Short Story – “A Gift for the Guardian”

Got another one of my personal favorite short stories appearing here this week. If I recall correctly, this was the very last short story that I wrote before I began working on my trilogy of young-adult fantasy novels, The Luminous Legend.

In this tale, you’ll be following a young prince who boldly sets off to meet with a monstrous creature. There’s some debate amongst the peoples of the land as to whether the creature’s title of “The Guardian” is fitting, or if the creature is more of a menace, than anything else. My love of giant monsters naturally played a role in this story’s creation, but my greatest inspiration behind it was the famous scene in The Hobbit where Bilbo Baggins first meets Smaug and has an extended conversation with the great dragon.

As you’ll see in “A Gift for the Guardian”, there’s something fascinating to me about a simple human coming face to face with a titanic beast, especially when a discussion between two such radically-different living beings is involved.

This story finishes at just a little over 6,500 words. Enjoy!

 

 

A Gift for the Guardian

 

Prince Caffrey stood on the castle rampart, peering into the distance as he listened intently to the mysterious sounds that continued to echo across the countryside. Sonorous rumbles fell from the sky, making even stone tremble in their wake. Mighty gusts of wind rode over the plains where the castle sat, each new gale nearly lifting Caffrey off his feet with their strength. When they passed, the air immediately grew still just moments after.

Any man would have assumed that the sounds were the prelude to a violent storm, but Caffrey knew better.

They were the sounds of the Guardian.

It could not be flying very low, the young boy knew. If it were, his youthful eyes would have spotted it immediately. He knew that it flew somewhere in the sky above, but each time he looked upward, he only saw the sea of gray clouds that canopied the kingdom.

“Prince Caffrey, your father requests that you come inside, now!” a servant’s voice rang out below in the courtyards.

Begrudgingly, the young prince stepped away from the parapet. He took one last glance ahead at the empty countryside before him, and turned back toward the castle’s keep.

Before his eyes even shifted, a tremendous rush of wind passed over him. One of the thunderous rumbles which he heard earlier also returned, louder than any of the previous. An enormous shadow darkened the ramparts for a split second.

When Caffrey looked up, he saw a gargantuan shape soar overhead. It resembled a falcon, but it was larger than any other living being that dwelled in the kingdom. It wore a hood of ebon feathers, while its wings were like charcoal, and its underbelly snowy white. When its curved break fell open, it loosed a piercing cry that seemed to overtake every inch of air within the realm.

The prince’s face glowed as he watched the Guardian sail away into the horizon.

Behind him, a thin, timid man slowly crept up the stairs to the parapets. Unlike the prince, his face showed great distress merely at the sight of the Guardian in the distance.

“M-my Prince, you should come down and back into the c-castle now…” the man said as he tightened his cloak about himself, his arms quivering, “Your father would like you be inside before it grows too dark this evening.”

Caffrey did not argue. He took the servant’s shaking hand and followed him off the parapets obediently.

But not before he caught one final glimpse of the Guardian as it disappeared into the horizon.

 

* * * * *

 

That night, the great hall was filled with folk of all ages. Every table, chair, and bench was occupied, whether by a castle resident, or by one of the many visitors who ventured through the countryside to witness a summit called by the wise King Aramek.

He sat at the far wall, joined by his young son, Prince Caffrey, and his closest advisors. He was a burly man with a stout frame that was draped by a crimson coat. His thickly-bearded face could both soothing or frighten depending on the expression he wore, but that night, his features were contemplative as he stared at the gathering before him.

An array of men stood at the front of the throng, each one wearing a grizzled countenance and sporting some form of armor and weapons. They were warriors, but not like the proud soldiers which served the king and guarded his castle; they were wanderers and mercenaries who only served themselves and their wallets, while a handful were secretly outlaws who roguishly plundered from the kingdom and its people.

As most of the folk in attendance sat quietly, those same men continued to converse with the king about a wide-spread grievance.

