Chapter 1: Entry Into Xadia
Callum didn't know why Rayla was so fearful of Sol Regem, beyond the fact that he was a big scary dragon, but Callum didn't really want to stick around to find out. He reached forwards and grabbed at her arm. Maybe the dragon hadn't seen them yet, even with his great head and arched horns nearly blocked out the sun. "Rayla, what should we do?"
"I don't know," she admitted in a whisper, glancing back at Callum in the corner of her eye. "He wasn't supposed to be here, I—" Her eyes darted back to the dragon, the new rays of dawn cutting an outline around his form. "Give me Zym," she said suddenly, turning fully around, and Callum passed over the baby dragon without question.
Or, nearly, until she started walking towards Sol Regem with Zym held outstretched like an offering.
He watched as Sol Regem bowed his mighty head, eyes like molten lava as he inspected Azymondias, who chirped happily. "Please please please—" Rayla muttered under her breath. Her knees began to shake as Sol Regem gave a great sniff, and then he shook and raised his head and shifted his weight aside from the path stretching out before them.
Rayla held Zym in one arm and walked back and took Callum's hand with the other. "Come on. He won't hurt us."
"Er—" Callum let her tug him along, surprised she hadn't let go yet. "Was he going to?"
"He had to check Zym's scent, and that he was the Dragon Prince and Heir of the Sky. Storm dragons have very distinctive smells," she explained. "As for hurting us—" Sol Regem growled as they passed, and Callum tried not to leap out of his skin. "Well, he wanted to hurt you. Humans are hated even more in Xadia than elves are in the Pentarchy."
Rayla let go of his hand once they passed the bend where Sol Regem lay, but Callum felt the dragon's eyes on him still and wished she hadn't let go. "Great," he said dryly, to try and coax some normalcy into making his heart rate slow down.
"Hey, you'll be alright," she said. "You're with me. And Zym will vouch for you too." She let go of the baby dragon, and he flew the short distance to settle in Callum's arms and lick his face. Rayla giggled. "See?"
Callum wrinkled his nose as Zym's tongue sent a light zap against his skin, but managed a smile anyway. "Alright, fine." He looked around at the rocky, cavernous walls surrounding them. "So, we're in Xadia. Now what?"
"Now we go to the Dragon Queen, assuming we can get an audience with her. We should be able to, with…" She glanced back at Zym. "It might just take a while."
"How long is 'a while'?"
"At least a few more weeks to get to the palace," Rayla considered aloud. "Maybe a month. Xadia is a denser land than a single human kingdom. Plus, the land likes to play tricks, sometimes."
Callum stopped on top of the large rock he was stepping over. "Tricks?"
"You know," Rayla shrugged, "a swamp that's just pretending to be a swamp, a river that goes in a circle so you end up back where you started. Stuff like that. Luckily, you're travelling with an Xadian expert: me."
Callum stepped down to stand beside her and raised his eyebrows. "So you know exactly where we're going from here?"
Rayla's big grin flickered. "Well, Lunas was our main navigator, but we all know how. I know how to follow the rivers that aren't circles. We need to find the Bellvern River which should be only a day or two from here, and almost directly out of these canyons." She smirked back at him, confidence raising her tone. "Is that expert enough for you, doubty prince?"
Callum rolled his eyes but smiled as they started walking again. "Blame me for not wanting to get lost."
"We won't," she said, and closed her eyes as she walked. It was nice to feel the sun in her face. Even nicer to finally being in Xadia, even if it was only with one prince instead of two. "Besides," she said, reopening them, "if I had to get lost with someone, I wouldn't mind if it was you."
Callum's smile softened. "Even if it takes longer to get Zym back to his mom?"
"What's a day or two between friends?"
"I guess." His smile faded. "Especially since she doesn't even know Zym's coming back to her."
Rayla placed a hand on his shoulder. "She doesn't know now," she said, "but think about how happy she'll be once we finally bring him back. And how happy you'll be," she said, shifting her focus to Zym, "once you're with your family again." He tilted his head at her, but let out a happy chirp regardless.
"Yeah," said Callum, and his eyes grew slightly cloudy. "It'll be nice."
Rayla squeezed his shoulder. "You'll be back in Katolis with Ezran soon enough. That's a promise."
"I know," he said, and her eyes turned too bright. "It's just… I've never been apart from Ezran since the day he was born. And now… he's the only family I have left."
"I know," Rayla said quietly. "But you're not alone."
He smiled. "I know. It may just be the two of us now but… we're still in this together."
Rayla smiled back, even if she couldn't quite meet his eyes as she tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "So," she said, holding her hands behind her back as her gaze drifted forward. "I thought we'd make it to the first collection of caves before we take a break and rest?"
"We could use some rest," Callum admitted, looking at Zym. "Right, buddy?" Zym's eyelids were drooping as he rested his chin on Callum's shoulder.
"Now come on," she said, and strode forward. "We're burning daylight."
They got out of the canyons after another two days of walking, and Callum had never been so glad to see grass again. He'd felt constantly at loss in the canyons, all the rocks and mountains looking so similar he would've gotten lost if it hadn't been for Rayla (a lot of things wouldn't have been without for Rayla, when he thought about it). He took the drawings he'd done of Claudia in the past as firewood kindling when Zym lit their fires in the evenings, illuminating caves full of ancient art and magic runes on the walls, but Rayla couldn't translate it.
"This is mostly Sunfire elf territory," she'd said. "I only know a little of their language."
He'd thought of his new idea to pass the time, in the following morning when they passed into a dewey, yellowed meadow, the canyons still looming behind them. "Teach me some of yours?"
Rayla stopped running her fingers over the tall grass tips—it seemed she still hadn't gotten over having both of her hands back—and looked back at him. "You… want to learn my people's language?"
"Well, yeah." Callum rubbed the back of his neck as Zym chased a nearby moonmoth. "Why not, right? Unless it's like, sacred, or you're not allowed to teach an—"
Rayla smiled at him. "I would love to teach you," she cut him off. "Mostly because your pronunciation is going to be terribly hilarious at first."
"And some more draconic?" he added hopefully.
She rolled her eyes, her smile never straying from her face. "Yes Callum, I'll teach you whatever draconic words I remember for sky magic. Anything else?"
"Yeah." Rayla looked really nice surrounded by yellow, he realized. It was too bad he didn't have any paints for when he drew her next. He didn't say that though, and instead said, "Thank you," although it was no less at the forefront of his mind. She smiled, the slight flush in her cheeks looking far too similar to the setting sun.
"Don't thank me yet," she said fondly, moving across the meadow again, and he followed.
"So," he said, jogging to catch up with her when Zym settled on her shoulder. "If this is Sunfire territory, than where do Moonshadow elves live?"
Rayla wrinkled her nose at him. "We don't have territories the way you humans do. We have certain areas where larger groups of one kind of elf lives, but none of Xadia is divided. We are free to travel anywhere we want and receive hospitality. The closest we have are the Archdragons, each one looking after the type of elves they belong to. Sol Regem looks after the Sunfire elves. Sol Stella looks after my people."
"And...the Dragon Queen?"
"The royal family looks after all of us. Since, you know, we all share the same sky."
Callum sidled up to her. "So," he drawled, "does that mean like, in magic, I outrank you?"
Rayla shoved him in the shoulder. "No, dummy. All magics are created equal. And you're an unspecified mage. You don't have a craft. I'm an assassin—technically. I'm higher up than you."
"Yes, well, you're a very good assassin." Rayla shot him a look and he held up his hands. "Hey, I mean it. Like I wrote in my letter. You're fast and resourceful and good at slish-slashing. You'll make an amazing assassin. Even if, uh, I would prefer it if you didn't kill people."
They walked out of the meadow and to the first forest, dense with trees that seemed just vaguely otherworldly. That must've been what Rayla had meant, when she had said that magic in Xadia was just part of nature.
"I don't know if I want to be an assassin anymore," Rayla confessed, kicking at a pebble.
"Oh. Well that's okay."
It didn't lift her spirits like he'd hoped. "I mean, even if I could kill people," she said, and swallowed, "and I don't know that I could, but—I nearly took your life because I thought it was justified. But I know now that it wasn't. Even if we hadn't found the dragon egg. I never want to follow orders like that again."
"Hey, hey—" Callum took her by the shoulders and made her face him. "You are not a bad person. None of your group is. I mean, yeah they—they killed my stepdad, but… That's why we're taking Zym to his mother, right? To stop good people from making bad decisions. And once that's done, you can be anything you want. The Dragon Queen's gonna be so grateful for you bringing home her son, she's gonna help you become one of the best elfs ever, at whatever you wanna do, and you'll be amazing at it. I know you will."
Rayla smiled slightly. "Thanks, Callum. I guess… I don't know, it's scary when you've been spending your whole life trying to become one thing, and then you find out that maybe you wanna be something else, but you don't know what that is, you know?"
"You mean, my life ever since you called me a mage? Yeah, I know." He squeezed her shoulders and then let go. "You feel better?"
Her smile softened. "Yeah. Thank you."
"Good." He glanced over her shoulder. "Because I'm pretty sure Zym shouldn't be eating that."
Rayla rushed over and scooped him up and away from the yellow, lopsided looking mushrooms near the base of the tree. "Oh, yeah," she agreed, as she and Callum stepped away from it. "Those things are only good for custard, and upset the stomach for anything else." Zym let out an indignant whine, and Rayla chuckled. "We'll get you better food someday, little one." Her face scrunched up when Zym licked her cheek, static tingling across her skin.
"Maybe we can find some sunberries in the forest?" Callum suggested.
Rayla smirked at him. "They're called sunrayberries, but yes."
"Excuse me, Miss Moonberry juice."
She rolled her eyes and when they stumbled across a patch of sunrayberries—small but juicy, and bright orange—near a clearing, she helped him pile them into her jar and stowed it away in his knapsack for safekeeping. "They should keep our energy up in the morning," she said, setting the flap back over the top.
"Do elves always eat so little actual food?" he asked. He couldn't remember ever seeing her having more than a quick meal here and there, mostly relying on juice from moonberry brushes that still grew in Katolis, despite everything.
"Only when we're travelling. Keeps our packs light. Just wait. Once we reach our first elven settlement, you'll get to eat some real food."
He perked up. "How far is the first elven town, anyway?"
"It's a city, and a few days down the river. It's called Eyholin. It keeps most of our records of history." She smiled and gestured encouragingly with her hand. "Go on. Try and pronounce it."
"Eyholin. A-i-olin. The h sound is pretty much silent."
"There's an h in it?"
Rayla snorted. "You pronounced it. C'mon, let's go. We want to reach the river before nightfall, don't we?"
"Alright." Callum took a berry and popped it into his mouth. It had a tangy taste, not unlike how an orange tasted back home. "Let's go."
Rayla didn't know how they had progressed from preparing sunrayberry juice to throwing berries at each other and catching them in their mouths, but she found she didn't truly care. She hadn't laughed this hard in a while, and Callum's aim was just so terrible.
She wiped tears of mirth from her eyes. "You really have awful hand-eye coordination, don't you? Even with your extra fingers."
"It's not like a pinky finger does much," Callum said, but she knew he wasn't truly annoyed. His eyes were too alight. "Other than pinky promises, I guess." He popped a berry into his mouth.
"You know. The most sacred pact between humans," he said loftily, and Rayla snorted.
"It's mostly a promise that little kids make, y'know. We'll be friends forever, or always share the last jelly tart, things like that."
"I'm pretty sure I can promise both of those things without a pinky."
"I dunno, just something about the action of it, I guess." Callum held out his pinky. "And you could try, anyway?"
Rayla looked at her fingers, then back at his, his tiny extra finger held up while the others curled into his palm. She tried to replicate it with her own fingers, her thumb and two middles curling into her palm as she left her fourth finger sticking out. "Now what?"
"Now you just—" He hooked his finger around hers. She did the same, and he jerked his pinky slightly against hers, somehow. "There. Pinky promise, for whatever you want it to be."
"Um, that you'll always listen to me because I'm always right?"
"Fine." Her smirk softened. "I didn't mind the sound of that friends forever, one."
He gently squeezed her finger with his pinky. "Alright then. Friends forever."
Her cheeks were warm and her little finger was still tingling even after she pulled away. "Humans are weird," she said with a snort. "But that was nice."
"Yeah, you too."
Rayla looked over at where Zym had curled up close to the fire, fast asleep. "We should probably follow his example," she said. "Get some rest."
"Alright." It hit him how quiet it was just then, without his little brother to tuck in. It really was just him and Rayla, now. Although Ezran's absence still stung sharply, it wasn't as upsetting a thought as Callum had thought it would be. At least he wasn't alone. At least he could look over and see Rayla curled up beside him, and Zym near the fire.
He curled into his sleeping bag. He hoped Ez was warm and safe wherever he was, too.
When Callum woke up, Rayla was gone. He bolted up, ignoring the ache in the back of his head as he wrestled with the sleeping bag. He ran out the cave as soon as he was on his feet, just barely remembering to make note of where Zym was; he was still snoozing beside the fire, thank goodness. The sky was pink and the sun had just barely risen, the trees around them barren and—where was she, dammit? She wouldn't leave him. Maybe she'd gone out to get more berries, but no, they already had some. Maybe she'd heard a noise and gone to investigate on her own, and gotten hurt? Or—
He startled and nearly buckled with relief all at once, having to brace himself to keep from falling over as he wheeled around to look at her. "Don't sneak up on me like that," he managed, massaging his chest with one hand.
"Sorry." She didn't look it though, although her usual coy smile faded when she caught a longer look at his face. "Is everything alright?"
"Fine," he said a little too brightly. "Just—where were you?"
"Uh, I do have to go to the bathroom sometimes, y'know?"
Oh, he was an idiot. "Right! Right, yeah, that—that's a reason that any reasonable person would figure out, which I totally did."
Rayla arched her eyebrows and placed a hand on her hip. "Callum. Were you worried?"
"I—" He sighed and his shoulders slumped. "Yes, fine. I just didn't know where you'd gone, and we're—we're not in Katolis anymore, and—"
"I'm sorry," she said, more sincere this time. She rested a hand on his shoulder. "I didn't want to wake you, but I realize how that could be scary. It's just us out here now, and...I would've been worried too. Any idea of how to fix that?"
"I guess… We could leave a page in my notebook for things like this? Like if one of us has just left to get food or something. Although," he said, a tad more sternly, "if you hear a noise or think something dangerous might be around, you have to wake me up, okay? I don't want you handling it alone."
She rolled her eyes. "Callum, I'm more than capable of—"
"I know you are," he said, his brows knitted together. "But imagine how I would feel if something terrible happened to you, and I didn't know about it for hours. What if you get hurt and can't make your way back?"
Rayla's expression softened. "Okay." She poked him in the chest. "You can't whine about being woken up early if it ends up being nothing, though."
"Don't worry. I'll find plenty of other things to whine about," he said dryly.
"I'm sure you will," she smirked, before thumping him firmly on the back. "Come on," she said with a sudden burst of energy, "might as well get an early start while we're both up."
"Can I, uh," heat spread over his face, "I actually have to go to the bathroom."
Rayla pinched the bridge of her nose. "Fine, go and find your bush. I'll get Zym fed."
"Thank you," he managed quickly before scurrying away.
It was going to be a long trip to the Dragon Queen, but at least they found Bellvern River the following afternoon.
Chapter 2: Eyholin
to everyone who pointed out about 'sol' meaning sun, thank you. it was an oversight on our part but because elf/draconic language can be... whatever, really, we're likely going to keep it and have it mean firelord when rayla gives callum a language lesson, or something (since as far as we know, regardless of type, all dragons breathe fire)
Eyholin was bigger than Callum had expected. Rayla had said it was a city, but Callum hadn't expected it to be like, a city. It was almost like one he might have seen in Katolis, but more vibrant, and harder to tell where buildings ended and where nature began. It was as if the roots of trees and the grass and the earth had aided elven hands in building it, the domed houses teeming with life, almost seeming to breathe. Sunlight streamed in through the grand arched spaces where tree leaves had been clipped away to from the canopy, mirroring the path of the sun all along the city. Glistening silver waterfalls poured off the tallest roofs and the marketplace swarmed with life.
Callum fiddled with the clasp of the cloak he was wearing. He'd borrowed Rayla's and put the hood up over his head, but he wasn't sure how well that would hide that he didn't have any horns. He just hoped that everyone would be too busy with their own business to notice them, and that, as amazing and magical as Eyholin was, they wouldn't stay any longer than they had to. He hid his hands in his pockets, glancing at Zym in his knapsack every few seconds—Rayla had offered to take the first turn carrying him, the straps set over her shoulders.
"So," she said, looking around and clearly happy to be back amongst her people, "which food do you want to try first?"
He smiled slightly. "What would you recommend?"
"Would you like some actual pancakes not made with Dark Magic?"
"Yeah. That sounds nice."
They stopped near one of the food stands and Rayla stepped up to the counter, a slight spring in her step. "Two plates of pancakes, please." She took out a bottle of berries and set it on the counter.
The Sunfire elf behind the counter smiled and made the exchange, and Rayla brought the two small grass-woven plates of pancakes back to Callum, along with silver forks and knives.
He took one and turned over the silver fork in his hand. "You use silver throwaway utensils?"
"Uh, yeah?" Rayla said, smiling confusingly at him. "They disintegrate back into the Earth real easy, and it's not like they're gold, or not made by the best smiths in the world."
"But they're silver, you can't just throw them out—"
Rayla scrunched up her face at him. "Callum. You're in Xadia, now, remember?"
"Y-yeah, just…" Callum stared at the fork. "So I can't keep this and bring it back to Katolis?" Rayla shot him a look and he held his hands up. "Fine, just asking."
"I mean, you could, but you'd look pretty stupid."
"Don't I always?" he said wryly.
"No, dummy." She nudged him. "Most of the time, you're pretty smart."
He brightened. "Thanks. Now let's eat, before our pancakes get cold."
"They're actually not gonna get cold that quickly, but sure," Rayla said cheerfully.
"They were made with magic?"
"Nah, just flour and sugar and milk. But Sunfire elves usually have some spell to keep food warmer once everything's cooked, and use hotter fires than most."
Callum nodded, and then looked around. There were a few benches and small tables with chairs set up along the market. "So, should we sit somewhere?"
"I've been to Eyholin once," Rayla said. "There's one place that's really nice, but it's about twenty minutes ago from here. If you're alright with eating while we walk?"
Callum slipped a piece to Zym, the tip of his beak brushing Callum's fingers as he nabbed it. "Let's go."
The fountain was beautiful. The water itself seemed to glow, as if it had been mixed with particles of starlight. Warmth emanated from the fountain as they sat at its rim. It was perfectly round and smooth, almost like marble, but far more alive, somehow.
Rayla made sure to watch Callum's face once he saw it, his mouth parting in a small 'O' shape. "Wow…"
"It's one of the oldest pieces of artwork from the Sunfire elves," she said. "No one knows how long it's been here. We call it the Fountain of Truth."
"Wait, so...if you drink from it…?"
"Little kids put their fingers in it all the time, so I wouldn't," she teased. "It's just a name. But legend says the water was used to reveal truth, long ago. If ever was true, its magic has probably depleted by now. But it's still beautiful."
Callum glanced away from the mirror to the ground. "So… magic can leave? It's not eternal?"
"It's a part of nature," she said. "Of course it can leave, and ebb and flow with the land. Sometimes it's permanent, like in charms, but when it's left to its own devices, it's just like any other kind of energy. It goes, and settles in something else for a while, till the land needs it elsewhere." She watched him for a second longer, and added, "Each individual's connection to their own primal source doesn't do the same, however."
He let out a quiet sigh. "Okay. That's...that's good to know."
Rayla shook her head at him. "I can't believe," she said, "that you are the first human to ever connect to a primal source all on their own, and you still don't think that you're something extraordinary, Callum. With or without the magic."
Callum looked up at her. "You don't get it, Rayla. You've always been amazing, at fighting, and climbing, and stuff like that. All I've ever been good at is art, and then… magic. And you're right: I am human, so while I've connected to my arcanum for now, what if…"
"Your art is beautiful," Rayla said, "and you're more than a mage, Callum. You're my friend." She sighed, smiling, and took him by the shoulders. "And if you're really so worried about being useless, I'll teach you how to fight."
He smiled weakly. "I wasn't a very good sword fighting student," he said.
"Wasn't your teacher that one human, Soren?"
Rayla snorted. "No wonder you were terrible. He's an idiot. Good, at swordfighting, but with no idea how to instruct. At least not in a way that would get through to you."
Callum crossed his arms over his chest. "You really think so?"
Rayla let go of his shoulders. "Let me guess: he told you a sword is an extension of your body?"
"Well, uh, yeah."
"But you're not very coordinated. So how was that metaphor going to be helpful?"
"I guess it wasn't."
"You're good at art," she reiterated. "So next time we make camp I'll give you one of my swords, and we'll treat it like a much bigger, very pointy pencil, okay?"
His smile grew. "Okay." They sat down by the fountain, and Callum looked below the water. It looked like… flower petals were at the bottom? "Uh, what are those for?" he asked, pointing.
"Those?" Rayla followed his gaze. "Oh. It's just a silly superstition. Lovers take a petal off and throw it in, wishing for their beloved to always be true, or to truly love them, stuff like that."
"Huh." His face felt strangely hot, all of a sudden. Was this fountain a romantic spot in the city? No, that couldn't be. And even if it was, that wasn't why Rayla had brought him here. It was cool and she wanted to show it off, and it was a nice, quieter place to eat their pancakes than the main market. He cleared his throat. "Humans do something similar with coins, but we just make wishes, for anything really."
"You humans and your money."
He laughed and looked up at her. "Hey! You're all obsessed with berry juice."
Rayla giggled and tapped her horns. "Don't forget horn accessories. All the fashionable elves have them."
Callum studied her. "Why don't you have any?"
Her face fell. "My parents… They were finally going to leave the Dragon Guard for a few days. I've only met them a few times, and… Runaan said it was good. I was coming of age. But then the Dragon King fell, and… there were more important things."
"Oh Rayla, I'm sorry."
"It's okay." She smiled a little. "I'm sorry I said I wish they were dead. I—they're still cowards, but—now that both of your parents are—"
Callum reached over and put his hand on her shoulder. "It's okay. You don't have to apologize for how you feel."
"It was insensitive."
"Well if you're going to feel bad, I might as well tell you it's not just both of my parents. It's all three."
"Oh. Right, your…" She looked up at him. "Did...did you know him?"
"My birth dad? A little. Apparently he was an artist too. Of lower rank than my mom, but that didn't matter where they grew up. When he passed away I was a toddler, and we moved to Katolis. She worked as a warrior for my stepdad, and he took a shining to her, and…" He shrugged. "Least I got to know my mom. Ez doesn't remember anything."
"I'm still sorry," she whispered.
Callum smiled sadly. "Thank you."
She squeezed his shoulder, and then slowly pulled away. "You know, we don't have to camp out in a cave tonight. We could walk to the edge of the city in the direction we need to go, and stay in an inn?"
His face lit up—another real bed, like the one at Lujanne's—but he frowned. "Are you sure it'll be safe, with uh, these?" He raised his hands and wiggled his pinky fingers at her.
"I think they'll be more distracted by this," Rayla said, holding up the knapsack. Zym was snoring quietly inside it. "But… it would be nice to sleep somewhere warm before we have to go back to caves, wouldn't it?"
"You think an elven inn would let our scaly little friend slide?"
"They can't exactly refuse a room to the Dragon Prince and his two escorts, can they? We might even be able to get someone to send a message to the queen, see if we can confirm an audience with her sooner."
"That would be good," Callum considered. "Although—you sure more experienced, higher up elves wouldn't take Zym away from us?"
Rayla shook her head. "They might come along with us, but they can't send you away. It's like I said: a human prince from Katolis taking the Dragon Prince back to his mother is the gesture that matters."
"And…" Callum's brow furrowed. "They wouldn't send you home?"
Rayla's expression grew more serious. "They could try," she said. "But you would still need someone to guide you through Xadia, someone you know. Someone you trust. So you won't be getting rid of me that easy." She smiled slightly.
He didn't lighten up. "I'm not letting anyone separate us. Not after everything."
"They won't. I promise, I'm not going anywhere."
Finally, he smiled. "Good, cause I don't want you to. It might just be the two, er—" He cast an eye over at his bag, where Zym was sleeping inside. "—three of us, but we're still in this together, and I'll always mean that."
Maybe it was just the lighting, but her face seemed to glow with a light pink. "Good."
"Is there anything else you wanna show me in Eyholin before we find an inn?" he asked.
Rayla grinned, her eyes crinkling. "Just one more thing."
The museum was smaller than he'd seen before, but still more than he could have ever dreamed of, as he stepped into a building that seemed to be made of that same shining stone as the fountain. The actual artwork inside however, was something else entirely, vibrant as the rest of Eyholin and brimming with magic. Fire spells had been cast amid displays of stain glass so that they were always illuminated with light; there were sculptures so finely crafted it could have only been with earth or ocean magic to wear away the stone; there were moving sculptures of water, stretched thin and sheen, manipulated by an unseen wind made by a Sky elf, maybe; there were paintings that seemed to be made entirely out of tiny pinpricks of light and stone, paintings with colours that were just a little too bright, or diluted but still clear, to have been made with ordinary paint; there were elaborate star charts that spanned ceilings above their heads.
Callum nearly bumped into Rayla as his eyes followed a glimmering constellation, but she just smiled, steadying him. "Thoughts?" she asked, her eyes twinkling.
Callum nodded faintly. "It's amazing," he breathed. "Are there other museums like this?"
"Here and there," she said. "Are there museums in Katolis?"
He nodded again, coming back to himself as they left the star chamber behind. "Yeah, I have pictures of them in my sketchbook, but… none like this."
"Can I see them anyway?"
"Once we're at the inn, yeah." They slowed near a painting of a young elf; she was smiling softly, almost seeming to breathe. The elf didn't have any markings, and small horns. "Do you know how they make paint here?"
"No," Rayla said, amusement colouring her tone, "but I'm sure we could pick some up along the way. This painting is one of a kind, anyway. I'm surprised they're showing it."
"Really?" There was nothing wrong with the painting, as far as he could see. It was beautiful. "Why?"
Rayla turned away. "It's a positive depiction of a Halfling."
Callum blinked. "Halfling?"
"Half elf, half human."
His eyes widened, and he looked back at the painting. Now that he looked a bit closer, one of her eyes was distinctively elven, coloured gold, the other a clear but human blue. "Wait, they…? That exists?"
"They're very rare, but yes. Elf-human unions are probably even more frowned upon here, but they do exist, or they used to. Halflings usually go into hiding, or try to disguise themselves to look like full elfs. This painting is old, though. Painted before the Exodus of humans from Xadia. There used to be more then, and they were welcomed." Rayla tucked her hair behind her ears. "Some people even think that Halflings are how humans became connected to primal sources at all, Halflings marrying full humans and so on so the magic was passed down."
"Wow." Shock and glee passed over his face as he looked at her. "So I could have some great-great-great uncle or aunt that was an elf?"
"It's possible," she shrugged.
Rayla rolled her eyes and reached over to make sure his hood stayed on top of his hornless head. "Shall we continue?"
Callum nodded. "Yes. That—that sounds great." He gave her a wide smile. "Thanks for showing me all of this, Rayla."
"Of course." She let go of his hood and they started walking again. The next room was full of small, ever flowing waterfalls. "It's nice to see you excited about something."
"It's been awhile," he admitted. He was quiet for a moment, then added, "I don't think I've ever been so excited about something, actually."
"Yeah. I mean, this is art and magic combined. What's not to be excited about? Maybe, even…" His brow furrowed slightly, even as he smiled. "Once the war is over, I could make things like this."
Rayla smiled softly, placing a hand on his shoulder. "The world will need more beautiful things in it," she said. "Especially in the aftermath of a war. Maybe magic artistry could be what you end up specializing in."
Callum was beaming. "Maybe," he said, even if he'd already more than halfway made up his mind about it. Maybe after helping Ezran in Katolis for a while, he could travel through Xadia, painting portraits of whatever struck him along the way. Maybe he could travel with Rayla, if she still wanted him around when they were older. He looked over at her, trying to imagine the changing of her features in a few years' time. He looked away before she could catch him staring, though, instead asking, "What do you want to do after the war?"
Rayla was quiet for a moment. "I don't know," she said, slipping her hands into her pockets. "Maybe go back home for a little while, just to check on everyone, but...I don't really belong there, anymore. And after that… I don't know."
"You could join the Dragon Guard?" he suggested.
"I'd be good at it," she agreed. "But I'm not sure if it's what I want." She smiled slightly. "Even if it would be nice to be around Zym so much."
"You could travel around with me? If you're not tired of me by then," he added quickly with a nervous laugh. "You've probably seen all of Xadia already, too, so if you don't want to I under—"
"Of course I'll go with you, dummy," she said, bumping his shoulder with hers. "Someone's gotta keep you from getting lost. And alive."
He covered up his relief with a sly laugh. "Yeah, funny how that worked out, considering how we first met."
Rayla narrowed her eyes at him, a small smile curling her lips, before she glanced around them and grew cautious. "We can come back to this later," she said. "We should try and get to the inn at the outskirts of the city before nightfall."
"Alright," he said, and let out a sigh. He could spend days here. "Let's just see a few more exhibits before we go? Please?"
Rayla rolled her eyes fondly. "Fine. Two more. Then we go."
He leaned in closer and grinned. "Thank you," he said in an almost sing-song voice, and then sped off to a painting in the corner that had caught his eye.
Rayla followed with a equally amused, equally exasperated shake of her head.
The lamps along the road glowed orange and pink and even lavender, the colours mirroring that of the setting sun. The lights reflected off the shining stone paths, setting the road aglow as families and couples walked past them on their way home, their joined hands swinging between them. Callum could see the sign for the Inn a ways down the road, closer to the rim of the city, conscious that couples were taking in the view—and therefore could pay attention to anything strange.
He tugged his hood tighter over his head with one hand, and grabbed Rayla's from where she had been walking beside him with the other. He scooted slightly closer. "So we look less conspicuous," he whispered. "And it's harder to see my fingers."
"Right," she said, her voice a little tight, and he tried to squash the disappointment rising in his chest. Did he make her uncomfortable? He'd have to warn her next time. Still, she squeezed his hand and held it tight, and didn't let go even once they reached the inn. Something called the Sleeping Sungoose. "Let me do the talking," she said, tugging him aside before pushing the door open.
The lobby was small, the inn not unlike ones he'd walked by in Katolis: tall and wooden, even if this one had lamps engraved with runes and a puny seating area with only a few chairs. Keys floated, suspended, on the wall behind the desk clerk, a dark skinned Sunfire elf with smaller horns than Rayla and rectangular markings around their eyes that matched their glasses. They pushed them up their nose as Rayla approached.
"How may I help you?"
"A room for the night," she requested. "And there's a postal service in this inn?"
"Yes, though service can be slow up here. We don't have many postal workers in this village, you see. Most have gone to serve as messengers at the Breach."
"Whatever you want to send will be delivered in two weeks at the soonest. So your postcard will most likely get to your family by the time you're back—"
"That's fine. And the room?"
The clerk smiled and plucked a golden key from its weightless suspension. "Room for you and your boyfriend on the third floor, fifth room on the left." They held out the key.
Her face turned a bright red, and he would've laughed if his cheeks hadn't suddenly felt hot as well. Still, Rayla reached forwards and took the key. "Thank you." They walked up to the third floor, Rayla dragging him along to the fifth door on the left, and she quickly unlocked it, letting go of his hand as soon as they were safe inside. She put down their bag and opened up the flap, and Zym happily crawled out, shaking out his wings.
Rayla bent down and scratched under his chin. "Sorry for keeping you cooped for so long, wee dragon. We'll be back in the woods tomorrow and you can fly as much as you'd like." She gently shushed him when he let out a happy chirp. "But keep it down for now. We don't want to go exposing you to too many people, now do we?"
Callum moved over to the desk in the corner, their room fairly simple with a window and a bed and a dresser, with a small adjourning bathroom off to the side. There was stationary and a quill laying on the desk. "Should you write your letter to the Dragon Queen now, or?"
"I can do it in the morning," she said, rising to her feet. "That's when the messenger birds will be available, anyway." She dusted herself off. "I'll go get food from downstairs. We should eat before we turn in. You can stay here and watch Zym." Her eyes turned almost stern as she looked at both of them. "Don't let him set anything on fire."
Callum looked at the dragon. "Uh, you were talking to me about him, right?"
Rayla winked and left, and Callum tried not to blush as the door closed behind her. He really couldn't read her sometimes. Still, he smiled slightly as Zym curled up near the fire, letting out a contented sigh. Today had been a really good day, the best so far in Xadia, and Rayla had been a really good tour guide. It was too bad Ez hadn't gone to see any of it, but—a strange stitch of guilt formed in his chest—it had been kinda nice, too, just having it be him and Rayla. Ez would've wanted to do different things, like go to more food based vendors instead of the museum, and…
Great, now he felt like a terrible big brother. He held Zym up under his armpits. "I'm not a bad brother, am I?" he asked. He sure missed Ezran a lot still. That hadn't gone away, and Callum didn't think that it would. He hoped his brother was doing okay, that Corvus was keeping him safe; Callum always trusted his Aunt Amaya's judgement (save for her opinion on elves) but Corvus was no protector. At least, not like Rayla was. "I mean," he tried again, "it's not a bad thing that I like hanging out with Rayla when it's just the two of us, right? She's my friend."
One of his first friends, too. Those who had been his friends before he became a step-prince he'd been too young to really remember, and no one at the palace had been around his age beyond Soren—who had typically meant well, but was older and shared nothing in common with him—and Claudia—only a little bit older, and pretty, but his crush had kept him from getting too close, and… And now they meant nothing to him anymore, and his brother and best friend was going home without him, and… Rayla was still here. His throat tightened, even as he smiled to himself. She was still here, after everything. She still wanted to stay with him, even after the war was over. They could travel Xadia over again, but this time without having to always look over their shoulders for possible threats.
He set Zym down on the ground and scratched his chin the same way she had. "I'm lucky to have her, eh bud?" Zym licked him in response, and he let out a laugh as Zym's tongue sent static electricity across his skin. "Yeah, you're right. We're both lucky to have her."
He jumped when he heard her at the door, and got to his feet. "Yeah?" he called back.
"Can you get the door?" Her voice was muffled through the wood. "I have my hands full."
Zym wagged his tail as Callum went to open the door, and Rayla walked in with a tray laden with food. Callum only stole a quick look at what was on the tray—what looked like bowls of hot soup, some bread and cheese, and two glasses of sunray berry juice—as Rayla passed him and put it down on the edge of the bed, and Callum remembered to shut the door before Zym could scamper out to explore. The scent was savoury and tempting, and his stomach grumbled before he could even remember that he had been hungry.
Rayla caught the look on his face, and warned, "Eat the bread and cheese first. The soup's going to be hotter than anything you've had back home. It needs time to cool."
"How much time?"
"A long time." She picked up one of the silver knives and wagged it at him. "Just eat your bread and cheese, Callum."
He took a thin slice and laid it over his bread. "I just haven't had something hot to eat in a while, that's all." Lujanne's magicked grub food didn't count.
Rayla wore a slight smile as she wrinkled her nose at him. "You really grew up a prince, huh?"
"Step-prince, but yeah." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I guess I did."
Her brow furrowed. "Why do you say that? 'Step'?"
"The king is—was—my stepdad." Callum coughed. "I don't really have any royal blood. I don't have any claim to the throne. That's why you were sent to kill Ezran and not both of us, remember? Because according to Moonshadow elves, and… most everyone else, I don't… exist. Or matter, anyway."
"You mattered to your dad, and you matter to Ez." She put a hand on his knee. "You matter to me. And it's not that Moonshadow elves didn't know you existed. We did. Er, do. But like you said: you don't really have a claim on the throne. We didn't think we had to kill you, and even to Moonshadow assassins, life is precious. We take it, but we don't take it lightly. Which is why I haven't taken it at all." She tilted her head. "Do you want to know what the first thing I liked about you was?"
Callum looked up at her, and a smile tugged at his lips. "Wait, you like me?'
She shoved his shoulder and laughed. "Shut up. Do you want to be complimented or not?"
Callum inclined his head slightly and gestured with his arm. "You may proceed."
"You took Ezran's place. And so even when I realized you had lied—and I was angry, I was also angry because… it was brave and loyal of you to do so. It showed how deep your love for your baby brother ran. It made it that much harder to think of what I would have to do. It's still one of the bravest, most selfless things I've ever seen someone do."
He smiled softly. "I'd do anything for him," he said, his voice suddenly soft.
"I know. You're a good brother, and a good person. Don't be so hard on yourself. You matter…" Her eyes darted away, before going back to him. "You mean a lot to me."
He placed his hand over hers. "You mean a lot to me too." A wider smile crept over his face, his eyes brightening. Any tightness in his chest from before had been easily unwound by her gentle words. "Thank you, Rayla."
She cleared her throat. He hadn't thought the lamps in their room mirrored the setting sun too, but they must have, because her cheeks looked rather pink. She took her bowl of soup into her lap, noticeably less steam rising from it. "Just eat your soup, sad prince."
Callum laughed, and then pulled his bowl of soup into his lap, testing out the temperate with his hands cradling the ceramic first. "Whatever you say, Rayla."
It was only once dinner was done, however, that he realized he hadn't thought about the Bed Problem.
Chapter 3: Moon Shadows
"I can sleep on the floor, it's fine," Rayla said, after a few awkward moments of both of them staring at the single bed in front of them. "I'm used to worse than carpet, anyway."
"No, don't be dumb," he said quickly. He hoped he wasn't blushing, but knowing his luck, his embarrassment was probably written all over his face. "We can share. It's not that different than sleeping next to each other in a cave, right? Just more comfortable. And the bed's big enough. It's no different than when I was sharing with Ezran at Lujanne's."
Why then, as soon as he said it, did the comparison not feel quite right? "So...I'm like Ezran to you?" Rayla asked, her brow furrowing in confusion.
"No! No, you're, uh, what I mean is…" He dragged a hand down on his face. "I'm not going to make you sleep on the floor, okay? We can share. It's no big deal."
They got into bed like it was a field with buried land mines, and he took extra care to make sure he never touched her, not even in a brief brush of the elbow. She'd wanted the side next to the door, and kept her back to him so she could watch it—and he was too focused on the situation at hand to tease her about her paranoia, anyway—as he turned his head and looked out the window. The stars had fully emerged now, twinkling in the night sky, like the star charts they'd seen earlier that day, only more vibrant than any imitation could ever be.
He looked over at Rayla when he heard her breathing even out. Well, she fell asleep fast. She had been carrying Zym for most of the day though, and while he hadn't grown much, he'd grown a little and was getting heavier every day. Looking back on it, Callum wished for more than one reason they'd let Rayla carry Zym when he was an egg sooner. That weight couldn't have been good for Ezran's back and developing spine…
Huh. Callum's brow furrowed. Why didn't Rayla consider herself to be like Ezran to him? And more troubling… why didn't he consider her like that, either? He told Claudia and Soren that she was his assassin friend, his new friend, but… He knew now that she was just his friend, and a really good one too. And she was the first friend he'd had this close to his age, and this close at all, when he thought about it.
So she wasn't like Ezran to him. It made sense. They were about the same age and he could talk to her about things he couldn't really talk about with Ezran. No matter how much Ez matured, he'd always be his little brother. And Rayla… Well, he didn't worry about her the way he worried about Ezran. Although he did worry about her. A lot, sometimes. In ways he didn't really worry about with Ezran, and…
He turned onto his stomach and buried his face in his pillow. Too many thoughts. He focused on his breathing until he fell asleep. And if he glanced up a few times to check on Rayla, at the soft peaceful look on her face and the way the moonlight turned her cheek markings different colours, before falling asleep, well, nobody else ever needed to know. It was just so he could draw her like that later, he reasoned.
He'd finally began to drift off when he felt her toss and turn beside him, her foot kicking his shin. He jerked upright, because that had hurt. "What, Rayla—" Her eyes were wield shut, her breathing shallow as she shook. "Rayla!" He grasped her shoulders with firm hands and shook her, gently but enough to wake her, and her eyes flew open, wide and wild as they took in his face. She was cold underneath his touch. "Rayla," he said, "are you—"
She pushed herself up and away from him. "'M fine," she mumbled, even as she raised a shaking hand to wipe her mouth.
Callum moved to sit on her side of the bed, next to her. "Somehow I find that hard to believe," he said, his tone dry but patient. He put a hand on her shoulder. "You were having a nightmare. Do you want to talk about it?" She stiffly shook her head. "Okay. Do you want some water?"
"That—" Her voice was terse, before she deflated, looking meeker still. "Might actually be nice."
"Okay. I'll be back soon." He slipped off the bed and glanced back at her before he left, his heart sinking when she curled into herself.
He'd never seen her so upset before, except for maybe when they'd thought the Egg wouldn't make it. Rayla had always seemed so fearless, even when she was scared. Even when she was upset, she wasn't like this. Not small and stubborn all the same. He took her glass from their food tray on the dresser and filled it up in the bathroom. If she wouldn't open up there wasn't much he could do, except be there however she wanted him. One thing was for sure though: he wouldn't leave her alone like this.
He carefully approached her when he got out of the bathroom, sitting down next to her as he held out the glass. She took it slowly and took small sips, still too quiet for comfort. Callum did his best not to stare.
"Thanks," she said finally, once she was done her glass. "For waking me up."
Callum kept his hands in his lap. He wasn't sure if she wanted contact, right now, after she'd pushed him away. "Yeah, Of course. Are...are you gonna be okay?"
"I'll be fine." She glanced at him. "Sorry for waking you up."
"You don't have to be sorry." He rubbed the back of his neck. "Nightmares suck for everyone." He pursed his lips. Was it smart to push when she was clearly on edge? But maybe then she'd be feeling something, and hey, he could handle her ire. He had before, she had handled his. "Are you sure you don't want to talk about it?" he tried again. "It might make you feel better."
"I'd rather not," she said, and his heart sank slightly, even if her tone wasn't sharp. "But thank you anyway."
He nodded. "Okay. Just know that I'm here for you, uh, however you want me to be. Anytime."
Rayla nodded, a tiny one, before her eyes watered and she leaned towards him, resting her forehead on his shoulder. "Just don't poke your eye out," she mumbled, and Callum slowly drew her closer, his arm wrapped around her.
"No promises," he murmured, lightened when she puffed out a slight laugh. He kept one arm braced at her back, his other hand resting lightly over the one she had laying over her thigh. She seemed better now, but he still didn't want to her to go back to sleep with tear stains on her cheeks. "You wanna hear about a dumb nightmare I had when I was a kid?"
Rayla looked up at him a little. "Sure," she said, smiling weakly even if her eyes were still slightly red. "Why not?"
He grinned. "I was like four and had just moved to Katolis. Our symbol is the uneven towers, right? So I had a nightmare where the taller tower had gotten bigger because it had eaten all the little kids in the city who misbehaved, and I hadn't eaten my broccoli that night… You can imagine how the dream went. I didn't walk by the taller tower for days afterwards without crying."
Rayla let out a snort. "That sounds like you. You must've been a pretty cute kid, when you weren't wailing."
He scrunched his face up at her, a smile tugging at his lips. "What, so I'm not cute now?"
"Shut up," she mumbled, elbowing him in the side, but there was a smile in her voice. She gave him a slight squeeze, and then pulled away to wipe at her face. "Thanks, Callum," she said.
He waited a second longer to retract his arm from around her waist, just to make sure she really was okay now. "Yeah. Of course. You feel better now?"
"I actually do."
"Good." He kept his eyes on her face. "I know I was going through a pretty rough time, the past couple of weeks, at Lujanne's and… afterwards, and you were always there for me and I really appreciated it, so—you know that I'm always here for you too, right?"
She leaned into him and warmth bloomed in his chest. "I know. Thank you."
"Okay. Good." A yawn slipped out before he could stop it, and Rayla pulled away to look at him.
"We should try and get some sleep," she said, scooting away.
"I'm fine with staying up and talking, if you want…"
She shook her head. "I'm okay. I think I'll be able to go back to sleep now. Besides, you get as grumpy as Bait when you're tired."
"Hey! I'm not that grumpy—" He moved back towards the pillows, though, not that annoyed, and laid down next to her. They lay facing each other this time.
Callum waited until she fell asleep to give in himself.
