Master Yunus disappointed Soletus. With the exception of Hickory, every older neth male he was introduced to was, in his opinion, unworthy. Their attitude towards being what they are, was the exact opposite of what it should be. Brother Hickory had taught him it wasn’t something to cower from or to hide. Yet no else wanted to take a stand and be what they were.
Even with his displeasure with Yunus, Solteus worked alongside of him well enough. But, there was no personal connection with him. He might as well have been working with any other warden. And since the day was uneventful, he was able to ride beside Mien for a sort reprieve before going back to Yunus. They young monk stayed with him until they heard a high shrill of a whistle. He looked forward to see his father waving and pointed off the road to a field. It was time to set camp.
There were no homes as far as Soletus could or a line in the distance that indicated a fence. If there were sheep or goats there, they weren’t in that part of the pasture. The rest of the landscape was flat with sparse trees. A lookout could easily spot a drass beast. Nighttime it would be a different story. However, they had two battle chanters with them and Mien was extra sensitive. He could be roused from his sleep if he felt one.
Soletus divided his men so they could help prepare the camp. He took the opportunity to learn their names their names and who they were. They didn’t seem as if they stood out as wardens. They were just wardens for a very long time. None of them were firsts or seconds. Just good men. After he spoke to them, he tended to his tent he was sharing with Mien. Afterwards, Oeric called him to the fire that he had made. He joined him, his mother, Lady Maelyra, Lord Kharis, Briar, Kiao, and Mien. He ate with them shoving food in his mouth like he had done before after a long day of riding.
After their meal. Mien played his flute with Kiao singing along. Nimbus joined in with his drum and sang with Kiao. Their voices were good together, but Mien’s was better with her. He was certain after a bit, his friend would end the night singing with her. However, he didn’t feel like sitting there listening to them. He could do so in his tent. He rose up and he made his way to the small fire where the members of his small band sat. He just wanted to check on them before lying down. The closer he got, the more they reminded him of Kellas and his loyal few.
They would sit around the campfire like that. Talking to each other, allowing no one int their inner circle. The younger members such as him would sit away from the fire even if it was cold. He didn’t want to think of them like that, but the one who questioned him named Tobias, reminded him of Cole. He wasn’t as old and didn’t have a cocky sneer. However, he just had that, youth is stupid, attitude. To Soletus’s dismay, he saw his approach and as Cole had one many times, spoke in a mocking tone.
“You done sitting with the family like a good little lad,” said Tobias.
Soletus wasn’t in the mood to deal with the surly warden. The others weren’t either. The rest of them gave him dirty looks. The closest to Tobias, elbowed him in the ribs.
“That’s no way to speak to your second,” he said.
“It’s not like he’s done anything to deserve respect. You give sweat and blood as a field warden, old man. He’s not even given a pint and here he is acting as a second,” Tobias.
The older elf then said, “Blood and sweat are a mark of a hard worker, but you need to be more than that. We need leaders who can toil and can encourage those old and young to be at their best.”
“I’ve been at my best for decades and all I do is remain a grunt,” he retorted.
Soletus stopped at Tobias’s other side. “Don’t you understand how much honor it is to be a grunt in all of this? The Patriarch choose you and here you are being ungrateful.”
Tobias leapt up from his spot and poked Soletus in the chest. “I’ve got a family to look after and a promotion would make it a lot easier to take care of them. Instead, I got passed up from some whelp still fresh off his mother’s teats.”
Soletus pushed his hand away. “And you have until the morning to get over it.”
“Is there a problem,” asked a voice. It managed to rise above them without shouting while being smooth and firm. Soletus’s attention shifted off of Tobias’s face to his father standing to the side of them. Oeric stood with his arms folded across his chest waiting. Beside him stood Yunus. He looked mildly unhappy. Tobias whorled around, stepping backwards as the first warden took a step forward. “I was going to tell you all good job today. But it’s appears I’ve a pressing matter to discuss,” continued Oeric, sweeping over them all before his gaze fixed on Tobias.
“I have this,” said Yunus patient and pleasant in contrast to Oeric with flames flickering in his eyes.
“No, Yunus, I have this,” he said, holding the man back with voice alone. Yunus nodded and waited. “Tobias, allow me to unburden your discontent. This was my decision. It was approved by the Arch Monk. You see, Soletus is being tested for a promotion because I want him to. I’m correcting a failure of an ex-first warden which you, or anyone else for that matter, haven’t stepped up to do. Budding leaders need to be encouraged and supported. We all have experience, we should share it instead of wielding it as a weapon against them.”