“I do not care what the legends and myths say of it; that creature is a menace to this kingdom!” one of the men exclaimed.

“A monster is what that thing is!” another added.

The king nodded to his subjects, but showed uncertainty through his firm, wise features. “I’m still not sure if I can agree with that sentiment,” Aramek replied. “But, just for a moment, let us believe that what you say is true; what would you propose we do to deal with the Guardian?”

The king’s closest consultant, a tall, bald man named Kabal, stood from his chair and stared scathingly at the armed men. “Would you raise an army merely to get every man killed?” Kabal challenged. “There is no force in this entire kingdom which may ever match the Guardian’s great power.”

One of the warriors stepped forward. He was a large man clad in black mail. Multiple scars creased his weathered face, which stared back unflinching at Kabal. “We can’t simply stand by idly as it terrorizes the realm,” he pressed. “Maybe you’re too frightened of the Guardian to consider challenging it, but I, for one, would be more than willing to lead an attack on that monster so that our people can go about their days without looking up to the sky in fear.”

“What, precisely, has the Guardian done to harm anyone?” Aramek spoke up once more.

The armored warrior turned his eyes to the king and developed a much more reverent tone to his words. “My King, you must have heard of the forts it effortlessly destroyed in its wrath just the other spring, or that town which it attacked no more than a month ago, where it razed the mayor’s house to the ground.”

Kabal’s eyes hardened, as though they saw clear through the warrior’s façade of respect. “I also know of what happened to those forts, and how many of the men there once boasted about sneaking into the Guardian’s lair and stealing some of its treasures,” he interjected. “I also know how the mayor of that town had regularly stolen from its treasury and pilfered the townsfolk’s taxes.”

Aramek developed an expression equally as mistrusting as Kabal’s when he looked back at the armored man. “If what my advisor says is true, then I would be quite hesitant to condemn the Guardian for its actions,” the king declared.

The warrior did not wilt under their stern gazes.  “I can assure you that not every person in those forts was guilty of what a few bold souls did,” he said. “Besides, those men might have needed the wealth that those treasures brought. This land has prospered tremendously with your rule, King Aramek, but not all peoples have been able to find wealth over the years. The treasure that the Guardian hordes could be used to pull our languishing people from poverty. After all, what use is gold, jewels, and the like to a giant creature such as the Guardian?”

Before Aramek or one of his advisors could respond, a soft voice emerged from beside them.

“If it found the treasure itself, why should that matter what the Guardian uses it for?” Prince Caffrey asked, hardly even moving in his seat.

The entire great hall went silent at the sound of the prince’s meek words, and a number of eyes lit up in astonishment at the way he so suddenly inserted himself into the discussion.

Caffrey spoke again without paying a thought to attention that was placed upon him. “Most people just horde treasure as the Guardian; if it found it on its own and did not steal it from anyone, why should someone else be able to just take it away?”

The warriors in front of the crowd suppressed a number of sneers and glares at the prince. They saw his argument as nothing more than a lad’s naïve fascination with a tremendous creature such as the Guardian, yet they knew that they could never say so. To mock the prince was an even greater offense than to mock the king—especially if his father heard the irreverent words, himself.

“Caffrey, do you not remember what I told you before?” Aramek whispered as he leaned toward his son, his face becoming rigid. “You are better off staying out of this argument and leaving it to myself and the other elders.”

The prince met his father’s hard gaze with an indignant, yet gentle, expression on his youthful face. “But father, the Guardian is not an evil creature; these men do not know what they say about it,” Caffrey said.

“With all respect, my King…” Kabal slowly broke in, drawing Aramek’s attention. “I would say that Prince Caffrey actually seems to be the wisest of any of us here this evening.”

Several chuckles emerged across the crowd, which only made the warriors hide further frustration.

“I certainly appreciate your admiration for my son, Kabal, but this is not a matter for a boy to decide,” Aramek declared. “I do not think that it is even one which we can determine—at least for the moment. I see the wisdom in both sides to this issue, but I am still unsure of how to act. Let a few more nights pass, and at another time, we can perhaps decide on what action to take.”

