THE THIRD GUARDIAN
Seen in its present state, it would be hard to imagine that the Mi'ihen Highroad would one day be so very heavily traveled. Three men, a Summoner's party, walked the narrow, deserted road in a silence that was disturbed only by the sounds of boots on dry dirt.
From his position somewhat behind the other two, a black-haired young man in a scarlet coat kept glancing at the man in the lead position, a thunderous expression marring his smooth tanned face.
Finally, he hastened his pace until he was abreast of the brawny-looking, brown-haired man who was the object of his displeasure. In a low growl, he snapped, "Dammit, Jecht, get your head out of your butt! You're supposed to be walking Point, not pointlessly walking!"
Jecht's steps slowed as he looked at the taller, younger man with mocking eyes as his rough, gravelly voice softly responded to the reprimand, "Whatsa matter, Red? Can't keep up?"
Moving closer yet, the younger man's velvety baritone dropped another level and answered even more softly, "Don't mess with me, Jecht! You're nothing but a liability on this mission and I will not let you jeopardize Lord Braska's safety. You have no appreciation of the importance of his Pilgrimage. If you don't shape up in a hurry -"
Interrupting, an angry flush beginning to creep up his neck, Jecht turned to fully face his accuser, "Just try it, Big an' Ugly! Ya just might -"
A calm, pleasant voice interrupted. "Everything alright, Auron?"
The two men turned to face the man addressing them. Wearing dark blue and cream-colored robes and carrying an intricately designed staff, a man in his late thirties or early forties quietly awaited a response as a soft breeze gently riffed through his light brown hair.
"Yes, Lord Braska. I was just reminding Jecht of the responsibilities of walking Point. It seems that a frequent refresher course is required."
The older man looked from one to the other, his clear blue eyes missing nothing, though a small smile crinkled their corners. "I'm sure Jecht takes his duties seriously, as do you, Auron. Shall we be on our way?"
A last warning glare directed at the man walking Point, the one called Auron resumed his position as Rear Guard and the small party continued on its way.
Auron simply didn't understand why the Summoner wanted this man in his party, much less as a Guardian. He was a cocky, self-absorbed drinker who knew nothing of his duties or responsibilities, nothing about a pilgrimage and was a dead weight. A dangerous dead weight. But the Summoner was the boss. He just hoped that the other man's presence didn't get them killed.
Time passed with only the sound of their boots crunching on the narrow, hard-packed road until Auron's attentive ears detected faint sounds somewhere ahead. Instantly on the alert, he softly called, "Halt!" This was Jecht's responsibility as Point man, but the former blitzballer wasn't even aware of it.
Jecht and Lord Braska both immediately stopped and turned to look at him. "Battle up ahead. Jecht, guard Lord Braska! Stay alert."
With that, the tall young man raced forward, his red coat flying, the grip of a huge sword in his right hand. Rounding a bend in the narrow road, he saw what appeared to be a slender, long-haired, half-grown boy fighting a desperate battle with a garuda, as two silent, crumpled bodies lay nearby.
The dangerous garuda was already badly wounded so one well-placed swing of the massive blade in the Guardian's hand ended its miserable existence in a swarm of colorful pyreflies.
Turning, Auron saw the other fighter down on one knee, head hanging low, face hidden by dark hair, struggling to stay conscious. Sheathing his blade quickly, he turned to lend a steadying hand as he saw the young fighter's left sleeve soaked in blood that was rapidly beginning to pool on the road.
Lord Braska's healing spells were needed quickly. The Guardian emitted a piercing, two-note whistle and turned back just as the wounded fighter collapsed completely.
Reaching out and catching the youth before his head hit the hard-packed dirt of the road, Auron was shocked to find himself looking into the smooth young face of a woman.
Eyes closed in weakness, pain and ebbing consciousness, she never saw him or his surprise. He heard the thud of rapidly approaching boots as Jecht and Lord Braska responded to the whistled signal.
Auron knelt in the road, one arm supporting her head and shoulders. Not sure if she could even hear, he said, "Lord Braska is almost here; he will help."
A low, soft groan was the only response.
Auron looked up as the two neared. The scene had even gotten Jecht's attention and he actually had his blade out though Auron wasn't convinced he could really do any damage with it except possibly to himself. "Stay alert, Jecht!" Auron ordered.
Lord Braska knelt beside Auron, his attention focused on the bloodied sleeve of the fighter being held by his Guardian. His quiet voice ordered, "Let me see."
