“Come on Rayla, just a little bit more, we’re almost at the top.”
“Callum, you’re lucky my lungs are about to burst otherwise I’d be saying something much stronger right now.”
“Oh don’t be such a baby, you’re acting like this is the first mountain you’ve hiked.”
Rayla responded with an irate look, determined to save what little breath she had. She didn’t mind the altitude, and she’d been out of breath before. She’d get over it. But why in the Six Primals didn’t Callum look even a little out of breath!? He wasn’t exactly the most impressive when it came to athleticism, and while he’d certainly gotten better during their travels, he shouldn’t be this good. This continued to irk her as they continued up the mountain. And after what seemed like an eternity with no apparent progress in their ascent, she finally couldn’t keep her curiosity in any longer.
“Hey, how come you aren’t out of breath? Last I checked there weren’t any mountains near the castle in Katolis,” Rayla said between agonizing breaths. She tried to sound annoyed, but even that was apparently too much for her since Callum turned around with the same goofy smile he always wore, oblivious to her intended jab.
“That's...actually a good question.”
Callum stopped walking to ponder at Rayla’s observation, much to her relief. He hadn’t really considered why he didn’t feel winded. Maybe it had something to do with the Sky Arcanum? His knowledge of magic wasn’t very strong past the fundamentals, and as far as he knew, he was the first mage of his kind.
“Magic, maybe? I don’t know, this is kind of surprising for me too,” Callum responded with a shrug.
“Well some of us don’t have the luxury of magic, Callum, and if we don’t stop for a break I will collapse in front of you.”
“But you’re behind me. How would you collapse in front of...”
Callum’s voice trailed off when he saw the lethal glare Rayla was giving him. The look in her eyes told him no amount of exhaustion would protect him from what she would do to him if he continued that sentence.
“You know what? You’re right, I think it's time for a break,” Callum laughed nervously. “Zym is getting pretty tired anyway.”
Zym’s head popped up from behind a small boulder a few feet ahead of them at the mention of his name. He ran down to Callum with an energy that was unusual even for him. His bright blue eyes were filled with arcane electricity, and just being near him made the hairs on Callum’s arm stand up.
“Is the human definition of tired different from the elvish one?” Rayla said to Callum with a sour look on her face.
“Don’t think so,” Callum responded nonchalantly. He picked Zym up and held him at eye level. “I was trying to make her feel better, you silly dragon. Now she’s even more cranky.”
Zym gave an apologetic bark and wriggled out Calum's hands onto the ground. He ran over to Rayla and began headbutting her calf, as if to push her along faster.
“Look, there’s a clearing up ahead,” Callum said, pointing forward. The rocky terrain cleared into a small patch of grass with a couple of pine trees providing relief from the midday sun. The sound of running water could be heard. If Callum had to guess, there was probably a stream as well. It wasn’t much, but it didn’t have to be. He just needed a place to stop for Rayla’s sake.
“Oh joy. I can die in peace there.”
Normally Callum would have brushed that off as a joke, but when he glanced at Rayla he wasn’t sure it was one. Her normally purple-tinted skin had turned pale and the weight of the world seemed to rest on her shoulders, pushing her into the earth with every step.
“Rayla, do you need help walking?”
Rayla looked up to speak but before she could even open her mouth, her knees buckled. Zym jumped away from her as her hands slammed into the rocky ground.
“Rayla!” Callum shouted before running over to her. In the little time it took to reach her, her arms had given way too. Zym was nudging her with his nose trying to get her to move but to no avail. She was lying motionless on the ground. The only indication of life in her was the short, violent rise and fall of her chest.
“Rayla are you okay!?”
Rayla remained motionless.
“Right, stupid question. Don’t worry I’ve got you.”
Rayla gave a soft groan as Callum lifted her into his arms. Normally he would be amazed that he even managed to lift her in the first place, but he couldn’t focus on that now. He couldn’t focus on the tiny imperfections on her face that only made her more beautiful or how toned her arms were or how the midday light caught her hair making it explode into waves of silver. All that mattered was getting Rayla to the clearing.
“Why is this the scenario that gets Rayla into my arms?” Callum silently screamed to himself. Wait, why did he care about that? Rayla was just his friend. He was just helping her. Nothing else. Was it nothing? Did he wish it was?
Callum’s mental gymnastics routine was interrupted by his head slamming in the branch of a tree. The dull ache that was quickly seeping into his head smothered any remaining thoughts he had concerning Rayla and himself.
He gently put Rayla down with her back propped against the tree before letting out all the pain imparted onto him by the tree’s uncaring branch in a mad dance, his hands at his head while he hopped about as if hot coals were underfoot.
