Are We Still Friends?: Part Two
Tarik's paw swept out a quick, sharp arc through the air,
sending a graceful spray of pale golden seeds scattering across the claw-scratched
ground where his chickens were busily feeding. The sounds of their arguments over
the rights to one patch of ground or another cluttered the air, and Tarik smiled
as he watched them hopping and pecking around the yard. It was good to see that
so many had survived the war; he had been afraid of what he might come back to
when all was said and done.
On the other hand, he was far more grateful
for what had come back to him. His wife had been beside herself with despair
when they had returned to their home to find it intact but completely devoid
of life, and for a while he himself had been all but crippled by the realization
that their sweet, gentle, vulnerable daughter had not returned from wherever
she had gotten to during the chaos of the war, and by the fear that she would
never return. How grateful they both had been when she turned up only hours
later, completely unharmed.
Or at least, outwardly unharmed. Truth be told,
she'd been distraught; glad to see that her parents were all right, but unable
to stop going on about the horrible truth that "I can't find Mr. Scary anywhere!"
Tarik and his wife had both been confused, until the little girl had guiltily
confessed that 'Mr. Scary' was, indeed, 'Fluffy', the same creature who had
been eating their crops. "I thought he'd stop if I fed him," she'd explained
through her tears, "and I started to like him, and I think he liked me. I tried
to make him come with me when I ran away from the soldiers, but he wouldn't
come out until this really big Skeith grabbed me." Her eyes had widened, and
her paws had sprang into motion to animate her tale as she went on, "And all
of a sudden his eyes went narrow, and he came flying out of the barn and knocked
the Skeith off of me! And he went after the other ones, too, and knocked them
all out, and after he'd saved me, he..." She'd paused, and choked up, the dismay
that her momentary excitement had banished defying its exile and returning to
tear at her round, innocent face. "He flew away, and he looked like he was going
toward the Citadel, and... I don't know if I'm ever gonna see him again!" With
that, she'd started bawling in earnest, burying her face in her mother's apron
and sobbing her little heart out. The sight had torn at Tarik, but at least
Sally seemed to have calmed down and moved on by now.
The Usul farmer glanced to his left, in the
general direction of the Snorkle sty, which was hidden from view by the chicken
coop. Sally was supposed to be feeding the little pink Petpets, but ten to one
she had stopped after doing so to pet the old sow that had been her favorite
ever since the thing had been born, the outcast runt of the litter. Tarik felt
a fond smile pulling at his face. Sweet little Sally, she always had had a soft
spot for the lonely ones.
"Excuse me?" A soft baritone voice pulled Tarik
out of his musings, and he turned around, expecting to see one or another of
his fellow farmers who populated the area.
Instead, his gaze fell upon a tower of black
and grey, with huge ears flared on either side of a thin face and vast bony
wings half folded against a narrow back. The bucket of chicken feed slipped
from Tarik's nerveless paw, scattering its contents, and a high-pitched chorus
of celebration arose from the chickens who instantly laid siege to the area
around his feet.
The giant's ears angled downward, his topaz
eyes flickering with what might have been chagrin. "I didn't mean to startle
you," he said quietly, and Tarik finally found his voice.
"Yes. And you will be Tarik, no doubt."
The Usul blanched. "How do you know my name?"
It was one thing for him to recognize a famed ruler by description despite having
never seen him before. For the ruler in question to know the name of a common
Meridellian farmer was another altogether.
A faint smile touched the lean face. "Your daughter
"Great Fyora..." Tarik's voice came out faint
and trembling as horror crashed through his mind. Did he capture and interrogate
her, and then threaten her to silence? Is that where she REALLY was during the
battle? But why her? She's just a child! And why come after her now?
"I wish to speak with her," Lord Darigan was
saying softly, seeming to realize that his words would not be welcome.
"No!" The word burst from Tarik's mouth before
he could think, before he could even realize that he was blatantly defying the
lord of the Citadel. And even as his mind began to wrap around this, his mouth
rushed on: "No, I don't want you anywhere near her! I don't know how you know
her or what you did to her, but I won't let you near her again!"
