Callum glanced at the strawberries on the table, wondering when would be the best time to take them. Ezran was waxing lyrical about Xadian animals to their father, neither of them seeming to pay much attention to what was going on outside of their conversation. Deciding now was probably the best opportunity, Callum reached out and grabbed the berries, a large handkerchief lying prepared in his lap. He wasn’t entirely sure why he felt he had to sneak them, but he really didn’t want to have a discussion about hoarding fruit for Rayla. He couldn’t adequately explain to himself why he was doing it and he didn’t want to have to come up with excuses to anyone else.
It was simply that she seemed to really like them and… he liked seeing her happy. She definitely deserved to be so after everything she had been through. It was nice seeing her smiling and he wanted to see more of it.
“Callum,” Harrow addressed him just as Callum was snatching the strawberries. “Do you have plans after breakfast?”
Callum flushed, hoping desperately that Harrow wouldn’t ask what he was doing. “Eh, plans?” He glanced at Ezran. They hadn’t spoken about it, but Callum assumed they would be going directly to Rayla. As had become habit.
“I thought you would like to join me and the council. The Crow Master received a letter from the Breach this morning.” Harrow took a sip of his hot brown morning potion. “I assume there will be news for Rayla.”
Callum swallowed, his gut twisting again, making him intensely uncomfortable. News for Rayla was good though and it would be nice if he could be the one to give it to her. To see her face light up again… “Sounds good.” He forced a smile, hoping it wasn’t too obvious.
Harrow observed him quietly for a moment before continuing. “I think it would also be good for you to observe some of the goings on of the council. You could inform them of some of the things you both have learned from Rayla.”
Callum swallowed past the lump in his throat, nodding stiffly. He… didn’t want to tell the council things about Rayla. Certainly, nothing private she had shared with him. That felt like betraying her, telling stories she had disclosed only to him. But he didn’t know how to say that, so he shrugged instead. “Eh, yeah, ok.” He had never been the greatest liar and this lie felt very personal.
Harrow smiled, looking genuinely happy and Callum felt guilt clawing at him once again.
The rest of their breakfast passed quietly. Harrow and Ezran chatting about this and that, Callum adding his opinion occasionally, and only when it felt absolutely necessary. He was distracted.
Eventually, they finished eating and Harrow got to his feet, followed by the two boys.
“What’s on the agenda for this morning, Ezran?” Harrow smiled at his youngest, as he made his way to the door.
“I was going to go see Rayla again.” Ezran smiled, squeezing Bait. “I thought we could go see the Xadian animals. Bait is hoping he will get another nap buddy.”
Harrow shook his head in amusement, glancing at the glow toad. He paused at the door, as the guards opened it for them. “Ensure you bring the guards with you.” He spoke softly.
“Oh don’t worry,” Ezran waved him off. “Marcos is like Rayla’s special guard. He said he’s happy to accompany us anywhere.”
Callum frowned, feeling heat rise in his cheeks, though he didn’t know why.
“Marcos?” Harrow queried as they strolled into the hallway.
“The guard she spared.” Ezran continued. “He said he wants to try and repay her.”
Harrow stopped, his face softening a little. “So, there was a guard then.” He looked pensive.
“Yeah, like Callum said.” Ezran nodded at Callum. “Anyway, I’ll see you guys later.” He grinned, turning and walking off in the opposite direction.
Callum shifted, mind wandering to the strawberries hidden in the cloth in his hand.
“Callum,” Harrow gestured in the opposite direction, then turned and began walking.
Callum paused, eyes moving back and forth between the retreating figures. He took a deep breath, then called out to his father. “Just a second.” Without waiting for an answer, he hurried after Ezran. “Hey Ez!” He called out.
Ezran turned, looking at him expectantly. “Yeah?”
“Here.” Callum thrust the strawberries at him, realising he didn’t have a free hand.
Ezran shifted Bait, and glanced at the clothed offering, though he took it immediately. “What is it?” He frowned at Callum.
“Nothing.” Callum shifted uncomfortably. “Just some strawberries. For Rayla.” He shrugged, feeling his cheeks burn. “She likes them.”
Ezran smiled at him, pulling the bundle clear of Bait. “Aw, that’s sweet, Callum. I’ll tell her you sent them.”
“No!” Callum knew he was blushing even more, which made things worse. “Just give them to her. You don’t have to say… It’s fine.”
