I never regained my memory of what happened that day. I had the occasional dreams of rushing towards Soletus on the ground. Of dreams of rocks and dirt raining down on me. That’s it. The only memory that clings to me is waking up and Soletus holding onto me. The rest, well, I’m glad I don’t remember. Watching Sol suffer through it was enough of an experience. It was hard to see him as he was, because he helped pull me from that pit I had fallen down. And he did so by being himself and being there. Awkward and not knowing what to do other than treat me like another boy. Trying to help me and introduce me to everyone. Including Kiao. And it frustrated me that I couldn’t do that for him. Soletus was a different person than I was. For him to heal, he needed his parents; he needed Hickory, and he needed all of us. Because that’s what someone likes him needs. Family and friends and someone to show him the way.
-Second Interview with Mien Brotherhood Counselor. Written by Patriarch Lord Theris’Heron
It was the first night in a month that Soletus could close his eyes and not see Lyndon’s lifeless eyes. That was all he saw when he was on the road, so he avoided sleep. And if he fell asleep, he kept hearing his cousin gurgling as he tried to draw in a breath. He would then wake up, try to sleep again, and saw those vague eyes again. What made it worse was the exhaustion he accumulated hit him. He was weak and tired from not eating properly. Anything he ate was soured by the taste of elven blood. So, he got sleepy and saw the eyes again. It was a terrible cycle he lived in.
He wanted it to stop, prayed for it to stop. He could do nothing but lie in bed some days. Other days he was oddly giddy but felt poor. When he leave the house, he did nothing. He just wanted to rest. The night before, he expected it to start all over again. He didn’t remember falling asleep and when he woke, he saw broken steams of sunlight on the floor. He tried to roll over but felt something behind him and a foot kicked him in the leg. It was Saedee.
When she learned he was staying at home for a while, she clung to his side whenever she could. Every evening she would come to his room to snuggle up with him, wanting to talk about her day at school or for him to tell her a story before he shooed her off to bed. He failed to shoo her off last night. In fact, he might’ve fallen asleep in the middle of talking to her.
She nestled behind him, sleeping close to his back as she could. He didn’t have the heart to wake her up for her to move. Instead, he scooted further towards the wall and went back off to sleep.
The door to the room swung open and his father came and retrieved Saedee.
“Time to wake up,” he whispered and helped her out of bed, then left him alone. Soletus rolled from the wall to his back. The sun shifted, some time had passed before his room door opened again. This time, his mother entered the room and sat on the edge of his bed.
“Come on,” she said, patting his chest. “Wake up.”
Soletus sat up groggy.
“Come on, there is food waiting for you. Your father and I want to talk to you.”
He figured they would have words for him eventually. Of course, he helped around the house when he could, but he didn’t go to the monastery or the society house to help the huntresses. Briar, Mien, and Tyrus visited him. Kiao did to fuss at him. She was worried. He would nod his head, agreeing to do what she asked. He never did. In fact, he felt unmotivated just as much as he felt exhausted. Yet, his parents barely said a word to him about it. They just let him do whatever he wanted. That was something unheard of. His younger self would never even believe it.
He rolled out of bed. Groomed himself while avoiding looking at his reflection in his mirror too much. He changed out of the clothes he fell asleep in, finding another set of trousers and pulling the drawstrings of the trousers he picked as tight as he could. Once out of his room, and sat at the table. His father was already seated, watching him with critical eyes and pushed the bowl that was in front him to Soletus. They young monk hoped he wasn’t going to heed the request of Kiao to force feed him.
His mother sat across from him. “Both your father and I think it’s best for you to leave the house today. Specifically, Brother Hickory asked for you to see him today.”
He was planning to avoid the priest for a few more weeks yet.
“You promised to speak with him, and you need to do it sooner than later,” she told him.
“I’m going to talk to him,” said Soletus.
“Like you were going to talk to us about you being neth,” she returned.
Soletus wanted to argue with her but couldn’t.
“It will help you a little,” she said gently. “We’re a little worried now.”
“Actually, she’s very worried. And I’m concerned,” said Oeric.
Cordea gave him a quick stare and then went on. “There are things that he can help you with that we can’t. In fact, we don’t know what else to do. We’ve given you plenty of space, but you’ve been so lifeless.”
