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Eighteen Years Ago

It was a cool country night in an evergreen forest clearing. A small log house nestled next to a quiet flowing brook. The house contained a happy family of five. Warm firelight flickered, scattering dancing shadows across the trees. Singing, often interrupted by the high-pitched laughter of children, floated through the air, tickling the ears of the surrounding forest life.

     Dean picked up his six-year-old daughter, Serania, tossing her in the air, triggering squeals of excitement. The middle child, Andrea, joined in the laughter as she was spun around by her mother, Thalia. The youngest sister, baby Gemma, giggled, pumped her arms, and kicked her legs, infected by her family’s joy and delighted by her parents’ singing.

 

 

“In the dark of night shines a great light.

Not without, but within resides your might!

Let go, let go, no longer control.

Let go, let go, in tune with your soul.

Let go and remember to allow full surrender.

No walls, and no tether, can hold back the power.

Let go, let go, see not with your eyes.

Let go, let go, the shell is a disguise!”

 

     Dean fell to the floor, Serania landing in a laughing heap on his belly.

“Sing it again, sing it again!” she pleaded, lisping her s’s because of her missing front teeth.

     Dean laughed. “I wish I had an ounce of your energy, my little caterpillar!” He tickled her sides and was rewarded with even higher squeals.

     Andrea wriggled free from her mother’s arms, going to her elder sister’s defense. “No more tickling!” she demanded, her fists on her hips, ready to fight.

     “Ah, my little soldier, come to save your sister from the tickle monster!” Dean’s eyes twinkled with mischief while Andrea worked to pry his fingers from Serania. Soon both girls piled on top of their father, giggling while they held him down.

     Thalia laughed and shook her head as she picked up Gemma, who had rolled over onto her tummy and was trying to crawl toward her siblings. “Oh no, you don’t. You’re too young to join in that, my love.”

     The baby looked up at her mother, confused and angry to be told no, then looked back to the happy scene in front of her. She leaned forward, reaching out her arms to her father, hoping he would let her join.

     The front door opened with a loud bang as it hit the wall behind it, making all five family members jump and the youngest cry. Their friend, Bruce, rushed into the house, looking pale and winded. “Dean! They’ve found you! They’re on the way here; you need to run!” he doubled over, gasping for breath, his hands shaking on his thighs.

     Thalia shared a knowing look with her husband. They had discussed the chance this might happen but hoped this day would never come. She subtly shook her head, not wanting to believe what she was hearing, and pulled Gemma closer, holding her protectively against her chest.

     Dean took Andrea’s hand and placed it in Serania’s, then knelt so he was eye to eye with them. “Serania, my love, I need you to be brave. I need you to take care of your sister. Can you do that for me?”

    Serania nodded, her eyes wide and her face white. She sniffed as tears spilled down her cheeks.

     Dean gently wiped the tears away. “Never let go of your sister’s hand. Stay with your mother, but do not let go of Andrea’s hand, okay?”

     Serania nodded again. “Yes, Daddy,” she whispered, trying to put on a brave face.

     “That’s my girl!” Dean wiped another tear from her eye.

     “Dean, we don’t know how much time we have; you must go now!” Bruce urged.

     Dean tenderly touched Andrea’s face. “Be strong my little soldier.” He stood and turned to face his wife.

   Thalia’s muscles tightened, her stomach squeezing into a tight knot, while Gemma’s crying escalated, feeling the tension in her mother’s body.

     Dean took his wife’s face into his hands, holding her gaze, the look in his eyes as strong as steel. “Thalia, take the girls out the back door and run. Do not stop. Do not look back. And no matter what, do not come back for me.”

     Thalia shook her head, refusing to accept what she heard. How could she leave the man she had loved for what felt like her entire life? “I won’t leave you. I’ll fight by your side! We’re better together!” Her voice came out tight, fighting back the tears burning at the back of her eyes.

     Bruce turned from looking out the window. “Dean!”

     They were out of time.

     Dean kissed Thalia tenderly. “I love you, Thalia.” He gently caressed his youngest daughter’s blond hair, giving her a light kiss on her forehead. Turning to his older daughters, he gave each a kiss as well. “And I love all three of you girls.”

    Thalia could see the struggle in his eyes, trying to be brave for his wife and daughters, while at the same time holding back the pain of saying goodbye. A lifetime of memories flashed before her eyes. Memories she thought she’d have years more to add to.

