An ache swelled in his heart he had not known before. For many winters past, he’d found his way from childhood to manhood in this wooded area he called his home. There had been a time not long ago that he welcomed the chance to leave, but the spirits unseen would have their own say. The tasks that had been put before him were not to be ignored, and like the acorn that strained against its shell to become the mighty oak, he’d found the strength to become the warrior his mother had wished him to be.
Across the field, the weathered trees that interrupted the horizon swayed in obedience to the insistent breeze, causing a shudder to pass atop his shoulders. The forest and the plains had not changed overmuch, and almost seemed to have stilled its heart, but to his astute senses, this place, and the very air that surrounded it, he knew was not the same.
He allowed the breath in his chest to escape and he put his feet in motion. It was time. Time to let go of all that he knew. There was no one left, no one for him to protect. The accomplishment was bitter in his mouth, for as he had watched them leave one by one, a piece of him had also gone. Oh, he would have those pieces back if only he could, but to ask would merely show a weakness he felt compelled to hide. No, at 20 summers he’d shown his worth and earned the respect of the people who gave it. There would be no going back.
A single breath caught against his ribs and he focused, as he’d done so many times before, upon his mother’s everlasting glow that surrounded him always, the constant he often forgot to remember.
His footsteps faltered as he turned to look back once more. No one needed him. No one called his name.
Yes. The time had come.
He followed the path he’d walked on with his brother not so long ago, holding his head high, keeping his eyes alert. He crossed the bridge to where the portal stood, his footsteps still crying out for the memories to follow.
From beyond the shimmering portal, his mother’s welcoming arms opened to him, and his little brother smiled with pride. Without looking back, and with his hand firmly on the hilt of his sword, he bit down on the memories, and left the homeland to begin the journey of an adventurous new life.
She ran the stone one last time along the edge of her sword, restoring its former sharpened perfection. It’d been a single year’s passing since it had been used. From such a distance it was of little use to her, hence the blade had become blunted. In the mountains that she left, there had been intrusions, events that had come to pass that were far from her control. The will that she could not bend darkened the forest even more than she thought possible. Her sons, who stayed behind, had seen a side of human nature that no child should ever see. It was time to stop the madness. Her youngest son, in particular, needed protection that she could not provide from that distance.
She stood, testing the strength in her arm. That, too, had become soft, but the memory of how to rule her kingdom was etched in her fibers, ready to be summoned at will. And now that time had come. He was coming home.
~ ~ ~ ~
Had it only been one year? He scrubbed his hand over his face. So much had happened in that time, most of which he’d rather forget. They’d be safe, she told them, until she prepared the way and summoned them, but no sooner had she left, than the shadow awoke. Without his mother’s protective energy, the darkness filled the crevices of the forest, threatening to steal his soul. The landscape had changed in a few short weeks after she had left. No longer were there stable paths lined with hope and promises of a beautiful tomorrow. The footing had become unpredictable, with no clear vision of what the next moment might hold.
If it were not for the quiet hum of her lingering energy pulsating beneath his feet, he would have fallen many moons ago. Oftentimes he would press his cheek to the ground and weep, struggling to drink in the light that she had left behind.
The shadow had raised its head time and time again, lashing out at him, crying out for her. Their savior, their strength. So far away.
The villagers converged and surrounded him, took him away, and offered protection when she could not. Though kind and generous, ‘twas not enough. He missed the connection, however frayed and blackened the threads were, for it was all he knew. Little by little he found his way back to the forest edge. But nothing had changed. The never-ending pulsating force still beat strong. Too many nights he sat, watching from afar as the shadow sat alone, tipping his head back, letting loose a soul-crushing howl, so full of sorrow, pain, and loneliness.
“It is not what we once knew,” his older brother said one night.
He clung to his brother, his only ally in the unrecognizable terrain. Though not much older, he still exuded stability and comfort.
“The forest is deceiving,” he continued to say. “The shadow hides well within the darkness. No, little brother. It is beyond repair now, and I would have you stay with me.”
So his brother led him away that very night.
“I miss her,” he said, blinking back the pain in his heart.
“As do I, but we will be as one, until we unite with her again.”
Displaced from the home they knew, they ventured out, and took to honing their skills of survival. Left to fend for themselves, their minds and shoulders broadened with seeking the truth and wielding their swords. No longer thin and timid, together they became a force to behold.
At long last, the summoning arrived. Settled now into his routine, he looked around. Could he truly leave everything and everyone behind? It had become a place he so desperately wished to escape, yet so desperately wanted to remain. He was strong now. He had proved that to himself. He could stay. But there was no choice. She had made that decision for him.
With heavy feet and saddened hearts, they walked together to the portal that would take him home.
“You’ve always been there for me,” he said.
“And will always be there for you.”
They clasped forearms and stood awkwardly for a few moments before pulling each other into an embrace.
