"Hey, are you alright?"
Tara snapped out of it and looked at Willow, wide-eyed. For a moment, she didn't know if this was then or now. But no, this wasn't the corridor where she re-met Willow. This was the little forest she had insisted on seeing. The moon was still using the lake as a mirror; the trees were still humming in the slight breeze, and Willow stood there, in her white shirt and boyish attire, displaying those big eyes of hers, wearing her hair just touching her shoulder so that she could fight better. Everything was good, now.
"Willow..." she whined.
"What, Tara, what is it?"
Willow went to the other girl immediately, holding her arms to sustain her. She was afraid that Tara would fall down, she had began shaking. I don't get it, she thought; Tara was okay a moment ago, she was jokingly ordering her around, telling her how to treat her horse. What had happened?
"I... I was remembering" Tara swallowed "When I saw you the other night, a month ago. The way we talked, when I blurted everything out and you were about to say... to tell me something."
Now it was the redhead's turn to swallow. She had managed to keep it out of her mind, filling her mind with thoughts about the battle, with thoughts about conveniently killing Tara. Sharpening her sword, drawing maps, training her strength and flexibility with the Slayer... It had distracted her mind, she had partly convinced herself to kill Tara. Even taking her to her special place, to the lake, to the tree; even riding a horse with her... she had done those things and had restrained herself. But seeing Tara like this, holding her arms between her hands, seeing and feeling her trembling, hearing her mentioning that night...
She hadn't slept well during the whole month since that night. She couldn't forget the way they had clicked. At nine and ten years old they had clicked. And again they had been given a chance at eighteen and nineteen. But also, she couldn't forget the terrible things that had happened that night.
She had been totally absent from the reality around her, telling Tara that she was going to ride her horse to her castle every day, that she wouldn't lose her. And another thing, she was going to tell her another thing, and Tara was waiting for it. Tara, beautiful, her blue eyes glowing in the dark, her deep voice had surrounded her... She would've said it, but they were interrupted.
"Princess Willow!" someone cried.
Willow froze, and then rolled her eyes towards the voice. It was one of her maids; not alarmed, not cross, just anxious-looking.
"What is it, Mary? I'm okay, I haven't been kidnapped, relax. Please, leave us alone."
"Princess" the maid panted "I can't, you've been required. Your... your mother wants you in the hall."
The redhead frowned. Everyone was drunk, and busy with drinking even more. She had hoped that they wouldn't notice their disappearance or that they wouldn't mind. What did her mother want from her? One thing was sure, she couldn't refuse to go; after all, she was the Queen.
"Tara... we have to."
"Yes, I know, let's go."
Mary seemed relieved to find her submissive, since she normally was the complete opposite, picking fights with the King's knights, and mercilessly riding her horse round and round the castle. Willow was tame now, and the only reason she could find for her docility was that she was walking beside Tara.
"What the hell does my mother want?" Willow ask, her voice bouncing off the corridor's walls.
"I don't know" was Mary's answer.
Anyway, they had already arrived to the gigantic hall, which surprised Willow, because the roaring laughter and screaming conversations had been substituted by an almost complete silence. There were still a few giggles here and there, but that was it. This was enough to make her nervous, but there was another thing: everyone seemed to be staring at her. Willow turned, and there was her mother, the Queen, the incarnation of strictness.
"Mother, what's going on?"
"Your father wants to announce something, and he needs you at his side" her mother explained, cryptically.
To announce something? What could it be? And why does he need me? Willow's mind raced, and still she couldn't understand a thing. Then, another puzzling thing happened; someone touched her shoulder. She faced that someone, and immediately wished she hadn't. It was the stupid young man that hadn't stopped stalking her at the party. He was broad and dark-haired; absolutely unattractive at all levels. The boy had no grace, no swiftness of movements; he was like a fallen log, just sitting or standing there, as if that actually meant doing something. Even his speech was slow.
"Princess Willow" he slurred "I'm very glad to see you."
"Likewise" Willow replied dryly, feeling the need to gag and go to hell with politeness.
"Good, good. How is you headache doing? Are we feeling better?" he asked, daring to touch her shoulder again.
Okay, now this was indecent. If he ever touched her again, she was going to break his arm, and she was very, very able.
"D-d-donnie?" Tara asked, peering at the boy.
"Oh, Tara, hadn't seen you there. What are you doing with Princess Willow? Is she your friend?"
"Sir Donald?" Willow asked, trying to make her fake smile look a bit less false "Do you know Lady Tara?"
"I do" Donnie said "And it is most wonderful that she should be your friend."
"P-princess Willow, he's my brother."
"Your brother?" Willow stared from the boy to the girl, not understanding how those two people could be related in any way "So you're... Prince Donald?"
"That's me" Donnie nodded, coolly winking an eye "Princess, we should really go to our fathers now; see how they're bringing everyone's attention? They require our presence, come."
Willow just stared at him in horror. No way she was going anywhere with that guy. Tara seemed equally bedazzled, beyond understanding. Her father and Tara's father, requiring her and Donnie's presence? As in, "together"? Her face was a mask that reflected strangeness; she let herself be led by her mother towards her father's table, which was set on a platform, higher than the rest. There was an array of bitten bones and half-empty cups, and her father was standing up, his bejeweled hands pressed on the table. Tara's father was beside him, drunk and merry.