King Aramek then stood up from his chair and looked all about the folk who filled the great hall.

“Until then, I deem this summit to be over with for the evening. I advise that we all retire for the night, and hopefully sleep will bring fresher, more assured thoughts in the morning.”

 

* * * * *

 

Dawn was still two hours off when Caffrey slipped from beneath his blanket and silently hopped off his bed.  The prince had been awake for a little while, and was not at all sleepy as he collected a handful of items huddled in one corner of his room. He donned an indigo cloak, and fastened a small pouch about his waist. He then latched a small dagger in its sheath onto his belt—the only weapon suitable for a boy his age, and the only kind which the king would allow him to carry

He came to a short dresser near his bed. A golden chalice sat on the dresser, the encrusted rubies in its brim gleaming even in the dark. Caffrey took hold of the lavish cup, set into his pouch, and quietly stole out of his bedroom.

The hallways were even darker than the shadows running across the countryside, but Caffrey knew the castle by every nook and cranny. He stealthily snuck through each corridor and room without alerting a single guard, and in little time he was out of the keep and within the courtyards. He quickly came to one of the castle’s high walls, finding a small wooden door at its base where no sentry kept watch.

It became his portal to the vast countryside beyond. His booted feet hurried in a dash across the open plains, the prince clinging to the shadows and away from the eyes of the soldiers who stood guard on the castle parapets.

When he left the rolling fields, Caffrey entered a large forest just at the foot of the mountains. He ventured through the forest for well over an hour until the trees began to thin, and the dark canopy above opened to reveal the first traces of the dawn sky. Faint, glassy rays of light managed to poke through the bramble, but they could hardly make their way through the morning fog that hung like a cloud at the kingdom floor.

The prince eventually stepped beyond the forest and onto rocky, coarse terrain. A sprawling landscape of stone hills ran out before him, ending at the base of the land’s tallest mountains.

Caffrey knew that the Guardian’s lair somewhere among those stone towers lay.

But just as he neared the heart of the vast space, a frightening call rang out behind him. His eyes looked back for only a moment to spot three dark shapes soaring over the same forest that he just ventured through.

He did not look at the shapes for long. His feet became a blur across the gritty terrain as he sped forward. He ran with every measure of strength in his legs, yet no matter how fast he dashed across the rocks, he felt that he created no distance between himself and the dark shapes that glided through the air and neared him with every passing second.

Their chorus of cries cut through the once serene morning air. Each inhuman call was louder than the last, and the prince soon heard the sound of wind rushing throughout the open space as the creatures flew overhead.

Sensing that they were nearly on top of him, Caffrey at last gave up his attempt to outrun them. He leapt to the stony ground and threw his arms over his head. Just a moment later, he heard each beast pass by.

Caffrey looked up from the rocky floor, finally catching a glimpse of the monsters. Their skin was pitch-black, and their bodies were coated by grimy, brown fur. Huge, leathery wings stretched far from their thin frames. Long ears fell from their squat heads and flapped in the wind. Their ghastly visages sported cruel fangs that reached out beyond their lips.

They reminded Caffrey of the bats which occasionally took shelter in the lofts and rooftops of the castle; only these creatures in the sky were large enough to envelop the branches of an old oak tree.

Strangely, the monsters never even paid a glance at Caffrey. After soaring over him, they continued onward and beyond toward the mountains. The prince incredulously began to lift himself off of the ground. Why did they ignore him when he was helpless in the middle of the clearing?

Before he even got to his knees, he was batted down by a mighty wind. A tremendous shadow briefly darkened the space around him, and a familiar screech tore through the hillside.

The Guardian flew overheard, its sharp eyes showing unmatched ferocity as they fixated the dark creatures ahead of it.

The creatures suddenly wheeled in the air and turned back to face their pursuer. With their fang-filled maws agape and their claws outstretched, they charged to meet the Guardian.

