Well, we all handle change differently, Reneer thought as he carefully hoisted himself over a jutting rock. He looked up at his traveling companions some way ahead of him. Thanks to her young age, Erzelle had adapted well to Olyssa’s... rustic lifestyle, and clambered up slopes with greater ease every day. Braeca was also faring surprisingly well, given her recent loss of limb. She used her small size to her advantage, nimbly picking out the safest footholds. Her balance was compromised, though her new wooden prosthetic (courtesy of Erzelle) helped a bit. Still, she was nowhere near able to keep up with Olyssa or Erzelle. Reneer pretended to stay behind to help Braeca, but the truth was that she helped him just as often as he helped her.
The sleeping arrangements had been problematic as well. Reneer hadn’t asked how Braeca had been sleeping, but for someone used to a padded mattress and a goose-down pillow, switching to forest floors and makeshift bivouacs (Reneer wasn’t going to sleep hanging over a cliff again in his life if he could help it) was quite the harsh adjustment. Though he was doing his best to stay positive, Reneer had yet to see the appeal of exhaustion each day and restless sleep each night.
Today their task involved climbing alongside a forest stream. Try though Reneer might to get it out of her, Olyssa was not keen to divulge the objective of the climb. While Olyssa scaled waterfalls as quickly as a mountain cat, with Erzelle following not far behind, Reneer and Braeca struggled along the slopes, losing sight of the other two often. They’d always reappear soon enough, waiting for them. Reneer guessed that this was Erzelle’s idea, as Olyssa would take off faster than ever to make up for lost time once they caught up.
This time Erzelle had stayed behind, helping her vulpine friends navigate the rugged terrain. Reneer wistfully thought of how much easier this trip would have been with the horses. Though he’d initially been reluctant to touch them, crafted of wood and moved through dark magic, he’d had to admit that it was a very effective (and stylish!) form of transportation. The steeds soared through the air, crossing mountain ranges in a matter of minutes, large enough to carry not only the four vagabonds but also a generous amount of gear. They’d travelled this way for only a couple of weeks before Olyssa declared that the horses were too conspicuous and too much of a drain on her and Erzelle’s magic. Erzelle had used some of the wood that had made up the horses, as well as her new, non-destructive understanding of the black fire, to construct a prosthetic arm for Braeca. It was a simple construct, and didn’t have the same dexterity as an arm of flesh and blood, but did give off a bit more heat than it should have.
“Look at you, little mountain-woman.” Reneer huffed out a laugh as Erzelle effortlessly hopped down a precarious slope to assist him up it. She giggled in response.
There was no telling how much further ahead of them Olyssa had gotten by now. Erzelle claimed that their objective was along the path of the stream (though she didn’t know exactly what it was either), so they weren’t likely to lose the trail. The two vulpines didn’t have much breath to spare, so Erzelle did most of the talking, mentioning wildlife she’d seen lately (“Braeca, I think I saw some mandrake near the camp, weren’t you saying you could use some?”), her theories regarding Olyssa’s plans and Lilla’s whereabouts (“Olyssa once mentioned going camping with her family, and I think it was around here somewhere, so this might have something to do with that. ...Maybe,”) and occasionally reminiscing about past adventures with Olyssa or her life before the Red Empress. Reneer thought she seemed happy to have someone receptive to talk to, who she could have a casual conversation with when lives weren’t on the line. It was clear that Erzelle respected and cared for her teacher a great deal, judging by how she bristled whenever Reneer criticized her, but she still never seemed able to relax around her, and Reneer had never seen them discuss anything that was not out of absolute necessity. Still, he supposed, there had been times when they’d seemed to communicate silently, sharing complex ideas and plans in no time at all, so perhaps he was being presumptuous.
After about an hour of hobbling up the streambed with Erzelle’s help, Olyssa came into view again. Erzelle called her name and bounded up to meet her, while Braeca and Reneer took the opportunity to catch their breath. (“Don’t bend at the waist, I once heard you could pass out that way,” Reneer advised. “Thanks,” Braeca panted back.) Reneer, keeping one eye on the two women, saw Erzelle say something to her teacher, then one of their silent exchanges- Olyssa’s lips did not move, but Erzelle seemed surprised by something and replied, again verbally. The two women made their way downhill to rejoin their companions.
