The group’s hasty retreat came to a halt. They stopped at the backside of the abandoned town and were now close to the banks of the Branch River. Mien could hear the rush of the river but didn’t have eyes on it. He wanted to know their positioning in the context of the monastery. He could see the town wall and the monastery spire through the trees. If he had to guess, they were north of it. If that were the case, he wasn’t looking forward to their walk back.
They were all breathless and under normal circumstances would be okay to run longer however, Lyndon was still not right. He had sunk down to the ground gasping and sprawled out on his back. His skin had taken on a green hue. Mien was sure he was going to be sick again and there was nothing he could do for him. The young chanter priest focused his attention on Kiao.
Khodi had come to a stop beside Soletus. Kiao rose from her flattened position on the bear’s back stiffly.
Mien stopped beside her. “You okay?”
“No,” she said and lost her balance, slipping to the side. Mien caught her as Khodi lowered himself down. Mien slid her off his back and placed her on the ground. She sat up on her own, but it looked like it was taking some effort on her part.
“Thanks for catching me,” she said.
Lyndon crawled to Mien’s other side. “I’m glad to see my sacrifice wasn’t in vain.”
“No, just stupid,” said Soletus.
The young scout wiped the sweat from under his eyes. “Bah, it was worth feeling like a piece of me was ripped out and getting kicked in the stones at the same time.”
“That’s why they say don’t do things like that. It takes a bit to get over too.”
Lyndon then glowered at him. “Please, like you would know.”
Soletus smiled. “Jealous?”
Lyndon gave his cousin a flat stare. “You were waiting to shove that back in my face, weren’t you?”
Soletus wore a smug grin. Mien chuckled.
“Some sort of joke I missed,” asked Kiao.
“Yes,” answered Mien. “Can you get back up?”
“No, I can’t feel my legs.”
Lyndon became alarmed. “It didn’t hurt her spine, did it?”
Soletus cleared his throat. Lyndon regarded him with a raised brow. The young monk returned it with one of his own and gestured to Kiao with his chin. Lyndon rolled his eyes, thinking before mouthing something Mien didn’t catch. Soletus sighed, mouthed.
“Talk to me later.”
“You know I’m sitting right here,” said Kiao.
“He’s worried, is all. In all seriousness, how are you doing,” Lyndon asked.
Kiao started flexing her hand. “The toxin is a paralytic. This seems to have affected my nerves. I don’t expect any long-term effect.”
Soletus tilted his head. “What?”
“It’s making her numb,” clarified Mien.
“That’s what I said. I’m also losing feeling in my arms,” she added. “I don’t know if I can ride Khodi.”
The bear’s head hung over Mien’s shoulder to sniff the crown of Kiao’s head.
Soletus opened his mouth to speak, but the sound of the dinner horn stopped him. They all looked towards the monastery with forlorn expressions on their faces.
“Well, so much for making it in time for dinner,” lamented Soletus. “Anyway, we need to hurry if it’s that late. A bridge goes across the river by the fields. However, it’s a draw bridge and they raise it at night. There should be some lingering fieldworkers out there, so the bridge will be down.”
“And if it isn’t,” asked Lyndon.
“Then we have to swim, I reckon.”
Mien didn’t like that prospect.
“I can’t swim,” said Kiao. “And I mean that in both my current condition as well as my lack of skill.”
Lyndon tsked her. “Too much time indoors.”
Soletus asked his cousin. “Can you, Lyn?”
“I can, but can’t we just send one person across? I mean, the mechanism to lower and raise the bridge is powered by the river.”
The cousins sat their eyes on Mien.
He became wide eyed. “Wait, you want me to do it?”
“You’re the better swimmer out of the four of us,” said Lyndon.
“The river becomes narrow there, making the water rapid,” he argued. “I can’t swim that!”
Soletus got down on his knees in front of him and told him, “Look, the only other option is to follow the river down to the second bridge, which is the way we came,” said Soletus.
“It’ll be okay. Well, worry about it when we get there. We need to get moving, so help get Kiao on my back,” he said.
