The final part of their journey took them upward towards the heavens and Mount Olympus. The Mytika or ‘nose’ as Cardelia called it was their destination, and even in the middle of summer, it was covered in snow. They traveled as high as they could on horseback but had to leave their mounts when the way became too narrow and too steep.
Xavier asked both the ladies, Dianthe and Cardelia if they would like wait while he and his brother went to the peak, but was met with a resounding ‘no’ from both women. Cardelia still did not trust them, and Dianthe said she did not travel all this way only to be denied the conclusion.
They all assumed that Cardelia’s interpretation of the poem was correct. Xavier did not want to think about their plight if Cardelia was wrong.
The air was thin, requiring more energy just to breathe. And more than once, Valerius or Xavier had to catch hold of one of the ladies’ arms to keep them from tumbling downward.
At last, after more than a half day of climbing, they reached the summit. They were on hallowed ground, the home of the Gods. The view was breathtaking, blue sky so close Dianthe thought she could reach out and grab a cloud.
“There are no flowers here, Cardelia. Only snow and rock.” Valerius was out of breath so his tone was weary, not mocking as usual.
So they had journeyed all this way for nothing.
The sun was setting and it was too dangerous to attempt the climb down in the dark. Xavier saw an outcropping of rock that would provide some small measure of shelter from the wind which was starting to pick up.
“This way,” he called out, leading the others towards it.
Cardelia ignored Xavier, frantically scooping snow and the dirt off the ground, looking for the flower of death. She was certain that she had interpreted the poem correctly and refused to give up.
“Come,” Valerius said, holding out his hand to her. “The wind is kicking up.”
“I can’t be wrong,” Cardelia muttered, still digging. Her hands were frozen and bleeding and her tears turned cold before they were even halfway down her cheeks.
“Cardelia, stop,” Valerius laid his warm, larger hands over hers.
“I can’t be wrong!” Cardelia half sobbed, half shouted.
“It’ll be okay,” Valerius said, pulling her up and into a rough embrace. “We’ll figure something out.”
The rock outcropping that Xavier spotted turned out to be the mouth of a cave. Xavier and Valerius went inside to make sure no bears or snakes had laid claim to it.
Once they were satisfied, they led the ladies inside and busied themselves with building a fire. The cave had been used by others; there was kindling and wood stacked against the cavern walls. Valerius noted where the traces of ashes were and stacked the logs in the same place.
When they were done, the woman huddled as close to the fire as they could without burning themselves. Valerius went outside and collected a handful of snow. He went to Cardelia’s side and took one of her small hands into his, rubbing it gently with the snow, cleaning away the dirt. He repeated the process with her other hand. Then he examined her cuts, tore clean strips off his cloak and used them to bandage her hands.
Cardelia was more than a little surprised at Valerius’ gentle treatment of her. Ever since the kiss in the stables, she was seeing a whole new side of him; a side that she grudgingly admitted to herself that she liked. He made her feel valued, and appreciated, and not because of her title. When he was done binding her hands, she lay her head on his chest. He made no move to dislodge her.