Soletus expected Tobias to cower from his father. He acted scared of him a breath before. But, his stupidity fueled whatever bravery he possessed and chose to argue.
“He’s not spent half my lifetime doing what we have!”
Oeric swayed his head in disappointment. “I don’t often question the Patriarch’s choices. However, your character has been clearly misjudged.”
The man wasn’t chagrined by that statement and went on in an angry rant. “I’ve been working my way up for decades and here you are pushing your son through like some noble military general making sure his son gets a comfortable rank.”
“Nothing about being a second warden is comfortable. You are one of the many who see it as nothing more than a coveted position of power and more coin in their purses. I didn’t think you were that shallow.”
Tobias spat at his feet. “Why should I listen to a cur whose daddy pushed him on up.”
Soletus waited for his father to react more strongly to his words. Instead, he looked bored. Tobias took another swipe at him.
“Don’t like hearing the truth? You going to knock me out like you did your son.”
No one dared to breathe save the fire. Master Yunus swayed his head in disappointment. Soletus watched a wolf’s grin lifted his father’s face. It was the wry dangerous smile of a confident predator preparing to strike. Tobias was on the knife’s edge.
“My son has skill. He could beat me. Almost did that time. You on the other hand, would be like hitting a babe. Such a tantrum you’re having for nothing,” said Oeric softly. “Come on be a man. Show your valuable intelligence that’s be grossly overlooked. Give me a good reason why you should be in his position.”
“I’ve worked long and hard for a promotion, but I don’t have a pappy pushing me.”
Oeric shook his hand in the air. “No, no, no, I want specifics. Have you mentored a warder, or a junior warden? Spend your personal time taking a peaceguard shift when needed? Are you in the fire brigade? Do you help in the archives? Talk to the children in school house? Help a local farmer? Work with the women’s society? Escort the infirmary staff out so they can get herbs? What have you done or are you just a good grunt.”
To no one’s surprise, Tobias insulted his father more. “Better a good grunt than being sick in the head. Probably why you birthed some worthless prickless whelp. Probably just like him. Nothing but a neth could beat up their own child.”
Soletus bristled, before added to the fire, a hand clasped his shoulders.
“Let it go, Lad,” whispered Yunus. “I know it’s hard, but let him handle it.”
Soletus watched his father, wondering if he was just as insulted.
The first warden let out a humorless snort. “Clearly the order has failed you. You need a duty worthy of someone of your fine skill. Starting tomorrow, you’ll be given the duty of pack mule.”
Tobias’s face darkened. He parted his lips getting out half a sound before he was spoken over.
“Shut your pie hole and listen,” snarled Oeric baring his teeth. “I asked for specifics and you wasted my time with pettiness. Now you get to prove you’re more than a noisy dumb beast.”
Oeric grabbed the collar of his shirt and yanked him to his face. “I can do whatever I want. Don’t like it, we can spar right here, right now.”
Tobias looked as if he swallowed a whole frog.
“Come on,” said Oeric. His voice low and mocking. “You’ve so much experience, you can handle someone as sick in the head as I am. What’s a little ol’cur like me going to do to a grunt like you?”
Soletus would’ve paid his entire commission to see Tobias fight his father. However, the man slunk back like a submissive dog. “Sorry First Warden.”
Oeric released him and he focused his attention on Soletus. “And you.”
The young monk stiffened. He was expecting to be yelled at as well. “Yes, Sir.”
“I’m going to ask for you to wait for a full explanation why I wanted to do this.” Soletus bobbed his head. ”Good, I’m going to go to the other camps now. After that, I’m off to bed. If you need me, talk to me before then,” he said and marched off.
Yunus then spoke. “Honestly Toby. I’ll be surprised you’ll every be considered ever again with your lack of respect, self-entitlement, and uncreative insults. You are supposed to be one of the best. This makes everyone here look bad.”
Tobias deflated to the ground without mustering a word in his defense.
“That goes for the rest of you. The Brotherhood historically has never picked leadership based on age alone and sometimes not reflecting on time spent. I’ve talked you men before about this and I will say it again. Soletus is my second in command. He is being tested and observed. He is here to learn and if all you can teach him is vitriol, then I’ll gladly give Oeric some more pack mules.”
Soletus kept quiet. His mind was stuck on the fact that his father was the one to suggest him to become a second. He had no clue why he would do that.
Yunus then said to him. “I can handle the men if you wish to rest.”