The Guardian dipped under the first two beasts with deftness that betrayed its massive size.  When the last of the creatures was before it, the Guardian raised its talons and struck. Each one of its pointed claws raked through the creature’s fur and flabby hide before flinging the dark monstrosity to the rocky floor below.

Just as the Guardian turned to face its other foes, the two bat-like beasts leapt onto the avian giant and wildly assailed it with slashes of their fangs and claws.

Caffrey was again reminded of the Guardian’s immense size as he watched it meander through the air with the creatures clinging to its feathers—each of the creatures was larger than a cottage, yet, even together, they failed to cover all of the Guardian’s great wingspan.

The young prince was then reminded of the Guardian’s immeasurable strength. With one prodigious motion, it swung both wings outward and threw the monsters clear off its body.

One of the ugly beasts was helpless to keep itself aloft as it tumbled through the air, eventually crashing onto the rocks in a heap.

The last of the monsters was able to use its leathery wings to regain its poise. With a nightmarish cry, the creature drove toward the Guardian. The two behemoths met in the air, clashing with wing and talon, beak dueling with fang. They rose higher into the sky as they swiped and slashed at one another, and Caffrey’s unblinking eyes followed them the entire way above the kingdom floor.

At last, one struck a decisive blow. The Guardian’s beak darted forward with blinding speed, slicing through the dark monster’s hide like a saber. The creature loosed a hideous howl and plummeted to the hillside. As the monster smashed onto the rocky ground, Caffrey felt a tremble beneath his knees.

Without hesitation, the creatures lifted themselves off of the ground and began a hapless retreat. Their wings moved in a sluggish flutter as they bore themselves away from the hills and their indomitable foe.

The Guardian watched them coldly, and lifted its ebon head.

“Fly! Fly back to the wretched holes which you sprang from!” it cried, its words ringing out all across the hillside. “But know that should I ever find your vile forms skulking over the creatures of this land, you will never see your filthy dwellings again!”

Caffrey felt his blood run cold at the sound of the Guardian’s voice. He never knew it to be able to speak, at least in the language of the humans. Its voice was more powerful than any man’s which he ever heard—strangely shrill, yet thunderous at the same time.

When it finished its proclamation, the Guardian rose higher into the sky before taking off toward the mountains beyond.

A few moments later, the prince was once again alone in the middle of the hillside, amazed by all of what he beheld.

Caffrey picked himself off the ground, and his eyes immediately fell to the rising mountains just ahead of him. The Guardian had flown somewhere into the reach of their peaks, and he knew that was where his journey would guide him next.

Morning overtook the kingdom as the prince sent himself along the rocky crags. The sky shed its navy shades and took on a softer tone with the passing of dawn. Pallid rays of light shone beyond the world’s calm ceiling as the sun struggled to emerge. On most days, the afternoon would eventually bring a pristine sky that allowed the sun to illuminate every corner of the kingdom.

But the sun never made its presence known while the prince traversed the mountainous stretch. The sky eventually morphed into a dreary, gray canopy as the day wore on. The land remained overcast for much of the time that the prince ventured through the mountainside, until at some point early in the afternoon, charcoal clouds rolled in and blanketed the sky with their dark forms.

Thunder began to boom across the land, their rumbling cries echoing throughout the mountain passes. A light drizzle began to fall to the earth below, and the prince knew that it would soon grow into a violent downpour.

Just when he felt the raindrops become heavier, Caffrey spotted a large opening in the side of one of the mountains. He hurried across the pass’s muddy surface as he anticipated the shelter of the gaping portal.

When he came to the entrance, he found that it was only the beginning of a short tunnel that led somewhere deeper in the mountain. At its end, a glimmer winked at him through the darkness. Unsure of what lay within, the prince made his way down the black passageway until he came to a sight that stunned him.