“Well?” Reneer asked.
“We’re heading back to camp,” Olyssa replied curtly.
Reneer stepped back in surprise. “But- Why?”
Olyssa’s dark eyes narrowed. “What I was searching for is no longer there. There’s nothing we can do but call it a day. It’s already getting late.”
Reneer didn’t dare argue. As they made their way back down the path, he shot Erzelle a questioning look. She replied only with an apologetic shrug.
Reneer had thought the trek downhill would be easier than the climb up, but after hours (it probably felt like many more than it had been, but still) of climbing and jumping, every muscle in his legs was burning with exhaustion, and he often lost his footing on the loose soil. It was thankfully faster going, but by the time they reached the bottom of the hill Reneer was thoroughly exhausted, and took the opportunity to sit and fill his canteen.
“Drink your fill,” Olyssa said, “but then we set out. It’s starting to get dark.”
Reneer sighed deeply, showing his frustration. “Can’t we rest for just a minute? I, for one, am exhausted.”
“No.” Olyssa’s reply harbored no regret or apology, only frank coldness. “We’ve wasted enough time as it is,” she continued, sparing a pointed glance at the two vulpines.
Reneer saw red, and spoke without thinking. “You drag us all the way up this mountain without even bothering to tell us why, after you drive us from our homes, and you won’t even let us catch our breath?” He indicated Braeca, who was panting and plainly just as tired as he was.
Olyssa straightened. “Night will be here soon. It won’t be safe here much longer. And I had my reasons. I know you must be getting impatient, but I just need you to trust me a little while longer.”
“Hah!” Reneer barked bitterly. “Trust you?! Right, the witch whose sister burned down our homes, destroyed our town, and nearly killed us! Why in the world wouldn’t we trust you?!”
“I’ll be able to tell you everything soon. Now we need to go.”
“Go on ahead,” Reneer huffed. “Don’t worry about me. You never have,” he added in a mutter.
Erzelle nervously looked from Reneer to her teacher. For her part, Olyssa was generous enough to sigh and shake her head before turning and walking in the direction of their camp. Reneer was surprised by her voice echoing suddenly in his head. At least try not to get eaten by a pack of dire wolves. The others showed no sign of having heard it as Olyssa continued walking, back straight as an arrow.
Erzelle’s face was full of guilt. “I-“
“Ah, go ahead. I’ll be alright.” Reneer managed a crooked smile in the girl’s direction. Erzelle hesitated for a few more moments before hastening after her teacher’s retreating silhouette.
Braeca stood stock still, evidently stunned by the tense moment.
“Well, go on,” Reneer sighed. “You’re going with them, aren’t you? It’s dangerous around here, remember?”
Braeca cast a glance the way Olyssa had gone, and then shook her head. “If you stay, I stay. There’s nothing you can handle that I can’t.”
Reneer couldn’t argue with that.
The two vulpines sat together in silence as the sun’s light slowly drained from the forest and the sky darkened to a deep, contemplative purple.
“Don’t you miss our home?” Reneer asked suddenly, breaking the silence.
Braeca looked up, eyes wide. “Well, I’ll admit it’s not an easy adjustment. But... It is sort of nice to be with people who don’t judge me for how I look.” She paused. “Still, I can’t help but worry about my mother. I have no way of knowing if she’s...”
“I made sure she’d be taken care of before we left,” Reneer hastened to reply. “I’m sure she’s alright,” he continued, though he knew the words rang hollow. The ensuing silence felt like a weight on his chest.
“She did apologize to me once, you know,” Braeca murmured after a while. “Olyssa, I mean. For...” Her eyes flitted toward her wooden arm. “I know she didn’t have a choice, but... it still meant a lot.” She sighed. “I know she’s abrasive, but... I don’t think she means to be cruel. She was alone for a long time. I think she just isn’t used to having friends.”
Reneer raised an eyebrow. “You think she considers us friends?”
