Author: Chris Cook
Willow awoke with a start, kicking her legs free of the sheets before she remembered where she was, and the urge to run, to find safety, vanished. She shook her head ruefully and ran a hand through her hair, which had somehow managed to become tangled since she had gone to sleep. 'It can't have been that long,' she grumbled to herself, noting both her lingering tiredness, and the early morning sun just creeping over the battlements beyond her window. 'How does hair do this?' She got out of bed, discarded her flimsy nightgown in favour of a thick, warm robe, and sat in front of the mirror, brushing her hair back to a decent state. And remembering her dream.
It had begun innocently enough, with her wanderings carrying her through the gardens of the Church, with birdsong and the crunching of the gravel beneath her bare feet the only sounds. The sun was bright in the sky, casting golden light across the flowers... then the flowers were all around her, covering the ancient stonework of the cloister, carpeting the ground in a soft bed of colour. And the golden sunlight became golden hair, which Willow ran her hands through and buried her face in, laughing with joy as she felt Tara's arms around her. The flowers were like silk beneath them as they lay together, side by side, Willow marvelling at the flawless skin beneath her fingers, as she ran her hand down Tara's side, across her waist, down her thigh... Tara pressed up against her, her leg resting over Willow's hip, her toes trailing along the backs of Willow's legs, and Willow reached back and ran her hand all the way along Tara's leg, right down to her toes, then back up again. Tara stretched her arm out above her head, and Willow trailed her touch all the way up her body, over her shoulder, up along her arms to her fingertips. She could feel Tara shivering in delight, could see the anticipation in her sapphire blue eyes...
Then she had rolled over, and the warmth of Tara's body behind her was receding. The colour of the flowers was fading, and then the irregular surface wasn't flowers anymore, but stone, debris from the shattered columns and broken walls of the building around her. She felt a gaze on her back, but she didn't want to roll back over, because she knew the eyes weren't Tara's...
"Well damn," she said to herself, brushing viciously, "if I'm going to have nightmares, at least the good part could last longer." She gave a lop-sided grin to the image of herself in the mirror, but couldn't quite shake off the lingering unease the dream had left her with. Sure, she had had nightmares since- when she had been recalled to the Church, but they had faded with time, naturally, leaving Willow with nothing more than an annoying tendency to sleep lightly, which she was inclined to blame as much on travelling as on her mind's night-time meanderings. But they had been just bad dreams, easily swept away by the morning light, and a refreshing splash of water over her face when she washed. This time she still had a nagging feeling that she should be looking over her shoulder.
"Heigh-ho," she said to herself, making light of her unease as she checked her robe was decently tied around her and pulled the bell-cord for a servant. She changed into her travelling clothes as the servant departed towards the kitchens to bring her early breakfast and a bath, packing away her green outfit. That drew her thoughts to the previous night, and she resolved to visit the Amazons' quarters and see if she could spend the morning with Tara, before she would have to meet the mage and see what he could teach her.
As it happened, she met Tara half-way across the garden-courtyard between the south wing of the castle, where the Amazons were, and the keep, where Willow's room was. Willow waved unnecessarily as they neared each other, and felt her spirits soar as she noticed the smile that spread across Tara's face as she saw her.
"Hi," she said.
"Hi," Tara answered. "I-I was just coming to see you."
"Me too!" Willow grinned. "Coming to see you, I mean. 'Cause I saw me already, in the mirror when I woke up, morning hair and all..." She shrugged, feeling suddenly and uncharacteristically shy. Tara, on the other hand, seemed bolder than usual, as she stepped closer and ran her fingers through Willow's hair.
"I like you hair," she said softly. "I-it feels wonderful."
"It's just lulling you into a false sense of security," Willow joked. Tara giggled, which made Willow laugh too. A group of servants hurried through the garden, and Tara took Willow's arm and led her off the path. Willow sat beside Tara on one of the low stone walls surrounding the raised flowerbeds, pleased that Tara's hand dropped down her arm to her hand, but didn't let go.
