Author: Chris Cook
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, realised 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 colour 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 recognised. 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 realise, 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 judgement 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.