Author: Chris Cook
Tara noticed Amalee looking weary by the time they reached the edge of the valley, where the outskirts of the forest below reached around either side of a small stream flowing down from the north. She could tell from the shadows, without looking up, that midday was an hour gone.
"Are you tired sweetie?" she asked.
"No," the girl said stubbornly, "of course not." She put an extra swing in her stride and kept her eyes fixed forward, missing the indulgent smile Tara couldn't keep off her face.
"Well I'm tired," Willow said with a private grin for Tara, "would you mind if we stopped for a little bit?"
"Okay," Amalee allowed after a pause. After a quick glance to make sure neither woman was watching too closely, she gratefully sank to the ground and stretched her legs.
"Does this stream lead to the river?" Willow asked.
"Yep," the girl replied promptly. "To get to the river you follow this stream into the valley to the clearing half-way, where the big stream joins it. You have to cross to the north side there, because it gets deep further on and there isn't another crossing. Then you follow the big stream all the way down to the river."
"Then that's what we'll do," Willow nodded, accepting a piece of dried fruit from Tara, "if you think it's safe?"
"It's probably best," Tara said with a reassuring smile, but a slight edge to her voice caught Willow's attention. She noticed Tara give her a meaningful glance, and resolved to pursue the topic further when she had the chance.
"Can you tell us about this clearing?" Tara asked Amalee. "We need somewhere to stop for the night."
"It's where daddy always made camp for the night when we went to the river," she replied, "except last month the weather was bad so we didn't go. That happened sometimes. Daddy didn't like taking the animals out in bad weather." She hesitated and looked off to the horizon.
"What happens when people die?" she asked without looking back. Tara exchanged a glance with Willow, and saw a reflection of what she was feeling - sadness for the girl who had lost her family, yet at the same time a sort of pride at the strength and composure she was showing.
"That depends," Tara said after a brief moment to choose her words, "lots of people believe lots of different things."
"What do Amazons do?" Amalee asked, turning to look at Tara. There were tears in her eyes, and she wasn't holding them back, but nor were they overcoming her.
"Amazons go to where our gods live, and live with them," Tara explained gently. "They explore places we can't imagine, and they serve the gods in whichever way suits them best."
"Oh," Amalee said, giving this some thought. "Like angels?" she asked after a moment.
"Sort of like angels," Tara said, "yes."
"So, do they get to meet the people who've died before them?"
"Yes," Tara nodded.
"Daddy missed mommy very much," Amalee said gravely. "I hope," she paused and took a deep breath, "I hope he sees her again. I think he'd be very happy to be with her again."
"I'm sure he is," Willow said comfortingly, reaching out to hold the girl's hand.
"He was good," Amalee agreed, "he was brave and kind... he took care of me and granny... she'll be with grandpa now..." She sniffled, and Willow and Tara both moved closer to her. Willow held Amalee's small hand in both of hers, while Tara put an arm around her shoulders, holding her as she cried quietly.
"It's alright honey," Willow said sadly, "I'm sure they're all in a good place, a-and your daddy is with your mommy, and your granny with your grandpa, and they're all happy to be with each other again, a-and they're all so proud of you, being such a strong girl... you know it's okay to cry, don't you? Crying doesn't mean you're not strong..."
"Yes," Amalee said indistinctly, "daddy told me... he cried sometimes about mommy... I was young, and she got sick... he took care of her for a long time... he told me it was okay to cry and be sad sometimes..."
"That's true sweetie," Tara said soothingly, "I know... I lost my mommy and daddy when I was very young, and I'm still sad sometimes. I do miss them very much." Willow gave her a compassionate glance, and she smiled her thanks.
"But you know what?" she went on to Amalee. "There were other people who cared about me, and they took care of me, just like we're going to take care of you. And your uncle in the city, he'll take care of you, won't he?"
"When we visited him daddy said he spoiled me," Amalee said with a trembling smile, "he gave me sweetbread whenever I asked for it, and daddy said my eyes were bigger than my mouth. They're not," she added indignantly
"Well, I'm sure he'll make sure you eat proper food," Tara smiled.
