The journey became a silent one after the exchange outside Eldaroon.
That was absolutely fine with Jamie. He wasn't in the mood to hear Caitlin use her complex words to talk about how bad he was with women or how lost and useless he was on the battlefield. Their playful banter was tolerable, even enjoyable, but he knew the most innocuous comment from anyone right now would cause another argument. If quiet was the only alternative, so be it.
It was clear Caitlin was going to the Imanese Mountain to confront her grandmother, or whatever was left of her soul, with or without him. Despite his anger, he was a Knight, bound by the holiest of laws to protect the people of Amorado. He would lay his life down for her without complaint, but no one insulted his family and got away unscathed. Not even a Princess of Amorado. However strong his feelings for that princess were, she didn't have the right to disgrace their honor like that. Getting in her face and growling like some barbarian may not have been the most dignified or appropriate reaction; were they in a public place, she could have him hauled off to prison or banished from the country forever. He didn't expect an apology, and he didn't plan on giving one to her, but Jamie considered himself lucky no one was around to witness the altercation.
He was even luckier that the base of the Imanese Mountain was coming into view.
The great mountain loomed over the northern border of Amorado, its dove white peak piercing the clouds. As the evening sun disappeared behind the peak, Jamie dismounted his trusty horse to assess their surroundings. Save for the occasional bird of prey crying out in the distance or patch of yellow, dying grass, the land was desolate. Was that a good or bad thing? Malcot wasn't in danger while they were doing whatever Caitlin was here to do, but if they needed assistance, the closest living beings were in Eldaroon.
Caitlin was probably thanking Arakhum that snow only blanketed the upper reaches of the mountain. Jamie didn't have her vulnerability to chilly conditions, but even he took notice of how cold it was compared to the temperate climate of their hometown.
"Any idea where we're supposed to go next?" he considered adding a snarky comment about any premonitions or divine revelations about where to go next, but swallowed it.
She eventually responded by saying: "I'm not sure."
He had another glance at the mountain. Based on what little he knew of fables and legends, there was usually some gate or secret temple entrance guarded by a giant wolf or great-sword wielding demon. As far as he could tell, they were out of luck in that regard.
"Can we talk?"
Caitlin had hopped off Malcot and was now standing a few feet away from him. Her eyes shimmered with their typical fierce determination, but they were clouded with worry. She was putting herself out there, taking a risk for his sake, and she looked just as scared as he felt doing the same. He nodded for her to continue.
"What I said was unbelievably stupid. I was wrong to delve into your personal business, and I was wrong to dishonor your family. To lose your parents at that age, to feel responsible for their deaths...I can't imagine what that's like. I'm sorry for what happened to you. You're a great knight and a wonderful person, and I'm glad we met."
The care in her voice mollified whatever anger remained, but the acknowledgement of his skill as a warrior was just as pleasing. Admitting that must've been just as difficult as apologizing. "Thank you, Caitlin. You had no way of knowing how deeply I felt about my parents, but I appreciate your words. I overreacted, and I apologize for that," he said. "I'm a bit shocked to hear you think I'm a great knight, and if I'm not mistaken, I'm also a wonderful person."
That finally got a grudging smile out of her. "Don't let it go to your head, Chrisitansen. I will deny it until the end of days if you tell anyone, but you have your uses."
He laughed. It was comforting that they were both settling into their usual dynamic, however slowly the process took.
"And from this point forward, there will be no more inquiries about the mystery woman. If you want me to put in a good word with her when this is over, I will. But if you want our interactions to end there, I will leave it at that."
"Oh," She got such joy out of asking about the mystery woman, he was a little surprised she'd give it up. What motivated the change? "That's kind of you."
"I don't think I really need to speak with her," she continued. "Um, because she-uh, would probably reciprocate, regardless of what I might say to her."
"Well, thank you for that as well, Caitlin. I appreciate your words."
"Good. Let's keep going," She moved past him and towards the base of the mountain. When she saw a wilted tree, Caitlin increased her pace, and Jamie almost had to sprint to keep up with her.
Considering its size and density, Jamie estimated they'd need about three months to fully explore the mountain. "I was thinking, Caitlin, if we're going to do this, maybe they have some equipment in Eldaroon. I think they'd give it to us for free after what we did, but I'll bring some money just in case."
"No?" Jamie anticipated Caitlin was going to chastise him for not getting the gear earlier that morning. She'd likely tell him to get it by himself as punishment, but he wasn't letting her out of his sight ever again.
"Don't you think I would've done that already, you oaf? We're right where we need to be," Caitlin moved towards a wall of rocks and jagged edges. They were looking at a rectangle of sunlight, as if the rest of the mountain was covered in shade. "Look at the sun, then look at this."
The sun, indeed, was already descending out of sight, yet it washed over this one, perfectly defined space. How did that make any sense?
"Caitlin, is everything okay? Your mind isn't being controlled by someone else, is it?"
