A Rock And A Hard Place Chapter 11
“What do we do, now?” asked Aaron, looking around the circle of armed soldiers as it closed in on us.
I took a slow, deep breath and then shouted at the top of my lungs.
A loud, trilling bird call answered me, causing the attackers to pause and cover their ears as the brutal noise assaulted their senses.
I gritted my teeth and watched the sky. There she was! The large, colorful bird hurled down towards us from the skies. She must have taken flight when the soldiers started arming themselves. Such a smart bird she was! I grinned up at her and watched as she put her brakes on at the last second, landing in a storm of feathers and wind.
Grabbing Aaron’s hand, I pulled him toward Lolani and climbed on her back as quick as I could. The MAGI got on behind me just as the soldiers got themselves back together and started toward us again. With a great backlash of wind that knocked them all completely off their feet, we took off toward the sky once more.
I laughed elatedly and hugged Lolani’s neck.
“You’re the most beautiful, fantastic, wonderful Bird ever!”
She gave a trilling bird laugh.
“Thank you, Mistress.”
“They’re following,” I heard Aaron say quietly in my ear.
My smile fell and I looked behind us. Sure enough, their armies had mounted up and were coming after us at top speed.
I patted her neck feathers.
“Just fly as long as you can. I’ll try and think of something else. Don’t worry.”
I nodded and glanced behind us again. We could probably put some distance between us, but Lolani wouldn’t be able to carry us for long. Though she was a good sized Bird, she was by no means a Blue Bird who could fly for days without tiring. She was used to flying between trees because she was a Bird of Paradise and therefore forest raised.
Once we were back on foot, Aaron would most likely have to carry her to give her a break, and then we would be no match for their horses. I didn’t know where we would be by the time Lolani ran out of stamina so we would just have to run on foot as fast as we could. There didn’t seem much else for it.
“Any ideas?” I asked Aaron quietly, glancing over my shoulder at him.
He looked at me a bit sadly and shook his head.
“Other than to keep running, I’ve got nothing.”
I sighed and turned front once more.
“Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of. It’s the only thing I’m coming up with too.”
We flew in tense silence then, watching as we slowly pulled away from the following armies. Too slowly, we seemed to creep ahead of them until they were lost to sight. After a couple hours, I felt Lolani falter for a moment.
“I’m fine, Mistress,” she said, voice sounding strained.
“I think you should land,” I said quietly.
“No, Mistress, I can go a little longer.”
“Lolani,” I said gently, but firmly. “Land.”
She flew on for a moment longer and then sighed, slowly beginning to descend. As soon as her claws touched the ground, Aaron and I hoped off and the exhausted Bird changed back into her human form. I blinked in surprise to see that she had ahold of our luggage as well.
“Where were you carrying that?” I asked, as I pried her it out of her fingers and made her sit for a moment.
Lolani held up her hands and flexed her fingers.
“In my talons, of course. I couldn’t just leave your things behind, Mistress.”
I sighed and shook my head, smiling fondly at the Bird. We’re being chased by two armies and she’s worried about making sure she saved my luggage.
“You silly thing,” I said with a smile and a chuckle. “Aaron, can you carry her? I’ll take the bags.”
Aaron nodded and held out a hand to help the Bird of Paradise up.
“Come on, then.”
He squatted down once she was on her feet and helped her onto his back. I adjusted the bags on my back as best I could. It would be awkward, but I wasn’t going to abandon them just yet after Lolani had carried them so far.
“Let’s go,” I said, striking out in the same direction we had been going.
“Do you actually know where we’re headed?”
“Of course. We’re headed in the general direction of my house, which at this point is the nearest safe haven I can think of. Did you have some other bright idea occur to you suddenly?”
“No. Just wanted to make sure you weren’t going to get us lost by wandering randomly into the middle of nowhere.”
“I’m offended, Aaron. I have better planning skills than that.”
I heard him chuckle behind me and trekked on.
The forest had plenty of big hills and valleys beneath the tree line and we went up and down for hours. We were snagged by branches and caught up in bushes. There were insects and multitudes of poisonous to avoid. The trees blocked out most of the sun and as the end of the day drew near, I was sore, exhausted, and cranky.
