Lisle stood next to Ma-Marn’s trunk in the cottage, face serious, pack on her back. Mina stood beside her. Sunlight streamed in through the window, lighting elongated squares on the worn, woven rug of indeterminate color, covering the floor.
“I want you to have this,” Mina said, lifting the lid of Ma-Marn’s trunk and carefully removing the fabric covered Book of One.
“No arguments. You take it. You might have need of it.”
Lisle reverently took the book and unshouldering her pack, placed the book carefully within.
“Th…th…” Lisle swiped at her eyes, as tears started to run down her cheeks.
“I know. Hush now, or you’ll have me crying like a younger.” Mina put her arms around Lisle. “I’m going to miss you little sister.”
“Mm..mm...me t…too.” Lisle hugged her sister hard and let the tears flow.
Wiping her eyes, Mina insisted on accompanying Lisle to the Guardian’s clearing. Having already weighed down Lisle’s pack with provisions to the very limit of Lisle’s ability to carry it, Mina wanted to bring still more to Gareth.
Calming, Lisle looked at Mina’s preparations questioningly. “H…he’s a huh…huh…hunter, you know.” Lisle said, as if that explained everything. Then she stared as pink rose up in Mina’s neck and traveled up into her cheeks. Lisle rolled her eyes.
“He’ll need more than just meat, you know,” Mina replied, fussing with a piece of red fabric covering the huge basket she intended to bring, and not looking at Lisle.
“F…fine,” said Lisle, smiling at the still blushing Mina.
They started out on the long walk that would take them to the Guardian’s new location. Fortunately, it was early. Early enough that the air was warm but not too warm for an enjoyable excursion. A gentle breeze played in the top branches of the trees as the path they trod twisted through the woods.
“I can hardly believe that Jessamin and Farn gave you permission to go,” said Mina as they walked.
Lisle looked at her sister and nodded. “M…me too.”
“They must really trust the Guardian.”
Lisle nodded again, “A…a…and Guh…Guh…Gareth.”
“Yes, Gareth,” Mina smiled and sighed.
“Yuh…you a…and Guh…Gareth huh?”
Mina looked at Lisle, startled. “Well… not yet… but what would be so wrong with that?” She finished in a rush. Mina’s face turned pink again. She hefted the basket and marched ahead.
Lisle smiled and shook her head, following along in her wake.
A morning of walking brought them to the Guardian’s clearing.
Ell was trotting about, flapping her wings. Gareth was carefully packing his scant possessions. He looked up as the girls entered the clearing, his gaze immediately drawn to Mina. Smiling he put down his pack. He sauntered over to them, or tried to as he barely missed a root that stuck up from the ground in front of him. He did a fast, awkward hop over the root, arms flailing. Recovering his balance and his dignity, he approached Mina.
“Day of the One, Mina.” Then it was as if words failed him. He just looked at her, lips twitching upward.
“Day of the One, Gareth.” Mina, cheeks pink, looked up at him.
Lisle stood next to Mina, looking back and forth between them. She made a disgusted noise and walked over to greet Ell, who had stopped running about and was watching the proceedings.
Lisle hugged Ell about the neck and turned to the pair seemingly locked in place, “L…let’s g…g…go.”
Mina, as if remembering herself, blinked and shoved the large basket toward Gareth.
“I thought you might need some travel food.”
Gareth grasped the basket by the handle and then quickly put his other hand underneath to support the bottom, as the weight of the basket almost dropped from his grasp.
“Thank you, Mina.”
He looked at the basket in his hands and then at Mina. Haltingly, he said, “I’d…I’d…” Then he blurted out in a rush, “I’d like to come back and see you after I get the Guardian and Lisle safely to Guardian Mountain.”
Mina’s face lit up, blue eyes wide, staring up at him. ”I’d like that very much.”
Gareth’s whole face beamed, eyes crinkling, mouth grinning, and cheeks turning rosy.
They looked at each other for what seemed like forever to Lisle.
“Well, shine it, we’d better get going,” said Gareth.
Mina held out her hand to him and he put the basket down and took it in both of his.
“Will you wait?” He asked, his face serious now.
Mina’s stared into his eyes. “Yes.”
Gareth nodded, grinning again, released her hand and bent to lift the basket and walk back to where his pack lay on the ground. Then he stood, looking perplexed as he studied the basket and then his pack, and then the basket again.
“I’ll do that,” said Mina, and she bustled over and made quick work of stuffing his pack full.
Gareth just gazed at her, his lips curved upward, eyes soft.
Finished packing, Mina stepped over to Lisle and Ell, nodded her head respectfully to the Guardian and gave Lisle another hug.
“Stay safe, Lisle. Come back as soon as you can.”
Just then Moss buzzed into the clearing and landed upon the Guardian’s back. A tiny bag hung across her chest. She looked from Lisle, to Mina and then Gareth and nodded.
“Would you look at that,” said Gareth. “Moss is coming with us. Usually, flier folk stay close to home.” He moved closer to where she sat now upon a gleaming ruby ridge on Ell’s back. “We are honored to have you join us, Moss.” Moss bowed her head in acknowledgment. She lifted into the air, wings whirring and looked back and forth between Gareth and Lisle.
“Ready to go?” Asked Gareth.
Moss nodded once and started off to the North, toward Guardian Mountain. Ell turned and with a running leap and a downward sweep of her wings, took to the air. Lisle started off after them, then turned to wave to Mina. Gareth gathered up his pack and smiled back at Mina. “One keep you,” he said.
“One keep you all,” said Mina, tears in her eyes as she waved her hand.
In case you missed a post, or if you've just tuned in to Lisle's story,
here are links to previously posted chapters to save you scrolling all the way through.
Introduction Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13
Chapter 14 Chapter 15
Lisle was distraught. For the first time in over a moon since she first started hunting for the Guardian, no creature offered itself. She had searched for hours and had only one, small tree climber to show for it.
Even that had been a struggle. The tree climber had sighted her first, and sat upon its branch chattering at her, flicking its bushy gray tail back and forth in agitation. When she looked up and moved toward the tree, it raced up the side of the great oak away from her, clearly an unwilling meal for the Guardian. In desperation, Lisle had brought it down with her stoneshot anyway, hoping her prayer of gratitude was enough. Now the creature was a small, dead weight at the bottom of the bag over her shoulder.
