Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Old Wardens: Part Two-- Hazel West

As promised, here is the second part of The Old Wardens. I hope you all enjoy the conclusion of this little story :-)

Read Part One here

The Old Wardens
Part Two

I didn’t know what possessed me to agree, to even think of believing anything Rhys Hywel had told me, but yet, there was a part of me, small, but there, that said I should. I don’t know how to describe it, and I was probably crazy, but after all, I guess I decided: what did I really have to lose? I didn’t have a social life anyway, I had never fit in anywhere in normal society, maybe this was my chance to find that place I fit in. And I had seen the spikes that killed the man in the park. I had also seen the curiosities that looked all too real in Hywel’s basement. I still wouldn’t believe anything really until I had more proof, but, well, I guess I was more willing now to accept the possibility of all of it being true at least.
            I was packed off from the bookshop with several books to study, and Rhys told me to meet him at the shop again after school the next day to start my ‘training’. I didn’t know exactly what that entailed, but he had also told me to get a long coat—whatever that was for.
            He gave me one last thing before I left, however, and that was my grandfather’s journal. I never knew this existed, but it was undoubtedly his, and made my legs a little weak and my stomach a little sick, because this was something I could believe in, and something that I could not disprove.
            “How did this end up here?” I asked Hywel as I accepted the worn leather book that was wrapped up in twine to keep the loose items in it together.
            “He asked me to keep it for you if anything happened to him before you came of age,” Hywel said softly, a distant look coming over his face as he looked down at the well-used object in my hands before he looked up to meet my eyes. “He was a dear friend, your grandfather. He was like a father to me, and he died too early.”
            I nodded in agreement, casting my suddenly damp eyes down to the journal again. “Thank you. I—I guess I’ll be back tomorrow.”
            “Until then, Master Owain,” Hywel told me and I set off back home.
            Once I stepped in the door, I pretended nothing weird had happened that day. Catherine was talking on the phone with her friends she had just left an hour ago while she pretended to do her homework, and I sat down to do mine, putting the books Hywel had given me on my desk and shoving my grandfather’s journal under my pillow, not even wanting to look at it until tonight when I was sure to be left alone.
            I finished my schoolwork in a shoddy fashion, but could hardly care that night. Dinner proceeded as usual, and as soon as I could be excused from the family happenings, I retired to my room and dressed for bed. Sitting cross-legged on top of my quilt, I reached under my pillow for my grandfather’s journal. I sat with it a long time, just holding it, until I finally took a deep breath and untied the twine from around it, opening the cover.
            There was an inscription on the first page, with a stamp of the symbol for the Old Wardens and underneath:

Property of Gareth Pywel Cadwallader
Order of the Old Wardens


            So my grandfather would have been eighteen when he received this journal, and he’d had it all these years, written in it, and I had never known a thing.
            Okay, correction. I had never suspected a thing. I was twelve when he died, after all; maybe I had missed some things he had been trying to tell me, thinking they were just his teasings to a young boy, keeping me fanciful when everyone seemed to want me to get my head out of such fanciful things and into the real world. Of course, talking to Hywel, it seemed that mythical creatures weren’t really all like the modern fairy tales and Disney liked to describe. They were more authentic than that, more Dark Ages. Beowulf and St. George. Maybe those fellows were actually Wardens too? I decided to ask Hywel that when I got the chance.
            I started laughing, and didn’t stop for a long time, wiping tears from my eyes and folded over my cramping stomach muscles. Who was I kidding? Did I really honestly believe this stuff? I began to think this was just some hoax someone had set up for me for whatever reason. I didn’t know. All I really knew was that I had agreed to meet a man I hardly knew anything about apart from that he apparently knew my grandfather, for a second time tomorrow when I had already found him at the scene of a potential murder, and who knew what would happen to me if I stupidly walked back into his clutches. I was an idiot, but I was a curious idiot, and hey, I wasn’t going to be the guy who didn’t know what was what if a dragon decided to live under Mount Hood, so I guess I was just going to stick with this Warden thing until I was proved false.
            Resigned to my fate, I turned the next page of my grandfather’s journal. And then the next and the next.
            Before I realized it, it was 3am and I still had no desire to put the book down. It was…well, it was fantastical to say the least. It documented my grandfather’s life as an apprentice Warden, from his first days of training, receiving his sword, to his first missions. His first real encounter had been with a kelpie that had been living in a river near a popular hiking trail and drowning its victims. Another spoke of a cockatrice that had been spotted several times in Washington. So many accounts of the like were written and I could hardly find it in myself to believe them, but at the same time, it was so obviously in my grandfather’s voice that I couldn’t disbelieve them either. I was in a state of shock.
            The entries continued up through his seemingly semi-retirement when he became a professor, though they were few and far between by then. He spoke of my birth in one, saying how he had great hope that I would become the next Warden that the Cadwallader family produced. My heart clenched in my chest, as I could feel the happiness, the hope, that came through in his few words.
            There were a few more hunts that he mentioned, one where he was injured, his arm broken by a chimera. A vague memory came to me, from when I was five, remembering seeing him with his arm in a sling for a long time. I don’t remember the excuse he gave me, maybe he had just told me the truth, knowing I would laugh it off.
            I reached the end of the journal and found the last page was missing, had been torn out. I frowned, seeing that the entry before the missing bit was dated only weeks before his death.

January 12th, 2002

I talked to Rhys today; it has been so long since I’ve seen him. The boy has grown up to be a fine Warden and I know he will be a perfect match for Owain when he comes of age. I would like to train the boy myself, but I fear it is not to be. But I know that Rhys will do as I asked him, and he will make sure that Owain learns what he needs to in order to carry on the Cadwallader legacy in the Old Wardens. He already shows much promise, and I don’t think it will change by his eighteenth birthday. Owain is like the rest of us, poor boy. I can see it already. He is not made for this world, and I hope he will find it easier when he knows he’s not alone. I plan to tell him on his thirteenth birthday in a few months. It can never hurt to start them too early.

