It took a lot to stop that hanging. Never had I seen a village so rabid for justice. Of course, there was no official from the Seat to call nearby. The mayor from the closest town would take time to get there. The only thing I could do was send a message to them and keep the town calm. I considered my options at that point. I knew he didn’t kill that elder. Former curs aren’t all the same. He was like me, didn’t want to kill or fight again. He let the villagers beat him because he didn’t have the will to fight anymore. Because of that, he was the perfect individual to pin the crime on. And, well, this is one of the few times I wish that I didn’t have this big heart. But I had to see the true nature of Kellas.
There was no golden sunrise the next morning. The sun was reduced to a pale disk shrouded by clouds. Kiao thought it hung ominously and made her feel more unsettled. The mercenaries kept their word. Now they were gone. They had all left before sunrise, leaving her in peace. The lady of the lodge gave her some buns on the way out, which made her feel a little better. However, her heart sank when she wasn’t greeted by Oeric at the stables. Instead, the stable hand gave her a message.
-Head down the north road. Stop at the outcrop of rocks. I will meet you.
Kiao stuffed a warm bun into her mouth as she mounted her horse and headed down the road. She had four in all, two for her, and two for Oeric. However, when she came to the collections of rocks that looked as if Dias had stacked them like a layer of pancakes, there was no Oeric. She climbed them and sat, getting a better view of the road below her. She had settled down in comfort when he came trotting down the road with his packs unbuckled. He veered off and come towards her with his tail wagging.
“Good morning, Sister,” he greeted happily and gestured to his packs with his nose.
“You know, you can call me Kiao,” she told him, working on the buckles going around his chest.
“Thank you for last night,” he said, bow his head at her.
“Many wouldn’t be so open to support those who are curs or former curs.”
Kiao remembered what Xerius told her last night and tried to ignore it. “Why shouldn’t I support you cur or no. I find it stupid everyone assumes you’re some kind of fiend because of your scars.”
“It’s because of what they mean. Most see them as a sign of a disturbed individual. The scars are usually self-inflicted. Two of mine are my own doing.”
Her face screwed up with horror. “Why?”
“The longest one going down the side of my face and the one going above my eyebrow was done with a hot knife. It was to ward me from certain…prospects,” he said.
“Basically, you didn’t want to be another man’s skane,” she asked without a flinch.
“Correct. Being unblemished and young made you a target. I was the youngest fighter that Clincher ever took on. My options were limited. I didn’t want to keep getting into fights to keep them away from me. The only other way was to start killing them.”
Xerius’s words force their way into the forefront of her mind. However, instead of ignoring it, she wanted to hear Oeric’s side of things.
“Last night, Xerius claimed that he knew you as a mercenary. He also claimed to have tried to free you from being a cur.”
Oeric tilted his head, clearly confused.
“Said he saw you kill three other fighters.”
He thought a long moment before his ears dropped to his skull.
Kiao finished the strap around his chest. “So, you know him?”
Oeric leaped off the outcrop and started off down the road at a determined pace.
She hit something he didn’t want to discuss.
Kiao mounted her horse and followed him.
“Okay, who is Xerius,” she said at his heels.
He then spoke fast. “A-a-at the time, he wasn’t leader of his band, he was just a member who took a liking to me. He offered me a job to help pursue a fugitive. He wanted me because the band comprised of those with the consort ability to shapeshift.”
“And you didn’t stay because…”
“Because they literally hunted that fugitive down and killed him like animals. If given the option of bring one in or bringing their head, they’ll bring their head,” he said. “I didn’t like that. I didn’t like killing a person begging for their life.”
“That didn’t stop you from killing three in the ring.”
Oeric came to a dead halt. “Killing in the ring was rare. Training a fighter is time consuming. Only rich patrons can pay for one as it costs a lot of coin for a true blood fight. Most fights are just for show. A lot of working the crowd up. Others are more serious because they are about ranking. In a blood fight, there is no choice. One of you is going to die. None of the fighters liked it. In all, I killed nine men in my lifetime. Five were in the ring, all blood fights. One was when I was a mercenary, one went after me because I was a cur and…” he said, trailing off.