     Dean looked once again into Thalia’s blue eyes. “I can’t fight well if I’m worried about protecting you four. Take the girls, keep them safe. You’re the only chance they have.” He grabbed a sword he had hidden in a cupboard. “Now go. We’ll buy you as much time as we can.” He and Bruce both nodded grimly to each other.

     Thalia knew by their faces that both men accepted they wouldn’t live through this night. With her final glimpse into the face of the only man she had or ever would love, Thalia grabbed a child’s blanket from nearby and used it to secure her youngest daughter to her. She took Serania’s hand, and fled out the back door, willing herself not to look back. Her breathing came in ragged, short breaths as she fought the pain of her heart ripping in two. She ran as fast as possible with Serania half-holding, half-dragging Andrea. To Andrea’s credit, she didn’t cry, but with her mouth clenched tightly, did her best to keep up with her mother and older sister.

     They were only seconds from the house when the sound of shouting and metal against metal reached Thalia’s ears. Her chest tightened painfully, knowing the chances of her husband living for more than a few minutes were slim. She forced her legs to keep going, picking Andrea up every few steps when she stumbled while tears ran freely down her face. Gemma’s cries grew into loud wails. Thalia tried to calm her while they ran, but nothing would assuage her youngest daughter’s fear.

     Thalia’s steps faltered as the cacophony far behind her ceased. Her husband and Bruce were dead, and now they would be coming after her and the girls. She pulled Serania in front of her, kneeling. She was about to do the hardest thing she had ever had to do. Her voice shook as she tried to be strong for her girls. “Serania, take Andrea, go as fast and as far as you can into the forest. Go to our secret place, okay? Can you do that for Mommy?”

      Serania nodded, wiping her eyes and nose with the back of her hand.

     Thalia smiled through her tears, pulling Serania into a tight hug. “You are such a brave, strong girl.” She released Serania from the hug, holding her at arm’s length, and her voice broke as her chin quivered. “Wait until morning in our place, then start working your way to Bracken’s house. He will help you. Can you remember how to get there?”

     Serania nodded again before her eyes pinched tightly, and she swung her arms around Thalia’s neck, holding tight. “I don’t want to go, Mommy! Please don’t make me go!”

     Thalia squeezed her daughter firmly, unable to tell who was shaking worse; she or her daughter. Reluctantly she peeled her daughter from her neck, forcing her back. “I’m so sorry, my love, but I need you to go. I can’t go with you this time.” She brushed tears from Serania’s cheeks, but more replaced them as fast as she wiped them, making the gesture useless. “You need to be strong for your sister. She needs you to keep her safe. Can you be brave for me, sweetheart?”

    “Y-yes, Mommy.” Serania’s voice was nearly inaudible through the saliva and tears mingling in her mouth, but she pulled her shoulders back, holding her head higher, accepting the responsibility.

    Thalia knew it was a lot to ask of her, but it was the only chance she could give them. She took a necklace from her pocket and put it on Serania’s neck with shaking fingers. “Take this. Keep it hidden.” She tucked the necklace under the collar of Serania’s dress. “Never lose it, never let it out of your sight, and don’t wear it unless you have to.”

     Thalia turned and studied her middle daughter’s face. Even in the chaos and all the fear, the little four-year-old’s face was stern, looking like she was ready to fight. Andrea had never been afraid of much; she was born to be a protector. “Andrea, you must stay with your sister. You two need to protect each other, okay?”

     Andrea gave a grave nod. Thalia hugged them both one more time and sent them off. She felt the last tendrils of her heart tear into a million pieces as she watched her two daughters slowly disappear into the darkness. Andrea looked back with wide tearless eyes. Her tiny face was white, and she looked like she was about to pull away from Serania before the darkness took them both. Thalia’s resolve almost broke. She considered running after her daughters and going with them, but she knew they would never stand a chance with Gemma crying as she was.

     With a soft anguished cry, Thalia ran in the opposite direction of her two girls. She knew the men who had killed her husband would find her; they would follow her baby’s crying. Once they did, they would kill her, too, when they found out she didn’t have what they were looking for.

     Thalia stopped as soon as she was far enough away from where she had parted from her two daughters, falling hard to her knees. She fumbled with the knot tied in the blanket that held her child to her snugly, but soon had it undone, and gently placed the crying baby in the bushes. Leaning over her, she pushed the hair from her daughter’s face. “I love you so much, my dear Gemma.” She kissed her forehead, her tears mixing with her daughter’s. Sitting up, she took another necklace from her pocket. “Do you know why we called you Gemma?” She waved her hand over a part of the blanket, and a pocket opened. “Because you are more precious than any gem in the world.” A sob poured from her throat as she placed the necklace in the pocket, waving her hand over the opening to seal it shut again. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart. I won’t be here for you and your sisters as you grow up.”

