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.