            That was where it ended and I felt an empty hole in my chest. He had been going to tell me everything, but he had never gotten the chance. In another month, he would be dead, and I would be blind to the truth because there was no one to tell me until Hywel showed up years later. I didn’t realize a tear had slid down my cheek until I saw it drop onto the page in front of me. I always found it odd; I wasn’t much in the way of crying ever, but thinking of my grandfather always made me hurt. I wondered now, if it was because I could feel the unfinished business he had left behind him.
            I closed the journal reluctantly, and gently placed a hand on its worn leather casing, knowing it had been a close possession of my grandfather. I tucked it back under my pillow and lay down, my mind churning with so many thoughts I didn’t know what to do. I did know that I was going to go back to Rhys Hywel the next day. If it was what my grandfather wished for me, then, whether this was all crazed ramblings or not, I was going to see it through, because really, what else did I have to lose?
I was groggy the next morning from staying up so late, and I drug myself through school, before running as fast as I could after the bell rang for dismissal. I was planning on grabbing a coffee before heading to the bookshop, but I saw Hywel’s old Chrysler parked outside the school as soon as I exited. I stopped in my tracks, wondering what to do, when he climbed out and jerked his head in an impatient gesture, his arms folded over his chest.
            “What are you waiting for, boy? We have a lot to get done.”
            Before anyone could see me getting into a car with a stranger and thinking I was being abducted or something, I hurried around the other side and slid into the passenger seat.
            Hywel started the car and drove toward the bookshop. “So, I see you wish to pursue my offer?” he said, glancing over at me.
            I shrugged. “Honestly? I still have no idea whether you’re insane or not. I don’t know if you’re just some twisted serial killer. But you have all that crazy stuff in your basement that I can’t explain, and my grandfather…he wrote about you, and everything else, and I guess I can’t say nay until I have further proof, so, yeah, I’ll give it a try.”
            He looked slightly amused at my answer. “Good. You read his journal then?”
            I nodded. “Yes. Did you know there was a page missing at the end?”
            A darkness spread over his face. “Yes, it was like that when we retrieved it. I assumed he ripped it out himself.”
            “Wait, what do you mean ‘retrieved it’?” I asked suddenly.
            He was silent for a few long seconds, seeming to mull something over in his mind, while I waited. “It was not prudent for the police to read what was in the journal.”
            “So, you’re saying you…you what? You took it off his—his body?” I choked on the last word. I’d had nightmares for months after my grandfather’s death. He had died in a car crash on his way home from work one night and I was always sure it wasn’t nearly as bad as my mind envisioned it, but still…
            “It wasn’t like that, Owain; we did what we had to do,” Hywel’s voice was oddly soft, and I remembered all the things my grandfather had written about him in the journal, about his time with him during his apprenticeship, and I wondered if Rhys Hywel had been just as fond of my grandfather as I had been. Grandpa seemed to talk about him like the son he never had, and I instantly regretted accusing him like I had.
            “He was going to tell me,” I said quietly. “Why didn’t you come sooner?”
            “It would have been difficult, you were only twelve,” Hywel said. “Your mother wouldn’t have let a strange man show up out of the blue and take you as an apprentice in what would be considered ‘occult activities’ by normal people. The Wardens decided as a whole—and yes, we did discuss it at length in the wake of your grandfather’s death—that unless circumstances rose in which you needed to be told for your own safety, we would wait until after you turned eighteen, and then I would be your mentor. Besides, I was shipped to North Dakota where a flare of mythological activity was cropping up at the time.”
            I sat quietly, wondering how my life would have been different if I had known about all this beforehand. I suppose, it wasn’t worth thinking about now.
            We got to the bookshop and Hywel led me once again to the basement library and put on a pot of coffee, which I was grateful for.
            “First thing’s first,” he said as he set a steaming mug down in front of me. “Have you had any practice with a sword?”
            I took a long sip of coffee before I answered. “I have studied swordplay, but I have had very little opportunity to actually employ my knowledge.”
            He got up again and crossed to the armoire. When he opened it I caught my breath as it revealed a plethora of weaponry and not just swords, but pretty much everything you could imagine and some things I wasn’t even entirely sure of the purposes for. Hywel reached into the back and pulled out two practice swords made of wood.
            “Come on,” he told me, and I stood up to follow him out of the basement, through the shop and outside, back around the building to a lot that was pretty much deserted. He tossed me one of the practice swords and I caught it easily, instantly taking a ready stance.
            “On guard,” Hywel said, and without any warning, he struck out at me. I brought the sword up and just barely managed to catch his before he pressed me backwards with strike after strike. Eventually, I found my footing and was able to riposte instead of just parrying. I held my ground for about thirty seconds before Hywel twisted his sword and my hand went numb from an impact I didn’t see coming and my sword clattered to the ground.
            “Not bad,” he said blandly. “Actually, rather more than I expected. Wardens have always had a natural skill with weapons; just one of the things bred into the bloodlines over the centuries, but you have a particular skill. For a civilian.”
            “Thanks, I guess,” I replied, not sure if he was actually praising me. I was currently too busy rubbing life back into my hand so I could retrieve my sword.
            “Of course,” he continued, hooking his toe under my sword and flicking it upward to catch in his other hand, “Wardens don’t have much use for swordfighting as such when hunting—after all, a cockatrice or a griffin, is hardly going to go after you with a sword—but it is a good basis to begin with to learn agility, and once you master that, we’ll move on to more hand to hand fighting. But that will have to come later, as now we have a manticore to hunt and I’m going to have to give you that crash course very quickly before the whole of Portland gets wind of a mythical creature running around unchecked.”
