Guardians, Wind Maidens, and Paintings
It was a beautiful, bright and busy day in the city of Withalm. The bustling town square at the center of the city was crowded with people excited for the return of the Prince Bavol with his new wife. And amongst those people, was me. My name is Willow. I am a peasant girl, daughter of an insane artist who doesn’t even know my own name. He paints with skill that none can compare with, but he is as crazy as a loon. And because he is as crazy as a loon my reputation was down the sewer drain. I have no friends besides my guardians.
Now, in this world every human has their own animal guardian. The guardian protects it’s human from evil. The two are bound by deep magic, so that they are able to communicate and sense each other’s feelings.
Usually every person has at most one guardian, I have three. Which only makes me look nuttier then I already seem. I have the most deadly kind of snake, which is a very rare guardian, a spotted horse, which is a guardian mainly acquired by those of royal blood, and the fastest animal known to man, a cheetah, also a very rare guardian. My snake whose name is Baldwin is a male, my horse whose name is Tashina, is a female, and my cheetah whose name is Sabir is a male. All three are the best and only friends I have ever known.
Sabir was by my side as I waited for the Princess to come. My other guardians stayed home. It often happened this way. I could never convince Sabir to leave me alone no matter the reason. He even slept at my feet during the night, never letting me out of his sight.
Sabir was my closest guardian. I had had him ever since I could remember. Even before Tashina and Baldwin came along.
For the first ten years of my life, I was raised by a fairly well off widow. I was her servant, and being her servant, I was taught how to work hard. I found no joy in those years, except for the rare days when a mysterious man visited me. I would get a day off of work and he would tell me stories, although, I do not remember any of them. One day when I was around five years old he brought me my two guardians Tashina and Baldwin. And after that, I never saw the man again. I liked to fantasize he was my father but when I was ten those dreams were crushed. In my tenth year of life, I was brought to meet my real father. When I saw he was crazy I knew it would be a great sacrifice to stay with him and love him. My father hated the people who took care of him, only because they treated him like trash, and even though he was crazy he could understand that they did not love him. I could not stand to see such a helpless man so angry and broken. So I chased away my father’s helpers and insisted on taking care of him by myself. Nobody protested. From then on I swore to take care of my father no matter the cost. And that is what I have done.
My father was painter of incomparable skill. It used to be that my father’s paintings sold as soon as they were on display, we were almost rich because of it, but the King found the paintings displeasing for some reason and banned me from selling them. I was left in the dark as to why. Now we are on the verge of starvation because we have no other way to make money. I have tried a thousand times over to find a job but no one has ever given me a chance to prove myself worthy. Instead they take one look at my scrawny body and terrible reputation, and discard me like trash. It used to leave scars but over time my heart became calloused. I learned to accept the fact that I would never fit in with the human crowd. I sighed, at least I had my animal friends.
My hand rested on Sabir’s head. I could tell he was feeling impatient and was longing to get out of the town and into the country where I lived with my father. Sabir absolutely hated the heat and crowdedness of the city he also hated not being able to see over everyone. He glanced at me and narrowed his eyes in anger, “May we please leave. You have no idea how bad it smells down here. Hygiene is something this city’s people must work on.”
I laughed and fingered his soft ear. He sidestepped away from me. He hated it when I would pet him, which was unusual for an animal. He was keen on his duty to protect me, and refused to show any signs of affection. He was also a perfectionist who was embarrassed easily. If I did anything beyond patting his head, he would get angry. If I had not known him for all my life, it would have been hard to make friends with him, but since that was not the case, we were the closest of friends.
I turned my attention back to the street and continued to look as far as I could see down the street. I was very excited to see what the Princess looked like. There had been rumors that she was the most beautiful woman in all the lands. I wondered if that was all a lie and she was merely a rich, ugly hag.
I strained my neck to see over the heads of other straining people. My eyes anxiously sought a royal carriage with pure white, royal bred horses leading the way. One of the horses was said to be the new Princess’ guardian. I wondered what my horse, Tashina would think of him. Or at least I assumed it was a ‘him’.
The minutes passed by and the people around me seemed to grow impatient, eager to continue on with the day’s tasks. A few left but others remained persistent and stayed.
Just when I was about to leave, a breeze blew my hair back and whispered into my ear, “The princess is here.”
