A crescent moon adorned the cloudless sky bathing with light the peaceful valley as she sighed out of impatience and anxiety. Night came less than an hour ago and she was already fearing that he would let her down. She didn't know much about him after all ...stop being silly would you, he wouldn't have been so nice and considerate if it was to abandon you in the end ...well maybe it was the reason why...knowing he would never come back he gave me at least something to get going ...just out of guilt!... doubts and certainties were fighting for supremacy in the redhead thoughts.
The first two hours after he rode away were spent in laying leisurely on the grass eventually falling into a little nap, but when the fourth hour had passed she had started to feel utterly bored. Of course it had given her time to think, to sort her feelings and impressions about this epic she came through accidentally. However she had had too many questions without answers to mull over and finally the only gain she had reaped out of this brainstorming was a terrible headache.
Now some five hours later she was staring at the darkening sky, praying for any "online" deity to listen to her pleas and bring Xander back.
Upon arriving home the young farmer had suffered his mother's wrath, he had been two hours late and missed lunch. So obviously his father had decided upon a little intervention after diner, lecturing his son about the responsibilities the farm labors entailed. Xander had nodded all the way through this long monologue with only one wish ; for the night to wait for him.
Thankfully for the boy his father and the rest of his family were early sleepers as any farmer generally was, so the older man had stopped is scolding and wished his son goodnight just as dusk arrived.
Hurriedly running to his room Xander had kneeled in front of his bed to retrieve a big leather bag which he had prepared and hidden under it a few days ago, in the eventuality of his escape. Leaving a note for his parents he looked for the last time at his surroundings and stepped out, closing the door of what used to be his home. But now was not a time for regrets or melancholy, he had to hurry and get back to the anxious redhead, who was very probably already pacing animatedly. ...She really is special... he smiled thinking about her quirky ways as he pushed open the heavy barn doors.
Stepping cautiously into the dark building as not to wake all its inhabitants, he reached Starlight cubicle and called his steed with a soothing voice "hey buddy, come here old boy". Extending his right hand towards the waking horse he made some calling sounds with his tongue. He opened the door to let the obedient animal out and proceeded to attach his saddle with care.
He had thought about the problematic transportation of the 'horse-scared' redhead and had finally decided to take a small carriage he built himself this winter. Originally destined for wood cartage it was big enough for the girl to fit in with a semblance of comfort. Once the convenient chariot secured at the rear of his steed he saddled up and took the direction of the woods.
"What is taking him so long for god sake" she had started to pace ten minutes ago and was now becoming angry. "How could he do that to me" she was fuming at the dark haired boy, cursing his name for letting her alone, lost in a foreign world full of mysteries and dangers. So occupied by her ranting, she didn't hear the sound of distant horseshoes echoing down the road of the valley, so when the young farmer arrived to her provisory camp, leading Starlight by his reins, she shrieked at the sudden apparition.
He grinned at her with amusement ... I knew she would be pacing... he was taking a liking in this fiery redhead; not that he was attracted to her, he liked his women a little bit more ...'take charge'... he blushed at his own thoughts. But she could surely become a good friend in a near future he hoped.
"Sorry about the tardiness" he apologized.
"It's ok" she smiled relieved to see the farmer and forgetting immediately about her previous grudge.
"You're very nice thank you" he was grateful for her understanding "I had some last minute problems to take care of"
"It's alright, I was just a bit nervous, you know I thought that maybe..." he didn't let her finish her sentence.
"I'm terribly sorry Willow, you must have thought I wouldn't be coming back" at her shameful nod he added "I understand, I would have probably concluded the same. Don't worry though, I won't let you down, I even hoped we could become friends" he mumbled staring at his mudded boots embarrassed by his forwardness.
"I would like that too Xander" the girl perked up immediately at his proposition, he was a gentle man and he obviously was ready to stand by her, he would surely become a great friend.
"Wonderful!" he exclaimed sending a full blown grin her way. Progressively getting back is composure he talked more solemnly "we should get going, the castle is an hour from here and I would not like to arrive too late. Today is a very special day, the royal family is celebrating so the gates are closing earlier for the people"
"Really" the redhead was curious.
"Yes, Princess Tara is turning 21".
"Princess Tara" she repeated softly marveling at the sensation of the name rolling on her tongue like a caress.
"Yes" he confirmed without further explanations "so please put this on Willow" he handed her a hooded cloak specifying that she needed to hide her clothes from any encounter. "And hop in" he motioned towards the wooden carriage filled with a few blankets that would keep her from the cold and the stiffness of the boards. She did as instructed while trying to understand what was the meaning of her sudden interest for the 'birthday girl'!
