Welcome back to Hollow Tree, dwellers! As many of you likely know, the second book to my Guardian Circle Series, The Guardian’s Choice, has released! For those who have read the series thus far, you know that I’ve been telling a small bit of the untold, behind the scenes story right here on Tales From the Hollow Tree, involving two of the lesser known characters.
The Earth and Air Guardians first met in Dream Walker and now we get another piece of the puzzle with Forged Through Fire. Enjoy! 🙂
She watched him work from the shadows, hidden within her Element, exploring him as she could not in flesh. Her stomach fluttered, a cluster of butterflies eager to break free from their cage. He pounded at the red-hot metal of a steel blade with a large mallet, his naked back and shoulders slick with sweat. She traced the ancient script of his Mark with her eyes, from his neck down the length of his spine, stark black against the warm caramel of his flushed, sun-kissed skin.
His muscles tightened with each mallet swing. The four walls of the tiny, sweltering workshop quivered, ready to buckle, to bow to his power.
Bianca glanced at the room she’d long committed to memory – a room that had felt like a glimpse into his brilliant soul, full of trinkets made of blown glass and gemstones, carved of marble or stone, forged through fire.
Now, she noticed suddenly, those trinkets were gone. Cluttered with tools and raw materials, the room still felt bare, devoid of the life its craftsman had once breathed into its walls, giving them color and depth.
Something was wrong. Something had changed since they last spoke.
Enki turned as though he heard her thoughts. She startled. A dark bruise marred his jaw below his cheekbone. A red gash split the corner of his full lips. Bianca gasped, losing her cover, materializing before him.
“I thought it was you,” he whispered, his mouth tilting into the ghost of a smile. He removed his work gloves and placed them on the table behind him. “I can always tell when you’ve appeared. You bring the smell of springtime and sunflowers wherever you go.”
“Enki,” she breathed out, taking a careful step in his direction, unable to rip her gaze from the unsettling nature of his bruises.
“I have missed our meetings greatly,” he said and she saw the truth of it in the molten amber of his eyes.
“I tried to save her,” he said, but his thoughts were far away and his voice was soft and haunted. “I tried to save her but I failed.”
“Who? Who did you try saving?”
He looked away, clutching the edges of the table to steady himself. “Much has changed since we last met.”
Bianca swallowed hard, holding back tears, mourning days spent in the shed talking of sunflower fields and freedom or of a grandiose courtyard in the shadow of a glittering marble temple. It all came back to her at once, the smell of coal and fire on his skin, the warm sunshine coming through the open shutters of his windows. His smile; so earnest, so true.
They’d shared the entirety of their lives here between these four small walls, filled in the spaces where their paths had diverted so they could reunite and be as they were meant to, Earth and Air, two halves made whole.
“It doesn’t have to be different,” she said, desperate, letting Air caress his skin.
“But it is. And I’m afraid the things I’ve done have carved a hollow I cannot refill.”
Her heart broke for him, for the innocence lost, for the boy she’d first met and the tattered remains of the man that replaced him. His soul was still pure at its core, but she felt the differences in him, swallowing him.
The violence. The guilt. The regret.
She should have known. It was only a matter of time before this World got him too.
“I’m sorry, Bianca.” He broke, and she wrapped her arms around him then, breathing in his scent, letting her Element cradle and soothe him. “I am not the man you knew. I have the blood of many men on my hands. It sings to me from within the soil. Reminding me. Cursing me.”
“What have you done?” she asked him, clutching him tighter, wishing just this once that she was as solid as he felt.
“I tried to save her,” he repeated. “But I failed.”