“Just say yes,” said Briar the following day. “I don’t want to suffer at that dumb estate alone. I need all the friends I can get.”
He nodded absently as he stared across the landscape at the burning ash in the middle of the vast plain that stretched behind the northern town wall. The honor ash stood as a reminder of those who served the Brotherhood and who were under its roots in a series of tombs. It also served as a reminder that his cousin, deserved to be buried under it was in the middle of a gorge that he couldn’t sit foot in.
Briar jabbed him in the side with her elbow hard. “Are you even listening to me,” she asked.
He scowled at her. “Would you stop hurting me!”
“Wouldn’t have to hurt you if you weren’t staring off into nothing. Focus!”
“Focus on what exactly? The sack lashed to the stick?”
There below the mound they stood on, was a pole stuck into the ground and a sack tied roughly to it.
“If you were listening, I explained it. Anyway, I’m trying to teach you how to do this,” she said lifting up her bow.
“You know I’m a terrible archer,” he said taking hold of his bow and notched an arrow. He peered down the arrow’s shaft and spied their target. It was a small sack of burning powder. Something he had mixed feelings about seeing. He had trouble looking at it, even had more trouble holding the weapon. He knew it wasn’t a crossbow, but it did the same thing. He wanted to drop it and wash his hands.
“You know explosives are illegal without a license ,” he told her.
Briar rolled her green eyes skyward. “Is there clay surround the burning powder? No. It’s just a harmless sack.”
“That you’re going to set off.”
The young woman bumped him with her hip. “You’re being extra frumpy today, Old Man.”
He gave her a dirty look.
“It’s not going to explode,” she said, patting him between the shoulders. “It’s just going to burn. Well, if Mien guessed correctly.”
“Mien needs to keep his ideas to himself.”
The young chanter had gotten his hands on a brick of a substance for the purpose of studying it. It reacted to burning powder much the same as flashing liquid did with burning powder. The results were different though. It didn’t cause a bang or in the case of a clay bomb, caused an explosion. Briar of course was interested. She wondered if they could create a signal or even a way to burn a drass beast without the aid of a chanter. He didn’t want the huntresses fighting drass beasts. It was too dangerous. But Briar was making strides to make it possible for the huntresses no matter what he said.
Briar’s patting became rough and he swiped at her to stop. She did as he liked to do and pivoted out of his reach. “You’re a fair distance from it. Imagine it’s just an apple on top of a pole.”
“And why did you need the pole,” he asked, inspecting the arrowhead that she had carved. It wasn’t proportioned correctly and barely took the shape of one.
“So it can be easier to hit,” she stated. “Just shoot already.”
“Why don’t you shoot? You’re the better shot.”
Briar’s face lit up. “Little ol’me the better shot. Gasp,” she said clapping her hands together. “I just wanted to hear you say it. Step back mighty warden. Marvel at the sniper I am.”
She stood loading her compact bow and pulled the sting back. The bow itself was not the normal choice for a female, but she was physically strong given she could keep up with him. She took a long breath and released her arrow. The first shot whizzed past her target and buried itself a few feet behind it.
“I’m in awe,” he snickered.
“Practice shot,” she said, pulling the next arrow from her quiver. It only contained three more arrows.
“So you only made, six of theses,” said Soletus, inspecting the one he held again.
“That was all my hands could stand,” she said taking aim again.
He tapped the tip with his fingernail and a bit cracked off. He then rolled it between his fingers and it crumbled. “You know this stuff is too soft for arrowheads,” he said.
“Pfff,” was her reply sending another arrow and missed yet again grazing the apple sized sack. Undeterred, Briar shot another arrow. This time it hit it square in the bag.
“Okay, so where is this fire?”
“Give it a bit,” she said and then smoke started to rise in the air and then a shower of sparks spewed from it and spilled over onto the grass. The sparks then ignited the dried grass under it. Briar was transfixed at her creation while Soletus charged down the hill.
“Briar,” he shouted.
