Gareth woke to find himself floating upon the surface of water so clear he could see all the way to the bottom, deep below. He was aware that he was dreaming. He felt neither warm nor cold, but surrounded with comfort, as if lying upon a bed of softest down. All around him were the grey rock walls of the cave in which the pool was nestled. Shaggy stalactites hung from the cave roof high above his head, sparkling in the ambient light infusing the space.
He drifted for a time; his mind quiet, a sound gradually penetrating his awareness. He idly identified it as water trickling down the walls of the cave. It soothed him.
He felt himself gently sinking, though he experienced no fear. The water held him like his mother’s arms. He heard her singing softly and felt safe and loved. He drifted downward, breathing easily, eyes avidly taking in the sparkling, crystalline structure surrounding him. Down, down, until he rested softly on the watery bottom of the pool.
Light filled him, so bright he had to close his eyes. He discovered as he did so that the light was within him as much as outside of him, and closing his eyes did nothing to damp its glory.
With the light, he felt love pour into him and spread outward from him. Love and joy such as he had never known. It lifted and carried him, expanding him outward, leaving the cave far behind. He saw a great, shining web of light stretching out around him in every possible direction. He knew without thought that he was a part of this web of light, a part of this expression of the One.
His vision shifted and he was sitting on the huge rock where he had played as a younger. The sun was shining golden white in an impossibly blue sky as morning fliers twittered in the trees. As he breathed in his nostrils filled with the sweet, rich, earth smell that permeated the air all around him. Looking about he saw the Guardian, Ell, sitting beside him. A beautiful blue-white light shone from her, outlining her carnelian ridged head and wings folded upon her back.
He placed his hands together before his heart and bowed his head. Pink light washed up from her chest to surround him. He felt a wave of joyous tingling rushing up and down his spine, his arms and even the outside of his legs. The feeling was so intense that all he could do was close his eyes and breathe it in, gasping great lungful’s of sweet air. He wanted nothing more than to fill himself with the bliss of that love.
Gradually the waves of tingling subsided and he opened his eyes to look adoringly at Ell.
You have served me well, Gareth. In serving me you serve the One. You now have a choice. You may stay here, or you may return. Either way you serve the One.
Gareth heard her mind voice with delight. He breathed deeply of the rich earth, feeling the sun warm upon his face as he closed his eyes. He felt peaceful; an expansive sensation of love permeated his being. He was sorely tempted to stay.
Sweet singing wafted gently to his ears. Ah, my mother, and he listened as the music surrounded him.
His thoughts drifted. If he stayed, he realized he could never return to Mina. He felt a sudden deep sadness at the loss of what could have been, and was surprised by a vision of a cozy cottage in the woods. He looked closely and there was Mina, sitting in the sun on a bench beside the front door of the cottage. Her skirts were tucked about her feet and curling strands of hair framed her lovely face. She bounced a plump and laughing baby on her lap. She looked at him, then smiled with such love that he thought his heart might explode.
He longed for the vision to return, like the longing for a sweet dream awoken from too soon.
The smell of rich, damp earth brought his thoughts back and he realized that if he stayed in this beautiful place, not only would he lose his chance at a life with Mina, but Lisle and the Guardian would travel in danger without him.
Now he felt the pain of staying as an intense, red, throbbing ache in his side that traveled all the way down into his legs.
Gareth startled awake, his eyes flying open. He moved, throwing the blanket back, groaning with the effort, and Lisle was there beside him, helping him.
“Praise the One. Y…you’re b…b…back.”
Gareth looked up to see relief and joy flooding Lisle’s hovering face. He grimaced a smile, and eased his painful side into another position.
A loud chittering blasted his ears. Scolding, Moss fought her way out from under the blanket inadvertently thrown over her in Gareth’s attempt to get comfortable.
“She h…hasn’t left y…your suh..suh..side.”
Gareth’s lips twitched upward. He was relieved to be back, glad to be alive. His eyes fluttered shut even as he tried to keep them open, and he was asleep.
Fal curled his long, darkly scaled tail and tucked it between muscled forearms, long, ivory talons clicking on the stone beneath him. He sank deep into the blackness behind his eyelids. Quickly, before the awful voices found him, he turned his mind’s eye to look in the direction of Darkling Forest. There he saw a blaze of light. My humans have failed! The Guardian, Ell, lives!
Fiery anger consumed him. He threw back his head, opened great, toothed jaws and released a roar of rage toward the ceiling of his cave. Pebbly grit loosed from the cave walls and ceiling, rattling downward to land unheeded around him.
The Guardian still travels to the mountain. I will stop her. There will be no Unification!
Calming, the Fallen willed himself back down into the inky depths. He searched further, seeking not the blaze of indigo of the Guardian, but a murky, brownish light, just this side of black. There! The Hunter. He had no other name.
Fal came upon the Hunter several years ago in his meditations. The dark, brownish hue, almost as dark as his own, hinted that this one might be of use to him. He kept watch over the Hunter’s movements, waiting for the time to come, when he would have need of him.
He knew it would be a risk. A light like this one could never be trusted. The Hunter did not fear pain or death. He did not fear the Fallen. He feared only boredom, that grating, deadening sameness. Fal would have to entice the Hunter, offer him what he lived for - the excitement of the hunt.
Fal refocused his mind to find the small, bluish light that was Tim, and he called.
In case you missed a post, or if you've just tuned in to Lisle's story,
here are links to previously posted chapters to save you scrolling all the way through.
Introduction Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13
Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22
Lisle stood next to Ma-Marn’s trunk in the cottage, face serious, pack on her back. Mina stood beside her. Sunlight streamed in through the window, lighting elongated squares on the worn, woven rug of indeterminate color, covering the floor.
