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XIII. Ozma’s Brigade

 

Saguaro and the others awakened at dawn. They needed a full day of travel in order to reach Camp Gabryel in time for the next day’s meeting.

 

Breakfast was a simple affair. Avaric had stepped outside to load the carriage, leaving Saguaro alone with Sarima and Nor. She had not seen an innkeeper once during her stay, which struck her as odd, given Nor’s and her mother’s royal status. Something told Saguaro that Sarima and Avaric had made an effort to keep her presence quiet.

 

As Nor chattered on about how glad she was that “Guarie” was accompanying them, Saguaro struggled to meet Sarima’s gaze. Sarima smiled at her, but she was considerably more tense than she had been the day before. It did not help that Saguaro still felt sick. She had woken up shivering in the middle of the night and continued to feel tired and achy. Though she left her muffin untouched, just watching Sarima and Nor eat made her feel nauseous.

 

Finally, they stepped outside. Saguaro was astonished at what she saw. Avaric stood before a large open carriage led by a pair of majestic black shire horses. Their reins matched the silver of the carriage, and their harnesses were studded with jewels.

 

Nor lit up when she saw the horses. Avaric picked her up and set her on his shoulders, and she gave each of the horses a kiss on the nose.

 

“Are we ready?” Sarima asked, once Avaric set Nor down.

 

Avaric nodded. “Everything is in order.”

 

Just as he was about to climb into the front of the carriage, Nor nudged his arm. “Uncle Avaric! You forgot!”

 

Avaric conjured an innocent expression. “Forgot what?”

 

You know!” said Nor.

 

“But as I already told your mother, everything is in order,” Avaric said with mock innocence. “The carriage is packed, the horses are ready, and we’re all ready to go. What could I be forgetting?”

 

Nor stomped her foot. “Uncle Avaric!”

 

“I’m afraid I have no idea what you’re talking about, Nor,” said Avaric. Sarima was trying to suppress a smile of her own, though her bright eyes betrayed her.  “Would you mind filling me in?”

 

“I’m talking about our…Ah!”

 

Avaric had reached out and tickled her, sending the little girl into uncontrollable giggles. Once Nor recovered, the two bumped their fists, then clapped their hands together. This led to Avaric spinning Nor off the ground, and the two blowing kisses to each other when he put her down.

 

A lump formed in Saguaro’s throat. She and her father also had a secret handshake when she was Nor’s age. Theirs had turned into an elaborate dance with her father twirling her around and around.

 

Sarima, no doubt seeing Saguaro’s change of mood, touched her on the shoulder. “What’s the matter, Guarie? Are you all right?”

 

Saguaro forced a smile. “I’m fine. I just got lost in my thoughts for a moment.”

 

She, Nor, and Sarima took their places in the carriage, and they were on their way.

 

 

****

 

Traveling by carriage was a relief after Saguaro’s many days on foot. The horses moved at a swift gait, and Saguaro was able to closely survey her surroundings. She watched as grass became less prominent and the land turned hilly. She became so lost in the landscape that she almost forgot that she was ill.

 

As Sarima reassured Nor that her fears about kalidahs (creatures with the bodies of bears and the heads of tigers) were unfounded, Saguaro reached for her satchel. She took out her stuffed Hedgehog and compass as she rummaged through the bag to find her map.

 

Just as Saguaro pulled out the map, Nor glanced over. “Oh, I love your Hedgehog! What’s her name?”

 

“Bramble,” Saguaro said. “You can hold her, if you like.”

 

Nor nodded eagerly, and Saguaro handed her the stuffed toy. She could not help thinking that Bramble looked strange being held by Nor. Today, Nor wore a white sailor dress with a red ribbon that looked very stylish for her young age. Bramble, in contrast, was patchworked from a hodgepodge of scraps and looked ragged next to the young princess.

 

Sarima also looked over. “That certainly is a sweet Hedgehog, Guarie. Have you had her since you were young?”

 

Saguaro nodded. “My mother bought her for me from one of the venders in the center of my town. I must have been around three at the time.”

 

Sarima’s expression became softer at the mention of Saguaro’s mother. For the first time that day, she met Saguaro’s eyes. “I’m so sorry about your parents, Guarie,” she said, resting a hand on her knee. “No girl should have to grow up without a mother.”