“And the last two?”
He sat in the road. One of his forelegs trembled. His ears were still down. “Why are you suddenly so curious about this?”
“Because Xerius made it sound like you’re nothing but a savage and now you causally tell me you’ve killed nine people.”
“It’s not as if I’m bragging about it, Sister! Fa-fa-fact…iss…fa-fa-” he paused a moment and looked at the ground. He took in a few steady breaths before he spoke again, using slow and terse speech. “Fact is fact. I can’t change the past and I can’t pretend I didn’t do it. I rather most of them lived to have the chance I was given.”
Kiao narrowed her eyes. “Most huh? And the last two didn’t deserve that chance.”
Oeric expression darkened. “Those last two were the Scourges of Paradise. Two brutal men who thought nothing of raping, mutilating, and killing some unlucky dod or skane. Sometimes not in that order.
Kiao stared down at him wordlessly.
“There was nary a soul there with any morals. There were no authorities. Just who had the most influence. Everyone just let them roam because of fear. They had a powerful handler who kept his other fighters safe and sated their blood lust by giving them targets. I became one because I won a fight against one of his men. He didn’t think I deserved it.”
Once again, Oeric started down the road. Kiao was left standing in horror at such a thing. She forced air through her throat and found her voice again. “First Warden!”
He whirled around and flashed his teeth at her with his hackles rising. Out of his throat came a snarl.
She froze. His head dropped and his ears sagged. He spoke, but she barely understood his grows. “We’re moving and we’re dropping this conversation.”
He left her. Kiao followed, feeling the heavy silence as they proceeded. It was as if there was a wall of ice between them. It was her fault, of course. Her father told her she could annoy the wool off a sheep with her persistence.
Kiao manifested Emmery to keep her company and to mutter about their current situation. They walked until mid-morning without him looking back at her once.
“I should just apologize,” she told to Emmery.
Instead of a suggestion, the consort became alarmed and started squeaking. An image of Glen was impressed in her mind and fear. At first, Kiao didn’t understand what Emmery was trying to say. Until it occurred to her, they were being stalked by a tawny panther. She looked around and couldn’t see anything in the wood around her.
“First Warden,” she cried.
He rolled an ear back to her.
“I need you back here.”
He slowed down his pace until he was beside her.
“We’re being followed by a mountain lion,” she hissed.
“Keep your head forward. There’s another one ahead of us,” said Oeric with his head straight but pale eyes to the side. “I noticed. I didn’t want to alarm you. Mountain lions don’t hunt in pairs. They’re consort or elves. Probably the two males with Xerius.”
“Why are they following us?”
He stared at the sky above them. He pulled his teeth back and regarded her. “Want to find out?”
She was going to tell him no, but he sprang forward shouting and waving his tail like a banner, prancing in a circle. “Ohhhh Xerius! Come on down.”
Horror raced through Kiao. “What are you doing,” she shouted.
To their right, there was the sound of something large lifting off from a branch with heavy wing beats. Kiao looked back and above her to see an eagle soar overhead and land right in the center of Oeric’s loop.
Oeric grinned. “Look Sister, I’ve learned to summon eagles.”
Xerius dropped out of his eagle shape and stood there tall. He held out his arm and his consort manifest on his forearm. There was even more rustling in the woods and there stepped out a doe. It was Roxlyn. She inclined her head towards Kiao.
“Well, this is truly a surprise. I would’ve never guessed that you would wait for me,” said Oeric sardonically.
Xerius snorted. “You’re out-numbered and over-powered.”
“Do you have four more elves I don’t know about?”
The dyne mercenary face darkened. “You’re still just as arrogant as before.”
The two panthers come out of the brush, one close to his side. The other one was at Kiao’s side. Oeric eyed them and sat on his haunches nonchalantly.
