As Wufn entered the tavern in Greystone he felt every step of the moon of hard travel from Guardian Mountain through Darkling Forest. His thin shoulders slumped under a much worn and dirty tunic of indeterminate color. There was the look of hard living about his grey eyes and unkempt beard. He felt tired and irritable and ready to take it out on someone. He didn’t much care who. Someone in this One-cursed hole ought to know where that hatchling is, he thought. Guardians outside Guardian Mountain were remarkable enough to garner attention.
Sure enough, almost as soon as he entered, he heard loud boasting from a squat, youngish man sitting at the bar, gesturing with a mug, liquid sloshing over the sides. The smell of old hops, sawdust and something less savory assaulted him. The man’s head was covered with a short, stubble of hair. His neck was thick and muscular, his eyes small as he squinted at the barkeep, and gestured again with his mug, splashing drink on the bar.
“I tell’s you, it was a hatchling Guardian. Looked just like a big lizard it did. I thought it’d make a right fine meal, but Gareth, he stopped me.” The man looked down into his almost empty mug. “That Gareth, he always did know the right of things. We traveled together you know. Three years it was, and we was friends afore that too.” He snuffled loudly. “Guess we won’t be travelin’ no mores now. He’s gonna’ stay and protect that there Guardian, he is.”
The barkeep sighed, a bored look on his face. Leaning on one arm he listlessly wiped up the spills on the bar, gazing distractedly around the room as he did so. His eyes alighted upon Wufn standing in the doorway, staring fixedly at the customer at his bar, and the barkeep stood up straighter, a wary look on his face.
“Help you?” He inquired.
Ignoring the barkeep, Wufn stalked toward the customer at the bar and with an attempt at a smile looking more like a snarl, said, “Let me buy you another. I’d like to hear about that Guardian you saw.”
The man squinted up at him and held his mug out, “Barkeep, another, and one for my friend here.”
Wufn sat at the bar. He frowned at the drink placed in front of him, then picked it up and took a long pull. The barkeep moved away to the other end of the counter and busied himself using his stained apron wiping out mugs already dry.
Thumping his empty tankard down on the bar, Wufn wiped his mouth on a sleeve already much abused. “So, where was this Guardian?”
“I saw it. I did. No one round here’s believes me, but I did.”
“I believe you. Where was it?”
“That Gareth, he stopped me. I almost shot it you know. But he reaches out and shoves up my arm, and there I was shooting at the sky.”
“Where was it?” Wufn growled.
But the man was too far gone in his drink and his regret to heed the menace underlying the words.
“A good thing too. I mighta’ been eatin’ Guardian for my end-day and never known the wrong I’d done. It’d been awful.” The man’s eyes started to tear up. “But Gareth, he knew. I didn’t mean to do no wrong.” He looked pleadingly up at Wufn as he leaned over him. “I didn’t mean it.” He whimpered.
Wufn reached out and grabbed the greasy front of the man’s tunic, pulling him up so that he looked hard into the man’s tear-filled eyes. “Where?”
Three suns later, Wufn stood silently at the edge of a small, sun-dappled clearing in the wood, hidden from view. He wasn’t happy about the task his Guardian had given him. Not happy at all. He wondered what the punishment was for such blasphemy, and not for the first time. Did the One even concern itself? He thought. He didn’t know. He did know that he had to do this for his Guardian. His Guardian needed him to do this. But Wufn was tired and he wasn’t getting any younger, and he wanted to get it over and done. Still, he was being careful. He had watched and waited for these three suns. He had a plan. A runner-skin bag now hung heavily weighted from his shoulder.
It was just past dawn. The air was cool and whispered of change. Grey clouds with pink underbellies scattered in ridges across a pale blue sky. Sunlight trickled into the clearing, flowing over the ground and through the branches of trees waving in a freshening breeze. The beauty of the morning went unnoticed by Wufn, he was too focused upon his plan.
He saw the Guardian emerge from her cave as was her daily habit since he’d been here, and make for the flat rock in the clearing that was flooded in morning sunlight. She’ll sleep now. He stared at her. She sure is beautiful, came the unwelcome thought. The Guardian lay belly down, head on forearms, wrapping her shortish tail about her abdomen, all of her gleaming, carmine on olive and rust in the sun. She closed her eyes. Almost immediately he heard the sonorous, rumbling breath of deep sleep.
He saw the flyer folk that always seemed to be around her, hovering and darting about. They didn’t concern him.
The man, Gareth, did concern him. Just lucky I’ve been able to stay hidden from him these last three suns. He’s a wary one, thought Wufn.
This morning the man was rustling about gathering what he’d need for a morning of hunting. Wufn knew he would be gone several hours. Usually the man waited for the girl to appear on the path from the cottage, but not today. Wufn studied the sky and understood why he was leaving earlier than usual. A band of dark, gray clouds sat menacingly at the horizon. Just the opportunity I’ve been waiting for, he thought.
He waited until the man’s retreating footsteps crackled through the underbrush and faded away. Wufn had no desire to make this harder for himself than was necessary.
Wufn crept around the edge of the clearing, staying well hidden. He cringed as a twig snapped underfoot. Waiting, sensing no response, he silently removed a heavy stone from the bag slung over his shoulder, abandoning the bag on the ground. Cradling the weighty sphere in one arm he noiselessly left the cover of the trees and stole closer to the Guardian.
He heard wind rustle in the shrubs behind him. He ignored it, intent upon his objective now. She lay before him, shining head resting on thick, gleaming forearms. Sunlight dappled her short, rusty muzzle which pointed toward him. The morning light warmed the winter dried leaves scattered upon the rock about her, giving off their dusty scent. The hatchling’s eyes were closed, movement apparent under her eyelids. He could see slitted nostrils flaring and contracting with huffing, deep breaths and noted the unformed, orangey-red ridges on either side of her head. He had the sad thought that they would never grow into the proud spines that graced his own Guardian’s head.
Over and done, he thought. Forgive me little Guardian. Then, he lifted the stone in both hands, raising it high above her head.
Suddenly a hurtling, green flier darted into his face and grabbed at his eyes. Startled, Wufn dropped the stone and ducked, reaching with both hands to swipe away the pest. As he did, he heard the unmistakable sound of an arrow whizzing over his head and the thud of its impact somewhere in front of him. Realizing his danger, he ran back under the cover of the trees, dodging this way and that as he heard a large body crashing through the woods behind him. Another arrow passed by his ear, imbedding itself in the tree just to his left.
The flier, undeterred by Wufn’s flailing hands, aggressively darted at his face and head. Looking huge in his vision, Wufn saw a green-skinned, snarling face with a halo of moss green hair, as it came right at his eyes. Swiping wildly, running blindly Wufn never saw the up-thrust root that caught the toe of his boot. He splayed forward, arms outstretched, his head landing in a crushing blow on a large rock jutting up from the ground in front of him. Wufn lay still, over and done.
© Holly Hildreth 2019