The moon was a bright white disk over the sleeping village, with a sky full of shining stars. It was a cool night, and a nice break from the hot summer day. Barnama emerged from his hut and began to walk through the clearing between the village and the forest. His nightmares were getting stronger than ever, so he wanted to avoid sleep as much as possible. He slowly trudged through the dry grass with his hands held behind his back, and tried to concentrate on the crunching sounds beneath his feet.
He saw a black form darting by in his peripheral vision, and he ducked down to the ground with his hand ready to take a knife from his belt. He saw what looked like the profile of a young girl running through the field about 500 feet away from him. She stopped at the edge of the forest, as if she were looking for something. The widower moved rapidly through the field, still keeping close to the ground. After years of hunting, he knew how to move through most any terrain without making a sound. He managed to get close enough to see the girl’s features without giving himself away. The girl looked to be a teenager, with long hair down to her waist.
“It can’t be!” he thought. “What on earth is that girl doing out here?” He watched Aurora for another moment, and she leapt over a bush into the forest. He knew better than to follow close on her trail. Instead, he stayed in his hunting position for about five minutes, then got up to follow her. His tracking skills would lead him to her whereabouts no problem.
Aurora flew through the trees as best she could without running into a tree trunk or tripping over a bush again. This adventure, just like the previous nights she had done this, only involved her getting deep enough into the forest for MoonStone to find her. She ran along with a big smile on her face, her long hair flowing just behind her green dress. After a few minutes, she stopped and stood still. MoonStone materialized from the trees less than a minute later, and the girl threw her arms around his neck in an embrace.
“How are you tonight, MoonStone? I’m so glad you found me again!”
“You aren’t that hard to find, my dear,” said the Guardian. “But I am happy to see you again. You make my nights so interesting!” He nuzzled her back with his long nose. Aurora stroked his flank as he lay down on the ground just like the night they met. “Come along, I can sense him waiting.” She climbed on his back before the Guardian rose to his feet and trotted through the trees, with his glowing horn leading the way.
The pair arrived at the clearing to see Christopher sitting against a big oak tree twiddling a purple wildflower between his fingers. He jumped up and helped Aurora dismount with a tender kiss.
“For you,” he said as he held the flower out to her.
“Thank you,” she smiled. “It’s beautiful.” She held the flower up to her nose and breathed in its fragrance.
“And thank you, my friend, for bringing her to me once again,” Christopher said to MoonStone.
“My pleasure,” said the Guardian with a shake of his mane. “I was telling Aurora earlier that the two of you make my nights so diverting!”
“Yes, I was wondering what you meant by that,” said Aurora as she and Christopher settled down together against the big oak tree. “What did you do at night before you met us? And what do you do during the day?” MoonStone knelt down on his front legs before collapsing on his side next to her.
“We are called Guardians for a reason,” he said. “All of the Guardians in the forest protect a certain section of it, whether by day or night. I am assigned to watch over this part of the forest at night, and that’s how I found you in the first place. This forest has been so peaceful lately, that it’s nice to have new friends to pass the time. Since I guard by night, my days are usually very lazily spent at the heart of this forest with my master.” Christopher and Aurora looked at each other in disbelief.
“You mean to say,” said Christopher, “that there are more than one of you? And you have a master?”
“Of course!” said MoonStone. “You didn’t think I was the last Guardian on Earth, did you? What a crazy idea! And the plan of guarding certain sections of the forest was my master’s idea. He’s an amazing man, truly gifted in the ways of nature. We Guardians respect him because he takes care of us, and lets us live with him. I also have a mate that I chose, and she chose me, just like the two of you.” Christopher and Aurora looked at each other and smiled while interlacing hands. “I hope that you can meet them one day, I’ve already told them all about you.”
“We would love to meet them,” said Aurora. “Perhaps after we escape the estate.”
“Yes,” said Christopher. “I’m so glad that we can meet every night, rather than the one test run we planned earlier. Now we don’t have to communicate through letters!” MoonStone laid his head in Aurora’s lap as Christopher spoke. The gesture startled the girl at first, but she relaxed and continued to listen.
“I have some news that might make our plans harder than we thought. I’ve tried to convince Eric to transfer me to a carpenter in a different estate, but he isn’t going to let me go so easily. He says that I’m his most valuable carver, and he raised me and considers me his son, but I think that he has a feeling there’s an ulterior motive behind me wanting to leave.”