They had the letter ready that morning before going down to breakfast. They sent the sealed envelope down to the messenger bird room and took some breakfast—eggs, sausages, and jam on toast—with them as they walked out of the city. Callum slipped Zym a few sausages under the knapsack flap once they'd left Eyholin behind.
"Where are we headed now?" he asked Rayla, as Zym licked at his greasy fingers.
"There's another village on the way, but it's a ways away, so we'll be sleeping in caves again for a little while. There should be at least one stop for travellers before then, so we can stock up on supplies."
"So, the short version is we're following more rivers again?"
"More or less. At the very least, we shouldn't run into too many people, so Zym can practice his flying." She looked expectantly at the knapsack, and Zym retreated deeper in for another nap now that he was full. "Or not," she said with a slight smile. "We'll see."
"Come on bud," Callum coaxed, lifting the knapsack flap just a little. "Ezran would want you to keep practicing. I'll even practice magic with you, give you a few training wind bursts. That sound good?" Zym's head popped out, and he let out an enthusiastic chirp. "Besides, we can carry you later, but it'll be nice not to have to carry you all the time now that we don't have to, right?"
Zym let out a less peppy chirp, but still seemed to agree with Callum all the same. Rayla smiled fondly.
"You can sleep for now though," Callum relented, and shouldered the bag, his bookbag for his sketchbook slapping against his leg. He noticed Rayla's eyes on it. "What?"
"Nothing," she said, her eyes still thoughtful. "Just—would you like me to carry your bookbag? It seems unfair for you to have to carry both."
"Oh. It's fine, you're usually carrying Zym anyway."
"You sure? It might get harder the longer we go."
He paused for a moment, before pulling the sling of his bookbag off over his head and handing it to her. "Just keep it safe," he said.
"Oh, so if I have to choose between your life and your bag, I'm obviously picking your bag," she teased.
Callum snorted and rolled his eyes. "Exactly. And you'll be picking my sketchbook, actually."
She hummed and glanced down. "D'you still have the drawing I did? That first morning, of the primal sources?"
He looked over at her. "Yeah. Why wouldn't I?"
"I just...noticed you get rid of some that aren't as important anymore." She shrugged.
"Yeah, some, so I can fit in more pages later. But your drawing is important."
"Our resident mage has that much trouble remembering all the Primal Sources?" she jabbed lightly, after a cough.
"You're the first person other than me that's drawn in it. That's important." Callum swallowed and kept his eyes on the horizon. "And I wouldn't be a mage without you for a bunch of reasons, so… you kinda changed my life. And that drawing makes me remember that whenever I look at it. How couldn't it be important?"
Rayla smiled to herself, her heart full and her eyes mildly stinging. "You dummy," she hummed fondly. "You changed my life too."
He looked over at her again, but this time his eyes were shining slightly from the sun. "Really?"
He smiled, and then groaned when she stayed silent. "C'mon, you can't just not tell me how."
"What you said about the cycle of hurt, and hurting others, that first night we met. When you tried to tell me you were Prince Ezran. I never knew that humans could be so...kind. You took away my first mission, but you gave me a new one too." Her smile remained even as she narrowed her eyes at him. "Is that explanation enough for you?"
Callum hoped the sun would mask his blushing. "Yes."
Rayla looked away with a smug grin. "There we go, then."
He was quiet for a while, letting them get deep into the woods, before he said, "Rayla?"
"I'm really glad I met you."
She hadn't meant for her voice to be so soft when she said, "I'm glad I met you too." But then he smiled in that way that made the sun seem so much paler, and she was glad for it. She looked away and cleared her throat. "Now let's keep walking. We have a long way to go before we reach the Dragon Queen."
Callum jogged to keep up with her. "Can you teach me some draconic, and Moonshadow language now then, please?"
Rayla shook her head and chuckled. "Yes. Fine, come on. First word I'll teach you is queen, how about that?"
He grinned. "Okay."
The moon cast shadows outside of the cave they camped in that night. Rayla watched the water of the nearby river glow, amazed that already it was a full moon again. Had it really been a month since that fateful night in Katolis? And at the same time, it felt like a lifetime ago.
Rayla shook her head, even as she smiled softly, glancing at Callum. His hair was messy from tossing and turning in trying to get to sleep. "You couldn't either?"
He plopped down beside her. "I was tired… until I saw the moon."
She rested her chin on top of her knees. "You're thinking about it too, huh?" She wondered if Ezran had taken notice too. If Corvus—gods help him if he weren't—was taking good care of him. It'd only been a week since Ezran had turned back around for his kingdom, and yet that felt like a lifetime ago somehow too. Not that the feeling of more time made her miss him any less.
A little whimper got her attention, and they both turned to see Zym sleepily walking towards them, curling up in Callum's lap with his head on Rayla's. Rayla combed her fingers through his tufts of white fur.
"I miss him too, little one." She looked up to share a smile with Callum—because there wasn't much cuter than a sleepy baby dragon—but found his eyes were glassy instead. She waited, and he looked at her and slowly opened his mouth.
"Rayla, do you have any family?"
She blinked in surprise. "Um, well… You already know about my parents—"
"I mean family, like, people who take care of you."
"I know. Um… Closest thing was probably Runaan. My mentor, and the leader of our group, when…" She bit her lip.
"The guy you were fighting on the roof when we were running through the castle?"
She looked down. "Yeah."
Callum put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry. It must've been hard to go against him."
Rayla gave him a sad smile. "I'm sorry that he's likely the one who… who killed—"
"It's okay. He was a good assassin, right?" Callum swallowed hard but kept his smile up. "At least that means it was—it was quick, right?"
Rayla's shoulders slumped. "I don't think he made it, either. The messenger bird got sent, but… the mission didn't go as planned, with the element of surprise." She shrugged. "Maybe it's for the best. He didn't understand this mission. And he would've hated you… and Ezran," she added quickly.
"Still, it's not easy, losing a parent. Even if you disagree with them." Callum squeezed her shoulder. "It's okay if you miss him… did he have anything to do with your nightmare?"
Rayla slowly nodded her head, and her eyes burned. "I just… there hasn't been time, to think about it, until now, but he… he really must be gone now. A-and it's my fault—"
"And I can't even regret it, because if I'd done what I was supposed to, then we wouldn't have Zym and a chance for peace, and Ezran would be dead, or both of you would be—maybe if I'd kept Runaan stalled on the roof long enough, but—"
"I wonder if I should've gone back into that tower all the time," he said. Rayla's eyes watered.
"If we should've," she corrected him. "We were going to go together, remember? Say the word, and—"
"—I'll go back into that tower with you," he finished. "I remember. It's one of the reasons why I knew we could do this. Even when I didn't trust you, I—I wanted to so badly, because… no one had ever stood by me like that before."
"Do you think we made the right choice, then?" she asked with a slight sniffle.
"I do." His voice trembled. "Even if I miss him, I… I know we did the right thing. They would've already had my stepdad's funeral, but is there anything we can do for Runaan? Bury something, or?"
"Usually Moonshadow elves, assassins at least, have their weapons buried if their body cannot be. Our weapons are handcrafted, bound to us. Sacred. But we don't have that, I… There is one small thing I could do."
"What? Do you need any help with it?"
"I was his student. When a master falls… the student is supposed to bury a braid of their own hair."
He smiled slightly. "You used to have a braid, during the first couple of days," he remembered. "Was that what it was for?"
She nodded. "I can just make a braid on the other side of my face."
"We can bury it tomorrow, before we keep moving. If you'd like."
A tear leaked out, and she wiped it away quickly. "Thank you," she whispered.
He squeezed her shoulder, said, "You're welcome," and then stood up, tugging her along with her hands in his, Zym scampering off their laps. "Come on. Let's go back to bed and try to get some sleep tonight."
Rayla gave him a small smile and let him tug her back into the cave, the moon behind them. "Okay." Neither let go even once they were settled back in their sleeping bags, facing each other, Zym curled up between them. The baby dragon and Callum's hand were warm. "Callum?" she whispered.
"Don't let go?"
He squeezed her hand, his eyes steady and green in the moonlight. "I won't," he promised.
When she woke up in the morning, his hand was still curled around hers.
Chapter 4: Ravenspire
In the morning, Rayla wove a small braid into her hair, frustrated when it wouldn't stick. "Ergh, this is impossible."
Callum looked up from where he was stowing away the last of their sunrayberry juice. "You can't braid?" he said, confused.
"Runaan was the one who did the braid for me," she admitted. "I've always had shorter hair. I didn't need to learn."
"I could braid it for you," Callum offered, and walked over to her. "C'mere. On the left side?"
Rayla flushed. "Yeah. Um...thanks." Her face heated up when she felt his hands in her hair, gently brushing through it as he found the right locks to weave together.
"How tight does it need to be?" he asked.
"Not that tight. Just needs to survive being cut off," she shrugged.
Callum set to work, his fingers diligent and practiced, his tongue sticking a little out of his mouth as he concentrated. Rayla tried to concentrate on something other than how close he was sitting next to her. They hadn't been close since she'd thought she was going to lose him, and had almost—
Rayla cleared her throat. "How d'you know how to braid, anyway?" she said, settling into fond amusement.
Callum was almost done. "Oh, I used to braid Claudia's hair when we were little."
Her heart sank. "Oh." Then, she felt stupid, and angry because she felt stupid. "I can finish it myself then."
His grip was loose enough she could jerk away easily, even as his brow furrowed in confusion. "What? Why?"
"Nevermind, it was stupid for me to ask a human to help with an elf mourning ritual." She took hold of the strands, but suddenly wasn't sure how to weave them all together. Was the right on the top or the middle part?
"Rayla." He put a hand on her shoulder and turned her back towards him. "Don't."
Damn those eyes of his. "I don't want you to treat me like Claudia," she sneered. His eyebrows raised in surprise.
"Like—" He laughed. "I also used to braid Ez's hair sometimes. It's not a big deal—"
"It is to me! I mean, right now, it's—it's not just—"
"I know it's important, Rayla. I just don't know why you're so mad at me all of a sudden. I'm not treating you like Claudia. I know why you don't like her, she's the opposite of everything you stand for." He squeezed her shoulder. "Trust me, you are nothing like her. Complete opposites in every way."
The confirmation was as relieving as much as it stung. As much as she'd been expecting it, maybe. "Just let me go, Callum, I can finish this on my own—"
She wrestled herself away and stormed outside the cave. The wind and shame bit at her face. Great, now she didn't have the right braid so she couldn't do the burial ceremony, and things with Callum would be weird now, and—Rayla wrapped her arms around herself and closed her eyes, focusing on breathing through her nose.
She curved more in on herself at the sound of his voice, even as she heard the soft crunch of his feet on snow as he walked up behind her.
"Don't shut me out. I know today's a hard one because you're saying goodbye, and… I don't quite know what you're mad at me for? But I'm sorry anyway. Please, just let me finish the braid? I found a rock that could make a good little shovel."
Tears sprung to her eyes without warning as she turned back towards him, and he had a curved rock in his hand. She sniffled and wiped at her nose with her wrist. "Okay," she mumbled.
He put the rock in his pocket and tidied up her braid before he finished it. "You want to cut it yourself?" he said quietly, and she nodded.
She took out her blade and cut it from the top, getting a good look at it now that it was in her hand. Callum had woven it intricately. She curled her fingers over it and glanced away. "We should bury it under that tree," she said in a slight croak, and Callum followed her silently.
They worked quietly, digging up a small, shallow hole, and Rayla placed her braid down carefully in the center of it. She murmured a prayer under her breath, and then pushed the dirt and snow overtop of it, smoothing out the surface.
Callum waited until she stood up to rise with her. She wiped at her eyes, her throat tight as she swallowed. "Thank you," she said after a few moments. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and she let him.
"You didn't fail him," Callum said, and then went to get Zym and their bags from the cave.
Her cheeks were still wet when he came back with Zym on his heels, and she watched, startled slightly, as he unwound his scarf from around his neck. He took it and wrapped it around her neck, making sure it touched her cheeks.
"Here," he said, taking his hands away. "We don't want your face to freeze."
Rayla sniffled quietly. "Thank you," she repeated. "I-I'm sorry—"
Callum shook his head and smiled. "It's okay. Let's just get moving. I think Zym wants to eat more snow."
A slight laugh bubbled out of her as he started walking and the baby dragon followed, periodically snuffling into the snow, and Rayla followed.
It hadn't stopped snowing even two weeks later, when they reached the Ravenspire River. It marked the end of where most of the Sunfire elves lived, and Rayla knew they wouldn't find many settlements from here on out. "Skywing elves live up in the trees and mountains," she'd told Callum. "They don't use the valleys for much except hunting."
They arrived at nightfall and holed up in the nearest cave, and she was glad when Callum got the fire going with a small fulminus spell, as Zym was already asleep. He'd gotten good at regulating the lightning to be as big or small as he wanted. The firelight made his face look warm and handsome, and she tried not to stare.
"Maybe we could go hunting ourselves," he suggested the following morning. Snow dusted his hair and she had to fight the urge to brush it off, as Zym bounded and ate snowflakes ahead of them. "Since we won't really be able to rely on berries, and I think our little dragon would appreciate having some meet."
Our. Her chest warmed despite the cold. "I can go hunting once we make camp," she said, patting her swords by her hips.
"I can help," he said. "I bet I can use aspiro to lure an animal into a trap somehow."
"I don't know if you're ready to go hunting yet, Callum," she said. She'd taught him how to use one of her blades here and there, and tried to mask her horrible blush because he didn't quite know what sharing weapons meant for Moonshadow elves, and he'd done okay. The pencil metaphor had helped and he was good at staying on his toes, but he was still far from her ever letting him defend himself by himself.
"Please? Or I could shock 'em—"
"You really want to help me kill a bunny rabbit?"
He blanched. "Okay, yeah. Maybe not."
"Killing stuff for real is different. It's okay. I wanted to throw up after I killed my first rabbit."
His brow furrowed. "How old were you?"
"Ten. Then I got used to it. Remember Moonshadow elf philosophy, for assassins? We value life. We take it, but we do not take it lightly."
"That's...kind of nice."
"Although now I think I'd rather take as little life as possible," Rayla said. "Even if hunting is a little different."
"You'll be back soon though, once we make camp?"
"Yes, I'll be back soon, but don't worry. Making camp is hours away. We have a lot more walking to do."
"Great," Callum said flatly, before his face lit up. "Hey, remember when we were in the boat?"
"Which one?" she asked, her face sullen.
"The one we took down the river. You said I could ask five questions but I only got to use two, so…" He grinned at her. "Could I ask the other three now?"
"Yes, but that counts as one," she said, and he frowned. She laughed. "I'm teasing, Callum. Ask away, pouty prince."
Callum brightened again, before pausing to think. It was sweet that he put so much thought into these questions. Like he thought she wouldn't tell him basically anything he wanted to know.
"Okay," he said, when he had settled on one. "Where did you grow up?"
"A few different places," she said. "I was born in a city a little like Eyholin, except for Moonshadow elves. I grew up there for a little while till I was seven, when Runaan started training me and we moved to a small village. That's where most of my memories are. It's called Thalas."
"Thalas," Callum repeated. "Is it, like, a village just for assassins?"
"It's where a lot of retired assassins settle down to train new ones, and have families of their own. They became farmers, bakers, blacksmiths, things like that."
"D'you think that's where you'll live then?"
She arched her eyebrows at him. "Does that count as a question?"
He smiled and shook his head. "It's a follow up question, to question three. Doesn't count."
"Alright. So long as we both know the rules." She let out a happy sigh. "As for whether I'll live in Thalas, I don't know. Once the war is over, and we're done travelling Xadia… it might be interesting to see all the human kingdoms. I don't know when I'll end up settling down." She glanced over at him. "Now, your fourth question?"
He averted his gaze for a moment, and she was about to wonder why, when he asked, "Have you ever been in love?"
Her brain felt like it had been shot with lightning, and she stopped walking. "What? Why would you ask that?"
Callum held up his hands in panic. "I don't know—you're a little older than me and I thought you might—"
"No, I have never been in love," she snapped. "We didn't have time for things like that."
Callum swallowed and fell a step behind her as they started walking again. "Look," he said, in that soft voice that mean he was aware that he'd struck a nerve—although which one, even she didn't fully know. "Sorry, I just wanted to—if you had I wanted to ask how you knew, because—" He swallowed. "I wanted to make sure that it wasn't what I had felt for Claudia."
Her throat tightened. "You don't have feelings for her anymore?" Callum shook his head, and her brow furrowed. "Then no," Rayla said, "I don't think you loved her. I don't think love works like that. If you don't love someone in spite of every dumb or terrible thing they do then… I don't think it's love."
"Then...what happens to people who loved someone terrible?"
"I don't know. Their heart withered along with it, I suppose. But yours hasn't. So...I think you're fine."
Callum let out a sigh of relief. "That's good. Man, I'm glad she wasn't my first kiss."
Rayla looked at him quizzically. "Was she almost?" the elf asked, very carefully.
"Yeah," he said, "back at Lujanne's. Before she told me about...yeah."
Her chest burned. "Oh."
"I think she was just messing with me, though. Trying to convince me to come back home, and using my…" He coughed. "Makes more sense. I knew it was too good to be true, that someone would like me."
"No, it's not. The right person will like you back, she was just… You know."
"Thanks, Rayla." His eyes crinkled. "I know I really have my priorities in order right, now, obviously. Step one: find a crush. Step two: save the world—"
Rayla socked him on the shoulder. "Stop it, dummy," she said fondly. "Besides, the whole 'saving the world' thing will probably take up too much of your energy for you to get any crushes any time soon."
"Probably," he agreed. "Can I ask my last question now?"
Rayla sighed but smiled. "Ugh, fine."
"What's your favourite magical creature?"
She almost let out a breath; finally, a safe question. "It's hard to choose," she admitted, her smile widening when Zym came tottering towards her. "But I'd be nasty if I didn't say this little fellow, wouldn't I?" she said, scooping him up in her arms and dusting the snow off his nose. Zym let out a cheerful yip and she scratched him lightly under his chin.
"Yeah, I guess he's mine too," said Callum, stepping closer, and he brightened. "Hey: finally something you and I have in common."
Rayla snorted. "I didn't know you were trying to keep track. And what about Ezran?"
"Okay, so Zym is the second thing," he amended. "Though Ez doesn't really count as a magical creature."
"Doesn't he? He can talk to animals, Callum."
He smiled. "Fair point. It's too bad he's not here. That may come in handy with Zym one of these days.
"Please," Rayla scoffed, and booped the dragon on the nose with her finger. "He's a good wee dragon. He would never do anything bad."
Callum shot up in his sleeping bag, still only half awake. "He's what?"
"He's gone. I got up and was going to feed him but he wasn't there and—" She tugged him up onto his feet by the arm. "Come on. What if someone took him? What if someone stole him and—"
Callum followed her outside the cave, panic rising in his throat, before he grabbed her arm to keep her from walking further. "Rayla, wait." He pointed down. There were tiny pawprints in the show. "He must've gotten distracted by something and walked out on his own."
Rayla's eyes followed the tiny path of baby dragon footprints, and she let out a long sigh of relief. "Okay, but...we still need to find him. He could get lost, and it's cold out."
"He couldn't have gotten far." They followed the path of footprints, the wind blowing harder, until the path suddenly stopped. Callum was gripped by fear that some sort of animal must've come along and eaten him, until an only slightly better realization set in. "Unless there's big gusts of wind and he can fly!" Callum whined as the panic set in. What were they going to do if they had just lost the Dragon Prince?
"Stop panicking," Rayla snapped at him, even if her own voice was shaky. "We need to focus—where would a baby dragon have gone?"
"How am I supposed to know?" he spluttered. "You're the one who grew up around dragons!"
"Not baby ones! No one's grown up around baby storm dragons in a thousand years and now we've lost him!" Her chest heaved, angry tears sparking in her eyes, and Callum backed down and rubbed at his temples. He needed to think.
"Okay—he likes moon-moths! Are there any around here? Do they have hives, or something?"
"There should be some by a lake," Rayla said, shuddering slightly at the thought of water—or it may have just been from the cold. "O-or a larger body of water."
"Okay, is there a lake or something around here?"
Rayla thought for a moment, even as she shivered. "West of here," she said, "there's a lake that never freezes over. It's a gift the Sunfire elves gave the Skywing elves, but it's a sacred lake—there may be guards." Her brow furrowed. "You should stay at the cave. We don't want them to see you, and then you'll be there if Zym decides to come back on his own."
"What? No, I'm not letting you go alone—"
"Callum, I'll be fine. They might even be willing to help me."
He grabbed her wrist, his chest tight. "Rayla—"
"Callum, we don't have time to argue, and I promise, I'll be back soon. Okay?" She sighed when he didn't budge, and then before he knew what was happening, Rayla had pressed her soft, warm, lips to his cold cheek, and his grip on her wrist went slack. "I'll be back soon," she repeated, and then slipped away before he could stop her.
When he finally snapped out of it, he saw her leaping up to the nearby treetops. "Not fair!" he called after her, but he didn't dare follow, and she didn't look back. He knew he wouldn't be able to keep up anyway, and… she was right.
He watched her up in the trees until he couldn't see her anymore, and then turned back to the cave and rubbed at his cheek. She'd kissed him. On the cheek. And it hadn't felt… half bad. Sorta nice, in fact. Had it gotten less cold out here, all of a sudden? His face was warm.
He leaned against one of the trees once he made it back to the cave and waited, his stomach doing flips. She'd be back soon, he reminded himself. With Zym, most likely. Safe and sound. And then they'd keep on moving closer to the Dragon Queen, and… not talk about what had just happened, he guessed, and then shook his head. What was even there to talk about? So she'd kissed his cheek. So what? Friends did that too!
He heaved out a sigh of relief when Rayla finally came back down the tree, Zym hanging onto her back. She glanced back at the baby dragon with a smile that was equal parts fond and exasperated, and his stomach did another big flip. "This wee one decided to try some moon-moth tree sap, and now his kisses are sticky and zappy," she said.
"Did you see any Skywing elves?"
She shook her head and set Zym down; the boy could only distractedly scratch under his chin. The elation he'd expected at finding Zym safe and sound wasn't quite there; at least, not as much as he thought it would be, and that was worrying too.
"No," Rayla said. "But that doesn't mean there aren't any around. We should tread carefully the next few days, stay in the thicker parts of the forest so they have a harder time seeing us from the sky."
"At least that means no more hiking up hills," Callum said feebly.
"No, just hiking through spooky forests with no trails," she said, sounding rather delighted. "I'm sure you can manage. We will be out of Ravenspire soon, though."
Callum felt Zym tug on his scarf, and finally sat down so the dragon could climb into his lap. "Why is it called that, anyway? I haven't seen a single raven."
"Ravens in Xadia are a little different," Rayla grinned, and sat down across from him. She held her hands up to the fire once Zym relit it with a small gurgle, and not for the first time Callum wondered how she was never cold.
"A good different or a bad different?" he asked, arching his eyebrows.
"Depends on how you look at it. They're smart little beasties. They love their riddles. And this area is called Ravenspire because the deeper you go into the forest, the more likely you are to find their Nest, which is as tall as any of the trees. We should be able to avoid that, though." She narrowed her eyes at him. "Why are you making your dumb idea face?"
"I'm just thinking it would be a cool thing to draw," Callum said, throwing up his hands in defense. "Hypothetically."
"Better be." She leaned over on her elbows in interest as he took out his sketchbook. He knew soon, she'd make them get back on the road, but for now the fear and adrenaline of the morning was gone and they were both tired. They could eat a bit more of the food they had leftover, and then get going. "What've you been drawing lately anyway?"
A blush crept over his face, and Callum's hands stilled midway in lifting his sketchbook from it's bag. "Oh, uh, just anything that comes to mind, really." Which, recently, had been a lot of her.
"Just...stuff in Xadia. Everything's new, so…"
"As long as you don't go running off trying to draw the Nest," she said, only half-teasing.
"And if I did?" he drawled, laughing when she socked him lightly in the shoulder. "What? I'm kidding—and you haven't even told me why that'd be a bad idea anyway. I can only work with the information I've been given."
Rayla rolled her eyes and smiled. "You can only leave the Nest if you can answer their riddles—yes, they can talk—but it's riddles about yourself. Things you haven't realized yet, or don't want to. Some people have been stuck there so long they've been driven mad. I mean, you're already pretty crazy, so—"
"Hey." He was smiling, though. "Yeah, I guess I can see how that would be a bad idea."
"I know, I know." He glanced back at his sketchbook; a half-shaded portrait of Rayla was smirking back at him, and he turned the page before he could expose himself. He started a sketch of a big mushroom he'd seen on the way, taking liberties, since it really wasn't at the forefront of his mind. When he glanced up, he found Rayla watching him. "What?"
"Nothing, just…" she rested her cheek upon her hand. "No one taught you how to draw?"
He shook his head. "I mean, my mom and I would draw little things when I was really young, like...stick figures, and trees, and stuff. And then I kept drawing, and…" He smiled a little sadly. "My step-dad actually gave me my first sketchbook."
Rayla smiled. "He'd be glad you put your talent to good use." She took out her blades and idly traced the tip of them into the dirt. "Do you… ever wonder, what the world would be like, if we'd grown up while elves and humans were at peace? You could've just been an artist prince. No need to know swordfighting."
"Maybe. I don't know, I probably wouldn't have had to learn as much, I guess. Might not have connected to the sky arcanum, but I wouldn't have had the same reason to… Maybe we would've met like most normal people do."
She looked up at him, amused. "Like 'normal people do'? And what exactly is that, for you?"
"I dunno," he rubbed at the back of his neck. "Bumped into each other at the marketplace?"
"I suppose I could have become the sort of person to just be at the marketplace, if we were at peace," she said, her smile growing. "Or, more realistically, we would've met at some diplomatic function with your father as king, and with me tagging alongside my parents as part of the Dragon Guard."
"I think my stepdad would've liked you," Callum said finally. "Once he had the chance to get to know you. In this life, or the peaceful one, I mean."
Rayla softened. "Yeah?"
Callum smiled at her. "Yeah. He had a good sense of humour, and… he was a good guy. Once he knew that you weren't trying to hurt me or Ez, he would've trusted you to keep us safe."
She was quiet for a long moment. "Sometimes I forget that he had the Dragon King killed," she said. "Because we all had this idea of King Harrow in our heads, as someone who… who couldn't understand anything good. But he loved both of you so much, and I'm glad he did."
Callum let her scoot closer and he rested his head on her shoulder. Why had he ever worried that a tiny little kiss on the cheek would make things weird between them? This was Rayla. "Thanks."
Her fingers brushed his on the cold cave floor, and he lifted his head when he felt her shift. Her voice was still quiet, but harder. "Runaan wouldn't have liked you," she said, which didn't surprise him. "But I wouldn't have cared."
His fingers slid over hers, giving them a small squeeze as a smile spread over his face. "So, we would've been friends no matter what?"
"Yeah." Rayla turned towards him; their noses were nearly touching. "I think we would've managed it."
Callum was suddenly very warm once again, and he ran his thumb over her fingers, not willing to pull away. Maybe even getting closer wouldn't be so bad…
Zym leapt into Rayla's lap and she pulled back anyway with a smile, scratching behind the baby dragon's ear. "Now, what are we doing to do with you?" she asked, amused, even as she tucked her hair behind her ear with her other hand. Her cheeks looked pink in the firelight, but it must've been his eyes playing tricks on him.
"We should probably get moving," he said, and then cleared his throat. "We can at least cover some ground until nightfall. Don't want to spend too long in Ravenspire."
"Yeah, you're right." Rayla stood, picking up Zym in one hand and his bag in the other. She held the latter out to him, and he took it from her the way he always had, as easy as breathing.
So why had it felt a little hard to breathe only a moment ago?
Chapter 5: The Nest
They made camp in the woods that night and Callum fell asleep on her shoulder, and Rayla did her best not to disturb him. She did her best not to dwell on it too much. She'd also tried not to think too hard about what had happened—or almost happened—in the cave. Callum didn't like her. Not like that, and she knew that. She'd seen how he'd been with Claudia, and that wasn't how he acted around her. What might've happened in the cave if Zym hadn't 'interrupted' was only in her head.
It was better this way. They were too busy trying to stop a war and prevent any more casualties along the way. They were still an elf and a human. Callum was still a prince. He might want to travel Xadia for a bit, but eventually he'd go back to help Ezran rule and marry a nice noble that would make a good alliance to boot. She may have called him dummy more than once, but she was the one who'd been dumb enough to catch feelings. She thought of Runaan's ire if he'd known she was friends with a human, how it would only have increased ten fold if he knew she'd started liking one, too.
It would be fine. They'd eventually find their own places in life and she'd get over him, and it would be just a silly crush. Even if, when she'd thought she was going to lose him, she'd nearly—
Zym gurgled up at her from Callum's lap. She smiled softly, ruffling the tufts of soft hair springing from his head.
"You're lucky," she said. "I've heard that dragons mate for life. Someday you'll find a nice girl or boy to have an egg with and that'll be that. Humans and elves? We have to deal with feelings and deal with a bunch of other people before we find someone, if we ever do. It's a big old mess." She pursed her lips. "You met Claudia," she said, lowering her voice. "You really think Callum doesn't have feelings for her anymore? I know he said he doesn't, but… sometimes you still feel things even when you don't want to."
Gods above, she knew how true that was. Zym licked her fingers and Rayla chuckled softly, shaking her head. He was still young and barely aware of the war around him, let alone silly emotions.
She heard a rustling noise and her ears twitched in alarm. Just the wind, probably, but one could never be too sure in these woods. Callum had been right about one thing: it would be a relief once they were out of Ravenspire, even if she wasn't looking forward to only travelling more north as winter rolled in. At least he could sleep peacefully, knowing what could be out there at any moment.
He was a big dumb human, she considered but smiled when she didn't hear the sound again. Her big dumb human. They were friends, after all, and she was confident that nothing would ever change that. Not after everything they'd already been through. That was more than she could have ever asked for.
The rustling stopped, and her eyelids grew heavier till she finally gave in. The fire was warm, and so was the sleepy boy at her side.
They'd cover more ground in the morning, but for now, she should really get some sleep. It only occurred to her when the sun was up that, eventually, she wouldn't be falling asleep beside Callum anymore.
"Rayla? You okay?"
"Hm?" She broke out of her stupor, as they skirted the edge of the woods of Ravenspire. "Yeah."
Callum kept step with her, Zym perched on his shoulder. "You sure? You seem kinda distracted."
"I'm sure," she said, but she looked over at him when his fingers skirted over her palm, nearly catching her fingers.
"You promise?" he said, finding the closest thing she had to a pinky finger.
Rayla sighed. "I promise I'm okay," she relented. "Jus' thinking." And kicking herself for being disappointed when he pulled his hand away. Of course he didn't want to to hold her hand. She knew that. Stupid crush feelings.
"Alright. And if you wanna...share some of your thoughts, you could do that too."
"I know." She gave in and smiled at him. "Have you been thinking about anything of interest recently?"
"Yes, actually," he said. "I know I still got a long way to go before I can speak more of Maevic—Moonshadow tongue—" She'd been giving him lessons here and there on their morning walks, and he'd picked it up more quickly than she'd thought he would, but that still wasn't saying much. Callum gave her an excited smile. "But… could you teach me to write it, too?" he requested. "I'd like to know how to spell your name."
Rayla smiled softly, her cheeks warming up despite herself. "Sure," she said. "We can start with the words you already know. And maybe work on your pronunciation along the way," she teased.
"Yeah," he chuckled, "that's probably fair."
She nudged him. "You are doing well, though. C'mon." She glanced around them at the forest. Do you remember the word for tree?"
"Mmhm. And when it's a bush?"
She resisted the urge to squeeze his cheeks, to get the right une sound. He'd get it eventually. "Close enough."
He grinned at her, clearly pleased with himself. "And you're an elvig."
She rolled her eyes. "Yes, I'm an elf. And?"
"Snassin," she corrected. Assassin. "It's one of the few words that's quite close to your languages. You remember the word for prince?" She wanted him to be able to introduce himself in a language most elves could understand, somewhat.
"Uhh… if I say yes, are you going to make me say it?"
Rayla rolled her eyes again, biting back a grin. "Maybe we should just stick to saying you're a mage."
"You're sure elves will react much better to that?" he half teased. "What if they think I'm a dark mage?"
"I'll vouch for you," she said, turning her eyes back to the fields in front of them. "Worse case scenario, they'll just call you my human."
"Oh." His voice cracked a little and Rayla suddenly realized how that sounded. "Worse case scenario, huh? That doesn't sound too bad. I mean, it's not ideal, but I—I wouldn't mind."
Rayla looked over at him and tried to keep her face neutral. "You'd really want to be known as my human?" she said skeptically.
Callum shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck, a flush staining his cheeks. "It's not the worst thing. I mean, it's better than step-prince. And it's true, I mean… we are each other's… partner, right? In our mission?"
"I s'pose so." Oh, she hoped she wasn't blushing as much as he was.
Callum looked around when Zym moved off his shoulder, having spied a moonmoth, and he seized the dragon round the middle before he could fly off. "Zym, no," he scolded, and like that, the spell was broken, and Rayla let out a cough in relief as the heat faded from her face. Zym let out a whine. "I know, but you can't right now," Callum said. "We'll stop soon and then we'll feed you, okay?"
Rayla smiled at them, and looked back at the horizon—and then all the air left her lungs, and she grabbed Callum's arm. "Callum," she hissed, and stopped in her tracks, hauling him along with her behind the nearest tree.
He peered over her shoulder, and exhaled. "Skywing elves." They stood near the curve of the forest, a good thirty feet away, tall with feathery wings and dark hair, bending and picking flowers. Food?
Rayla cursed under her breath. "We can't go around them. We'll have to go into the woods, deep enough they won't see us if they enter, and then walk back out once they're gone."
"You're sure that's a good idea?" he said. "With the ravens?"
"No," she ground out, "but what choice do we have?"
Callum took a breath, before following her back into the woods, further into where the trees and foliage clustered together. They walked quickly, quietly, avoiding roots and twigs and whatever else they might trip on. The light began to dim the further they went, the air thick and heavy.
"Are we far enough?" he whispered.
"When do you know if we're—"
She shushed him abruptly. "Their hearing's better than any other kind of elf, so shush!"
"You're not shushing—"
She yanked him closer by his scarf, her eyes narrowed, and he swallowed and shut up. She pressed a finger to her lips, relieved when Callum silently followed her deeper into the woods with Zym in his pack. Rayla steeled herself and then took his hand, gripping tightly.
"Uh—" he stammered, and she fought the blush rising to her cheeks. Now was not the time for it.
"Do not let go," she said. "If we get separated, we're done for. The ravens can make you hear and see things that aren't real, but they have a harder time tricking two brains at once."
Callum nodded silently, holding on tighter. Rayla wasn't sure when their fingers had shifted to interlock, but by the time she saw the tip of the Nest, his hand was tightly woven with hers, and she didn't think he wanted to let go anymore than she did. The only worrying thing was that, even though they were already this close to the Nest, she hadn't seen any ravens. Not even a flash of a beak or a single black feather. Shouldn't they have been sticking close to home?
She looked back at him, and saw his gaping face. "What is it?"
He pointed up, and she followed his line of sight: ravens were gathering in a thick cloud high above their heads. "What do we do?"
She tugged on his hand. "Run."
They bolted, holding on tight as their legs carried them as fast as they could go. Rayla took the lead, nearly dragging Callum with her; she would've carried him if it wouldn't have slowed them down even more. The branches tore at their clothes and cut at the exposed parts of her arms, and she stumbled when Callum suddenly stopped: his scarf had gotten snagged on one of the branches, now tight around his throat.
"Oh for god's sake—" Rayla huffed as she turned back around to help untangle him.
"Look I'm sorry!" he started indignantly, but they didn't have time for this as she got the last threads of his scarf out from around the sharp branch. They started to run again, but it was too late; a swarm of ravens began to descend in front of them. Rayla tried to tug him along faster, but he was weighed down by Zym, and panic rose in her throat when his sweaty fingers slipped out of hers.
"Callum!" she yelled, but as colours started to swirl around her, she shut her eyes. "Close your eyes!" she cried, hoping he could hear. "Don't let them get in your head—"
She curled in on herself, forcing herself to stay still. This wasn't real. None of this was real. Runaan was gone, perished during the mission, and he couldn't be here anyway.
All of us are dead, and it's all your fault. You ran away from the fight, just like your parents.
She bit down on her tongue, holding back every excuse and apology that was building in her throat. She couldn't acknowledge the illusion. She couldn't let it in.
And you're still running now, Runaan's voice spat. How much longer do you think you can fight your feelings? You're going to get him killed one day.
Tears stung at her eyes, leaking through her eyelids. "No, you're wrong—Callum is brave and strong, he won't—"
And even if he does live, he'll leave you. You will always be alone, Rayla. Your parents deserted, and now you pay the price.
She wrenched her eyes open and took out her blades, slashing wildly at the branches and birds swarming her. "Stop it!" Tears were streaming down her cheeks as birds flailed around her, when she saw a glimpse of Callum curled in on himself, mumbling under his breath. His eyes were screwed shut, and Zym was looking around, his eyes following the circular flight pattern of the birds; dragons weren't affected by the ravens, she remembered. Then maybe it really was…?
She took a step closer, ignoring Runaan's figure in her periphery. She had to get to Callum, and get them out of here.
A screech caught her ear, and she turned to look despite herself, and there was Callum and Zym again, but Callum's eyes were open, his eyes filled with tears as he held Zym's limp body in his arms. No, that wasn't real, she had to look away—Rayla forced herself forwards. Yes, that was the real Zym, happy and alive, and if she could just ignore the fake Callum's sobbing and the fake Zym's cries of pain—
She wrapped her arms around Callum, solid and warm and real, nearly laughing in relief when Zym licked her tears away. "Stay with me," she whispered, kneeling and drawing the boy into her lap. "It's okay. We're okay."
"—Ez I'm sorry—"
"He's okay, Callum," she said a little louder, if only to speak over the voices swirling in her ear. "He's okay. You're okay."
He thrashed in her arms, kicking. "Rayla—no, don't hurt her—"
Her heart tightened, and she touched his face, stroking her thumb under his eyes. "Callum, shh—look at me, I'm right here—open your eyes. It's okay."
Callum jerked awake, his eyes wide and wild as they found hers, and some of the panic left him. His hand found the one she had on his face, and he ran his fingers over her wrist; both of their hands were shaking. "It's really you?"
"It's me," she said, her eyes stinging again. The swarm began to subside; she didn't know why, and she didn't care, as she continued to stroke her thumb over his cheek. "'M not going anywhere, dummy."
Callum pushed himself up with more speed than she would have thought possible, and he wrapped his arms tightly around her. She immediately wrapped her arms around his waist, feeling him shake as he buried his face in her shoulder.
"They made me see you—" he choked out.
She shushed him gently. "I'm here," she whispered.
He held her tighter, his voice a bit steadier. "I'm so glad you're safe."
Her heart cracked a little, and tears trailed down her cheeks. She let herself nose lightly into his scarf. "Of course I am. I'm not going anywhere. Not ever."
He let out a tearful laugh. "Good. I don't ever want to go anywhere without you, either."
Her chest warmed, and she let him be the first to pull away. Both of them mopped at their eyes, as Zym toddled over to them, now bored with the fleeing birds. Callum frowned as he looked upwards. "Why d'you think they left?"
"I don't know," she said. "I've never heard of them just...leaving, before."
He managed a tiny smile, his eyes still rimmed with red. "Better not to question a good thing, I guess?"
"Yeah." She froze a bit when he took her hands, before he tugged her upwards with him so they were standing again.
"So, uh...where to next?"
Rayla managed a chuckle, even as her hands slipped out of his. "Um, well, we're far enough into the center that we can actually take a faster route out," she said. "The Skywing elves should be gone by now."
Callum wiped at his face, though most of his tears had dried by now. "Good. Um...thanks."
Her brow furrowed. "For what?"
"You still managed to help me even though you were probably...seeing stuff, too. I don't...I don't know if I would've made it without you."
She softened. "Let's not find out, shall we?"
Callum smiled. "Yeah." He bent down and slung his bag back over his shoulder, as Rayla scooped up Zym. "Let's get out of here."
They found a cave well past the forest when it started to rain, and took shelter. Zym lit a small fire before curling up in Callum's lap and dozing off. The prince didn't bother to even try and sit across from Rayla that night, and instead leaned against her side. He hoped it would help her too, but after what they had experienced at the Nest… he knew he needed this, at the very least. And Rayla didn't push him away; she never would, he was sure of that now.
He tried not to think of what the ravens had shown him. The images were already haunting enough. Some of the best nightmare fuel he'd ever seen.
He swallowed hard and took Rayla's hand. "I'm not gonna let anything happen to you. Ever. I promise."
Rayla smiled softly, squeezing his hand. "I know."
He didn't lighten up. "I know I'm not a fighter the way you are, but I'll always do everything I can to keep you safe. Everything."
She caught his steady gaze, and frowned. "You can't dabble in Dark Magic again."
"I will if I have to."
She grabbed his sleeve in her other hand, twisting her fingers around the fabric. "Callum, no, it's not right—"
"It doesn't matter," Callum said fiercely. "If it's to save your life, then I'll do it. Every time."
"No," she repeated. "You don't understand what happened last time. You were sick a-and I thought—you can't do that to me again—"
"Do what to you again?" he challenged.
"I thought you were going to die, Callum!" she burst. "And I couldn't do anything about it! You have no idea what that's like—"
"How do you think I felt when you went after that dragon by yourself!" he snapped, and held onto her hand tighter. "Rayla, you're my friend—you're my best friend next to Ezran and whatever you'd do for me, I'd do for you, so you better get used to it! I don't care if Dark Magic puts me on my deathbed! If you get to live longer, then it's worth it, and I know you would do the same for me if you had to." He deflated with a shaky exhale, all the anger leaving him but none of the firmness, as his eyes searched her face. What he was looking for, he didn't know. A hint of her own softness, maybe? "Wouldn't you?" he said quietly, with a slight break to his voice.
She muttered something too quietly to hear, and glared at him when he didn't look away. "Fine, alright I would! You happy now?"
"No," he mumbled.
Rayla sighed and narrowed her eyes at him. "Then what do you want to hear, you big dumb human?"
"I want—" His grip went slack on her hand. "I just want you to be okay, and today, when I thought you weren't… they made me see you die. It was one of the worst moments of my entire life."
She softened. "Callum…"
"And I—I never thought about it till that day you went back for the dragon, and it made me realize that you're always the one throwing yourself into danger and—and I can't lose you. Not like that. You mean too much to me."
Her violet eyes widened, although he didn't know why. She couldn't be that surprised by his confession, could she? If he could call it a confession. Of what, he wasn't quite sure, but he knew it was true. She'd come to mean just as much to him as Ezran did in only a little over a month and a half, and it was terrifying.
Rayla's hand left his sleeve, and she gently slid her fingers over his cheek. "How can you lose me, then?"
"What?" It was distracting, having her this close. His brain felt fuzzy, yet hyperaware at the same time, of everything. Everything about her, and the way they were sitting, and her soft fingers on his face.
"You said you couldn't lose me like that," she said. "So how can you lose me?"
His brow furrowed. "In no way, I mean—why would I ever want to lose you?" Her eyes looked like the first signs of a sunrise, when she was this close in the firelight.
"Jus' wondering," Rayla said quietly. Her fingers were warm, and slightly calloused.
"If this is about what happens once the war is over, I mean it. I want to travel Xadia with you. I might have to go back and help Ezran once in a while, but even when I do, I—I want you by my side. If you want to be."
Her face lit up, and then fell. "People wouldn't understand. You're a human. I'm an elf."
He squeezed her hand and leaned into her touch. "Who cares what other people think? And what's so hard to understand about friendship?"
Her fingers fell away from his face. "Yeah, friendship." She gave a little cough. "I guess you're right."
"Well...would you want to?"
"Y'know. Travel back and forth. With me."
She smiled, but it didn't quite reach her eyes. "Of course I will. I already said that, didn't I?"
"You said you'd travel Xadia with me," he said, keeping his eyes on her face. Was she still upset about something? "Never said anything about Katolis."
She elbowed him lightly. "Yes, I'll go to Katolis with you, dummy."
He smiled when her posture seemed to ease. "Good. I don't really wanna go anywhere without you anymore."
Rayla smiled at him and his insides turned warm. "I suppose I feel the same way about you," she said lightly.
