Hello readers, and welcome back for my Day #6 of my Daily Writing challenge! It’s based off the image by Tara Spruitt above—give her a follow on social media (@taratjah), her art is amazeballs—and it was actually quite a fun prompt that I personally selected. I feel like there is plenty of stories to come up with in this image of four young wanderers in the woods with some magical bird perched in the heroine’s arm. Read below what I came up with!
“The Guardians of Sparak”
“Did you hear that?” Caleb already had an arrow tight against the coil of his bow as he stared out amongst the thick foliage of the forest. Serena followed where Caleb’s eyes traveled and frowned.
“No, what did you hear?” she whispered as she tried to calm down Sparak, the young phoenix they’d ran away with. Sparak was still easily spooked, and her feathers ruffled as small embers began to fall off the edges of her tail.
“I guess there’s nothing,” Caleb replied. His brown eyes darkened as they continued to dart through the dense trees, a deep sigh hummed from his chest.
Sparak cooed a few times while almost unfurling her wings, and even though that alone caused a bead of sweat to run down Serena’s face from the heat, she got her guardian to calm down and rest on her nearby perch.
Serena’s shoulders sagged in relief, one crisis averted, and peered over at Caleb. His rusty brown hair had grown longer than how he usually wore it, and a bit of stubble coated his jawline, and she had to admit that being on the run for almost four months was really doing wonders for his appearance. Back home at Cresthaven, the former head ranger for the royal family usually kept his looks more sharp and clean-cut, but now they had no time to worry about grooming requirements.
Her chest ached at the memories of them training together, both firing bows at their targets, passing secretive looks during strategy meetings with the much older captain when he wasn’t looking, and sneaking a pitcher at the pub after hours when they had free time afterwards. She especially remembered the night he’d been selected to be the head ranger, and what almost happened. Now it seemed like Caleb didn’t even know how to release the breath he was always holding, the tension never fully leaving his shoulders, and Serena couldn’t remember the last time he’d even smiled.
Sparak lightly pecked at her shoulder for attention, so it brought Serena back from her inner thoughts, and she smiled as she reached into her satchel to grab a small treat for the needy little firebird.
“Did Aerin or Lyssa say when they’d return?” Caleb asked as he returned to their campsite and sat down on a fallen log near the firepit.
“They said it’d take a while if they wanted to catch something for dinner,” Serena replied, and threw him a grin. “I remember you’d take extra long whenever it was our turn to go check the traps back home.”
Caleb gave her a look. “Sorry If I couldn’t face looking at whatever got caught.”
“That’s what I like about you, Caleb. No matter what, you’re still a big softie on the inside.”
Caleb looked away, but Serena caught his face turning red. “Don’t let the others know. Lyssa still looks up to me,” he admitted under his breath.
“Your secret’s safe with me.”
Caleb’s lips tilted at the edges, but he got up to get their fire started. He grabbed a handful of twigs from their nearby pile and laid them out in the pit, and Serena silently watched him with worry in her eyes. There was much she wanted to say, but never felt like it was the right time to bring it all up. For the moment, it was just the two of them; it was the perfect timing to be able to say what’s been on her mind. If only she wasn’t so much of a coward when it came to her childhood friend. Instead, she silently helped Sparak clean off some loose feathers that’d turned to ash along her back.
They all jumped at the crunch and crackles of two pairs of feet drawing near, and Sparak cawed while she ruffled her feathers once again. Smoke began to protrude from the flaps of her wings, but Serena knew no real threats would make their appearance so obvious.
Lyssa and Aerin returned, the former having a bit more swagger in her step than ever before.
“Check it out, folks. We’ll be eating like kings and queens tonight,” Lyssa boasted as she held up two large trout from the nearby river, and shook her hips with two dead rabbits swinging from her belt.
Aerin scoffed under his cloak. “Please, you got bored and decided to go chase a squirrel, so I caught everything before you scared it all off.”
“That sounds more likely.” Serena smirked at Lyssa, who glowered at Aerin. “But I’m sure you provided excellent moral support, Lys.”