The tunnel opened up into a gigantic room that was lined with gleaming treasure. Caffrey’s transfixed eyes washed over a sea of gold coins, rings, bracelets, necklaces, chalices, and weapons. Entire mounds of gold stood taller than the prince himself, and likely, he thought, taller than any adult in the kingdom.

Scattered amongst the piles were a number of priceless riches forged of other precious gems and metals. The prince saw rubies, garnets, sapphires, emeralds, diamonds, topazes, and countless items crafted of silver and bronze.

There was no mistaking it—Caffrey had stumbled upon the Guardian’s lair, and its unequaled horde of treasure.

Once his awe wore off, the prince opened his cloak and reached into the knapsack tied to his belt. He pulled out the golden chalice that he brought with him from the castle, along with a small piece of parchment, already with a message inscribed upon it. He placed the parchment inside the cup, and set them down on the cavern’s stone surface just in front of the heaps of treasure.

With a smile, the prince turned back toward the mountain entrance.

He took only two steps.

The Guardian stood before him, its narrowed eyes staring down at Caffrey unblinking.

Caffrey did not even feel his eyes widen or his jaw slack.

Somehow, the Guardian had slipped into the cavern behind him without as much as a sound. The magnificent behemoth was like a statue as it stood before him, not a single feather rustling over its gigantic frame. Its wings lay behind its back—a sight that reminded the prince of whenever his father would hold his arms behind himself and scold Caffrey.

“There are many different entrances to my mountain, child. Clearly, you do not know of them all.”

The Guardian’s voice sounded different from when it shouted across the hillside earlier in the afternoon. Its tone was now smooth and reverberating, its words slowly rolling out of its beak. Whereas before, its cry was powerful and terrifying, the way it spoke now suggested cunning and intelligence.

“You are bold beyond description to dare step foot within my lair,” the Guardian went on. “Very few humans have ever snuck in and laid their hands on a piece of my horde. Even fewer have done so and managed to escape the mountains with it.”

The Guardian’s voice was especially low as it uttered those last words. It looked up from Caffrey for the first time, its piercing eyes coming to the sea of treasure that filled the cavern.

“It does not appear that any trinket is missing, but instead, there is one I do not recognize; one that was not here when I last left the mountain,” the Guardian said, and its gaze shot back down at the petrified prince. “Would you happen to know how it arrived here?”

Caffrey was certain that the Guardian already knew the answer. It took several moments for the prince to find the courage to speak, and when he did, his words were few.

“I brought it…” was all that he was able to answer with, and he went silent again.

“A child does not normally possess an item of such value, nor a dagger such as the one secured beneath your cloak,” the Guardian explained. “Tell me—where did you find the chalice you have brought here to my lair?”

“It was a gift…” Caffrey began slowly. “A gift given to me by my father when I was young—”

“You are still young, my boy,” the Guardian sharply interjected.

The prince nearly jumped. “Yes; yes I am…” he agreed, respect filling his voice.

“But such a prize is still uncommon even among grown men,” the Guardian said. “Am I correct when I assume that your father is no ordinary man in the kingdom?”

Caffrey nodded, and waited a few moments to respond. “My father is the king.”

“And you are none other than the prince of the realm,” the Guardian said. “So then, why would a prince like yourself sneak away from the castle and come all the way through these treacherous mountains just to place a golden chalice within my horde?”

“I wanted to give it you,” Caffrey answered. “I wrote a note explaining—”

“I do not wish to read what is written on a piece of parchment,” the Guardian interrupted. “I will hear it from your own mouth.”

Caffrey gulped audibly. “Well…I know that there are a lot of humans who try to steal your treasure, so I thought you might appreciate being given something, instead of something being taken from you. After all, you don’t deserve to have what is yours stolen, even if it isn’t as important to you as it is to humans.”

Caffrey hoped that his explanation would gain the Guardian’s approval, but it did not seem to appease the great creature. The Guardian stared at him for what seemed like an eternity, not even shifting where it stood upon its talons.

“That is not your only reason,” the Guardian suddenly broke in. “I wish to hear the other.”

