Return to Hellebore Chapter Eight


Author: Chris Cook
Rating: PG
Copyright: Based on characters from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon and his talented minionators, and Diablo II by Blizzard Entertainment. All original material is copyright 2003 Chris Cook.

The Baron looked a good deal more formal than he had earlier in the day, and watching the way he shuffled the papers on his desk and breathed in with deliberate calm, as if composing himself, Tara guessed he was using the comfort of procedure to cover up some nervousness on his part. She and Willow entered the room when he looked up and beckoned them in, stopping a few paces from his desk and bowing.

The Baron's study was a large, airy room, obviously designed to impress visitors but with an unmistakeable lived-in feel to it. The wall on one side was covered in shelves, cluttered with old leather-bound books, folded parchments and stacks of scrolls. From the slightly disordered look of it, this was not a library the Baron kept for form's sake, but rather one he used, and used often. There were cloth tags hanging out of some of the volumes, marking pages in them, and the occupants of several holes in the shelves were currently open on the Baron's desk, laid on top of one another. The other side of the room was taken up by a smaller desk, where the Baron's chief advisor sat, and a smaller set of shelves that had a more businesslike sense of organization to them. The advisor gave Willow and Tara a polite nod, then returned to his writing.

The Baron stood from behind his ancient, ornate desk and acknowledged their bows before returning to his seat. Behind him the far wall of the room was broken by tall windows, looking out to the west. The sun was beginning to set, but a series of candelabras spaced about the room were already lit, and provided ample light. The Baron seemed uncomfortable for a moment, glancing at his advisor before speaking.

"Miss Willow," he began, "and Lady Tara. I'm glad you're both here. This unfortunate matter of the mage involves the Amazons as well, it seems. Your diplomat has been very generous today, but I cannot deny the debt I have towards you. As your host, it is my duty to see to the wellbeing of all guests under my roof. Today I came close to failing in that duty; the least I can do is see that justice is done in your presence."

"Baron," Tara said when he paused, "you shielded me yourself today. No Amazon would ask for more." She wanted to reassure him further, to remind him of his bravery, but she sensed that he would take her words to heart more if they were given as one warrior to another, simple and understated. The Baron nodded, seemingly grateful.

"I am pleased to hear that," he said. "If only it weren't one of my own court who had put you in danger..." He noted Willow and Tara's confused expressions.

"I should explain," he went on. "Your diplomat has told you of the trouble that occurred today while we were on the hunt, involving my mage?" Tara nodded.

"It seems that it was no coincidence that you were attacked at the same time," the Baron continued. "My master-at-arms has interrogated your assailant, in my presence, and I am sadly sure that the men told us the truth. His name is Josef, he is known as a thief and brigand. There are some, in the far woods and the more inaccessible regions of the highlands. They come to the towns now and then, mingling easily enough with the locals - usually they indulge in a little thievery until they earn the attention of the constables, then they retreat to the remote areas and waylay careless travellers until it becomes safe for them to show their faces in civilised places again. This Josef was in Piotrsberg, a town not far from here, when he was approached yesterday by a man who offered him a job. He was given money, and promised more, in exchange for waiting in the woods today, stalking our party... and killing you," he finished, looking directly at Tara. She linked her hands behind her back, worried that they might start shaking, and did her best to maintain a warrior-like composure.

"Why?" Willow exclaimed, before realising she had spoken out of turn and adopting a contrite expression. The Baron shrugged, taking the question in stride.

"That we do not know; he was not told. But I'm afraid there can be no doubt. He knew I would be leading the hunt, and which of my comrades would be with me. Our appearances and our hunting garb were described to him. Your appearance was described also - a 'blond-haired foreigner woman in leather armour carrying a bow' were the words he heard. That leaves little room for doubt."

"A-and from the level of detail in the instructions, y-you suspect someone in the castle?" Tara asked, concentrating on what she could deduce from the information as a way of forestalling her emotional reaction to it. Being shot at was one thing - hardly a desirable situation, but something every trainee warrior had considered at some stage - but being the target of a planned assassination was something Tara had never even dreamed of. She felt Willow's eyes on her, comforting her, and she was pleased they were here together. Even if they couldn't do more than stand side by side - she wanted to feel Willow's hand in hers, but it wouldn't be appropriate, in front of the Baron in an official capacity.