Ezran raised an eyebrow at him. “Why not?”
Callum sighed, struggling to find the right words. “It’s just… its fine. Ok, I should go. Hopefully, this won’t take forever.” He turned back to follow Harrow before Ezran could question him further. He didn’t particularly want to examine why he liked doing things that made Rayla smile…
Callum struggled not to yawn for the umpteenth time. Admittedly, the council meeting had started out pretty exciting, but it had quickly lost its intrigue and now it felt like they had been debating minute details all morning.
Logically, he knew it had barely been over a few hours, but the seconds seemed to drag by. He couldn’t stop wondering what Ezran and Rayla were doing.
And the guards too, he supposed.
They were probably hanging out with the cute Xadian animals, laughing and joking and having fun. Rayla was probably telling them all kinds of weird and wonderful things about the little critters, that cheeky twinkle in her eye and lop-sided grin on her face. He resisted the urge to doodle on the paper before him. He suspected he would inevitably begin drawing Rayla, and he was in far too public a place to do that.
Shaking himself, he tried to pay attention once again. Really, he should be being more diligent. This was information that Rayla would be desperate to hear.
Negotiations were going well at the Breach it would seem. It appeared Amaya and the representative of the Sunfire elves had already established something of a begrudging respect and the dialogue between them had been easier than anticipated.
Moonshadow elves were a lot less centralised a people than Sunfire elves, apparently, and so they had had to send word out to multiple Moonshadow settlements to try and establish where Rayla came from. Further complicating things was the fact that Moonshadow elves hid their settlements with illusions and weren’t generally that open to contact. Some kind of magical communication had been sent out, without response, and now the Sunfire elves suggested they would have to wait until the full moon, when Moonshadow elves posted contacts at strategic places throughout their lands.
Realising Rayla wouldn’t been leaving suddenly over the next few days made Callum feel… relaxed. He still didn’t know exactly when Rayla would be leaving but he had a week or so at the very least.
“Lux Aurea have washed their hands of the affair.” Opeli sighed, re-reading the scroll. “Which General Amaya seems to think is perhaps good.” The blonde woman frowned, glancing at Callum briefly. “They do not hold humans in high regard.”
“No.” Harrow spoke decisively. “And our commitment to forsake Dark Magic does not seem to have raised that regard in the slightest. Nonetheless, we will keep our commitments.” He glanced out the window, eyes narrowed in thought. “Has Rayla expressed an opinion on how the Moonshadow elves will take that pledge, Callum?”
Callum started at having been directly addressed. He flushed, uncomfortable with his… friendship with Rayla being so candidly discussed. “Eh, not the whole thing, I guess.” He thought back to her words about being tainted by Dark Magic. Her fear of being rejected by her own people. It seemed despicable to blame her for something outside of her control. He couldn’t believe she was right. She must have been confused… but he also did not feel like he could discuss that with these people who were unknown to Rayla. It felt like a breech of trust.
Harrow frowned at him, clearly hoping he would elaborate.
Callum swallowed, keenly aware of all the eyes on him. “She… doesn’t have a good opinion of Dark Magic and I guess she knows her people don’t either. I’m not sure what she thinks they will make of the whole thing. I, uh, I could go ask her?” He offered, desperately hoping they would dismiss him.
“Perhaps later.” Harrow nodded, turning back to the council members.
Callum sighed, getting to his feet, and stretching. The discussion was by no means over, but it was time for morning tea and apparently the council broke for that religiously.
“Callum, why don’t we take a stroll?” Harrow suggested. He glanced back at the remaining council members. “Resume without us.” He gestured for Callum to lead.
Confused, Callum made his way out of the chambers, then stood in the hallway, unsure where exactly Harrow wanted to go.
“Where do you think your little brother is hiding out?” Harrow mused, turning to walk in the direction of the outside.
“Probably the stables.” Callum fell in step, his heart racing a little at the prospect of going to join Ezran and Rayla.
“Are these Xadian animals really as cute as Ezran thinks?” Harrow grinned. “He tends to be a little biased.”
Callum snorted happily, smiling. “Na, they’re pretty cute. Weird colours.”
Harrow nodded, looking impressed. “And how about our other Xadian guest?”
Callum’s pulse sped up a little and he resolutely looked ahead. “Rayla?”
