The horse was exhausted, and no wonder: first, speeding to Tara's castle; now, galloping back to Willow's with the weight of two girls on him. Still, Willow urged him on. They had to get to Buffy and explain everything. The inconvenience was that Buffy was a guest in Willow's castle, so Tara was literally going into the wolf's lair.
"What are we going to do to keep the guards from seeing me?" Tara asked, her lips touching Willow's ear.
"Don't worry" she whispered, her voice confident.
Willow bent her head backwards and gave Tara a brief, reassuring kiss. This was her territory now, her kingdom, and she was very able of taking care, of taking charge. She rode the horse towards a side of the castle, instead of towards the front, and then dismounted. Tara's face of confusion was worth capturing in a painting.
Grinning to herself, Willow pushed away a couple of bushes that grew against the castle wall and pressed one of the bricks with both her hands, grunting with the effort. Some sort of mechanism was instantly activated. They heard the churning of wheels, and then, a part of the wall bulged and shifted, like a door. It led the way to a dark and somewhat narrow tunnel, excavated in rock, that seemed to cross under the castle.
"We're going in there?" Tara asked.
"Yes, horse and all."
With that, Willow began tugging at the horse's reins to get him inside. Her father had showed her this passage some years ago, just in case. It was a sort of emergency exit; if something happened at the castle, she was to evacuate all the people through that tunnel. Willow had never used it before, but she reckoned it would be safe. If only this damn horse would obey...
As an answer, Willow grunted again and pulled harder at the reins.
"Will, stop doing that to the horse."
"It won't move! I have to pull... or push..., or something!"
"No you don't. Will, this isn't a donkey. Donkeys are stubborn and won't move, but this is a horse. They have reasons for acting the way they do."
Tara sighed and withdrew a long handkerchief from the folds of her dress, bounding it around the horse's head and covering his eyes. Now. If he didn't see that dark tunnel, he wouldn't fear it. Speaking of which... that tunnel was dark as a pit. Willow scratched her head and said that they would have to light a fire and make a torch.
"...Which will probably call the guards' attention." Willow finished.
"I have an idea..." the blonde murmured, grabbing a branch from the floor.
Following her instructions, Willow guided the horse inside the tunnel, waited for Tara to get in too, and then pressed on another stone brick to close the "door". Now what? She was stuck in a hole in the ground with Tara and a horse, and it was dark as a... hole in the ground. Then, when she quieted her thoughts, she heard that Tara was muttering some words.
She felt her way towards the blonde, touching her arm, and then moving her fingers down towards Tara's hand, which was holding the branch.
"Willow, step back, just in case."
"What are you going to-?"
Willow's question was cut off. As soon as she drew her hand back, Tara cried out those two words, and a flame came to life out of nowhere, setting the branch ablaze. The horse shuffled nervously, but wasn't scared since he could see nothing. Willow was another matter. The redhead jumped and emitted a shriek that echoed down the tunnel.
The flame illuminated their surroundings with a drowsy light, but it was better than nothing. Willow peered at Tara from behind the horse (where she had hid) and saw that her face was bathed in shadows, but she was alright. What the hell was that?
"It's... It's a spell" Tara said, sighing.
"A spell? A magic spell?" Willow's eyes bulged and came out from behind the horse "But the fire's real?"
"Yes, it is. The spell sets things on fire."
"I can't believe it. Wow. Do you know more spells? Like making my horse fly or something? ‘Cause that would be-"
Grinning, Tara let Willow drone on and on. She didn't know many spells, just little easy ones like this one. But still, for someone that had never seen magic, the "ignis incende" one would seem incredible.
They walked down the tunnel quietly; Tara holding the improvised torch, Willow pulling the horse's rein, and their hands grasped together. It was as if they weren't in the world anymore, as if they had been walking down that passage for ever. The eerie glow that the fire produced certainly helped, and Willow felt as if she and Tara were the only people in the world. With each other but alone; and she realized that she wouldn't mind that much.
