The rain lightened momentarily. Lisle lifted her head and pushed back a thoroughly soaked hood to rest dripping about her neck. I don’t know why I even bother to wear it, it’s so wet. She looked to see misty, open air on the other side of the trees to her left. Moving ever North, the companions slogged along, traversing the side of a steep incline, as they pushed closer to Guardian Mountain.
The storm raged on. The group were pummeled with an almost constant downpour. Water streamed away down the incline to their right, rivulets of runoff crossing in front and behind them, rushing to merge into the river far below. The ground was soggy underfoot, mud sucking at their boots. Occasional slides of stones and pebbles made the footing treacherous.
Lisle breathed deeply of the wet air filling the woods. The clean, damp scent would have been pleasant if she had not had so much of it recently. What’s more she was feeling increasingly agitated. She was sure they were being watched, and kept looking around, checking their backtrail every few minutes. Her hand, damp and white-knuckled, gripped the handle of the stoneshot at her belt.
The constant beat of rain pouring down around her was split by a tremendous roar from above that vibrated through Lisle's body. Jumping, she looked up with startled eyes to see Ell arrowing down between the trees. She was terrified that Ell was injured, as Ell landed almost on top of the companions, wings outstretched.
Roaring still, Ell backed into the four of them, herding them behind her, up against the huge trunk of an ancient tree, as she released another stentorian scream of rage at the mist-veiled tree trunks surrounding them.
Frightened still, but relieved, Lisle could feel that Ell was not injured. Ell was terrified and very, very angry.
“Let me see, Ell!”
Yanking her slingshot from her belt, and clamping it between her teeth, Lisle pushed her way free of the green, scaled haunch that held her against the rough, dripping bark of the huge tree. She leapt, grabbing onto a spinal ridge on Ell’s back, and scrambled up to her shoulders, like climbing a ladder.
The sky opened up, rain driving down. Lisle wiped the rain from her eyes and looked to see a dark, man-shaped shadow scuttling from tree to tree, moving ever closer.
Moss, chattering angrily from inside Lisle’s overtunic, pushed her way out and took to the air, only to be grounded immediately by the driving force of the rain. She landed at the base of the great tree and pulled herself up the trunk, climbing the shaggy, wet bark upward. Her hair was immediately slicked against her head by the rain in long, green waves streaming down over her shoulders.
“One curse it, Ell! Let me by!” Gareth struggled his way past the wing that pinned him against the tree trunk.
Another scream of defiance from Ell momentarily deafened Lisle as she stared out frantically from under eyelashes dripping with rain, looking for anything that presented a target for her stoneshot.
“Keep yur cussed head down younger!” Terris yelled up at her, wrestling with the enormous tail that held him. “Let go a me ya’ great lizard!”
Gareth pushed by Ell’s wing, knocking an arrow in his bow as he did so. He moved to stand in front of the raging Guardian. Ell roared deafeningly and knocked him aside and behind her with a sweep of her long neck.
Lisle felt rage, frustration and terror filling her up like an overfull water bladder. She had to let it out before it consumed her and opened her mouth to loose her own high, scream of defiance as she flung a stone uselessly into the trees.
From the woods before them, amidst the clattering of rain on the water-soaked ground, a howl of laughter echoed.
Behind a tree, the Hunter bent over, hands on his knees, choking with laughter. Rain poured down around him, drenching his already soaked overcoat and splattering another layer of mud over his hide boots. It didn’t matter if they heard him. They already knew he was there, and he was delighted by the inept tableau in front of him.
He guffawed as he thought of the Guardian herding and pinning its humans behind it, and those incompetent men fighting against the Guardian, uselessly trying to defend it.
He laughed so hard he could barely catch his breath.
Then he thought of that younger, sounding like some crazed night singer, wildly flinging a stone at him. It was all just too much, and he howled with laughter again, hardly able to stand up.
That Guardian though, it gave him pause. He sobered and stood up straight, tilting his head and looking out from behind the tree trunk which hid him. Rain dripped from the brim of the hat which protected his eyes as he watched the roaring beast before him. He felt an emotion so foreign to him it was almost frightening. He couldn’t put a name to it.
The huge green-scaled creature was rippling with muscle. It stood upright on powerful hindquarters, long, curved claws gouging huge tracts in the muddy earth. With its wings spread wide, and open, sharp-toothed jaws it looked like some enormous avenging demon.
It seemed a creature not of this world, the likes of which he had never come across before. It was all that he had hoped, and so much more. The beast inspired him, a totally new and unfamiliar sensation.
Suddenly he wanted it, more than he had ever wanted anything in his life. That Guardian is mine!