 

This made Saguaro feel as though an angry tiger were scratching in her stomach. She thought of both her mother and Ie’ello as she responded. “Actually, my mom’s mother died giving birth to her younger sister. My mom was only about eighteen months old, so she never got to know her mother at all.”

 

“I’m sad to hear that, Guarie,” said Sarima. “You are indeed lucky to have known your mother, even for a short time. You mentioned before that your parents were ill?”

 

Saguaro twirled a lock of hair and tried to remember the details she had given Sarima the day before. This proved quite challenging, since her mind was still foggy from the woozeberries. “Yes. Influenza struck my town, and both of my parents died as a result. My parents hadn’t been in touch with any of their relatives since leaving Oz, and the only thing I know is that they live somewhere in the Emerald City. ”

 

“Is your mother’s sister the relative you’ll be looking for?” Sarima asked.

 

An odd force compelled her to tell the truth. “No. I’m actually looking for my father’s family. My mom’s sister died before I was even born.”

 

Though this comment appeared to have startled Sarima, who seemed overwhelmed by the many deaths in Saguaro’s family, Nor looked even more taken aback.

 

“Did a house fall on her?” she asked.

 

“Nor!” said Sarima, shooting her daughter a look.

 

“It’s all right,” Saguaro said. She recognized Nor’s comment as a reference to the other Wicked Witch, who, according to Ie’ello, had been crushed by a house. “She was actually very sickly, so I think that’s how she died.”

 

“That’s tragic,” Sarima said. She continued to frown at Nor, who shrank under her gaze.

 

“What?” she said. “I was only asking!”

 

Sarima sighed. “We’ll talk about it later.”

 

As they continued their journey, Saguaro grew sleepy. The novelty of the surroundings had worn off, and as she tracked their progress on her map, she was lulled by the bumpy rhythm of the carriage. She finally nodded off to sleep, her map still in her lap.

 

When she awoke, it was early afternoon, perhaps five hours after they had set off. Sarima was speaking to Avaric.

 

“Perhaps I’m being paranoid, but I’ve heard stories about such scoundrels. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

 

“You think Uncle Avaric will get hurt?” said Nor in horror.

 

“Of course not,” said Avaric. He grinned at them in an obvious attempt to relieve the tension. “You two have such little faith in me! I’ve been trained to protect you in events like these. Nothing’s going to happen. I guarantee that as soon as those men realize who we are, they’ll step away and let us pass.”

 

Saguaro glanced ahead to see what they were talking about. Not far up the road were two burly men on horseback, blocking their way. Though she could not make out many details, she saw that they were dressed in identical white uniforms.

 

“I know that,” said Sarima. “But when they notice Guarie…”

 

Saguaro gestured to Sarima. The queen had obviously not realized that Saguaro was awake, because she seemed surprised by this interruption. “I could hide in the trunk. That way, you won’t have to worry about me.”

 

Sarima exchanged a glance with Avaric. “That’s very kind of you, but I’m not sure that will be necessary…”

 

“Look,” Saguaro said, tired of dancing around the matter, “I think it’s time that we stop ignoring the Lion in the room. I’ve noticed the way you’ve kept me away from anyone besides yourselves, and I understand that being seen with a girl who looks like the Wicked Witch of the West could ruin your reputations. I appreciate that. I really do. But if I hide in the trunk, then the issue will go away. Those men won’t know that I’m with you, and they’ll let you through as soon as they realize who you are. I can come out when they’re gone.”

 

“I hate to say it, but she’s right, Sarima,” said Avaric after a moment. “If she’s hidden, things will certainly be easier.”

 

Sarima sighed. “All right. I wish it didn’t come to this, but I have to admit that you two have a point. Guarie, you can access the trunk by climbing under our seat. We’ll tell you when it’s safe to come out.”

 

Saguaro grabbed her satchel and scrambled under the seat. The trunk was very dark and crowded; Sarima and Nor had brought many suitcases, and she struggled to find enough room to lie down. In order to further hide herself, she pushed one of the suitcases directly in front of the trunk’s opening.

 

Even hidden away, Saguaro could feel the tension in the carriage. The seconds felt like minutes, and she realized that she was holding her breath. At last, the carriage slowed to a stop.