"That's okay," Amalee said, in a conspiratorial tone, "I found out where he kept the sweetbread. He hid a jar on the shelf behind the flour." Willow and Tara both laughed.
"It'll be alright sweetie," Tara said. Amalee nodded, to herself more than to Tara, and took a deep, clear breath.
"Do you feel like lunch?" Willow asked, at which Amalee nodded enthusiastically.
"Lucky we stocked up on rations," Tara said with a raised eyebrow, "your eyes are bigger than your mouth."
"Are not." Amalee accepted the dried fruit and ration bread, and Tara handed her the smaller waterskin.
"We'll just fill this other waterskin, okay?" she asked. "We'll just be over there at the stream."
"'Kay," Amalee said, munching away. Willow followed Tara the few metres to the stream, keeping an eye on the girl, who seemed to have recovered her equilibrium and was eating contentedly.
"She's taking it well," she commented quietly to Tara, who nodded her agreement.
"Children, huh?" she said with a sad smile. "I'm sure she'll have to deal with it more, in time. But she's a strong girl."
"And she's got a wonderfully caring woman looking after her," Willow said, giving Tara a quick kiss on her cheek.
"Make that two," Tara smiled back. She met Willow's eyes and for a moment they simply stared at each other, affection and passion and contentment all plain in their gazes. Tara gently placed a kiss on Willow's lips, then knelt down to refill the waterskin. Willow glanced back at Amalee, and gave her a wave when she glanced over her shoulder, which she returned.
"What was it you were unsure about with the valley?" she asked quietly, bending down next to Tara.
"It's difficult to say," Tara said, "the land around here is much more, oh, disturbed, than it was further west."
"Disturbed?" Willow asked.
"There's evil here," Tara explained, "unnatural things... I think the demons have been moving through the land here longer, and maybe more of them. They hurt the land, the rhythms that I can feel get disrupted. It makes it difficult to sense a real danger, out of all the..." she shrugged, "background evil."
"Do you think there's demons in the valley?"
"There could be," Tara said, "but what I can sense to the north and south is the same. I don't think we'll necessarily be avoiding the danger if we avoid the valley, and it'd take us another day to reach the river."
"Demons don't like water," Willow mused, "it's not a massive deterrent to them, or anything, but this stream's pure... there might be a slightly smaller chance of running into anything if we stick to it. No guarantee of course," she hastened to add, "I mean, in the right circumstances even a Carver will wade through a stream like this and not really care, and there's even some demons that live in the water - in Kehjistan, mainly, I don't think there's many in the western kingdoms - but just, in general, demons kind of... gravitate away from clean water."
"I think we should go through the valley," Tara concluded. "I just wanted you to know, there could be a danger, so you'd be ready."
"Ready for action," Willow nodded.
"I didn't want to say it in front of Amalee," Tara admitted, "I'm sure she'd cope, and... the way she looks around, have you noticed she keeps checking the horizon? She knows we're not really safe out here. But I didn't want to worry her any more unless we're sure we're going to run into trouble."
"I'll keep close to her," Willow promised, "if anything happens I'll cast an armour around us both."
"Good," Tara smiled, "that'll keep me from worrying." Willow grinned, then glanced at the stream, and over at Amalee.
"She must've been down in that tunnel for a long time," she said sadly, "longer than we were."
"Days," Tara agreed sombrely, "more than a week, I think. Just a guess," she added, "from what was left of the food she ate. She must've known to take food and water, if there was trouble. Her father taught her well. He probably saved her life."
After finishing their lunch break Willow set about washing the blankets they had used the night before. Amalee joined them, helping wring the water out of the blankets after Willow had scrubbed them, and Tara suggested that a bath might be in order - the girl needed one, after her time in the tunnel with no water save for drinking. The girl agreed readily, which Willow put down to her being raised in a small, rural village, rather than a city where bathing in front of others would be unthinkable. Tara joined her, which seemed to put her more at ease, and Willow sat on a rock at the edge of the stream, washing Amalee's clothes and employing a little magic to help them on their way to drying in the sun. The girl's tunic and skirt were worn in places, with patches here and there, but obviously made to last by people who knew the value of hard-wearing clothes. Willow took care to clean them as best she could, and smiled over at Amalee when she noticed the girl gazing in wonder at the misty clouds that formed briefly whenever she finished with a garment and dried it.
