It was a clear and starry night, and the buzz of the village had faded long ago to the soft song of crickets. Almost all of the lights in the windows were out, and a quiet solitude settled over the estate and its sleeping inhabitants. Except for Aurora, that is. The young girl crept through the shadows of the village towards the edge of the forest. Her body was reeling from the adrenaline of sneaking out of the castle. Managing to evade the castle guards, then climbing out of a window and landing in a wagon full of hay left her feeling both accomplished and terrified. She paused at the edge of the village to catch her breath.
“I can’t believe I’ve made it this far!” she thought. She smiled and tossed her braid over her shoulder and adjusted her skirt. “I can’t wait to see him, it’s been such a long week!” She turned her attention to the forest ahead. Everything was going according to plan, and she was standing on the edge of the alley that Christopher told her to take in his letter. He directed her to walk straight out of the alley to the edge of the forest, and look for his first mark in a tree that he carved a few days before. Aurora took a deep breath, and quickly walked up to the edge of the forest. It was about 200 feet of open field, so she kept at a quick pace, glancing over her shoulder every now and then for fear of being spotted.
The foliage loomed over Aurora like a brick wall. The trees were tall and thick, and brushes covered most of the floor. Hardly anyone ventured into the forest unless it was for a hunting party on designated paths, and Aurora was beginning to understand why. The brushes and trees were so thick that she had no idea how she could fit through it all without mangling her dress or scratching her skin. She scanned the forest’s edge for a mark in the trees. The moon wasn’t terribly bright tonight, so she had to strain her eyes for any suspicious-looking signs.
A small “X” caught her eye, and she ran over to examine it. It was a deeply carved “X” that was about the size of her hand, just as Christopher described in his letter. She traced the pattern with her pointer finger; the carving felt fresh. “This is it!” she thought. Hiking up her skirt, she stepped over a bush and dove into the green abyss.
“Please don’t be lost, please don’t be lost,” Aurora told herself as she crept through the trees. The moment she immersed herself in the forest, any light she had before almost completely vanished. Once her eyes adjusted a bit, she tried to move around and look for the next markings. She managed to find three more, each about 10 feet apart, but she couldn’t find another one. Fear made her chest tighten up, and her senses grew overly aware of her surroundings. The sounds of crickets were mixed with occasional bird calls and other chirping sounds she had never heard before. Her eyes began to see things, too. Any movement out of her peripheral vision made her jump and turn to see what it was, but there was nothing.
A loud, high-pitched scream made Aurora jump higher than ever, and she abandoned her search for more tree markings. She took off running in the opposite direction of the scream, jumping over bushes and dodging trees as best as her vision would allow. This only went so far, and she found herself tripping over anything in her path. Her heart was racing, and her lungs felt like they were going to explode as adrenaline coursed through her body again.
She felt her legs getting weaker and weaker, until she took a particularly hard fall from a tree root and gashed her right knee open on a rock. The pain shot like a hot knife through her leg. She lay there on the forest floor with her knees hugged up to her face, sobbing between breaths. Her hands were pressed against her knee to ease the pain, and she felt the wet stickiness of blood covering her hands through her torn skirt.
“Christopher, where are you?” she yelled. “Please, help me!” The poor girl tried to calm herself and steady her breathing. How long it took, she didn’t know. What she did know what that she needed to be thinking clearly to make a new plan. “Am I able to walk? What if I can’t walk, and I’ll be stuck here forever?” She propped herself up on her elbows and looked around. Morning seemed a long ways off. “Maybe I should just try to sleep and come up with a plan in the morning. I’d be able to look at my leg properly too and bandage it up.”
Her train of thought was interrupted by the sound of soft thudding sounds coming toward her. It was so faint that it took her a good minute to reassure herself that she wasn’t going insane. But where was it coming from? She craned her neck to look around, until fear made her curl back into a ball and wait. Maybe it wouldn’t notice her and pass through.
