Aramis left House Hucrele for the shrine, quickly told Sister Corkie where he was going, then set off for the ranch.
He arrived a few hours later at the ranch house. No one was in sight, but that was hardly unusual. Probably out in the fields, he thought. “Sheep don’t herd themselves,” his father was fond of saying. Well, Mother or Iva might be inside… He shifted the weight of his pack and went up to the house. It was strange to knock on the door, after all his years of living inside, but he felt it best. “Hello?” he called. “Anyone home?”
“Aramis?” his mother’s voice answered from inside.
“Yes, Mother. I’m back.”
The door opened to reveal Amerie Shepherd, holding little Henri. Her eyes seemed wide at the sight of her son. After realizing that she was staring, she said “Come in, sweetheart. I wasn’t sure when to expect you back.” She stepped aside to let him in.
“Thank you.” He walked to the table and set his pack down against one of the legs, but didn’t sit down yet. He could already tell that something was wrong.
“Where is your friend?” Amerie asked distractedly.
“She’s back at the shrine, taking care of Talgen Hucrele.”
“Good, good.” She seemed relieved, but for some other reason.
“We found out where those creatures came from, the ones that were attacking the flocks. They won’t be bothering you any more.”
She crossed the room to put Henri in his playpen, and said “Really?”
“Really. The tree that made the apples, down in the rift – it went bad, somehow. We had to destroy it.”
“I see,” she said absently, like she was talking about the weather. “Are you… will you be staying long?”
“Only for a couple of days, if that’s all right.” What’s going on here?
“Oh, of course I don’t mind – “
At that moment the back door opened, and Orson stormed into the room. When his eyes fell on Aramis, his face turned to a snarl and he lunged for his brother. His meaty fist connected with the unprepared cleric’s head, and Aramis spun to the floor in a heap. “YOU!” Orson roared. “You’ve done this!”
“Orson!” pleaded Amerie.
Aramis returned to his feet in moments, his hand bathed in the unearthly light of sacred flame. Orson froze in his place, and Amerie’s face paled.
“Speak your piece,” Aramis said coolly, dabbing blood from his temple with his other hand.
“Iva’s gone.” It was all Orson could do to keep his rage in check.
“Gone?” Aramis flicked his eyes to Henri, the child passive as a log, then back to Orson. He didn’t notice his mother shift between him and the baby, but he allowed the flame to dissipate. “Gone where?”
“I don’t know,” his brother replied through gritted teeth, clearly spoiling for another crack at him. He took one step toward the cleric. “But she left a couple of days after you and your whore tiefling breezed through.”
“Orson, please!” whispered their mother.
Aramis set his mouth in a tight, grim line. “Orson, you’re my brother, so I’ll give you a chance to take that back.”
“Or what? You’ll kill me? Who do you think you are?”
“Try me,” Aramis said, “and I’ll show you.”
Orson scoffed. “After the two of you breezed through, she got it in her head that she could find the cause for… for Henri. For why… he’s not right.” He deflated at last, and turned to look at his son. Aramis felt the pain coming off his brother in waves.
“I wanted to find an apple for him,” Aramis said. “I truly did.”
Orson whirled to face him. “Fie on your apples, your magic! What good have they done you, eh? Always too late, or with some excuse…before you leave again. And now my wife.” He’d bitten through his lip; blood trickled down into his beard.
“Orson,” said Amerie, “show him the note.”
Orson gave Aramis a level stare for a moment before reaching down to a pouch and pulling out a small, crumpled parchment. He set it on the table and backed away, crossing the room to where Amerie had picked Henri up again. Aramis sat at the table to read the note.
I’ve gone to search for answers. If there’s a chance that I can find a remedy for Henri, I have to take it. I’m sorry for leaving the burden on you, but I must do this. For all of us. I have to do everything I can. Just like you did for Aramis. Just like Aramis is doing now.
Without looking up, Aramis took his journal, quill, and ink from his pack, and began to copy the note into his book. “When did she leave?” he asked.
“On the 12th,” his mother said.
“Did she keep a diary? Leave any other indication where she might have gone?”
“Nothing,” Orson said bitterly, stroking his son’s hair with clumsy hands. “Might have said something to her uncle. I don’t know.”
Her uncle, Garon, ran the Ol’ Boar in the village. Aramis blew on the ink to dry it, snapped the journal shut, and stashed it in his bag. “Then I should start there.”
“And who asked you to?” Orson snarled. “You’re not the answer to all… Hells, any of this family’s problems.”
“I killed the tree that was spawning those twig-blights that were killing your sheep.”
“Sure you did.”
“And I killed the man who took care of it.”
“Guess you serve your death goddess well, then.”
It’s useless to argue with him, Aramis thought. “Guess I do. Anything else you have to say to me?”
“Why? Leaving again? Of course you are. It’s what you do…” He shook his head in disgust, then glared at the cleric. “Get out.”
“As you wish. It was good to see you, Mother.” Aramis stood up and collected his belongings.
“Aramis…” She was on the verge of tears, contrasting Henri’s utter indifference.
“I won’t impose where I’m not wanted. And Orson’s right, I don’t belong here any more.”
Amerie began to cry, but her plea to Orson still seemed half-hearted.
As Aramis passed his brother, he said “I’ll find your wife, Orson. Don’t worry, I’ll send her back to you alone. Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’d like to say goodbye to mine.”
Orson made no response. Aramis opened the front door and said “Farewell” without looking back.
. . .
He crossed the fields and climbed the hill, where he sat under the tree and said his long goodbye to Celeine. When he finally ran out of tears and things to say, Aramis went back to Oakhurst, more certain than ever that he would never go home again.