Author: Chris Cook
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 travelling 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 armour 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 armour," insisted Willow, "I'm sure people just look at that armour and think, 'yep, she's an Amazon all right'... because it's Amazon-y armour, 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 travelling 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 civilised 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 harbour city, this is very nearly civilised." 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 behaviour, 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 apologised 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 armour 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 I 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 honour, 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 travelled 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 travelled 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.