“Can I help you?” said a voice. It was a deep, calming voice filled with authority. Aurora opened her eyes and lifted her head, and nearly screamed at what she saw. Her vision was still a bit blurry from crying, so all she saw at first was a big mass of white fuzz towering over her. She sat up and rubbed her eyes, and she managed to see something so familiar, yet completely confusing. The animal seemed at first to be a beautiful white stallion, with a long mane and tail that rippled as he moved. She looked at his hooves just a few feet away from her, and they were a cracked jet black. His round hooves had no shoes, and showed the wear and tear of a wild stallion that had travelled many days. But as her eyes focused even more, she realized he wasn’t an ordinary stallion. He seemed to be finer-boned than any horse she’d seen, and he moved with such grace and elegance that Aurora had a slight urge to get up and curtsy to him. But the strangest of all, was a protrusion of what looked like two feet of white stone that grew from his forehead. It looked to be a horn lined with small ripples that twisted from the thick base up to the small pointed tip, and was such a brilliant white that it seemed to have a slight glow that spread all over his body, and lit up the pitch black night.
“Can I help you?” he said again. “You must be in so much pain. Sorry to frighten you. I tried to come as loudly as I could so I wouldn’t startle you.” Aurora didn’t know what to say. Where had she seen something like this? A memory of an old tapestry hanging in the great hall of the castle struck her, which showed a white horse just like this one walking through the forest. She always wondered if it really was a horse, but she couldn’t get the courage to ask. He clearly wasn’t a horse, since he was talking to her in perfect English.
“W-what are you?” she stammered. “Did I hit my head too? How can you talk?” The creature chuckled to himself.
“Have you never seen a Guardian before? Well, my dear, you’re looking at one! Myself, as well of the rest of my kind protect all forms of life that call this forest home. We are blessed to have the gift of speech, and we can communicate with every living thing that flies through the air and crawls on the ground. You can call me MoonStone.” He gave his mane a little shake when he said his name. Aurora was stunned. Did he just smile?
“I’ve never seen a creature like you before,” she said.
“We are a special kind,” said MoonStone. “We prefer only to make ourselves known when we are needed, and create friendships with a chosen few. Not everyone wants to keep harmony in this forest! Because we are Guardians, we can sense when someone needs help, and I could sense your fear from a mile away! We also have the gift of healing, and I can tell that your knee could certainly use some.”
Aurora had completely forgotten about her knee, and she pulled back her skirt to take a look. The light radiating from MoonStone showed a bloody, mangled mess that was her kneecap. The skin was split in half right down the middle, and would certainly need stitches. The poor girl gasped at the sight of it, and saw that her hands were covered in a thick layer of dried blood.
“Hush, don’t fret too much,” said MoonStone. “That’s why I’m here. Would you like me to heal you?”
“You can heal something like this?”
“Of course! I’ve seen much worse over the years.” The Guardian walked closer to Aurora and knelt down on his front two knees. “This may be a bit unnerving for you, but I promise, you are safe with me.” Aurora nodded and braced for a wave of pain. MoonStone touched the tip of his horn to the center of her knee. Instead of pain, she only felt a light tingling sensation for a few seconds. A small flash of light burst from his horn and spread over the wound, and the tingling disappeared.
Aurora relaxed and examined her knee. It was still wounded! But it didn’t feel wounded at all. There was no pain or stiffness. She straightened and bent it, and felt nothing. She reached out to prod it.
“Don’t touch it yet!” he said. “Let it set properly on its own.” He got back up and shook his head, making his mane fly everywhere in a gleaming white halo.
“What did you do?” she asked. “I thought you said you were going to heal me?”
“Well, you can’t expect wounds like that to heal in a few seconds, can you? The only real healer out there is time. All that my horn does is speed up the time it would take for your knee to heal perfectly. Which is why you shouldn’t touch it, unless you want to hinder its progress. It should be right again before you even leave the forest tonight. That is what you want, is it? Judging from the way you ran through here like an angry bear?”
“Yes, I want to go back to my village, but I was supposed to meet someone first.”
“Ah, yes, I did sense another human in the forest tonight, a man your age, I think. I couldn’t get a good feel for him, though. I was too distracted by how scared you were earlier. If you would like, I can take you to him and lead you both out. You were lucky that I discovered you first. This part of the forest is not a safe place at night.”
“Yes! Yes, please, take me to him! I don’t want him to get hurt too!”
