They left the Spire the following day at dawn with an added book of spells and rune instructions in Callum’s backpack. He was silent on the way there, falling asleep on her shoulder when they retrieved their horse and continued the rest of the way at a light trot. Rayla didn’t think he’d slept at all the previous night, but neither had she, really. He never stayed asleep longer than an hour at a time, his arms tightening around her waist every so often as he would bury his face in her shoulder. She wouldn’t notice the dampness on her sleeve right away, but she would feel him tremble, her heart fracturing all over again until he lulled himself back to sleep.
It was like that for days, as the long road stretched ahead of them. Slowly the forests became more familiar, with small melodaisy seedlings and adoraburr clusters. They weren’t too far from the Silvergrove. They weren’t too far from his home. Or what was left of it.
The castle, taken. The kingdom in shambles. The royal family... All that was for certain left of it curled up at her back, but Rayla didn’t let her thoughts dwell in that shadowy hole. Prince Ezran and Queen Sarai had to be alive. Maybe even King Harrow’s death had been reported wrong... Lord Viren was many things, but a traitor ? He’d never been particularly warm or even polite to her, but he’d watched the princes grow up. He’d been close to the king and had always seemed to be on friendly terms with the queen, even if they’d publicly disagreed more often. This all had to be a mistake.
She’d give anything for it to be a mistake.
Callum was stubborn and despondent whenever they took breaks. He helped with the chores and setting up camp but each night Rayla had to try out a new coaxing method to get him to eat.
On a dreary day, they stopped when the sun finally began to set, and Rayla turned to check on him before dismounting. He was awake, but quiet, dark circles under his eyes. Her throat tightened at seeing his eyes so continually dull.
“We should set up camp before it gets too dark,” she said quietly.
“Okay.” He slowly let go of her so she could dismount, and she held onto his hands to help him off. “I’ll get the tent set up, you make the fire?”
“Alright. I’ll stay close, but call if you need anything, okay?”
Rayla hesitated, before leaning up to kiss his cheek. She thought she saw the corner of his mouth twitch a little, but it was too quick to tell and if it was there, it never reached his eyes. He turned back to the horse they’d bought, pulling the tent out of one of the saddlebags and she swallowed the lump in her throat, forcing herself to go look for firewood. When she came back, Callum was almost done putting it up, well past the point of needing her help with it anymore.
It just exacerbated her feelings of uselessness in the situation they were in right now, but Rayla pushed that pang aside and set about making the campfire. She set up the logs and the kindling before reaching for her flint rock. The spark caught easily, and with a little fanning she was able to get a decent fire going before sitting down beside Callum. He was staring at his sketchbook, having taken it into his lap for the first time since they’d left the Spire, but it remained unopened, just sitting there.
Rayla placed a hand on his shoulder. “Callum?” she said softly.
He was barely audible. “Hmm?”
“Do you… want to talk?”
“I don’t know what to say,” he said, his voice quiet.
“That’s okay.” She glanced down. “Why did you take out your sketchbook?” Straightforward questions would be easy for him to answer, right?
“I thought maybe I could try to draw something, anything, just to… get out of my own head. And then I remembered that so much of my family is in it, and I know I would end up drawing them and I don’t…” His voice quivered. “I don’t know.”
“That’s okay. You don’t have to know what to do.” His expression remained unreadable.
“I keep remembering he’s gone,” he said. “And then—I don’t know if it’s worse, not knowing what—” He cleared his throat. “But there’s nothing I can do.”
“Callum. You are doing something. You’re travelling home. Getting closer to where you need to be. Doesn’t that count for something?”
“Not fast enough.” He softened when Rayla winced. “Sorry. It’s not your fault.”
“It’s not yours either. We have to pace ourselves or it could take longer, and… I know it’s hard, but we have to keep you safe and healthy, too. You still matter.” Rayla leaned forward and let her forehead press into his shoulder. “You matter to me.”