After finishing what would be considered mating ritual in some avian circles, Callum walked back over to Rayla. The intensity of her breathing had somewhat subsided, but her skin was still a sickly color and her eyes remained closed. He sat down next to her, his eyes tracing her face with concern. He wasn’t sure what to do. He wanted so badly to be the hero, to make everything better for everyone. But ever since the horrible night when he had to flee his home, everything he did only made things worse. Time and time again his actions proved detrimental. It was a pointless dream to believe that he could save an entire kingdom. He couldn’t even save his dad.
His dad was gone.
Grief washed over Callum. It was slow, methodical, and unstoppable. Its unimaginable weight crushed him, compressing his soul into nothing only to spit it back out into the void. He was alone, drifting in the blackness of his own thoughts. His body was weightless, but his mind carried a burden that could not be lifted.
Time was supposed to make this easier. He’d known about his father's death for some time, yet the pain was still perched as strong as ever on his shoulder, waiting for the right time to strike. All it needed was a moment of doubt, a simple hesitation, and it pounced.
Callum curled his knees to his chest and wept. Fat, ugly tears cascaded down his face. It was his fault. He could have saved his dad. He could have stopped all of this. If he had run just a little bit faster or spoke with more a little bit more confidence or fought a little bit harder against Soren he could have saved his dad. But he didn’t. He failed. He lost.
He looked up, his face still wet with grief. His arm reached up to wipe his face, but Rayla’s hand was already there. Their eyes met as she brushed away his tears.
Hers began to glisten as well. She understood. She knew what it was like. To lose everything. For every memory to suddenly become laced with an indescribable sadness. Joy felt like an impossibility, peace doubly so. And now she was forced to watch Callum go through what she had those many moons ago. It nearly broke her seeing him like this. He wasn’t just her friend, he was her inspiration. Almost everything he did was filled with compassion and thoughtfulness. He was a light in a world of darkness. But now that light was beginning to flicker, and she was going to try her hardest to make sure it wouldn’t extinguish.
“I’m here for you.”
He broke from her gaze and buried his head into his arms and his shoulders began to shake with quiet sorrow.
“You don’t have to be,” he said, his voice muffled by his sleeves.
“I know. But I want to be.”
Silence followed her words, occasionally broken by Callum gasping for air between sobs, until finally, he spoke.
“I could have saved him.”
Rayla’s eyes dropped upon hearing those words. Loss often twisted and warped memories. She knew Callum did everything he could to warn his father. But that didn’t matter to him now. She knew all he felt was regret.
“You did you all you could.”
“I could have done more, but I guess it’s too late for that,” Callum said, his eyes emerging from above his arms.
“Callum, I’m sorry. I know this doesn’t help but I know what you’re feeling. I just want you to know you’re not alone.”
She was crying now. She was so frustrated that she couldn’t do more, especially after all Callum did for her. This was one time when she could help him but she didn’t know how. Why did she always have to feel so powerless?
“Hey, this my breakdown. Have yours sometime else.”
Callum’s voice shook Rayla from her thoughts. She was greeted by a weak smile and him presenting his scarf to her.
“It probably needs to be washed a bit, but it’s better than nothing. Surprisingly absorbing too,” Callum pointed to his now dry face although he eyes were still watery.
How? How could he possibly still think of others in a time like this? Why did he have to give when he had already lost so much? The wave of emotion Rayla was experiencing crested and she pulled him into a hug filled with weeks of emotion. His chest collided with hers as she gripped him tightly to her. She wouldn’t let him go. Not for anyone or anything.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay. I’ve got you.” Callum said softly. He wrapped his arms around Rayla, trying his best to comfort her. He wasn’t quite sure what he was comforting her for, but he knew that she needed it, and that was enough for him. “Hey, you look better now. Your skin is back to its normal color,” Callum observed.
“Yeah, it was just a bit of altitude sickness. I told you, I just needed a bit of rest.” Rayla said, brushing aside his comment in favor of her own. As touching as his concern was for her, she needed to know one thing. “How can you do this Callum?”
“Be such a good person. Why do you have to put everyone before yourself?”
“Because it’s the right thing to do.”
The simplicity of his statement rocked her. Elves weren’t the most self-serving race to begin with, it simply wasn’t in their nature to be greedy. But even they had limits. Callum it seemed, did not. Guilt overcame her. She was being selfish.
“I’m sorry. I made this about me when it should be about you.”
“Don’t worry about it. I think we both needed this.”
Rayla looked up from his shoulder into his gorgeous green eyes. The light behind them had returned and she let out a silent sigh of relief. Callum looked back at her with a knowing smile.
“Besides, you were right. I’m not alone. I’ve got you.”