Hundreds of luminaries were dangling from centenary trees, lightening the main entrance of the castle and leading a ballet of coaches to the giant open doors. Inside the castle courtyard a huddled group of servants were bustling around the magnificent carriages helping the guests to exit the carts as the royal grooms took care of the horses and vehicles.
Ladies and Lords were entering the throne room with grace and dignity announced progressively by the chamberlain. The place was decorated with magical lights hovering in the air in a seemingly haphazard way that gave an impression of elegance and coziness. Nothing felt impressive but gave nonetheless an appearance of majesty. Purple velvet wall-coverings hung loosely from the stone pillars, bouquets of aroma flowers and white roses were arranged around the room and a small orchestra filled the air with harmonic melodies.
Tonight was dedicated to the ball and reserved to the most important dignitaries and royal families from the land of light. The royal family of Hemera didn't like to exclude their people from those festivities but had to respect the conventions among the upper classes of their neighbors. So they obliged begrudgingly knowing fully well that they had to honor their guests. However one thing was sure, tomorrow would be a day of celebration for their folk and the streets would be full of joy and agitation with a huge banquet offered by the Queens to the people of Hemera.
So tonight was diplomatic and that was fine by Tara, politics were important, old alliances should be maintained and new one shall be born. The princess felt more and more concerned everyday by the matters of the kingdom, she knew wars were to start again one day with the land of dark and most certainly with the kingdom of Darkan, that's why she wanted to prepare and learn. Today was the official day for Princess Tara to access to her new functions as a future leader but she already started to get involved in her realm politics ever since she was 18. So now she was ready to meet the decision makers and discuss with them of her knowledge and opinions.
Tara was also reaching an age were marriage was becoming a recurring subject and she feared this ball would be a mean to guide her in her choice of a spouse. She knew her parents would never force her into a loveless union and for this she was grateful but she also knew that they were being more insistent on that matter. "No one can rule alone my dear and one day the people could be worried that you would not be able to give them an heir" those were the two reasons her mothers often brought up to entice her into the search of a partner.
She was very aware of all this but somewhere at the back of her mind she was certain that her love would find her. It was rather strange she admitted, though it was a feeling she had carried in her as far as she could remember. That's why she had waited, with no real impatience, understanding that things would come in their own good time and that all she could do was to open her heart to the calls of her soul mate.
The other certainty Tara held within her was the one of her inclination for women.
The problem was that she knew all the princesses, ladies and female knights invited to this ceremony and that was rather intriguing. Who could be her future spouse if not a princess or at least a powerful witch, seer, warrior or mage. It was a mystery.
Something though had started to stir some curiosity in her, it was a dream, the one she had experienced the other night. In that dream she had felt a presence, a connection, one so strong that it had engulfed her totally. Who was the one that had inflamed her soul, where were they, would she meet them one day? She was practically sure that they were a woman at least she hoped they were for she knew she never could be romantically attracted by a man.
But for now she should forget all those questions and doubts to concentrate fully on matters that were not of the heart. The throne room was nearly full and she had her duties to perform, her family by her side giving her the courage to face the crowd.
"Are we there yet" she asked for the hundredth time with a tinge of impatience and a sigh.
"Gods Willow!" he exclaimed chuckling "stop asking this or I'll leave you walking for the rest of the trip".
"Sorry Xander" she blushed profusely at his teasing remark.
"No problem but please be patient" he smiled shaking his head ...god what a child she must have been...
"I'll be quiet, very very quiet, quietly quiet even ... me queen of quiet land, yes sirey" she nodded with resolve. Laughing good heartedly at her endearing babble he turned around to look at the grinning redhead "we are nearly there, alright" she nodded childishly "good" he stated gently "I understand it must feel like an eternity to you but you have to trust me ok"
"Ok" she knew she was being silly and a real bugger at that but she was very nervous too. She was eager to solve this mystery and to understand how she arrived here in the first place. This was extremely unsettling for her not to know what to do, where to search, she had to remain calm and trust someone else; this was nearly above her capacity.
Slowly detaching from the dark a big grassy hill stood out in front of them; taking a turn to his left the young farmer rode around the imposing mound to reach the road of the castle. The slope was not very big but Starlight had to give some extra efforts to carry the small wagon and its occupant. After ten good minutes, a shimmering light appeared in front of them, giving to the redhead a perfect view on the castle and its activities. She stared slack jaw at the beautiful scenery taking place some hundred feet ahead, "wow" she managed, transfixed by the sight.