To make matters worse she had woken feeling itchy all over and irritable with it. She hardly touched the bread and tea Mina offered her before she left. She was just too uncomfortable. But that wasn’t important now. My Guardian must be starving by now, she thought, though strangely she wasn’t feeling the gnawing torment of hunger from the hatchling that she usually felt. Better get this back to her anyway.
Resigned, irritably trying to scratch a spot on her back she could just barely reach, Lisle turned in the direction of the Guardian’s clearing to present her tiny offering.
As she walked, she tried to cheer herself with thoughts of the amazing changes in her life.
Her mind drifted back over Jessamin’s strange reaction to the Guardian. In the days following, Jessamin had been unusually quiet, softer somehow. Even the times when she unconsciously started in with an imperious demand, she seemed to collect herself and softened it with a quiet, “Please.” She had even stopped picking at Lisle, and instead supported her efforts to care for the Guardian. It was astonishing to Lisle.
Even more astonishing was that every so often, Lisle would see Jessamin enter just at the edge of the Guardian’s clearing. There she would kneel down, staring at the Guardian with a child-like openness on her face. Makes me wonder if I can believe my own eyes, thought Lisle, shaking her head.
She looked around her now as she entered a field not far from the Guardian’s clearing, and took a calming breath of the sweet, spring air. The Mother was putting on quite a display of floral grandeur this year, purple globe flowers played seek and find among the taller, smiling, yellow-faced flowers that spread over the field. Trees standing around the edges of the field competed, clothing themselves in multi-hued shades of brightest green. The sun shone down warmly, and a gentle breeze lifted the edges of her tunic.
As Lisle stepped between the flowers wending her way across the field, she thought of how delighted she was by the Guardian’s rapid growth. The hatchling was filling out, her neck getting longer. Though she did not yet have the grace of a grown Guardian, she was developing more of a sense of where all her various body parts were and how they worked together. She moved with ease about her clearing now and spent more and more time trotting about, flapping wings that increased in size and strength with each passing day. Lisle chuckled as she thought of Moss, always flying beside the hatchling, celebrating each new accomplishment with aerial flips and somersaults.
Lisle knew that Gareth would be at the clearing waiting for her. His strong, undemanding presence was a comfort to her. He would have watched throughout the night, and now would take a few hours to do his own hunting and then return to the clearing and his shelter for rest. Lisle was thrilled that her days were now spent with the Guardian. She only had to go back to the cottage at end-day, do her chores and sleep for the night.
That cursed spot on her back itched ferociously. Irritated, Lisle strained her arm over her shoulder to reach it. The bag with it's small weight didn't help and she shifted it to the other shoulder. The paltry meal for the Guardian once again on her mind, Lisle’s thoughts circled back to hunting and the animals that offered themselves for the Guardian’s sustenance. They had been getting larger and ever more numerous by the day. Except for today. The thought weighed her down and she trudged on, feeling the slight weight of her offering hanging like lead on her shoulder.
Shortly, Lisle entered the Guardian's clearing and to her consternation Moss greeted her in fluttering agitation, pulling at the fabric on her shoulder and flying beside her.
Not seeing the hatchling in her usual place on the sunning rock, Lisle went straight to her cave, where she saw Gareth standing, looking in.
He looked up at her as she came to stand beside him. She looked into the shadows of the cave for the Guardian. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her.” His eyebrows knitted in concern. “She doesn’t get up and come out. She won’t look at me. She shivers every time Moss here, tries to land on her.”
Lisle sucked in a sudden breath as she stared at the Guardian. She felt her chest contract painfully and charged into the cave to kneel beside the hatchling.
The Guardian was lying on her side, eyes closed, stretched out upon the cool dirt of the cave floor.
“Wuh…wuh…w…what’s wrong?” Lisle asked softly, all thought of irritation gone. She placed a tentative hand on the hatchling’s shoulder. Her scales had a papery feel to them that was worrisome. The Guardian shuddered as Lisle touched her, but did not open her eyes. Lisle quickly withdrew her hand.
Looking closely at her, in the shadowy light of the cave, Lisle could see a sort of milky gray film covering the whole of the Guardian’s body. She saw pale, translucent strips of skin dangling from her wings. Lisle was horrified. She must be sick, terribly sick. What do I do?
Moss flew into the cave, chittering softly, numbers of other fliers joined her, their multi-colored, translucent wings whirring as they hovered over the Guardian. Then they each grasped at the grayish skin hanging off her wings and began to slowly pull it off. The Guardian shivered as they pulled.
“Wh…what are you doing? Stop that!” Lisle tried to brush them away.
Moss dropped the piece of skin she held and flew up in front of Lisle’s face. She patted Lisle’s cheek with a tiny hand and smiled at her. Then pointed back at the supine Guardian as she brushed her hand down her own tiny arm. Moss then flew back and grasped at another piece of wing skin and pulled, wings beating furiously. The skin came away in a great strip.
Frightened, not understanding, not knowing what to do, Lisle knew only that she trusted Moss. She stood up and moved back away from the Guardian, watching.
The hatchling began to shiver all over, great shudders rolling up and down her body.
The flier folk abandoned the wing they were working on and moved to the Guardian’s head. There they grasped at her muzzle and began to peel the grayish film back off her jaw, pushing it back over the ridges on her head and pulling it down over her neck in one large increasing ring. It looked like a huge, whitish scarf wrapped around the Guardian’s neck. The flier folk kept pulling at it, grasping with many tiny hands, backs arched by furiously beating wings. When they came to the wing and leg joints, they split into small groups each peeling the translucent skin off the various body parts. The Guardian shuddered in waves rolling up and down her body as the flier folk worked.
Lisle was stunned by the transformation occurring before her eyes.
“By the One!” said Gareth.
The Guardian lay upon her belly now, quiet. The flier folk had pulled the last of the translucent skin from her body and it lay in great heaps about her. Sunlight poured in from the triangular opening of the cave where Gareth still stood. It flooded over the head of the Guardian and gleamed off garnet-bright ridges lining both sides of her head which shone with deep, olive-green scales. Gone was any sign of the brown and green mottling of the hatchling Guardian. Garnet red brow ridges hooded each eye, shading to a dark, rusty orange over her muzzle. The head ridges merging and flowing down her neck, back and tail, dazzled in deepest red, set off against the olive-green scales on her flanks and tail. Her wings shone green outlined in carmine. Where her chest rose up as she rested on gleaming forearms, rich, yellow belly plates were just visible.