Her thoughts also turned to Tara, which was not unusual, but she found herself particularly aware of the tender, motherly way her lover interacted with the young girl, joking with her to keep her happy, helping wash her small body with their washcloth, slowly cleaning away the grime of too long spent hiding in the dark, cold underground. Willow suddenly, and with some surprise, found herself wondering what might lie in the future for her and Tara, and whether, at some time after they had settled down, after their travels were done, they might have a child of their own. Even now, with the destruction of the Reckoning fading into memory, there were still orphans who needed the love of a family. Tara seemed so naturally caring, so loving, so instinctively able to provide the attention, the affection and the protection that a child like Amalee deserved, even though it would only be for a short time, until they reached Duncraig and found her uncle. She wondered what would happen if he was not there, if he had moved somewhere else, or simply couldn't be found. Reluctantly she suppressed the small part of herself that hoped Amalee would stay with them - the girl deserved to be with her family, and if she and Tara were, one day, to have the chance to raise such an angel of their own... well, that day would be a long time coming.
'Getting a little ahead of myself there,' Willow mused with a private grin, finishing drying the last of Amalee's undergarments and setting them with the rest of her clothes. Still, seeing Tara with the girl gave her a great sense of pride. 'My Tara,' she thought, 'this beautiful, wonderful person... and she loves me. If that's not a miracle, I don't know what is.' Tara glanced at her briefly and their eyes met, and Willow blew her a kiss, hoping to convey in the simple gesture all the love she felt. Tara's smile widened, and she blew a kiss in return, which Willow mimed catching and placing next to her heart.
'Love you,' Tara mouthed, before returning her attention to Amalee. Willow smiled and continued to watch them, marvelling at the beauty of the pair of them, the girl innocent and joyous - even in the midst of such a difficult time, Willow thought, Tara could bring that out of her. Her eyes strayed to Tara, and she spent a leisurely few moments assessing her lover's beauty in an entirely different way. 'Oh my,' she thought to herself, watching the water stream down Tara's side and over her hip as she bathed, 'bring on the city, specifically the private bedroom.' She chuckled to herself. 'Heh. Just as well it'll only be a few days. There's things I'm gonna to do you, my love, that shouldn't even be done in the same house as children.' Tara glanced at her again, and seemed to read her mind from her expression, if her raised eyebrow and wicked smile were anything to judge by. 'Damn,' she thought, 'I'm not sure I'm old enough to be thinking these kinds of thoughts.'
Tara quickly finished her bathing and strapped her armour back on, after convincing a disappointed Amalee that it wouldn't fit her. She wandered over to where Willow sat while the girl finished drying herself.
"I love you," Willow said quietly as she sat down.
"I know," Tara smiled, "makes you think, doesn't it?" She nodded towards Amalee. "One day?"
"Do you always know exactly what I'm thinking?" Willow teased. Tara laughed to herself. "You'd make a wonderful mother," Willow went on quietly, "she adores you so much already."
"Thank you," Tara said with a warm smile, "you would too, you know?"
"I hope so," Willow said.
"I know so," Tara said firmly. "I can see it in the way you look at her. You've known her a couple of hours, and already you'd do anything to keep her safe."
"Anyone would," Willow insisted modestly, "how could they not? She's so, so innocent, how could anyone not want to protect her from all this?" She waved a hand around vaguely. "Anyone in my place would do the same."
"That doesn't mean it's not special," Tara said gently, "it doesn't mean you're not special. You are. To me, and to her as well."
"You think?" Willow asked. Tara nodded.
"I saw the way you were looking at me, too," she added slyly.