Entering the castle, dozens of golden and silver decorated coaches were sending back the reflections of the small dangling lights. A myriad of torches disposed along the bulwarks illuminated the impressive building with a soft orange glow. She felt part of a fairy tale ... beautiful, this is magic, really... eyes growing wide like a little girl in front of a candy store she gawked openly at the exuberant display.
"We have to go to the back door, a friend of mine is assigned there, he will let us in" he could still have tried at the main entrance but with the actual agitation they would have probably been brushed off by the stressed valets.
Avoiding the crowd, they followed a little dusty path bordering the castle to finally reach the east door, guarded by two attentive soldiers.
"Hi Jesse" greeted the cheery farmer as he un-mounted.
"Hey Xander! Good to see you, what are you doing here" inquired the taller of the guards as he advanced towards the carriage.
"Well that's a long story man" the two shook hands firmly "but first let me introduce you to a friend" he said proudly. Taking off her hood the redhead smiled at the boy.
"Willow meet Jesse, my best friend" she waved grinning nervously at the young warrior "Jesse meet Willow, my new friend"
"Please to meet you Willow" he was a bit curious for it was the first time he saw this....this what, they looked boyish with the short hair, but it was a girl's name, he was confused. Plus there was something about them, an energy flow, somehow disturbed and peculiar.
Sensing his friend uneasiness and curiosity perking up, Xander reacted quickly.
"Willow's a new mage from another land, she's got some...hmm...'troubles' with her craft so we came here in the hopes to find some help"
"Oh I see" was the pleasant answer, he seemed satisfied with his friend's explanation.
"So what did your parents say about this? I mean you here at the castle by night wandering around" he wondered, knowing fully well Xander's family strict rules.
"Well theydontknowanything" he rushed the words "I kindoftookoffwhiletheywereasleep" he mumbled once again at full speed.
"What did you say?" two pairs of eyes stared at him amazed by the velocity of the young farmer's speech.
He sighed heavily and repeated meekly "I said, they don't know anything...I kind of took off while they were asleep" looking down at the ground he waited for his friend predicable reaction.
"What!!!!" the young guard cried out.
"I know I know, please don't take it like that"
"How do you want me to take it Xan, your parents will be freaked when they don't see you tomorrow, why did you do that?"
"You know perfectly well why" he was getting irritated "you know that they don't want me to take the try outs for the Knights preparation . They want to lock me up forever in that miserable farmer life, do you think it's fair?" he felt in his good right and intended to express its grievance with force.
"Xan, I know it's hard" he soothed putting his arm around his shoulders "but you cannot just disappear like that . It's unfair for sure but you're not 21 yet and your parents still have their word to say. You have one more year to wait and then you can make your own choices." Xander knew that his older friend was being the wisest of the two but he was miffed and didn't feel like letting go just yet.
"Easy to say for you, you're already 22" he snapped but regretted it immediately at the small wince he caught on the soldier's face. "Sorry" he apologized "I'm upset and I want to be given a chance do you understand?" he felt distressed.
All along this conversation the redhead had watched with attention the interactions between the two men. Jesse seemed very protective of the younger boy, and she found it nice. Xander was a good man but a little bit too idealistic. He needed someone to ground him, she felt that need too; someone to calm her, to center her, she was such a spaz sometimes. She had never felt at peace ... no, correction! I felt at peace once, only once, but does it really count...it was in a dream ...that voice, soft and tender...a gentle light comforting me... I felt home for the first time...
"I get it Xan, I get it" he cajoled, if he couldn't make him change his mind he could at least take care of him.
"Ok, so now we have to get you inside, but first I have to find someone to switch with me for the door watch.....I'll send my roommate" he concluded with a sly grin after some reflection "he owes me" he winked.
After they arrived at Jesse 's place, he had sent his grumbling roommate to occupy his place and offered the two traveling friend some collation.
"So what are your plans from here" asked the guard.
"Well we need to meet some powerful wizard or witch" stated the dark haired boy.
"Alright, tomorrow I'll lead you to a friend, he knows everyone here"
"No, not tomorrow" countered the farmer, seeing his friend's surprise he added "Willow cannot wait" looking at the anxious redhead he continued "she has to fix this quickly plus by night she can easily go unnoticed, what with her wacky powers, it can be disturbing for people, we have to go see your friend tonight!" there was no way he would budge on this, night was safer than day.
"Very well but there are two things standing in our way, first tonight the castle is busy with the celebration and second" he gave a once over at the redhead sans cloak "she cannot go dressed like that".
