Climbing steadily upward, Terris stopped to catch his breath, scraggly beard and spiky hair outlining his head against the blue sky behind him. The creases around his mouth and across his forehead dug deeper now, his cheek bones standing out clearly. Weeks of travel had left their mark. He stood bent over, hands on his knees, chest heaving and chanced a look over the edge of the trail. His eyes traveled down, down the rock stubbled slope, down through the trees to where they had first started their climb at the base of Guardian Mountain. By his reckoning they were almost half-way up to where he could see the yawning, dark opening in the mountainside, signaling the tunnel entrance to Guardian Cavern. He remembered Lisle telling him in her halting way, how the mountain itself had created that tunnel with its own fire. She said the Guardian had shown it to her. Still, he wondered how much of it was a younger’s fancy. Don’t matter none if it is or 'taint. We’re goin’ there.
They were at the edge of the tree line now and he was glad to note that his legs felt strong, even if his breath puffed a bit. This journeyin’s been the strengthen’ of me. His mind drifted back. I’m some different now than I was, fer sure. Back then I alus hungered for coin. That don’t seem real important now.
Looking up he saw Ell venture out from between the trees in front of him. Her graceful neck turning, golden eyes searching this way and that. Then she took a running leap into the air, wings outstretched. She soared up, stroking hard to gain altitude. Transparent streaks of clouds filled the sky behind her as she took a swooping pass over the whole side of the mountain.
The air was still, as if holding its breath, waiting.
Lisle was next to leave the cover of the trees, Moss hovering at her shoulder. Terris followed. He was glad to feel Gareth’s solid presence right behind him and thought with pleasure how the big man treated him now. Terris’s chest filled with a sudden intake of breath as he realized, he respects me. He looked ahead at Lisle moving purposely forward. She calls me her friend. His lips curved upward.
Moss suddenly appeared beside him, buzzing to land lightly on his shoulder.
“How’s it lookin’ there Moss?”
She patted his cheek and chittered softly.
“Well and good then,” he said.
Ell back winged in to land hard, a little way up the mountain in front of Lisle. He saw her sides bellowing in and out, reminding him of his blacksmith shop at home, such as it was. He didn’t miss that shop one bit. He watched the Guardian, still breathing hard, as she waited for them.
She’s lookin’ some worn out by all this.
Lisle reached the Guardian and moved up next to her, laying her hand upon the Guardian’s shoulder. Then they turned together to resume the climb, the Guardian staying with the group, shuffling ahead to lead the way, claws scraping on rocky earth.
As he watched, he felt that deep sense of awe that he always felt when he looked at the Guardian. Her scaled and muscled hindquarters moved powerfully up the incline ahead of him. Long, ridged tail lifted in a slight curve, wings tucked neatly to her back, her long claws dug in front and back, pulling her up the slope.
He felt proud, that he, Terris, a not very good black smith from a no-name village, had helped protect and companion this servant of the One, all this way to Guardian Mountain.
He no longer worried about filling his belly. He worried about the safety of these, his first friends. I’m a differnt man, an’ a good thing it is. Terris hoisted his pack higher on his shoulders and bent forward, strong legs pumping up the side of the mountain.
The Hunter arrived at the base of Guardian Mountain, staying well-hidden within the cover of the trees. He felt the strain of the journey as strange thoughts pulled at him, urging him to give up and go home.
Home, he thought with sudden longing, a place he hadn’t seen in a very long time. Stopping, his hand unconsciously felt for the little cloth bag tied on a leather thong about his neck and tucked beneath his wrinkled and greying shirt. He pulled it out between travel-grimed fingers and felt of its lumpy contents through the rough fabric.
He knew his fa would have passed by now, his ma gone long ago. The village where he grew up would be different. But his sister might still be there, married to that fellow. What was his name? She might even have young ones, a family. She’d welcome him, he knew. She was just that kind. She’d given him this bag, filled with the tiny treasures of their shared childhood. She didn’t need to know what he’d become - a hunter of men, and worse still, a hunter of sacred creatures of the One. He shook his head as if to shake the thoughts loose, and let go of the bag.
I’m proud of the name I've made.
The conflicting thoughts raged about in his head with questions that had followed him all the way from where he picked up the companion’s trail back in the forest. He felt unbalanced and angry.
Seeking escape, he gazed up the side of the mountain, his hunter-trained instincts judging the best path to take through the trees. As he watched, he saw movement on the mountain high above him. He stared intently and made out three, small figures emerging from the edge of the tree line. He figured the Guardian would be in the air somewhere, but didn’t see it. Looking further up the mountainside he noted several places in the rocks where he might take them one at a time as they passed through.
That’s it then, he thought. I am the Hunter or I am no one.
He began to trot upward, tracing a path that would wind up and around, well above where the companions must pass. He had found the perfect place for an ambush.
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 Chapter 30