"Where is she?" Garonn cried, running up the stairs of the main keep of the city-state called Hero's Haven. "I have to see her!" The firbolg's floppy ears wobbled in the wind, joined by his dusty blonde hair, which was ornamented by a few sticks and leaves from his trek through the woods to get here. Garonn looked an absolute mess, but he couldn't bother to care. According to the guards, the person he'd been searching for was right up these stairs. It suddenly occurred to him that he'd failed to verify the veracity of the information he'd received in his desperation to see his friend again. The guards had been suspiciously quick to open the gates upon his mention of the Princess's name. What if he'd just run headlong into the headquarters of a bandit conclave?
Large feet clomped on the stone steps beneath him as breath heaved from his lungs. He could smell the smoke from burning lanterns in the room above, and the ceasing of conversation as his shouts echoed.
By the time he reached the top landing, Garonn was utterly knackered, and he folded himself at the waist, resting hands on knees while he regained his breath. But a single voice cut through all of his fretting and fatigue.
"Garonn?" Her voice carried that familiar meek warble, and Garonn's ears, which had trained to understand every inflection in that voice, also picked up the distinct wash of relief. Callista was here, and apparently, as happy to see him as he was to hear her.
Garonn raised his eyes blue-grey eyes to meet her mint-green hues, taking a moment to give his friend a once over, make sure she was alright. She was well-dressed, in a comfortable and stylish long-sleeved blouse, patterned like a bluejay's plumage, and he clocked no visible scars or signs of damage on her person. "I'm so happy that I finally found you, Callie," he said, opening his arms.
Hesitantly, almost as if she wasn't sure he really existed, Callista closed the gap between them and wrapped her lanky arms around Garonn's shoulders. Feeling her quiver, Garonn adopted a concerned expression and pulled her closer. There weren't words in any language the firbolg knew to express how he felt having Callie in the circle of his arms again. He wished he could fix her anxiousness, keep her from feeling all the fear that entrenched her life. "I'm so sorry, Princess," he said. "I should have been with you."
"I-It's fine," she started to murmur, but Garonn cut her off.
"No, the one time I'm not by your side, something terrible happens. I don't know how I'll ever forgive myself."
"Y-you had your duty," Callista protested weakly.
"Bugger duty," Garonn said crossly. "You're far more important. You will always be more important." Though Garonn could feel the shaking still, he quickly realized that Callista wasn't the only one trembling. He hadn't slept well since he'd lost his charge, every night spent half sick from grief.
Before Garonn had become Princess Callista's personal retainer, he'd served as a border guard for Mottwood, the humble home of a firbolg clan by the same name. Callista had come upon him one day when wandering alone in the woods. He'd been trying to rescue another orphaned gryphon, as he did so very often. Their friendship had started off at a slow burn, the Princess far too hesitant after being burned by her own family. But, eventually, he'd breached her shell and found in the girl a faithful companion. They'd fulfilled each other's most profound need.
He'd been stationed on the border that fateful day when Callista was kidnapped. Upon learning of her capture, the border guard had become a questing knight, seeking his Princess all across the land, with nothing but armor, a trusty sword, and his two trained gryphons to aid him. For nearly three months, he'd searched, wandering through lightless caverns, war-torn plains, and coasting over mountain peaks, hoping to find some sign of the one he'd lost. Finally, word had come to him of Hero's Haven, where a woman who matched Callista's description worked alongside a group of heroes emergent. "But, it's alright now; I'm here, and you're safe, and that's all that matters." After several long moments of that blissful embrace, Garonn released his friend and took a look around the room at the others. He had to blink his disbelieving eyes. He'd heard stories about many of the figures situated around the table Callista had departed upon hearing his voice. Jewel, named the Angel of Justice in the north, stood beside Kairon, one of the youngest heroes ever known to history, and wasn't that Entress Thundercloud, Queen of Valoric? Most of them had a patiently pleased expression on her face. Garonn flushed; he must have interrupted some important business. Lowering his voice to barely a hiss, he put his mouth right up against Callie's ear. "Now, I'm thrilled to see you safe and amongst such renowned figures, but um...what do you do for them?"
Callie, embarrassed, as she always was when asked about herself, ducked her head away. I need to break her of that someday. "Well, I've been adventuring, protecting others from threats, like you always do for me."
"Oh," Garonn immediately felt awful. "I'm so sorry. If I'd been...."
"Shhh," Callie shook her head, not allowing him to beat himself up. "You did your best. I..I heard from an odd bird that you fought monsters for me. That's more than anyone else would do for me."
"What are we, chopped liver, Callista?" Fifteen-year-old Kairon crowed indignantly from behind the pair, but he was wholly ignored.
