Once, Kellas’Rook was a good man. And once, I liked him the moment we met. Granted, he was loud and outspoken.He tried to rally the town with us. When it was clear the dam would fail, he was the first one to join us to help with the evacuation. He pulled his weight and went above and beyond trying to save everyone. True warden material and the first person I went out of my way to recruit. He was with First Warden Talore and me as we gave one final sweep of the town. I sent him on with the rest and Talore wanted to search for any stubborn elders. I had Tyr count the people as they crossed the bridge so I knew everyone was there. However, he wanted to make sure. That thoroughness made him a good leader. However, that was the one time it cost him.
Kiao had only one place in mind she wanted to go, the spot in the arboretum, beneath the stretching arms of a large tree. It was the place where Soletus confided with her about being neth. After that, it served as a place where she and Mien to meet privately and out of the prying eyes of Elnos. Mien would settle down in a crook between two roots to play his flute. Any song that he had heard, he would play it for her. Usually reels, as she loved hearing him play a furiously fast dance tune.
The walk there calmed her down, however, a sense of peace enveloped her the moment she walked through the arch way and down the curved path and over the pond bridge. There were few people there as most were working. It was perfect for privacy and a little meditating when she got to her tree. However, when she rounded the bend, she heard voices come from her spot and stopped in mid stride.
“Kellas, we have to do something,” hissed a man who sounded distressed.
Kiao eased forward and stretched her hearing.
“What if they come back?” It was Valhart.
The young woman veered off the side of the path and into the moss and grass. She sunk down, crouching and listened from behind a thin tree.
“We have the advantaged seeing as they’re lost.”
“How,” snapped Valhart. “I’ve got Icus breathin’ down my back. He knows somethin’ ain’t right.”
Kellas sighed. “Look, Soletus and his bunch are minor a concern.”
Kiao heard him hit Kellas, it sounded like a slap on his arm or shoulder.
“Dammit Kellas, stop trying to soothe me like I’m some old vexed biddy!”
“Then stop acting like one,” returned Kellas laughing. “We have this. Just keep repeating what we rehearsed. Remember, there is nothing linking us to the gorge. Not a drop of proof we were there. The Arch Monk will be focusing on the boys for insubordination.”
“Yeah but still-,”
“Look, I know Icus. He’s hard on junior wardens. Just stick to the plan. Worse comes to worse, just request to go in the mediation chamber because of guilt.”
Kiao crept closer. She caught a glimpse of the two through the fine leaves of the bush in front of her. She saw the back of Kellas’s boots. She tried to move to see Valhart’s face but her foot settled on a twig and it snapped. She held her breath to listen if they noticed. However, Valhart was too upset and spoke over the cracked branch.
“And what about Oeric?”
“What about him,” asked Kellas at the same time Kiao thought it.
“You know how he is,” said Valhart.
“Don’t worry about him,” Kellas dismissed.
“Once that nose of his catches wind of something he can sink his teeth into, he will.”
Kellas shifted making Kiao back up slowly.
“I’ll talk to him as I’ve something that’ll stop him in his tracks,” he said nonchalantly which was in sharp contrast with Valhart’s clear agitation.
“Are you even taking this seriously? We broke at least a dozen rules doing what we did and we’ve gone on too fortunate going this far. Our lucks going to run out.”
“What are you afraid of? Dias punishing us? We did right by what we did.”
“N-n-o,” he stammered and then cleared his throat. “I’m afraid of ol’Wolf-eyes making sure that the worms can’t even digest a piece of me if he ever finds out the truth.”
“So how’s not acting like vexed biddy working?”
“Above and below, Oeric isn’t going to kill you. If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll talk to him today so you’ll never have to worry about him.”
Kiao had to talk to Oeric first. She stood out of her crouch backing up until she was back on the dirt path. Once she heard the crunch of dirt under her slippers, she hurried off towards the Sheldmartin home. They young woman cut across the main street and through the market jogging. Once she got on the lane he lived on, she slowed down.
