Ell moved as rapidly as her awkward gait could carry her, and idly wished, not for the first time, to be able to take to the air. Movement in the sky was pure grace for her, not the way it was here on this steep mountainside. Her claws scrabbled at the surface of the stony ground as she climbed higher.
The path she and Lisle traversed curved upward toward Guardian Cavern, angling back and forth as the incline steepened. Mountain winds, no longer the gentle valley breeze, pushed steadily at her from behind as if hurrying her along. Her legs felt strong beneath her, muscles powering her body upward, and she was grateful for that small blessing. The remainder of her was so tired, but they had to keep moving.
A gut-wrenching image of Gareth leapt to mind. They had left him in pain and alone, an arrow protruding from his thigh. Her stomach squeezed tight at the thought and it was all she could do not to turn around and go back for him. Then she heard Lisle’s footsteps crunching over the gravelly surface behind her. She refocused her mind on the fact that Lisle was there and safe for now. That had to be enough.
Ell’s senses were on high alert, stretched to their utmost, making her feel twitchy and irritable. The sudden sound of clattering stones above them made her stop short, looking upward. She felt Lisle’s small hands pushing hard on her back end.
“Huh…hurry Ell.” The promise of cover under an overhang loomed up ahead of them.
Movement to the side caught her eye and her head whipped about as if under its own volition. She looked out into open air where the mountainside dropped off steeply beside the path. There she saw Terris and another man grappling as they fell, and heard Lisle scream, “Terris!” from behind her.
Without conscious thought Ell launched herself from the path and plummeted after the tangling, falling bodies. She kept her wings tucked, neck outstretched, diving after the doomed men.
Ell felt herself moving faster than she ever had before. She had the sensation of being in a tunnel of wind, holding perfectly still as the air whistled past her. Instinct told her that her wings would snap if she opened them at this speed. She hurtled downward, not daring to slow her descent lest she miss Terris and the other man, the one that had been hunting them.
Almost upon them she reached desperately with both legs, talons extended wide. She grabbed at the tangle of men just touching a flailing arm with one talon, before they tumbled away.
Shrieking with desperation, she angled her body over and reached again. This time she was able to grab hold. She clenched her talons hard, but not too hard. One let me do this without injuring them.
Now the three of them fell together.
Not knowing what else to do, Ell risked opening her wings just a little to control their descent. The weight was terrible and she had a sudden vision of the delicate bones in her wings snapping apart, before they all fell to their deaths.
The Hunter was prepared to die. His body, though, still sought survival, grasping onto the small man as if that might keep him alive. Even as they plummeted downward, the air rushing past him, inside he felt calm, accepting of the inevitable, relieved even.
It was with a shock then that he heard a terrible shriek, and felt the impact of huge claws grabbing onto them both.
Startled, he looked up to see the enormous, scaled legs and body of the Guardian above him. He had never been this close to the creature. Powerful muscles rippled under the olive-green scales on its hindquarters, just edged in a deep, blood red. Bright yellow stretched in smooth bands across its stomach and chest. With a clarity of focus brought on by imminent death, he was struck again by how beautiful the Guardian was, even from this unusual vantage point.
He stared, amazed, as it started to open its great wings, the edges of which flapped wildly in the rushing air. Their descent slowed just a little.
It was trying to stop their fall.
The Hunter watched the Guardian struggling to fly. Clearly it was not strong enough to lift their combined weight, yet it did not let go. All three of them were tumbling in the air now, the mountainside rushing up toward them.
Would the Guardian die with them?
He realized that he could not, would not allow that to happen. He felt pain like lightening in his chest, sharp cracks streaking from sternum to neck. Emotions flooded in along with memories of his mother.
Memories he had long ago buried deep within a heart closed to all caring. His mother holding him as he cried. His mother standing up for him against his father, once again taking the beating intended for his young self. Then him, sobbing, holding her battered and lifeless body, suddenly alone in a terrifying world.
The Hunter couldn’t allow the Guardian to die for him, not like this, not the way his mother had. He was desperate to release himself. Forcing his hands and legs to let go of their hold on the small man, he ripped free from where the Guardian’s enormous claws held him.
Looking upward as he fell away, he saw the Guardian look down at him. Still clutching the small man in her claws, she slowed their descent with wings now fully extended.
The Hunter relaxed then and gave himself to the winds.
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
Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33