Callum wrapped an arm around her waist, tugging her closer. “I’m sorry I snapped at you,” he whispered. “And got mad. I-I’m sorry I told you to leave. I don’t want you to leave, I...”
“I know.” Rayla pulled away to look at him, her fingers lightly grazing his jaw. “It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not okay,” Callum said. “I was a jerk and treated you like crap and—”
“Callum,” she sighed, giving him a small, tired smile. “ Please don’t argue with me right now? Just accept that your apology is accepted? Please?”
“Thank you.” Rayla pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Are you hungry?”
He looked at her, trying and failing to smile. “I’ll have something in a few hours. Okay?”
Rayla sighed, her thumb stroking his cheek. “Okay,” she said. “It’ll take time to go foraging, anyway. I won’t go far.”
“Of course.” She pressed another kiss to his brow before getting up, trying not to let her heart sink when expression faded from his face again. She had to travel a little deeper amongst the trees, but never too far that she couldn’t hear him or run back to him if she needed to.
Just the thought of losing him before had been enough to make her feel sick, but even in her worst imaginings, it had never felt real . Now, though... Rayla made quick work of gathering a little extra firewood and the most filling berries and fruit she could find.
Her heart eased a little when she came back and he was still there, even if it looked as though he hadn’t even moved, every breath so slow she almost had to make sure he was still breathing at all. She sat down next to him again. “Hungry yet?” Callum shook his head. “That’s alright. Just eat something before bed, okay?”
“Does it matter?” he said quietly.
She clasped her shaking hands together. “Yes it matters,” Rayla said, trying to sound firm and not short. “Callum, please, it doesn’t have to be now, but I can’t eat this all by myself and we don’t want it to go to waste.”
“Okay,” he sighed heavily, but he buried his mouth and nose in his scarf anyway.
Rayla blinked rapidly and looked away. Grieving was hard. She needed to be patient even if everything felt like pulling teeth now. Even if her own heart ached from the loss. She steeled herself, her face softening, and turned back to him to run her fingers through his hair.
“I’ll eat when you eat,” she said softly, and then rested her head on his shoulder. She heard him let out a tiny sigh before he raised his head a bit and popped a berry into his mouth. Picked up one of the frost-apples and took a bite. Her heart eased, and she rubbed his back when he coughed, his throat raw from all the crying he’d been doing. “You’re okay?” she checked, and he nodded, before she took one of the apples and began eating as well. She kept her hand on his back, every so often rubbing soothing circles between his shoulder blades.
Callum didn’t eat much, but he ate a decent amount, and Rayla was grateful for it as she finished the majority of everything else.
She turned her head and pressed a lingering kiss to his cheek. “Thank you,” she murmured. She nearly startled when he turned towards her, burying his face in her shoulder as he wrapped his arms around her. Her own quickly settled around him. “Hey, it’s okay.”
He nosed into her neck. “You’ve been doing that a lot lately,” he mumbled.
Rayla almost smiled. “Reassuring you?”
A little of Callum’s old, slightly askew self came into his voice. “Kissing my cheek.”
She let out a soft chuckle, even as she flushed. “Do you mind it?”
“No. It’s nice.” He held her tighter. “Things were supposed to be different.”
One of her hands trailed up to the back of his head, lightly stroking his hair. “I know.”
Callum drew away to look at her but not far enough that she had to retract her hand. “I wanted us to be happy,” he said hoarsely.
Her other hand moved to cup his cheek. “We can still be happy,” Rayla murmured. “Even if we’re not happy right now.”
He shook his head but leaned into her touch just the same. “This isn’t what I wanted to give you.”
“You don’t have to give me anything right now.”