Caffrey’s body stiffened. It was a few moments before he found the courage to speak again. Although his words were uncertain at first, he gained confidence as he went on. “There are many humans who do not trust you because of how you have attacked towns and fortresses. They think that you are dangerous to all of us, but I don’t believe them. I know that you must have a good reason for why you do things such as that. I thought that you might appreciate getting a gift from someone, just as a sort of reminder that not every person in the kingdom resents you. Maybe, then, that way, you wouldn’t have to attack so many places and scare people as much as you have been.”

Once again, the lair went completely silent. The Guardian stood motionless as its sharp eyes gazed at the young prince before it, its ebon face lined with suspicion. Caffrey’s own gaze could not lay upon the Guardian for long, and the boy’s eyes regularly darted away every time he tried to look upon the tremendous creature before him.

To Caffrey’s surprise, though, he heard a hearty laugh boom throughout the heart of the mountain. The prince looked up to see the Guardian’s head cocked back as laughter poured from its beak.

“For all of this time, I believed that selflessness was quickly evaporating from the kingdom,” the Guardian eventually said, and looked back at Caffrey. “But here it stands before me in the form of a mere boy.” Its bronze eyes were now soft, and a warm smile was slanted across its face. “Tell me, my Prince, what is your name?”

“Caffrey,” the prince answered quite casually, despite his astonishment at the Guardian’s new demeanor.

“A fine name for a prince; your father chose well,” the Guardian said with a wink.

With the Guardian displaying such a friendly disposition, Caffrey no longer felt reluctant to strike up conversation with it. “If I may ask—where did you find all of this treasure?” the prince asked, looking back at the plethora of riches behind him.

“I am glad that you did,” the Guardian answered gaily. “These treasures come from all across the kingdom and from a number of different ages. I have found them buried in caverns, hidden in mountains, and stored away in castles long abandoned by humans from another history. I have even gathered pieces of this horde from shipwrecks along the sea, and vessels which lay at the bottom of the waves. What you see before you is not all of what I’ve collected over time—much no longer rests here.”

“What happened to it? Was it stolen?” Caffrey asked.

“Only a tiny portion,” the Guardian said. “Some of what no longer rests here lies in less fortunate villages and towns across the kingdom, but most is within other countries far beyond this mountain, in lands not as well off as this one. You see, Prince Caffrey, there are other realms besides the one which you and I stand in. Many are suffering from difficult times just as this kingdom once did a great long ago, before your father became king.”

“So that is why you gather all of the treasure—to take to other people,” the prince said, realizing what drove the Guardian to gather such wealth.

“Indeed, my young Prince—now with that knowledge in hand, do you still wish to leave your chalice here with me, or will you take it with you when you return to your castle?” the Guardian asked.

Caffrey answered without a moment’s debate, not even aware that the Guardian tested him once more. “Of course it can stay. I’d rather see it go to someone who might truly need it.”

The avian giant nodded approvingly, clearly very proud of Caffrey’s understanding. “There are those outside of this kingdom who have a tremendous need for it if their own lands are ever to prosper as this one has,” the Guardian explained. “They need it far more than anyone within this realm, especially all of the despicable thieves and gluttonous vassals who still call this land home. Before, I worried that the people of this kingdom were growing much too concerned with themselves, only acting to better their own lives. But you, Prince Caffrey, have proven to me this day that there are still pure hearts to be found in this land, and you provide me with hope for its future.”

The prince was not sure how to react from such a glowing compliment by the Guardian, so he merely returned a wide smile.

The Guardian spoke up once more. “But for that to be, I must make sure that you return safely to your castle, where I am sure that your father anxiously awaits your return,” it said, and turned to make its way down the tunnel that Caffrey entered the mountain through. “Follow me, my Prince!”

The Guardian strutted out of its lair and down the passage, the prince following closely behind. When they came to the mountain’s entrance, Caffrey found that the storm still had not passed. It was even more violent than before, releasing torrents of rain upon the earth which battered the prince as soon as he stepped outside.

