The Guardian

The warrior flew like a rock, straight down from the jagged heights. Eventually he plunged beneath a serene pool at the bottom. He had been watching it as he fell. From the high cliff he had had plenty of time to watch. To consider the quiet peace, which was as breathtaking as his plummet. The meandering fish in blurry depths. The warm sunlight infusing every leaf with satisfaction. Even the roar of the falls was lulling. His own gnarled form, streaming blood and sweat, tainted the scene.

A great blue heron twisted its neck to witness the hulking human as he fell like a black star from the heavens. He was an alien to this realm, that was certain. But the water bird appeared unconcerned.

Upon impact the man was encapsulated by icy, bubbling water. His eyes shot wide and his teeth gritted in a ferocious, far from amused, grin. Whatever peace he might have felt during the descent was shattered.

Punctuating the sudden, cold chaos were dark arrows slicing down around him. They drove into the water with angry speed, loosed from the spot where he had flung himself. Their message was clear and deadly. One bit deep into his shoulder, his body spasming in alarm and pain. He forced himself deeper, waiting for that black rain to cease. A thin curl of blood leaked up to the surface from around the shaft of the arrow, clouding the azure waters, sending a satisfying signal to the archers.

Then, for a few moments, there was silence. The fish renewed their silvery wriggling.

Then he finally rose, bursting from the skin of the frigid pool, lifting up like a frothing leviathan. He sucked down a giant gasp of air. Then with a muttered curse aimed at his shriveled testicles he began the swim to a rocky shore. Thick muscled arms, arcing in syncopated rhythm, drew him easily to the edge of jutting stone. He lifted his soaked mass out. Only then did he look up, back from where he had fallen … where he had jumped.

A multifaceted phosphorescence of emotions shimmered across his wet face before returning to stoic nonchalance. The high ledge was empty. The din of the falls overpowered any sounds for which he may have been listening. The world up there was gone.

A drag of the bedraggled head round to the surrounding foliage became a slow scan of thick greenery. He paused. His eyes narrowed. Then, with a creaking groan, his body sparked to savage action, lunging forward, striking out with a fist into the bushes.

A whimper, a snarl, then a vengeful spring of a dark, feline shape. An enormous panther sprang toward the man. For a moment there was the potential for raw battle between two ominous forces. But then the man turned on his heels and dove back into the water, followed closely by razor jaws snapping at those heels.

The beast slammed into the man’s back. A wild cry from both tore into the day as the shaft of the arrow in the man’s shoulder sank into the cat’s black chest and in the process progressed deeper beneath the warrior’s shoulder blade.

The man plunged deep, trying to get away from the arrow and the claws. Trying to get toward something on the bed of the pool. His fingers scraped against the item’s edges. The panther was bucking, trying to push itself free of the impaled shaft. In so doing it dug its hind feet into the man and pushed, tearing through skin of his lower back. The shove was enough to get the man close enough to grasp his prize. It was also enough to free the panther, who scrambled back to the shore.

The warrior dragged the item, gripping it tightly. There was blind rage in his eyes. There was blood filling up the water around him, trailing after him as he struggled to shallow water. When he could stand he raises the weapon high. He winced through his mass of dark beard and tangles of hair. The panther hissed, coiling itself for a spring.

“Enough!”

A woman’s voice, throaty and aged. Both creatures turned to regard it. Both witnessed the gray-haired woman clad in skins sitting astride a panther so large that it could not possibly be real.

That giant creature and its small rider were still, relaxed. There was something majestic and picturesque about them. They could afford to look that way, for power and authority exuded from them like the mist of the falls. Wisdom with strength.

The warrior was visibly taken aback. His hammer settled down to rest in the shallows. He spoke, his voice a rasping rumble. “Figures.”

The woman cocked her head to one side.

He continued. “Figures I’d fall all that way to be eaten by a giant Nifelheim cat. That’s just the kind of cursed day I’m having.”

The woman smiled, transforming her wizened features into something akin to kindness. ” Are you that hungry?” she asked her steed, scratching behind one of its oversized ears. “He doesn’t appear all that appetizing to me.”

The animal only licked its lips with a broad, pink tongue.

There was a soft saddle of fur beneath the woman. Attached to this was a bundle of long staves. The woman selected one, then lifted herself up in leather stirrups. She was aging but that did not keep her from wielding the javelin adeptly.

The man, experienced warrior though he was, had no time to react before the spear was thrown, whistling through the air with precision toward his face. Striking its target the man fell back into the shallows. Gentle ripples caressed his body. He had succumbed to the peace of the scene into which he has fallen.

The woman stared a while longer, features from, before finally whispering a word to her steed. They, along with the smaller panther, vanished into the foliage.

Night birds woke him. His hand drew up slowly to his forehead where he felt the obvious mark that had been impressed.

“A blunt stave. Or the butt end of a sharp one. Either way, she could have killed me. I always knew the thickness of my skull was a worthy attribute.”

He opened his eyes. Stars twinkled cheerily overhead, mocking this bewildered man and his obvious pain. He was convulsing with a chill, soaked in the shallow water around him. A little deeper and he would have drown. With a slight turn he noticed the arrowhead tip poking from the front of his shoulder.

“Impact shoved it through. Lovely.”

The man dug in his heels and shoved himself away from the water and onto smooth stone. The sound of wood splintering and scraping grated against the night.

He stretched his arm over and gripped the thing. With a roar he pulled, drawing out the arrow and flinging it into the water. Then he once again passed out.

The next time he woke it was to morning birds. The sky was smeared with a hint of peach. He lifted his head stiffly and turned toward the hole from the arrow.

He eyed the spot for a while then rested back down. Two deep breaths and then he hefted himself to elbows. He did not pass out. Two more breaths and he was sitting. Thin rays of light began to stretch their way beyong the tree line and trickle down into the small clearing.

“There should be more blood,” he said. “I should be more dead.”