Moss, smiling, gave the Guardian's shoulder a satisfied pat, and then flitted over to hover before Lisle’s eyes. She gestured at the Guardian, then crossed her arms, puffed up her chest and nodded with finality, wings whirring.
“You’d think Moss did it all by herself the way she’s acting,” said Gareth, chuckling and shaking his head. “That Guardian sure is beautiful.”
“Sh…sh…she’s buh…buh…beautiful,” said Lisle, all thought of the tension of the morning gone. She stared at the Guardian whose head slowly drooped to rest upon her chest, breath deepening in sleep.
Then Lisle focused upon Moss still hovering before her, and held out her hand. Moss alighted on the offered palm and looked up at Lisle, still smiling. Lisle smiled back at her and nodded her head. Well done, Moss, she thought, well done.
A half-day’s travel from Greystone, Wufn stopped to consider the sun’s placement in the sky. He cursed himself as he realized he had spent the last hour meandering off in the wrong direction. He was tired and his joints ached. It had been a long journey from Guardian Mountain. He wasn't at all sure he wanted to do what his Guardian demanded. But most of all he wanted to get this over and done.
© Holly Hildreth 2019
Lisle arrived back at the cottage, humming a cheerful tune under her breath. The early spring-green leaves on the trees surrounding the cottage were lit as if from within by the late afternoon sun slanting through them. She looked across the yard and noticed with dismay, that the puller, John, was there within the fence, chewing his way noisily through a pile of hay.
Farn and Jessamin are back. She thought, a sinking feeling in her gut.
She opened the door to the cottage and stepped inside. The familiar, homey scent of wood smoke surrounded her. There was Farn sitting by the hearth, a pipe in his mouth, fragrant smoke encircling his head. Long strands of greying hair were futilely plastered over his bald crown in an unsuccessful bid for youth. He looked over and nodded at Lisle as she came quietly in. “Lisle,” he said. Then looked tiredly back at the fire where he had left his thoughts.
Lisle nodded back, “F…Farn,” she answered, though he was already far away.
Mina stood at the table, hands deep in a mass of brownish dough, her thick hair wrapped in a white head scarf. She signaled to Lisle with her eyes and a flick of her head toward the back of the cottage.
Jessamin tossed back the curtain and entered the room. She looked beautiful in a deep red town dress, with long trailing sleeves and matching necklace at her throat.
Her dark eyes, flashed. “Lisle, where have you been?” She demanded.
“And nothing to show for it I see,” said Jessamin. “I suppose you were feeding that Guardian you supposedly found.”
Lisle’s stomach clenched. Her mind wailed. No! She remembered!
“Well, you’d better get to your chores, that shed won’t clean itself you know!”
Then Jessamin turned to Farn and stood looking at him, an annoyed expression on her face. “Jonas! A chair if you will?”
Farn sighed and stood, his wrinkled trousers and baggy jacket falling down over his rangy frame. He took a fortifying puff of his pipe and put it down on the rough wood mantle over the fire.
“I’m waiting Jonas.”
Jonas, having repeated this ritual numbers of times, crossed the room, picked up a chair and her sewing basket and placed the chair beside his own at the fire.
Jessamin sat, spreading her skirt about her.
He handed her the sewing basket. She nodded at him, and took up her sewing by the light of the fire.
Lisle looked back at Mina’s sympathetic face and took a deep breath, silently sharing her misery with her sister. Then she rolled her eyes, shrugged her shoulders, and slipped quietly back out the door to do her chores.
After a tense end-day meal all crowded together at the small table, as Jessamin always insisted was proper, Farn and Jessamin retreated to their bed.
The girls lay on their pallets in the darkened loft, the smell of woodsmoke stronger here than elsewhere in the cottage. Lisle found no solace in it's familiar comfort.
Mina whispered to Lisle. “She’s going to find the Guardian you know. She’s going to use the Guardian to build herself up with those in town. It will come to no good for you or that hatchling. What are we going to do?”
“D….duh….don’t know,” said Lisle miserably, and turned away to face the wall.
Lisle was up early the next morning, hoping to escape before the rest of the family awoke. Slinging hunting pouch over her shoulder, she climbed quietly down from the loft only to discover that Jessamin was already up and for once dressed as befitted a cottage in the woods, rather than an elegant town home. She wore a brown, thickly woven skirt with a knitted shawl covering a lighter-toned over blouse and tucked into a belt wrapped about her waist. Farn was up too, none too happy about it, and looking even more rumpled than usual.
“Day of the One, Lisle,” said Jessamin with a smile. “Hunting this morning?”
Lisle, alarmed by this unaccustomed cheerfulness, nodded cautiously.
“Well, you get along now. Farn and I have things to do.”
Lisle nodded again, ducked her head and rapidly collected leftover bread and cheese from last night’s end-day meal. Tucking it away in her pouch, she quickly left the cottage.
A rain-washed morning greeted her, the air fresh and moist, cool with the new dawn. The grass was wet under her feet, and she thought with gratitude of the dry cave Gareth had found for her Guardian. My Guardian, she thought, unfamiliar pride warming her.
She looked back over her shoulder at the cottage and her stomach clenched. There was Jessamin, face framed in the rough, wood silled window, watching her.
She’s going to follow me, thought Lisle with certainty.
She continued onto the path and as she rounded a corner, out of sight of the cottage, she stepped back behind a large tree and waited.
Shortly she spied Jessamin picking her way along the path with a disgruntled Farn in tow. Lisle was about to step out onto the path behind them when Mina appeared on the path.
“Lisle,” Mina said in a startled whisper. “You scared me!”
Lisle signaled for silence and the two of them followed Jessamin and Farn.
As they got closer to the Guardian’s clearing Lisle gestured to Mina to hurry up. She did not want Jessamin and Farn to reach the Guardian without her, though she had no idea what she was going to do if they did.