“Well, what would you call it?”
“I don’t know... Comrades? Traveling companions? ‘Those two pests’?” Braeca huffed out a short laugh at that and playfully shoved Reneer’s shoulder.
Being vulpine did have its advantages. Their eyes adjusted quickly to the encroaching darkness, and they wouldn’t have a hard time finding the camp by the light of the full moon. The moonlight played off the trickle of the stream and caught in Braeca’s long, silver hair, which she twirled between her fingers as she sat deep in thought, regarding the night sky. Reneer realized he had been staring just a second after Braeca did. He quickly looked away, but he thought he heard Braeca laugh to herself.
After a long but pleasant silence, Braeca whispered “Look,” pointing skyward. “These stars are the same ones our ancestors saw, long before the Storms, and they’ll still be there long after we’re gone. There could be other worlds out there, better ones, that will never be touched by the black fire. When you think about it like that, it makes our problems seem a bit smaller, doesn’t it?”
Reneer grinned. “Did you always have your head this high in the clouds?”
Braeca laughed softly and shrugged. “I suppose I did. Do you remember when we were little, and we’d pretend to be monsters, or heroes and villains?”
“Well, we always dreamed about huge adventures. And now it’s like we’re living one for real.”
Reneer scratched his head. “...I suppose that’s one way to think about it.”
The two vulpines walked back to camp a few minutes later, Braeca teasing that “if any monsters do show up, I’m leaving you behind” and Reneer laughing along. Evidently, Erzelle had been waiting for them, because she was sitting near the fire and bounded up to her friends as soon as its light reached them. She surprised Braeca with a tight hug before turning to Reneer and smiling. “There you are! I was- We were starting to get worried.”
“Reneer.” Olyssa’s musical voice cut in, her imposing figure entering the firelight from the edge of the camp. “May I speak with you a moment? Privately.”
Reneer winced inwardly. He knew Olyssa to be a violent woman, and was not looking forward to being on the receiving end of her wrath. He followed her a short way into the forest, setting them apart from the camp by a copse of trees.
Thank you for coming. Olyssa’s voice projected itself straight into Reneer’s mind again, and he started. He’d heard the witch’s mindspeech before today, but it still surprised him to hear someone’s voice without seeing their lips move. What she said next, however, surprised him even more. I want to apologize. You were right; it wasn’t fair of me to expect you to blindly follow me into danger.
I admit that there may have been a... sentimental component to the journey. I apologize. I should have been upfront with you. Olyssa’s face remained impassive, though he thought he could detect a note of sadness in her voice. It was my- our- mother’s grave. Olyssa did not look at Reneer, instead focusing on some distant star. I thought that... Well, things from our past are easy to come back to- you remember the horses?- so I thought if my sister needed somewhere to.... coalesce, she’d have chosen somewhere like that.
“I see.” Reneer wasn’t sure how to reply. He wasn’t even sure Olyssa had ever talked to him for so long all at once. “I suppose I ought to apologize too.”
I know what it’s like.
Before the Storms, I grew up in a mansion, larger than any of the buildings that are left now. We had cooks, and maids, and assistants to help us do just about anything you could imagine. You have no idea how many years it took me to adjust once that all went away. Olyssa shut her eyes. I should have realized it’d be no different for the two of you.
That left Reneer truly speechless. If Olyssa noticed his sudden stupefaction, she didn’t care. One more thing, Reneer. She finally turned to look directly at him. I never thanked you for how you helped me, and Erzelle, all those months ago. If it weren’t for you, I might still be a cog in Lilla’s godforsaken machine, and Erzelle might have become ghoul food. So, thank you. You put yourself in great danger to help us.
“Believe me, my lady, I knew that,” Reneer muttered before he realized what he’d said. Olyssa’s brow furrowed for a split second, but then she smiled (Reneer could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen that happen) and clapped him on the shoulder (that had never happened before). When she spoke again, it was aloud. “We’ll just have to make sure we don’t kill each other before our situation is settled.”
Reneer grinned. “Our little saving-the-world situation. Understood.”