He didn't want to let go of her hand, he realized, when she pulled her fingers away. When she moved to get into her sleeping bag and there was a twinge of missing her in his stomach. Callum stared into the fire as she fell asleep, even if his gaze wanted to drift over to her, and then he bolted upright, his heart hammering.
Oh. Oh no.
Did he have… a crush on Rayla?
Chapter 6: Zanthor
It was a relief to leave Ravenspire behind. It had taken two more days of travelling, and Rayla hadn't been able to get Runaan's warped voice out of her head. Callum was a little quiet too, which she both enjoyed and hated. It was nice to have some peace and quiet, but on the other hand, she missed his voice and him dragging her into long conversations. But she couldn't blame him. The Nest had rattled both of them.
At least now they were back on track, with Zym able to fly at longer distances before having to be carried. They weren't out of sight from any possible Skywing elves, but they stuck close to the forests and rivers and away from the mountains. Hardly any Skywing elves chose to go close to the ground, except….
They saw a group descending as they made their way towards the next village, and Rayla grabbed Callum's arm and pulled him behind a thick tree before he fully registered what was happening. They were in too wide a meadow and too far away from the edge of the real forest to go back. "Wait here," she said firmly.
"I'm not letting you go alone—"
"And it worked out last time. Just let me see, okay? Keep Zym safe." When he didn't let go of her arm, she shook it off. "They're not gonna hurt me alone, dummy. You're the one at risk. Just stay hidden. You have sky magic, you can come help if you need to, okay? If you need to."
His shoulders dropped a little. "Okay." He watched her leave the safety of the forest edge, holding Zym close in his knapsack. At least the baby dragon was asleep, taking a long nap after having flown for more than half an hour.
The Skywing elves landed when they saw Rayla. Most seemed to be adults but there were a couple of teenagers, only six elves in total. And then—hang on, why was she hugging one of the teens?
"It's alright!" she called as she let go. "You can come out!" Callum slowly stepped back out into the clearing, but somehow wasn't happy about it. She was smiling, and the elf she'd been hugging had his hand on the small of her back.
"Rayla," he said slowly, as he approached. All of the elves were staring at him intently and he could feel Zym stirring in his knapsack. "Uh, what's going on?"
"It's alright, I know them. They used to visit the village I was training in." She looked back at the elf with a fond smile and it made Callum's stomach churn. She addressed the elf that was the leader, given his sparkly horn accessories, and the teenager she'd been hugging as she stepped towards Callum. "Macchus, Zanthor, this is my friend, Prince Callum of Katolis."
Zanthor, the boy she'd been hugging, gave Callum a quick glance-over, and his jaw tightened. "You've been traveling with the human prince?" Macchus asked.
"Both of them, actually," Rayla said, stepping away from Zanthor and back to Callum. "The crown prince was with us too, but...he had other things to take care of." She smiled. "And that's not the only prince I've been traveling with." She nudged the knapsack, and Zym's head popped out as he let out a squeaky yawn. The Skywing elves gasped. "They helped me find the Egg of the Dragon Prince, and Callum saved it by allowing it to hatch in time. His name is Azymondias."
"Gods above," Macchus said softly. "I—so it wasn't destroyed?"
"My father's High Mage stole it secretly," said Callum. "Nobody else knew," except Claudia, apparently, but that wasn't important now, "until my brother found it the night Moonshadow elves arrived at our castle."
"You really expect us to believe after Moonshadow elves assassinated your father, you started travelling with one?" said Zanthor. His hair was short and spiky, his skin vaguely teal coloured, and his wings held close to his broad torso.
Callum frowned. "She didn't have anything to do with it," he said. "We all left right before...right before King Harrow passed. We had to get the Egg to safety."
"We're taking Azymondias back to his mother," said Rayla. "And...we're hoping that it can end the war." She smiled when Zym perked up, his wagging tail sticking out of the knapsack.
"Have you alerted the queen?" Macchus asked.
Rayla nodded. "We sent a message back in Eyholin. We doubt it's gotten to her yet, but…"
"You've really been travelling all this way on foot?" Macchus said.
Rayla frowned. "And by a few boats."
"Goodness, you must be exhausted. Come, we'll take you to Patola. You can rest here for a few days and travel through the sky cities. It'll be faster, too."
Zanthor balked. "No human has ever been allowed in the sky cities, Father. Much less the son of the man who killed the Dragon King."
"And he's the prince that's going to return the Dragon Prince to our Queen," Rayla said firmly. "Besides, Callum's not like other humans. He can be trusted. And he'll be able to get around the city no problem. He's a sky mage."
"Sky mage?" Macchus said. "I didn't realize there were any sky primal stones to have, in Katolis."
"He had one," Rayla said. "But he doesn't need it anymore. He connected to the sky arcanum."
More elven gasps. "Impossible," Zanthor scoffed. "No human can do that."
Rayla crossed her arms over her chest. "Are you calling me a liar, Zanthor?"
He seized up, stiff and flustered, and Callum realized he hadn't been mistaking the familiarity between them. They knew each other, and well. "No, I just mean—"
"Then believe it," Rayla said. "Because I've seen it with my two eyes." She looked back at Callum with pride in her eyes, and his spirits lifted.
"We'll take you to the mountain lodge since we'll have to go on foot with you two," said Macchus. "We'll travel the rest of the way to Patola tomorrow."
"Thank you, Macchus," Rayla said with a slight bow of her head. "I think it would be best if our entry into the city could be kept quiet? We don't want more people knowing than necessary."
"I understand. There have been more and more rebels recently, so it's for the best that this remains confidential."
"Elves who want war with the human kingdoms."
Callum stilled. "Why would anyone want that?" Despite the assassination of his stepfather, Callum didn't think that any of the human kingdoms would want to go to war over it.
Macchus' kind face turned grim. "As an excuse to wipe humans out, once and for all."
"I thought there weren't any around anymore," Rayla said, her brow furrowing.
"They stayed in hiding for a long time. But since the death of the Dragon King, they've been growing in numbers, becoming bolder."
Callum frowned. "My brother's gone back to take the throne. If anyone… there haven't been any more assassination plans made, have there?"
"Skywing elves don't typically participate in that kind of warfare," said Macchus.
Rayla winced. "I haven't had communication with any of my people since we left the castle." She took Callum's arm. "I'm sorry, I don't know."
Callum gave her a small smile. "It's okay. Thank you."
"As soon as Zym's back with his mum, we'll go straight back to help Ez. I promise."
"Thank you," he repeated. It was amazing how much she could make him feel better, and he knew she kept her promises.
She squeezed his arm, her eyes soft. "Of course."
Zanthor coughed, and she let go. "So, are we going to leave for the mountain lodge while it's still daylight, or—?"
Rayla nodded, pulling Zym out of the knapsack. "And Macchus, while we're close to the ground, Zym could use a little flying guidance from an expert."
"Ah, yes." The elf bowed a little. Callum doubted other elves would be as informal with Zym, and knew that Rayla only was just because they'd seen him poop in the woods a million times by now. "It would be my honour to serve the Dragon Prince in whatever way I can."
Zym let out a joyful chirp, almost as if he understood. He leapt out of Rayla's arms and trotted over to Macchus' side, chirping again when Macchus bowed once more. Callum shouldered his now empty pack.
"You ready?" Rayla asked him.
Callum glanced at Zanthor, who was still scowling at him, and at the other strange elves he didn't know, before he looked back at Rayla. If he asked, would she be willing to leave the Skywing elves behind? Would the elves be willing to let them go? But Rayla had faith in them, he reminded himself. That counted for something.
He exhaled slowly, and then smiled at her. "Yeah. Let's go."
The mountain lodge wasn't completely unlike the Banthor lodge, a stocky, wooden building near the base of the mountains. The only difference was that the lodge had multiple chimneys, a balcony, and sky roofs that could be opened with a strong aspiro. As wary as Callum was of travelling with what were basically strangers to him, he had to admit, this place was really nice.
Zym flopped on the ground as soon as they arrived, exhausted after a very thorough flying lesson along the way. The sky had darkened by the time they'd arrived, and Macchus lit the lamps inside the lodge with miniature fulminus spells. Callum wondered whether he could manipulate the size of the lightning, too. He'd have to try it sometime.
"The rest of us ate earlier," Macchus said, "and we rise with the sun, so we'll be heading in soon. There is food in the kitchen though, Rayla, if you and Prince Callum wish to eat."
"Thank you Macchus," Rayla said. "For everything. It really has been good to see all of you again."
The older elf smiled at her. "Goodnight Rayla." He headed upstairs after the other Skywing elves, leaving Callum and Rayla (and Zym, who had dozed off on the floor) in the main area of the lodge.
"You hungry?" Rayla asked, nudging him in the ribs.
Callum give her a goofy grin. "Maybe."
She rolled her eyes, smiling, and led him to the kitchen. A large bowl of salad and some bread and cheese were on the countertop. She watched as Callum peered into the salad bowl and picked out one of the sliced Xadian fruits in interest. "Huh," he said softly.
"What?" she smiled.
"Just try it, dummy," she prodded.
Callum popped it into his mouth and chewed. "Hm, it tastes like an orange."
Her brow furrowed. "How can anything taste like a colour?"
"What? No, I mean the fruit, like…" He nearly smiled at the puzzled look on her face. "I'll have you try some fruit once we're back in Katolis, alright?" She nodded, and they sat on the kitchen counter together, munching on bread and cheese and pieces of fruit. "How often would you come to Patola anyway?" he asked.
"Not too often. Once a summer most years? Runaan and Macchus got along, and where most of the Moonshadow elves live isn't too far from here. Another month away, maybe. We'll have to pass through the tip to get to the Dragon Queen."
Callum peeled back the outer layer of his piece of fruit. "Oh, so you and Zanthor grew up together?"
"Pretty much. We met when we were really little, anyway. He was my summer best friend, growing up. He's a good guy. He just… really doesn't like humans." Her face fell. "His mum died when he was little, in a spat at the Breach."
"No excuse," Callum said. "My dad died in one, and my mum… the Dragon King got her, too." He winced though, afterwards, even if there was no reason to mention his stepdad. Was he being too harsh?
Rayla gave him a soft smile. "I think you need to realize you're more forgiving than most, Callum."
"Well, so are you, then."
"Maybe so, but I didn't start out that way. You changed me, for the better."
He smiled. "So did you."
Her cheeks flushed a light pink. "So you see, not everyone's going to be where we are yet. The world is still trying to catch up to us. But we're making a difference. Both our peoples will come around."
She chuckled. "I don't know, he's always been pretty stubborn…"
Her voice sounded just a touch too fond though, and Callum frowned. He broke off a piece of his bread. "So, he was always just a, a friend to you?"
Rayla's brows rose. "Yes, we've always been friends. Why?"
"I dunno." Callum shrugged and tried not to curl into himself. "You two seem pretty close. Just thought there might've been something else…"
"Oh. No, I...I never had time for any of that."
"So you would've if you'd been able to?"
"What?" Rayla raised her brows, a slight frown on her face. "No. Callum, why do you even care?"
"I don't," he said quickly. "I don't care."
"Good," she said, still watching him with skeptical eyes. "Because you shouldn't."
"Well I don't know if I shouldn't," Callum considered carefully. "He kinda seems to hate me. And I don't think you'd let your emotions cloud your judgement, but it never hurts to check right?"
Rayla gave him an unimpressed look. "You are unbelievable."
"What? You know a lot about my life. I'm not supposed to be concerned at all when I find out you have a really good friend you've never mentioned before?"
"I never mentioned Zanthor because while we saw each other most summers, we were never really each other's best friends, Callum," she said, her tone growing sharp. "I didn't even have a best friend until—" She looked away from him and pushed herself off the counter. "Never mind. I'm tired. I'm going to bed."
She glanced back at him over her shoulder as she left, her voice weary but cold. This wasn't up for debate. "Goodnight, Callum."
He sighed, but let her go, rubbing at his face with his hands once she was gone. Gods, he'd been stupid, hadn't he? And now she was upset with him—rightfully so, maybe, but that didn't make it feel any better. He sighed again and slipped off the counter, his appetite gone.
Zym was snoozing in his pack, and Callum thought miserably of going to bed. He'd thought he and Rayla would share a room while they were here—it made sense for safety, and was nothing they hadn't done before—but now he doubted she even wanted to see him right now. He didn't know what he'd do to fall asleep, without her breathing to listen to. Why'd he always have to screw things up with her? Especially when she could be friends with whoever she wanted.
Ugh, why'd he have to have this stupid crush? Why couldn't he just make it go away? Things were simpler before. As simple as they could be, while they were trying to deliver a baby dragon back to his mother in the midst of a war. But at least then their relationship hadn't been weird! And now he'd have to apologize in the morning and hope she'd accept it.
As for tonight, he had to figure out where he was going to sleep, and to try and avoid going into an already occupied bedroom. He used his cube to test out the doors, seeing most of them light up the sky rune, and one light up the moon, and nothing lit up the one next to Rayla's. He sighed, the sky rune gently glowing as he held it close to his chest, and he opened the door. The bed seemed too big without her, but he was glad when Zym flapped his wings and landed on the covers, curling up against Callum's stomach. He stroked his fingers through the dragon's soft fur.
Tomorrow, he'd make it all up to Rayla. He'd make sure of it.
It was easier said than done, though. Macchus woke them all up bright and early to begin the trek up the freezing mountain, and Callum's teeth spent more time chattering than talking. He'd seen Rayla shiver and almost given his scarf to her, when Zanthor had lent his jacket ("I'm more used to the cold, up here in the sky," he'd said, and Callum had tried not to notice how well the pale blue suited her). Even worse than that was how quiet Rayla had been, and she'd barely looked at Callum all morning. And as much as he wanted to have an open discussion with her, he wasn't going to try and talk to her about the previous night in front of everyone else.
It was almost a relief when Zym stopped flying and landed in his arms for a rest; even if Zym was getting heavier with every passing day, he was warm, and Callum took the weight gratefully.
"The Dragon Prince really likes you, don't he?" said Macchus, and Callum startled slightly. He hadn't even realized the older elf, with his paling blue hair that was short and spiky like his son's, had come up beside him. A light layer of frost covered the elf's bushy mustache, but he seemed unfazed.
"Oh, uh, yeah." Callum looked down at the dragon nestled in his arms, and then up ahead, back to where Rayla and Zanthor were walking together. He wished Rayla liked him that much. "He really does."
"I admit, I was surprised at first. Perhaps a bit cautious, even. But the Dragon Prince is so at ease with you, and Rayla speaks very highly of you and the young human king."
Callum blinked. "She does?"
"Yes—you didn't hear her this morning?"
"Uh, no… I woke up late I think?"
"Oh, well, my son still wasn't too pleased with you being let into Patola, and Rayla vouched for you." Macchus frowned. "I am sorry about him. He has good reason to mistrust humans, but he should not be taking it out on you."
Callum gave him a small smile. "Thanks." He was quiet for a moment, before continuing, "He and Rayla have known each other for a long time, huh?"
"Since they were young children, yes. Although you know," Macchus chortled, "a few years ago, I think Rayla might have even had a little crush on him."
Callum's voice nearly cracked in his effort to sound disinterested. "Oh?"
Macchus leaned in with a conspiring wink. "And if you ask me, I don't think Zanthor's little crush on her has quite faded."
"Oh, well. That makes sense, I guess. Maybe. I don't know. Rayla's pretty great, but…"
"I mean, she's just—I could never have a crush on her, y'know? I could never understand. She's just a good friend."
"Hmm. Well I'm glad she has found a good friend like you. You are an unusual human, Prince Callum of Katolis."
He looked up at the sound of Rayla's voice, a bit of a hopeful smile spreading over his face; it was the first time she'd spoken directly to him all day, as she slowed and let him catch up with her. "Yeah?"
"You should be letting Zym fly," she admonished. She was still wearing Zanthor's coat. "He needs the practice."
His heart sank a little. "He was just resting," Callum mumbled.
"Well, get him ready to fly again. Maybe a little aspiro?"
"Yeah. Sure." He adjusted Zym to fit better in his one arm, the dragon raising his head, and Callum raised his other hand, trying not to think too hard about the fact he was casting sky magic in front of other sky mages, and sky elves, for the first time. He drew the now familiar rune and deep breath of cold winter air. "Aspiro."
Zym licked his cheek and then flapped his wings to catch the gust of air with a happy chirp. Zym glided on the burst of air before flapping a little higher, till he was nearly a foot above their heads.
"Attaboy Zym," Callum called after him, his heart lightening when he shared a smile with Rayla.
"You really can do magic," said Zanthor, astounded.
Rayla grinned at the boy elf. "Told you he was special."
Zanthor frowned slightly, but didn't say anything as they continued on their way, Callum with a spring in his step, now. Rayla thought he was special. He kept Zym going with more bursts of wind, until the dragon was confident in keeping himself up on his own.
"Would you like me to teach you more spells?" Macchus offered. Callum's eyes widened as he looked at Macchus.
"Would you? I mean, I'd love that, I mean—" He cleared his throat. "Yes, sir. Thank you."
"Of course, m'boy. I was a young mage like you once. Everyone has to learn from someone."
"That'd be amazing," Callum said. "I'd love to learn more magic."
Macchus smiled and raised his eyebrows. "What set you on the path of being a mage, anyhow?"
The long story? 'I stole my father's traitorous high mage's daughter's primal stone the night we were fleeing the castle and figured out what I could contribute to the group in order to be useful, but I ended up using Dark Magic and nearly died before connecting to the sky arcanum.'
Callum opted for the short story. "Rayla. I tried magic for the first time, and it worked, and she called me a mage and that just felt right."
"It seems like you two have been through much together," Macchus remarked.
"Yeah." Callum rubbed the back of his neck. "I guess we have."
He just hoped that once they had left Patola, things would go back to normal between them—whatever normal was now, anyway.
In the meantime, he did his best to keep his gaze from wandering over to her too much.
Chapter 7: A Date
get ready for an overload of cuteness
The sky city of Patola was beautiful. Tall buildings reached to the sky, piercing the sun as it hung high above the clouds. Elves were flying around, boosting themselves on wind spells to reach things up high, children soaring through the air. Tree branches crept upwards, not even weighed down by the various fruits hanging off of them. The sidewalks and rope bridges that connected the tree houses to each other were few and far between, thin and rather rickety and obviously not used by many except the very young or the very old.
Callum did his best not to gape at everything, but he knew he wasn't doing a very good job. Patola was beautiful in an entirely different way than Eyholin had been, but no less magical. He wondered if Rayla knew the city well enough to show him around. If she was willing.
Finally, though, Zanthor had to speak with one of the other elves of their travelling party, and Callum used the opportunity to join Rayla's side. This seemed to be as much privacy as they were going to get until nightfall, and he couldn't stand waiting all afternoon for another chance. "Hey."
"Hey," she greeted, cautiously but also pleased. That much showed on her face.
"I'm, uh, I'm really sorry about last night," he said quietly. "I was being a jerk."
She rolled her eyes, but a slight smile tugged at her lips. "Yeah, you kinda were. What, I don't get to see you do the jerkface dance for me?"
"I mean, I, uh, can if you want me to," he stammered, his cheeks reddening. Rayla chuckled.
"Nah, it's fine. Even if we could pass it off as a strange human ritual."
"Rayla," he half-whined, and she softened.
"Your apology is accepted," she relented, and he sighed in relief.
"Thank you." He glanced around, suddenly unsure of where to look. "So...you used to come here every summer?"
"Yeah. It's been a while, but not much has changed."
"You wanna…" His grin was cautiously optimistic. "Would you be willing to show me around, then? Just the two of us?"
"Oh." He grew nervous when her eyes widened in surprise, but then she smiled softly, her cheeks flushing a soft pink. "Yeah. That'd be nice."
"I mean, we'll have to bring Zym with us, but…" Callum shrugged, and tried to find better words. Did she have to look so pretty like that, with the sunlight filtering in through the trees and catching in her hair? "I don't know, I guess we could leave him with Macchus. He seems really nice, and it would also be nice to not have to be babysitters for a couple of hours. If you're alright with that?"
"I suppose so," she said, and then her brow furrowed. "Although if you want to learn magic from Macchus, you should probably do so today. We can explore tomorrow on our own, when we get on our way."
He hadn't considered that, but Callum shook his head; it didn't matter, in the end. "I'll ask him to write things down for me. Or I'll trade for a book or something."
"Are you sure? He's a master sky mage."
"I'm sure. Besides, they travel a lot, right? We might run into them later on again, but we won't be here again for a while."
"I guess that makes sense," she smiled. "We'll go exploring after lunch, and Zym's settled?"
Callum nodded. "It's a date." Heat rose to his cheeks cleared his throat. "I-I mean, you know, it's...a time, and a place, during a day, the way linear time works—"
Rayla smiled sweetly at him, and it did nothing to help his blathering until she placed a finger over his lips. "You're lucky I like stammering mages."
His lips were still tingling when she took her finger away, his cheeks burning. Something in him wanted to push it a bit further—so you like me?—but he decided he didn't dare, yet. Instead, he settled on, "Yeah, I am," and was rewarded with Rayla unmistakably blushing. Maybe… maybe his crush wasn't as hopeless as he'd thought.
Macchus went to a blue coloured treehouse with wide windows, spacious and brimming with books, and it was easy enough to get Zym to curl up in front of the blue lightning fireplace once lunch was finished. The older mage was happy to give Callum a book of runes he'd already completed that summer and hadn't bartered with yet, and promised it would be waiting for him once he and Rayla were back.
Yet now that it was time for their date, Callum found himself feeling stupidly nervous. Which was frustrating, because he'd never been nervous around Rayla before, and he didn't want his hands to be too sweaty in case they held hands—although the likelihood of that was slim and he had no idea how he'd work up the courage to hold her hand, during something that already bordered on very non-platonic to begin with.
"So," he began, his voice cracking slightly. "Were there any places you went to a lot during summers here?"
"Mostly at Macchus's cottage with his family," Rayla said, giving him a funny look, but luckily she didn't comment on his sudden increase in puberty. "But there was also a little cave where mages would be casting wind charms, and they were full of wind chimes. They were beautiful." She smiled softly. "We could go back there, later tonight. We'd be more likely to have the caves to ourselves."
His throat went dry, but he made up for it in enthusiasm. "Yeah. That sounds really cool. I'd love that. And… until then?"
"There's some vendors here with food, we could stop for a snack later, and there's fountains and some really splendid displays of magic I think you'd like. I could even show you the skyhorse hatchery."
"Really? That sounds amazing! I mean—" he composed himself importantly, stuffy enough to coax a giggle out of her the way he'd hoped. "I trust your judgement." He couldn't help but smile when she laughed again.
"Can I get that in writing, because you're so good at listening to me?"
"Hey," he chuckled, "I'm not that bad."
"Speak for yourself, I can think of a hundred examples this week alone—"
"I didn't realize you paid that much attention," he said, and she faltered and blushed a pretty pink.
"I just meant—" Then she looked like she wanted to sock him on the shoulder. "You—"
"It's okay," he said. "It's cute."
Her eyes widened, and she flushed even more. She took only a moment to recover though, gently shoving him in the shoulder. "Shut up," she mumbled, but she was smiling, her face still red. "We're almost at the first fountain."
Callum gestured ahead of him, feeling all too pleased with himself. The nerves hadn't faded, but they felt a bit more like butterflies, now. "Lead the way."
It looked like ice cream, and Callum supposed it would taste like ice cream too, but ice cream definitely did not magically sparkle like that. It was strange but not unpleasant, the way it crackled like soft fireworks in his mouth. "It's really good," he enthused, and Rayla gave him an easy smile as they sat by another one of Patola's fountains.
"What, did you think it might not be?"
"No, I just—didn't really know what to expect? Elven stuff is full of surprises."
She nudged his shoulder. "Including elves themselves?"
He smiled. "You certainly are."
"That doesn't seem so hard," she teased, but also mildly curious. "I don't think you had many good expectations for elves?"
"No," he admitted. "But I didn't expect you to exceed expectations for humans too."
She snorted softly. "And those were?"
"Uh, ability to eat jelly tarts?"
She shoved him, laughing. "Be serious."
"What, I am—you try growing up with Ezran. Jelly tarts are very important."
Rayla covered her mouth with her hand as she laughed, her other hand still holding her ice cream cone. "You're ridiculous."
Callum looked more closely at her ice cream. It was glittery, like his, but a pink colour instead. "What flavour did you get?"
"You know, the fruit? We literally just passed by an aarvish tree."
He glanced down at his own ice cream. "And I was just gonna say I got an orange flavour."
Rayla eyed him suspiciously. "Like the colour, or that strange fruit you mentioned?"
"Both, I guess." He held up his cone. "Wanna try it?"
"Sure." She scooted closer with a bit of hesitance. "Why not?" He held it up to her, and he tried not to look at her mouth too long as she took a lick. She tasted it thoughtfully, a slow smile spreading across her face. "Hm, not bad. Wanna try mine?"
He nodded, flushing a little as he leaned over to take a taste of her cone. It tasted a little like cherries, and a little like raspberries. "Wait, this is a single flavour?"
"Huh. Cool. You might find human dessert a bit disappointing, though."
"Hey, I won't knock it till I try it," she vowed.
"Good." He let her take another bite of his ice cream when she claimed that it did taste familiar, despite not her remembering the name of the fruit (though, really, he would have let her have another taste anyway) when Zanthor sat on Rayla's other side. Callum tried not to frown too much. What was he doing here?
"I didn't realize you were exploring," said Zanthor brightly, smiling at her. "I could've shown you the parts of the city that have changed since you were last here."
Rayla gave him a slight smile, and Callum could tell by the way her hands moved that she was trying to figure out how to navigate the situation. Was she going to go off with Zanthor after all? "Thanks, Zanthor," she said, "but there's a lot of old places I wanted to show Callum."
"I could show you both," he offered, even if he looked less pleased at the idea of Callum tugging along.
"No, that's alright. We actually have to talk more about what we're going to do when we bring Zym back to the Dragon Queen before heading in. But thank you." She stood up, taking Callum's arm. "Come on, let's go. We'll see you later, Zanthor."
Callum let her lead them away, unsure if he should feel bad or not. Zanthor was a jerk, but he was Rayla's friend, and she hadn't seen him in a while. "So, uh," Callum said, once she'd let go of his arm and they were out of Zanthor's earshot. He had just shown up out of nowhere, and his father must've told him what their plans were. "What did you wanna discuss? What we say during our audience with the Dragon Queen?"
"Oh. Um...we probably should at some point, I guess, but...I wasn't actually planning to talk about that stuff right now. I...I just wanted some time with just you, I guess."
"Oh." Callum tried not to sound too pleased, despite the warmth puffing up in his chest. "Um...it's okay if you wanna spend time with him, you know. He's your friend, and you haven't seen him in a long time."
She glanced at him. "You weren't saying that last night."
"I know. I'm sorry."
She pursed her lips. "So this… afternoon of ours, it isn't just a way for you to oneup him?"
"What? No." He looked at her, his brow furrowing. "I'm here because I want to be, with you. And if you wanted Zanthor here too I would just deal with it. Okay? You're my… you're my best friend, Rayla. It's just… scary, because I know you wouldn't leave me and stay with Zanthor, but he's an elf and he knew you before all this craziness happened, and he just seems—easier, somehow? And I thought—I was worried about you liking him more than me. Wishing he was here instead. Because right now, you're—you're all I have."
She softened. "I would never think that," she murmured. "I… I never had a real best friend before you and Ezran. I was never around kids my age that much, and I was busy training, and most of the ones I did interact with… they thought I was funny. Weird, y'know? Runaan always said I was better off on my own but I just think he didn't know what to do, and… I'm really glad I have you. I would never want anyone to take your place in my life."
Callum smiled, his heart swelling, and before he could back out, he took her hand. "C'mon," he said, "what else do you want to show me?"
Rayla chuckled and rolled her eyes. "We can start heading towards the sky horse hatchery," she said, and didn't let go of his hand, even as they started walking. He hoped his palm wasn't sweaty. "And for the record, Callum?" She gave him a radiant smile that made his insides go all warm. "I like you a lot more than I ever liked Zanthor."
His heart leapt. She didn't know, probably, that Macchus had said she'd had a crush on Zanthor—nor did he know that it was true, but… it was a good sign, right? He shifted his fingers and laced them through hers. His stomach fluttered when she gently squeezed his hand, and he ran his thumb along hers.
"I really like you too."
Rayla laughed softly, her cheeks pink. "Come on flirty prince. Let's just go to the hatchery."
The sky horse hatchery was warm and thick with hay for the eggs to lay in and the young foals to stumble around. Rayla showed him how to hold one, and where he could touch their wings, and about the different breeds, until it was getting close to being dark out and they left the warm stables behind to find the wind-chime cave.
It was a little chilly in the cave, with all the air flowing through the cave. Callum smiled when he heard faint whispers of aspiro and other variants of the spell as they passed by some of the mages on staff. They gave him funny looks, but Rayla's death glare and their joined hands were enough to make them look away. The wind-chimes hung above them, glowing different colours in the dark.
"Whoa," Callum exhaled, when they found a private chamber that had plenty of wind-chimes. "They're beautiful."
"Yeah," Rayla agreed. The chimes were especially lovely reflected in her eyes, when he looked back at her. "They are."
"I'm really glad we did this today," he said, and she turned to face him. "It was fun. Thank you." The chimes played a soft, flowing melody, notes tumbling over each other like a waterfall. The light caught in Rayla's light hair, dancing along her crown and near the base of her horns like small halos.
He took her other hand so he was holding both of them, and her face broke out into a smile. "I should be thanking you," she said. "This… date was your idea, wasn't it?"
"You're the one who showed me everything. I just...wanted to spend time with you, no matter what we were doing."
She chuckled. "Good, because it'll be hardly anything but camping in the woods for the next few weeks."
Callum laughed. "Yeah, I guess that's true." He looked at her, and his heart seemed so full of fondness it would burst. "C'mon. I'll get the chimes going." He drew up the rune with his other hand, and blew a soft aspiro around the cave. The wind-chimes swung softly, creating a quiet and flowing tune that bounced off the walls. It sounded more like something that belonged at a wedding than a cave.
Without thinking, he tugged Rayla closer. Her eyes widened, but she didn't pull away, the soft pink in her cheeks reflecting in the cave's dim light.
Her eyes darted away to the ground. "This is a date, isn't it?"
"I was hoping it was," he admitted, and her eyes found his face again. "Is...that okay with you?"
"Yeah." A soft, small smile curled her lips. "It's okay."
He drew closer, pausing only at the hesitation in her expression. He swallowed, then turned and pressed a soft kiss to her cheek, just below the dip of her eye markings. Her skin was soft and warm, and he lingered for a moment before pulling away. "It's okay," he echoed softly.
Rayla seemed both a little relieved and very pleased, and she didn't let go of his hands. Her smile was soft and radiated warmth. "Thank you, Callum."
"Of course. And hey, we got some music." He glanced around at the still swinging chimes. "Do you wanna dance?"
Rayla laughed softly. "I don't really know how," she confessed.
"Neither do I. That makes us perfect dance partners. Besides," he raised his eyebrows at her, "no one's around to see."
"Okay," she said finally. "Where should I, uh, put my hands?"
He took one of her hands and guided it to his shoulder, then took her other hand, placing his free one at her waist. With a new surge of confidence, he drew her closer, their chests nearly touching. "And now we just sway," he said, easing her into it. He supposed as an assassin, she'd really never gotten the chance to dance before. "It's simple enough."
Rayla bit her lip, swaying along with him. Once she got the hang of it, a small smile lit up her face, before it faltered. "So I guess tomorrow, once we're on the move again… things will be back to normal?"
Confusion passed over Callum's face. "What do you mean?"
"I mean we're not going to have time for things like dates, and… we'll have to focus on our mission again."
"Well, yeah," he said, still puzzled. "But that doesn't mean I won't like you. Not that much has to change."
Rayla smiled a little. "I suppose not. I guess I just…"
He squeezed her hand. "Don't worry about that. It's just you and me right now."
Her smile grew, and they began to sway more comfortably, not stopping even when the chiming began to fade. Rayla rested her head on his shoulder, careful to not have her horns poke him, but he could feel that she was relaxed too.
"Callum?" she said again.
"What are we going to do?"
They pulled away to look each other in the face, and Callum's eyes searched hers. "What do you mean?"
She glanced at their clasped hands. "About this. Our peoples… I'm an elf. You're a human. Neither of them would understand."
His lips thinned, but he tried for a smile. "Who cares what everyone else thinks? Ezran will be thrilled. And entirely unsurprised, I bet."
She didn't smile. "Your aunt… Anyone in the council, or in your court. They'll never approve."
"That doesn't matter to me. And it's not like I ever had that much standing in the royal court anyway, being step-prince, but… even if I did, even if I was in Ez's place as the king—wouldn't matter to me. And that's why we're taking Zym back to his mother right? To make a world where elves and humans can live together."
"Decades of anger and fighting isn't going to go away just by bringing Zym back. It's going to bring peace, but…"
"I know. But isn't it worth trying?" A slight crease formed in his brow. "Aren't we worth a shot?"
Her voice wavered. "Callum…"
He slowly drew away from her, holding her hand in both of his and giving it a squeeze. "Just think about it," he requested softly. "Okay? We don't have to tell anyone right now."
"Okay," she whispered, even as her face fell, and Rayla sniffled. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to ruin our date."
"You didn't ruin it. I promise." When she didn't lighten up, Callum opened up his arms. "Hey. C'mere." Rayla hesitated, and Callum's chest tightened, before she managed a soft, sad smile, and walked into his arms, hugging him tight. He held her close as she buried her face between his scarf and shoulder. "I'm sorry if I tried to move things too fast," he murmured.
"You didn't," she said. "I just don't want to make things harder for you when you go back home."
"I thought you were coming with me? When I have to go back to Katolis to help Ez?"
"I am. But it'll be different, now."
"Maybe different is good."
"It is. But it's also harder."
"Maybe. But it'll also be worth it. If you want it. And no matter what happens between us, or around us, I'll still be your best friend. I promise."
She gave him a squeeze, and then let go, giving him a watery smile, but one that reached her eyes. "Thank you, Callum."
He smiled back at her. "You wanna head in for the night?"
"In a few minutes. It's...nice, not having to worry about the rest of the world for a little while."
His smile widened. "Okay." He cast aspiro one more time, and they held each other once more, swaying in sync till the music stopped.
If he was being honest, though, so long as she was holding his hand, he didn't think it would ever stop.
Zym was sleeping by Macchus' feet at the fire when they made it back to the lodgings. He woke up with a zappy yawn when Rayla and Callum stepped closer, and bounded over to them, the older elf chuckling as Rayla scooped the baby dragon up.
"Missed you all afternoon, he did," Macchus said. "I hope you two had a good afternoon? And I have the book of runes for you here, Prince Callum." He took a thick book from beside his chair and held it out, its cover leatherbound and embroidered with silver runes.
Callum's eyes lit up. "Thank you, sir." He took the book and tucked it under his arm. "I won't forget this."
Macchus smiled. "I look forward to the end of the war. And to a future where young people like you lead us to peace."
"Thank you," Rayla said. "I already know King Ezran of Katolis will get us there."
"I expect you two will be heading off tomorrow? With the Dragon Prince, of course."
"That's the plan," Callum said. "We'll leave Patola but stay close to the sky cities. It can't be a bad thing if word of Zym's existence spreads."
"For the most part, yes. But remember to be careful of rebel elves. There aren't many, and they're scattered, but they are vicious. Some even dare to follow in Aaravos' footsteps."
Callum stilled. "Aaravos?" His father had said his cube was the Key of Aaravos, but his cube couldn't be dangerous, could it? At least, not enough to warrant the hushed, cautious tone Macchus was using.
Rayla held back a shudder. "I'll tell you later," she promised, and Callum nodded. "For now, let's get Zym to bed. Thank you for all you've done, Macchus. You've been a great help."
"Anything to help your quest with the Dragon Prince. You two get a good night's rest. The journey ahead of you is still long."
"We will," she said. "Thank you Macchus."
They headed up the stairs, Zym and rune book in hand. They walked down the hall and Callum paused in front of his door, Rayla standing in front of hers. He swallowed hard. "I, uh. It was weird. Not being around you last night, to fall asleep." He reminded himself that he knew she liked him, and plowed on ahead. "I missed you."
Rayla smiled softly. "I missed you too. I...I'd been wondering why you didn't come in."
"I didn't think you wanted me to?"
"I always do, dummy. Even when we fight. Especially when we fight. Because at least that way if something goes wrong, we… the last things we would've said wouldn't be about a fight." She took his hand and tugged him closer. "Come on. Let's go to bed."
Callum smiled and let her lead him into her room, while didn't look any different than his—there was a wider window overlooking the city, but the wood panelled walls and bed were the same, as was the adjourning bathroom—while Zym dropped from her other arm and scampered onto the bed. Callum laughed when the dragon, of course, plopped himself square in the middle of it and made himself comfortable.
"Zym, buddy," Callum said, reaching to scratch by his horns. "You gotta move a bit." Zym whined, but didn't object further when Callum nudged him a little further down to make more room, as he and Rayla got under the covers. Zym settled between their left and right shins, respectively. Callum paused, before draping an arm over Rayla's waist, his chest pressing along her back.
"Just make sure my horns don't take your eye out," she mumbled, fond.
"I won't," he said, shifting slightly so his brow pressed more against the nape of her neck than her hair. "Rayla?" he said after a long stretch of silence.
"Hmm?" she sounded a little sleepy.
"Was our date… good?"
Her hand found the one he had laying near her stomach, and she tangled their fingers together. "Yes. Now, let me sleep?"
She squeezed his hand. "Dummy," she said, but he could hear her smile, her body relaxing against his as she drifted off. Zym snuffled near their feet, and Callum smiled as his eyes closed.
Maybe he could get used to this.
Chapter 8: Fire and Rain
warning for an elf tale that gets a little gory - although not out of line with anything from Greek mythology, honestly
Things were different, after that. Most things hadn't changed: they still walked until their feet were sore, fed Zym before themselves, and walked in silence for a far bit of the day. Rayla taught him more draconic and Maevic, and over the next week they walked until even the mountains of Patola had faded from sight.
But something had, and Callum was welcome to it. They always sat a little closer to each other by the fire, walked with their hands brushing till someone held on. He didn't hesitate to rest his head on her shoulder, or hers on his. They slept closer together in the caves, sometimes switching who was curled over who. He liked holding her as much as he liked being held, and as long as they and Zym were safe that was all that really matters. He'd also grown less conscious about drawing her while she was around, or staring at her for reference (not that he didn't stare at her enough, excluding for reference) even if she hadn't asked to see any of his art of her yet.
They were still best friends, but there was something else, now. Callum wasn't sure what it was—they couldn't exactly date properly with everything that was going on—but he liked it.
"I can hear you thinking over there," Rayla said, as she used a thinner log to stoke their fire. She'd come back with some more firewood and Callum had been drawing well, her, to pass the time. She smiled and sat down next to him. "What're you thinking about?"
"Good thoughts, then," she teased lightly.
"Of course," he said, leaning closer with a nod. "And they were very distracting, so remind me where we're heading to, again?" He'd lost track of the rivers they'd been following nearly two days ago.
Rayla sighed but smiled as Zym came to lay his head in her lap now. He'd gotten so big in a sudden growth spurt this past week, he could barely fit in both of their laps combined, anymore. Callum didn't know how they were going to hide him much longer.
"We'll be going to Munryver. It's the main river that goes through nearly all the main villages and towns that Moonshadow elves live in. We're just using it as a starting point, though. When we reach the first village, I'll go in and see what news I can find."
"You don't think they'll be mad at you? They might have heard what happened in Katolis."
"They might be. But it doesn't matter. I know I did the right thing and they'll just have to live with that."
Callum smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "The world… really is messed up, isn't it?"
"Yeah it is," she agreed. "But that's why we're going to make it better. The four of us. Ez as King and Zym as King of the Dragons. And you and I… we can help humans and elves understand each other. You could help humans connect to arcanums, so they don't have to use Dark Magic."
"I've only connected to one arcanum," he pointed out, even as his smile grew. "How am I supposed to help people connect to ones I haven't? Although…" His eyes lit up. "Maybe I could connect to more than one.
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," she said cautiously, and he looked at her.
"And why not?"
She drew her knees up her to chest. "You remember when Macchus mentioned someone named Aaravos?"
"He was a Startouch elf, very talented at magic, but… he wanted more. He learned Dark Magic alongside the humans but hid his involvement. Once you were banished from Xadia, he… he called a council with the most powerful mages in Xadia, one for each Primal Source, and… he killed them, and cast a dark spell he'd invented, and he—" Rayla looked sick. "He ate them to gain access to each arcanum."
Callum's eyes widened. "But…" His stomach churned. "That can't be the only way to connect to all the arcanums, can't it? I connected to the Sky arcanum and I wasn't born with it, I could find a way to connect to all the others, couldn't I?"
"Maybe so. But… Aaravos was imprisoned for eternity for his crimes, and while elves might be able to buy you being connected to one arcanum—you can see why they'd be especially scared of a human being connected to more than one? Why they might think it's better to stop you now, so you couldn't turn out like him?"
"Yeah." He chewed on the inside of his cheek. The Key of Aaravos. The cube couldn't be something that could actually help him get out, could it?
It didn't matter. They had no idea where Aaravos was imprisoned, and it was probably someplace where two kids could never get to. But Rayla would have a better idea than he would, and now that he knew who Aaravos was, she had a right to know.
"I have something I need to tell you," he said, and took the cube out of his bag, along with his dad's letter. "I know we thought this was just a toy, but my stepdad's letter says it's something called the Key of Aaravos that's been handed down my family line for generations. I don't know what it does, but… do you think it's dangerous? My stepdad told me to find it in the Banthor Lodge. He wanted it for me, but I don't think he knew what it was."
Rayla's lips pressed into a thin line. "If it's got anything to do with Aaravos, we should probably get rid of it."
"And risk someone else having it? Someone that might actually be able and willing to free him?"
"No, Callum, I mean—we should destroy it."
Callum's throat tightened. The last gift from his father, destroyed. "If it's so important," he said, "then how come you didn't recognize it when we first found it?"
"It's a lost artefact. And nobody likes to talk about Aaravos. He's the darkest stain on our history we have." She sighed, and placed a hand on his knee. "Look, Callum, I understand why you don't want to let it go. And we don't have to do it today. I can see when we reach our first village if I can get a second opinion, and maybe it really will be nothing. Just prepare yourself for maybe having to get rid of it, okay?"
He swallowed hard. "Okay."
"Thank you," Rayla said. "I hope I'm wrong. I really do."
She squeezed his knee. "Come on. Let's get some sleep."
"You go ahead," he said, turning the cube over in his hands. "I want to draw this, first."
She sighed, but managed a smile. "Okay. Goodnight, Callum."
"Night." He smiled a little though, when she leaned over and kissed his cheek, before she curled up next to his bag and used it as a pillow. He let out a long exhale and began sketching the rough outline of the cube. He'd have to do a few models to get all the sides of the cube down.
He joined her on their shared sleeping bag when he was done, after she'd fallen asleep, and wrapped his arms around her from behind. She barely shifted.
They had another week before they reached the next elven village. They wouldn't do anything until then, and it was a small comfort; for now, anyway.
In the days that followed, when Callum wasn't thinking about the cube, or Zym, or missing his brother, or Rayla, he thought specifically about why Rayla didn't quite seem to want to kiss him. Was she just nervous, or did the gesture hold more weight in Moonshadow elf culture? Or did she just not feel ready? All of those possible answers were fine and dandy, and he had no issues with any of them, but… was it wrong that he wanted to know? Would it be alright to ask? Or would she pull away?
"You're thinking awfully loud again," she remarked, as they picked across a snowy meadow, Zym flying above their heads.
"Can...I ask you a question?"
"You just did," she teased. She chuckled when he pouted. "Fine, ask away."
"Why don't you want to kiss me?"
Any and all amusement vanished from her face. "Oh."
"S-sorry, I don't want to pry, I just—"
"No, it's okay." Her cheeks were a deep red, and it made her markings stand out all the more. "I've just… never kissed anyone before. And it might make—this, feel too real? I—I'm still kinda getting used to the fact you like me back."
"That's okay. I've never kissed anyone before either, and… We can wait. As long as you want. I just wanted to know."
"Thank you." She smiled softly. "I'm glad you'll be my first."
"Me too." His hand bumped hers before he took it, and jumped slightly. "Jeeze, your fingers are freezing."