            “And how do you go about killing a manticore?” I asked, shaking my hand, and feeling it only slightly tingling now. “I wouldn’t say a sword is the best weapon for the job.”
            “And you would be correct in that,” Hywel said, tossing me my sword back and I caught it just as well as before, to my surprise. “Typically, we would use a boar spear. A little inconvenient for the urban area, but it will have to do. A crossbow as backup is another alternative.”
            I shuddered involuntarily. Hunting boar in the medieval days had been dangerous enough; I didn’t like the thought of standing my ground as I waited for a charging manticore to impale itself on my spear. But if this was indeed my legacy, I would have to do it. Besides, reading my grandfather’s journal and seeing all the adventures he had gone on and survived, gave me courage.
            “We’ll make you more than a simple scholar yet, Owain,” Hywel said as he fell into a crouch. “Try again, and keep a lower center of gravity this time.”
            We sparred for the better part of an hour, before going back into the bookstore’s basement where we rested after our exertion. I was a little miffed to see Hywel was hardly winded. I wasn’t necessarily unfit, as I walked or jogged most places, but I didn’t actually work out or go running either, preferring to spend most of my time among dusty tomes.
            “I should probably get back soon,” I said after finishing a glass of water. “My mom will be home from work in an hour.”
            “I’ll drive you,” Hywel said, going back to the weaponry cupboard again and searching around in it. “I have to give you something first, though. You’ll want to have this.”
            I watched curiously as he pulled a long wrapped bundle from the back of the armoire and placed it on the table in front of me.
            “Open it,” he commanded softly.
            Frowning, I untied the wrappings, and pulled the fabric aside, revealing a sword. It was a broadsword, but short, only about a foot and a half long blade, and looked to be made in the Celtic or Norse style, but was not that old, in fact, I would have guessed that it had been forged less than a century ago.
            “That was your grandfather’s sword,” Hywel said quietly, watching me as I examined the weapon. “I wish he could have had the chance to give it to you himself.”
            A lump formed in my throat, as I traced my fingers over the worn leather of the scabbard, an imprint of the Warden’s coat of arms tooled into the leather. I gripped the hilt and carefully slid the blade from its sheath. Unlike the swords I had on my wall, this was made for daily use and not to be an antique on a shelf. It was worn, and well looked after and it fit my hand perfectly as if it had been made for me and not my grandpa. On the reverse side of the sheath was G. C. for Gareth Cadwallader. I never wanted to let it go.
            It was a long while before I was able to look up at Hywel again. “Thank you,” I told him sincerely. Okay, I was obviously having problems with my emotions recently. I blamed all the strangeness that had suddenly fallen into my lap, but still, holding my grandfather’s sword was only another piece of the puzzle that made this whole deal seem more real. I wasn’t sure whether to be glad for that or worried.
            Hywel didn’t reply, only turning around to close the armoire. “It is yours by right. It belongs in your family. That one was made specifically for your grandfather when he came of age.” He checked his watch. “We should probably get you back home.”
            I nodded, wrapping the sword up again and tucking it under my arm. “Yeah, I have homework.”
            “And tomorrow,” Hywel added, gruff again. “Bring a long coat.”
            “What is the thing with the long coat?” I asked, eyeing his wardrobe skeptically.
            In answer Hywel shrugged his coat off and spun it around, turning his back to me as he did. Weapons of all sorts glinted in cleverly concealed pockets sewn into the coat and two more daggers rested at the small of his back, seeming to be slung in a harness of some kind that he wore under his sweater.
            “Oh,” I said, swallowing hard. “That’s clever.”
            A small smile quirked up one side of Hywel’s mouth as he pulled his coat back on. “It is a business that needs one to be ready at all times for all eventualities. I will help you add pockets to your coat, but for now, you can at least use it to conceal your sword. We use small ones so we can wear them against our back or thigh and they can be easily concealed.”
            “Don’t you ever, like…stab yourself on accident?” I asked skeptically.
            He scowled. “It is an art that takes much practice, and you will practice it if you know what’s good for you.”
            I nodded quickly. “Yes, I will.”
            “Good. Come then, we don’t want your family to worry.”
            He dropped me off a couple blocks from my house at my bidding. I didn’t want to chance anyone seeing me with someone I really didn’t know how to explain. I knew from experience that Catherine was oblivious most of the time until you wanted her to be, so I decided being on the safe side was the best course of action.
            “Do some research on manticores in the books I gave you,” Hywel said as I gathered my things to leave, holding my grandpa’s sword close. “I’ll pick you up from school again tomorrow.”
            I nodded and bid him goodbye, walking down the street to my house. Catherine was thankfully involved in an enlightening conversation on the phone about some girl at school and all the guys she was dating or dumping so she didn’t even look up at me as I came in the door. I went to my room and took my grandfather’s sword out of its wrappings again setting it up against my desk. I would need to get a harness for it. I was sure Hywel knew where best to acquire one.
            I breezed carelessly through my homework for a second night, so that I could get to my more important research about manticores. Hey, I was saving lives, apparently, I wasn’t going to do that with higher math and idiotic questions about literature analyzing that was wrong anyway.
            After dinner and enough family interaction to keep my mom and sister from being suspicious—though, to be honest, they were usually obtuse when it came to my ‘strange habits’—I retired to my room for the night and opened the bestiary books, dutifully doing my manticore research.
            The more I did, the more I was confused about the current killings. I actually started to wonder if there was some way Hywel could have gotten the wrong information, and it might not be a manticore at all. If it hadn’t been for the poisoned spikes and how the people had been killed, I wouldn’t have considered a manticore at all responsible. Maybe if the killings had been happening out in the woods, but in the city? Something strange was going on here, and I was more eager than ever to get to the bottom of it. I spent a few minutes shaking my head at that realization, but glancing at my grandfather’s well-used sword put me back on track. At the moment there was still more information for than against, but I didn’t think I would really throw myself into believing it was true until I saw a real manticore. I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to that.