"Oh, well," Willow grinned, "goddess bathing in stream, what am I supposed to do, look away? Nuh-uh." She sighed. "A big part of me is going to miss her, when we get to Duncraig and bring her to her family... but there's an up side to having some time just to ourselves."
"Poor Willow," Tara smiled, "thinking naughty thoughts, and no way to act on them."
"Yeah," Willow shrugged, "where do we get a babysitter in the middle of nowhere?" Tara laughed again, then leaned over to whisper in Willow's ear:
"Keep thinking baby, I'll make it worth the wait."
"Ooh," Willow purred, "I'll hold you to that."
"You can hold me to whatever you like," Tara replied with a wink. "And besides," she went on, more casually, "it's not like we'll never see her again once we get to Duncraig. Isn't that right?" she added as Amalee came over and started getting dressed. "We'll visit you all the time, won't we?"
"Yep," the girl said with a brilliant smile. "Are you going to live in the city?"
"Not forever," Tara admitted, "but we'll be staying there for a long time, won't we?"
"Oh, yeah," Willow agreed, "we won't be going on the road again until well after the solstice."
"And you promise you'll visit?" Amalee said, fixing them both with a serious stare.
"Absolutely," Tara said, "cross my heart." She did so, and Willow copied the gesture, which seemed to satisfy Amalee beyond all doubt.
"We need to get going," the girl said after a moment's consideration, "we have to reach the clearing before dark."
"Our guide has spoken," Willow smiled, getting to her feet.
The plain sloped down into the valley gently at first, aside from a few rocky patches they scrambled down with relative ease. Willow noticed Amalee found an easy path without having to stop and study the way ahead, a sure sign that they were following the trail she and her father had taken down to the river, probably from the time she was first old enough to make the trip. While the notion of Amalee being their 'guide' had at first been more of a device to let the girl feel useful, to give her a purpose at a time when she seemed to sorely need one, it occurred to Willow that her knowledge of the terrain and the easiest path to take was no small convenience. She resolved to make sure the girl knew, once they reached the river, how valuable her help had been.
On either side, half a mile distant and rising up beyond that, rocky highlands blocked the view of the horizon as they made their way down to the floor of the valley, cliffs and steep slopes that wouldn't be easy to traverse under any circumstances, and might be too much for a child. Before long the ridges themselves were obscured by the branches of tall, thick trees, their trunks old and gnarled, twisted into strange shapes, their leaves dark and large, melding together into a canopy. Willow glanced now and then at Tara, who was following a pace or two behind her and Amalee, and noticed a change about her, as if she was suddenly more aware of her surroundings.
"Okay?" she asked.
"I think so," Tara replied cautiously, "the forest is... comforting, I suppose. But I wouldn't call it safe."
"Do you think we should go back and take the highlands?" Willow asked.
"That's a difficult path," Amalee said, "we had to take it one time when there was a fire in the valley, and daddy said it was a bloody pain in the arse." Willow shared a grin with Tara at the gleeful way the girl repeated the words she had, presumably, overheard from her father in an unguarded moment.
"I agree," Tara said, "it does look like a- it looks difficult," she corrected herself with a smile. "I don't think that way is any safer. We'll be on our guard. You'll be fine with us, sweetie," she said to Amalee.
"I know," Amalee said earnestly, "you're heroes."
"Thank you, honey," Willow said, "that's really sweet of you to say that."
"It's true," the girl insisted, "daddy said one time that heroes are just normal people who do the right thing, even when it's really really difficult. Like one time, there was a fire in the grain house, and old Mister Borat went in to save Tosan the baker's son, and he was a hero, even though he was just an old man who sat outside the church and told stories."
"That's true," Tara offered, "lots of people are heroes at some time. Your daddy was a hero too, you know."
"Really?" Amalee asked.
"Oh yes," Tara assured her, "he made sure you knew what to do if there was trouble, and that you knew to take food and water with you, and he took care of you and made you a strong, clever, brave girl." Amalee considered this, and smiled, pride tinged with sadness. She thought some more as they followed an overgrown trail on the south side of the stream, and eventually looked up at Willow.