 

Avaric spoke first, his voice calm, but firm. “Excuse me. I’m escorting our queen and princess, and we need to pass. The queen has a meeting at Camp Gabryel tomorrow, and it is very important that we get there as soon as possible.”

 

One of the men answered, his tone mocking and condescending. “Oh, you’re escorting the queen and princess, are you? You must be the coachman, Avaric. You and I have the same name, but people call me Tenmeadows. Your friend told me all about you.”

 

“My friend?” asked Avaric after a moment.

 

“Yes, your friend.” He put special emphasis on this word. “The anniversary of his death was yesterday, wasn’t it? I can’t say that his death surprised me. Given all the things he was involved in-or should I say, people he was involved with-he had it coming.”

 

“I won’t have you saying such things. You don’t know a thing about him,” said Sarima.

 

“Don’t I? After all, I did know him. If you ask me, he wasn’t as innocent as you might believe. He wanted it to happen. But then again, it isn’t your friend that concerns me. I’m here for Princess Ilianora.”

 

A distinct shwing of metal grazing leather resonated through the carriage. Nor screamed.

 

Sarima’s response was immediate. “Put that down at once! I could convict you for wielding a weapon, and I won’t have you scaring my daughter. Now let us through immediately or I’ll send you to prison faster than you can say your own name.”

 

“Oh, but I don’t want to upset your daughter. Not when she’s the person we’ve come for.”

 

“What are you talking about?” asked Avaric.

 

“I’m talking about the final prophecy of the Clock of the Time Dragon. It was made just before the act was shut down and the clock was placed on the border of Winkie Country and the Badlands,” said Tenmeadows. “The prophecy demands that we take Princess Ilianora Tigelaar into custody.”

 

Nor whimpered. Tenmeadows continued to speak, relishing every word.

 

“You’re aware, of course, that before the end of the Vinko-Munchkin War, when Ozma the Two-Faced was de-headed, Oz was ruled by a line of Ozma’s…or Oz’s, if the ruler happened to be born a boy. These Ozma’s ruled with the same love and grace as their great-great-great grandmother, Lurline. In fact, it is the opinion of many that Oz has not had rulers of their caliber since that time. Miss Glinda has failed to fulfill our needs, and even the Wizard was unable to banish Wickedness on his own.”

 

“Excuse me, but I fail to see the relevance of your history lesson right now,” said Sarima. “Of course I know about the Ozma Regime. Now what in goodness’ name does any of this have to do with my daughter?”

 

“Oh, but that’s where it gets interesting. That’s where the Clock of the Time Dragon comes in. The performances associated with the Clock contained many prophecies. The final one even showed the rise and fall of the four Witches of Oz a few years before the Wizard came to power. But what few people remember is the end of that prophecy. That’s where your daughter comes into play.”

 

“So you’re telling me that because of some act connected to the Time Dragon, you’re here to kidnap my daughter?” Sarima demanded.

 

Before Tenmeadows could answer, Avaric interjected. “I’m afraid we have no choice but to arrest you. You and your friend are suffering from delusions.”

 

“But that’s where you’re wrong,” said Tenmeadows. “The rest of Oz is suffering from delusions, not us. As members of Ozma’s Brigade, it is our job to know exactly what Oz needs. The prophecies of the Time Dragon were performed by puppets that were controlled by a kind of magick that even the Wicked Witch of the West did not possess. Just after the final act showed the Wizard’s departure and Miss Glinda’s ascent, the curtain fell, then rose again. The final image showed a young girl being captured and a crown on her head.”

 

“Nor?” Sarima whispered, as the little girl whimpered again.

 

“It appears so,” said Tenmeadows. “We have been able to deduce that the girl in question was a member of royalty and is destined to reinstate the Ozma line. Since the Tigelaar descendants of the Arjiki Tribe are the only people with royal blood left in Oz, and Ilianora is the only female child descended from them, it can only pertain to her. You see, of course, that Terrin and I only have Oz’s best interests at heart, and we have no problem taking Nor by force, if we must. Lurline left her daughter, Ozma, to rule Oz and continue her legacy. Failing to reinstate the Ozma Regime condemns us all.”

