With a sigh, he closed his eyes. He tried so hard to shut out negative emotions. But irritation, frustration, anger – they just rose so quickly to the top, like fat in the kettle.
And that boy. For he was a boy, yet. Kept following him. What had Renfry done to deserve this? The boy was like a puppy, following after its mother. A little lost duckling. What was this fuckery? Renfry shook his head in annoyance. Was it idolatry of some sort?
Clearly, the boy was a runaway from the Silent Brothers, though few would recognize that now. So he was no moron – in fact, the boy was likely quite intelligent, for the Silent Brothers trained their Order in nearly every subject.
Yet the boy persisted on trailing him. Overtly, Renfry thought sourly as he thought of the boy’s fire some hundred yards from his campsite last evening. And the night before that.
Finally, with no small amount of ire, Renfry stopped in his tracks at noon today. He stood there, waiting to see what the boy would do. Believing the boy would also stop, surprise overtook Renfry when he found the boy continuing forward.
In fact, when the boy passed Renfry several yards away, he gave Renfry a mild, two-fingered salute.
“Headed in the same direction.” And then he kept traipsing ahead.
Renfry recognized that as a dig, for the boy had told him as much back in Landy’s Hollow.
He’d seethed at the time. Cheeky little bastard. So Renfry had broken camp for a half hour, for damn if he was going to follow in the footsteps of an untried lad.
Yet he found footsteps here and about as he trudged along down the grass. Renfry wasn’t walking the road to Roarden North, and, as was obvious, neither was the boy. Which meant neither of them wanted to be found along the way. The kid for life and death reasons, but Renfry always kept to himself now. Just how it was done.
When Renfry had set up camp for the night, he saw the boy’s campfire glowing some hundred yards or more away. Renfry stewed over it, and then finally could not resist. He wandered across the grass to where the boy was warming his hands over his fire. He glanced up.
The boy looked up at him, shadows of the camp fire flickering over his face. “Can I offer you some roasted parsnips?” He held up a sturdy stick of parsnips, seared on the edges.
So that’s what Renfry had been smelling the last two nights. He hated parsnips, boiled, roasted, or otherwise.
“No.” Renfry placed his hands on his hips and stared down at the boy’s camp fire. It was pathetic. But he gave the boy credit for trying – at least he’d even got a flame started, much less enough to cook food with. He really ought to help the boy – it was the right thing to do. Ah – his conscience – Renfry really hated the damn thing…. Got him in more trouble than just living regular life.
“You know, that fire there is pretty pathetic.”
The boy looked vaguely surprised and then down at his campfire. “You think so?” he asked with curiosity.
Renfry rolled his eyes. “Boy. I’m giving you some advice here.”
Then the boy said, “Well, it’s just that your campfire,” and he leaned far around Renfry’s legs to peer down across the grass at the campfire in the distance, “is actually what I’d call pathetic.”
Renfry’s mouth fell open. Did he just hear correctly? What a cheeky little bastard!
“And how is that?”
The boy looked down at his campfire and gestured. “Well, this has everything I needed to ignite it, and I can still put more in there, but I built a sort of cabin over it, so I can cook on top, a platform. And it will still be burning in the morning, because it’s protected. Yours, from the smell of the smoke, will just be ash and coal come morning. So, unless your definition of ‘pathetic’ is entirely different than mine…” and the boy trailed off. He shrugged. “You sure about the parsnips? I have more.”
There were few things that Renfry truly hated, but being wrong was one of them. Especially when a boy was right. It had been a sheer effort in will, and restraint, that had forced him to agree to sharing a campsite. Some part of him did point out that pooling resources was the smart thing to do. But Renfry didn’t have to like it.
And now, Renfry scraped a hand across the stubble on his chin and studied the boy in the flickering campfire. Why was an escaped Silent Brother headed toward Roarden North? Had he kin there? Surely he knew that anywhere escapees had kin, Silent Brothers would be first to watch.
Finally, he ventured, “What’s your name, boy?”
The youngster smiled toothily and replied, “You first.”
Renfry scoffed. “That’ll never happen.”
The boy shrugged then, his arms out.
“Well, what do you want me to call you? Boy?”
“Arithist,” Renfry repeated.
“Yes, that’s my name,” said the boy, defiance creeping into his tone.
Renfry snorted and shook his head.
“Are you making fun of my name?” the boy demanded.
Shaking his head, Renfry eyed the boy. “You know, your Order isn’t the only one who studies the ancient scripts. I know what that means in the old language. And if I do, there will be others who recognize it. Maybe shorten that. Just go by Ari.”
The boy was glaring at him. “It’s not my Order.”
“Really. So you wouldn’t mind if I bound and gagged you, shore your hair off, and took you to the nearest Order, asking for coin for an escaped Silent Brother?”
The boy said nothing.
Renfry nodded. “That’s what I thought. Your hair’s still growing out. I won’t tell anyone, and no one will think to ask, but what you’re thinking, going to Roarden North, I can’t imagine. More Silent Brother collections there than I can imagine, and if you got kin there, I’d bloody well turn around and head in the opposite way now, right now, before they catch you there.”
“I have no kin,” returned the boy quietly.
“Ah.” Renfry nodded a bit as he studied the boy over the campfire. Sparks flew up as one of the logs caught fire and fell.
Renfry had no kin as well, but he didn’t guess Ari, or whatever his name was, had anything in common with why Renfry was orphaned. No one ever did. His own father had been a drunkard with a heavy hand, one that grew heavier as the years passed.
Most often, Renfry had stolen bread and vegetables off the streets just so they could eat, for his mother was rarely in shape enough to cook. Often, Renfry’s aunt down the street slipped over a pottage for them while his father was out drinking, and made it look as though his mother had prepared it.
