Author: Chris Cook
Around midday Tryptin rode back from the head of the caravan, to let Tara know that they were making good speed, and that he and the caravan captain had decided to press on through lunch to reach the Baron's castle by night. Apologising to Willow for not taking the time to welcome her sooner, he inquired politely about her journey. After answering his questions Willow asked if a rider had being sent ahead to the castle to herald the caravan's arrival, and on discovering that Tryptin would be going ahead himself, wrote a brief letter to be delivered to the Baron's resident mage.
"Kind of him to stop by," Willow observed, after he had gone.
"He's like that, he gets along with everyone," Tara observed. "His family is part of my clan, his father was an ambassador. I guess it runs in the family."
"Is he in charge?" Willow asked. "I kind of thought there'd be more women on an Amazon mission. Or that you'd turn out to be in charge of it, or something," she grinned.
"How old do I look?" Tara asked wryly. "It's a diplomatic mission, I'm just here to represent the warriors. Y-you know, so the Baron and the Duke recognise we're Amazons. Tryptin is the negotiator, him and the merchant emissaries, but, well..." Tara remembered what she had overheard of Solari and Eponin's discussion.
"The nobles have their own ideas about Amazons, and unless they see a sexy woman in leather they won't buy it?" Willow asked.
"E-exactly," Tara managed. 'Sexy?' she thought. Willow had shrugged and started reading one of her books, and Tara unpacked her ceremonial armour and began cleaning and polishing it, occasionally glancing over at Willow thoughtfully.
She was glad to have met Willow, and dispelled her fears that she'd spend the entire journey being seen, somehow, as a strange, intimidating warrior, and consequently avoided. The young sorceress seemed to bring out the most carefree, high-spirited side of Tara - she couldn't count how many times she'd surprised herself the night before, joking and laughing and being so much more open than the shy, quiet girl she had been even among her friends at home. She had even been looking forward to sharing Willow's experience of learning about magic, but since waking up to find Willow stealing a glance at her, she had been surprised at how frequently her thoughts turned to her, and how little they had to do with magic.
Tara wondered if this was what it felt like to have a best friend, someone she could just be with, talk to for hours, take comfort in each other's presence and friendship. She had been envious, in a benign kind of way, of her fellow trainees in that regard. While there had been many kind, caring girls among them, somehow Tara had never felt that spark of intimacy that led to very close friendship. Everyone seemed to have at least one friend they could confide in, could open up to about anything, could chat with about nothing until well into the night, could share life with. Everyone except Tara, who in spite of being accepted into her trainee pride with open arms, had always ended up spending the long evenings in her room at the clan house practising her moves, and during free days had somehow always ended up alone on the archery ranges, perfecting her aim and studying the flight of arrows. She wouldn't admit it to anyone - had no-one to admit it to - but she sometimes wondered if there was some sort of guidebook to life that she'd missed out on, so that she had to stumble through her days figuring out things as she went. Solari praised her talents, and it was true she had some sort of natural affinity for creating focus, but in her heart she knew the rest was simply a matter of long hours spent alone, practising for want of something else to do. She knew she would never be a true warrior, not without the competitive gleam that the other trainees got in their eyes when they managed to disarm their sparring partner, or shoot a thrown target out of the air, but there was something comforting in the martial art itself. The Tara who could whirl her spear around herself until the blade became an impenetrable barrier or flashing metal arcs, or who could close her eyes and still see the target far away, and the curving path through the air her arrow needed to follow to reach it, was not the same person as the Tara who always went home alone, knowing there was something missing from her and wondering if she would ever know what it was.
She finished polishing a greave, held it up in the sunlight to make sure it was perfect, then wrapped it in its cloth and pulled its twin out of her pack, stealing another glance at Willow, whose eyes were darting across the pages of her book at an impressive rate. Tara hoped that she had finally found what she was missing, in this beautiful girl's friendship. For what seemed like the hundredth time since she woke, she reviewed snippets of conversation from the night before, reassuring herself that Willow enjoyed her company, found her interesting, was making an effort to become her friend, not just putting up with her out of politeness. Tara knew she was possibly being slightly insecure, but her doubts nagged at her, making her wonder if she was just a novelty. She remembered how she had gone on and on about home and her people, and winced slightly - she was glad Willow was interested, but wondered whether she had seemed slightly ridiculous, trying to gift-wrap her exotic arboreal city and present it to Willow as a token of friendship. She reassured herself with the memory of Willow's bright eyes fixed on her, and of all the jokes they had fired back and forth, and the inconsequential things they had talked about. Perhaps, she allowed, it wasn't just a matter of her being strange and exotic to Willow, perhaps there was genuine friendship. Tara hoped so with all her will. It felt odd to think of herself as exotic, anyway.
