When Ke of clan Skita arrived, Essenin had just finished a second, absolutely glorious honeycake and a cup of singe-blossom tea, and was nearly feeling relaxed and comfortable. Ke’s thunderous expression turned the tea and cakes in their stomach into stones.
She was large for a sylvas, perhaps half a hand taller than Zie, with her sleeveless shirt emphasizing her broad shoulders and heavily-muscled arms. While not as old as Ulla Tzak, white streaked her black braids and time had carved lines around her eyes and mouth. An imposing figure under any circumstances, but she was also clearly furious.
Her initial shouted flurry of words were all directed at Ulla Tzak. Essenin didn’t catch much beyond a few shockingly rude phrases. Beside him, Rolli paled and looked like he was trying to shrink into the cushions.
Ulla Tzak bore the verbal assault without a single change of expression, calmly sipping her tea. Finally, she interrupted in trade language. “The perpetrator isn’t here, Ke. It sounds as if their identity is unknown. While I agree with you that whoever summoned the shaktz should be—” For a moment, she only spoke sharp sylvas words and Essenin could only imagine what horrors they described. “—but the reality of their coming to our shores isn’t served by eviscerating some idiot we can’t find.”
Ke paced, arms wrapped tight around her ribs. “Every sylvas is in peril once the shaktz stop following their prey. Once they kill the one that escaped them, they will hunt for more. We should begin the evacuation now.”
“And what would that do, besides delay them?” Ulla Tzak sipped at her tea, the sorrow in her eyes belying her apparent indifference. “They’ve already shown they can cross the sea.”
That stopped Ke’s pacing. “How is it that they are so clever? The passages naming them always describe them as mindless.”
Ulla Tzak shrugged. “It may have to do with the summoner. One that was too clever for their own good.”
“It’s possible. The instances of summoning are so few and so far in the past, there may well have been variations in characteristics.” Ke’s voice softened from sharp to rumbling. She was a scholar, it occurred to Essenin, and her mind had turned quickly to puzzle solving. “I need to speak to this tenacious young male who has managed to keep ahead of the monsters.”
“Zie will want desperately to meet with you,” Essenin offered, thinking it might be safe to intrude on the conversation. “He’s powerful and a mahk himself, but from what I understand, he had no older mahk to teach him. He’s felt so lost.”
Ke turned to address them directly for the first time. “A tragedy, when a young one has no guidance. How did they let this happen over there?”
“I couldn’t say.” Essenin shook their head regretfully. “Though I have the impression that relations between clans were more, ah, difficult back home than they seem to be here.”
Ke’s eyes narrowed and Essenin had an anxious moment thinking she would refuse. Then she shook her head and settled on the cushions near Ulla Tzak. “Maybe you should tell me, young selak, how you came to advocate for a fugitive mahk.”
Again Essenin told the story, more carefully this time, doing their best to recall everything Zie had said, all they had witnessed since meeting him. Ke kept her intense gaze mostly on the teapot, only lifting her attention to Essenin to stop them for a question or clarification here and there. A hard smile twitched at her lips when they reached the part where Zie had held the Shadows off on the beach and again when Zie led the monsters onto the shoals.
When the story finished, she remained silent and still. Essenin was about to ask the question, would she come with them, when she smacked her palms against her thighs. Rolli twitched and jerked back at the sound. Poor Rolls. Essenin hadn’t even considered how nervous he might become during a more detailed telling.
“A resourceful youngster, your Zie,” Ke said as she stood. “And brave despite himself, apparently, purposefully leading the shaktz away from sylvas lands. I’ll come with you, and we’ll hope that his cunning keeps him alive until we reach him.”
“Thank you,” Essenin barely breathed out the words, they were so relieved. “Thank you so much. Whenever you’re ready to go, I’ll take you there as quickly as I can.”
“A double handful of minutes, no more. Get your mount ready and I’ll join you at the threshold.” Ke strode off with purpose, hopefully to procure a mount of her own. Sidle wasn’t big enough to carry them both.
The threshold was apparently the line of white rocks that marked the entrance to the compound. Essenin waited for Ke there while Rolli fidgeted uncomfortably with Bramble’s harness.
“It was good to see you again,” Essenin said in an effort to break the painfully awkward silence.
“Ess…” Rolli fidgeted a bit more and finally blurted out, “I’m coming with you.”
“Um. The fuck you are.” Essenin patted the air with both hands, trying to soften their words. “It’s too dangerous. And there’s no reason for you to. Your first instinct was the right one, the one where you ride away in the other direction.”
“Right. I know. Cowards survive to face another day.” Rolli sighed. “But, Ess. Listen. You’re my…my friend if nothing else. It feels wrong deserting you. Besides, this all feels like it would make the best ballad. You need someone to write this down for your grandchildren.”
Bards. “Probably one of the dumbest reasons I’ve ever heard to risk your neck. But it’s your neck and you’re a grown person. It’s not as if I can forbid you to go.”
Rolli’s smile transformed the weary lines of his face, the years falling away and leaving Essenin with the impression of an excited puppy. “I won’t make you regret it, promise. I won’t get in the way or cause issues with Davs. This will be so thrilling. And scary. And thrillingly scary.”
Goddesses save me, but he really is an endearing idiot. Essenin could only hope that they weren’t leading this particular idiot to his death.
The sound of hoofbeats heralded Ke’s arrival on one of the biggest, shaggiest edlaks Essenin had ever seen, its black coat gleaming in the sun. “On your mounts. The shaktz may already be ahead of us.”
On that cheerful note, they rode back down the hill while Essenin tried his best not to imagine the terrible things that might have happened up ahead.
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.