Author: Chris Cook
Willow paused outside the court chamber, looking pensive. Tara waited with her, studying her expression. Willow had chatted with her as animatedly as usual during lunch, but of course Tara could feel the tension rising in her as the commencement of the afternoon session neared. It had occurred to Tara more than once that she had had the easier confrontation - though Hydris had completely ignored Willow that day, while Tara had had a crossbow fired at her, Willow's fear ran deeper, and could not be so easily assuaged.
Willow took a deep breath and held out her hand, which Tara instantly took, giving Willow a supportive smile when she looked at her.
"Ready," Willow said after a pause. Tara nodded and walked with her into the chamber. It was much as it had been in the morning, with chairs for the master of the court and the defender, empty cell for the accused, and the Baron's throne waiting for him. There were more guards, though, one on either side of the throne, and a pair standing at either end of the foremost of the benches at the back of the chamber, as well as the pair by the cell. Franzef was already seated, now acting as master of the court; he glanced up at Willow and Tara's entrance, but initially betrayed no expression. He had spoken to Willow briefly during lunch, politely reminding her of the importance of the trial, both in the seriousness of its subject, and the necessity to satisfy the Vizjerei investigators, when they eventually arrived, that the case had been heard fairly and justly. He was not permitted to speak to Willow now, in court, except in his official role, but earlier he had quietly wished her well, as well as thanked Tara for her participation in the earlier trial. Tara kept her eyes on him for a moment, watching as he returned his attention to the papers spread out over the top of the case on his knees, and she thought she noticed the shadow of a frown cross his face. He motioned to one of the assistants standing behind him, and wrote a note which he pressed into the boy's hand with a word of instruction. Willow caught Tara's eye, but she could only shrug as the assistant quickly left the chamber.
The doors opened again, and Tara stiffened in her seat when von Karlin, attended by a short, thin boy carrying his case, strode through. He passed by the witness benches, and to Tara's surprise and dismay seated himself beside Franzef, as defender of the accused. Willow's fingers gripped her hand tightly, and she shifted closer to her, laying her spear on the bench, holding Willow's hand in her lap and covering it with her other, gently stroking the back of her hand as she contemplated the implications of this. Willow gave her a quick, grateful smile, but continued to look more than a little apprehensive. A moment later Tryptin quietly made his way into the chamber and sat beside Tara.
"The Baron's advisor just notified me," he said, glancing at von Karlin and speaking quietly, "I imagine he didn't know until he was already in court."
"What's he doing here?" Tara asked, with Willow leaning against her, close to Tryptin so he wouldn't have to raise his voice.
"He approached the Baron and demanded to be appointed defender," Tryptin explained, "it all happened just a few minutes ago. Apparently he's within his rights, the mage is from his family, a cousin or something. I asked one of the nobles just now, he said so far as he knew they hadn't even spoken to each other in years, so I can't imagine why he's involving himself in this."
"The other night, at dinner," Willow whispered, "he did it deliberately, to find out... what?"
"My best guess," Tryptin said after a moment's thought, "is that he's decided Hydris's conviction would be some sort of insult to his family, and you're both to blame. How he hopes to argue that in court, I don't know, I'm sorry."
"Damn," muttered Willow, "he's going to argue we're morally corrupt or something."
"I doubt the Baron will accept that," Tryptin said with a frown. "It would be stretching protocol, but I could still approach him before he enters the court. He does have the right to make a judgement without a trial."
"Willow?" Tara asked. Willow's face was a picture of concentration as she thought furiously.
"No," she whispered at last, "no, there has to be a trial. There's no way Hydris will be pardoned, but if there's no trial the Vizjerei could make things difficult for the Baron. They'll accept his judgement that Hydris was practicing demonic magic, so long as they see a fair trial took place."
"Will you be alright?" Tara asked as Tryptin nodded and hurried off. "He could question you, as a witness." She had thought of giving Tryptin Silverstrike to take back to her room, now that she was present as an observer, not an Amazon warrior, but von Karlin's presence changed her mind. 'Let him remember he's up against a warrior,' she thought.
"I don't care what he says," Willow replied with a stubborn lift of her chin, "I know what I saw." She glanced at Tara, and leaned closer to her, holding her gaze. "And I know what we have together is the most beautiful thing in the world. He can't say anything to change that."
