of travel cakes and water. Warmth wasn’t an issue as Oeric sat close to Kiao and his furry body provided her enough warmth to keep the cool dampness at bay.
The next day warmed up and brought more humidity and insects. She rode in misery with a cloud of little black bugs, trying to dive into her eyes and ears. Oeric fared no better with his own personal cloud and walked with his ears flat on his skull. At midday, the bugs thinned as drizzle descended on them. The wolf in front of her became less regal looking as he became sodden. The leggedness of his form came out and with the hairs of his fur sticking to each other, it revealed the areas where no fur grew from the scars on his body.
“I suggest we stop or you’re going to get sick,” she told him.
“We will. I’m trying to make it to the next road marker,” he assured her and trotted onward. His paws and legs getting covered with mud the more they traveled. She wasn’t looking forward to him shaking his fur out to dry off.
She expected a simple road sign instead. They came to an intersection with a tall pole with markers pointed to multiple points. To their left sat a lodge. To the priestess’s surprise, Oeric walked toward the large wooden sign that sat in front the building and read it.
He trotted to the cover of the trees and shifted back to himself then told her, “We’re at the home of Graycrest’s and traveler’s lodge. Has beds and serves dinner,” he said. “We’re just in time. Hopefully they have beds, or we sleep in the stables. Stay here.”
They did indeed have sleeping space. However, Kiao came to realize that indoor sleeping space was communal. It took up the entire third floor of the lodge. Kiao looked at the occupied rows of beds and saw only one left. Her stomach twisted. The beds were small. Oeric massaged his hip when he thought she wasn’t looking.
“Believe me, this isn’t ideal, but just work with it,” he whispered to her as he sat their things on the floor.
Kiao eased herself down on the bed and wrestled with feeling squirmy. It would’ve been fine if the reasoning behind it was her not wanting to share sleeping space. No, it was the fact that he was a man. She didn’t understand it. It was find when he was covered in fur. Now he was flesh again. A part of her protested against it. She didn’t wan him near her.
Yet, Kiao knew he was happily married to the point it was inspiring the devotion he and Cordea share with each other. He had also shown her nothing but respect the entire time. She finally understood why the women society let him be an honorary member. In fact, he was the embodiment of a monk to the point he was suited to be a priest. Yet, that didn't reassure her.
He wasn’t Mien. And then she realized it was bond making her feel that way.
She wanted to scream and then tried to focus on something else but realized he had her pack. She reached over the bed and tapped him on the shoulder.
“I would like my things,” she said softly.
He reached down and handed her pack to her silently. He was unruffled by their arrangement. He was forever the monk. Surely, she could muster her own priestess composure.
She let him focus on running a comb through his hair before he tied it off in a loose pony-tail with a strip of leather. Kiao searched through her satchel, making sure everything was still dry, and pulled out a packet of pain powder for him. She handed it to him.
“Here, take this while eating,” she said and then became aware that someone was staring in their direction. She looked at the bed beside them and caught the eye of a man with facial tattoos on his face. He immediately looked back down at his boots he was cleaning off.
Kiao looked around the room and saw two more men and a woman eyeing them. It was a collection of four Dyne elves all wearing mercenary badges on their chests. It was rare to see the Dyne in the Fen territory. What few that lived, stayed close to the Northernlands as possible. It was unheard of to see them as mercenaries. Being in their presence replaced the nervousness she felt about sharing a bed with Oeric. They believed that Fen elves were dissenters of Diva, their goddess. They believed that Dias was just the demigod of song. Not someone to be worshiped, just a patron of birth to determine what you would be in life, as Cordea explained to her one day. She was a full-bloodied Dyne but had no facial tattoos. Her family was nomadic Fenndish Dyne. They weren’t allowed to own land. Diva was the world beneath their feet, and they choose to defy Diva because they followed the words of her grandmother who was a chanter.
Cordea could probably tell her what their intricate facial tattoos meant. They were beautiful as well as disturbing. The two younger male’s facial tattoos looked violent, consisting of claw marks and the face of some beast. The older man had an eagle talon and swooping feathers. And the only female in the party had the smallest of the tattoos. It was on her right cheek and was a circle with a antlers sprouting up from it. Kiao didn’t want to give them more eye contact, so she started to pull her cowl back over her head and realized it was soaked and pulled it off.
From that point on, she was reluctant to speak. She didn’t want any trouble. It was difficult at dinner because many wanted to know about how the roads were from where they came. Their questions were directed at her sometimes, but Oeric answered their inquiries while Kiao stuffed her face. She did so quickly so she could retreat to the sleeping quarters, where it was empty. Her plan was to get a little sleep in before Oeric laid down. There was no telling how long she would stay awake sleeping beside him.
“Illogical,” she muttered to herself when she pulled the covers back.
She settled in bed when footsteps started coming towards the room. She held her breath and waited. The older dyne elf man walking in.
“Don’t talk much, do you for a chanter,” he said and stopped by the foot of her bed.
