Oeric hunched forward like an old elf bent from carrying bricks on his back for his entire life. Six months of being posted in a swamp was a lifetime of proverbial bricks. He wasn’t sure how many decades it took off his life, but he felt them missing in his tired muscles. Sitting properly in his saddle required too much effort and his road worn body couldn’t take a lot of effort.
It was his own doing. He rushed home, leaving mud in his wake. He let out a loud yawn that got the attention of the peaceguards watching the town's gate. They were too busy laughing at some joke and nearly jumped out of their skins when they noticed him nearly ambling past them. The closest stepped forward to stop him. However, when Oeric pointed to the Brotherhood patch on his shoulder. They froze, and he gave him a curt nod.
He kept his eyes forward, as it was impossible to see everything around him. Twilight was fading and shadows were no more. Only quiet darkness in a formless world. His attention wondered upward as a night bird shrieked above him and he caught sight of the evening's guiding stars. He stared at them often in the swamp when he was alone. The stars pointed north. That was where home was. It was part of a warder’s training to know those stars were in case they found themselves lost. “Follow the two red stars seated side-by-side to guide your way,” was the common saying.
The last time that saying had the same significance was the night he returned home decades ago as a broken young man. The world was reduced to smells, sounds, and whatever Cordea pushed into his hands. It created a great deal of paranoia in him. To keep him calm, Cordea described their trip home to him. She spoke about those stars every night while resting as close to him as he let her.
When she told him they crossed the threshold of the town's gate, he felt a great sense of bittersweet relief. He was home. Something he wanted desperately at sometimes. Other times, he scorned the thought. His brother was dead, and his sister moved away. The only family he could touch was his father, a man he was afraid to speak to. However, he was home. He never thought he would feel that trepidation again. He did then. This time just not his father, but his wife and children.
Instead of continuing down the main road to the monastery that loomed as a darkened fortress before him, Oeric turned his gelding down the lane he lived down. He counted the houses with no lantern light in their windows. Most elves in town were going to bed. His own house on the hill, however, was still bright inside. He smiled to himself and urged his horse forward with his heels.
The weight of everything that had happened lifted from his heart. Never in his many years of being a warden had he been homesick. It surprised him when the feeling came one evening in while he was being eaten alive by midges in that Dias forsaken swamp.
A deep warning woof greeted him as he arrived at the bottom of the path to his house. To anyone who wasn’t familiar with Onyx, she sounded like a vicious guardian ready to take down anyone that come near. Obsidian hounds were normally used to guard property. Their dark coats made them impossible for predator and thieves to see at night. They would always give out a warning bark. If that was not heeded, then they prowled silently towards the intruder. If one heard that deep chested growl beside them, it was too late to run, fight, or hide.
Oeric had received her as a gift of appreciation from a shepherd. He never really wanted a dog, but she fit right in, and everyone loved her. And as usual, she hard to spot in the waning light. He puckered his lips and whistled low and short. In return, Onyx let out an oof and then he heard her galloping towards him with excitement. He spotted her shadowed form when right under him. He slid off his saddle immediately had to fight her down because she was trying to use her large paws to crawl up his chest.
“Down,” he ordered as he laughed. He tried to contain her wagging body so she wouldn’t topple him. He failed in the end and Oeric ended up on his rear, with her nudging his body and licking his hands. She hadn’t greeted him like that since she was a puppy. He scratched her massive head and back. She dropped on all fours again and allowed him to get up. Instead of lying back down at her sentinel post, she followed him to the left side of the house.
He had a shed build just in case he needed to store a horse for a short period. Oeric removed the horse’s tact and his packs before tethering the horse in the single stall there. He filled a bucket of water and fed it a bit of grain to hold the creature over until morning. Traveling to the monastery stables was a hassle, especially in the dark. He just wanted to go to bed.
When he opened the door, he was greeted by Cordea with their youngest, struggling out of her arms to reach him.
