A Rock And A Hard Place Chapter 18
He looked as shocked as I felt. Where he had appeared from and why he wasn’t frozen like everyone else, I hadn’t a clue, but those were passing thoughts in the back of my mind while the rest was occupied with the shear volume of shock coursing through my system at that moment.
What was he doing here?
I starred stupidly at him. He hadn’t changed much. His long, blonde hair, still braided down his back, now had a few light silver streaks running through it, but he still stood tall and strong. His bronze eyes met mine and held them as I tried to produce a solid thought.
As I starred, he slowly moved toward me, like he was in a dream. He stopped just within arms length and carefully reached out a shaking hand to gently touch my cheek, as though I might disappear or dissolve into mist when he did. I saw the relief in his face when I remained whole and real. His hand dropped to my shoulder and then, quick as a flash, I was being crushed against him as he hugged me.
For a moment I was too stupefied to do anything. Then, slowly, I circled my arms around him like a little girl and hugged him back, burying my face in his shoulder. He even smelled the same, like old books and cinnamon cloves.
It wasn’t until I heard Aaron clear his throat next to me that I remembered we were standing in a hostile camp, trying to mediate between the Wizards and Elves for peace, and I was clearly getting off topic. I pulled away and looked up at my father.
“We’ll talk later. I’m in the middle of something right now.”
He nodded, still looking at me like I might disappear any second, and slowly let me step out of is embrace. I turned back to the Duke.
“You will talk peace, then?”
Irvan nodded and I looked at Taliya.
She starred down at me, still sitting rigidly on the Dragon. I sighed.
“Well, Taliya? Will you talk peace or do I have to take you on another ride?”
Her eyes widened and she swallowed hard, eyeing the great beast she was sitting on. Akata-Zan’s great head swung around so that one huge eye was looking down at her and she quickly scrambled down, ignoring her dignity for a moment until she was safe on solid ground once more.
She took a moment to regain her dignity, quickly straightening her skirts before she brought herself up ramrod straight and looked at the Duke and me with her iciest gaze. Then, reluctantly, she spoke.
“Very well. We will talk.”
“Duke, is there a place we can talk?”
He motioned over his shoulder to the tent behind him.
“We can recline in my tent. If you would disenchant my men we might also have some refreshments,” he said, raising a hinting eyebrow at me.
“Not on your life. Peace first. Then we can think about other things.”
I snuck a glance at my father from the corner of my eye, very much wishing I could talk with him instead of these self-important leaders. I saw he was watching me and he gave me a gentle, patient smile. Looking back at the Duke, I saw the hope fall from his eyes as his suggestion was shot down. He sighed in resignation.
“Very well, Guardian. As you wish.”
Aaron went first, checking that the tent was alright, and then holding the flap open and gesturing the rest of us in. The Duke had no chairs or table. Instead, much like the Rooms in my House, there was a low wooden table surrounded by a plethora of cushions to sit on.
I sat immediately, feeling right at home, and the Duke sat to my left. However, little miss priss turned up her nose in disgust.
“Taliya,” I said warningly.
“No,” she said firmly, crossing her arms and scowling down at me. “I am a Queen. I do not sit on the ground.”
I looked at her for a long moment, debating whether to reason with her or not. Hmm... not. Definitely not.
The hulking MAGI moved into the tent and stood imposingly in the front of the exit, arms crossed. He starred down at the now-nervous Queen for a moment before he spoke in a deep, rumbling voice.
Taliya’s jaw clenched as she starred up at him a moment longer. Then, the defiant scowl of a child still on her face and gaze still locked on Aaron’s, she plopped down on the nearest cushion and faced front.
Hiding a smile with a tired sigh, I looked at the two sitting across from each other.
“Now,” I began quietly and calmly. “From what I understand, this whole ridiculous dispute is over a color.”
“It’s our color!” snapped Taliya, glaring first at me and then at Irvan.
“The Wizard’s flag was established long before you Elves had even crawled out from hiding in your forest,” shot back the Duke.
“Enough!” I cut in, already exasperated. “Can’t you see how petty and childish the two of you are being? The color doesn’t matter and you’re getting people killed over it. You’re like a couple of five year olds who have been given weapons to fight over a box of crayons.”
They were starring at me, aghast, as thought I had grown another head and spit at them. I was sure no one had ever spoken to either of them like that before and I leaned back, glaring at both for their stupidity and tunnel vision.
“Get over yourselves. You are being absolutely the worst leaders I have ever seen.”
If I hadn’t been so fed up with the whole mess, their faces, covered with indignant shock, would have been hilarious. As it was, my brain was working overtime on how to end the matter once and for all, since clearly neither was prepared to give in to the other. The solution dawned on me quite suddenly and I wondered how it hadn’t occurred to me sooner. Of course, I had been rather busy recently trying not to die.
I sat forward suddenly, looking at the Duke.
“Are you willing to give up your flag?”
“No,” he said, folding his hands in his sleeves and turning up his nose.
I nodded and looked at the Queen.
“Certainly not!” she said fiercely.
“Very well. I suppose that settles it then.”
“That settles what?” demanded the Duke.
I stood, ignoring the confused looks I was being given, and walked out of the tent.
The Bird was by my side in a moment.
