A/N: This is in Short Story format, ready to be shipped off to an editor or publisher. It is the tale about a Warden and what she must do to achieve what is right.
I WILL NOT promise happy endings, because those aren't always the endings my characters tell me that they have. I will, however, promise to do the best I can to give you all a good read.
This one took me three months to write, edit, proofread, then proofread again. A copy of it is currently in a friend's hands for editing.
She curled up among the roots, clutching her bleeding heart to her chest. The shattered crystal was pulsing softly against her palms, spilling copper-fire goo from its cracks. She felt pain and hatred emanating from it, felt tears falling from her eyes as she tucked the broken shards into the pouch she wore against her chest. She sensed the crystal darkening as she climbed, shaken, into the hollow heart of her tree and hid herself away; who would want a broken, ugly, idiotic rat of a warden, anyway?
The shuffle of robes and the clink of armor echoed in the stillness of the glade. Who traversed this, her, forest? Why? Few journeyed this way, even to save time. The forest was cursed and twisted; surely they knew that? The Warden carefully climbed out of her tree, and, shape-shifting into a wren-like bird, flew towards the sounds to find these new adventurers.
A Paladin and a rogue? Here? Odd; their ilk rarely came near this area. The Warden watched them while they rested near the old river; as they rose to move on, she decided to follow and see where their destination lay, perhaps she would even gain a clue as to where they'd come from, and why they were here. As they walked, she flew above them, occasionally spouting a cheery whistle or a melodious song. The Paladin spotted her after a while, and, seeing her for what she was, called her down to join them. With a chipper note, she descended and adopted a wolf's shape, following them.
They traveled around for a few days, and the Warden noticed something strange happening. Her loyalty, more than just her lupine pack-sense, was being drawn to the Paladin, Aiden. Before she could catch and stop herself, she acted on something that burned in her soul. Fear took her, making her flee before she could face him and account for what she'd done.
Flopping on the riverbank a few hours later, she soaked in the cool and the calm; what was this burning, biting feeling that was spreading through her? Without any effort, she knew the answer. Hope. Hateful, painful Hope, with affection mixed in for variety. Why? Why now, toward a man she barely even knew? Her heart was already broken, why allow it to be crushed into fine powder?
Her subconscious, the part of her which knew without knowing, answered that question easily. Aiden wouldn't crush her heart. He drew her like a flame, but he genuinely cared about her well-being, about everyone's well-being. She remembered, then, that it was "everyone". The Paladin and Ranger were part of a company, a flavorful mix of rogues, magicians, and warriors, even a few other healers. The Warden looked back then, toward the grove where they waited, where they gathered every evening to converse on their daily findings. A stab of fear and pain bit into her, bitter memories rising; she vanished among the trees, praying that no-one would find her hidden home.
She'd not even gained a few miles before she heard the clinking of Aiden's armor, the thudding of his boots, the worry in his tone as he called out to her, begging her to stop and wait. She shook away her tears and slowed her pace, allowing him to gain ground on her; after another quarter-mile, he skidded to a halt beside her. She didn't look at him; she knew her entire posture showed the darkness she was dealing with, no need to let her eyes betray it as well. Aiden's fingers sank gently into her fur, and she felt him looking over her feline form; considering her for a moment, he asked of her true form.
She flinched and shook her head, claiming in her purring feline voice that it was best for no-one to see her as she truly was; if one knew, soon all would know and they would drive her away. He released a deep sigh, then knelt beside her and pulled her close in a gentle hug. She startled slightly, and opened her senses; something felt strange.
After a moment, she recognized it: that deep brokenness, the sharp sense of pain that, when left alone, would dull to a constant ache; the darkness that clung to a person like spider webs would. The familiarity of it all terrified her, yet now she understood part of why she needed to trust this man, why she was drawn to him. He asked again of her true form; this time she turned to him and nodded, dropping the magic that held her to her current shape. Her body shimmered and shifted, the feline fading away and leaving human in its wake; she closed her eyes as the magic faded. She heard him roll back on his heels; something made a dull thud on the ground next to them. She looked up through her silver-brown tresses for a moment, slightly distracted by the small plants that grew from her scalp. She felt the intensity of his gaze, and flushed; carefully she brushed her hair aside, sweeping the thin silvery-green vines and dusty blue flowers behind her ear gently so that they didn't uproot. Her green-tinted brown eyes rose again, and she met his mossy-jade gaze for the first time; he'd placed his helm next to them so there wouldn't be a filter between his eyes and hers.
"Wren... You're an Earthmaiden?" he whispered softly, giving her a name other than her own. She closed her eyes and nodded, accepting the name without a thought, and waited silently for the rejection. Surprise filled her as he embraced her gently, one hand rising to tangle in her hair. He murmured comforts to her, rocking her back and forth a little. His words, his tone struck faith in her, but it stirred a great deal of fear up, too. Her heart burned at his touch, causing her to flinch away from him. She winced as a few vines freed themselves from her scalp, and heard the Paladin question her. Trembling, she fearfully drew the burning crystal from its pouch, cupping it with both hands. She couldn't bring herself to look up at him again as he beheld this, once her greatest treasure, now merely a broken stone.
A warm, calloused hand brushed her cheekbone, before cupping her chin and lifting her head up. Her pained eyes met his searching ones; he was asking, silently, what was hurting her so. Unable to hold his gaze, she dropped her eyes to the crystal cupped in her hands; it was oozing again, already it was covered by bright red copper goo. Aiden's gaze followed hers, and he hissed in sympathy. He seemed to understand, instantly, what this little, shattered crystal was. The hand he held to her cheek dropped away. Confusion broke her sad haze, and she glanced up at him; those kind jade eyes were focused on the crystal, his hands (bare hands, when had he removed his gloves?) pressed against hers lightly. She felt his focus, it was like a tingling flowing from her wrists to her fingertips (No, wait. That was magic. What was he doing to her?). He spoke a few words, his voice so quiet and deep that a normal person would have missed it; a soft green glow began radiating from her hands. In a similar way, a faint golden glow formed around his; it seemed to be a beneficial spell, maybe even his version of healing.
Wren's heart stopped bleeding, some of the cracks faded away, and the shards knit themselves back together into a plumb-shaped gray-green stone, lined with purple. The copper began to seep back into the crystal; Wren felt warmth seep through her body, starting from her fingertips and spreading, first through her veins, then through her muscles and bones. Never before had she felt this sort of sensation. The air around them shimmered for a split-second, and she felt as if the missing part of her was there again.
Then, Aiden broke the aura and released her hands, rocking back on his heels with a tired smile; he looked her in the eyes, a gentle chuckle rising from his chest. Wren took a slow, steadying breath; she felt extraordinarily dizzy, as if the world was shifting slant-ways around her. She felt his arms wrap around her again, pulling her to him gently. In a rumbling whisper, he promised that he would guard her as long as she allowed him to, that he would never hurt her or let her be hurt again. She closed her eyes, curling into him, and nodded.
One of the rogues called out nearby, ending the moment. Aiden let go of the Warden, picked up his helm and gloves, and called back. Wren shifted to her lupine form, and, once Aiden had put his gloves on, gently headbutted his hand. He looked down at her and started to say something, but thought better of it. Instead he smiled sadly; his eyes told her that he understood her reasoning, though he questioned it. He put on and secured his helm, and started the long trek back to the camp. She loped along with him, always staying a few steps behind.