The Guardian hardly even blinked as the rain washed across its feathered frame.

“Doesn’t this rain bother you at all?” the prince called out over the raucous of the downpour, struggling to hold his cowl over his head.

The Guardian’s head arched as its tremendous wings unfolded. “Not in the least; I hardly even feel any of these drops!” it boasted with a radiant smirk. It lifted one talon off of the muddy ground and opened it clawed toes. “Set yourself into my talon, my Prince. I’ll return to your castle in no time.”

Caffrey would have preferred to wait out the storm, but it was clear that the Guardian had already decided on their plans. Seeing no sense in arguing with the Guardian, and understanding that his father was probably worried sick over his absence, Caffrey sat himself within the Guardian’s talon and took hold of its claws.

“It has been some time since I’ve flown with a human, so I apologize if the trip is somewhat frightening,” the Guardian said, and began to flap its wings as it gradually rose above the mountain floor. “But I promise that you will be back within the castle walls without a scratch on you; although, you may be a little drenched by that time.”

In another moment, the Guardian lifted itself sharply into the air. The prince watched the ground drop away beneath him, and felt a strange mixture of panic and thrill as the Guardian rose hundreds of feet into the sky. It soared onward, gliding gracefully through the crashing showers and just under the dark storm clouds.

Caffrey could not resist letting his eyes wander as he hung an incalculable height above the kingdom. The boy felt as though he could see into all corners of the realm from his vantage point, his eyes even catching glimpses of the lands beyond which the Guardian spoke of before. The golden plains that stretched on westward appeared as if they were painted onto the landscape. Just ahead lay the sprawling forest which the prince traveled through on his way to the Guardian’s lair; the forest appearing only a shapeless mass of rich green sitting upon the countryside. Beneath him were the tips of the mountains which few men had ever seen, and even fewer had ever stood higher than. Once towering cliffs of daunting stone, the mountains seemed only like tiny knolls to Caffrey’s eyes.

He believed he saw a distant shape some miles ahead which resembled the castle, but a flash of lightning overtook his vision for a split moment. His eyes were still blurry when the great flare dispersed, and the prince’s grip on the Guardian tightened as he sank desperately into its talon.

“No need to worry, young Prince,” the Guardian assured him over the roar of the storm. “The lightning has never been any impediment for me.”

Caffrey was momentarily blinded by another flash. He felt the Guardian wheel through the air and out of the way of a lightning bolt that sped downward to the kingdom below. Two more lances of electricity tore through the blackened sky, closely followed by booming claps of thunder that overpowered every other cry brought by the storm. Caffrey’s ears began to detect a shrill crackle above, and the Guardian arced through the sky as it narrowly evaded another bolt that raced out of the clouds.

The prince felt the urge to shut his eyes and wrap his cowl across his face, yet he found himself unable to hide his sight from the storm and the incredible panorama above the land.

Within another minute, the Guardian’s wings had carried them so far that they were already leaving the storm’s reach. The clouds above gradually brightened, and the rain diminished from a downpour, to a drizzle, to hardly a mist. The thunder claps became only a distant rumbling, and the jagged bolts of lightning were only dim flashes behind them.

When they passed over the deep forest which Caffrey went through the night before, the castle and its grey walls were in clear view as it stood atop the countryside’s smooth hills. The Guardian drifted downward to the stone keep, its wings inching upward to slow its descent. The great creature landed gracefully onto the parapet with one talon, opening the other to let Caffrey slip out. The Guardian then seated itself comfortably onto the rampart, and the prince eagerly ran down the steps of the castle walls and into the main courtyard.

A crowd of soldiers, servants, and other advisors stood in the courtyard, almost all of them like stone as they looked up at the perched Guardian with broadened eyes. Even as the prince came running toward them, they paid no attention to the boy. The only one who did not shrink back while the Guardian stared down at them was Kabal, but even he was shaken as he came to greet the prince.