Hurrying along, they came around a curve in the path to see Gareth confronting Jessamin and Farn, bow in hand, blocking the trail.
“Turn around and go back where you came from. This place is not for you,” said Gareth.
“How dare you! Do you know who I am?” Asked Jessamin.
Jessamin glanced back at Farn hoping for support. He had his head bent forward and was attempting to smooth the long strands of hair that should have been covering his bald pate, back into place. Farn looked up then and studied the tall, strong young man, in front of him, looked at the bow in his hands, and shrugged his shoulders.
Finding no help there, Jessamin pulled herself up to her full height, almost as tall as Gareth, then brushed Gareth aside with an imperious gesture of her arm, and bulled her way through.
Gareth, a startled look on his face, hurried to catch up with her, Farn following along behind.
Lisle and Mina caught up to them and all five of them burst out of the woods into the Guardian’s clearing.
Lisle ran to the Guardian falling to her knees and putting her arms about the hatchling’s neck, as the Guardian lifted her head to look at who had arrived in her clearing, the ridges on either side of her head lifting, alert.
A tiny, green flier, flew up off the back of the hatchling and hovered in the air just above her, minute arms gesturing, making frantic shooing motions at the intruders. Gareth walked over to the Guardian and took up a wary stance to the side.
“You know these people?”
Lisle nodded, “M…my f…f…family.”
Gareth looked grim as he stared first at Jessamin, then at Farn, and finally over at Mina.
When his eyes landed on Mina his face changed, softened for a moment. Then as if remembering what he was here for, he looked back at Jessamin and Farn and took a firmer stance, hand now on his knife sheath.
“You don’t belong here,” he stated to Farn.
Farn just looked at him and shrugged his shoulders, rolling red-rimmed eyes over at Jessamin.
Gareth turned, opened his mouth to repeat his statement to Jessamin, and shut it, his eyebrows lifted in surprise.
Jessamin was staring, open-mouthed at the Guardian.
The Guardian was looking directly at Jessamin. Jessamin, her face slack with shock, looked fixedly back for what seemed an interminable length of time to those watching.
Jessamin’s cheeks went pale, her eyes wide. Then slowly, slowly, she crumpled to her knees, a towering tree brought down by the relentless chopping of the axe. Covering her face with her hands, she took in a deep, ragged breath and huge sobs racked her body.
Standing on either side of her, Farn and Mina watched Jessamin, dumbfounded. No one moved, except for the green flier who settled once again to the hatchling’s back, seemingly content with the proceedings.
The only sound to be heard was that of Jessamin’s keening sobs, as she rocked on her knees, grabbing at her chest like her heart was ripping open.
The Guardian focused on her steadily.
Finally, Jessamin wound down, exhausted. A lone, spring singer could be heard now, chirping in the branches at the side of the clearing. The sun shone down through the cool, morning mist, illuminating where Jessamin sat upon the ground, staring at the damp earth around her, unseeing.
Farn moved closer and touched her shoulder with a tentative hand. She looked up at him, an unaccustomed expression of vulnerability written on her reddened and tear-streaked face. Her lips curved in the suggestion of a smile and she reached her hand upward toward him in mute request for support. Farn took her hand and gently helped her to her feet.
Putting his arm around her and pulling her close to his side, she leaned her head down on his broad, wrinkled shoulder, and they turned and slowly left the clearing, following the path back to the cottage.
Lisle watched Jessamin and Farn leaving, feeling wonderment and a relief she was almost afraid to allow. Then she looked up at Gareth, still standing beside the Guardian. Gareth was gazing at Mina, a soft smile on his lips. Mina, nut brown tendrils escaping her white head scarf, was staring at the Guardian.
© Holly Hildreth 2019
Fal, known to those unlucky few as, the Fallen, rested easily on the rocky ledge in his cave hidden deep within the foothills of Guardian Mountain. His crystalline cave was a small version of Gran Bryl’s own. He had chosen it for this reason, to focus him upon his goal.
His long neck arched gracefully, shining emerald and sapphire as he moved in the fingers of sun stretching into the cave, and relaxed his powerful jaws on his chest.
He had just eaten, a fine, grass-fattened cud-chewer, he hunted that morning.
The foolish beast ran, he thought, as if it had a chance. It did not willingly give itself as is my due. He had enjoyed the chase though, prolonging it a bit. After all that was really the point wasn’t it?
It wasn’t as if he needed to consume meat. Though he was still young, the crystal frequency, even at the base of Guardian Mountain, was enough to sustain him. Still, he did enjoy a good chase, and the kill.
He wrapped his elegant, gleamingly scaled tail around massive foreclaws, licked clean of any sign of his morning’s entertainment. Then he settled himself upright on haunches, such a deep green they were almost black.
Closing golden, round pupiled eyes he sank deep into the blackness behind his eyelids, searching. He wouldn’t be here long. The voices were too strong here.
Opening his mental eyes, he noted that he no longer saw the accursed light of the web. That One-blasted Unity, he thought. He had left that behind when he chose to pursue his own plans. His thoughts scattered back to well-worn pathways. I will never bind myself to the web of the One like those weakling Guardians. I will never undergo the Ritual of the One, nor will my Contracted. I will create my own Ritual of Power when I am Elder!
And the voices began.
By what right does Gran Bryl continue to be Eldress? She wastes her power. You have the blood! You are of the Chosen! But we forget, you are only a pathetic worm, a cowardly lizard. There is no power in you, only weakness. We waste our time.
Anger surged through him. Great claws ripped at the rocky ground beneath him. The grating of claw on stone jolted him to full wakefulness.
I will be Elder, he promised, and this world will know my power!
The Fallen vented his anger with a series of loud, grating roars, head thrown back, teeth bared, black-edged wings lifting, mantling. The flapping lifted him backwards, out of the sunlight, back into the thick darkness in the depth of his cave.
The power of the display was most satisfying.
He settled himself once more, shaking out his wings and folding them to his sides, and willed himself back down into the inky depths to find the one he sought.
He allowed himself to sink deeper and deeper into the void. Pathetic worm. Cowardly lizard. He ignored the voices.
A slash of brilliant light to his left momentarily blinded him. He knew this was Guardian Mountain, and that accursed Gran Eldress, and turned his attention quickly away from it.