She followed him laughing and helped him stomp out the fire while he scolded her.
“Are you trying to start a brush fire,” he exclaimed.
“I didn’t think it would spark that much,” she said kicking up dirt to smother flames.
“You said flames not sparks.”
“Details,” she said, moving on another spot in the grass and watched him. “You know, peeing on this would be quicker.”
Soletus rolled his eyes.
“Hey, you’re the warden here. You’re trained and equipped to handle all situations.”
Now that she mentioned it, he could, but there was no more smoldering. Briar inspected her handy work and found the bag on the ground deflated and burned. The powder spilling out cause the display. The pole suffered little damage.
“I don’t think this would work the way it did. Maybe I should drag Mien out here.”
“Please do,” said Soletus walking past her. “Given that he’s had alchemist training.”
“And you know how the great alchemists of old became great, by experimenting,” said Briar, following him.
The young monk flopped down at the foot of the hill and laid down. Briar settled down beside him with her legs outstretched.
“Come on, you know it’s a good idea,” she pressed.
“Sure. If we need a brush fire.”
Briar patted his chest. “This is the best idea I had since someone doesn’t want to teach me how to kill a drass beast.”
Soletus swayed his head in disappointment. “Tsk, tsk. I knew you had an ulterior motive. We’ve been through this. It’s dangerous. Some move incredibly fast, have armored bodies with fangs, barbs, and claws that are toxic and poisonous. They cause festering slow healing wounds.”
“Yes, I get it, Pa. No need to lecture me. But what if there are no wardens, just us and there is a drass beast.”
Soletus pointed to the tower above them.
“Towers aren’t everywhere. All I have is a tao stone knife, what do I do?”
“Don’t let it get to anything vital. Curl up on your side and hide your neck,” he said.
Briar rolled her eyes skyward. “Fine! There are children who need saving. I’m the only one there, there are no towers, and your little sister is leading them to safety.”
Soletus sat up and relented. “Fine, aim for the eyes. There are a lot of drass beasts that are armored and some with thick fatty flesh. The only place to get them is the eyes. However, you have to bypass teeth to reach them. Not to mention, you need a sharp and pointy object made from tao stone or this happens.” he said pointing to his left forearm. The teeth mark scars were still there with discolored smooth pinkish purple skin.
“You’ve told me that a hundred times. So keep you nasty scar to yourself. It doesn’t scare me.”
He then pulled her head forward and touched her forehead with his. “I don’t want to lose another friend. So promise me you aren’t going to start killing drass beast?”
“No promises,” said Briar.
She pushed him on his back. “Fine, if you stop being touchy.”
It was his show of appreciation and care. He didn’t know how the young woman managed to become more than just an ally. She had become his friend. She no longer annoyed him and rather acted like a panacea. Someone who he could go to and his troubles slowly lifted. Usually because she always cause an immediate situation he had to deal with. It was like being around Lyndon.
“That wasn’t touchy,” he told. “Now, this is touchy!” Soletus grabbed her in a bear hug and started to press his cheek against hers.
“GAAA! Unhand me you,” she shouted and he left go. She shoved him away from her and he shoved her back. They went back and forth until Briar tackled him. He let her pin him down to end their play scuffle. He could easily push her off however, he figured he would be courteous.
“Ha,” she said. “You’re getting rusty. I don’t think you’re prepared to go with my father if you allowed me to pin you like this.”
“Is that an invitation to throw you off me,” he said grabbing her by her forearms.
She let him go. “No, I don’t want to continue this since you’re a sweaty ruffian.”
“The sun is literally roasting my back, in fact,” she said fell limply to her side. “As a frail indoor girl, I’ve succumbed to the heat.”
Soletus sighed. “So we’re done here? I don’t want her lady-ship to bake from the sun.”
“Yes. I need to be carried,” she breathed out.
Soletus flashed a mischievous grin at her when she peered at him through her eyelids. He gathered her up and tossed her over his shoulder.
“Put me down,” she yelled laughing.
