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
Lisle was distraught. For the first time in over a moon since she first started hunting for the Guardian, no creature offered itself. She had searched for hours and had only one, small tree climber to show for it.
Even that had been a struggle. The tree climber had sighted her first, and sat upon its branch chattering at her, flicking its bushy gray tail back and forth in agitation. When she looked up and moved toward the tree, it raced up the side of the great oak away from her, clearly an unwilling meal for the Guardian. In desperation, Lisle had brought it down with her stoneshot anyway, hoping her prayer of gratitude was enough. Now the creature was a small, dead weight at the bottom of the bag over her shoulder.
To make matters worse she had woken feeling itchy all over and irritable with it. She hardly touched the bread and tea Mina offered her before she left. She was just too uncomfortable. But that wasn’t important now. My Guardian must be starving by now, she thought, though strangely she wasn’t feeling the gnawing torment of hunger from the hatchling that she usually felt. Better get this back to her anyway.
Resigned, irritably trying to scratch a spot on her back she could just barely reach, Lisle turned in the direction of the Guardian’s clearing to present her tiny offering.
As she walked, she tried to cheer herself with thoughts of the amazing changes in her life.
Her mind drifted back over Jessamin’s strange reaction to the Guardian. In the days following, Jessamin had been unusually quiet, softer somehow. Even the times when she unconsciously started in with an imperious demand, she seemed to collect herself and softened it with a quiet, “Please.” She had even stopped picking at Lisle, and instead supported her efforts to care for the Guardian. It was astonishing to Lisle.
Even more astonishing was that every so often, Lisle would see Jessamin enter just at the edge of the Guardian’s clearing. There she would kneel down, staring at the Guardian with a child-like openness on her face. Makes me wonder if I can believe my own eyes, thought Lisle, shaking her head.
She looked around her now as she entered a field not far from the Guardian’s clearing, and took a calming breath of the sweet, spring air. The Mother was putting on quite a display of floral grandeur this year, purple globe flowers played seek and find among the taller, smiling, yellow-faced flowers that spread over the field. Trees standing around the edges of the field competed, clothing themselves in multi-hued shades of brightest green. The sun shone down warmly, and a gentle breeze lifted the edges of her tunic.
As Lisle stepped between the flowers wending her way across the field, she thought of how delighted she was by the Guardian’s rapid growth. The hatchling was filling out, her neck getting longer. Though she did not yet have the grace of a grown Guardian, she was developing more of a sense of where all her various body parts were and how they worked together. She moved with ease about her clearing now and spent more and more time trotting about, flapping wings that increased in size and strength with each passing day. Lisle chuckled as she thought of Moss, always flying beside the hatchling, celebrating each new accomplishment with aerial flips and somersaults.
Lisle knew that Gareth would be at the clearing waiting for her. His strong, undemanding presence was a comfort to her. He would have watched throughout the night, and now would take a few hours to do his own hunting and then return to the clearing and his shelter for rest. Lisle was thrilled that her days were now spent with the Guardian. She only had to go back to the cottage at end-day, do her chores and sleep for the night.
That cursed spot on her back itched ferociously. Irritated, Lisle strained her arm over her shoulder to reach it. The bag with it's small weight didn't help and she shifted it to the other shoulder. The paltry meal for the Guardian once again on her mind, Lisle’s thoughts circled back to hunting and the animals that offered themselves for the Guardian’s sustenance. They had been getting larger and ever more numerous by the day. Except for today. The thought weighed her down and she trudged on, feeling the slight weight of her offering hanging like lead on her shoulder.
Shortly, Lisle entered the Guardian's clearing and to her consternation Moss greeted her in fluttering agitation, pulling at the fabric on her shoulder and flying beside her.
Not seeing the hatchling in her usual place on the sunning rock, Lisle went straight to her cave, where she saw Gareth standing, looking in.
He looked up at her as she came to stand beside him. She looked into the shadows of the cave for the Guardian. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her.” His eyebrows knitted in concern. “She doesn’t get up and come out. She won’t look at me. She shivers every time Moss here, tries to land on her.”
Lisle sucked in a sudden breath as she stared at the Guardian. She felt her chest contract painfully and charged into the cave to kneel beside the hatchling.
