With some mild cursing and smacking of hindquarters, Zie urged his edlak forward to ride beside Davs. He would’ve preferred to stay there, but his edlak was smaller and kept gravitating instinctively to the back to follow the bigger edlak nose to tail.
“No.” Davs reached across and patted his knee. “Don’t say it. We’re not sorry you came into our lives. We’re not sorry we came with you. I’m not angry that we’ve had to separate for a bit. Does that cover everything?”
“Yes. I’m still sorry.” Zie slumped on his saddle pad searching for words. “When I was on my own, I was in a constant state of fear interrupted by moments of screaming panic. But I couldn’t think about much except how to keep ahead of them. Now, I have entire nights when I haven’t been afraid, when I do nothing but think, and I’m worried all the time. This can’t end well. It’s not a child’s nighttime story. You should be home and safe, having normal lives.”
“Our lives haven’t been normal for a long time, sweetling. Ess and I hire ourselves out to protect people from being robbed or killed by other people. In what world is that normal and safe?”
Zie wanted to argue that it wasn’t the same. One had a chance against flesh and blood opponents. One simply had to be better. Against shadows, it didn’t matter how good one’s sword arm was or how good a shot. He’d welcome mortal opponents. It would be refreshing to go after someone with knife and claw.
He wasn’t certain how sane that would sound if he said it out loud, though. Several minutes went by before he asked instead, “Where are we going?”
“To a lake island.” Davs frowned in thought. “No idea if it has a name. But it’s a good place to be if the Shadows catch up. No bridges. Deep lake. A little hunting. Good fishing.”
Davs shot him a sideways glance. “Zie. It’s a lake.”
“Ah. Sorry. The lake water isn’t bad. We boil it, just in case.”
“Does anyone live there?”
Davs’ smile was wistful. “There are old fortress ruins. The locals believe it’s haunted. Ess and I may have made enough noise one night to add to that belief. Ghosts and sometimes bandits. That’s who lives there. The bandits won’t bother us since they go there to hide and lick their wounds. And if they do?” He shrugged. “More fool them.”
I’m finding quiet confidence more and more achingly attractive every day. I have to tell him. I can’t tell him. It would ruin everything. Let me have this for now. Just for a little while longer.
By evening, they had reached the aforementioned lake, though to Zie’s eyes, it was more sea than lake. The shore stretched out to the horizon and there was no sign of the opposite side. A black splotch that struck him as rather far from the bank was the lake’s only visible feature.
“That’s the island?”
“We have to swim out to that?”
Davs shot him a puzzled look. “This should be easy for you, shouldn’t it? You could just walk across.”
“Water walking is never easy for me,” Zie growled. “Fear and need help me focus, but it’s never easy.”
“You don’t have to.” Davs shrugged. “The edlaks will make the swim over easily, and you’re light enough. You could stay on mine while she swims.”
Zie let out a relieved breath. “Yes. Thank you.”
“Worse than a sand cat about water.” Davs dismounted and began fussing with straps to make sure their packs were secure. “Your family didn’t send you out on trade expeditions?”
“We do not swim during those. We have boats.”
After Zie had scrambled up onto Davs’ mountainous, black edlak, Davs stood between their mounts with a headstall in either hand and led them into the water. The sand and river pebbles underfoot remained visible for a good ten steps, and Davs was able to wade for perhaps twenty more before the lakebed dropped off sharply.
Zie gripped the edlak’s shaggy hair tight as both beasts initially fought Davs and tried to turn back to shore. It was all he could do not to fling his arms around the edlak’s neck and cling like a tiny child. Yes, he could swim though not well. No, he didn’t want to since his flailing about in the water would probably cause Davs understandable concern. And me unredeemable embarrassment.
Once Davs got the edlaks pointed toward the island, they stopped fighting him and began to swim in earnest toward the land in front of their noses. While the journey over was wet, Zie grudgingly admitted that it wasn’t terrible. The water here was cool and pleasant rather than the finger-killing cold of the rivers back home, and watching Davs simply being good at things was a pleasure.
An even greater pleasure was watching Davs strip off his shirt and boots once they reached the island’s shore, the play of his muscles kissed by the soft light of the evening sun. And oh, what muscles they were—broad shoulders, biceps the size of small melons. The sunshine was suddenly too hot for Zie and he had to peel off his coat and his boots as well.
They trudged uphill side by side with the edlaks happy to follow and browse the greenery. Zie certainly approved of taking the highest ground possible, preferably a position that gave one a view of what might be coming in all directions. But he was unprepared for what appeared as they came to the clearing at the top of the island. A ruined fortress, perhaps. Yes. Half the gatehouse had collapsed and one corner, possibly once occupied by a tower, had been reduced to rubble, but this had been quite the fortress.
The central tower still stood, along with the three of the outer wall watchtowers, all built of a golden-hued stone that gleamed in the setting sun. It would have been an inviting place to come home to, once. Now many of the windows were missing, with vines hanging down from the casements as if the fortress shed tears.
“If ever a building was haunted…”
Davs handed over a pack and edlak blanket, preparing to turn their mounts loose for the night. Well-trained edlak never wandered far. “It is. Haunted. But not every night and there’s nothing dangerous.”
“Good to know.” Zie followed him to the stairs of the most intact tower. It wouldn’t be his first haunting and sometimes ghosts knew odd things. He just needed the courage to speak to them.
Angel writes (mostly) Science Fiction and Fantasy centered around queer heroes. Currently living part time in the hectic sprawl of northern Delaware and full time inside her head, she has one husband, one son, two cats, a love of all things beautiful and a terrible addiction to the consumption of both knowledge and chocolate.