Author: Chris Cook
17th day of Saleht, afternoon, penned by Willow of the Zann Esu:
And I do mean 'penned', as in I'm not using a quill. Which is just as well, seeing as I'm currently sitting half-way up a crowded stand of spectators watching a jousting tournament, so there's nowhere I could put an inkwell anyway where it wouldn't just get knocked over. I've seen jousting before and it's not really my thing and there's no-one I know in the stands to talk to - Zan was going to be here, but he changed his plans a couple of days ago - so I figured this morning that this would be the perfect opportunity to a) try out this nifty self-inking pen thing a friend of Myrreon's at the university thought up, and b) start a new journal.
I actually meant to sooner, seeing as our old journal ran out of pages last week - I've never gone through one so quickly! Then again Tara wrote just as much as I did, not to mention lending her talents at creating wonderfully realistic sketches whenever the occasion demanded; and she has a way of ferreting out all manner of interesting people and places in this big, busy city we're currently calling home. So all in all it should come as no surprise that we filled up the last journal in double-quick time - evidence of a very rewarding life, I'd say.
Just between you and me, journal - and Tara, when you read this later as I'm sure you will (I love you!) - our 'private journal' filled up equally quickly, and the memories held snugly between its covers are far more than merely 'rewarding'.
So we come to this, the beginning of a new chapter of our lives. Although a chapter is part of a book, whereas this is a whole one - so shall we say a new book of our lives? That works. And this being a new book, and my journal-keeping of the past week having suffered for not having any spare pages to keep a journal on, it seems fitting I should jot down the salient points of the present.
So, point the first: today is the beginning of a week of festivities in the grand city of Duncraig, to celebrate the end of the winter. And let me tell you, I'm celebrating right along with them! The temperature, by and large, remained somewhere above freezing, but honestly you wouldn't have guessed it, considering the storms that lashed the city these past weeks. Rain, sleet, hail, not to mention winds the like of which they'd be scared witless of up on the steppes below the Kae Huron mountains - and wide eaves and umbrellas aren't much help against horizontal rain. Even for city-dwellers, somewhat removed from the rural cycle of the seasons, the coming of spring deserves a party and no mistake.
Point the second: tomorrow I officially finish my studies with Myrreon. I say 'officially' because he's been a very generous master, allowing me time to work on my own projects or study with other mages when it seemed prudent not to delay. In fact I've spent half of the past month - when I haven't been curled up in front of a roaring fire with Tara - in the university working with the professor of elemental magic, and the associate professor of primal energy (I haven't been able to discovery yet where his professor is, only that he's on some kind of working holiday in Khanduras that, depending on who you talk to in the faculty, may have been going on for as long as three years). But I confess, I'll feel a moment's regret when I finally come to pack up my things from Myrreon's workshop and move on. Not that I won't be allowed to visit, of course, and Tara and I will still be living in the Palace, and thus be able to drop in whenever we want, but... well, you know how I am.
Point the third: the day after that, the Amazon mission will be finally heading home. I'm quite sure I'll share my beloved's sadness at seeing them leave, despite that they're her people, while I've only been an Amazon (technically speaking) for a couple of months, and it's not like I grew up with them. But for all the time I've known Tara - which is to say, the happiest time of my life - Tryptin and the merchant emissaries and diplomats have been around, and have made me feel very welcome among them. I'll miss Tryptin very much in particular. Not that I ever had a brother, but if I had to imagine one, I wouldn't ask for better. And Melcan, of course, though I have a feeling he'll be missing Lissa a sight more than me or Tara (the poor boy's got something of a crush on her, unless I'm mistaken - pity she's a good six years older than him, but I'm sure it'll wear off once he gets home and starts mingling with some Amazon girls his own age. He is sweet, though).
That seems to cover everything, insofar as the notable events of the moment go. Now that I come to think of it, it seems fortuitous that I'll have finished my 'formal' period of studying just before the Amazons head home. I can't help but worry that Tara will feel a little more homesick, without the benefit of her fellow Amazons being around. She talks so fondly of her home, that if it weren't for the delight she finds in exploring new places and discovering their unique charms, I'd feel inclined to just forget our whole loosely-planned trip through Westmarch, and just go home with her right now. But that wouldn't be fair to either of us - I know she looks forward to seeing the rest of this realm as much as I do. And even though I'm technically-speaking the experienced traveller - one thing about Ember, she never stays still long (I worked out once that if you added up all the distance we'd travelled together, it'd be enough to go all the way around the world and back again, which boggles the mind) - it seems to me that Tara has the advantage of me in terms of being able to adapt to living in different, unfamiliar places. It's as if she carries part of her home with her, so that she's never without it.