When she arrived at the foot of the path to the house above her, she leaned on her knees, winded. Before she could straighten up, she was greeted by graying black snout. Onyx, Oeric’s obsidian hound, licked the tip of her nose. She patted the large dog on the head and ears while she caught her breath. When Kiao was done, she straightened up and shuffled her aching legs to the door.
She looked at the dark windows. It didn’t look as if anyone was home but she knocked anyway. It cracked open slightly. There was no one standing at eye level with her so she looked down and she saw the top of Saedee’s head.
“Hello,” said the girl with a bright smile on her face.
Kiao crouched down. “Hi Saedee, is the First Warden here?”
She held a tiny finger over her lips. “Shhh. Papa’s sleeping.”
“Oh! Is he feeling bad?”
She nodded looking sad. “He’s still sick from me making him sick. I tried to make him feel better with flowers. They aren’t helping much.”
“Well sometimes flowers take their time to work,” said Kiao.
The girl looked doubtful. “I think Papa’s really sad about Sol too. Is he dead?”
The priestess stared at the girl large innocent pastel eyes with uncertainty.
“No, Soletus isn’t dead,” said Kiao at length. “Just missing.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?”
“Well no. Missing is just being lost. Dead is when someone’s soul is gone from their body.”
“So could his soul left this world and he be missing?”
Kiao never wanted to have a child if it meant answering questions like that. “Yes it could happen. But, we don’t know that for sure.”
The door then opened wider and Kiao saw a pair of trousered legs appear behind Saedee.
Kiao looked up to see Oeric looking down at her curiously. “Sorry First Warden, I was trying to be quiet.”
Saedee hugged her father’s legs. Oeric patted the wispy hairs on her head down.
“I was just lying down. What brings you here?”
“I need to talk to you. I went walking in the arboretum and overheard Kellas and Valhart talking.”
Oeric motioned for her to come in and as he closed the door, she explained what she heard standing. Oeric settled in a chair and listened with Saedee sitting between them. When Kiao was done, he leaned back in his seat and folded his arms over his chest.
“Good job, this confirms they’re hiding something and something went on in the gorge.”
“And we need to go straight to Enforcer Icus or the Arch Monk about this!”
“And what, tell them what you heard only for Kellas to deny the meeting? No. Bad idea. It’ll be his word against yours.”
“So you want us to do what, wait until we learn more?”
“What else is there to learn,” she exclaimed. “We know Kellas lied, something happened in the gorge, and Lyndon is dead.”
“I’m curious what he has that’s going to get me to stop me from investigating.”
“Kellas was very sure that he could. Do you to know each other well or something?”
Oeric nodded. “He used to be a good friend of mine.”
“And he’s not now, why?”
He gave her a wry smile. “We disagreed on a few things.”
He said that right as Kellas knocked on the door. The man sighed and used the table to push himself upright before walking stiffly towards the door.
“Coming,” he shouted and opened it.
Kiao turned to see Kellas smiling at him.
“Oeric, I know it’s been a long time since I walked through your threshold,” he said stepping and looking around. “Nothing much has changed here.” He said then his eyes falling on Kiao.
She waved at him.
His brow rose up and gave Oeric a questioning look. Kiao then realized her bright and colorful clothing wasn’t anything close to her work dress and smock. However, Saedee being there should’ve told him they weren’t having some secret encounter.
“If you have a guest, I can come back,” he said.
“You’re fine. What are you doing here,” asked Oeric.
“Well, there’s been something weighing on my mind that I need to talk to you about. It’s about your son.”
“Didn’t Icus tell you not to come in contact with parents of the missing junior wardens?”
“Yes, but this isn’t just about what happened. I’ve not told him this yet,” he said. “You see your son is hiding something from you and it’s going to ruin any chance he has left in the Brotherhood after this.”
