Uber Setting: Diablo II
Disclaimer: Based on characters from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon and his talented minionators, and Diablo II by Blizzard Entertainment. All original material is copyright 2003 Chris Cook.
Distribution: Through the Looking Glass http://alia.customer.netspace.net.au/glass.htm
The Mystic Muse http://mysticmuse.net
River Map City Map Willow and Tara's Bedroom
Feedback: Hell yeah!
Summary: A headstrong sorceress and a young Amazon join forces to locate and destroy an ancient source of demonic power.
Tara sat quietly on the wide balcony, and waited. Her gaze, searching for something to occupy itself, scanned the panorama laid out before her: in the shadow of the mountains, huge trees rising around her, each massive trunk bearing part of the weight of Tran Athulua, the sprawling arboreal city that was her home. Or had been, she reflected ruefully—from the sounds of the conversation taking place inside the pavilion behind her, her fate would soon lie elsewhere.
Her keen ears picked out the raised voice of Solari, her weapons instructor, and the more placid tones of Eponin, mistress of her clan's house. They probably thought the sturdy pavilion wall sufficient to keep their conversation private, but Tara's hearing had always been good enough to zero in on a butterfly by the sound of its wings. She did her best not to pay too much attention to what she overheard, aware that it was private—but it was her life they were discussing, after all. And besides, she had been told to stay on the balcony, so on the balcony she stayed.
"It's not that she's not capable," Solari was insisting, accompanied by the dull sounds of her boots on the wooden floor as she indulged her habit of pacing rapidly to and fro as she spoke. "Kethryes!" she swore, "I wish half my students had her skills!"
"Then what is it?" came Eponin's voice, along with a soft noise like a sigh, as her shifted her weight on the silks covering her chair—probably crossed her legs beneath her, Tara guessed, she always did that when she decided she was in for a long debate. "If she can handle a bow and a spear well enough-"
"Oh, you have no idea!" insisted Solari. "'Well enough'—she could put an arrow through a wasp in flight, if she tried. Don't even start on javelins, I've had to separate her from the other girls these past six months, she's too good!"
"But perhaps she lacks the ability to focus? Excessive physical talent sometimes-"
"No," said Solari flatly, "I know what you mean—I was like that myself, remember? Could put a spear through a wild pig I could barely see, but couldn't muster more than a spark of lightning on the blade until well after my sixteenth year. She's not like that."
"Talented?" asked Eponin. Another sound as she shifted again—probably uncrossed her legs, Tara thought, that meant she was paying attention.
"Like you wouldn't believe," replied Solari. "I barely have to show her a focus and she masters it, it's uncanny. On the practice range she's the best I've ever seen—she can bullseye a target with her eyes closed, and blow it to pieces with fire if she wants, or lightning if she uses a spear."
"Oh, it's-" Solari's voice broke off and the sound of her pacing stopped for a moment before resuming at a slower pace. "I don't mean to become so agitated, forgive me, but... if you'd see her training you'd know. Any technical exercise she's phenomenal at, but put her against a living opponent and she just... I know we're not savages, but part of being a warrior is being a predator. I don't mean giving in to anger or bloodlust, but in the best of us it's always there, we use it. Like the men on the mainland use hunting dogs, you know? We let the dark, dangerous part of ourselves out just long enough to keep us alive and protect our homes, then rein it in before it does any more damage. Killer instinct."
"She doesn't have it?"
"If she does, it's hidden deeper than I can find," Solari admitted, her voice sounding oddly frail. "Believe me, I've tried. If she had that fire in her, she'd be a champion before her thirtieth year."
"She doesn't want to fight?" asked Eponin. "That's not so uncommon, though? If she felt strongly enough to continue her training past the end of her childhood, then surely she'll be okay, if she's ever called upon to put her skills into practice."
"It's not a matter of wanting to," said Solari wearily, "I mean, she's very gentle, but she knows we need good warriors, and she knows that people like her, with her skills, are really all that stands between us and the pirate fleets, or the creatures from the jungle coast. But it's just that, it's something she knows, not something she feels. You can see it when she spars with the other girls—she can block any attack easily, she can fend off a trident with bare hands if need be, but she doesn't fight back enough. She tries, I'm sure she knows what's expected of her and Goddess knows she tries, but it's not... her body doesn't have the instincts to go for the kill, even in practice when they're just using sticks and pads. I don't know, maybe it's just a matter of perspective."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, she knows it's just practice, she knows there's no threat to herself, or to anyone... but Zerae damn it, it's not like I can just wait until some slavers go on the march and push her into combat. Maybe she'll snap into it and do what has to be done, but you know what real fighting is like, it's not a game. It's certainly no place for a girl who may or may not have what it takes to face down an enemy who wants her dead and survive."
"Trial by fire," mused Eponin, "and you're right, we can't do that just because we think her talents might be wasted otherwise. But what do we do with her?"
"She's not happy," said Solari flatly, "she tries to hide it, but I can tell. She wants to do good, she believes she can, but we can't put her with a warrior pride without knowing she'll have a good chance of coming back alive. I've never had a pupil fall on her first expedition, Eponin, I won't allow it. If I can't prepare a girl well enough to survive, either that girl shouldn't be a warrior, or I should be replaced by someone who can train her."
"Maybe..." said Eponin cautiously. Solari's footsteps stopped, and Tara could feel her instructor's impatience as Eponin thought silently. "Ephiny wanted me to find someone to escort the expedition to Duncraig, not a warrior as such, more a... well, an emissary. Someone the noblemen there can deal with and know she's a true Amazon, but someone who won't scare the wits out of them. You remember what happened five years ago?"
"That was not my fault," said Solari hotly, but Tara could hear the amusement in her voice as she allowed Eponin to bait her.
"No, but breaking the prince-nephew's wrist just because he asked for a dance and didn't wait before taking your hand... you see what I mean. I wonder if Ephiny had Tara in mind? She knew you were coming to see me about her."
"Why not?" offered Solari. "She knows everything else that goes on."
"Well, far be it from us to question the wisdom of our queen," said Eponin. "Maybe it'll be what the girl needs, too... she won't have to fight, there'll be guards all the way, our own on the ship and Duncraig's people will join them once they go inland."
"They're good soldiers, for men," allowed Solari.
"And once they reach the court, she'll charm the wits out of them... show off some skill with the bow without having to actually kill anything, attend a few banquets or whatever they do for diplomacy over there."
"But she'll get a chance to see the world," mused Solari, "yes, I see what you mean. It'll be good for her, no doubt... so long as she's safe, mind."
"Kingsport is as strong as it's ever been, and you know Duncraig, a bandit wouldn't go within a hundred miles of the place."
"I'll talk to her," said Solari after a pause, "if she agrees, will you make the arrangements?"
Outside, Tara had already made up her mind. A journey by sea sounded unappealing, since she had never set foot off the island, but the promise of seeing the wonders of the lands of men was too great to let her enthusiasm be damped. And besides, she agreed with Solari's idea—it would do her good to see some more of the world. She wanted to be of some use to someone, to have a chance to do good, and no matter how hard she tried, she knew that she wouldn't be able to do that as a warrior. Perhaps the mainland and its sprawling, ancient kingdoms would open up a new path for her.
Willow fidgeted in her seat, realized she was doing it, and forced herself to be still. She glanced for the hundredth time at the various tapestries and stained-glass windows that gave some color to the hall she was in. Otherwise there was only the cold stone of the church around her.
It had been morning when she had arrived here with Ember, her sponsor, and the woman had vanished within the council chambers, telling her to be patient. She had waited a long time, doing her best to occupy her mind with meditations and ordered thoughts. It wasn't until the sunlight was coming at a low angle through the west-facing windows that the ancient wooden doors swung silently open and Ember emerged. She glanced at Willow as she passed and gave a quick gesture, letting her know she should follow. Ember always liked to walk while she dealt with important things; as Willow fell into step at her sponsor's side she saw they were headed for the church's open cloister, where the gardens had been allowed to ramble all over the place and cover the stone columns with flowering vines.
"The council will see you tomorrow," Ember said once she had picked a flower and begun twirling it slowly through her fingers.
"I see," said Willow, trying to sound calm, for all that the idea of facing the council terrified her.
"Don't worry," said Ember, "it's all been decided already. Oh don't be surprised," she added, seeing Willow's wide eyes, "the session of council is often just a formality. The decisions are made by study and debate, not by arcane rituals. That's just for tradition's sake."
"I see," repeated Willow, now trying not to show her relief. The last thing she wanted was to go before the council and have to argue her case, with perhaps her life in the balance. But if they had already decided-
"Will they..." she began, then trailed off, unsure how to proceed. She was supposed to discover her fate tomorrow, not be told beforehand.
"It's alright," said Ember, "your bravery and initiative were recognized. And the situation was resolved, in the end. The council are cautious, but it is not wise to dwell too much on what might have been, had things turned out differently. I spoke on your behalf."
"Will I be exiled?" Willow asked in a rush, slightly amazed at her own presumption. Ember paused for a moment, then shook her head.
"No," she confirmed, "no, you will remain one of us. But it has been decided that you should not return to Entsteig, at least not for now. You will travel to Kurast, and then by sea to Kingsport. The council has decreed that you should see the magics of Westmarch. In an academic setting only, of course. There are several schools of sorcery with whom our order has good relations, you will travel to them all in time, and broaden your knowledge of their arts. The council feels that when you return to us, your skills will be tempered by greater wisdom."
Willow felt a mild rebuke there, and let her head droop in shame. Ember noticed, and stopped walking for a moment, settling herself with her customary elegance on one of the stone benches ringing the overgrown cloister garden. Willow sat by her side.
"What you did was very dangerous," Ember said, "more than you realize, even now. All magic is a risk. This world is... balanced for humans, good and evil. Magic makes us more than human, and gives us the ability to fight evils that are more than human. But if we are careless or thoughtless, even with the best of intentions we can do great evil, and the world cannot always heal itself as it should. It is the responsibility we bear, as we accept our gifts." She sighed and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees and looking unusually pensive.
"We cannot know what might have happened," she went on, "whether what you did had a hand in saving many lives, or whether those lives would not have been in danger had you not intervened. We can only pass judgment as best we can, and look to the future."
"Will you come with me?" asked Willow.
"I wish I could," said Ember sadly, "but no. The council has asked me to remain here and assist with the new students." She took a moment to look at Willow, and smiled faintly. "Go now, and rest. I won't see you tomorrow, but my prayers go with you." She stood and embraced Willow gently, then took a step back and gestured that she was dismissed.