He studied the beast. It was covered all over with scales. Even the belly was lined with yellow protective plating. The Guardian roared again and flapped its wings, its forearms flailing. His attention was drawn to the area just under its forearms. He wiped away the rain which had blown into his eyes and looked to see that under the forearms was covered with small, delicate looking scales. A well-placed arrow there will bring it down, he thought. Then I can deal with the humans.
The Hunter searched the area about him, and pin-pointed a tree which would give him a better vantage point for his shot. Staying low, mist shrouding his movements, he crept into place.
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 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27
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 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.
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.
“A Guardian! I found a Guardian!”
Lisle burst through the door, barely remembering to unlatch the hook before she broke through it. Mina stood in the kitchen, elbow deep in suds, doing the washing up.
Long, brown braid flying behind her, Lisle raced up to Mina’s back and grabbed her around her slender waist, pulling her backwards away from the sink.
“A Guardian, Mina a Guardian! C…come and see.”
Mina laughed and choked out, “Loosen up, Lis, at least let me turn around.”
Lisle released her and grabbed a rough cloth from beside the sink. She shoved it at Mina. Mina dried her reddened hands gently and reached for a small dish sitting beside the sink. Digging into the jar with two fingers she wiped the greasy substance over her hands and rubbed it in as she spoke.
“What’s this about a Guardian?”
Heavy footsteps sounded from the back of the cottage. Lisle looked warily over her shoulder at the curtained sleeping area behind her. The curtain flew open and Jessamin stood there one hand holding the curtain back. Lisle felt herself curling up inside, all enthusiasm drained from her as blood from a wound.
Jessamin’s regally tall, heavily dressed figure strode forward into the kitchen. Her dark presence filled the room. It was as if the light that had entered the kitchen when Lisle came in was extinguished.
Jessamin’s deep voice echoed in the small room.
“A Guardian? You found a Guardian? What have you done that a Guardian would come looking for you?”
“I…I…It duh…duh…didn’t. Uh…uh…I fu…fu…fu…found it.”
Jessamin’s beautifully shaped, black eyebrows lowered into a scowl of impatience.
“Stop your babble. A Guardian hasn’t been seen in Greystone since before I was born. What would a Guardian be doing with the likes of you? If you saw a Guardian it’d mean no good for you, that’s for sure. A Guardian indeed!”
Dismissively she turned to Mina.
“Papa and I are going to town, Mina, we’ll be staying at the Inn. It may be several days.”
Then looking back at Lisle, the scowl returned to her face.
“Lisle, hitch up the cart. Be quick about it, and I’ll have no more foolishness out of you.”
Lisle turned and ran from the house, desperate to make her escape. She trotted into the small barn just beside the cottage pulling the heavy door to a thudding close behind her. In the dim light, she took a deep breath of the hay-sweet air. The puller chewed softly, its bulky form just visible within its stall. Lisle walked up to grab hold of its halter and it companionably lowered its horned head. She rested her forehead against the puller's warmly furred, chewing jaw.
I never should have told them, never.
Lifting her head, she unhooked the rope that kept the puller in its stall and grasped its halter, guiding it out to the door. Turning, she pushed against the door, its wooden planks rough under her palm, hinges squeaking protest. Sweet, moist breath warmed the back of her neck and she remembered to move aside so the puller wouldn’t step with its heavy, cloven feet on the backs of her heels.
What would a Guardian be doing with the likes of me? She couldn't help but wonder.
Pulling hard on its halter she guided the puller across the bare, rooted soil that served as a side yard and over to the cart.
She backed him in between the long, wooden guides and hitched him into the cart, harnessed and ready. Then she stood, holding the puller’s halter, waiting for Jessamin and Papa.
Presently, they came out of the house, Papa, taller than Jessamin by several inches, looked dignified in his black, town coat. He handed Jessamin up onto the seat of the cart and nodded at Lisle, his long white and grey eyebrows wiggling on his brow.
A bit like crawlies, thought Lisle, wincing slightly.
Jessamin settled herself, spreading her skirts carefully, chin lifted royally, and stared straight ahead. Lisle nodded to Papa and stepped away.
“Ay-yup there Johnny,” said Papa as he flicked the reins over the puller’s back. Johnny lurched forward between the guides and the cart jerked forward.
Jessamin grabbed onto Papa with both hands as she slid backwards on the seat with a gasping intake of breath. “Jonas!” Jessamin yelped.
Her hat flew from her head to land in the cart behind her as Papa caught her deftly with one, strong arm. Jessamin straightened up on the seat, recovered her hat and her dignity, then smoothed her coat back over her skirt.
