Callum couldn’t sleep.
Every time he closed his eyes he was met with the insistent need to do something . It was as if he was dragged down with overwhelming exhaustion up until the point he could actually lay down and rest.
It could also have been the cold, creeping into his bones as the sun’s absence sucked away the brief relief of ice and replaced it with new layers of snow. It wouldn’t be long before sickness set in, as it did every year. It was an inevitable part of winter.
After hours of fitful sleep, Callum sighed, pushing off the layers of furs that covered his bed and slipping out into the dark world. He reached under his mattress to remove the unfinished saddle and quietly made his way to the hall. The door to Ezran’s room was firmly shut, thankfully, although the small, carved-out hole for Bait was still present.
Callum was careful to skip the stairs that creaked.
Stepping out into freezing night air was a feeling he never got used to, no matter how often he snuck out. A fresh layer of snow was spread out across the ground, crunching as he walked into the darkness.
The forge was filled with a biting cold when Callum arrived at the building, his eyes drifting from every crowded corner as he carefully added pieces of wood and coal into the giant furnace that sat along the back wall. The spark of flames illuminated the darkened smithy and filled his bones with a comforting heat that seemed to dance alongside the moonlight that sifted in through the closed windows. The scent of iron and burning leather was thick in the air as Callum pulled out scraps that he’d be using, opening his sketchbook to pages of saddle designs.
There was still an hour or two until sunrise. More than enough time to get what he needed and leave… at least he hoped.
How was one meant to make a saddle for a dragon anyway? Heck, he didn’t think anyone on the island even knew how to make a saddle. It wasn’t as if they even had horses, not with the rocky cliffs that made up their island, and most (if not all) of their travel simply being by boat.
The blueprints he’d managed to create were, without a doubt, severely flawed. He’d be lucky if the contraption would even fit over Zym’s body, much less keep him on long enough to actually fly. The saddle he currently had was simply a placeholder, a way to remain on the dragon without worrying about falling immediately.
His eyes strained as he forced himself to look over the messy drawings.
He sighed, letting his sketchbook fall to a nearby counter. Burnout was inevitable, he supposed. He’d been working on stuff for Zym nonstop for over a week now, with little to no sleep each night.
The mess of metals and leather went promptly back into their alcove, and he carefully laid out bits of his spear. He’d already started the fire, and it was easier to cover his tracks with what he was meant to be doing rather than erasing his presence all together.
The icy air hit him in a single, freezing gust as he stepped outside of the smithy. Snow fell heavily upon him as he made his way back by his house to grab the basket he’d been using to bring fish to Zym. From the freezing weather of the past week, winter seemed to be headed in early.
Good when you took into account the decline in dragon raids, not so good when you took into account the lack of food and relentless cold.
Ezran was still asleep as he slipped quietly through the house, and Callum found himself grateful to see that he hadn’t woken him up with yet another night of relentless insomnia.
The walk down to the docks was familiar at this point, and it was an almost effortless pattern of slipping between buildings and avoiding the faint glow of firelight from the few torches that remained lit throughout the night.
It was colder by the water, if he were to be honest. The already icy air mixing with the salty humidity of the sea was enough to ward any sane person away.
Vikings weren’t exactly sane though, at least not the ones who resided in Katolis. Which was probably why they’d even chosen this island to settle on in the first place.
Regardless of whether or not the conditions were favorable, the fishermen would be returning to their boats shortly. He’d done this enough times to have their arrival time pretty much memorized, their route glued into his mind in order to avoid any potential confrontation.
As dim-witted as some of the vikings were, they would have to catch on to the loads of missing fish eventually, if they haven’t already.
Thankfully, due to the voyage having drawn away a large portion of the village, it was nearly completely dead in the early morning. He glanced at the sky, where the bright half-moon shone out over Katolis. They’d embarked on their voyage almost two weeks ago at this point. It was already halfway over.
The thought hit him with such intensity that he stumbled over a loose stone in his path, creating a racket as his basket shifted from where it was strapped against his back. He cursed under his breath, freezing as his ears strained for any sign of someone awakening or entering his general vicinity.
What felt like an eternity later, he began to move again, slowly closing the distance between him and the dock’s storage room.
He grimaced at the pungent scent of dead, frozen fish as he forced open the old, riggidy door to the storage shed. He slung the basket off of his shoulder, opening the latch and removing the lid to carefully pile fish after fish from the storage crates and barrels inside. As soon as the last fish was in and the lid was firmly replaced he quickly stood, turning to the exit only to freeze in his tracks.
