She saw herself withdrawing from the kiss, swimming in the blue of Tara's eyes and telling her.
"I love you", she whispered, and woke up.
Her head shot up, looking at her own body, which was sprawled on the bed. What...? It was day, there was sunlight everywhere, bathing the entire room, illuminating the white sheet that was partially covering her legs.
This was her bedroom. Her bedroom. And she was alone. She thumped her head back on the pillow and frowned at the ceiling, trying to get her thoughts straight, and to distinguish them from the dream.
Let's see... she had kissed Tara, hadn't she? The lake? The moon? The willow tree? They must have gone there, she remembered everything! They had talked about everything, like that night before the fatal interruption. They had fallen into a loaded silence. Those things had happened, she was sure. She remembered everything clearly.
Closing her eyes, she was assaulted by the remembrance of the kiss. The way Tara's lips felt, the fascinating sensation of being with her, so close to her, endlessly kissing those lips, investigating, touching the skin of her face and her neck. Wanting to get even closer... She couldn't have dreamed that.
Also, she remembered quite clearly that she had rode Tara home, trying to put into practice the things she had previously instructed her about; that she had to move with the horse. She had certainly tried, and actually had trouble concentrating, with Tara sitting behind her, circling her arms tightly around her waist and her front pressed against Willow's back.
No, she couldn't have made up all that. Not their farewell, their "see you tomorrow". No. It had happened. She had only dreamed the "I love you" part. It had to have happened the way she remembered it.
There was a knock on the door, and someone entered. Her intuition told her that it was Rose, her personal maid.
She was right. It was Rose.
"I'm awake" Tara said, her voice muffled by the pillow.
But she wasn't quite sure of that. The knock on her bedroom door had woken her, but she was still drowsy, still trying to determine who she was and what had happened the previous day...
The previous night! Her memory returned to her in a flash. She lifted her head, and found herself lying face down, with the sheets draped over her legs.
"Goodnight", Willow had said.
"See you tomorrow", Tara had answered.
Willow... She turned and sat up in bed, with Rose fumbling around the room, picking a dress for her.
"Rose, please, could you...? Could you go?"
"I'm not a three-year-old, I know how to dress myself" her voice was stern now "Please. I need to..."
She let the sentence trail off, and waited until Rose closed the door to heave a sigh. Her hair was falling in complicated wisps over her face, and she slowly dragged it back, trying to concentrate and sort out her ideas.
Willow. Willow's beautiful face gleaming in the moonlight. The green orbs of her eyes closing and being replaced by tears. It broke her heart. They had hugged. She had hugged Willow on instinct. Her heart and body had told her to do so; she would've done anything to make her feel better, to ease her pain.
Then, by the willow tree... She closed her eyes, picturing the way that Willow's head had fallen on her shoulder. It had been only right to kiss her. Only right. Willow's face, so close to hers... The kiss... Her lips moving over Willow's. Willow's lips opening for her. Like flowers; like red flowers blooming. The rush inside her; the kisses; the ride home, pressed against Willow's back. She felt dizzy just with the remembrance.
She felt weird there, in the armory, sharpening her sword. Everyone was making preparations; repairing their shields, sharpening blades, mending horse-reins and flattening bumps on their body-armors. She had never seen such a frantic display of activity around the armory; but, of course, she had never lived a war before. And the day was nearing. Everyone suddenly needed to take care of every tiny imperfection on their weapons.
Willow's sword was ready. She was lifting it, examining it in the daylight, when she was rudely pushed by a plated arm. What the...? She stumbled a couple of steps to the right, still holding her sword. It was a man of gigantic proportions (she didn't have the heart to call him a knight); he almost doubled her height, and he was all covered in chain mail. The most impressive parts of his armor were two enormous shoulder blades with spikes, but what paralyzed her was his sword. It was absolutely massive and thick; imagining what kind of damage a thing like that could make, Willow felt a shudder running down her spine. The man grabbed the hilt of his sword and lifted it, inspecting it just like Willow was doing.
"Excuse me" the redhead piped "I don't think I know you. Are you a knight?"
The man frowned and looked down at her, seemingly surprised that she was still there. What did he expect her to do, to run away in fear?
"A knight?" he asked, as if the word repulsed him, his voice bellowing over all the other sounds "I'm not a knight, boy."
"And I'm not a boy" Willow said, still holding her sword as a measure of safety "I'm Princess Willow, the King's daughter. I asked because I know all the knights around here, but I haven't seen you before. Why are you here if you aren't a knight?"
"You're the princess?" he asked, without minimum respect.
Willow had expected him to bow a little, like all the knights did before talking to her. But, she reminded herself; this man wasn't a knight.
"Well, the King - your father - employed me for some war you're having. He employed many like me. You didn't know? A scary warrior like you..."
"You have no idea..." Willow muttered, her teeth clenched "You're a mercenary?"
"That's what they usually call us. I'm just a worker; I fight and get paid. Now, Princess, would you mind leaving me to my business?"
The redhead turned to leave, shaking her head in bewilderment. Mercenaries? Her father had hired mercenaries for the war? She placed her sword back in its sheath and went in search of the King. What kind of a fair war was that? Those mercenaries didn't even care for the reasons for the battle; they didn't care for the kingdom they were fighting for, and they certainly didn't give a damn whether she was the Princess or a town boy.
She found her father in the open area where the soldiers trained. He, like everyone, was dressed in full armor (except the helmet), and was inspecting the progresses of his knights with the Slayer beside him. The Slayer was an eighteen-year-old girl (Willow's age), not very tall and not very strong-looking either. But, as in most cases, appearances were deceiving.
