The children laughed and ran through the forest, eager to roll in the soft grassy meadow and climb the smaller trees that shaded the winding path. Traveling through the forest was a small price to pay for the beauty of their destination, and each week when it was time to return to the valley they would race about in anticipation. Near the back of the group walked the eldest of them, their leader and voice of responsibility while their parents were away. Slumped on her hip, the youngest and first to tire rested peacefully as they made the trek together.
A few children began to divert from the path and let their curiosity take over, so the female called out and instructed them to return to their friends. They reluctantly obeyed, the mysteries of the forest a strong opponent to the guidance of their caretaker. She shook her head at the last straggler and made sure he returned to the path – oh how there were days when her patience was threatened! It was especially hard when she was the only one to watch over them, as the group that she belonged to had varied in size as of late. While she understood that there came a time for everyone to move on, she couldn’t bear to leave the group of "her" kids she had grown so fond of. Merely thinking those thoughts seemed to awaken the young child in her arms, he yawned and reached up to put his small arms around her neck and set his head on her shoulder. He smiled having reached his place of peace, and in that moment she remembered why she chose to do these things day after day.
Shouts of glee pulled her from such thoughts and she looked up the path to see what the excitement was. Finally they had reached the end of the forest road, and the children were now running and leaping in the thick grass as they raced out of the trees. The girl smiled as the first rays of afternoon sun fell on her arms, the warmth causing a slight shiver as the cool forest air evaporated around her. This was a day she looked forward to every week, when the children returned to their village and she could see the rolling hills surrounding it. She paused to take in the beautiful landscape before continuing down the hill – this vantage point was especially nice in the afternoon, as the sun caused harsh reflections on the stream running past the town to dance along the bridge that crossed it. Though at the rate the kids were running she knew she couldn’t afford to stand there very long, and continued down the hill toward the town.
As if on cue, the energetic group reached the bridge and held short, knowing they were not to move across it without their leader. A few examined the small animals that scampered away from their procession, while others pointed at the small clouds dotting the blue sky. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity to their tiny hearts, their leader approached and instructed them to carefully cross the bridge together. The water was not deep, but the reflections on the wood provided enough temptation for any child to stop and lean out past the railing. Eventually everyone made it across and headed towards the town with renewed enthusiasm, their carefree exclamations alerting the inhabitants of their coming long before they could see them.
Standing just inside the city entrance, a young girl with dark hair turned at the sound. She waved to the approaching group and smiled at her friend that watched over them. The two walked side-by-side after making sure that the children were all present, some already anxious to rush home and sleep in their own beds. As they walked to the center of the village the younger girl sang a familiar song to the group, one that they looked forward to hearing at the end of each week. Her voice seemed to join with the birds in a melody that ushered the children into silence for the first time that day:
"Welcome home, dear children, to the place of rest,
You traveled far to be here, for you know that it is best,
Let not your hearts be troubled, no evil enters here,
Trust soundly in your parents, and give no thought to fear,
One day soon we’ll meet again, in such a time as this,
We’ll laugh, run, shout and play, turning worry amiss,
Say goodnight to your leader, then go lie down your head,
Welcome home, dear children, until we meet again."
The kids gathered around the girls and offered their individual expressions of thanks, then rushed to the awaiting arms of their parents who had gathered nearby. The adults thanked the eldest of the group for keeping their young ones safe, and as they returned to their homes she couldn’t help feeling a mixture of relief and anticipation at the thought of watching over them again.
Her younger companion reached for a bow and arrow on the ground next to her cloak, so she picked up the set of daggers and gauntlets from her home. The two took a moment to adjust their equipment and miscellaneous items of lore before heading back to the bridge. A horse and cart came to a stop near the water, white armor shining brilliantly from the driver’s seat. As the horse drank from the stream, the rider saw the two girls walking out of the village and beckoned them to climb aboard. The three sisters embraced one another and started their ride toward the rest of their party. They had long since decided upon a meeting place where their brother would accompany them to the camp where the rest of their friends waited. A fresh wave of energy washed over them at the thought of seeing everyone again, and they began to exchange stories with one another as they rode into the sunset…