That is another thing you must know about me, I can hear the wind. But that’s not it. I can see the wind. All it looks like is beautiful clear women with long flowing dresses. Along with this I can hear the trees chatting with the Wind Maidens, and I can see them dancing. Nobody knows about my sight for things that are usually unseen. That saves me from even more humiliation.
Then the long awaited sound reached my ears, the clip, clop of the royal horses.
Merchants suddenly stopped shouting out their products, minstrels stopped playing their instruments and dancers ceased their twirls and gracefully steps. Complete silence swept over the town square. All I could hear was the clip, clop, clip, clop of the royal hooves.
First the Prince Pashad came riding on his guardian, he waved and smiled kindly at everyone. He looked much happier then the last time I had seen him, which was over a year ago. Prince Pashad had always been very gloomy, moody, and demanding. I had never seen him in such good spirits. Everyone cheered. The cheers died down as Prince Pashad disappeared from sight and the horses of the royal carriage came into sight and then the royal carriage. A curtain hid the face that we all longed to see. But to my surprise and delight, a delicate hand showed itself and waved gracefully to the people. A cheer rose from a random minstrel in the middle of the square. Soon everyone else had joined it. Every voice in the square yelled joyfully except for one, that of a very average looking minstrel who sat in the dark corner of the square just behind me. He stared hostilely at the carriage. No one noticed him except for me.
I happened to notice him because of his bright unusual clothes that stuck out from the normal dull colored dresses and tunics of the common people. I turned and spoke excitedly to him, “The Prince has been so very good to his people. How can you keep silent during such an occasion?” then I paused unsure, “Are you angry towards the prince?”
The minstrel narrowed his eyes at me. He looked me over rudely and his eyes rested on my bare toes that were peeping out from under my tattered dress. He raised a dark eyebrow and raised his eyes to my face again. Under those prodding eyes, I felt ashamed of my features, ashamed of my unkempt, raven black hair and emerald green eyes that seemed to pop out dramatically because of my overly pale face. He stood up straight and looked me in the eye, “My feelings for the royal family are not of your business.” Then he surprised me with a question of his own, “You are loyal to the royal family?”
I nearly rolled my eyes. Of course I was loyal. Who wasn’t? But then I guess he wasn’t.
“They have been nothing but good to their people. They are just and kind.”
The man tilted his head, “Obviously you do not know that family very well.” His hazel eyes flashed as he took a step nearer to me, and into the light, setting his dark red hair aflame. I blinked at it’s bright orange flames flickering with every movement. I wanted to reach out and touch to make sure it was real. The man’s deep accusing voice brought me to attention, “Did you not hear that they know black magic and use it against innocent races.”
That ignited my temper.
“You lie!” I snapped.
“No, it is they who lie.”
“If you think that is so, you are the most brainless fool I have ever met!”
“How am I brainless? I am a witness to their cruelty! You are the one who believes blindly!”
I stopped short. He had witnessed their cruelty?
Sabir managed to turn around in the crowded space. He stepped beside me and glared at the man with his menacing bright orange eyes. He let out threatening, rowr. The man merely glanced at Sabir and continued to advance, “Ask the wind, and then you’ll see who the fool is!”
My mouth dropped open. How did he know I can hear the wind?
He smirked, “Do you think that any normal person would be able to have the privilege of a cheetah as their guardian? No.” His smirk turned into a sneer, he leaned very close to my face. I turned my head and closed my eyes. Then he whispered, his breath caressing my cheek, “Things are not always as they seem, and that includes you, dearie.” He reached out and turned my chin so that I was facing him, but my eyes were still closed.
That was when Sabir leaped to action. He wouldn’t let any man so much as touch me. But as he leaped through the air he was met by nothing but air. I opened my eyes when I noticed there was no longer hot breath on my cheek. I looked around. The man had completely disappeared. Then I noticed that the town square was entirely silent. I froze. My stomach dropped to my toes as I noticed everyone was staring at me. I lowered my eyes to the ground and didn’t say a thing. Slowly the whispers started up and then the giggles. Then everyone was busy again, though they still gave me strange looks and gave me a wide berth.
I felt very uneasy in my stomach, and there was a strange bitter smell in the air, so I quickly grabbed Sabir around the neck and whispered in his ear, “Let us leave this place. There is something stirring the air, and it isn’t good.”