Kiao reached out for him. “You aren’t going to carry me like a sack of potatoes,” she asked with a suspicious arch of her brow.
“I was thinking piggy-back for this outing,”said Soletus, taking hold of her legs. When he stood, she let out a yelp.
“Did I hurt you,” Soletus asked.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. If Mien had to guess the expression on the young woman’s face, she was awestruck.
“No, I didn’t expect you to get up so quick like that,” she said, blushing.
Lyndon turned away before Kiao could see him snickering at her. Mien felt a tiny ping of jealousy.
The setting sun was below the horizon when they got to the bridge. There were still elves working, and thus the bridge was down. As they crossed it, Mien studied the river below them. The water line was low, but it was flowing as fast as he thought. He doubted he could’ve swum across it and climb up the high banks without hurting himself.
Most of the fieldworkers were far away from them, but a few of them noticed the group cutting through the pole beans. A few shouted at them, asking if they were okay. Mien had to shout back everything was fine. It wasn’t. During their endless march, Kiao grew quiet, leaning on Soletus with her eyes shut. Lyndon, who was normally chatty, followed them almost in a daze. When they got out of the fields, Soletus followed the path that skirted the town wall towards the main entrance.
“Wouldn’t it be quicker if we went the other way,” asked Mien. There were other entrances in town.
Soletus shook his head. “No. It’s sundown. The door by the stables and both side entrances are closed. The only entrance that’s open is the main one.”
Mien could hear the strain in his breath. “You sound like you’re exhausting yourself. You did come straight from training to help us,” he told him.
“Bah, I can still walk another ten miles like this,” he answered and plodded on.
Mien envied Soletus. He didn’t think there were many his age that could do what he did. The older tod was all about making himself as physically strong as he could. Then again, Mien wondered if it was more stubbornness than stamina that kept him going. It worried Mien about how much sweat was pouring from his head as well as it was soaking his shirt. He didn’t want to imagine how much slicked his back. Though Kiao said nothing and appeared to be sleeping.
When they made it to the entrance towns, Mien peered around for any of the guards they met in the woods. He didn’t see them, neither did he hear them. He told that to Soletus.
“If that’s the case, keep moving,” said Soletus. “If anyone says anything, run.”
They were lucky that the peaceguard was checking over a merchant cart. They were too busy to do anything other than glance at the shoulder patch on Soletus’s shirt, and waved them on through. Mien felt a great sense of relief. All they had left was to make it up the main road. However, when they come to the first side road, Soletus walked over to one of the rock posts and leaned on it to catch his breath.
“I don’t think I can make it to the monastery,” he told them.
Kiao parted her eyelids and spoke into Soletus’s shoulders. “Then take me to the chapel.”
“The chapel is still too far.”
“Let me carry Kiao,” said Lyndon.
Mien didn’t think he was in any condition to carry her. His skin had dropped the green tint and to a near bloodless white.
Soletus then suggested, “How about this? You go to the chapel and get Brother Hickory and send him to my parent’s house.”
Kiao became alive again and slapped the flat of her hand on Soletus’s chest. “No, don’t!”
“Kiao, my parents told me if I met a young woman who needed aid—”
“I don’t want anyone else to find out,” she exclaimed.
“Listen, all they need to know is that you need help. Who you are can’t be questioned.”
“What if the First Warden is there?”
“He’s agreed to this as well. However, I’m not sure about this time. You know how he is.”
“I don’t need an entire family finding out,” she cried.
“They’re not going to tell anyone,” promised Soletus.
Mien then told her, “It might be best. Fewer people will see you. The chapel is probably crowded right now because it’s summer vigil. There will be a lot of people praying.”
Kiao beat her forehead against her arm. “Why can’t anything be simple?”
“My parents might be there,” said Soletus. “If they are, then having an empty house is better than a full chapel.”
“Alright,” she agreed quietly and settled down again.