"It's not like we have gloves," she shot back, running her cold thumb over his knuckles for good measure (although the effect was hampered by his own fingerless gloves being in the way). "Although maybe I should try and get us some better winter wear once we reach the first town… there must be something we can trade for it."
Callum looked thoughtful. "Maybe there's a job I could do, where sky magic would be useful. Since you guys don't have as much access to it here."
Rayla frowned. "Callum, Moonshadow elves are especially hostile towards humans for a reason. I don't think it's safe for you to be announcing yourself as a human mage, no less."
"C'mon, you can vouch for me. I'll be your human, remember?"
"I'm not risking your life like that, Callum."
"I don't want you to be freezing." He frowned and let go of her hand, and tugged off one of his gloves and held it out to her. "Here, we'll share. You'll just have to navigate the extra finger hole."
Rayla managed a slight smile as she took it, pulling it on. Other than the extra finger hole, it fit fine, even if it was just a little baggy. She held his bare hand in hers. "It is a little warmer now," she admitted. And it was kinda nice, Callum thought, to have his bare hand against hers for once. There was a callous along the heel of her palm, and he liked the way it felt against his smoother skin.
"You know," he said, "in Katolis, since you're a friend of Ezran and I, you'll be kinda treated like a princess. Once the war is over."
Rayla snorted. "Me, a princess," she chortled.
"Not any weirder than me being a prince. You'd at least be seen as a Lady."
Rayla wrinkled her nose. "I don't think I'd ever want to be a princess," she said. "How are you supposed to fight in those gowns? And don't they always end up as bargaining chips, in political marriages?"
"Not always. My mom was a noble lady and then a princess, and she was happy. My stepdad always said she was the best fighter he'd ever seen. He was probably biased, though, I don't see how anyone can be better than my Aunt Amaya, but she was probably just as good." He grew thoughtful. "I guess technically Aunt Amaya's a princess too by marriage, but she prefers to be called general. And she never wears dresses."
"Hm. Maybe general would suit me better, then."
"I don't know," he teased, "how's your sense of strategy?"
"I don't know," she echoed, "better than yours?" He laughed and she nudged him in the ribs, grinning. "Although honestly, I think you would be good at battle strategy, if you gave it another try. You're good with plans… even if you could use some work on how you explain them."
Callum beamed at her. "I never thought about being a general, and… I don't think that's what I want now either, but thanks." His mind drifted. "My stepdad never said it, but since I wasn't the crown prince, there was always a higher risk of me being put into a political marriage than Ez."
"Oh," Rayla said. "And… how high is that chance now?"
He grew thoughtful, then managed a slight smile. "Probably low to none, now that Ezran's king."
"Why?" His smile grew despite himself.
"Nothing. Just nice that you won't have to marry anyone you don't want."
"Though I think my stepdad would've let me, if I'd met someone I liked before a political marriage could be set up," he said. "Someone I really liked."
Rayla smiled and rolled her eyes, shoving him in the shoulder. "Shut up," she said dryly.
"I'm just saying, he would," he grinned. "Why, how do Moonshadow marriages work?"
"Well first off," she said, "assassins aren't allowed to get married. The ceremony binds two souls together. Assassins and other soldiers die too easily, which causes the other half to suffer until they die, too."
"Oh. But...if they wanted to?"
Rayla's expression grew somber. "They weren't married, but...Runaan had a partner. They never had a ceremony, but… They've been together so long, he must have felt it when Runaan fell."
Callum squeezed her hand. "I bet when you go back home, he'll be happy to see you're okay. He must have known you, growing up?"
Rayla managed a small, sad smile. "Yeah. He's nothing like Runaan, but maybe that's why they worked. Runaan was always scolding him for being too easy on me, sneaking me sweets and letting me take breaks when Runaan wasn't looking. But they could never really be angry with each other. It'll be good to see him again, even if…" She sighed. "Poor Tinker."
"His name is Tinker?"
"What? No, that's just what everyone calls him. A nickname, y'know. He always called me 'wee Rayla,' no matter how big I got."
Callum smiled slightly. "That's kind of adorable."
"Shut up," she mumbled fondly. "Did you have any nicknames?"
"Well, there was that time you called me 'sad prince,' and Camel, and dummy is pretty close to being a nickname at this point, but otherwise, no."
"I meant with your family. Y'know, your parents?"
"Oh. My… my mum did use to call me her little artist, sometimes."
Rayla squeezed his hand. "That's sweet."
Callum was silent for a long time, before he said, "Have you ever thought about trying to reconnect with your parents? Once the war is over?"
Rayla's smile faltered. "That's the tricky part," she said. "No one knows where the Dragon Guard went."
"No one's seen 'em since the Dragon King was killed."
Callum winced. "Are you sure they ran away then?"
"What else could have happened?"
"My stepdad's high mage, and Claudia… they could've found a way to transport the elves back, to be used for… for Dark Magic."
Rayla's eyes grew stormy. "Then I hope they did just run away," she muttered. "Even dying would be better than...that."
"I'm sorry," he said softly. "I didn't mean to upset you."
"The possibilities regarding my parents aren't great either way. It's alright." She managed a tiny smile. "It feels… good to have someone to talk to about it. I never wanted to talk about it with Runaan, and… Besides. You and Ez are my family now. And Zym." Zym swooped down from the sky at the sound of his name, and they both laughed. "Looks like someone wants to be carried again." Zym wagged his tail expectantly.
"Sorry bud, you're getting so big now," Callum said, and Zym let out a soft whine. "We'll rest up in a bit, okay?"
Zym stared at them, before taking off again, giving Callum a quick lick before soaring back above their heads.
"They grow up so fast," Callum hummed.
"Don't get too fond," Rayla told him. "Imagine what we're going to have to deal with when he starts breathing fire properly."
"How soon does that happen again?"
"Within the first couple of months."
"...Well, we'll just cross that bridge when we get there. I think Macchus wrote down a rain spell in here." He patted his pack, which now carried the thick book of runes.
Rayla smiled. "I'm glad Macchus got to meet you. He used to be angry, like Zanthor, before he just got...sad. He left behind his anger long ago, but I think it helped him, meeting a human who just wanted peace as well."
"Yeah. Is it crazy that it only really feels… real, now that we're so close? Like, we're actually going to do this. We're going to make history, Rayla."
Her smile grew, and she squeezed his hand. "We still have a lot of work to do," she said, "but yes, it is nice that we're so close to even just starting on the road to peace."
"Certainly not where I thought we'd be, when I heard assassins were coming to my castle," he said. "But I'm glad we're here together." And even if he still missed Ezran a lot, it was nice, to navigate and figure out him and Rayla's changing relationship on their own. To have the privacy for it.
As if reading his thoughts, she said, "You said that Ezran wouldn't be surprised… about us," and he heard her wordless question in reply.
"Don't you remember when he was behind the portrait? He somehow thought I was flirting with you by debating ethics."
The corner of her mouth lifted. "And were you?" she teased.
"The whole life or death thing kind of killed the mood for me, but if it'd been a little different, maybe. I thought you were pretty right from the start."
Rayla grinned. "You did stammer an awful lot about liking my ears."
"You're the one who brought it up. But yes, I do still think your ears are nice."
"That is a big relief," she said, and he laughed.
"So...once things are normal—well, as normal as they can be—do you wanna go on another date?"
"We're gonna be spending all our time together anyway," she smiled.
"I know, but like. A date. That's different then just sitting in a cave."
"I like sitting in caves with you," she said, and he groaned.
She laughed. "Of course I'll go on another date with you, dummy."
"Okay." He straightened up, pleased with himself. "Great."
Rayla rolled her eyes. "Dork," she muttered fondly.
Callum bumped her shoulder with his. "Yours." Rayla's eyes softened.
"Okay yes," she said, squeezing his hand. "My dork."
Zym only swooped back down from the sky when he was sleepy again, and the sky was beginning to be streaked with gray.
Three days later, they got caught out in the rain. Callum thought they would walk for longer, and wait until it started raining properly, but by the time they reached the next stretch of woods Rayla started pulling him towards a cave set in a cluster of boulders. It wasn't fast enough to escape the rain, which came pouring down with a thunderclap. They were sopping wet once they were safe inside, Zym gliding in behind them and shaking the water off his scales and out of his fur when he landed. Rayla and Callum laughed breathlessly, before he unwound his wet scarf from around his neck and wrung it out best he could.
Rayla opened up his bag on the floor and took out his cloak, draping it around his shoulders. "You need to stay warm," she said. "Rain can make humans sick."
"It's not really the rain as much as being cold makes us more susceptible to disease—" Callum bit back a laugh when Rayla shot him a look. "But yes, I'll stay warm."
She took a few logs out of his pack and got Zym's attention. He lit the fire easily. "Good." They sat close together as they drew closer to the fire, Zym sprawling out on both their laps for a belly rub; Callum indulged him. "What makes elves sick?" he asked.
"Long term exposure to certain elements, and magical creatures," she said. "Sunfire elves can get sick if they're in the cold for too long, things like that."
"What makes Moonshadow elves sick?"
"Not much. We're a little more prone during the summer, when the days are longer, but even then it's not that big of a deal. Why?"
"Just wanna be prepared for when I get to take care of you."
Rayla flushed, and she elbowed him lightly. "I've only been sick once in my whole life. You'll be waiting a very long time."
"How about I just plan on being there no matter what happens?"
Rayla beamed, pecking him on the cheek before resting her head on his shoulder. They'd gotten good at making sure her horns didn't poke him. "Maybe Runaan would've liked you after all," she said thoughtfully.
Callum shot a smile her way. "What makes you say that?"
"Given enough time, and… once he knew you really cared for me."
Callum slowly wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "Sometimes I wish I could've met him properly," he said, "and that you could've met my step dad. And my mom. It would've been hard, with our families, but... it would've been really worth it, too."
Rayla hummed softly. "Do you think your mum would've liked me?"
He smiled. "Right away. She was a warrior, and a diplomatic, and she didn't like taking shortcuts with Dark Magic."
"Oh, I like her already."
Callum's smile grew sad. "I was five, when she passed away. I just wish Ez could've known her." He hugged her closer when she wrapped her arms around his torso. "Sometimes he reminds me so much of her. Sometimes he'll laugh a certain way, or say something, and...it's like she's back, for a moment."
"I'm sorry," Rayla said softly. "It's okay to miss her."
Callum wiped at his eyes. "I know. Thank you."
She didn't fully pull away, even when he did, and kept an arm resting over his chest. It was easier to cuddle like this, anyway. "You gonna be okay?" she checked.
Callum nodded. "Yeah. I got you and Ez, don't I?"
Rayla's hand found his face, and he leaned into her touch. "We'll go home to him as soon as we can," she said. "I promise."
He smiled. "You already made that promise to me. Back in Patola."
"Well it can't hurt to make it again."
Callum's eyes brightened, warmth blooming in his chest. "Rayla?"
"Can you teach me more Maevic?"
Her eyes twinkled. "What do you want to learn tonight, then?"
"'I love you'."
She blushed deeply. "O-oh. Sure. You remember how to conjugate for 'I' and 'you'?" Callum nodded. "Alright. The Maevic noun for love is lu. Now try and fit it together."
"Make it less disjointed. The 'L' sounds should flow into each other. For Moonshadow elves, love is like the moon. Its shape may change when life grows brighter or darker, but it never goes away. The moon is always the moon. Love is always love."
"Even when someone does a terrible or stupid thing," Callum remembered, and she nodded. His brow creased in concentration when he tried again. "Iluvoye."
"Better," Rayla praised. "You'll get the hang of it soon. Anything else you want to learn?"
Callum thought for a moment, then asked, "How do you say 'May I kiss you'?"
Rayla swatted him in the arm, smiling. "There must be more practical things."
"I can't think of any that are more relevant to my life right now."
She rolled her eyes, still beautifully flushed. "How about I teach you some good negotiation words for dealing with angry Moonshadow elves? Besides me."
He let out a dramatic sigh. "Fine. But I still want you to teach me the last thing I requested."
"When the time is right," she said with an adorable wrinkle of her nose. "Now, do you remember the word for 'friend'?"
Chapter 9: Oxenmore
Callum didn’t say anything, but Rayla could tell he was nervous when they reached their first Moonshadow town a few days later. She took the cube— the Key of Aaravos , she reminded herself—from his bag and slipped it under the vest, her blades ready at her sides.
“I’ll be fine, Callum,” she said, as Zym fidgeted, too big for his spot in the boy’s arms.
“I know,” he said, but he didn’t sound any less worried. A repressed worried, maybe, but still there. Still eating him up inside.
Rayla walked over and adjusted his scarf. “I grew up around here,” she said. “Some of the villagers will know me and be glad to see me. I’ll only be gone for an hour or two at the most. Okay? If I’m not back by mid-afternoon…” She sighed, her fingers curling into the sides of his scarf around his neck. “You can come looking for me.”
He swallowed. “Okay. Be safe.”
“Thank you.” She paused, and was about to kiss his cheek when he leaned in and kissed hers, lingering for a moment. She squeezed his hands before finally going, drawing her hood over her head.
Time to see what she was dealing with, in more ways than one.
Oxenmore was as tiny as Rayla remembered it being, small wooden cabins clustered by the river. There was hardly a town centre, but the market was sizeable enough, with fresh produce coming from mostly undisturbed land. She bypassed it all and made a beeline for the one antique store in the next 50 mile radius.
Chimes rang as the door opened, the tiny building mostly void of people, but very full of various old sculptures and fine dishes. The older elf behind the counter looked up at her when she entered, and gave her a grin that was only missing a few teeth. “Ah, Rayla, it’s lovely to see you again, lass. It’s been awhile.”
“It’s good to see you again, too, Emmyth,” she said, inclining her head.
“I would’ve thought you’ve had headed back home already? A little late aren’t ya?”
Rayla managed a feeble smile. “Um, I have something I wanted you to take a look at. It, um…” She swallowed, taking the cube out of her pocket. “I just want to know if it’s dangerous.”
Emmyth took it with an aged hand across the counter, and turned it over. “It looks like a mere child’s plaything,” he said, vaguely amused.
“I found a letter, er, calling it…” she lowered her voice. “The Key of Aaravos."
Emmyth’s smile fell. “Oh dear. Has...it acted strange, while it’s been in your possession?”
“The runes light up when held up to something or someone connected to a Primal Source,” Rayla said. Emmyth held it up to Rayla to test it, then to himself, the moon rune lighting up both times. “I thought it was still just a toy even after it did that, but then the name, and…”
“You found this in the human lands?”
Rayla gulped. “Yes.”
“That’s very troubling,” Emmyth murmured. “The humans and their Dark Magic do owe Aaravos. Perhaps this was even taken in the Exodus, in hopes of awakening him someday.”
Her gut churned. “So it would be best to destroy it?”
“In theory,” Emmyth said. “Unless destroying it would unleash a greater curse. Assuming the cube is capable of being destroyed at all. Or that it isn’t a toy. Things like this are often used to teach young elves about the six primal sources, and to help them recognize the runes. The fact that the six runes together is always reminiscent of Aaravos is one of the worst things he’s done to our people.”
“I’ve never seen it before, though.”
“Like I said, it may be from a time before the Exodus. If it really has only just been glowing, it might just be a toy after all.”
“So...if it is a toy, then destroying it won’t do anything?”
“Most likely, no. But I wouldn’t risk it.” Emmyth handed it back to Rayla. “That said, as it is now, I doubt it will be of any harm to you. I wouldn’t go showing it around to any more folks, though.”
“Of course,” Rayla said, and tucked it away in her vest. Great. She hadn’t really gotten any more a straight answer.
“Does the thing hold value, to you? You look rather down, lass.”
“Not to me, no,” she said. “To a friend. Sentimental value.”
“Ah. Well, as long as your friend keeps it safe, and doesn’t plan to use it for ill, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
“He would never,” Rayla said softly. “He’s good and kind. He wouldn’t ever hurt anyone.”
“Then he should be fine,” Emmyth said. “And next time you visit, I wouldn’t mind meeting this young man of yours.” He winked.
Rayla flushed, but managed a tiny smile anyway. “Maybe someday,” she considered.
It was easy enough to slip out of town and back to her and Callum’s cave, after that. Her heart warmed at the relieved smile on his face when he looked up, Zym curled up at his back and napping peacefully. “So…?” He looked at her expectantly.
“The cube shouldn’t cause any harm,” Rayla said, “as long as we keep an eye on it.” She tossed it over to him, and Callum caught it. He cradled it for a moment, the Sky rune glowing softly, before he put it back in his bag.
“Thank you.” He looked back up at her. “Is there anything else important you learned while in town?”
“Nobody knows about Ezran yet.”
He let out a breath of relief. “Good. The council’s probably working on keeping it a secret now, too. They’ve always been pretty protective of us, so…” He smiled slightly. “He’ll be okay.”
“He will.” Rayla sat down next to him. “How’s Zym been doing?”
“Resting. He’s having to get used to flying more, and I guess growth spurts are probably a thing?”
“For about the first hundred years or so, yeah.”
Callum let out a low whistle. “He’s gonna outlive all of us by far, huh?”
“Yeah. Elves don’t live much longer than humans.”
He looked at her. “How long is ‘much longer’?”
“Another fifteen or twenty years.”
“That’s not too bad,” said Callum, but he was silently glad that Ezran was younger than him, and would therefore live a little longer. Help Rayla be less alone once he was gone.
“I guess not,” Rayla said. “Though now I’m thinking those years might be lonely, for...elves with human friends.” She glanced at Zym’s sleeping form. “And poor Zym. We’ll all be gone long before he’s a full adult.”
“He’ll have new friends,” said Callum. “New dragon friends, too.”
Rayla smiled. “He’ll like that. Friends to fly around with…” She let out a soft yawn, resting her head on his shoulder.
“I had to be on my guard in town,” she defended with a shrug.
“I can keep watch while you nap,” he offered. “Look through my runes, too.”
“A nap does sound nice,” she admitted, “but I don’t think it’s smart.”
“It’ll be harder to get moving again before dark. We shouldn’t stay too close to any one town overnight.”
“We could sleep mostly during the day, and travel at night a bit more,” he suggested. “I’d be less recognizable.”
Rayla considered this for a moment, glancing at him. “You’ll keep your hood up at all times,” she said.
“Yes’m.” Callum reached and tugged it over his head now, and Rayla rolled her eyes.
“You’re lucky you’re cute.”
Callum blushed. “I’m cute?”
She rolled her eyes, her cheeks a soft pink. “Yes, dummy. Now let me sleep."
Callum shifted and patted his thigh. “Put your head here. It’ll be more comfortable.” Rayla laid down, still flushed as she rested her head on his lap. Callum slowly ran his fingers through her hair, away from her horns. “Comfy?”
“Yeah,” she smiled up at him softly, “it’s actually really nice. Thank you."
He combed her hair back from her hairline. “Go to sleep, Rayla.”
She hummed softly, closing her eyes. When she opened her eyes again, light was fading outside. Callum’s fingers were still in her hair, but his bag and book of runes were against his side. Zym was watching the dying fire.
“Hey,” she looked up at the sound of Callum’s voice. “I was just about to wake you.”
She smiled, reaching up to place her hand over his in her hair. “Hey. How long was I asleep?”
“A few hours. You feel better?”
“Yes. Thank you.” Her chest felt very warm, despite the cold of the cave floor. She really wanted to kiss him, now, and pushed herself up. “Callum?”
He was smiling at her, all soft and tender eyed. “Yeah?”
Her heart was pounding madly, butterflies swarming in her stomach. “We should probably get going,” she said at last, and buried down her disappointment in herself. She’d overcome that someday, and soon. Just not today.
“Right.” Callum followed her as she stood up, and if there was disappointment on his face, he did a good job at hiding it. He gently nudged Zym, whose eyelids were half closed. “C’mon buddy,” he urged, as Zym let out a soft whine. “I’ll even hold you for a little bit.”
Rayla looked back at him once they were packed, their fire dead, and standing at the mouth of their cave. “Hood up.” Callum pulled up his hood and adjusted Zym in his arms, who seemed very pleased to be carried again. Rayla softened; she’d most likely be taking her turn within the next few minutes.
She picked over the dark, moonlit meadows and trekked the long way around the villages, staying close to the rivers for direction.
“Is there any reason you started disliking water?” Callum asked, just when she thought they’d walk the whole time in silence. “Or did you just always not like it?”
“I was just never fond of it,” said Rayla. “And I’m usually quite set in my ways, for both likes and dislikes.”
“Hm. Good news for me, then.”
Rayla couldn’t hide her smile, even as she rolled her eyes. “If you remember, I didn’t like you at first, dummy.”
Callum sidled up over to her. “So, when did it change?”
“Y’know, even just as friends.”
She softened. “Well if you want me to be 100% honest… the boat. When we were floating down the river and things were all quiet.”
His smile was warm. “Yeah?”
“I didn’t dislike you pretty much from the moment we decided to save the egg together, but in the boat, I knew I really could like you, after all. You were being sweet, too, which definitely helped.” And two could play at that game, she decided. “Why,” she said, batting her eyelashes at him, “when did you start to like me?”
“Romantically, or as a friend?”
She grinned. “Both.”
He thought for a moment. “I knew I could like you when you went against your leader for us. And then you offered to go back for my dad with me, and… You didn’t have to do that. I don’t know when I started liking you, though, because… by the time I was thinking about it, it’d already happened? But when you left to go after the dragon, I felt so… useless, and—I drew you. But I still didn’t know what that meant. I only figured that out the night we were in the cave and sitting really close, and you were touching my face, and… I realized that I really didn’t wanna pull away.”
Her smile softened, then grew a little sad. “I think it really hit me when...when you were sick,” she said quietly. Callum let Zym down from his arms so he could take her hand.
“Is that why you really didn’t want me in the rain?” he asked. “In case I got sick again?”
She nodded. “I almost lost you. And I was so scared, and I...I almost told you how I felt. But then you woke up, and…” She sighed. “I was just so happy you were alive.”
Callum laced his fingers through hers. “I’m here now. You’re not getting rid of me that easy.”
She smiled softly, squeezing his hand. “Good.”
“Although I am sorry it was scary for you.” A smile slowly crept over his face. “And I can’t help but wonder now what you were gonna say?”
“Nothing you don’t already know,” she said, glancing at him.
“Can’t hurt to hear it out loud, though."
Rayla snorted. “I’d never thought you’d be one to fish for compliments.”
“Hey, what do you got to lose? I already know you like me.”
Her cheeks burned. “I…” She cleared her throat. “That I liked you? I don’t know, that’s when the realization hit me. I wasn’t thinking about things.”
She shot him a disbelieving look, her other hand going to her hip. “Are you disappointed?”
“Well yeah, kinda,” he said, and she tugged him closer to her.
“You really are a fool,” she chided, and kissed his cheek. “And I like you very much.”
He smiled wide. “I like you too.”
“I know you know. I just like saying it now that I can.”
She smirked. “And you couldn’t before?”
“Not without feeling like a pining idiot.”
“And now?” she asked.
“I feel like less of one,” he grinned, and she rolled her eyes with a smile.
“It’s not really pining if the feeling’s mutual, is it?”
“I guess not, but sometimes I still can’t believe you like me back.”
Rayla’s eyes crinkled. “Sometimes I think the same thing about you, doubty prince.”
“But you’re so cool. And can do a lot of amazing things, and you’re really pretty, and…”
“And you’re the best artist I know, a talented mage, and very handsome.”
Callum squeezed her hand and gave her a broad, soft grin. “I’m really glad I have you. I know everything around us is kinda crazy right now, but… you make everything around you better. Including me.”
Warmth grew in her chest, and she wasn’t really sure what to say to that, except, “I’m glad. You keep me grounded too. Thank you.”
He squeezed her hand again, and they walked together in silence, the waxing moon bright above them. Rayla’s face seemed to glow in the soft moonlight, and he couldn’t fight the urge any longer, as he reached over and took both of her hands in his. “Rayla,” he started, nerves fluttering in his chest, but she looked open, if a little hesitant. “Can I—”
And then her expression changed to one of terror, and she grabbed him by his jacket and hauled him and Zym behind the nearest tree. He knew better by now than to ask what was going on, even as his heart pounded, her body pressed to his as she craned her neck around the tree to catch a glimpse of something and he stayed very still. He watched the reflections in her violent eyes: tall, cloaked figures with weapons, slipping through the shadows in the forest. Rayla cursed under her breath, but slowly looked away, her forehead nearly touching his.
“Rebel elves,” she whispered. “They didn’t see us, but the fact they’re here at all…” Her shoulders sagged, and his heart slowed when she leaned forwards and lightly buried her face in his shoulder. His arms wrapped around her automatically. “It’s not good,” she mumbled.
“We can take another route,” he said. “Go the longer way around and walk to avoid them.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. “I just hope they’re gone soon. It wouldn’t be good, if they found you.”
Callum’s brow furrowed. “Wouldn’t Zym be the one in danger?”
She shook her head. “Killing the Dragon Prince when they could instead bring him home, speak of the treachery of the High Mage of Katolis, and use it to start a full on war? No, it would only be a benefit to them. You—your kindness, you carrying out this mission after elves killed your father—you’re the threat to their cause.” She rested her hands on his chest and pressed her forehead against his. “I’m sorry, Callum.”
He frowned, but held her closer. “It’s okay. We’ll be okay, and we’ll figure it out. Should we keep moving, or wait to get more distance from them?”
“Wait,” Rayla said after a pause. “Maybe even once morning comes, and wait through the day, until it’s nightfall again.”
“Sounds solid,” he agreed. When her expression didn’t lighten, he took her hands in his again and gave them a slight squeeze. “Hey, I’m not worried. I have you to protect me.” He glanced down. “And Zym. It’ll be fine.”
She managed a small smile, but it faltered. “If anything happens, I want you to take Zym and run.”
Callum threw her a dry stare. “Nope, not doing that,” he said, flat and firm.
“I am not leaving you.” He took her face in his hands. “No matter what. Alright?”
Rayla’s breath quickened. “Fine,” she managed. “Just… be careful. I don’t want to lose you again.”
“You won’t. I promise.” He ran his thumb along one of her markings. “I just don’t want to lose you either. Okay?”
She managed a small smile. “You won’t lose me, dummy. Trust me."
“All the time.”
Her smile grew, and she waited, and when he didn’t take his hands away she coughed quietly. Callum flushed and snatched his hands back.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “I just—”
“It’s alright,” she said, tucking a strand of hair behind her pointed ear. “At least the coast is clear now. We just need to move somewhere a bit safer.”
Callum raised his eyebrows at her. “Like?”
“There should be caves nearby. We can get a fire going and eat and wait the day out.”
He perked up. “So, we’re basically just going to have a day to sit around?”
“Yes?” She grew shrewd. “I know that face, don’t—”
“It’s not a dumb idea,” he said, and chuckled a bit to himself. “Not this time anyway. I just thought, if we have some time… we could go on a little date of some kind?"
Rayla blinked, then smiled, flushing slightly. “Fine, it’s not that dumb. What did you have in mind?”
“Let me see where our cave is first,” he requested, “and then I’ll know what I have to work with. Next time, though,” he said with a pointed smirk, “you’re planning our date.”
Her eyes widened, before she caught herself, managing a confident smile. “Deal.” She grabbed his hand. “Now let’s go, flirty prince, so we can get to this date of yours.”
“Ours,” he corrected, and she smiled softly to herself.
They followed the rivers to a cluster of boulders, higher north but east, so they could still head in the same direction as before without running into the rebel elves. Callum was the one who spotted a cramped looking cave, but it would be big enough for the three of them and then some. Zym settled in their laps as soon as they were comfortable.
“Should we get a fire going?” Callum asked. It was still dark out.
“Probably.” Rayla nudged Zym, who was already dozing off. “C’mon little one, we’ll let you go back to sleep as soon as we have light.”
“He’s not exactly little anymore,” Callum said, smiling slightly. He got the spare firewood out of his bag. “How are we gonna hide him once he really outgrows the bag?"
“I could probably buy an illusionist amulet,” said Rayla, “enchanted to keep the wearer invisible. We could wrap it around his neck. Although…” She looked out at the dark trees outside their cave. “Maybe we should buy two. One for you and Zym.”
Callum paused, glancing at her. “Am I really in that much danger while I’m here?”
“It can’t hurt,” Rayla huffed. “I’m just thinking, with the rebel elves—”
He frowned. “Did you know they’d be here before we arrived in Xadia?”
“I knew they existed,” she said, diverting her gaze. “I didn’t think—I didn’t want to tell you before we got to the border, you were stressed enough before you connected to the arcanum, how was I—”
“No,” Callum cut her off, his voice cool. “But you were going to let me bring Ezran with us.”
Rayla straightened up and looked at him. “Callum—”
The boy shook his head, his eyes bright in the moonlight. “He’s all I have left of my family, and you didn’t tell me just how much danger we’d both be in—he can’t fight, he didn’t have magic, and you didn’t—” Callum let out a shaky sigh. “At least I won’t miss him anymore. Now I’m glad he’s back in Katolis.”
“Callum.” She reached back and placed a hand over his, and he looked up at her, her voice as soft as her touch. “I didn’t know it’d be this bad,” she said quietly. “I hoped it wouldn’t be. I thought—I didn’t think they would be in these territories. And if there were only two amulets instead of three to wear, he and Zym would be the ones wearing them. I swear. I never would have let anything happen to Ezran, and not just because he’s all you have left, because he isn’t.” She squeezed his hand. “You have me.”
A faint smile flickered on his face. “I just… I can’t lose him.” He let out a breath. “I’m sorry. I know you care about him too, and that you would never put him in danger, it just… He gets there sometimes, anyway. And now neither of us can take care of him.”
“I know.” Her other hand reached up to play with the end of his hair above the nape of his neck, and Callum closed his eyes. “But Corvus was chosen by your Aunt Amaya, and you trust her judgement?”
He reopened his eyes. “I do,” he affirmed, resting his gaze on her. “Most of the time.”
Rayla snorted softly. “Her opinion on elves notwithstanding.”
“Yes, I trust her.”
“Then trust that Corvus will take care of your little brother, and Ezran is hardly helpless. He’s smart, and strong, and I’m sure he’ll have plenty of animal helpers along the way.”
“I know. Thanks, Rayla.” He leaned against her shoulder. “I’m sorry I snapped at you.”
“Apology accepted,” she said softly. “I know you miss him. I do too. As soon as Zym’s home, we’ll send a letter to him and make our way back.”
“I know.” He glanced up at her, smiling softly. “You sure you want to come back with me?”
“Of course,” she said. “You and Ez… you’re my family, now.”
Callum squeezed her hand. “Good. Because you’re our family too. And…” He glanced over at Zym. “We’re gonna change the world. We’re gonna make a world where elves and humans and dragons can live in peace.” He let out a soft, slow sigh, and Rayla smiled.
“Till then, get some rest, sleepy prince. I’ll keep watch.”
He yawned and shifted to rest his head in her lap as a pillow. “You promise to wake me up in case anything happens?”
“I will. Don’t worry.” She gently stroked his forehead, smoothing out the slight creases and his worry, her fingers moving to his hair. “Just get some sleep, Callum.”
He settled and closed his eyes, and she listened to the way his breathing evened out. Zym’s snores soon joined it, and Rayla alternated between gazing at the crackling fire and her sleeping prince. She watched until the sun began to rise and lit up the small cave.
They’d be ready for whatever was waiting for them, she’d make sure of it.
Chapter 10: The River
Callum, at least, was bright eyed and cheerful in the morning. A little too cheerful, especially since Rayla had fallen asleep later than him, and Zym's back was warm and comfortable.
"Come on, I have something to show you," he said. Rayla pursed her lips to keep from smiling.
"Can we eat breakfast first, or are you just too excited?" she teased, resting her cheek on her head, her arm propped up on her knee.
"We probably shouldn't eat before this, actually," he said with a knowing grin. Rayla narrowed her eyes at him.
"Alright, what do you have planned? And is it going to take long? Because even that stale bread from the lodge sounds good right about now."
"I'll bring some food along so we can have a picnic afterwards. We have some leftover from yesterday and there should be berries around here. Or I could catch some fish," he said, waggling his eyebrows at her.
Rayla made a face. "Oh, no—don't tell me we're going to—"
"Come down to the river with me? Pretty please? I promise you'll enjoy it." He pouted at her. "Please? For me?"
She frowned at him. "We're not going past the point where I can still stand and have my head above water, and you're also not letting go of me."
He gave her a lopsided grin and held up his hands in defense. "Hey, I never said anything about you going in the water, although now that you mention it—"
She glared at him. "Callum."
"—yeah, that was part of my idea," he admitted. "I promise I won't let go. You trust me, right?"
Rayla managed a slight, if not wry smile. "Against my better judgement," she muttered, sitting up.
"That's the spirit!" he enthused, taking her by the hand and gesturing to Zym with the other. "C'mon bud, you can chase moon moths or something."
Zym let out a happy chirp, and Rayla groaned, but didn't let go of his hand. "The things I let you talk me into."
"Hey, I promise you'll have fun." He grew a little more serious. "Have I ever let you down?"
She softened. "No," she said with a shake of her head.
Callum perked up, his confidence renewed. "See? You'll have at least a little fun, and if you don't, we can just leave. Easy as that."
Rayla squeezed his hand. "I know. I just like complaining; you humans have rubbed off on me. C'mon, maybe the river will even be pretty and you can draw something nice."
Zym bounded ahead of them outside the cave, and they walked hand in hand after the growing dragonling, Callum shouldering both his knapsack and his book bag. At the very least, the river really was beautiful. Fresh rays of sunlight danced on its surface, burbling leisurely downstream.
Rayla eyed the water suspiciously. "The current's not too strong?"
"It's not. I promise."
"And cold?" she said, crossing her arms over her chest.
"Hey, winter's almost done, it's not snowing here, and I bet I can channel fulminus into a heating spell."
"Maybe not right now," Rayla said, remembering their time with the sea monster.
"You were the one complaining about cold," he said, but he was smiling. "Come on, we'll ease you into it. I'll even test it for you."
Rayla hadn't been prepared when Callum shucked off his jacket, then pulled his shirt off over his head. "What are you doing?"
"Getting ready to swim?"
"Oh, right." She coughed, glancing away and hoping her face wasn't as red as it felt. She weakly gestured towards the water. "Go on, then. I'm not saving you if you start drowning, though."
Callum snorted and lay his sketchbook on dry rocks near the riverbank. He was skinny, his chest paler than his face. And while he clearly didn't have any qualms about this—or maybe he did, and was just very good at hiding it—it felt strangely intimate to her. Elves didn't undress in front of one another unless it was a medic healing wounds or they were married. Maybe it was different in human culture, or maybe it wasn't, but—did he really feel this comfortable around her? In spite of the heat in her cheeks, the thought made her smile a little.
"The water's fine!" he called, his hair plastered to his face and the water up to his waist. He frowned when he saw her laugh. "What?"
"Nothing," she said, as Zym flapped along the river bank. She hid her laugh behind her hand.
Callum crossed his arms over his chest. "Look, I know I'm not muscular like Soren, but—"
Rayla couldn't help but snort. "I couldn't care less about Soren," she said. "You look just fine, dummy. Stringbean and all."
Callum pouted, but he didn't look displeased. "Why were you laughing then?"
"You look cute when your hair's wet."
A slight smile lifted his features. "Oh, well. That's fine then."
Rayla rolled her eyes, leaning back on her hands to watch as Zym hopped in the water and Callum held him around the middle while he figured out how to swim. He quickly got the hang of flapping his wings and used them to splash Callum, who could only throw his arms up in defense and laugh. Her heart warmed as she watched them, the sun's rays warm on her skin. Maybe just getting her feet wet wouldn't be so bad.
Zym soon got tired and flew his way over to the bank, flopping over onto the grass to let the sun dry his belly. Callum partially joined him, resting his elbows on the riverbank, his hair plastered over his grinning cheeks. "C'mon, Rayla! I can teach you how to swim a bit!"
"You promise you're qualified to fish me out if I mess up?"
Callum shrugged with that same dumb grin on his face, and Rayla rolled her eyes, smiling, before getting up. She hesitated before stripping down to her undergarments, unsure if she wanted him to be distracted by it or not. It'd be nice to be desired, she supposed, but they were nowhere near ready for any of that in any capacity. Hell, she hadn't even been able to work up the nerve to kiss him yet, and holding hands could still reduce both of them to blushing messes even at the best of times. But… She glanced over and saw the redness of his cheeks, even as he cleared his throat and tried to remain neutral looking otherwise, and smiled a little. It didn't hurt, though, did it.
Any flusteredness faded in the face of fear as she approached the river and dipped her toe in, the water not as cold as she expected. Maybe far enough back it was connected to a Sunfire hot spring. "So I just… slip in?" she said.
"The water's not going to bite," said Callum, his face more subdued to a light pink. "I promise, I won't let anything bad happen." When she didn't move, he propped himself up a bit more and held out his hands. "Come on. I'll help you."
Rayla smiled softly, taking his hands. "Don't let go," she said firmly, and he squeezed them.
"I won't. Promise." He backed away from the bank slightly. "See? Still standing. C'mon, one step at a time."
Rayla's grip on his hands tightened as she stepped further into the water, the level rising from her ankles, to her knees, and finally to her waist, the riverbed still solid beneath her feet. Callum didn't pull away.
"You feel okay?" he checked.
Rayla nodded, biting her lip. "I think so. It's nice that the river's more shallow."
Callum smiled. "That's good. You think you're ready to start floating?"
"I won't let go," he reassured her. "Just to get used to how it feels in the water. And then I'll have you start kicking. I'll hold onto you the entire time. Didn't you ever float in the bath?"
"Bathtime usually resulted in Runaan wrestling me into the tub to begin with," she said with a nervous chuckle. "Forget enjoyment."
"It'll be okay, I promise. Just try it for a few minutes, and if floating's still hard, we'll stop and get back on land. Okay?"
Rayla swallowed hard. "Okay." Slowly, she lifted one foot off the riverbed, then the other, her stomach lurching as the water lifted her body up to the surface. She gripped Callum's hands and he squeezed them in return, and she let herself float, if lopsidedly. Her legs kicked the water uselessly.
"Hey, it's okay," Callum said, and she focused her gaze on him to try and relax. He squeezed her hands again. "I'm right here, I'm not going anywhere."
She let out a shaky breath. "I know." She swallowed hard. "So I just… float, now?"
"Well most people lie on their back to float," he said, but when he spotted her look of panic, he reconfigured to, "But you're doing just fine like this. I can teach you how to tread water too, so you can keep yourself upright no matter where you are in a river or lake."
"That doesn't sound bad," she considered.
Callum smiled. "You sure you want to learn? You have to use your arms and legs." He held up one of their joined hands. "I'd have to let go."
Rayla scooted closer to him. "Yeah, maybe not. At least, not yet."
His smile softened. "That's okay. Thanks for taking this leap of faith with me."
Rayla returned his smile, before clumsily getting her balance back on her feet, anchored to the riverbed. "Could we try again later?" she asked. They did have a whole day to kill, until it was safe to move on.
"Yeah. You made a lot of progress just now. I'm proud of you." He studied her for a moment. "You want to go back to dry land now, don't you?"
She gave him a sheepish grin. "Yes please?"
He laughed, leaning forward and kissing her forehead before he led her back to the riverbank by the hand. He climbed out of the water first and then helped her up the slightly slippery slope, and Rayla didn't let go of his hands until their feet were firmly planted on the grass. It was colder outside the water. When she shivered, he picked his jacket up from the wrong and wrapped it around her shoulders.
"Hopefully we'll warm up soon," he said, "since it's so nice out."
"Still," Rayla said, opening up the jacket to him. He smiled, tucking into her side, and they pulled the jacket around themselves. Zym soon curled up in their laps, dry and radiating warmth. Perhaps she should have felt self conscious, pressed against Callum when they were both rather undressed, but all she felt was peace, closing her eyes when he started playing with the ends of her wet hair.
"Mind if I add a little braid?" he asked. "It looked really pretty." Rayla flushed, nodding slightly. "I know braids are important in your culture, in symbolizing relationships, is there a side or style I should avoid, or one for… people who are together? I mean… if we are together."
Her heart fluttered in her chest. "We are," she said softly. "If you want to be, too."
Rayla smiled at him and took a few locks from the midway point of the right side of her head. "Braid one here," she said. "The length symbolizes how long couples have been together, or how long they want to be together."
Callum carefully took the strands in his hand, separating them into three segments, before braiding slowly, with the same care he gave to his drawings. Rayla was already warm between Zym's heat and Callum, and she never wanted to leave.
"There," he said after a few minutes. There was a soft smile on his face as she glanced at him, and then reached for the braid he'd woven, feeling it fall all the way to the tips of her hair. He wanted to be with her for a long, long time. Her heart swelled.
Smiling, she turned back to him. "Now let me do you," she said.
His expression brightened. "In the same spot?" he requested.
Rayla chuckled, and ran her fingers through the upper portion of his hair. "I don't know if you have enough hair for that," she said, and his face fell by a fraction. "But here." She reached for her hem of her vest and carefully cut off a tiny portion with her knives, before she did a braid with the ends of his hair, closer to his jaw. She braided carefully, and then wrapped the strand to around to tie it off. "There," she echoed. "Now everyone will know we're bound."
Callum smiled, feeling the small braid near his jaw. "'Bound'?" he asked.
Her cheeks warmed as she met his eyes, soft and inquiring. "It means that I'm yours," she said. "And you're mine."
Callum's fingers reached up and brushed her cheek, and her breath stilled, but she didn't pull away. She saw the question in his eyes, and then gave a little nod, leaning in and meeting him the other half of the way. His lips were soft and and warm against her own, and it was nothing and everything like she'd thought a first kiss would be. She was just so happy it was Callum.
Butterflies were still dancing in her stomach when they pulled apart, and she laughed and rested her forehead against his when she saw the giddy grin on his face that matched her own. "Not bad, happy prince," she managed somewhat breathlessly.
"Yeah well," he said with a lopsided grin, taking her hand and lacing his fingers through hers, "you were worth the wait."
Rayla's heart swelled as she rested her head on his shoulder, careful not to poke him with her horns, Zym letting out a happy burble on their laps.
"Can we eat breakfast now?" Callum asked, breaking the moment, and she rolled her eyes even while she got to her feet, leaving his coat for him and reaching for his hands.
"Yes, dummy," she said, smiling and helping him up before she pulled on her vest, boots and pants again. "I think I saw a berry bush on our way over."
The sun had already begun to set by the time they were settled in their cave, with a fire already going and Zym curled up for a nap against the cool cave walls. They finished up the last of the berries they'd been eating all afternoon, and Callum wiped his fingers clean on the inside of his jacket pocket before he reached for his sketchbook.
"Feeling inspired?" Rayla asked with a smile.
He started sketching an outline of the river. "Yeah. I wanna remember this place."
She leaned into him, her knee brushing his. "It looks good," she reported.
He flashed her a grin. "Thanks."
She watched him draw for a moment, before she asked, "Do you ever draw me?"
"Do I?" His smile grew as he flipped to a few earlier pages. Rayla flushed; there were so many already, often in action. In some she was mid-run, or getting ready to strike, but there were also many of her just smiling, or laughing, sometimes smirking at him. There was one of her sleeping, curled up with Zym. Rayla leaned against his side, smiling softly.
"They look...really nice," she said, flushing. Not idyllic, per se, or idealized; she could still see herself in every page and sketch, and the care he'd put into each one. But they were pretty, too. "When did you start drawing me?"
"A few weeks in," he admitted. "First it was just because I was trying to figure out your hands and horns, y'know, anatomy wise, but… I uh, really should've realized I liked you sooner. It's pretty obvious in retrospect." His mouth formed an 'o.' "I guess Claudia knew something I didn't."
Rayla seemed unsure if she should smile or not. "What do you mean?"
"When we were at Lujanne's, she asked if there was...something going on, between you and me. I told her you were just a friend, but… even then I think I knew that wasn't quite right."
Rayla managed a soft smile. "Took you long enough," she teased, and Callum chuckled.
"Hey, at least it took months instead of years."
"I guess," Rayla said, rolling her eyes fondly. Her fingers slipped between his, his hand perfectly enveloping hers.
Callum finished up his drawing and wrote his best guess at the date in the corner, before he looked up at her. "So, how does date number two compare with date number one?"
"Other than that brief moment of terror in the water, I'd say it's pretty good," she said. "But both dates were very sweet. You were right about the river, too. I had fun."
Callum's eyes lit up. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. It's...a little less scary."