“Sister, how many sentences are in a paragraph,” he asked.
“I think the minimal is three,” she said, watching the panthers position himself closer to her. “But First Warden, this isn’t the time.”
All he did in response to her was turned his ear to the side facing the panthers. “Well then, Xerius, you have five sentences to say your peace.”
The mercenary then spoke. “A few years ago, the Seat got a hold of some information and was able to capture an active handler and his five curs. From that bunch, they got schedules and the location of most of the rings. They’ve even got the location of Paradise. Heard they’re going to be destroy it soon.”
“Am I invited? I want to set the first torch.”
Xerius face tightened. “They backed up the entire ferry crossing to make sure certain handlers were forced to go through secret crossings they had trapped. You shouldn’t’ve been able to cross the river.”
“I happen to be acquainted with Captain Gyrfalcon. His brother is the patriarch of my order. His wife is good friend of mine and my wife.”
Xerius didn’t appear convinced. “I know Gyrfalcon. You could be his boy and he wouldn’t bend rules for him.”
“Well, he owed me a favor. He understood I didn’t have time to wait, and neither can I wait until you stop being thick. Let me pass.”
Xerius nodded to one of panthers that surrounded Kiao a nod before stating, “There is a good price for any curs who crossed that river and stopped at the lodge.”
The mare Kiao was on was on started to get nervous over the calculated movement of the cat beside her. His target wasn’t her, but Oeric. “First Warden,” she called with her voice shaking.
Oeric leapt with a snarl between her and the panther jumped at him. The two of them because a mass of teeth and claws. She instinctively moved her horse out of the way to put distance between them, only to realize she gave them what they wanted. The panther who attacked him broke away while the other one took a swipe at Oeric’s leg. He yelped and bared his teeth at the cat. They stopped their attack and surrounded him.
Kiao faced Xerius. “Stop this!”
Roxlyn then snapped. “He insults Diva’s blessing by using his body for such a sordid sport.”
“Oh, please, don’t use righteous fury to cover up your own venality, mercenary,” returned Oeric.
Roxyn’s face contorted to rage. “My sister was taken and murdered by curs. I will not rest until I see them all dead. This is the duty that Diva has charged me not your Seat!”
“You mean these kittens will see me dead. You aren’t going to sully your hands!”
“Kill him now,” shouted the woman, and the two large cats rushed at Oeric. In response, he crouched down and back-flipped over one of the backs of the pair. He landed and then was struck by Xerius’s eagle in his face. He snarled shaking his head and snapping his jaws. He had one eyes closed with rake marks and was pounced by one of the panthers and tangled with it.
Kiao’s didn’t know what to do. She froze as she wasn’t trained to fight. However, she was a chanter and there only one way to stop them.
She tapped into her magical heart, pulling in more of Dias’s quintessence. She then took that power into her throat and wrapped it around her will. She spoke with the force of a tidal wave.
“Stop,” she commanded. The mountain lions froze. It was enough for Oeric to scoot away. They stood erect with their expressions blank. “You two, get out of your consorts forms and stand down!”
They shifted out and then looked confused at each other and then their eyes landed on her, looking very afraid. Oeric scooted back to Kiao’s side watching the entire scene unfold. Roxlyn stood there gaping with Xerius.
Kiao turned to her and slammed her voice at the two of them. “Do not mistake me for some hapless girl. I’ve a duty perform, and no worshiper of Diva will stand in my way. Step aside.”
Xerius clapped his hand over his ears and sent his eagle at her.
Kiao shouted out the phrase of peace at the consort. The bird banked away from her and dropped to the ground. It hoped in the grass preening its feathers.
Xerius gritted his teeth and back away from her. Roxlyn resisted and grabbed the hilt of the sword at her side and tried to rush at Kiao.
“Stop! Drop the weapon and step aside for me to pass,” ordered Kiao.
The woman’s entire body came to a halt. She lowered the sword and then started fighting with herself lowering it and then raising it.