“Yes.” Harrow seemed to be considering his words carefully. “You both seem to have struck up a… friendship with her. Tell me about her.”
Callum frowned, uncomfortable for reasons that confused him. “Like Ez said, she’s nice. Funny.” He paused, unable to keep the small smile from his face. “Really sarcastic.”
Harrow snorted, glancing at Callum. “And she’s been telling you about Xadia?”
“Yeah.” Callum shrugged. “Nothing like we were discussing in there though.” He glanced back. “Just… you know, dumb stuff. Fart flowers and weird animals and stuff.”
“Fart flowers?!” Harrow sounded unimpressed. “Really?”
Callum laughed, remembering that conversation fondly. “Apparently, I’m still not sure if I believe her. She also told me she was seventy and married and had a bunch of grandkids.”
“What?!” Harrow made a very unking-like sound, then burst out laughing. “That can’t be true.”
“It’s not.” Callum rolled his eyes. “But she had me going for a few minutes.”
Harrow shook his head at him as they stepped out into the bright morning glare. Finding the orchard deserted, they proceeded to the stables, King’s Guard following silently behind.
Callum’s pulse raced a little as they moved into the cosy warmth of the stables, and Rayla’s unrestrained laugh echoed off the rough, white-washed walls. He followed a little behind Harrow as the King made his way in the direction of the noise.
They found Rayla, Ezran, Marcos and a female guard as well as two stable hands relaxing around a pot belly stove in the corner of the tack room. Ezran had a number of colourful puff balls sticking off his hair and clothes, which was what Rayla seemed to be laughing at.
It took everyone a moment to gather they had company, the guards and stable hands jumping to attention once they realised the King was in attendance.
“Relax, please.” Harrow smiled, holding up his hand as he approached Ezran. “What on earth are you doing?”
Callum followed behind, his eyes meeting Rayla’s as he stepped forward. She smiled softly at him before her eyes darted back to Harrow.
Callum sighed, noticing the tension in her shoulders, though he could tell she was trying to hide it.
“They’re adoraburrs, right Rayla?” Ezran plucked on of the puff balls from his jacket and handed it to Harrow.
Callum was surprised to hear it begin squeaking as it bounced merrily in Harrow’s loose grip.
“Yes.” Rayla confirmed, her voice a little stiff.
“What do they do?” Callum asked, taking an adoraburr from Ezran. He grinned as the little creature somehow seemed to smile at him, squeaking happily as it quivered in his hand.
“Do?” Rayla rolled her eyes. “Nothing much. Look cute? What do you-” She seemed to catch herself, her eyes once again darting to the King as she stopped talking abruptly.
Harrow looked between them, seeming to catch the teasing tone, though he didn’t comment on it. Callum shifted under his scrutiny, trying to appear invested in the pale blue burr in his hands.
“You know these little guys well?” Harrow pulled up a stool and sat next to Ezran. He glanced at Rayla but did not hold her gaze.
Her own eyes looked between the King and Callum as she seemed to ponder her answer. “Yes. They live in shady meadows. There was a big one near my home.”
Callum could hear the slight shake in her voice, and he wished there was something he could do to put her at ease.
“They stick together.” Rayla opened her hand to reveal two little burrs, one on top of the other, happily chirping away. She nodded at Callum and tossed them in his direction. Callum noticed her arms, clumsily bandaged, distracting him from the tiny animals zipping in his direction.
Squeaking not unlike the adoraburrs, Callum fumbled in mid-air, trying to catch them, only for them to stick unceremoniously to the top of his head. Rayla hid her face behind her hands as she tried to stem her laughter. Struggling not to grin at her, Callum plucked the creatures from his head and set them on top of the one in his hand. “Stackable!” Rayla snorted and shook her head at him. Callum felt himself grinning at her.
Something which did not seem to go unnoticed by Harrow.
They stayed sometime in the stables together. Rayla was quieter than on previous days, but she began to open up a little more as time went by.
Callum could see Harrow watching her closely, studying her.
Sighing, Harrow got to his feet. “I suspect our council will be wondering where I am.”
Callum shifted, getting to his feet as well, assuming Harrow would want him to go back to the meeting. His eyes darted to Rayla, finding her looking at him too.
“It’s ok, Callum.” Harrow chuckled, as he lay a hand on his shoulder. “I won’t make you suffer any more. Enjoy the afternoon.”