He started spinning. “No, no, allow me to carry you, my Lady. After all, a lady like yourself shouldn’t sully her feet with walking.”
“Stop it! You’re terrible. I hate you!” she cried kicking her feet in the air.
He spun faster cackling loudly. “I’ll stop if you ask nicely.
“Please stop or I’m going to throw up down your shirt,” she screamed still laughing despite herself.
Soletus stopped and placed her down gently with the world spinning around him. He stumbled towards the foot of the hill again and sat back down. Briar who stumbled to the side steadied herself with her legs wide apart. He fell to his back unable to breathe from laughing.
“Stop being playful and go back to being an old man,” she said trying to steady herself.
Soletus’s stomach was starting to ache. He pointed up the hill. “Go on, hurry and get the bows.”
She glowered at him. “I really hate you.”
“Yet you always invite me on these excursions because you need someone to be the brains.”
“Show me this person you speak of,” she said trudging up the hill. “You know what, I’ll go back to the society house to tell how much of a terrible fiend you are and my results.”
Soletus pushed himself up. “I can walk you there.”
“I don’t need you. Besides, you want to tell Mien my failure,” she shouted to him.
He watched her gather her things and his bow as well. She held it out and handed it to him.
“Why do I get the impression you don’t want me.”
“You got that right,” she said shoving him away. “When was the last time you bathed, last week?”
“I did yesterday.”
“You’re such a priss,” she retorted
He threw his arm around her shoulder as he would any of his fighting brothers. “You love it. Don’t try and hide it.”
Soletus decided to go home instead of following Briar. The walk gave him time extra time to consider what he wanted to do. He knew he had to come to a decision soon. There was no reason for him to say no, but there was no reason for him to say yes. He should because he wasn’t occupied currently. He also didn’t have his commission coming in. For coin, he took on a few odd jobs at the masonry. His uncle said they needed an extra hand since they were preparing to rebuilding the southern outpost. They were also doing repairs on the town wall as well as an expansion. Uncle also showed him the art of stone and brick laying when they gone out to repair a few sections of stone fencing. He knew it was an attempt to get him to consider another job. However, he was no mason. That required a certain eye he didn’t have. He could haul bricks and use a maul like the best of them though.
Aside from that, he continued his work with the huntresses. They still needed training and someone with more muscle. However, Briar was capable without him. It was very much like going on missions except smaller. They were such as helping shepherds and farmers with catching loose livestock, helping widows, and finding little ones than dealing with drass beasts. It was fulfilling work to help the locals, however, he felt restless sometimes because it wasn’t challenging. It didn’t feel the same and he was never satisfied.
When he walked into his house, he first spotted his father sitting at the table reading a letter grim faced. Then again, there wasn’t a time when he didn’t wear some unapproachable expression. It didn’t help that he had the scars of a cur either. For years, Soletus didn’t realize what they meant until he told him. There were a lot of things he didn’t know and it did change their relationship among the other things that happened. One would think it would’ve created distance, in that, the exact opposite. Soletus felt closer to him since he opened up. Not to mention they had an understanding of how to act around each other now.
Oeric learned to intervene when appropriate instead of overreacting when he did something. For the most part, he respected there new boundaries. Soletus had learned to trust him to be understanding. The man wasn’t before or it felt like he wasn’t. Soletus was now comfortable with asking him for advice confidently and not act uncertain and coy like the shy boy he once was. However, it appeared that something was troubling him. His pale eyes jerked back and forth across the page with his brow pulling together. Then his face twitched as if there was something there he didn’t like. He glanced above the parchment, regarding him. Soletus waved and took in the room some more. His mother didn’t appear to be paying attention at all. She was too busy admiring the dress from a brown package. His little sister, Saedee, was slumped forward on the table with her arms and pigtails stretched out in front of her.
“Oh, Varessa out did herself,” said Cordea and she beamed at her son. “Did Kharis speak to you yet?”
Soletus nodded while taking his corner by the right of the door instead of a seat.