“Roxlyn, drop the sword. You know your sword is useless against the words of a chanter. Drop the sword and let me pass.”
The sword slipped out of her fingers and fell to the ground with a thud. Horror blossomed on her face, and she wailed, “Get out of my head.”
“My voice will be in all your heads until you let me and the first warden beside me pass. Until then, do as I will. Move aside. Stand in the grass beside the bird. Xerius, you do so as well.”
Tears ran down the woman’s raged filled face. “You pollute the body of the goddess with your footsteps. I will end you.”
“Your words have no power of me. You know this, you feel this, and you fear this. You stay quiet, until you no longer see us down the road.” The road was flat and went on in the distance for a couple of miles. And Roxyln’s mouth snapped shut.
Xerius didn’t fight her. Kiao thought he would given he managed a glare He did glare at her and Oeric. The meant her voice wasn’t completely affecting him. However, he didn’t disobey.
Kiao nudged her horse forward. Oeric dashed on ahead. She then let the mare take her down the road nearly at a gallop with Oeric speeding on ahead. She needed to cool down. Her chest burned as well as her throat. She hadn’t forced herself on people like since she was young. There was no stopping, though. She had to let the fire within her die down as she rode. The air on her skin felt warmer as she rode as inside her became colder. Her stomach felt like a twisting hollow cavern. She was unpracticed and used too much of herself.
She slowed her horse to a stop and leaned forward for support. Oeric didn’t stop until he was some ways ahead. He turned and run back towards her.
“Need food,” she muttered and reached into her saddle bag with a trembling hand. She picked up one of the buns for Oeric and shoved it in her mouth in her mouth in three bites. She needed sugar and not the salty walnut butter. The other one was sweet with dried fruits and she at that quicker. Oeric watched her through a single eye. Blood seeped into his fur from his shoulders.
“Your face,” she said and then saw his neck and flanks bleeding.
“Not now,” he said. “We need to put more distance between them and us.”
They continued down the road as fast as they could before he suddenly veered off the road right before a bridge. They followed the shallow stream under. They followed the stream until she could longer see the bridge and behind an outcrop of boulders. She got off her horse. Oeric was only still for her to take off the packs afterwards and distanced himself and stepped into the stream.
Her stomach became empty again. This time, it brought the jitters. She guzzled down water in her skin and consumed a bottle of syrup stored in her satchel for that reason. The tremors abated. She rested her back against the rocks and listened as Oeric cleaned himself off until she became too tired to stay alert. She fell into a stupor her mind playing a vision of Mien’s hand caressing her cheek. A breeze whispered her name in his voice and then his touch was gone.
She jolted awake and found Oeric on his knees in front of her. His face was clean. The eyelid where he was struck was swollen. That didn’t stop her from reading his frown.
“Hello First Warden,” she smiled.
“Did you just do what I think you just did,” he demanded softly.
Her grin became feeble. “You might not know this about me, but I’m a force of nature with my voice.”
“So it was mind-control,” he said and rubbed his palms on the top of his legs. “If they tell someone—”
“Who would believe them?”
“That’s not the point,” he erupted. “You know very well you can’t do that! You shouldn’t be able to do that! And certainly not for someone like me!”
She became very alert. His breathing was short, and pupils were large. He settled down, assessing her like a wolf would do to another predator. She had scared him. Such a thing was unbelievable. She had seen him a day ago with a knife to his throat and was unbothered. In fact, earlier, he appeared unfazed by being approached by the elf who did threaten him.
“First Warden, I did it because I didn’t know how else to help you,” she explained, keeping her voice soft. “I’m not trained to fight. I used what Dias gifted me. Tell me, what else could I’ve done that wouldn’t have harmed me or you more?”
The cords in his neck tightened. He said nothing.
“I’m not planning on doing it again. It’s draining. But I had to do something. I don’t want to tell your son that he also lost his father while we searched for him. He needs you.”
Kiao reached for him and he deflected her hand with his arm.
