THOSE WHO GUARD

    The men stole quietly around the squat standing stones at the far end of the commons. They fingered their stun clubs nervously. The wizard had shown them how one light touch would knock anyone out. A couple of men looked over where Begor was snarling to himself, and grinned. Begor had been pissed as hell when he had woke up from the little demonstration. No one liked him anyway, and they had all laughed when he woke up swearing. They loosened their swords in their sheaths and looped cords over their wrists with the stun clubs attached and waited.

    The shrill undulating scream came from the far end of the village and the men rushed forward, running to kill or capture anyone in their way. It was a perfect strike. They ran in and around the little houses. They excitedly stunned the young children down to be picked up later and ran the old ones through. They met little resistance. A few villagers met the men with staves or knifes, but these were quickly taken care of.

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Jana gasped in agony as the birth pains came quicker. The midwife wiped her forehead with a cooling cloth, "twill be over soon, Jana." She said soothingly.

Jana grasped the rope strung between the wooden posts of the bed more tightly and pulled and pushed at the same time. She grunted and strained to push the baby out into a new world. The babe's head crested and the midwife's sturdy hands caught the child as he squalled his way into the air. "See Jana, a fine boy." She rapidly took care of the cord, cutting and binding it. Jane got up weakly on one elbow, "hand him to me, Sarie, please." Sarie wrapped the child in clothes and laid him down in the crook of Janas' arm. She looked down at them both saying. "Tis such a beautiful sight." She sighed.

   Jana looked at her little son, she kissed the top of his head and cuddled him closer. Jana relaxed and let Sarie bustle around her, cleaning her up and the rest of the small room. It felt good to be without the pain she thought as she slowly drifted off. Sarie came back over to Jana,

   "Now, Jana don't you go ta sleep as yet, this little son of yours will be hungry." Jana smiled up at her and nodded. She bared a breast and watch in wonder as her son nuzzled his way to it greedily.

   They both looked up in horror as a shrill scream sounded through the village. " Oh my Goddess! " Sarie breathed. "It must be raiders!" She was all quickness and common sense, as she helped Jana up. "You must go now, out the back bolt hole." Jana walked slowly to the back wall and pressed a small stone there. A stone slid out and revealed a small tunnel. She sat and scooted her way in. " Hurry, Sarie, come with me too."

   "In a moment, Jana" Sarie closed the wall, and then ran to the bed shoving linens underneath so no one would know there had been a birth there. All too soon, the door crashed open, and a man crouched there. His face was unrecognizable with blue paint spread across it. He had red circles painted around his eyes. Sarie screamed and threw the water basin at him. With water dripping down his face and paint smearing everywhere, he looked even worst then before. With a howl, he sprang forward and grabbed her by the arm dragging her toward the door. Sarie was screaming and crying and twisting trying to get away. The man stopped and back handed her so fast, she couldn't duck. Her hand went to cheek, as he grabbed her once more and hustled her out of the house. He pushed her over to where a group of children sat crying and said roughly, "Ye, take care of them, or ye die." Sarie ~blanched and backed into the cluster of children. They got up crying and hanging to her skirts for assurance. She looked around and saw all the dead and dying people all of them known to her and gulped back tears herself. She leaned down and began to calm the children.

   Jana began to scoot herself backwards, the tunnel wasn't meant to be traveled this way. She kept on until her back met another wall. She waited for Sarie to catch up to her and minutes passed before she realized that she wasn't coming. Tears leaked out her eyes and she grimly turned herself so she could feel the stones behind for the trigger that would let her out. The wall shifted and she wiggled out of the small opening into the shadow of the largest leaning stone at the edge of the village. She looked around, but didn't see anyone. She got up in a crouch and slowly made her way toward the woods that flanked the stones. Jana held her son securely with one arm and with the other moved branches out of her way. She crept her way into the densest part she could find and then placed herself in a hollow of a tree. It was as far as she could go, for it was to soon after child bearing for more.

   The raiders finished in the village killing all who would slow them. They had quite a haul for such a small place. They chained each of the women's feet together with just enough length to take a medium step. Then with slender links they chained the wrists of the children together in groups and placed each group with a woman to care for. They headed them out of the village toward the forest.

   A tall heavy set man with a cruel face came from between the trees. He held Jana in an arm twisting grip. "Look what your letting get away. I found her hiding in a tree." He let go of her and pushed her into a couple of the other raiders. " How many others did ye let go." He said derisively.     "Get on with you Begor, she ain't worth taking no how. Look you, she's just whelped, she ain't going far." A short squat man replied.  

    Begor snarled to them. "Look you children, see this will happen to ye, if you canna keep up with us." He walked over to Jana and ripped her son from her arms. "No!" Jana screamed. But the other man held her easily, as she struggled to reach her son.

   Begor held the screaming baby up in front of the terrified children. Then with a little smile he swung the child by one leg against the closest stone. He dropped the baby on the ground, as the children whimpered and the women clutched them close. "This is what I do to those that are in the way."

