There was a howl of wind outside, seeping into the tent. Unlike the last two weeks, it was not warm. Rayla and Callum got up and dressed. It wasn’t enough to stave off the cold.
“Let’s grab the winter gear”, Rayla said with chattering teeth, leaving the tent.
Outside, they realized that the cold wind was blowing right into the cave, displacing the steam that had kept them warm that night. Outside the shelter, hail was falling, clattering against the rocky floor and playing the spines of cacti like a section of discordant Xylophones.
In the back of the cave, their Perytons stood, miserably eyeing the weather.
Their winter clothes were mostly still stuffed in the deepest parts of their backpacks, so they ended up spreading the rest of their equipment out.
Callum turned the Key of Aaravos in his hands before replacing it in his bag. Hopefully it wouldn’t turn out just to be a nice little bauble. For a moment he could’ve sworn it pulsed at his touch.
Rayla and the prince put on the winter uniforms she had gotten from Alissa.
Zym seemed to love the change in weather, trying to catch specks of hail that clinked against his scales.
“Are we going out there?”, Callum asked.
“Yeah! It’s just a little hail!”, Rayla scoffed.
She grabbed her doe by the leads and guided her outside where she mounted up.
“Come on, dummy.”
He grumbled, grabbing his stag and following her outside.
It was miserable, but at least the heavy winter clothes kept them warm and dry. They also kept most of the hail from pelting their skin, even though it still hit their faces.
The Perytons didn’t seem too happy, either, snorting and huffing in the cold as they ascended further into the hills.
About two hours later, they came across the first crossing, where two other roads joined their path. Maybe because of the weather, there were no other travelers.
Another hour later, the hail got worse.
“Must be the storm that we saw from down there”, Rayla yelled over the cacophony of ice pellets peppering needles and spines all around them, “We need to find shelter!”
“I told you we should’ve stayed put!”, he complained.
“Come on, my coddled Prince! It’s still not too bad! I’m worried about the stags, is all!”
They found some shelter under a massive toppled tree’s roots. Zym was still dancing in the hail with abandon, so happy that little sparks were coming off his cheeks.
“At least someone is havin’ fun”, Rayla said, smiling, “He’s a real bright spot.”
Suddenly, Zym froze in place, peering in a direction ahead of them. He seemed very focussed, elongating his neck to try and catch a glimpse of whatever it was. Rayla stared at the same place and unholstered her blades.
Callum was confused, but didn’t say anything.
Like this, they sat for a tense moment, until Zym relaxed and returned to his frollicing.
“What was that?”, Callum whispered.
Rayla shrugged, still trying to find whatever had disturbed her, “It feels like there’s somethin’ out there. I had that feelin’ yesterday, too. It’s there - and then not. Weird. I didn’t think much of it yesterday, just blamed bein’ sleepy.”
Callum gave her a worried look that she returned with a smile. “It might be some kind of animal. Don’t worry too hard about it. If it wanted us dead, it could’ve come for us this mornin’”
He did not like the mental image of a platypus bear or a family of skags showing up while they were sleeping.
A while later, the hail made room for cold rain and Rayla decided to keep moving.
They passed more crossings but still met no-one. This suited them just fine. The bulky winter clothes neatly obscured Callum’s otherness, but it was still better not to take chances.
Soon, the ranger station came into view. The mountains were now all around them. Callum strained his neck, looking upward only to find their tops totally obscured by clouds.
Rayla motioned for him to stay back a little while she approached the miserable looking, teenage elf standing watch over a closed turnpike.
“Greetin’s”, she said and the ranger lifted her hand without looking up, “The pass is closed?”
“Nah, the barrier’s stuck”, she said rudely, “Of course the pass is closed! You see this weather? Up there that’s all snow!”
“How much?”, Rayla asked, undeterred.
Looking up, the ranger peered in her face and Rayla believed to see a light flush bolt across the young earthblood elf’s face before she blinked, looking down. She then stuttered “A-around four f-feet. Too deep to ride through, anyway.”
Rayla thought for a moment. Four wasn’t so bad. Aspiro would likely clear it, neatly.
“Do you trade for provisions?”, she asked, knowing the answer.
“Is water wet? Of course we do! This is a ranger station! That’s all we do! Move this barrier, get soaked and trade foo…”, she trailed off, becoming aware of Rayla’s fiendish smirk, “Very funny. How much?”
“Week’s worth, three people.”
“Three?”, she said, glancing between her and Callum confusedly.
Rayla threw a hand at her prince, “He eats a lot.”
The ranger waved for her to dismount and walked inside the station, Rayla in tow.
Inside, another earthblood sat, cradling his sleeping baby.
“I’ll handle her”, the ranger told him.
They quickly figured out a fair trade for two bags of feed as well as three ration packs.
When Rayla handed over the small gems she’d been collecting, the ranger seemed to make a concerted effort to touch her hand.
“W-”, the woman stuttered, “Are you, like... with the other r-rider?”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
The ranger squirmed while behind Rayla, the man laughed.
