Light flickered from the top of the hill overlooking the Vale for many hours, like a second sunset tucked under the arm of the mountain. There was a shrine up there, so the Ashlanders told Shizzal, but he was not allowed to go look at it, and they wouldn’t tell him who it was to. It was a few hours after sunset when the participants of the ritual came back down, walking as mere shadows in the night, for none of them had brought torches.
They filtered out into the camp, headed for their individual yurts. All except one, who paused on the lip of a bank just outside the encampment.
Shizzal had a feeling he knew who it was. He crept up behind him, and the Ashlander rounded while Shizzal was still a few yards away.
Drai stared at him for several long minutes. “Are you real?”
“Rather strange thing to ask, isn’t it?” Shizzal replied, more sharply than he meant to.
Drai didn’t answer, and turned back around.
Shizzal frowned at the Ashlander, then grinned at a thought. “Oh, I get it,” he said, coming to stand beside Drai. “You thought I was just part of one of your fits, didn’t you? A hallucination, or a ghost, maybe?”
Drai did not look at him, frowning slightly in anger. “Do not talk to me about that.”
“Come on, you already know I don’t mind.” Shizzal paused, as if the awkwardness of the situation was just beginning to sink in to him. “I’m real, mate. It’s just been–well, it’s been years, since we saw each other last.”
Drai turned to stare–glare?–at him. It was hard to tell in the dim light. Shizzal swallowed.
“Look, I don’t know if you’re glad to see me, but I’m helluva glad to see you. I thought that you had maybe–well, it’s been so long–“
“Much has changed among the Tengri,” Drai said abruptly, cutting him off. “Including me. Including you.”
“I realize that,” said Shizzal quickly. “But I thought not so much that we are no longer… I… Am I still clanfriend to you, Drai?”
It was out in the open now. Drai didn’t answer. There was a time either would have died for the other, back when they roamed the Ashlands together as part of the Tengri tribe. But as the Ashlander continued to stare at him without smiling, Shizzal realized that that time was more than over. It may as well never be coming back.
He took a deep breath and straightened himself. Drai was right, things HAD changed, and he was no longer the wet-behind-the-ears foreigner he had been. “I see,” he said coolly.
Drai looked away. “You should not be here. This place is a hotbed of murderous Mephalan cultists. The others do not know of your true faith, but I…do. They will kill you for it, Shizzal.”
“I can’t leave.” Shizzal said it frankly.
“Then you may be forced to recant it.” It was still there, in the worried glance Drai cast his way. Not all of their friendship had gone unremembered. But the glance came at the wrong time — and for the wrong reason, Shizzal thought.
“No. I’m not doing that.”
Drai’s eyebrow went up. Shizzal felt sick, and angry. He knew the Ashlanders and House Dunmer hated one another, but he no longer thought of it as a mystical spiritual reason beyond his understanding. Drai stood on one half of the divide, stubborn as an offended mule, and Shizzal struggled not to denounce him right then and there.
“The Tribunal are my life,” Shizzal said, very softly.
Drai’s eyes opened wide, then he closed them in pain, turning his face away. “Then I cannot protect you. I do not know what foolishness brings you here, outlander, but know I cannot help–“
“Oh, no, I wouldn’t want you to risk it,” Shizzal snapped. “Might ruin your chances to find a new tribe, would it? I get it. Yes, I get it! That is why you turned me away? I’m not a proper Ashlander to you anymore?”
Drai opened and closed his mouth, a range of emotions passing through his face. “That is not what I said.”
Shizzal turned away abruptly. He didn’t want Drai to see how his eyes were suddenly wet, was angry at himself he couldn’t be calm. This part of the camp had gone quiet, and Shizzal became aware of eyes watching. “I–I’m sorry.”
Drai didn’t answer. He rarely spoke, Shizzal was fast remembering. It would be easier if he did. Shizzal could deal with angry retorts. Silence was harder.
“I know you’re probably wondering why I took so long in getting back.” Shizzal began talking, grimacing at himself for how like the old days it was; him babbling and Drai taking it all in. “I don’t blame you for being angry with me. Truth is… after I took that year to stop being an oversensitive sod… I came back. The tribe had moved on… I found those who had stayed behind had been massacred.” He took a deep breath. It was in the past. “I couldn’t identify most of the bodies. I thought you were one of them.”
“It is not your fault,” said Drai. “Many times, we bring about our own misfortunes.”
“They were children, Drai. Children and innocents.”
“It is not your fault,” Drai repeated carefully. Shizzal looked around, found Drai struggling for words.
Shizzal smiled despite himself. “No. But I still feel bad about it.” He then turned a glare on Drai, crossing his arms. “I missed out on a good couple years of your self-pitying, for one thing.”
Drai stared at him, mouth open as if to retort…then he started laughing. The laughter continued so long Shizzal was a little worried the Ashlander had finally lost it, and took a step back. He was surprised when Drai shook his head, stepping forward to give Shizzal’s shoulder an awkward clap.
“I have missed you, outlander. You and your coarse ways… I am sorry for my distance. Things are very complicated now.”
“Oh, quit whining, you big baby. You sound like a woman with a bad ex.” Grinning to hide his irritation — and relief — Shizzal dragged the Ashlander into a hug, only letting go when the Ashlander sharply rebuked him for the contact. He crossed his arms again once Drai stepped back. “Alright, alright, I’m done being butthurt. Are you done?”
Drai chuckled dryly before sobering. “We need talk,” he said awkwardly in Tamrielic, a language common to other races but obscure among the Ashlanders, as Drai’s poor grammar showed. “Things you no understand. Dangerous to talk here.”
“Of course,” said Shizzal in the same language, regarding Drai curiously. “When?”
Drai looked over his shoulder at the camp. “I no tell. You keep eyes open.”
Shizzal nodded slowly, back to frowning.
Drai raised an eyebrow at him, as he reverted back to Dunmeris. “You speak Dunmeris much better now, I’ve noticed.”
“Well,” said Shizzal with a self-conscious shrug. “I’ve had a lot of time to practice. Sermons, you know.”
“Hush,” said Drai warningly, going still to listen. A few moments passed and he seemed not to hear anything, shaking his head. He lowered his voice. “Go. Walk back into camp. I have given you counsel on the House Dunmer’s false gods, if anyone asks. You are interested in Mephala.”
Shizzal nodded. “Mephala. Drai, what–“
“Do not ask me!” He switched to Tamrielic again as he gave Shizzal a shove. “Keep eyes open.”
“Eyes open,” Shizzal muttered. “Dear Three, why is it everywhere I go, Dunmer are embroiled in schemes…?”