The day dawned with gentle coral and purple hues peeking through the tree trunks. the effect was lovely and entirely lost on Lisle. It felt much too early, as she dragged herself from her bedroll. She straightened her travel-soiled tunic, and considered changing into the spare in her pack. Remembering that it was just as abused as the one she wore, she shrugged her shoulders and didn’t bother. Pulling on knit and much mended leggings, she bent to roll her blankets up and felt unaccustomed aches and twinges in her young back. Weeks of travel, fear spurred by the attack, nearly losing Gareth, broken sleep from taking her turn on watch at night, all these had taken a toll on Lisle. Though she would never admit this to the others.
Ell was increasingly agitated, pacing back and forth about their small campsite. Her claws digging in and long tail swishing along the ground. She left an odd, double track through the dirt and fallen leaves and her agitation frightened Lisle. Not because she was afraid of Ell, never that, but because Ell was afraid. Lisle could feel it.
The night before, when Ell finally settled down, Lisle sat with her, arm thrown over Ell’s shoulder, and tried to sense what Ell was feeling. She was unable to perceive any clear images from Ell. Ell’s communications swam with something dark, threatening and very dangerous. Lisle shared this with Gareth, Moss and Terris, but it was difficult to share the dread she felt from Ell.
Pale sunlight drifted through the trees that dawning. It lit a well-practiced traveling routine as they packed up quickly and started on their way. They didn’t take time to eat. Ell would no longer permit it. The companions would munch on leftovers as they walked, just as they had done for several days now. Ell took to the sky immediately and they hustled to keep up with her.
Ell’s wingspan made it difficult for her to fly in the dense trees of the forest so she flew above the tree canopy. This made following her difficult, as her companions could not see her leading the way above the tree tops. Fortunately, in the first days of their journey, Lisle discovered a trick. She found that if she closed her eyes and turned slowly in a circle, when she faced the direction in which Ell had flown, she would feel her chest suddenly expand with breath, and a tingling sensation of happiness fill her. From this, Lisle was able to point the way, and the companions could follow in Ell’s wake.
For several hours they traveled that morning, their footsteps muffled against the evergreen needles covering the ground. The great forest was quiet and sweet-scented around them. Only an occasional melodic flier call broke the stillness.
Lisle was able to keep her fears at bay. Terris walked at the back of the group, occasionally hitching up drooping trousers grown too big for him, and pulling tight the belt attempting to hold them up. He frequently scanned the wood behind them, keeping watch. Moss flitted about, alert. Gareth ranged ahead, always moving North.
They stopped for midday and ate a cold meal of hopper and meal cakes from the night before. It had been their pattern to rest a bit at midday, readying for more travel later. Today however, Ell stood right after the meal, indicating it was time to move on.
Now Lisle felt the sense of dread returning with each step she took. As aftermidday wore on, increasingly long shadows of branches and tree trunks crisscrossed, menacing the path before them. Lisle’s fearful eyes swept back and forth keeping watch as the sun hid below the horizon with only a cursory attempt at color. A murky darkness filled the forest. When a branch snapped suddenly underfoot, Lisle leapt into the air, startled.
“Easy there. We’ll camp soon enuff.’ You’ll feel better with a nice fire goin’ and some supper in yer belly,” said Terris, though he moved his hand to rest on the knife tucked into his belt and scanned one again behind them as he walked.
They caught up to Gareth where he had stopped by a narrow, trickling brook. They would make camp next to its soothing song. Gareth had caught several ground fliers during the day, and Terris set to preparing the meal. Lisle, with a watchful Moss on her shoulder, ranged close by, collecting for their cookfire. When the food was ready, Terris handed portions around, and Lisle looked up at him, smiling tiredly and reached out for the food. “Ta, m…m…my f…friend.”
That night, Ell made them all nervous, pacing about at the edge of camp, tail lashing, her eyes fixed on the looming darkness surrounding them. Finally, she sat down, wrapped her tail about her foreclaws and closed her eyes. She remained sitting upright, motionless, even past the time when the others lay down to sleep.
Lisle woke during the night when a sleepy Moss tapped her on the cheek. She looked over to see that Ell had finally lain down to sleep. Reassured, she sent Moss to her bed of fur in the pack, and got up to watch.
The Hunter squatted easily and studied the ground in front of him. Hard, grey eyes took in any signs of track or disturbance.
The Guardian traveled more and more on the wing where he was unable to see her from beneath the dense green overhead. This was not a problem; he tracked her human companions easily, the play of a younger for his hunter skills. What’s more, they travelled due North, their objective Guardian Mountain. He knew this from the information the boy-man, the one who’d hired him, had imparted.
His quarry was the Guardian of course, not the humans. Though he would deal with them when the time came.
A Guardian! The thought brought a frisson of excitement coursing through his body, the likes of which he had not felt since his first hunt as a boy. Now older, skillful and experienced, he found that hunting, even humans, was getting to be just more of the same. Where was the anticipation? The thrill? He thought. A Guardian now, that was quarry worthy of him.
The Hunter traveled fast for several days and was gaining on them rapidly. Soon, he thought, his lips a grim, satisfied slash across his face.
So intent was he upon the enticing hunt for the Guardian this day, that he did not at first notice the ominous, blackening storm clouds at the horizon. It was most unusual for him to be unaware of his surroundings in that way, and he spared a moment for thoughts of chastisement. Such self-recrimination was short-lived however, almost as unusual as his initial inattentiveness. He noted the changing weather, taking it into his calculations, and refocused on tracking.
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 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24