That said, I'm glad my study schedule will, after tomorrow, be such that I'll be able to take days off whenever I want, all things being equal, and I intend to take advantage of that, and see that if Tara ever feels lonely, I'll be right beside her ready to give her a big, comforting hug (or more, depending on how public the place is).
I've just been partially deafened by a rousing cheer from my fellow spectators, and I see that the most recent de-horsing by lance-point (at least they have the sense to use hollow lances that splinter rather than skewering their targets) signals the end of the jousting tournament for the moment. It's traditional for all manner of contests to be held during the festival week, jousting among them - you may have gathered - but I'm not just here because I get good seats on account of being a guest at the Palace. Given a few minutes for the marshals to clear up the course the jousting run will be the scene of the mounted archery competition, in which my gorgeous Tara is a competitor.
And Anji, of course, there wouldn't be much point entering a mounted archery contest without a horse. Anji's heavy by the contest's standards, Tara told me earlier that most of the entrants - who've been practising down at the barracks - ride light little horses, but she decided she'd do better with a horse she knew well. The course is a loop, up and down the run, and the archers are allowed to fire at the targets (three of them, set up on the opposite side of the run to the spectator stand) at any point between the beginning of their run and its completion, even during the turn, but they're timed, as well as graded by the accuracy of their shots - so it doesn't pay to dawdle.
All the contestants are keeping their individual plans 'close to their chests', so Tara tells me, but I suppose seeing as I'm often close to her chest it's okay for me to know her plans. Apparently the common thing to do is to take a wide circle at the far end of the run, to give the rider time to steady him or herself, grab the reins, then get ready to fire again as they come back up to the fence, where the shot to the targets is easiest. I can imagine the need to concentrate on riding during the turn - I'm no longer a novice when it comes to riding, but making a turn like that is something I'd only personally do if Tara was right behind me holding me tight. Tara's plan is to take Anji in at a gallop, let her take the turn as tight as she can, and only take her bow off the targets long enough to switch sides during the turn.
This means she'll have to hang on just with her legs and sense of balance. Now I know how strong those thighs of hers are (first-hand experience), and her balance is second to none (likewise - her inventiveness during intimate moments never fails to surprise me; and by all the gods I hope no-one's reading this over my shoulder), but I've seen Anji do tight turns. She's a warhorse, after all, used to close quarters and having to turn on a crown piece (in the middle of a melee, no less). Honestly, if Tara wasn't so confident she can make it without falling off, I think I'd be a nervous wreck.
Trumpet's sounding, here they come.
Gotta go! A certain Amazon richly deserves being kissed witless the moment the presentation ceremony is over.
17th of Saleht, evening, scribed by Tara of the Amazons:
She did, too - lovable sorceress o' mine.
Normally Willow, being the conscientious reporter of all manner of facts that she is, would be writing a more complete description of the horse archery contest. However she's taken it upon herself at this point to perform a deep and thorough massage of my legs, just to keep any soreness from developing as a result of today's riding activities. So it falls to me to record the day's events as my thighs are lovingly massaged. Woe is me. Hmmmm. Excuse me if my writing is a little less legible than usual, but she's really good at this. And roving extensively as well. I can't quite imagine why my upper back should need a massage, but complaining is absolutely the last thing on my mind.
Now, where had we gotten to? Ah yes, archery. Our order of competition was determined by the adjudicators, which resulted in Fredriks, one of the Duke's scouts, going first in our final group, followed by Jonoh, a young boy who'd obviously come in from far outside the city, then Bengel, another scout (a distant relation of Sergeant Sheerson's, I discovered), then Lady Lindia, and finally myself. We five, apparently, were the entrants expected to perform well, while the others, a dozen or so slated to ride before us, were not regarded as serious chances for victory. They were good - I noted what seemed to me to be military training in a couple of them - but I knew I could better their scores. Fredricks and Bengel I hadn't met before, but the reputation of the Duke's scout company spoke for their skill - and Lindia's, who has after all led the company in battle now and then. Jonoh I wasn't sure about. He was very young, but he and his pony seemed to think with one mind - indeed, he seemed to only hold the reins out of habit. His bow too gave me an idea he would be a serious contender, as I could see it was not made by any of the city workshops whose work I knew. Yet it was a quality weapon, and my guess from how he handled it was that he had made it himself.
