Faye continued to smile as the giggle echoed into silence. It was strange, but Faye thought 'Witch' was her favourite insult, even though it was far from the truth. Witches learned their spells and potions, but Aedly were something else entirely. They didn't earn their powers, they had them whether they liked it or not, and the only thing they could learn about it was control.
Then a screech jolted her out of her contentment. It echoed around the trees, and came from various directions as if it had been sent through her beads. However, Faye could see the length of the string and there were no birds along it. She startled and began gathering up the beads quickly, scanning the area to try and find where the screech had come from. Below her the men continued to look about them and yell curses aimed at her, not knowing that there was something else coming for them all. It had sounded like a bird, but something was off about it, and Faye had turned cold at the sound. Faye wrapped the beads around her palm and arm as she collected them.
She should not have risked using them. Not here.
Once finished, she pressed back against a tree trunk and tried to appear as small as possible.
Below, the men regrouped and drew their weapons. The screech sounded again, closer.
Faye began to understand why it sounded wrong to her. It was too loud to have come from the lungs of any bird she had ever seen, and had an odd gravelly intonation. Faye watched the men, willing them to run away but not daring to speak. So instead she sent fear into each of them, hoping they would get out of there before it came.
“We should leave,” said Colm.
“No,” said one of the older men, “Boss would like a witch.”
“I don’t give a shit. I’m not putting my brother in danger,” said Lorcan, “We’re going.”
“We leave now and you’ll never see that little brat again,” said the older man. Lorcan turned on the man, but before he could do anything else, something made a rustling sound to their right.
Faye was the first to spot the creature. It was very like a deer, except that it had the head of an eagle. It had antlers, long, with nearly as many branches as any of the surrounding trees. It opened it’s beak and screeched again. An Aed that had once been an animal, the Guardian was a creature of instinct. It walked towards the men and they, surprised by its appearance, drew their weapons. Faye cursed and began to move. They might be scum, they might have attacked her, but Faye had seen what Aed could do to people. Sometimes, at night when she closed her eyes, she would still see it. She could never feel enough hate to stand back and let that happen to anyone.
She ran along the branch until she was behind them. Then she jumped down, bringing down her foot on one of the men’s shoulders and rolling away so the shock of the impact ran through her and didn't break her leg. She rose as he fell to the ground, and caught Colm’s wrist, twisting painfully until he dropped his club. Lorcan tried to grab her but she kicked up and caught him on the chin. The impact affected his balance and he fell. She swung Colm into the last man so all of them were sprawled on the ground. She dropped quickly to her own knees before the creature.
“Drop the weapons,” she hissed at the four men. They gaped at her, but she didn’t dare take her eyes off the approaching creature.
“Excuse me?” said Lorcan.
“You are breathing at its discretion,” said Faye indicating the Guardian, “I suggest you don’t piss it off.”
Faye spread out some dried fruit just as the Guardian reached them. It regarded her as both eagle and deer and was deciding whether she was predator or prey.
“Eyes down,” whispered Faye back to the men, “Do not make eye contact.”
She couldn’t see whether or not they had listened to her, which was unsettling because if one of them pissed it off, she would be the first that the creature went for. She took a sudden interest in her shoes. She froze when she felt its hot breath on her face. It was sniffing at her hair. Faye could feel her hands and legs trembling and, clenching her fist so that her nails dug into her palm, did nothing to stop the shaking. She swallowed, even though her mouth had gone very dry. Breathing was harder with the increasing tightness in her throat. Faye couldn’t have moved even if she wanted to. She was frozen in place, for moments that felt longer because of how acutely aware of the creature she was.
Another screech filled the air, and the creature’s head snapped up. Faye chanced a glance up in time to see a bird, a hawk, circling overhead. The Guardian watched it with casual interest until the bird swooped, sticking it’s talons out to collide with the Guardian’s feathered face.
The Guardian reared back, surprised, as the hawk attacked with it’s talons and beak. Then it flicked its head so that the hawk was lashed by an antler in the face. The hawk drew back and attacked again. This time the Guardian’s antlers caught the bird’s body. The hawk fell to the ground and didn’t move. Faye quickly went back to watching her feet.
The Guardian huffed and stomped, proud that it had won. It opened it’s mouth and screeched again, a sound so much louder than the noise the hawk had made. Faye tried not to think about what had happened. She had never seen an animal attack a Guardian. So she had always assumed that only people were stupid enough to do something like that.
Then the Guardian seemed to remember that they were there. Faye held up her hand so the men could see and pointed down, so if any of them weren’t already averting their gaze, they would do so. It nibbled at her hair and bent down to eat some of the dried fruit she had spread out.
It ate only a few pieces before getting disinterested in the food. It nearly stepped on the unconscious, but still loudly breathing hawk, as it stood back up. It nudged at the hawk, and huffed in approval when it didn’t move. It used its beak to catch it by the wing and lift it from the ground. It dropped the hawk in front of Faye.
Faye slowly reached out a hand to touch the wounded bird. The Guardian snorted in approval and rubbed its beak along her hand. It nudged the bird towards her with its beak before walking away. Faye kept her gaze lowered until she was sure it was gone.
She still had the beads wrapped around her hand and arm. She took these and wrapped them around the hawk a few times before tying them. She gathered up the hawk and held it up. It’s beak was a little bent after being hit by the antler. It wanted her to remove the thing that had dared attack it. It was a wonder it didn’t just kill the hawk. Aed didn’t give gifts. It was against their nature, no matter what any of the old tales said. Faye had come across enough of the monsters to know that. And yet, Faye now had a hawk.
She was thinking about this when she felt the point of a sword touch the back of her neck.