“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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