It had been nine weeks since Tara had left her unhappy, yet familiar, home in Ballylumford. She had left behind a husband, and a mill, and a life that had been laid out for her since the day she had been born. But now, for the first time, she was the one in control of her own destiny, and she could not be happier. The gypsies had taken her in as one of their own, and Willow, well... Willow had been wonderful. Perfect, even. She was patient and attentive and never tired of doting on the blonde with unmatched devotion.
Since that first night that Tara had given in to the passion that had been thumping in her soul from the first moment they had met, the two had hardly left one another's side. Often sneaking away from camp to enjoy each other's company, and the love that they now shared, with equal and unabashed affection. Tara had never known what it felt to be in love before, but now that she had found it, she drank from it like a soul that had been lost in the desert and long desperate for libation.
The gypsies had taken the northern route around Lough Neagh, and they now were encamped on the outskirts of the small town of Magherafelt
Willow had packed a lovely picnic lunch with Emilia's help, and was now leading Tara toward an open glade near the edge of the forest. In the center of the glade was a small round of tall and bushy trees, and it was inside this natural hideaway that Willow now led her Tara hither.
A blanket was laid carefully upon the ground, and the two lovers quickly took up residency upon it, sharing secrets and kisses and bits of food from the overflowing basket.
Willow picked up a small grape from the bunch she had packed and fed it carefully to her sweetheart as she marveled even now at the wondrous-strange and light feeling of being in love. Tara could not help but share in her lover's amazement at what they shared so easily with one another.
Willow, "Sitting on the floor and talking till dawn"
The lovers leaned in toward one another and shared a delicate and chaste kiss that quickly developed into something more. Giggling, Willow pounced on the young blonde and captured her lips again, playfully rolling their bodies across the blanket. Hearing a low, unmistakable rumble, Tara chuckled and pushed her gypsy lover slightly away, sighing happily.
"My Willow, I didn't realize you'd gotten so primal," she laughed.
Willow regarded her with a puzzled look. "What do you mean?" she asked.
"Well, just now..." Tara trailed off, hoping the redhead would finish her thought.
"You mean me pouncing?"
"No," she laughed a little, "you growling."
Willow stiffened, hovering above her lover, regarding her seriously. "I didn't growl."
Tara found it odd that her gypsy would deny her own passionate utterance and was concerned as well as confused. Perhaps Willow was embarrassed? She quickly moved to allay any of her dear one's fears. "It's all right, my love. You needn't be ashamed. It didn't bother me. It only showed me how much you want me..."
"Tara," Willow said, almost firmly, cutting her off. "I'm telling you I didn't growl." She held her lover's gaze a moment more before glancing up nervously at the woods around them.
Tara's eyes grew wide with fear as she too began to survey the land. "Are you saying there's something out there?" she asked in a frightened whisper.
"Sh," Willow uttered, holding up a finger as she tuned her ears to the forest. She listened very hard for several long moments. Finally, hearing nothing, she turned her attention back to Tara lying beneath her. "Whatever it was, it seems to be gone now. Some forest animal. Badger maybe."
"Or wolf?" Tara questioned fearfully.
"Perhaps," Willow allowed, "but it's likely more frightened of us than we are of it." The blonde nodded nervously. "Not to worry, my love," Willow assured her, "I'll protect you from all manner of beasts. I shan't let anything harm you." Again Tara nodded. "Now," she continued, leaning in again and bringing her thigh to rest snugly between her lover's parted legs, "where were we?"
"There," Tara gasped, unable to suppress her pleasure at the sensation. She tenderly cupped Willow's face and brought it even closer to her own, "and here..." she completed the connection, their lips tasting each other with a fierce hunger.
The girls quickly became oblivious to the outside world, existing only in one of their own creation. So involved were they that they did not notice the rustling in the wooded area to their south, or the soft, quick-moving footsteps rapidly approaching them through the brush.
They did not realize the danger that was stalking them, until it was upon them with sudden and brutal force.
"ROWR!" The beast bellowed mightily, swiping its leathern claw into Willow's side, knocking the girl roughly aside as Tara let out a piercing scream.
The creature, strangely human shaped despite its lizard-like appearance, stood over the quivering blonde as Willow lay unconscious a mere six feet away.
"Willow!" she cried out, praying to whatever god or goddess might lend her an ear that her lover was still alive.
"ERR!" The thing grunted in warning, stomping its heavy foot, causing the earth beneath it to tremble slightly. Tara let out another plaintive cry in fear. The monster knelt down on one scale-covered knee and leaned closely into the girl's space, lifting a taloned hand to her face, seemingly intent on caressing it. Tara squirmed and pulled her face away as much as her fear-tensed muscles would allow. The beast watched as a single tear spilled out of her eye and onto her cheek. It snorted, shaking its massive head, its jet-black mane rustling about its neck.