He squeezed her hand. "I'm glad. Facing your fears is never easy."
"Thanks for being there with me."
"Of course." He held up her hand in his. "Never letting go."
"Sap," Rayla jabbed, but she didn't let go either, even if her other hand reached up to lightly play with the braid she'd woven into his hair. "You know we're never going to have as relaxing a day as this until after Zym is returned to his mother, right?"
Callum threw her a dry look, although his smile didn't quite fade away. "I know."
"Just checking." She pecked him on the lips and felt him melt against her all the same; yeah, she could get used to this. "Come on," she said, drawing away to see his dopey grin. "Let's get started on dinner." He'd used fulminus to fry some fish, and then frozen them with aspiro frigis. They'd thaw easily over the fire.
"I've been getting better at controlling fulminus lately," he said as they waited for the fish to thaw. She smiled.
"Yeah, I noticed when you didn't burn down the entire forest while frying them."
He frowned. "Well if you don't like my cooking—" She kissed his cheek. "You're forgiven," Callum settled. Rayla laughed, leaning into his side. "So...can I still show you?"
"You promise not to electrocute me?"
Callum smiled softly, drawing a tiny fulminus rune just over her thumb. "Fulminus," he whispered, and a spark shot across her thumb. It was surprising, but not unpleasant. "See?" he gloated. "Told you."
"Not bad," she admitted quietly, and then mustered up some bravado; this shouldn't have been leaving her feeling slightly breathless. "Although I never said you were wrong, I just highly doubted you were right."
Callum let out a soft snort, another spark setting off against her skin as he ran his thumb over hers. "That was a good one," she breathed, and he blinked in surprise.
"I didn't do it that time."
Her throat went dry. "O-oh." She coughed. "Yeah, I—"
Callum leaned up and kissed her. Rayla's eyelids fluttered closed. Was he always going to be this confident when it came to her? She rather liked it. She squeezed his hand softly as she pressed her lips more firmly to his. When he pulled away, he was grinning. Did she like his smugness? Hm, maybe not as much. She shoved him lightly in the chest, smiling to herself when he laughed.
"What? Don't you want me to be a good kisser?" he said, beaming at her.
"Who said you were good?" she said, toying with his scarf, but she knew he didn't believe her, nor was it true. His hands came up to cup her elbows, and maybe it was because his hands were larger than hers, but she felt almost small for the first time. In a good way, like she didn't have to be big and shoulder everything by herself all the time. "You know," she said, more quietly and seriously, "I've been thinking about something someone once said…"
"It wasn't me this time, was it?" he said, and she laughed slightly.
"No, it wasn't," she confirmed. "It was Villads, actually. He—he said life was like a river."
Callum's mouth ticked upwards as he watched her with soft eyes. He knew they were both thinking the same thing. "Yeah?"
Her fingers curled into his scarf. "Yeah. And I'm really glad it is."
One of his hands slid up to hold hers, his smile softening as he gave it a squeeze. "Me too."
Chapter 11: The Crescents
warning for some violence and very light gore.
Morning dawned soft and bright with good weather seemingly ahead, but Callum still found himself somewhat reluctant to leave the cave behind. It, and the river, held good memories now, and today would be the beginning of the last stretch of their journey. They'd have other towns and landmarks and tougher terrain to contend with, and the threat of lurking rebel elves. At this moment, he was glad he was a mage more than ever, that if push came to shove he could do something to protect him and Rayla, and Zym.
He only realized that Rayla had started walking, Zym trotting by her side when she looked back at him and seemed to hold back an eye roll. "You coming or what?"
Callum didn't stop himself from smiling as she looked at him. "Coming," he said, adjusting the strap of his bag before catching up. "See? Packed and ready."
A smile spread over her face seemingly despite herself, and she shook her head and turned away. "Come on," she said, taking his hand. "We have a lot of ground to cover today."
He slipped his fingers between hers, enveloping them, all too happy to be generally tugged along as they trudged their way through the forests. He could tell by the curve of her palm, and the way she kept her other hand free, that she was still a little tense, and more than a little alert of their surroundings, watching and waiting for anything that could pose a threat or a warning sign. "Hey. We'll be okay."
Rayla managed a small smile. "Thanks. I hope so."
"We've taken down big fish and slugs and plenty of humans, and we escaped my aunt. What can be harder than that?"
Her eyes grew soft and fond. "Those times were different. I worried less."
"Because I was the one in more danger."
Callum's expression softened, and he ran his thumb over hers. "Yeah, well, it's time for you to get a taste of your own medicine. Worrying about you sucked." When she didn't perk up, he added, "If you really want to make sure we're a fierce fighting party though, there is something that might be cool to try."
"Dumb idea face," she said skeptically, but she nodded for him to go on anyway.
He hoped his excitement would be infectious. "I was looking through Macchus' book of runes, and apparently elven weapons can channel magic too? So I could like, make my fulminus spell course through your weapons. You have to admit, that sounds pretty cool."
Rayla's eyes widened by a fraction, and it was enough to make Callum smile. "Really? Hm. Well, as long as you don't electrocute me like you did the first time you were learning fulminus."
"Hey, I didn't electrocute you last night."
Rayla flushed. "You didn't," she relented, smiling slightly.
"Plus, I'm the first human mage in well—maybe forever, and you're a badass elf assassin, and we're probably the first human-elf couple in a while, too. We're already super cool. Why not look like it, right? My magic and your swords."
"Alright, alright," she said, fighting a growing smile, "I'll give your ideas of grandeur a shot one of these days. I do like the idea of looking even cooler than I already do. Happy?"
He leaned in and pressed a quick kiss to her cheek. "Yep."
Her blush deepened, and she pushed him away slightly with a light shove to his side. "Shut up, smug prince." She bit her bottom lip, holding back a smile as he pulled her closer again. "Would clingy prince fit better?"
That drew a pout out of him. "I'm not clingy."
"You're not," she conceded. "Hey," she said, when his pout didn't go away immediately, "I like that you stay close."
Callum managed a tiny smile. "Yeah?"
She squeezed his hand. "Yeah. Don't go where I can't follow, and all that."
They were getting the fire set up when it happened. Rayla had gone foraging just in the immediate ring of trees while Callum got their logs collected, Zym waiting nearby to light the flame. For one moment, everything had felt so peaceful. In the next, Callum turned to see shadowy figures surrounding them, as Rayla yelled, "Look out!" and Callum threw himself towards Zym.
He scrambled to scoop up the baby dragon in his arms, even if Zym was slipping out, too big for it now, while Rayla drew her swords and he looked up to see cloaked figures edging into their campsite, hoods tented by horns. Part of her was tempted to tell him to run, but she knew he wouldn't be fast enough, and there were too many elves for her to think she'd be able to keep them occupied. Their only choice was to stand and fight.
Then she heard an eerie, higher pitched tune, like a lullaby gone wrong, and panic flooded her now sluggish veins. There was no thorn to get her out of it this time, as she saw one of the elves holding a purple, spindly instrument to their lips. "Callum," she hissed to him, "cover your ears, it's a sleep spell—"
"But Zym—" The baby dragon fell asleep in his arms, and Callum's eyelids grew heavier. He stumbled and she reached out a hand for him, and missed.
"Callum," Rayla said weakly. She watched him collapse before her own eyelids fluttered shut, and everything went dark.
He was lying on something cold and hard. Callum tried to reach up to rub his neck, but found he couldn't move his wrists. He opened his eyes, having to blink a few times before his vision cleared. It was dark. He looked down at his wrists. They were bound in front of him. But where was Zym and—oh no, Rayla—
He sat up, trying to ignore the crick in his neck as he looked around frantically for the silhouette of her horns or the glint of her white braid in the dim light. "Rayla?" he called, his voice dry and cracking.
"Callum?" Her voice was weak, but it was there all the same, and he almost collapsed in relief.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. How about you?"
"I...don't know where we are. But at least we're together." He scooted closer to the sound of her voice, but found bars instead. He saw her face, paler than usual, and gripped at the bars that separated them. They were in a dark hallway of cells, largely empty. Some kind of compound? And one run by the rebel elves. The sooner they got out of there, the better. "Where are we? Where's Zym?"
"I don't know. They were on us so fast, with a sleeping spell—they must have been tracking us." Her face hardened. "I should've known better, I could have acted faster—"
Callum frowned. How could she blame herself even at a time like this? When she was the only thing keeping from crying in fear. "This is not your fault," he said firmly," but she shushed him when the door opened and some light filtered in.
"Just let me do the talking," she said. "I have a plan."
The elves trouped in, an amalgamation of all different types and seemingly all in their mid to late 20s, but the leader seemed to be a Sunfire elf with long dark hair and an ugly snarl on his face. A Moonshadow elf near the back, male and lean, looked surprised to see Rayla—did he know her?—before his eyes flicked back to the leader.
"I am Arnath," the Sunfire elf said.
"Rayla of Ryling," she said, rising to her feet. "What in gods' name are you doing?" She jerked her bound wrists towards Callum. "I was escorting the Dragon Prince home along with my captive, and you capture us?"
"That's not the stories I've heard," Arnath remarked.
"Shows what you know," she said stubbornly. "He's the brother of the new king of Katolis. You think when I fled after King Harrow's assassination I wasn't going to take a very valuable hostage with me when the opportunity arose?"
Arnath narrowed his eyes at her. "So you won't mind if we question the boy, then?"
"He's an idiot, so I don't know how much useful information you'd get," she said. "But sure, go ahead."
They unlocked Callum's cell, and they pulled him to his feet, roughly pushing him forward. They forced him down to his knees as Arnath looked down at him with glittering, gold eyes. "What's your name?" he demanded.
"What's it to you?" Callum said, glowering back. The anger was streaked with pain when Arnath drew back a hand and slapped him so hard the sound echoed around the dingy halls of whatever sort of compound they were in.
"Your name," Arnath said.
"Prince Callum of Katolis," he coughed. "Stepson to King Harrow."
"Ah yes, your baby brother just took the throne," Arnath said. "I can't wait to see elves kill him too."
Callum's jaw clenched, but otherwise he tried not to show any other emotion. He was trying to get to him.
"There are rumours your father's High Mage started attacking the other human kingdoms," Arnath said. "Is that true?"
"I wouldn't know," Callum said, "considering I've been a hostage since elves like you murdered my father."
Arnath stood up straighter and spat at him. "Humans are scum of the earth. It's about time plans were put in place to wipe you all out.
"So you can set the world on fire all on your own?" Callum tried not to flinch when Arnath's hand raised.
"Surprising," he said instead, "that you were kept alive for so long. If you were a hostage."
"I have a lot of patience," said Rayla dryly. "Can you let us go now? The dragonling trusts me, and we're nearly to his mother anyway." She gestured towards Callum. "She'll want him alive, too, in case the King of Katolis gets anymore ideas."
"Oh no," said Arnath, chuckling and shaking his head. "We can't have her Majesty indebted to you. We need her support for our cause. Returning the Dragon Prince to her is the perfect opportunity. But you two, you're both expendable. He's a human, valuable or not." Arnath smirked at Rayla. "And you're a liar.
"And what makes you so sure about that?"
"Tharon," Arnath called, and the Moonshadow elf came forward with something in his hands. Callum narrowed his eyes to look and—oh no.
Arnath took the sketchbook in his hands, opening up to a page before holding the book up. It was one of the drawings of Rayla smiling. "At the very least," Arnath said, "the human is disgustingly sweet on you."
Callum struggled against his bindings, his lungs filling up fast and quick with dread. He could hear Rayla's mind racing, to try and scrounge up some way out of his, when another Sunfire elf gripped her arm.
"We'll make her die first," Arnath said, looking at Callum, "just for that, human." He reached for the Sunforge blade sheathed at his belt and unlocked Rayla's cell.
Callum pushed himself up. "Don't touch her—" His fingers began tracing aimlessly in the dark, and it gave him a very, very stupid idea. They thought he was just a regular human, and that was going to be their undoing. He drew the rune, making sure his aim was true—he couldn't afford to almost hit Rayla—and then shouted, "Fulminus!"
Lightning exploded from his fingertips. His arms prickled and stung, as if lightning was being drawn from beneath his skin, before the impact pushed him back onto the ground. For a moment, he couldn't see, as the most lightning he'd ever conjured set the room ablaze. It took down a few of the elves, and Arnath let Callum drop as a Skywing's elf's wings fanned out angrily.
"But you don't have—" Arnath hissed, eyes narrowing. "It doesn't matter what you are. You'll still be dead by the end of this. And so you can't use those hands of yours again—Zephyr?"
The Skywing elf drew the rune as Arnath kept Callum's hands in a tight, burning grip, and he felt the heat of the lightning before it hit him. It was pain beyond the imaginable, cooking his veins from the inside out and piercing his chest, snaking all the way down. Callum screamed, blood in his mouth.
"NO!" that was Rayla, sounding close to tears. Even her voice sounded fuzzy as his vision went darker, weaving in and out of consciousness no matter how much he tried to anchor himself to her. Her voice grew ragged, more raw. Pleading. He'd never heard her plead before. "NO, STOP IT! YOU'LL KILL HIM!"
The lightning stopped coming, stopped coursing, even if the pain didn't go away, and Callum managed to weakly open his eyes. Rayla was holding a bloody Sunforge blade, and the Skywing elf was dead at her feet, a hole burned right through the middle of his chest. She grabbed her own blades from another fallen elf and went to work, slicing down two more before her blades crossed with Arnath.
"You would kill your own kind for a human?" he spat, outraged.
"For him? Yes," she hissed, and Callum closed his eyes as Rayla's blades closed on Arnath's neck.
A few of the remaining elves fled from the fire, and Rayla rushed over and dropped to her knees beside her, her face distraught. "You're going to be fine," she said, unwinding his scarf and pressing it to his wounds. "Just hold on a little longer. I'll go get Zym and—"
Everything around him grew hazy, the edges of Rayla's face beginning to blur. "Rayla—"
"No no no—don't close your eyes—" She took his hand, gripping it tightly. "Callum, you've got to stay with me—"
He squeezed her hand back, his breath shuddering and shallow. "Iluvoye."
I love you.
He saw tears form in her eyes, and her mouth forming his name, but he couldn't hear her anymore. He wished he could wipe the tears from her eyes, but at least she was okay, and he was able to see her face one last time.
A blurry blue and white figure—the other Moonshadow elf—came up behind her, but didn't have a weapon. He was… talking? His hands were glowing.
All Callum knew before he passed out entirely was Rayla's hand in his, and the loosening of his lungs.
"He took a lot of damage," Tharon said, as the wagon pulled them down the road. "It's a miracle he's still breathing."
Rayla had long stopped trying to keep the tears at bay, instead staring at his bruised, pale face. Blood had crusted at the corner of his mouth, his breath shallow and slow. Zym stayed curled by his side, although Rayla had snapped at the baby dragon when he'd tried to give helpful licks upon their reunion, when she'd managed to bring herself to leave Callum's side and have Tharon bring her to where Zym had been locked away, all the Crescents having been in the cell hallway for the interrogation. She didn't think electricity of any kind would be good for Callum right now.
She didn't feel like thanking Tharon for healing him, either, when the elf had been part of the Crescents, but she also knew Callum wouldn't have made it past the first ten minutes without Tharon's expertise. "Thank you for healing him. I'm sorry again, about your brother."
Luno had been her team's navigator into Katolis, and had fallen along with Runaan and the rest of the assassins. Rayla could see the resemblance between them, with impish faces and fine features, moon white hair, but where Luno's hair had been short Tharon's was longer and curled at the ends.
"Well," Tharon said, glancing back at Callum, who had his head resting in Rayla's lap, "it seems he lost much that day as well."
"His brother found the egg," Rayla explained, "taken in secret by the High Mage. I nearly killed him. I was only there for the King and his heir, Ezran, but Callum lied about his identity to try and take his place. Then we saw the egg and…. Everything changed." More tears came, and she gently stroked his forehead. It was clammy.
"I had heard the rumours," Tharon said. "Of the Dragon Prince, but I thought they were just that. The Crescents seemed to be the only ones still angry at what Katolis and the Pentarchy had cost us, even after King Harrow was felled. I lost my brother. I thought… I was mistaken. I never should have joined Arnath and his crew."
"You can make it up by healing him," Rayla said, suddenly too tired to be as cold as she'd intended. "Both our world and theirs will be worse without him."
Tharon glanced at her. "He said he loved you. In our tongue."
Rayla shut her eyes, letting another fresh stream of tears loose. Thinking of the low grey building they were leaving behind, and the nightmare they'd barely escaped from. The nightmare they were still powering through, until he was healed properly.
"He did," she confirmed quietly. Callum let out a soft groan, and she shushed him quietly, taking one of his hands. "It's okay, Callum. Everything's fine. We're going someplace safe, okay? We're gonna get you patched up."
His eyes weakly cracked open, one almost swollen shut. "You're okay?" he croaked, and then dissolved into a hacking fit that made Zym whine and rub against his leg.
Rayla managed a smile. "I'm fine," she said, brushing his hair back from his brow. "This is Tharon. He's going to help me help you, okay? Just go back to sleep."
Callum's eyes drifted to Tharon. "You better give me my sketchbook back," he mumbled, his eyelids drooping.
"I have it," Rayla said, which was also true. "Don't worry."
His eyes moved back to her face. "Where're we going?"
"Somewhere you'll be safe."
He hacked into his arm again, the coughing wracking his body, before he managed, "You'll be safe?"
"Yes. I promise."
"Okay." He settled back down, looking far more relaxed. "Okay."
"Are you sure going back is smart?" Tharon said, keeping his voice lowered when Callum finally dozed off again. The sky was getting dark. "For you, especially? You'll have to tell people what happened, about your fellow assassins. Runaan."
"There's a healer I trust," Rayla said. "Who can take care of him and get him back on his feet. It's our best bet, and… I can't lose him again." This may have been one of the stupidest things she'd ever done, but she didn't have a choice. "Going back to Ryling is our only option."
Tharon inclined his head. "Very well. I just hope you know what you're doing."
She clutched Callum's hand tighter. Yeah. So did she.
Chapter 12: Ryling
This wasn't how she'd planned on taking Callum into Ryling.
He was supposed to be awake, bugging her with a million questions about her hometown. He was supposed to be well and happy, trying to draw whatever caught his eye, pressing excited kisses to the bemused expression that would have been on her face. Not like this. Not with him trapped deep in fitful sleep as he'd been what felt like years before, the life nearly drained from his face. His grip on her hand was weak, but it was there, and she held onto it like a lifeline.
The sun was on the verge of rising when they finally rolled into town, and Tharon directed the horses leading the carriage with a snap of the reins. "He hasn't moved from your old homestead," Tharon said, even if it had been months since Rayla and Runaan had left. Rayla's heart clenched at the thought of Tinker waiting for them. Callum wasn't supposed to meet Tinker like this—and her having to tell Tinker that Runaan hadn't come back with her on top of it all—
Rayla sniffled quietly. "I'll carry him myself," she said when Tharon tried to carry him, her voice still sore from sobbing, as they pulled in front of her old cottage, and she got down from the wagon. She held Callum against her chest, her heart twisting a little when he curled closer to her warmth.
She jerked her head at Tharon to knock on the back door of the stone cottage, as her hands were currently full, Callum's bag draped over one shoulder and Zym trotting at her feet. Tharon did so, the knock loud and resounding, but still she worried. What if Tinker didn't hear it? What were they going to do if he couldn't—
The door opened immediately. "Rayla?" Tinker said, looking the same as when Rayla had left him: tall with soft markings along his face, and windswept white hair, if a little more worn than the last time she'd seen him. Rayla hoisted Callum closer to her chest, her guardian's eyes quickly widening as he glanced from the human boy to the baby dragon, and to Tharon. "Rayla, what is—"
"I know you must have a lot of questions," she said, "and I'll answer all of them, but please—" Her fingers curled into Callum's jacket, and her voice broke a little. She quickly blinked back tears; it wouldn't do for Tinker to think she'd lost her mind completely. "I need you to heal him first."
"But Rayla, he's—"
"Yes, he's a human, but he's my friend and I need you to heal him." Her voice must have been desperate, as Tinker stepped aside to let her into the house. Zym and Tharon quickly followed, and Tinker looked around quickly before shutting the door behind then, and then began to rummage through his drawers in the kitchen cupboards, pulling our various herbs and medicines.
Rayla carefully set Callum down on the sofa by the window, shushing him when he groaned as she reached for his jacket. "Tinker's going to heal you now," she said softly. "But we need to get at least your coat off, okay? He has to look at the…" She swallowed. "At the wounds. Can you lift up your arms?"
Callum didn't reply, although she hadn't expected him to, but he didn't pull away from her as she shimmied his arms out of his sleeves and peeled his jacket away from his chest, even if it must have hurt. It was then she realized just how much his jacket had been hiding; there were dark bloodstains on his shirt, some of the fabric burnt and browning. It looked horrible enough on fabric; what had it done to his body?
"Fulminus spell?" said Tinker, coming up beside her. There was some herbs tied with twine in his left hand.
Rayla nodded. "I think he got hit at least twice. I gave him all the water we had, but I don't know if—"
"I'll give him a tea," he said. "It will help heal any internal damage the lightning may have caused. But first, I need to crush this," he said gesturing with the leafy herbs, "and put some paste on his wounds. Can you take his shirt off?"
She looked at the dried blood. "It'll hurt," she said, wincing. "Can't we—"
"Do you want him to live?" Tinker said, disgruntled. Rayla supposed she had woken him in the middle of the night and pulled him into, with no explanation, a rather dangerous situation if anyone found out.
She bit her lip and set to work on taking his shirt off, undoing the buttons and then peeling it away as gently as she could, but Callum still hissed, barely awake but conscious enough to be in pain, his eyes wielded shut. "Hey, hey," Rayla coaxed when he tried to pull away, one of her hands finding his face, and he settled, her warmth familiar. She stroked her thumb under his eye. "Just a little longer, scarred prince. Just trust me."
He began to calm at the sound of her voice, only groaning a little when she got his shirt off all the way. Her heart nearly broke at the coursing, grotesque scars all along his chest, angry and red and glaring. All too close to his heart. She took his hand, pressing a kiss to his knuckles.
Tinker crushed the herbs and brought back some tea, and Rayla helped Callum gulp it down with uneasy breaths in between swallows. He sputtered a bit, droplets dribbling down either side of his chapped lips, but stayed quiet otherwise. He shivered when Tinker started applying the paste with wet bandages spattered with green, but held still as best he seemingly could.
There was another agonizing fifteen minutes once the last bandage was patted down before Tinker said, eyes intent, "He'll live, with enough rest," and Rayla could breathe again for the first time since they'd been captured.
"Now," Tinker said, sitting back, "do you want to explain why you're home a good month late and travelling with a human boy, a dragonling, and an elven extremist? And where my husband is?"
Rayla rubbed at her eyes with one hand, still not willing to let go of Callum's. "It's a long story," she mumbled, the exhaust of all her adrenaline leaving her exhausted.
Tinker glanced at her and Callum's hands. "I doubt you're actually going to get any sleep tonight," he remarked, and she had to admit he had a point. He'd always managed to pry things out of her and Runaan.
"It's a long story," she repeated.
"I wouldn't mind hearing it myself," said Tharon, and her eyes snapped up to him, and even Tinker shot him a look. He held up his hands. "Alright, fine, I'll… uh, what I should I do with the Dragon Prince?" Said prince was sniffing the woollen carpet on the living room floor, or eyeing the fireplace with tempted eyes.
Tinker gaped and looked back at Rayla. "The Dragon—"
"It's a long story," she said, one last time. "But I suppose," she said, reaching out a hand and Zym scampered over to her, nudging Callum's leg before she distracted him with a chin scratch, "this little guy is as good a place as any to start."
"He was destroyed, I know. So did I. Callum and I...we met in the castle. I was trying to kill him." She would have smiled faintly, but couldn't manage it now. "Everything changed as soon as we saw that egg. His younger brother, Ezran, found it. But I'd gone ahead of Runaan and the others. I thought if the Dragon Prince lived, we could call off the attack, have a chance for peace. But we'd already bound ourselves, and Runaan wouldn't listen. Callum, Ezran, and I, we took the Egg and ran… after their father was felled. We did our best to make it to Xadia after that, but ran into a few hiccups. I had to explain what my remaining binding was eventually. But we were travelling in a town near a frozen lake and… the egg fell in. Ezran dove after it and got it, but it started flickering, and…"
Rayla exhaled. This was still just the beginning after all. "Our only shot was a miracle healer, rumoured to live at the top of the Cursed Caldera. We found Lujanne, guardian of the Moon Nexus instead, but the egg didn't have anymore time to spare. Callum smashed the primal stone he'd stolen from his father's High Mage when we fled the castle, and Azymondias was hatched."
"So he…" Tinker's eyes traced the dragon's soft blue scales.
"Yes. He really is the son of the Dragon King and Queen. The human princes realized what it could mean, what it could do, if they returned him to his mother."
"Then…" Tinker looked at Callum. "Where's the other one?"
"I'll get to that," Rayla said, "but he's fine, thank the gods. We travelled by land and sea to get close to the border, and… they hadn't known for sure their father was gone. I—I had to tell them, and—" She pushed past the lump in her throat. "We were near a town when a dragon attacked, and the High Mage's children who had been tracking us took it down. I couldn't just leave it there, defenseless. But Ezran is young, he's not much of a physical fighter, and Callum couldn't do magic anymore without a primal stone."
Maybe it was because she had cried so much today, but she could still feel the rain on her skin, the heat in her blood she'd felt that day, prepared to make her last stand.
"I couldn't cut the metal chains with my blades. I thought I was going to die." She let out a soft, shaky exhale. "Callum came after me. He used Dark Magic to turn the chains to snakes and—I was so angry with him, too," she said, when Tinker opened his mouth, his eyes narrowed. "Even after he collapsed, I was angry. I was also...so scared. We let him rest, and then he wasn't waking up, and then he couldn't breathe, and Ezran was gone because he'd found out about his father and—" Rayla took a shuddering breath. "He hates Dark Magic," she said. "Callum. He said he'd never do it, except...except if it was to save me or his brother." She sniffled.
"Did he do it this time?"
She shook her head. "He didn't need to. He woke up connected to the Sky arcanum. And I know that sounds impossible, but he's not like other humans. He loves magic, and Xadia, and wanted to learn Maevic. Even when Ezran realized he had to go home to be king, Callum stayed with me, to finish our mission. To get Zym home to his mother. We were making good progress, passing through Eyholin and Patola, until we ran across the Crescents, and they took us, and… here we are. They wanted to torture him, and kill me, and start a war…"
Tinker pursed his lips, clearly struggling with himself for a moment, before he said, "Runaan?"
Rayla shook his head. "I don't think he made it," she whispered. "Although Callum might know what Katolis does to prisoners." She looked up at Tinker. "I'm sorry."
Tinker leaned down and hugged her. "It's alright, Rayla," he said gently. "We'll talk more about everything in the morning. I think you've been through quite enough for one day." Tinker's smile faded when he looked back at the prince. "You can stay with the boy if you want. I'll just grab an extra blanket and pillow."
"Thank you." She looked back at Callum once Tinker and Tharon left, the latter going to stay in the guest room, and she was relieved when her prince's face was finally at peace. "You strong, brave idiot," she murmured, running her thumb over his knuckles. She leaned over and kissed his forehead. "You need to stop scaring me like this."
Along with a blanket, Tinker brought her tea to soothe her own sore throat, his actions still mostly on autopilot, as Zym and Callum slumbered behind her.
"There's a lot I need to tell you tomorrow as well," he said, draping her old favourite blanket over her shoulders.
"But they can wait?" she checked, and he nodded.
"Get some rest, little Ray," he said, ruffling her hair. "I'm glad you're home safe."
"Thanks," she said quietly. "So'm I."
It was a struggle to fall asleep that night, but she managed, Zym curled up at her feet and listening to Callum breathe. Just breathe.
It was enough.
The first thing Callum was aware of was how much breathing hurt. The second was how much everything hurt. And the third… there was something bright and intrusive pressing down on his eyelids. His face scrunched up. What was it? He'd been somewhere dark before. And then colder, but with Rayla's voice, and—
"R-Rayla—" Was she okay? Was she hurt? Were they somewhere safe? Was she actually safe? And what about Zym, and that strange Moonshadow elf guy, and—He forced his eyes open, blinded by the sunlight streaming out of the closest window, and the way lifting his head made his lungs burn.
"Careful," she said, bracing her hand on his shoulder. Just her voice began to calm him, and he let her push him back down onto—was he on a bed? "We're safe. We're okay. Just rest. You're still healing."
"How long have I been out?" he croaked, flopping back down but keeping his eyes on her. She looked tired, but extremely happy to see him, and that kinda made up for everything.
"About two days. You've been taking down tea and milk just fine, but Tinker wants you to try to eat something in a few hours."
"Tinker? Your...wait, we're…?"
Rayla nodded. "One of the former Crescents got us out. His name is Tharon. He's been staying here too. And Zym is upstairs napping."
Callum searched her face. "Runaan isn't here, is he?" he said quietly.
"No," Rayla confirmed, smiling sadly. "He isn't. Tinker has a couple of questions about it for you, once you're feeling up to it. Just what Katolis does with its prisoners, but don't worry about that now—"
"He's awake, then."
Callum only just remembered not to sit up, otherwise he would have bolted upright. "Oh, uh—" Were only friends allowed to call him Tinker, as the tall elf walked into the room? He looked friendlier than his husband, but that admittedly wasn't saying much, with a green pendant around his neck. "H-hello, sir," he settled on finally.
Tinker sat down on his other side. "How are you feeling?"
Callum swallowed. "Uh… I'm okay. Uh, why does it hurt to breathe so much?"
"You took a large blow. Your lungs are weak, and you need time to recover." Tinker glanced at his chest. "You're lucky you survived."
"Tinker and Tharon healed you," Rayla supplied.
Callum gulped a little, and then immediately regretted the way it made his throat burn too. "Oh. Thank you. And we're all… safe here? I'm not putting anyone in danger?"
"You're fine," Rayla told him. "No one knows you're here, and Ryling… doesn't hate humans…" She trailed off in consideration. "They don't know are here?"
"Very reassuring," he said dryly.
"Yes well, this is why I'm supposed to be the one who does the saving," she shot back.
Callum frowned. "I couldn't just let them kill you."
Tinker's brow furrowed, and Callum saw Rayla avoid her father's eye. "I believe I'm missing something here," he said, and the two kids exchanged a glance.
"The Crescents were going to kill me," Rayla mumbled finally, mostly because Callum still couldn't talk much. "They had Callum tied up, but they didn't realize he was a mage. He used a fulminus spell, but it exposed him as a threat, so they went after him, afterwards."
Callum felt Tinker's eyes on him, and craned his head to meet them. "I'm sorry," he said. "About your husband."
Tinker inclined his head, but Callum couldn't read his expression otherwise. "It wasn't your fault," he said.
"Rayla said you had questions?"
"Yes." Shoulders more withdrawn, Tinker steepled his fingers together. "I just wanted to know what Katolis would do with prisoners?"
Callum's brow furrowed. "I don't know," he admitted. "We never had many prisoners in the castle dungeons when my father ruled. Most were just for smaller crimes, not…" He cleared his throat. "Following my father's death, his advisors and High Mage, Lord Viren, would be in charge of determining anyone's fate. Viren liked to use Xadian creatures to practice Dark Magic, but I don't think he would have—" Callum winced slightly. "Then again, it seems I didn't actually know him at all, either. He's the one who stole the Egg in the first place. Least Ez will have him tried for treason."
"And if Runaan survived...do you know if there's any hope of him returning home?"
"If Ez is there," Callum said. "He'll come home. My brother's a good kid. He doesn't hold grudges."
Tinker let out a breath. "Thank you."
"I hope he's alive," Callum said, "for what it's worth. Losing a family member…"
Rayla squeezed his hand. "Rest your voice," she chided gently. "How else are you going to annoy me later if you can't speak at all?"
He made a face at her, but lay back down more fully. "Where's my sketchbook?" he compromised.
"It's in the bag. Do you want me to get it?"
"Later. I just wanted to make sure it's still there." He squeezed her hand gently. "There are important things in there."
Rayla smiled softly.
"I'll go made tea and toast," said Tinker, rising. "His Highness should be able to stomach as much.
"Thank you," Callum managed, before looking back at Rayla. There were bags under her eyes, just barely hidden by the markings beneath them. "Have you been getting any sleep?"
"A little," she said. She gave him a tiny smile. "You scared me, back there."
"I'm sorry." He gave her hand a quick squeeze. "You promise you're okay?"
"I promise." He could tell by the look in her eyes that she wanted to kiss him, but was holding back.
Callum lowered his voice. "Does Tinker uh, know? And should I call him Tinker, or—?"
"I'm fairly certain he's holding onto plausible deniability," Rayla said with a wry smile. "And everyone calls him Tinker, so it should be fine."
Callum let out a slight breath. "Okay." He looked at their joined hands. "I'm really glad you're here."
She kissed his knuckles, her other hand moving to toy with the braid she'd woven into his hair. "I wouldn't be anywhere else." He closed his eyes at her touch, opening his eyes when her fingers paused. "Did you mean what you said?" she asked. "When you were…?"
"When I thought I was going to die?" he confirmed, glad when she didn't wince and nodded instead. "I meant it." He gave her a soft smile. "And I'm really glad that it's not the last time I get to say it."
Rayla smiled, her eyes welling with tears. "I love you too, Callum," she said quietly.
He beamed back at her, only brought out of the moment when he shifted a bit too much and winced. "We're not going anywhere anytime soon, are we?"
"Not for at least a week, no," she said. He managed a small smile.
"Well, it could be worse. At least we're still together."
"And we're staying together, dummy," she smiled. "Plus, we're only maybe another week away from the Dragon Queen's lair. Zym will be home so soon, it's almost unbelievable."
"And…" Callum glanced down at his chest, and the scars already forming. "These are permanent, I guess?"
Rayla's face fell. "It seems like it."
"Hey. It's okay. It means we both survived." He ran a thumb over her knuckles.
"You should still be saving your voice," she said. Callum gave her a tiny pout, one he knew would make her smile. "Callum," she said, trying to sound reproachful, even if her smile betrayed her.
Tinker coughed, and they both looked up. Her guardian had a rather flat expression on his face, a tray with tea and toast in his hands. "Am I interrupting something?"
Rayla sighed and stood up, taking the tray from him. "No," she said pointedly, "but thank you, Tinker." She brought the tray back to Callum, helping him prop up his pillow so he could eat.
"Thank you sir," he said, after a few bites.
"Don't mention it," Tinker said. "But, Rayla, there is something I wanted to talk to you about. Alone."
Rayla swallowed, before turning back to Callum. "You'll be alright here?"
"I'll be fine. You don't have to worry about me." He gave her hand a squeeze before letting go.
Maybe it was silly to be reluctant to leave him for ten minutes maximum, in her childhood home no less, in a place where he was perfectly safe, but she still felt a little uneasy as she followed Tinker to the end of the adjourning hallway. And the fact she had a feeling what Tinker wanted to talk about didn't help either. He'd held off on telling her the important things he'd mentioned the night they'd arrived, seemingly willing to wait until her dumb human prince woke up, but now…
"Look," she said, figuring she might as well beat him to the punch. "If this is about me and Callum, I—"
"It's not," Tinker said, eyeing her face, and Rayla shut her mouth, her cheeks warm.
"At least, not yet." Tinker fixed her with a hard stare and a soft sigh. "Your parents are here."
Her eyes widened. "What?"
"They wanted to see you, as soon as they knew you were safe—"
"They can forget it," Rayla snapped. "They show up after months of being cowards, they don't get to just waltz back into my life." She crossed her arms over her chest, a bitter taste in her mouth. "Do they know I'm here now?"
"No," Tinker said. "But I'm sure they'd like to."
Rayla glanced down the hall. "Too bad for them, then."
"I'm not letting two highly trained elves I barely actually know even twenty feet within the son of the man who turned them all into cowards," she said firmly.
Tinker's mouth thinned, but he nodded. "Fine. That's your call."
Rayla lowered her eyes. "Maybe once the war is over," she half mumbled. "And I'm back in Xadia, I can… speak with them."
Tinker nodded, even as his brow furrowed. "You're not staying here once the Dragon Prince is with his mother?"
"Callum and I are going back to Katolis to help his brother. I don't know how long I'll stay."
"Are you sure that's wise?"
"No. But it's what's needed."
"And you're not saying this just because you're fond of the human prince?"
Rayla's cheeks grew warm. "So what if I am? We both want the war to end."
"Yes, but what about afterwards?" Tinker let out a soft sigh. "Rayla. He's a human. And a prince. What do you think is going to happen once this little bubble you've been travelling in is popped, and the real world, real life, comes rushing back in?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "But I know the world that will exist after the war will be different than this one. And I know that no matter what happens, I'm staying with him, for as long as he needs me."
"And is it as reciprocal as you think it is? Would he make the same commitment to you?"
Rayla touched the braid in her hair. "He wove this knowing what it means. I trust him."
Tinker sighed. "I hope you're right. I just don't want you to be made a fool of, Rayla."
She frowned at him. "Don't worry," she said, an edge to her voice. "I won't be. Are we done here, Tinker?"
"Very well. Make sure he's finished his tea."
Rayla only nodded, heading out of the room and back to where Callum was in the living area. He smiled when she walked in, and her heart softened. "Everything okay?" he asked, reaching for her hand, and she let him take it.
"Everything's fine," she assured him. "After all, I'm talking to you."
Callum smiled, tired but genuine. "Thanks for taking care of me," he said softly.
"Of course. I'll always be here, you know that?"
"I know. And so will I." He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "And you know, all things considered, it's kinda cool to be back where you grew up. There must be some cute embarrassing stories about tiny Rayla I haven't heard."
Rayla snorted softly, sitting down in a chair at his side. "Maybe Tinker might have some stowed away," she said.
"Oh I hope so. Once we get back to Katolis, and Ez knows we're together, he's going to go to town."
"I've already seen the jerkface dance," she said, smiling. "Does it get much worse?"
"I'll let you be the judge of that," he grinned.
"Hmm. Good thing I'm not easy to scare off," she teased.
Callum's smile slowly faded, as he shifted slightly and she saw him hold back a wince. "Rayla?" he said, his voice suddenly small. "I'm going to be… okay, right? Eventually?"
"Yes," she said, almost firm. "You finished your tea?" He nodded. "Good. Just keep doing what Tinker says, and you'll be up in no time."
"Good." He looked relieved, as his cheeks turned a tad pink. "Can you uh, help me to the bathroom, though?"
Rayla smiled, slowly helping him sit up before carrying him off the cot. "I've got you," she said fondly. "I'm just returning the favour, like our day in the river, remember?"
That coaxed a grin out of him. "I more meant you could help me walk over, but if you want to carry me everywhere…"
"Or I could drop you," she said dryly, even as she nudged the upstairs bathroom's door open.
"I'm okay with falling for you again," he said, and Rayla very nearly actually dropped him that time.
"Dummy," she said, flushing, as she set him on his feet in the bathroom. "You're going to be okay in there on your own?"
"Yes," he said. "But if you want to wait outside the door…?"
"I have to carry you back downstairs anyway, dumb prince." She began to step out the door, then said, "Knock, or call if you can't reach the door. I'll be right here."
"Thanks, Rayla." Callum looked over her shoulder—looking for Tinker or Tharon, maybe?—before he leaned over and briefly kissed her.
She turned pink, gaping like a fish as he pulled away. "Callum!"
"What?" he gave her a mischievous smile. "You're my girlfriend, aren't you?"
Her cheeks burned hotter. "I—yes, but—" She couldn't resist smiling when he looked at her like that, his green eyes wide and fond. "Just take a piss," she said finally, pushing him back lightly and closing the door for him. She could practically hear his smug grin from behind the other side of the door.
When he knocked, she opened the door for him, catching him before he could stumble. Her heart melted when he looked up at her with a tender smile. "Thanks," he said, as Rayla helped him straighten up.
"What would you do without me?" she half teased.
"Dunno," he said with a quick grin. "Good thing I'll never have to find out."
And I know that no matter what happens, I'm staying with him. Rayla knew she'd made the right choice, and leaned in to kiss him this time. "I'm glad you're alive, flirty prince," she said, once she pulled away, sighing softly.
Callum beamed at her, eyes soft and bright. "Me too."
She should have known it couldn't last.
Chapter 13: The Calm
Three days after waking, the human prince was walking on his own again, and seemed much more chipper for it. Tinker still didn't quite know what to think of the boy, but he knew what Runaan would have said: a dangerous disgrace, best to get rid of him sooner, or perhaps that Rayla's lie of him being a hostage should turn into a truth. Runaan never would have gone down the road of the Crescents, but he had no love for humans. He would have berated Rayla fiercely for hers. And as her remaining parental figure, Tinker thought, shouldn't he do the same? No good could come from any of it.
And yet… the boy did seem sweet on her. At the very least, he did care for her. He made her laugh, easily and freely, and responded well to her snarkier moods (Rayla didn't like being cooped up, either). He played with the young dragonling too, and it was clear that—by the grace of some god—the young Dragon Prince really was fond of the son of his father's killer, too.
"Rayla's gonna kill me if I feed you too much," he said, grinning at the whimpering Dragonling. A newly empty plate was in front of him, his tail wagging as he begged for more. "Fine," Callum relented. "One more." He tossed the Dragon Prince one more piece of meat, and he caught it in the air, chomping happily. "Now don't throw up this time, okay?" Callum said, smiling when the Dragon Prince wagged his tail again. The Dragon Prince licked the boy's hand, and Callum only winced a little from the light zaps, moving to instead scratch behind the dragon's horns.
Both princes looked up when Rayla walked down from upstairs, followed by Tharon, who was skinny and not someone Tinker entirely trusted, but he'd be tried for his involvement in the Crescents later. For now, Tinker just tried not to think about the fact he was housing three technical fugitives and the world's best hope for peace.
"You didn't feed him more than two pieces of meat, did you?" Rayla checked, plopping down next to Callum on the floor.
"No ma'am," Callum said, keeping his eyes on the dragon, and Rayla snorted in disbelief.
"You're lucky he's growin'," she chided, "and is needing more food now."
"C'mon, look at him," Callum said gesturing, as the Dragon Prince made a face Tinker could only describe as puppy dog eyes. "How do you say no to that face?"
Rayla rolled her eyes fondly. "You must've spoiled Ez just as bad," she said.
Callum's smile faltered a little. "Yeah. I hope he's okay."
"He's probably back in Katolis right now," Rayla said, sitting down next to him. "And once we've returned Zym, we can probably get horses to ride back to Katolis. It'll go way faster."
"I can't wait to see him again," Callum admitted. His smile returned. "And I'm glad you're coming with me."
"Hey, I'm excited to see Ez too," she needled. "And you need someone to keep you safe."
Tinker suddenly felt like an intruder, strangely enough, and coughed to make his presence known. Or at least remind the two kids that he and Tharon were still in the adjacent room, hearing everything.
"I'm going into town to get dinner for tonight," Tinker said. "You know the rules until I get back. Stay away from the windows and—"
"Don't open the door no matter what," Rayla drawled. "We know, Tinker."
Tinker sighed, trying to hide a smile. He'd missed their little Ray, even if… Hopefully Runaan would come home someday, too. If only his weapons to bury properly. The loss of his partner still didn't feel quite real, like Runaan was still just off on a mission, but Tinker knew it would hurt, once it sunk in.
"Very well. I should be back in an hour."
"Seeya soon," Rala called back, and Tinker shut the door behind him, smiling a little. At least some things wouldn't have to change just yet.
The minute Tinker came back, though, Rayla knew something was wrong. Something in the way he walked, hesitation slowing his steps, and a crease in his brow.
"Tinker?" she said. "Is everything okay?"
"I saw your parents in the marketplace," he said quietly, setting down his baskets. "They saw how much food I was buying, and wanted to know why."
Callum popped up behind her. "Wait, what?"
"What did you say?" Rayla demanded.
"I had to say something," Tinker said, flaring up. "Enough food for four people and a dragon when I've been living alone for months—so I invited them over for dinner. I didn't have much of a choice."
"They've agreed not to tell," he said, "and you can't keep avoiding this, Rayla."
"They left me! And tell what, what did you—" Her throat closed up. "Did you tell them about Callum? Zym?"
"I told them you'd arrived home," he said. "That's it. It was too much to explain at the marketplace, and too dangerous. Besides, I likely wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes."