Before Auron could warn the Summoner, Lord Braska took hold of the bloodied shirt and ripped it partly open to better exam the wound. A startled gasp escaped the Summoner.
"Sorry," Auron said, a spark in his dark eyes. "You were too quick."
Recovering himself, Lord Braska shot his Guardian a glance and muttered something, then commented, "A wound is a wound - and this is a bad one." He sat back and began to softly intone the healing words of Curaga over the injured woman.
Moments passed as the spell started to take effect, the bleeding began to slow and the torn flesh began to knit together. Braska knew that the spell was only part of the healing process. The body itself had to have time to recoup from shock, blood loss, etc. The spell alone wasn't always the entire answer although it could bring badly needed results quickly.
The young woman's eyes began to try to open. Braska leaned toward her and said, "Rest easy, miss. I cast a healing spell over you and you'll feel better quickly, but you still need time to fully recover."
As he spoke, she managed to open and somewhat focus her eyes on his face. A faint frown between her brows attested to her lack of full consciousness and awareness.
She was trying to study his face through her mental haze so he identified himself to her. "I am Braska, a Summoner."
As soon as he said the word 'Summoner', her eyes widened and a breath was sharply inhaled.
"Jairon! Where is Jairon?" she asked softly but with alarm as she struggled to sit up. Auron tried to restrain her movement, but she slipped free of his arms and, sitting upright in the road, froze as her eyes found the two still forms nearby.
Just staring at the forms with shock and great sadness on her pale face and in her eyes, her mouth slightly agape, she slowly sagged against the Guardian still kneeling beside her. She fought against tears that were trying to form in her eyes.
Braska asked gently, "They were your friends, miss?"
After a moment, she responded in a very low voice. "No, not really – well, I guess – yes, they were. Jairon is – was - a Summoner. Devin and I were - his Guardians."
Braska put a hand lightly on her shoulder. "I'm sorry. I know you did all you could."
After another moment's silence, she slightly shook her head and said softly in a low voice, almost as if she was speaking to herself, "I should have stopped them at the very beginning. I knew he wasn't strong enough. He - wanted so badly to stop Sin – but he wasn't - I knew - he - I should have stopped him."
Braska answered quietly, "Each one of us has to choose his own path. Though you didn't think he could do it, you did the best you could to help him walk his chosen path, even risking your own life. That is admirable."
She swallowed hard, still trying to keep her tears from falling. "He was too gentle. And Devin -" She just shook her head and briefly closed her eyes, fighting the emotions of accepting the deaths of her fallen comrades.
Several moment passed before she took a shaky, deep breath and asked softly, "Sir, will you Send them? Please?"
"Of course. Do you need a little more time or are you ready for that now?"
"Now," was barely audible.
In her sadness and not even aware that she was doing so, she remained leaning against the young Guardian supporting her as she watched Braska perform the Sending.
When the last pyreflies had disappeared into the blueness of the sky, Braska turned to her and asked kindly, "May we know your name, Lady Guardian?"
So softly, "Raiel, Lord Braska. Raiel of Kilika Island."
Braska said, "I regret that we meet under such unhappy circumstances, Raiel. I hope you'll stay with us at least until you have fully recovered. Auron, the day is nearly gone. I think we should find a place to rest for the coming night."
"Yes, Lord Braska."
Hearing the soft, deep voice so very close to her, the woman jumped, startled at his presence. "Oh!"
Turning to the source of the voice, she found herself looking into a beautiful tanned face just inches from her own. "Oh..." She was only vaguely aware of an odd sensation that sprang up somewhere in her middle as she stared into the dark eyes in that face.
Auron found himself looking into eyes that nearly defied description - not brown, not green, not blue, but a mixture of all three, even a tiny fleck of gold here and there. Black lashes... lips….
A coarse, loud laugh broke into their mutual discoveries. "HA! Red bites the dust, hey?" More coarse laughter.
Braska's quiet voice said, "Jecht, we'll need wood for a fire. Will you see to that, please?"
Still chuckling, Jecht shot another grin toward Auron before turning to the task assigned to him.
Auron only had time to shoot one withering look at him before the other Guardian turned away, still grinning and chuckling which accomplished its intended purpose of infuriating Auron even more.
Raiel turned to look up at the Guardian supporting her. "I - I'm sorry. I'm afraid I wasn't aware of your presence. I apologize for imposing myself upon you," she said a bit shyly.
