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Hard Priorities

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“`Gotta check on that fire, yep, yep.`... man, I’m stupid!”, Callum mocked himself, poking at the quietly burning branches. He hadn’t meant to worry Rayla and felt like a massive klutz for the way in which he had. She had seemed extremely uncomfortable. It was as though he’d seen something he shouldn’t have.


The prince wasn’t quite sure whether that was because she had fallen on her face rather unceremoniously. After all, she’d fallen in the mud before and she hadn’t made a big deal out of it, so why now?


Her reaction certainly seemed a bit strong, given the minor nature of the slip-up. Maybe it was all just adrenaline from expecting a fight.


After adding some more fuel, he got up and grabbed lengths of rope equipped with all sorts of noise makers. These alert lines had saved their bacon a few times from animals in the past month and he didn’t want to risk resting without them. He started stringing them along the perimeter of the camp.


Shortly after he had finished, one of the lines jingled, followed by a dull thud and a loud, frustrated groan.


“Nice job, Callum!”, Rayla shouted sarcastically, “I can’t see the thin’s at all!”


He first hurried in her direction, then thought better of it and turned away as she stepped out of the underbrush. It didn’t seem wise to embarrass her twice for the same thing.


“Don’t act like you didn’t see that!”, she yelled, not entirely unamused, chucking his damp clothes at the back of his head.


He caught the cusp of both a pant leg and coat collar and swung them around himself to avoid them dropping on the ground.


Her face was a little flushed.


“I’m really sorry...”, he started.


“It’s fine”, she said gruffly, “Not like you’re wearin’ much right now, either”


He blinked. Oh. So the fall hadn’t been the chief concern. Suddenly, he felt a bit exposed, even though he was wearing his undershirt and boxers. He’d always been comfortable like this, but maybe his companion had different standards. Was he being insensitive?


He motioned her to sit on her makeshift bed and draped his clothes over a makeshift drying rack. For all his worries, he wasn’t going to slip into damp pants. “I made some mushroom soup – sorry it’s really thin, I didn’t have any more flour.”


They quietly ate, a bit of discomfort in the air.


Rayla, of course, had some experience with feeling uncomfortable around Callum, especially after realizing that she had feelings for him. She had been planning on telling him once they were done with their mission.


It was too important to introduce those kinds of variables and whether she wanted to admit it or not, she was also worried of being rejected.


But day after day, there was a tiny voice in her head, egging her on.


The soup was thin, but still really good. She could feel her spirits lift a little. With one negative emotion muted, the pulsing and stabbing pains came back.


While the wounds were now clean and dry, she expected to have shining bruises for weeks to come. The new patches in her undersuit felt rough and scratchy. Sowing wasn’t one of Rayla’s strong suits and she hated it with a passion. It was fiddly and stupid.


Ever since they had entered Xadia, a group of headhunters had made their life difficult. Their assailants somehow seemed to know where to look for them at every turn.


The attacks had only stopped after they had made a detour, leaving the prepared paths and roads behind. Today was the first ambush since then and it made her wonder if this was just the start of a new series.


With the last drop of soup gone, she dropped back on her moss bed, lazily dumping the bowl next to her on the ground. After the long, awkward quiet of dinner, Callum’s voice almost startled her.


“We have a few honey poultices still.”


“Eh”, she replied, “None of these wounds are that serious. I’ve got sorta nasty ones across my lower left arm and on my right calf but they’re not deep, just long. Stayed out of the sword guy’s range after he got me. I’m sure if you just wrap em it’ll be okay.”


He came over, bandages in a pot of boiling water. “I’ve had them on since I, uh, came back. Is that long enough?”


The elf nodded without sitting up. It was too long of a boil and had probably worn the bandages’ weave a little but that wasn’t something she was going to challenge him on right now.


He knelt next to her, lifted her leg into his lap and moved to roll up her pant leg, but then stopped short.


“Hey, Rayla... is this okay with you? Me, uh, moving your clothes?”


“You’ve done it before. Why the question?”


“Well... you had a bit of a reaction down by the river and just now. I’m just wondering if I’m making you feel uncomfortable.”


“Right now what’s makin’ me uncomfortable is this wound on my leg. Get on with it, it’s fine.”


Her tone was rather tense and not exactly friendly, so the prince chose to doubt. Regardless, he moved to carry on with his ministration. When the fabric was out of the way, he started dressing her calf.


She picked up another bandage and started wrapping her other arm. She quietly worked through the annoyance of a thousand pins pricking her exposed tissue. That annoying voice would just not shut up. “Ask-him-ask-him-ask-him! Do-it-do-it-do-it! He’s wondering already! You want to know, right?”


Fine. Okay. Good. Grrr.


“Do you-- uh, like--”, she asked quietly, heat climbing back into the tips of her ears.


“Like what?”, he inquired, focused on his work and not quite listening.


His apparent disinterest struck her like a bag of bricks.

“Me”, she added, surprised at the freeze in her own voice.


Startled, he looked up to find her staring at him. Rayla’s expression was somewhat like the one she had worn when they had first collided at Katolis Castle.


“You know”, he started with an unsure half-smile, “I like you just fine. For an evil, dangerous elf assassin.”


His attempt at humour bounced off her, the effects rippling in her slackening expression. “So! Is that all you see when you look at me? Muscle with a blade? I’m scarin’ you now?”, she said, tonelessly.


“I-- uh-- No, but-- I just--”, he fumbled for words.


“We done here?”, she interrupted angrily, feeling a powerful upset grabbing her by the horns.


Okay. That was a pretty clear answer.


‘Breathe, Rayla. He’s still your friend’, she thought, trying to wrestle control from the sour blaze in her stomach.


He looked down awkwardly and finished tying up the wound and neither of them could think of how to continue a conversation from here.