Rayla raised a fist. "Do you have any idea how much danger—"
Callum placed a hand on her shoulder. "Rayla, it's okay."
"No it's not—"
"I'm with you," he said. "And I know you'll keep me safe, because you're the best fighter I know. We've got this. But if you really don't want them to know, Zym and Tharon and I can hide upstairs in your room, or something." His voice cracked a little, as he added, "Trust me, there are worse things than parents wanting to reconnect with their daughter."
Rayla softened by a fraction. "I just—if something goes wrong, and we can't run—"
"Nobody but the Crescents would be stupid enough to try and kill me," Callum said calmly, but his eyes betrayed him. He was scared too, and pushing it aside for her sake. "If we need to run, you take Zym and go. I'll be a prisoner, but I'll be alive. It'll be okay. I promise."
Her bottom lip quivered. "I still don't like it," she said quietly, softening further.
"I know." His fingers slipped between hers. "But we'll be here with you, even if we can't be seen. Okay?"
Callum squeezed her hand, and Tinker cleared his throat, slightly. "Thank you, Prince Callum." Callum smiled slightly, giving him a gentle nod. "They'll be by tomorrow, and we can have you all set upstairs by tonight."
Rayla nodded, still a little numb. "Okay. Thanks, Tinker." She wiped her eyes, sniffling stubbornly. "Can we go upstairs now then?"
Tinker pursed his lips. "Go on, Rayla. Tharon and I will make dinner ourselves."
Callum shifted from foot to foot. "And can I—"
"You too, Prince Callum. Go on. We'll call you when it's time for dinner."
Tinker didn't like it, but clearly the boy had some calming effect on his daughter, and it was probably the best thing for her at the moment. Callum smiled, before getting up, and Rayla immediately helped him get on his feet, keeping an arm around him to support him as they hobbled up the stairs together.
Rayla set him down in her old childhood bedroom without much thought, until he started looking around in wide eyed interest. She flushed as she glanced at one of the walls. "I haven't been here in a while," she said. "I mainly sleep under lean-tos or in caves while training."
"It's really nice," he said. The walls were simple and white with some runes etched in with blue paint, a wide window facing where the moon set. A similar colour scheme followed suit for the rest of her furniture, including the bed he was sitting on. He smiled when he saw an old ragdoll made to look like a cat resting against one of the pillows. "Cute."
Rayla's blush deepened. "That's Clawsy," she said quickly, when he went to touch it, and he snatched his hand back.
Callum's lips curled. "Clawsy?"
"Because his claws would be good for assassinating," she mumbled. "He's old. He's… something my parents gave me when I was little, before they joined the Dragon Guard full time, and…" Rayla sank down onto the bed beside him, curling into herself. "Left."
"They came back, though," Callum said gently. "It doesn't excuse what they did in the past, but… I think they really love you. Maybe they're not always good at showing it, but…" He took Clawsy off the pillow, and held it out to Rayla. "I dunno. It's just hard to imagine someone not loving you."
Rayla softened, taking Clawsy in her hands. One of his button eyes had come loose. Frayed and forgotten, just like her.
Callum looked at her, his brow furrowing. "Do you have any needle and thread?" he asked, and Rayla looked up, startled.
"Needle and thread," Callum repeated. "My mum taught me how to sew a bit, and I practiced it over the years. I can fix his eye, if you want."
Rayla smiled softly. "Sure," she said, handing Clawsy back to him. "I think Tinker might have some in the hallway closet. I'll go check."
She found the old dusty sewing supplies on the top shelf of the closet and brought it down and back to her room. He took the supplies in his hands, and Rayla couldn't help but watch as he mended her old doll. He was so graceful, especially for someone with such big hands. He sewed the eye back on with careful stitches, leaving it good as new once he was done.
"Thanks," she said with a soft smile.
Callum shrugged and grinned. "I had to fix my scarf sometimes over the years."
Rayla looked over at him. "I tried to wash the blood out best I could, while you were asleep."
"Least it's red," he joked feebly.
She tried to maintain her smile, even as something new and sharp prodded at her heart. She hadn't given it much thought over the past few days—everything had been consumed by Callum, and his health, and his condition, and some Tinker and Tharon and her parents—but…
She'd killed people, in their escape. She'd killed elves. Four of her own kind. Her throat tightened, the air in her lungs heavier.
"Rayla?" he asked, as her breathing quickened. "Rayla, what's wrong?"
"I—" She could hardly speak, each gasping breath like swallowing thorns. Callum set Clawsy in her lap, then took her hands.
"Hey, just breathe, alright?" His voice was steady and patient. "Eyes on me. Just breathe."
She forced her eyes up and found his searching her face, and just as steady as his voice. She sank into it, the choked truth wrestling free. "I killed them, Callum."
Understanding passed over his face, and Callum stroked his thumb over her knuckles. He leaned up and kissed her forehead. "So did I."
"I just—" Tears built up in her eyes now, hot and intrusive. "I know they were terrible—not like Tharon—so I shouldn't feel—"
"It's okay," Callum said, tugging her closer by the hands, and she buried her face in his shoulder as the tears leaked out from beneath her eyelids. "It's okay."
"Runaan was right," she sniffled, curling into him. "My heart isn't hard enough, I—I'm no assassin—"
"You're right," Callum said softly, wrapping his arms around her to hold her properly. "You're Rayla. You're kind and good, with a good heart, and you're a talented fighter, and you're not a killer. You're my best friend, and you take care of Ez like he's your own little brother, and I have literally no idea what I'd do without you. You're okay. It's all gonna be okay. I promise."
Rayla clung to him, her sobs muffled into his shoulder, his coat warm and soft. She was so tired, and there was so little distance to cross, but still so much further to go, and… She didn't want to open her eyes once the tears had faded, and she'd gone quiet. "I'm tired," she whispered. He pressed a kiss to her temple.
"I know," he murmured. "I've got you."
He tucked her in to bed once he realized that she'd fallen asleep, slipping Clawsy into the crook of her elbow and taking her hand. Who knew how much sleep she'd actually gotten over the past few days? He'd go down and bring up dinner for her, for whenever she woke up. Braving the stairs on his own was something he hadn't managed yet, but now was as good a time as any to try, right? Having a good motivation for it could only help matters too.
He had only made it a couple steps down the stairs when he heard Tinker's voice. "Where's Rayla?"
Callum supposed he hadn't really been anywhere but with Rayla, or asleep, since arriving in Ryling, and he glanced behind him. "She fell asleep. I figured I'd let her get some rest. Is it dinner? Sir?"
"It is soon," he said. He looked him up and down. "You're supposed to be healing."
"I'll just get dinner for her and be right back," he said quickly.
"And if you fall and hurt yourself?"
"I-I was just hoping I wouldn't?"
Tinker sighed. "I'll fetch something for the both of you."
Callum gave him a sheepish grin. "Thank you, sir."
The elf eyed him as though making an evaluation. "You're a strange human, Prince Callum."
He stayed standing on the steps, rubbing the back of his neck. "Yeah, I get that a lot." He paused, as though he wanted to say something, and then stopped again.
Tinker didn't have much patience for it. "You have a question?"
"Uh, yeah." Callum cleared his throat. "What are Rayla's parents like?"
For a second, Tinker considered telling the boy to ask Rayla, but then he thought of her reaction whenever her parents were brought up even in her youth, never mind her latest response, and figured Callum had probably made the right call. "They're… dutiful."
"Oh. Okay." He was quiet for a moment, not moving from his spot. "So they won't hurt her?"
"No. They won't mean to, anyway."
"That's not really the same."
Tinker smiled sadly. "I know. But it's the best they can do for now."
"And, uh… they're really gonna hate me, aren't they?"
"Yes," Tinker said, not one to mince words, and Callum didn't seem surprised either, even if did wince a little. "But they'll also comet to see just how much you care for their daughter, in time. I can't promise it will change much, but it will mean something to them all the same."
"That's good…" Callum said. "I guess."
"May I ask you a question, now?"
The boy blinked. "Oh, uh. Sure. Shoot."
Strange human expression, Tinker assumed. There was no bow and arrow here; what would he shoot? "Is it true that you are a mage? Connected to the sky arcanum and all?"
Callum's shoulders relaxed. "Oh. Um, yeah. I kind of... found my own way to connect to it. I sort of almost died? But uh... I'm okay now, so…"
"There was only one elf who connected to more than one primal," Tinker said, more seriously, and Callum connected the dots.
Tinker's brows rose. "So you know the name."
"And the legend—I got Rayla to tell me, it… it was horrible. All Dark Magicky and bad."
"Rayla told me you used Dark Magic," Tinker said, more stiff and cold.
Callum shrank a bit, but his eyes hardened. "I couldn't just let her die."
"You'd do it again," Tinker translated.
The prince scowled. "I'm not like Aaravos. He twisted the primal to be like Dark Magic. I would never do that."
"Unless you felt like you had to," Tinker reiterated. "To save Rayla."
"Wouldn't you do anything to save the person you love?"
Tinker's frown faltered. "I would," he said quietly. "If I could."
Callum faltered. "Right," he said shortly. "Sorry."
Tinker let out a quiet sigh. "She's too young to go through that," he said. "Losing the one she loves. Don't be that reckless again, for her sake."
"I know, but… it's also always her life before mine. You know that, right?"
"I know." Tinker took another heavy breath. "Go rest. She'll be looking for you when she wakes up."
"Thank you sir," he said, before making his way back to Rayla's room.
She was still sleeping, snuffling adorably with strands of white hair falling over her face, and Callum sat by her and tucked her hair behind her ear. He could see faint tear stains down the centre of her markings, and would have been tempted to kiss them if she hadn't been sound asleep. Instead, he took off his scarf and wrapped it gently around her neck—not all the way, that'd disturb her—but enough so she was bundled up a bit, had room to breathe, and something to hide the tear stains. She wouldn't want them there when she woke up.
She'd need him, the next few days, with whatever would happen with her parents. He'd almost let her get away once, with the dragon, and almost left her once—not by his own will, with the lightning—but he needed to be here for her now, the way she'd always been there for him when his mind had been wrapped up in grief and lost magehood.
He'd always thought magic was the thing that made him finally feel like himself—and that was still true, in some part—but it was also a misconception, with how closely magic and her had been intertwined and introduced into his life. Being by her side… that felt right.
Callum leaned down and kissed the side of her hair. "I love you, Rayla," he murmured, and she let out another snuffle, seemingly shifting, finally, into a more peaceful sleep. He laid down beside her, over the covers, giving her just enough space to remain comfortable. He took her hand, smiling when she slipped her fingers through his in sleep.
And now that thoughts of dinner didn't matter as much—Tinker would bring it up soon enough—Callum let his eyes close.
This was the calm before the next storm, and he wanted to savour it.
Chapter 14: Wren and Arvis
It had been a while since Rayla had worn anything other than her usual uniform. But today she was in some loose brown robes and colourful blue leggings, cozy and comfortable and less aerodynamic than she was used to. Tinker had said things would go smoother with her parents if she was more comfortable, though she kept one of her swords hidden in her boot, if only as a security blanket. Despite her parents' own dangerous occupations, they hadn't really wanted her to be an assassin.
"You look really nice," Callum said when she went into her room to tie her hair back, his smile soft with awe and appreciation, and she flushed.
"Tinker said it'd help if I didn't look like I was on the job," she said, and Callum chuckled.
"I've just never seen you in anything else before. You look pretty in blue."
Still, not even his warmth could completely ease her nerves. "You remember the plan?" she asked.
"You'll start talking very loudly about magic if you need us to come down, and stomp on the stairs if you're going to come in your room?" he recited dryly. Tharon and Zym would take her place in the small bedroom along with him soon enough.
"Yes," she said, still a little stiff and struggling with her hair tie. Callum watched for a moment longer, before he took it from her and drew her hair back himself, careful to leave the braid he'd woven into her hair untouched.
"It'll be fine," he said quietly while he worked. "Am I ever wrong?"
"I know," she said, softening and turning around to face him once he was done. "I just…"
He brushed some of her hair behind her ear, trying not to get distracted by how much a semi messy ponytail suited her, strands of hair and his braid left to frame her face. "It's okay to be nervous," he said, giving her a small smile and taking her hands. "But we're going to be okay. Trust me."
Rayla managed a small smile. "I do," she said. "I just don't trust them."
"You don't have to. No matter what, everything will be okay." He squeezed her hands. "I'm right here if you need me."
Her eyes crinkled and she kissed him, lips lingering, before drawing away to check her reflection, and she raised one hand to her hair. "It looks nice," she said, smiling. "Thanks. You know, after the war, maybe you could do fashion and hair for a living with your sewing and style skills."
He smiled. "I mainly want to keep sketching, maybe start painting," he said, "but those sound like solid side-jobs. What will you do after the war is over?"
"I don't know," she admitted softly. "I don't have much of a plan beyond going back to Katolis with you to help Ez. After that…"
Callum wrapped his arms around her from behind, and rested his chin on her shoulder. "I don't think I would want to stay in Katolis," he said quietly, after a long silence.
"I've lived there all my life. There's so much I want to see, and… I don't know. Maybe one day I could teach magic to other humans and help them forge their own connections, but I need teachers of my own, before then. To know magic properly. I'd have to stay in Xadia to do that."
Rayla smiled. "We could keep travelling Xadia together," she said, "if you want."
He gave her a quick squeeze. "I'd like that a lot." His smile turned a bit sheepish. "I wasted all my time at the Moon nexus with Claudia, so I think I got some making up to do the next time we're at one, together."
Rayla snorted, turning her head to look at him, their noses bumping together as she smiled wide. "You are ridiculous, sappy prince."
"Mmhm." Callum's grin was infectious. "And?"
"And yes, I'll go on a date with you at our next Primal nexus," she said, unable to keep from smiling when his grin widened. "But you have to let me plan it."
"That does not sound like a hard bargain to keep."
"You've never seen yourself when you're all excited and rambly and going a mile a minute with your plans," she said, rolling her eyes but fond, while Callum mostly looked confused. She let her nose bump his as she leaned in to kiss him again. "It's adorable."
There was a loud cough from the doorway, and they broke apart. Callum's face turned as red as his scarf.
"Your parents will be here soon," Tinker said, looking unimpressed, but not unhappy. Rayla rolled her eyes, only releasing one of Callum's hands before looking back.
"It'll be okay," he said, and she nodded. He gave her hand a quick squeeze before they both let go.
"See you on the other side," Rayla said with a slight smile, not knowing the way it made his heart plummet.
"Y-yeah." He cleared his throat, letting her step away from him as Tharon came in with Zym trotting at his heels.
Tharon looked even more unsure than he had in the compound, but softer and more clean shaven, wearing old clothes of Tinker that fit him mostly well. Even Zym looked like he'd had his fur brushed, and it suddenly hit Callum that he was still wearing his old jacket, the bloodstains faded but not completely gone, and an old shirt of Tinker's underneath that was far too big for him, a shade of green only just managed not to clash with his coat or scarf. This was how he was possibly going to meet Rayla's parents?
But then again, she'd met him, stumbling and scared and scrambling for a way out, so maybe first impressions weren't everything. The less he looked like a human prince, the better, maybe.
Still, it was both awkward and nerve wracking to realize he'd just be sitting in a room with Tharon, ready to leap into action should the situation call for it, for who knew how long.
Then again, Callum considered, he'd probably rather be here than in Rayla's shoes.
Rayla couldn't remember the last time she'd seen her parents in person. She'd received a single letter from them every year on her birthday, but the last time they'd seen one another, it'd been a mild spring day when she was six or seven, and most of it was a blur of warmth and smiles and simple happiness. (Now tainted.)
At the very least, her parents still looked the same. There was her mother, Wren, forever poised and straight backed, wearing nice clothes that somewhat resembled her old Dragon Guard uniform. Wren's white hair was shorter now, but still swoopy around the base of her neck, her markings purple and defined like little crescents around her eyes and a straight line down her chin. Her father Arvis was a bit shorter, with dark purple eyes and long white tresses tied back into a simple ponytail, and he wore sleek green robes that matched his wife's.
They both smiled, but didn't go in for a hug, knowing better than to try to get that much affection out of her; not after they'd gone missing and left her with shame. Rayla didn't smile back, her arms crossed over her chest.
"You've grown so much," Arvis said.
"Yes well, I'm nearly sixteen now."
"Rayla," Wren began, and Rayla's composure snapped.
"Where were you?" she demanded. "The Dragon King fell, on your watch and you just ran away? You abandoned your post and you abandoned me—do you have any idea what that was like? The shame, I felt, I—"
"Rayla," Wren repeated, gentler and more somber. "Dark Magic warped us. We were not in our right mind, and we were two only three Dragon Guard to survive the attack. We had to bury our comrades. We never meant to—"
Rayla hesitated, her eyes narrowing. "The Dark Mage hexed you?" she asked. "Lord Viren?"
"He looked more like the undead than a man," said her father. "Ghostly pale with black eyes."
"Still," she persisted. "The Dragon Queen is not far from here. What took so long for you to get back?"
"We had to pursue the soldiers on foot, once the Egg of the Dragon Prince was lost," Wren said crisply. "Tend to our wounds. Are you not also home a good month and fortnight late?"
"Well, yes," Rayla faltered. "But not months and months late, Mother, I—"
Tinker cleared his throat, and she quieted, her mouth burning. "I think now might be the time to have some food and drink, don't you?"
"Ah, yes," Wren said, smiling thinly. "Thank you, Tinker." They went to the table, already set with tea and sandwiches, and Rayla sat down next to Tinker, as far away from her parents as possible.
"How was the trip home?" said Arvis. "Will Runaan be joining us soon?"
Rayla's eyes widened, and she shot Tinker a look, like You didn't tell them yet? And her guardian shot a stony look back: How could I?
"The trip home wasn't easy," Rayla said, as normal sounding as possible. "As the mission wasn't quite a success."
"Of course," said Wren, upper lip curling. "The boy king lives. News of his proper coronation spread through Xadia a few weeks ago. I'm surprised he escaped your troupe alive."
"Yes well, you've already seen what the High Mage of Katolis is capable of," Rayla said stiffly, not touching her plate. Maybe it was better to just get it all over with now. If her parents decided they hated her, then at least it would be somewhat mutual. "Speaking of which, there's something I should tell you."
"Yes, dear?" said Arvis, looking at her patiently.
"The new king is good," she said. "Really good. And he'll help us stop the war, and so will his brother, and I know this because I got to know them by travelling with them through Katolis and Xadia for almost a month so we could bring back the Egg of the Dragon Prince to the Dragon Queen, because the Egg actually survived and the new king found it." She was nearly out of breath when she got all of it out, and before she could look at the stunned expressions on their faces, she added, "Also, it's not an Egg anymore. The Dragon Prince is in my room with the new crown human prince."
Wren gaped, and Arvis's eyes slowly shifted over to Tinker. "Is this true?"
He nodded. "I know it's hard to believe, but aye. It's all true."
Wren finally managed to get control of her face again. "Well then you've both gone mad. We saw the Egg fall, how could it have—why would little human brats try to—"
"Magic can be deceiving," Rayla said, rising. "But please, by all means, let me show you." She left the table and went up the stairs, going to open the spare bedroom door when he saw Callum and Tharon in the hallways. "What are you doing?!" she hissed.
"I had to go to the bathroom and left the door open and now we don't know where Zym is," Callum said quickly.
"I'm sorry!" he said, and she knew she wouldn't stay mad at him for long, but right now…
"I just told my parents everything! And now if I don't show them a baby dragon, they're going to think Tinker and I have lost our minds."
"We're looking for him right now," Tharon said. "We've been trying to call him, but we didn't want to make noise—"
"Zym!" Rayla called, frowning when Zym didn't come bounding to her. "Well, he has to be somewhere on this floor. Tinker or my parents would've seen him otherwise. Where have you already checked?"
"The bathroom, your bedroom," Callum began, "we were kind of scared to check Tinker's room but we'll get to that next—"
"Oh for gods' sake," Rayla said, wrenching open Tinker's door and quickly but thoroughly searching the room, but it seemed to be empty too. She let out a slew of curses under her breath.
"Rayla?" her mother called. "What's going on up there?"
"Just a minute, Mother!"
Callum caught her hand before Rayla could rush past. "Look, why don't we just say Zym is sleeping and can't be disturbed, and we do have Tharon and Tinker to vouch for us, and—"
Her hand was shaking as she touched his face. "Callum, you're the son of the man who killed their King, caused them to be disgraced, and killed their comrades. They need to see that Zym made it or…"
Callum leaned into her touch. "I'm not helpless," he murmured. "I have magic—"
"You shouldn't be using fulminus in your condition, and aspiro won't do much. Just—go back inside my room, and wait till I find Zym, and maybe I can say it was all a joke, or something—"
"Rayla?" Wren stood at the other end of the hall by the stairs, Arvis a few steps behind her. Her face went white when she caught sight of Callum as Rayla whirled around, snatching her hands back. "There is a human here—" Wren reached for the blade strapped to her belt.
Rayla pulled out the sword in her boot, standing in front of Callum. "Mother, no. Just let me explain. You will not hurt him," she said firmly. "He and I are travelling together to bring the Dragon Prince back to its mother. We just…"
"How dare you bring a human to Ryling? Have you no shame? No respect?"
"That's bold coming from you," Rayla said bitterly. "And this is Callum. He's my friend. He's saved my life more times than I can count."
"I think we're at seven," Callum mumbled.
"Callum." Rayla kept her eyes trained on her mother. "Either you can go back downstairs and wait with Father while we keep looking for the Dragon Prince, or I will make you." Her eyes leapt up when Tinker ran up the stairs, Arvis following closely. "Tinker, can you—"
"I found him asleep in the laundry room," Tinker said. He must have heard the shouting; the house was small, after all. "I didn't know if he would welcome being picked up by me, so I—"
Rayla spared a look back at Callum. "We'll get him. Mother, father, if you could please step aside?"
They both looked at Tinker, who nodded, and they finally stepped out of the way, Wren setting her dagger back in its sheath. Rayla stowed her sword away and wrapped an arm around Callum's torso, making sure his arm was braced around her shoulders as they limped past her parents, and then down the stairs. She hated the way her parents watched, knowing they thought him weak; Callum was one of the strongest people she'd ever met.
They rounded the corner to the little laundry room, set away from the kitchen and living room. No wonder they hadn't seen Zym when he'd come down the stairs. There were barrels enchanted with Water and Sky magic, to wash and dry clothes without the need to do it manually. Zym must have been looking for one of them, come upon the warm, dry pile of clothes, and—
Tharon walked out, carrying the baby Dragon in his arms. "He was napping in some of your laundry," he confirmed. "He might have drooled on one of the shirts. Sorry."
Rayla managed a small smile, as Zym looked at them with an open-mouthed grin, his little tongue hanging out of the side. "It's fine. What's important is that he's safe. I'm surprised you picked him up?"
"He sort of bounded into my arms, actually," Tharon said, setting him down. "Once he woke up."
"You can't scamper off like that, Zym," Rayla chided, scooping him up. Thank the gods. "You need to be here so we can keep Callum safe."
Zym let out an apologetic trill, and Callum smiled, scratching behind his ears with his free hand. "It's okay, buddy. You didn't know."
"Tharon," Rayla said. "Stay here. We have enough to explain to my parents at the moment." He nodded, looking slightly grateful, and she turned to Callum. "You can make it to the couch on your own?"
"Yeah. Don't worry about me, I'll be okay." He pecked her on the cheek. "You've got this."
"I'll feel better once my mother hasn't held a sword to your face," she muttered, and they ventured out into the living room, a baby dragon in her arms. Tinker had corralled her parents onto the couch, although Arvis was pacing. He stopped once he caught sight of his daughter.
"This is Azymondias," she said, lifting Zym up slightly, as Callum stood beside her. "The Dragon Prince." She watched her parents' eyes widen, the shock and awe and almost-relief in their faces reminding her far too much of the last time she saw Runaan.
"But we saw—" Wren looked between Zym and her husband, gaping once more. "How—"
"My father's High Mage is a talented man," Callum said, frowning. "He stole it. None of us had any idea, until my brother found it. We tried to call off the assassination with Runaan, but it didn't work. I tried to show it to my father, but he—" Callum cleared his throat. "There wasn't enough time, so we ran. We just want peace. Not all humans are monsters."
Wren scowled as she made the connection in full. "Your father—"
"My blood father was killed by elves," Callum snapped. "My mother by the King of the Dragons, and my stepfather by Moonshadow elves. Yet here I am, delivering your prince back to you. I know what King Harrow did, and I also know what it cost all of us. We have to break the cycle. It's the only way."
Rayla set Zym down by their feet, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. "The new king, King Ezran, was travelling with us," she added. "He and Prince Azymondias grew very close. We can all stop this war. We've had some setbacks, but…" She glanced at Callum, and they shared a look. "We're close."
Arvis sighed, watching Zym curl up against Callum's feet. "Why come to Ryling, then? Tinker has been to the market every day now. Why stay for so long?"
Rayla's brow furrowed. "The Crescents captured us. We barely escaped with our lives. We needed someplace safe to hide, and heal, we…" Would it ever be any easier to talk about? "Callum got hit with a fulminus spell, while saving me."
Arvis's eyebrows rose. "And survived?"
"He learned how to connect to the Sky Arcanum, so I think that helped." She smiled a little. "He's very talented."
"One impossible thing at a time, Ray," Callum said lightly.
Arvis was looking at him intently, now. "And how did you…?"
Callum and Rayla shared another look. "Um… I almost died and had a fever dream and woke up and was able to connect? It's another long story," he said quickly. "It's… been a pretty crazy past couple of months."
"And your brother," said Wren flatly. "The boy king."
"He'll be a good ruler," Callum said. "He has a good heart, and he taught Zym how to fly. He's trying to de-escalate the war in Katolis right now. Once Zym is with his mother, I want to turn humans away from Dark Magic, with what I've learned. Our father relied too much on Dark Magic, and it's what got him killed, in the end."
His knees wobbled a little, and Rayla steadied him. "You shouldn't be standing for this long right now," she chided softly, guiding him to the nearest seat that wasn't close to her parents.
"How long," said Wren carefully, "have you been here?"
"Five days," Rayla said, straightening up. "We hope to leave in another week."
Callum looked up. "I thought we wanted to go by the end of this one."
"The mountains are treacherous and terrible climbs," she said. "You're not ready yet."
He pouted, but she gave him a stern look, and he settled when Zym leapt up and got settled in his lap. "Fine." He idly scratched behind the dragon's horns and Zym let out a pleased rumbling noise.
Wren eyed them both warily. "You're just one human," she pointed out, "from one of the human kingdoms. What makes you think you'll be able to make a difference?"
Callum stared stonily back at her. "I have to at least try, don't I?"
Tinker coughed loudly. "Would anyone like to actually eat dinner, now?" he said, the food now cold and forgotten on the kitchen table.
"Can we take some food up?" Rayla asked. "It's been a long day."
Tinker sighed. "Fine," he said, and Rayla helped Callum back onto his feet before getting them a plate of food.
"Rayla," Wren reproached, "you cannot just—"
"You lost the right to tell me what to do a long time ago, Mother," she replied sharply, not turning around, Zym following. At the very least, Wren had the decency not to say anything else (or maybe she was just too indignant to say anything) as Rayla helped Callum up the stairs, setting him on her bed once they got to her room and Zym curled up in the corner.
Callum took her hands once she set down the tray. "Rayla—"
"I cannot believe them," Rayla seethed, "especially my mother, she—"
"The way they spoke to you, and disregarded me, was—"
He squeezed her hands firmly. "Rayla." She looked down, her eyes shining from hurt or frustration he couldn't tell. "Did you really expect it to go any better than that?" he asked simply, a slight break in his voice.
She faltered, the anger leaking out of her body in the form of tears, as her shoulders sank, and she rested her forehead against his. "No," she ground out, a heartbroken mutter. "But I still… I don't know if I can believe their story. And you're my family, I can't just…"
Callum's hands slipped out of hers before pulling her closer, settling at the small of her back. "I know," he whispered. "We both knew it wouldn't be easy. Any of this."
"I know," she echoed, her tears fading but her breath still shaky. "I just never thought it would be this hard."
"We'll give them time," he said. "And in the meantime, we focus on getting Zym back to his mother. We'll stick with our plan, and they can either help or go."
Rayla nodded slightly, her forehead rubbing against his. "Right."
"But I hope they come around soon. You deserve another chance with your parents."
Rayla almost smiled. "You're sweet," she said. "But I don't know if they deserve another chance with me."
"Then we'll deal with that too," he said immediately. "Whatever you decide, I'll support you."
"I know. Thank you." She kissed him softly, lingering for just a moment as one of his hands slipped out of hers to dry her cheeks with his sleeve. "I love you," she murmured.
Callum brightened. "I love you too." He tugged her down onto the bed beside him, and nudged the tray of food closer to her. "C'mon," he coaxed. "We don't have to think about them right now. They're stuck in the old world. We're making our own one, now."
Rayla's heart fluttered as she leaned against him. "It looks like we are," she said, her voice soft. And no matter how the world changed around them, in that moment, she felt in her gut and down to her toes that Callum would always be there right beside her. And for at least that moment, it could be enough.
She heard the first creak of steps on the stairs, and jerked away. It wasn't a big motion, though, her eyes snapping open and ears perking up as she roused, listening, but not dislodging herself from her place next to Callum's back, her body curled around his and her arms wrapped around him, her hands resting on his upper stomach, Zym curled up snuffling by their feet.
Rayla lifted her head from her pillow and the backend of Callum's scarf, and watched the door. She didn't think her parents would try to harm him—they didn't disregard her feelings that much, and Zym had made his allegiances clear—but there was something moving on the stairs, at the very least. A pit in her stomach formed when she realized she didn't even know the sound of her own parents' footfalls.
But there, there was Tinker's.
And then, her parent's voices.
"You let them sleep in the same room?" her mother hissed in a furious whisper.
"It's not as though we're overflowing with guest rooms," Tinker said tiredly, quietly. "And you didn't see her face when he was dying in her arms."
"Still, it's not proper," Wren said. "It would be bad enough if he was just another boy, but a human boy—"
"A human boy that's saved her twice, now," Tinker said. "I'm not particularly happy with it either, but we have no choice but to trust them both. The Dragon Prince does."
"The Dragon Prince is young," Arvis pointed out, sounding far more calm than his wife. "Clearly influenced by the unusual circumstances of his birth."
"The boy's also not entirely wrong," Tinker said. "It may not be enough to prevent war, but him returning the Dragon Prince to the Dragon Queen could at least help heal the rift with Katolis, and ensure his brother's safety as king."
"So then there will be two of the Pentarchy with child rulers?" Wren said flatly.
Tinker pinched the bridge of his nose. "All I'm saying is, if you want to have a relationship with Rayla, you will have to get used to the boy being in her life. I don't think he's going anywhere anytime soon."
"Hmph," Wren huffed, and Rayla could imagine the crease in her mother's brow.
"Once the Dragon Prince is returned," Arvis said, "do you know what our daughter plans to do?"
"She plans to go back to Katolis with His Highness, to help the young king broker in peace," Tinker explained. "Now that King Harrow is dead, the princes are the only family either has left. I don't know in specific terms what Rayla plans to do beyond that point."
Arvis went quieter still. "She loves him?" It was a question in the faintest way possible, a statement if not the faint uptick, maybe due to hope that it wasn't true, at the end.
"I believe she does," Tinker said gravely. "And that he loves her in turn. But a human's love… who knows how different that is from ours, in time?"
"Even if he does prove true to her," Wren said, "you know what everyone thinks of such unions. What we think."
"It's still their decision, in the end," Tinker said. "And if we want to stay in their lives, all we can do is honour it."
"I'm sure we can talk some sense into her before they depart for the Dragon Queen," said Wren, but her tone of self assurance wobbled slightly, and Rayla snorted in her bed.
Good luck with that, Mother, she thought.
"And we should make sure they're not lying about the boy's magic," added Arvis.
"If that is all," Tinker said, more fatigued still, "I would appreciate turning in for the night, once you're established in our guest room?"
Wren let out a huffy sigh. "Very well. But this conversation is not over, Tinker."
"Just go to sleep, Wren."
"Thank you for allowing us to stay the night, Tinker," Arvis said. "We won't intrude upon your hospitality for too long."
Rayla listened to her parents walk to the end of the hall, to the one guest room they'd shuffled Tharon out of, but Tinker didn't move.
"I know you're awake, little Ray," he finally whispered. She buried her face in Callum's shoulder, closing her eyes. "You should get some rest, too."
Quietly, he walked away, and Rayla didn't let go of her prince. She swore to herself that she never would.
Chapter 15: Scars
They were allowed to eat breakfast in her room, if only to keep from having to help Callum up and down the stairs. She didn't keep it a secret that she preferred it this way; she didn't want to have to deal with her parents again, and it was nice to share breakfast with him the way they had been for the past few weeks, only now in a warm, comfortable bed.
"How does it feel today?" she asked, like always in reference to his injuries, as they ate toast with moonberry jam.
"It feels like you could let me do magic again," Callum said dryly, and Rayla prodded him in the leg with her foot. "Hey, I'm just saying, it'd be nice to have some proof to give to your parents. I know what they must think, and you don't deserve to be branded as a liar."
"They shouldn't be branding me as anything," Rayla pointed out, and Callum, after a quick consideration, nodded. "I'm their daughter. My word should be good enough."
"I know," he said, softening. "I just also want to be able to back you up, you know?"
Rayla smiled a little. "I know. It won't score you many points with my mother, but my father is a bit of a mage."
Callum lit up. "Really? He practices moon magic? That's so cool, I—"
"One thing at a time, excited prince." Her eyes were fond as she looked at him. "But yes, he's always been the more lenient one, and I'm sure once he's warmed up to you, he'd be willing to talk about moon magic with you." She rested her head on his shoulder. "It'll be kind of nice when we can both connect to the same arcanum."
"Yeah." He glanced at her. "So you wouldn't mind, if I tried to connect to more?" he said, rather hopefully. "I know you were hesitant, before, because of Aaravos, but…"
She let out a soft snort. "Leave out the 'almost dying' part that came with connecting to the Sky primal, and I'll think about it."
He smiled, satisfied. "Okay." He rested his head atop hers. "Besides, you know I would only ever use it for good?"
"I know. You're a good human."
It was his turn to laugh slightly. "The same way you're a good elf?"
A wry smile twisted her lips. "Maybe so."
"I guess none of us are the good guys or the bad guys," Callum considered aloud, his voice soft. "We all kept hurting each other for so long. We're people, but we have to be better. We just have to…"
"Break the cycle?"
He turned to look at her. "Yeah."
She met his gaze. "I'd say we're doing a pretty good job of that," she murmured, and kissed him. He smiled against her mouth, playing with the ends of her hair even once he pulled away.
"Should we go downstairs for the day?" he asked. More fresh Xadian fruit and general company, like Tharon in all his awkwardness, would be waiting for them.
"I guess," Rayla said, with a slight sigh. She set Clawsy down against her pillow.
"Hey. It'll be okay."
"I know, I just… a whole day spent with my parents, after last night?"
"Well…" Callum stuck his tongue out in concentration, before something snapped into place. "At least they stuck around, right?"
"Yeah." She barked out a bitter chuckle. "For once."
"Hey." He tucked her hair behind her ear, his fingers gently caressing her cheek. "We're in this together, remember? We can come back upstairs when we need a break."
She brightened a bit. "Okay." She pecked him on the cheek. "Thanks, Callum."
She squinted at him, even as she grinned. "Do you feel brave enough to go downstairs holding hands in front of my folks?"
Callum paled, but nodded. "And I'm not letting go. Even if your mom threatens to chop my hand off with that scary knife of hers."
Rayla laughed, squeezing his hand. "I wouldn't let her, dramatic prince." She paused for a moment. "You know, in a way, you're kind of responsible for me having my hand. Your primal stone is what hatched Zym, which let him take off my binding."
Callum smiled. "You know it eventually goes to Ezran, though right? I can't take too much credit."
"Fine, I have both of you to thank. Happy."
"With you? Always."
Rayla flushed. "Come on," she said, smiling to herself. "Let's go downstairs before they eat all your precious fresh fruit."
He was still limping a little, but didn't need to lean on her anymore, instead holding her hand as they made their way down to the kitchen. All of the elves were already gathered around the table, Tharon sunk down in his seat, Wren and Arvis chatting quietly while Tinker watered the plants on the windowsill, and Rayla's parents looked up when she and Callum entered the room.
She felt Callum's fingers squirm slightly, when her mother scowled, but neither of them let go of the other's hand.
"We can probably take off the bandages today, Prince Callum," Tinker said, as he set down his watering can.
"Oh," Callum said, blinking. "Great. Thank you." He coughed, all too aware of Wren and Arvis' eyes on him. "And you don't have to keep using my title, Tinker, really."
Tinker didn't respond, and Rayla brought him over to the other side of the table, only letting go of his hand so they could eat some more food. She smiled when he piled fresh fruit onto his plate, trying to go slow to be polite. He seemed to relish in the fact that most Xadian fruit didn't have any seeds.
"You are a prince?" said Wren snidely. "Aren't you?"
Callum paused. "Um...yes?"
"Your caretakers must have been very...relaxed, with you."
"Oh, I didn't have any. Um, I only became a prince when I was five. That was when my mom married the king—my stepdad."
"And he's a wonderful prince," Rayla said, looking pointedly at her mother. "And his brother's current heir."
"It's fine," Callum said, looking at her. "I'd rather be a mage than a prince, anyway."
"A human mage?" Wren said, frowning.
"With Primal magic," Callum said quickly. "I don't use Dark Magic."
"Yes, Rayla has told us about your... unique abilities," she said, unimpressed.
"And he's really good," Rayla said.
"Well, I only know, like, two spells—"
"Only because that's all you've gotten to learn. We have Macchus' book of runes, and what spells you do know, are powerfully cast."
Arvis' dark purple eyes looked to Callum with interest. "I know some of the humans have primal stones."
"I started off with one," Callum admitted. "I took it from the daughter of my father's High Mage, when she was uh, trying to kill Rayla before we fled the castle. But we had to smash it to hatch Zym."
"How did you manage to connect to the Sky arcanum?"
"Well, uh, I almost died," he said with a feeble laugh. "But um, it sort of clicked when I paid attention to the way I breathe, and how air flows in and out naturally, and...it's kind of hard to explain."
"And you think you could do it with the others?"
"I mean, I hope so. I'd like to learn moon magic at least in theory, it sounds fascinating, and the Moon Nexus was beautiful."
Arvis' brows lifted. "You've been to the Moon Nexus?"
"We climbed up the Cursed Caldera looking for a miracle healer for the Egg," Rayla supplied. "We found Lujanne instead."
"Speaking of which," Callum said, "where is Zym?"
Rayla peered around his shoulder, and saw the dragonling on the living room couch, preparing for take off, but most of the windows were closed. Clearly being cooped up was starting to get to him, and… she glanced back at her mother's hard eyes.
"Would you like to give him a lift?" she said to Callum sweetly.
"Oh, sure," he said, smiling. "Hey, Zym!" The young dragon's eyes snapped to him, his tail wagging in anticipation. "Jump!"
The baby dragon jumped off the couch as high as he could, and all three adults gasped, ready to leap out of their chairs to keep him from falling. Rayla just grinned, watching Callum's focus sharpen as he waited for the perfect moment.
"Aspiro!" The rune glowed as he drew it, the rush of air following and uplifting Zym securely into the air with a happy flap of the dragon's wings.
Wren dropped her spoon. "You actually…?"
Callum turned back to them. "Hmm? Oh, sorry, that's a thing we do. Zym can fly on his own now for the most part, but he likes when I give him a boost." He smiled when Zym landed back in his arms. "Isn't that right, buddy?"
"Fascinating," Arvis breathed. "You actually forged your own connection."
"I told you," said Tinker dryly. "He's not like other humans."
Callum flushed, letting Zym leap out of his arms for another short flight before rubbing the back of his neck. "I mean, I am in some ways, like, I like getting to places faster and sometimes I eat too much of something I like, but, y'know, I like to think I'm nicer than most."
"He is," Rayla confirmed with a soft smile. She glanced up, laughing when she saw Zym flop on the couch. "Come on, wee one, is that all you've got?"
Zym let out a tired squeak.
"What would Ez say?" she said, and to that, Zym let out a little yawn, before taking off and doing a few more rounds in the air. "Atta boy."
"How long have you been connected to the Primal?" Arvis asked.
"Um, about… four months?" Callum rubbed the back of his neck. "I've tried to learn what I can. We stopped in Ehoylin, which was helpful, but not for long."
"Interesting," Arvis murmured. "And Rayla mentioned that you have a book of runes?"
"We haven't really had the chance to look at it yet, but yeah."
Callum blinked. "Uh, sure." He went over to his bag, resting by the door, and pulled out the thick leatherbound book of runes. "I only understand a little bit of it," he admitted, letting Arvis take it. "Rayla and I made a list of some draconic words and spells in my sketchbook, which I know a bit better but—I guess Moon magic must be written in Maevic?"
Arvis paused in going through the pages and looked up at him. "You pronounce it well."
Callum brightened. "I've had Rayla teach me some. I know the basics."
"You picked it up quickly," Arvis said with a slight nod. "You don't have much of an accent."
"Thank you," Callum enthused. "There wasn't much else to do while travelling but talk, so Rayla spent a lot of time drilling me on my pronunciation." He gave her a fond smile. "She's a good teacher."
Rayla flushed a little, smiling. "Shush," she mumbled. "Flattery will not improve your grammar."
"Humans are not supposed to learn our sacred tongue," Wren said flatly.
Rayla rolled her eyes. "Parents are not supposed to abandon their children. Your point?"
Wren's mouth opened and closed, her jaw tight, and Arvis just sighed, lowering his head. Callum let out a quiet cough. "So, um, are there...any plans, you have, for today?"
"We could take off your bandages now," Tinker said, "if you're done eating?"
"Oh," he said, his voice cracking a little. It was going to hurt, after all. "Um, sure."
"Are you sure he's ready?" Rayla said.
"He's almost back to walking normally," Tinker said. "And we need to give his body time to heal on his own, naturally."
Rayla looked to Callum, and he shrugged, trying to scrounge up some bravado. "We can at least give it a shot."
Rayla pursed her lips, but nodded. "Alright. Let's get ready, then."
Callum squeezed Rayla's hand tight as the first bandage was peeled away. The bandage was sticky with blood and green paste that looked more like pus, now, and Callum shut his eyes as Rayla averted her gaze. Tinker put a warm washcloth to the wound, pressing gently, and Callum let out a sharp hiss.
"Is it supposed to be this sensitive?" he said, gritting his teeth a bit.
"You took a lot of damage," Tinker said. "There'll be some discomfort for the first few nights, but it will ultimately heal faster this way."
Rayla ran her thumb over his knuckles, and he took in a slow breath. "Okay," Callum said. "Keep going."
He let out a quiet groan as Tinker peeled away another bandage, squeezing Rayla's hand again as Tinker carefully sanitized it.
"You're doing great," Rayla murmured, holding on as more bandages were stripped away. "Just a few more."
"Remind me to never be struck with lightning again?" Callum mumbled, biting back a hiss.
"You'd probably ignore me and do something brave and stupid," Rayla teased mildly, and Callum let out a dry laugh.
"Probably true," he wheezed, closing his eyes again and gripping her hand tighter. His voice evened out to something more serious. "After all, always better me than you."
Rayla's lip trembled, and she gave his hand another quick squeeze. "Shut up," she said, holding the back of his hand to her cheek. He stroked her skin with his knuckles, before squeezing again as the last few bandages were removed. Callum kept his eyes closed, even as his grip on her hand loosened.
"How does it look?" he puffed out. Rayla bit her lip.
"...Well, how does it feel?"
"Kind of raw, but I think sanitizing it helped."
"So, good news, it doesn't feel as bad as it looks."
His lips twitched. "It still hurts like hell, Rayla."
Tinker let out a soft sigh. "I'll give you two a moment," he said, standing up and moving out into the hallway.
Callum cracked his eyes open. "Can you stand?" Rayla asked. Callum slowly edged off Rayla's bed, getting onto his feet.
"I don't really want to," he admitted. "I don't want to lay down, though, either. Can—" His voice cracked a little and he swallowed thickly. "Can you get me to a mirror?"
Rayla braced her arm along his back in what she hoped was a comforting gesture. "There's one in the bathroom," she said quietly. "Are you sure you want to—"
"I need to know," he said, a little angrily, before it changed into something firm. He looked at her. "I need to know what I'm going to look like for the rest of my life."