“And remember what I told you about focusing on the living? You’ve forgotten that and need to take a few more steps in that direction. Anyway, Brother Hickory wants you to come to the chapel after you’ve ate.”
Soletus spooned the porridge in his mouth. It was sweet with honey and had dried fruit in it, not to mention butter. The way he liked it. There was also no taste of blood. However, his stomach clinched in anticipation, making it hard to get through the meal. He managed, eating as slowly as he could then found an empty bowl in front of him. So, he had to get ready to walk.
When he walked out, he was greeted with a chilly breeze. He rubbed his forearm as a shower of shower with autumn leaves descended him. He waited for the breeze to pass and carefully brushed the red leaves from his head and shoulders. It was an effort to procrastinate. However, he felt eyes on him and saw his father looking out the window at him. He waved at him and walked away.
Talking to Brother Hickory meant he had to accept that he was neth. Accepting that his behavior was a problem. That there was something wrong with him. He knew that there was but he was so unmotivated to do anything about it. He was struggling. So, he kept waiting for the right time. It never came.
Once inside the chapel, Brother Brontis greeted him heartily and pointed him to the back. There he found Brother Hickory sitting at his table, and standing beside him was Enforcer Icus.
“It’s about time you showed up,” said Icus and pointed to the seat across from Hickory.
Soletus sank down confused that he was there.
“I’m not going to stay here despite the good brother wanting me too. It’s better if I make this quick,” said Icus, handing Soletus a book. “I’ve a page marked for you to read. I want you to do so aloud.”
Soletus took it and opened it to the ribbon that marked the page and read:
“’The optimal specimen of the neth male is dainty in their actions and shows an air of refinement in all things they do. Their best role in society is to serve others sturdier than they. They should be manservants, shopkeepers, scriveners, tailors, and other masculine service pursuits. However, due to their softhearted nature, hard roles such as soldier or mercenary are too much for them to handle. They are excitable and have the inability to maintain the perfect shrewd and austere nature of female neths. Never have I met a neth male with fortitude. We are very much lucky their blood dies with them. Otherwise, I would fear for the Fen, as we are plagued by this unfortunate defect. We would die out a weak and pitiful race otherwise.’”
Soletus didn’t know what to think other than toss the book to the floor. It was wrong. All of it. Before he could even look at the book cover to see the imbecile who wrote it, Icus snatched it out of his hand.
“That is what you have to put up with in society. The ideas in this book have spread around and people rather believe it than Dias’s Words,” he said with his lips curling in distain.
“I don’t see why it matters to you,” said Soletus.
“It matters to me because I had to work around these assumptions by conforming myself to what they expect of a customary male elf.”
Soletus’ jaw sagged. He would’ve never guessed that Icus was neth. The man was married, somehow, and had a daughter that was a little younger than he was. He was a typical monk with the Arch Monk’s favor.
“The reasons I choose to live this way is that I have things I want to achieve and hiding it was the only way I could,” he went on. “According to Hickory, you don’t have the option to conform since everyone knows. I think you do, and it’ll be easier if you want to remain part of the order.”
Soletus was still caught up on him being neth, let alone his options.
“This is the only time I will speak to you about this. You should decide how you go about living your life. There will be less resistance in your way if you just live like a customary male. So far, you don’t do well with resistance.”
The young monk snapped out of his shock and demanded. “What are you talking about?”
“You’re indecisive. Bend easy to conflict. A man needs to be act on what he knows is right and not question it and be afraid. Letting go of the burden of being neth will help you more than just accepting the weakness everyone thinks you have.”
Soletus tightened his jaw. He wasn’t weak.“Your wrong,” he said, because he didn’t want Icus to be right.
“Of course, you would say that. You’ve already been so fragrant about it without trying,” he said, taking a lock of his hair in his hands. “And what have you been doing these last few months, nothing.”
“If that’s the way you feel, then you can leave,” said Soletus. He had his fill of Icus that would last him many decades. “I won’t be offended.”
The enforcer let his hair strands slip through his fingers. “Hickory is the best choice in helping you. This is all you get from me.”
At that, Icus left, leaving Brother Hickory and him alone. The aged priest gave him an apologetic look.
“Don’t mind Icus. That’s his way of helping.”
“He needs to stop trying to be helpful then,” muttered Soletus.
Brother Hickory rested his chin on his fist. “I suppose the beneficial part of him leaving is that I won’t have him debate anything I say. So, how does the world find you this morning?”