"I can't stay too long," Tara sad reluctantly, "I'm supposed to go with the Baron and some of his noblemen on a hunt." She gestured at the end of the bow sticking up over her shoulder.
"Oh," Willow said sadly, "I wish I could come with you."
"Well..." Willow hesitated. "I could ride with you, that wouldn't be so bad. Then if I got dizzy or anything I could hold on to you."
"You did okay when we rode out to see the river," Tara said.
"Oh, no," Willow said with mock-seriousness, "I bet I'd have to hold on to you all the time. Can't take chances with horses." Tara grinned.
"Are you flirting with me?" she asked with a sly smile.
"Maybe," Willow replied, drawing the word out longer than it needed to be, eliciting another laugh from Tara. 'Hey, look at me,' she thought, 'I'm flirting! Who'd ha' thought it?' "Why, is there some penalty for flirting with an Amazon?"
"Yep," said Tara triumphantly, "now you have to go with me to the Baron's feast in two days. I-if you want to," she added, her teasing smile replaced by a hopeful look.
"I'd love to!" Willow exclaimed, squeezing Tara's hand. "Thank you, I'd love to," she repeated.
"Great," Tara said, smiling shyly at being the cause of Willow's joy. "S-so, do you know what you'll be studying today? It is today, isn't it? The Baron's mage?"
"Midday," confirmed Willow, "yep. I don't know yet, I haven't even seen him so far. Ember wrote a few notes about him on the scroll the Order gave me, but I don't think she ever met him. Just that he's part of the western Vizjerei clan. They're pretty eclectic, according to her notebook, she met a few of them years ago."
"Eclectic?" Tara asked.
"The western clan are just about the only group of mages to really settle out here in Westmarch," Willow explained, "so they've sort of got the whole place to themselves. Not like Kehjistan, there's practically the whole set of clans and orders within a hundred miles. Vizjerei, the new Horadrim, the reformed Zakarum scholars, the Ennead and the Ammuit, the Zann Esu, plus there's necromancers lurking down south somewhere... the whole continent is full of what we call nodes, places where magic is amplified. Everyone sticks to their own discipline and mostly pretends the other clans don't exist... but out here it's just the western clan, so they study whatever they like. Some elemental effects, some prime magic, alchemy, holy magic, Ember says there's even some druidic influences around. There's no-one to really look over their shoulder, so they research whatever looks promising."
"Sounds interesting," Tara observed, wide-eyed.
"I'll tell you all about it," Willow promised. She noticed movement beyond the archway leading from the garden to the main courtyard. "I think your hunting adventure is getting ready," she said, not without a touch of sadness. Tara glanced behind herself, seeing the Baron's horse being readied, and several noblemen with bows meandering around.
"I have to go," she admitted.
"Well, have fun," Willow said, trying a smile and finding that it came easily when she did it for Tara. Tara squeezed her hand, then let go as she stood up. Willow's hand brushed in the flowers by her side, as she looked up at Tara, who was radiant with the morning sun behind her. "Be careful," she added suddenly, not sure why.
"I will," Tara said seriously, gazing into Willow's eyes. "Is e-everything okay?"
"I'm fine," Willow said, waving a hand dismissively, "I just woke up feeling a bit off-centre. It's nothing." She stood, and impulsively leaned forward and kissed Tara on the cheek - nothing extravagant, just a reminder of how a few minutes with her had brightened Willow's whole day. Tara touched her cheek, smiling beautifully.
