Eliza had never taken much to sewing. Back at home in Purithra Guild, her parents kept a wicker basket near their favorite chairs, piled high with various snagged sweaters and ripped leggings. They liked to keep each other company, sitting with aching feet propped up to the warmth of the fireplace after the shop closed, quietly stitching the evening away. So obviously, it wasn’t that Eliza couldn’t or fix those things herself, but that she had considered it her little ongoing present to them to keep their projects list full so they could continue their nightly routine. It was no skin off her nose if it also meant she didn’t need to do her own mending.
Eliza’s mind hovered comfortably in the memory of that small back room, brightly lit by the fire and a few well-placed candles, with blown-glass oil lamps brought out whenever her father decided to work on some embroidery project or other. The patched chairs were old but well-stuffed. The worn wood floor and hand-braided rug were swept whenever any of them remembered. The walls were hung with tapestries Eliza’s parents had made or bought for each other over the years, which not only helped provide warmth to the drafty room in winter, but also served as a reminder of the warmth of Mr. and Mrs. Johnswort’s devotion to one another, and to their only child.
Eventually, the backdrop of Eliza’s family home fizzled and fell away. Her parents’ softly smiling faces faded, lost among the shadows. Her childhood drawings, proudly displayed over the mantle, disappeared along with the fireplace and were replaced by a double-layer of wide, flat rocks arranged in a rough circle. Only the hungry oranges and yellows of the flames remained the same.
Eliza pulled her eyes away from the fire to check on her companion, and found him solidly asleep, curled up on top of their packs. She rolled her eyes and returned her hands to the work of mending the strap attached to the gourd in her lap, which was hollowed and preserved for carrying fresh water. Eliza chuckled under her breath while musing over how the strap had been damaged: that afternoon Callahan had fallen from a tree limb that had proven too rotted to hold him. He had barely caught himself on her shoulder, accidentally dragging his claws through the leather on the way. They were lucky, really, that their water vessel (and Callahan’s pride) had been all that was damaged.
Eliza’s mind drifted, and her stitches became slow and thoughtful. She tried to focus on the task at hand, but movement in her periphery made her glance at Callahan again: he had flopped over onto his back, fuzzy head dangling off the edge of his roost, paws akimbo. Eliza suppressed a snort and decided the strap would hold another day, so long as no fifteen-pound yowling whirlwinds made an encore appearance. She set the gourd down a safe distance from the fire pit and let herself fall backward onto the tangle of her unprepared sleeping roll.
With her arms crossed behind her head, Eliza gazed upward to search for stars amidst the dense canopy. It wasn’t terribly often that the two of them found a good place to set up camp that included a clear view of the inky sky. Thinking back to the headache that she’d gotten convincing Callahan to let her treat even something so small as a strained muscle in the past, Eliza supposed using their allotment of luck for today on him not being wounded in his fall was more than worth tonight not being a night with more visible constellations. Such was the curse of wandering an ancient, probably haunted, definitely spooky forest.
Eliza let her consciousness dissipate into the small trinkets she’d placed on various boughs around their makeshift campsite, and set about reinforcing the simple magic in them that would wake her if anything shifted in the trees beyond. A log in the fire buckled with what almost sounded like a sigh, releasing an extra puff of spiced smoke as sap sizzled onto the coals. A trickle of the rowdy, untamed magic of the forest wound its way through furs and fallen pine needles to press itself against Eliza’s back, whispering promises of power far greater than mere campsite wards. She knew better than to give the magic the reward of a reaction.
Instead, Eliza squinted to determine if that speck of light among the splayed fingers of the coniferous canopy was a star, or some kind of bioluminescent moss. After several minutes’ consideration, she decided she wasn’t sure. Shrugging slightly, she pulled herself up onto her knees and began tidying the bedroll for a more proper sleeping arrangement.
After nearly two years of traveling among this strange, dangerously magical network of flora, it appeared Eliza’s internal clock was in tune with her companion’s. As she finished folding her cloak into a shape passable for a head rest, Callahan rolled off of his perch near the fire. He landed neatly on the springy, fragrant floor of the small clearing and shook out a cramp from his back leg as he drowsily made the short journey over to where Eliza sat.
“Too warm,” Callahan murmured. He kneaded Eliza’s cloak absent-mindedly, ruining the shape she had worked to make, then settled himself down directly beside it in his best approximation of a loaf of sweet potato bread.
Eliza tilted her head at him, annoyed, but his only response was a slow blink, as if he dared her to try to move him away. She pinched the bridge of her nose and adjusted the scarf she used to wrap her disobedient hair while she slept. Maybe tonight will be the night it doesn’t come loose for once, Eliza thought, tossing a fur disdainfully over Callahan’s head as she made herself more comfortable, feet toward the fire like always, with her face turned away from Callahan in case he awoke… abruptly.
Eliza, feeling like she’d had no real control over her own thoughts for days now, bit her bottom lip as she pictured for the millionth time the inexpertly-drawn map and long, rambling letter that were all they had to guide them on their journey. Callahan assured her they were getting close to finding the wondrous magical relic that would allow him to return to his proper human form. Something to do with the magic of the forest feeling stronger, but less wild, he’d said. She could feel a bit of what he meant. The cooing tendrils of power, while still definitely untrustworthy, hadn’t felt quite so...sinister, the last few days. And for the last week, it had been easier than ever to find ripe berries and vines heavy with all manner of familiar vegetables in the patches of sunlight that managed to wriggle through the branches looming high above. Neither of them had had to hunt much in a fortnight -- though Callahan still preferred vole or chipmunk over anything made with the collards that Eliza had been so excited to find three days back.
Eliza scrunched up her face and wished for sleep to happen faster. Instead, her mind focused on her to-do list for the following morning: Build up the fire, but not so much as to waste wood they could take to their next camp. Place the small ceramic soup pot near the coals to reheat the remains of dinner. Make her way the few dozen yards to the small stream they’d been using for fresh water, maybe take a quick dip to refresh herself and wake up more fully, if it wasn’t too cold. Come back, make sure Callahan eats something. Retrieve and pack up her wards. Break camp for the most part, then spend most of the morning collecting useful bits from the buckwheat Callahan had pointed out as he brought her kindling last night. Then, finish breaking camp, smother any remaining fire, get out the map...
Far too slowly, the to-do list running like a meditation in the back of her exhausted mind, Eliza drifted into unconsciousness. She did not wake when Callahan noticed the embers dying down several hours later and walked over to bat one of the smaller branches from the tidy wood pile. It started to catch immediately; the few green needles still attached steamed and relinquished a resinous incense. Satisfied, Callahan returned to the cozy mess of blankets and furs. He stretched his fuzzy ginger bulk over Eliza’s feet to compensate for the warmth the fire would have to build back up to providing.
Sinking into the furs a bit, and smacking his tail on the edge of the bedroll a few times for good measure, Callahan laid his head sideways on Eliza’s ankle and gazed down the length of her sleeping form to catch a glimpse of her face. Her lips were parted slightly, her brow furrowed in some unamusing dream. Callahan felt himself let out a heavy breath. His left ear picked up movement in the underbrush off the north end of the clearing; it sounded like an animal comparable to his current size, which meant it was definitely something he didn’t want to bother, especially as comfortable as he was lying here with his… companion. Friend? Almost-lover, at one point?
His ears flattened themselves for a moment as he pushed the quagmire of guilt, regret, and longing to the edge of his thoughts. It was far too late at night to explore the likes of that. Callahan twisted slightly so he could stretch his paws along Eliza’s leg, and let himself fall back to sleep to the faint music of the crackling fire.