Fredricks scored quite highly, coaxing a little more speed from his mount than I'd have guessed and placing his shots well - two bullseyes, though on one of his other four shots he misjudged. Barring incident his score wouldn't be a winning one, though I don't doubt that his captain would be more than pleased with his skill.
Jonoh managed a phenomenal round, and earned the crowd's admiration instantly. The boy's eye for archery is quite remarkable in one so young - if I didn't know better I'd say he was Amazon trained. There's subtle differences in his style, if you know what you're looking for, but by what I saw, I believe trial and error has taught him some of the techniques our archers have been learning for generations. In particular he has the vital ability to focus completely - as I thought he knew his mount so well that the riding was second nature to him, and my guess is that guiding her around the course and staying in the saddle took no more concentration than drawing breath. His score was twenty points clear of Fredricks, and earned a roar of applause from the crowd which he accepted with shy grace.
Bengel did better than his fellow scout, but still fell fifteen points short of Jonoh's mark. He didn't quite have the accuracy of either of the previous competitors, his arrows tending to land in the second ring, outside the bullseye, but he was very consistent and never made a wide miss - valuable for a soldier.
Lady Lindia rode next, and surprised spectators and fellow competitors alike. But, that is a habit of hers: never doing anything the ordinary way when she can stand out and turn some heads. She and her charger, Daredevil, rode out fast, and I thought for a moment that she had made a rare mistake, and misjudged her approach, for as she bore down on the end of the central fence she was getting closer, not moving out to give herself room to turn. She seemed unconcerned nonetheless, firing three shots, quickly but unhurried, taking the instant she needed with each to place it close to the centre of each target - two outright bullseyes and one close.
As she reached the end of the fence I imagined I'd see her realise her mistake and rein in to take the turn slowly, sacrificing some time in order to give herself a chance of completing her run with good scores for accuracy, rather than persisting in attempting a turn that was simply too tight, and end up off balance as she rode back - even I wouldn't be able to find a bullseye an inch wide if I were struggling to remain in the saddle. My heart leapt into my throat as Daredevil reared up, twisting around in mid-air - I couldn't imagine what had caused him to rear, but his action was so severe it looked as though he might fall over backwards, with a real danger Lindia could be badly hurt if she didn't get out of the way before they both fell. The crowd too feared for her, gasps could be heard from the stands, people were on their feet. For a split-second my eyes went to the boundary fence, where the nearest spectators stood, and found Kilal, Lindia's current belle, a dark-skinned Aranoch horsewoman here to compete in the steeplechase. Far from being concerned for her lover, she was grinning - and that was when I realised the Lady was pulling yet another of her famed unforgettable stunts.
Instead of falling backwards, Daredevil somehow reared around, getting his fore-hooves down in front of himself as his back legs kicked out, and in the space of a heartbeat he had gone from thundering down the run to racing back, faster than any horse could have wheeled around in the usual manner. I was, I admit, lost in admiration for Lindia's horsemanship (horsewomanship?), the skill it took to train Daredevil such a manoeuvre, and the trust she had in the horse to allow him to do it while she was on his back - risking being crushed if they fell. I barely noticed the three arrows she loosed on her return run, another bullseye and two more close hits. The crowd roared its approval, of her bravery and skill, and again when she leaned down to Kilal and shared a quite shameless kiss.
So came my turn. While Lindia had been acknowledging the crowd and riding back in I'd spent a moment talking to Anji, feeling her mood and letting her sense mine. She felt calm, in spite of all the noise of the crowd - though now that I think of it, being a warhorse she's hardly of a nature to be spooked by a bit of an uproar. But it was good to talk to her regardless; as in my first run, I'd essentially be leaving the riding to her, and concentrating exclusively on aiming. And no matter how confident you may feel, that just isn't something your instincts will let you do wholeheartedly unless you know you can trust your steed.
I didn't want to keep everyone waiting so I mounted up as soon as I felt we were both ready. As before I left the reins across the saddlehorn and walked Anji out onto the field with just a little prompting from my legs
Don't worry sweetie, you'll get your turn. Honestly, the cheek of the woman, stealing the quill in the middle of my journal entry...