"I love you," Tara said, wishing she could think of something more. 'Two warriors,' she thought, admiring Willow's courage.
"I know baby," Willow replied. The chamber's side door opened, and Franzef shuffled his papers into his case and stood.
"All rise." The Baron entered, looking none too pleased but keeping his eyes fixed firmly ahead. He sat, smoothed down his robes, then took hold of the steel ball and rapped it against its base.
"Judgement will commence." Franzef stood and ordered one of the guards to bring in the accused. From the door within the cell Hydris was brought out, a guard holding each elbow in a firm grip, and a third standing behind him as he was seated, and the door closed. Tara heard the scraping of a bolt being slid home on the other side. She leaned forward slightly, subjecting Hydris to intense scrutiny as she felt Willow's hand tense in hers. If she had walked past him in the street, she might not have even noticed him - his hair was cut short in a common style, greying at the temples, receding from his forehead and thin on top. His nose was hooked but not overly large, his eyes were deep-set but unremarkable in any other way, and his mouth was set in a thin grimace as if he was feeling slightly impatient, but resigned to it. Aside from the fine tailoring of the simple robe he wore - which Tara noticed had darker patches on it where pockets had been removed, revealing the unfaded fabric beneath - he could have been a shopkeeper, or a notary. If the notion of being on trial for his life affected him at all, he didn't show it.
"Not what I was expecting," Willow murmured in Tara's ear. She nodded and returned Willow's hand to her lap, stroking the back of it.
"Baron," recited Franzef, "this man stands accused of consorting with a known brigand; offering payment for crimes; conspiracy to murder, the intended victim being both ally of the realm and guest under this roof enjoying the status and protection thereof; practising demonic magics, in violation of his oath as mage to the Baron's court, the seriousness of the charge constituting treason against the realm of Kingsport; attempt to inflict harm and attempted murder, the target being a servant of the Baron's household; and inflicting harm on the Baron's guards, they being in the course of carrying out their duty." He opened his case and took out a scroll, which he handed to von Karlin. Von Karlin took a long time reading it, then handed it back without comment.
"What say you?" the Baron demanded. Von Karlin stood and regarded him levelly.
"The accused is not guilty," he said loudly. The Baron raised a sceptical eyebrow, there was a murmur from the witness benches, and Willow's grip tightened. The Baron stared at von Karlin for a long moment, then turned to Hydris, who didn't appear to be paying any attention to the proceedings around him.
"Is this true?" the Baron asked. Hydris ignored him, his eyes unfocused, blinking now and then as he stared into space.
"The accused chooses to stand mute," the Baron said after a lengthy pause. "Defender, state your case." He sat back in his throne, looking in no way well-disposed towards von Karlin as he took the floor.
"Baron," he began, "witnesses to the court. This man stands accused of attempting to summon a demon," - he said it in a slightly incredulous tone - "and of arranging an attempt on the life of one of our Amazon guests. The first charge is entirely false. The second is true. However," he held up a finger, "as I shall demonstrate, the actions he took were entirely justified, and the court shall uphold the necessity for them."
"And the other charges of attempted murder and inflicting harm?" the Baron asked pointedly, as von Karlin allowed a theatrical pause.
"A minor matter," he said dismissively, "easily explained, which I shall come to in due course. The court will find in the accused's favour." The Baron snorted derisively.
"Master of the court," he said instead, "your charges are disputed. You have the floor." Von Karlin sat back down, glaring at Franzef as he stood.
"Baron," Franzef said, "I cite the testimony of Josef, convicted of the attack on the Lady Tara. In the presence of witnesses of high standing, he identified the accused as the man who paid him the sum of fifty crowns to commit his crime, and promised fifty more should he succeed. Does the defender challenge this testimony?"
"He does not," von Karlin sneered. Franzef stared at him, then continued.
"I cite the testimony of the servant Kristanna, employed in the Baron's household, that the accused, on being discovered in the process of conducting a magical ritual, attacked her with intent to kill. Does the defender challenge this testimony?"
"Yes," von Karlin said flatly, "I wish to question the girl."
"Out of the question," the Baron interrupted. "The... 'incident' left her in a hysterical state. I will not subject her to examination in court."
