Author: Chris Cook
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 travelling 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 recognised 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 marvelled 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 humour, 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 travelling 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 travelling companion at least, for the foreseeable future? Particularly seeing as, if her behaviour 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 favourite 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 specialities, 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.