Where was I? Oh yes, riding out. Having watched the previous runs I knew where the targets were, and I had a fair idea of the route Anji would take around the central fence - so all that was left to me to do was to aim and fire, which I've trained at for the better part of my life. I shouldn't risk making it seem easy, because it wasn't - concentrating on visualising the arrow's path through the air, all while atop a speeding horse, and with the wind gusting back and forth, makes for a tricky series of shots. And though I'd hardly consider myself a performer to any great degree, I do have to admit it was daunting to think of following Lindia's heart-stopping performance.
Still, my spirits couldn't help but be lifted at the sight of Tryptin and Melcan standing among the crowd at the fence, applauding as I rode out - I'd thought they'd be all day at the javelin contests, as Tryptin's fiancée is known for her mastery of the weapon, and Tryptin appreciates the art in using it from being around her, even though he doesn't wield it himself. But of course, as I found out later, he made sure to find out when the horse archery would be held, and be present.
And then my eyes lifted to the stands, where I knew my Willow would be, and saw her on her feet, cheering and waving. Do you know, she grows more beautiful every day? It's the honest truth. And all the small worries I'd harboured about competing and my technique were swept away by seeing the pride written on her face, her smile. I wouldn't say I'm a competitive person by nature, but I was resolved then to win a golden wreath for my Willow. I hadn't been taking the competition lightly before by any means, but suddenly I wanted to win. Lindia, I suspect, had lifted herself above the standard even she had truly expected of herself, out of her innate - and endless - desire to do her best, no matter what it was she turned her hand to. Now I felt the same desire, only for a different reason.
That, then, left me with the dilemma: how? I had only seconds to decide - unless I was to stop and wait a moment at the start of the course while I thought, but that didn't seem entirely in keeping with the spectacle of the contest. But as it turned out I needed no time, the answer came to me at once, and luckily the few seconds I had to think weren't enough for me to fully consider how crazy it was. As I urged Anji to the pace we had practised, I quickly reached to my second quiver - counting myself fortunate I'd kept it attached to the saddle out of habit, rather than stripping off all the non-essentials for the contest - and drew a practice arrow, slipping it loosely through the harness strap across my chest, just enough to keep it from falling. -Excuse me, I have to interrupt my beloved here: it simply doesn't do justice to Tara's appearance to just say 'she rode out' and leave it at that. She was, and is, a goddess in the flesh - proud and determined atop her mount, unmistakeably commanding in her every movement and gesture, and dare I say it, the immediate object of desire of every man and that-way-inclined woman present that day. Her golden hair, tied back in a loose ponytail, flying out behind her, her eyes flashing as they fixed on the targets, her lean form glowing in the sun, bare thighs and arms glistening with just the tiniest layer of sweat, her leathers tight around her, formidable and entrancing. Goddess, it makes me wet just to think of her.
I know sweetie, I can feel you on my back, and don't think you're the only one getting heated in this position. I let her 'borrow' the quill, incidentally, only because she's quite able to massage my lower back with her thighs. And suddenly, I imagine when I re-read this passage, the archery won't be the only remarkable memory it stirs in me.
As I said, I had formed a daring plan. Lindia had the advantage of speed over every other competitor who had already ridden today, and I admit, over me as well. The rearing turn she and Daredevil pulled off was impossible to match, no matter how tightly I rode Anji around, and there was no possibility that I could duplicate the turn itself - it would have needed weeks of practise to perfect, and I had seconds, not weeks. So her speed was unbeatable; her accuracy, too, was no easy mark - three bullseyes out of her six shots, and the other three close to the centres as well. I was confident I could match that - but could I exceed it enough to overtake her speed advantage?
I took the first three shots exactly as I had planned, quickly but not hurried, feeling content in the smooth motions of my arms as I aimed, fired, drew and nocked a new arrow. Anji was fairly flying along, but I was used to her pace. I saw two bullseyes out of those first three shots, the third very close, possibly a fraction better than Lindia's close miss on her outward leg. But the outward leg is the easier of the two, at least for a right-handed archer - being astride Anji as she rode put my left side towards the targets, just as I would stand if I were firing from the ground. The return leg, when I would have to twist around in the saddle to bring my arrows to bear, would be a far greater challenge.
Anji knew how to take the course on her own, from our hours of practising - I felt the familiar shift in her weight as she leaned into the turn, and I too leaned, helping her balance herself. And it was now that I took my risk, trusting my instincts and Anji completely to keep myself in the saddle, while my attention remained solely on the targets. Unless a rider goes out slowly, too slowly to score well, there is only time for three shots on the outward leg and three on the return - any more and an archer would have no time to aim, and would be firing blind. But the daring notion I had had was: what if one were to fire during the turn?