Soletus was happy to take the offer. He left and made an attempt to sleep. However, his mind became busy working on what he had learned. Hearing his father push for his promotion shouldn’t be a surprise. In fact, he should be insulted that he did such a thing. He was forever going to be a daddy’s boy. But, being a second was not easy. It was a challenge and a chance for him to learn more. He learned a great deal about drass beast and could stand to learn a lot more. However, people were one of his weaknesses. He relied on Lyndon to deal with different personalities. He was both charming and fast thinking. If he was alive, he could offer him some advice or at least think of a prank to pull on Tobias.
And who’s fault is that?
Soletus closed his eyes and saw Lyndon’s dead eyes looking back at him. He opened them and opted to stare into the darkness. After a while, golden light touched the corner of the tent showing the silhouette of legs. The light lowered and dimmed down in an effort not to disturb him but allowed Mien to see. The young chanter crawled to his to his bedroll. The young monk turned his back towards him. His mind began to replay those past events. To examine them. He should have called Khodi, and used him as a shield as they made their retreat. Why hadn’t he done that? The bear could withstand bolts. No, he laid there like scared, unable to think at all.
He heard the young chanter pause from taking off his boots. Soletus could feel his eyes on him.
“Do you want to talk about it,” asked Mien.
The chanter laid a hand on his shoulder. Soletus rolled it off. That didn’t deter him at all. He just changed tactic.
“Nimbus taught me a song tonight. I don’t really remember the lyrics, I do remember the tune. Want to hear it?”
His friend didn’t give him a chance to answer before he started singing in syllables. His voice swept over him and Soletus felt at ease. He felt the influence. Feeling the suggestions to rest. However, he couldn’t fight it. The young chanter’s will had grown stronger from learning his edict. In some ways it was disturbing. No matter how it was dressed up, chanter performed mind-control. The only thing that separated what they did to being something terrible was intent. Once Mien had told him that he could seduce someone and Hickory started instructing him, Soletus realized that’s how Mien did it. His singing voice was pleasing and he magnified it adding his will to it. Mien wouldn’t label what he did that. He just wanted his friend to stop hurting. The tod had seen the worst of his sorrow and what it turned him into. That he was close to stepping over the edge that Mien had. Maybe that’s why he allowed it. He didn’t want his friend to worry anymore.
Soletus eyelids became heavy as the chanter voice surrounded him in a warm blanket. “You don’t have to do this,” he muttered.
Men stopped singing. “I’m a spoiled nobling. I do what I please,” and he started singing again.
The young monk let Mien’s voice loll him to a black sleep. When morning arrived he wanted nothing more to than to stay under the warmth of his blanket. If he moved, it would be to stretched out in the grass under the sun. However, he got up when the lookout shouted to everyone to rise. He was in a better mood to face the morning. Seeing Tobias turned into a mule, made his morning all the better. His father had kept his promise. In fact, that day and the following day, the man walked with a pack containing various objects that Oeric plucked from everyone in the procession What added more insult to injury, his father had a pack of his own and walked with him. Not to mention he was always ahead.
At the start of the next day, Soletus watched his father hand Tobias his pack. He couldn’t help but smiled a little at the sight. Dias would have to forgive him for it. His father was standing with his back straight while Tobias stood slumped and winced as he pulled the pack on his shoulders.
For a warden he certainly lacks form, thought Soletus as he adjusted his saddle.
“I feel sorry for him,” said one of his men.
The eldest among them, their scout, let out a snort. “Why? It’s his own fault for mouthing off.”
“Fine, but First Warden Oeric doesn’t have to go out of his way to show him how weak he is compared to him.”
Soletus laughed. “That’s how he treats warders and junior wardens who think too much of themselves. He runs with them so they can’t say ‘he made me run around the town wall and probably couldn’t do it himself’.”
“I think he’s just showing off,” retorted the man.
Soletus frowned. He watched his father again. He stood with his arms crossed with Tobias in front of him pleading for mercy.
“To whom exactly,” asked Mien.
The man looked at him as if it was the first time they noticed the young combat chanter. And to be fair, he had been quiet for most of the trip when Soletus was doling out orders.
“To us like he’s trying to be a big bad alpha wolf,” explained the warden.
Mien rubbed his tongue on the roof of his mouth before saying, “It might look that way if you’re insecure.”
“Who you’re calling insecure, boy.”
Mien pulled himself on his saddle. “Check your hearing. I didn’t call you insecure. But you implied you are.”
The man scowling.
Soletus then motioned for him to be silent and then went to Mien’s side. “Now, now, no need to get all sassy.”
“Let’s see how amicable you’ll be if you have the taste of tart cherries in your mouth every time someone shares a stupid opinion,” he returned loud enough for all the men to hear.
Being empathic had very few benefits, especially being sensitive to anger and other negative emotions.
“Do you need to step away from everyone,” he asked.
