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.