This was no easy shot, which is why I had selected a practise arrow for the task - and why I was suddenly glad that I take the time to make my own arrows, for making a shot such as this required complete familiarity with my weapon, such as I could never have with a bought arrow without having already fired it, which in turn would weaken it. Also, though the practise arrow would fly slower, its spiralling flights would stabilise it - I could never have made a 'straight' shot from my position, leaning half out of the saddle, but a shot angled upwards, to arc down into the target, was possible.
Even so, I wholly believed I had miscalculated as I fired. My attention never wavered, but the reality of my posture - trying as I was to aim and stay in the saddle at the same time, as Anji turned sharply - was that I ended up holding my bow almost sideways, and drawing its string very loosely from below, almost pushing the string back across the line of my body, in a manner which no archer in their right mind would attempt if they wanted their arrow to go anywhere near the target, let alone the bullseye. Frankly, had the target range not been enclosed on both sides by stout wooden walls, and clear of spectators, I never would have let go the string. But let go I did, feeling for a split second - in spite of my awkward posture and the contorted way I held my bow - that I had a chance.
I had no time to even watch where the arrow went, besides noting with some satisfaction that it was headed in the right direction, for Anji was already coming out of her turn and I had to draw for my next shot. I was still fixed on the nearest target from my wild shot, and so found it no hardship to send my next arrow into its centre. The second I missed by a fraction, as I shifted my focus from one target to the next, but the third shot, I was pleased to see, also found its bullseye.
It was a respectable score, I knew, but considering Lindia's achievement a moment ago it didn't seem to warrant the enormous cheer I received, and for a moment I was utterly confused. I looked over the heads of the crowd at once, searching for Willow, and my eyes found her scrambling down the stand, glowing with excitement - that was when I realised I must have done something remarkable. As she disappeared momentarily from view I turned my attention back to the targets, and saw what had provoked such a reaction. From the furthest of the three targets, three arrows stood - the one I had placed close to the centre on my outward run, the bullseye I had scored coming back, and the third was the practice arrow I had fired all but blindly, and it too was in the bullseye.
I have no idea - Willow's kissing my neck, so excuse me if my writing is a little shaky... perhaps a lot - I have no idea what combination of chance and the blessings of the gods and goddesses contrived to put that arrow there, but I felt an elation such as I have rarely known in any pursuit other than that of pleasing my beloved wife-to-be.
And speaking of her loveliness, there she was not a moment later, working her way through the crowd, ducking under the wooden railing separating the spectator area from the jousting run, the guards letting her by after a glance at me to see that I knew her, and wanted her to come to me. I dismounted quickly, patting Anji's cheek and telling her how well she had done, but already my mind was filled with the single thought of wrapping my arms around my gorgeous girl. As I took a step forward to meet her, my only reservation was whether I would kiss her the way I wanted to, with several hundred people watching - I have no problem expressing my love in public, but this kiss I had in mind was not by any means a kiss I'd normally let anyone else see.
Luckily for me
Yes, luckily for both of us, Anji made the decision for me by leaning forward and nudging me gently in the back with her nose, just as Willow was in hugging range. I took a step forward to balance, and all of a sudden we were together, her arms were around me, mine around her, and we kissed...
...such a kiss as makes me wonder what miraculous sprite wets Willow's lips with dew from some enchanted flower, for I swear on my honour, I cannot imagine how, after all this time and all the kisses we've shared, one can still be so precious, so special, so new - as if we'd never kissed before, and suddenly all the wonder I'd never known in the world was pressed against my lips.
The most honest words I can find to describe that feeling are that her kiss made me feel naked, as if the entire world - everything but her and I - were swept away, as if a great wave had risen up out of the ocean and crashed over us, swept us out to sea, submerged us in some whirlpool of passion where we were tossed around, tumbled over and over until we were dizzy, but always, always together, inseparable - naked and open, completely, to each other, while untouchable to the rest of creation.
Those kisses, which are never far from our lives, and always remind me how blessed I am... words can't do them justice. But I've tried, if only for the sake of completeness, for it's quite impossible that I'd ever need a journal entry to remind me - how could I ever forget in the first place?
And now I find myself preparing to set my quill aside. This day draws to a very pleasant close, and I intend to see that the night exceeds it in that regard.
In closing, as my Willow would say: Note to self, give Anji a big treat tomorrow, she's earned it twice over.
Tara of the Amazons, concluding this entry of the seventeenth day of Saleht.