Lyssa crossed her arms. “Well, someone obviously never had fun growing up, so I figured ‘better late than never.’”
Caleb looked on while he started a fire. “It’s getting dark quick, so bring that all over here.”
“You guys are no fun.” Lyssa deeply sighed as she stomped over, and she eyed Sparak from the corner of her eye. “Tell me again why we can’t just have her start a fire?”
“Because she’s still a chick, and can’t control her fire quite yet,” Caleb reminded her. “We can’t risk her burning down the whole forest.”
“Yeah, I suppose we better wait on that,” Lyssa agreed.
Serena watched as Aerin went into his tent and reappeared with the thick volume he’s been reading on their journey. He gave her a slight nod as he sat down on the same log as her, head already buried deep within the book’s pages. Serena turned her attention towards Caleb and Lyssa; their heads bowed close together while she watched him clean the fish and slap the meat onto the flat stone they used as a skillet. Lyssa intently listened to every word he spoke, and Serena couldn’t help but smile at the scene.
Lyssa was the young daughter of a merchant, and has never had an older brother growing up to help take care of her, and now her whole family was dead for helping them all escape from Cresthaven. Lyssa may hide any pain she’s suffering, but Serena’s heart broke for all that the young child has been through, especially with the situation the four of them were currently stuck in. Because of Sparak, and what their court had planned for her, now the four of them were on the run from their own kingdom, and who knew what was probably coming for them in search of the last known phoenix in existence.
No kingdom should want to go to war, and with the hope of somehow crossing the Baltric Sea to get to the Western Continent for answers, Serena took a deep breath as she reminded herself of their mission; the fate of everything they know hangs in the outcome, even if it means betraying their homeland.
The skyline above the canopies grew to a deep cerulean with hardly any clouds, and the four silently ate their portions as they watched the flames dance along the twigs and logs… well three out of the four did; Caleb went back to scanning the tree’s surrounding them.
“Does anyone remember that song from back home?” Serena inquired as she fed a small helping of trout to Sparak. “You know, the one about the ogre and the donkey?”
Both Caleb and Aerin looked at her with bemused expressions, but Lyssa perked up with rabbit still in her mouth. “Oh yeah! The one where they battle an ox in order to be able to drink with the King? Then they battle it out with the guards because they beat him in a chugging contest?”
Aerin snorted. “Always a fan favorite around the campfire.”
Caleb nodded. “Give Serena a couple pints of ale and she would sing louder than anyone else in the guild.”
“Well at least I sang well whenever I did,” Serena retorted.
Serena mock-gasped. “Caleb Mallier, you should hear yourself sing whenever you’ve got the guts to try.”
Lyssa snickered. “Sounds like we’ve got a sing-off happening.”
Aerin’s face lit up in slight amusement. “Not even pints of ale can make his singing any better.”
Everyone but Caleb laughed at that, but he couldn’t hide the smirk that appeared on the edge of his frown. He looked at Serena, and at her playful shrug, finally cracked a small smile as he took another bite of his dinner.
It was like a weight lifted off Serena’s shoulders at the long awaited sight of Caleb’s smile. With its return, the air shifted, and it felt like the group could finally lean back and breathe for one night since they’d narrowly escaped the kingdom. Specks of ember floated up from the crackling of the fire, and Sparak nipped at them in amusement, and the others chuckled as they watched her happily caw as she caught a stray flicker with her sharp beak. Even Caleb relaxed his shoulders as he watched the phoenix play along the edges of the flames.
Serena’s eyes met his, and they shared a look that said so many things still unspoken between them. Things they hardly had the privacy to discuss, but the mere thought of them caused her heartbeat to quicken. Maybe once Lyssa and Aerin were both asleep, the two of them could sneak off, and she could try again.
Unfortunately, their mutual gaze meant neither of them caught the dark shape that jumped from the trees hanging over their campsite.
Thanks for Reading!
— Nick Goodsell