Tara was glad to be back on dry land. The voyage from Tran Athulua had taken a week aboard one of the twin-masted merchantmen that ran the trade route between the Amazon Isles and Kingsport, and while it hadn't exactly been unpleasant, Tara had found that every now and then she needed to get up on deck and fix her eyes on the stable, steady horizon to quell the unusual feeling in her stomach. She had hoped to see one of the giant trade flagships that Solari sometimes talked about, strong enough to brave the wild currents of the channel between the Twin Seas to the north, and reach the wealthy ports of Lut Gholein and Kurast, but they were few and far between, and none were expected to reach the Isles anytime soon.
Still, Tara had not been disappointed in her first experience with sea travel, mild nausea notwithstanding. The merchantman, named the Duchess Olivia, was a sleek vessel, if somewhat wider around the middle than the Amazon sloops Tara had seen moored off the coast of her home island, and Corius Marzon, the ship's captain, was a lively old man who took great and obvious pleasure in regaling his guests, over excellent dinners, with tales of the adventures he had seen in his younger days on the Great Ocean and the Sea of Light, far off to the east. Tara suspected some, if not all, of the stories had grown significantly in the telling over the years—if nothing else, she knew the flight of arrows and spears, which Marzon regularly exceeded in his accounts of the desperate battles he had witnessed—but the captain told a good tale, and she hadn't had the heart to interrupt. She suspected Tryptin, the head of the Amazon mission traveling with her, was equally skeptical, and had heard many of the tales before, but the quiet young man—being a diplomat—naturally let the captain believe he was enthralled by every word.
And after a week of good food, uneventful traveling and Tara wishing the waves would calm down a bit, the horizon of sea gave way to the southern edge of Westmarch. Tara had quickly made sure her few belongings were ready to be offloaded, and spent the rest of the day watching the land grow closer, the tiny dots become wallowing cargo ships and speedy launches, and the blurred shapes on the horizon become the stocky wood and stone buildings of Kingsport. Tara was impressed—she knew the city was one of the largest in Westmarch, the main port of trade for all those from the east who didn't fancy taking their chances with the caravan across the desert wasteland of Aranoch, but until she saw it with her own eyes she hadn't realized the scope of the construction. Everything in Tran Athulua was built in the trees, a part of the world as it had always been—homes, markets, official buildings and temples all supported by the great old trunks, the city a refinement, a civilized reworking of the forest itself. Tara had never before seen such a large community built on the ground, without the forest to support it. She wondered if the natives ever realized how artificial their home was, perched on bare land like a creature huddling down against the cold. Living in such a place seemed as strange as building a house with no supporting beams within it. Then again, she thought, perhaps to the people of Kingsport, the notion of an arboreal city was a fantastic and bizarre thing.
Not that building on open land didn't have its advantages, Tara mused, as she walked across the gangplank between the Duchess Olivia and the stone docks that stretched out into the bay before Kingsport. Until someone found a tree that likes growing with half its trunk underwater the Amazon cities were restricted to carrying out their loading and unloading of ships the old-fashioned way, with flotillas of launches moving between the moored vessels and the beaches. Tara took a moment to look back at the Duchess, which was already having its cargo unloaded by teams of men on the docks, using counterbalanced cranes that swung out over the deck of the ship—it was definitely more efficient.
It would take a few hours for the vessel to be completely offloaded and the Amazon mission to prepare itself to move from the docks, so Tara was free to explore the old city for a little while at least. Tryptin had given her a few pointers on how to get around and what to avoid, but Kingsport was known as a generally safe port for travelers, and Tara knew how to take care of herself if she had to. Besides, she thought with a tiny grin as she made her way along the dock towards the shore, she was not likely to be picked as an easy mark by any loitering robbers. Though the year was making its way inexorably towards winter, Kingsport was far enough south that the winds were still mild, so Tara wore no cloak or robe. Her light leather armor, built for speed and silent movement, was perhaps a little more revealing than she would have liked—strange, she mused to herself, she had never really considered it at home, but here where most people were covered from neck to ankle despite the warm sun on them, she was a little aware of the sidelong glances she was attracting. To be fair, though, the fact that she was carrying Solari's prized spear, Silverstrike, might account for a few of those. Tara's instructor had insisted she take the ancient weapon, a family heirloom that had no warrior heir, with Solari's children being all male. The polished shaft and curved moon-white blade certainly marked Tara as a warrior to passers-by, for all that she felt slightly overwhelmed to be carrying it.
She spent an enjoyable couple of hours browsing the busy markets that clustered around the docks, sampling the spices brought in from a dozen distant lands, and idly wondering what the vendors thought of an Amazon with an interest in cooking. She had drifted to the edge of the markets, near the older part of the city, a maze of two-story stone buildings and twisting alleyways, when she felt a tickle on the back of her neck. She quickly scanned the faces around her, knowing better than to ignore her instincts. Ignoring the boisterous crowds her senses homed in on anything out of place, shifting the buyers and sellers into the background for a moment. She caught a glimpse of a thin female form, underneath a long, hooded cloak, just as it disappeared into an alleyway, and noticed three unkempt-looking men slowly drifting out of the crowd, following her.
She knew at once they meant to rob her—the way they held their arms guaranteed they had weapons hidden up their sleeves, and their gait was uniformly too casual, as they forced themselves to appear to be merely wanderers, rather than the predators they really were. Tara was already moving towards them, sliding between stalls and moving behind the crowd, making sure she was unseen. Getting into a fight was the last thing on her mind, let alone starting one—on her first day in Westmarch, too—but three large men stalking one small woman offended her deeply, more than just the notion of robbery in itself. From their mannerisms and expressions, she judged the men to be nothing special, and hoped that the appearance of an obvious warrior with a lethal-looking spear would be enough to scare them off.
She reached the mouth of the alley barely seconds after the trio had disappeared, and saw as her eyes adjusted to the gloom that the woman had slowed down, seemingly unaware of the danger. The men were almost on top of her, one casually strolling alongside her, intending to overtake her and cut off her escape, the other two moving silently behind her.
"Gentlemen," Tara said loudly, "looking for something?" It wasn't the most inventive challenge—Tara was glad not to have stuttered—but it did the trick. The man in the lead took one look at her and sped up, disappearing around the next corner in his best impression of an innocent bystander. Of the other two, one swore and shot a glance after his vanishing comrade, and the other turned to Tara and let a small cudgel fall out of his sleeve into his hand. Tara raised her spear and let her mind become clear, creating the focus just like Solari had taught her, sending a swift, silent prayer to the goddess Zerae to aid her. A ripple of lightning ran along the shaft of the spear, really nothing more than a demonstration, but as it reached the spear's tip and leapt forward, earthing into the cobblestones at the robbers' feet, it had quite the desired impact. Tara stared levelly at them, and raised an eyebrow when they met her gaze—in truth, she hadn't been able to think of anything to say, but they took her point and ran nonetheless.
"A-are you alright?" she asked the women once her would-be assailants had vanished.
"Oh yesss," came a soft, sensual voice from the shadows beneath the hood, "I was in no dangerrr... but your kindnesss is most grrratifying." Tara nodded her acceptance, even as she tried to place the woman's accent—it was a strange one, hissing and purring alternately. The hood twitched, as if the person beneath it had tilted her head in curiosity.
"You are new in ourrr city, yesss?" she asked.
Tara nodded again, then tried to contain her surprise as the woman drew back her hood and revealed a feline face, with wide, deep eyes, pointed ears and a flattened muzzle, all covered in fur so fine it looked like her skin was a glistening, sleek black, until the points of the tiny hairs caught the light.
"Few would go out of their way to help a strangerrr in a strange city," the feline woman said, as she and Tara walked along the edge of the market.
"I-I'm sorry to hear that," said Tara.
"You're a kind one," the woman said with a very catlike grin. "We have good instincts for people. You have cats in your home place?"
"Yes," Tara said, thinking of the very independent-minded cats that made their homes in the higher branches above the city.
"Well, you know they alwaysss spot who'll give them a rrrub behind the earsss," the woman said. Tara glanced at her, and realized she was making a sly joke.
"Don't get your hopes up," she said, smiling tentatively, "I'm j-just discouraging robbers." The woman grinned widely and made a purring sound that Tara guessed was her version of laughter.
"Heartbrrreaker," she teased. "Hmm, most of your kind act embarrassed if one of us draws attention to what we arrre... you're refreshing," she added with another grin—Tara was noticing she grinned a lot, and found it infectious. They came to a spacious tent set up in a corner of the market, where the cries of the food vendors gave way to the more sedate sounds of various wise men, mystics and fortune-tellers all subtly plying their trade with adventurous travelers.
"I am Mmrrrlrrr," said the feline woman, "as a frrriend, I invite you to my home." She said it formally, like a prayer or ritual, and Tara guessed it was a custom of her people. She thanked her and went inside, finding the tent comfortably-appointed, with a wooden floor and colorful tapestries covering the walls.
"Ma-re-la is alright," the woman said, following Tara in, "I don't think your voicesss quite have the knack of ourrr tongue."
"Ta-rrra," repeated Marela, "good name. Soundsss like 'night-eyesss' in my tongue, a good name."
"Th-thank you," said Tara, seating herself on a pile of cushions as Marela lounged opposite her, instantly looking comfortable and luxurious the way a cat would. "D-does your name translate?"
"You know," said Marela, twitching her tail idly, "I've been in this place five yearsss, and no-one has yet asked me? You're a strange people... just between you and me, in your language, it means 'Miss Kitty'." Tara bit the inside of her cheek to stifle a giggle. "I know," said Marela with a feline stretch, "but my motherrr was a traditionalist... besidesss, it's not an exact trrranslation. Saying it in human makes it sound... cute." She grinned and shrugged.
Tara and Marela chatted idly for a couple of hours, stopping once or twice as a customer peeked tentatively through the flaps of the tent, looking to have their fortune told. Tara sat off to one side on those occasions, as Marela purred in her speech more than usual, went through a few eccentric feline customs involving waving crystals around and scratching patterns on a thin wooden board with her claws, and generally making sure anyone who visited her came away with the impression that they'd got some genuine exotic wisdom. Tara recognized most of it as pure show, but something told her that Marela wove a bit of real magic into her act, dropping innocuous comments and advice into her spiel that seemed to take her customers by surprise.
When Tara finally had to take her leave of her new friend, seeing the sun beginning to set and knowing she should spend the night with the caravan, even though it wouldn't set out until the next morning, Marela asked her to wait a moment. Digging through a pile of cushions, which seemed to be the sole form of furniture for a feline, she produced a tiny amulet on a silver chain, which she offered to Tara.
"A token of grrratitude," she said, "for your selflessness, and your company. My pride is farrr away in the land your kind call Kehjistan, but if you should ever find yourself there, they will greet you as a guest, and know by thisss token that you are frrriendly to us." Tara thanked her and put on the amulet, which she thought matched her armor and spear nicely.
