Author: Chris Cook
Tryptin and several of the Amazon merchants were waiting in the castle courtyard as the Baron rode in, with Tara on his heels. Tara reined in and jumped to the ground, leaving it to the grooms to take her horse to the stables as she sprinted across to the Amazons. The Baron was already dismounting, his chief advisor at his side, talking quickly.
"Where's Willow?" Tara asked before Tryptin could say anything. He seemed surprised at her question.
"She was in our common room a few minutes ago," he said, "she came asking whether you had returned not long ago, and I said she could wait there, if she liked."
"She's alright?" Tara demanded.
"Quite alright," Tryptin said, "but there's been some sort of incident-"
"The Baron's guard said that his mage had attacked someone," Tara explained quickly, "she was going to spend the afternoon with him, I thought-"
"She's fine," Tryptin reassured her, "she didn't seem upset, she certainly wasn't hurt." Tara took a deep breath to steady herself, feeling some of the tension drain out of her.
"I'll speak with the Baron," Tryptin went on, "find out what's going on. Did his guard say anything else?"
"Only that the mage attacked someone, and something about black magic," Tara said. A second group of riders came through the gate, noblemen and guards, one with a bound prisoner held on the saddle in front of him. Tryptin glanced at them, then turned his attention back at Tara.
"What happened?" he asked.
"H-he shot at us," Tara said, "at me." It felt odd to think it had happened barely a quarter of an hour ago - Tara's sudden fear for Willow had pushed the attack out of her mind, and throughout the ride back to the castle she had thought of nothing else.
"Are you alright?" Tryptin asked quickly. "You're not hurt, are you?"
"No, I-I'm fine," Tara said. Tryptin stared at her for a moment, then glanced around the courtyard.
"Why don't you go back to our quarters," he said, "Willow's probably still there. I'll speak with the Baron, and we'll... get this sorted out." Tara nodded, suddenly grateful for the chance to get away from all the people bustling around her. She noticed Tryptin's grim expression, though.
"Um, the Baron," she said, just as he was about to turn away, "h-he was... after the first shot, he shielded me. I-in case there was another. I... could you thank him?"
"I will," Tryptin said shortly, but Tara could see he appreciated what the Baron had done. He motioned to one of the merchants, a solidly-built man who Tara knew could handle his sword as well as a soldier. The he hurried towards the Baron, and Tara made her way through the gardens to the south wing. The merchant stayed with her, a few steps behind, and waited outside when they reached the common room.
Willow was sitting on a bench on the other side of the room, staring idly out of the window. She turned when she heard the door, and her face lit up when she saw Tara. Seeing her here, unhurt, seemingly carefree, Tara suddenly felt like crying as the tense knot in her stomach unwound itself. Willow saw her expression, and leapt up to meet her halfway as she crossed the room. Tara enveloped her in a tight hug, burying her face in Willow's hair, taking a deep breath of her scent and letting it out in a joyful sob.
"Wh-what's wrong?" Willow asked, wrapping her arms around Tara and stroking her back.
"Nothing," Tara cried softly, "nothing's wrong... I-I was worried, that's all..." She took a calming breath and released Willow just enough to look into her eyes. She saw the sudden concern and anxiety there, and smiled to reassure her.
"Are you alright?" Willow asked, smiling uncertainly.
"I'm fine," Tara said.
"Has something happened? Are you sure you're alright?"
"I'm alright, Willow," Tara said soothingly. "I was... well, while we were hunting someone shot at us... but I'm fine, I'm perfectly okay!" she insisted, as Willow's eyes widened in shock.
"Shot at you?" Willow squeaked. Her eyes darted over Tara's body, inspecting her as best she could, given that she seemed entirely reluctant to move any further away from her. Tara left one hand around Willow's waist, and used the other to cup her cheek and draw her eyes back up.
"I'm fine," she insisted gently. "I was just worried about you, that's all."
"You're shot at, and you worry about me?" Willow asked. "Tara, what's going on?" Keeping an arm around Tara's waist, Willow manoeuvred her over to one of the padded lounges in the corners of the room and sat her down. She caught the end of one of her trailing sleeves and used it to gently wipe away Tara's tears. Tara gazed at her adoringly for a few seconds before she remembered it was her turn to talk.
"D-did you meet the Baron's mage?" she asked first. Willow rolled her eyes.
"Nope. I waited for an hour, but he didn't show up, and none of the servants were any help- why, has something happened to him?"
"I don't know," admitted Tara. "The guard who brought us in from the hunt said that he'd attacked someone, and he'd been doing black magic."
"You're kidding!" exclaimed Willow. "No, of course you're not... gods... he attacked someone... and you thought I was...?"
"I was worried," Tara said.
"I'm fine," Willow said firmly, "I never even saw him. Black magic... who said that? The guard?" Tara nodded.