Angry at Jecht's goading and now knocked completely off-stride by his closeness to her and the sudden emergence of a strong but completely unrecognized feeling in himself, Auron responded brusquely, "No apology!"
Braska's eyebrows edged upward at his young Guardian's abrupt response. He approached the two and said, "Auron, let's help Raiel to her feet and see if she can manage a few steps now, hm?"
Raiel started to protest, "I'm sure I'm fine now, but thank -"
Auron cut her off sharply, "Just do as Lord Braska asks!" He winced to himself as he heard his words.
Raiel was obviously surprised by his harsh words and just looked at him for a moment. Then, fire showing in her eyes, she tried to shake free of his hold. "Thanks, but I don't need your help. I can manage just fine!"
Auron abruptly released her and sprang to his feet as he muttered, "Fine! Do it yourself then!"
Not anticipating so abrupt a move, Raiel nearly toppled back to the road before she could catch herself.
Braska stepped in quickly and kept her head from crashing onto the hard surface. A small, rare glint showing in his eye, he spoke to the red-clad Guardian with just the tiniest edge to his quiet voice.
"Perhaps you should go check on Jecht, Auron. I'll assist Lady Raiel."
Auron caught the edge in his Summoner's voice and knew that Lord Braska was chastising him for his poor behavior which caused him even more irritation with himself. He had no idea why he had reacted as he had. It was certainly not in his character to be anything but chivalrous to the opposite gender, not that he'd had much experience, but he was baffled by his behavior and he didn't seem to be able to stop himself!
A slight flush rising to his cheeks, he nodded and said quietly, "Yes, my lord. I – I apologize."
Braska looked up at him, one eyebrow raised, and said softly, "It is not I who is due an apology."
Auron looked down at the woman still sitting in the roadway being held by the Summoner and muttered a short "My apologies," before turning on his heel and striding quickly away.
With a small sigh, Lord Braska said, "Please don't judge Auron too harshly, Raiel. He takes things much too seriously at times and takes too many of other people's burdens upon himself. I depend far too heavily on him myself."
Then he continued in a brighter tone, "Well! With my assistance, do you think you can stand?"
Though his full robes could have given a different impression, Lord Braska was actually a strong man. He stood probably two or three inches under six feet but was sturdily built. Being a Summoner required physical, as well as mental, strength.
At her nod, he lifted her and she got her feet under her, albeit a little unsteadily. "Thank you, Lord Braska. I'm very much in your debt. I – I don't know what I would have done if you had not been here - - -" Her eyes went to the places where her former companions had lain. Very softly she added, "And thank you for – for – Sending them."
A small smile. "It is nothing, dear Lady. I'm very glad we were nearby."
Auron reappeared and said, "Lord Braska, there is a good campsite just over here. It will serve us well, I think."
"Thank you, Auron. Lead the way, if you will, please."
In a remarkably short span of time, they were settled in on thick grass in a small copse of trees that afforded them some protection and privacy.
Jecht brought a large armload of wood to the site and arranged some of it in a small pyramid. Without thinking, Raiel flicked out her hand and, sparks springing from her fingers, cast Fire on it, instantly igniting the wood. Three very surprised faces looked at her.
Suddenly realizing what she had done, a pink flush touched her cheeks. "Oh! Sorry - - habit, I guess."
One of Braska's gentle smiles crossed his face as he said, "You are a remarkable young lady, Raiel! Where did you learn the magic arts, if I may ask?"
She looked down for a moment, then answered quietly, "My mother. Then later from my grandmother."
Braska nodded. "You lost her, I gather?"
Raiel just nodded with no further explanation or comment. Everyone in Spira has lost someone.
Sitting with knees drawn up, arms resting on them as fingers of one hand absently rubbed his temple, Auron had watched and listened with interest to the exchange and realized that he wanted to learn more about this intriguing woman. She seemed to be near his age of twenty-five years and he sensed that, like him, she had experienced much during her life and not a lot of it was happy. There were very, very few women who could handle a blade and the little he had seen as she fought the garuda told him that she was quite good. He wondered where she had learned.
The small fire snapped and crackled, lending a soft glow to their faces as they ate a small evening meal.
Afterward, Raiel leaned back against a tree, staring into the flames, thinking of the events of the day.
Poor Jairon. He didn't deserve to have his life end like this. If ever there was a person who was just 'too good', it was Jairon who was always looking for a way to help someone. She could see his happy, laughing face now. She would always blame herself for not making him give up his dream of making a pilgrimage. She could never face the people on the island again.