“She’s asking if your friend is your summand.”
“N… no?”, Rayla stuttered, “B-but we are… sharing the Bloom.”
The ranger was visibly disappointed, “Oh. It’s that moon elf mating ritual thing, right? Uh, never mind then, ha ha!”
Rayla flushed slightly, only now understanding what was going on. Discomfort rose in her and she turned on her heels to leave.
“Uh, bye”, she said, then quickly walked back to her mount, stowed the rations and feed and hopped in the saddle without looking back.
Without a word of explanation, she spurred her animal and galloped around the still closed barrier.
Callum followed quickly and eventually caught up.
“What’s wrong?”, he half-shouted over the din of their animal’s hooves.
“Nothin’! Uh, I think she…”, Rayla laughed brightly, “I think she was interested in me!”
Callum blinked, an odd anger rising in his stomach. “I understand the feeling!”, he shouted, trying to ignore it.
Rayla gave him a look of loving appreciation that he wouldn’t soon forget. It wiped the sour blaze from his stomach.
In front of them, the terrain now rose steeply, the road looping back on itself as it ascended to make the mountains scalable.
An hour later, they had reached the top of the first section of the pass, arriving on a rocky plateau devoid of larger plants. There was a lot of colourful moss all over and Callum spotted several Precious Whites. Some of the bad weather was now below them, only beautiful, blue sky directly above. Sadly, there were more dark clouds ahead of them. The wind was still cold and everything was dusted in snow and frost.
“Let’s have lunch”, Rayla said and dismounted. The sun had already advanced past its zenith and Callum felt his stomach jump for joy at the suggestion. Now that he was up here, he also wanted to look for the plants he was missing before moving on from the windward side of the mountains.
“I’ll be back in a bit”, he told Rayla who looked at him, confused.
“Where are you goin’?”
“I won’t go far. Just wanna look around a bit.”
His girlfriend blinked, a hint of realization on her face.
“Gotta use the washroom?”
“I won’t be long, I promise.”
With that he walked off; she was left to her own devices.
It suited her fine as she had her own plans.
While he walked, he quickly ate his lunch, scanning the ascending walls of the mountain plateau. A gust of warm, wet air hit him. This was probably steam from the hot springs.
He noticed a stand of red flowers, their thick petals like sails, drifting in the wind. They were attached to a bit of earth that had fallen into cracks in the steep walls, protected by an overhang.
He tied a rope from his pack around his waist and around a jutting boulder, making sure everything was nice and tight. Then, he descended.
He cut the flower’s hair-like stems with his knife, then scanned his surroundings, making a point of not looking down.
Under the overhang hid a sad looking exemplar of Invertim, its white petals partially fallen off.
It wasn’t an easy feat, getting to the prickly plant that hung from the earthy floor of the outgrowth. When Callum cut the sturdy stem, the motion made his foot slip and for a terrifying second, he thought he was going to fall.
In his haste to grab on to the wall, he cut his hand with his own knife. It wasn’t too bad, though, and he hadn’t lost anything of value, still holding on to both plants and the tool.
Carefully, he climbed back up, trying to ignore the pulsing pain in his arm.
As he climbed over the edge, something caught his eye. About Nine feet above him on a rockface, an painfully orange bloom sat in the hot, wet breeze ascending the mountain wall.
“No way!”, he gasped, his heart thumping in his throat. Heavy seed head. Violently orange petals. This was a beautiful, out of season Salis Anur!
He put the other plants in his pack and eyed the cliff.
“Doable”, he decided and started climbing, paying very close attention to where he was stepping now that he didn’t have a rope to catch him.
He reached the plant and hugged the wall, not wanting to make the same dumb mistake, he brought out his knife and very carefully cut the stem.
Coming loose from its roots, the plant drifted upwards. Callum was not surprised by this. He had actually expected the pull to be harder, given that the petals were the length of his arm.
The prince now carefully made his way toward the ground. As he left the stream of hot air, the heavy seed head fell past him and he clung to the wall, not wanting to get dragged down with it.
The last few inches were trepidatious. He was betting on something going wrong. It felt like a higher power was watching him, annoyed at his continued success.
With elation, he threw the plant in his bag and more skipped than walked back to where he’d left Rayla.
This was all beyond fortunate. Well, maybe safe for his bleeding hand.
That was annoying.
Rayla was not where he had left her. Maybe she’d had the same idea?
He sat to finish his meal and hadn’t been at it for long when she returned.
“I see you ran into a bit of trouble relievin’ yourself?”, she said, nodding at his wound.
“Ah, just cut myself on a rock, it’s nothing bad.”
“Sure”, she said sternly, rummaging in her saddle bag and producing a glass container with a clear liquid inside.
It burned when she applied a few drops to the wound to clean it.
“That cut looks a bit too clean to be from a rock…?”, she asked, with bemused suspicion.
“It was a sharp rock”, he lied, barely able to hide his excitement, suddenly noticing a dull heat in his joints.