Soletus tense up. He never thought what Mien had said about the priest in front of him was true. That he was being too sensitive. However, in front of him, wearing a genial smile, was the most powerful chanter the order had.
“It finds me okay,” he said slowly.
Brother Hickory tapped his finger on the table, assessing him. “Do you know why I asked for you here?”
“You want to help me and make sure I’m okay with being what I am.”
“I’ll do that eventually, however, today isn’t a counseling session.”
“No. Think of this as two elves getting together who have something in common with each other,” said Hickory with a disarming smile.
“I’m reaching out to you is all. Seeing how you are doing. How you’re really doing.”
“I’m well enough,” said Soletus.
“Uh-huh,” said the priest dubiously. “Well, enough to discuss what your plans are going forward?”
Soletus wasn’t sure if he was doing a good job of not making their discussion a session. “I haven’t given much thought other than not being on the rooster.”
“Eventually, you have to go back.”
Soletus shrugged. “I not sure if I do.”
Hickory then asked. “Do you know why I become the chaplain here?”
Soletus swayed his head and chuckled. “No. I thought you were kind of born for this duty, given how well you do it.”
Hickory chuckled. “Goodness no. My abilities made me cynical, distrustful, and bad mannered. I had a single friend in the order because of it. His name was Trystan. He was Saffron’s late husband and a combat chanter. He decided one day, without consulting me on the matter, that he would be my friend. It infuriated me. I wanted to find something wrong with him. I believed he had ulterior motives. He kept asking me to come to dinner,” a fond smile formed on his face. ”I gave in just to get him to stop. And after that one time, I never stopped. It felt so natural to be there with him and Saffron. I liked being part of a family again. And then it happened. I’m sure you heard stories about the town of Farthing?”
It was one of the first places that Kellas took Soletus as a grappler. There wasn’t much left of the town. It had grown up with the only thing that marked builders were stone foundations and a single burning ash growing over a mass grave. There were tao stone blocks around the tree with the names of the people killed there and the names of wardens from the same band. Kellas told him that was what failure looked liked.
“Kellas showed me that place,” he said. “He told a husk had torn through the town and it was dealt with poorly.”
Hickory nodded. “A combination of three bands went there. Thirty men in all, armed with fire and as many chanters as they could get. I was one of them. Killing one husk is tricky enough. Tt hard to deal with and understand. Killing an entire village of turned elves, well, that is a nightmare.”
“How did an entire village get turned?”
“They found a husk, killed it, but someone’s loved one was touched by it. Instead of telling someone so they could properly deal with them, they thought they could purge the corruption. But they turned and touched those caring for them. It cascaded from there.
“The band that was out there was hunting for the original husk just happened across the town. By the time they got there, it was far too late. The entire village had to be quarantined and for us to figure out who was lying or hiding. It was a hard thing to do. It went on for nearly three weeks of trying to make sure we had everyone. However, we missed four husks. Out of my band, I was the only one to survive.”
Soletus was stunned. He couldn’t deal with a single death. To have nine of them. And the entire band of those he was familiar with and worked with suddenly gone.
“We should’ve been more careful. Everyone wanted to go home, and we didn’t check the woods properly like we should. However, we at least followed the practice of each band staggering when we left. My band was the last to leave and drass beasts have a habit of following you home. We didn’t see them coming. But what can you do when you’re surrounded by four husks and it’s getting dark?”
“How did you get away?”
“I stepped away to relieve myself and fill my canteen. I heard screaming. By the time I had made it back to camp, Trystan had killed one, with the others grabbing hold of him. Our bandmates were lying on the ground writhing in pain. He shouted to me to stay back.”
“You were a battle chanter. Why didn’t you fight them?”
“Because I’m no Mien,” he said. “My light is bright, but not a purifying light. In fact, Mien is a lot like Trystan in his abilities. He was a magnificent chanter. Fearless around drass beasts in that they irritated him.”
Soletus had to agree that sounded a lot like his friend.
“At that point he was the last one standing. He did the only thing he could do and consecrated an area with light. He burned himself, our bandmates, and the remaining husks. I’ve never seen someone do that. It was an act of pure will and power. I can still feel the heat from it.”
Soletus didn’t know what to say about it. There was no pain in Hickory’s voice. He just told it like any other story. It was something that happened to him decades ago. He wished that he could tell the story of Lyndon’s death like it was another tale.