"And if you ever rrreconsider that rrrub behind the earsss," Marela added, her eyes wide, "you know where to find me, mmm." She winked at Tara and wound her arm in the material of the tent flap, letting her robe fall open at the side just enough for Tara to catch a glimpse of the side of her body and her leg, all covered in silky black fur and nothing else, except a stripe of white running up her thigh.
"Th-thank you," she stuttered, knowing Marela was teasing—well, half-teasing, at least—but still not quite sure how to respond. The feline smiled and disappeared back into her tent as Tara took a last glance back, then made her way out into the market.
She arrived back at the docks just as the sun was finally setting. The docklands and markets were still lit by dozens of torches, almost as bright as day, and Tara had no trouble finding the space where the Amazon mission had set itself up. Half a dozen wagons were surrounded by various teamsters, Amazon merchants and a contingent of Kingsport guards, a mere formality in peacetime, but one the city gratefully extended to the visiting Amazons, knowing full well how valuable they would be as allies if times turned worse. Tryptin was chatting easily with the lieutenant commanding the guards, and took a moment out to direct Tara to the covered wagon she would be traveling in when they went on the road the next day.
"Oh," he added as Tara was walking away, "there's another traveler in there with you, hope you don't mind. Apprentice wizard or something, her credentials checked out, she'll be with us as far as Duncraig. Call me if you need anything." He didn't seem concerned at all, so neither was Tara as she drew back the canvas flap covering the rear of the wagon and stepped up and inside.
"Oh! Um, hi," said a voice from inside. As Tara's eyes adjusted to the low light of a single lamp, she saw a slim young woman sitting among a pile of bags and satchels, an open book in her hands, her bright eyes staring at Tara in wonder.
"I'm Willow," the woman said.
Willow finally finished stowing her traveling gear and satchels in the wagon and sat down among them with an exhausted sigh. She had been taught to travel light, and could survive for weeks with only the wilderness and the contents a small backpack to keep her going, but her training had omitted certain aspects of life on the road. Specifically, how to cope with being used as a pack-mule for the Order's library.
She frowned, remembering her appearance before the council. They had, at the time, seemed quite reasonable, much more like kindly old women than the stern matriarchs Willow had expected. Their speaker, a sorceress in her mid-fifties wearing white robes, had done her best to put Willow at ease as she stood before them, intimidated both by her surroundings and the knowledge of the power the council had over her. Ahead of her sat the council, six sorceresses in pairs representing the three elemental schools, and behind each pair stood one of the blind Oracles, who were the most sought-after type of initiate, and who never left the church once they had been brought in. To one side of the council, on Willow's right, stood a column of sandstone, deep red even in the gloom of the council chamber, seeming to glow from within—fire. To her left, a column of obsidian covered in an oily film that crackled softly as tiny sparks ran across it—lightning. Behind her stood the third column, made of ice that never melted, and she privately wondered if it was coincidence that the element she was most attuned to was the one positioned out of her view. The speaker, she noted, was from the lightning triad, and none of the ice triad ever spoke during her hearing, except to quietly pass their decision to the speaker.
"It has been decided," the speaker had said, her kind voice taking on an unfamiliar formality, "that while your courage and your desire to serve are proven, your natural aptitude towards magic has left you wanting in the more scholarly aspects of our tradition. It is as much our failing as any other's that you lack this insight, for all those we take among us are unique, and we forget that at our peril. Nevertheless, the failing has occurred, and must be rectified before you may return to Entsteig and your training.
"We therefore bestow upon you the duty to be our representative among the great schools of magics in Westmarch and Khanduras. It is necessary that one of our Order visit these places, for while their magics are not ours, and we do not wish them to be, our devotion to the pure magic of the elements does not mandate that we go in ignorance of lesser mages.
"You will be given funds and authority to study with mages and tutors who, though outsiders, are known and trusted by our Order. You will not practice their magics, but you will understand them, and bring your understanding to us when you return. They will no doubt give you many books and manuscripts for our library, but written words can only go so far—we require the insight that only first-hand knowledge can bring.
"While you perform this service to the Order, it is our hope that you will come to better understand our place within the world, and the place of our magics within the magic of nature. Thus you will acquire the learning we have so far neglected to offer you, and know why it is that we devote ourselves only to the purest ways.
"So speak the Zann Esu."
It had sounded good at the time, for Willow had always been aware that the requirements of the Order seemed unnecessarily restrictive, particularly their sole devotion to elemental magic. Yet all her tutors and seniors, including many powerful, wise women—Ember not least among them—accepted it without question. Willow was not so headstrong as to assume that they were merely afraid of other magics, so clearly there was a good reason, but so far she had failed to discover what it was. She had been told that impure magics were dangerous, liable to fail in unfortunate ways, or to cause untold harm to their practitioners, but that was true of any magic. Certainly elemental magic had more than its share of dangers attached, as any fool could see—trying to control a bolt of lightning strong enough to shatter a boulder, or an inferno that could melt steel, with only the power of one's mind was not a pursuit for the faint-hearted. Perhaps, then, the council had been right, and Willow did need to see other magics for herself, to find out why they were different.
She was now coming to believe, however, that her assignment to this task was more a matter of convenience than design. Following the instructions she had been given, she spent her first day in Kingsport after a tempestuous voyage through the Twin Seas seeking out four old mages who had made their homes in the city, two of them attached to the reformed Horadrim church, one of them a cleric of some minor order Willow wasn't too sure she understood, and the last a wizened old alchemist who, by the look of things, hadn't left his laboratory since before the Reckoning twenty years ago. Each of them had politely welcomed her, retrieved various scrolls, leather-bound volumes, maps and charts for her to take back to the Order, and just as politely shuffled her back out the door again. Grumbling to herself while stowing all of them in waterproof satchels and finding space for them in the wagon she had been placed in by the caravan master, she wondered if the council had just wanted her out of the way for a while.
The next morning Willow was surprised to see people being turned away from the caravan. This in itself was not unusual—when she had been in Entsteig there had always been more travelers seeking the safety of the caravans than could be accommodated, and the road between Kingsport and Duncraig saw far more travelers than anywhere in the north, even with the wealthy avoiding it in favor of the luxurious riverboats. But, so far as Willow could see, she and a pair of men—a gemstone dealer and his bodyguard, in the third wagon—were the only passengers among the half a dozen wagons.
After breakfast she asked Shan, the caravan master, what was going on in one of the rare moments when he wasn't being beset by hopeful merchants and travelers.
"Big party coming in today," he explained, in the terse manner Willow was beginning to think was a habit for him, "ship arrives soon, the Duchess Olivia. Booked the whole caravan months ago. Only needed five wagons, and we've got six, otherwise you and Jasken," he indicated the gem dealer, who was haggling with a trader outside his wagon, "would've had to wait. Diplomatic expedition, to the Baron's palace, then up to Duncraig to see the Regent. We'll take on new passengers then." He turned away as a group of wealthy-looking men began trying to bargain with him.
The caravan was parked near the docks, with only a handful of stalls and tents separating them. Willow kept out of the way of the teams of men moving cargo about, and found a foreman who didn't look like he had anything vital to do at the moment. She frowned as his eyes went to her figure first, but he straightened up and behaved more respectably once he noticed the Zann Esu sash around her waist and the staff in her hand, the wood inlaid with glittering veins of crystal.
"Ma'am," he said, adopting what he evidently hoped was a sufficiently contrite expression.
"Has the Duchess Olivia arrived yet?" Willow asked.
"No, ma'am," the foreman said hurriedly, "not yet, she's due this morning though and by all account the weather's been good on her course, so she should be in sight any time now. Are you boarding her, ma'am?"
"No," said Willow, "just meeting the passengers."
"Oh," said the foreman. "They're from Philios, you know, ma'am," he added hesitantly. Having not been turned into a frog, or whatever he seemed to fear was the result of inadvertently checking out a sorceress, he seemed to be regaining his nerve.
"Is that so?" said Willow icily. The foreman nodded, glanced around, hastily bowed a farewell and scampered away. Willow stared out to sea for a moment, wondering if any of the dim blurs on the horizon were ships, or just her imagination, then wandered back to her wagon.
She thought 'Philios' sounded like somewhere up on the Westmarch peninsula, but she couldn't find it there when she consulted one of the maps she had been given from the Order's library. She found a larger-scale map and scanned it lazily, hoping the name would catch her eye—the cartographers employed by the Order seemed to favor detail over clarity sometimes. She glanced over the coastline of Westmarch, the Gulf and even Entsteig, just in case she hadn't heard of the place when she had been there, all without result. It was only when she was on the verge of folding the map away that she chanced on the name, and her eyes widened. She double-checked, but she had read it correctly: Skovos, Lycander, Philios—the Amazon Isles.
Well, she thought, this should be interesting. She had never met an Amazon, but Ember had sometimes mentioned them, on the rare occasions she spoke of the Reckoning. Willow searched through the provisions she had brought with her, and found what she was looking for. Before she had been sent to Entsteig, Ember had given her a book she had written, a notebook she had made during her own travels. It was a rambling, disorganized volume the older woman had added to whenever she had thought something worth recording, but perhaps... Willow flipped through the pages, past instructions for mixing herbs, how to bury the dead to prevent reanimation, the methods of creating various staves imbued with elemental powers, what various shapes of clouds revealed about the state of the winds in the sky and sketches of dozens of minor predators, including instructions for dealing with them. Finally a quick drawing of a spear caught her eye—Amazons were spearwomen, she knew—and she read in more detail.
'It would no doubt amuse many to know,' Ember had written, 'that the reclusive Amazons are, in fact, among us in all the nations of Sanctuary. Though most, besides the nobility, hear only wild rumors of warrior-women, there are in truth as many men as women who serve the Amazon nation. And while the women, great warriors and mages after a fashion, remain on their island homes to protect them, their men travel widely as merchants, diplomats, teachers and apprentices in all trades. Thus their nation remains in contact with those of the mainland, their people learn new skills and crafts, and the majority of their women take husbands and live in a fashion not very much dissimilar to that of other nations, which would no doubt come as something of a disappointment to the brainless alcoholics who frequent the taverns around here, and tell lurid tales of tribes of women and their sexual exploits, which would, I imagine, cause a real Amazon to laugh aloud, were any of these fools to tell their tales in her presence. I must find better lodgings.' Part of the problem with Ember's notebook was that, though she was a perceptive observer of practically every aspect of the world around her, she tended to get sidetracked when it came to writing things down, particularly on her travels when she hadn't had the peace and quiet of the Order's church. Willow skimmed the next couple of paragraphs, which complained some more about the less sober denizens of Khanduras, where Ember had evidently been while she wrote this section, and related an amusing incident involving a man who hadn't known better than to make an indecent suggestion to a sorceress, and had left the tavern swearing never to drink again, unharmed but with his clothes burned to ash.