"Baron," von Karlin protested, "the girl's testimony is inaccurate. How am I to prove this without questioning her?"
"You may state your reasons for challenging the testimony," the Baron allowed, "and I will weigh what you say against the girl's statements."
"I will not be swayed," the Baron insisted, leaning forward. "Be grateful for the leeway I am allowing you." Von Karlin met his stare for a moment, then backed down.
"Yes, Baron," he said, bowing with a tight-lipped smile. "In that case, I would remind the Baron that the lower classes from which this girl comes are fearful and suspicious of magic. They have no contact with true mages, and know only what they hear in children's tales. I suggest that the girl's hysteria was provoked solely by seeing magic being performed, and that the accused followed her from his rooms merely in an attempt to calm her, not attack her."
"My Lord?" Franzef asked.
"Proceed," the Baron told him.
"The events the defender refers to concern other evidence. I cite the testimonies of Aldus and Gunter, both guards in the Baron's employ, that the accused pursued the girl carrying a knife, which he wielded in a threatening manner, and that when blocked by them he attacked them, wounding Gunter in the leg. Does the defender challenge?"
"Yes," von Karlin said again. "I wish to question the guards." The Baron gestured, and two of the burly men sitting in the witness benched stood and came forward, standing side by side before Franzef and von Karlin.
"Aldus," von Karlin said to the smaller of the two, "and Gunter, correct?"
"Yes m'lord," they both said.
"Aldus," von Karlin went on, turning away from the other guard, "you say the accused was pursuing this girl Kristanna, and you barred his way, correct?"
"Yes m'lord," Aldus repeated.
"And you say that the accused was wielding a knife?"
"'In a threatening manner,' the master of the court says. Could you describe how one wields a knife in a threatening manner?"
"He was holding it ahead of him, m'lord," Aldus said, "raised, like to strike."
"I see. Suppose you were running, and had your sword in your hand. Would you be holding it at your side as you ran?"
"No m'lord," Aldus said hesitantly.
"No," von Karlin repeated. "Now, suppose that the accused merely had the knife in his hand when he was disturbed, and had not put it down in his hurry to follow the distraught girl. Do you think that is possible?"
"Um..." Aldus looked nervous, "I can't say, m'lord. I just know what I saw, which is that I thought he meant to hurt the girl."
"You thought," von Karlin said, stressing the second word, "indeed. Gunter, you were wounded in the ensuing struggle. In your leg? You seem to stand easily enough."
"T'weren't a bad wound m'lord," Gunter said, in a voice an octave lower than his companion's.
"How fortunate. You and your friend here are continuing to fulfil your duties as guards?" Off their nods, he went on: "And tomorrow, you will be leaving us to escort the departing caravan to Duncraig? I understand you two were among those who were dispatched to the city to escort the Amazons here in the first place."
"Yes m'lord," Gunter said.
"I see. You are not concerned to leave the castle of your lord at a time when it has no mage?"
"No, m'lord?" said Gunter, confused.
"I mean," von Karlin explained, "when there is no mage to assist in the castle's defence, should the need arise?"
"Oh, no m'lord," said Gunter, "no, see, the mage, 'e didn't defend the castle. The guards do that."
"And what did the mage do?" von Karlin asked.
"Um, not sure, m'lord," Gunter said, "magic, I s'pose, and read 'is books."
"I see. You may go." He turned his back on the two guards as they shuffled back to their seats. "If the Baron pleases, the master of the court will resume his case?"
"Baron," Franzef said, at the Baron's nod, "I cite the testimony of Miss Willow, sorceress of the Zann Esu order, that examination of his rooms found evidence that he had been engaged in a ritual intended to summon or make contact with a demon, and that he had in his possession books and materials of a demonic nature. Does the defender challenge?" he finished with a resigned look.
"Yes," von Karlin said, ignoring Franzef's look, "I wish to question the sorceress."
"Miss Willow?" the Baron asked politely. Tara returned Willow's brief, firm squeeze before she released her hand. Willow stood and made her way to the court floor, glancing at Franzef and the Baron before meeting von Karlin's stare. Tara watched him like a hawk.
"Miss Willow," he said, "your order is devoted to purity of magic, correct?"