Mien massage the base of his neck and nodded. “I’ll be by Kiao’s carriage,” he said.
Soletus sent him off with a slapped his leg and addressed his men. “We’re getting to the estate today, so our minds should be on that and not looking too deep into the action of our commanding officer. Like him or not, we’ve a duty to perform.”
“Brothers,” shouted Oeric. Soletus turned his body around and saw his father was right behind him with Tobias shadowing him. “Get yourselves on your horses already or do you want to join Warden Tobias?”
“I was handling it,” said Soletus.
The older monk used his head to indicate behind him. Soletus followed his gaze and saw the Arch Monk riding towards them.
“Oeric, aren’t you done tormenting him yet,” he said, clearly annoyed. “He’s slowing us down.”
Oeric adjusted the pack on his back. “Wasn’t it you who wanted us to start holding ourselves to a better standard? I’m helping you achieve this.”
“I did, but he’s done nothing more than take a personal swipe at you.”
“You are incorrect, Sir. He acted as an ingrate to the honor that was bestowed on him. More importantly, he disagreed with what you approved. My purpose is to remind him of respect. Besides, today I want to have a heart-to-heart.”
The aged monk gave his son a disapproving scowled. “You always have an answer don’t you.”
“You don’t become a first warden without thinking things through.”
The Arch Monk inhaled and exhale loudly through his nose. “You don’t need all day giving a ‘heart-to-heart.’ When we take our halfway break, you will change into better attire as will he. I want to make a good show when we arrive.”
“Yes Sir,” said Oeric.
Soletus’s grandfather turned to him. “You will be riding up front after the break. Yunus will take charge back here. Also, is there anything you can do with that blasted braid? It’s a boy’s hair and you’re certainly not one anymore.”
“Well, it’s a man’s length now,” retorted Soletus. His grandfather moved to speak but his father was quicker.
“You want him as he is. This isn’t about what you want.”
The Arch Monk brow pulled. “Then what is it about? It’s certainly isn’t about what he wants.”
“It’s what I want,” stated his father in a firm and measured voice. Not that exasperated and long-suffering tone he usually reserved for the man. “His hair length doesn’t bother me. Him doing what he is trained to do, matters to me more.”
If his grandfather made a bigger deal out of it, Soletus would wear it down so it flowed behind him just to spite him.
“I’ll braid it a little tighter when we rest, Sir. That is it,” said Oeric. The Arch Monk studied his son a long moment, as if he was trying to decide what to say and do. Oeric then added. “Time is of the essences, is it not? We should get started, Arch Monk.”
To Soletus’s surprise, the Arch Monk let him win.
“Fine. Get on your horses already. We need to move out.”
Yunus maneuvered his horse to Soletus side and spoke to Oeric. “Taking a pair of sheers to it isn’t that much trouble, First Warden Oeric.”
“Junior Warden, do you want a haircut,” asked his father.
“No,” said Soletus.
“Then I see no need,” said Oeric. “It isn’t hurting anyone except our sense of what we expect to be normal to be among customary males. He isn’t and I can’t expect him to fit in that mold. Therefore, I want him to fit in the mold of what he is.”
Soletus was surprised to hear those words from his mouth. Every senior member, including his father, had gotten on his hair length. Then again, Oeric had stopped insisting he cut it. Though the young monk never got the impression he accepted it until then. He got on his horse and waited for the man to order them to move out. It was the first time, in a long time, he listened to a commanding officer without bitter thoughts taking him.
It was near dinner time when Soletus caught sight of a steepled rooftop meeting the crest of a hill. As soon as they cleared the trees and hill, the Gyrfalcon estate revealed itself to them. It was a huge three-story manor. The walls were made of reddish cobblestones with white mortar. Its roof, like a lot of elven architecture, ended in points and sharp edges despite having round wall features. In fact, the entrance of the home looked to be a circular atrium given all the glass.
In front of the house was a walkway for carriages that was edged by a garden full of spring flowers. To the left side, was a pond. It situated itself between what the Gyrfalcon’s were known for in their province. To the ponds other side was a three story inn known as the Gyrfalcon Lodge. It’s white stone wall dark wood accents were impressive as well as cozy in appearance. He supposed that was the point of it all. Briar told him it had over two hundred rooms for guests who wanted a bit of time away from life and relax in the hot spring, use the hunting grounds, and performance stage. Both the inn and the house had its own worker village to keep both in beautiful condition. He thought he had a good image of it, but seeing it was another story.