Sabir broke from my embrace and began to make his way through the crowds, growling at those who didn’t move for him. I could tell he was very embarrassed and angered. I felt bad, but I knew nothing I said would make him feel better, he was too proud. I hurried after him. As we made our way through the town I could feel all eyes turn to us, no matter where I went. “I hate myself.” I said telepathically to Sabir.
Sabir glared at me, “You have no right to say such things. And it’s me who failed to help you; I am the one to be shamed.”
I shook my head disapprovingly, “You did not fail. You would beat that man any day in a fair fight. He was the one who ran instead of standing his ground. And I meant I hate myself because I see things that nobody else does. I wish with all my heart to be normal. Obviously nobody else saw that man, so it looked as though I were merely fighting with myself. How humiliating!”
“It just proves their suspicions that you are a nut much like your father.”
We made our way to the city gates. Just before I stepped out of the gates a handsome man, dressed very nicely walked up to me and said, “Madam, I was told to inform you that the new Princess is in need of a personal maid. I was told you would make a perfect fit.”
I looked at him bewildered, “Me? Who recommended me to you?”
“A man, a Minstrel in the King’s court. My apologies, I do not remember his name, I am new at this job… but if you please, come to the castle at sunrise tomorrow. At that time the Princess will see if you are her perfect fit.”
I nodded and curtsied politely, “I thank you.” I watched him leave making sure that he would not disappear. I had to make sure he was real.
As soon as he was out of sight I turned and made my way excitedly out of the city gates and onto the dusty dirt road. Sabir’s eyes met mine intently, “You better be planning to go. He was no figment of imagination!” He frowned, “No one has ever offered you a job before. It’s suspicious but also a great opportunity. Hopefully no one is going to make a fool out of you.”
I paused, “I do not think that anyone can make me look anymore foolish then I already am” Then thoughts of my crazed father flooded my mind. A worried look swept the joy out of my eyes.
Sabir read my mind, “You can easily ask the wind maidens to keep your father out of trouble. And I’m sure Baldwin won’t mind staying behind, he claims to be too old for any sort of adventure. Tashina and I will come along gladly.”
I smiled, “Sounds like a good plan. But it is such a long distance from our house to the castle. I do not know how I will make it back every night.”
As I walked, I could see the wind gliding over the road playfully throwing the loose dust into the air. I smiled at the sight. Then the wind maidens saw me. They left the dust and glided over to me, playing gently with my hair and caressing my skin. They swayed back and forth to an unheard melody. I looked directly at one who was very familiar to me and whispered, “Will you take care of my father during the day tomorrow. I have been offered a position in the castle as the Princess’s close companion!”
The maiden’s eyes widened with excitement. She was one of the most beautiful maidens, she had white blond hair with near translucent skin, her eyes were green, but a much more stunning green then mine. She, unlike most wind maidens, actually looked real; she wasn’t some clear barely visible shadow. Her name was Hannah. She was small but feisty and strong.
She, as well as all the others knew about my lack of a job and poverty stricken life. Many times they were the ones that saved my father and me from starvation. The Wind Maidens agreed to take care of my father for the day and even longer if I needed. I twirled happily like one of the dancers in the town square. The maidens giggled and imitated my twirl; two of them grabbed my hands and pulled me upwards. A few others lifted my feet from the ground. They lifted me high into the sky, twirling and laughing, high pitched joyful squeals filled the air. That seemed to be the only thing they ever did, dance, and laugh.
Then they started to sing. And that was the most beautiful sound that could ever exist, a choir of unique hypnotizing harmony. I relaxed as the maidens spun me and guided my feet in graceful steps. All my problems ceased their torment on my mind and melted into a puddle of nothing.
I glanced down at the road to see where Sabir was. I could barely see him because he was so fast. A blur of yellow was all that was visible. He was two times faster than any cheetah dead or alive, the wind had gifted him with that ability, but he could still only run for short sprints.
I noticed that we were getting closer and closer to the ground. The singing was fading into a soft hum. The maidens gently lay me on the carpet of grass, and danced off into the sunset.
But Hannah came back just for a second and whispered mischievously into my ear, “His name was Lance.” Then she was gone, chasing after her friends.
I sighed and stood up. I still couldn’t believe what this so called Lance had said about the Royal family. It seemed too unreal. Sabir sat beside me breathing heavily. I chuckled, “You sure got your exercise.”
Sabir bobbed his head up and down, “Haven’t done that in a while. You’re always too slow, even slower than normal humans. You run like you have weights on your feet, always dragging your steps.”