The Guardian was lying on her side, eyes closed, stretched out upon the cool dirt of the cave floor.
“Wuh…wuh…w…what’s wrong?” Lisle asked softly, all thought of irritation gone. She placed a tentative hand on the hatchling’s shoulder. Her scales had a papery feel to them that was worrisome. The Guardian shuddered as Lisle touched her, but did not open her eyes. Lisle quickly withdrew her hand.
Looking closely at her, in the shadowy light of the cave, Lisle could see a sort of milky gray film covering the whole of the Guardian’s body. She saw pale, translucent strips of skin dangling from her wings. Lisle was horrified. She must be sick, terribly sick. What do I do?
Moss flew into the cave, chittering softly, numbers of other fliers joined her, their multi-colored, translucent wings whirring as they hovered over the Guardian. Then they each grasped at the grayish skin hanging off her wings and began to slowly pull it off. The Guardian shivered as they pulled.
“Wh…what are you doing? Stop that!” Lisle tried to brush them away.
Moss dropped the piece of skin she held and flew up in front of Lisle’s face. She patted Lisle’s cheek with a tiny hand and smiled at her. Then pointed back at the supine Guardian as she brushed her hand down her own tiny arm. Moss then flew back and grasped at another piece of wing skin and pulled, wings beating furiously. The skin came away in a great strip.
Frightened, not understanding, not knowing what to do, Lisle knew only that she trusted Moss. She stood up and moved back away from the Guardian, watching.
The hatchling began to shiver all over, great shudders rolling up and down her body.
The flier folk abandoned the wing they were working on and moved to the Guardian’s head. There they grasped at her muzzle and began to peel the grayish film back off her jaw, pushing it back over the ridges on her head and pulling it down over her neck in one large increasing ring. It looked like a huge, whitish scarf wrapped around the Guardian’s neck. The flier folk kept pulling at it, grasping with many tiny hands, backs arched by furiously beating wings. When they came to the wing and leg joints, they split into small groups each peeling the translucent skin off the various body parts. The Guardian shuddered in waves rolling up and down her body as the flier folk worked.
Lisle was stunned by the transformation occurring before her eyes.
“By the One!” said Gareth.
The Guardian lay upon her belly now, quiet. The flier folk had pulled the last of the translucent skin from her body and it lay in great heaps about her. Sunlight poured in from the triangular opening of the cave where Gareth still stood. It flooded over the head of the Guardian and gleamed off garnet-bright ridges lining both sides of her head which shone with deep, olive-green scales. Gone was any sign of the brown and green mottling of the hatchling Guardian. Garnet red brow ridges hooded each eye, shading to a dark, rusty orange over her muzzle. The head ridges merging and flowing down her neck, back and tail, dazzled in deepest red, set off against the olive-green scales on her flanks and tail. Her wings shone green outlined in carmine. Where her chest rose up as she rested on gleaming forearms, rich, yellow belly plates were just visible.
Moss, smiling, gave the Guardian's shoulder a satisfied pat, and then flitted over to hover before Lisle’s eyes. She gestured at the Guardian, then crossed her arms, puffed up her chest and nodded with finality, wings whirring.
“You’d think Moss did it all by herself the way she’s acting,” said Gareth, chuckling and shaking his head. “That Guardian sure is beautiful.”
“Sh…sh…she’s buh…buh…beautiful,” said Lisle, all thought of the tension of the morning gone. She stared at the Guardian whose head slowly drooped to rest upon her chest, breath deepening in sleep.
Then Lisle focused upon Moss still hovering before her, and held out her hand. Moss alighted on the offered palm and looked up at Lisle, still smiling. Lisle smiled back at her and nodded her head. Well done, Moss, she thought, well done.
A half-day’s travel from Greystone, Wufn stopped to consider the sun’s placement in the sky. He cursed himself as he realized he had spent the last hour meandering off in the wrong direction. He was tired and his joints ached. It had been a long journey from Guardian Mountain. He wasn't at all sure he wanted to do what his Guardian demanded. But most of all he wanted to get this over and done.