“Da,” the little girl squealed with reaching her small hands in his direction.
Six months was a long time to be away from one’s family, especially one’s baby. While away, the silly thought that she would forget who he was plagued his mind. Oeric had never been away no longer two months before. She didn’t forget at all. He held her in his arms, asking her questions she didn’t yet know how to answer except in squeals. When he tried to pass her back to Cordea to remove the satchel around his shoulders, she cried and clutched on to him, afraid to let go.
All the commotion brought his oldest daughter, Fern, from her room. She arrived in her robe, ready for bed. She cried out happily and tried to hug his neck. However, she couldn’t get past Saedee’s claim of him. Oeric was glad to see her. She would leave them again to return to his sister’s orchard soon. He was worried he would arrive too late and wouldn’t see her again until she could visit again in months or a year or two. His heart ached to see her depart again, but she had her own life. She was old enough not to need them. However, age didn’t stop her from asking questions as she did since she was a girl.
It was a good night to be home.
However, there was someone lacking amidst the storytelling. That was his middle child, his son Soletus. If it were two years ago, Oeric could have easily gotten him to come over. However, he was certain the young tod wasn’t going to talk to him, not just yet. Not after what he had done.
Soon conversation was over. He stayed up long than he intended. When he finally was alone with his wife, he was exhausted. While in the swamp, he imagined a more elaborate show of how sorry he was and how much he missed her. He had many sleepless nights craving her presence, love, and advice. Given what happened, they would have to step back into everything slowly. And she would be reluctant for any kind of intimacy.
He thought that assessment was correct as when he walked into their room. She sat at her vanity instead of the bed. He took it as a sign she wanted distance, went to the bed, and worked on undressing. She cleared her throat, breaking the silence. He looked up to see her looking in the mirror. Her hand was raised and within her grasp was her hairbrush for him to take.
It was a simple invitation. A test likely. Maybe she was afraid he would distance himself away from her. It was something he always did in the past when he felt undeserving. He promised to Dias in the swamp to stop running from what made him uncomfortable. So, he took the brush and settled down.
There wasn’t a lot of room on the bench, but it was always enough for him if she sat sideway on it at the edge. She remained silent, but he could see her smiling. She then said.
He paused. She didn’t need to apologize to him.
She then explained. “I was so angry at you that I hit you. Then I didn’t see you off. And for days after you left, I had a lot of nasty thoughts. How I would punish you. That maybe I should leave you.”
He apologized to her many times those months ago and was about to say he was sorry again, she interrupted him.
“Did I tell you to stop brushing?”
She was right. His hands were still, and he started again. “I’m sorry, I shan’t stop until you tell me,” he promised.
“Thank you,” she said, smiling again. “Now my hair will look excellent again. I miss your nimble fingers.”
He continued running the brush down the length of her hair, enjoying the simple affection. Silence formed again.
She spoke again with a softer and earnest note. “Don’t be withdrawn. I need you just as much as before. You can talk to me. Always talk to me. Your silence is what caused this anyway.”
She knew him well. Words were never easy for him. And because of that, he had done their marriage together wrong.
“I’m not trying to be, I just don’t know what to say,” he replied.
She smiled. “Well, I can start. There is so much I need to tell you.”
“Why what happened,” he said, growing concerned.
“Why di you jump to something being wrong? I mean, there are things that you need to see to, but I missed telling you about my day. I missed you barely listening because you’re too busy in your thoughts,” she said. “Though we do have pressing matter. I need your thoughts about our son.”
Oeric swallowed the lump in his throat. “I see.”
“He’s not as easy going as he used to be and is easy to frustrate. Fern told me I was making everything worse by worrying. He stopped coming by regularly after we got into it one day. However, our other son insists he’s fine.”
Oeric chuckled at the mentioning of Lyndon. He missed his nephew. He was like having another son. However, he wasn’t like his son at the same time. No his lad was something special. During the first month of reflecting, he realized that he didn’t appreciate the son he had fully. He was a perfect. And compared to all the grown children he was first warden too at the outpost, he was a glorified soul.