“But I want to, I—” Callum sighed, his forehead pressing along hers. “I was supposed to take you home and... and court you. Now there’ll be war at the very least. I was gonna tell my Dad that I—and my Mom and Ez were gonna be so happy and—we would’ve had time to figure out all the runes glowing. And now…” Tears sprang to his eyes. “My life’s a mess, and I’m a mess, and my family—and you—and when I got mad at you I was so scared you’d listen, and leave.”
Rayla shushed him. “We’ll figure it out,” she said as steadily as she could. “You’re not alone.”
“But I—” His face screwed up and then shut down as he sealed himself away, frustrated, and Rayla felt her heart cave in.
“Callum, I miss them too.” Her voice broke. “Your father was a good king and an even better man. And your family... it was an honour to serve them. It is an honour to serve them. But I’m tired, too. I’m tired of having to push you and I don’t like it, I hate seeing you like this and I wish—I know how helpless you feel, because I feel it too. You’re all I have.” She blinked at her eyes as they began to sting. “So please don’t shut down on me like you have been. I can’t do this without you.”
Callum softened and it fully reached his eyes for the first time since they’d left. “I didn’t know I—I’m s—”
“You don’t have to apologize for anything. I just want to know that you’re here .” She took his face in her hands. “I need you here with me.”
“I need you too,” he whispered with a small nod. “Okay. Okay, I’ll try. I’ll try harder, I...”
“You don’t have to pull yourself together. You don’t have to have anything together, just… tell me where you’re at. And eat, without me convincing you, I... It’s scary to think what could happen.”
“I’m scared too,” he admitted. “I might be all that’s left of my family, I don’t want to lose myself.”
Clarity cleared her head and Rayla stroked her thumbs over his cheeks. That was something she could control and help with. Little reminders. Tiny corners of levity, or if not that, traces of hope. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll make sure of it.” She took a deep breath. “You are Callum and you are eighteen years old, and incredibly dorky.”
He shot her a look, but his eyes seemed similarly clear, no longer swimming in something she couldn’t see. “Rayla.”
“And incredibly talented,” she amended. “You are brave and stubborn and kind. So kind, and patient. You are an amazing son and caring big brother and nothing is capable of changing that. And you are the greatest friend I have ever had and I am going to help you find them, and I am going to make sure that you stay you...” Rayla closed her eyes. “The man I fell in love with.”
Slowly, she managed to open her eyes, and found him staring back at her with such a soft look on his face that she couldn’t stand it—the sort of look Rayla had always dreamed about, now here by the crackling fire in deep, dark reality. She moved without entirely thinking, her nose brushing his cheek as she pressed a soft kiss to his mouth.
Rayla pulled away when she felt him begin to respond, the soft pressure of his lips against hers enough to wake her. What was she doing? He was grieving , and she... “Sorry,” she mumbled, her face heating up, “I shouldn’t have—”
Callum took her face in his hands and kissed her firmly, shaping his mouth over hers. Her hands trembled as they reached for his shoulders, her head spinning as she kissed him back. His lips were warm and tasted like berry juice and somehow everything and nothing like she had ever expected, like she had ever dreamed. His fingers tangled in the edges of her hair and Rayla sighed when the kiss deepened, their bodies shifting to get closer, her arms wrapping around his neck. His hands left her face, one cupping the back of her head as his other arm wound around her waist, holding her close.
Nor was she thinking when she bit down on Callum’s bottom lip, and he let her deepen the kiss further, one of her hands grasping at his hair. His arm tightened around her waist. Callum’s fingers curled into the material of her tunic—
She pulled away with a start. They shouldn’t have been doing this— She shouldn’t have started this, her throat tightening when she looked into his face, pupils blown open and his eyes still rimmed with red.
“Callum,” she said, her heavy breath breaking. Her heart raced. “I...”
He swallowed hard, his eyes all too understanding. “We can’t do this right now,” Callum said, “can we?”
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
His lips twitched and it felt almost like a betrayal, now that she knew what it was like to have them against her own. “Me too.” Callum eased himself away, just a tad. “Because I know that...” He smiled a little. “We can never get our timing right, huh?”