As the sun dipped towards the western horizon the caravan left the city of Kingsport behind, and aside from a few scattered shacks here and there among the trees, was in open country. Willow had found a handful of notes about the nobility of Kingsport in Ember's notebook, and was reading it aloud. Tara lay back contentedly in the wagon, staring up at the sky and imagining patterns in the clouds as she heard how the Barons, though rulers of Kingsport, had for centuries held their court in the old castle in the highlands; how in the current more-or-less peaceful times they styled it the 'summer palace', after the tradition of other Westmarch rulers who maintained an estate outside their cities to retire to during the summer, when the cities themselves became a bit ripe in the heat; how the transition from one Baron to the next was accomplished by a bizarre series of ancient rules of succession, which had ensured stability in the realm, if not necessarily the court, for as long as anyone knew. Tara discovered a new pleasure, staring intently at Willow as she read Ember's more cavalier notes on the nobility themselves, trying to make her laugh. Willow strained herself not to let out so much as a snicker, until she got to the part where Ember described the Baron's court of her time as 'a pack of genial senile delinquents preserved in alcohol', which caused both her and Tara to burst into a fit of giggles.
Just as they were recovering a boy rode back from the main wagon. Tara recognised him as Melcan, Tryptin's aide and apprentice, and introduced him to Willow as he drew up his horse alongside their wagon, with one of the Kingsport soldiers a little way behind him.
"Honoured, ma'am," he said, with perfect formality as Tryptin must have taught him. "Master Tryptin suggested you might like to see the river before we take the highland road," he continued to Tara, "he chose this man of the Baron's guards to ride with you if you wish, and I'm to stay here and watch over your belongings."
Tara looked at Willow, who nodded eagerly. Leaving Melcan sitting dutifully beside their wagon's driver, they both jumped lightly off the back and took a pair of horses from the dozen following in the wake of the caravan's wagons.
"Have you ever ridden before?" Willow asked.
"A little," Tara said, "not very much. We don't use horses very much at home."
"You're probably better than me anyway," said Willow, "me and horses..." She rolled her eyes, and turned to her horse. Tara noticed her holding the reins tightly and looking unusually tense as they followed the guard off the road and towards the gentle slope that went on for half a mile or so to the east. She nudged her horse a little closer to Willow's, and gave her a warm smile that seemed to boost her confidence.
The guard waited for them at the top of the rise, and pointed out into the valley beyond as they reached him.
"Merchant Bay," he said as they stared out at the panorama before them. A mile away the river, the Kingsway, that ran from Duncraig to Kingsport, widened into a small bay before continuing its journey to the sea. The entire western side of the bay was a mass of warehouses and gantries, extending even out into the bay itself, so that glimpses of glittering water could be seen between the low rooves and wooden thoroughfares. Beyond them was a fleet of ships, dozens of merchant barges and flat-bottomed riverboats, some riding at anchor, others manoeuvring through the throng to reach open water, or to take their place at the docks.
"Ember didn't write anything about this," murmured Willow. Her eyes widened, and she pointed out to Tara where a series of counterweighted cranes shuddered and strained, lifting the entire cargo deck of a barge clear of its vessel. Teams of men, small as ants in the distance, pulled the whole construct, cranes and all, back along shining steel rails, making way for another construct to be wheeled into place, lowering a new deck full of different cargo into the barge.
"H-how do they do that?" asked Tara. The guard shrugged.
"Can't say, ma'am," he said simply, "'tis beyond me, that's for sure. They say the Baron hired mages from Duncraig and foreign lands to help build it, though I don't believe there's any there now. I was just a boy when it was built. Our mam says the old river docks got so crowded you couldn't land a cargo of eggs before they'd hatched and died of old age."
"There's got to be magic in it," Willow said to herself, "they must have melded the beams, treated the wood to make it stronger... my gods, look at all the ships!" Tara followed her gaze along the river as it wound between the hills - for as far as she could see there were ships dotted along the river, riding the current or straining their sails against it.
"Aye, the city sees a lot of goods coming and going," the guard observed, "it's from Duncraig, you see. Ships come from all the lands of the world, just about, and they all go along here. They say this river's what keeps Kingsport alive, and, well, I ain't got a head for matters of trade, but I think they may be right." He then fell silent, as Willow and Tara stared out at the great river port.
"We'd best be getting back," he said after a few moments, "it wouldn't do to let the caravan get too far ahead of us."