     She said a silent prayer to the Creator for her daughters as she stood, praying the men would not bother Gemma once they had dealt with her, and if so, someone would come along and find her. Many hunted in these woods, there was a good chance someone would eventually come along.

    But what if they don’t come soon enough? The thought of her daughter slowly dying, abandoned in the forest, weakened her knees. The thought of the men tracking her other two daughters and slaughtering them without remorse was too much to comprehend.

    She gazed down at her daughter one last time. “I will always love you,” she whispered, her voice barely audible due to the tightness of her throat. Then, squaring her shoulders and standing to her full height, she doubled back, pushing her legs to the brink; Gemma’s cries growing fainter behind her.

    The sound of breaking branches and men running drew closer. Thalia stopped, slowly lowering to her knees on the forest floor. She spoke to the wind, her eyes looking straight ahead. “I’ll be joining you soon, my love.”

     The shadow of a man emerged from behind a tree into her line of vision, followed shortly by another man with a torch. By the torchlight, Thalia could make out the last man she would ever see. A sneer distorted his handsome face, the firelight reflecting off many silver-capped teeth. His hair was worked into long dreads pulled back by a leather tie behind his neck.

     “Thalia, Thalia…did you have to make us chase you into this revolting forest?” He chopped a few branches out of his way with his sword. “You knew you could never outrun us. Why couldn’t you make it easy on us as your husband did?”

    At the mention of Dean, Thalia’s muscles tightened, and some of the fear fell away. She lifted her chin. “You will never find what you’re looking for, Fovos.”

     Fovos’ sneer turned into a scowl. “Now see, that’s what Dean said before I put my blade through his gut.” He waved his sword in front of her face. “He’s not dead yet. I decided to let him slowly bleed out. Do you know how long it can take to die from a gut wound? It can take days sometimes.” His eyes glinted in the firelight. “Especially if you know exactly where to pierce them through.”

     Heat rushed to Thalia’s cheeks as her anger grew, but she refused to give him the satisfaction of any more of a reaction.

     His face darkened and his jaw shook, enraged by her silence. “Where are they?” He slapped her hard across the face, knocking her to the ground.

     Blood filled her mouth, and a tooth moved loosely. Her pulse pounded in her ears. She smiled in satisfaction as she looked him in the eyes. “You lose again! You will always lose!”

     Fovos yelled as he raised his sword over his head. But before he could swing, the man holding the torch grabbed his arm. “We can’t kill her! We need to keep her alive to find them.”

    Fovos yanked his arm free. “No amount of torture will work on this one. We’ll have to find them without her.”

     “We can’t go back empty-handed. You know what he’ll do to us—”

    Fovos swung around; his sword tip held at the torchbearer’s throat. “Undermine me again, and I will add your rotting corpse to the ones back in the house.”

     The torchbearer put his hands up and backed away. “I’m not taking the blame for this if we can’t find them.”

     Fovos spit in the torchbearer’s direction and turned back to Thalia. “Looks like you lose.” He plunged the sword into her abdomen. Pulling it free, he bent down and slowly drew the sword across her throat, watching with a slight grin as the light faded from her eyes. Standing, he wiped the sword on his pants, pausing as he heard a faint cry from deeper within the forest. “Search her,” he indicated the woman with a sharp jerk of his chin.

     As the torchbearer reluctantly searched the woman’s bloody body, Fovos stomped to the source of the crying. He came to a small moving bundle lying on the forest floor. Squatting down, he used the tip of his sword to move the blanket aside and roughly searched around the child. Coming up empty, he punched the ground, cursing, making the baby scream even louder.

     The torchbearer came up behind him. “The mother doesn’t have them, sir.”

     Fovos stood with a guttural shout. “She must have sent them with the other two brats.” He grabbed the torchbearer’s tunic, making the man flinch as he pulled him close to his face, “Find them, search every part of this forest. Tear the whole thing down or set it on fire if you must! We’re not leaving here empty-handed!” He shoved the man back.

     The torchbearer straightened his tunic, keeping his eyes low, and dipped his head, “Yes, sir!” He glanced at the crying baby. “What about that one?”

     Fovos flicked his gaze down, his lips lifting with disgust. “Kill this one. It’s of no use to us.”

