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 stepped into the clearing, long, brown braid swinging down her back, holding a burrower by the hind legs. She smiled to see the Guardian, lying in the warm sun on the rock where she'd left her. Shimmers of light danced about the hatchling. The flier folk are busy today, Lisle thought with amusement.
The Guardian was looking intently at the other side of the clearing. Lisle turned to see what she was looking at and saw two men standing, side by side. The wind came up then as if aimed, blowing through the leaves about the men, casting pale undersides upward, and lifting the dark hair of the tallest man away from his face. Lisle saw a scruffy, earth-toned beard dangling from his chin, and a bow held down by the side of his much worn and stained leggings. His head was cocked to the side as he studied the Guardian, a frown line between graphite dark eyebrows, and uncertainty written on his face. The other man, shorter, stockier, held a crossbow aimed directly at the Guardian, clear intent in his small, puffy eyes.
“Noooo…!” screamed Lisle.
She dropped the burrower and launched herself at the Guardian.
The tall man reached to knock his companion’s crossbow upward just as he released the bolt. It shot harmlessly into the air.
”What’d you do that for!” Demanded the shorter man, turning angrily, his brow beetling over squinting eyes.
“It’s no lizard for our dinner, it’s a Guardian, you fool. Can’t you see?” Said the tall man gesturing at the hatchling and not taking his eyes off her. He fell to his knees, unheeding of the dried twigs crackling beneath them, and dragged his companion down beside him.
Lisle landed on top of the Guardian. Her speed knocking the Guardian over backward and forcing a growled "Umph," from the hatchling. Lisle scrambled up and off her, patting and touching the Guardian all over.
“Are you unhurt? Are you safe?”
The Guardian righted herself on her sunning rock, pushing up onto her haunches, shaking out limp wings and wrapping her tail about her. A rumbling purr sounded from her chest, as she glanced at Lisle. Then she lifted her head, haloed now as chittering flyer folk descended to surround her and stared the men.
Lisle leapt to her feet, pulled her sling from her belt, and ran at the kneeling men. She stopped just in front of them, trembling all over.
“What’s the matter with you? That’s a Guardian! A Guardian! Do you realize what you almost did? Would you have shot her? Are you crazy?”
The words poured out of her. She kicked at the man still holding the crossbow, who scrambled up and away from her, eyeing her like she was some avenging angel. She turned to kick at the other, who was getting to his feet and putting his hands in prayer position in front of his chest, staring at the Guardian a short distance away.
In a clear, carrying voice he addressed the Guardian directly. “We didn’t know. We were hungry. You looked like a big lizard…” He grimaced. “Forgive me. I mean we didn’t recognize you. Guardians are big and green and live in Guardian Mountain. How could we know you were here?” He fell back to his knees.
Refraining from kicking him, Lisle said, “Go on get out of here you st…stupid men.” She kept her eyes on them as she went to sit near the Guardian, putting her arm around her protectively. The Guardian was staring now at the man who had spoken. Lisle felt the deep rumble in the hatchling’s chest. How could she be purring? She questioned, incredulous. They just tried to shoot her!
The shorter man scooted backwards still on his knees trying for the cover of the trees.
“I’m staying,” the tall man, said to his companion.
“What do ya’ want to do that for? We’re lucky that Guardian don’t eat us. I’m getting out of here and not coming back.” The shorter man answered.
“What if some other hunter makes the same mistake? I’ve got to stay and make sure that doesn’t happen. You’ll be alright on your own.”
The shorter man looked at his companion, “Aw, go on then. I’m not stayin’. You want to be that Guardian’s dinner, you go ahead. Jus’ don’t be thinkin’ I’ll be coming back for what’s left of you.”
He stood and trundled off into the woods, back the way they had come.
“One’s blessing go with you,” the tall man said to his companion’s retreating back and then turned to face the infant Guardian.
Lisle watched the shorter man retreat into the woods. He knew what he’d done. He wouldn’t be back. But the other one was still kneeling at the edge of the clearing. Lisle grabbed up her sling and a stone and stood up. She stalked up to him, holding her sling ready.