It hurt that the last memory of his son was his angry. Him saying everything he could to hurt him. He cut his son and caused a wound. For all he knew, he left a scar on his son’s sensitive soul and brought back those feeling of inadequacy that Soletus worked hard to overcome. All that gained confidence could be crushed.
“I’ll talk to him when he wants,” he said and sat the brush down to braid her hair.
“Do it soon because I’m worried. He’s…” she trailed off. “No, I don’t want you to worry about that tonight,” she told him. She then turned in her seat to face him. There was a yearning in her eyes. He lowered his forehead to hers. In return, she started unbuttoning his shirt. “I’ve not looked at you to make sure all of you come back,” she said.
She knew all the scars on his body. She counted them as she always did when he came home, tracing her finger over an old knife wound, an old arrow puncture that left a small patch of pink skin on his side. Then there were venom burns, and bite and claw marks from a drass beast on his arm. She was looking for a few more. However, he hadn’t done any fighting in the swamp. Even though there was an irreparable breach in the Drass Wall, drass beast didn’t find it hospitable enough to cross it. There was nothing there to injure him. Well, the alligators and snakes could have. But he moved too fast from those.
When she was satisfied, she leaned into his chest, sighing. Oeric rested his chin on her head and closed his eyes, relishing her presence. She patted his chest. In response, he breathed in deep so he could take in her scent. He missed that sweet scent of honeysuckle oil she wore.
They sat like that for a very long time holding each other. Not moving save her hand searching for skin to caress and his heavy eyelids.
Cordea squirmed out of his hold and took his hand. She led him to bed. He was too tired for anything more involved and settled for wrapping his arm around her waist. He pulled her close, so they lay like two spoons.
That night, an old dream came back. All his children were all Saedee’s age, wobbling around and talking to each other in shrieks and squeals while Cordea watched them. He stood in a grassy meadow watching them from afar. Whenever he tried to get close to them, they got further away. No matter how fast he walked, he could never reach them. He then tried to run, but as soon as he did, they vanished. He stopped and stood alone.
“Do you think you deserve them,” asked someone behind him.
Like all the previous dreams of the same nature, he turned around to see his older brother. He was always same age he last saw him, and his pale eyes were always harsh and judging. He then gave Oeric the same sneer as always and asked him,
“Do you deserve to be loved? Do you deserve to have a wife and children? Do you deserve to be a First Warden like I was?”
Oeric could never answer him. It was as if the muscles in his jaw locked every time he tried to talk.
His brother manifested in front of him with blood seeping through the yellow sash at his waist. And other places through his uniform. He spoke again, saying, “You deserve nothing.” Then the skin of his face became blooded and ripped off.
Oeric forced himself awake. Darkness greeted him. The dream usually went more into the unpleasantness of watching his brother tear apart, but now he gained a bit of control over it, given how often he had the dream. He couldn’t get rid of feeling disturbed every time, though. The scene might have changed. The objects that represented his life were different as time went by. However, what happened to his brother, and the question remained the same; did he deserve what he was given?
He shook the thought away and was left with the feeling of hatred for dreams. He had vivid dreams since he was a boy. They started after he dreamt of seeing his dead mother after she was killed. She come in his room lamenting she didn’t have enough time with him and petted his head. That wasn’t the last he dreamt of the dead.
After he returned home as a broken fighter, the vivid dreams became nightmares. Brother Hickory advised him on how to dream lucidly. Sometimes it saved him from lying awake, troubled. He wasn’t spared that night.
Oeric tried to roll onto his back to contemplate the ceiling. However, Cordea pressed up against him with an arm hooked around his waist. He tugged at her arm to lift it. Instead, she let out an angry moan and tighten her hold on him. He didn’t have the heart to move her. Instead, he settled back down and caressed the smooth skin of her arm that was around him.
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