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.
“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.
Lisle bolted for the trees, running blindly down the path, tears streaming down her cheeks. She tripped and fell, landing hard on her hands and knees, got up and ran again. She ran until she reached the heart of the woods, an opening beneath the great canopy of trees.
She sank down at the base of a huge, old oak tree, and leaned back into its strong trunk, allowing her tears to flow.
Slowly the aching pain inside eased.
She waited, her breathing calmed, the tears subsided.
Lisle looked up into the blowing leaves of the trees above her, seeing their bright, spring green against a deepening gray sky. A light breeze stirred the leaves and touched her face, drying her tear-dampened cheeks and neck.
She sat, feeling the coolness of the earth beneath her, the warmth of the sun on her face. Breathing the breath of the early morning wood. Waves of wind swished through the treetops, rustling the leaves closest to her. Morning singers chirped and whistled. Lisle sang back tentatively, a soft, high cascade of notes.
She closed her eyes and sang louder, then louder still. It was such a relief to let it out.
There were no words to stumble over, not even a particular tune, instead she sang the music she felt inside. She sang even louder now, screaming it out, feeling the pain boiling up and pouring out of her mouth. Her voice sounded harsh in her ears, like gravel crushed in the quarries of Greystone. She let it all flood out.
Gradually the pain eased once again and her song ended on a low, quiet note.
A flutter of tiny wings startled Lisle and she opened her eyes to see a miniature being, with furiously beating wings, hovering in the air right in front of her. It had a green-skinned body no bigger than the length of her palm, wings iridescent with shimmering color, and a halo of moss-green hair around it’s head.
She held absolutely still as it alighted on the back of her hand, fearful of scaring it off. It grasped at her thumb, pulling. The flier made high squeaking sounds, pulling backwards hard and managing to lift Lisle’s thumb.
Lisle was so astonished that she just sat and gaped at the small being wrestling with her thumb.
It’s real! It’s real! Ma-Marn was right!
She felt something plucking at the fabric clothing her upper arm, and looked to see another. This one was blue-skinned and seemed just as intent. She watched as it grasped the fabric of her over-dress with both hands, furiously beating it’s wings and pulling.
Then there was a small push at the back of her shoulder. She turned her head to see still another flier, pushing and prodding at her.
This was getting a bit much. Lisle stifled an impulse to brush them all off as she would annoying insects. She couldn’t bear the idea that she might injure one.
Pinpricks of anxiety touched her. Curiosity and dread filled her. What could possibly cause the flier folk to be so desperate as to try to communicate with her? They certainly never had before.
Lisle stood carefully. The fliers launched away from her to hover before her in the air.
“Wh…wh…wh…what duh…do you wuh…want?”
The green one moved close enough to her face for Lisle to see bright gold, vertically pupiled eyes in a sharp chinned face. Lisle could tell this was a female from it’s slight body shape so very like her own. The flier backed away from her, shimmering wings beating hard. Then turned and flew a little way off. The other two buzzed after the green one until all three turned, hovered and looked back at Lisle.
Lisle followed slowly, unable to resist her curiosity.
The fliers repeated the performance moving a little further in the same direction and Lisle followed, more sure now that, that was what they wanted.
The flier folk moved faster still and Lisle had to run now to keep up with them. Trying to keep them in sight, she didn’t see the root that caught her foot and sent her tumbling onto hands and knees. She sat back dazed for an instant, one knee bruised and throbbing where she had landed hard.
The green-skinned flier buzzed back to her and hovered in the air over her knee, scolding like a tree climber. Reaching down with tiny hands she gently caressed the painful joint. Lisle was astonished to feel the throbbing ease, pain dissolving away.
Then the flier backed away, turned and flew off. The other two joining her.
Lisle got up and ran after them, anxiety tightening her chest.
Something must be terribly wrong. They must need help, she thought as her legs pumped hard to keep up. She kept running, following her guides.
Eventually, gasping for breath, she had to rest. The flier folk flew on ahead.
Breathing hard Lisle stopped, hands on her knees, needing to catch her breath and ease the pain in her side. Chest heaving, Lisle looked up to see where the flier folk had gone, only to see a large, barrel-like, rounded shape off to one side. The flier folk were no where to be seen.
I must have lost them, she thought, sadly, as she scanned the woods in front of her. Then she looked back at the rounded shape. Sunlight shone through the thing. It looked like the cracked shells of the egg layers. Only this one was pale green and enormous.
Knowing she should keep on and find the flier folk, but unable to resist, she walked up to the huge shell and noticed a large, curved piece of it lying off to the side. What was left looked like an enormous broken cup tipped on its side.
I wonder what it would feel like to be in a shell? She had to try crawling inside. The shell felt slightly damp and a bit sticky as she placed her hand inside. Eww... She turned around and managed to fit her legs in, the shell cracking and breaking beneath her. The end broke out entirely as she moved an injudicious foot.
What kind of flier has an egg this big?
Then she realized. A Guardian! That’s who!
Lisle scrambled out of the shell fast, only to have buzzing, shimmering wings startle her as they darted close to her face. It was the green one, the others hovering nearby. The fliers took off, immediately disappearing around a rock outcropping up ahead. Lisle hastened to chase after them.