“Fly over to the other camp and bring me their flags.”
“As you wish, Mistress.”
She stepped away from me and her body shimmered and shifted, melting into her large, long-necked, colorful self. With a shake of her feathers, she spread her wings and gracefully left the ground. My gaze followed her up for a moment before I turned to the MAGI who had followed me out of the tent.
“Aaron, grab me all the flags in this camp.”
He hesitated only a moment, wondering if he should ask, but read the mission in my eyes and then nodded. The MAGI jogged off, eyes sweeping the camp for signs of any flags.
Then I poked my head into the tent and eyed the two leaders sternly.
“Wait here and behave.”
Not waiting to see their reactions or hear their responses, I turned to begin my own search of the camp and came face-to-face with my father. I suppose he had been waiting outside the tent and he looked a bit bewildered as to what was going on. Questions flooded his gaze, but before I could tell him I didn’t have time to explain, he beat me to the punch.
“I don’t know what is going on, but how can I help?”
I gave him a grateful smile.
“Find me a fire. A big one if possible.”
He grinned and nodded.
I didn’t go back into the tent, instead deciding that, given my even higher authority now, I may as well enjoy a few moments of nothing while my “underlings” did the work for me. I grinned, picturing Aaron’s face if he heard me refer to him that way. Priceless.
Then a thought occurred to me. Was the enchantment wearing off the Elves yet, or had it already? Was that how my father had gotten here? I fervently hoped not. I hadn’t meant to send Lolani into danger and I certainly didn’t want her getting shot. She was a smart Bird and I hoped she would come back if she saw that the enchantment wasn’t holding, but she was also loyal and loyalty sometimes made people take risks they were better not taking.
I bit my lip and watched the horizon, hoping to see her coming back any moment, though she hadn’t been gone long. After about a minute, I heard low, angry voices hissing at each other on the other side of the canvas and I rolled my eyes heavenward. Truly? It really was like keeping an eye on five year olds.
With an annoyed sigh, I pushed back the tent flap and stood there glaring. They stopped whispering the moment I appeared and I simply watched them for a moment.
“Don’t make me put you two in timeout in opposite corners of the tent. Either be civil or keep quiet.”
Taliya looked at me sullenly and the Duke looked away haughtily, trying to act like he didn’t know what I was talking about. With one last scowl at the pair, I let the tent flap fall back again.
To my relief, it was Lolani who made it back first. The beautiful Bird landed gracefully, dropping a huge pile of flags at my feet. As she shimmered back to her human form, I rushed forward and hugged her. She hugged me back, completely surprised.
“Just glad you’re alright. I started to get worried that the enchantment had worn off the Elves and that was how my father had gotten here, which would have been putting you in danger.”
“No, Mistress. Your enchantment is still holding firm.”
I pulled away with a nod and smile.
Aaron was the next back, his arms loaded with flags from around the Wizard’s camp. I pointed to the pile that Lolani had started and he dropped them gratefully on top. Looking closer now, I could see that both flags were a slightly different shade of mauve, but both were mauve. I felt like pounding the leaders’ heads together. This is what they had been fighting over? It made me sick to think about.
Then my father came back, looking triumphant.
“There wasn’t a big fire anywhere in the camp, so I made one with the help the Dragon.”
“Is it near him?”
My father nodded and gave me a smile. I grinned back.
“Alright, everyone grab as many as you can carry and follow my father to the fire.”
I grabbed a bunch as my father scooped up an armful and lead the way. Aaron and Lolani were quickly on our heels with the rest. There was a roaring fire not far from Akata-Zan and we dumped the pile of flags a few feet from it. Looking over the set up, I nodded.
“Aaron, will you go fetch the delinquents please? They have a lesson to learn.”
Suppressing a chuckle, Aaron headed back to the tent where the leaders had been left. He returned shortly with the two walking ahead of him, looking sour. Both pulled up short when they saw the fire and the flags.
“What are you doing?!” shrieked Taliya.
“Put those flags back this instant!” commanded the Duke.
I raised an eyebrow at the two of them.
“This is a lesson the two of you clearly need to learn. When something starts a fight and those fighting over it can’t come to terms, the object of the dispute is taken away.”
I looked at Lolani and my father.
Lolani began immediately and my father hesitated only a moment before he joined her.
Taliya screeched in rage and tried to dive forward to rescue the flags and the Duke followed, but Aaron caught them, having anticipated the move, and held them both firmly where they were. The Duke struggled with a few grunts, but the Queen continued to screech some very creative profanities at the top of her lungs, kicking and punching and biting.
Seeing that Aaron had them under control, I watched in stony silence. It was the Duke who stopped struggling first, watching the fire in horror and then shifting his plaintive gaze to me, probably wondering how I could do such a terrible thing. It wasn’t until all the flags were a roaring bonfire that Taliya’s fighting and screeching began to lessen. I watched the flames eat up the cloth and turn it the crux of the argument turn to ashes.
As the fire died down a bit and Taliya had finally stopped screeching, I saw that a few tears were slipping down her cheeks. I’m not sorry to say that I felt no sympathy. They had brought this on their own heads with pointless bloodshed and bullheadedness. They were going to have to deal with the consequences and fallout.