"That's right," she answered. Von Karlin waited for a moment, as if expecting a 'sir' or 'my lord', and scowled when it became apparent that he wasn't going to get one.
"And the Vizjerei clan, of which the accused is a member?" he went on, pacing across the floor, keeping his distance from Willow. "Are they too devoted to purity?"
"They are devoted to the protection of this world from demonic forces," Willow said.
"But they don't adhere to the same rules as your order," von Karlin said flatly.
"They don't restrict themselves to elemental magic," Willow clarified, "but they still hold that demons can't be trusted or dealt with in any way."
"I see. You practice only elemental magic because you believe other forms of magic are impure, correct?"
"Is there a point to this?" the Baron asked.
"Yes my lord," von Karlin replied smoothly, "I beg your indulgence. Miss Willow?"
"Other forms of magic are vulnerable to outside influence," Willow answered, "elemental magic isn't."
"Elemental magic is pure," von Karlin said, "and other magics are not?"
"A mage cannot be corrupted through elemental magic," Willow said, "other magics carry that danger." Von Karlin frowned, as if he had been hoping for a less measured reply.
"And the Vizjerei," he said, "they practice these other magics? What sorts?"
"The Vizjerei use certain kinds of prime magic, as well as holy magic, some alchemy some druidic practices, and a weaker form of elemental magic."
"What makes them weaker?" von Karlin asked sharply.
"The Zann Esu have studied elemental magic for centuries," Willow replied, "our knowledge of it is greater than the other clans. The Vizjerei use elemental forces in conjunction with prime and holy magic, they don't channel the elements directly.
"And these other magics are vulnerable to demons," von Karlin said.
"It's possible," Willow said. "Holy magic can be corrupted if a demon or another mage influences what the supplicant sees during prayer. Druidic magic is dependant on the purity of the earth from which its power flows - if the earth is corrupted, so is the magic."
"And the other? Alchemy?"
"Alchemy isn't a full magic," Willow explained, "it's a combination of lesser magical forces and chemical reactions. It's possible to corrupt the magical component, but only to a small degree. We - the Zann Esu - avoid alchemy just to be sure, but it's not really a source of significant danger."
"Which the other forms are," von Karlin added. "Tell me, how do the Zann Esu feel about the other mage clans? The ones who practice these corruptible magics?"
"How do you mean?" asked Willow, looking as if she expected a verbal assault soon.
"It's my understanding that the Zann Esu existed in strict isolation until very recently," von Karlin explained, "that, in fact, prior to the Reckoning none of the other mage clans even knew that you existed."
"That's true," Willow said, "that was before my time, but yes. We maintained secrecy to be sure that the forces of hell wouldn't learn of our existence."
"And once those forces of hell launched their assault, and failed," von Karlin said, "you have come into the open. Taken your place among your fellow clans. What I wish to know is, what is your place?"
"Von Karlin," the Baron interjected, "get to the point."
"Yes my lord," von Karlin said quickly. "I will put it plainly, Miss Willow. Yes or no: the Zann Esu consider themselves more powerful than any other mage clan?"
"Um, in terms of battle magic, yes," Willow said hesitantly.
"You see other clans as a weakness, a way for your old enemies the demons to gain power."
"I'm not sure I-"
"Yes or no, Miss Willow," von Karlin interrupted her, "demons gain power in this world through corrupting members of other clans, correct?"
"Well, yes," Willow admitted, "if they-"
"And these corrupt mages, being dangerous, are eliminated," von Karlin finished, his voice rising. "Do you know of the order called the Viz-Jaq'taar, Miss Willow?" Willow was silent for a moment, surprise written in her face.
"Yes," she said eventually, "the Mage Slayers."
"And what purpose does this order serve?"
"They... they're assassins," Willow said. "They kill corrupt mages."
"Has a Mage Slayer ever killed a member of the Zann Esu?" von Karlin snapped. Willow frowned in confusion.
"No," she said, "not that I-"
"Has a Mage Slayer ever attempted to kill a member of the Zann Esu?"
"Not that I know of," Willow answered.
"And lastly, Miss Willow," von Karlin said with a smile that didn't at all reach his eyes, "why have you not stayed in the room given to you by the Baron?"
"Excuse me?" Willow asked in the silence following von Karlin's question.