Rayla almost smiled. “Should’ve kissed you earlier.” She took a shaky breath. “You’re okay, though?”
“I… I mean, I’m not worse . I’m...” He chuckled lightly. “You’re the bright spot in all this. You know that.” He gave her a tiny smile. “You’re a good kisser, too.”
She flushed in spite of herself, but it was so nice to see his spirits lifted that she couldn’t help but smile. “So are you,” she murmured.
Callum gazed at her and it held new weight. “We’re gonna need to have a lot more self control from now on, aren’t we?”
Rayla swallowed hard. “Yeah,” she agreed, more breathlessly than she’d intended. “It’s, um, it’s pretty late. We should probably get some rest.”
He took her hand, lacing his fingers through hers. Her skin tingled when he pressed his lips to her knuckles, and she wanted to kiss him all over again. “Thank you,” he said.
“Reminding me what I have to hold on to.”
Rayla squeezed his hand. “I’ll remind you as often as you need.”
“I love you.”
She flushed, smiling a little. His eyes were still tired, still a little sad, the dark circles under them as prominent as ever. But some of the light had come back, and her heart fluttered toward it. “I love you too, Callum.”
It was another sleepless night, but for an entirely different reason this time. She was far too warm, not from Callum’s arms enveloping her (though he was, as always, very warm), but from the way her skin flushed, now that there was very little space between them. She’d kissed him. He’d kissed her (and kissed her, and kissed her). His breath was warm on her skin as he buried his face in her neck, like before, but it was different now. Rayla combed her fingers through his hair, trying to get her heart to stop racing.
Her throat was still dry. It didn’t make it any easier to stop thinking about it. Him. The kiss. His kisses. Oh gods, what was she going to do?
“Are you still awake?” he whispered. It was warm on her skin and she bit back a shiver.
“Yeah.” She stroked his hair again. “But you should be sleeping.”
“Should we not be… cuddling?”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I think I’d miss it if we didn’t.”
“Me too.” He held her tighter. “And… it makes it easier. Not that that’s a reason that we have to—”
“Shh. It makes it easier for me too,” Rayla admitted.
Callum went quiet for a while, before he asked, “Do you think we made a mistake? By... you know.”
She didn’t trust herself to look him in the face. She’d done one heartfelt and impulsive thing today. And yet... “No,” she said. Her fingers curled into his sleepshirt and Rayla sighed. “It was nice.”
“Good. ‘Cause… everything’s been terrible the past week, but not this. Never this.”
“I know. I just don’t want to make anything more complicated than it already is.”
“You aren’t.” Callum stroked his thumb over the small of her back. “You remember when we got attacked by bandits?” She nodded. “I was really worried I’d die without having gotten to kiss you first.”
She flushed. “Don’t say that,” she mumbled.
“I can’t tell you that I wanted to kiss you?”
“Don’t talk about dying.” She buried her nose in his hair. “I was so scared that night.”
“I was scared too,” he said, more seriously. “For both of us. I just...” He angled his head and pulled away to look her in the face, a proximity and position that had only grown ten times more dangerous than before. His eyes flickered down to her lips before flitting back up to meet her gaze. “What if we never get the timing right? What if this is all we have?”
“I promise we’ll have our time, soon. But we can’t—”
“Can’t what? We loved each other before any of this happened, why—”
“Callum, please.” She took a shaky breath. “I need to focus on keeping you safe. And you need to be prepared to leave me behind if things go south, and we can’t do that if we’re...”
“Well, then it’s too late, because I’m not gonna want to leave you anyway.”
“You might have to.”
“I won’t.” Callum frowned. “I don’t care how dangerous it gets, I won’t just leave you.”
“Callum...” Rayla took his face in her hands. “Your people need you.”
He turned his head and pressed a kiss to her palm. “ I need you.”