It lifted a single claw to her chin, forcing her to look up into its obsidian eyes. Unable to look away, she stared into the depths of the twin pools of black, unable to shake the feeling that she had seen into these same eyes somewhere before, and the idea of this thing being familiar filled her with an even greater terror.
Finally averting her eyes, she looked down at the tattered rags adorning the menacing creature before her. Suddenly, a horrifying realization dawned on her; consuming her with a stronger feeling of dread than if the creature was merely a beast and nothing more. "J-Japheth?" she asked, her voice the slightest whisper.
The being stood up to its full-height and gazed down its narrow nose at her intently, it gave a singular nod of its head, confirming Tara's worst fears.
"M-my God," she stammered, "H-how--"
A sudden flash of light from her left side stopped her question mid-sentence. Japheth let out a surprised bark as he suddenly found himself thrown hard against a nearby tree. Tara stayed silent, her scream stuck in her throat from surprise. She looked to see Willow lying on her belly, her hand outstretched in Japheth's direction, though obviously weak and discombobulated, she was clearly the source of the magical attack.
Japheth rose back up to his full height, shaking his serpentine head as though to clear it of cobwebs. He let out a great and angry snort as he watched the fallen redhead clamber to her feet, her hand still extended toward the insolent beast.
"Stay back," she warned, "there is more where that came from."
Japheth eyed Willow carefully, as though sizing her up. He flexed his leathern muscles and took a defiant step forward, only to find himself once again thrown backward into the tree behind him. He fell to the ground with an unceremonious thud. He scrambled to all fours and let out an angry growl, preparing to leap forward onto the gypsy, but once again he was tossed up into the air, and flung like a rag doll into yet another neighboring tree. This time, when he hit the dirt he remained unmoving, apparently unconscious.
Willow approached him carefully, arm raised, "Now you die," she said with angry menace as crackling bolts began to generate in her palm.
"No!" Tara cried out, stilling her lover's action. Willow paused and regarded the blonde with confusion. "Don't kill him, please," she begged.
"But, Tara, it tried to kill us," Willow countered, "this beast is evil and must be destroyed. If not for our own safety, than for any others who may cross its path."
"You don't understand," said Tara, trying to withhold her tears, "he's not a beast. He's..."
"A demon," Willow finished, cutting her off. "Look at him!" She pointed accusingly, turning her head to see the unconscious man lying beaten on the forest floor. "See? This man is a clearly a..." Man?! She realized, her brain turning cartwheels of confusion inside her head.
Tara moved quickly to Japheth's side, pulling his tattered clothes to cover his bruised and dirty body. "He's hurt," she said softly, turning her attention back to her lover, "we need to get him back to camp..."
Willow crouched down beside the blonde, "Not a moment ago this man was not a man... he's some sort of a halfing... Darling, he's dangerous... we can't risk him changing again; hurting the others..."
"He's not dangerous," Tara argued as she examined a particularly nasty gash above the fallen man's right ear. "He's my husband," she continued, finding it impossible to look at her gypsy even as she said it.
Willow felt her jaw tighten at the revelation. She was quiet for a long moment as she absorbed this new and disturbing information. "Then he is dangerous," she said finally. When Tara did not contradict her, she went on, "I have some herbs in my bag. We can treat his wounds here. But we leave him here. When we get back to camp, I'll have to tell Emilia what's happened. Most likely, we'll be breaking camp tonight and moving on to the next town..."
"Tara... it's... it's alright," she sighed. "Let's clean him up quickly so we can get out of here." Tara merely nodded as Willow walked back over to their now disheveled picnic and withdrew some herbs and a few rags from her bag.
After quickly cleaning and dressing Japheth's more obvious wounds, they packed up their things and swiftly made their way back to camp.
Willow and Tara arrived back in camp, out of breath, and buzzing with anxiety.
Willow hastily explained the situation to Emilia who, unsurprisingly, ordered the encampment to be disassembled, and prepared to move before nightfall.
"If it is as you say," the old gypsy concluded gravely, "the measure of his rage may be too great for us to defend against."
The girls nodded silently, and Tara quickly made her way to the small sleeping tent she and Willow had made, and began hastily packing up their bedroll.
Willow followed more slowly, concern etched across her face. She watched her lover's frantic movements from behind, finally rushing forward to hold her, when the girl's shoulders began to shake, and a sob escaped her lips.
"Sh, love", she soothed.
"Oh, Willow... Willow, what will we do?"
Unsure how to answer, the gypsy simply said, "It'll be alright."
"No!" Tara cried out in fear and defiance. "Don't you see? He's angry now. Even more than he was before. I don't know or understand why he has become what he has become... he'll stop at nothing. I can feel it."
"Tara no, listen to me," Willow began.
