Having successfully stolen a rose branch, Castor had to now somehow get it back to his country. A task that seemed more difficult by the minute. It was much brighter and warmer despite the cold wind near the top of the mountain.
The sound of the bells grew louder. “What are you doing?”
Castor and Anneli turned to face a short freckled girl in a long brown skirt and holding a long stick in her hand. Two goats nearby bleated and baaed some distance away munching on thorny bushes. Castor stood up quickly with the rose branch in his hands.
“We were just leaving, weren’t we?” replied Castor and nudged Anneli to quickly leave. The girl suddenly swung the stick in the air and hit it on the ground with a crack. Anneli jumped and hid behind Castor.
“Are you two on a pilgrimage? The only strangers who come here are pilgrims.”
“Er… well yes but-”
“Usually they climb the mountain during summer.”
“We were trying to avoid the crowds.”
“Is the plant also part of your pilgrimage?”
“You are a bit off the trail,” said the girl. One of the goats walked up to her and she patted it on the back.
“Is it?” laughed Castor awkwardly, “it is our first time.” The goat walked up to Anneli and bleated loudly at him.
“He wants you to pet him,” instructed the girl, pointing at the goat with her stick.
“Oh- ok.” Anneli cautiously patted the goat on the heat. The goat baaed again, “scratch me behind the ear as well,” said the goat. Anneli obliged and the goat, who seemed very pleased hopped away to chew on some grass.
“Alright!” said the girl, “I’ll take you back to the trail, you are only half way up the moutain.”
Due to awkwardness and getting too tangled up in their own lie followed the girl. They were ‘pilgrims’ right now anyway. The girl and the two goats lead Castor and Anneli through a small village and back onto the winding path that twisted around the mountain. A few curious villagers stared at Castor and Anneli as they passed but left them alone besides that. Anneli was surprised by how calm the girl was. He was sure she had seen his fur and claws so must know he was not human.
“Thank you for helping up,” said Castor politely. The girl looked at him, expressionless and shrugged her shoulder, “it’s fine. The pilgrims have been coming every year for a few years now and it is really nice to see strangers from far away. And I haven’t seen a half in a long time.”
“Half?” asked Castor.
“You know, him.” Th girl pointed at Anneli, but did not seem to be trying to be rude. Castor did not quite understand what she meant but was relived that she did not panic like the villagers on the hill did when they saw Anneli. As they continued along the path they passed more bushes, trees and shrubs covered in ribbon.
“I’m sorry, we did not think you people would come so early in the year we have not prepared ribbon like usual. I know it is important for your ritual.”
“It’s fine, ” replied Castor. He was beginning to feel guilty for accepting the girl’s hospitality under false pretenses. “I’m surprised, I did not think there would be a village to high up the mountain.”
“It is actually not bad. The soil is good for growing vegetables and warm.”
“Really? I thought it might be too cold.”
The girl laughed to Castor’s surprise. “No, the earth her is old volcanic ash it is actually good enough to grow enough for the village and a bit extra to sell as well. I don’t know if you saw it but at the base of the mountain there are some hot springs. It is quite nice since climbing the mountain is tiring.”
“You are really selling it.” The girl laughed again, “well the pilgrims are always very profitable. But you should be careful, the further away from the mountain you go the less accepting people are of foreigners.”
“Oh, we know. We got into a bit of a kerfuffle a few days ago.”
“Yeah, it happens. Especially if it somewhere that is not usually along the pilgrimage route.”