The old fortress wasn’t across a continent, but even the short distance felt too far for Essenin. They pushed the edlaks to the fastest pace they could safely maintain. It would be both stupid and cruel to ask for more just to gain an hour or two. Still, every nerve in Essenin’s body screamed that they would arrive too late.
During an uphill climb where they needed to walk the edlaks, Ke pulled up to ride beside Essenin. “Where are they, that they feel is safe to stop?”
“There’s a lake about a day and a half’s ride away still. Deep water. Would take maybe two hours to row across.” Essenin shifted in their saddle to help Sidle with the incline. “In the middle, there’s an island with an old ruined fortress.”
“Wonderful,” Ke muttered. “They’ve gone to ground at Haiernas. Between the ghosts and the ruins, I’d hardly call that safe.”
Essenin shrugged. “We’ve camped there before. Some parts are more stable than others and the occasional ghost didn’t bother us.”
Ke shot them a look that could only have been called judgmental. “Oh, to be spirit blind. Haiernas Keep retains all the violence and fear of its ruin. There are far more than occasional ghosts.”
“You know the history, then?” Essenin tried to keep their voice light, but a chill stole over their heart. If a mahk was more sensitive to spirits, what had they sent Zie into? How bad would this be for him?
“Your bard would most likely know more.” Ke nodded to Rolli, who had dismounted to lead his stubborn, balking edlak up the slope. “It was before any sylvas stepped foot on Cau Senis shores. Before the imperium put an end to local feuds and land wars.”
“But still, you know what happened.”
“The barest bones of the story.” She stopped her sturdy edlak at the top of the rise to wait for Rolli. “A warlord had been rolling through the old lord’s lands in that area. One vassal after another forced to surrender. One stronghold after another besieged and conquered. From what I’ve heard, the aging lord retreated to his last reliable vassal at Haiernas.”
Essenin cringed. “Which doomed them.”
“You’re a quick one.” Ke snorted. “Yes. They say the siege lasted three years, though that’s probably a storyteller’s exaggeration.”
“We never exaggerate.” Rolli said in his driest tone as he climbed back onto Bramble’s back. “The ballads say three years. Historical documents say maybe eight months. Still horrible.”
“Oh, so you know about this fortress, too?” Essenin huffed. “You could’ve said.”
“One, you didn’t ask. And two, I thought you knew.”
Ke flapped a hand at him. “You finish the tale then, bard. Since all I have is pieces.”
“My pleasure.” Rolli pulled his sewa around and started tuning it.
Essenin hurried to stop him. “Ah. No, Rolls. No ballads, please. Just tell me. Briefly. As close to the facts as you can.”
“Fine.” Rolli shot him a quick glare, then slumped in the saddle. “The quick, boring version is that the mistress of Haiernas sent most of her ishai out to get help from neighboring allies. They never came back. The siege went on too long and the defenses failed. Lots of slaughter and so on. The place has been deserted ever since because it’s too eerie to live there with the ghosts.”
“Wonderful. Just perfect.” The anxious knot in Essenin’s stomach decided it was a mass of snakes instead. “Now Zie, who has been a bundle of traumatized nerves since we met him, will have the extra horror of camping in the middle of a ghost siege.”
“Eh, you didn’t know.” Ke urged her edlak to a faster pace again. “The island is the best defensible place against these Shadows. It will give me time to get to the bottom of what happened in the north.”
They veered onto the main road again that evening and spent the night out under the stars. The mild early summer weather made it no hardship, but Essenin had sunk too far into worry that they didn’t sleep beyond a few minutes anxious dreaming here and there. They finally got up in the hour before dawn after a dream of Davitts and Zie being ripped apart while the Shadows laughed.
Essenin needed the whole hour, with the sky turning from deep blue to rose gold, in order to calm their racing heart, the dream had been that vivid, that real.
They’re both fine. You’ll get there and swim the edlaks to the island and the most that may have happened is that Zie kicked Davs for snoring too loud.
Still, once they broke camp and were back on the road, Essenin urged them to a swifter pace. They were closer now and something in Essenin’s gut told them reaching the lake by nightfall was crucial. Fretting when the edlaks had to walk and snapping at their travel companions didn’t help a thing, but every mile it was harder to stay level-headed and patient.
Finally, as the sun was setting, they rode around the turn that showed them the lake glittering in the valley below. Essenin kicked Sidle into a gallop, bent low across her neck. Soon the island came into sight—the island, the watchtower. Oh gods.
Essenin reined in so abruptly that Sidle reared and nearly threw him.
“What is it?” Ke called out as she caught up to him.
They pointed to the bright flames atop the tower, the signal they’d arranged with Davs. “We’re too late. The Shadows are already here.”
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.