“Of course I will.” He leaned toward her and put his long face just past hers. His skin smelled fresh, like a special perfume. “But I need you to stand and climb on. You aren’t fit to walk yet, and it will be much faster if I take you to him myself. Grab hold of my neck and I’ll pull you up.” Aurora looked at her hands and hesitated. They were still covered in blood, and she didn’t want to soil his mane. She did her best to wipe them on the forest floor. When she looked at them again, they were a dirty, red mess.
“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “Guardians get dirty too, you know.”
“Sorry.” She wrapped her arms around the Guardian’s neck. His mane felt softer than anything she had ever touched. He slowly lifted his head, and the girl scrambled to get her footing. She felt light-headed when she was stable, and she didn’t dare let go of the Guardian’s neck.
“Steady yourself,” he said. “I’m going to lie down so you can climb on.” Aurora felt his neck come down a few inches, but she was able to stand firm. She felt around the rest of his neck and shoulders until she was leaning over his back. She managed to swing her left leg over and wrap her hands in his mane.
“I think I’m ready,” she said.
“Hang on, I’ll go slow.” He used his front legs to get up first, then his hind legs followed. His movements were so smooth that Aurora hardly realized she was moving until the ground suddenly seemed so far away. “Now, let’s go find this man of yours.” MoonStone trotted through the trees without making a sound. He moved with such finesse, that the trees seemed to part for him, and Aurora never had to duck down for oncoming branches.
“This man must be very important to you,” said MoonStone. “For the two of you to come out here at night.”
“Yes, I love him very much.” And she told MoonStone all about Christopher and their plan to escape as he glided through the trees.
“We’re almost there,” said MoonStone. “He’s waiting up ahead in a little clearing.” Aurora’s heart fluttered with excitement that he managed to get to their meeting place safely. They had been trotting through the forest for about half an hour, and the two of them had gotten acquainted in the meantime.
The Guardian burst through the trees into the clearing, and Aurora heard Christopher gasp.
“What are you? What do you want?” he said. MoonStone turned to the side to reveal Aurora on his back, and the girl saw him standing there in a fighting stance, with his hand touching his knife on his belt.
“It’s alright!” she said. “He’s my friend!” Christopher’s demeanor changed to happy relief.
“Thank goodness you’re safe! I was about to start searching for you. I should have made the marks easier to see!”
“The first four were fine, but then I got lost, and MoonStone found me. I’m so happy to see you!” She slid off of MoonStone’s back and ran into his arms. “I thought I was never going to get out of this forest!” She gasped and suddenly remembered her injured knee. She had just jumped from a height of five feet and felt nothing. She stepped back a few feet away and hiked up her skirt.
“It’s gone! It’s completely gone!” she exclaimed. Her knee looked as if nothing had ever happened. “Christopher, look at my knee!”
“W-why do you want me to look at your knee?” he said. She looked up to see him averting his eyes away from her in any which direction. The realization that she was standing in front of him with her skirt up past her knees made her throw it back down and blush. MoonStone chuckled and walked up next the Aurora.
“I can explain what happened, if you wish,” he said. “Clearly, you haven’t seen a Guardian either.”
“No,” Christopher said with a blank stare at the two of them. “We don’t learn about creatures in our village. Unless we eat them, I guess.”
“Never? Not even in stories?” said MoonStone.
“My master doesn’t like to tell stories,” said Christopher. “He says they’re a waste of time.” He looked the Guardian up and down. “Although, now I wish he had.” MoonStone laughed and shook his mane.
“I found your woman lost and badly injured. I healed her knee and brought her back to you.” Aurora nodded.
“It was completely cut open,” she said. “But it healed while we rode over here.” Christopher stared at MoonStone for a moment. Aurora could tell he was overwhelmed. He shook his head and smiled.
“Then I cannot thank you enough,” said Christopher. “I don’t want to think of what would have happened if you hadn’t found her.”
“Sometimes you can gain friends in times of need,” said MoonStone. “She told me about your plan of escape. I think both of you are very brave. If you wish, I can help in whatever way possible.”
“Just making sure that Aurora is safe in the forest is more than I could ask for,” he said.
“Consider it done,” said MoonStone.
“Well then, there’s still some night left,” said Christopher. “Let’s enjoy each other’s company.” He took Aurora’s hand and turned back to MoonStone. “So, tell us about Guardians.”