© Holly Hildreth 2019
Lisle arrived back at the cottage, humming a cheerful tune under her breath. The early spring-green leaves on the trees surrounding the cottage were lit as if from within by the late afternoon sun slanting through them. She looked across the yard and noticed with dismay, that the puller, John, was there within the fence, chewing his way noisily through a pile of hay.
Farn and Jessamin are back. She thought, a sinking feeling in her gut.
She opened the door to the cottage and stepped inside. The familiar, homey scent of wood smoke surrounded her. There was Farn sitting by the hearth, a pipe in his mouth, fragrant smoke encircling his head. Long strands of greying hair were futilely plastered over his bald crown in an unsuccessful bid for youth. He looked over and nodded at Lisle as she came quietly in. “Lisle,” he said. Then looked tiredly back at the fire where he had left his thoughts.
Lisle nodded back, “F…Farn,” she answered, though he was already far away.
Mina stood at the table, hands deep in a mass of brownish dough, her thick hair wrapped in a white head scarf. She signaled to Lisle with her eyes and a flick of her head toward the back of the cottage.
Jessamin tossed back the curtain and entered the room. She looked beautiful in a deep red town dress, with long trailing sleeves and matching necklace at her throat.
Her dark eyes, flashed. “Lisle, where have you been?” She demanded.
“And nothing to show for it I see,” said Jessamin. “I suppose you were feeding that Guardian you supposedly found.”
Lisle’s stomach clenched. Her mind wailed. No! She remembered!
“Well, you’d better get to your chores, that shed won’t clean itself you know!”
Then Jessamin turned to Farn and stood looking at him, an annoyed expression on her face. “Jonas! A chair if you will?”
Farn sighed and stood, his wrinkled trousers and baggy jacket falling down over his rangy frame. He took a fortifying puff of his pipe and put it down on the rough wood mantle over the fire.
“I’m waiting Jonas.”
Jonas, having repeated this ritual numbers of times, crossed the room, picked up a chair and her sewing basket and placed the chair beside his own at the fire.
Jessamin sat, spreading her skirt about her.
He handed her the sewing basket. She nodded at him, and took up her sewing by the light of the fire.
Lisle looked back at Mina’s sympathetic face and took a deep breath, silently sharing her misery with her sister. Then she rolled her eyes, shrugged her shoulders, and slipped quietly back out the door to do her chores.
After a tense end-day meal all crowded together at the small table, as Jessamin always insisted was proper, Farn and Jessamin retreated to their bed.
The girls lay on their pallets in the darkened loft, the smell of woodsmoke stronger here than elsewhere in the cottage. Lisle found no solace in it's familiar comfort.
Mina whispered to Lisle. “She’s going to find the Guardian you know. She’s going to use the Guardian to build herself up with those in town. It will come to no good for you or that hatchling. What are we going to do?”
“D….duh….don’t know,” said Lisle miserably, and turned away to face the wall.
Lisle was up early the next morning, hoping to escape before the rest of the family awoke. Slinging hunting pouch over her shoulder, she climbed quietly down from the loft only to discover that Jessamin was already up and for once dressed as befitted a cottage in the woods, rather than an elegant town home. She wore a brown, thickly woven skirt with a knitted shawl covering a lighter-toned over blouse and tucked into a belt wrapped about her waist. Farn was up too, none too happy about it, and looking even more rumpled than usual.
“Day of the One, Lisle,” said Jessamin with a smile. “Hunting this morning?”
Lisle, alarmed by this unaccustomed cheerfulness, nodded cautiously.
“Well, you get along now. Farn and I have things to do.”
Lisle nodded again, ducked her head and rapidly collected leftover bread and cheese from last night’s end-day meal. Tucking it away in her pouch, she quickly left the cottage.
A rain-washed morning greeted her, the air fresh and moist, cool with the new dawn. The grass was wet under her feet, and she thought with gratitude of the dry cave Gareth had found for her Guardian. My Guardian, she thought, unfamiliar pride warming her.
She looked back over her shoulder at the cottage and her stomach clenched. There was Jessamin, face framed in the rough, wood silled window, watching her.
She’s going to follow me, thought Lisle with certainty.
She continued onto the path and as she rounded a corner, out of sight of the cottage, she stepped back behind a large tree and waited.