    The torchbearer flinched as Fovos brushed past him back into the forest. His insides tightened as he stared down at the screaming baby. Pulling his sword free, he stepped over to the child, but seeing her defenseless form, he couldn’t bring himself to kill her. He sold his sword, not his soul. Bending, he wrapped the blanket around her, tucking in the sides to keep out the cold night air and covering her head as much as he dared. “I’m sorry I’m such a coward, little one. I know it might be better to kill you and get it over with. Put you out of your misery, but I can’t. Maybe someone will find you.”

     Standing, he shook his shoulders, trying to ignore the chill working its way down his back. It felt akin to someone pouring icy water over him; he knew he’d be cursed for this. He moved away quickly, leaving the child’s cries to haunt the uncaring forest.

***

 

Thomas rolled his head from side to side, trying to relieve the ache that had set in. It had been a long day at the market. He was made to work with his hands, not stand all day talking people into buying his fare. That’s why, when he married Mariah, they started a farm together so he could be outside, work the land, and keep moving. He never anticipated how much he would dread every market day.

     Once every week, he would go to the market and sell any extra produce they had to help buy the tools and feed needed to keep the farm running. But standing still, trying to shout louder than the other vendors, trying to get people’s attention, was never something he wanted to do. To make matters worse, his mare was close to giving birth and required rest at home, forcing him to walk back in the dark, pulling a heavy and uncooperative cart behind him.

     As he walked along the road, something in the air seemed off. He shivered, pausing to pull his cloak tighter and rub some blood flow into his bad leg. Thirty-six years ago, shortly after he and Mariah were married, a wagon fell on top of him and his leg had never been the same. The long day of standing, mixed with the travel to and from the market, was taking a toll on his aging body. All he wanted to do was get home as fast as he could.

     He took note of a faint path off the road, which headed through the forest; it was one he’d taken on many occasions. If he took the path, he could shave off a lot of time, but it would be dark, and he had never traversed it with a cart before. He took a step forward but stopped again. Looking into the forest, he felt drawn, like the forest was beckoning him in. The wind blew through the trees, sounding like voices whispering in anticipation. He knew it was probably his tired mind playing tricks on him, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he needed to go that way. With a short sigh, he shook his head and headed toward the forest path.

     Trudging deeper and deeper into the forest, Thomas grumbled to himself about the roots that made it hard to pull the cart along. “Brilliant idea Thomas, going on a path not designed for carts in the dark.” He spoke out loud, the noise helping dispel the night’s gloomy feel.

     The density of the canopy above made the temperature drop a few degrees, reminding him that winter was coming, and it was coming fast. Soon his only trips to town would be once a month for supplies or to sell livestock. Faint sounds in the distance made him halt. He thought he heard shouting, and maybe even screaming, though he couldn’t be sure. He strained his ears to pinpoint what direction they were coming from, but in the dry air, the sound carried far, making it impossible. He shook his head and hastened on, hearing what sounded like the occasional shout, until the night sounds faded back to nothing more than the crickets and small wildlife flitting from tree to tree.

     As the night sounds steadied, his mind wandered. This night was different, as if something breathed into his soul to be ready. Ready for what, he didn’t know, but he had long ago learned to pay attention to the nudging of the unseen.

     A flash of movement in the corner of his vision made him jump and drop the cart handles, pulling his hands up to cover his startled heart. He turned, half expecting to see only a shadow, and calmed as a small fluffy creature, the likes of which he’d never seen before, moved into the light.

     “Well, hello there! You scared me half to death, little fellow.” His heart rate slowly calmed.

The animal was about the size of a man’s closed fist, and not a large one, at that. It had big round ears and a long bushy tail. A strip of dark grey fur encircled ice blue eyes that held an intelligent stare. The rest of its body was covered in snow-white fur that gleamed in the lantern light. It rose to its hind legs and held one squirrel-like forefoot up, pointing into the forest, its head swiveling from Thomas to the direction it was pointing and back again.

     Thomas followed the critter’s pointing with his eyes. “You want me to go in there?” He didn’t know why he asked the animal the question. It wasn’t like an animal could understand him.

    The creature squeaked and ran with the occasional hop toward the direction it had been pointing. For one moment, Thomas thought better of following an unknown animal, albeit a cute one, into the dark forest. What sane person would do that? But as he debated, the tug returned to his soul with a single word: Trust.

    Shaking his head, he took the lantern from the cart and followed where the creature had gone, praying he wasn’t making a mistake.