Nothingís gonna harm you
Demons are prowling everywhere nowadays
No oneís gonna hurt you
Demons will charm you with a smile for a while
Not to worry, not to worry
Being close and being clever ainít like being true
Nothingís gonna harm you
Demons are prowling everywhere nowadays
No oneís gonna hurt you
Demons will charm you with a smile for a while
They kissed deeply, passionately, Willow holding her love ever tighter until finally Tara placed a hand against her shoulder and gently pushed away.
"No, my darling, you don't understand," she said, "I do not fear for my safety. I fear for yours."
Willow gazed at Tara with a look of disbelief and confusion.
"He will come for me," Tara went on, "he will come and he will not stop coming until he has me because I am his property under the law."
"I do not believe in the law." The gypsy stated defiantly. "The law was made by men, and look at what your man has become."
"The law did not make him like this. It is some kind of curse."
"The law is a curse. No woman should ever be any man's property."
"It does not matter," Tara answered anxiously, "he will come and he will stop at nothing. NOTHING. You have injured him, and you are now his mortal enemy. You keep me from him. He will kill you."
The gypsy seemed to ponder this a moment, before looking again into Tara's eyes. "Let him try."
The Miller's wife regarded the redhead with a sad and sober expression, "I'd rather not."
"Ladies!" One the male gypsies called from outside the tent, "hurry with your packing! We've already begun to load the wagons. Haste! Haste!"
"We'd better hurry," Willow said needlessly.
The women returned to the business of packing their things and breaking down their tent.
By sunset, the encampment was loaded on the wagons, and already moving down the main road away from Magherafelt.
However, as they neared the township's outerlimits, the caravan rolled to a sudden and uneasy stop.
"Hold! Hold!" Commanded the man on horseback who, along with fifteen or so others, was blocking the roadway.
"What's this business?" questioned Emilia, whose wagon led the gypsies. She eyed the fellow closely, recognizing him under the torchlight. "Aidan, friend, respected mayor of Magherafelt, what reason have you for blocking our path?"
"I'm sorry Emilia," he apologized, "long have I welcomed your clan for trading in my town, but I fear that time may forever be gone. We have reason to believe you are harboring stolen property."
Emilia let out a loud laugh. "Ha! We are gypsies! Of course we steal! Trinkets, bobs, small things whose loss are often unnoticed. But we do not steal from you, Aidan. Your town is open for trade, there is no need. There is honor among thieves, my lad."
"It is true you have not pinched a trifle from my township, but I speak for a man who has traveled far and who claims you have stolen an item of great value."
"Tell us what it is then, that we might return it and be on our way."
"My wife," Japheth said, stepping forward from the darkness. His rags now gone, he was dressed in borrowed clothes, shaved and washed, and looking considerably more respectable than how Willow and Tara had left him.
Emilia looked over her shoulder and into the back of her wagon gazing at the girls huddled behind her. Willow eyed Japheth with a look of fire and defiance. Tara merely looked pale, almost as if she might faint at a word. The elder gypsy returned her eyes to the men in the path.
"I see," she said calmly.
"Furthermore," Aidan continued, "this man claims that one of your females attacked him with magic and left him to die in the woods."
"He looks awfully good for a man who claims to have been near-death." Emilia noted wryly. "And as for magic, pish-tosh, fairy tales and children's stories. That a grown man as yourself would belief such nonsense if very surprising, indeed."
"It's true!" Japheth barked angrily.
"Quiet, man!" Aidan commanded, "you are in my care. You have me at your right hand, now let me with my business." His attention fell again on Emilia, who held him in her wise grey eyes. "Witchcraft is illegal, Emilia, your gypsy wench could burn for it, and so could you."
"Well then, light the fire and let the flames lick high!" shouted Willow, "If indeed I am a witch, I'll simply put it out. If I am not, than you will have killed an innocent and you shall go to Hell with demons for company. Care to play a game of roulette?"
"Silence!" Emilia ordered.
"And, speaking of demons", Willow started again.
"I said silence!!" The elderly woman bellowed. She softened her voice to a rapid whisper, "Do you wish to die and leave your love to that beast?" Willow ducked her head, clearly she hadn't thought past her anger. "Aidan is not an unreasonable man, I will settle this matter." She spoke again to the Mayor, "Forgive her, my lord, she has not eaten today and the hunger has made her mind soft with impulsion. I confess, I too have not yet supped and it is well-past the dinner hour. Might I suggest that we move this discussion. Does your wife still make a delicious roast?"
"Your logic is curious, my dear Emilia. You expect me to welcome your rabble into my home and make my wife a servant to them?"
"Of course not! I merely meant myself and my daughter."
"Just give me back my wife!" Japheth howled.
"And the woman he claims to be his wife," Emilia added.