Rayla's eyes watered as she nodded, silently helping him to the bathroom. There was a full-body mirror by the tub, and Callum took in a sharp inhale. Where smooth skin had once been, angry red scars shot up and down his torso, like lightning etched into his thin frame. He swallowed hard.
"Callum?" Rayla said softly. He let out a quiet sigh.
"You were right," he said, his voice cracking. "Somehow, it does look worse than it feels."
"It's okay, you don't need to make me feel better about it. I know it looks bad, and… I'll just have to get used to having these for the rest of my life."
"They show that you're brave," she said. "That you're strong, and selfless. And the scars will turn white, eventually, and…" She placed her hand on the side of his neck, near where the highest of the scars came up to just below his jaw. "Your scarf will always cover this part."
His voice made an attempt at sounding wry. "You've memorized where my scarf comes up to?"
But there was no note of teasing in her reply. "Yes." Callum's lips twitched, and her hand moved to tilt his jaw, turning his face towards her instead of the mirror. "I love you, Callum." Her thumb touched the scar near his jaw. "All of you."
"I love you too," he whispered. He glanced down at his body, the scars creeping down to his forearms. "If I had to get these," he murmured, "at least I got them protecting you."
Rayla's free hand took his in a firm grasp, and she rested her forehead against his. "Just try not to scare me like that again?" she requested quietly. "Twice was more than enough."
"I'll try," he promised.
"Good," she said. "Because you better be around to annoy me for a long, long time, Callum of Katolis."
A little bit of light entered his eyes. "Maybe you should touch up my braid then."
"I should," she acknowledged, reaching up to touch the strands still loosely woven together. "Once you have a shirt on."
Callum's smile faltered. "It's not gonna stick?"
"It shouldn't," Rayla considered, "but I could apply some ointment to be safe, if you want?"
"I can apply it myself you know."
She gave him a simpering smile. "Fine, if you don't want my hands on you, then—"
Callum turned bright red. "Well, I—that's not quite what I meant, I—you can… do my back and I'll take care of the front?"
Rayla rolled her eyes fondly, before getting some ointment out of their medicine cabinet. "You're an idiot," she said, as they sat on the bed, her hands cool to the touch as she spread the ointment gently over his back.
Callum used the ointment on his throat first, cooling the still heated skin, and then the rest of his chest, even if despite Rayla's hands being a bit cold and her touch light, made his face aflame. He coughed slightly. "R-Rayla?"
He could perfectly picture another fond eye roll. "Yes, Callum?"
His throat stuck as he tried to come up with something to say. Anything to distract from her soft, lightly calloused hands, or his mind would start going down roads it definitely shouldn't. "U-um, what's this stuff made of?"
"Mainly some herbs, and this root that's good for cooling. Why?"
"Nothing. Just, um, it feels good." He nearly choked on the last part of that sentence.
"We'll bring some back with us, then," she said. Could she tell he wanted the floor to somehow swallow him whole? "And once we're done this, we could have lunch, maybe?"
"Uh, yeah. Sounds good."
"What're you in the mood for? I think Tinker brought some bread back from the market. We could have sandwiches?"
Oh he really, really wanted to die now. "Y-yeah, and I think we're done—here, which is great!" He squirmed around to face her despite himself, just so she'd pull her hands away. He cleared his throat. "Right?"
Rayla blinked. "Um, yeah, pretty much. Nothing hurts too much anymore?"
"Nope! It works great, I should probably get my shirt on, and then we'll go back down?"
"Alright." She finally smiled, eyeing him and down. "You're as red as your scarf, blushing prince."
His face burned. "Just give me my shirt," he mumbled, and Rayla laughed as she passed it to him. It was a relief, ultimately, to pull it on. He was doing up the last button of the green garment when Rayla started wrapping his scarf neatly around his neck.
She curled her fingers into it, her eyes softening. "Better?"
Ease settled over his shoulders, and Callum smiled. "Yeah." And his body did feel better, stronger, than it had since he'd been struck with lightning. He leaned over and pecked her on the lips. "Thank you." Rayla's smile grew.
"Of course, blushy prince. Now, onto our sandwiches?"
Callum's face burned as she led him out of the bathroom, but he went along, not saying anything. For his own sanity, even if she'd tease him mercilessly, he'd have to tell her the truth about sandwiches eventually.
Just… not today.
That being said, it wasn't as though Callum's renewed health fixed everything. Rayla still wanted to take it slow, give things a few more days before they finally departed and got their mission back on track… even if that meant having to put up with her parents for three more days.
They caught her on the way back to her room, where Callum was resting with Zym while looking through the book of runes. "Rayla," Arvis said, in a patient tone that made her pause, even unwillingly, "could we speak for a moment?"
"Is something the matter?" she asked, exasperated already.
"No. We've just...hardly had time with you, is all."
"Gee, I wonder why."
Wren frowned. "Rayla. If you are still angry at us for failing in our duty, I would like to discuss it before you leave, this time."
Rayla softened. "I'm not… angry, anymore."
Arvis beckoned her over with a wave of his hand. "Then what are you angry about, sweetheart?"
She let him place his hand on her shoulder, as he brow furrowed and a lump rose in her throat. "I don't know," she said. "I'm just… angry. And…" Anger wasn't taboo, but this was, and she took a deep breath. "And I'm kind of scared, a little."
Wren's eyebrows rose. "Scared?"
Rayla glanced away. "It was easier to be angry at you for running then—then to think about having to mourn you, when I never really got to know you, and… And even now, is anything really going to change? Once the Dragon Prince is returned, are we even going to be a family, or are you just going to leave, again?"
Her parents exchanged a look. "We haven't…. Thought that far," Wren said, faltering. She cleared her throat. "We are still adjusting to all of this just as much as you are, Rayla. It is…" Wren let out a soft sigh. "It is okay to be scared."
She glanced at her mother. "It is?"
"We're your parents," Arvis said. "Of course it's alright to be scared. I know we're not supposed to show it, with others, but… your family is different. We were scared, when the Dragon Guard was attacked, that we would never see you again."
"Blood isn't the only way to be a family," Rayla said, raising her chin. "You have to choose it, too. You didn't raise me. You weren't there when my life fell apart, or—or when I had to bury Runaan. You don't know who I am now, and I don't think I've ever known who you are."
Wren frowned again, and opened her mouth. "Rayla—"
"And maybe that's okay," Rayla continued. "Because Callum… Callum taught me that we build walls for all sorts of reasons, and miss out on things that aren't our fault, or maybe it is, but… but what matters is that we never stop trying, to be there." She pursed her lips. "Are you willing to start trying?"
Arvis and Wren glanced at each other, before the former turned back to Rayla, giving her a small smile. "We are," he said. "We wouldn't mind a second chance, to be your parents."
Rayla just nodded, swallowing at the lump that was forming in her throat. "Okay," she managed. "But—"
"The human boy is part of the deal," said Wren flatly, "isn't he?"
Rayla hardened. "Yes."
Wren let out a quiet puff through her nostrils. "Very well. But all the same, I don't approve. It won't end well."
"That's not for you to decide."
"You've made that much clear," Wren said crisply, and Rayla just rolled her eyes.
"Are we done here?"
"Just one more moment," Arvis said, and he pulled her in for a hug. Rayla froze, and wasn't sure whether or not to hug him back when he pulled away. "Thank you," he said. "You can go be with your friend now."
Rayla smiled a little, before heading back to her room. She wasn't sure if her father still wanted some plausible deniability, or that he was just soft hearted, but she didn't mind either way. Callum looked up from the book of runes as she entered. "Hey," he said.
She narrowed her eyes even as she smiled, wry. "Were you eavesdropping?"
"What? No. I just—I heard your parents a bit. The conversation went okay?"
"Yeah. It's still weird with my mum, but… they're both willing to try, to be family, so I guess I am too."
Callum beamed, and held out his hand. "Well that's good, right?"
She took it, her hand folding neatly into his. "I suppose so. I was still a kid when we were… really a family, I guess. So we don't have much experience."
"Then you'll learn together. And...you're happy about it?"
"I don't know yet. I know I'm not unhappy, so…"
He gave her hand a small squeeze. "Good. I really hope it goes well for you. I miss my parents so much, and...I'm just happy for you, that you get a chance with yours."
Rayla softened. "From what you've told me of your parents… they would be so proud of you, Callum."
He smiled sadly. "I know. I just wish they would get to see the world we're making."
Callum lightened, his eyes crinkling. "My mother would have loved you. She would have been so happy that I found someone so strong and brave, and kind." He cleared his throat a little. "I wish she could've met you."
"I wish I could have met her, too," she said quietly. "I wish I could've met all of them." Her smile faltered. "I wish I could've stopped Runaan on the roof, that night."
"It wasn't your fault. And you tried. And… we could've gone back into that tower, together, but I'm the one who said no, and you're the one who offered. Let me be the one to live with it?"
Rayla shook her head. "We'll carry it together," she said. "It's like you said when we first got to Xadia, remember? We're still in this together."
Callum took her other hand so he was holding both of hers in his, his eyes soft but serious. "I know you're coming with me to Katolis," he said. "And then we'll come back to Xadia together, but… you know I'll follow you anywhere?"
Rayla smiled softly. "I know," she said. "So would I. Ever since I first offered, at that tower."
"I know." His voice grew a bit thick. "I can't regret anything that led me to you."
Rayla looked at the sum of her life in her mind's eye, and then back at him. "Neither can I." She glanced at the book of runes beside him. "Come on," she said, shifting closer. "We might as well go through these now that we finally have time to."
Callum grinned, and flipped back to an earlier chapter. "Okay, yeah. I wasn't sure about the pronunciation of this one, because it looks like a word in Maevic, and I was wondering how the dialects or languages intersect, because—"
He rambled on, Rayla onlooking with soft eyes and the occasional correction, and she wouldn't have changed a thing.
Not a damn thing.
Chapter 16: Family Portraits
The sun was high in the sky when he woke up, bright rays of sunlight streaming in through the curtains. Callum groaned, turning over and reaching for Rayla's side of the bed. And found nothing. Not even faded warmth that should have been there if she'd gotten up to go to the bathroom.
Callum's eyes snapped open. He pushed himself up, his scars only mildly stinging, and found her side of the bed empty. "Rayla?" he called, his heart racing as he shot out of bed. Where had she gone? Why wasn't she here and why wouldn't she—
"I see you're awake," came Arvis' voice from the door. Callum's attention shot to him. "Rayla thought you would still be sleeping by the time she got back."
"Where is she?"
"With Tinker and my wife, in the marketplace. She didn't want to wake you, especially since you've been healing."
"Oh." Callum began to relax, now a little embarrassed at how frantic he'd been. "When are they getting back?"
"Soon. Rayla insisted on making sure they had extra fruit home for you." He took a step aside. "In the meantime, Tharon and I saved some breakfast for you."
"Oh, thanks. I'll...I'll be down in a minute."
Arvis eyed him in a way Callum couldn't quite decipher. "Is everything alright, Prince Callum?"
Somehow the title sounded even worse coming from Arvis than it had from Tinker. "Y-yeah. It's fine, sorry."
"...Alright, then." He hovered in the hallway.
"You don't, uh…" Callum rubbed the back of his neck. "You don't have to call me that. Use my title, I mean, I…"
"Oh. You're sure?"
"I wasn't technically a prince for the first five years of my life, anyway. It's okay."
"Yes," Arvis said, hesitating. "Rayla mentioned your family has changed many times."
"Yeah." Callum smiled weakly. "Yeah it's kinda just me… now, until I make my way back to Ezran."
"The Dragon Queen will be grateful to you for returning her child," Arvis said. "She'll let your brother live."
Callum swallowed. "Well, that's the least she can do," he said, unable to bite back the bitterness in his tone.
Arvis shifted. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean—"
"No, I get it. Humans hurt your king and kidnapped your prince, and allowed you to think he was destroyed. It's a cycle of hurt and we're all to blame. It's also just hard not to take it personally, when it's your family. When it's taken your whole family." Callum looked down at the floor. "I've been thinking about it more now that we're so close, and Zym will be home in less than two weeks. The Dragon Queen had my father assassinated, and tried to kill my baby brother, and here I'll be, walking in with her son." He glanced at his hands in his lap. "Then again, my father also had her mate killed. Acting in anger after my mother was killed when they weren't supposed to be here…" Callum let out a weak chuckle. "And the Dragon Queen thought her son was gone too. It doesn't make it easier to forgive. I don't think I'll ever forgive her. But Zym deserves to be with his mother."
"I can see why Rayla's so fond of you," Arvis said, and it made Callum smile a little.
"Thank you, sir." Callum's smile widened with affection at the thought of his girlfriend. "I don't know what I'd do without her. I know what I'd be without her, which is dead, but…"
"I know what you mean. I'm very glad my daughter has found someone that cares so much for her."
"Thank you," Callum repeated. "Do you think your wife will ever come around to me?"
"She hardly comes around to anyone," Arvis said with a wry smile. "But she'll accept it soon enough. Rayla made it very clear that if we're to be part of her life again, you're part of the package."
"Oh." The corner of Callum's mouth ticked up softly. "She did?"
"Yes. Although I must admit, I do have a question. I am not very familiar with human relationships, but what you have with my daughter… it is not wholly platonic, correct?"
His cheeks grew warm as he nodded. "Uh, yeah, it's… it's romantic."
"I'm probably not what you expected for your daughter, am I?"
"No," Arvis said with a slight smile. "But that's not a bad thing, in this case."
"May I ask a more personal question, sir?"
"Of course, Pr—Callum."
He gave Arvis a tight smile, and then mustered up his courage to ask, "Why is your wife so much more against humans than you?"
Arvis let out a deep sigh. "It's hard not to blame them, after...everything. Her younger brother was a soldier near the Breach. He didn't come home."
Callum's face fell. "I'm so sorry," he said softly. "That must've been hard… There was an incident with the Egg, once, where Ezran went after it, and for a moment, Rayla and I really thought he'd…" Callum swallowed thickly. "It was the worst moment of my life."
"Still, you and my daughter have made it clear empathy can overcome grief, with enough work. Wren will lighten up, eventually. You simply have to be patient."
"Thanks. I hope so, too." He chewed on the inside of his cheek before asking, "And...you're alright with me?"
"Well, I was apprehensive at first."
"You have every right to hate human mages."
"Just as you have every right to hate elvin assassins, in that case. Perhaps it's just interest," Arvis smiled.
"You were not born with a connection to any Arcanum, and yet you forged your own, only through self-discovery. I cannot help but be fascinated. Besides, you've been kind to my daughter." Arvis regarded him. "You helped her bury Runaan."
"Symbolically, yeah," Callum said quietly. "Though I'm hoping that somehow, he's alive."
"Even though he felled your father."
"It's not about me."
Arvis bowed his head a little. "I hope the rest of your generation is like you and Rayla."
"Not all of us," Callum said, a little grim. Then, he smiled. "But the new king of Katolis is even better. So maybe there's hope for this world."
"Maybe," Arvis said.
They both turned when the door swung open, followed by Wren's voice shouting, "You continually refuse to listen to me—"
"That's rich coming from you!" came Rayla's retort. Callum winced.
"Did they fight like this before?"
"Not really," Arvis admitted, "but we were also hardly around in person to fight with."
Callum limped down the stairs, Arvis following close behind as Rayla brushed by him, and Callum asked, "Uh, Rayla?"
"Oh, don't you start," she snapped, but immediately softened with a shake of her head. "Sorry, I'm just—" She turned back around to her mother. "I'm going upstairs, if I have your permission to?"
"Rayla, don't start—" Wren began, but Rayla scoffed.
"I'll be upstairs," she said, mostly to Callum, before storming off to her room. Callum slowly turned back to Wren, then looked back to Tinker.
"Should...should I go after her?"
"She won't talk to me," Wren huffed, and Callum went upstairs, knocking quietly on Rayla's door when he reached it.
"It's me. Can I come in?"
"As long as it's just you," Rayla replied, and Callum slowly opened the door. He slipped in, closing it behind him and sitting down across from her on the bed. She was clutching Clawsy and a pillow in her lap, squeezing hard.
"Do you wanna talk about it?" he asked, holding out his hand if she wanted to take it. Her grip on the pillow loosened as she took his hand.
"My mum can't mind her own business," she mumbled.
"Somehow I'm not surprised," Callum said dryly, more of a stab in the dark because he didn't know Wren that well, but Rayla's lips twitched anyways.
"She's always had opinions on my life and choices; I just wanted them before."
"That's understandable. What's different this time?"
"She failed her mission. She can't just hijack mine."
"She wants to come along with us, to take Zym back home. Her and Dad both."
"Oh." Callum's brow furrowed. "That's…" Yeah, he didn't like the sound of that either. He supposed more protection would be good, but things were complicated enough, and this was their mission, not anyone else's.
"We're not letting them, are we?"
"We're going to have to figure out a softer way to put it, but...don't worry. This is still our mission, okay? We made it this far. We're not just going to let anyone piggyback ride on it now."
Rayla softened just a little. "Good."
"Okay." She squeezed his hand, smiling a little. "Though Mum's not gonna be happy."
"Is she ever happy?"
Rayla smirked. "Not really."
"Then we'll handle it together. It'll be fine. You'll see."
Rayla did not see. No matter how much Callum tried to mediate, he was always interrupted by her mother, with her own ideas of what was best for them. Even her father had aligned himself with Wren, and Tinker too.
"It can't hurt to have two more pairs of eyes," Tinker said, and Rayla turned her glare on him.
"That's easy for you to say, you won't be the one travelling with them."
It wasn't even directed or about him, but even Callum could feel the sting of that one. "Rayla."
"It's not their place to even ask to go," Rayla said, "let alone demand to come along."
"Still…" Callum sighed, trying to meet Wren's eyes. "I know you're both concerned, and want to help. And we appreciate that. But we've come this far on our own, and we're so close. I let Ezran turn back around, but he trusted us with this, and we have to tread carefully. And I don't trust that this—" He gestured between Rayla and her parents. "And all the fighting won't get in the way. We had close calls because of fighting before, and we can't afford for anything like that to happen again."
"You can't afford close calls?" Wren said, and Callum nodded. "I'd say you can't, considering it's now just the two of you and plenty of close calls have already happened, one of which brought you here. Do you really want to risk that again? What if there's only one of you left to carry this out?"
Rayla's jaw clenched. "Mother—"
"Are you willing to risk his life like that?" Wren gestured towards Callum, and then towards her daughter, her eyes on the prince. "Are you willing to risk hers?"
Callum's brow furrowed, and he turned to Rayla, wordlessly raising his eyebrows. A low growl pulled her lips tight, and an eye roll, before they both nodded at each other.
"Fine," she bit out, relenting. "You can come."
Arvis smiled. "I promise you won't regret—"
"But you're keeping your distance, and you'll remember that we're in charge of this mission," she said firmly.
"Rayla—" Wren began, and Rayla glared.
"If you want to come along, you're going to work with us. Understood?"
Wren and Arvis exchanged a glance, and Wren's lips thinned, but she gave him a small nod. Arvis turned back to them. "Understood," he said.
"Good. We're leaving tomorrow night." It'd be easier to sneak away under the cover of darkness. "Pack up."
Rayla walked away with firm footfalls, and Callum waited only a second before he followed after her, falling in step behind. She waited until Callum was in the room before slamming the door behind them, immediately pulling an old knapsack from her closet and throwing in some extra supplies. She set her uniform haphazardly on the dresser.
"I can't believe this," she muttered. "When I said I wanted them to try being a family, I didn't think it'd be like this—they left me all the shame when they failed their duty, and yet interfere when I'm doing mine? What sort of—"
Callum placed a hand on her shoulder from behind. "Do you remember the day we stood on the shore? Before I pushed the boat away?"
She softened, sighing. "Yes."
He turned her around to face him, keeping both of his hands on her shoulders now. "You said that our mission became a journey of redemption, rather than revenge. Maybe they're just trying to redeem themselves too. To you, and to the Dragon Queen. And don't get me wrong, I'm not happy they're coming along, but at least we know they'll actually help us complete our mission, right? They're not Claudia and Soren."
"I guess that's true," Rayla said, softening. "But still, it's… once Zym is home, it'll be the journey back, but once we're in Katolis, we… we won't be like this anymore. Our lives are going to be so different, and I…" She bit her lip. "Wanted this time with you, I guess."
His hands slid down her arms, over to cup her elbows and tug her a little closer so their foreheads touched. "No matter what happens once we're back in Katolis, I'm gonna be right by your side, okay?" He gave her a small, slightly sad smile. "Do you remember what you said on the cliffs, when you went after the dragon? You said it was where you were meant to be." At her nod, he asked, "Do you know why I went after you?"
Rayla gave a slight nod. "You were worried."
"That, and… When Ezran said he was going to go home, I knew I would miss him, but I didn't think for a second that I should go back with him, because that day on the cliffs… I realized that I'm meant to be by your side. That's where I belong."
Her heart melted, and she looped her arms around his neck, kissing him softly. Callum kissed her back until she was breathless, and she drew away with a small, almost embarrassed smile, her cheeks warm as she looked at him, and he mirrored her grin.
"Just because we won't be able to do that once your parents are around 24/7," he said, and Rayla laughed.
"Dummy," she said fondly, already wanting to kiss him again. But she stepped away in spite of herself, missing it a little when his hands fell away from her waist. "Now come on. Make sure you have all your stuff."
"Fine," Callum said, a dopey grin still on his face. Rayla rolled her eyes, flushing. She'd miss having this time with him.
She pushed him away gently, a hand on his cheek. "Go on, my prince. You can at least pack your sketchbook." But Callum's smile only widened, and she raised her brows. "What?"
Rayla blushed, and then smirked a bit. "Well you are mine, aren't you?"
"I am," he said, smiling. "Just nice to know we're on the same page."
Her eyes crinkled, and then she narrowed them. "Pack," she said, rather stern, and Callum sat on the floor with his knapsack while she sat on the bed.
"Fine, I'm packing." Callum didn't have much, his charcoal pen and some old herbs crushed near the bottom of his bag. Macchus' book of runes. He paused when he got to his own sketchbook, and flipped open to the drawings of Rayla. His head grew heavy when he thought of what it'd almost cost him. Should he tear these out, just in case, or…? He let out a soft sigh, his fingers curling into the page as he contemplated until Rayla's soft voice stirred him out of his thoughts.
"My sketches almost got us killed," he said quietly.
She reached down and combed her fingers through his hair on the back of his head, her voice softer and sadder. "Callum."
"But I don't want to get rid of them," he said quietly. "They were important for figuring out how I felt about you, and… I want to be able to look back at them someday, when we're older. It's stupid."
"No," she corrected. "It's sweet. And they are quite pretty, and… they hold good memories for us, too."
Callum managed a tiny smile. "Then we won't get rid of them," he said. "But we'll try to find someplace… safer, for them. Maybe we could frame them later on."
Rayla flushed. "Once we're done with your mage travels?"
"Yeah. We'll have to settle down one day, right?"
Her eyes widened. "You really want to?"
"Well, yeah," he said, smiling softly. "We'll still have to figure out if we wanna stay in Xadia or Katolis, but if you want to stay in Xadia, I'd stay with you." He regarded her, his eyes soft and warm and content. He held out his hand to her. "Where I belong, remember?"
Rayla took his hand, squeezing it gently. "Yeah." She played with his fingers for a moment, "You realize I only figured out where I belong because of you, right?"
His eyes lit up. "You did?"
"'Course I did, dummy. I told you, you changed… so much, for the better. You made me stop hesitating, and helped me figure out what the right thing is. You changed the way I see the world, the way I look at my future… And I know that whatever happens, you're gonna be in it."
Callum's smile grew soft. "You think Ez is gonna call us out for being sappy once we get back?"
"Probably," she grinned. "But he had to put us with us being oblivious and dumb, so he's earned it."
"You think he knew that early on?"
"Most likely. Claudia did, didn't she?"
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
Rayla gave her bag a once over, and then looked over at him. "Is there anything else you want to bring?" she said. "Tinker will give us snacks and some medical supplies."
Callum reached behind her and picked up the doll by her pillow. "Do you want to bring Clawsy?" he asked with a crooked, teasing grin. She wrinkled her nose at him.
"I think Clawsy will be fine here, for now. We can come back for him after we've settled down."
Callum grinned. "Deal."
They both had filled knapsacks and Rayla's parents were at the door as they both said goodbye to Tharon and Tinker, Rayla tightly hugging the latter.
"Be easy on your parents," he said quietly. "They're trying."
"I know." Rayla slowly released him. She glanced back at Tharon and Callum, the latter thanking the former for helping to save his life. "What are you going to do with Tharon?"
"I'll take him to the closest Council," said Tinker. "Once you're only a day or so away from the Dragon Queen. He'll answer for his crimes and compliance, but he won't be charged with treason."
Rayla supposed that was the best any of them, including Tharon, could have hoped for. "I'll send word once we're on our way back."
"Alright. I'll be waiting." He glanced at Callum, who was standing uncomfortably next to Wren now that Tharon had stepped away. The prince was trying not to be, but his shoulders were hunched and his fingers were twitchy, so it was still obvious to anyone who knew him.
Tinker swallowed, and then jerked his head towards the boy. "Take care of each other." He didn't really have to tell them, he knew, but…
Rayla smiled. "We will."
After some dawdling, Callum came up beside her. "Thank you for everything, Tinker."
Tinker gave him a tiny smile. "Just stay alive. I don't want to have to console her."
And Callum gave him a small grin in return. "I'll do my best, sir."
"We'll be back soon," Rayla promised.
Rayla spared one last look at her childhood home, and then turned on her heel and started walking away under the cover of moonlight into the dark woods below, Callum falling into step beside her.
Chapter 17: Into The Woods
They walked silently for a long time as the moon wore on, until Callum asked, "How far do you wanna get today?"
"We're not far from Thales River," she said, hearing the crunch of her parents walking behind them. Her mother blissfully stayed silent rather than offering a suggestion. "But I don't want to push you too far yet."
Zym shifted in the back of Callum's pack, but the boy didn't reach back to pat him. "Rayla," he said.
"I'm fine, we don't need to—"
"Not taking any chances. Besides, when we stop, I'll go ahead and scout out the area. See if any of the Crescents are still in these parts."
"Rayla, they travel in groups, if they catch you by yourself—"
"Well, they could—"
"One of us could go along," Arvis said quietly. Rayla turned back to face her parents, her face sour.
"Rayla," said Callum. "Just hear them out."
"I am," Rayla said, a bit pressed. She took another look at the concern shining in Callum's eyes, and relented. "But both of you have to promise that you take my lead on this one, okay?"
Wren and Arvis glanced between one another. "Very well," Wren said. "I'll go with you. Your father can stay with your human."
Callum smiled a little when Rayla turned back around and they kept walking. "See? That wasn't so hard," he whispered.
"Shush," she mumbled. But she gave in when he bumped his hand into hers, and she interlocked their fingers. "I'm glad you're with me," she whispered, squeezing his hand. He squeezed it back.
"So am I."
Thales River was distantly in view, a glittering snake among the mountainous hills, when Rayla finally said, "We can make camp."
To be honest, Wren was a little impressed that the human had lasted this long. The prince looked weary, but he'd also practically been on bedrest for about a week, as the Dragon Prince scampered out of his pack and rubbed his head against the boy's leg, who bent down to give him scratches under his scaly chin.
"I know, bud," Callum smiled. He sat down next to him, pulling something out of his bag. "Here you go," he said, and the young dragon ate whatever it was out of his hand, his tail wagging. "Good boy!" Callum praised, and the Dragon Prince squealed in reply.
"Callum," Rayla said, "don't feed him too much. We're going to eat…" She paused, trying to configure what it would be now that it was nearly early morning and they'd walked through the evening. "Dinner, now?"
"I know. Don't worry, that's all I'm giving him for now."
Rayla smiled a little when the dragonling trotted up to her and rubbed his head against her calf. "He has been a good boy, though," she conceded. Wren frowned. Treating the Dragon Prince like some sort of pet or toddler… She couldn't imagine. Rayla took out her sword hilts and flicked out her blades. "I'm going to go see if I can find some rabbits."
"We're going to find some rabbits," he corrected, rising and walking towards her.
Rayla crossed her arms over her chest. "I thought you didn't like hunting?"
Callum squirmed a bit. "Doesn't matter. We shouldn't go out on our own until we know we're safe. Zym can stay with your parents. We won't be gone long. You're a good hunter. And you're not gonna go too far."
She'd go out on a proper scouting mission once they'd eaten.
Rayla sighed. "Fine. Don't say I didn't warn you." She kneeled down to face the Dragon Prince. "Zym, you stay with my mum and dad. Be good, okay?" Zym let out an affirmative chirp. Rayla gave him one last scratch, and then stood up. "Come on then, squeamish prince. Let's get this over with. And don't get whiny."
"I don't whine," Callum pouted, even as he followed her beyond the trees.
Wren glanced at Arvis, then at the small dragon who'd appeared at her ankles. He chirped at her, looking up with large eyes.
"Oh. Um, Your Highness," she said, bowing. Zym tilted his head at her, before pawing at her knees. He started nuzzling into her leg and looking up hopefully for… pats? Wren gave him a slightly pointed look. "Have they made you so accustomed to being a common, speechless dragon?"
"Wren," Arvis chided.
"He's the Dragon Prince," she said, her voice stern. "Our future king for the next thousand years, he's not supposed to—"
"Be adorably asking for affection?" Arvis smiled slightly. "He was born less than six months ago. I'm sure even the future Dragon King is allowed to be a child."
Wren looked uneasily at the aforementioned future king, his tongue sticking out as he looked at her expectantly. Finally, Wren reached down, carefully petting the tuft of hair on his head. Zym let out a happy trill, his tail wagging faster as he nuzzled into Wren's hand.
"I suppose he is rather… sweet," Wren relented. Zym licked her palm, and she bit back a chuckle. "You do still have a few hundred years before you're fully ready to take the throne, don't you?"
"I spoke with the Prince," Arvis revealed, "about the dragonling. It doesn't even seem to have occurred to him that returning the Dragon Prince would secure his own brother's safety."
Wren nodded slowly, still petting Zym behind his ears. "Well the boy is strange," she agreed. "And doesn't seem to have a great gift for thinking things through."
Arvis narrowed his eyes. "You're worried he'll abandon her?"
Wren pursed her lips. "I'm worried that he won't. The insults of others will wear on them eventually. Rayla deserves to have a good life, not one full of hardship and societal strain."
"She does," Arvis agreed, "but I'm not sure she would be any happier trying to fit in with what our people would expect her to do."
"You're not saying you approve?"
"I'm saying that I want our daughter to be happy. And life is hard enough. If she's found someone that makes the hardship a little easier to bear…" Arvis shrugged. "At the very least, he won't let her face that ire alone." Arvis crouched down beside her, his eyes steady. "Haven't we already made her life hard enough?"
Wren looked away. "I… suppose the boy does make her happy. And he is unique among his kind."
"He is. He can learn to understand some of her experiences, even if they are...different." Arvis smiled a little. "At least we won't have to worry about this part of her life."
"We'll see," Wren said.
Zym pulled away from her when there was the slightest rustle in the trees, and then bounded over from where the two teens emerged, Rayla in the lead with the boy lagging behind. Rayla had three rabbits clutched in her hands, Callum looking a little green as he sat down by the campfire, out of breath. He looked away, turning a bit more green when Rayla sat down near him and started skinning the first rabbit with her blades.
"I told you not to come," Rayla said, focusing on her work.
Callum frowned at her. "Well yeah, but I—" He wheezed, sputtering into a cough when his chest heaved with indignation, and Rayla softened.
"Just rest," she murmured. "You've pushed yourself hard today."
"I'm fine," he said, but his voice was soft. Then he caught sight of the half skinned rabbit in her lap and made a face, turning more fully away.
Rayla pressed her lips together and then looked at her parents. "Nothing happened while we were gone?"
"Nothing," Arvis confirmed.
"Good." She finished skinning the first rabbit, and then nudged Callum in the side with her elbow. "Cal? Fire?" He turned towards the tented logs and sent out a small, white hot lightning towards it, becoming a roaring fire. Rayla leaned into him a little. "Thank you."
Callum smiled, wrapping an arm around her waist. "No problem."
She blushed a little when she caught her parents' eyes, but she didn't pull away, and busied herself with her work while Callum gave Zym attention. She turned the rabbit slowly over the fire, still curled up against Callum's side as he scratched behind Zym's ears with his free hand.
She couldn't fault Callum for closing his eyes and falling asleep; even Zym had the good sense not to disturb him. Besides, his weight on her shoulder was warm and comforting. She could save some rabbit for him when he woke up. She gave the second skinned rabbit to Zym raw, and finished cooking the first, holding the speared thing out to her parents for them to share before she started on her and Callum's; she might as well let him sleep for as long as possible.
Finally, though, she had to nudge him awake. He let out a sleepy grunt, and she bit back a laugh.
"Callum. It's time to eat." He yawned unhappily, and a smile curled her lips. "C'mon, sleepy prince. You'll really be able to stomach food for the first time in a while. Isn't that exciting?"
"Fine," he mumbled, only managing a smile when she pressed a quick kiss to his cheek. "Thanks." He pushed himself up and Rayla cut the strips of rabbit meat in half, passing some to him, and they ate in companionable silence.
It was when they finished that Rayla stood up and flicked out her blades. It was time to go scouting. She turned when Callum began to stand, looking at him sternly. "You have to rest."
"I know," he said. "But you agreed your mom would go with you, so?"
"Fine," she said, and looked towards her mother. "Well?"
Wren got to her feet, nodding, as she drew her own sleek sword. Rayla pursed her lips, exchanging one more glance with Callum. She softened a little when he gave her an encouraging smile, but still didn't look back at her mother as they left the campsite.
"So," Wren began, and Rayla internally cringed. "That...human boy of yours—"
"I'm not talking about this with you."
"Pick something else."
Wren sighed. "I just want to...know what I missed."
"Callum's only a recent part of my life, you know. There's a lot more you missed, even before you disappeared. Just from...not being there."
"Rayla, you know your father and I had to—"
"It's fine. I'm fine."
"Then why won't you talk to me?"
"You want to talk now? How about how you never seem happy to see me? And it'd be fine, if you weren't so critical all the time—"
"When have I been critical—"
"It's the way you say things, and the faces you make, just—you don't just get to show up after sixteen years and decide you know what's best for me." Rayla pressed her lips together in a thin, firm line.
Wren sighed. "I know your father and I missed...a lot," she said. "I know I'm not...always forthcoming with how I feel. I just want to know you."
"I always have. You know how hard it is, always on the move."
"Tinker and Runaan managed it."
"Runaan has been training you—"
"Mentors shouldn't have to raise their students more than the actual parents do." Rayla glowered and stared at the ground. "Why can't you just admit you made a mistake? That maybe, abandoning your daughter, is something you regret!"
Wren stiffened. "I didn't mean to—"
"Doesn't matter what you meant to do. What happened was you abandoned me. I was a child and I needed you, and you and Father left me. You have no idea how that feels."
Wren sighed. "We're sorry. I'm sorry. That's why we came now. We… we wanted to try. We always have, we just…"
Rayla began to soften. "You can start by respecting my choices. I had to grow up without you, the least you can do is let me do it without commenting on my life choices."
"Very well." They were quiet for a moment, before she said, "You've done very well. Tinker's clearly very proud of you. I'm sure Runaan was, too."
Rayla softened. "Tinker said that?"
"Yes." Wren cleared her throat with a quiet cough. "And so am I. You found the Dragon Prince. And somehow the one… not awful human."
Rayla smiled a little. "His brother's pretty good, too. But yeah, it's probably just them."
"You think the human kingdoms will try for peace?"
"If the dragons are willing to try, and accept Zym as a peace offering, I think so. The head General at the breach is Callum and Ezran's aunt, Amaya." Rayla stretched her jaw, remembering the blow. "She's a very good fighter, but I think she'll be willing to listen to reason. Eventually. And there was a young girl, Ellis, who helped us find Lujanne. I think there are more humans are like that then we realize."
Wren pursed her lips. "I suppose they… could be."
"They were wrong about us. Maybe we could be a little bit wrong about them." She shrugged. "It'd be nice if we were all just mistaken about each other, and figure out that we're all just doing our best to be good. That's not to say we all don't have a lot to make up for, on both sides, but… I think we're finally heading in the right direction, together. That's worth something."
Wren was silent for a moment as they walked, skirting around trees. "I know I did not know you well before," she acknowledged. "But what I did know… I would not have described you as hopeful."
Rayla was quiet, and ran her hand along a nearby tree trunk. "I thought all I had ahead of me was a life of killing. I thought it was for justified causes, but it was still killing. And then beyond that, I thought we'd go to war." She closed her eyes. "I never thought there'd be peace. And then Callum…" She smiled a little to herself. "I never could've seen him coming."
He'd been the unexpected snag in her plans. She'd known Ezran, known the boy was young, had resigned herself to it. There had been no mention of another prince, a brother, much less one that would trip her up and make her think and try to take his brother's place.
"He's changed a lot for you, in the past few months, hasn't he?"
Rayla nodded. "He's...he's my best friend." She tucked her hair behind her ear. "I've never had someone stick with me so long before. Even when I'm being insufferable or abrasive or smug."
Runaan and Tinker had been her parents, not her peers, and Zanthor had been in brief enough dosages to only see the good sides of her. The other kids hadn't liked her, and Ezran was too sweet to be mean to. But Callum had borne the brunt of her ire and it only made him chase after her more persistently.
Wren smiled thinly. "Garlaf knows you get it from me," she said quietly, and then appraised the tree before them. "Do you think it'd be wise to climb up and get a look at our surroundings like that?"
"Sure thing," Rayla said, stepping up beside her, "Mom."
Callum was awake when they got back, and honestly Rayla was a little impressed. He was sleepy, staving off a yawn as she sat down beside him, but wanting to make sure she was alright before he dozed off was a clear motivation.
Rayla reached carded her fingers through his hair. "Dumb sleepy prince," she murmured fondly.
On the other side of the fire, Wren recounted their scouting trip to her father: no rebel elves, at least none that they could see, which made things better and worse. They'd proceed with caution (because what they were doing before was trapising, obviously) and keep heading north towards the mountains. If they made good time, they could pass through the last town near the base of them in a few days time and get some supplies before they made the long trek up.
Callum leaned into her touch. "I can… take the first watch," he mumbled. They'd alternated back on the road.
Rayla rolled her eyes. "Callum—"
"Don't be stupid," Wren said.
"You need rest," Arvis added.
"But… m'fine," he managed, trying to push himself up into a sitting position. Rayla caught him when he fell back down onto his back, resting his head on her lap.
"You'll fall asleep during a watch at this rate," she said. "And then we'll both just be awake and miserable." When he stayed frowning, she went on. "You took lightning for me. You've done your bit. Now rest. It's another long day tomorrow."
Callum softened, pressing a kiss to the base of her palm as she continued to run her fingers through his hair. "Okay. Iluvoye."
Rayla flushed, her fingers lingering along his hairline. His skin was soft and warm. She wasn't sure if her parents were watching on the other side, and she didn't care. "I love you too. Goodnight, sleepy prince."
Callum smiled as he closed his eyes, and his breathing evened out within a few moments as she continued to stroke his scalp. She only stopped when Zym scooted up to her, nudging her hand, and she started petting him instead. Her two favourite princes, now that Ezran was a king, she supposed.
"We'll handle the watch shifts tonight," Arvis said softly, and she looked up.
She regarded both her parents. "You're sure?" They'd all get some sleep if they split in three ways, but ever since her and Callum had been captured, she felt like she'd been holding her breath. Until tonight, maybe.
"Get some sleep," Wren said. "You need your rest, too."
Rayla gave her mother a tiny smile, before shifting so she and Callum were side by side, and he wrapped his arms around her waist in sleep. She buried her face in his shoulder, breathing in the warm musk of his coat and his cleaned scarf.
Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.
The first thing that registered when Rayla woke up was that Callum wasn't there. No warmth and solid chest and soft clothes bundled up in her arms. Her eyes snapped open. She pushed herself up, panic rising in her throat. "Callum?"
She glanced down at her hands, clutching his red scarf. She took a bracing breath, slowly realizing that he wouldn't have left it on accident. He wouldn't have left her or let himself be taken away without it.
She sighed, wrapping the scarf around her neck, and then turned her bleary eyes to the flickering campfire a few feet away. It was a little smaller now, but that was alright; the sun was beginning to rise, the sky now a deep blue instead of black.
The sky was a little lighter when she heard footsteps, and turned to see Callum with his sleeves rolled up, grinning as he held up a couple of already fried fish. The bottom of his pants looked rather wet as her father came up behind him; they must've gone to the nearby stream.
"We got breakfast!"
"I see that," Rayla said, her smile fond. "Where's Mum?"
"Doing a perimeter check," said Arvis, sitting down. Callum sat down next to Rayla and passed her a fish. It was still warm, the skin still crispy.
"Nice to know you fried these instead of the entire lake," she teased, flicking out one of her blades. These fish weren't going to gut themselves.
"I'm still getting the hang of smaller targets," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. Rayla nudged him gently.
"You did good," she said. "We'll just have to reheat them a little." She reached over and lightly touched the back of his head, running her fingers through his hair, and then over the braid she'd woven into it. "It didn't hurt using fulminus?" she checked.
Callum patted his chest gently. "A little tingly, but it was always sort of like that. I'm okay. A little cold, maybe, but good."
Rayla touched the scarf she wore around her neck. "Oh, well—"
He stopped her before she could take it off. "Keep it for now," he said. "It suits you."
She placed her hand on his cheek and pushed him away. "Dork," she mumbled, flushing, before finally turning back to the fish and starting to gut them.
The four fish were being turned over the reignited fire by the time her mother got back, dropping down from the trees.
"All clear," she reported, settling down next to her husband. She glanced at Rayla. "You're awake. Good. And you have breakfast."
"Callum and Dad got it, actually," Rayla said, beaming a little.
"He showed me some of the spells he knows," Arvis added as he slowly turned the fish to another side. "He's already quite a natural."
Callum's ears turned red as he smiled. "I still need to work on gauging the strength of the rune," he said.
"You'll get it in time. And you learned all this in only a few months, no less."
"I told you. He's really good." Rayla smiled as she glanced at Callum.
"At the very least," Arvis said, "I'll be able to help him with some of the runes in the book Macchus presented. Ancient draconic is hard to pronounce, and dangerous to pronounce wrong. It's probably for the best you weren't trying them out all on your own."
Callum grinned sheepishly, remembering the incident with his first lightning spell and the primal stone. "You only make that mistake once," he agreed.
Rayla smiled. "At least it took only one time," she said. "I don't know how much I would've liked you if you'd electrocuted me more than once."
"I mean, just about anything would be a step up from when you had your sword at my throat."
"Yes, both our first impressions were quite good," she agreed dryly. "You running down the halls with terrible form—"
"I couldn't really pay attention to my form when a pretty girl was chasing me down with knives—"
Rayla smirked. "Pretty girl, hm?"
Callum grinned. "Well I do like your ears."
She laughed and shook her head. "You're an idiot." She nudged him. "And it's your turn to take Zym out for the morning."
Callum cleared his throat. "I got breakfast, that means it's your turn. That's the deal, remember?"
It'd been an early rule put in place, enacted most mornings when travel was important and the weather was cool. One of them would be in charge of the camp and breakfast, the other making sure Zym didn't scamper off in the middle of doing his business in the forest, and roles they alternated between.
She reluctantly got up, almost regretting letting Callum take care of breakfast; it was nearly done, anyway.
"You're lucky I like you," she said, before motioning for Zym to follow.
It was only when she was gone that Callum realized he'd somehow willingly landed himself into a situation of being alone with her parents—both of them—truly, for the first time. He went to fidget with his scarf as he prepared himself to face them, and then remembered Rayla had went off in the forest with it still around her neck. Well, then, he'd just have to—maybe this somehow wouldn't be awkward?
Arvis liked him well enough. They'd went fishing together. It'd reminded him a little of fishing trips with his stepdad at the summer lodge, growing up. Ezra had never wanted to participate, being too sympathetic towards the fishes, but Callum had always enjoyed it. He hadn't been the best at fishing, but he'd always had fun, and Harrow had always been encouraging. He would have been so proud that Callum could use magic to catch fish now.
