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
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