            I lay down to sleep sometime after midnight and had troubled dreams, waking sometime before dawn with a start, having dreamt of being chased by a manticore. I sat gasping for breath for a few seconds, before I realized it had been my phone that had actually woken me. I had set it on vibrate, but it was buzzing against my desk, the sound having been construed into a manticore’s growl in my dreams.
            I glanced at the clock that read a little after 5am and then fumbled for the phone, pressing it to my ear.
            “Hello?” I asked groggily, shoving the hair back from my face as I slumped back onto my bed, eyes closing again already.
            “It’s Hywel, there’s been another killing.”
            Before I could register that information, he was already going on. “Can you get out of the house?”
            “Wh-what?” I asked, sitting up. “I don’t…”
            There was an impatient sigh from the other end of the line. “We have to go after this thing now, while the trail is still fresh. I was tracking it all night but got around too late to save the latest victim. Can you get out of the house?”
            I glanced at the clock again; everyone would be up in another hour or so. “My mom will know I’m gone when she gets up.”
            “Leave a note and say you had to leave early for school. This is what I was talking about, Owain, you have to be ready for this if you’re going to be a Warden. I’ll be waiting for you outside your house. Bring your sword and your coat.”
            He hung up before I could reply, and with a resigned groan, I threw caution to the winds and rolled out of bed, grabbing my jeans and a sweater before rifling through my closet to find a trench coat that I rarely wore. After pulling that on and grabbing my sword and boots, I snuck downstairs as quietly as possible and scribbled a quick note explaining that I was sorry I hadn’t told my mom that I had to leave for school early today for a project. I hoped it would work to alleviate questions. I yanked my boots on and hurried out the door, not surprised to find the old Chrysler parked across the street. I ran to it and climbed into the passenger seat, finding a cup of hot coffee pushed into my hands.
            “Wake up fast, Owain. I’m sorry your first hunt is so hectic, but you have to start somewhere, and we can’t let this go any farther. I’d do it myself, but manticores are really a two person job.”
            I gulped coffee between questions as Hywel pulled the car around and raced down the deserted streets.
            “Where exactly are we going?” I asked him.
            “East side, that’s where I lost it.”
            “How do you know this is even a manticore? It doesn’t follow any of the regular MO.”
            Hywel shook his head. “Only one thing I know of shoots barbs like that. But one thing you’ll find in this job, Owain, is that things aren’t always the way they are described in the old accounts. Mythical creatures change with the times as we all do, especially when out of their element or in suburban areas.”
            “But is it not eating anything? Usually they kill for food.”
            “Yes, they do,” Hywel said grimly. “That’s why I think there’s something more going on here than just random manticore attacks.”
            “Like what?”
            “I don’t know yet, I hope that when we find the thing, we’ll have more of an idea.”
            I was quiet then, not knowing what else to say as Hywel drove and I tried to caffeinate but mostly ended up just giving myself nervous jitters due to lack of sleep and the adrenaline rushing through my veins.
            He parked down a side street once we got to out destination, out of the way of prying eyes that may be out this early in the morning. He went around to the back of the car and opened the trunk as I got out.
            “I found the body a few blocks away from here, but I lost the manticore when it headed off through the park down the road. I have a feeling it’s still there somewhere. If we’re lucky.” He had pulled a key from his pocket and used it to open a large box in the trunk of the car and I was not surprised to find a plethora of weapons stored neatly inside of it. Hywel reached inside and drew out a small crossbow and several bolts, before closing the box, and reaching under a tarp. My eyes widened as he pulled out two long spears that I knew to be medieval boar spears. I tried not to hesitate when he handed one to me. Sure, it was awesome and normally I would have been really excited, but thinking that I would have to hunt a man-eating mythical creature with it in the near future kind of put a damper on my historical enthusiasm.
            I took it all the same and watched as Hywel closed the trunk again and nodded to me.
            “No,” I replied truthfully.
            “Good,” he said, surprising me. “That means you won’t be stupid.”
            With those inspiring words, he stowed the crossbow somewhere in his coat, and gripped my shoulder for a second before setting off across the street. I had no choice but to follow him. I sincerely hoped that no one was out jogging this early in the morning, because I don’t even want to know what they would think seeing two weirdos with long coats and boar spears strolling through the park. I didn’t think they would be very willing to understand that we were only trying to protect them; not with all the killings that were happening recently.
            “This will be a quick lesson in tracking, Owain,” Hywel said in a hushed voice. “Manticores are highly intelligent, and stealthy creatures. They hide well and will spring out on you at any given moment. We’ll stick to the open spaces as much as possible and check all the shadows twice.”
            “What is our plan when we find it?”
            “You’ll herd it,” Hywel said matter-of-factly. “And I will do my best to skewer it.”
            I opened my mouth to say that I didn’t like the plan, but Hywel’s hand was suddenly clamped onto my shoulder. “Wait,” he hissed. “Look, three o’clock.”
            I glanced in that direction and saw something slip between two bushes within the blink of an eye. It was so fast that I almost thought I had imagined it, if Hywel hadn’t alerted me to it first. I gulped, gripping my spear tighter. “Is that it?” I asked.
            “I think so.” He motioned to the left. “You go that way and try to head it off, and I’ll be sneaking up from the other side.”
            “What if it attacks me?” I asked, not wanting to split up, feeling oh-so-not ready for this.