"Father?" she asked, timidly standing beside him, while Donnie stood beside his own father.
"It was about time" Willow's father grumbled, immediately raising his voice "Well, well, friends, here they are."
Here we are?, Willow echoed, wrinkling her nose. Her father grabbed her shoulder with her enormous hand and pushed her between him and the other king. Donnie's father did the same, so that now they were side by side, flanked by the two kings. What's going on?
Donnie was no help. He smiled dumbly, and was staring at something in front of him. Willow followed his gaze and found a cheerful group of young men, knights and nobles; she supposed they were his friends.
"My good friend the king of the Lowlands and I" Donnie's father began "have some very fine news to give you. Always with our eyes in the future, we've decided to unite both our kingdoms."
There was a theatrical pause, in which some gasped, but most of the audience cheered and whooped like roosters. Willow frowned. Unite the kingdoms? It didn't sound bad, it was good news, except... Her eyes opened widely, suddenly getting it. She clasped her own hands and dug her nails deep in the skin. What the hell...? No, please. No... Her eyes searched for Tara, who was still standing in the entrance. Her eyes had gone wide too, and their blueness was all Willow could see. Unite the kingdoms.
"It's going to mean some changes, yes, but think about the positive factors. Think about it, we'll be doubly powerful", Donnie and Tara's father explained.
"So, I believe that you already know what we're going to announce. Today is a day for celebration" Willow's father said, brusquely grabbing his cup "We've decided that my only daughter, Princess Willow, will marry his son, Prince Donald."
The roaring of applause and cheering took Willow by surprise above anything else. It almost made her crawl out of her skin. Everyone in the hall stood up and neared the kings' table, raising their cups, clashing them and gulping down their contents. There was wine drooling down people's chins, including the one of the kings, and Donnie's hands had grasped her own. Then she understood, the meaning of everything came stumbling down into her head at last.
Marry? Marry Donnie? She jerked her head towards him, meeting his eyes in horror. Then, she stared at her hands, completely engulfed by his. No, this couldn't be happening. This was a dream. She searched for her mother, and found her smiling with the rest of her lady-friends. No help was going to come from her, she was sure. So she turned to her father.
"Father..." she muttered "You've... you've decided this? And you never told me?"
"Willow, aren't you happy? Of course you are, I see surprise in your eyes. Don't you like surprises? Thanks to you, our kingdoms will unite now, and there's no better husband for you than the son of my good friend."
"But Father..." Willow stammered, desperately "I... Father, I don't love him."
"Of course not, what do you think love is? You'll love him in time, be sure of that. Meanwhile, be proud of yourself."
Willow felt everything except pride. She felt like sinking, like fainting, like dying. Her eyes searched for Tara once more, and she saw her looking down at her feet, teary-eyed. Oh no. No, she had to stop this, this was absolute madness, could no one see?
"Princess-" Donnie began.
"No, shut up! What are you doing? Let go of my hands!"
The room fell half silent. Her father was staring at her with indignation, and the other king too. Donnie barked a laugh, trying to pass it off as a joke, and grabbed her hands again, pressing them painfully. He said something about her being "fiery" and something like "I will tame her", which she was not going to put up with.
"I said, let go!"
She untangled her hands from his and left the table, descending from the platform. But Donnie was right with her again, still grinning coolly at his friends, and this time he grabbed her arm, digging his fingers a bit deeper. Willow closed her eyes for a moment, and actually imagined herself marrying that oaf. The first time she would rebel he would shake her by the arm; the next time, she was sure that he would strike her. He could feel it by the way he grasped her arm now, as if she was his property or something.
No way, you disgusting ogre! She smiled dangerously and lifted her arm, smashing her elbow on the boy's face. That did the trick. Donnie let her go, to cover his nose with his hands. Everyone gasped, some retreated, some drew nearer, several ladies screamed.
"What now? Try to touch me again. Come on."
"Willow!" her father cried, stepping down from the platform with the other king.
Donnie wiped his bleeding nose with his sleeve and lurched forward again, trying to grab her. Willow avoided him, but she could have never guessed that he would strike her in front of everyone. The blow came from the right, it was Donnie's right hand, and it slapped her hard on the cheek.
She stumbled to the floor, barely acknowledging that her father was arguing with the other king. Donnie pulled her to her feet, and smiled through the blood that was seeping from his nose. That smile, that hideous smile... Willow shook him off and punched his face, with all the force she had, and withdrew a small dagger from the folds of her dress.
"Go on, try it again" she said, enjoying everyone's shocked cries.
"When I get my hands on you..." he sneered "We're going to have so many children..."
"You're not marrying my daughter" her father said, taking Willow by the arm.
"What are you saying?" the other king asked "Look at the state of my son's face, he's the victim-"
"Your son's face is much better that way, the less we can see it the better!" Willow exclaimed, before her father could cover her mouth "Father, let me speak! If you make me marry him, he won't survive the honeymoon."
To prove her words, she pulled away from her father and slashed Donnie's face with the dagger. She had calculated well; it was a deep wound, but not a serious one. It would surely leave a big, ugly scar.
And that was that. She had been taken away, Donnie's bawling self had been taken away too, and their drunk fathers had almost killed each other. Instead, a war had been agreed. A battle. The friendship between both kingdoms changed into hatred with the swiftness of a sword-swing.