"A simple question, Miss Willow. Where have you slept these past three nights?"
"Von Karlin," the Baron warned. He glanced at Willow. "You don't have to answer that nonsense," he added. Willow drew herself up straight.
"In Lady Tara's room," she said, staring at von Karlin. He stared back for a moment, then turned to Franzef.
"Any questions?" he asked bluntly. Franzef frowned at him.
"Nothing further to Miss Willow's testimony," he said.
"Very well then," von Karlin said, turning back to Willow. "Oh, before you leave, one last question. You say that the accused's library contained books of a demonic nature. You are sure of this?"
"Yes," said Willow.
"You read them thoroughly?"
"No," Willow admitted, "but I know their contents."
"And the artefacts you identified as being of a dangerous nature," von Karlin went on, "you recognised them as well?"
"And how is it that you know so much about demonic magic, Miss Willow?" von Karlin asked.
"The... Zann Esu have a library of magical books and artefacts," Willow said hesitantly.
"Including demonic works?"
"To study," Willow said, "not to use!"
"And you have studied them in great detail, Miss Willow?"
"If you're saying-"
"I withdraw the question," von Karlin raised his voice, cutting Willow off. "You may go." Willow hesitated, looked at the Baron, then squared her shoulders and turned from von Karlin.
"Damn," she muttered as she sat next to Tara.
"It'll be alright," Tara assured her in a whisper.
"Why was he asking all those questions?" Willow muttered. "The assassins, and the Zann Esu, and gods, where I sleep- what's he doing?" Tara could only take Willow's hand again, and hold it tightly. Willow leaned her head on Tara's shoulder and watched von Karlin take the floor again.
"Baron," he said, "I move for the dismissal of all charges." Franzef stared at him in shock; the Baron glared as if suspecting a trap was about to be sprung.
"State your reasons," he demanded.
"Simply this," von Karlin said, "the accused is a good man, innocent of any wrongdoing, the victim of a conspiracy between this sorceress and her lover," he sneered the word, "among the Amazons."
"Explain yourself!" the Baron barked, clearly holding his temper by a slim margin. Tara gulped and put her arm around Willow, feeling the tension rise in her body.
"Gladly," von Karlin said mildly. "The accused is a member of the Vizjerei clan, who have served the realms of Westmarch for centuries, yet are hated in the eastern lands where the Zann Esu hold power. These sorceresses keep intimate company with each other, in defiance of proper, moral behaviour, yet seek to claim superiority over all others by virtue of their 'pure' magic. They send assassins to weaken the other clans, those who are closer to our realms and our ways, while they hold themselves above judgement. In short, Baron, Miss Willow has manipulated your servants into implicating the accused, when in fact it is she who is the real source of evil!"
"Von Karlin!" the Baron snapped.
"Will you silence me, Baron?" he retorted, standing his ground. "You have it within your power to execute this man, your own mage, without trial. Will you stand before his clan's representatives and tell them you killed one of their own without allowing his defender to speak?" The Baron glared furiously at von Karlin, but said nothing, which von Karlin took as leave to continue.
"This sorceress," he went on, "in collaboration with her Amazon mistress, bought the loyalty of the two guards who claim to have been attacked, who you heard here today admit their contempt for your mage. She arranged a meeting with the accused, in which no doubt she would have 'discovered' his corruption and executed him personally, while hiding behind the authority of the Zann Esu, who can do no wrong. Fearing for his life, the accused hired a man to protect him, but in his naivety failed to take into consideration the unnatural abilities granted to the sorceress's lover. The accused even attempted to expose the corruption in the sorceress's own heart, but she arranged for him to be disturbed before he could complete the ritual to undo her powers, and then her lackeys were nearby to ambush him and fabricate this story of his attacking the servant girl. Then, who else but Miss Willow is called to examine the accused's rooms, and what should she find but the very demonic books and artefacts with which she is so well acquainted!"
"Von Karlin, this is madness!" the Baron shouted, reaching for his steel gavel.
"I am doing this for you!" von Karlin insisted, raising his voice. "Your Barony cannot be allowed to be used by these creatures, for their own ends. We must not harbour their kind under our rooves, accept their ways, allow them to turn us against each other!"
"One more word, von Karlin-" the Baron barked in warning.