            “Then kill it,” Hywel said in a longsuffering manner. “Trust your instincts, Owain. You have over a thousand years of Warden ancestors in your blood; I promise that if you do not overthink it, you will know what to do when the time comes.”
            That didn’t make me feel as good as Hywel probably thought it would, but I reached beneath my coat, and gripped the pommel of my grandpa’s sword with my free hand, and drew his strength from that. If he could do this, so could I. I hoped. I nodded at Hywel and then parted ways, watching him creep off to the right almost silently and tried to match his movements, sticking to the shadows as much as possible.
            It was really dark out there in the park, and every sound had me on high alert. After a few seconds, I realized that I had calmed, even if adrenaline was still pumping through me. But it was more channeled, like I was ready for whatever came, but it wasn’t controlling me. I guess that was part of what Hywel had tried to tell me. The ancestry. It was something instinctual, and now that I could feel it, I felt more confident. I took a deep breath and continued on.
            A sudden haunting yowl startled me so that I nearly dropped my spear. It was only a few yards ahead of me, in a thicket of bushes. It sounded almost like a cat, but I knew better. It was different. And it brought back memories of a few nights before when I had heard something similar in the middle of the night—I realized now it had been the night before the previous killing. This had to be the manticore. 
            I looked up and saw Hywel hovering off to one side, waiting for me to make my move, and I took a moment to steel myself, before I lunged forward with an impromptu shout, leveling my spear at the bushes, hoping to startle the manticore like I would any animal.
            I seemed to succeed, because something shot out of the bushes. Something big, the size of a mountain lion at least, with a long, bristly tail, whipping out behind it. I hit the ground just in time as two long spikes embedded themselves into the tree that I had been standing in front of. I gasped a breath, and leveled myself upright.
            “Coming to you!” I shouted at Hywel as I scrambled to my feet and rushed off, trying to stay behind the manticore streaking across the shadowed park grounds, though much more mindful now of the darts it shot from its tail.
            I circled round a topiary display and nearly bumped into Hywel as he rounded it the other way. He grabbed my spear, which I almost hit him with, and looked around.
            “Where is it?” he demanded.
            “I thought it was coming for you,” I said, horrified as I wondered where it was now. We stood back to back, circling slowly around to see if we could spot it.
            “I don’t see—”
            “Down!” Hywel threw me to the ground, nearly falling on top of me and the breath was knocked from my lungs as I heard several thuds in the ground close by.
            Hywel was up in a minute, and I heard the thunk of his crossbow being drawn and the twang of its release. I sat up quickly, grabbing my spear and only then realized that the tail of my coat had been impaled by one of the poison spikes. I gingerly kicked it away, shaking at how close that had been.
            “You alright?” Hywel asked quickly.
            “Yeah,” I replied breathlessly, hauling myself to my feet again. A shadow streaked over the park grounds again and Hywel shot super quick at it. I saw it falter and heard an angry yowl.
            “Did you get it?” I asked.
            “Manticores don’t go down that easy,” Hywel said, readjusting his grip to his spear. “But I think it’s wounded. That will make it angrier.”
            “Oh, good,” I said with a dark chuckle. Hywel gave me a withering glance, but motioned me forward.
            “Come, let’s flush it out. We can’t let it get away now.”
            I followed him and he motioned for me to go off to one side. I went carefully, having a feeling the manticore was lurking in the bushes close by and not wanting to get too close if it decided it wanted to attack—and I knew it did.
            There was a rustling and I stopped, readying my spear. Hywel was on the other side of the bushes and hit at them with his spear to drive the manticore out. I stood ready, but I was not expecting the direction the manticore emerged, and neither was Hywel. I shouted at him and he spun just in time to see the thing flying at his face. He brought the spear up between their bodies and it softened the blow a bit, but the manticore’s claws tore down his shoulder and chest as he fell on his back.
            “Hey!” I shouted at it and without thinking threw my spear. It didn’t hit the manticore, but it got its attention away from Hywel and it was not happy with me. I staggered back a step as it lunged toward me with an angry scream that sounded horrifyingly human, and I fumbled under my coat for the hilt of the sword, knowing I wasn’t going to get it out in time. Knowing I was going to have to if I didn’t want to be a manticore’s breakfast.
            “Owain!” Hywel cried out and I saw him climbing to his feet a fraction of a second before I freed my sword and the manticore plowed into me with another blood-curdling yowl.
            I didn’t even try to stop myself from falling backwards, my eyes squeezed shut, and for a few seconds I wasn’t aware of anything but a heavy weight on top of me, and something hard driving into my ribs painfully.
            “Owain!” Hywel was right above me, tugging at the weight on my chest. It was shoved to one side and hands grabbed my shoulders, dragging me upright before they proceeded to search my body for something. That brought my eyes open and I batted at them in annoyance.
            “St-stop,” I panted, realizing the breath had been knocked out of me. I spent a few moments getting it back as Hywel sat back with obvious relief on his face.
            “Are you all right?” he asked.
            After a few moments, I nodded. The only part of me that was sore was my head where I had smacked it in the fall and my ribs where something—I realized it had been my sword hilt—had been driven against me when the manticore fell on top of me.
            And it had, with my sword right through its heart. Thinking back on it, I never knew how I had managed to get the sword up in time, but I was certainly glad I had or I would be dead.
            Hywel helped me to my feet and steadied me as I shook. I looked down in horrified interest at the dead manticore. Now that I could see it up close, it scared me even more. It was just like the descriptions, and looked so…wrong. So wrong to see it here, in normal, everyday, life. The lion’s body, the humanlike head, and the spined tail. I seemed unable to process it, because my body started rebelling and I collapsed back to the ground and vomited, my body shaking and suddenly chilled from the shock of it all.