“I want you to have this,” Mina said, lifting the lid of Ma-Marn’s trunk and carefully removing the fabric covered Book of One.
“No arguments. You take it. You might have need of it.”
Lisle reverently took the book and unshouldering her pack, placed the book carefully within.
“Th…th…” Lisle swiped at her eyes, as tears started to run down her cheeks.
“I know. Hush now, or you’ll have me crying like a younger.” Mina put her arms around Lisle. “I’m going to miss you little sister.”
“Mm..mm...me t…too.” Lisle hugged her sister hard and let the tears flow.
Wiping her eyes, Mina insisted on accompanying Lisle to the Guardian’s clearing. Having already weighed down Lisle’s pack with provisions to the very limit of Lisle’s ability to carry it, Mina wanted to bring still more to Gareth.
Calming, Lisle looked at Mina’s preparations questioningly. “H…he’s a huh…huh…hunter, you know.” Lisle said, as if that explained everything. Then she stared as pink rose up in Mina’s neck and traveled up into her cheeks. Lisle rolled her eyes.
“He’ll need more than just meat, you know,” Mina replied, fussing with a piece of red fabric covering the huge basket she intended to bring, and not looking at Lisle.
“F…fine,” said Lisle, smiling at the still blushing Mina.
They started out on the long walk that would take them to the Guardian’s new location. Fortunately, it was early. Early enough that the air was warm but not too warm for an enjoyable excursion. A gentle breeze played in the top branches of the trees as the path they trod twisted through the woods.
“I can hardly believe that Jessamin and Farn gave you permission to go,” said Mina as they walked.
Lisle looked at her sister and nodded. “M…me too.”
“They must really trust the Guardian.”
Lisle nodded again, “A…a…and Guh…Guh…Gareth.”
“Yes, Gareth,” Mina smiled and sighed.
“Yuh…you a…and Guh…Gareth huh?”
Mina looked at Lisle, startled. “Well… not yet… but what would be so wrong with that?” She finished in a rush. Mina’s face turned pink again. She hefted the basket and marched ahead.
Lisle smiled and shook her head, following along in her wake.
A morning of walking brought them to the Guardian’s clearing.
Ell was trotting about, flapping her wings. Gareth was carefully packing his scant possessions. He looked up as the girls entered the clearing, his gaze immediately drawn to Mina. Smiling he put down his pack. He sauntered over to them, or tried to as he barely missed a root that stuck up from the ground in front of him. He did a fast, awkward hop over the root, arms flailing. Recovering his balance and his dignity, he approached Mina.
“Day of the One, Mina.” Then it was as if words failed him. He just looked at her, lips twitching upward.
“Day of the One, Gareth.” Mina, cheeks pink, looked up at him.
Lisle stood next to Mina, looking back and forth between them. She made a disgusted noise and walked over to greet Ell, who had stopped running about and was watching the proceedings.
Lisle hugged Ell about the neck and turned to the pair seemingly locked in place, “L…let’s g…g…go.”
Mina, as if remembering herself, blinked and shoved the large basket toward Gareth.
“I thought you might need some travel food.”
Gareth grasped the basket by the handle and then quickly put his other hand underneath to support the bottom, as the weight of the basket almost dropped from his grasp.
“Thank you, Mina.”
He looked at the basket in his hands and then at Mina. Haltingly, he said, “I’d…I’d…” Then he blurted out in a rush, “I’d like to come back and see you after I get the Guardian and Lisle safely to Guardian Mountain.”
Mina’s face lit up, blue eyes wide, staring up at him. ”I’d like that very much.”
Gareth’s whole face beamed, eyes crinkling, mouth grinning, and cheeks turning rosy.
They looked at each other for what seemed like forever to Lisle.
“Well, shine it, we’d better get going,” said Gareth.
Mina held out her hand to him and he put the basket down and took it in both of his.
“Will you wait?” He asked, his face serious now.
Mina’s stared into his eyes. “Yes.”
Gareth nodded, grinning again, released her hand and bent to lift the basket and walk back to where his pack lay on the ground. Then he stood, looking perplexed as he studied the basket and then his pack, and then the basket again.
“I’ll do that,” said Mina, and she bustled over and made quick work of stuffing his pack full.
Gareth just gazed at her, his lips curved upward, eyes soft.
Finished packing, Mina stepped over to Lisle and Ell, nodded her head respectfully to the Guardian and gave Lisle another hug.
“Stay safe, Lisle. Come back as soon as you can.”
Just then Moss buzzed into the clearing and landed upon the Guardian’s back. A tiny bag hung across her chest. She looked from Lisle, to Mina and then Gareth and nodded.
“Would you look at that,” said Gareth. “Moss is coming with us. Usually, flier folk stay close to home.” He moved closer to where she sat now upon a gleaming ruby ridge on Ell’s back. “We are honored to have you join us, Moss.” Moss bowed her head in acknowledgment. She lifted into the air, wings whirring and looked back and forth between Gareth and Lisle.
“Ready to go?” Asked Gareth.
Moss nodded once and started off to the North, toward Guardian Mountain. Ell turned and with a running leap and a downward sweep of her wings, took to the air. Lisle started off after them, then turned to wave to Mina. Gareth gathered up his pack and smiled back at Mina. “One keep you,” he said.
“One keep you all,” said Mina, tears in her eyes as she waved her hand.
In case you missed a post, or if you've just tuned in to Lisle's story,
here are links to previously posted chapters to save you scrolling all the way through.
Introduction Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13
Chapter 14 Chapter 15
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.
“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.
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