"There...there is something I have to tell you, though." Callista reached towards a necklace Garonn didn't recognize. His mind immediately leaped to the question of where she'd received such a pretty piece of jewelry. It was a gorgeous red pendant shaped like a heart with a silver mask in front of it. His hand unconsciously patted a bulge in his pocket, where his own gift waited, and he couldn't help but wonder if it was sufficient enough, given that she was now friends with literal royalty. "After I escaped from that dark-haired figure...I tried to find you." She pulled the necklace off, and suddenly, his seven-and-a-half-foot-tall, pale friend began to morph and shrink, and a few seconds later, a much smaller black humanoid bird stood in front of him. "Fly, friend," she cawed. "Callista! Firbolg friend, fly!!"
Suddenly, a memory inserted itself in the front of Garonn's mind. He'd been traveling through another town whose name he didn't recall when a bird-person dressed in rags but otherwise looking just like the one in front of him now had thrown her winglike arms around him and said that exact same thing. He'd kicked her away and levied so many awful curses her way. Already bereaved of one of the few things that made him feel complete, the firbolg had been so afraid of losing any of his possessions.
Callie settled the necklace back around her throat, transforming back to the woman he knew and adored. Garonn's heart shattered at the look in her eyes. "I'm so sorry, Callie," he moaned, his heart's pain bleeding out through every word. "I didn't know."
Callista seemed ashamed that she'd caused him pain and reached for him but faltered. Garonn didn't know what was going on in her mind, but he wished he did. He wished he knew what words would comfort his grieving friend and Lady. If only I didn't have to probe deeper to ease my own worries.
"There was no way you could have known, so please, don't beat yourself up," she peeped at last. He conjured a smile to mollify her, though whether it was authentic was a question even he couldn't rightly answer.
"How did...that happen? How did you make connections with such renowned figures? What about the mysterious figure? Was he behind your capture?" Callie's lovely mint-green eyes widened at the barrage of questions, but Garonn needed answers.
The Princess started to shake again, and this time, it was his turn to try and fail to reach out. Would it be improper to take her in his arms again, especially with a queen who could report to Mottwood standing in the room? After a long pause, Callie finally gave her guard a reason for her anxiety, one that reached a dark tendril into the core of his heart, too. "It was the Figure. I couldn't stand my family anymore, so I took a walk to clear my head. That's what brought me to the river where he captured me. He said many things I can't make sense of before leaping upon me and making everything go dark. I...I don't want to remember the next several weeks," she continued pitifully. "There were experiments...so many awful experiments. I still feel flashes of pain in my left arm when I move it the wrong way. I tr-tried to escape but...but the Figure killed me. I felt his sword jab through my chest from behind, and then...oblivion. I woke up sometime later on the shore of a river, transformed into the bird."
Garonn's heart was pumping in his throat now. Experimentation? Death? By the God Oryon, his dear, fragile friend! "This all sounds preposterous." He saw Callie take a breath as if to defend herself, and he held up a hand to forestall her. "But, you're not a liar, so I believe you. Plus, the amount of hurt in your voice is hard to fake. I know, people have always tried to pull a fast one on the head guard back home." Apologies seemed entirely inadequate, so he didn't offer one. He poured out silent comfort, hoping she'd receive it, and know it was only ever meant for her. Then, he gestured around the room to the collection of heroes, his eyebrows slanting questioningly.
Seemingly embarrassed, though Garonn couldn't fathom why, Callista replied, "They were impressed by my magic and offered to let me tag along. Things have...progressed since then."
"Progressed?" Garonn had to laugh. "That's one way to put it. The common consensus is that you're a hero, Callie! Your parents won't be able to deny your existence anymore." Garonn's brow furrowed then, his eyes becoming troubled. "But, I thought we were going to keep your magic a secret," he wondered furtively, his tone dropping low enough so that only Callie and those in the room with extremely keen ears could hear it.
"I wanted to, but I didn't have a choice, Garonn. I had to use to keep myself alive."
"Oh, right," Garonn said, mentally kicking himself for not thinking about that. He promised to himself to never make such a mistake again. Only then did it occur to him that he'd interrupted a meeting, and the tall guard flushed and bowed to Queen Entress of Valoric, the highest standing person he recognized, though not the tallest, in the room, before scurrying down the stairs. He had to duck to squeeze his nearly eight-foot frame through the doorway. With one foot on the step and his heart pounding, Garonn turned to Callista and said. "Uhhh, talk to you later, I suppose." He swallowed a thick blob of emotion. "I'll be with the gryphons if you need me."