"I don't think he saw anything," she ventured, "I think he was just told what to tell the Baron, and bring him back to the castle."
"Probably," Willow mused. Without quite realising it she had let her sleeve fall, and ended up resting her palm against the side of Tara's face, stroking her cheek with her thumb. "'Black magic' is really just a layman's term," Willow said, "magic is what it does, not good or evil on its own... I wonder what he did?"
"Tryptin's talking with the Baron now," Tara said.
"They caught the person who shot at you?" Willow asked suddenly.
"Uh-huh, the guards brought him back with them. I suppose he's in a cell now."
"Good," Willow said firmly. Tara recognised the fierce protectiveness in her eyes, and felt warmed by it. She took advantage of Willow shifting her position on the chair to move closer to her, draping her arm over her waist. Willow grinned and curled up to Tara's side, still stroking her cheek tenderly.
"So, he missed?" she asked.
"Um, not quite," Tara admitted, "I caught the crossbow bolt." Willow's eyes widened again.
"You what now?" she asked, in bemused shock.
"Um, it's something we're trained for," Tara explained. "Being aware enough of everything around you that you can sense an arrow in flight."
"How do you train for something like that?" Willow asked. "I mean, unless you get it right first time?"
"Oh, no," said Tara, "the instructors aim beside us, a-and they start off with special arrows, with blunt tips, and they fly slowly. Once you learn how to grab one out of the air, they use faster arrows, and blindfolds, that sort of thing. We never actually get arrows fired at us."
"You're amazing," Willow said sincerely.
"N-not really," Tara said shyly, "it's just a matter of practice..."
"Hey," Willow insisted gently, "I'm a scholar, if I say you're amazing, that means you're amazing. No arguments," she finished with a grin.
"If you say so," Tara teased back, giving Willow's waist a squeeze that made her wriggle delightfully.
"Oh, so that's the way you want it," Willow said with a fiery glint in her eyes. Her fingers darted to Tara's exposed side, tickling her through her tunic just under the edge of her leather bodice. Tara squirmed and laughed, trying to catch Willow's nimble hand. When that eluded her, she lifted herself off the lounge just enough to free her other arm, which snuck under Willow's body and ran up and down her side, sending her into spasms of laughter.
"This isn't... really... fair," she protested, between giggles. She deftly twisted her wrist out of Tara's hand, which had finally caught her, and resumed her attack.
"Why's that?" demanded Tara, arching her back to try to keep her side away from Willow's fingers.
"Well," Willow said, leaning against the back of the lounge to trap Tara's hand, as her own was caught again, "you've got all this armour." She slipped her hand out of Tara's again, but instead of tickling her, Willow tapped the side of her leather top, which was quite thick enough to deaden the sensation. "See? I've only got this little tiny bit of Tara to work with..." She trailed off as their sudden stillness brought her attention to how close she was to Tara, barely an inch between her and Tara, their arms around each other, their thighs touching and ankles casually resting together off the edge of the lounge. Willow tried to finish her thought, and not be distracted by Tara's chest, which was moving very distractingly with her heavy breathing.
"Only this bit of you," she repeated, relaxing her hand against Tara's side, "and you've got," she gulped quickly, "all of me."
She saw Tara's eyes drop for a moment to the laces at the side of her bodice, then they were staring into each other's gaze again.
"You're right," Tara breathed, "it wouldn't do for people to say Amazons are unfair." Her lips curled into a playful, sensual smile that made Willow's breath catch in her throat. Tara's free hand drifted back from Willow's side, towards the laces. Willow was caught between the tiny, sensible voice inside her reminding her that they were in a common room where anyone could just walk in, and the rest of her thoughts which insisted that if she stopped Tara they would never forgive her. The way Tara unconsciously licked her lips as she looked down again silenced Willow's rationality, but just then they heard someone come in behind them.
"Tryptin!" Tara said, bolting to her feet. Willow scrambled up beside her, standing straight like a soldier at attention, her face flushing red at being caught- 'Well, not actually in the act,' she conceded, 'probably not really in a situation of the act being immanent, but at least with the possibility of an act, of some kind, being present in the near-future...' She realised Tryptin was talking, and told her nervous thoughts to shut up.
"The Baron has responded to this incident admirably," he was saying, mainly to Tara but with an occasional glance at Willow as well. "The man who attacked you today is being interrogated at the moment. I explained our requirements in this situation, and the Baron has agreed that his trial will be held before we leave."
"I see," said Tara flatly.