She careened around the rock and a mass of shimmering wings startled upward at her arrival, surprising her into a skidded stop. A bulk of green and brown huddled on a flat expanse of rock. The scales reflecting the light of the sunny space and glittering slightly.
Lisle stood still, staring. A Guardian! It must be a Guardian! Only… aren’t they supposed to be… well, prettier?
It’s body looked rather like a huge water hopper, though it’s head was smaller and sat up on a skinny neck. Round pupiled, gold eyes looked right at her. It had a short, fat tail wrapped around it’s middle, and was covered all over with scales.
With a cry, more squeak than roar, it lurched up onto all fours and moved awkwardly toward her, looking like a newborn cud-chewer just finding it’s legs.
Lisle knelt, shivering and placing her hands together before her heart in the position of respect.
Please don’t eat me, Guardian. She thought wildly. Please. I know it’s an honor to be eaten by a Guardian, at least that’s what Ma-Marn said. Though it’s an honor usually reserved for cud-chewers. I’d just as soon leave it to them. Maybe since I’m showing the proper respect you won’t attack me?
She trembled and held her position.
Eyes squeezed shut, waiting for she knew not what terrible thing to happen, she noticed a scent of flowers in the air despite the fact that it was far too early for even the white bells to be in bloom.
A heavy body thudded into her lap.
Her eyes snapped open only to see beautiful eyes looking up at her. The infant Guardian’s eyes were a deep, liquid gold with tiny flecks of green. The pupils not slitted as the small scaled ones were, but round, like me, thought Lisle.
Mesmerized Lisle felt drawn into those beautiful eyes. I know her, thought Lisle, confused and delighted.
Guess she’s not going to eat me. Looks kind of helpless.
Lisle put her arms around the hatchling, and pulled her warm bulk further into her lap.
The Guardian gazed at her steadily, trustingly.
Looking away from those mesmerizing eyes Lisle saw the softly rounded, mottled green and brown shape of the Guardian. Her jaws were narrow and shorter than the pictures she had seen of Guardians in the Book of One. Those beautiful eyes were huge on a head disproportionately large for her body. Lisle could see the little tail, so short and fat compared to what it would be, and just curled at the tip. Hind legs with little talons pulled in beneath it. Soft wings, not fully formed, clung to her sides. Delicate fore claws extended from wing tips now curled against her chest.
Lisle had never seen anything so wonderful in her life.
She stared, awestruck.
Gradually a feeling of need gripped Lisle. A constriction in her stomach that spoke of intense hunger. Only she knew it wasn’t her own hunger.
She is hungry, really hungry! Lisle knew it with certainty, not even wondering how she knew the Guardian was female.
“Huh…huh…hunt…f.f.f…for yuh..you,” said Lisle.
“But I huh…huh…have to get uh..up,” she continued.
The Guardian seemed to understand, and heaved herself off of Lisle’s lap, then wobbled slowly back to the stone she had been lying on when Lisle first saw her.
Lisle watched her go, missing her warm weight, wanting to hold onto this incredibly, precious gift.
The Guardian turned to look at her, and Lisle felt her stomach constrict painfully with hunger again. She stood and made the gesture of respect over her heart with her hands, turned and raced back the way she had come, pulling her stone shot from her belt.
Almost immediately Lisle saw a hopper step out of the brush nearby. Grazing on the early spring grass shoots as it moved slowly along. Not believing her luck, Lisle skidded to a stop, and selected a good size stone from her pouch.
She placed her stone and whirled the sling. The hopper looked up. Lisle felt the familiar constriction in her chest that told her of its fear and let fly. The stone struck the hopper and it dropped, twitched and was still.
A good shot, Lisle thought, no pain. Lisle’s chest relaxed.
She walked up the still form and spoke,
“I am g…g…grateful for your gift of life, h…hopper. It is a gh…great honor to be food f…for a gh…Guardian.” I guess you know that or you wouldn’t have been right here waiting for me, she thought.
She tucked her sling back into her belt, grabbed the hopper by its back legs, and hurried to return to the hungry hatchling.
Approaching the Guardian, Lisle fell to her knees and offered the hopper respectfully on the ground before the Guardian. The hatchling grabbed at the hopper with her small jaws and struggled, trying to swallow the whole carcass at once. Choking, she dropped it to the ground with a pitiful mewling sound and looked at Lisle.
It’s too big for you, isn’t it?
Lisle took out her knife and cut the carcass into small sections, as the desperate hatchling got into her way trying to grab each piece as it was cut.
Lisle sat back and watched the awkward hatchling grabbing at pieces of hopper, tilting her over-sized head back on her skinny neck and gulping the chunks down.
She’s so beautiful, thought Lisle, smiling, and taking a deep, enamored breath.
Finishing it’s first meal the infant Guardian sat back, greenish stomach bulging. Lisle moved closer and sat down next to her, daring to rest her hand on the bony ridge running the length of the hatchling’s back. The hatchling lay down, resting mottled head on Lisle’s legs, curling shining forearms under it’s chest and wrapping it’s short tail around it’s back end. Eyes closing in the warm sun, a peaceful, rumbling sound vibrated from the throat of the hatchling before it fell into the deep sleep of all newborn creatures.
©Holly Hildreth 2019
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