Oeric felt old. He was hunched on the back of his horse like a bent old elf. Six months of being posted in a swamp would do that to anyone. He wasn’t sure how many decades it took from his life, but he felt them missing in his tired muscles. Trying to sit properly in his saddle required effort he was too road worn to muster. He let out a loud yawn that got the attention of the peaceguards who were supposed to be watching the towns’ gate. They were too busy laughing at some joke and nearly jumped out of their skins when they noticed him. The closet stepped forward to stop him, however, when Oeric stepped into the lantern light, he pointed to the Brotherhood patch on his shoulder. They froze and he gave him curt nod while, ignoring the other’s stares.
Oeric kept his eyes forward not that he could see much. It was passed twilight and he didn’t have a lantern with him. Everything around him was becoming dark and formless. He decided to look at the sky and caught sight of the evening guiding stars. He found himself staring at them often in the swamp when he was alone. The stars pointed north and 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 significance was when the night he returned home as a broken young man decades earlier. He couldn’t see them. He was blind. The world was reduced to whatever his other senses could pick up as well as what Cordea described their entire trip home. She spoke about those stars as well as everything else to ease his paranoia. He didn’t like being sightless after having to learn to look behind his back so much.
When she told him, they crossed the threshold of the towns’ gate, he felt a great sense of bittersweet relief. 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 with again. However, he was home. That was the past and for some reason, the present felt a little the same.
Instead of continuing down the main road to the monastery that loomed ahead, Oeric turned his gelding down the lane he lived on. 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 age and homesickness lifted from his heart. Never in his many years of being a warden had he been homesick. It surprised him when the feeling came. He missed his family and gladly put distance between him and that midge infested Dias forsaken swamp.
He was greeted with a deep warning woof from his dog, Onyx. To anyone who wasn’t familiar with her, she sounded intimidating. Her soot colored coat didn’t help that impression, she was hard to spot at night. He didn’t see her either. He puckered his lips and gave her two short low whistles. The barking stopped. The sound was replaced with that of an excited animal coming running towards him. He spotted her shadowed form when she was halfway to 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 and the same time as laughing. He tried to contain her wagging body so she wouldn’t topple him, but failed in the end. Oeric ended up on his rear with her nudging him her nose and licking him. 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 all the way to the side of the house where he took his horse.
Oeric removed the horse’s tact and his packs before tethering the horse to a tree. He would take the poor creature to the stables in the morning. He didn’t want to go monastery and then walk back home in the dark. He just wanted to go to bed. However, when he opened the door, he was greeted by Cordea standing there with their youngest struggle 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. He was worried that she would forget who he was. Oeric had never been away no more than 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 was dressed for bed and wearing her robe. She cried out happily and tried to hug his neck. However, she couldn’t get passed Saedee’s claim of him. Oeric was glad to see her. She would be leaving them again in a week to return to his sister’s orchard. He was worried he would arrive too late and wouldn’t see her again until she was able to visit. His heart ached to see her depart again, but she wanted her own life. She was old enough not to need him or Cordea. However, age didn’t stop her from asking all sorts of questions as she did since she was a girl.
It was a good night to be home.
However, there was someone lacking amidst the laughter and 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 for a good bit. He didn’t bother with trying.
Oeric stayed up longer than he intended. He wanted to get a few kisses and then drop into bed. However, he stayed up talking a long time before he finally was alone with his wife.
While he was in the swamp, he imagined a more elaborate show of how much he missed her. He had many sleepless nights craving her presence, her love, and advice. He imagined what he was going to do when he saw her, but that vision wasn’t coming to fruition just yet. Instead, he joined her on her vanity bench brushing her flaxen hair.
They didn’t share sweet nothings to each other or nuzzled each other in blissful silence. That was for young elves who hadn’t been together for a century. It was back to business, as if no time had passed and Cordea’s animosity towards him had evaporated. It was time to go over matters briefly that he needed tending to. Of course their son was at the top of that list.
“He’s been avoiding me,” Cordea told him.
Oeric wasn’t surprised.
“Right after you left. I tried to get Hickory to talk to him. And that went about as well as you imagined. Hickory told me it was best if you returned home first,” she said.
Oeric let out a sigh. “Is there a reason why?”
“Him being a tod, though, Fern told me I was making everything worse by commenting on how thin he was getting for Eldred’s experiment. 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 the lad’s ability to make him smile. “I suppose I’ll have to talk to Lyndon.”
His wife twisted her head around and met his eyes. “No, talk to Soletus. He’s not been himself.”
Oeric wanted to, but his son was hurt from what he did. He could take his son being mad at him. That was something a father had to deal with. Children got over themselves and accepted their circumstance. However, the last memory of his son was seeing him enraged and wounded. He was the one that inflicted that wound. He made the scar. He apologized, but that didn’t mean he forgave him. It wasn’t something he could make him do. Soletus would have to choose when he did.