"I-I'll see you soon," she said, still smiling. Willow nodded and sat back down on the flowerbed wall. Tara took a step backwards, started to turn away, then turned back to Willow and took two quick steps, bringing her directly in front of Willow. Before Willow could think Tara's hands were cupping her cheeks, turning her face gently to meet Tara's as she leaned down. Their lips touched, pressed together, and Willow's eyes fluttered closed as she felt Tara's mouth open and her tongue graze across her lips. Willow couldn't think, couldn't react, couldn't summon the presence of mind to bring her hands up from where they were resting at her sides... in fact, couldn't do anything but open her mouth, feeling as if her whole body had turned to jelly and Tara's hands gently, firmly holding her head were the only thing stopping her from sliding off her perch on the wall and melting into a puddle on the ground. Tara tilted her head sideways, deepening the kiss, her tongue brushing over the tips of Willow's teeth, gingerly exploring her mouth, darting in to touch her tongue. Willow completely forgot where she was and moaned into Tara's mouth, making no attempt to silence herself. With a final swirl Tara's tongue departed, and her lips closed for a moment on Willow's bottom lip, sucking gently, pulling ever so slightly as Tara pulled back, then letting go. Tara stood up straight, and Willow stayed absolutely motionless for a moment before her eyes opened and she took a deep, shuddering breath.
"I'll be back soon," Tara said, with a smile that was quite restrained under the circumstances.
"Yeah..." Willow managed.
"I'll see you then."
"As soon as you're finished with the mage," Tara added.
"Yeah..." Willow said again. She didn't move except to watch Tara as she turned and headed towards the main courtyard. 'Oh gods,' she was thinking, 'oh gods...' With considerable effort she composed herself, and managed to make her legs work before she fell off the wall. 'Well,' she thought to herself, 'let's hear it for flirting.'
Tara waited until she was sure she was out of sight from the garden, then leaned back against the courtyard's wall and took a few deep breaths to steady herself. She had no real idea why she'd chosen that moment to kiss Willow, except that it had seemed like the best possible idea in the world. Any doubt, which had been entirely overridden in the moment, about whether she was moving faster than Willow wished was entirely erased by the look of pure delight on the Sorceress's face as she left.
'I did that,' Tara thought dazedly, 'that look was because of me. I kissed her, and then she looked so happy... I make her happy.' That thought, even more than the searing memory of the kiss itself, made Tara shiver with pleasure, and she was glad that none of the nobles had yet noticed her, because she was sure her expression was hiding nothing. She took a deep breath, and noticed a slight warmth between her legs, underneath her leather skirt. 'Oh goddess, I got wet from a kiss!' she thought giddily. She couldn't stop herself from shivering again, then she wondered if she should go back to her quarters and change her underwear. But no, she told herself she was being silly - it was barely a hint, far less than she was sure she'd be sweating once the hunt got underway. Besides, going back to her quarters would mean going back through the garden, where she'd probably find Willow, and then the Baron and his noblemen would have to pry her away with a crowbar.
She took a moment to turn her grin to something less gleeful, then made her way across to the Baron's party with a spring in her step. The Baron himself had arrived, and was busy greeting the nobles. Tara held back a moment, observing them - the Baron seemed to stand far less on ceremony than he had at the dinner, conversing with the others as if they were just friends out for a ride. He noticed Tara, and waved her over.
"Lady Tara," he said - Tara noticed some of the noblemen wince at his loud voice, and guessed they were nursing hangovers - "glad you'll be joining us. Show us some of that famous Amazon skill, eh? Stefan here is our best archer," he added, clapping a hand jovially on the shoulder of a tall, middle-aged man with long grey hair. He bowed to Tara and held out his hand.
"A pleasure," he said as Tara shook his hand, "if you can find the time, I'd appreciate a contest."
"That'll be something to see," the Baron interjected. He drifted off to welcome some more colleagues who were just arriving. Stefan stayed at Tara's side, showing polite interest as she selected a length of fire spinner silk and bent the bow back to string it. They exchanged bows for a moment, Stefan marvelling at the craftsmanship of the Amazon weapon, Tara running a practiced eye over his bow, and noting that it was a strong design, perhaps lacking a little finesse, but certainly more refined than it looked on first sight. He thanked Tara and wandered off towards the Baron as a groom brought Tara a horse from the stables, which he said was called Kestrel. The horse dipped her head to let Tara stroke her long face, and Tara talked quietly in the horse's ear for a moment, letting her hear the sound of her voice. She was a friendly creature, and Tara found she was looking forward to a day's riding as she and the Baron's party mounted their steeds and headed through the main gate, with a pair of guards bringing up the rear.