Devin. Quieter than Jairon, he was more reserved, so earnest, so determined and so inexperienced. Why did she ever think that she could get the two of them safely through the many months of an entire pilgrimage? They died because she didn't stop them. She should have found a way.
Completely lost in her thoughts, Raiel had no awareness of the others around the fire or of the tears silently trailing down her cheeks. She was startled when a big rough thumb touched the side of her face, wiping away the tears there.
The one called Jecht had moved closer to her. His gravelly voice quietly said, "It's all right, little girl. Sometimes ya just can't save people from themselves, ya know?"
She looked up into brown eyes that were surprisingly kind and gentle. Her voice was low and quiet. "Thank you, Jecht. There must have been something I could have done. Jairon was so sure that he could defeat Sin. He truly believed it! And Devin wasn't going to let his brother go without him. When I found out, I - couldn't let them go alone. I had to go, to try." A pause, "The pair of them – so innocent, so full of trust and belief in themselves – - - and I failed them. Why did I think I could somehow keep them alive?"
A big arm flopped around her shoulders making her wince from the still painful injury. "Look, kiddo. I'm a good example. I'm no good. I drink too much. I'm just takin' up space here an' makin' life miserable for Big Red over there. Well, forget that last part. That's my only fun in life!"
His brash laugh drew a glare and a snort from his fellow Guardian. Braska just quietly smiled.
Turning serious, Jecht continued, "But who can save me from myself? You? My family? No. I'm the only one who can do that – an' I'm not even sure I can!"
"Ya ask Braska there. He made his decision. He even left his kid because he thought it was the best thing he could do for her. I'm sure there were plenty of people who tried to talk him out of it, but here he is! All ol' Big an' Ugly over there can do is try to keep him safe an' protect him. He'll do his best an' maybe he can, maybe he can't. But he can't do anything more than what you did. Unnerstand?"
Raiel was thoughtful as she nodded.
Jecht scrunched her up in a big one-armed hug and a last slap on the shoulder before scooting back to his original place.
It was quiet for several minutes.
" 'S nothin', kiddo!"
"You touch my shoulder one more time, I'm gonna kick your butt into sometime next week!"
Jecht's raucous laugh rang through the night, overpowering the quiet chuckles from Lord Braska.
Auron was quiet but, dark eyes slightly narrowed, he was looking at Raiel with a measure of respect. Somewhere within herself she had known that the pilgrimage would fail, but she had tried anyway, even knowing that she herself would probably die in the process. Without the unexpected arrival of his own party today, she would have quickly bled to death.
And Jecht had surprised both the Summoner and Auron with his comments to Raiel. It showed a depth that Auron, in particular, hadn't thought he possessed.
Braska had always felt there was more to Jecht than the surface showed and now felt justified in having him on this pilgrimage more than ever. The experiences in his own life had given the Summoner the belief that all things happen for a reason.
Following the thread of that thought he wondered about Raiel's presence with them. That was a thought he wanted to pursue.
Not long afterward, Auron said, "Jecht, you've got the first watch. Stay alert!"
Jecht let out a big sigh and stretched as he stood. Grinning, he said, "Whatever ya say, Lord Auron!" and took up a position just outside the circle of the camp, leaning against a tree.
Raiel looked at the tall Guardian and said, "I'll take a shift."
Auron thought for a moment, then said, "Not tonight. You're still recovering."
She started to protest, but saw something in his eye that stopped it in her throat and she just nodded, though there was a flash in her eyes.
Braska, quietly observing from his place by the fire, nodded to himself. They would work it out. He smiled while thinking that he just hoped that there would be no permanent injuries in the process. They have no idea how much alike they are! He smiled again. It would be interesting to watch.
Raiel had earlier removed the ruined, bloody sleeve from her shirt. Now she was looking at the remaining long sleeve. "Would one of you mind cutting this sleeve off, please? This looks ridiculous."
Auron looked at Braska who tipped his head in her direction. Auron sighed slightly and walked across the small campsite to her, thinking that only a woman would be fashion conscious out here in the middle of nowhere.
Raiel saw the huge blade in his hand and said, "Whoa! Not with that thing. I'd like to keep the arm, if you don't mind."
A frown appeared between Auron's brows. "I have complete control of my blade at all times."