“Are you coming?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“You should,” she said and went back to admiring the gray embroidery on the bodice of the purple dress. “I’m going to have such fun dancing in this gown.”
“I wish I could go dancing,” muttered Saedee.
Oeric tapped the surface of the table, getting her attention. “Sit straight and stop pouting. When you’re bigger, you can come to with us and find out how truly boring this all is.”
The girl sighed and sat back in her chair. “How big do I have to be?”
“When you’re as tall as your brother,” he answered.
Saedee looked at the top of Soletus’s head, brushing against the ceiling. Her lips puckered and became uncertain. “Mama, when will I get as big as Soletus.”
She stopped admiring the fabric of the dress and gave her husband an exasperated look.
“Never is an appropriate span of time,” he said, crumpling the letter up and tossing it in the hearth. It landed in the middle of the remains of a burnt log.
Cordea then amended. “What your father means to say, you can come along when you’re better behaved and mature like your brother.”
Saedee looked at him and he crossed his eyes. “Yep, totally matured like me.”
Their mother sighed and supplied a better reason. “You’ll be bored and all alone because there won’t be any children there.”
“But Sol will be there.”
“I’m going to be on duty. I can’t play with you,” he told her watching her become crestfallen back into a pout. He knew she felt she was left out of a lot of things. She was just too young. “Tell you what, while I still have time left, we can go look for a thick river cane to make you a flute?”
She shook her head.
“How about a set of canes to fight with,” their father offered.
The girl perked up. “My own set of whip canes?”
She beamed while Cordea looked anything but pleased.
“I believe your mother told you to pull up weeds in her garden so do that first,” said Oeric and the girl fled from her chair skipping to the backyard.
Cordea sighed. “I thought, with this daughter, I will make certain she likes the same things I do. But no, my husband is determined to make her every bit like him because she looks like him.”
He flashed a smile at her before it wiped off to his typical resting face.
“Anyway, I assume your sister’s letter is just about as warm and heartfelt as her last one a decade ago,” she asked.
Soletus knew his aunt and father didn’t speak to each other. Alacai, his late uncle Soletus’s son, was the only member of his father’s family who did make regular visits. They grew up together being a month apart in age like Soletus and Lyndon were. He served as a warden for a bit however, left after his father’s death. He was still a member of the order. If need be, he would serve again. Now he helped run the winery. Soletus liked him and his oldest son. They were great company when they visited and updated them on how everyone was doing. However, in all the decades, he could never mend the rift between brother and sister. Fern probably had done her magic and claimed to have softened their aunt, however, he wasn’t sure.
“What did she want,” Soletus asked.
“Her letter at least was unique,” answered his father. “This time I completely failed as a father as opposed to just being a person. More importantly, your sister says hello and she moving back to town. She wishes for us to meet someone.”
“The young man who’s caught her fancy,” he said without much enthusiasm.
“We’ve a wedding to plan,” said Cordea clasping her hands together, making up for her husband’s lack of enthusiasm.
“So Fern’s really going to get married,” Soletus asked surprised. She was old enough for it, he supposed. However, they weren’t exactly close siblings and it felt a little strange that she would. He clearly had missed out on something.
“All signs are pointing that way. We’ve had to read letter after letter about this young man for ages,” said Cordea. “Never has he come with her to visit which is a bit bothersome.”
Oeric snorted. “Don’t you realize I’m a terrible feral rabid cur and he’s too afraid to come around. We shouldn’t even allow him here. He’ll see that I’ve completely subjugated you into submission.”
Soletus knew that sardonic tone all too well. He looked to his mother. She was the reasoning one, usually, and stated evenly. “So her letter upset you that much?”
“She’s being ridiculous,” Oeric exclaimed suddenly. “She’s held this grudge for how many decades now? I apologized for multiple times. I can’t be sorry anymore. I’m tired of being sorry.”
The young monk began to feel like he shouldn’t be there and looked for a route to escape.