"If that were all," the Baron answered her, "then yes, I would suspect someone within the castle. But I'm afraid we know who this Josef took his orders from. My master-at-arms is a suspicious man, but he has a good instinct for this sort of sorry business. He showed Josef drawings of several members of the court, and thus we identified the mage, Hydris, as the one who did this."

Tara glanced at Willow. She herself wasn't as surprised as she might be - the suspicion had been forming in her mind even as the Baron had told her. But she could see Willow was shaken by the news. She relaxed her stance, letting her arms fall to her sides, and for a moment allowed her hand to brush against Willow's. They locked eyes for an instant, and Tara forced a reassuring smile to her face.

"Why he did this," the Baron started, and paused. "We don't know. He has refused to answer any questions. I assure you the moment I heard of what he had done, I stripped him of his position in the court, but he is still from a powerful family, and until a trial can be held, there is little we can do to compel him to reveal what he knows. I have spoken to him myself, and I... I think he may not be of sound mind." The Baron and his advisor shared a glum look, then he returned his attention to Willow and Tara.

"At any rate, I can tell you what we know. Hydris was conducting some kind of ritual, and when found he attacked the maid who saw him. He fought two guards in an attempt to pursue her, and injured one of them before he was disarmed and rendered unconscious. My advisor, who acts as regent during my absence, had him locked in a cell, once he had been searched and relieved of any objects that might contain some power he could draw on. His rooms have been sealed and placed under guard, but no-one has entered them. The maid, Kristanna, was... well, hysterical. She has calmed down, but she can give no clear account of what she saw. Perhaps the shock has affected her memory, but then again... she's just a domestic servant, from a family in Karlsband, it's entirely likely she simply has no understanding of what she saw, and so cannot describe it. I myself might have been likewise struck dumb - I have no mind for magic, I'm afraid I have always relied on Hydris to interpret anything of that nature. He never gave any indication that he was less than trustworthy... I find myself grateful that he seldom offered advice on affairs of state. Many lords, you know, rely on their mages as general advisors - it's an old tradition, the lord using the wisdom of his mage. It is just as well Hydris always remained remote from worldly concerns, or I fear I would have taken his advice without question, and who knows where that may have ended?" He sighed, then shook his head, dismissing his musings as he returned his attention to the women in front of him.

"Miss Willow, I must ask for your help," he said. "Many who've visited here have told of the Zann Esu's powers and wisdom, and the letter of introduction announcing your arrival spoke highly of you as a scholar. I would ask you if you would examine the mage's rooms, and determine what you can of his activities and possible motives. But first I must ask if you think there may be any danger to you in doing so?" Willow seemed a little surprised at the Baron's praise, but gathered herself quickly.

"Um, no sir," she said, "no, I don't expect his ritual would pose a danger, this long after he was interrupted. I'll take precautions, of course."

"Of course," the Baron agreed. "I'll have my master-at-arms make the rooms available to you, tomorrow if that is agreeable to you?" Willow nodded. "If you require the use of any of our guards, you have only to ask."

"Thank you sir," Willow said, "but I shouldn't think so. Um, Tara has offered to accompany me, if you suggested this... she'll be all the protection I need."

"I don't doubt it," said the Baron, glancing down at his papers and missing Tara's surprised glance at Willow. "Oh, one other matter," he went on, looking up again, "the feast is in two days. Naturally I considered whether it should be postponed, but with the mage in custody and my guards prepared for any further trouble, I have decided to go ahead with it. Hopefully it will go some way towards putting this sorry state of affairs from our minds, if only for a few hours... you are both invited to my table, if you would care to attend."

"Thank you Baron," Tara said.

"Yes sir," Willow nodded.