Lyndon parted from them, leaving them to the shorter trek, however, the walk to Soletus’s house never felt longer. If Mien could, he would attempt to carry Kiao. However, he doubted he would get very far. He just kept an eye on both of his friends. Soletus was slowing down and muttering something under breath. It sounded like a one of the monk’s devotions.
Mien thanked Dias when he saw the lanterns were still lit in the house on the hill, meaning that someone was home. Even if Kiao didn’t prefer it, he needed help to clean Kiao’s back. He didn’t think Soletus would have much left in him.
Onyx barked once at them and dashed around them in a circuit before she become subdued and whimpered. She sniffed at Kiao’s shoes. When they made it up the walk, Soletus deposited Kiao into Mien’s arms so he could steady her. She went limp and Mien picked her up, cradling her. She let out a little yelp when he did.
Soletus knocked on the door, and Mien heard his mother shout, “It’s unlocked!”
Soletus cracked the door. “Mama, I need to evoke the powers of need-to-know.”
“Get in here,” she said.
Mien walked pasted and entered the house. Cordea and Oeric were both sitting at the table and looked up at them with wide eyes. Instructions started spilling from Mien’s mouth before they could ask a question. “I need a clean room, hot water, some sort of alcohol as disinfectant-”
“I don’t have any,” spoke Cordea.
“Vinegar will work too,” suggested Kiao weakly.
Oeric stood up. “Put him on the table.”
Mien deposited Kiao on the table. “I also need clean rags, soap, and cold water.”
Oeric took a bucket and left the house. Cordea went to the kitchen. When she did, Mien unwound the sash around of Kiao.
“You need me,” asked Soletus.
Mien shook his head, peeling off the rest of his blood-stained sash from Kiao’s skin. “You probably don’t want this back,” he said, dropping the cloth on the floor.
“I’ve another one,” said Soletus, sitting in the doorway to the back.
Kiao shrugged off the remains of her shirt right as Cordea returned. The woman came to a dead halt. Her jaw became unhinged. Kiao saw her and said,
“I didn’t think they were that intriguing. Soletus needs attention.”
“Just get me some water,” he said between breaths.
His mother vanished again.
The door to the back opened. Oeric glanced to say something before he immediately ducked back in. He didn’t say a word. Cordea took his bucket and filled a large mug of water from it. Mien guessed they were having a nonverbal conversation as well. When she appeared again, Kiao was settling down on her stomach.
“I’ve hot water heating up,” said Cordea when she was at her son’s side with a mug.
Mien left the young woman for a moment and settled at his friend’s side, who was gulping down his mug of water.
“You need to give him more. He’s probably dehydrated,” said Mien.
Soletus leaned back and said, “Worry about Kiao not me.”
“I would, but someone thinks that pushing himself until he can barely move is smart.”
“Monks do strive to overcome their limits,” answered Soletus.
Mien let out a snort. “That’s an excuse to be stupid.” He was worried that the young monk may have pushed himself a little too far. His pulse was rapid and while his skin was clammy feeling, when he looked internally, Soletus was far too hot. “Remove the shirt so you can cool off.”
Cordea started undoing the lacing for him. “You’re soaked with sweat.”
“Wipe his skin down too,” added Mien, getting back up.
Oeric dropped rags on the table and then squatted down in front of Kiao.
She peered at him through heavy eyelids. “Hello, First Warden.”
“Should I get Brother Hickory?”
“Lyndon’s getting him,” she said.
“The water should be warm enough for you to use now,” said Cordea going back in the kitchen.
She poured it into a bowl and gave it to Mien along with a bottle of vinegar and a bar of soap.
“Can you feel anything,” asked Mien as he washed his hands before he started on the dried blood.
“No, is it as bad as it look, because it felt bad earlier?”
“Yes. Anymore clawing it would’ve gotten your spine.”
Mien then felt someone staring at him. He looked up and met Oeric’s probing gaze. He hated that expression. It always came before he started dredging up answers. The thing was, he couldn’t question anything about Kiao, so he hoped the man would just stare at him. He didn’t.
“What was Soletus doing to put him in that state,” he asked.