“You behave yourself, little brother. Do not give her trouble.”
He swiped his sleeve across his eyes. “When will you join us?”
“As soon as I can,” his brother said, ruffling his hair. “I promise.”
He nodded. A shuddering breath and quivering lip betrayed his confidence.
“Go. She is waiting.”
Grasping the hilt of his sword, he was ready to face the adventure before him. There he would learn of different clans, different languages, a new way of life, completely leaving behind all that he has known.
The portal shimmered before him. His mother, the pillar in his life, stood on the other side, her image steadfast through the wavering fabric of worlds. A smile that promised a different path for him encouraged him onward. A smile that reminded him of her comfort, her strength, and that he would not be fighting battles alone.
Her arms extended into a welcoming gesture, beckoning him to join her. His shoulders squared in response, for though he was eager to see her, he was too old, too changed for such emotional release. Taking one step forward, he stoically reined in the feelings that unexpectedly bubbled to the surface. A sense of urgency swirled in his legs and feet and the corners of his mouth lifted against his will. The burden of the past, the nights of burning tears melted away into a lightness he had not known since he was a child.
He turned to his brother and removed his scabbard from his waist. “I won’t need this anymore,” he said, handing his sword to his brother. “I’m going home.”
He stepped through the portal and quickened his footsteps until he found himself surrounded by his mother’s arms.
She looked to the portal and held out her hand, a question forming on her lips.
Her oldest smiled through simmering eyes and shook his head.
“Soon, Mama. Soon.”
The path had been washed clear a fortnight before by the season’s first gentle rains, and in the days that followed, the spring’s warmth absorbed any hint of dampness that would cling to her feet. She could find no fault with her path or her duties as Guardian, and though optimistic, she remained vigilant, anticipating what she could not see.
A sudden wind stirred the grass and an unmistakable rumble rolled beneath her feet. The ground shook and dread fell from the trees. Her pace quickened to match the beat of her heart, but where to turn, she did not know.
The shadow loomed to engulf her, the forewarning she knew too well. She did not have time to change her footing, as the beast came at her vicious and strong, tackling her from behind, forcing her to taste the harsh reality of her choices.
Not willing to relive yet another blow, she scrambled to her feet, but slipped.
Thick, oily, green-gray mud bubbled up from between the cracks on the once smooth path, through the seams she had spent years of her life mending.
The blue sky swirled with fear and darkened to a toxic hue, then unloosed its watery fury, pelting her with shards of wet, gleaming steel. Her shoulders hunched against the pain as each stab created divots in her armor. With cold and shaking hands, she swiped at them uselessly.
Footsteps approached. Some fast, some slow, but she recognized each one. They’d always been there, surrounding her, urging her forward. Never had they allowed her to falter or lose sight of her task. Normally she basked in their presence, but now she dare not look up, for she did not want them to see the uncertainty in her eyes. The need to run and claim to the menacing skies “Let me be! I am not as strong as you believe!” exploded from her cells, howling for release.
Wisps of light circled her, hovering only moments until she closed her eyes in surrender. Blue-white heat grazed atop her damaged armor, the depressions filling in and strengthening her with resolve. Tears spilled, but quickly evaporated in the knowing that the path before her, though flooded with sludge, was solid.
With each step her load lightened and the curve of her back disappeared. Instead of studying the ground before her, seeing only the small section of the path, she stood tall and faced the beast that now stood before her. She grasped the hilt of her sword, ready to strike it down.
Its eyes were rimmed with sadness, but could easily have been mistaken for anger.
She paused. The air stilled around her, quiet as the impending death, and with ancient eyes watching the slow movement of her thoughts, she drew her sword from its sheath and held it steady at her side. Her fingers twitched, anxious for a reason.
The great beast’s gaze slid down the length of the sword and held fast at the deadly tip. Its bristly hairs stood on end. It slowly raised its head, the sadness in its eyes replaced with venom that spilled over and trickled down its time-worn cheeks.
Her armor did little good when he looked at her in that vile way. She knew it was time. Time to leave the forest behind, lest he draw the light from within her heart that she held so close. One step back, one last look, before she turned.
“Why do you leave?” the beast roared, its pain-soaked voice ripping through the thin fabric that cloaked her soul.
She slowly turned, her hand once again tightening on her sword. Whispers penetrated her mind, a reminder of her strength.
“Why do you stay?” she asked.
“The forest is dark.”
“The meadow is light.”
They stood, face to face, bound together by time long past, a bond neither could break.
“I cannot go where you lead.” The words spilled from their lips in eerie harmony, entwining like the overgrown vines suffocating the abandoned forest they once shared.
She shook her head. There was no more for her there, and though she found a bit of relief, the sadness grew inside. Sadness for the beast who will never know peace. Sadness for herself, for neither will she.