“Really Jonas, why ever can’t you make it go without such a lurch?” Jessamin scolded.
Lisle turned her face away and smiled. It happened every time.
Why didn’t the woman just learn to hold on?
Lisle watched as the cart bumped away from the house and onto the road that led to town, Jessamin clutching her hat to her head with one hand, while the other held onto Papa’s arm with a death-like grip.
Lisle breathed a deep sigh of relief.
Free. I can get my chores done and have the day to hunt. I wonder how often Guardians need to eat? Maybe I could feed it again!
Lisle turned back to the puller shed, a smile on her face. She opened the door and propped it with a much-dented bucket to let the light stream in. Walking in her feet crunched on the straw covered floor. She took the pitchfork from its place standing against the wall, feeling the cool smoothness of its worn, wooden handle under her hand and threw it, clattering, into the wheelbarrow. She bent and lifted the barrow handles to push it over to the puller’s stall. Retrieving the pitchfork, she shoved the tines into the soiled straw of the puller’s stall and lifted a moistly fragrant forkful into the barrow.
The familiar work was soothing yet Jessamin’s words returned to fill her mind.
“What would a Guardian be doing with the likes of you?”
“If you saw a Guardian it’d mean no good for you, that’s for sure.”
The smile left Lisle’s face.
What was I thinking? That Guardian will have its Contracted some where’s around here. It won’t need a younger like me to feed it. A Guardian wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me. Even if it did, it would only be because I was in big trouble or something, just like Jessamin said.
Lisle scowled and stabbed at the dirty straw, heaving another forkful into the wheel barrow.
It sure was beautiful though, she thought with a sigh. Jessamin’s thoughtless abuse eclipsed by the image of the Guardian in her mind.
Standing the pitchfork on its tines, she cupped her hands over the handle, and leaned her chin on the back of her hand. She closed her eyes and saw the Guardian’s greenish brown scales shining with iridescence like the wings of the flyer folk. She felt her chest expand as she breathed deeply, loving the image in her mind’s eye.
The Guardian’s eyes, they looked just like a person’s eyes, she thought with amazement. Maybe I could just visit it, make sure it’s all right, not cold or anything. Maybe it’s Contracted doesn’t know it’s here? What if it’s lost or something? It’s just a baby.
A gnawing sensation grabbed at Lisle’s stomach. Standing upright, she rubbed absently at her stomach with one hand.
It would be awful if the Guardian was hungry and it’s Contracted couldn’t find it to feed it. The Guardian could die!
Tears burned in Lisle’s eyes.
She wiped the tears away fiercely.
That Guardian doesn’t need me.
She lifted the pitchfork and jammed it under the straw in the stall.
I’m just a useless younger.
She pulled up a great forkful and dumped it into the wheelbarrow.
Nobody needs me. Jessamin’s right. I’m not worth anything. She’s said it often enough…must be true.
Lisle stabbed at the dirty straw, missing and plunging the tines into the dirt floor of the shed.
“One cuh….curse it.”
She pulled the tines out and attacked the straw again.
The gnawing sensation clawed at Lisle’s stomach. As she worked, images of the Guardian, cold and hungry, filled her mind. She couldn’t bear the thought of it.
I’m not the one that Guardian needs.
It needs it’s Contracted.
She threw the dirty straw into the barrow viciously.
I’m not good enough to be some Guardian’s Contracted.
Tears flooded her vision till she couldn't see the floor before her.
Taking a deep breath, she distracted herself from thoughts of the infant Guardian by singing a song she remembered her Ma-Marn singing to her. Her voice quavered at first, but the words came clear and without hesitation.
“Hush you now, your sleep is how, you’ll grow strong.
Hush you now, your sleep is how, you’ll grow strong."
Lisle struggled to work as she sang the beloved words. Angrily she forked at the stinking stuff on the floor of the stall.
“Deep and long, you'll sing your song. Dreams are true.
Deep and long, you'll sing your song. Dreams are true."
She felt herself calming as she scooped and lifted the last forkful of straw into the wheelbarrow.
“Know that you are always loved.
Always, always, always, loved.”
Lisle knew then what she had to do. She tossed the pitchfork back into the corner of the barn.
I don’t care what Jessamin says. Maybe I’m not good enough to be that Guardian’s Contracted, but I know how to hunt as good as any. I’m not going to leave that Guardian to die!
Lisle grabbed the laden wheel barrow and ran it awkwardly out to the compost heap to dump its contents and return it to the barn. She grabbed her stone-shot out of her belt, careened out the door of the barn, and ran for the pathway that led to where she knew the infant Guardian waited.