“Stefan! Hey, wake up, old man!” Somebody took hold of his arm and shook it roughly. Upon opening his eyes, he realised that it was the youngster from before. Kaz grinned. “Can’t believe you actually respond to ‘old man’. C’mon, get up.”
Perfectly awake now, Stefan realised that the sun was beginning to sink below the horizon. Already, the night chill was descending upon them. “You ought to have more respect for your elders,” he scolded. “What appears to be the problem?”
“There’s a man just arrived asking for you.”
Stefan slowly clambered to his feet, brushing the dust from his coat. “One of us, I assume? Very well. Did you take him inside?”
Kaz shook his head. “Nope. He’s behind you.”
Fighting the urge to clap the boy on the back of his head for such idiocy, Stefan turned around to face the newcomer. His eyes widened, but there was otherwise no suggestion of surprise at seeing this particular person. “My, you’ve…grown.”
The young man was dressed in a tattered travelling cloak, but where it had torn through, Stefan could see the hint of ornate robes underneath. The hood was down, exposing the prominent red mark on his forehead, and the unspeakable sadness written across his face. He said nothing.
“Truthfully, I didn’t expect to see you again, Soren. Not that you are unwelcome here. Did you find Hatary in the end?” Soren nodded mutely. Nothing more needed to be said. It would be pointless asking why Soren had left because, for him to be travelling alone, there could only have been one answer. “How long ago?” he asked instead.
“A month or so.” Soren’s voice was quiet, almost inaudible. He drew his cloak closer around him, and Stefan tentatively put a hand on his shoulder.
“What're you two on about?” Kaz asked, frowning. “You're not making any sense.”
Soren looked at him, though more in disdain than in anger, before glancing back at Stefan. “Is he yours?” His voice was still incredibly quiet.
“Heavens, no,” Stefan laughed. “His parents are inside. I was just watching over him earlier, that's all.” He paused. “Generally speaking, everyone looks after everyone here. It started off that way because most of the youngsters that came here were orphans, or near enough. But even now that families have started cropping up within the colony, the children are rarely ever raised by their parents alone.”
Soren nodded. “That sounds...pleasant."
“Most find it so.” Stefan regarded his friend with caution. “More pleasant than either of our childhoods, I would hazard, at the very least. Though there is something to be said for being raised by your own parents, in most cases.”
“Your parents raised you?” Soren seemed particularly surprised by this information.
“Mm...They felt that they ought to accept the consequences of their actions. Not that I wasn’t still treated as a curse.” He sighed. “My mother lived as a beorc, rather unhappily, after her powers abandoned her. I ran away when I was about ten, believing myself to be a burden on them.”
Soren had no response to this. After several lapsed moments of silence, Stefan spoke up again. “I don't suppose you have any more wish to see your parents than I do mine.”
“...No. I could probably track them down if I were particularly bothered. The laguz parent is probably still alive. I could ask Kurth to help if needed.” There was a briskness to his voice that told Stefan very clearly that searching for his remaining parent was the last thing he would do. “But as I said, I’ve no particular wish to see the mother that abandoned me.”
Stefan looked at him curiously. “You never gave me the impression that you knew which was your laguz parent.”
“I didn’t, previously. I’ve been thinking a lot of things over lately.” The sadness re-entered his voice.
Kaz frowned at the stranger. “Hey, Soren. You the mercenary guy Stefan always natters on about?”
“You...talk about me?” Soren looked at Stefan in surprise.
“All the time!” Kaz interrupted. “Hey, what happened to the man you were travelling with? The hero guy. Ike. What happened to him?”
Soren's eyes glazed over. “He grew old.”
“As old as Stefan?”
“No, not that old,” Stefan said, not giving Soren the chance to reply. “Ike was a beorc. They don't live as long as we do.”
“Oh.” Kaz pondered this for a moment. “So why were you with him?” He looked up at Soren in curiosity.
“Because he wasn't just a beorc,” Soren replied. “He was Ike.” His voice caught in his throat as he said his friend's name, and Stefan placed his hand on Soren's arm.
“Come on. Let's get you inside. You must have had a long journey. You ought to rest for a while.” Soren merely nodded and let himself be led away.