The hairs on her arms rose, and she pulled her legs closer to her and sat up. “You have to excuse me. I was very hungry and tired.”
He then sat at the corner with a nonthreatening smile. “I’ve seen a lot of things on the road, but I can’t say I’ve met a chanter.”
“We’re a rare lot,” she said, pulling herself closer to the headboard and glimpsed at the doorway hoping for Oeric to appear.
“Aye, but what I’ve seen a lot is women dressed as men,” he whispered. “You do it nicely but, you’ve small hands long lady fingers.”
“I found that hand size doesn’t mean very much, to be honest. I’ve one of my chanter brothers who I work with has small lady hands.”
He continued on being amused. “If you want to be that way, fine, but there’s a fighting pit nearby and a fight tonight. You’re traveling with a cur. I wouldn’t put it past him to drop you off there to pay a debt.”
Kiao caught her laughter before it left her throat. His statement was absurd. “I assure you the First Warden and I are on a mission that has nothing to do with bloodsports.”
The man’s face twisted. “First warden?” He let out a derisive laugh. “A cur who is a Fenndish Monk, please. Does that make you a Brotherhood Priestess?”
“Indeed, she is,” said Oeric on strolling in. “She’s a special exception to the rules.”
The dyne elf jumped to his feet and whirled around to face the door. He whipped out the hunting knife from his belt. “Take off your shirt!”
Oeric’s gaze shifted to the knife and then back to the man’s face as he crossed the room, placing himself between him and Kiao. “No need for that. I’ve a brand. Don’t ask me again. I like being modest.”
“Who’s your handler?”
The man pulled Oeric forward by the front of his shirt and pointed the tip of his blade on the underside of Oeric’s chin.
“His name please,” the man demanded. Kiao threw her covers off her legs, but Oeric held her off with a wave of his hand.
“Clincher,” he said nonchalantly.
The mercenary squinted at him and then his face lifted as if something was revealed to him.
“Clincher, now there’s a name I’ve not heard in a while. He used to be a big among the handlers and then he was nothing, as they always find themselves.” He patted the knife on Oeric’s cheek. “What I remember is that he didn’t like giving up a useful dog. He would use them to the point they ended in the grave. How did you escape?”
“He left me for dead.”
“And your fighter's name?”
Oeric gave him his wolf’s grin. “Lykkon.”
He slid the knife from underneath Oeric’s pom to the side of his neck.
Kiao jumped to her feet and Oeric gaze slide towards with an intense nonverbal, “No.”
“I remember you, Lykkon. They tossed a skulker with you in the ring once. You killed it with your teeth as a wolf and nearly killed the person trying to pull you out. Lost a hand, I think.”
“My name is Oeric," he returned.
“Well, Lykkon, I find it quite the coincidence that you’re here with a fight nearby. So, who is she? Some runaway you met on the road hopping to feed the curs for coin? I mean, you could’ve chosen a better cover story than being a Fenndish monk.”
Oeric jabbed the man in the throat at the same time as chopping his knife arm with his hand. The knife clattered against the floor as Oeric grabbed his arm and twisted it behind the mercenary’s back. He ended it all with a kick to the man’s knees dropping him to the floor. The mercenary cried out as his hand being bent unnaturally to keep him down.
“First Warden, please don’t dislocate his shoulder or break his wrist,” said Kiao, getting up and picking up the man’s knife. “Let’s talk about this.”
He looked at her innocently. “Who said I wasn’t going to talk? I don’t like pointy objects in my face, so I was removing it."
Kiao sighed and sat. She placed the knife on the other side of her leg. “What’s your name?”
“Xerius," stated the dyne elf.
“Greetings, Xerius,” she said, crossing her legs becoming business like. “Look, the First Warden and I have better things to do than be part of bloody spectacles. He’s trying to find his son.”
“Son,” grunted the man, confused.
“Yes, and I’m on a mission from Dias to help a fellow chanter and find my bond partner. The First Warden was charged to escort me and is finding his son.”
“I’m not Fenndish. So why should I—”
“Because I am,” said Kiao firmly and her lit came strong and eyes becoming a hot violet. “Oeric, let him go.”
He obeyed and backed away to her side. Xerius stood up, rubbing his wrist and rolling his shoulder.
“He is my escort and I trust him with my life. Don’t you dare hurt him or you deal with me,” she said, mustering as much threat in her voice as she could.
Xerius massaged his throat. “You’re better of dancing with a friend if you believe that. Curs are fouled up in the head. It starts with their handlers. Some beat and starve their fighters.”
Kiao looked at Oeric. He became stoned faced.
“And then there are the ones like Clincher, whose training comprised of extreme exercises while going straight for weaknesses of the mind. And then there is the lifestyle. There’s this hidden town called Paradise where the curs go in the off-season. It’s a cesspool of every sin you Fenndish forbid and every evil that can be committed. How much of a sound mind do you think this cur has from living all that?”