He took a deep breath and then looked up to face Wren and Arvis. He expected to have to say something, some kind of defense, but Arivs simply took the fish off the stick and laid them out on the thin cloths they'd borrowed from Tinker.
He folded one up and held it out to Callum. "Here." Wren stayed silent.
Callum tried to not let his surprise show on his face, coughing instead and taking the meal. "Thank you, sir."
"Of course. You did a good job, catching them all."
"Who taught you to fish?" said Wren, and he blinked. It was one of the first times she'd spoken to directly to him, and without a hint of hostility, too.
"Oh, um. My stepfather. We had a summer lodge." He laughed a little nervously. "Obviously we didn't use magic, then, but—"
"Was it a family activity?" Arvis asked. "Elves have similar traditions with their young."
Callum smiled more easily. "My stepdad tried, but… Ezran was too little at first, but couldn't stomach it even when he was older. We started going the first summer after—" His smile fell. "After my mother died."
At the time, Callum had thought it was just exciting to go somewhere new. Now, he realized Harrow had likely just wanted to get out of a castle that reminded him so much of Sarai.
"I'm very sorry for your loss," Arvis said. Callum tried to smile, but his bottom lip trembled.
"It's fine," he said, clearing his throat. "It was a long time ago."
Arvis regarded him carefully, and Callum wished he wouldn't. "Callum—"
He didn't have his damn scarf to hide his face in. "It's fine," he managed. "Really. It's just uh, nice, that it came in handy after all these years. Princes don't really get survival training."
"You seem to have been doing just fine," said Wren. "You're still alive."
His lungs loosened. "That's thanks to Rayla, mostly. I...I don't know where my brother and I would be without her."
"She thinks the same about you," said Wren.
Callum looked up, smiling a little. "She does?"
"I couldn't imagine why, at first," she admitted, "but you're...surprisingly resilient. You provide an emotional centre, of some sort. The fact that you are dedicated to your mission is only a bonus."
His cheeks grew warm. "She said that?"
"Not in those exact words. But I could tell what she meant."
Callum smiled a little, and then rubbed the back of his neck, looking to both of them. Again, Arvis had largely worked through this with him earlier, but a second time and a first for Wren couldn't hurt. "I know I'm not who you would've chosen for your daughter for a whole lot of reasons," he said quietly, "but I'm going to do right by her, I promise."
"I don't think she would have chosen the kind of person we had planned for her," Arvis considered with a smile. "So the best we could have hoped for is that she would be happy with her own choices, and, well...she clearly is."
"Talking about me again?" Rayla drawled as Zym scampered over to the campfire with her close behind.
Callum smiled up at her. "Only good things." She sat down next to him, her knee lightly knocking against his.
"Even though I stole your scarf?" she teased.
"Yes of course," Callum said flatly. "It's not like I left it for you."
She smiled, pleased with herself. "Pass me one of the fishes, would you?"
He did so, and they all ate in rather companionable silence, although he couldn't keep his gaze from straying beyond the forest to what loomed on the horizon.
They'd be out of the woods and into the mountains soon enough.
Chapter 18: The Rumour
After this chapter, there's probably only three left? So we're quite close to the end. Thanks for being along for the ride, everyone! I promise this aren't as grim as this chapter makes them out to be...
While Rayla couldn't begrudge her father for helping Callum with some ancient draconic, she was sick of nearly getting rained on. His cute little gray clouds spell was nice, and useful, even, possibly, but the tiny cluster of clouds always seemed to drift over to her, despite Callum's best attempts.
And she couldn't even steal his cloak and use the hood to cover herself as payback, since he needed to appear non human at a glance, and that was still his best cover. Although having him in Xadian green shirt under his blue jacket was definitely better, even if she still regretted the fact his old shirt had been ruined by the lightning.
There was no lighting in his conjured storm clouds, tiny and rain laden as they were, at least not yet, but Rayla didn't think she'd ever look at fulminus in the same light again.
"Sorry," he said when a cloud drifted over to her for the fourth time, but she swatted it away nonchalantly, softened by the memory of his near-sacrifice.
"Don't be. You're doing well."
Arvis wore a bemused expression. "Your magic, when in a non defensive mindset, will often drift to where your thoughts do, you know."
Rayla grinned, raising an eyebrow at Callum, who flushed. "Oh, really?"
"Is it really that surprising?" he said, exasperated.
"Just like hearing it," she said cheerfully. "Almost makes up for getting soaked."
"I'll do my best to think of something else, then," he said, and she recognized the pensive look in his eyes that he got whenever he thought about his brother these days, but Rayla left him to it. He needed space for those thoughts, after all, and it wasn't like she didn't worry for Ezran too… but they'd also be back in Katolis soon enough. The trip back would be faster for a variety of reasons, least of all that they could maybe get some horses and wouldn't have to stay off the main roads as much, with the Dragon Queen's favour…
Wren scouted ahead when they reached the edge of the forest clearing, the mountains closer and looming with perhaps another day's walk across the nearest town and the valley below. Rayla only spared a thought as to why the locals hadn't built the town in the valley itself—it looked lush and green—but perhaps it was territory only for the dragons above, for their hunting or recreational activities.
"We should get some thicker cloaks," Wren said when she dropped down from the trees. "It'll be cold going up the mountain." She eyed Callum's cloak. "Even yours won't cut it."
He tugged thoughtfully at his hood. "Should we try and trade it then?"
She pursed her lips. "Maybe. But we'll have to keep you in hiding while we do it."
"I mean, I've seen Rayla's human impression. I could probably fake being an elf for a bit?"
Wren looked flatly at her daughter. "Human impression?"
Rayla shot Callum a look. "Well at least Ez loved them," she nettled and then regretted it, just a little.
Arvis studied Callum. "I suppose if we just had some way to make horns… He could probably pass for an Earthblood elf. We should've gotten an illusionist charm from Tinker."
"Could we get one on the way?" Rayla asked.
"No, it would raise questions," Wren considered. "We don't know fully if the Dragon Queen has received the notice you sent back in Eyholin. Or if she believes you."
"It's probably just best for you to keep the cloak then," said Rayla with a slight frown. These elves would've seen first hand the devastating effect Harrow's attack on the draconic royal family left behind. They'd probably take less kindly to humans than just about anyone.
Callum took her hand and squeezed it. "I'll be fine. And… would it be possible for me to send a letter to Katolis from here?"
"Shadow hawks are enchanted to go anywhere," Arvis said. "But need a powerful enchantment. I could help you with the spellwork."
Callum lit up. "Thank you. I'd like to let Ez know I'll be home soon."
Arvis nodded thoughtfully. "We'll have to tailor it to make sure it's not intercepted," he said. "But I'm sure we can do it together."
He smiled softly. "Thank you, sir."
"How old is your brother, if you don't mind me asking?"
He let out a low hum. "I didn't realize that he was so young."
"Yeah." Callum's voice caught a little. "I've never been away from him for so long before."
Rayla rubbed the wrist that had once worn Ezran's binding. "You'll be home soon," she said, giving him a smile that Callum managed to return.
"And remember, I'm coming with you."
"I'd never forget," he said, his smile softening.
"You are?" Wren said.
"There's still more work to be done. Ez will need help governing Katolis and keeping the other human kingdoms pacified. Besides, it still wouldn't be safe for Callum to travel back across Xadia on his own, and the castle of Katolis is quite close to the border."
"Hmm." Wren's expression was unreadable.
"There are fun things to do in Katolis," Callum said, mostly to fill the awkward silence. "Sweet shops and stuff. Ez shouldn't need us for long, though. Then we'll…"
"I thought you'd want to go to the Sky nexus first?" Rayla said. "Once we're back in Xadia?" She nudged him. "We could get you a proper teacher. I'm sure Macchus would be willing."
"I'd like that," he murmured.
"And you won't have to be jealous of Zanthor this time," she teased.
Callum snorted. "I think you'd actually like seeing me be jealous this time," he corrected. "So long as I'm not as much of a jerk as before about it."
"Well, now that you know there's no competition, maybe it'll help a little?"
"Maybe," he smiled.
Wren cleared her throat. "We should pack up camp and keep moving. We want to make it to town and to the base of the mountain by the end of the day."
Rayla drew away from her boyfriend. "Good idea, Mother," she said, and got to her feet, blushing a bit.
She supposed she and Callum had gotten a little carried away, but she'd been so used to it just being the two of them for so long, it was sort of easy to forget her parents were there. She suspected it wouldn't be any easier to remember there was a world outside the two of them the next time they were surrounded by people either.
Callum readjusted his hood and opened up his knapsack. "C'mon Zym. You can just fit in there." The growing dragonling whined, but curled up inside the bag anyway, even if it was a tighter fit than ever. Callum patted him on the head. "One more day buddy. For old time's sake, right?"
Zym let out a weak trill, and Rayla gave him a scratch behind his ear. "You'll be alright," she promised. "You'll be home before you know it. Aren't you excited to meet your mom?"
With a happier chirp, Zym settled down and Callum put the flap over the top, and without further ado they headed down the hilled forest and into town. Rayla's chest filled with warmth when he took her hand, his fingers threading through her own.
Just a few more days—just passing through town and then up the mountain—and they'd have done it, their mission completed. Then, maybe, there could be peace, or at least peace talks, and things would be better, and they could go and see Ezran and help him, and travel, and—live in a world where they could actually be together.
"Keep your other hand hidden," she chided, smiling and giving his a squeeze.
The mountain town was quaint and sturdy, built to withstand the fierce winds and snowstorms, but it was spring time now. Grey clouds dotted the sky, signalling rain soon, but it wasn't enough to spoil her good mood and the warm breeze that drifted through the dirt road streets and over the wooden houses.
Elves of all kinds, but mostly Skywing and Moonshadow, milled around the closer they got to the town square, a broad space with a fountain with golden water. She stayed closer to his side, her heart rate quickening as they slipped into the crowd. He seemed fairly inconspicuous, with his hood up and his head down, his other hand under his cloak, but now… She softened at the memory of how much he'd worried about her being noticed, back in Katolis. She'd brushed him off at the time, but she understood it now.
Her father identified what looked like the postal office of the town, or at least where the bookkeepers were, and they followed him through the crowd with her mother bringing up the rear. It was a tiny, rigid building at the end of the street with emptiness and then the forest on its left side and behind it. Pink lanterns hung in the windows and Rayla held the door open for Callum after her father let it swing shut; elves had different common courtesies, she'd learned, but the less Callum had to show his hands the better.
Stationary supplies lined the walls, and so did an assortment of other things that would be useful for anyone going up the mountain: self warming amulets, climbing gear, and thick fur-lined cloaks and gloves that looked especially appealing.
Rayla tugged Callum over to some. "We need one in your size," she fussed. He, after all, had a harder time dealing with the elements than she did too.
"But how am I…?" He looked at the gloves, each with four fingers.
"Jus' stick the last two in," she whispered.
"Won't it stretch it?"
"Fine, we'll get something slightly bigger." She plucked a pair from the wall and handed them over. "Try these on."
She'd chosen well, his pinky and other last finger managing to be wedged inside. It looked slightly uncomfortable, but it'd be better than frostbite.
"It's a little big," he mumbled, smiling. "If we wear gloves, we won't be able to hold hands." Their fingers would be too thick to fit properly.
Rayla did her best not to melt. "It's only for a few days. I'm pretty sure you'll live." She caught the soft and earnest gleam in his eye. "Even if I will… miss holding your hand, too," she coughed.
"When we're in hiding?" he asked, and Rayla sighed.
"Fine, but don't complain if you're cold."
"Won't you keep me warm?" He grinned and she rolled her eyes and pushed him away with her hand, trying not to smile.
"Just help me pick out a cloak," she murmured, cheeks pink, and they took two down from the walls in addition to another pair of gloves for her.
They wandered over to the counter with the new clothes and Wren joined them, looking away from the wall of ice pickaxes. Arvis was already there, speaking quietly with the shopkeeper, a beefy Earthblood elf with a large beard.
"We have a few letters still charmed for long distances," he said with a hearty chuckle. "Most are used by Her Majesty. She just sent some elves like you to the Breach, though."
Arvis arched an eyebrow. "Moonshadow, then?"
"Assassins for the young king."
Rayla's stomach dropped, and she glanced at Callum, who was frozen and chalk-white.
"Went back to finish the job. Surprised he slipped through their fingers the first time. I expect we'll get the announcement the king is dead tomorrow morning; they left a few weeks ago. One less human spawn walking around, right?"
Arvis gave a weak smile. "Thanks for the supplies and information," he said.
Rayla managed to breathe, and process, and went to squeeze Callum's hand when it slipped out of hers, and before she could turn around he was bolting out the door, his cloak flapping behind him. She spared a quick look at her parents, rocking back and forth on her heels for a moment, before she took off after him, the door shutting as she heard the owner ask, "What's with him?"
She caught up to him as he rounded the bend of the building, out towards the trees and away from prying eyes. "Callum—"
He dropped to his knees and buried his face in his hands. His whole body was shaking as he scrubbed at his eyes with the base of his palms. Rayla knelt beside him wordlessly, watching and waiting.
"I-I can't—" Callum could barely choke the words out, strangled and caught halfway in a sob. She'd never seen him look worse, not even with Harrow or the ravens or in the aftermath of the lightning. "He's all I have left I can't—"
"Callum, breathe," she said gently, her hand on his back. "You just need to breathe—"
He jerked himself away from her. "I don't want to!"
Rayla's throat tightened. "We don't know if the assassins got to him, we—" She looked up for a moment when she heard footsteps—if it was another elf, how was she supposed to deal with this—but it was just her parents.
Callum didn't look up, drawing his knees to his chest, keeping his face mostly hidden as he clutched his head in his hands. "I let him—I let him walk away and our dad told me to take care of him and now he's—he was my baby brother—" Callum was breathing fast and hard in between wretched sobs. "I was supposed to protect him and I just—he was only ten years old and—I wasn't there, I should have—"
Zym crawled out of his pack, letting out a growl before he stubbornly started headbutting Callum's leg as if to say he was wrong.
Callum pushed him away too by the muzzle. "You were supposed to keep him safe, we—I left everything for you and I let him go home on his own and now he's—and now he's dead! What I am—my family is dead and I don't know what to do, I just—"
Whatever strength or composure he'd been holding onto it broke, as the sobs finally overtook him. Rayla was just relieved, tears leaking from her own eyes, that when she reached for him this time he let her, her arm braced along his back until she managed to turn him towards her shoulder and he sobbed into it.
She gripped the back of his head with one hand, keeping him close—keeping him upright, she suspected—as she met her mother's eyes miserably; she'd loved Ezran too, after all. But she also knew whatever pain she was feeling, the grief, the deep ache settling in her chest, could only pale in comparison to what Callum was going through.
After who knew how long, his sobs quieted to a steady stream of tears, and Rayla gently stroked her fingers through his hair, her other hand clutching the back of his jacket. "If you want to go home," she murmured, "we'll turn around right now. We can leave Zym with my parents and they'll deliver him. We can go home and see… see what's happened, and decide what to do from there." She held him closer and swallowed hard. It would feel as though they were undoing all their progress—but given what their progress had cost him, Rayla knew she owed him this much at least. Nor would she resent whatever he chose. "It's your call. It's always been your call. Just say the word."
Callum shakily pulled away from her and wiped at his face with his sleeve. "I…" He took a deep breath. "We're this close. If I went h-home, it would all really be for—for nothing." He sat back down on his own, his face blotchy and throat sore. "Zym deserves to be with his mother. And I want to look at her." His voice hardened. "I want to look at her and I want her to know what she did to me and my family."
Rayla swallowed hard, nodding. "Okay."
Callum scrubbed at his face, taking more deep breaths and big sniffles, trying to get himself together enough to stand. He looked like he didn't know what to do with himself, so Rayla cajoled Zym, who still seemed rather put out, into his pack and then slung it over her own shoulders. She wiped at her own face and then kissed the side of his head.
"I'm right here," she promised. He didn't look at her, but he didn't pull away either, taking her hand when she slid it into his. After a moment's hesitation, she went to pull him up and he let her, even if he was unsteady on his feet.
She watched as he looked up at the mountain looming ahead—they were maybe an hour from the base of it now—and something turned cold and glassy, numb, in his eyes. He pulled his scarf up around his mouth.
"Let's just get moving," he mumbled, and strode on ahead without her.
They didn't speak until they made camp, and even then it was quiet. She stole a glance at him every so often, but he didn't look at her. He just did what he could to help set up camp, or stared at the fire. Rayla didn't push him. He'd just learned his baby brother was most likely dead.
Zym was far more insistent, bumping his leg or coming over to Rayla, whining, when Callum shooed him away.
"Give him time, little one," Rayla said quietly. "It can't be easy for him."
Zym let out another whine, but settled at Rayla's feet, but Rayla didn't take her eyes off him. Callum's eyes were still rimmed with red, his shoulders hunched when he turned around to face the trees instead of the campfire. He'd cried a little on the walk over, but hadn't stopped, and she hadn't pressed it. Even if all she'd wanted to do was wrap her arms around him and make everything better, remind him that they didn't know for sure Ezran was gone, that he was possibly still—
But she understood an ugly coping mechanism when she saw one. Better to grieve bitterly than give yourself false hope.
Her mother wordlessly left to go hunting and came back less than an hour later with some rabbits, and she helped her parents skin them. Callum didn't offer to come over and help with turning the spit, but it was likely for the best. He'd probably be too in his head to not burn anything.
Once the meat was finished cooking, though, she carried his on a stick over to him, and he looked up at her with a sniffle, his eyes bright and still angry. Scarily numb.
"You should eat," she said softly.
"I'm not hungry."
Time for a tiny push, then. She crouched down beside him. "And waste my parents' hard work?"
Callum glared at her. "Rayla—"
He pushed himself up and away from her. "Just give it to Zym. I'm going for a walk."
Rayla deflated but let him go. "Alright. We'll save some for you in case you change your mind." She swallowed, then said, "Be careful."
A flicker of guilt passed over his face. "I know." He drew his scarf up over his nose. "I won't go far."
She watched him walk away and then stood back up and wheeled around to face her parents, tearing off a chunk of her dinner and chewing miserably as she sat in between them.
Wren was only a few bites into hers. "Do you want me to follow him?"
Rayla shook her head even as her shoulders drooped. "No." She didn't want to think about how angry or upset he'd be if he found out she was tailing him, never mind her mother. "He won't be gone long, I… when he found out his stepfather died, he needed to be alone for a while then too."
Wren nodded solemnly.
"Is there anything we can do?" Arvis asked.
"I don't think so. He's just...dealt with a lot of loss in his life. Especially lately." Rayla pursed her lips. "We never questioned what gave the queen the authority to take life. We always just did it. We say we don't take it lightly but we also don't think about the families and loved ones that are left in the aftermath…"
"Rayla?" Wren's eyebrow arched. "What are you saying?"
"The Dragon Queen is cruel. She—" Rayla's eyes flashed. "She's wrong. Zym can't replace her soon enough."
"Rayla," Wren scolded, but Rayla shot her a look.
"Tell me I'm wrong. She called for a child to be killed twice. She took a father from his children and made them orphans. How is any of that justice?"
"So did the humans—"
"So it's alright for us to do the same thing back?" She glanced at Zym, whose head was tilted at them. "And he's alive. He's alive because of the kindness of two people who were hurt by the orders we had to carry out. Maybe...maybe suffering isn't an excuse for cruelty."
Wren frowned. "You're speaking treason."
"I don't care. You can't honestly believe that smashing an egg is as terrible as watching the light die in someone's eyes—"
Wren narrowed her eyes. "Because you've killed before?" she scoffed.
Rayla glared back at her. "I have, for him. And it was still hard. Having to hurt a child…" Rayla took a breath. "Ezran was my friend and he had a good heart. He went back to try and stop the violence. None of them deserved any of this."
"I'm sorry, Rayla," Arvis said softly, and something in his words caused her throat to tighten.
"It's not good enough," she said. "But at least… At least we know the future will be brighter." She looked at Zym, managing a smile. "Don't ever change, little one," she said quietly. Zym nuzzled into her hand until she petted him.
As the sun began to set, though, Rayla grew worried when Callum hadn't come back yet. They were still in elven territory after all. She ate as much of her meal as she could stomach, and her parents didn't try and stop her from disappearing off into the woods in the same direction he had. Her ears perked up, listening. He couldn't have gone too far.
Then she heard the sniffling, and leapt from one branch to the next, quickly but quietly until she saw him sitting on a rock with his sketchbook out in his lap, his back to her. Rayla crept closer, shifting through the trees until she was on a branch nearly directly above them, and she looked down, just barely able to make out what he was drawing.
There was one page just full of Ezran. Baby, toddler, and then the young boy as she'd known him. The other was larger, with multiple figures, more faded then the one in the centre. What was he—? Her heart plummeted. The faded, fainter figures were his mother the Queen, Sarai, she recognized, and then King Harrow, and Ezran. All drawn with lighter lines because they were gone, and Callum was the only solid one left—
Callum didn't jump when she dropped down behind him. Even his crying was quiet now, silent tears rolling down his cheeks and a few splashing onto his sketches as she rounded the rock to face him. She carefully placed a hand on his shoulder. He didn't turn around, instead dropping his sketchbook in his lap and burying his face in his hands, his shoulders shaking.
Rayla knelt in front of him and pried his hands away, cupping his face in her hands instead. She thumbed at his cheeks, wiping away some of his tears. "I just—" he croaked, and she shushed him.
"You don't have to say anything if you don't want to," she murmured. He quieted away, gratefulness and grief shining in his eyes. She glanced down at his sketchbook and offered up a tiny smile. "Your drawings are beautiful. It looks just like him."
"I miss them," he choked out. "I just—" Another tear rolled down his cheek, and she gently wiped it away.
"I know," she said softly.
"I don't really remember my dad," he mumbled. "I was so little—and I remember my mom better, but I was still young. But even when I didn't feel like my stepdad's son, I always knew I was Ezran's brother, and—" Callum's voice broke. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I always had my family, and now they're gone, and I'm—I'm just on my own, now, a-and—"
Rayla wiped a few more tears away before she shifted onto the rock to sit beside him. She tugged his sketchbook into her lap and then his charcoal out of his hand. She wasn't sure if she was overstepping, but she had to try something, and there was no better way to communicate it then this, as she swept the pencil over the page in careful lines. She tried to keep her gaze from darting to Callum's confused and then wide eyed face to focus on her work.
It wasn't all that bad, she considered, once she was done. She couldn't draw nearly as well as he could, but the figure she'd added on his left was undeniably her, horns and all, her hand enclosed over his. Drawn in firm lines, same as him.
Rayla took her hands away so he could see it fully, her eyes trained on his face as he looked at her drawing, and then up at her. "I'm not going anywhere."
His brow furrowed. "Rayla…" His voice grew a little stronger. "If Ez is… I'm going to have to go home and be king. That's not what we… that's not what I wanted to give you. The politics and the meetings and royal expectations, and—" The tips of his ears turned a little red even if his resolution didn't waver. "They wouldn't want an elf for a queen, and—"
Rayla's eyes widened, and she opened and closed her mouth, before managing, "I don't care."
"I'm staying with you, no matter what."
"You'd be miserable."
"Not with you." She held out her hand. "They may not want an elven queen, but what do you want?"
He managed what was almost a smile, small and wavering. Slowly, he slipped his hand into hers and gave her fingers a firm squeeze. "Thank you." He lifted her hand so it curved his cheek again, and he turned into it this time and pressed a soft kiss to her palm. "I love you."
She stroked her thumb over his cheek. "I love you too. And let's remember that it's still an if for now, shall we?"
"Y-yeah." Callum sniffled hard, but leaned into her touch and closed his eyes. "Thanks for coming after me."
She leaned over and kissed his forehead. "Always." Then another kiss in his hair, before she leaned back down, her other hand coming to touch the braid in his hair. "We're bound, remember? I'm yours, and you're mine."
His face grew more solemn and composed, his tears drying as he sucked in a breath. He let his forehead rest against hers. "We're young," he murmured.
Rayla smiled. "You were the one talking about getting out of arranged marriages just a few days after our date."
That coaxed a weak chuckle out of him. "I guess that's true." His stomach grumbled, and he perked up. "Is there still some food back at camp?"
"Of course there is. Come on." She helped him up onto his feet, giving his hands a gentle squeeze.
They walked through the trees and back to camp hand-in-hand, and her parents looked up when they arrived. Wren and Arvis didn't say anything though, as they quietly sat down and Rayla passed Callum the last meat on a stick. He took it, giving her a small smile before biting in. He didn't let go of her hand, occasionally stroking his thumb over hers.
Once he was finished, Rayla looked up a tad apprehensively when her mother rose and sat down beside Callum. Wren's voice was quiet, her face downcast when she held out a hand to him. "I know what it's like to lose a brother. I will do everything in my power to ensure you get yours back."
Callum's hand slowly dropped into hers, his fingers weak. "Thank you," he mumbled, and the three of them sat there.
Eventually, the sky darkened further, and Callum leaned his head over on Rayla's shoulder, and she let him shift and get comfortable. It was only when the exhaustion of the day had overtaken him that Rayla looked across his head to her mother.
'Thank you' she mouthed and Wren nodded back at her.
She turned her head when Arvis came up to stand behind her, and he placed his hand on her free shoulder. She thought of Callum's family, and then her own fractured one that only had him and Tinker, after Runaan's passing.
But maybe, just maybe, it didn't have to be that way anymore.
Chapter 19: The Second Dragon Guard
They were quiet that morning, Callum still sleeping as Rayla slowly stirred some oats and berries in a pot over the fire. He still had dark circles under his eyes, but they weren't so bad. At least he could still sleep. He was still here, breathing, his bag under his head as a pillow. She'd moved him carefully when they'd inevitably had to go to sleep themselves, and she was glad her parents wordlessly took the night shift as she'd curled up beside him, his back to her chest and her arms wrapped around him. He needed the warmth, and the comfort. It'd been hard to leave him even to get up.
She leaned into her father's affection when Arvis wrapped an arm around her shoulders, Wren having taken the latter half of the night watch, and she moved when she heard Callum rousing. Arvis took the small pot from her as Rayla made her way over.
She was silent as she let him wake up, blinking the sleep out of his eyes as he looked up at her. She gave him a soft, gentle smile, trying to hide her hesitance—this was the first morning after, well—and he swallowed after scanning her face. "I'd hoped it was a nightmare," he said, his voice cracking.
Her smile dropped and Rayla reached down and cupped his cheek with her hand. "I'm sorry," she murmured.
Callum leaned into her touch, placing his hand over hers. "It's okay," he said quietly. "I still have you."
Her throat tightened. "Always," she said. "And remember what I told you last night? We don't know for sure yet."
"I just...I don't wanna hope, and then—"
"I know. But I'll be… 'not' hoping right along with you. Okay?"
He pushed himself up. "Okay." He wiped at his eyes, smiling a little. He stroked his thumb over her knuckles. "Thank you. Do you want some help with breakfast?"
"It should be almost done. How d'you feel about berries and hot oatmeal?"
"Sounds perfect," Callum said.
Her hand fell away from his face to adjust his scarf, and then she tugged him over to the fire. Arvis filled up a small wooden bowl for him, and Rayla only just managed to hold back her sigh of relief when he ate, even if he was still quiet.
"We should be able to make it to the Valley today," said Wren. "If not the base of the mountain itself."
Callum took another bite of his oatmeal. "Couldn't we just walk around on the flat side?"
"That would take another day."
His brow furrowed. "Don't you think it's a little strange no one lives in the valley?" he said.
Arvis smiled. "The Royal Dragon family likes to have separate hunting grounds. It's… odd, I suppose, but not uncommon."
"Hm." He smiled a little when Zym came up to him, rubbing against his shin. "At least you'll have a lot of space," he said, ruffling Zym's hair. His smile faltered, and he looked up at Rayla. "Do you think he knows?"
"I don't know," she said. "But something's clearly bothering him."
"There are dragon whisperers who live up in the mountains," Wren said. "They act as interpreters for some of the younger dragons and the folk who live in the village we just passed through. One could likely translate the Dragon Prince's chirps for us?"
Rayla and Callum exchanged a glance. "How do we know they're...reliable?" she asked.
"You mean, not one of the Crescents?"
"Or...someone like them?"
"They would only be employed by those loyal to the Royal Family first. They'll gladly help in our quest, though they...might not take kindly to our new...companion."
Callum shrugged. "I'm kinda used to being in mortal danger by now, to be honest."
Rayla frowned at him. "That doesn't make it any better. You still have the cloak?"
"As long as you're quiet and have the gloves on, everything should be fine."
"Don't really feel like talking to more people," he said, already looking a tad tired.
"Good. You're not supposed to talk to them."
Now it was his turn to frown at her. "You know what I meant."
She bit back a jab—he wasn't in the place for it—and sighed. "Just be safe. I should check your scars before we start the climb up the mountain too, just in case."
"Don't fight me on this?" she said quietly. Her voice wobbled a little. "Please?"
She watched the reminder that she was grieving too settle over his face, and he nodded. "Okay."
He reached over and took her hand and then kissed her knuckles in a wordless apology. She gave him a soft smile, gently squeezing his hand. "Let's just get going," he murmured. "We still have a lot of ground to cover today."
This time when he got up to walk, Rayla stuck by his side with Zym on her shoulders, and she waited until he reached for her hand to hold him tight.
It was times like these when it was really clear that Zym was growing, as they had to keep him in the knapsack for safety as they trekked through the valley, and the weight felt heavier on Callum's back with every step. It was drizzling and he'd retreated under the flap to stay warm and dry—the novelty of walking in the rain had worn off, Callum supposed—but Rayla's hand was firm, if a little cold, in his.
It was the main reason he was able to put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes, cautious hope swelled in his chest—maybe Rayla was right, maybe Ez really was okay—but he never let it catch flame, and not just because of the dampness clinging to his cloak. If he let himself hope too much, and it turned out not to be true, it'd be losing his baby brother all over again, and he didn't think he could afford to go through that a third time.
"How did you do it?" he asked Rayla, his voice quiet. She looked a little surprised he was talking, but not displeased by it. Even if she understandably needed some elaboration. "When Ez was under the ice, with the egg, you didn't lose faith in him. How did you… how did you manage to let him…" He broke off in a frustrated sigh, unable to phrase it quite right.
"How did I have an easier time letting him go?" she finished with a soft smile, and he nodded. She squeezed his hand. "Well I suspect it was easier because he wasn't my baby brother. But I'd also seen enough of his courage and conviction to believe that he could do it. You're both stronger than you think you are. And…" Her smile faltered. "I couldn't bear the thought of you being under the ice, too."
"I understand," he murmured. Somehow, just hearing her talk had eased the ache in his chest a little. "Thank you, Rayla."
"We've all had to make some hard decisions," she said. "I won't let you make yours alone." She thought of the dragon. "Just like you haven't let me."
"I belong by your side," he said. "Nothing could ever change that."
Rayla smiled softly, briefly resting her forehead along his. "Thank you." She tugged him by his hand. "Come on. We need to keep walking."
Callum let her and laced their fingers together, their gloves forgotten at the store with everything that had happened. He traced fulminus lightly over the back of her hand and cast the spell to help keep her warm.
"You're getting really good at nonverbal magic," she praised. It was nice to naturally stumble upon a lighter topic. Even if she tried not to think about fulminus too much these days.
"It's easier with smaller spells," he said, although there was a hint of pride in his eyes for the first time since they'd found out.
"Well keep practicing," she told him. "I'll make a mage out of you yet."
They both froze when Wren stopped and held up an arm, and went quiet. Rayla's ears twitched and her parents exchanged glances. More Crescents? Some had escaped. Maybe they'd come here, knowing the mission would have to take this route?
Callum scooped Zym up into his arms, cradling the larger baby dragon to his chest and keeping his rune hand free.
Arvis drew his swords when a Skywing elf stepped out from the trees with long blue hair and a Dragon Guard uniform. "Arvis?"
The mage lowered his swords by a fraction, but Wren didn't lower hers at all. "Myra?"
The trees rustled as four more elves stepped forward, garbed in the same blue and green and royal gold. Myra's brow furrowed, making her markings crinkle. "What are you doing here? We thought you were dead. Why do you have two—" Her green eyes went to Rayla and then Callum, and then widened. "A human—"
An archer from the side fired off on Rayla's left, and Callum dropped Zym and pushed her out of the way on instinct. The archer had likely expected Rayla to dodge it, but Callum knew better; she would've taken it for him in a heartbeat. The arrow impaled itself in his shoulder, through his cloak, and he bit back a yelp. Rayla pushed him behind her and her parents helped box him in so that the three of them formed a sort of barrier. Zym cowered behind Rayla's legs, yipping angrily.
"Stop!" Wren shouted. "He's not a threat!"
"Not a—!" The elf glanced at Callum again, now being defiantly blocked by Rayla. He was leaning against her, a grimace on his face, but standing up straight otherwise. Zym snapped at the other group again, and Callum tried to cover him from view with his feet. "What is the meaning of this?!"
"Let me," Callum gritted out. He stooped to pick Zym up with his good arm and nudged at Rayla to let him out.
"Callum, no," she hissed. The archer had another arrow notched, but hadn't fired it yet.
"I'm not going to let anyone else get hurt on my behalf."
Rayla glared at him, and then took his free hand and laced their fingers together. "Compromise."
He saw in her eyes that she wouldn't waver and let her tug him forwards, however reluctantly. She didn't tug too hard as it was still weight on his injured side, and Rayla glowered at the archer next even more fiercely when they stepped forwards. Callum took a deep breath. He had to say this perfectly.
"I haven't come to hurt you," Callum said, raising his voice. He kept his eyes on the lead elf, Myra, even if he was conscious that the four others likely wanted to kill him just as much. "Or the Dragon Queen. I'm elpa." Friend, in Maevic. He watched as it gave the Moonshadow guard pause, but hopefully the others would recognize it too. "I am Prince Callum of Katolis, son of the late King Harrow…" His throat tightened. "And brother to the late King Ezran. I've come to return the Dragon Queen's son to her." He hefted Zym up in his arms a bit.
"Humans do nothing but lie!" Myra said. "Why should we trust you?"
"He's not like other humans," Rayla said, her eyes growing wet. "And neither was King Ezran. I was with them the night their father was killed by my team of assassins. We found the Egg of the Dragon Prince, stolen and hidden away in the High Mage's dungeon. Prince Azymondias lives."
Myra glanced over at her Sunfire elf. "Check the dragon," she ordered.
"That isn't necessary, Myra," said Arvis sharply. "He is the Dragon Prince. The first sky dragon of royal blood born in a thousand years. I've seen it myself." He glanced at Wren. "Our daughter would not lie, either."
"No," Callum croaked. "She can look at him, if she wants to." His hand slipped out of Rayla's and he limped forward a little, lifting up Zym slightly away from his body. "I know it's hard to believe."
Myra stared at him. "You…"
"I know what my father did. He killed the King of the Dragons, because the King of the Dragons killed my mother. Then, the Dragon Queen sent assassins after my father, and then again after my little brother. I'm tired of the violence." Callum's voice broke. "I just want the cycle to end."
Slowly, Myra stepped forward.
Zym quivered, still wary, when she held out her hands, and Callum gave him a quick scratch under the chin. "It's alright buddy." Zym gave Callum's hand a quick lick before he let Callum hand him over, and he settled in Myra's arms.
She raked a shaking hand through his fur. "It… he really is…?"
"He likes being called Zym," Callum said quietly. "And mealworms, and…" His voice cracked. "My brother helped him learn how to fly." He cleared his throat. "I didn't travel halfway across the world to deceive you. Please, just let me—" Callum blinked and stumbled hard, staggering back, the arrow in his shoulder finally getting to him.
Rayla was by his side in an instant, bracing her arm along his back and glaring at Myra. "Is that enough proof for you?" she growled.
"You can't blame us for being wary. After all the humans have done to us—"
"We always talk about how they hurt us. Never how we have hurt them. We call them lesser beings and say it's justified. We let famine take them. We banished all of them for the actions of a few. And—"
"We're all accountable for this mess," Callum said, looking to Myra even as his face lost some colour. "We're all responsible for fixing it. Are you going to let us up the mountain to deliver the Dragon Prince or not?"
Myra sighed and let Zym slip out of her arms, watching the way he scampered back over to Callum and Rayla. "Let us escort you. There are more members of the Guard further ahead."
"We need to stop first," Wren said. "He can't go on with an arrow in his shoulder."
"And to make sure that nothing re-opened," Rayla said, a crease forming in her brow.
Myra rolled her eyes, but the other elves of her troup finally lowered their weapons entirely. "How many times has his puny human body been injured?"
"He got electrocuted and tortured a week and a half ago," Rayla said sharply.
"Tortured?" said the Sunfire elf. "By who?"
"The Crescents," Rayla huffed, easing Callum onto the ground. "They captured us."
"We hadn't joined our daughter and her… and the prince, yet," Arvis explained. "They sought safety and healing in Ryling afterwards."
"You better have a story of where you've been since the King fell," Myra said, a hint of a smile on her face.
Rayla undid the clasp of Callum's cloak and then helped ease it off of him, his good arm first, and then more carefully around his injured shoulder. They might have to tear the fabric, see how far in the arrow had gone…
"Don't push me out of the way next time, dummy," Rayla said, not quite stern when he let out a little hiss at moving.
"But then you would've gotten hurt," he mumbled.
"Yeah, and you wouldn't have. We need you alive for this to work."
"I need you alive."
She tutted. "Just take your shirt off. I need to see the wound."
Callum hesitated, and she saw the look on his face and knew why at once. No one else, besides her and Tinker because he'd had to, had seen his scars. Not really. But there was no way around it. She caught his eye and raised her brows, frowning but sympathetic, and waiting till he nodded before she helped him get his shirt off, too.
She fought the urge to shoot her mother a glare when she even heard Wren wince. It wasn't as though Callum's scars had improved much. They were still long and red and lacing his chest and forearms, but Rayla didn't have to move his scarf away from the one it covered on his neck. None of them, however, had reopened, and the arrowhead seemed to have just pierced skin. Shallow.
"Is it bad?" Callum asked, looking away.
"You've definitely had worse," she said, and he let out a light chuckle.
One of the Dragon guards, an Earthblood elf with short, choppy green hair, crouched down beside her. "I can help," they offered, "if you'd like."
"I've never seen any Earth magic before," he said brightly, and Rayla frowned. He sobered. "I would also love to not have an arrow in me? Thank you."
Still, she couldn't keep the fondness at bay. "You have amazing priorities."
"If you remove the shaft," the Earthblood elf said, "I can likely summon the arrowhead out and then close whatever wound is left behind."
Rayla's eyes narrowed. She supposed the last thing they wanted was anything getting infected. "How much will it hurt?"
"I can handle it, Rayla," said Callum, now a little exasperated. "Let's just get this over with. We need to keep moving."
Rayla frowned again, but broke off the shaft anyway, careful not to let the head shift under his skin. She scooted a little to the side to let the Earthblood closer, even if she kept a close watch; she didn't know when she'd stopped entirely trusting her people, only that she definitely didn't now. At least, she didn't trust them where Callum and other humans were concerned (not that she trusted other humans much, either).
She nearly tackled the Earthblood when Callum let out a sharp groan, but then she saw the arrowhead, carefully levitated out of the wound. Then the wound itself started to close, glowing green the same way the elf's eyes did. When it closed, there was no indication of any prior wound left, not even a scar.
Callum prodded the healed skin with his fingers, and winced a little. "Still kinda tender," he reported to Rayla, and then looked to the Earthblood elf. "Thank you."
"You'll be prone to bruising for the next couple of days, so be careful."
Rayla handed his shirt back to him, glaring. "Well hopefully next time someone won't be shooting at him."
Callum pulled his jacket on next. "I will admit it will be nice once we meet an elf that doesn't try to kill me right away." Macchus and the other Skywing elves had been wary and buffered by Rayla's assurances, after all.
Rayla offered him a hand to help him up. "Guilty as charged?"
Callum snorted. "I'm pretty sure you've made up for it by saving my life on a regular basis."
"I too would like to know the story," said Myra stiffly, their moment breaking as they let go of one another's hands, "of how this all came to be."
They glanced at one another. "You haven't done the honours in a while," Rayla said. She'd been the one telling most of the elves, including her own family.
Callum smiled a little, rubbing the back of his neck, and his smile faded. "Well it all really started because Ez—Ezran found it." He glanced at Zym. "The Dragon Egg we'd all thought had been destroyed. Rayla came with the first group sent to…" His smile faltered. "But she joined our side, when she saw the egg. My father's high mage had stolen it and kept it a secret, but I never got to know if my father knew before he… Rayla tried to call off the assassination attempt, but it didn't work, and we—the three of us just ran. My brother turned back near the border once we knew our father was gone, to try and stop the war from the throne…" Callum cleared his throat. "While we made our way through Xadia. Things were going alright, overall, until… we got ambushed by the Crescents. They captured us and—" Callum's hand went to his chest, over the soft fabric that hid the marred skin. "We were lucky to get out with our lives."
Rayla frowned. It was always like him to minimize when he didn't feel secure in something. "They were going to kill me," she said, "but Callum stopped them with fulminus. Then they turned it on him and tortured him. He was dying, and we needed help, so I took us back to Ryling. That's where we ran into my parents."
"She and Tinker helped me heal," he said, smiling a little. "Then her mom tried to kill me, but we're past that now, so it's fine, and her parents offered to help escort us the rest of the way."
"Callum also became the first human to forge his own connection to an Arcanum," Rayla said. It would be better if they found out now rather than later, for whatever reason. It would be dangerous to be accused of withholding information.
"It's true," Arvis said before Myra could respond. "I don't know how, but it's true. I've seen it, practiced magic with him. No primal stone required."
"Which Arcanum?" Myra said crisply, eyes narrowed at him.
"Sky," Callum answered. "It's slow, but I'm learning." Zym nuzzled against his leg and Callum picked him up. "The Dragon Prince likes having aspiro as a flying boost."
"You are a strange human boy," Myra said at last, turning away from him, leaving Callum unsure if she believed them, but there was no point in pushing it.
The other elves followed suit, the Earthblood elf who'd healed him bringing up the rear, and the archer who'd shot him getting a glare from Rayla as he passed by. Callum just took her hand and squeezed it, Zym folded up with some difficulty in his other arm.
"We're almost there," he reminded her, as they started walking. Myra and the Sunfire elf were talking quietly up ahead, but Wren and Arvis didn't seem worried any more. "And we're okay."
She softened, catching his eye, and squeezed his hand back. "We're together," she said quietly.
Arvis came up behind them. "Are you alright, Callum?" he asked. Even Wren was frowning on his other side.
Callum experimentally rolled his shoulder. It felt tender, but not awful. Zym scampered down anyway to give him reprieve. "I'll be fine," he said.
"They'll expect you to be able to make the climb up the valley and the mountain in two days and nights straight of walking," Wren warned. "We'll have to put our foot down. You won't be able to handle it."
Callum shot her a look. "I'll manage."
After a moment of surprise, Wren glared back. "You need rest."
"I've lost us enough time on this mission. I'm not going to waste anymore—"
Rayla saw him snap before his voice did. "If I hadn't needed so much stupid time healing, we would already be there by now, and Ezran would be—" His eyes burned and he blinked rapidly, turning away.
Rayla followed, her free hand touching the far side of his face, turning him towards her. "We'll have to stop," she murmured, stroking her thumb over his cheek. "To speak with a dragon whisperer, remember? A break isn't a bad thing, and we all need you to be in good condition." She made him meet her eyes. "I care, Callum. Are you going to do that to me?"
Callum sighed heavily. "We'll take a break," he relented, "when we have to."
Then he looked at Wren, his eyes tired. "I'm sorry for snapping."
She blinked, but gave a little nod. "You're forgiven." She shifted. "I'm sorry for drawing my sword on you."
"I'm coming to just think of it as an elven handshake, to be honest."
Wren's lips twitched. "I suppose Rayla used both her blades?"
"She also stalled a lot, but yeah."
"Lucky for you," Rayla teased, nudging Callum lightly in his good side.
"I mean, considering I'd said I was Ezran, thank the gods." His smile flickered.
"You took… your brother's place?" Wren said slowly.
"I tried. He kind of blew my cover by accident." He smiled a little sadly. He gave a slight shrug of his shoulders. "He was my little brother. How could I do anything else?"
"Hey!" Myra called back, their little quartet slowing. "Keep walking. We don't have endless daylight."
Rayla glared but Callum simply held her hand tight. "C'mon," he said.
They had to keep moving forward somehow.