Raiel unsheathed her smaller blade and held it out to the him. "I'm sure you do. However, my shirt, my arm, my blade."
A short staring contest was apparently won by Raiel as Auron sheathed his blade with an enormous sigh and took her proffered blade. He knelt beside her and began carefully cutting through the material of the sleeve at the shoulder.
Raiel found herself suddenly feeling too warm and uncomfortable at his closeness, as if she couldn't quite breathe properly. At times the fingers of his free hand touched her shoulder leaving a tingling sensation that unsettled her even more.
Auron was having his own difficulties. He had never felt more awkward in his entire life. Suddenly his fingers felt too big, his hands unsure, he was breathing much too fast and his cheeks felt hot.
At last the sleeve was detached. Raiel looked up and softly thanked him. Auron looked into the eyes he still couldn't describe and just nodded before he stood and returned to his previous place.
Braska silently observed and kept his smile to himself. Yes, it would be interesting!
An uneventful night passed. Raiel slept fitfully on the soft grass but she did sleep and was startled awake by a big boot bumping hers. Auron had had the second watch and was rousting the party out as light began to show in the eastern sky. A breakfast of dried jerky consumed, they cleaned the campsite, leaving firewood for other travelers who might camp here.
Braska checked Raiel's shoulder and arm when there was enough light. "It's healing nicely but it will be a few days before you get back to where you were before you were injured."
He paused a moment and looked at the three standing before him.
"Auron, Jecht, I have made a decision. In addition to you, I would like to have Raiel join us as my Guardian. Raiel, will you accept?"
Raiel was surprised. She looked into the eyes of the Summoner, then down as she thought, 'Am I ready for this responsibility again?'
She looked at Auron and Jecht. Jecht didn't seem to have any feelings one way or the other. Auron, on the other hand, had a frown on his face that was otherwise unreadable. He probably would be happier if she just went on her way and didn't ever bother him again. For some reason, she seemed to irritate him. She didn't respond well to that and reacted with irritation of her own. An uncomfortable situation. She couldn't imagine how he would react to her as a fellow Guardian.
She again looked at Lord Braska. His calm face was wearing a serious expression that she couldn't quite read as he waited for her answer. He wouldn't have made the offer if he didn't mean it, of that she was sure. And she knew that she had a lot to offer the party with both her blade and magic skills.
It was certain that she was now on her own with nowhere to go.
Not entirely sure she was making the right decision but looking straight into his eyes, Raiel said, "Lord Braska, I would consider it an honor to serve as Guardian to you. I take the oath to follow your orders and to protect you at all costs, even with my own life. I swear it."
Braska smiled. "Thank you, Raiel. I'm very happy that you accepted and I look forward to the rest of our journey with you."
Looking at the two men, Braska said, "Are we ready to go?"
Auron nodded and said, "Yes, my lord. Raiel, you have Point. Jecht, you have Rear Guard."
Surprised, Raiel looked into Auron's eyes but could read nothing in them so she just nodded and set off down the road. Braska and Jecht were also surprised, looking at Auron but getting no response.
Auron thought, 'Better find out exactly what she's made of right now. Don't want any bad surprises when it counts!'
Raiel kept herself about sixty feet or so in front of the main party, eyes constantly moving, listening carefully.
Walking Escort beside Lord Braska, Auron watched her and was pleasantly surprised to see that his new comrade-in-arms seemed to actually know what to do and seemed to be doing a very good job of it. It would certainly take some of the load off of him to have another experienced Guardian in the party on whom he could depend.
He was slow to realize that he had also noticed that she had a very nice walk. She wore long pants that were neatly tucked into calf-high boots and somehow managed to make that look very feminine.
He heard a small chuckle from the man beside him and looked at him quizzically. Braska said nothing but kept a smile on his lips, eyes straight ahead. Puzzled, Auron glanced back at Jecht who was ambling along behind them then turned his attention back to the Guardian on Point.
Nearly an hour passed quietly before Raiel suddenly stopped and held up her hand. Auron, Braska and Jecht immediately stopped, Auron watching her intently.
Raiel didn't move for several long moments, then looked back at Auron and gestured with her head for him to advance as she drew her blade from the sheath she wore on her back. He reached her position quietly and looked at her, eyebrow raised.
She softly whispered, "Listen."
He did but heard nothing. He slightly shook his head.
She whispered again, "That's the point! No sound. No birds, nothing. Why?"
Auron understood and slowly drew his blade. Something had silenced everything around it. But what?