Everyone in the room stared at Derrick for a moment while the open door let the wind and rain in; the fire flickered wildly against the wall.
Gabriella was the first to move; she grabbed her hunting knife from the table and as she reached for her sword on the wall, she asked, “Quickly, what kind of animal?”
Her words spurred everyone to jump to their feet. Rick hadn’t the slightest idea what he could do against any animal, much less the one Derrick was describing. Adrenaline started speeding up his heart rate out of pure fear for Elise, sending horrible images through his mind.
But Gabriella was hesitating, her brow furrowed, in the midst of everyone grabbing for weapons.
“What color is the beast?”
“Does it matter? A panther or something! Come on,” Derrick yelled as the door slammed into the wall again.
“What color!” Gabriella repeated urgently.
Gabriella’s expression changed to one of wonder as she paused, though Rick, too, wondered what the holdup was. He was of Derrick’s mind: if Elise was being attacked, act now, ask questions later!
Derrick stamped his foot impatiently.
“Well, let’s go! Come on!” Rick cried, snatching the bow hanging on the wall and the quiver.
“Derrick! It’s okay!” It was Elise.
Thank goodness! Rick breathed a sigh of relief. She ran through the rain and in through the gaping door, no blood or mauled extremities anywhere, Rick was glad to see.
“Move away from the door!” Gabriella commanded, a strange look on her face.
She’s lost control of her faculties, Rick thought. A wild animal outside? The door should be closed and locked, barricaded, cemented. Why isn’t she shutting the door? Did she kill it?
Then it walked in.
“Ohmygosh!” Fiona jumped behind Rick. A huge panther-like animal had walked in, leaving huge, muddy paw prints behind it, Rick noted crazily as he extended an arm to protect Fiona. Where could they go? Jump on the table, down to the other side, out the door, lock the thing in here....
“Well,” Gabriella spoke in a quiet tone.
And then the – it – bowed its head to Gabriella, slowly.
What was going on? Should he still make a run for it? A moment went by in silence, during which Rick marveled detachedly that the animal wasn’t pouncing on everyone and tearing them to pieces.
“Shut the door,” said Gabriella.
Rick cleared his throat hesitantly. Were they all falling under its mysterious hypnotic powers or something? Because if he was going to go near the door, he was going to dash out of it, not shut it….
“Go ahead, it’s okay,” she said softly.
Elise closed the door.
The panther-like animal, which Rick admitted was a gorgeous creature, was a zary’andu, explained Gabriella, that normally lives deep in the Sivincil Forest. They exhibited a great deal of kyor, mostly kyor’rishtan, as she understood it.
“Then why is he here, if his kind lives in the Sivincil Forest? Isn’t the Sivincil way up north?” asked Fiona.
“As I understand it,” Gabriella answered, looking at the great animal, who nodded gravely, “some of them often travel the land in search of knowledge. They are... scholars of a kind,” she spoke somewhat uncertainly and paused. Directing her next statement to Elise with rather a wondrous tone in her voice, she said, “And you now have a lifelong companion.”
Rick watched the astounded girl’s face change from surprise to puzzlement. He didn’t blame her - a lifelong companion? No way. That huge panther? It didn’t look quite like the faithful, bounding, happy golden retriever kind of companion. It – well, he – was at least as tall at the shoulder as Rick’s waist, with luminous amber eyes that regarded the present company with an alert passiveness. His thick, black, lustrous fur reflected the firelight off of him in shards of blue and silver. His long, powerful tail was at least five inches in diameter, with a life of its own. Rick confessed his awe of the creature. Rick’s Aunt Isabelle was fond of declaring that cats had a body language all their own and had insisted numerous times how a person could tell how a cat was feeling by watching its tail. Rick had a cat himself – Montezuma – a big, fat, tom who answered mainly to Fat Cat.... But he had better not think about that, homesickness had consumed him enough already.
Rick studied the animal – you couldn’t very well call him a cat – its ears weren’t rounded like a leopard’s or a panther’s, but pointed, like a lynx, or even a housecat, though there was no tuft of fur on the tip. What a magnificent beast!