'It seems that this time of chaos,' Ember had written a few days later, 'has drawn the warriors of the Amazon nation out of their seclusion, so that they walk among us and sometimes, if one is fortunate, can be persuaded to exchange a little of their knowledge. My companion of the last few days is quite amiable, though she affects a stern countenance in public, and I have learned as much about her ways of magic as she has learned about the elements from me. Of the reason for her presence in this place at this time she has been vague, and I suspect that behind this secrecy lies some source of knowledge akin to our oracles. But it is certain that, as our Order has, the Amazons too have foreseen the rise of the Prime Evils, and sent their finest warriors to aid the cause of order.' She seemed to have stopped writing for a while there, because the next paragraph was in a different ink, and on the subject of the mastery of fire magic, which Ember had studied all her life. Willow searched the surrounding pages for more details, but there seemed to be none.
She had to admit she was a little disappointed. She had assumed there were Amazon men, of course—how else would they get more Amazons?—but she would have liked to have met a warrior. But the Reckoning, the great battle against the Prime Evils, had been twenty years ago, and since then the Amazon women had been just as scarce as they had been before. Willow doubted a diplomatic expedition to Duncraig required the presence of any warriors. She had been forming the idea of waiting on the docks, to watch the Amazons arrive, but though she was sure their men would be amiable enough traveling companions, she couldn't quite muster any enthusiasm.
She sighed and returned the notebook and maps to their satchels, then went out in search of supplies and lunch. Afterwards, for want of anything else to do, she came back to the wagon and read some more of Ember's notebook, picking a page at random and discovering all sorts of things she had never really considered about minor demons, the wielding of a staff as a melee weapon in an emergency, and which parts of the imp species called 'Fallen' were edible, if the only other option was starvation. Ember had led an adventurous life. Willow saw the name Deckard Cain in the text, surprised that her sponsor had met the famous Horadrim scholar before he disappeared, and began vaguely searching through a copy of one of his manuscripts that she had acquired the previous day. Unlike Ember, the old man seemed to have an aversion to writing down anything he didn't consider absolutely necessary—the text dealt mainly with the relations between various species of demons, and read like a particularly dull textbook. Willow was just about to stow her books and head out for dinner when someone pulled up the canvas flap at the back of the wagon and climbed inside.
"Oh!" exclaimed Willow, seeing torchlight, not sunlight, outside, and realizing how long she had been reading. "Um, hi," she added, as her visitor reacted to her. Willow had greeted her automatically, and only now took in what she was seeing: an athletic figure, clothed in leather armor, which was cut to allow a lot of freedom of movement, and—Willow tried not to stare at the woman's ample cleavage, on display as she climbed into the wagon—leaving no doubt that the Amazons had brought a warrior along after all. Willow fixed her gaze resolutely on the Amazon's face—the last thing she wanted was to offend her—and found a surprisingly gentle gaze staring back at her, not at all the stern Valkyrie warrioress she had imagined.
"I'm Willow," she heard herself say.
Tara hesitantly brushed her hair out of her eyes.
"I-I'm Tara," she said, smiling at her companion. She hadn't really given it much thought when Tryptin had told her she'd be traveling with an apprentice wizard, but a vague notion of a pale-skinned boy in pretentious robes and a pile of books had passed through her mind. Instead, she found herself sharing the wagon with an attractive redhead with a spritely smile, robes that were cut with far more style than Tara would have expected, and if her skin was pale, it didn't exactly put Tara in mind of someone who never saw the sun, so much as make her entertain some surprising thoughts about what it would feel like to touch. In deference to stereotypes, however, she was in the middle of a pile of books.
"So, you're an Amazon, huh?" asked Willow, and before Tara could give the obvious answer, she went on: "Well, yeah, obviously you are, I guess you don't get many cases of mistaken identity with the armor and the spear and all..."
"No," agreed Tara. "I m-mean, yes. Yes, I'm an Amazon," she explained at Willow's confused stare, "and no, not much mistaken identity... it's the spear."
"And the armor," insisted Willow, "I'm sure people just look at that armor and think, 'yep, she's an Amazon all right'... because it's Amazon-y armor, not for any other reason with people looking at you, of course... I really don't know what I'm saying," she finished pleadingly.
"Um, we c-could start again?" suggested Tara, too caught up in the surprise and the momentum of the conversation to think straight. "Hi, I'm Tara?"
"Hi, I'm Willow," said Willow. "You're right, that went much better."
"I thought so."
"Friendly yet dignified."
Tara saw Willow set her jaw, and their eyes locked for a long moment. Both of them broke into a fit of laughter at the same time. Once Tara had managed to rein herself back to a grin she pulled her spear fully inside the wagon, and leaned out to grab her pack and bow from where she had left them on the ground.
"Here, let me get that," offered Willow, sliding herself forward to help Tara with the spear. "Unless it's some sort of mortal offence to, you know, touch an Amazon's spear, it isn't, is it? Cause if it is, I'm sorry," she finished in a small voice.
"Um, it isn't, a-and thanks," said Tara, handing her the spear and, with both hands, hauling her pack up into the wagon. "It's not really mine anyway, my instructor gave it to me for the trip. Will it fit?"
"Yep," said Willow, kicking one of her satchels out of the way to make room for the weapon. She noticed the odd way the light of the lamp was reflecting off its shaft.
"Oh wow," she said, entranced by it, "is that electrum?"
"Um, I-I don't really know," said Tara, stowing her pack and sitting by Willow's side, "it's an old weapon, it's been in my instructor's family for generations. Th-there's only a couple of people who know how they're made, I'm really not sure."
Willow nodded absently, her eyes following the veins of metal buried in the polished wood. It suddenly occurred to her that her new companion might not want her going over every detail of her weapon, especially if it was as unique as she said. It was probably a secret Amazon design, or something. She helped Tara store the spear up against the wagon's side, where it wouldn't get in the way, and started moving her satchels up into a corner.
"Sorry about this," she explained, "I got a bit distracted reading, or I'd have cleaned up a bit before you got here. I was going to watch your ship come on, but I guess I lost track of time. Um, did you have a good journey?"
"Yes, it was... nice," said Tara, not really sure how to describe her non-eventful trip. "Were y-you waiting long?"
"Oh, no, I got here yesterday, and I had people to see... I'm sort of on a learning expedition, hence the traveling library."
"O-our negotiator said y-you were a-an apprentice," said Tara hesitantly, "d-do you have a... a master, or mistress, or someone?"
"No, just me," answered Willow, "I'm not an apprentice... well, I am sort of, but... my Order doesn't do apprentices, exactly, we have sponsors who, I guess, take care of us, but it's more of a group thing, we learn from everyone. But at the moment it's just me, anyway."
"H-have you h-had d-dinner?" ventured Tara, as Willow paused for breath.
"No, not yet, I've got some camp food, you're welcome to have some if you want, but it's a bit, you know, ration-y and boring..."
"Th-there's a tavern just nearby," suggested Tara, "I was going to try there. I-if you'd like to come?"
"Sure," beamed Willow.
There was a sign outside the tavern, in Westlin and Khejan, letting the patrons know that weapons were strictly forbidden. Tara was about to go back to the caravan and ask Tryptin to mind the spear—she hadn't wanted to leave it unattended in the wagon—when the barkeep hurried outside and, in his best attempt at a formal manner, invited the two women in, promising his best table and making a tongue-tied mess of reciting the day's special dishes. Willow, who had noticed Tara's hesitation at the sign, caught her eye and shrugged.
"Maybe having an Amazon stop by is good for the place's reputation," she suggested, as the barkeep darted away for a moment to harass one of the serving boys. He returned a moment later, ushering them through the main room to the far side, where there was a row of two-person tables, separated from each other by thin wooden partitions and offering a view of the marketplace outside. The serving boy scurried to the corner table and laid a cloth over it, and one over each seat, while the barkeep led them through the crowd. The tavern's patrons, a fairly civilized lot all things considered, made way grudgingly for the barkeep, and quickly for Tara. Willow glared at one of them, whose eyes slid inexorably to the rear view of Tara as she passed, then smiled wryly at herself.
"This is pretty good," she said as she sat down, passing her staff to Tara, who leant it and her spear in the corner, out of reach of anyone passing by the table. A light breeze wafting over the markets kept the air fresh, with a hint of exotic spices and pleasant-smelling who-knows-what from the stalls outside, and the men crowded at the bar and the tables around it were cheerfully alcoholic, by the sounds of it, rather than outright noisily drunk.
"I-is it?" said Tara. "I mean, yes, I like it... this is the first tavern I've been to. Away from home, I mean. So, you know, as far as I know they're all like this."
"Well, I've stayed in my share of taverns in Entsteig," Willow said with a rueful grin, "and trust me, you don't want to know how loud a roomful of drunk men can get. For a harbor city, this is very nearly civilized." On cue, a roar of laughter erupted from the other side of the bar, where someone had managed to land a dart in the dartboard backwards. "More or less," Willow amended. The serving boy appeared, obviously having been instructed to be on his most formal best behavior, bowing and saying 'ma'am' a lot more than necessary. Willow thought the soup sounded good, while Tara chose a salad.
"It's not really that different to home, I guess," said Tara a moment later, her eyes scanning the crowd.
"No?" asked Willow, giving Tara her full attention.
"Apart from the women, I mean," Tara went on, "at home it'd be the women getting drunk and being loud, and the men sort of good-naturedly putting up with them. Here it's the other way around." She watched as a man in the middle of the room burped impressively, them shamefacedly apologized to his companion, who rolled her eyes.
"Most of them probably don't know there are Amazon men," said Willow, remembering Ember's notebook. She added in a low voice, with a sly smile: "I think it'd spoil their fantasies if they knew." Tara stifled a giggle, and blushed adorably.
"Th-there are stories that go around in the training barracks," she said, "that the men overhear when they travel, and bring back, about what people think Amazons are like. It's kind of funny, really... this fantasy image of dominating seductresses with no armor and enormous..." she gestured vaguely at her chest. "I mean, yes, most women are warriors, but... well, we're still just people. Most warriors, once they've served their time in the prides, find a man and settle down."
"Oh," said Willow, and then, for no reason she could pin down, added: "Most?" Tara seemed surprised by the question, and didn't meet Willow's gaze, dipping her head instead to hide her eyes behind her hair.
"M-men aren't for e-everyone," she said quietly. There was an uncomfortable silence for a moment, as Willow tried to think of something to say, until Tara abruptly asked: "S-so, you're from Entsteig?"
"Oh, not originally," said Willow, glad to be clear of the unexpected undertone the conversation was causing in her, "I was sent there, part of my training. The Order has a city in Kehjistan, up-river from Kurast... it's kind of a secret, but it doesn't really matter, there's a lot of 'up-river from Kurast' to get lost in if you don't know where you're going. I was born up on the Westmarch peninsula, but the Order came and took me when was seven."