"What are you doing here sweetie?" asked a curious though gentle voice from the other side of the balcony. "You are missing on the best part" concluded a dark haired woman with a lopsided smile.
Turning around at the familiar voice the young blonde grinned slightly facing her respondent.
"The stars are so bright tonight" she didn't need to say more for the other woman to understand her current need for privacy.
"Honey I know you are not very comfortable in the crowd, but I feel there is something more you are not telling me" Jenny, though she didn't always show it, was very perceptive of her daughter's feelings. She reached for the younger girl and held her in a tender embrace.
Grateful for the comforting gesture the blonde hugged her mother back for a minute before they both let go to face each other fully.
"You know me so well" she stated with a smirk.
"Well I try anyway" she winked eliciting a soft giggle from Tara.
"So many people are dancing right now, I felt like taking some fresh air" Jenny didn't comment on that, they both knew it was just conversational and not the real matter here. Directing themselves towards a nearby bench they both kept silent for a few minutes; sitting side by side they bathed in the peaceful moment.
"I had a dream" deciding her mom would be the best one to understand the feeling, she explained the source of her trouble. "In fact it started more like a nightmare but I cannot remember much of it. The things I recall best are the sensations, it was so intense and unsettling, but then it was incredibly passionate too." She watched her mother's countenance with care, seeing only patience and interest she went on "I talked about it to Uncle Giles today and he said it might be related to an ancient prophecy. We found some texts but nothing is really clear for now. I didn't want to worry you or mama so..." interrupting the young blonde the Lady seer objected gently.
"Tara, honey, you know you don't have to worry about that, you can always tell us anything, good or bad. We are your mothers, we love you, we are here to help and support you, no matter what"
"I love you too" tear drops built in her azure orbs as the princess fought with her emotions.
"I know sweetie, I know" the older woman cupped her face whipping with her thumb the offending liquid pearls. "You don't have to talk about it now though, if you are not comfortable...." this time she was the one interrupted.
"No really, it's ok" she sniffed a few times regaining some confidence. "But I don't know where to start or maybe by telling you that I felt complete for the first time in my life."
"So how does it fit" inquired the squirming boy.
"I don't know, it's a bit scratchy" she informed with a grunt.
"That is not the concern here Willow" he answered back, impatient. She locked herself in the bedroom thirty minutes ago and he was now wondering if she actually sewed the clothes herself.
"Alright, alright! I'm coming" she said a bit exasperated.
The door creaked open and the two friends took a step back at the sight, the redhead was standing before them self-consciously tugging at the hem of her shirt, wriggling her hands together nervously.
"I feel a bit uneasy in those" she stated unnecessarily.
"Wow! You look incredible" sputtered the young guard.
"I second that" admitted the astonished farmer "you really are handsome" he smiled with a glint of amusement in his eyes.
"Handsome?" she was taken aback "hey I'm not a man" she pouted.
"You look like one" her eyes threw daggers at the boy and he completed his statement in a hurry "a very girlish, pretty boy" he was unsure if it was enough to sooth her.
"Well I guess you might be right" she sighed looking at her reflection in a mirror standing in the left corner of the room. She couldn't blame them for that, she really looked like a boy, and to be honest she was quite handsome in that suit; she smiled at the thought.
Jesse's roommate, Call, was a lanky guy, quite small for a man and more or less of the redhead's corpulence. So Jesse had proposed immediately that they borrowed some clothes from his wardrobe to dress Willow in a less conspicuous attire.
Considering the official reception taking place in the castle tonight, they decided upon a warrior ceremony dress that consisted of a white cotton tunic partly visible underneath a dark red overcoat embroidered with the arms of the royal family. A belt hung loosely around her waist and brown linen pants were mostly covered by black knee length leather boots.
Xander was dressed in the exact same way, Jesse keeping his duty clothes on.
"Stop admiring your pretty self and come on" the farmer interrupted the daydreaming redhead and tugged at her arm to guide her away from her narcissistic occupation.
"Please do not say a word, I will be the one talking" seeing the two nod in agreement the soldier gave more instructions "alright, the reception is held mostly between the throne room and the ball room, the rest of the castle is more or less quiet, but we will be meeting people. So Willow don't forget you are a royal guard, man or woman, you have to bow in front of any lady you'll meet, same for you of course Xander." he was nervous, any out of the ordinary behavior could give them away immediately.
Arriving in front of a dark wooden door, Jesse turned to face them "ready?" he asked taking a deep breath.
"Ready" they replied in chorus.