They returned to Melcan still maintaining his alert vigil over their wagon. He had the driver stop the wagon for a moment so Willow and Tara could get on board easily, then took to his horse and rode back up to the head of the caravan, while the guard disappeared rearwards to return their horses to their place at the caravan's tail end. Willow checked Ember's notebook and confirmed that the Merchant Bay river docks had indeed been built sometime after her sponsor had travelled the region - all she had had to say about the city's river traffic was that its docks were 'small and badly overcrowded', which clearly referred to the predecessors of the complex they had seen.
"M-maybe you should start your own notebook?" Tara suggested. Willow leapt gleefully at the idea, found a blank book from one of her satchels, and spent a few minutes recording her impressions of the giant docks.
"Pity I can't draw," she grumbled to herself as she was finishing.
"I c-could," Tara offered, "i-if you'd like, that is, I could try..." Willow eagerly handed over the book, and watched over Tara's shoulder as she sketched out a remarkably lifelike drawing of the river docks as they had seen them from the top of the rise.
"That's amazing," Willow breathed, as the picture took shape under Tara's pencil. Tara looked up for a moment, blushing and grinning, then returned her attention to her work. Willow sat back and watched her, smiling without realising it as she noticed the tip of Tara's tongue poking between her lips now and then as she concentrated, and the way her eyes seemed to sparkle in the afternoon light as she re-read Willow's text, adding notes to her sketch to complement it.
With grey clouds on the horizon and the afternoon turning into dusk they let down the wagon's canvas roof and fastened it over its wooden frame, lighting a lamp to see by inside as they took turns recording their experiences in Kingsport in the notebook. Willow listened rapt as Tara told her about her meeting with Marela while she wrote, and was fascinated by the amulet as she held it for Tara to sketch, turning it this way and that in the golden light of the lamp. It was just when both of them were staring to wonder about dinner that they heard voices outside, and poked their heads out the front of the wagon to see the Baron's castle looming up ahead of them.
It was fully night by the time the caravan rolled over the moat bridge towards the castle gates. The castle, a vast, ominous stone fortress, sat at the centre of a rambling collection of wooden shacks and storehouses built beyond its walls - a testament to the relative peace that the realm was enjoying, even as the thick walls and high battlements of the castle itself hinted of past times of warfare. The battlements were now alive with torchlight, as were the towers visible beyond them - Willow pointed out one tower with a dome atop it, split down the centre to reveal the lens of a great telescope, which she guessed belonged to the resident mage. The roadway leading up to the bridge was also lit, and a contingent of soldiers rode out as the caravan approached, relieving those who had escorted it from the city. Tryptin was with them, and rode back to Tara after a moment conferring with the merchant emissaries.
"The Baron has begun his dinner early," he explained, "it would be better to settle into quarters quietly tonight, and be presented to court tomorrow when we won't be interrupting. Oh, Miss Willow, a reply came from the mage, he asks that you wait for him in the courtyard at midday in two days' time, he sends his apologies but apparently the constellations have his attention for tonight, and he has an appointment tomorrow."
Willow thanked him, privately dreading another disinterested tutor, but excited nonetheless to see the castle, or the 'summer palace', as the Baron did indeed apparently call it. She was disappointed, however, to find herself separated from the Amazon mission and given private quarters - a mark of respect, of course, but she would have preferred to have Tara's company in place of a room of her own, and she was sorry to have to bid a temporary goodbye to her companion. She asked after the Baron's mage when a notary arrived at her room to welcome her, but it seemed she would have to be content to stay put until the next evening, when she would meet the Baron at dinner and be granted the freedom of the castle, allowing her to wander around and find where the Amazons had ended up. A servant arrived not long afterwards with dinner, and she ate with one hand holding open one of the books she had been given in Kingsport. She consoled herself that she would be seeing Tara again soon enough, and let herself be absorbed by the intricacies of alchemical research as the night grew late.
Tara was no more pleased than Willow at being separated, but managed to distract herself with the company of the various merchants and negotiators from the mission as they ate dinner in the common room connecting their various bedrooms. After dinner Tryptin took her aside and went over the diplomatic protocols she needed to know to meet with the Baron without causing offence, which were few enough - the court of Kingsport was evidently a fairly easy-going place. Tryptin mentioned that, traditionally, women were not expected to take part in discussions with men over dinner unless invited, but then suggested that it might be best if Tara behave as she would at home, speaking her mind if she felt the need to. He assured her that it would impress the various noblemen and remind them that they were dealing with the Amazon nation, rather than merely a group of merchants and businessmen, though Tara got the impression that he quietly relished the opportunity to remind the nobles that not all women spoke only when spoken to.