"Took you?" asked Tara, confused.
"Yep. Oh, not like grabbing me in the middle of the night, or anything," Willow hastened to explain, "no, it's how the Order works, they assess girls who might have the talent for magic, and those that do get to go with them and train. It's an honor, really... I actually can't remember my parents ever being happier than when I was chosen," she added, with a slight hint of resentfulness. Tara decided to steer clear of the subject of Willow's parents.
"Seven years old," she said instead, searching her memory. "You're a Zann Esu?"
"Yep," confirmed Willow, "that's me. I guess you heard of us somewhere."
"My instructor," Tara explained, "she met a sorceress once. She told me a little about her."
"All good, I hope?" joked Willow. "We used to be really big with the secrecy, but since the Reckoning the Order's kept a presence in a few cities here and there. We don't travel in disguise anymore, we used to, you know. My sponsor said that when she traveled during the Reckoning, it was the first time in a thousand years that a sorceress had been seen outside the church—that's our city, ages ago it was just the one building, it's expanded a lot but we still call it that—what was I saying?—oh, yes, the first time a sorceress had traveled as a sorceress. Not in disguise, I mean. Part of the training used to be social skills, how to blend in anywhere, pretend to be anyone."
"Like us," said Tara. "Amazons, I mean. Amazon men—they travel, but no-one knows who they are."
"Right," agreed Willow, "it used to be a big clandestine operation thing. That was way before my time, of course. Ember—my sponsor—says the whole point was that no-one outside the Order knew we existed, so none of the evil forces that were coming could plan against us. Then the evil forces did come, and Ember and the others, the best the Order had, went out and fought the Reckoning. And now it's all over, people are used to seeing sorceresses around."
"Your sponsor fought in the Reckoning?" asked Tara. "Actually in the campaign itself?"
"I think so," said Willow, "she doesn't talk about it much. She drops hints now and then. Just between us, I think she likes being mysterious." Tara grinned.
"So you came here from Entsteig?" she asked, after a pause while their meals arrived.
"Not quite," said Willow, "I was supposed to finish my training there, but there was a problem... there was an accident. I tried to help, but I didn't... I didn't work magic the way a sorceress is supposed to. It all worked out alright in the end," she added, with a smile Tara could sense was covering up something painful, "but it could've gone badly. So I went back to the church, for the Council, the heads of the Order, to decide what to do with me."
"They sent you here?" asked Tara.
"Here, Duncraig, Westmarch," Willow explained, "There's a lot of mages and sorcerers, not part of the Order, but friendly to it. I'm supposed to study with them, so I can learn more about the nature of magic. Something like that. The Order just teaches elemental magic, and the Council decided I needed to know how other sorts of magic worked."
"Oh," said Tara. "So that you can do other sorts of magic?"
"So I can not do them," said Willow with a regretful frown. "The Zann Esu are elementalists only... before the Reckoning, all of the mage clans except ours had problems with corruption, demons tricking mages into serving them, or becoming too powerful and dangerous. The Esu witches, when they formed the Zann Esu, decided to practice only elemental magic, because the elements are pure, they can't contain demonic influence. They decided the only way to avoid becoming tainted was to avoid all other magic completely. Even with the Reckoning done, there's still demons around, and the Council is still pretty wary of other kinds of magic. They didn't exactly say so, but I think they're hoping I'll learn that all magic other than the elements are dangerous, and stop being interested in them."
"You don't agree?" asked Tara.
"I do, kind of," admitted Willow with a frown, "some magic is just plain suicidal... demonic magic, for instance, summoning a demon and trying to get it to do what you want isn't really the brightest idea. Not that that stops people, though—it's easy, that's the problem, the demons want to be summoned, so any fool can do it if they find the right book. Still, I used to wonder if there was something to learn in it. Not actually summoning," she added quickly, "but just studying demons, seeing how they work, how they can exist here, how to send them back where they came from." She stopped, and smiled at herself.
"And that's what the Council was worried about, and they're right," she said sadly, "you start off with some girl wondering how you reverse a simple summoning, and then she gets too interested in demonology, and before you know it you've got the next Bartuc on your hands."
"Th-the next who?" Tara asked.
"Hm? Oh, an old mage," Willow said, "he wasn't careful enough with his magic, and ended up decimating his clan when the demons got control of him. That all happened ages ago... third century, I think. The mage war between Bartuc and his brother were what drove the Esu witches into seclusion, or maybe it was just after that. Doesn't matter. That's the problem, though, most of the clans forbid some sorts of magic, but there's always some bratty kid who wants to know why. That's me," she added with a smile.
"Wow," said Tara. "I-I never knew it was so complicated."
"You have magic, don't you?" asked Willow. "Amazons, I mean."
"Um, I suppose," Tara said hesitantly, "sort of magic. Well, it's not our magic, it comes from our gods. Some of them watch over our warriors, a-and we can use their power. If we can call on it, that's the tricky part. It's called creating a focus, we do it with spears and bows, because they're our traditional weapons, and they're part of who the gods are. There's a way of," she concentrated, wondering how to explain it, "making the weapon into something that is almost magical, a-a place where magic can be. Not everyone can do it. But when you do, it means that you can tap a little of the powers of the gods, and bring them into the world through the focus, through the weapon."
"I've never heard of magic working like that," said Willow, whose eyes had fixed on Tara in fascination as she had described it. "Can you do it?"
"Yes," admitted Tara, "I've got a sort of talent for it. It runs in families, not always, but often. I'll show you some time, if you'd like."
"Sure! I'd love to see how you do it."
Willow was just starting to enjoy her soup when a shadow fell across the table. She and Tara looked up to see a broad-shouldered man, who evidently had a decent cargo of beer aboard, and sported a protruding stomach that said it wasn't the first time.
"Hello ladies," he said with an over-familiar grin, "like some company?"
"N-no thank you," said Tara politely, but coldly. He didn't take the hint.
"Must be lonely, just the two of you? Come on, I'll buy you both a drink."
"We're not drinking," said Willow, assuming what she hoped would be an intimidating glare.
"Why not? S'good for you, having a drink after a long day's work. Hey," he added, leering at Willow, "that's a nice outfit. C'mon, gimme your hand, we'll have a dance."
Tara reached back to the shaft of her spear—just for a quick shock, nothing more, she promised herself—but to her surprise Willow's hand was already reaching lazily up towards the man. He began to reach for it, but stopped instantly as the air in front of him began to turn white. Between Willow's fingertips and his face a freezing mist appeared, and in an instant coalesced into a sharp icicle, with tiny slivers and barbs all over it. It was there for just the briefest fraction of a second, then it melted away in a flash, leaving only a wet stain of condensation on the man's tunic, and another patch of wetness lower down that was entirely of his own making.
He stood rooted to the spot for a second, then lurched backwards in fright, into the none-too-gentle arms of the barkeep, who manhandled him around into the arms of a pair of the tavern's patrons, who in turn hauled him out the door.
"My deepest apologies, ladies," the barkeep was meanwhile insisting, "I turned my back for a second, I swear... he's not dangerous, of course, or I wouldn't have him in here, just sometimes he gets a bit too cheerful, if you know what I mean, but that's no excuse, I know, I can't think what to say... the meals are on the house, of course, I couldn't ask anything after letting you be interrupted like that..."
"I-it's no problem," said Tara, somewhat taken aback by the barkeep's profuse apologies, and his habit of bowing when nervous.
"Oh, you're too gracious, ladies, you really are," he said, with yet another bow. "But I insist, I won't sleep at night taking your money." Willow and Tara couldn't budge him, and after a moment it became clear that he was only becoming more agitated as they politely argued.
"Well, I suppose that solves the problem of who gets the bill," Tara said with a shy smile after the barkeep had gone back to his bar.
"Guess so," agreed Willow. "Hey, I bet that guy hasn't gone far.. if we catch up with him, we could take him with us, we'd never have to pay for meals again." Tara laughed, which made Willow laugh, and the barkeep, seeing them from across the room, heaved a sigh of relief at not having unwittingly brought some sort of Amazonian curse of vengeance on his head. Nice girls, he thought to himself as he attended to his customers, very polite, you'd hardly know they were jungle warrioresses at all. He found himself vaguely wishing he were twenty years younger, and not married, but then again, judging by the looks and laughs the pair were exchanging, he wouldn't have had a chance anyway. He confined himself to making sure his remaining patrons didn't do anything stupid and staring down anyone who seemed to be glancing over at the pair of women too regularly. He felt vaguely relieved when they finished their meals and got up to leave, but the pair of smiles he received when he showed them out made it all worthwhile.
Willow woke up for the fourth time, blearily blinking her eyes. This time is was sunlight, not torchlight, that glowed through the canvas cover on the wagon, so she reluctantly decided it was time to get up. For a moment she longed for her room back at the hospice in Entsteig, where she had generally slept soundly and late. The feeling of gently sliding out of sleep, curled up in a warm bed and thoroughly rested, was always well worth the stern glances she had received from her tutors when she arrived for lessons ten minutes late. 'But of course,' she thought with a frown, 'the hospice is gone now.' She shut down that train of thought at once, and silently cursed traveling in general, which seemed to upset her sleeping patterns.
She rubbed her eyes for a moment, then rolled over. Tara was sleeping peacefully beside her—the wagon afforded them just enough space to lay their bedrolls out side by side, without ending up on top of each other. Willow smiled at the thought, then her face creased into a confused frown as she contemplated the reason why.
'First time I've felt that way about a girl,' she mused. Then again, it occurred to her that she'd never really felt 'that way' about anyone, male or female. She wondered why she felt so unsettled by the notion. While the world in general regarded love between two women—or two men, almost as frequently—as something to be frowned upon, if not actively persecuted, the Order had always rejected such arbitrary discrimination out of hand. Willow wondered if it was an ideological matter, or simply the fact that all sorceresses, up until recently, had lived their entire adult lives in a city populated almost solely by women. Well, she reasoned, it was hardly surprising that many of the Order's women turned to each other when they felt the need for companionship and love. And from what Tara had said the night before, there was no particular stigma attached to it in Amazon society either.
Of course, the Order's official position was that romantic relationships of any sort were liable to distract a sorceress from her pursuit of mastery of the pure elements. Unofficially, however, the Order recognized that most people, if denied the opportunity to have some sort of intimate relationship—even if only a casual fling now and then—would go a bit strange in the head. So far as Willow knew, the Order had always turned a blind eye to the personal activities of its sorceresses, so long as there was no threat to the Order, or the purity of its members. Of course, that last point tended to rule out the notion of a sorceress getting involved with a mage of any sort... but not necessarily, Willow had a vague notion that, several times, magic users from other orders had been granted special dispensation by the Council to live in the church city. She wondered what the Council's attitude towards Amazon magic was. The way Tara had described it, it sounded like a novel combination of prime magic and holy magic, neither of which were inherently corrupt in the eyes of the Order...