   Jana, wretched herself from the one that held her. She flung herself to the ground where her baby lay. She touched his face gently, then looked up in hate at the tall man. He scowled down at her and lifted his leg to kick her back to the group of women. Jana, with an inhuman scream of fury sprang at Begor. She grappled with the raised leg knocking the shouting raider off his feet. Jana slipped the knife out of the mane' boot, and stabbed him once in the leg and then swarmed up his body and stabbed him in the lower belly.

   Other hands grabbed roughly at her, one mans fist in her hair and another grabbing at her hands to wrest the knife from her. They took her to one of the stones and lashed her to it. They walked back over to where Begor was wreathing in agony. Begor gasped at them, "Get me a healer!" The two looked at each other and grinned, "You thinking what I be thinking, Hanus?" one said to the other. Hanus nodded and reached down to Begor and grasped his hair pulling his head back. Begors' eyes bulged from their sockets as he looked up at Hanus who calmly slit his throat. His voice died gurgling in his own blood.

   Hanus walked over to Jana. He stared indifferently at her, and held his sword over her. He looked at the women and children. "If ye disobey us, ye will be punished. It will fit whatever you have done. We want you living." With that he smiled a little and raised his sword point down and slammed it into Jana, scraping into the rock underneath her. "If we have to, we will leave you dead." He pulled his sword out, dripping and leaned over to wipe it on the grass before sheathing it. He glanced at the other men and motioned them to move out. They pulled the women along with the children and hurried through the forest.

    Jana breathed shallowly around the pain, She waited for the men to come back, holding on to her life. She looked up into the clear sky and gasped out loud her plea. "Goddess, let me hold this life for a while, for vengeance for our people." She cried. She felt a hazing come between her and the pain and knew her Goddess had heard her.

   The men walked home from the fields, well pleased with the harvest that the Goddess had granted them. Each mans thoughts were of their families and the suppers that would be ready to greet them. They walked wearily. The work had been long and hard.

    Steppen, walked a little ahead of the others. He was eager to get back home, for Jana his wife was almost due to have the baby. Jana had shooed him out the door in the early dawn laughing at him, saying, get on with ye Steppen, if the babe comes we'll send a runner to ye. He'd left but still worried a little. His best friend caught up with him telling him laughingly, to slow down. He grinned at Tim "Welladay, if it were Saries time you'd be rushing too. They continued in companionable silence. Steppen looked around for the guard they'd left there this morning. "Jacks where are ye man. Tis not the time for sleeping."The other men hooted and laughed among themselves at the old joke. Steppen was grinning as he left the trail and started looking through the brush for his other best friend. One of the other men let out a cry of surprise which brought all of them running to where he stood. Jacks would never wake again for someone had slit his throat. There was a look of surprise on his face. The men clustered around and looked nervously about.

   Steppen knelt down and closed Jack's staring eyes. He looked up at the others and said. "This was done early on the day. Whoever did this deed is probably long gone." He leapt up and said. " We'd best be hurrying, friends, back to the village." They grimly fell in behind Steppen as he took off at a slow run. As he approached the houses, he directed two men over to the left to circle around and two men to the right. The rest he led straight in. They slowed their steps and crept around the end of the last house. Steppen stuck his head around the corner. He couldn't see anyone. He motioned a couple of more men to the other side of the lane. They scurried across and proceeded to disappear around the back of the houses on that side. Steppen and the rest started moving again. He still hadn't sighted anyone. They were close to the center when they spied old Slogen on the ground. Steppen looked around carefully and walked over to him as he knelt down, he saw the terrible gaping wound in his throat. He closed Slogens eyes and motioned the other men over. "Start checking all the homes, see if anyone is left alive. It is looking as if raiders did these deeds." The men split up in twos and began to search the houses. They brought out bodies from a few of them. Steppen had them arrange them in the middle of the village, till they could be properly burned and the Goddess rites observed.

    He heard a yell and looked up to see Tim jogging toward him."Steppen come quick, Jana is still alive down at the stones." Steppen took off running toward the end of the village with the others stringing out behind him. He reached the stones and saw where the others stood. He had dread in his heart as he came upon them. His eyes took in Jana as she lay there. She had a horrible gaping wound in the belly. Steppen didn't think she could be alive.

   Jana turned her head and weakly moved her hand. Someone had removed the ropes. She opened her eyes and saw the gathering about her. She looked for Steppen and saw him coming toward her looking pale and drawn. Jana drew in a small breath as he reached her and leaned over. "Steppen, the baby!" She whispered.

    Steppen looked up at the others with a question in his eyes. Darel stepped forward with a small bundle in his arms. "I found him on the ground next to the stone." Steppen took the baby from him with tears in his eyes. He lay the child next to Jana and curved her arm around him.