"Come now, Christiansen. I understand you're a weak-minded simpleton, but I am not so easily swayed," she pressed her hand into the mountain and it disappeared behind the rocks.
Jamie's heart nearly leapt into his throat. but Caitlin had already retracted her fully intact arm.
"I'm okay, Christiansen. It's just an illusion."
"An illusion?" his heart continued to pound wildly. Just the thought of Caitlin being injured like that, experiencing that level of pain...it was unfathomable. But that hadn't come to pass. Caitlin was okay, he reminded himself several times. "An illusion. An illusion, right," he quietly prayed to Arakhum, thanking Him for keeping watch over the Princess.
At last sufficiently calm, Jamie reached out to touch the mountain. Incredibly, his hand went straight through, like the rocks weren't even there. Just to be sure, he brought it out and tried again, and the experiment yielded the same results. "It's incredible. It must be another magic illusion."
Caitlin stepped forward and disappeared through the wall and into the mountain.
Having almost expected to plummet into a dragon's den or a pit of spiders, Caitlin was pleased to land on solid ground. Even better, Christiansen followed her inside!
"I'm impressed by your courage, Christiansen" Caitlin was going to further compliment her partner's newfound supply of courage, but her excitement defused when she saw his face. He looked at her like she had just leapt off the top of the mountain.
"Caitlin, I-I'm glad you're okay. When you disappeared I thought-" he said, his voice weakening with each word. "I thought something happened to you."
His pained words gripped her heart once again. Caitlin finally recognized the possibility of her being injured was more terrible than anything punishment he might have to endure. She was more to him than a knightly obligation or source of potential glory. Christiansen cared for her in a way that ran deeper than friendship.
But Caitlin gave him her word not to interfere with his personal affairs. And she wasn't going to break that promise.
"I let my personal desires come before your feelings once again, and I apologize for that. From now on," she carefully brought her hand up and placed it gingerly on his armored shoulder. "We stay together. No matter what."
Christiansen's big, gorgeous blue eyes widened ever so slightly at her touch, and she detected a hint of a color on his cheeks. Eventually, he nodded. "Okay. Thank you. I..I'd like that very much."
She let her hand linger for a few more moments. This probably qualified as the teasing she renounced, but she hoped he viewed it as a nice reprieve from being degraded constantly.
"Why do the pillars have lit torches in them?" He asked.
Caitlin was so focused on Christiansen's distress that she failed to recognize the room they were standing in was a hallway. A hallway illuminated by torches connected to pillars guarding a large staircase. "Someone's been here recently."
"Either that, or someone's been living here."
Previously, Caitlin might've commented that was a surprisingly salient point from someone as foolish as Christiansen, but she held her tongue. "You may be right. We must be cautious."
They ascended the staircase to find much of the same: pillars, sturdy and neatly spaced, with torches illuminating their path. Their surroundings held no insight, no inscriptions or paintings, no furniture or stacks of books, just smooth, brown stone. Caitlin tried to imagine having to survive in this place. A secret temple beneath a mountain sounded like a fun idea, but without friends, without family or love, what was the point?
"Do you see that?" Christiansen pointed ahead.
She had to squint, but it looked like they were coming to the end of the path, which led to more unblemished material. A dead end wasn't the most encouraging sign, but as they got closer, Caitlin noticed semi-circles were etched in the wall. Whatever they were searching for, she had a feeling it was hidden just beyond. "Help me with this, Christiansen."
The handle was large enough that each could each grab it with both hands. With some effort, a small section of the wall slid away to reveal a vast room composed entirely of white marble.
"This doesn't make any sense," Chrisitansen said. "Who could build all this beneath a mountain?"
There were no pillars or statues or pews, nothing around which a congregation could worship. Was it meant as a library or place of study? Living quarters for whatever poor creature called this place home?
Then, she saw it. Across the room, sitting in a trapezoidal pedestal, was a sword.
"I believe that's why we're here," she looked back to Christiansen. "Ready?"
He nodded. "I'm ready."
Their sword was a spotless silver blade; its grip was a deep blue and inside the pommel was a jewel of the same gorgeous color. Beautiful and lethal, this was a weapon worthy of the Faraday name. Was this why her grandmother called her here? To take up this sword and become Amorado's champion?
"It's incredible," Christiansen said. "Like a king's weapon."
"A king's weapon." Caitlin repeated. Now that he mentioned it, she could've sworn she'd seen it somewhere. But where? Its elaborate design and enchanting beauty were so familiar, but she couldn't place it.
"I'm afraid it's not meant for you, Sir Jamie," Caitlin swiftly readied her bow and nocked an arrow at the unfamiliar voice. A tall figure, vaguely illuminated by the light of torches, stood by the double doors. A dark cloak hid most of his face, save for his pale chin. Beneath the harmless exterior, she sensed something, like a cloud of humid darkness emanating from his being, both paralyzing and mesmerizing.
"Reveal yourself or be destroyed," Caitlin said.
The figure's footsteps echoed throughout the temple, and King Edward stepped into the light.