At that point, Willow stopped and wryly marveled at her own ability to get lost in her flights of fancy. She had known Tara all of half a day, and already she was contemplating how best to approach the Council for permission to take her as her partner. 'You could at least ask her first,' she jokingly chided herself.
She remembered how, more than a year ago, Ember had given her advice on the matter of love and infatuation, when Willow had been training at the hospice and one of the trainee doctors had taken more than a casual liking to her. He had been quite persistent, in a sweet way, and she had eventually gone to her sponsor for advice on how to discourage him without hurting his feelings unduly.
'Oh, gods, first love,' she had sighed with a smile, 'well, he'll get his feelings hurt one way or another, but he'll get over it. That's how it goes—everyone, more or less, is certain that their first love is the one and only love of their life. Don't ask me why, it's nothing to do with fire, except in the poetic sense, so it's not my field of expertise. Besides, I doubt anyone really understands why people are the way they are, not even the gods themselves—that's why they take such an interest in us, because we surprise them constantly.'
'So it's just a phase?' Willow had asked, slightly worried at the apparent intensity of the boy's affection for her—she would be relieved to find that it was something he would get over, and that her refusal wouldn't doom him to a life of solitary longing.
'Probably,' Ember had said. 'If you don't have feelings for him, don't try to manufacture them just because you feel obligated to—that wouldn't work, even if he were completely sincere. No, poor choice of words—he's sincere, but... well, he's a young man in love for the first time, that's just how it works. In all likelihood, he'll move on, and fall for someone else, and after a while he'll have grown up enough to make a good partner for somebody.' She shrugged. 'That's first love for you.'
'Seems kind of a shame,' Willow had mused, half to herself.
'I know,' Ember had said quietly, 'but he'll get over it. Just as you will with your first. Then again, maybe you'll be one of the charmed few for whom first love is true love.' Willow had studied her sponsor's face, looking for a trace of humor, but she seemed completely serious. She noticed Willow's scrutiny.
'Stranger things have happened,' she had said, 'believe me.'
Willow considered her situation dispassionately, or at least the closest she could manage having just woken up from a not particularly restful sleep. 'So, Willow,' she asked herself, 'do you really love her? Or is it just a passing infatuation, and are you letting your emotions get the better of you?'
She had to conclude that evidence pointed to the latter. She barely knew Tara, having spent less time with her than with some fellow trainees that she hadn't known well enough even to consider friends. She knew little of the girl's life, her experiences, what they had in common and how they differed. And, for that matter, she was traveling alone for the first time in her life, on an assignment that virtually ensured she would feel lonely and unimportant for a while. So was it any surprise that she found herself responding in such a magnetic way to this attractive young woman who was to share her life, as a traveling companion at least, for the foreseeable future? Particularly seeing as, if her behavior the previous night was anything to judge by, she was preternaturally warm and kind? In all likelihood, Willow concluded, her apparent attraction to Tara was simply a matter of Tara having provided a kind influence at a point when Willow's life was looking fairly glum. It would presumably pass in due course, and the best thing, she decided, would be to ignore her infatuation and not let herself get distracted by it. She nodded to herself, as if trying to cement her resolve.
She then spent the next half an hour lying still, watching Tara sleep.
'Okay, forget that plan, it's a stupid plan,' she thought to herself after ten minutes. A moment later she noticed that Tara, lying on her back, was snoring ever so softly. Willow thought it was the most adorable thing she had ever heard.
'Oh yeah,' she thought to herself, around the twenty minute mark, 'you've got it bad.'
"Hmm?" Tara seemed surprised by the question, and apparently hadn't noticed that Willow had been studying her remote, intent expression for the past few minutes as the caravan moved slowly out of the city. With the skies clear they had rolled up the canvas roof of the wagon, and had both been silently taking in the view as the caravan captain called back to his deputies and the procession of vehicles and beasts got underway. After a moment their surroundings were completely new to them, as they moved away from the docks and markets, through streets lined with houses and small stores, and even a few small parks, each with its own well and a statue representing some figure of importance. The Amazon men had all found positions on the wagons and carts that allowed them good views of the scenery. Tara had done likewise, and after a little while Willow had found herself trying to work out what was prompting her odd, thoughtful expression.
"You looked like you were thinking interesting thoughts," Willow explained.
"Oh," said Tara, "well, I don't know if you'd call it interesting... I was just thinking of something I noticed yesterday. Or m-maybe just something I'm imagining, I don't know." She glanced at Willow, who put on her best intrigued expression, which was enough for her to continue. She gestured vaguely to the buildings on either side of them.
"The whole city seems..." she paused, looking for the right word, "transient, I guess. Compared to home, I mean."
Willow regarded the buildings around them for a few seconds—sturdy wooden constructs, some of the larger and more affluent homes made from stone, in part or entirely. She certainly wouldn't have thought they looked less than permanent. She suspected Tara meant something else
"Wow," she joked nonetheless, "how tough do you guys build your houses?"
"Not like that," Tara smiled, lightly swatting Willow in the stomach, "I mean... it's actually difficult to explain. At home everything is built around the trees, it makes the forest part of the city. What we build is part of the world, the world that's already there, that's always been there. This is all..." she shrugged. "It's like the people tried to just... raze the ground and start again. Getting rid of the real world, and building their own world in its place."
"Guess I'm used to it," observed Willow, "but I suppose I can see how it'd look that way. Your cities are really that much a part of the forest? I've heard of Amazons living in the trees, but I wasn't sure how much of it was real and how much was fanciful storytelling... you know, like the big-breasted dominatrix stories." That got a chuckle from Tara.
"The fanciful storytellers were right that time," she said, "where I come from, Tran Athulua—that's our capital, on Philios—the trees are enormous and ancient. The whole city is built there. Some of the smaller cities have buildings on the ground, storehouses and so on, and if the younger trees can't take the weight on their own we build arches to support the weight, but that's only the villages nearer the coast, or in places where the forest is young. Tran Athulua doesn't touch the ground."
"How big is it?" asked Willow, trying to picture it.
"About five miles, side to side," said Tara, "that's not counting the outer buildings, they're not always part of the city. The further away from the heart of the forest you get, the more space there is between the strong trees, so some of the bridges are lighter, rope bridges and so on, that get taken down and replaced every few seasons."
"Five miles," mused Willow, "that's... nope, I can't even imagine it. It must be amazing to see..."
"Guess I'm used to it," said Tara, smiling as she repeated Willow's earlier words. "No, it is... it's home, and it's a living place, part of the forest. I d-don't want to sound all 'superior Amazon', but, well... it's special."
"I believe you," said Willow sincerely, before joking: "you'll just have to show it to me sometime."
"I-I'd like that," replied Tara with a shy grin, which she almost immediately hid by ducking her head, letting her hair conceal her face.
"So," Willow said, picking the first thought that came to mind to break the uncomfortable pause, "this whole being part of the natural world idea... is it just the city, or is it a general Amazon thing?"
"It's not a rule or anything," said Tara, tucking her hair back and smiling openly at Willow—she seemed to sense the change of subject had been for her benefit—"it's a... an idea. That everything we need is a part of the world already, if we know how to find it. A-and the best way to create something is to work with nature, not against it... Like our cities: instead of taking away the forest to make room for them, we make them a part of the forest, so the city and the forest become one thing. The cities are strong, because they work with nature, not against it... you can't work against nature, not really. The world's stronger and older than any of us, I mean, even older than our gods, and in the end it'll outlive us all. It's better to be in harmony with what is, rather than ignore it and try to create something that's... what's the word... unnatural. That doesn't sound right..."
"No, I get it," said Willow, "it's like our magic, it's the balance principle. If you try to draw power from outside the world is upsets the balance, and ends up destroying itself."
"That's it," Tara agreed.
"That's why the Esu witches chose elemental magic," explained Willow, "fire, ice and lightning, they're all part of the world. They don't upset the balance."
"A-and other magics do?" asked Tara.
"It depends," admitted Willow, "by the sound of it, Amazon magic seems pretty stable... I mean, it sounds like holy magic, and if the idea of natural balance is that important, it's pretty unlikely it could go seriously wrong. There've been some times when holy mages went bad, but that's almost always been in the big, institutional churches... Demonic magic is just about as unbalanced as you can get, the whole idea is to ignore the rules of the world and get power from outside it. There's druid magic," she went on, ticking off the choices on her finger as she went, "but no-one really knows much about them, they stay in their homelands, and that's a long way away... Ember once told me that they think of themselves as servants of nature, though. Then there's prime magic, which just depends on who's using it, so you might as well ask whether people upset the balance or not... what else? Well, necromancy, but that pretty much speaks for itself..."
"You know so much," said Tara softly.
"Not really," replied Willow with a casual wave of her hand, "it's just, you know, stuff out of books. I've never done any magic besides ice... well, not successfully, anyway," she said with a sudden darkening of her expression. "Anyway, that's what I'm supposed to be learning. All the different magics, how they're done, where the power comes from, where it goes... not that I'm going to learn to do it, of course, just understand it. Enough so I won't always be getting too curious for my own good," she added with a grin.
"Oh," said Tara. "So, no summoning skeleton warriors just to see if it works?"
"Heh," Willow chuckled, "I'm pretty sure the Council won't have arranged for me to study with a necromancer. They'd probably worry I'd end up raising a few zombies to carry my bags around. Serve 'em right if I did, making me haul all these books around," she grumbled jokingly. They watched in silence as the caravan trundled past a fairly good statue of a wolf protecting its cubs.
"Why all the different symbols?" Tara asked abruptly.
"Don't know," said Willow. A thought occurred to her, and she leaned back, rummaging in one of her satchels. "Speaking of hauling books around... here it is." She drew out Ember's notebook and started flipping through the pages.
"You've got a book about statues?" Tara asked.
"My sponsor gave it to me," Willow explained, "it's her notebook from her travels. She wrote down just about everything she ever saw... just in no particular order... but I'm sure I saw a drawing of a wolf statue somewhere..." Tara leaned closer and watched over Willow's shoulder as she closed in on the page she was looking for.
"It's the same one," Willow said, finding the drawing, "look, it's got all the little wolf cubs and everything... yep, she was in Kingsport when she wrote this. Um, statues, statues," she repeated absently, drawing a finger down the lines of handwriting, "oh, here it is, 'town markers'... she says they're from back when Kingsport was a bunch of villages around the old shipyards, each village had an animal of its own, a sort of mascot. Then the docks started expanding, and the villages all sort of merged into the city. It says here that the statues were built by Baron Karl Francis—I have no idea when he was around, but I don't think it's recent—as memorials to the old villages." She let the notebook fall closed.