"I'm glad you're here," she said, "both of you. I was afraid before, but I'm not now."
"Aww, thank you honey," Willow smiled.
"Willow?" she asked.
"How come I didn't go under the bad wizard's spell? It was a spell, wasn't it? What he did to all the people." Willow sighed, and glanced back at Tara. She gave Willow a meaningful glance, which Willow read with an ease that surprised her: 'she's a strong girl, just tell her.'
"I'm not sure honey," Willow said, "we - my Order of mages - we know about the spell that the wizard did on your village, but we don't know exactly how it works. I read a story once that said, one time, a person resisted the spell, so maybe you did as well."
"I'm not a wizard," Amalee pointed out, "don't you have to be a wizard to stop magic from working on you?"
"Sometimes," Willow allowed, "but sometimes not. It depends on a lot of things, like what sort of spell it is, how it's being cast, how powerful the mage - the wizard - is, all sorts of things like that. The story said that resisting this spell doesn't use magic."
"Oh," Amalee said. "Will you tell me the story?"
"Are you sure?" Willow asked. "It's got demons and bad wizards in it-"
"That's okay," Amalee said, "at the church they told us stories about demons and bad people all the time, but they always lost in the end, because they're bad, and good people are stronger than bad people. That's right, isn't it? Do the demons in your story lose?"
"Yes," Willow said, glancing at Tara and receiving an encouraging look, "yes, they do, and you're right, good is stronger in the end, even if sometimes it doesn't seem that way."
"Can I hear the story?" Amalee asked, turning an adorable pout on Willow.
"That's not fair," Willow grinned, "you're being cute on purpose. Okay, I'll tell you." Amalee bounced briefly, looking extremely pleased with herself, and Tara laughed quietly behind them.
"Okay," Willow began, "this happened a long time ago, hundreds of years ago. There was once an evil wizard called Goreth, who was jealous of the other wizards in his Order. They were all old and powerful, but Goreth was young and impatient, and he didn't want to spend years and years studying magic before he could learn the really powerful spells, he wanted to be very powerful right now."
"That's not right," Amalee pointed out seriously, "daddy said if you want something, you have to earn it, otherwise it's not really yours."
"Your daddy was a smart man," Willow said, at which Amalee glowed with pride. "That's right, you know the saying you have to learn to walk before you can run? Well, magic's just like everything else that way. But sometimes there are people who don't want to do it that way, and they look for easy ways to get power, without having to work for it. See, Goreth was powerful already, more than the other students his age, and he thought he was better than them, and should be taught more quickly, but his elders wouldn't let him. Well, he tried to get power from demons, and the other wizards - mages - in his Order banished him, to try to keep him from talking to the demons. But Goreth already suspected they would try to stop him, and he had already made a deal with a very powerful demon, a demon called Belial-"
"I know him," Amalee piped up, "he's the Lord of Lies, they told us stories about him in church. They said he never says the truth, and he always tries to get people to do what he wants, even if they think they're doing what they want."
"You're a well educated girl," Willow grinned, "is there anything you don't know?"
"Granny told me I should learn as much as I can," Amalee said proudly, "because you never know when it's going to come in useful."
"There's a kindred spirit for you," Tara pointed out to Willow.
"I can read and write," Amalee went on, "and granny was teaching me to speak Khejan."
"Wow, you are smart," Willow said, reflecting that it wasn't uncommon even now for children in rural communities to learn only simple reading and writing.
"Keep telling the story?" the girl asked.
"Right, where was I? Oh yes, Belial... see, Belial knew that Goreth had the potential to be a very powerful mage, but he also knew he was impatient. He promised that he'd give Goreth all the power he wanted in exchange for Goreth agreeing to serve him, not his Order, and Goreth agreed."
"Dummy," Amalee interjected. "I wouldn't have agreed to that. It doesn't matter how powerful you are if you're not good. I'd have studied properly and become a good wizard."