Even with that dramatic announcement, Oeric remained inexpressive. The only indication of annoyance that Kiao could see was that he didn’t offer the man a seat. It was then she noticed something interesting about Kellas and Oeric. They looked a bit alike. They had the same sandstone hair as well as the same pale blue eyes. If they were related, they might’ve been cousins and probably not from the Shieldmartin side. Kellas didn’t look like the Arch Monk but she wondered if Kellas was a relative from Oeric’s mysterious mother.
“Soletus is hiding something. That’s not unusual,” said Oeric and he immediately sat down. Kellas had paused at the table with his gaze fixed on Kiao.
She then stood up. She wanted to leave because she didn’t think she could stand listening to him lie “I should leave. I can come back later,” she said.
Oeric stopped her. “Are you sure? It’ll be an inconvenience if you leave and have to come back. We’re not through yet.”
He gave her a meaningful stare.
“This is a private conversation,” she said not wanting him to ruin his chances.
The door to the house opened and in stepped Cordea. She took in everyone briefly and went about her business.
“Ah, we’ve a meeting going on here,” said the woman. Kellas stepped out of her way as she moved passed him. “Greetings Kel, it’s been a long time since you visited. I’m surprised to see you here given I thought we weren’t to have contact with you.”
“Well I wanted to talk to you about something before I talked to the Arch Monk about it.”
Cordea sat down the parcel she was carrying and told Saedee. “How about you go to your room.”
Without a word of protest, the girl slid out of her chair and vanished through the doorway leading to the backside of the house.
Kiao then smiled. “I’ll be on my way.”
“Sister,” pressed Oeric not taking his eyes off of Kellas as a predator would another of its kind and pointed to her chair.
Cordea gave her a puzzled look and then to her husband. He flicked his eyes down to the chair and back up to her face.
“You might as well stay, Kiao,” said Cordea, taking a seat. “It seems this is important.”
If Kellas was caught off guard, he didn’t show it. He only shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I suppose Sister Kiao will hear about this anyway,” he said and pulled out a seat and told them the exact same thing that Oeric read. It made Kiao’s blood boil. She could play the game of keeping ones expression austere. It helped she didn’t wear her emotions on her sleeves and she train herself to be as objective and often times impartial no matter what she felt. It was beyond difficult then because she knew he was lying. It was probably hard for Oeric to sit there and listen to it as well. However, he had his hands on the surface of the table with his finger woven together loosely. Kiao had hers balled in first in her lap.
“Besides his distrust of Valhart spawns from another problem, Oeric,” said Kellas. “Soletus is neth.”
Kiao’s eyes nearly rolled onto the table.
Oeric’s hand crumbled apart.
Cordea who had her hands tucked into her lap came above the table to grip the edge of it. “Why would you say that?”
“I know the idea sounds silly. He’s been with the Patriarch’s daughter for what, two years? But a lad of his intelligence can act a part.”
Kiao watched Soletus’s parents regard each other for an instant communicating something and then look forward at Kellas.
Oeric then said in a low voice. “I don’t see the relevancy.”
“Valhart likes to get under people skin and your son became his favorite target,” he explained. “From what I gathered, something happened after an incident between them. Your lad did something that bothered Valhart and he started watching your son. One day he tells me that Soletus was neth and wanted me to confront him on it to embarrass him. I refused, but Valhart has no love for neth men and decided to become a thorn in your son’s side ever since which makes their on-going feud my fault.”
Kiao wanted to know if that was the truth or not. Soletus never told her about why he and Valhart never got along. He always claimed that Valhart was an idiot and Kellas was lax and let him continue being an idiot.
Oeric didn’t look convinced. “You know, a few thought I was when I was younger.”
Kellas arched an eyebrow. “I remember, but you had your fascinations. It might’ve not been with every stone. But he goes beyond that. Between studying a drass beast and a young lass, he rather observe the drass beast.”
Cordea then countered that with, “Why would he want to be with another young lass? He has one.”
Kellas then supplied another reason. “He avoids drinking alcohol of any kind no matter how mild to maintain focus. I’ve yet to meet a neth who likes being under the effects of alcohol.”
