He sat, alone as always, on a flat rock. The normally placid river before him now raged in its banks that wound about the base of the incline leading to Guardian Mountain. Rock, earth, trees and man were soaking from the torrential rain pouring down. His hat was pulled low, shielding his face from the unremitting downpour. He hunched his shoulders and pulled up the collar of his long coat to keep the rain from dribbling down his back. He was uncomfortable enough without that misery adding in.
The Hunter had left the site where the Guardian made a stand against him, feeling conflicted and angry with it. He needed to sort himself out. This storm had seen him do something unique and unsettling; he had allowed the quarry to escape him.
Now, the Hunter wondered why. How could he do such a thing? He didn’t care for self-questioning. He never allowed himself to indulge in it, at least not until this moment. And he didn’t like where his thoughts were leading him.
He looked up at the water streaming past him. The river was dark with powerful currents moving deep within it. The upended roots of a small tree, torn from the earth by the rising waters, swirled by. Its skeletal branches reached up out of the surface as if in mute cry for rescue.
Oddly discomfited by the sight he looked away. His thoughts pursued him. If I allow the Guardian to live, what does that make of me? I am the Hunter. I am feared and respected. I must be going soft letting the Guardian get away. The idea sent a shiver up his spine. He had hardened himself and made a reputation over the years by never giving up, never allowing his quarry respite or reprieve. Why should I do so now? The Guardian is a beast, like any other.
A quiet voice spoke in his mind. No, it is not.
The Hunter leapt to his feet, snarling, “Enough!” Mortaring the chinks of his inner walls with anger he abandoned introspection with relief, and grabbed up his long bow, throwing his worn hunting pack on over shoulders dark with rain. Whirling toward the incline, he retraced his own footsteps, now almost washed away in the downpour. He stomped through the mud, back to where his quarry had hastily left the scene of confrontation, and took up the hunt once more.
Accompanied by the unremitting deluge, Lisle hurried along on soggy feet behind Ell, who moved with ungainly speed through the muddied forest. She heard only the interminable sound of rain pouring down around her, muting all else, and the squelching of her own feet in the softened earth. Moss wasted no time snuggling back under the cover of Lisle’s pack as the companions made their way away from the aborted scene of battle. Out of the corner of her eye, Lisle saw Moss’s dripping, green face, with miniature hands holding the top of the pack about her head like a hood. She turned her head constantly, sharp eyes watching in back of them and to the sides.
Terris trudged behind Lisle. As the rain lightened for just a moment, she could hear the swishing of his arms, rubbing wetly against the sides of his coat as he stayed close. She turned and saw Gareth, at the back of the group, attempting with some success to cover their muddied tracks. She felt a surge of appreciation for her staunch companions filling her chest with warmth. They didn't have to be here. Even Terris could have left, but she was so glad that he didn't.
They traveled fast until almost nightfall. Ell took to the sky when the rain permitted. By end day, the exhausted companions stumbled into a tiny clearing beside a fast running stream that would be their camp for the night.
The storm finally passed that night, leaving the air fresh and clean. By morning the forest felt renewed as the damp earth, warmed by the sun, sent up tendrils of early morning mist.
Ell had been up before the waking of the sun, pacing their campsite and inadvertently waking the three who were not on watch. Lisle, awake for several hours on early morning watch, now gazed tiredly at a large, opalescent blue flutter. It slowly wafted its wings from where it perched on a low, sunlit branch, drying them in the early light. She dragged herself to her feet and set about packing her things. Clearly, Ell would want them to move on soon.
Terris now bustled about readying a cold meal. He stopped for a moment to hike up his baggy trousers and tighten the leather belt which rested about his considerably reduced waist. He passed a portion of indeterminate dried meat to Gareth who sat on a damp log at the edge of their camp site, sharpening his knife and scanning the woods about them at regular intervals.
Then he stepped over to Lisle, his hand outstretched holding a piece of jerky and a meal cake. "Best eat this quick 'afore we're movin' agin."
Lisle took the offering with an appreciative smile. "T...Ta," and set to chewing.
She broke off a piece of the meal cake and passed it to Moss as she flitted to land on Lisle's shoulder. Hair once again a halo of green curls, Moss seemed on edge. Grabbing the bit of meal cake, she fluttered to land on a branch and stared out into the trees as she made rapid work of her rations. Then she buzzed back to Lisle’s shoulder again. Back and forth, she seemed unable to settle.
Her unrest put Lisle on edge too. Lisle was already feeling Ell's agitation, and would be glad to get moving again.
They traveled easily that day. Ell urged speed and after a short rest at midday they moved on. Gareth returned at a trot soon after and said breathlessly, pointing North, “Guardian Mountain is right there. We’re close.”
They made camp that night at the very edge of the forest, as the huge trees suddenly ended in a field of low shrubs and rocky outcroppings.
Lisle stood just in front of one of the perimeter trees beside Ell. They both looked up at Guardian Mountain as it rose majestically above them; its height dwarfing the enormous tree behind them. A cool breeze drifted down the side of the mountain, brushing through the shrubby evergreens which covered its sides part way up, carrying with it their fresh scent.
The look of the evergreens reminded Lisle of the hair on the sides of her Fa’s balding head. The thought of her Fa, sent a pang of longing through her for their little cottage, the warm evenings by the hearth reading the Book of One, and her sister, Mina's kindness. Even when I go back, she thought, it will never be the same. She hurriedly wiped away unexpected and unwelcome tears with the back of her sleeve. Then she reached out to rest her hand on the comforting bulk of Ell's side.
Ell arched her long neck, turning her head to look back at Lisle, golden eyes shining. Lisle stared back into the molten beauty of those eyes and she felt so warm, so loved and cared for. It was enough.
Then she looked back at the mountain, lifting her eyes higher now, and saw that above the tree line bare rock jutted up into the sky, gray and forbidding. The conical mountain ended in a jagged edged peak that Lisle, awed, recognized from her dream journey with Ell. She knew that deep within lay the massive Cavern of the Guardians. She could see that to get there they would have to climb up the side of Guardian Mountain. The thought sent a shiver of anticipation up her legs. They were almost there.
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 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29