"N-not that I mind the flattery," Tara said, "but perhaps we should have a couple of guards with us tomorrow. In case there is anything dangerous, I mean... B-because sure, I've been trained, and my instructors were good, but the castle guards probably have a lot more experience, if you need to be protected, a-and I'll do my best but I'm no Valkyrie."

They were eating dinner in Willow's room, Tara having sent a servant to the Amazon quarters to let Tryptin know she would be back later. It was really two rooms, a small antechamber and a bedroom, but the outer room had been furnished for a single occupant - one chair, a desk, and shelves which Willow had filled with her satchels. One of them was open, and its books were stacked neatly beside it, but Willow had evidently not thought it worth unpacking the entire set onto the shelves, only to have to pack them up again a few days later. They ate in the bedroom, sitting on the large bed with plates balanced on their knees. On entering Tara had noticed the belt Willow had worn the night before, with its brilliant white-jewelled buckle, hooked over the end of the bed, and smiled at the memory.

"We won't need them," Willow said, "I don't think it'll be dangerous - at least, not that sort of dangerous. We'll have to be careful, that's all, in case there are any traps of curses set up to protect his rooms. I'll be able to draw out anything magical, and anything that looks suspiciously device-y we can set aside for later. I didn't mean you'd protect me like that, just... I'll feel safer with you there." She paused, and played with her food idly for a moment. "I don't want to go in there afraid," she admitted quietly. She looked up, right into Tara's gaze. "With you there, I won't be."

Tara smiled warmly, comforted to see Willow's resolve. She could see how much Willow was bothered by the idea of what the mage might have been doing, and she frankly admired her courage in facing it. She had never before been in a situation where someone relied on her for anything important, and though part of her was unnerved by the idea, and the fear that she might fail Willow in some way, she found she was oddly calmed by it at the same time. The thought that Willow could be strengthened just by her presence made her want to stay by her side always, and never leave her.

She thought about this for a moment, as she and Willow ate in companionable silence. They would be at the Baron's castle for a few more days, then the caravan would be moving on, to Duncraig via a handful of settlements along the highland road, which veered westward for a while before straightening out and heading north, to rejoin the river as it neared the capital. Tara wasn't sure exactly how long the journey would take, but she thought two weeks sounded about right. She would be at court for some time there, meeting the Duke and his lords, and there were certainly many mages in Duncraig Willow would study with. But then what? Willow would continue to travel through Westmarch before returning to her Order, while Tara and the Amazons would join a caravan heading back to Kingsport, and then sail home. Tara was slightly surprised to find that she was considering staying with Willow, travelling with her. Of course she wanted to stay with Willow, but... Tran Athulua was her home, the only one she had ever known. At the same time as she imagined travelling at Willow's side, sleeping beside her every night at inns and in caravans, discovering the world with her, Tara wondered whether, if she followed that path, she would ever see her home again.

She smiled at herself, reminding herself that those decisions were a long way off, and there would be plenty of time to think, and to find out what Willow wanted - not that she had any reason to think Willow would not want her. Ending up together on a caravan could happen to anyone, but if she made the choice to travel with Willow, well, that was a bold step. Tara didn't consider herself a bold person, and she acknowledged that such deep friendship, let alone love, was new to her. But the simple fact was that Tara knew, deep down, that if the choice was hers she would be leaving Duncraig at Willow's side, not with the Amazon mission.

'Love,' she suddenly thought, 'gods, did I just think that?' She had known almost from the start that she liked Willow, had quickly come to think of her as a friend, and had looked forward to deepening that friendship into its own kind of love. And there was no way she could deny she was attracted to her, not after the way she felt herself react to Willow's appearance at the dinner last night. 'Not to mention that kiss this morning,' she reminded herself, blushing pleasurably, 'that was hardly a companionable peck on the cheek.' Friendship, attraction, desire... but when had she fallen in love with Willow? Tara wasn't quite sure. Perhaps the moment they met, and it had just been waiting all this time. Or maybe it had been as she accepted first Willow's friendship, then their mutual attraction, and opened herself up to the possibilities from there. 'Perhaps it doesn't matter,' she thought idly, watching Willow chew her food, of all things, and secretly amused at herself for finding something so mundane so entrancing.