            Hywel’s hand was on my shoulder, gripping tight, and I was glad of that small piece of reality, so I focused on it, and not on the dead beast a few feet away.
            “Breathe,” he commanded in a surprisingly gentle tone. “You’ll be all right. You did good.”
            I just nodded, concentrating on breathing. I didn’t know how long we stayed there, but eventually, I began to gather my wits and Hywel helped me stand again, this time with more success, and he retrieved my sword from the dead manticore, wiping it clean on the dewy grass. He pressed it back into my hand and held it there for a few seconds while he met my eyes firmly.
            “Your grandfather would be proud of you,” he said.
            I gripped the sword tight, swallowing the sudden lump in my throat. Hywel squeezed my shoulder one last time before he crouched to look at the manticore again.
            “Well, we need to get going, we can’t leave this thing here.” He gave me the keys to his car. “Bring the car around, and we’ll load it in.”
            I hurried to get the car, all the time breathing in the brisk morning air and using it to clear my head. I wasn’t going to rationalize what had just happened yet, wasn’t even going to contemplate it. In fact, I decided I probably never would. It was one of those things that was best just to take as it was, and not worry you were crazy. I guess I had my evidence. I still didn’t know if I was happy about that or not, but I was strangely a little more comfortable with the fact that Rhys Hywel wasn’t a murderer, and my grandfather wasn’t crazy. I breathed easier after that realization.
            I pulled the car up to the curb, and Hywel met me and reached into the trunk, pulling out a large tarp. We went back to where the dead manticore was, and loaded it on the tarp, carrying it back to the trunk. That was another thing I decided I wasn’t going to think about.
            “Alright, let’s go before too many people start getting up,” Hywel said, wincing as he flexed his injured shoulder. It wasn’t bad but there were a couple deep claw marks there that wouldn’t probably hurt for a few days. I noticed that dawn was starting to break, and the rest of my family would probably be getting up soon. I looked over at Hywel as he started the car.
            “Could you maybe drop me back home? I might be able to make it.”
            He was silent and I was worried I had said something wrong, but then he nodded. “Yes, that’s probably a good idea. You might want to wash the manticore blood off yourself before you go to school.”
            I was horrified I had not realized that before now, but it was true. I was covered in manticore blood. Delightful.
            He pulled up to my house soon after and I was relieved to see no lights on yet. I sighed heavily and went to get out when Hywel caught me by the arm.
            “I’ll be by for you after school,” he said, then added with a slight shrug. “It’s your choice if you want to come or not.”
            I was silent then nodded once. “Okay.” Then I got out of the car.
            I sneaked back upstairs, retrieving the note I had written, and quickly washed myself and my clothes as best I could of the manticore blood. I would have to do a better job later, but for now this would have to do. I was already sore, my ribs particularly, which had a huge, ugly bruise on them, but were not broken, thankfully. I was going to be stiff for the next few days, I knew. Man, I really needed to get into better shape. I had a feeling that Hywel would make sure of that.
            I came down to breakfast like normal, said my good mornings and ate and then went off to school. Classes were as usual, and I tried to concentrate on them, I really did, but honestly, I was a modern warrior who had killed a creature most people didn’t think existed and the thought of that actually had me bursting into choked off laughter during math class to the chagrin of my teacher and amusement of the other students, because it was so stupid. Geometry is for peasants, I wanted to say. It was just so unreal compared to what I had done only hours before that it seemed to be even more of a waste of time than I already thought it was. I wanted to stand on my desk and refuse to go on like this, but, yeah, I was really going to have to tame these delusions I had been having lately.
            I think it was then that I realized for the first time that I was actually going to go along with it. The whole Warden thing. I didn’t think I was so certain of it before, but now I knew. I knew it was my calling, and I was going to answer and ‘damn the torpedoes’.
            I gathered my books after school and headed outside, searching until I found the old Chrysler parked across the street. I hitched my bag on my shoulder and crossed over, sliding into the passenger seat like I had done many times now, finally feeling like it was a smart decision, and not like I was uncertain about what I was doing.
            Hywel didn’t say anything, but I knew he was pleased. His lips turned up slightly and he half-glanced toward me as he started the car. I shifted awkwardly, then asked, “So, what’s on the agenda today?”
            He was silent for a while as usual. I think he just liked to keep me waiting. ‘Patience, young padawon’ and all that, or something.
            “These was no ordinary manticore attacks,” he said instead of answering my question. “It was as I suspected from the beginning.”
            “But how do you know?” I asked.
            “We’ll talk when we get back to the bookstore,” was all he said.
            Once there, we headed inside, and down to the basement. Hywel bypassed the room and went to a door in the back wall, which he opened and motioned for me to step into. It smelled in there and I nearly gagged as I followed him, and nearly gagged again when I saw the manticore laid out on a table. I guessed this was an autopsy room or something. Seeing it again in full light, even dead, sent shivers up my spine. It was certainly a surreal, horrible looking creature and I hoped to never see one again.
            “I was examining the body and realized that it was clean and very well fed for being a manticore caught in urban surroundings. I’ve only read about two other cases where Wardens have tracked then in cities and they were always half-started and eating anything and anyone they could get their claws into. This one is not like that at all, and as we discussed before, it was strange enough that it never took a bite of any of the victims. I think this one was trained for a purpose.”
            “Trained? You can do that?” I asked, incredulous.
            “Manticores are intelligent beasts,” Hywel said as he pulled on a pair of rubber gloves and buried his fingers into the fur around the manticore’s neck. “There are marks of a collar or some sort of restraining device. Possibly electric. I have never personally heard of anyone training a manticore, because while intelligent, they are also volatile, but it’s not unfathomable either. And they would make good assassins.”