Shortly she spied Jessamin picking her way along the path with a disgruntled Farn in tow. Lisle was about to step out onto the path behind them when Mina appeared on the path.
“Lisle,” Mina said in a startled whisper. “You scared me!”
Lisle signaled for silence and the two of them followed Jessamin and Farn.
As they got closer to the Guardian’s clearing Lisle gestured to Mina to hurry up. She did not want Jessamin and Farn to reach the Guardian without her, though she had no idea what she was going to do if they did.
Hurrying along, they came around a curve in the path to see Gareth confronting Jessamin and Farn, bow in hand, blocking the trail.
“Turn around and go back where you came from. This place is not for you,” said Gareth.
“How dare you! Do you know who I am?” Asked Jessamin.
Jessamin glanced back at Farn hoping for support. He had his head bent forward and was attempting to smooth the long strands of hair that should have been covering his bald pate, back into place. Farn looked up then and studied the tall, strong young man, in front of him, looked at the bow in his hands, and shrugged his shoulders.
Finding no help there, Jessamin pulled herself up to her full height, almost as tall as Gareth, then brushed Gareth aside with an imperious gesture of her arm, and bulled her way through.
Gareth, a startled look on his face, hurried to catch up with her, Farn following along behind.
Lisle and Mina caught up to them and all five of them burst out of the woods into the Guardian’s clearing.
Lisle ran to the Guardian falling to her knees and putting her arms about the hatchling’s neck, as the Guardian lifted her head to look at who had arrived in her clearing, the ridges on either side of her head lifting, alert.
A tiny, green flier, flew up off the back of the hatchling and hovered in the air just above her, minute arms gesturing, making frantic shooing motions at the intruders. Gareth walked over to the Guardian and took up a wary stance to the side.
“You know these people?”
Lisle nodded, “M…my f…f…family.”
Gareth looked grim as he stared first at Jessamin, then at Farn, and finally over at Mina.
When his eyes landed on Mina his face changed, softened for a moment. Then as if remembering what he was here for, he looked back at Jessamin and Farn and took a firmer stance, hand now on his knife sheath.
“You don’t belong here,” he stated to Farn.
Farn just looked at him and shrugged his shoulders, rolling red-rimmed eyes over at Jessamin.
Gareth turned, opened his mouth to repeat his statement to Jessamin, and shut it, his eyebrows lifted in surprise.
Jessamin was staring, open-mouthed at the Guardian.
The Guardian was looking directly at Jessamin. Jessamin, her face slack with shock, looked fixedly back for what seemed an interminable length of time to those watching.
Jessamin’s cheeks went pale, her eyes wide. Then slowly, slowly, she crumpled to her knees, a towering tree brought down by the relentless chopping of the axe. Covering her face with her hands, she took in a deep, ragged breath and huge sobs racked her body.
Standing on either side of her, Farn and Mina watched Jessamin, dumbfounded. No one moved, except for the green flier who settled once again to the hatchling’s back, seemingly content with the proceedings.
The only sound to be heard was that of Jessamin’s keening sobs, as she rocked on her knees, grabbing at her chest like her heart was ripping open.
The Guardian focused on her steadily.
Finally, Jessamin wound down, exhausted. A lone, spring singer could be heard now, chirping in the branches at the side of the clearing. The sun shone down through the cool, morning mist, illuminating where Jessamin sat upon the ground, staring at the damp earth around her, unseeing.
Farn moved closer and touched her shoulder with a tentative hand. She looked up at him, an unaccustomed expression of vulnerability written on her reddened and tear-streaked face. Her lips curved in the suggestion of a smile and she reached her hand upward toward him in mute request for support. Farn took her hand and gently helped her to her feet.
Putting his arm around her and pulling her close to his side, she leaned her head down on his broad, wrinkled shoulder, and they turned and slowly left the clearing, following the path back to the cottage.
Lisle watched Jessamin and Farn leaving, feeling wonderment and a relief she was almost afraid to allow. Then she looked up at Gareth, still standing beside the Guardian. Gareth was gazing at Mina, a soft smile on his lips. Mina, nut brown tendrils escaping her white head scarf, was staring at the Guardian.
© Holly Hildreth 2019
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.