“I don’t either,” returned Oeric. “Alcohol makes you stupid. And Soletus doesn’t like being seen as being stupid. Also, it’s against the rules. No drinking on the road.”
Kellas then leaned forward. “Valhart put lovelace in his drink one day and he had the neth reaction to it.”
Kiao winced. If there was anything that was condemning it was that. She only knew about if from Edithlyn, the wisewoman. She gave it to patients who were having trouble conceiving. It was the often, a last ditch effort. It was also claimed to be a very strong philter. It was a simple enough substance to get ahold of given infertility wasn’t uncommon. However, for Valhart to give it to someone who couldn’t even handle the substance was unthinkable.
Brother Hickory told her of his experience with it. His family gave it to him in the effort of curing him. That was another thing it claimed to do, cure “nethism.” All it did was give him a nasty rash and make it very hard to think. He also had no control of his chanter senses. He was awake for an entire day because of it before took him and woke up with headache so bad he thought he was going to die. If it was that bad for him she couldn’t imagine it with Soletus. However, it worried her more for the fact, he never told her about it.
Oeric shared her sentiment and even more so. His eyes went wide e with disbelief before he slapped his palms on the table and snarled.
“How can you be such a tottering idiot! It’s one thing to get under someone’s skin but another thing is to taint another’s food and drink with that of all things. You should’ve reported him to Icus for that.”
“It was your son’s responsibility to tell,” reasoned Kellas. “He’s an adult. And he clearly didn’t tell you or Cordea or even his friends given you all look stunned by this fact. I didn’t even know what was wrong with him. I thought he caught some nasty fever. I stopped the entire band to have him rest for a day. The following day, the rash cleared,but he had a terrible headache. Then I knew something was up. It took me forever to figure out it was Valhart.”
“And you didn’t do anything to him, now did you,” growled Oeric.
The man held his palms up. “I know, I should’ve done more. I wanted to confront your son on the matter, but he doesn’t trust me either.”
“I couldn’t imagine why.”
“It’s not that, you know what they say about neth male, they don’t like customary male authority.”
“Or consider the fact, he’s lost respect for you.”
Kellas swayed his head. “You’ve clearly not witnessed this part of his behavior. It’s a very special level of stubbornness and a certain look in his eyes. He usually directs at Valhart, but the last time I spoke to him, he did it to me. He doesn’t even act elf anymore. It’s like looking into the eyes of a different being.”
“You’re being ridiculous. Brother Hickory doesn’t act like he’s a different being.”
“You been around him too long to notice how he looks at people,” said Kellas.
Kiao bit her lip to keep herself from retorting. Hickory never acted different from another elf for the most part.
“He’s a chanter,” exclaimed Oeric.
“Oeric,” sighed Kellas. “Stop denying it. Your son is the most typical of unicorns.”
“I’m not denying it! I-I-I’m s-s-saaay—“ Oeric then stuttered out something garbled after that. The father’s face turned red after that and he fell silent and grit his teeth.
“I didn’t mean to make you upset,” Kellas apologized.
Cordea then spoke. “What he is trying to say is that you’re being ridiculous. Sure you have a single good piece of evidence but now you’re citing assumption made by a lot of people.”
“These assumptions have truth to them,” Kellas told her. “It’s enough for the Arch Monk to look into and Valhart wanted me to tell him. So I told Valhart to keep his trap shut.”
Cordea tilted her head and frowned. “Why?”
“To keep your son safe. I like Soletus. He’s an excellent grappler and has a good future as a warden. I want him to get a chance to make this all right. Think about it, a lot of people believe neth don’t have emotions because they are so reasoning. Him going against my orders would seem more like him falling to emotions than one fueled by calculation. It better this way. He was angry at me, he went off, probably got lost, and this will all blow over. And then you two can train him to act normal so no one knows. Because the moment they find out, he’s going to be singled out.”
Kiao narrowed her eyes at Kellas. He was clearly playing on their concerns.
“If the Arch Monk finds out, how happy would he be,” said Kellas looking at Oeric. “History will just repeat itself. You know his stance hasn’t changed. That mess created a lot of tension between the two of you. How’s he going to treat Soletus when he finds out?”