Other lights sparkled in the darkness. He bypassed them, floating onward until he was distracted by one particular, small light. A light he had been keeping track of for several changes now. The light was turning a satisfactory shade of grey, muddy at the edges, but still a clear aqua toward the center. This small one will be of use to me, he thought with satisfaction.
We’ll meet soon boy, he promised.
Again, the voices. No power, only weakness, weakness… He shrugged them off, and cast his mind’s eye out looking further.
Finally, drifting further into the darkness, he found that which he sought, a cobalt-blue blaze of light. Ah, the Guardian, Ell. She awakens to her Self, but she is a mere hatchling. My Wufn, will have her by the time she grows to her second skin.
He felt that familiar sense of possessiveness and delicious control that came to him whenever he thought of his Contracted now. Not like it used to be, he thought, back when I was a weak hatchling, so dependent upon his unthinking cruelty.
The anger that thought engendered brought him fully alert. He never lasted long in the void, too many distracting thoughts. Too many feelings. And then there were the voices. The voices that whispered to him constantly, but especially here in this dark place.
Enough! He thought and returned to more satisfying musings. Wufn taught me well, but now he is the learner. Now he knows what fear is. He felt the spines raising along the ridges at the crest of his head, his wings lifting and spreading as the desire for power filled him.
I will have Ell. I will have the control! There will be no coming together into some One blasted Unity, he thought with satisfaction. All will know the strength of my will, my power!
The Fallen roared with the intensity of emotion and gave his wings a flapping surge of strength, hind claws squeezing, crushing the rubble beneath him.
Then, pleased with himself, he relaxed and mind-thought, Wufn, I have need of you.
Lisle stepped into the clearing, long, brown braid swinging down her back, holding a burrower by the hind legs. She smiled to see the Guardian, lying in the warm sun on the rock where she'd left her. Shimmers of light danced about the hatchling. The flier folk are busy today, Lisle thought with amusement.
The Guardian was looking intently at the other side of the clearing. Lisle turned to see what she was looking at and saw two men standing, side by side. The wind came up then as if aimed, blowing through the leaves about the men, casting pale undersides upward, and lifting the dark hair of the tallest man away from his face. Lisle saw a scruffy, earth-toned beard dangling from his chin, and a bow held down by the side of his much worn and stained leggings. His head was cocked to the side as he studied the Guardian, a frown line between graphite dark eyebrows, and uncertainty written on his face. The other man, shorter, stockier, held a crossbow aimed directly at the Guardian, clear intent in his small, puffy eyes.
“Noooo…!” screamed Lisle.
She dropped the burrower and launched herself at the Guardian.
The tall man reached to knock his companion’s crossbow upward just as he released the bolt. It shot harmlessly into the air.
”What’d you do that for!” Demanded the shorter man, turning angrily, his brow beetling over squinting eyes.
“It’s no lizard for our dinner, it’s a Guardian, you fool. Can’t you see?” Said the tall man gesturing at the hatchling and not taking his eyes off her. He fell to his knees, unheeding of the dried twigs crackling beneath them, and dragged his companion down beside him.
Lisle landed on top of the Guardian. Her speed knocking the Guardian over backward and forcing a growled "Umph," from the hatchling. Lisle scrambled up and off her, patting and touching the Guardian all over.
“Are you unhurt? Are you safe?”
The Guardian righted herself on her sunning rock, pushing up onto her haunches, shaking out limp wings and wrapping her tail about her. A rumbling purr sounded from her chest, as she glanced at Lisle. Then she lifted her head, haloed now as chittering flyer folk descended to surround her and stared the men.
Lisle leapt to her feet, pulled her sling from her belt, and ran at the kneeling men. She stopped just in front of them, trembling all over.
“What’s the matter with you? That’s a Guardian! A Guardian! Do you realize what you almost did? Would you have shot her? Are you crazy?”
The words poured out of her. She kicked at the man still holding the crossbow, who scrambled up and away from her, eyeing her like she was some avenging angel. She turned to kick at the other, who was getting to his feet and putting his hands in prayer position in front of his chest, staring at the Guardian a short distance away.
In a clear, carrying voice he addressed the Guardian directly. “We didn’t know. We were hungry. You looked like a big lizard…” He grimaced. “Forgive me. I mean we didn’t recognize you. Guardians are big and green and live in Guardian Mountain. How could we know you were here?” He fell back to his knees.
Refraining from kicking him, Lisle said, “Go on get out of here you st…stupid men.” She kept her eyes on them as she went to sit near the Guardian, putting her arm around her protectively. The Guardian was staring now at the man who had spoken. Lisle felt the deep rumble in the hatchling’s chest. How could she be purring? She questioned, incredulous. They just tried to shoot her!
The shorter man scooted backwards still on his knees trying for the cover of the trees.
“I’m staying,” the tall man, said to his companion.
“What do ya’ want to do that for? We’re lucky that Guardian don’t eat us. I’m getting out of here and not coming back.” The shorter man answered.
“What if some other hunter makes the same mistake? I’ve got to stay and make sure that doesn’t happen. You’ll be alright on your own.”
The shorter man looked at his companion, “Aw, go on then. I’m not stayin’. You want to be that Guardian’s dinner, you go ahead. Jus’ don’t be thinkin’ I’ll be coming back for what’s left of you.”
He stood and trundled off into the woods, back the way they had come.
“One’s blessing go with you,” the tall man said to his companion’s retreating back and then turned to face the infant Guardian.
Lisle watched the shorter man retreat into the woods. He knew what he’d done. He wouldn’t be back. But the other one was still kneeling at the edge of the clearing. Lisle grabbed up her sling and a stone and stood up. She stalked up to him, holding her sling ready.
“W…wh…what do you w…want?”
The man looked up. “One hear me, what if other hunters should make the same mistake? I will stay to protect the Guardian.” Then the man just looked at her, waiting.
Lisle watched his face, considering. It was kind of a nice face, if she looked past the dirt. He had a good straight nose, a full mouth just visible beneath the dark, straggly beard, and clear brown eyes that looked up at her.
“Y…you think you c…c…can protect h…her better than mm…mm…me?” She stuttered, suddenly aware that she was talking to a grown man.