“ What on earth do you need that many fish for? ”
Rayla’s voice was barely more than a whisper, yet it sounded louder and more intimidating than even an angry Chief Harrow.
“ Rayla-- ” he squeaked, his grip faltering on the basket’s strap as he fumbled to move it across his back, narrowly avoiding dropping it. “Why-- What are you doing here?”
She held up a single black eel, her eyes narrowing at the basket strapped to his back, “I’m more concerned with why exactly you have so much fish.”
Callum’s mind went momentarily blank, and Rayla took that as an invitation to continue speaking.
“I overheard a fisherman talking about how low their stock has been this year, I didn’t know it was you .”
Rayla leaned against the wooden door frame, and Callum tried to filter through his thoughts for a reason--any reason for him to have the overwhelmingly large amount of fish.
“I, uh, wanted to see if any other fish scared them off?”
He phrased the excuse more like a question than anything else, trying his hardest--and failing--to keep a perfectly straight and serious face.
If Rayla’s expression was anything to go by, she wasn’t convinced.
She didn’t move from the door frame.
“Okay, so… are you just gonna stand there?”
“Oh, don’t mind me. This frozen, splinter-filled wood is extremely comfortable.” She shifted her position slightly, as if to prove a point. Even he could see her grimace as the old wood creaked under her weight. “I’m mostly concerned with why you have such a large basket of fish--and if what I heard from the fishermen was anything to go by, why you’ve been sneaking in here to collect them frequently enough to make a dent in our store.”
Dang it, stop hesitating so much, Callum!
“I- er… I need to draw out the smaller dragons. It turns out terrible terrors are a fan of-” what did he put in the basket? “-carp… and salmon.”
“Food we need to make it through the winter.”
“Yeah… I didn’t really think about that…“
Callum couldn’t think of how he’d get out of this one.
The silence they sat in was thick and tense, only heightened by the close proximity and riggidy walls.
He could almost ignore the overbearing stench of fish.
Rayla let out a sigh, removing her shoulder from the door frame and calmly stepping out of the way. Callum scrambled out of the confined space and back onto the wooden surface of the docks, ignoring the way wind cut through his furs and sprinkled goosebumps across his skin.
He stood there awkwardly next to Rayla as the storage door swung shut--much louder than he was comfortable with.
It felt wrong to just leave , especially considering how she could easily get him into so much trouble just by exposing what exactly he was doing. Even if what she thought he was doing wasn’t nearly as bad as the actual truth.
“So you’re really feeding all of this fish to dragons on the off chance you find another fish that harbors the same reaction as an eel?”
Oh gods, could this day get any worse?
She stared at him for a long moment. Callum could feel his hands going numb from the constant bombard of icy air.
Finally, she spoke.
“I have a proposition.”
He did not like the sound of that, “What proposition?”
“Tell me anything you learn about the dragons from this point onward, and I will… ignore this incident.”
Callum could feel the weight of fear lessen upon his chest. Only slightly.
“But,” of course there was a but , “if I run into you with that much fish again, I won't hesitate to report you. Our stores are already low enough, we can’t afford you constantly stealing weeks worth of food just to feed wild dragons.”
“Yeah, that sounds reasonable enough.”
They didn’t exchange any more words, and Callum found himself carefully slipping past her, back onto solid ground and climbing the rocky path to the village. The first bits of sunlight began creeping over the horizon as he quickly made his way back through the village.
Why did the chief’s house have to be at the furthest point from the sea?
His lungs ached by the time he finally entered his home, closing the door with little to no regard of the noise. A glowtoad stood in front of him, a quizzical gaze sent his way from where Bait was seated by the hearth.
Callum let the basket of fish sling to the ground from where it was strapped over his shoulder. He made his way across the room to Bait, sitting down next to him and ignoring the way the heat seemed to burn his skin. The sharp contrast from the cold and the fire was painful, yet he couldn’t bring himself to move. He simply resigned himself to placing a hand on Bait’s head and waiting for the sun to rise and the day to begin.
Claudia was staring at him. There was no doubt about it.
His stance became tense and awkward as he fell upon that realization, his mind drifting back to Rayla cornering him in the forest and demanding he explain his sudden talent with dragons, and her confrontation at the docks that morning. He still reeked of fish, and couldn’t help the panic gripping at his chest as he halfheartedly listened to Gren’s lecture.
He remained distracted as the door to the Terrible Terror’s enclosure was opened.