"As to the other matter, it's unclear at this stage whether it's related, but it is of some concern. The Baron's mage, a man named Hydris of the Vizjerei clan, is in custody, under close guard. It seems a castle maid was delivering lunch, and smelt smoke when she came in to leave his plate in the antechamber of his rooms. She went into his study, and found the mage conducting some sort of ritual, which frightened her. The mage drew a knife and attacked, she ran, he chased - luckily a pair of guards were in the corridor nearby, and they disarmed him before he could reach her. She took a cut, which I'm told is minor, one of the guards was wounded in the leg, but is expected to recover." He sighed, and glanced around the common room as a pair of Amazon merchants entered, talking quietly and seriously.
"If this has anything to do with your attacker," he went on to Tara, "or our presence in general, we must know. It could affect our entire mission. The Baron hasn't yet scheduled a trial for his mage, but he has agreed that we will be permitted to attend. I'll be speaking with him again later, to try to get our negotiations back on track. Oh, Miss Willow, the Baron asked after you, he would like to see you at your convenience before dinner tonight."
"Th-thank you," said Willow.
"A bad day," Tryptin said, to no-one in particular, "but no-one permanently harmed, thank the gods, and perhaps we'll pull something good from this after all. A person's true face is most often revealed in times of stress - I find I like the Baron. His conduct during this has been noble... He received your thanks, by the way," he said to Tara, "he was quite anxious that you did not think poorly of him for not protecting you further, as a guest of his."
"He's a good man," Tara said.
"Yes he is," Tryptin agreed. "I have business to attend to - this trouble has delayed several meetings already. Melcan will be on hand if you need anything. You too, Miss Willow."
"Thank you," Willow and Tara said together. Tryptin nodded and left, taking the two merchants with him. Willow felt unaccountably relieved to be alone with Tara again, and the pair found themselves sharing a conspiratorial smile.
"Wh-why do you think the Baron wants to talk to you?" Tara asked. Willow shrugged.
"I'm just guessing," she said, "probably to help figure out what his mage was doing. So far as I know there's only ever been one mage at the court here, so I suppose no-one else really knows how magic works... He might want me to go through the mage's rooms, study the ritual he was performing. Probably not what the Order had in mind when they asked him to instruct me," she added ruefully.
"Will you be okay doing that?" Tara asked gently.
"Oh... sure," Willow said. She sat down again, with Tara beside her. Glancing at her, Willow realised Tara could see her nervousness.
"I'll do it, it's important to know what he was doing, I just- I hope it wasn't a summoning," she explained glumly, gazing at the floor. "After what happened... the accident I told you about... demons scare me. I mean, obviously, they're demons and that's the whole point, but... I saw one," she admitted, "in Entsteig... a pure demon. I... If the mage had been trying to summon something, just the thought of being in his rooms-" she inhaled sharply and shook her head, trying to regain her composure. Tara gently pulled her into a hug, letting Willow's head rest on her shoulder as she stroked her hair. Willow let herself be held, her arms loose around Tara's waist, her breathing steadying as Tara soothed her. She placed a soft kiss on Tara's shoulder, and closed her eyes in contentment.
"I'll go with you," Tara said after a moment, her hands keeping up the gentle rhythm through Willow's hair and on her back.
"You don't have to," Willow said, even as she gratefully tightened her arms around Tara.
"I w-want to," Tara said, quietly but with an air of defiance. "Not so much to see what was going on, but... if you go, then I'll go."
"Thank you," Willow said, barely a whisper.
"A-actually, it's probably best for everyone," Tara went on, "if what the mage was doing had anything to do with Amazons being here, one of us should be witness to it."
"We could probably get a guard or two," Willow suggested. "Just to stand by while we're in there." Tara leaned down, her mouth close to Willow's ear.
"I only need you," she whispered. Her breath was hot against Willow's skin, and the tenderness in her words made Willow feel something she couldn't quite describe - protected, cared for... something else.
"You were really worried about me?" she asked in a small voice.
"Mmm-hmm," Tara confirmed, "I nearly overtook the Baron riding back." Willow hugged her a little closer.
"Not that I want you to worry," she insisted, "'cause, naturally, not being worried beats worrying hands down, just... thank you. You know what I mean?"
"I know," Tara said. "It was worth it... to find you here, and safe." Willow kissed her shoulder again.
"I wish I'd seen you riding back," she said quietly. "After we met in the garden this morning, when you, you know... kissed me senseless," she grinned, "I went up onto the battlements so I could watch you ride out. I was way over to the side, and let me tell yo those walls are pretty high when you're up on top of them looking down. I saw you, though. First a couple of the other riders, then you. You were leaning forward, a-and your hair was streaming out behind you in the wind... Maybe there's something to this whole horse-riding business after all," she ventured with a grin.
"When we get time I'll teach you," Tara promised. "Not that I'm an expert or anything, but I've been trained a little. We'll find you a nice, kind horse, and we'll ride together, and you can hold on to me as long as you like."
'Ah, that's it,' Willow thought, suddenly understanding the warmth that was radiating through her. Protected, cared for... she felt loved.