Ahead of Tara the Baron's horse jumped a low ditch easily. Tara felt Kestrel's muscles bunching with power, then for a moment they were flying, before the horse's hooves touched the ground on the other side and she continued her gallop in the Baron's wake. Tara couldn't restrain a whoop of joy as they took the next jump - she had never before ridden so fast, with the wind in her face and her hair streaming out behind her. Riding at home, when it had been necessary, had always been fairly sedate: journeys to the outer villages too long to make on foot, but on the twisting paths through the forest it wasn't easy to guide a horse too fast. Now she put her weight on the stirrups and rose up just a fraction out of the saddle, one hand loosely holding the reins, the other steadying her balance on the horse's neck, and she smiled widely as she felt the air fly around her. 'Of course,' she admitted to herself, 'it's not just the riding.'
The Baron reined in his steed as the party finished crossing the castle's fields and reached the edge of a dense wood. Tara reluctantly swung herself off Kestrel's back, handing the reins to the groom who would watch the horses as they went deeper into the trees on foot. The Baron wasn't what Tara would call a precise hunter - he obviously knew a fair bit about the wood, which he had no doubt hunted in all his life, but he made no effort to hide his presence from the wildlife, crashing through the undergrowth and calling out to his nobles at the top of his voice. Most glimpses they had were of animals already beating a hasty retreat, but the Baron was enjoying himself. They meandered around, occasionally pausing when someone saw a beast that hadn't already made itself scarce, but they were usually so far away that when the hunter who spotted it fired his arrow, it landed short, or flew well wide of the mark. The Baron himself, in one of his rare quiet moments, had the fortune to spot a deer not far off, but he identified it as a female and moved on. Stefan told Tara that the Baron, unlike some of his predecessors, wouldn't hunt females or young, and also unlike most nobles had actually taken the time to learn to tell them apart by sight.
They paused in a clearing for lunch, emptying the bags carried by the servants trailing behind the hunting party of bread rolls and leftover meats from the previous evening's dinner. Some of the nobles were quite surprised to learn that Tara didn't eat meat, but the Baron merely shrugged jovially and handed her some cheese to go with the bread. No-one talked to her very much as they ate, but Tara didn't mind - they weren't being impolite, she decided, they just seemed a little wary of her. Besides, the bread was excellent, with juicy berries baked into it, and Tara's mind was on other things. Afterwards, though, Stefan engaged her in a discussion on the relative merits of short and longbows, which drew in the Baron and a few others, and their general nervousness about interacting with an Amazon seemed to drain away - at least, Tara observed, they no longer acted as if she was liable to explode or declare an oath of vengeance for no reason.
After a short while the Baron decided they should resume the hunt, and now he and his companions moved more stealthily. Tara was inclined to revise her opinion of him - he obviously knew how to blend in to the forest, to mask his noise and presence, he just didn't make it a priority at all times, as if he enjoyed the experience of the hunt more than just the successful pursuit of game. Without the ruckus they had earlier been making, the party soon spied a lone stag not far away, and the Baron waved Tara up to where he stood, half-hidden by a tree.
"Would you care for a chance?" he asked quietly. Tara wasn't in any hurry to kill the animal - Amazons never hunted to the kill for sport, only for food - but that thought prompted an idea in her mind, and she nodded and drew her bow. Without making a sound she drew an arrow from her quiver - one of the castle armoury's, for she had decided against using her own Amazon-made arrows. She drew back the bowstring and gazed along the length of the shaft, fixing her eyes on the animal beyond.
"I have it," she said after a moment's stillness, and slowly let the tension out of the bow.
"Excuse me?" asked the Baron.