A long moment of silence stretched between them,
and suddenly and acutely aware that the Darigani leader was more than twice
his size, Tarik stooped to pick up the mostly-empty bucket he had dropped, painfully
conscious of the fact that the thin metal posed not the slightest threat to
the tower of black robe and pale grey fur that stood before him. All the same,
as he stood braced with his feet splayed beneath him and his knuckles turning
white with the force of his grip on the handle, he felt that he was ready for
any reaction with which the larger Neopet could respond.
But he was proven soundly wrong by the unquestionably
genuine pain that sliced across the giant Korbat's features in response to his
Lord Darigan had expected some measure of dismay
on Sally's part in response to the revelation of his true identity. Maybe a
few distrustful glances, and, as much as he hated the idea, most likely a great
deal of fear. But he hadn't reckoned with her parents- at least, not nearly
enough to prepare him for the outright hostility with which the child's father
had greeted him. The Usul had his reasons, of course. To trust the safety of
his child, especially a child as precious as Sally, to the leader of a people
who had nearly wiped out his own was a leap of faith for any parent.
But the rejection still hurt. It reminded him
how deeply he had failed, how much suffering he had caused in the past to inspire
such antipathy. And how difficult it would be to regain the trust he had lost.
"You probably aren't in the habit of takin'
orders from farmers," Tarik was saying, his voice slow and even, "but I think
it would be best if you left."
Darigan took a deep breath, feeling his heart
make a slow migration toward his feet. No, he wasn't in the habit of taking
orders from farmers. But his reply to the Usul was true. "Your daughter saved
my life, sir. I have no desire for any quarrel with your family."
Surprise softened the farmer's wary gaze, which
ignited with renewed concern as a soft, innocent voice drifted toward them from
behind the chicken coop. "Daddy? Who are you talking to?"
Darigan stiffened, his pulse accelerating. He
knew that voice. He had heard that voice, speaking gently to him on more cold
and otherwise lonely evenings than he could count. And oh, how he had missed
it! "Sally?" he called, and a small, round, and heart-joltingly familiar face
poked out from behind the chickens' wooden home.
Round, questioning azure eyes darted between
the two adults, but before the older Usul could speak, Darigan asked softly,
"Sally, do you remember me?"
An errant tendril of ginger hair strayed into
the child's eyes as they narrowed with concentration. "Lord Darigan?" she asked
slowly; then recognition made those startling blue eyes fly open. "Mr. Scary?"
she ventured, her soft voice breathless and tentative as if she scarcely dared
to believe, and was shocked to hear herself connecting the name with the towering
Tarik was visibly flabbergasted. "Sally," he
began, as if to reprimand her for such foolishness; but his voice trailed off
into silence as Darigan nodded.
"Yes," he answered quietly, "you called me 'Mr.
Startled delight blossomed on Sally's face like
a firework lighting the night sky, and before either of the two men could anticipate
the action she bounded across the intervening distance and shocked both adults
by catapulting into Darigan's arms, her mouth racing with the speed of childlike
excitement. Darigan made no attempt to interrupt, and was content to smile and
listen, enjoying the softness of the warm fuzzy bundle in his arms and the absolute
trust that was conveyed by her decision to put herself there. The torrent of
words came like a cleansing flood washing doubt and apprehension away.
"This is such a wonderful surprise! I never
would have guessed it was you! I'd thought you had forgotten me, and I was scared
that I was never going to see you again! I never got a chance to thank you for
saving me from those soldiers. You weren't hurt in the fight, were you? I never
got a chance to check. There are some bandages in the house if you need them.
Are you going to be staying for a while? I hope so- I really missed you!" Suddenly
she sobered, her round, gentle features solemn and slightly anxious as she asked
quietly, "I don't think lords and farm kids usually go together, but... we're
still friends, aren't we?"
Warmth flooded Darigan's heart and features,
and his smile widened as he answered gently, "Yes, Sally, of course we are."