"Sir, I will not ask again, you will be silent!" Aidan charged. "What do you mean 'claims'?"
"It seems to be a fairly crucial manner of debate," Emilia explained, "if she is his wife, then it is your man claims. If she isn't, then we have done nothing wrong,and the fellow is clearly mad."
"It's a fairly simple question," the Mayor replied, "either she is, or she isn't. Lady, are you this man's wife?"
Emilia leaned aside to let Tara's timid face peek forward.
"Well, child, answer the good man," Emilia looked closely into the young woman's eyes, "answer him with the truth of your heart."
"Are you this man's wife?" Aidan asked again.
Tara looked at Japheth, her face pale, her eyes afraid. She swallowed once, then answered, "Yes." She heard Willow's gasp of horror and quickly added, " and no."
"You see?" said Emilia, "It's not that simple. Franco, Isolder, your horses, Marcus and Bluto, you will follow as escorts. Come on girls, this is nothing a hearty meal and a good debate can't settle." She mounted one stead as the girls mounted another. "Aidan, come follow to your home, the feast awaits." Then she added, seemingly as an afterthought, "bring your cuckold friend."
The group of five sat pensively around the table in the mayor's home. Although the home of the town's leader. it was still only a modest cottage comprised of one medium-sized room with a small stove, fireplace, table and chairs and a place to take company, and one other small room which held the bed.
Katharine, Aidan's dutiful wife, finished pouring the last of the gravy on a fine roast, and delivered it to the table.
"Thank you, my darling, that will be all for now," in a lower voice Aidan whispered to his wife, "they'll not be here long. No need for you to witness these grave proceedings."
Katharine patted her husband's shoulder in understanding and, with a small curtsy, took her leave of the room.
"Now, good sir," Aidan began, addressing Japheth whilst pouring him a cup of wine, "when you came to me haggard, bloody and in rags I took pity on your plight. You claimed that your wife had been kidnapped by gypsies. That they had beaten you, and cast magic at you even as you attempted her rescue. And yet here sits the woman you claim to have married and she seems unharmed, and further more, appears to not be kept against her will, how answer you?"
"Quite simply, sir," he replied, "the gypsy witch here has cast a spell on her."
"Never!" Willow retorted, "You harmed her, and she ran to me for safety!"
"Little girl, not only do you speak out of turn, but you have filled my wife's head with lies. I would never hurt her. I am a good Christian man."
Emilia took this opportunity to speak. "Kind sir, I have seen many 'good Christian' men do very evil things indeed." She took a sip of wine, "But I fear we may have tarried from the point.. as I believe, Tara is the point. Perhaps she should speak on her own behalf."
"Agreed," nodded Aidan,"tell me, madam, why it is you left your husband's home. Were you taken? Were you bewitched?"
Tara felt the heat of four pairs of eyes upon her with intensity. From somewhere within, she summoned the courage to speak. "Neither, M'lord, it is as Willow says, he harmed me, and I ran away."
"Yes, that does happen, I'm afraid," Aidan sighed, "but that does not change the fact that he is your husband, madam, and you are his property under the law. Emilia, I am sorry, but the law is the law. Either release the girl to her husband, or Magherafelt and its trade is closed to you." With that Aidan stood to leave, "I'll leave you four to eat, and to discuss the matter. But regardless, she goes home on the morrow."
They watched as Aidan took his leave to join his wife in the back room.
Japheth raised his cup in a toast of self-congratulations, "What therefore God has joined together, let no tart put asunder."
"Bastard!" Willow spat.
"Willow, keep still." Emilia warned.
"That's right, girl, keep still." Japheth sneered, "Did you honestly think you would win? I am her husband, and an owner of property to boot. Even if you were a boy, and she unmarried, you'd still lose, and do you want to know why?" He paused for dramatic effect. "Because you're beneath her."
"Japheth, no!" Tara begged.
"Tara, come, we are leaving!" Japheth snarled.
"No!" Willow shouted in defiance.
"No." Tara stated, more calmly.
"No?!" The man questioned in a rage. "You dare to defy me again?!"
"Please!" she pleaded, "let me have a moment with her. One last moment, and then, I will leave... with you."
Japheth's darkening eyes glanced back and forth between the pair. He could feel the demon rising again, perhaps a moment outside would help to calm him.
"Alright," he agreed.
"Excellent," said Emilia, "Come, Japheth, we'll step outside, let the cool night air sooth the savage beast."
His head immediately snapped to the attention of the old woman. "What did you say?"
"You heard me," she replied, moving out the front door. He quickly followed.
Now that they were alone, Willow was the first to speak.
"Excellent plan, my darling, now we can make our escape."
"Willow, no," Tara said, stopping her, "I'm... I'm going with him."
"Love Song" by Stephen Schwartz from the musical Pippin