    Jana looked up at Steppen again. Before his eyes her face changed, gaining power and majesty. Her voice thundered through the clearing. "Vengeance is mine," said the Goddess. "Her blood has been given freely." Steppen shook his head in silent denial. Janas eyes closed, when she opened them she was herself again.

    The men all moaned. It was a grand and terrible thing for Jana to do. She had given herself to their Goddess for the service of Vengeance. They all stepped back from the stone. Steppen with tears pouring down his face leaned over her and said. " Jana, I will always love you."

    They formed a loose circle around the stones. Steppen stood in front of the one that held Jana. He raised his hands and began the chant. The other men joined in, their voices in rough harmony raised in supplication to their Goddess.

    Steppen watched as a brilliant blue light formed around Jana and the baby. She arched her back in agony, and her mouth opened to screamed, but no sound came past her lips. The air seemed to ripple around her and coalesce. Her skin rippled and hair grew. Her face elongated and her ears lengthened. The chant wound down to its end and the big blue wolf stood on the stone and looked steadily at Steppen. He looked at her and spoke."Ye know what to do, we will take care of the dead here and then follow." The wolf nodded and then reached down to nose at the small bundle of a baby there. Steppen reached forward and picked up their dead child. Jana leapt off of the stone into the middle of them. She pointed her nose into the sky and howled out her sorrow and rage and called the power of the Goddess down.

    The other stones shuddered and shook in time to the howls. Blue light splintered around them and flowed down them seeming to sink in the cracks. The stones turned to liquid and reformed into wolfs like Jana. They all lifted their muzzles and sang to the Goddess. The air shuddered with strength of their howls.

     Far off the raiders lifted their heads hearing the wolves. Hanus felt a shiver go up his spine. He turned to the others, "Get on with ye, hurry now or feel the lash."

    Jana led the pack quickly through the forest on the trail of the raiders. They caught up with them in the evening with a full moon shining brightly. The raiders screamed with fear as they swung swords and shot arrows to no avail. They died shrieking.

    Hanus gasping for breath moved between the slaves and grabbed a woman for a shield against the wolfs, for they were not harming them. Sarie moaned with fear and Hanus with an arm across her throat shook her roughly making her gag. He drug her from the camp and set his back against a tree, his eyes darting everywhere looking for danger. The camp quieted down and the only noises he could hear were the cries coming from the children and womens voices.

    The wolves nosed through the camp looking for any survivors. Jana moved over to the women and children and slipped between them. Children's hands reached out to touch her as she moved past them. She scented Sarie and moved to find her. She followed the trail to a copse of trees and there confronted Hanus.

    Hanus gripped the woman more tightly as he saw the big blue wolf. The wolf grinned at him and licked razor sharp teeth. Hanus yelled."I will kill this bitch if you come to close, devil wolf.'" He spat at it. He never saw the arrow from the crossbow as it pierced his throat. He let go of Sarie and reached up to grab it and died gurgling.

    Sarie fell to the ground sobbing. The wolf drifted over to her and as she looked up at it, licked her in the face. Sarie got up and reached down and hugged the wolf. Tim came running through the trees, lowering his crossbow. Sarie straightened as he pulled her tight into his arms. Steppen appeared a moment later and walked over to the wolf. He knelt down and said to her "Jana, all the raiders are dead and we will take care of the women and children. You must take the Goddesses' wolfs back. Jana whined and licked at Steppens face. She whirled and disappeared through the brush, a summoning howl coming from her throat.

    Late the next morning they reached the village. It had taken that long, for everyone had been exhausted and they had taken frequent rests. The people walked pass their houses. They headed toward the stones. They were where they had always been, broad, squat weathered rocks. They circled the stones and after joining hands began to sing to the Goddess their thanks. Into the midst of this sprang Jana. She lifted her muzzle to the sky and added her voice to the others. Her howl rose in eerie descant to the others singing. The singing tapered off to a sigh. Blue light again played around the wolf in their midst and they watched in wonder as she turned to stone. She looked so life like that they thought they could almost hear her howling still, singing praises to the Goddess. They each walked past the statue and touched it. It grew warm to the hand and each felt comforted as if being told that they were well loved.

    Stepphan was the last. He waited until everyone had gone and then sat against the leg of the statue and leaned his head back. " Jana," He said. " I have no life without you." His eyes closed and tears slowly dripped down his face. A whisper came into his mind.' "Do you wish to guard with her." He softly sighed. "Please." The statue throbbed and grew hot the touch. Stepphan stood and placed his hand on Janas back as the Goddesses power changed him. The sound of the power thrummed through the village and the people turned and ran back to the stones. There they came upon an astonishing sight.

    Stepphan was now a statue perfect in every detail welded to the side of the wolf, both looking outward as if to ward the village. The people turned and went back to their houses. Sarie and Tim were last. " Oh lov'," She said, "they are together at least." Tim nodded and as they turned, they thought they heard breathless laughter and a faint howl behind them on the wind.

THE END

by

Julie M

Stories