As he'd claimed, Garonn was tending to Kheza and Daemar when his Princess found him later. "Oh, uh, hello there!" He managed to greet her with a casualness he didn't feel in his chest. She'd discarded the fancy dress no doubt provided to her by the Queen of Valoric in favor of the simple clothes Callista had long preferred. Despite the plain cut of the garments, the material showed the world of difference between their status. They always had. His clothing was suited for travel and coated with signifying dust, whereas hers couldn't have seen more than a few days of gentle wear. Not that it mattered much what clothes kept Callista modest. Simply put, as Garonn was a simple man, she was beautiful. His stare locked onto his charge for far longer than was proper.
"Is everything alright, Garonn?" he heard her ask, and by the tone of her voice, he realized she'd done so several times already. Tearing his eyes away was harder than he'd ever expected it to be. Separation only makes the desire felt by a lovelorn heart stronger, like steel, and keener, like a soldier's knife. The flush that washed over his face was bright and hot like a summer's day, though he took distinct notice in something on his scuffed boots to hide it and scratched the back of his scalp to avoid fidgeting. The other hand crept inside his pocket, twisting around a cool circle of metal lounging there.
"F-fine...Better n_...urk... I'm fine." If Callista took any notice of the way he bumbled through the sentence like a drunkard, she didn't show it. What a relief. "Just tired, is all. Long days on the road, you know." That, at least, had a grain of truth to it.
"Until recently, I couldn't have agreed to that without fudging the truth." But now, I have an inkling of what you're talking about. We primarily ride in carriages, though they jostle over every rut, and I think I prefer saddle soreness to the bruises and headaches. Amara's carriages weren't designed with a firbolg in mind." Callista laid a hand on her head for emphasis.
Garonn grimaced with empathy. "That can't be pleasant. Uhm, well, the birds have missed you." He loosed a nervous chuckle that caused Daemar to raise his noble, feathered head to stare at him. The gryphon made a noise that Garonn, who had spent countless hours with only these marvelous creatures for company, could only equate to a scoff. "I was just about to unsaddle Daemar, but I'm sure he wouldn't mind if...."
Callista's eager "Yes! Please, yes," shut out Daemar's groan. The bird didn't mind flying with Callie; that was never the issue. But, he did believe himself the authority of all things romance. Just because you have a mate and I don't doesn't mean a shred of anything, Garonn wanted to say, but not in present company. It didn't help that, just like some people, gryphons mated for life. Daemar and Kheza would be there for as long as they tolerated his presence on their backs, reminding him of his shortcoming.
It would be decidedly unwise for Garonn to dwell on the things he felt as he sat on the saddle behind Callista, their bodies pressed together so closely. It was a small wonder the Princess didn't comment on the contrast of his heat and the biting gusts of the sky. The guard was a simple man, as he professed often and with a surprisingly great deal of pride. He didn't have the poet's words to describe the smell of her hair as it blew into his face, the softness of her body she readjusted herself, locked securely between his arms, or any of the shameful feelings that bubbled up inside of him as her contented laugh was stolen by the ever-greedy winds.
When they landed, Garonn felt wobbly and lightheaded for more reasons than one. But, ever the chivalrous knight, he still helped Callista down from her perch atop Daemar, marveling at the fit of her hand in his. Compared to other firbolg, Callista Fraye was a mere slip of a thing, several inches shorter, slight and supple where most were stocky, skittish, and bashful where they were assured. My little mouse, he found himself thinking, but he quickly diverted that river. A mouse she may be, but one made of gold, whereas I am a loyal puppy made of leather...no, burlap. Not everyone could claim to own a set of leather armor, but a burlap sack could be found amongst the possessions of the most destitute of men.
No matter how meek and unassuming Callista was, Garonn's self-consciousness made her an almost intimidating figure. Though shorter than him by a half-foot, she was poised leagues above him. An unattainable treasure. Princesses only marry guards in stories, but something in her eyes when they talked gave the man hope.
But, could he continue this song and dance forever? No. One day, he'd either have to find the guts to admit how he felt or resign himself to stop pining over a lost cause. While the options remained in the air, Garonn chose to muster all his courage and take one step in the direction his heart wanted to go.
The words came hot and fast from his tongue like horseshoes from the forge of a skilled smithy as he whipped the piece of jewelry from his pocket, pressing it into her hands. "I...uh, I picked this up in the market for you. It's opal and silver, pretty and rare. It reminded me of you." What a stupid thing to say! "Whew, is it hot out here. Agh, I should probably bed...er get to bed. Tomorrow's a long day." By the time he finished the sentence, the man was too far off to hear Callie say. "Thank you for finding me."
It was always hard to watch Callie leave. It struck him like a slap to the face. He was Mottwood's middle Princess's personal guard, yet she was already much stronger than him because of her magic. Callista adventured with heroes, and Garonn could do nothing to assure she returned safely, only twiddle his feet and wait. Wait and hope that if...no, when she returned, the world might have turned the right way to make him suitable.
It was like trying to insert a screw with a hammer.