“Shall we stop for the night?” asked Aaron finally.
“No idea, but I don’t think you can handle much more today.”
He raised an eyebrow at me.
“Because you look like you’re cranky enough to take on both forces at once right now with that face.”
He was right, of course. If they had shown up right now, I would have attacked without a second thought, even if they would have overwhelmed and killed me. I hated this and was sick of running already.
“Let’s bed down for the night,” the MAGI suggested gently as he let Lolani off his back.
“Fine,” I muttered, dropping the bags and plopping down on the ground with a groan. “Oh, my everything.”
I heard Aaron chuckle and shot him a scowl which he merely returned with a grin. Lolani, having rested all day on Aaron’s back, was the one to get food ready. We didn’t dare light a fire so it was all cold, but at least it was food.
“Do you think we’ll make it, Mistress?” Lolani asked quietly as we bedded down for the night.
“Of course we will,” I said with far more confidence than I felt.
Aaron gave me a look over Lolani’s head that said he didn’t believe me and he knew I didn’t believe it either. I shrugged and laid down. It didn’t matter if he believed or not. I’m sure Lolani didn’t believe it either, but it was better than saying we’d never make it and giving up here and now.
Slowly, I drifted off to sleep, though it was restless and I woke several times in the night. Then, just before dawn, I woke again to see the assassin standing over me again, tiger mask just visible in the almost light.
“Aaron!” I yelled, rolling away from the blade as it came down.
The assassin yanked his knife out of the ground and pinned me, blankets wrapped around my limbs so I couldn’t move. The knife came down at me again, but a large hand caught it before it hit me and I struggled to sit up as I fought my blankets.
Aaron had the assassin in an iron grip, but the assassin pulled out a second knife and tried to stab the MAGI in the heart. Aaron saw it just in time and twisted out of the way, getting the blade in the shoulder instead of the heart. He grunted in pain and the assassin twisted out of Aaron’s loosened grip, pulling away and disappearing into the trees as quickly as he had come.
Finally free of the blankets, I stood awkwardly and moved to Aaron’s side, kneeling beside him. He was on his knees, holding his shoulder. Blood was seeping through his fingers.
I looked back to Aaron, gently pulling his hand away so that I could see the wound better. I couldn’t help the concern that flooded my features.
“I hope that blade wasn’t poisoned,” I muttered to myself as I began pulling at the MAGI’s shirt.
He rolled his eyes.
“Thanks for the encouraging words. Just what I needed to hear right now.”
“Shut up,” I said quietly, without any real malice. “We need your shirt off so we can stop the bleeding.”
He helped as much as he could, wincing in pain as we combined our efforts to get the shirt off. That done, Lolani came over with the bandages and I did the best I could to stop the bleeding and get the wound clean. By the time I sat back to inspect my work, the sun was coming up over the horizon, though we couldn’t see it for the trees.
“That’s the best I can do, I’m afraid. I don’t have anything to dull the pain. I’m sorry.”
“Thank you for doing what you could,” he said sincerely, meeting my worried gaze for a moment. Then he gave me a small smile. “And thanks for worrying.”
I waved a hand as I stood.
“You took a knife for me. If I didn’t worry I’d be a horrible person. Now, we need to get going.”
Aaron nodded and stood slowly, trying not to jar his shoulder. He reached for one of the bags and I slapped his hand away, picking the bag up myself.
“You’re not carrying anything with your shoulder like that.”
He chuckled a bit painfully.
“Right. Sorry, mother.”
I scowled lightly at him and quickly helped Lolani pack up the rest of our things. Breakfast could wait until later. None of us felt safe here.
We began our trek again and it was no better than the day before. We stopped about noon to have something to eat quickly and then we were going again. Trees, trees, trees, and more trees. As pretty as it all was, walking through it on foot did not encourage me to look at the lovely aspect nearly as much as a Carpet would have. By late afternoon all I could think of was how much I wanted to be out of the forest and back in my house, safe and sound, where there was coffee and a proper bed and a bath.