Mien glanced up from his work to see the older tod suck down his third cup of water. Cordea then got him to lie down and placed a cloth on his forehead. Mien focused his attention on his patient in front of him.
“He had to carry Kiao.”
“The woods, Sir.”
“Mientheoderic,” he said in that low octave father voice that was a suggestion to tell the truth or else.
Mien cleared his throat. “From the ruins. We only went there to investigate. There were children sick in the infirmary and I wanted to find the source. And we found it. We found someone growing the ingredients to make blighter in the reservoir in the ruins.”
“What,” said Oeric with disbelief.
“Some of the peacegaurds are making blighter,” muttered Kiao. “Then a drass beast came and attacked me.”
Oeric’s pale eyes flicked down to her and then back up to Mien’s face, “Is it dead?”
“Soletus and I took care of it,” said Mien.
Oeric rubbed his face. “And none of you thought to at least tell me about this before you went traipsing off into a restricted area?”
“We were going to afterwards,” said Mien.
Oeric let out a long, tired sigh. “Why not before?”
Mien couldn’t think of a good answer. The thought never occurred to him to tell Oeric.
“You’re making a compelling argument with your silence.”
“We didn’t think about,” admitted Kiao. “Too excited I suppose.”
Oeric was wearing that frustrated scrunch of his brow and then pled to his wife.
“Can I ignore the rules to make a criticism of gross stupidity?”
The woman was being awfully silent. Mien was sure she didn’t know what to think. Before she could answer, Kiao spoke up.
“I’m a big girl, First Warden,” she said. “Go ahead and say what you want.”
Oeric immediately took the invitation and started on his tirade.
“In what mindset did you believe you were taking the best course of action to solve your problem?”
Kiao lifted her head. “I suppose, objectively, it wasn’t. However, why should my seeking to make people better be limited to standing inside a building and treating their sicknesses? Why not help prevent them and find answers, especially when I believed those who are charged with seeking the answers are the ones causing it?”
Oeric then returned, “I’m not saying you should limit yourself. I’m saying if you have suspicions, then you tell someone like me who can look into it.”
“I briefly considered telling you. However, I was afraid you wouldn’t listen on the grounds of not having evidence. Accusing the peaceguard of a crime isn’t a light matter. And for younger member, such as myself, who have to fight to be heard. Not to mention, I feared you wouldn’t understand the theory that Mien brought to me.”
Oeric sighed. “I’m not dense.”
“I’m sorry to assume that you were.”
“And you do realize that I’ve a direct ear to the Arch Monk?”
“Very aware, however, so does Soletus. And if one is young, one would choose their friend over their friend’s fussy father,” she said archly.
Oeric looked at his wife again. “Am I fussy?”
“Right now is a good example of you being fussy,” answered Cordea. “Let her rest.”
Oeric was about to argue with her. However, Cordea narrowed her eyes at him and crossed her arms. Like the smart man he was, he clamped his jaw shut and left the room, careful not to step on Soletus.
Cordea shook her head and rose to her feet. “I’m sorry. He’s gets unbearable when he sees something like this.”
“So, I noted,” said Kiao.
“Your back looks a mess,” she told her.
Cleaning it made the damage clear. She had scratches from her shoulder blades to the waistband of her trouser. Some were raw with just a layer of skin removed. The worse was angry flesh that was irritated red and puffy.
Oeric returned with a folded blanket and slid it under Kiao’s head so she could rest on it. He then sat down by Soletus’s feet and Cordea joined him. Mien was finally able to work on Kiao back without having the two adults distracting him. However, those two talking to him kept him alert. He wanted to sprawl out on the floor and rest. Whatever was keeping him going was draining away.
When he finished cleaning with the vinegar and told Kiao, “I’m done cleaning your back.”
He thought Kiao had finally fallen out as well due to her fever and exhaustion. She struggled to push herself back up. “Good, now it can be healed. How tired are you?”
He was hungry and sapped. “Tired,” he told her.
“So, it would make you weak if you healed this alone?”
Mien was a burst healer and healing Kiao’s back would be that, but drass beast wounds were hard to heal. He would be probably collapse if he healed her alone.