The man looked steadily up at her, then got to his feet. He stood a head and shoulders taller than she. Long, lean muscles were apparent under the hunter’s leggings and shirt. He shouldered his bow, straightened the belt holding a long, skinning knife.
“I know I can,” he said quietly and looked up at the sky where storm clouds were forming. “I’ll start by finding her some place safe and dry to stay.”
Lisle followed his gaze, looked surprised and said, “O…oh, g…good idea.”
The man looked at Lisle appraisingly for a moment. “Name’s Gareth.”
“Luh..Luh…Lisle,” she replied.
“Words don’t come easy to you do they Lisle? You didn’t do too bad back when you thought the Guardian might’ve got hurt.”
Lisle looked down at her toes.
“It don’t matter none. People talk way too much for my liking. I’ll take a look around.”
Gareth turned away from Lisle and headed back into the woods.
Lisle walked back across the clearing to the Guardian, the short, spring grasses under her feet, fragrant in the morning sun. The wind followed her, playful now, tickling the hairs at the back of her neck. The Guardian was nuzzling the dead burrower and looked up at Lisle beseechingly.
“I’m s…s…s…sorry. I’ll c…cut it.”
Lisle made short work of cutting up the burrower so the Guardian could eat.
She sat down on the hard, warm surface beside the hatchling as she ate, her mind a torrent of questions. Who is this man? This Gareth? Seems like he cared that his friend almost hurt the Guardian, but can we trust him?
Lisle looked at the Guardian as she ate hungrily. It was a messy business which might have turned some stomachs but mattered not at all to Lisle. She felt fierce love for the hatchling well up in her chest. I will take care of her. I will keep her safe. She had never felt anything so powerfully. Nothing will harm her!
Gareth returned to the clearing not long after he had left. Lisle watched him cautiously, fingering her sling. He knelt before the Guardian and waited with a hunter's patience for her to finish her meal and her fastidious ablutions afterward.
Then he addressed the Guardian directly, “There’s a small, dry cave not far from here. It’ll be shelter and protection. There’s a nice, flat rock out front where you can sun yourself. I’d be honored to show you the way there.”
Lisle watched, wondering, as the Guardian just looked at Gareth, a rumbling purr in her chest. He looked back at her, eyebrows lifted. The Guardian continued to stare at him. Lisle saw him sway on his knees toward her, a smile creeping up onto the edges of his mouth. He took in a deep breath as a tear slowly trickled down his cheek, seemingly unnoticed by him.
Lisle knew the love that made him smile like that, knew the emotion that triggered that tear, and she felt a twinge of jealousy.
Then the Guardian broke eye contact and rose awkwardly. Her brown mottled hind legs pushing up, forearms balancing. She shivered wings, increasingly olive-toned, into place at her sides. The smooth, dappled scales of her body rustled softly and she took several shaky steps using all four limbs to move. Lisle moved along beside her, hand on her back.
I guess we trust him, thought Lisle.
Shaking his head as though to clear it, Gareth stood up, swiping quickly at his cheek, and led the trembly Guardian and Lisle to the cave he had found.
Deep within Guardian Mountain. Gran Bryl walked the bright Pathways of the One and felt a surge of relief. For now, Ell’s safe.
She noted with pleasure the sparkling bond cord stretching between Ell and her Contracted. Safe, but still so fragile.
Her thoughts shifted. She turned away and cast her awareness back out, following the web of light through the black void, searching for the other.
The other, who would harm Ell if he could, who wanted to harm them all.
Lisle woke just as the first hints of dawn lightened the eastern sky. She felt a little stiff from her night on the rock beside the Guardian, but deeply contented. She was surprised by how warm the Guardian's bulk felt against her back as she curled a little closer to escape the early morning chill. The Guardian slept peacefully.
Looking up to check on her, Lisle noticed a small bit of bright green on the inside curve of the sleeping hatchling’s forearm. She looked closer and saw translucent wings folded back over a tiny sleeping body, and a fuzz of moss-green hair. Day of the One, small one, thought Lisle. You should have a name. I’ll call you Moss. Day of the One, Moss, Lisle thought to the tiny sleeper. Moss didn’t seem to notice. She slept on, undisturbed.
The Guardian stirred and lifted her head. She looked sleepily at Lisle, eyes half closed.
Ðay of th…the… One,” said Lisle softly. A slow closing and opening of the Guardian’s eyes was the only answer. Lisle felt inside for that wrenching hunger of yesterday. She felt only her own normal, morning hunger. None of that twisting torment. The Guardian must not be hungry yet, she thought. I am though. I forgot to eat mid-day and end-day yesterday. And I’ve got chores to do!
Lisle wanted to communicate what she needed to do today with the hatchling but the length of words and the idea of stumbling through them stopped her. Instead, she knelt before the Guardian and gently touched her forehead to the warm, smooth, scales between the hatchling’s eyes.
I’ve got to go back to the cottage now and let Mina know we are alright. I’ve got a lot of chores to do. I’ll be back to hunt for you soon. Send Moss here if you need anything. She pointed at the sleeping form on the Guardian’s forearm.
She sat up and said more slowly, aloud, “I’ll b…b…be back ll…l…later w…with ff…f…food.”
The Guardian gazed at Lisle then put her head down and closed her eyes. Lisle wasn’t sure if the hatchling had understood her, but she looked content. Lisle turned and headed off.
Arriving back at a cottage shrouded in early morning mist, she quickly fed the clucking, hungry layers, and filled their water trough. She looked up to see if smoke rose from the chimney of the cottage but saw nothing. Mina must still be asleep. Maybe I can get in without waking her.
She opened the door gently and saw Mina, asleep in the rocker beside the hearth, her mouth slightly open and a soft flutter of breath moving the edge of a woven blanket that covered her.
Stepping inside Lisle closed the door softly, and tip-toed around Mina to search for something to eat. Her stomach was complaining in earnest now.
Mina startled up. “Lisle! There you are! I was worried when you didn’t come home. There are night singers out there you know.” She rubbed reddened eyes.
“S…sorry.” Lisle looked at Mina, her hands twisting in her overdress. “N…no nuh..night singers, M…Mina.”
“Well, there could have been. I was scared for you.”
Lisle looked down, scuffing her toe on the floor. “Sss..sorry,” she mumbled, and she was. She didn’t like to worry Mina.