"You accuse your own mage," von Karlin yelled, ignoring him, pointing towards Willow, "when the real demon sits there laughing at you!" Tara held Willow tight, her other hand going to the shaft of her spear, as she felt a tremendous urge to slam the butt of it into von Karlin's head.
"Silence!" the Baron boomed. Von Karlin reacted to that, whirling around to glare at the Baron himself.
"Don't let them do this," he said, his voice quieter, "my Baron, can you not see the evil in their hearts? How they are unnatural? You knew what was right once, my Baron, don't let your grief over your daughter-"
The chamber fell silent as the Baron shot to his feet, his jaw working furiously. Tara seriously wondered if he was about to attack von Karlin, the way he glared at him, his hands clenching into tight fists. After a long, dangerous moment he seemed to gain some measure of control over himself.
"How dare you," he said, his voice completely flat and lifeless, "how dare you..."
"You pathetic fool," came a new voice. Everyone, even Willow, who had been staring at von Karlin in complete shock, and Tara, her knuckles white around the shaft of her spear, looked at Hydris, who had finally looked up, and was regarding von Karlin with vague disgust, as if he was a plate of food that had been left in the sun and gone off.
"I can see through you," he said, his voice rising and falling in a chilling sing-song, "every thought. You sickening me. You think you have the right to judge everyone else? You? What do you know of purity? What do you know of hell?"
"I'm doing this for you!" von Karlin hissed, seeming to forget that everyone in the chamber could hear him.
"I never asked you to," Hydris said without feeling. "Let them kill me. I'll go to hell and serve my mistress there."
"You don't know what you're saying," von Karlin insisted.
"I know exactly what I am saying," Hydris snarled. "Better than you ever could. She has shown me, made me accept myself, my true purpose. You think I'm insane? I serve a power greater than you have ever known! What do you serve? What do you live for? You hate your life, despise your fellow men, you feel no warmth, no love... I know all your secrets. Shall I tell you? You cry at night because you enjoy how you feel when you beat your wife. And you seek to judge me?"
"Shut up!" von Karlin hissed, darting forward. He reached through the bars of the cell, and quick as a flash Hydris had grabbed his arm and rammed it sideways against the bars, snapping the bones. The guards stared in shock as von Karlin fell back, clutching his arm which hung at an unnatural angle, as Hydris began to chant in a low, echoing voice. A dark cloud streamed from his mouth, his nostrils, his eyes and ears, swirling into the middle of the chamber, thickening. The Baron shouted, Tara was on her feet, swinging Silverstrike around one-handed to aim at the darkness, Willow's grip was almost painfully tight in her other hand, she felt a chill and something blue and icy passed in front of her eyes-
There was a sound, like a plough digging into wet soil, and the darkness vanished. Tara took a deep, cold breath and looked at Hydris. He squinted, as if trying to see through a fog, and coughed quietly, bringing up a trickle of blood. Behind him, the guard's hand trembled on the hilt of the short sword piercing his back between the shoulder blades, slicing down through his chest from behind. The guard sucked in a breath and pulled the sword free, leaving Hydris to sink to his knees, his head coming to rest against the bars of his cell, eyes staring lifelessly at von Karlin, who was still whimpering on the floor in front of him.
Tara slowly became aware of the strange cold she was feeling, and looked down at herself. An aura of icy mist was wrapped around her body, tiny particles of blue light swirling through it. It moved as she did, as she turned back to look at Willow. It was coming from her, flowing across her body, out along her arm and over their joined hands to envelop Tara. Willow was staring at the air where the darkness had been, unblinking. Tara slowly sat back down next to her, putting her arm back around her waist and pulling her close. Willow swayed into her embrace, but just kept staring, her breathing coming in short gasps, as if she was silently, invisibly crying.
"Willow," Tara whispered, her voice taking on a strange sound inside the chill, "it's over. It's okay now, Willow." Willow very slowly turned and looked at Tara, as if she didn't understand.
"You're safe now," Tara said gently, "it's over. I've got you." Willow blinked, and the mist faded into the air.
"Tara," she whispered, her lips trembling. She jumped and threw her arms around Tara as the Baron's voice sounded.