“Uh, thanks.” Callum laughed, appreciative.
Harrow nodded at all assembled, his eyes lingering on Rayla a little, then proceeded out of the stables, flanked by his guards.
Callum sat back down, happy to have some relaxed time with Rayla.
And the others, of course.
“I’m going to sneak by the kitchen and see if I can get some jelly tarts.” Ezran grinned as they all made their way into the castle. They had spent most of the day in the gentle warmth of the stables, chatting and relaxing. “Do you want to come?” He turned to look at the guards and Rayla.
Rayla started, having been caught mid-yawn. “I might pass, if that’s okay?” She smiled at Ezran but did appear weary. “I’m a bit tired.”
“No problem, Rayla.” Ezran smiled. “I’ll sneak you a few extra for tomorrow.” He looked to the guards. “How about you guys?”
They glanced at each other, then Rayla, before Marcos spoke. “Sure, you Highness. I’d love a jelly tart.” He bowed at Callum and smiled at Rayla, then waited for Ezran to lead the way.
Callum shuffled awkwardly for a second. “Eh, do you need me to walk you to your room?”
Rayla glanced around the hallway. “Could you? This place is pretty big and easy to get lost in.” She paused. “I imagine.”
“Yeah.” Callum smiled as he gestured for her to start walking. “What’s your house like in the Silvergrove?”
Rayla glanced at him with a raised eyebrow as she began walking. “Nowhere near as big as this. My parents had a regular house, but my guardians live in one of the houses built into the trees. It’s a bit more impressive.”
“You live in a tree house?” Callum chuckled, trying to imagine it.
“Not a tree house.” Rayla rolled her eyes. “A house built into a tree.”
“There’s a difference?” Callum asked sceptically.
She smirked, as she playfully smacked him on the upper arm. “Yes, dummy.”
Callum was about to answer back when some of the bandage on her arm fell out of her sleeve. Rayla pulled her arm back quickly, gripping the bandage in her fingers.
Callum glanced at her, noting the slight flush in her cheeks. She was still trying to hide that she was hurt from him. He frowned, feeling disappointed she didn’t trust him with that small vulnerability, but elected not to comment on it. “So those little burr things-”
“Adoraburrs.” She corrected, smiling fondly.
Callum rolled his eyes at her. “Adoraburrs.” He corrected. “They live near the Silvergrove?”
“Yep.” Rayla smiled at him. “I used to sneak off and hang in their meadow for hours as a kid.”
“Was that where all the kids hung out?”
“Nope.” Rayla shrugged. “Just me mostly.”
Callum turned to look at her as they reached the stairs. He frowned, wondering why she would go alone.
“What?” She asked, tugging unconsciously on her bandage.
“Nothing.” Callum gestured for her to proceed up the stairs.
She observed him for a moment, then turned and made her way up the dark corridor.
She certainly seemed tired. Callum could see a slump to her shoulders, and she appear to drag her feet. They reached her door and Callum began to wonder how he should say goodbye when she glanced over at him.
“Em, do you mind helping me with this?” She turned her hand over and showed him the unravelling bandage. “It’s hard to tie one handed.”
Callum glanced down the hallway, not sure why he felt so nervous. “Uh, okay.”
Rayla smiled shyly, then opened the door and proceeded inside. Taking a deep breath, Callum followed her, closing the door behind him.
Rayla sat on the edge of the bed and held out her arms for him.
“I’m not going to be great at this.” He cautioned as he joined her, fumbling with the bandage.
“I’m sure you’ll manage.” She teased, rolling her eyes.
“Do you want to put more ointment on?” He looked at her skin, still inflamed in places.
Rayla shrugged, her eyes darting to the small jar on her bedside table. Callum took this as a yes, opting to lean over and grab it, as he was the closest. He handed the jar to her, patiently waiting as she applied it to strategic places on her skin. She unwrapped the bandage on her other arm and applied ointment to that too. Once she seemed satisfied, she held out her arm for him once again and he began wrapping the bandage. He could not help but stare at the numerous small linear cuts on her delicate skin. There were too many to count. Most had healed to a thin silvery line but a few look red and painful.
“He did it with my own swords.” Rayla said softly.
Callum looked up when she spoke but did not respond.