“Well, never mind. Did you feed the Guardian? Is it alright?
“Uh…I hu…hunted. Fuh…fed her.”
“Her is it? And she ate? From your hand? Well, that’s something then. Hungry?"
"I’ll start the porridge. You make up the fire.”
Mina, stood then and gave her a quick, hard hug.
“I’m glad you’re home safe.”
Lisle hugged her back just as hard, feeling such love for her sister well up inside. She was so grateful to have Mina.
“L…love you, Mina.”
“Well…” said Mina. Swiping at eyes suddenly teary, she turned away to fold the blanket she had been using over the back of the rocker and smoothed her dress. Then she clattered about grabbing a pot and filling it with grain and water, as Lisle built up the fire from the morning’s coals.
Porridge ladled out with spoonful’s of syrup on top, Mina and Lisle sat at the small table to eat. Lisle was hungry and shoveled the warm, sweet cereal into her mouth. Looking up she saw Mina watching her.
“I looked in Ma-Marn’s Book of One yesterday.” Mina got up to fetch the book from where she’d left it on the lid of their Ma-Marn's chest. Moving her bowl aside she placed it on the table, her hands resting on the cover. “Do you remember the chapter about raising a Guardian?”
“N…n…no,” mumbled Lisle through another mouthful of porridge.
“It says that the Guardian will only eat meat that has been hunted in a special way. Here, I’ll read it to you.”
Lisle stopped eating, her spoon half-way to her mouth, suddenly afraid she’d got it wrong somehow.
“Go ahead and eat. The Guardian ate didn’t she? You must have done it right.”
“A new-hatched Guardian cannot hunt for itself. It relies completely on it’s Contracted to feed it. It will eat from the hand of no other. Even until it’s second skin must the Guardian rely upon it’s Contracted for sustenance. Thus, may the Contracted be recognized.
The Contracted must hunt, for the infant Guardian will only eat meat willingly offered by a creature of the One. It must be hunted in the sacred way, with reverence for the sacrifice. Thus, the Guardian and all, benefit from the loving gift of the One. It is so and has always been so.”
Mina closed the book. “If she ate what you hunted for her, you have to be her Contracted Lisle, and you must be hunting the right way. How’d you know how to do that?”
Lisle looked at Mina, feeling both gratified and slightly confused.
“Uh…I don’t kn…know?”
“Well, you’d better get back out there and feed her. I’ll take care of your chores today.”
Smiling and nodding, Lisle, hastily spooned the rest of her porridge into her mouth in one huge mouthful, cheeks expanding like a tree climber, and jumped up from the table. Clattering her dishes in the wash pan, she dashed out the door, swallowing hard several times to get it all down.
Remembering herself then, she dashed back through the still closing door, and kissed Mina on the cheek.
“Th…th…thank you!" She breathed, then turned to run back to where her heart lay sleeping in the early morning sun.
The Alpha threw back her head, raised her grey-furred muzzle and sang. The long, haunting melody drifted on the cool, night air. Her pack gathered in delighted canine chorus, tails wagging excitedly, yipping and singing their joy together under the starlit sky.
Soon, hunger growled in her belly and the Alpha abandoned her song and started off in the direction her heart told her to go. Her pack followed close behind.
The Alpha moved silently through the dark underbrush. Her long, gray coat still held traces of its winter thickness. Its warmth felt good to her this night. She could hear her pack-mates moving along, ranged out now on either side of her, though no one at any distance would have known they were there. She could smell the familiar odor of them and it reassured her to have them close.
It had been too long since they had eaten well. Her belly growled acknowledgment. It was a good night for the hunt, the air being quiet and clear. She held her nose up as she moved, tasting the air for traces of anything that smelled of prey.
What was that? The odor wafted past her sensitive nostrils. It speaks of creature, but so sweet. What could that be here near her home?
The Alpha saw the muzzles of her companions lift into the air, scenting just as she had. She let out a low, questioning whine. They would move closer and find this creature, perhaps it would fill their hungry bellies. Head down now, tracking back and forth, she found the ground trail and moved forward stealthily.
She crept, head down, holding her body close to the cool earth now, smooth gray, furred muscles rippling invisibly in the darkness.
They were almost upon it. The strong, sweet creature smell of it foreign to her and yet enticing, so enticing. She could feel her mouth watering in anticipation of the meal to come. Snuffling the ground the Alpha detected the odor of a two-legged as well and this made her distinctly uneasy. But she was so hungry. Her packmates spread out, encircling their prey. She would approach from the front holding the creature’s attention. Her packmates would attack from the sides and rear. Their prey would have no escape.
The Alpha moved past the cover of the bushes she had crept through. She could see it now. It lay upon a large, flat stone, the two-legged curled beside it. She crept closer. The creature raised its head. It was aware of her now. Good, it would not be aware of her pack-mates. The Alpha stood before it, a low growl escaped her throat. The creature did not run. It did not even rise. It just moved one forearm gently over the sleeping two-legged.
Looking at the hatchling creature she thought, it is only a suckling. Easy prey. Tonight, we eat by the Will of the One. She crouched to spring.
Even as the Alpha prepared to attack she studied the creature intently. She could see sparkling light surrounding it, utterly unlike the gentle light she perceived around her packmates and around her usual prey. She paused, feeling confused and wary. Her packmates waited for her attack to signal their own.
What is this creature? She thought.
Her stomach growled, impatient for sustenance, clearing her thoughts of confusion.
We eat, thought the Alpha and gathered her hindquarters to spring.
Sparkling light poured out of the creature, surrounding the Alpha in a blanket of warmth and comfort. She felt her muscles relax. She stood, whining, uncertain. Contentment filled her. Her belly no longer complained. She felt satisfied to her very bones, nourished as if she might never need to eat again. The Alpha moved closer, crouching and lying down, her head at the creature’s clawed feet. She felt as she had when a suckling, replete with milk, lying alongside her littermates, safely encircled by her mother’s warm body. She heard her packmates moving in closer, lying beside her at the creature’s feet. Then her heart knew.
This creature is of the One. This creature is Guardian.