I scowled and hit him lightly on the back of his head. He purred but making it sound more like a chuckle.
I was happy until I heard smashing glass behind me. I turned to the familiar log cabin. My father was standing beside the house staring at me incredulously. He took an uncertain step towards me. Suddenly he screamed at the top of his lungs and whirled around to run away. Instead he bumped into the corner of the house.
“Ouch!” I said wincing.
My father fell over backwards and rolled down the hill from our house all the way down right to my feet. I shook my head and helped him up. I climbed the hill basically dragging him up. Sabir helped.
Then I heard a loving whinny to my left. I looked up to see Tashina, my guardian horse, watching with angry eyes, “He’s a waste of precious time. Why don’t you just abandon this place?! This type of thing happens every day and it’s getting on my nerves.”
I ignored her comment, “Where is Baldwin?”
Suddenly a snake’s head popped up in between Tashina’s ears, “I am here! Did you see the princess?”
I shook my head, “No, I only saw her hand. But I did have a more interesting encounter.”
“Really? Tell us about it.”
So as I was dragging my father into the house, I told them about the strange man who made a fool out of me. I told them that he somehow knew I could hear the wind and the last words he said, “Things aren’t always as they seem, and that includes you.” Those words haunted me. I assumed he knew about my reputation for being crazy. My guardians tried to analyze it with me. It was useless so I changed the subject to the royal white horses. Tashina was thrilled. She insisted on meeting them. That was when I told them about the job offer. Tashina was so excited she couldn’t even stand still. I told her to take a trot to calm herself. When she came back I told her that she would need to ride me in at sunrise while Baldwin would stay back and make sure father was alright. Baldwin was a little disappointed, “I know I do not usually like to go to town but on this occasion, it would please me greatly to tag along.”
“Then who will take care of father?” I asked.
Baldwin slithered away from me, “Fine, so be it. But next time, I am coming along.”
As we chatted I went around, cleaning up the house. Baldwin and Sabir rested by the fire while Tashina stayed outside and watched me through the window.
Sundown came and I put my father to bed. He looked at me with loving eyes and then cuddled up in his blankets and fell asleep. It was in those moments when I knew I could never leave him alone. He needed me.
I gazed around the house. Paintings covered every inch of the wall. Most of them were of scenery my father had never seen, or at least I doubted there could ever be such places on earth. Father was brilliant, and could make up any kind of detailed world if he wanted. My favorite painting was one that father kept in the darkest corner of the house. Whenever father was asleep I would take it out and gaze at it in awe. The sight never grew old.
The picture was so beautiful I wondered how my father ever came up with it. It was a picture of a bright green valley with a cozy town directly in the middle. There were steep, un-climbable mountains on every side and the only pass into the valley was over a fairly steep hill. Everything looked perfect in the valley, absolutely perfect, but then there was the sky. That was what confused me. Dark clouds were creeping over the mountains, and through the clouds fire licked the air. It seemed so real that I could almost feel the heat radiating from the sky. I wondered how simple clouds could possibly hold fire in its grip. It made no sense. But I guess my dad is crazy so his paintings are bound to be crazy.
I finished cleaning the house and then said good-night to my guardians. Then I went to lie on my sleeping mat near the fire (I didn’t have enough money for a proper bed). Sabir was beside me in a moment. I was grateful for his warmth and comforting presence, but sometimes he was overly protective.
He turned his head to look at me. His yellow eyes burned through the shadows, “Willow?”
I rolled over to look at him, “Yes?”
“I was thinking as I was running home that I recognized that man…”
I paused, “The man in the square?”
“Yes. The way his eyes flashed reminded me of someone I used to know. But I don’t remember exactly who.”
“Was he from before you knew me?”
“That’s not possible, I have known you ever since I was a kitten… I just know that I used to know him. Did you figure out his name from Hannah?”
I rose an eyebrow, “Yes, how did you know?”
“She tells you everything.”
I laughed. That wasn’t exactly right, she told me the things that I wanted to know. I could get almost anything out of her. Sometimes I felt guilty about it though, she tended to tell me things that I wasn’t supposed to know.
“Well, not everything but nearly, anyways, we can talk about this tomorrow on our way to Withalm. But for now I need to sleep in order to be ready and alert for tomorrow.”
Sabir didn’t argue he just turned his head from me and rested it on the ground.