Tara slept easily in the comfortable bed that had been provided, and woke in time to see the sun come over the battlements beyond her window. She wasn't surprised, though, to find that she already missed having Willow to talk to, and as the morning wore on - a succession of meetings with minor nobles, whom she formally greeted on behalf of the Amazon warriors and then left to the emissaries and Tryptin's negotiators - she was looking forward to the evening's dinner, where she hoped to see her new friend again.
With nothing else to occupy her in the afternoon, she asked one of the passing servants to bring back one of the baths that had been brought to the common room early in the morning, and bathed again, spending a long time washing her hair and carefully drying it. Studying herself intently in the polished mirror in her room, she tied her hair up in a high ponytail, the most typical style for a warrior, and bound it there with a slim bronze clasp. She retrieved her ceremonial armour, which still gleamed from yesterday's cleaning, and laid it out on the bed, making sure everything looked perfect. Of course she wasn't going into battle, so she wouldn't wear a full breastplate, which left her the choice of which tunic to wear with the outfit. She discarded the red - too bright - and carefully donned the other of the two finely-woven tops she had brought, a deep grey that seemed to gleam ever so slightly in the light. She carefully fastened her shoulder harness over it, wiggling her torso and adjusting the straps so that they sat perfect around her shoulders and chest, with her family's crest glinting on the bronze buckle at the corner of the leather padding over her right shoulder. She lifted the shining bronze plate that would go on her left shoulder, then decided to leave it until after she had finished with the rest of the outfit.
With a self-conscious glance out the window - though it was unlikely anyone would be able to see in, unless they were balancing on top of the battlements and were at least fifteen feet tall - she took off the soft trousers she had been wearing and swapped her underwear for the leather equivalent that went with the armour. She caught herself blushing in the mirror, which was a habit she had never quite been able to shake whenever she wore traditional armour - she always wished that there was a skirt, at least, for all that she recognised the unparalleled freedom of movement the arrangement offered. She pulled on the half-skirt, composed of studded leather straps in front and behind, leaving her thighs bare at the sides, and fixed it with a sturdy belt, quickly detaching the various pouches that would help carry her supplies if she were in the field. Doing her best to ignore the nagging feeling that she was half-naked, she pulled on her best boots, pulling tight the straps just above the knees to hold them up.
Next came her bronze greaves, which she gave a quick final polish before strapping them to her shins. She strapped a slim bracer on her right wrist, then pulled a long leather glove over her left arm, strapping it high above the elbow and covering it with a firm leather gauntlet, which in turn had a bronze bracer strapped over it. She finally picked up the bronze shoulder plate and fixed it in place over her left shoulder, making sure it was properly attached to her harness and its weight was sitting comfortably. Lastly she took a slim, well-padded bundle from her bags and unwrapped the circlet that, along with the bronze crest adorning her right shoulder, were all that she really had to remember her parents. She checked the soft leather lining, which was still as good as new, and gently settled the circlet around her brows, closing her eyes as she fixed the clasp at its rear. She picked up her bow and, with a slight effort, strung it with an old, sturdy string that would do for show, though she would have chosen one of the finer ones if she'd intended to actually fire an arrow. She slotted the bow into its place on her back, held by her harness, and at last turned towards the mirror.
A reasonably perfect image of an Amazon warrior stared back at her. With a satisfied nod, trying not to look at her legs too much, Tara turned around, glancing over her shoulder to make sure she looked good from all angles. The straps of her harness had made the tunic a good deal more form-fitting than it had been, particularly around her chest - she giggled at the memory of Willow's summary of the common, lurid image of Amazons as 'big-breasted warrioresses', then composed herself. Content with her preparations she took her spear, silently thanking Solari for allowing her to use it, and left her room to meet the Baron.
Heads turned as the court's page announced the Amazon party, starting with 'Amazon warrioress Tara' and then continuing through the names of Tryptin's diplomats and the merchant emissaries. Tara held her head up high and kept her posture straight as the spear in her hand as she strode towards the Baron's table. Tryptin had told her that the Baron's aides would see to it that he, in turn, knew the proper protocol for receiving an Amazon as a guest, and he had evidently been paying attention, for when Tara bowed stiffly and held out Silverstrike, shaft first with the blade behind her, he stood, lay his open palm on it and bowed slightly in return before sinking back into his seat.
Tryptin, as leader of the mission, also merited the Baron getting to his feet, while the other Amazons each received a nod of acknowledgement as the were introduced one by one and bowed. The party was then led to their seats, not very far from the Baron and his closest noblemen on the long table, and Tara was about to take her seat when she heard the page announce the arrival of 'Sorceress Willow of the Zann Esu'.
She turned to look towards the doors, and in that moment realised that, while she would treasure Willow's friendship for as long as she lived, she also had feelings for the young sorceress that were entirely more passionate.