"I know honey," Willow said fondly. 'I wouldn't be too surprised if you did, one day,' she thought to herself.
"What did Goreth do?" Amalee prompted.
"Well, Belial wanted to use Goreth to get rid of the other mages, because without them he'd be able to become much more powerful. He gave Goreth the power to get inside the minds of other demons, like goblins, and make them do what he wanted, and Goreth assembled a big army and built a fortress out in the desert, called Sankira. And when he was finished building it, Belial gave Goreth a very powerful kind of dark magic, bound in a weapon called a rod of command."
"Is that the magic the bad wizard used?" Amalee asked.
"That's right," Willow said, "he had a rod, too. Only we don't have to worry about it any more, his rod's been destroyed, and he's gone."
"Does it make people go strange like everyone did at the village?" Amalee asked. "Like, they didn't see or hear anything?"
"It can," Willow said, "what it does is it lets the person using the rod command the people he uses it on. It means they can't fight back."
"Oh," Amalee said with a scowl, "that's not fair... a good person wouldn't use a weapon like that."
"No," Willow agreed sadly, "but Goreth wasn't a good person. He took the rod and poured all his power into it, made it... like his own personal magic wand. Whenever he cast a spell he did it using the rod, and it made his magic more powerful, and more evil. And all the people in the city near Sankira were very afraid, because they knew that their soldiers wouldn't be able to fight back if Goreth attacked them."
"Was there a hero?" Amalee asked.
"There was," Willow said with a smile, "there was a group of sorceresses travelling through the desert-"
"The same Order as me, yes," Willow said, "but sorceresses were different back then, they travelled in secret, so their enemies wouldn't know about them. Goreth thought they were just a normal caravan and sent his demons to attack them. When the sorceresses used their magic to defend themselves, Goreth used the rod to stop them. And it worked, all except for one little girl, about your age, who the sorceresses had been taking to be trained as one of them. The rod didn't affect her, and when she saw all the other sorceresses stop fighting, she grabbed one of their staves and used it to cast firebolts at the demons."
"And she won?"
"Yes she did," Willow nodded, "the demons in Goreth's army had never had anyone stand up to them, and when that little girl fought back, they were so afraid that they ran away."
"What happened then?"
"Goreth saw all his demons running away, and he got very angry. He raged at all his demons and called them useless and cowards, and then he set his own magic against the little girl to defeat her. But the rod still didn't affect her, and every time he tried to command her nothing happened. And he tried every spell he could, but because he'd put all his magic into the rod, none of his spells would affect her either. He got so angry from trying to defeat her that he came out of his fortress, came right up to her, standing right in front of her, trying to cast spells on her. And do you know what she did?"
"She firebolted him?" Amalee guessed.
"She aimed her staff and cast a firebolt right at the rod," Willow said, "and the rod shattered into a million pieces. And because Goreth had put all his power into it, all his magic was shattered as well, and his fortress crumbled into the sand, and his demons fled, and all the people he'd commanded were set free, and he was never able to cast a single spell ever again. All because of that little girl."
"Wow," Amalee said earnestly. "Who was she? What happened to her?"
"She was called Esara," Willow said, "she studied with the sorceresses and became very powerful herself eventually, and she had a lot of adventures."
"And what happened to Belial?" Amalee asked.
"Well, it's very difficult for a demon to make a rod of command," Willow explained, "and it takes a long time, which is why they only make them and give them to people when they're very sure it won't be destroyed. For all his power, Belial hadn't been able to foresee that that little girl would be able to resist the rod's magic and destroy it. My Order does its best to keep track of what demons are up to, so we can stop them, and from what we know, even now, hundreds of years later, Belial still hasn't made a new rod."
"Do you think I'm like Esara?" Amalee asked. "Will I be a sorceress?"
"I don't know honey," Willow said gently, "no-one knows why the rod's magic didn't work on her. But I'll tell you this: I'm sure you're a very special girl, and you're going to achieve something wonderful one day."
"Really?" Amalee asked, smiling brilliantly.
"I'm sure of it," Willow confirmed.