"We've passed four or five statues," Tara observed, "four or five villages, then... it's like the city at home, some of the oldest buildings are out on the edges, with new bridges connecting them to the others. They must have been separate once."
"Cities in the trees," said Willow with a smile. "I suppose there's no such thing as an Amazon who's afraid of heights?"
"Not everyone lives up there," said Tara, "it's mostly just us warriors, and some of the priests, and the clan elders. A lot of the farmers live on their land most of the year. The city can get a bit empty during harvest," she added, "and it's never as crowded as this place."
"Why build it so big, then?" Willow asked.
"Just in case," Tara said. "If we're attacked, there's enough room for everyone to live in the city. It hasn't happened in years, not in my lifetime, b-but it used to every once in a while."
"Who'd be nuts enough to attack Amazons?" Willow wondered with a grin.
"Slavers, pirate kings, even swarms of beasts from the Kehjistan mountains that can make the ocean crossing. There's not that many of us," Tara explained, "even with all the able women trained as warriors, w-we couldn't stop an army from landing and moving in. But we've always kept the cities safe... using the trees to move around and behind enemies. The ancient trees, that the city is built on, are too big to cut down, it'd take weeks. And there are warriors who can call on Karcheus, one of our gods, and use their bows to create chill storms on the ground, so you can't set fire to the forest... It's just a matter of wearing down the invaders until they break..." Tara trailed off, and Willow regretted her curiosity—she obviously wasn't comfortable talking about warfare. Who could blame her?
"You have cold magic?" she asked instead.
"Oh, not me," said Tara, brightening, "I never really followed Karcheus. Our magic is all about which gods we're drawn to. Mine are Hefaetrus and Zerae, fire and storms. B-but yes, some of us can call on ice magic. I g-guess they'd be better at explaining our magic to you, I-I probably won't be able to tell you anything useful..." Until now Tara had continued to lean towards Willow, even after they had closed Ember's notebook, and Willow was struck with a sudden feeling of loss when she straightened in her seat and glanced out at the passing city.
"Hey, no," she protested, "I'm learning all sorts of things already. Besides, even if you don't use cold magic, you still use the same kind of magic as other Amazons, right?"
"How do you mean?" asked Tara, hopeful.
"Well, whichever god you're calling on, you do it the same way, right? I mean, if you were calling on Karcheus, you'd do that focus thing you told me about, the same way as you do when you call on... Zerae?" Willow was glad she hadn't forgotten the name—'that'd be wonderful,' she thought, 'forgetting the girl's favorite gods half a moment after she tells you about them.'
"Well... yes, I suppose so," Tara allowed.
"I bet it doesn't matter then," said Willow with a smile, "you know, Ember wasn't an ice sorceress, she was one hundred per cent fire. Some of the Order's elders only take students who're attuned to their own specialties, but Ember said it didn't matter. She said she wasn't teaching me how to use her magic, but how to use my magic. So I'm sure I'll be able to learn from you," Willow concluded, pleased to see Tara smiling again. "Whatever you want to teach me, that is," she added, "I'm not asking for any big Amazon secrets, just anything you want to show me. If you want?"
"I... I will," said Tara, biting her bottom lip adorably. "First ch-chance we get. We'll need some space, though," she said thoughtfully. Willow's brows rose in confusion.
"You have to learn how to use a bow," Tara explained with a grin.
Around midday Tryptin rode back from the head of the caravan, to let Tara know that they were making good speed, and that he and the caravan captain had decided to press on through lunch to reach the Baron's castle by night. Apologizing to Willow for not taking the time to welcome her sooner, he inquired politely about her journey. After answering his questions Willow asked if a rider had being sent ahead to the castle to herald the caravan's arrival, and on discovering that Tryptin would be going ahead himself, wrote a brief letter to be delivered to the Baron's resident mage.
"Kind of him to stop by," Willow observed, after he had gone.
"He's like that, he gets along with everyone," Tara observed. "His family is part of my clan, his father was an ambassador. I guess it runs in the family."
"Is he in charge?" Willow asked. "I kind of thought there'd be more women on an Amazon mission. Or that you'd turn out to be in charge of it, or something," she grinned.
"How old do I look?" Tara asked wryly. "It's a diplomatic mission, I'm just here to represent the warriors. Y-you know, so the Baron and the Duke recognize we're Amazons. Tryptin is the negotiator, him and the merchant emissaries, but, well..." Tara remembered what she had overheard of Solari and Eponin's discussion.
"The nobles have their own ideas about Amazons, and unless they see a sexy woman in leather they won't buy it?" Willow asked.
"E-exactly," Tara managed. 'Sexy?' she thought. Willow had shrugged and started reading one of her books, and Tara unpacked her ceremonial armor and began cleaning and polishing it, occasionally glancing over at Willow thoughtfully.
She was glad to have met Willow, and dispelled her fears that she'd spend the entire journey being seen, somehow, as a strange, intimidating warrior, and consequently avoided. The young sorceress seemed to bring out the most carefree, high-spirited side of Tara—she couldn't count how many times she'd surprised herself the night before, joking and laughing and being so much more open than the shy, quiet girl she had been even among her friends at home. She had even been looking forward to sharing Willow's experience of learning about magic, but since waking up to find Willow stealing a glance at her, she had been surprised at how frequently her thoughts turned to her, and how little they had to do with magic.
Tara wondered if this was what it felt like to have a best friend, someone she could just be with, talk to for hours, take comfort in each other's presence and friendship. She had been envious, in a benign kind of way, of her fellow trainees in that regard. While there had been many kind, caring girls among them, somehow Tara had never felt that spark of intimacy that led to very close friendship. Everyone seemed to have at least one friend they could confide in, could open up to about anything, could chat with about nothing until well into the night, could share life with. Everyone except Tara, who in spite of being accepted into her trainee pride with open arms, had always ended up spending the long evenings in her room at the clan house practicing her moves, and during free days had somehow always ended up alone on the archery ranges, perfecting her aim and studying the flight of arrows. She wouldn't admit it to anyone—had no-one to admit it to—but she sometimes wondered if there was some sort of guidebook to life that she'd missed out on, so that she had to stumble through her days figuring out things as she went. Solari praised her talents, and it was true she had some sort of natural affinity for creating focus, but in her heart she knew the rest was simply a matter of long hours spent alone, practicing for want of something else to do. She knew she would never be a true warrior, not without the competitive gleam that the other trainees got in their eyes when they managed to disarm their sparring partner, or shoot a thrown target out of the air, but there was something comforting in the martial art itself. The Tara who could whirl her spear around herself until the blade became an impenetrable barrier or flashing metal arcs, or who could close her eyes and still see the target far away, and the curving path through the air her arrow needed to follow to reach it, was not the same person as the Tara who always went home alone, knowing there was something missing from her and wondering if she would ever know what it was.
She finished polishing a greave, held it up in the sunlight to make sure it was perfect, then wrapped it in its cloth and pulled its twin out of her pack, stealing another glance at Willow, whose eyes were darting across the pages of her book at an impressive rate. Tara hoped that she had finally found what she was missing, in this beautiful girl's friendship. For what seemed like the hundredth time since she woke, she reviewed snippets of conversation from the night before, reassuring herself that Willow enjoyed her company, found her interesting, was making an effort to become her friend, not just putting up with her out of politeness. Tara knew she was possibly being slightly insecure, but her doubts nagged at her, making her wonder if she was just a novelty. She remembered how she had gone on and on about home and her people, and winced slightly—she was glad Willow was interested, but wondered whether she had seemed slightly ridiculous, trying to gift-wrap her exotic arboreal city and present it to Willow as a token of friendship. She reassured herself with the memory of Willow's bright eyes fixed on her, and of all the jokes they had fired back and forth, and the inconsequential things they had talked about. Perhaps, she allowed, it wasn't just a matter of her being strange and exotic to Willow, perhaps there was genuine friendship. Tara hoped so with all her will. It felt odd to think of herself as exotic, anyway.
As the sun dipped towards the western horizon the caravan left the city of Kingsport behind, and aside from a few scattered shacks here and there among the trees, was in open country. Willow had found a handful of notes about the nobility of Kingsport in Ember's notebook, and was reading it aloud. Tara lay back contentedly in the wagon, staring up at the sky and imagining patterns in the clouds as she heard how the Barons, though rulers of Kingsport, had for centuries held their court in the old castle in the highlands; how in the current more-or-less peaceful times they styled it the 'summer palace', after the tradition of other Westmarch rulers who maintained an estate outside their cities to retire to during the summer, when the cities themselves became a bit ripe in the heat; how the transition from one Baron to the next was accomplished by a bizarre series of ancient rules of succession, which had ensured stability in the realm, if not necessarily the court, for as long as anyone knew. Tara discovered a new pleasure, staring intently at Willow as she read Ember's more cavalier notes on the nobility themselves, trying to make her laugh. Willow strained herself not to let out so much as a snicker, until she got to the part where Ember described the Baron's court of her time as 'a pack of genial senile delinquents preserved in alcohol', which caused both her and Tara to burst into a fit of giggles.
Just as they were recovering a boy rode back from the main wagon. Tara recognized him as Melcan, Tryptin's aide and apprentice, and introduced him to Willow as he drew up his horse alongside their wagon, with one of the Kingsport soldiers a little way behind him.
"Honored, ma'am," he said, with perfect formality as Tryptin must have taught him. "Master Tryptin suggested you might like to see the river before we take the highland road," he continued to Tara, "he chose this man of the Baron's guards to ride with you if you wish, and I'm to stay here and watch over your belongings."
Tara looked at Willow, who nodded eagerly. Leaving Melcan sitting dutifully beside their wagon's driver, they both jumped lightly off the back and took a pair of horses from the dozen following in the wake of the caravan's wagons.
"Have you ever ridden before?" Willow asked.
"A little," Tara said, "not very much. We don't use horses very much at home."
"You're probably better than me anyway," said Willow, "me and horses..." She rolled her eyes, and turned to her horse. Tara noticed her holding the reins tightly and looking unusually tense as they followed the guard off the road and towards the gentle slope that went on for half a mile or so to the east. She nudged her horse a little closer to Willow's, and gave her a warm smile that seemed to boost her confidence.
The guard waited for them at the top of the rise, and pointed out into the valley beyond as they reached him.
"Merchant Bay," he said as they stared out at the panorama before them. A mile away the river, the Kingsway, that ran from Duncraig to Kingsport, widened into a small bay before continuing its journey to the sea. The entire western side of the bay was a mass of warehouses and gantries, extending even out into the bay itself, so that glimpses of glittering water could be seen between the low roofs and wooden thoroughfares. Beyond them was a fleet of ships, dozens of merchant barges and flat-bottomed riverboats, some riding at anchor, others maneuvering through the throng to reach open water, or to take their place at the docks.