“W…wh…what do you w…want?”
The man looked up. “One hear me, what if other hunters should make the same mistake? I will stay to protect the Guardian.” Then the man just looked at her, waiting.
Lisle watched his face, considering. It was kind of a nice face, if she looked past the dirt. He had a good straight nose, a full mouth just visible beneath the dark, straggly beard, and clear brown eyes that looked up at her.
“Y…you think you c…c…can protect h…her better than mm…mm…me?” She stuttered, suddenly aware that she was talking to a grown man.
The man looked steadily up at her, then got to his feet. He stood a head and shoulders taller than she. Long, lean muscles were apparent under the hunter’s leggings and shirt. He shouldered his bow, straightened the belt holding a long, skinning knife.
“I know I can,” he said quietly and looked up at the sky where storm clouds were forming. “I’ll start by finding her some place safe and dry to stay.”
Lisle followed his gaze, looked surprised and said, “O…oh, g…good idea.”
The man looked at Lisle appraisingly for a moment. “Name’s Gareth.”
“Luh..Luh…Lisle,” she replied.
“Words don’t come easy to you do they Lisle? You didn’t do too bad back when you thought the Guardian might’ve got hurt.”
Lisle looked down at her toes.
“It don’t matter none. People talk way too much for my liking. I’ll take a look around.”
Gareth turned away from Lisle and headed back into the woods.
Lisle walked back across the clearing to the Guardian, the short, spring grasses under her feet, fragrant in the morning sun. The wind followed her, playful now, tickling the hairs at the back of her neck. The Guardian was nuzzling the dead burrower and looked up at Lisle beseechingly.
“I’m s…s…s…sorry. I’ll c…cut it.”
Lisle made short work of cutting up the burrower so the Guardian could eat.
She sat down on the hard, warm surface beside the hatchling as she ate, her mind a torrent of questions. Who is this man? This Gareth? Seems like he cared that his friend almost hurt the Guardian, but can we trust him?
Lisle looked at the Guardian as she ate hungrily. It was a messy business which might have turned some stomachs but mattered not at all to Lisle. She felt fierce love for the hatchling well up in her chest. I will take care of her. I will keep her safe. She had never felt anything so powerfully. Nothing will harm her!
Gareth returned to the clearing not long after he had left. Lisle watched him cautiously, fingering her sling. He knelt before the Guardian and waited with a hunter's patience for her to finish her meal and her fastidious ablutions afterward.
Then he addressed the Guardian directly, “There’s a small, dry cave not far from here. It’ll be shelter and protection. There’s a nice, flat rock out front where you can sun yourself. I’d be honored to show you the way there.”
Lisle watched, wondering, as the Guardian just looked at Gareth, a rumbling purr in her chest. He looked back at her, eyebrows lifted. The Guardian continued to stare at him. Lisle saw him sway on his knees toward her, a smile creeping up onto the edges of his mouth. He took in a deep breath as a tear slowly trickled down his cheek, seemingly unnoticed by him.
Lisle knew the love that made him smile like that, knew the emotion that triggered that tear, and she felt a twinge of jealousy.
Then the Guardian broke eye contact and rose awkwardly. Her brown mottled hind legs pushing up, forearms balancing. She shivered wings, increasingly olive-toned, into place at her sides. The smooth, dappled scales of her body rustled softly and she took several shaky steps using all four limbs to move. Lisle moved along beside her, hand on her back.
I guess we trust him, thought Lisle.
Shaking his head as though to clear it, Gareth stood up, swiping quickly at his cheek, and led the trembly Guardian and Lisle to the cave he had found.
Deep within Guardian Mountain. Gran Bryl walked the bright Pathways of the One and felt a surge of relief. For now, Ell’s safe.
She noted with pleasure the sparkling bond cord stretching between Ell and her Contracted. Safe, but still so fragile.
Her thoughts shifted. She turned away and cast her awareness back out, following the web of light through the black void, searching for the other.
The other, who would harm Ell if he could, who wanted to harm them all.
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