We have arrived at "The Moment" — the last chapter of Battle For The Blue Wilds.
Those of you who have read Wyldwood Fate know what happens after this. But while there is an epilogue to that tale, Nikki's story wraps up with this moment.
A shock ran through Nikki. "I don't know how to be an ambassador," he stammered.
"It'll be fun," Shalonie reassured him. "Just think of all the things you'll learn about the fae."
He didn't want to dampen her enthusiasm, so he nodded. But his thoughts ranged from This is going to be a disaster to This is going to be a total disaster.
Fortunately, Beren called him forward just then. The Hold Lord placed a hand on Nikki's shoulder in a fatherly gesture and addressed the Sundragon. "This is Nikki. He is a bard of my house."
Nikki stood frozen, not sure if he should bow or nod or say something. Don't say anything stupid, he thought, breaking out in a cold sweat.
"Nikki, my boy," Beren smiled, "this is Lady Kidra. You will answer to her about all that concerns the new Elder Tree and the Wyldwood fae."
Lady Kidra studied Nikki silently, and something about her easy manner allowed him to relax and breathe normally again.
She was exquisite, capturing the natural beauty of a glorious sunrise in her very being.
Standing close to one of the Sundragons, in either human or dragon shape, always made him nervous. Wonder if they can turn into other things too? He filed away the question, determined to ask at a more appropriate time.
"I am not attached to any one Hold," Lady Kidra said, her tone sweet and rich. "But any of the Hold Dragons can easily find me. Lady Shalonie shall be our go-between if the need should arise." She looked at Shalonie who had come up beside Nikki. "Is that acceptable, Shalonie?"
"Yes, of course. It would be my honor."
"Is this agreeable to the fae?" A bright glow dressed Lady Kidra in a mantle of golden light while the fae cheered their agreement.
Shalonie's fingers curled around Nikki's hand, and they both stepped back, making room as Kidra shimmered into her golden dragon form again.
Out of the corner of his eye, Nikki noted the draconic shift, but his entire attention was on Shalonie's hand, which she did not take away after they had stepped back.
He didn't dare move his hand. What do I do? What do I do? His mouth went dry.
Even as he found himself caught in the moment, sharp whispers volleyed all around the glen. Startled, Nikki looked up to see the woodland warriors staring at a newly arriving faerie host. The solemn group stepped from the dark of the forest, walking side-by-side in complete silence.
"Rugern, the Lord of the Forest," Nikki overheard, though he barely recognized the ancient fae from the earlier summit by the little brook.
Where Rugern had been old and frail when he'd verbally sparred with Avarice, he now walked with dignity and confidence, a long, flowering branch covered in vines and clusters of berries serving as his staff.
Moonlight played through the darkness, and Nikki held his breath in anticipation as the figures gracefully gathered in the center of the grove.
He guessed that these were the royalty of the Wyldwood — tall, long-limbed, clad in gorgeous robes made from leaves and flowers. After the first glance however, they too looked as though they'd been in battle, their leaves no longer so fine, their flowers wilted and blood-splattered.
Rugern halted well clear of the carnage.
The others moved around their lord in a circle.
At the center, the Lord of the Forest spoke a rhythmical chant in words Nikki did not understand. Some sort of spell?
"All from the earth," Beren murmured, translating the ritual. "All to the earth."
The spell complete, the giant bugs began to decompose with astonishing swiftness. The hulks of chitinous armor broke into pieces that broke into more pieces, smaller and smaller until there was nothing but sand.
Before Nikki could fully comprehend what was happening, Lord Rugern struck the ground with the staff three times.
Feelings of joy and sorrow flowed through Nikki, seeing in his mind's eye the death and rebirth of the seasons — summer turning to fall, fall to winter, and from the bleakness of the coldest days a gradual awakening to spring, and back to summer. Life. Death. Life. Death. Life — the way of nature and the way of the woodland folk.
I understand, he wanted to say but instead watched silently as the giant insects disappeared into the earth, and the glade became free of even the smallest remnants of the Tetramites.
"All from the earth. All to the earth," Nikki repeated, wrapping his tongue around the difficult faerie language.
"You'll learn," Beren said.
"The ambassador is welcome," Rugern spoke directly to Nikki. In that instant, the young Deldano realized — looking into the Lord of the Forest's strangely non-human eyes — that he had made a very serious commitment. He nodded his assent, reaffirming his free will and choice in the matter. I will do everything in my power to live up to the trust you've placed in me.
Rugern accepted his unspoken pledge and nodded. It was done.
"And tonight," the leader of the Wyldwood Fae said to the gathered, "you are all welcome to the Wyldwood. The scourge is gone from all of the Blue Wilds. The people of the forest are once again safe."