“He’s sound enough to disarm you with little effort and harm on your part. In fact, it was all very controlled and to the point.”
Xerius then went on entreating her. “Imagine him thinking your someone he’s fought with in the ring or fought off from being treated like a skane? You couldn’t fight off someone his size or strength.”
Kiao held back the annoyance rising in her at his refusal to listen and asked, “What’s your purpose?"
“I’m trying to save you,” he said with sincerity. “If there is a destination to go, I’ll escort you for free, so you won’t have to travel with him. You’ve not seen what one can do when he’s off his mind.”
An image of the suicidal man entered her mind. He was feral and sick in body and soul. She remembered Soletus lying in front of her on the bed beaten. A shiver traveled down her spine.
Oeric then spoke up, “Look, I don’t want trouble.”
“Then leave,” said Xerius.
“Fine," he agreed.
“No,” said Kiao, grabbing his hand. “What are you doing?”
Awkwardness descended her. Instead of letting go, she clasped her other hand around his. His expression softened.
“Sister, I understand the sentiment, but think about what you saw before. This is for the best," he reasoned.
“I have. This is the second time I’ve seen you treated like a villain because of those scars. I’m not standing for it again. You stay,” she said, forcing her resolve in her voice.
Her voice didn’t have any effect on him. He just tugged his hand out of her grasp, and he continued to gather his things. Her suggestion wasn’t reasonable in his mind.
“I’m doing this as a show of good faith,” he explained to the both of them using the same reasoning voice he had done to Saedee when he was sick. “I'm trying to prove I'm not using you. If I was, I wouldn’t just easily leave. So, stay here and I’ll find someplace to sleep.”
“This is unfair.”
“It's fine,” he reassured her. When he regarded Xerius again, that fatherly care turned protective and threatening. He bared his teeth at him. “If she’s not waiting for me in the same condition she’s in now, I will hunt you down and hurl your soul into the Maw.”
“You have my word. Diva doesn’t smile fondly on men who harm women,” stated Xerius.
Oeric gave him one more frosted glare before leaving the room. Kiao picked up Xerius’s knife and handed it to him. He grunted and then the rest of the mercenary band filed in.
The female among had obviously traded beds with whoever was sleeping beside her earlier.
“Hello,” she said, sitting down. “My name is Roxlyn. What’s yours?”
The woman smiled. “Kiao, that’s a nice boy’s name.”
“And a perfectly good girl’s name when you know how to wield it,” she said, settling down on her back. She wanted to be left alone.
“Do you talk to your parents much?”
Kiao was taken aback by the question. She didn’t know what the woman was trying to fish for. “I write them all the time. They live in Summerset. I visited them last year.”
The woman gave Xerius an uncertain glance. “They’re quite far. How you end up with a cur for a companion?”
“For the last time, he’s First Warden Oeric’Sheldmartin. He’s one of my best friend’s father and a woman I admire husband.”
Roxlyn’s wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Who would marry a cur? I’ll fear being ill-treated by such a man. That woman isn’t safe with him.”
Kiao thought that herself for a bit. However, he wasn’t controlling or the slightest bit aggressive towards Cordea. And Cordea never walked on eggshells around him. She could be sharp with him. And Kiao witnessed what constituted, as an argument between the two of them.
In fact, Maelyra held her back to watch. It was a heated back-and-forth when it started. However, the longer it went on, the more Cordea calmed and soon worked on soothing him. He may have raised his voice, became tense, and withdrew from her touch. But she ended up holding and he was only left pouting. He didn’t like what was done, however, he understood it.
“She’s one of the strongest women I know, and I’ve never seen a man as respectful of his wife as he is. His only fault is that he’s an overprotective, fussy father,” she said.
“A lot of them are. Children are innocent in their eyes,” said Xerius. “One wouldn’t hurt a child. The older they get though, that changes real fast.”
Kiao heard enough and pulled up her covers. “Stop your peddling. I need him, not you.”
“We just want you to think about this,” soothed Roxlyn. “I mean, do you know how many people he’s hurt or killed?”
“I can tell you, he’s killed at least three men in the ring,” added Xerius.
“How do you know this? Were you a spectator,” she asked.
“We crossed paths as mercenaries. He was young and stupid when I found him. I offered him a spot in my band to help wisen him up. He turned it down. When I found him again, he was in the ring. I offered him the same job to save him from suffering. He refused. Too much debt was his excuse. But I watched him fight. No elf there. Just another elf turned beast. A savage. And it doesn’t matter how much time that passes, that all he is and will be.”
“I’m sleepy. I’ve probably got an early start tomorrow,” she replied and turned her back to them. That ended the conversation, but not the doubt that entered her mind about Oeric.
Well, Oeric can't seem to get away with what he was. He lives a very protected life if you've not figured it out. If he wasn't from Grace's Hope and his father didn't welcome him back, his life would be very different. In fact, he would be dead if not for Cordea.
See the story Wolf: wolf-pt-1.html