     They walked for some time. The fluffy animal would occasionally pause, turning around as if to make sure Thomas was still following, then proceed on. More than once, it lifted one foreleg, making a gesture like it wanted Thomas to hurry up. Soon the animal stopped and spun in circles, squeaking emphatically and jumping up and down. Next to it, a small bundle lay on the cold ground, wriggling intermittently.

     Thomas slowly set the lantern down and knelt by the bundle. He saw that it was a blanket of some sort and opened it to check what was inside. “Oh, my! What in Elefrisia are you doing out here?”

     The little girl was dangerously cold to the touch, and Thomas could tell by her eyes that she had been crying for quite some time. Her little fingers and lips looked blue in the lamplight. When he picked her up, she whimpered, too exhausted to cry. “Shhh, it’s okay; I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, holding her close to do his best to provide her warmth.

     He scanned the surrounding area. “How did you come to be here? Who do you belong to?”

Squeaking at his feet drew his eyes down. The fluffy animal scurried deeper into the forest, looking back and squeaking.

     Thomas picked up the lantern, following the animal until it stopped, pointing once again. Thomas stepped closer, going cold with what he saw. A young woman lay on the forest floor, the dirt looking black from the blood that soaked into it. She was a beautiful woman. Her waist-length brown hair fanned out around her, and blue eyes stared unseeing at the forest ceiling. Even in death, he could see kindness etched onto the woman’s face. He knew this woman must have been the baby’s mother. His heart broke for the little one he held in his arms as he tried to imagine what must have transpired to lead to this gruesome outcome. The light from his lantern seemed to dim as if the world itself was mourning for the woman, now lifeless on the ground.

     Thomas sighed and shook his head as he turned to the furry animal. “There’s no shortage of cruelty in this world, is there, my little friend?”

     The animal’s ears and tail drooped as it nodded in agreement.

    Thomas refused to leave the woman lying there like that. He took the child to the cart and laid her gently in it. She whimpered quietly, and he feared she might be too close to death to save. The animal hopped onto the baby’s stomach, curling up and trying to provide warmth with its tiny body.

    Thomas smiled grimly, “Watch over her for a moment for me, would you?” The animal dipped its head solemnly as Thomas headed back for the woman.

     He struggled to carry the woman back to his cart, often stopping to catch his breath and give his bad leg a rest, but soon he had her loaded. He tied the baby in her blanket around him, hoping his body warmth would keep her alive while they traveled. The fluffy animal worked its way down into the blanket to be as close to the baby as possible.

     Thomas glanced back toward the forest and thought he saw a glint of light, but it was gone fast enough to make him wonder if his mind was playing tricks on him. He gently patted the baby’s back before picking up the cart handles to finish the journey home.

     Many thoughts played through his mind as he limped along the path. He had planned to have Jim, one of his workmen, go to market today for him. He wondered what would have happened to the child if Jim had gone. He wouldn’t have needed to take the shortcut through the woods. Would the child have been left to freeze to death in the night? The cold night air pierced his nostrils, reminding him to pull faster for the baby’s sake. Not for the first time, he cursed having a bad leg. If he could run and didn’t have to pull the wagon, he could make it home from this point in less than thirty minutes. As it was, it took him the better part of an hour before he saw the fence marking his property.

     At long last, he could see the warm lights of his house breaking through the pitch-black night. Mariah must have been watching for him, for light came flooding out as she opened the door.

     “Thomas!” She called with a strained voice, “What took you so long? I was beginning to worry…” Her voice slowly trailed away as she saw the bundle tied to her husband.

     Thomas couldn’t see her face with the light behind her, but he had been married to her long enough to guess the look of confusion that must be written there.

     “I had a bit of a detour today, my love.”

     He set the cart down and walked up to his wife, untying the blanket as he entered the house. Mariah looked at him quizzically, her face filling with wonder as soon as she laid eyes on the contents of the bundle.

     “What is this, Thomas?” she asked as she reached for the baby, carefully picking her up and holding her close.

     “I’m not sure of the story, but I am sure it must be a sad one. This baby was in the forest along with a dead woman, who I assume must have been her mother,” he said wearily, his shoulders slumped with exhaustion.

     “What?” Mariah looked down at the child with tears forming in her eyes. “They killed the mother and left the baby to die in the cold? Who would be that cruel?”

     “I don’t know, but I was led to them by that little guy,” he said, pointing to the animal that had jumped down upon entering the house and was now standing on their table, staring intently at the baby.