“He’d say these strange things and I would become unable to move.” She took a deep breath, her eyes fixed on her injured arms. “He’d cut me, and it would burn like fire in my veins. He was taking the blood. Doing… something with it. Something... something evil.” She paused.
Callum finished bandaging her first arm. “I’m sorry.”
“My... my father crafted those swords for me. And he corrupted them. Used them against me.”
He gently took her other arm and rubbed his thumbs over the delicate skin of her wrist. She furrowed her brow, obviously avoiding eye contact. Callum swallowed, embarrassed, and began bandaging once again.
He was getting too familiar. He needed to keep himself in check.
She shrugged. “I guess it wasn’t…” She considered. “It wasn’t that painful.”
Callum looked at her briefly as he finished bandaging the arm. She held his gaze for a few seconds.
“Pain doesn’t have to be the issue.” He leaned a little closer and she looked away.
“That’s stupid.” She avoided his eyes, not sounding convinced.
“Why?” He asked, looking over his handiwork.
She considered this for a few moments, observing him tend to her arm. “If it doesn’t cause you physical harm then what’s the problem?”
Callum snorted not unkindly. “You can’t believe that.”
She looked at him equally confused before a funny look crossed her face. “We’re from very different worlds, Callum.”
He was adjusting the bandage on her right arm when she said this, and it shook him. There was something strangely final about the way she said it. He looked at her, swallowing heavily but not knowing what to say.
She observed him too, a funny look in her eyes. It was like she was trying to decipher him, know him by simply looking straight at him.
Unconsciously, he shifted a little closer to her. “Rayla, you’re... you’re not corrupted because of what Viren did to you.”
She looked down, shaking her head. “You don't understand how things work in Xadia.”
He grabbed her hands, unable to restrain himself. “You’re right. I don’t understand. I don’t understand how you could be held responsible for what happened.”
To his surprise, she didn’t pull her hands back. “Callum-" She started, a sad look in her eyes.
“Rayla, you’re the strongest person I have ever met. You survived for so long in that dungeon. Anyone else would have been broken by that.” He shook his head, pulling her hands closer. “Rayla, if your people reject you because of what happened... that’s, that’s just stupid.”
She laughed a little, rolling her eyes.
“They should be proud of you!” His heart raced as she looked back at him.
Dimly, he realised how close they were, legs touching, her hands clasped in his.
Sitting together on her bed…
She stared at him, her eyes a little wide in shock, lips parted.
All he could think about was how amazingly pretty she looked. If he leaned forward just a little, he could press his lips to hers. And from the way she was looking at him he thought she would kiss him back. He felt lightheaded from the utter longing and he couldn’t help but lick his lips. He saw her eyes drop to his mouth as he did so, and he couldn’t help but take notice of how her pupils dilated a little.
It would be easy, he thought, so easy to just close the distance between them and kiss her but... it didn’t feel right. She was upset and vulnerable. Maybe she just wanted comfort? It would be wrong to exploit her in that way.
He looked down, breaking the moment, feeling strangely furious with himself.
Rayla shifted on the bed, and he released her hands.
“Uh, I think that should be ok.” He gestured clumsily to her bandaged arms as he got to his feet.
“Yeah.” Rayla muttered, appearing to examine his handiwork. “It looks good.” She looked up at him, a pink blush on her cheeks.
“I should go.” Callum said hastily, feeling awkward and uncomfortable.
“Okay.” Rayla didn’t move from her position as Callum made his way to the door.
“Em, see you tomorrow?” Callum asked, looking back at her small form still perched on the bed.
Rayla smiled a little stiffly at him, nodding. “Thank you.”
Callum rushed through the door, closing it harshly behind him. He leaned against the rough wood for a moment as he ran a hand over his face. Sighing, he pushed himself away from the door and hurried away from Rayla’s room.
What on earth was he thinking? Why had he wanted to kiss her? Where did that thought even come from?
Sure, he liked her, but who wouldn’t? She was funny and witty and kind to Ezran. And yes, she was objectively so very pretty but he shouldn’t be thinking things like that. He was supposed to be helping her, not take advantage of her.
He frowned as he thought back to that moment on the bed, to what might have happened if he had leaned in, rather than away. What would it be like to kiss her? To feel her soft lips against his, her breath mingled with his own.
Callum frowned, squeezing his eyes closed briefly as he hurried away from her. This was not right. Not at all…