            “But if that’s true, then who would have done this? Does anyone know about these things except Wardens?”
            Hywel pulled his gloves off and washed his hands in a nearby sink before showing me out of the autopsy again. “There are indeed other, smaller factions who still keep to the old stories. People with less than honorable intents.”
            “But why all the people who died? Would they have had anything to do with one of these people?”
            Hywel shook his head and went to the small kitchenette and started two cups of tea. “I looked through all their profiles thoroughly and saw no indication that they were at all connected with each other, or anything of the mythical world. I even asked all the Wardens I know if they might have known them, but they didn’t. They were nobodies by normal standards. Random killings on the part of whoever did this. I think they were either tests for something bigger or…”
            “Or what?” I prompted, my heart beating fast at this new, horrifying information.
            “Or warnings,” Hywel finished filling a tea ball with loose leaves. “Owain, before your grandfather died, he had been looking into suspicious killings. Things that were more supernatural than what could be explained by normal human killers, but too neat to be just the random kills of a creature, and we suspected that someone might be behind them. But we never got a chance to find out. After he died, everything seemed to go back into the woodwork like it had never happened at all, only raising our suspicions, but there was nothing we could do about it.”
            He was hiding something, I knew from how he didn’t face me when he spoke. I was breathing heavily, trying to process the fact that my grandfather had been investigating something that could have been connected to what had been going on now. And if that was true, then…
            “Hywel,” I said suddenly, then, “Rhys.” He turned at that, slightly surprised at my using his Christian name, but not seeming to disapprove. “Was my grandfather’s death an accident?”
            His shoulders stiffened when I said it, and I knew my suspicions—ones, I realized, I had had all along, even if I didn’t know when I was twelve—had been confirmed. He turned around slowly to face me.
            “When we…found Gareth,” he said quietly, the pain obvious, as he relived the day. “Before the police came, and we retrieved his journal, we found the two last pages missing. As far as I knew they had not been like that before. And the way the car was damaged…he might have run into the side of the building eventually, but there was scrapes and dents on both sides of that car, and the back was crushed as well and no one else was around.”
            I swallowed hard, clenching my fists as I processed that information. I didn’t like it, but at the same time, it helped. Strangely enough, it helped to know that he hadn’t left me on purpose, not that I had ever thought he had, but now I had someone to blame for taking my grandpa away from me, even if I didn’t have his face yet. It seemed to fill several cracks that I hadn’t known were open before.
            “I’m sorry,” Hywel said quietly. “I wasn’t going to tell you, but I think it’s necessary given the light of recent events.”
            I nodded in agreement. “I’m glad you told me,” I said truthfully.
            We had tea, and talked a little of the training that would accompany my apprenticeship. We decided that he would offer me a job at the bookstore to cover for my time there. I was glad of that, knowing that my mom would definitely approve of my having a job now, even if my real job was much more important than selling books—as much as I loved that aspect of it too. Before long, I realized it had gotten later than I realized and I needed to start back home. Hywel and I went out to his car when he offered to give me a lift, and before I got in, he stopped me.
            “This is what it will be like if you continue your training as a Warden,” he told me quietly. “It’s hard, as I said before, and dangerous, and there is a real possibility that on some of these hunts you have the chance of not coming back. I just need to make sure you understand this before you agree to anything because I will not spend time training someone who is not willing to stick with it.”
            I contemplated this a moment then looked up to meet his eyes. “This person who trained the manticore; could they possibly have something to do with my grandfather’s death?”
            “I don’t know, Owain,” Hywel said honestly. “But it is a strong possibility.”
            I nodded, shoving my hands into the pockets of my coat. “I’ve never felt that I really belonged anywhere, not since Grandpa died. Not until now.” I shrugged. “I honestly don’t think I could walk away even if I wanted to. This is my life, my ancestry, and it seems as natural as breathing. It might take me a while to actually get used to it, but I’m ready to go along for the ride, and if I can find the person who killed my grandfather, then I am more than willing to stick with this, whatever the consequences.”
            Hywel nodded as if he had known all along. “Good. I’m very glad you made that decision. In fact, I think we have another job; something has been drowning people in a lake not far from here. There’s also been reports of wild horses running around. Sounds like a kelpie to me and just in time for the weekend. You think you can make an excuse to get away for a couple days?”
            I smiled slightly. “I’ll think of something.”
            “Oh, and Owain,” Hywel said, reaching into one of the many pockets of his coat and pulling out a leather journal, tossing it to me. “Write down everything that has happened so far. You’ll have to get used to it.”
            I caught the journal and smiled, running my fingers over the embossed Warden symbol on the front. “I will.”
            I climbed into the car and looked out the window as Hywel backed out onto the street. I frowned as something caught my eye. For just a minute, I thought I had seen a dark figure standing further down the street, but when I looked again it was gone. I decided it was just from lack of sleep. I looked down at the journal in my lap again, and smiled. Whatever came, I was looking forward to learning more about how to be a Warden.
            “So,” I turned to Hywel. “It looks like we have work to do.”
            “Oh yes, one of us more than the other,” he said with a dry chuckle. I laughed too, and felt alive again for the first time in six years. The idea of this new life might be a bit daunting, but the thought of the adventures that would accompany it filled me with excitement and purpose. I had finally found where I belonged and I was going to embrace it with all I had.
            Now to research kelpies…