     Mariah smiled. “So, you were sent to watch over her, were you?” She stroked the creature’s small fluffy head. It leaned into her hand while a soft purring sound vibrated from its throat.

Thomas looked at her, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

     She lifted her head in surprise. “Sometimes I forget that you and I grew up in two distinctly different parts of Elefrisia.” She held her free hand out, and the animal hopped into it. “This little guy is a Scruff, Tom. They’re intelligent creatures, though rarely seen in these parts. They’re not too fond of many people and choose carefully who to befriend. You don’t ever want to be on the bad side of a Scruff.” She lowered the Scruff back to the table. “They’re known to be mischievous toward those they don’t like. No one knows why, but sometimes they choose a person they want to protect. There’s speculation there must be a Scruff king who gives them the order to watch specific people. Some history even suggests they used to watch over the royals.”

     “Well, that one’s decided that the baby is his. He rode in the blanket, keeping an eye on her the whole way home,” Thomas said as he walked back to the door.

     “Where are you going?” Mariah set the child on the couch near the fireplace as she warmed up some goat milk.

     He sighed heavily. “Someone needs to bury the mother. I don’t know who she was, but she deserves a proper burial.”

      Mariah nodded sadly. “I’ll take care of the child. You do what you must.”

     He took one more long look at the small infant, then walked outside, preparing himself for the unhappy task ahead.

     Mariah prepared a bottle of milk. She only had the bottles they used to feed the kid goats since she and Thomas were never able to have children of their own, but she made do with what she had. The baby cried, not liking the taste of the goat’s milk or the foreignness of the bottle, but soon instinct took over, and she was drinking her fill.

     Mariah’s muscles relaxed, and she said a silent prayer of thanks that the baby took to the bottle so quickly. “Don’t worry, little one. No one will hurt you here.”

     She hummed to the baby while she ate. Soon the little girl’s body was warm, her stomach full, and she fell fast asleep.

     Mariah made a makeshift bed for the baby by rolling up blankets and forming a box on the ground so she couldn’t roll out. Once the child was settled, she picked up the blanket that had been with the girl to lay it over her but paused as she took in the blood stains. “No, this won’t do until I have it cleaned up.” Something on the corner of the blanket caught her eye, and she laid it flat on the floor to see. There were letters stitched into the corner, a date, and a name.

     “Aren’t we in luck! This must be your birth date and your name,” she whispered as she pulled it closer. “Gemma. That’s a beautiful name.” Her lips curled up in a pleasant smile, thinking of how fitting the name was. For years she had prayed for a child. Now she finally had a daughter, something that was worth more than any gem in the world.

     Something else caught her eye as she was looking at the stitching, a small tear directly above the name. It looked like someone had sewn a secret pocket into the blanket. She tried prying it open with her fingers but made minimal progress. Setting the blanket down, she found a knife and returned, using the knife to cut the rest of the stitches. Reaching in, she pulled out a necklace. The leather cord that formed the body of the necklace was unremarkable, but the jewel that hung at the end shone as if someone had captured a star. The light lasted for a moment, then it disappeared, leaving the jewel looking like plain, clear glass.

     She gasped. There was no way to tell what had caused the glow, but she knew she was holding something precious. Whispers of a song came from the jewel when it was shining, and she felt a longing rise in her soul.

     Her gaze remained mesmerized by the jewel for a moment longer. “But this isn’t mine to keep,” she whispered, looking at the sleeping baby.

     Finding a fresh blanket, she laid it over Gemma and tied the necklace gently around her wrist. “Something is special about you, little one,” she said, brushing her soft cheek. The Scruff came over, sniffing the necklace curiously. He crawled onto the baby’s stomach and turned three times before curling into a little ball.

     Mariah chuckled. “I guess you get to be little Gemma’s protector.”

The Scruff stared at her with large, knowing eyes.

     “You’ll make sure she doesn’t try to eat the necklace then?”

     The Scruff gave an offended look with a sharp squeak, making Mariah laugh softly.

    “Hmmm…every good protector needs a name,” she tapped her chin, looking at the ceiling. “What do you think about Theo?”

    The Scruff tilted its head, looking much like he was contemplating the name, then he squeaked and gave a swift nod.

     “Then Theo it is. Baby Gemma and her protector, Theo.” She brushed Gemma’s hair gently. “I don’t know why the Creator brought you to us, but I promise, you will always be loved. I wonder what the Creator has in store for you?”

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