More and more, Renfry’s little sister stayed with his aunt, just to keep out of sight of his father.
Renfry would never forget the day he arrived home to find his mother staring sightlessly up at the ceiling. Renfry was just short of sixteen then, but he’d always been a big-boned lad. And his father sat there on the floor, nearly passed out, his head lolling about.
“Ah. You! Where you been, boy! I said, where you been!” His words were hardly intelligible.
Renfry lifted his mother and sat her into one of the few chairs that still stood reliably. She was still warm. He placed his hand over her eyelids and pushed them down, so she wouldn’t look so horrible. Thank all the gods, she finally was free.
“Boy!” Renfry’s father attempted several times to stand up, his arms windmilling wildly. “I said, boy! Tell your mother to start dinner! Dinner should be ready by now!”
Renfry stared at the man who was his father. This man, who finally thumped back down on the wooden floor, this despicable man was his father.
Renfry crossed the room in three short strides and hauled his father up to his feet. He stank of alcohol, vomit, and piss.
“You – are no man. You – are a monster.” And then. Renfry sighed. He didn’t like to recall what he’d done – he wasn’t sure if it was an accomplishment or… but that was the day his conscience started nagging at him.
He winced inwardly. For he’d pummeled the man. Over and over and over, until the man’s face was no longer recognizable. Blood covered Renfry and the man who had been his father. And then, Renfry took the candle burning in the center of the room, and lit the entire house to the ground, from rafters to rushes.
He left that place forever, but he made one stop. At his aunt’s house. She already smelled the smoke and was frantic. Renfry picked up his eight-year-old sister and hugged her close, so tight.
“Ren – what have you done,” whispered his aunt.
He just shook his head back and forth. “Shh, shh, shh,” he’d told his sister.
“Auntie, she’ll need to stay with you now. I’m going to join the Army. I’ll send you money as I can.”
“Rennie – don’t said money. She’s been ours for so long – she’s family. Rennie, don’t you forget – you are, too, love.” And his aunt tried to hug him, but he was covered in blood, so he’d held her back.
She brought him one of his uncle’s shirts. “Just – just tell me. Is she at peace now?”
He’d nodded. “Forevermore.”
She’d patted his cheek. “Good. Good, baby. And – and,” she struggled with emotion. “Is that bastard, tell me he’s in hell now.”
Renfry had nodded slowly. “Forevermore, Auntie.”
His aunt sniffed and the tears started rolling down her cheeks. “Good. Good!”
Commotion in the street arose. “Baby, honey, you go. I’ll tell them you joined the Army yesterday. You’ve made us so proud. We love you so, Rennie. Hurry, lad, go, before you’re seen….”
Today, Renfry knew that out there, somewhere, he had nieces and nephews, but where, he knew not.
And for years, he had struggled with the idea of whether to do the right thing, should you do the wrong thing? Or was that backward – to do the wrong thing, you should do the right thing?
Renfry had wrestled over it for years and finally, one night he’d had an epiphany. It was a single moment, not an answer, not closure, but decided, “fuck it.” After that night, he had felt much better.
The campfire popped and sparks rose up. “And the story for your short hair…?
“It’s not that short,” returned the boy defensively. “But – it is noticeably shorter. I’m going to join the Army, like my brother. I cut my hair short like him because I can’t wait to join. And now that I’m sixteen, I’m going to Roarden North to sign up.”
Renfry lifted his eyebrows and shook his head. He still thought Roarden North was damn stupid place to go for a boy with a past like his, but he was bent on it.
“Well, it might work,” he commented neutrally.
“People always love a patriot,” the boy declared with a winning smile.
“Until you’re actually in the city and nowhere near the recruiter’s office….”
“I’ll think of something. I have more than one idea,” said the boy.
Renfry shrugged. “It’s your ass on the line, not mine. And just to be clear – once we get to Roarden North – you go your way and I go mine. We will not know each other. Understand?” He stared the boy down.
Nodding then, Renfry poked a bit at the fire.
Suddenly the boy asked, “Want me to take first shift?”
Renfry frowned. “Shifts? Why would be we be taking shifts? We’re in the middle of nowhere.” He gestured about them to the wide expanse of grass and trees.
“True. But you’re not the only one who’s perceptive. You act like you have eyes in the back of your head. You watch the trees and the open ground to the side of us. And I’m sure you know how you’d attack if someone snuck up behind us in the dark, and where you’d run if you needed to. Same as in the pub. All you did was watch.”
Damn. He did not like people seeing through him like that.
“So I offer shifts so you can get a real bit of sleep without worry about someone sneaking up on you.”
Renfry studied the boy. True sincerity there. Why not. “All right. Wake me at half-moon.”
Suddenly, Renfry opened his eyes. Where was he? A campfire – almost morning… Renfry sat up. The boy!
“You were supposed to wake me at half-moon,” he growled.
The boy shrugged. “You needed the rest. I can go without.” He poked at the fire with a stick.
Renfry grudgingly admitted that he’d slept far better than he had in months. Not that the boy had to know that.
He sat up and brushed leaves and dirt free of his tunic and cloak. “Why would you do such a thing?”
The boy’s eyebrows rose in inquiry.
“I’m a complete stranger,” Renfry explained. “Why would you do something like that for a complete stranger?”
Shrugging, the boy said, “Human compassion. I’d want someone to do the same for me if I was falling asleep in my boots and didn’t know it.”
“You’re a real smart ass, you know that.”
The boy smiled and shrugged. “Sorry. Haven’t had lots of practice.”
Cheeky little shit. “Are all of you Silent Brothers smart asses, then?”
The boy leaned forward. “It was hard to tell. We were all silent.”