As Christopher spoke, Barnama crept up to the edge of the clearing. He had followed Aurora’s trail for a little bit, but the it had abruptly disappeared. He walked through the forest for a little while, straining his eyes for a lead. The search was almost abandoned until he heard voices up ahead, and he soon came across the trio in the clearing. The widower was so shocked to see MoonStone that he almost blew his cover, but he managed to listen to Christopher’s problem.
“Impossible!” he thought. “That thing only exists in wive’s tales! And how can that girl go against my orders?! With that low life of a peasant! Does she know her reputation will be ruined if anyone found out about her sneaking around with him? I’ll make sure that boy can’t leave the estate!”
“I don’t think it’s a big problem,” said Aurora. “If you can’t leave, why not just escape as well? And I’ve been thinking, why don’t we consider settling down in the forest? After we rescue your mother and siblings, of course. We can live our lives on our own terms without having to worry about finding work in another estate. You can still carve and travel to sell your work, and I’ll help your mother take care of your family. And we can see MoonStone whenever we want!” She glanced down at the guardian. His eyes were heavy, and he looked completely content after letting out a long sigh. She had woven the purple flower Christopher gave her into his silky mane, and her fingers stoked the pure white strands.
“Hmm, I hate to say it, but that might be a good idea, assuming we still escape the night before your wedding to Wolsey. We would be very safe that way, once we get a viable shelter up. Perhaps MoonStone’s master would be willing to let us stay with him for a short time, until we can get on our feet. But I don’t know if he would appreciate an additional seven people living under his roof. What do you think, MoonStone?” He leaned forward to look at the Guardian, but he made no answer.
“MoonStone?” Aurora patted his flank with her hand, but the guardian didn’t flinch. “MoonStone! Are you alright?” She started to push his head off of her lap, but he was so heavy it hardly budged. Barnama had heard enough, and he didn’t want to be around when MoonStone came to. He slowly backed away from the clearing and took off to the village when he was out of earshot. He had a plan, but he needed some help, and decided to pay someone a visit the next morning.
Aurora managed to get MoonStone’s head off her lap with some help from Christopher and a little wiggling on her part. Once his head hit the forest floor, MoonStone jolted awake and looked around.
“What happened? How long was I out?” he asked.
“Maybe five to ten minutes, at the most,” said Christopher. “What happened? Are we tiring you out?” MoonStone chuckled and shook his head.
“Oh no, we Guardians can go for several days without rest. What happened was something I hoped I wouldn’t need to worry about. One of the main reasons Guardians stay away from humans is because of one thing; greed. They saw our healing abilities with our horns, and wanted that ability for themselves. So we were hunted to near extinction. Then my master came into the forest, and offered protection. We withdrew deeper into the forest, and maintain as little contact with humans as possible. The best hunting tactic was using a young maiden as bait. Guardians are attracted to maidens, I have no idea why. My master and the older Guardians have told me that we lose some of our inhibitions at the sight of a maiden, and if we place our head in her lap, we will be stuck in a trance. That is how hunters were able to take us down. Otherwise, we can take them out no problem. The night I sensed you, Aurora, I made sure that I wouldn’t come near you for fear of it being a trap. But you were so badly injured that I had to intervene. And I’m glad I did. I’ll admit that my mind feels a bit hazy when I’m around you, but it’s nothing I can’t control. But when we sat down next to each other tonight, I had no control whatsoever. The next thing I remember is the feeling of my head falling, and then you waking me up. I’m so sorry, I should have told you this when we first met. I honestly didn’t believe it could happen.”
“It’s alright, nothing bad happened,” said Aurora. “Have you ever been hunted before?”
“No, I haven’t. My mate and I are some of the youngest Guardians in our group. My mother was pregnant with me when my master took us in. In fact, my mate and I were born on the same day. It’s fate that we chose each other.”
“I’m sure they weren’t too pleased to hear about us,” said Christopher.
“No, I’m afraid you’re right.” MoonStone lowered his head a bit. “Not at first, anyway. But I’ve been coming back every morning, and they trust my judgement.”
“Either way,” said Aurora, “I’ll make sure not to sit too close to you from now on. Why don’t we finish talking about our plans and call it a night? I’ve never had this little sleep in my life!”