 

As a long silence settled over the carriage, Saguaro struggled to imagine how Nor would change if she were removed from her family and taken into custody. She was still so innocent. So spirited. Saguaro could hardly believe that she had been envying Nor and her circumstances only the day before.

 

Avaric’s voice, however, interrupted these thoughts. “Well then, Sarima, it appears that we have nothing to worry about. If they’re searching for a girl with royal blood, then Nor cannot possibly be the girl of their prophecy.”

 

Sarima’s voice was more fierce than Saguaro had ever heard it. “Avaric, what are you doing? You know what will happen if word gets out!”

 

“Sarima, what’s more important?” said Avaric. “Protecting a lie or the life and happiness of our little girl? I apologize to both of you, but if it’s a princess by blood that you seek, you’ll have to search elsewhere. The prophecy must pertain to someone else.”

 

“What are you talking about?” asked Tenmeadows. “Are you saying-?”

 

“Yes,” said Avaric. “That is exactly what I’m saying.” There was a short pause, and Saguaro imagined him taking Sarima’s hand. “I, of all people, would know.”

 

At that moment, Saguaro knew exactly what to do.

 

She had never really thought of her sorcery powers as a gift. Since her mother had been unwilling to teach her sorcery, and Saguaro had never cast a spell before turning herself green, she’d tended to ignore sorcery altogether. Indeed, she had not been sure that she’d inherited her mother’s powers until the day she ran away.

 

Although Saguaro’s mind was still foggy and muddled, she did recognize one thing. If she understood Avaric’s implication (and judging by Sarima’s and his kiss, this seemed plausible), then there was no way these men could be trusted with this secret. If she were to show that she was on Sarima’s and Nor’s side by protecting that secret, perhaps they would trust her, too.

 

She reached for her satchel and pulled out her spell book. The trunk was still dark, and she could not see well enough to make out the words. She climbed back into the carriage and raced through the book until she found the right spell.

 

She glanced up at the men to take a mental picture. One was blonde and fair, as if from Gillikin Country; the other was smaller and clearly Winkie by birth. Both held raised daggers. Though Saguaro sensed that everyone was now looking at her, she paid them no mind. Instead, she returned to the spell with a kind of intensity she did not know she possessed.

 

“Eleka datay, konjay lar, konjay, konjay, konjay lar…”

 

Each word was pronounced clearly and spoken at the proper pace. Nothing mattered beyond the spell.

 

When at last she finished, she took a long time to look up from the book. Nor, Avaric, and Sarima were staring at her, but that was not important. What mattered was that the two men and their horses were now frozen in place. The shock of seeing Saguaro was solidified on their faces.

 

Nor spoke first. “What did you-”

 

“It’s a spell that temporarily turned them into statues,” Saguaro said. “I have no idea how long it will last, so we need to leave right now.”

 

Sarima was staring at the spell book. “Guarie…”

 

“I’ll explain everything later. Now go!”

 

Avaric hopped back into the carriage and grabbed the horses’ reins. With spirited neighs, the horses pulled the carriage around the men and raced down the road.

 

None of them dared to speak for a few minutes. When Nor finally broke the silence, it was a surprise to all of them.

 

“I didn’t know you were a witch.”

 

“Nor, you know that’s not a nice word to call someone,” said Sarima, finding her voice. Nor frowned.

 

“She’s a Good Witch, Mummy. Maybe the Goodest Witch ever, next to Glinda. She saved my life.”

 

Nor wrapped her arms around Saguaro and began sobbing. Saguaro had no choice but to pull the girl closer.

 

“She’s right, you know,” said a voice from the front seat. Saguaro looked up to meet Avaric’s gaze. “I realize that I didn’t give you a chance before, but I was wrong about you. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t been here.”

 

“Thank you,” said Sarima, stroking Nor’s hair. Her eyes began to smart with tears. “I don’t know what I would have done if something had happened to my little girl.”

 

It was this comment that brought everything back. Nor was still sobbing and did not appear to have registered the implication of Avaric’s words, but Saguaro was reminded of the way Avaric had referred to Nor as “our little girl.” She looked at Sarima and Avaric. Both appeared to be thinking the same thing.

 

It was then that she knew there was no going back.

 

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