"Dieter," he said to the guard still staring at his bloody sword, "you acted with my approval. Report to the master-at-arms. You two," he added to the other guards in the cell, "take that and bury it. Franzef-" The Baron hesitated as his advisor came to his side. He took a deep breath and went on, in a quiet voice that nevertheless carried through the still chamber. "Have von Karlin taken to the hospital wing. Keep him confined. Send guards to his house. Go with them. Talk to his wife. If you suspect ill-treatment... just bring her here." He looked out around the chamber, glancing at the guards dragging Hydris's body away, and at von Karlin, leaning weakly on the shoulder of another guard as he was escorted away. He met Tara's helpless stare, and his face fell even more at the sight of Willow huddled against her side, her face buried in Tara's hair, holding onto her tightly.
"Judgement is made," he said with a sigh.
Willow was quiet through dinner, and Tara let her be, simply sitting beside her, keeping a hand in hers, or resting gently on her lower back as they ate. Tryptin, once he returned from being briefed by the Baron, sensed that the best thing he could do was stay out of the way. He kept himself to a couple of necessary questions before leaving the common room again. Once or twice Willow managed a little smile for Tara, and Tara smiled back, though she could see the haunted look still in Willow's eyes.
When they finished dinner Tara took Willow gently by the arm and led her to the bedroom. Willow crossed to the bed while Tara turned to close the door, but when she turned back Willow was just standing there to one side of the bed, staring down at the floor. Tara stood behind her and touched her shoulder, relieved that she didn't flinch away from the touch.
"Willow?" she asked in her softest, most gentle voice.
"I-I'm sorry," Willow said in a tiny whisper, "I'm so sorry..." Tara moved to her side so she could see her face. Willow's features were twitching as if she was trying to keep herself from sobbing, and not entirely succeeding.
"I... I know we said... we'd... I c-can't, Tara, I'm so sorry-"
"No, baby," Tara said soothingly, hugging Willow tightly, "you don't have to be sorry about anything, not anything baby..."
"I was-" Willow said, her words coming in gasps, "I wanted... so much... a-and I know you did too- but I can't..."
"Willow," Tara said quietly, "it's okay. We'll sleep. I'll hold you." Willow glanced up at Tara's eyes, blinking quickly, her eyes full of unshed tears.
"I... I-I heard her," she whispered, "I h-heard her laughing at me..."
"I'll keep you safe," Tara promised.
"Y-you will?" Willow asked in a pleading voice.
"Always, baby," Tara murmured. "Come on." She gently sat Willow down and took off her boots, and then her clothes. She hesitated when she came to Willow's bra, but Willow nodded, and then tugged a little at the waistband of her underwear until Tara slid them down her legs and off. Tara felt nothing sexual - she was still awed at Willow's beauty, but her mind was fixed on a single purpose, her beautiful Willow was hurting, and she had to make it right. She lay Willow down and pulled the blankets up over her, tucking her in tenderly. Following her lead Tara stripped off all her clothes, padding around the room naked to put out the candles and close the shutters. She slipped underneath the blankets and reached out for Willow, drawing her into a loving embrace, curling up against her back and surrounding her with her arms. She felt the tension in Willow, and held her tightly.
"Let it out, baby," she whispered in her ear, "I'll keep you safe." Willow turned over, trembled, then let out a sob, and another, and then she was crying as hard as her body could bear. Tara felt the tears wet her shoulder as Willow's body was wracked by sobs, and she too cried, silently and without disturbing Willow by moving, simply letting the tears slide down her cheeks. Willow clung to her, and cried as if she had to shed enough tears to moisten all the deserts in the world, and Tara did the only thing she could think of. Quietly, almost below hearing, she began to sing, an old song she had learned from Jenavria, when she had been very small and the young woman had been taking care of her. It was an ancient song, which Jenavria had learned from Eponin, and Eponin from her mother Jilorra, and so on back through the generations, a song telling of the birth of the Amazon nation. It was High Amazonian, which Willow didn't know, but Tara had always liked listening to the song, even before she had learned the old language - the gentle, steady rhythm of the words always calmed her, and it slowly calmed Willow too. Her sobs quietened, and at last she lay still against Tara, her breathing slow and steady like Tara's song. Tara kept singing, verse after verse, long after Willow had fallen asleep, watching over her dreams, until her words became murmurs, and she too fell asleep.