The Alpha didn’t question how she knew, trusting her heart utterly. She rolled over onto her back, exposing her tender belly and throat in submission. She felt a light touch of the Guardian’s muzzle to the underside of her jaw.
Joyously, the Alpha flipped over, her agile body twisting. She sprang to her feet, her tail high, mouth open in canine joy. She splayed her front paws before her, bowing down inviting her packmates to play and leapt joyously at the one closest to her. Then she dashed off into the woods, her packmates in bounding pursuit.
Lisle ran across the yard and headed into the woods toward where she left the Guardian sleeping. The gripping sensation around her stomach returning.
The Guardian… she’s hungry.
Lisle gasped for breath as she ran. A shimmering of tiny wings appeared beside her head. Looking sideways she could see that same green-haired flier gesturing emphatically with her arms, wings whirring brightly.
“C…coming,” Lisle forced out. Then she conserved her breath and focused on not tripping. She tore through the woods and came pelting around a large, tree trunk, almost stepping on a hopper sitting just on the other side. It startled, ran a short distance and then stopped, crouched and unmoving. Lisle reached for her sling and a stone and brought it down with one shot.
The hopper lay still. Lisle approached it with a mixture of relief and sadness. Tucking her sling back into her belt she said,
“Th…th…thank you s…s…small one.”
In her mind she continued. You will be the sacred meal of the Guardian. Thank you for your gift of life. May you be rejoined with the One.
Lisle made the gesture of respect over her heart as she had been taught by her Ma-Marn, and bent to lift the hopper over her shoulder with one hand. The knot around her stomach tightened and she straightened up, her other hand rubbing her abdomen. Bright wings flashed in front of her and took off southward. Lisle ran after.
The Guardian lay on the sunny rock just where Lisle had left her. The hatchling held her head up, a noticeable trembling about her skinny neck and shoulders. She made a slight mewling sound as Lisle knelt before her. Lisle’s stomach squeezed hard as she held the hopper out to the Guardian with trembling hands. Then, remembering the Guardian’s difficulty earlier, she took out her knife and as quickly as possible cut the hopper into pieces the Guardian could manage. The hatchling grabbed hungrily for each piece as it was cut.
Forgetting herself and her painful stomach, Lisle watched adoringly as the Guardian ate. The hatchling grabbed the hunks of meat and threw her head back, gulping it down whole. Mobile lumps in her neck marked the progress of meal to gullet. The gripping sensation in Lisle’s stomach gradually eased with each piece the hatchling choked down.
Numbers of flier folk gathered, flitting about them as the Guardian ate. They zipped back and forth, wings shining in the late afternoon sun slanting through the spring blossomed leaves of trees surrounding their small clearing.
Finishing her meal, the Guardian heaved a great sigh, then fastidiously licked her muzzle and foreclaws clean as Lisle watched with delight.
The Guardian looked over then, right into Lisle’s eyes. Lisle was mesmerized by the depths of love she saw in those large, golden eyes. She felt it flow all around her as if she were snuggly wrapped in a thick, warm blanket.
An image came unbidden to Lisle of an enormous mountain surrounded by a forest of huge trees. She could see it vividly in her mind’s eye. Guardian Mountain! It must be! She thought.
The image slipped away as chills thrilled up and down her body, the love filling her completely. Lisle wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of her life sitting right here with the Guardian, breathing in the ecstasy of that love.
Lisle had no idea how much time passed before the Guardian blinked and broke eye contact. She felt groggy as if she had just woken from a deep sleep. The hatchling moved closer to Lisle, her eye lids drooping, and thumped her head into Lisle’s lap. Her eyes closed and Lisle soon heard the sonorous breath of deep sleep.
The flier folk settled about the Guardian, slowly fanning their opalescent wings. She thought how grateful she was that they had led her to the Guardian.
Thank you, flier folk! Thank you, and thank you again! What joy you have led me to! May the blessing of the One be upon you!
She rested her hand on the Guardian’s brown mottled neck, stroking the warm, smooth scales and touching the beginnings of spines forming along the ridge of the infant Guardian’s neck. Lisle’s joy was so intense she felt tears form in her eyes. She wanted to jump up, laugh and dance for the energy that was coursing through her body. But she wouldn’t, she would stay, sitting quietly for as long as the Guardian chose to sleep.
The flier folk reacted as if they too felt her joy. They erupted into the air, enacting a graceful, aerial dance. Hovering and diving, flitting in and out and around each other, making a spectacular show of glittering wings and streams of floating hair.
Lisle watched, entranced. She noticed details about the tiny folk that she hadn’t before. Their wings were transparent colors, shimmering greens, iridescent blues, gem-like oranges, shining yellows and opalescent blacks. They had bodies shaped like hers only infinitesimally smaller, with skin much the same color as their wings. They wore something woven in earth-like colors but they were so tiny and moved so fast, she couldn’t make out more detail than that. When she looked closely she could see their faces, framed by wild, flowing hair in a variety of different colors, white, green, and orange.
The shadows lengthened upon the ground as the flier folk danced their joy, and still the Guardian slept. Eventually, tiring, they nestled in, around and on top of the sleeping hatchling. One bold flier, the one with the moss green hair, moved close to Lisle’s hand resting on the Guardian’s neck. Looking up into Lisle’s face she curled herself up against Lisle’s wrist.
Did that flier just smile at me? Wondered Lisle bemusedly.
Lisle’s back side was getting achy after sitting so long in one position, she could no longer feel her legs and feet, but she would not move. Not so long as the Guardian still slept with her head on Lisle’s lap. She wouldn’t even move her hand so this little flier could rest after her long dance. Lisle’s heart felt so full these little physical aches only played counterpoint to her joyous thoughts.
I am her Contracted! I must be. I know it. How is this possible? I am only a younger, only a wood-cutter’s daughter. It doesn’t matter. The Guardian is content, just look at her. She’s so beautiful! And she loves me! I know she does. I could feel it, all around me. I can feel it even now, and I love her! I love her more than anything! I will feed her and care for her and not let anything happen to her.
Lisle’s fierce, happy thoughts gradually gave way to sleepiness. She nodded off, still sitting up, arm curved protectively around the neck of the hatchling, as the sun went to its own rest deep below the horizon.
The dark closed in.
With it, unbeknownst to the sleepers, came the hungry, night singers.