"Amazons don't kill unless it's for food," Tara explained, "or defence. When we hunt for sport or practice, we only do it until we have a clear shot." She made her face a mask of professionalism, but the Baron seemed more curious than upset.
"Forgive my asking," he said, "but how do you know you'd have made the shot? No disrespect to your skills, of course."
"None taken," said Tara graciously. She glanced at the ground, and bent down to scoop up a small stone. She took the ribbon that had been tied around the necks of her arrows and looped it securely around the stone, knotting it tightly and handing it to the Baron.
"If you would, Baron, swing that as far as you can," she asked. He shrugged and took a few steps back, making sure he had room to swing the makeshift projectile without hitting anyone. Tara examined her stock of arrows for a moment before selecting one. Its weight was very close to those she was familiar with, and the flex in its shaft was very close to perfect. "Your craftsmen make good arrows, Baron," she observed, nocking it and drawing her bow, keeping it pointed at the ground.
"We know the value of good archery," the Baron answered. He then swung the stone around his head twice before releasing it off to one side of Tara. She was already screening out the distractions, the breathing of the Baron and the nobles, the shapes of the trees, the small sounds of animals moving, and leaves rustling in the breeze. She turned and fired in one smooth motion, almost able to see the flight of the receding stone, and the curve of her arrow as she launched it. The trailing ribbon jerked in the air, dragged off its course, and a cheer went up from the noblemen.
"My word!" the Baron exclaimed.
"No offence, Stefan," said another of the men to the old archer, "but my money's going to be on her bow."
"I fear I'll be outmatched," Stefan admitted, "but I'd still like that contest, if you're willing."
"Of course," Tara smiled, glad that her stunt had gone so well - she had gambled that her skill combined with the novelty of Amazon ways would prove more entertaining to the Baron and his men than bringing down the stag would have. Even as she smiled, though, her mind was still drifting through the frame of thought she entered whenever she practiced, seeing the world as shapes and speeds, translating all sight and sound into a field of objects at rest and in motion. She didn't even think as she leant back, her hand flashing out beside her, closing around something, and turning as its momentum spun her for a moment.
The Baron and his nobles were struck silent, as was Tara, as she slowly uncoiled her fingers from around the crossbow bolt she held. She blinked at it, uncomprehending - she hadn't even been aware of danger, she had acted entirely by instinct. Her mind snapped back to reality, and she dropped the bolt, which in turn seemed to snap her companions out of their own shock.
"Guards!" roared the Baron, drawing his sword, "over there! Go!" He stepped around Tara, standing between her and the unseen attacker as the two guards, and several noblemen, crashed through the undergrowth. Tara peered over the Baron's shoulder, seeing a man in dark green clothes scramble up from the ground, start to run, trip over something, and regain his feet too late as the guards reached him. Then the Baron was turning back to her.
"Lady Tara," he said sincerely, "I... am deeply shocked... you are a guest at my castle, my home, and... had you not been able to-" he broke off, then resumed: "I will find out what is behind this, I promise you!"
Tara nodded dumbly, unable to speak. She clenched her hands, trying to stop them shaking, as the Baron turned again to stare towards where his guards were none too gently hauling their captive back towards them. There was shouting from off to the west, where the sun was starting to slant through the tree branches, and more guards, leading horses, appeared. Their captain spotted the Baron and passed the reins of his horse to another guard, sprinting to his lord as quickly as he could.
"Baron," he panted, "you must come back to the castle... you must-" he paused to gulp a breath of air.
"What's going on?" demanded the Baron. "Someone just attacked the Lady here!"
"Your mage, sire," the captain said, "he attacked someone- he'd been doing black magic, sire!"
The Baron stared at the captain for a moment, dumbfounded, then strode past him and commandeered one of the horses the guards had brought. Tara sprinted after him, none of the men protesting as she took a horse and urged it on, following the Baron as fast as she could through the woods, all thoughts of her own close escape replaced by a cold fear for what she might find back at the castle.