“After that, I had no desire to go back on the road. They thought I just felt a little guilty from it and all I needed was encouraging. They had me face a drass beast and just feeling its oily presence in my mind sent me fleeing. I hid in the infirmary for a day. And it was clear I could no longer be a battle chanter. However in that moment, Oliver got to know me and we became friends. And he told Brother Gerah about me. He was the chaplain at the time and told me he felt Dias wanted me to do something different. He was getting older and thought I was a perfect candidate to take his place. I told him I hated people. He laughed at me and said that’s because I hate myself.” Brother Hickory laughed. “Yes, even I was on the other side.”
“And that’s when you learned that you could help people.”
“Yes, but it wasn’t instant. He helped with the basics. He built up the base I already had, adding more to my knowledge. I focused then on studying the Word of Dias and how it related to teaching and guiding orders. And Dias helped it all make sense. And then came the actual test of me help people. To do that, I had my abilities fastened so I would stop listening to people in anticipation and actually listen to them and watching them. See patterns of behaviors and I found it all very challenging. And I liked it.”
Soletus tilted his head. “You find helping people challenging?”
“Yes, we neth like challenges. And that doesn’t always mean just physical ones. Some of us lie brain challenges. People are alike, but they are also very different, so you have to customize your method in guiding them. About the time I start feeling I had a handle on people, , someone gets pushed into my arms that’s different. I have to review my strategies. That requires quick assessment and observations, and the individual I learned the most from was your father.”
“He was not my first case, but he was one of the hardest. Someone I very much had to rely on watching him. When we met him, he was desperate to keep me distant and was good at it. He was so guarded and tried very hard to push me away. However, I was persistent and discovered that someone sensitive and smart under a guise of sardonic apathy. Seeing how he transformed into a better version of himself, makes me happy.”
Soletus never considered that he truly enjoyed what he did. Then again, he knew nothing personal about the aged priest until then.
“Anyway, enough about me. Unless there is something you want to ask me.”
There were a lot of things that Soletus felt he could ask him, but none of the questions came to mind.
“No, I can’t think of anything,” he admitted. “There are things I need to know. I know there is. But I can hardly think. Last night was the first time I slept through the night without Lyndon staring back at me.”
“And was he dead or dying?”
“I know you and many others feel guilty and responsible for the death of someone. For a long time I felt very guilty about his death. However, I accepted the fact, that he wanted me to live. And that I needed to honor his choice.”
Soletus nodded, but he didn’t know if he agreed. Lyndon didn’t exactly save him, believing he would die.
“Anyway, I wanted to tell you this, so you would feel less alone. That you’re not the only one who suffered losing someone you cared about.”
Soletus hung his head down. “It isn’t so much I feel I’m alone or I think I’m the only who’s suffered. I just feel it’s my fault.”
“Just, those feeling exists. I thought it was my fault. I was there, somehow, I could have helped Trystan. I even played out different ways it could have happened if I had been there.”
“I did that. Though I do that at the end of every fight. I like to imagine the different outcomes. Lyndon would always roll his eyes at me. Said I was overthinking.” Soletus smiling at the memory of his cousin’s exasperation. “Said that I thought too much.” Then the smile faded and he felt that pressured in his. Tears threatened to come. “I missed that.” He said half aloud and half in a voiceless whisper.
“Can I make a suggestion?”
Soletus regarded him. His blue eyes glistening.
“You have a host of other friends. That, while they aren’t the same as your cousin. You didn’t grow up with them. They are alive and they care about you. Mien’s come to me wanting to help you badly. Briar wants me to fix you. Kiao has asked me all sorts of questions about grief in order to help you.”
“I know,” he said. “They want to help and they have in a way. They help.”
“I can help too. That’s if you want to. We can talk to each other whenever you like. No session. I can just sit here and listen.”
Soletus thought about it. Talking to Hickory didn’t make him feel worse. It made him feel a little better. However, he still didn’t know if he could do it. So he asked Hickory. “Why do you want to help me so badly?”
“Because when I was your age, I would’ve done anything to have someone listen to me.”
Soletus turned that answer over in his mind and decided. “I want to go, but can I talk to you later when I feel more rested. I think, I might be able to sleep now.”
Brother Hickory’s face lit up. “Of course, whenever you want me. I’ll be here.”