Rayla straightened and slipped her hands away. “I didn’t agree to escort you because I love you,” she said, her voice trembling. “I agreed because it was my duty. It is my duty. And you should be mindful of yours.”
Callum’s eyes were shiny as he glanced away, frowning. “Fine.”
She swallowed hard. “I’m sorry.”
“I know.” Callum rolled over onto his side, his back to her as he closed his eyes and seemingly tried to drift off.
Rayla hesitated—what did she think this would do?—before scooting over to him and wrapping her arms around him from behind. Would he brush her off? But instead, she felt the tension ebb out of his body as he took her hand, and she squeezed it in a silent apology. She couldn’t change her mind or their situation, but she could still give him this.
Callum tangled his fingers with hers, his voice soft and sad. “I love you too,” he murmured.
They were mostly quiet the next day, for an entirely different reason than before. Rayla tried not to regret kissing him, tried not to regret saying what she’d said after—and she was right, she had to focus on her duty, their duty—but the stilted silence was heavy all the same, especially when she knew he was probably bursting with things to say. When she knew if he said all those things, she might grow weak and momentarily cave, and she couldn’t bear the thought of tearing herself away from him like that again.
Rayla made sure they still got their lunch break, mainly to give their horse time to rest, but she wasn’t too worried; they were making good enough time. It was a bit of a slog, having to walk around the desert, but they passed it quickly enough. They were even close to the Silvergrove, now. But given everything that had happened had happened, so long as her main priority of getting Callum back to the Banther Lodge to hopefully find the queen and Ezran alive and safe, Rayla could be patient. Soon enough they’d be crossing back in Katolis anyway.
The more she thought about it, the more it bothered her. The rest of the crownguard should have been able to at least get the queen and Ezran away, but then Soren was the captain left behind, and… could he have been working with his father the entire time? It was hard to imagine even for Claudia, let alone her doofy but generally well-meaning brother.
Most of all, she didn’t want to think that that family had anything to do with any of this. It would all be an unfortunate mistake, and maybe Callum wouldn’t have to lose that family too. Maybe.
She heard a twig crack and her ears perked up. “Callum,” she said, “get back to the horse.”
He raised his head from where he’d been nodding off against a log. “What? Why?”
“Something’s wrong.” The first time they were attacked, Rayla had assumed it was just for money. This time, though, and if they knew who Callum was... She stood up, squinting over the fire and pulling Callum up by the hand too. “Just get on the horse, if we have to run we’ll—”
“Rayla, watch—!” She let out a grunt when he suddenly pushed her to the ground, and was about to ask why when she heard him let out a sharp cry of pain.
Rayla picked herself up, her heart in her throat when she saw an arrow shaft sticking out of his shoulder. Her vision turned red and she flicked out her blade, throwing it over the fire towards a pair of glinting horn cuffs, and heard the assailant gasp and then choke. The elven attacker keeled over next to the fire, throwing Moonshadow white hair and unfamiliar markings into sharp relief, although she did recognize the sigil on his shoulder: Aaravos’ assassin guild, apparently for hire. Maybe the royal family’s assassination hadn’t been Viren’s plan after all.
She turned back to Callum, her heart dropping when she saw him crumpled up on the ground near where she’d fallen.
He moved, barely, trying to push himself up. She scrambled to his side, hoisting him up carefully by the shoulders and trying to get a good look at the arrow shaft. It didn’t seem too deep, but if these were Moonshadow styled arrows then...
She cradled Callum’s face in her hands, the whites of his eyes already carrying a greenish tinge. “Poison,” she said grimly.
He seemed to stare past her, his expression hazy. “What?”
Her throat tightened. Her brave, dumb human. “Come on.” She hoisted him up onto the horse, keeping him at her front when she climbed on beside him. “We’ll get you fixed up,” she promised, even if Moonshadow elves were protective over their antidotes anyway.
It was a good thing they weren’t far from the Silvergrove after all.