Aaron put a hand on my shoulder, bringing me to a halt. I looked over at him, my mouth open to ask what he wanted, but he put a finger to his lips and I nodded, closing my mouth and listening. Lolani had already stopped as she was the last in line. I tried to listen for whatever Aaron was listening to, but heard nothing.
Then there it was! Footfalls through the trees. Not loud. Not many of them, but coming toward us.
As quietly as we could, we moved to the right of the trail we had been on and hid behind the nearest trees. We waited a few minutes as the footsteps got closer and then we saw that the Wizards and Elves had sent scouts ahead of the main party. Most likely it made it easier to track and follow us. We were on foot and leaving a trail now, after all.
Aaron, pressed low to the ground to hide his large form, met my gaze, and I mouthed the word ‘scouts’. He nodded and peeked through the brush to see them, then looked back at me. He mimed sneaking around behind them and attacking and then pointed to himself. I shook my head with a scowl and pointed to my shoulder to remind him that he was wounded. He rolled his eyes at me and pointed to his face as if to say ‘I’m still a MAGI’. I frowned and crossed my arms, refusing to reply, and I saw a brief grin on his face before he wormed away through the brush and trees to get behind the scouts.
I looked back to the scouts who were inspecting our trail to see them shooting each other dirty looks and I shook my head. Still not getting along, clearly, but they had been ordered to track us together so something had to be said for that. Maybe I was quite a good liaison after all, even if I had united them by making them hate me. The method and execution clearly needed work, but at least my results seemed to be mostly positive, minus the little part where they were all trying to kill me now.
Then I saw Aaron slowly move out of hiding, now positioned just behind the two scouts. He moved lightly and with complete silence, something I never would have guessed from such a large person. The scouts were so busy glaring at each other that they didn’t notice Aaron until he was right on top of them.
His first punch took out the Wizard, knocking him out cold. Then he spun and caught the Elf solidly under the chin as the scout tried to back away. He crumpled, instantly unconscious.
Aaron turned to where he knew I was hiding and grinned at me.
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever,” I said, coming out from behind the tree, followed closely by Lolani. “Let’s get going.”
“Mistress, what about them?”
I paused and looked back at the faithful Bird.
“What about them?”
“Well, we can’t just leave them here, can we?” she asked.
“What else are we going to do? We don’t have anything to tie them up with and if we stick around we’ll just have to knock them out again and the armies will get that much closer to us while we wait, which is not a prospect I really fancy, personally.”
“Oh. I hadn’t thought of that, Mistress.”
I patted her head and gave her a smile.
“That’s alright. I understood what you meant.”
She nodded and I looked at Aaron, frowning when I saw his shoulder.
“You opened your wound again.”
He looked down and shrugged the other shoulder.
“It’ll stop stood enough.”
I sighed and pointed to the ground.
“Sit. We’re not going anywhere until we clean that up again.”
“No. You said yourself that we need to get going.”
“Yes, we do, and the longer you continue to stand there and argue with me wastes more of our precious time, doesn’t it? Now sit.”
Aaron blinked at me for a moment, then frowned and remained immobile. I matched his look and crossed my arms.
“Oh, so you did want to get caught? Alright, that’s fine.”
He looked as though he wanted to make some sort of retort, but knew perfectly well he had nothing. Finally, he sat down abruptly and I nodded.
“That’s better. Lolani, bandages quick as you can, please.”
Swiftly, I unwrapped the old bandage, cleaned up the blood that had started seeping, and rewrapped his shoulder in new bandages.
“Thank you, by the way,” I said quietly as I tied it off.
He looked at me with a slight frown.
“For saving me this morning. I just realized I hadn’t actually said it. So, thank you.”
The MAGI starred at me for a moment and then gave me a small, genuine smile.
I returned the smile and then we both froze.
“Do you hear that?” I asked, voice low.
Aaron nodded slowly.
It was the tramping of several hundred feet not far off, mixed with the jangle of harnesses and the clanking of armor. It was the armies.
They had caught up to us.