“First Warden, I need to tend to you,” she said. The compulsion she worked many years to control to want to heal was strong at that moment. She didn’t know if it was because she smelled blood or the puffy eye staring her.
“It’s fine. They’re just scratches and a few bites. They’re clean and will heal on their own. Rest.”
“Then let me treat your face. You don’t need another scar. People treat you bad enough,” she said, reaching again slowly. He grabbed her wrist in a tight hold.
“Don’t touch me,” he growled. He then let go of her and looked ashamed again. “Not right now, at least.”
“Healing it will take an instant,” she said gently.
“And that’s more than enough time for me to hit you for it,” he warned. “I was just attacked. Give me time to shake it off.”
Kiao settled back. “Is there a reason you haven’t already?”
“We aren’t going there,” he said, ready to put up that wall between them.
“Is it related to the Scourges of Paradise,” she guessed.
His stark gaze darkened.
“I only ask because I’m trying to understand where you’re coming from,” she said quickly before he shut her out.
“Where I’m coming from is the experience of having two insane men overpower me. Do you realize how strong I am? I was stronger then and I couldn’t fight them,” he snapped. “I was helpless! There was nothing but pain, humiliation, and death waiting for me. And then I react in the most horrifying way to save myself.”
Kiao leaned back.
“I set Lykkon on them to get me free. Then I borrowed his body, and I tore into them. They were disemboweled, castrated, and their throats torn. I was told that it was like the fury of all the people they raped and killed come down on them.”
“Described? You don’t remember?”
“My mind broke that night, Sister. It’s all a haze of blood and terrified screams now. But I had to realize what I had done. I ran because of it. I went to Clincher’s apparent and curled against his door with my fur soaked in blood,” he said and stopped. He scrubbed his face. “Is there anymore of this story you need to know. I want to stop.”
Kiao shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said, chilled by the story.
“It’s nothing for you to feel sorry about. I put myself into that situation and hadn’t the good sense to get myself out.”
“Not for that. It’s me always thinking the worse about you. I don’t think it’s sunk in that you suffered so much.”
He regarded her coolly. “So, you’re apologizing out of pity?”
“No. Just listen. It’s so very easy to think of you as a brute after I saw what you did to Soletus. I heard the pain in his voice. I saw him cry, and he was so angry. When he decided to forgive you, I thought he did it too easily.”
“And now you think differently because I told you a story.”
“What part of listening do you not understand,” she exclaimed, the lit in her voice rising up.
He flinched as if she bit him.
She reined herself back and cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. You needn’t be so defensive. What I wanted to say is that I feel like a terrible healer for not understanding your situation. Your pain never sunk into until now. I mean, I accepted Mien’s pain but not yours.”
“Because you can see the courage that Mien has. He’s taken steps to improve without sliding backwards,” he said with a self-deprecating smile. “These fiends in my head are decades old and, as a monk, I’m supposed to be above them. I’m the representation of Dias’s strength. Hurting one son because he’s too afraid to face him isn’t a reflection of that strength at all.”
“But as a healer, I shouldn’t judge a person to the point I’m blind to their pain,” she said earnestly. “I shouldn’t force them to become distressed to the point they don’t trust me. I’m a terrible healer!”
Oeric sighed at the ground. He scooted himself forward and sat tall. However, his hands were tight fists on the tops of his legs.
“Go ahead if it’ll make you feel less like a terrible healer. The only thing you’re guilty of is being a curious child.”
She was hesitant to touch him. “You’re just doing this to humor me,” she told him.
Oeric chuckled. “You need to learn when a man indulges you, say nothing and take advantage of it.”
Kiao didn’t need anything else said to her. She pulled her satchel towards her and dove into it, organizing what she needed. He had plenty of wounds that needed disinfecting so she pulled her bottles out. She could see the ones on his face and neck. He had one on probably his flanks and shoulders. Even if he did clean them, they had the potential to fester.
“I’m moving too fast,” she muttered. “Face first.”
“Would it help if I at least take my shirt off?”