“You should know that because so rarely are zary’andu witnessed, they are often considered legend, much like the Children of the Sea. They possess magical qualities that no human, Elf, or mira’setzu has ever determined the extent of and so, wherever you go, you will be looked upon with fear, awe, even reverence,” Gabriella informed Elise solemnly.
Elise, huddled within her blanket, finally found her voice.
“Why does he want – me – for a companion?”
“You might ask him that....” Gabriella broke off, for Elise seemed to have an answer.
“He says that after the fact, why is never important!”
“I would remind you of one thing: Never forget that he is not just a dumb beast. His and his kind’s intelligence far exceeds our own, even that of the mira’setzu. Very rarely do zary’andu attach themselves to any of the races. From the little I know,” Gabriella nodded at Fiaz in respect, “they do this when they perceive a great deal of, shall we say potential, in a person?”
The great cat – Rick found it difficult to think of Fiaz as anything else – actually nodded again. An animal nodding, without being trained to, was wondrous in itself. For that matter, it was difficult to think of him not as an animal, as Gabriella had suggested, but as an intelligent being on or beyond his own capacity of intelligence. How lucky Elise was!
“Did you see the size of that thing?” Rick exclaimed as he waited for Derrick to finish shaving.
“Hard to miss. Sarcastic, too. He’s a whole lot bigger when you think he’s attacking you,” Derrick grumped as he shaved his neck. Derrick was the same age as he was, but he sported ten times as much facial hair, Rick observed with admiration.
And of course, Derrick had a right to be cranky, thought Rick; Derrick had been outside in a storm for two days and a night, chained to the person he disliked most, with no idea of where he was.... Rick supposed that he himself wouldn’t be in a deliriously joyous mood if he had to tramp around in wet clothes for two days in those circumstances.
“So, uh, how’d it go? With Elise?” Rick inquired.
Derrick snorted. “How else?”
“Bad?” Rick had been dying to ask Derrick all night, but considering that attention hadn’t quite been riveted on Derrick tonight....
“Could’ve been a lot better,” Derrick muttered, cleaning off the tiny blade.
“Well, something went right – you lost your chain,” Rick pointed to the slightly raw place where the chain had been.
“Yeah, we just shut up and thought about everything else but each other. Until what’s-his-name out there showed up,” Derrick snorted again. “Potential,” he sniffed. “Potential to be a pain in the ass,” he finished as he made another slow swipe up his whiskered face with the knife.
-- Ahem? -- said a voice in Rick’s head, making him jump, startled; he saw Derrick jump, too, nicking his chin.
“Ow! Dammit!” yelled Derrick as the knife clattered on the small table.
Amazed at both what was unmistakably Fiaz’s voice in his mind and Derrick’s unusual explosion, Rick murmured, “That was him, wasn’t it....”
“Who else!” Derrick banged the door open to the small vanity room open and yelled out, “Don’t you know three’s a company! It’d be real nice to have a few private thoughts without an audience every now and then!”
Rick looked apologetically out at the girls and Andrew. Gabriella had raised an eyebrow, Fiona’s mouth had dropped in astonishment and Andrew’s eyes had widened. Even Elise was surprised at this outburst. Rick chose that moment to exit the small vanity room to leave Derrick alone with his temper. He could shave later.
“What was that all about?” whispered Andrew as Rick sat down on his bundle of blankets. Of course they were curious; they hadn’t heard Fiaz’s voice say in their minds.
“Uhm....” Unsure of how to proceed, Rick turned his attention to Fiaz lying by the fire, seemingly oblivious, his tail twitching slightly. His great head swung around to regard Rick casually with his mesmerizing amber gaze. Rick took in a deep breath and mustered as much courage as he could. This huge animal could bite his head off with one bite. Looking at Fiaz directly, Rick said respectfully,
“Well, I think you upset him.”
Rich laughter rumbled in Rick’s head.