Copyright© 2015 by Hazel B. West

Monday, May 18, 2015

Modern Mythical Creature Challenge: "The Girl and the Leaf Dragon"-- Mara A.

Starting off the second week of our new challenge, here is Mara's contribution involving adorable baby dragons :-)

The Girl and the Leaf Dragon
By Mara A.

Author’s Note

I got the inspiration for this story from something that happened a long time ago, when I was a kid at my first Renaissance Faire. There was a storyteller there, and she wove a tale about orphan dragon eggs and how they needed to be adopted (for a low price of $25). Being the dragon-crazy, imaginative child that I was, I desperately wanted to "adopt" one of the dragon eggs she was selling (the fact that they came in fancy, awesome boxes did not factor into this desire whatsoever). But of course, I knew I wouldn't be allowed to have one, so I dreamed of all that could have been if things had been different.


The girl has never known such splendor. It has been a long day of endless color and light and sound. Jesters have tried to make her laugh; skeleton men have startled her; the queen and her handmaidens invited her to the knighting ceremony. But best of all was the royal joust and the gypsy horse acrobats that came after. The girl had been swept away by the thunder of hooves, the thunderous shout of the crowd. She had been moved by the lulling, exotic music, the bright costumes, the astonishing skill of the acrobats.
            It had been a day filled with wonder indeed.
            But now the girl was tired. The sun beat down mercilessly and she could not consume one more ice cream cone from the kind friars even if she had wanted to. Her ears were deadened to the shouts of the pickle lady, her eyes could not take in one single more bizarre site. She was simply overwhelmed - and yet, not at all ready to leave this place and return to the mundane world.
            With tired feet, she made her way to a single shady tree, but it was of course occupied. A sizable crowd of other children were gathered around a woman in a dress made of earth-tone patches. Her thick black hair was braided simply down her shoulder with gold and green glass and fine bone beads. Compared to many of the strange inhabitants of the faire, she was nothing remarkable in her worn leather boots and dark blue cloak. And yet her careful, quiet posture; her dark, fathomless eyes; her gentle, mysterious beckoned the girl to draw closer. And she did, settling herself on the ground with the other children until they formed a small circle around the woman.
            There was an expectant hush. The girl didn't know what would happen next. But soon the woman began to speak; her voice low and soft and melodious. Gentle and captivating. She asked them to listen; to hear her words as she wove a tale of magic and sorrow. From her the girl learned that there was a place - a distant, magical place - where creatures she only dreamed of lived. Unicorns and faeries and little fire imps - and yes, dragons. Dragons of every sort and every size. Great, majestic ice dragons whom the northern lords claimed as their steeds for battle; gentle, shy coral dragons who dwelt deep in the sea and played among the merfolk; dragons the color of midnight, dragons as bright as jewels; dragons that spat acid and lived deep in swamps or high in the mountains; dragons the size of cathedrals and dragons the size of the girl's thumb.
            But this was long ago, the woman said. Now, the world had changed; kings had turned against dragonkind. Knights hunted them for sport; merchants sold their scales as adornment, leather-workers as armor. Healers imbued their potions with choice pieces and emperors devoured their hearts to gain the strength of a hundred men and the wisdom of a thousand. What led to such a travesty was unknown, but it had caused great destruction and the dragons were now a dying breed. No more did the northern lords command the respect and power they once had with their mighty mounts; no more did sea captains pray for favorable voyages as the coral dragons hid instead of protecting them from misfortune. The luck dragons had disappeared long ago into the clouds, the Nightwings into their caves and mountaintops.
            She, the woman said, was one of very few who still hoped for the return of dragonkind. It was her sworn duty to protect them and take them away to other lands, in the hopes that they might thrive and humans could once again live with them as they once did. But fledgling dragons needed careful tending and only a very few were courageous enough to undertake such a task. She felt that maybe some among them were up to it.
            With care, the woman took from behind her a large ebony box engraved with intricate filigree and inlayed with goldleaf. The girl would have given anything to study the box closer, but the other children blocked her view as they crowded forward to peer inside. Nestled among the blackest velvet were small, delicate eggs, ranging from the deepest bronze to the lightest of rose. Leaf dragons, the woman said; orphaned and in need of care. But she could not give them over for nothing, though she wished she could.
            The girl sad back sadly when the woman declared the price. She knew that they were not real, of course, but still she would have liked to have had one. She watched sadly as eagerly the children sought their parents and wheedled and pled until they were given what they asked. The woman carefully placed the claimed eggs in smaller, less intricate boxes, also lined with black velvet. These she locked with a small key and gave that and a small scroll over to eager hands. It was not long before all of the eggs were claimed and the girl was the only child remaining, watching the scene with a yearning heart.
            With sadness, she turned away, trying at least to feel glad that the draclings had been claimed at all. But the woman called to her and beckoned her over with a hand clad in a curious leather armband. Hesitantly, the girl drew forward. With a secret smile, the woman drew from behind her one last box. It was honey-blonde and simple, with a single intricate star burned on the lid. The woman removed a key on a gold chain from a pocket and handed it to the girl. Carefully, the girl unlocked the box and stared in wonder. Amid a bed of sapphire-blue velvet was a slightly green-tinged egg veined with gold. It was no bigger than the girl's hand and it thrummed with heat in a way none of the other eggs had.
            A dragon, the woman said with a serious stare, needs much tending. And it takes a very courageous sort of person to do it. And she gave the box to the girl.
            She did not know what to say, and so she said nothing. But the woman understood. She smiled a secret smile and turned away. Happily, deliriously, the girl tucked the box close to her chest and walked away to find her parents. They were not far off, watching a smithy craft a buckle. They asked if she was ready to leave; if she had had fun. The girl nodded mutely, tucking the box closer. They asked about it; she said a woman had given them to children who listened to her story. She did not say what was inside. It didn't matter. Her parents would nod knowingly and exchange a look she did not like. She knew it was not real, but she wanted to believe that it was.
            When they returned home to the mundane world, the girl placed the box carefully on her nightstand. She opened it, rearranging the velvet around the egg so it was snugger, warmer. Then she burrowed under the covers and stared at it until her eyes became heavy, never turning the bedside light off. It wasn't real, she told herself. She would entertain the fantasy for a little longer, and a dragon egg should have warmth, shouldn't it? Her eyes grew heavier. And then they were shut.
            At the witching hour, the egg chirped. It rustled. It rocked as much as it could in its bed of velvet. Then a tiny hole appeared at the top. And then it widened. Finally, a small horn was soon followed by a persistent arrow-shaped head. With a determined trill, the egg was shattered open and the girl woke. Sitting admit the ruins was a small creature mottled green and gold like a leaf turning to autumn. Its delicate wings were tattered and veined like an oak leaf, its body narrow and flat as if to blend in with foliage. The creature trilled at the girl, expectant.
            Was she still asleep, she wondered? Had her imagination finally gone too far? She rubbed her eyes, pinched herself, but the little leaf dracling did not disappear. Instead, it had turned from her and started sniffing at her strawberry-shaped clock. It took an experimental bite, then huffed angrily when it turned out to be inedible.
            The girl slid from her bed and removed the scroll the woman had given her from the nightstand drawer. She had been too tired to look at it earlier. In beautiful, looping script the care of her dracling was described. Bundling the dracling in the velvet, the girl crept on silent feet outside and to her father's greenhouse. The dracling chirped excitedly when it saw the rows and rows of tomato plants, heavy with round, ripe fruit. It wriggled out of the velvet and glided to the nearest plant, snatching a tomato and devouring it.
            The girl watched in wonder. She turned the scroll around in her hands, marveling, until small, neat script on the other side caught her attention: "Legend exists for the ones willing to believe. And it will bring you luck."
            The girl looked over at the leaf dracling again, its snout dripping tomato juice and seeds. She smiled.

Copyright© 2015 Mara A.

Read more of Mara's stories on the Writer's Page