Soletus thought they were heading to the guest lodge, instead, they went straight up to the main house where he wasn’t expected in a greeting. There at the top of the stairs leading to the front door stood a familiar figure. He possessed the same golden hair of a Gyrfalcon In fact, he was a stronger jawed and sharper gazed Lord Kharis. Soletus then remembered why he didn’t recognize him fully. The elf was free from the top knot of a soldier. It was Captain Gyrfalcon. They meet in passing that had fussed at his father when they were on their return trip to the monastery.
“Captain Gyrfalcon,” greeted his father warmly. “We’ve not talked since Wateree.”
The captain crossed his arms with the corner of his lips working up. “They released you out on the countryside again after the mess you caused. Irresponsible.”
“My wife, the strongest of all my leashes, is present,” returned his father.
“Maybe she can unleash you so you can handle the trouble we’ve been having. Where in Dias’s name is Kharis.”
“Over here, Liamus,” said the Patriarch coming from around the carriage holding Lady Maelyra. He slid off his horse. “What sort of trouble are we having?”
“Assassination attempts that’s what,” stated the Captain. “I’ve men combing the grounds for vipers. The other day it was looking for crossbows inside of cabinet doors.”
The Patriarch gave his head a shake in disbelief. “Excuse me?”
“We’ve a dead manservant and a fevered maid who might not make it because of this nonsense.”
The door to the carriage flew open and Kiao jumped out. “Can I see this maid? My bond partner and I can if it’s venom.”
The captain’s brow rose in surprise and he bobbed his head. “Oh yes, Sister Kiao. Glad you’re here. Feel free to see what you and Brother…”
“Mientheoderic, you can just call me Mien,” said Mien dismounting his horse.
“Well, go inside and ask the doorman to take you to see Ambri, she’ll show you where to go. Now, as for you, Kharis I think—”
The Captain was then cut off by and aged voice coming from the front door. “Liamus!”
Captain Gyrfalcon bowed his head as an elderly woman shuffled her way down by the aid of a cane. A middle aged elf followed her looking frazzled.
“Mother please, Liam can deal with them. Sit and rest already,” begged the woman.
“Mother, Valencia” said Kharis with his arms spread and the old woman sped up her shuffling. Soletus couldn’t help but smiling.
“Kharis, it’s about time you got here,” she said hugging him and taking his hands. “Liamus doesn’t know what he’s doing and I want you and your men to go and search this place for anymore nonsense.”
The captain let out a long-suffering sigh.
“I will have Solgard divide his men up to help,” he said, and she gave a little sly wave to the Arch Monk. Solgard winked and waved back. Oeric turned to Soletus and rolled his eyes. “But are there really have been attempts on your life.”
“My life,” she said and laughed. “Oh no. I’m a winter hen. No one cares about me, just who will succeed me.”
“And we know that Kharis is far from that,” muttered the elderly woman’s daughter.
Soletus knew that Kharis heard it and he gracefully ignored it.
“Well, I care and they do too,” he said gesturing to his siblings. “Why don’t you walk inside where it might be safer. Maelyra and Briar will come with you.”
“Oh Briar is here,” the woman’s frail face perked up. “I get to have some good old family amusement before I leave this world.”
“Now don’t say that,” Kharis’s sister. “Maelyra, get over here and be useful. Help her.”
Lady Maelyra walked out with Cordea trailing her wearing a tight frown of sharp disapproval.
“Don’t Cordy,” whispered Maelyra before they got out of earshot of Soletus.
“Junior Warden,” snapped the Arch Monk.
Soletus turned to him.
“I’m taking you from your charges. Master Yunus will handle your men. You help Master Tyr and Brother Nimbus in securing the grounds.”
The Arch Monk then turned to Captain Gyrfalcon. “These men are yours to help out. First Warden Oeric, you are with me to get these horses to the stables and luggage taken to rooms.”
After that, the groups broke up with Soletus stood at Lord Kharis’s side.
Captain Gryfalcon sat his eyes on Soletus. “Junior Warden?”
“Senior Junior Warden, Sir,” said Soletus.
The man inspected him. “You’re Oeric’s son?”
“How old are you, 30 and you still get lost?”
“I’m 29 so I’m still allowed,” he returned with a smirk.
The Captain chuckled. “How are you with young women?”
“They’re elves too,” he answered. He wasn’t sure why he was being asked the question.
Master Tyr then spoke. “You’re going to have to excuse him. He’s perfectly respectful to young women. He spends a great deal of time with your niece,” he said.
The Patriarch then helped. “He’s the one that my girl was supposed to be with.”
It was then that recognition blossomed on his face. “Excellent, he’s perfect,” said the Captain. “Aside from our troubles, we’ve 75% of the royal family present. I need him to watch one of them.”