“My Prince, are you alright?” he asked the boy. “You have not been harmed, have you?”

“No, Kabal, I’m fine; the Guardian flew me here from its mountain,” Caffrey answered pleasantly, as though he saw nothing out of the ordinary about the incredible adventure he took that day.

“I-I see that…” Kabal muttered as he looked up at the stoic giant on the ramparts. Even though he revered the Guardian, Kabal still seemed frightened while in the presence of the immense creature. He quickly turned away from the Guardian and looked down at Caffrey again. “Your father has been in a panic since this morning. You should go and see him right away.”

Hardly before Kabal finished, King Aramek and a host of guards poured through the main doors of the keep. The prince immediately broke away from Kabal and dashed to meet with his father, who clasped his son in a tight, joyful embrace as they came to each other.

“I am so glad that you are safe, Caffrey,” Aramek whispered in tremendous relief.

Caffrey nearly smiled before he felt his father lift his chin and bring their eyes together. In just a passing moment, the king’s expression hardened.

“You must never do something like this ever again.”

“But father, I—”

“I want no argument from you, Caffrey,” Aramek interrupted, his voice rising. “What you did was incredibly dangerous; you had me absolutely terrified this day from the moment that I awoke.” He looked up at the Guardian. His voice became a hoarse whisper.  “And you are lucky to have not angered the Guardian…”

The prince’s boyish face crafted an indignant glare. “It was not luck, father,” Caffrey shot back. “I knew what I was doing when I went to meet it.”

Aramek’s face flushed with frustration, but the king held back a response. “We will speak more of this later,” he said, ignoring his son’s defiance for the moment. Aramek stepped away from Caffrey and the rest of the crowd, stopping in between them and the Guardian as he looked up at the grand behemoth. He addressed the Guardian in a loud, admiring voice. “Great Guardian, I express endless gratitude to you for returning the prince safely back to my castle. Is there any way that I can possibly repay you for this deed?”

“There is no need for that; I accept your thanks graciously, good King Aramek,” the Guardian replied, and all of the folk in the courtyards appeared to be in awe just to hear the creature speak. Only Aramek and Caffrey were unmoved.

“I also apologize for the prince’s brashness,” the king went on. “Please forgive Caffrey and myself if he caused you any trouble this day.”

The Guardian cocked an eyebrow. “Trouble?” it scoffed, and its ebon head fell back with a hearty laugh that baffled every person in the courtyards but Caffrey. “The prince caused me no such thing.  Rather, his visit was something that I found to be very welcome. You have raised a fine son, King Aramek; I saw that today when Prince Caffrey showed me a kind of selflessness that is rare in this kingdom these days.”

Aramek wore a bewildered look along with the other castle residents. “I am afraid that I do not understand what you mean,” the king admitted.

The Guardian allowed a long grin to run from its beak. “I would explain all of this to you, but I think it will be much more fitting if you hear it from Prince Caffrey himself. Heed his words today, and you will find the answers which you and your subjects have sought for so long.”

Aramek’s jaw tightened. He slowly shifted his gaze toward Caffrey, who stood with a proud smile stretching across his youthful face. The rest of the castle residents also looked to the young prince, their expressions bright with wonder.

The Guardian unfolded its massive wings until they nearly covered the entire wall. It shifted its bronze eyes towards Caffrey, showing the prince a soft, friendly expression

“And to you, Prince Caffrey, I bid farewell,” it announced. “I know that you and I shall meet again one day, and I very much look forward to it.”

Caffrey’s face lit up with a glowing smile. “Make sure it is soon!” the prince called back.

The boy could not see it as the Guardian turned and lifted itself into the air, but a smirk crawled from its beak. In only a few moments, the Guardian ascended high above the kingdom floor and soared beneath the clouds, back toward the mountains and its lair.

Caffrey sprinted past his baffled father and up the stairs which led to the rampart. The prince reached the castle walls just in time to catch one final glimpse of the Guardian that day as it sailed off into the horizon.

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