"Ember didn't write anything about this," murmured Willow. Her eyes widened, and she pointed out to Tara where a series of counterweighted cranes shuddered and strained, lifting the entire cargo deck of a barge clear of its vessel. Teams of men, small as ants in the distance, pulled the whole construct, cranes and all, back along shining steel rails, making way for another construct to be wheeled into place, lowering a new deck full of different cargo into the barge.
"H-how do they do that?" asked Tara. The guard shrugged.
"Can't say, ma'am," he said simply, "'tis beyond me, that's for sure. They say the Baron hired mages from Duncraig and foreign lands to help build it, though I don't believe there's any there now. I was just a boy when it was built. Our mam says the old river docks got so crowded you couldn't land a cargo of eggs before they'd hatched and died of old age."
"There's got to be magic in it," Willow said to herself, "they must have melded the beams, treated the wood to make it stronger... my gods, look at all the ships!" Tara followed her gaze along the river as it wound between the hills—for as far as she could see there were ships dotted along the river, riding the current or straining their sails against it.
"Aye, the city sees a lot of goods coming and going," the guard observed, "it's from Duncraig, you see. Ships come from all the lands of the world, just about, and they all go along here. They say this river's what keeps Kingsport alive, and, well, I ain't got a head for matters of trade, but I think they may be right." He then fell silent, as Willow and Tara stared out at the great river port.
"We'd best be getting back," he said after a few moments, "it wouldn't do to let the caravan get too far ahead of us."
They returned to Melcan still maintaining his alert vigil over their wagon. He had the driver stop the wagon for a moment so Willow and Tara could get on board easily, then took to his horse and rode back up to the head of the caravan, while the guard disappeared rearwards to return their horses to their place at the caravan's tail end. Willow checked Ember's notebook and confirmed that the Merchant Bay river docks had indeed been built sometime after her sponsor had traveled the region—all she had had to say about the city's river traffic was that its docks were 'small and badly overcrowded', which clearly referred to the predecessors of the complex they had seen.
"M-maybe you should start your own notebook?" Tara suggested. Willow leapt gleefully at the idea, found a blank book from one of her satchels, and spent a few minutes recording her impressions of the giant docks.
"Pity I can't draw," she grumbled to herself as she was finishing.
"I c-could," Tara offered, "i-if you'd like, that is, I could try..." Willow eagerly handed over the book, and watched over Tara's shoulder as she sketched out a remarkably lifelike drawing of the river docks as they had seen them from the top of the rise.
"That's amazing," Willow breathed, as the picture took shape under Tara's pencil. Tara looked up for a moment, blushing and grinning, then returned her attention to her work. Willow sat back and watched her, smiling without realizing it as she noticed the tip of Tara's tongue poking between her lips now and then as she concentrated, and the way her eyes seemed to sparkle in the afternoon light as she re-read Willow's text, adding notes to her sketch to complement it.
With gray clouds on the horizon and the afternoon turning into dusk they let down the wagon's canvas roof and fastened it over its wooden frame, lighting a lamp to see by inside as they took turns recording their experiences in Kingsport in the notebook. Willow listened rapt as Tara told her about her meeting with Marela while she wrote, and was fascinated by the amulet as she held it for Tara to sketch, turning it this way and that in the golden light of the lamp. It was just when both of them were staring to wonder about dinner that they heard voices outside, and poked their heads out the front of the wagon to see the Baron's castle looming up ahead of them.
It was fully night by the time the caravan rolled over the moat bridge towards the castle gates. The castle, a vast, ominous stone fortress, sat at the center of a rambling collection of wooden shacks and storehouses built beyond its walls—a testament to the relative peace that the realm was enjoying, even as the thick walls and high battlements of the castle itself hinted of past times of warfare. The battlements were now alive with torchlight, as were the towers visible beyond them—Willow pointed out one tower with a dome atop it, split down the center to reveal the lens of a great telescope, which she guessed belonged to the resident mage. The roadway leading up to the bridge was also lit, and a contingent of soldiers rode out as the caravan approached, relieving those who had escorted it from the city. Tryptin was with them, and rode back to Tara after a moment conferring with the merchant emissaries.
"The Baron has begun his dinner early," he explained, "it would be better to settle into quarters quietly tonight, and be presented to court tomorrow when we won't be interrupting. Oh, Miss Willow, a reply came from the mage, he asks that you wait for him in the courtyard at midday in two days' time, he sends his apologies but apparently the constellations have his attention for tonight, and he has an appointment tomorrow."
Willow thanked him, privately dreading another disinterested tutor, but excited nonetheless to see the castle, or the 'summer palace', as the Baron did indeed apparently call it. She was disappointed, however, to find herself separated from the Amazon mission and given private quarters—a mark of respect, of course, but she would have preferred to have Tara's company in place of a room of her own, and she was sorry to have to bid a temporary goodbye to her companion. She asked after the Baron's mage when a notary arrived at her room to welcome her, but it seemed she would have to be content to stay put until the next evening, when she would meet the Baron at dinner and be granted the freedom of the castle, allowing her to wander around and find where the Amazons had ended up. A servant arrived not long afterwards with dinner, and she ate with one hand holding open one of the books she had been given in Kingsport. She consoled herself that she would be seeing Tara again soon enough, and let herself be absorbed by the intricacies of alchemical research as the night grew late.
Tara was no more pleased than Willow at being separated, but managed to distract herself with the company of the various merchants and negotiators from the mission as they ate dinner in the common room connecting their various bedrooms. After dinner Tryptin took her aside and went over the diplomatic protocols she needed to know to meet with the Baron without causing offence, which were few enough—the court of Kingsport was evidently a fairly easy-going place. Tryptin mentioned that, traditionally, women were not expected to take part in discussions with men over dinner unless invited, but then suggested that it might be best if Tara behave as she would at home, speaking her mind if she felt the need to. He assured her that it would impress the various noblemen and remind them that they were dealing with the Amazon nation, rather than merely a group of merchants and businessmen, though Tara got the impression that he quietly relished the opportunity to remind the nobles that not all women spoke only when spoken to.
Tara slept easily in the comfortable bed that had been provided, and woke in time to see the sun come over the battlements beyond her window. She wasn't surprised, though, to find that she already missed having Willow to talk to, and as the morning wore on—a succession of meetings with minor nobles, whom she formally greeted on behalf of the Amazon warriors and then left to the emissaries and Tryptin's negotiators—she was looking forward to the evening's dinner, where she hoped to see her new friend again.
With nothing else to occupy her in the afternoon, she asked one of the passing servants to bring back one of the baths that had been brought to the common room early in the morning, and bathed again, spending a long time washing her hair and carefully drying it. Studying herself intently in the polished mirror in her room, she tied her hair up in a high ponytail, the most typical style for a warrior, and bound it there with a slim bronze clasp. She retrieved her ceremonial armor, which still gleamed from yesterday's cleaning, and laid it out on the bed, making sure everything looked perfect. Of course she wasn't going into battle, so she wouldn't wear a full breastplate, which left her the choice of which tunic to wear with the outfit. She discarded the red—too bright—and carefully donned the other of the two finely-woven tops she had brought, a deep gray that seemed to gleam ever so slightly in the light. She carefully fastened her shoulder harness over it, wiggling her torso and adjusting the straps so that they sat perfect around her shoulders and chest, with her family's crest glinting on the bronze buckle at the corner of the leather padding over her right shoulder. She lifted the shining bronze plate that would go on her left shoulder, then decided to leave it until after she had finished with the rest of the outfit.
With a self-conscious glance out the window—though it was unlikely anyone would be able to see in, unless they were balancing on top of the battlements and were at least fifteen feet tall—she took off the soft trousers she had been wearing and swapped her underwear for the leather equivalent that went with the armor. She caught herself blushing in the mirror, which was a habit she had never quite been able to shake whenever she wore traditional armor—she always wished that there was a skirt, at least, for all that she recognized the unparalleled freedom of movement the arrangement offered. She pulled on the half-skirt, composed of studded leather straps in front and behind, leaving her thighs bare at the sides, and fixed it with a sturdy belt, quickly detaching the various pouches that would help carry her supplies if she were in the field. Doing her best to ignore the nagging feeling that she was half-naked, she pulled on her best boots, pulling tight the straps just above the knees to hold them up.
Next came her bronze greaves, which she gave a quick final polish before strapping them to her shins. She strapped a slim bracer on her right wrist, then pulled a long leather glove over her left arm, strapping it high above the elbow and covering it with a firm leather gauntlet, which in turn had a bronze bracer strapped over it. She finally picked up the bronze shoulder plate and fixed it in place over her left shoulder, making sure it was properly attached to her harness and its weight was sitting comfortably. Lastly she took a slim, well-padded bundle from her bags and unwrapped the circlet that, along with the bronze crest adorning her right shoulder, were all that she really had to remember her parents. She checked the soft leather lining, which was still as good as new, and gently settled the circlet around her brows, closing her eyes as she fixed the clasp at its rear. She picked up her bow and, with a slight effort, strung it with an old, sturdy string that would do for show, though she would have chosen one of the finer ones if she'd intended to actually fire an arrow. She slotted the bow into its place on her back, held by her harness, and at last turned towards the mirror.
A reasonably perfect image of an Amazon warrior stared back at her. With a satisfied nod, trying not to look at her legs too much, Tara turned around, glancing over her shoulder to make sure she looked good from all angles. The straps of her harness had made the tunic a good deal more form-fitting than it had been, particularly around her chest—she giggled at the memory of Willow's summary of the common, lurid image of Amazons as 'big-breasted warrioresses', then composed herself. Content with her preparations she took her spear, silently thanking Solari for allowing her to use it, and left her room to meet the Baron.
Heads turned as the court's page announced the Amazon party, starting with 'Amazon warrioress Tara' and then continuing through the names of Tryptin's diplomats and the merchant emissaries. Tara held her head up high and kept her posture straight as the spear in her hand as she strode towards the Baron's table. Tryptin had told her that the Baron's aides would see to it that he, in turn, knew the proper protocol for receiving an Amazon as a guest, and he had evidently been paying attention, for when Tara bowed stiffly and held out Silverstrike, shaft first with the blade behind her, he stood, lay his open palm on it and bowed slightly in return before sinking back into his seat.
Tryptin, as leader of the mission, also merited the Baron getting to his feet, while the other Amazons each received a nod of acknowledgement as the were introduced one by one and bowed. The party was then led to their seats, not very far from the Baron and his closest noblemen on the long table, and Tara was about to take her seat when she heard the page announce the arrival of 'Sorceress Willow of the Zann Esu'.
She turned to look towards the doors, and in that moment realized that, while she would treasure Willow's friendship for as long as she lived, she also had feelings for the young sorceress that were entirely more passionate.
Send Feedback to AuthorBack to Chris Cook's Stories...