The next morning, Barnama left his hut before the sun rose, to avoid being seen by any villagers. He walked to the clearing on the other side of the village, and continued on for about half a mile into the forest.
“The rumors had better be true,” he thought. “Her hut should be up ahead, just like you heard when you were young. If those Guardians are real, then she must be, too.” A few minutes later, he came across a small hut that looked well taken care of, with a little plume of smoke coming from a hole in the roof. There was a piece of fabric covering the front entrance that swayed softly in the breeze.
He slowly walked up to the door and raised his hand, but the fabric flew open before he could knock. A short old woman stood in the doorway holding back the fabric. Her wavy white hair grew just past her shoulders, and most of it was pulled back in a messy bun at the nape of her neck. Her dress and shawl were all brown, and she held a wooden cane in her right hand that was polished to a smooth sheen. Her pale face was a labyrinth of wrinkles, and her bright blue eyes protruded from the rest of her features.
“Greetings,” she said. Her voice was surprisingly smooth and youthful. “It’s been a long time since I had visitors. Is it me you seek? Or are you a traveler who’s lost their way?”
“I seek advice from you,” said Barnama. “Are you the soothsayer Aldwen?”
“Yes, that is one of my names. Come in, I might have the knowledge you need.” She stepped back to let Barnama in and let the fabric fall. There was a small fire burning in a pit in the center of the hut, and daylight showed proudly through the hole in the roof to let the smoke out. There was a single chair in one corner, and a small collection of blankets on the floor in the other. What shocked Barnama the most, however, was that each wall was covered with shelves of books. Although he never learned to read, he was able to glance at the titles on their spines, and he guessed that not all of the books were in English. The soothsayer sat in her chair and gestured for Barnama to come over.
“Give me your palms, and tell me what you seek,” she said. Barnama knelt down in front of her and held out his hands. She began to examine them intently, and the widower wasn’t sure if she would listen to him, so he decided to speak his mind.
“My daughter is disobeying my orders. I saw her in this forest last night with a man that is not her betrothed. They plan to escape our village and marry. She has befriended a forest Guardian, and I want to take that Guardian away from her and see if his horn is truly gifted with the ability to heal. I’ve heard so many wive’s tales about Guardians and yourself, and the two other people living in this forest. I’ve discovered that Guardians are real, you are real, and now I want to know, are the Twins of Light and Darkness real? I want to find the Dark Magician and have him tell me how to kill my daughter’s Guardian.” Aldwen never looked up as he was speaking, and traced her fingers down the lines on his palms. Eventually she put his hands down and looked him in the eye.
“There is so much darkness in your heart and in your future. The desire to kill your daughter’s Guardian and take away her happiness, is a manifestation of your deepest sorrows. You’ve heard the stories about me, yes? Then you know that I only tell the futures of those willing to hear it. And you are not willing; your heart has been turned to stone! I have sensed dark times coming to this forest for so long, and I fear that it will be upon us very soon. Yes, the Twins of Light and Darkness are very real, and very dangerous, especially the Dark Magician. If he is feeling generous, he will give you a way to kill the Guardian, but for a heavy price. For your sake, and for this forest’s sake, I will not tell you where he is! You need to face the darkness within your heart and let your daughter be free!” Barnama’s hands clenched into fists, and he felt his breathing start to quicken.
“You mean to tell me, old crone, that you refuse to help me?!” he yelled as he stood up. “How dare you say these untrue things to me and refuse me service!” Aldwen leapt up from the chair and pointed her cane at him.
“Don’t you dare defy me! I may seem old and feeble, but I am strong in both mind and body. I tell people what they truly are, whether they want to hear it or not! And you, oh you unfortunate man, are crossing a boundary into territory that is better left alone! You need to make a choice. Will you tend to the darkness in your heart, or will you clear your heart and make room for light? You seem smart enough! If you want to find the Dark Magician, look into the darkness of this forest, have that be your guide instead!” She walked toward him with her cane ready to strike, and Barnama slowly backed out of the hut. Before he knew it, he was standing about ten feet away, and she was just outside the doorway. “Now go! Go back to your village, and never return!” Barnama stood his ground for a moment and stared at her. She flipped her cane around and planted it firmly into the ground next to her, refusing to break eye contact. He eventually sighed and turned back to the village.
“Darkness is arriving soon,” Aldwen thought to herself. “We must be ready!” She quickly turned around and scuttled back into her hut.