“I was just going to get your face first and then ask if you were willing to continue,” she said.
“You would to that after you start talking about infections while treating my face, hoping to whittle down my resolve,” he said, pulling his shirt over his head.
“I would never do that. Alder would, though,” she said, jumping straight to work while he was statuesque. She started with his eyelid. A scar already rested there and he didn’t need another one. In fact, he was lucky he didn’t lose that eye to Xerius’ talons. She stitched the skin and tissue back into place. It was a minor wound and she could heal it fully with no repercussions. Some puffiness would remain, but not enough that he couldn’t see.
She was going to move onto his neck when the longest of his scars got her attention. She traced it with her index finger. Nothing could be done to minimize it. Time had done what it could. Oeric tilted his face away from her fingertips. She left it alone, saying nothing and moved on to his neck and shoulders. The wounds could’ve been much worse. They could’ve been made by a drass beast and made her job a lot harder.
The worse of them was his flank where he had four perfect holes where claws dug into him. Not to mention there were rake marks on the other side. The area was tender given how much he flinched and hissed when she disinfected the wound. She healed those, and while she was inside his body, she finally took the time to look at his hip. She hadn’t gotten a chance.
What she found was inflamed nerves.
“I need to keep an eye on your hip,” she said on exiting. “It’s very inflamed. I won’t know until a couple more months pass, but First Warden—”
“Worry about it then,” he told her with finality in his voice and pulled his shirt back on. “Do you feel better?”
“Yes,” she said, controlling the urge to press the matter. She didn’t want to pester him anymore. Besides that, Oeric didn’t want her concern. She bet he didn’t want anyone’s concern. And that bothered her.
“I feel you staring at me,” said Oeric as he tucked in his shirt.
Kiao thought a moment about what she could say to him. What he would actually listen too. “It’s about what you said about Mien having courage. You implied that you don’t. You’re wrong. You have all the courage in the world,” she told him.
“Your sentiment is appreciated—” he stated, but she interrupted him.
“But you think I’m wrong.”
When he didn’t answer, Kiao took his hand and held it. She pressed her voice at him with as much sincerity as she could. “You keep moving forward despite all those fiends trying to hold you back. That isn’t the mark of a weak man. It takes courage to move away from darkness back into the light. To live among people who aren’t willing to see that great big heart of yours because of a couple of marks on your face. You’re a good brave man, Oeric’Sheldmartin and don’t you dare say otherwise.”
She released his hand and worked on stowing her things back into her satchel. All the while, Oeric wore that dopey expression she had seen on Soletus’ face when he was told something he didn’t understand. She had no idea that expression come from Oeric. He tired to be as inexpressive as Icus. However, she saw he had range or maybe allowing himself to have range now. In fact, then, his face had softened to bashful appreciation. He knew she meant those words. Though he would never say it. That would be too much for someone like him.
She then heard something on the wind. She stood to her feet and cupped her ears. For a moment, she thought maybe it was a timbre. However, she didn’t hear anything that chimed, ranged, buzzed, or tinkled. Instead, she heard the ethereal sound of the chorus. Her magical heart responded in kind warming up to a new phrase of all the things. She heard it clearly as the phrase of purification and then it was gone. There wasn’t anything else and yet it felt as if there was more. She flexed her right hand and rubbed her sternum with her other.
She was so distracted she didn’t realize that Oeric was looking off in the distance.
“What is it,” she asked and leaned over to the side just enough time to see a tawny tail vanish through the trees.
I remember when I was first drafting this particular chapter. I was stuck on how I was going to have Kiao save Oeric. I couldn't let myself have her pick up his weapons and somehow be good at it to stop the attack. I decided to keep to her skill set and show something she is good at. She's actually very powerful in this aspect. She matches Mien, just differently. I'm sure if this was made in the Hollywood production, they would ruin this scene and show her fighting. To show how strong she is which in my mind, is a disservice to Kiao.
Also, Oeric prancing around as a wolf is my most favored image of him in my mind.