Opening the door they were faced with a long dim corridor. Following the lead the redhead roamed her eyes everywhere, examining the beautiful paintings adorning the walls barely lit by suspended candles and certainly destined to be admired by day light. They turned so many times in the labyrinthian hallways that she thought she would never be able to find her way back so she stuck to her companions, regretfully abandoning her wayward contemplations.
"I am truly amazed" this dream was so exceptional, very much resembling her visions in intensity if not in graphic memory. "Was it the first time, I mean did you ever have such dreams before?"
"No it really is the first" her mother had listened attentively waiting for her to complete her story to finally express her comments.
"So you found some relations with a prophecy" this was intriguing.
"Yes, but nothing precise though. It appears to be more or less linked to the person I connected with through the dream. Somehow they are to come here or so it seems considering the parchment retelling the prophecy. They should be quite powerful too, but everything here is just an interpretation" she was so frustrated not to be sure.
"What could be the nature of your bond with them" she was concerned about her daughter's security, feeling a connection with someone didn't automatically mean that it was positive, especially if her dream began as a nightmare. Nothing was harder to decipher than a prophetical dream.
"I don't know yet but it didn't feel evil, mom" she sensed her mother angst about that mysterious stranger.
"Evil doesn't always" she smiled affectionately although rather tersely.
Getting nearer from the ball room the three wanderings 'guards' stopped in a little recess to discuss their next move.
"Wesley, the man I told you about, is the chamberlain" announced the taller of the boys.
"You know the chamberlain?" Xander was impressed.
"Yes, he is my cousin, well to be more precise the son of my father's cousin. Anyway, he was the one who supported my candidature for the royal guard troops. He would know who to contact about your problem Willow".
She felt relieved to have Jesse and Xander at her side, she shuddered at the thought of being alone here with no one to address to.
"So, you two stay here" he enjoined the redhead and her fellow farmer "and I'll go in search of Wesley. By any mean, don't move from here, I'll come back as fast as possible, understood ?"
"We get it" answered the redhead.
"Alright then, see you" checking on both sides before getting out of their hiding place the young soldier dashed for the music filled room.
Willow and Xander remained silent, they were tensed and feeling rather cramped in their small hideout but they respected the last instructions of their guide.
A few feet on their right, slightly ajar French doors led to a large balcony. Straining from her actual position the redhead focused her attention on two growing shadows reflecting on the big windows. They looked feminine and were approaching slowly, getting bigger by the minute.
Turning her head sharply in the direction of the ballroom corridor, the young blonde let a muffled cry escape her lips.
"What is it Tara?" inquired the older woman worriedly.
"Do you sense this?" she was awestruck, there was a very powerful being standing probably only a few feet away from them, but what was more astounding was the fact that their magic was totally unshielded, diffusing in every direction with no apparent control.
Opening herself to her environment, the queen felt a disturbed energy coming in very strong waves from a nearby location. She was amazed, she should have sensed it before ...of course I didn't I was so focused on Tara...I managed to cut out everything around...silly...well it's probably because it was not a dark energy...
Walking cautiously towards the source of this disturbance the princess opened the glass doors and stepped into the hallway following the erratic but nonetheless powerful flow of magic
"Be careful sweetie" instructed her mother staying at her side.
Nodding shortly the blonde squinted in the obscurity, she was sure that they were not far, stopping not more than three feet from the recess she questioned with trepidation "who is here?".
Stepping in front of her daughter Jenny called out with more determination "who is here, show yourself now!"
They heard a few shuffling sounds and maybe some whisperings before a young dark haired man exited the small nook grinning nervously and motioning to his still hiding companion to do the same.
Emerging shyly from the dark the redhead looked for the first time at the two expecting figures. She stared transfixed at the beauty before her, the most amazing blue orbs boring into hers reaching for her soul. She couldn't move, couldn't even talk so she just stayed still lost in the contemplation of this angelic vision, barely breathing, afraid to break the spell.
A black tower emerged from a grey eerie mist as grim horsemen galloped restlessly in its direction. Those dark messengers were carrying bad news to the lord of the place; magic had stirred and stretched in ways that would not serve his purpose. They had traveled for hours and were now reaching their objective; with a big pull on the reins they stopped some hundred feet from the high building, looking at each other with a sense of dread. The master of Darkan was not known for his reception and they knew very well he would lash his fury on them when he'll learn the piece of information they held. Hesitation was readable on their face, they didn't want to suffer his wrath but they knew they would pay even more for not fulfilling their mission. Accepting their painful destiny they clashed spur clad boots on each side of their steeds' rears and as whinnying echoed through the valley they resumed their journey to the evil's den.