Oeric spent the first two months reflecting and learning to be appreciative of the son he had. He was perfect compared to all the men children he had to deal with the at the swamp outpost. He found himself wondering why they were even still in the Brotherhood. Some of them committed the same infraction of behavior unbecoming of a warden like him, but never made the effort to improve and were stationed there. And every last one of them weren’t worth the Brotherhood’s time.
“I’ll talk to him when he wants,” he said and sat the brush down and started to braid her hair.
“Do it soon because I’m worried. He also doesn’t act as a tod should sometimes. He’s been so focused on his training and barely works on making friends,” she complained. “He’s always around Lyndon, Mien, or that chanter priest from the infirmary, Brother Kiao. However, he’s mostly around Mien. You need to tell him there are much better boys he could talk to. I mean, Sienna’s son for example. I know he’s more than a decade older, but I think those two can talk now.”
Oeric gaped at her reflection in the mirror, disturbed by what she said. His wife looked forward and laughed a little. “Well, I’ve not seen that expression in a while.”
“Cordy, I can’t believe you would say that.”
“I’m sorry, but the boy tried to kill family. That’s nothing you just ignore.”
The boy bothered him too. It wasn’t his past so much as it was how troubled he was. He was a cowering nervous thing. He was also a noble’s son. He was certain that Mien wouldn’t make it through the first six month like the others the Brotherhood kept in the past. However, he didn’t cause trouble as many others before him. And the most surprising thing the boy did was save his son’s life. What that meant didn’t really sink in until he was away. He came to the conclusion that he needed to thank Mien.
“He’s harmless,” said Oeric. “Besides, if Soletus likes him then we shouldn’t worry. The boy has good judgment for the most part.”
Boy, could he really call his son a boy? He was nearly as tall as he was when he left. Soletus was going to end up over his head as well as wider and stronger. He was a strong tod looking older than he had any right to. It was trouble for the future because he didn’t act it. However, Soletus didn’t act like him when he was a tod, far from it in fact. Soletus didn’t try to defy all the rules, or do foolish things for attention, or stir up trouble.
Oeric finished braiding Cordea’s hair. She then turned in her seat to face him. He lowered his forehead to hers while 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 come 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 while he was in the swamp. Even though there was an unrepairable breach in the Drass Wall, drass beast didn’t find it hospitable either. There was nothing there to injure him, well, the alligators and snakes could have. He moved to fast away from those out of fear.
When she was satisfied, she leaned into his chest sighing. Oeric rested his chin on her head and closed his eyes, relishing in the comfort of her company.
“He’s doesn’t have that great of judgment,” said his wife suddenly.
Oeric struggled to re-open his eyes. “Who?”
“Who else, our son. He fought you,” she said.
He had a lot of time to think about that as well. It was probably the stupidest things Soletus had ever done. However, what else was his son to do? He cornered him and Soletus pushed back. His son always made a fuss when he wanted something. He should’ve expected it given that two years ago his son’s boyish softness faded and he became a lot more vocal and assertive. It scared him how quick that change come. He really didn’t know what to do about it other than watch. He didn’t like that because it was a passive thing to do.
“He only reacted like that because I pushed him to do it. Cordy,” he answered.
“He didn’t have to do that, but what done is done,” she told him, patting his chest.
Oeric breathed in deep so he could take in her scent. He missed that sweet scent of honeysuckle oil she wore.
“You’re acting clingy,” she said softly rubbing his forearm.
He wanted her that night, but he could hardly keep his eyes open. Any act of reestablishing their bond would have to wait until when the simplest of touch wouldn’t loll him off to sleep.
Cordea squirmed out of his hold, took his hand, and led him to bed.
That night, an old dream came back. All his children were the same age this time. They were all Saedee’s age wobbly around and talking to each other in shrieks 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 get close to 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 and his pale eyes were always harsh and judging. He then gave Oeric the same sneer as always and asked him,
“Do you deserve being loved? Do you deserve having 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.
He brother stood there with blood starting to seep through the yellow sash at his waist. He spoke again saying, “You don’t deserve anything.”
Oeric forced himself awake. His eyelids flew open. The dream usually went into the unpleasantness of watching his brother fall 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 the dream renewed itself. 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 was known for his dreams. He had vivid dreams since he was a boy. He dreamt of seeing his mother’s death even though he wasn’t even there. He even dreamt she came in his room and petting his head. After he returned home as a blood fighter, the vivid dreams became nightmares. Brother Hickory advised him on how to dream lucidly. Sometimes it saved him from lying awake troubled. That night he wasn’t spared.
Oeric tried to roll to his back to contemplate the ceiling, but Cordea was pressed up against him, hugging him tight as if he was going to float away. He didn’t have the heart to move her. He settled back down and caressed the smooth skin of her arm that was around him. He looked at the wall and stayed awake a long time waiting for sleep to come.