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
“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.