"And the threat will not return," Shalonie spoke up then. "The portal is closed. There will be no more intrusions. Your trees are safe."
"We are in your debt," Rugern addressed them, including Beren.
"And you are welcome to come to Melia," the Deldano Hold Lord said, encouraged by a look from the Sundragon Kidra. "You are welcome to visit the Elder Tree anytime."
A tension held by all seemed to dissipate. Old grudges forgotten; old debts repaid. And new alliances forged.
And somehow, I'm right in the middle of it. Nikki couldn't exactly trace how he'd gone from dumping out slop buckets and scouring grills to liaising between Melians and faeries. It all had happened in a blink.
Fae broke off and ran through the meadow, dancing and singing with glee. The Tetramites were gone. All that remained of the clash was bent grass, scarred ground, and fallen trees.
To Nikki's disappointment, Shalonie broke away too. "I should return this," she said, tapping the lute.
"Wonder what this glade will look like next season," Nikki heard his father murmur. He watched with concern as Beren fumbled a vial of golden liquid from his belt.
"Easy," Nekarra said as her husband downed the draught in one swallow. "Those healing potions are powerful." She gently rocked the baby in her arms.
Again, Nikki was startled to see the child. What did Shalonie mean someone in the castle gave Tormy a baby? Nikki would have asked the girl, but she had gone.
"That's what I'm counting on," said Beren of the potion, his sense of humor having returned. "So, are we keeping him?" Beren asked his wife as he leaned down to look at the child more closely.
"Yes, we are," Nekarra said, and Beren merely inclined his head.
"Congratulations," Nikki said — meaning both the new parents and the baby. "Does the babe have a name?"
"The cats said so," Nekarra told him. "But I want to hear the whole story first. They might have named him after a favorite confection or a bird that caught their attention. For now, we'll stick with "Baby."
Nikki spotted Shalonie talking with Omen as she handed back the lute.
"I should return this to you," Nikki said to Beren, reminded that he too carried a borrowed instrument.
Beren cradled the lute as gently as Nekarra had handled "Baby."
"You did well," the great bard told Nikki. "You did very well." Nikki didn't know what his father was thinking, but his tone sounded equally proud and concerned. "It's been a long day," Beren said then, stopping that particular conversation before it could start.
There's more, but he's willing to let it go for now. Nikki felt grateful.
"Why don't you go get your girl?" his father said, starting to turn back to Nekarra and the child.
"She's not my girl," Nikki protested, heat once again rising in his cheeks.
"No?" Beren sounded disappointed. "That's a great shame. Perhaps I've overestimated you."
Nikki felt as if a bucket of cold water had been dumped over his head. "I mean . . . She's a Melian Hold Lord's daughter . . . I'm just . . . She's perfect . . ."
Beren looked past him to where Shalonie was having an animated conversation with Omen, Tormy, and Dev. "I see a young woman who is choosing a path that will make her unobtainable. And in time, she will find herself bitterly lonely and unable to correct her course. This is a moment. One single moment that can change all that."
"There are dozens of men far better suited . . . Lord Moyar . . ."
"Men she has known all of her life. Men she has said 'no' to all of her life. She may say 'no' to you as well, but that's a risk you have to take. You're not afraid, are you?"
"Leave the boy alone," Nekarra scolded lightly. "Not everyone—"
But Nikki didn't hear what else the Shindarian had to say. He hurried through the glen to where Shalonie was standing, surrounded by friends, fae, and cats.
The evening was mild, cooking fires had been lit, and music floated on the soft breeze.
I don't know if my father is right about her being lonely. But if there's even the slightest chance . . .
"Nikki!" Shalonie called out the moment she spotted him.
Her smile was brilliant, and he was struck silent again just looking at her.
"I was hoping you'd find me," she said and reached for his hand.
He took the offered hand, tenderly.
"This is a moment," he remembered what his father had said and how he had said it. And what he'd meant. This is a chance.
"Yes," he answered quickly.
Shalonie laughed. "You don't even know what I was going to ask you."
"It doesn't matter," he said. "Whatever you ask. Whatever you want. The answer is yes. The answer is always going to be yes."
Shalonie gave him a surprised look, her blue eyes sparkling. But, uncharacteristically, she didn't say anything.
"Come on, you two!" Lilyth's call came from the Daenoth camp. "Omen is cooking and the faerie brought tons of food. Don't miss out."
"We . . . wouldn't want to miss out," Nikki said, each word delivered haltingly.
"Not miss out," Shalonie repeated. "That's right."
Their eyes met for a brief moment.
He felt the warmth of Shalonie's hand as she twined her fingers between his.
Together, they walked toward the cooking fires where their friends were waiting.