“If this wedding is going to happen, I think the two of you should do what is necessary since she doesn’t want to forgive you. Then you should do what I had to do to be at peace. Let her live her life and be done with her.”
“But she’s my sister,” he said softly. He then stood, regarding Soletus who had scooted behind his mother to go out the back to join Saedee. “Anyway, are you going or not? It’s not going to be a difficult mission. In fact, this is a good one to test the waters again.”
Soletus shrugged. “Can you tell me why am I going as a second warden? I’ve no experience.”
“Because you were supposed to have leadership training. Kellas failed to do that. Consider this a correction. Don’t worry, this is the easiest mission you will ever have as a warden. Most of what you are doing is on the road. After that, you sit around and be bored.”
The young monk felt hesitant even though it sounded easy.
His father softened his expression a tad. “I’m going to be over everyone. Right under the Arch Monk. If I can do something that makes me uncomfortable, then you can do the same.”
Soletus bobbed his head. Not because he wanted to, it was because he didn’t want to. “Okay, I’ll go.”
His father gave him a curt nod. “Good. I was summoned to talk to the Arch Monk and I told him to wait until I heard from you. Now arrangements can be made.”
He stepped away from the table, kissed his mother’s ear and then left as if he was running away. The moment he shut the door, Soletus watched Cordea make her way to the hearth and plucking the letter he tossed. Her eyes skimmed the page. She grimaced and muttered. “What right does she think she has to tell him…” she crumbled the letter back up and tossed it back into where it was cast in the ash.
“So it’s just that good then,” he said.
“Oh, it’s just wonderful,” his mother said, mimicking her husbands sarcastic tone. She went to a small chest of drawers in a corner and picked up the ink and pen on top then paper for letters. “I put up with her self-righteousness long enough. This nonsense has to stop.”
“Well, while your work on that, I’m doing to go,” he said gesturing behind him.
“Could you help your sister before you run away.”
“Sure,” he said, edging away from her slowly. She always had one more thing to add. And he thought he got away and then she added:
“You know, you don’t have to be so evasive. You can talk to us right,” she said and sat her supplies on the table.
He always avoided talking to her because it made him squirmy. In the past, her compass in determining what was wrong with him, was broken. It annoyed him. Now it was righted itself bringing a different kind of discomfort. “I’m not trying to be evasive, really I’m not. If I want to talk to you about something, I will,” he told her. Thinking that was it. Until she asked:
“Where were you earlier?”
“Out with Briar.”
Cordea gave him a curious look. “You’ve been spending a lot of time with her.”
“Imagine me wanting to spend time with someone who I have something in common with, shocking I know,” he told her.
She sniffed at him. “It’s just an observation. Seems like you’re closer to her now than you were when you were pretending to be together,” she said.
He shrugged and said, “It’s actually easier to be around each other when we aren’t spending so much energy trying to look customary. We had to plan things out.”
She became stunned. “Did you two really think like that?”
“Yeah. If we didn’t plan anything, you’ll try to set me aside and encourage me again. Remember the, try kissing her knuckle advice? I did it to humor you and all Briar could do for a week was laugh at me.”
She then looked over her writing at him. “You could’ve saved yourself some embarrassment if you told us sooner.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. A twist of guilt stung at his heart. If I had told them, a lot of things would be different, he thought.
She lowered her pen when she realized what she had said. “I didn’t mean it like that so you start blaming yourself again. We love you no matter what.”
“I know sometimes it might not seem that way. I have a little trouble understanding you and your ways.”
“You don’t understand,” he asked confused. His father seemed to have a good grasp of it.
She gave him a weak smile. “Being neth is an unknown concept to me. So much of my life surrounded marriage as my future.”
“Okay,” he said slowly and pointed behind him. “I’m going to go now.”
“I really want you to remember that. Because the future might be difficult, okay?”
“Okay,” he said waiting for her to explain it further however, she made a shooing motion for him to go instead. It made him very curious about the contents of that letter. Not to mention, who was really the evasive one.