Being the Slayer meant being the Chosen One and, although half the people didn't believe she existed and the other half didn't even know what a Slayer was, Willow's father had complete trust in her. The general Slayer definition said that there couldn't be more than one Slayer at a time; when one died, a new one was called, a new girl, imbued with superhuman strength and heightened senses. The Slayer duty was, of course, to slay; she had been chosen to slay all the forces of evil that haunted the world. More specifically, demons: pure evil.
This Slayer's name was Buffy; she lived in a nearby town, but was staying in the Lowlands for some days. She had no inconvenience in giving some tips to the King's knights; and she had even less inconvenience in training Willow, since they had become fast friends.
"Will, hey. I mean... Princess Willow!" the Slayer corrected herself, covering her mouth.
"Hey, Buffy. It's okay, please don't call me 'Princess'; you're my friend. I... Father, I'd like to talk to you for a minute."
"What is it?" the King asked, not diverting his eyes from the fighting knights.
"Want me to go?" Buffy asked, pointing to her right.
"No, no, I want you to stay. Father, what's this I'm hearing about you employing mercenaries?"
"Mercenaries?" Buffy asked, looking up at the King.
"That's not true" he said "don't listen to any rumors that-"
"Father, I've spoken to one of them, so don't you deny it. He told me you've employed him for the battle. And he isn't the only one."
"Who was he?" the King roared "Who was such a bigmouth?"
"I don't know, he was this guy, big as a bear, and he was wearing those enormous shoulder blades with spikes. And the largest sword I have ever seen... But Father, that doesn't matter-"
"John Mason" the King sighed "The most fearful of them all."
"Your Majesty" Buffy piped in "Sorry to interrupt but... is this true? Are you hiring mercenaries for the battle? Don't you think you're playing a little unfairly here?"
"Enough!" the King huffed "I'm just assuring the victory for our side! They are expert fighters and... that's it. Now, Willow, if you still insist on fighting in this war, you better get your curious little self on that field and start training."
Willow shrugged, knowing that she could do nothing about it or change her father's beliefs. All she could do was talk to Tara later... Now she didn't want to take part in the battle, but she couldn't tell him that either. So she grabbed one of the wooden poles they were training with and began beating the crap out of all the knights.
"So, any news? Tell me, what's that Lowland king planning?"
Tara's father had a sword in his hand, and was swinging it from left to right. They were in the throne-room, and he was sitting there, playing with the sword. Tara was sitting down beside him, a light-red dress clinging to her body, and her sword placed at her side. She had no idea why her father was meeting this man in private (there was no one in the throne-room besides them), and she still understood less why he wanted her to be there.
The man was obviously some kind of warrior. He looked like a chunk of rock, broad-chested and fierce. He wore a black armor from neck to toe, including his massive hands. And the sword... the sword that was hanging from the sheath was just scary. He had been announced as "John Mason", and her father had hurriedly invited him in.
"The king has employed me and all my men. He must be damn scared of losing this battle."
"All of your men?" the King asked "You must be more than..."
"We're a hundred men, ready to fight whenever he says so, against whoever he says."
"Well..." the King said, scratching his chin "That's not exactly correct. You're ready to fight against whoever pays more, aren't you?"
"Then call me master, I'm doubling whatever that ungrateful king is paying."
Tara was dumbstruck. She couldn't believe that this was happening in front of her very eyes. Her eyes kept switching from his father to that... mercenary, and she had to grip tight to the chair to keep from saying something out loud. No, she had to listen to this, and retain the information.
What's this?, she thought. Willow's father has a hundred mercenaries. If they all look like this one... then he means business. What was her father doing? Re-hiring the mercenaries? Yes, that was it, exactly.
"So, You Majesty" the mercenary said, with mock courtesy "What do you want us to do? To change sides?"
"No, not just now. Where would the fun be in that," the King smiled "You and your men stay just where you are, on the Lowlands' side. Until the day of the battle. Understand? Then, on that day, you'll turn around and face them. Like enemies."
The blonde opened her mouth, but didn't say a thing. Oh, God. Willow, we gotta stop this.
"One more thing. Maybe it isn't important, but," the mercenary began "I think that king's getting help from another person."
"Who is it?"
"I'm not sure. They say it's a woman, and they call her 'the Slayer'. But the only woman I've seen lurking around is an incredibly weak-looking girly. She-"
"The Slayer?" Tara's father blared, his voice echoing on the room's walls "They've brought the Slayer to their side? But that's impossible!"
"That's what they say. Oh, and the King's daughter is also fighting. What do you know, she looks even weaker than that Slayer-girl. She calls herself princess. That's not a princess. That's..." the man looked at Tara for the first time "That's a princess."
Tara's only answer was staring at him coldly and grasping the hilt of her sword. Luckily, the man didn't press her more. With a slight and silly bow, he left. As soon as he had closed the door, Tara stood up and faced the King.
"Father" she demanded, her voice severe "What's going on? What have you done?"
"I've evened everything out."
"No you haven't! Both of you, both kings, you're doing this wrong! If you're having a war, at least have it fairly!"
"He is the one that's playing unfair. Mercenaries are one thing but... the Slayer! Well, if the Slayer has chosen a side, I have no intention of sparing her."
"Father, the Slayer is supposed to be neutral. I don't think she's fighting-"
"Tara!" the King interrupted her "Tara, I need your help, that's why I wanted you to listen to this. Remember what I told you about your mother's things? The ones locked inside that room?"
Tara remembered. When her mother died, her father had forbidden her to touch her mother's things: her books, everything. And he had locked those things in a small room at the highest part of the castle, in a little tower. What he didn't know was that Tara usually went there, that she had a key of her own, and that she had read all the magic books.
"Yes, Father, I remember. What do you want to-?"
"I want you to study them before the day of the battle comes. We're going to give that Slayer some of her own medicine. If she's chosen my enemy's side... I'll choose the one of her enemies."