Finally, when not only Willow had lost track of time, but she had begun thinking that time had completely dissolved like a melting clock, they got to the end of the tunnel. They mounted a small ramp and got to a solid wall. It looked like an alley with no exit. She pressed her hands on one of the bricks and pushed, opening the wall before them. Stone grinded against stone, they stomped on the branch to put out the fire, and they trespassed the "door", which closed again some seconds later.
Willow was assaulted by the smell of straw and animals. The stables. They tied Willow's horse beside the others and took off Tara's handkerchief from their eyes. The blonde was about to say something when Willow hushed her. There was someone else in the stables.
"Who's there?" someone asked. Someone with a deep voice.
The person's silhouette appeared in Willow's eyeshot and, without thinking, the redhead pushed Tara on a huge pile of straw, disappearing into it. The man came fully into Willow's view. Frowning, she noted that it was John Mason, the mercenary.
"Who are you?" he bellowed.
"You really have an eyesight problem, don't you?" Willow sniggered "You never recognize me. I'm Princess Willow. And I always recognize you, mercenary."
"The Princess?" the man did a double take "Oh, yes, it's you. I'm sorry, the dress kind of confused me. I'm glad you know what a dress is."
"Will you persist in insulting me?"
"I'm just saying the truth."
"Then tell me the truth; why are you here at this hour?" Willow grinned, guessing that she might as well get some more information.
"Just taking a walk. Why are you?"
"Taking a walk."
"It's dangerous, Princess. Specially if I'm the one that's walking around here. Scram."
The mercenary sniggered and then left. Willow waited half a minute before moving (all the while cursing John Mason), and then ran to the pile of straw. She dug her hands inside it and fished for Tara. She ended up grabbing her leg, Tara's head popping out elsewhere.
"That was... close" Tara said, spitting out some straw.
"Tara, I'm so sorry!" Willow cried, getting the other girl to her feet and brushing straw off her dress.
"Will, it's okay. You had to do it."
"But... I pushed you! Did I hurt you?"
Tara smiled forgivingly and shook her head, letting Willow wipe off the straw if that made her feel better. When the redhead considered that her dress looked decent, she began with Tara's blond hair, picking a countless number of straws out.
"Ow, that was my hair."
"I'm sorry! Tara, I didn't mean to-"
"Willow, I'm joking, it's okay."
Profiting from Willow's closeness, Tara circled the girl's waist and brought her nearer. For some moments, Willow didn't notice, and she kept looking for straws. When she did, she swallowed hard, and the inspection of Tara's hair morphed into caresses.
"You know what?" Willow asked.
"What?" Tara asked, grinning and letting the tips of their noses touch.
"This is an adventure. I like having this adventure with you."
"I hope it's more than an adventure" the blonde gave a short laugh.
"Yes" Willow said, bowing her head down "It is more."
After a moment of silence, the girls held hands and left the stables with sigil. Willow leading the way, they managed to enter the castle without being seen. They climbed one of the many stairways and finally got to the door of Buffy's chamber. Willow knocked on the door twice before a weak slurry answer came.
"Yeah? Who is it?"
They entered the room and closed the door behind them. Buffy was in her nightgown, and sitting up on the bed. Her blonde hair looked fuzzy and tumbled, and the sheets were out of place. The only light in the room came from a couple of candles set beside the bed.
"Willow? It's you? And...?"
"Hi, Buffy" Tara said, stepping into the small circle of light.
"Tara?" the Slayer rubbed her eyes, not sure if she was awake "It's you? What are you doing with...?"
"Buffy, we gotta talk to you. It's very important." Willow sat on the bed and placed her hand on Buffy's, so that she knew that she was real.
"Talk to me? Both of you? I thought your kingdoms..."
"Buffy, we're trying to stop the war" Tara explained "We can't let them kill each other off."
"And they're playing dirty, both kings" Tara added, "We can't let them."
Tara ran her hand down Willow's arm and grasped her hand when she got to it, interlacing their fingers. With her right hand, she stroked Willow's red hair.
"Okay, wait" Buffy rose her hands "Wait. Before explaining this conspiracy thing... Please, explain why the heck you're holding hands like that."