To say this dragon was threatening was a major overstatement at first glance. They were small dragons, most growing no bigger than a young dog at full size. They normally traveled in packs though. Their teeth were razor-sharp, and their jaws were powerful. They were mischievous little creatures, oftentimes found stealing large fish and chickens even on days without raids.
Seeing this one in the arena, tiny and malnourished, it was hard to feel anything other than pity, especially considering the day prior, when the small dragon had approached him wholeheartedly.
He ducked to the side as the dragon lunged at the group. Soren cried out as the small reptile latched onto his arm, sinking its teeth into the leather armor that covered his body.
Callum let out a laugh at the sight, unable to stop himself. This lesson seemed more chaotic than anything else.
“Aw, come on! This was new!”
Taking Soren’s distressed cries as a signal to act, he silently drew his knife, angling the sunlight around the dragon. The Terrible terror spotted the light and immediately released the boy’s arm, diving onto the ground and following the light all the way back into its pen.
And just like that, the class was over.
He tried not to think of Rayla’s harsh gaze as he made his way back out of the arena. Her left hand was free of cloth bandages, with the burn marks an ugly red blistering color against her pale skin. Despite being received the other day, it still looked painful.
A hand on his shoulder stopped him before he could fully leave, and he mentally prepared himself for Rayla once again interrogating him.
Oh gods, he’d forgotten to tell her about the light trick. She was going to kill him--
Oh. It was Claudia.
Somehow that didn’t comfort him.
Still, his heart couldn’t help but do a flutter as he turned to face the girl.
“Oh, hey,” he did a quick glance around them. Nyx and Soren were walking down the path to the village. Rayla was lingering, waiting at the entrance to the arena. “Um, sorry. Did you need something?”
Claudia smiled. It was a sweet, awkward grin.
“What, can I not say hi to an old friend?” she asked.
Right. Something was definitely up. But still… this was Claudia. Sure, he didn’t really know what she was like nowadays, but she was still Claudia, right?
“I mean, you haven’t really spoken to me in, well… forever.”
She bit her lip, her hands locking together in front of her, “I know we don’t really hang out any more, but I was hoping we could maybe change that?”
Now Callum was just downright confused, “I don’t mean to sound rude, but why? ”
He couldn’t think of why she would just suddenly speak to him after years of nothing .
“I was just wondering, seeing as you’re naturally talented when it comes to dragons, maybe you could help me? I’m good at magic, but not really combat it would seem. I could teach you some spells in return.”
Oh. Oh .
Of course. Anything else was too much to hope for.
“I don’t see why not,” he decided.
Yes, she’d hurt him in the past. It was just a small exchange of knowledge though. This couldn’t really harm anything, right?
Claudia’s smile grew, “Thank you, Callum!” she exclaimed, “Would someday today work? Or would you be busy in the forge?”
He didn’t even think she knew about his work in the forge.
He still needed to finish his work for Ethar, thoughi. He’d been slacking all week in favor of Zym.
“Not today, I’m running a bit behind on work, but maybe some time next week?”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
“Great! Thank you, Callum! Would Monday be fine? You could meet me at the library after training?”
Callum agreed, his mind spinning as he turned away.
“Oh, and Callum?” Claudia called.
“You reek of fish. I just thought I’d let you know.”
He couldn’t help the heat that flared up through his face despite the cold as Claudia ran down to join her brother.
A trip to the hot springs was needed, it seemed.
The familiar presence of a silver-haired girl appeared at his side.
“You have a crush on Claudia?” Rayla asked, and Callum could hear the laughter in her voice, threatening to break out.
“Can you please forget what just happened?”
“I dunno. You do smell like fish,” she replied.
“Because someone decided to block me into the storage shed at the docks.”
“Hey, you’re the one who’s been stealing fish frequently enough for your clothes to cling to the scent.”
Desperate to change the subject, he brought up the one thing he’d been previously fearing, “So I kinda forgot to mention it this morning, but it turns out Terrible Terrors are like cats, I guess? They like to follow small lights.”
“Yeah, I was about to say. You didn’t tell me.” Her eyes seemed to glint as she tore her gaze away from Claudia’s retreating form, “Don’t let it happen again.”
His throat seemed to constrict with her unspoken threat, and he nodded, not trusting himself enough to speak.
She flashed him a sweet smile, before making her way back down the path away from the arena.
He watched her leave, walking down the steep hill that led up to the precipice that the dragon ring sat upon. He quietly lifted his sleeve to his nose, inhaling once before gagging.
Right. He’d send Ezran to feed Zym today. Gods , he needed a bath.