“I’m tired. I’ve not eaten since midday, and we’ve missed dinner.”
“Fine, then we can dual heal,” she said. “Two tired hungry chanters healing one of them is better than one of them doing it alone.”
“Then wait until Brother Hickory gets here,” advised Cordea.
“Brother Hickory can barely heal a scraped knee,” she said. “Besides, it’s an opportunity for Mien to learn how to heal another chanter.”
Mien didn’t think it was that much different from a normal person.
“Help me to the edge,” she instructed.
Mien helped her to the edge of the table, where she sat shirtless. He could see Cordea out of the corner of his eyes open her mouth before closing it. She instead just stood back and watched. Mien had dual-healed with Kiao before. That’s how she taught him, however, never on each other. He never even magically examined Kiao before. Clearly, it was for obvious reasons. Kiao picked up Mien’s hand and held it to her heart. He forced his eyes to stay on her face.
“It’s a bit different. You just follow me as usual and heal when I tell you to. But you’re not going to be close to my magical heart. I’m afraid you’ll be like a moth to a flame and get distracted by it.”
“Good, start chanting, and I’ll join you.”
Mien took a deep breath and dropped into her body. He was immediately greeted by what only could be described as Kiao’s presence all around him. It comforted him. It tugged on him. He shut himself from it and every other channel he could feel when he saw the light that represented Kiao manifest in front of him and followed her.
I’m not going to get distracted, he told himself. Though he could feel his concentration straining. He hoped they could move quickly as they started knitting flesh with the areas that had the least amount of damage. The resistance to healing was getting more difficult. The tissue in front was resistant to the mending process. He pushed more of himself, and his concentration broke letting flashes of what he was feeling. When he started on the worse tissue, his mind started opening up.
The light that represented Kiao timbre was strong. Before it was always as if she was far away, now a new channel had opened to him. And her timbre took on a new note. It was the loveliest thing he had ever heard and slowly his mind started focusing on her timber than healing.
“Mien,” spoke Kiao aloud but, he was unresponsive to her cry. Her timber caught all his attention even more so when he discovered that it resonated with his. The same note on a different octaves. It formed into a song telling him things about her. He already knew she was stubborn, confident, and ambitious. Her desire to help people was strong and, in the mix of all of this, was loneliness. A feeling of being incomplete. That feeling was all too familiar. Like there was a barrier separating him from people around him. He never knew how to reach them. He didn’t think he was good at among all the other undesirable things about him. Many people around him were encouraging, but he felt that he needed someone who could understand more than anyone else. Soletus was close, but he was what he wanted. He wasn’t sure what he wanted.
“Mien, why aren’t you healing anymore?”
The young chanter focused on her voice as he did want to help her. As well as hold and embrace her. To be that person, fill the hole that he knew she felt. That desire brought forth other ones. He wanted to touch, embrace, love, and spent as much time with her as time allowed it to be so. She was his no one else to wed and bed.
She’s mine, his mind declared.
That was when his awareness struck him like a crack of thunder, breaking the connection between them. He panicked and his eyelids flew open. He was greeted by the sight of her scowling at him in frustration.
“I’ve been shouting your name! What happened,” she demanded, and she reached up and touched his wrist. It felt like he was struck by lightning.
He jerked his hand from hers clutching and then had to let go because his skin was too his sensitive for his touch. Every hair on his body felt raised with whatever spell that had overtaken him tendrils were still wrapped around him.
“Mien, you need to speak.”
It felt like all of his words were all caught in a net, choking him. His mind was scrambled unable to offer him a coherent thought. He started backing up. With every footstep, the world started becoming louder with the warmth of the room rising with it.
“Mien, speak,” she said, trying to use her voice to get him to talk. It only made the swirling confusion inside of him worse. He wanted to hear her speak, as well as to silence her. He felt for the wall behind him. When he found it, he scooted to the right until he felt nothing behind him and walked backwards into the kitchen. He then turned and fled feeling as if he was on fire.