Oeric stared at the grains of the table hard.
“I’m willing to keep it secret,” went on Kellas. “When Soletus gets back and you can speak with him about it first thing.”
The father drew his fingers to his palms making a fist on the table the raised his head looking dead at Kellas. “Tell Icus,” he said firmly.
Kellas brow shot up in surprise. Kiao suspected that was the first sincere expression he wore the entire time.
“I know you’ve not been easy on Soletus, but that’s harsh, even for you.”
“You tell Icus or I’ll tell him what you told me,” returned Oeric.
Kellas looked a bit like he lost a piece in whatever game he was playing.
“Oeric, you’re setting up you son for disaster! Icus is your father’s right hand and probably his successor. He’s going to come down on Soletus with the force of a landslide.”
“Tell him or I will.”
Kellas then pleaded to Cordea. “Are you just going to let him do this?”
Cordea’s stricken eyes sat on her husband pleading with him. Oeric however he fixed his unyielding gaze on her.
“Oeric please,” she said. “There has to be a better way for this?”
He looked her in the eye and bobbed his head once. “Trust me.”
Cordea stared at her husband’s face. “Do what Oeric says Kel.”
Kellas arched his eyebrows. “What’s going on here? You’ve never been a woman afraid to tell her husband when he’s wrong.”
Cordea regarded him. “It’s called trust, Kel. I’m trusting him in good faith that he’s going to explain himself. He doesn’t have to do that in front of you.”
Kellas stood up from his seat. “Alright, I’ll tell him. I doubt Soletus will be happy with you.”
“I’m his mother,” laughed Cordea. “He’s not been happy with me since he discovered he wants to be a man about things. Mothers are the most unmanly things in the world to someone his age.”
“Anyway, I hope for your sake, Soletus comes back soon so we can sort this all out. The longer he’s gone, the harder it’ll be.”
“He’ll be okay,” said Oeric standing. He escorted Kellas to the door. The two of them stood outside for a little bit before Soletus’s father come back in and shut the door softly. He turned around and leaned against it in contemplation.
Cordea didn’t let silence settle and said, “Oeric what is this about?”
She was hushed by her husband’s hand. He lowered it after a bit and angry words rushed out her mouth. “I can’t believe you would let that lying slithering bastard in our house! He betrayed our son! And you’re going to let that skane’s spawn paint our son in more of his lies as well as let him tell a secret that’s for him to tell.”
Kiao looked between them both. She should not have been surprised that they knew but she was.
Oeric stared at her.
“Seriously, am I missing something here? Why would you let him do that,” she demanded.
“Sister. What you heard. Tell her.”
Kiao shared to her what she had overheard. Cordea listened frowning heavily.
“Why not just tell Icus all of this,” she demanded.
“I will. As soon as Kellas tells him first. It’s better this way.”
Cordea wasn’t showing she was convinced as much as she was becoming more and more furious.
“Cordy,” he crooned. “Trust me.” The woman’s face softened a little. He then walked over to her and wrapped his arms around her from behind. He rested his head on top of hers. “I know Icus. He’s a smart man. This is the best way to help our son. I can’t. Not for this.”
Kiao then felt a pang of jealousy in her chest. She wished that was her. Mien loved to wrap his arms around her and hold her. It was almost like he was afraid that she would vanish and he would hold her as tight as he could. Oeric however was holding Cordea out of reassurance and melted her agitation. Then Kiao heard nothing again.
She managed to say, “Not again,” and the world became blurred and vague as her bond sought out Mien. Part of her wished it would latch on to him. However, there was nothing to feel or hear. The channel was silent and blank lacking the vibrancies that was her bond partner or the world. She noted there was movement going on in front of her. She felt pressure and the feeling of maybe someone shaking her followed by the faint sound of her name.
Kiao fought against the paralysis. She wanted to scream and pound her fist against something but she couldn’t. She was trapped in her mind.