"What's a Valkyrie?" Willow asked suddenly, nudging Tara out of her reverie. "Is that like some kind of veteran warrior?"

"Something like that," Tara said with a grin. "Athulua is our central goddess, the wisest and most powerful. The Valkyrie are her handmaidens, th-they serve her and her consort Kethryes. They're the spirits of our greatest warriors, women whose names have become legendary. Some people say that if a warrior is noble, honourable, courageous... well, the ideal of an Amazon warrior, then Athulua will send a Valkyrie to fight by her side when she most needs it. Th-they say if a warrior is honoured with a Valkyrie, it means that she's already earned her place with Athulua. That when she dies, whether it's in battle or of old age, she'll become a Valkyrie."

"Wow," Willow breathed, "that's... Do they really appear to warriors?"

"I don't know," Tara admitted, "I think so, though. Solari, my weapons instructor... she never said she'd seen a Valkyrie, but whenever people talked about them she was always absolutely sure they existed. I think, maybe, one fought with her once. I don't know really," she said with a shy grin, "I'm just guessing... it was just something about her. A-as if she didn't have to believe in them, because she knew."

"That's amazing," Willow said, "that's... some sort of transference with a divine realm... it's the sort of thing that the library back home only has myths about. The priests of Zakarum are supposed to be able to communicate with their ancestors, and a lot of sorceresses aren't even sure that's true. To actually take on physical form... that's almost angelic power! I've got to- It's not an Amazon secret sort of thing, is it?" she asked.

"Um, no," Tara said, "no, it's just a legend, really."

"This definitely belongs in our notebook," Willow decided. She put her plate aside, then paused and smiled serenely at Tara without saying anything.

"Wh-what?" Tara asked with a curious grin.

"Just thinking," Willow explained, "there's so much I never knew. I could listen to you forever." She paused again, and Tara thought she saw a hint of a blush forming on her cheeks. "Not that I'm just with you for the Amazon lore," Willow went on hastily, "I'm not... it's just, you know, additional goodness. But if you were born in the house next to mine, I'd still l- I'd like you just as much."

'She hesitated,' Tara thought, 'she was going to say... was she going to say love?' She gave Willow her warmest smile, while her thoughts swirled around. Was it possible Willow loved her? Tara didn't think of herself as unlovable, by any means, but when she thought of Willow... Willow, who could surely choose anyone she wanted... there was a very strong element of too-good-to-be-true to Tara's thoughts. 'Then again, she returned my friendship, my attraction... could it be our love, not just mine, that's been growing?' She couldn't say, but when she thought about everything that had happened between them... well, even the worst case scenario looked pretty good. Willow liked, her, valued her friendship, enjoyed their closeness, returned Tara's affection... shared with her the most exquisite kiss Tara had ever dreamed of. Even if that was all, if the love of such a goddess in human form really was just a wild hope, Tara decided she would count her blessings.

Tara returned to the Amazon quarters looking entirely gleeful and doing nothing to hide it. When she and Willow had finally parted - Willow promising to meet Tara immediately after breakfast - when they had stood in the doorway of Willow's room, exchanging goodbyes and until-tomorrows, she had had a sudden, tantalising idea.

'I have to go,' she had said, her hands resting gently on Willow's waist, and then she had tightened her grip, puller her close and whispered softly in her ear: 'but just so you know I don't want to...'

She had paused just long enough to hear the sudden intake of breath as Willow recognised her own words, and what Tara meant by using them, then she let out a slow breath against Willow's ear. Willow shivered at the sensation of the hot air touching her, and Tara immediately followed it with a tiny, playful kiss, the tip of her tongue delicately touching Willow's earlobe before her lips closed on it and sucked briefly. She could feel Willow tremble in her arms, and she gave her ear the tiniest, gentlest nip between her teeth before leaning a little lower, placing a series of feather-light kisses along her jaw. She nudged Willow with her cheek, tilting her head up a fraction so she could leave a final kiss on the soft skin beneath her chin - and she had intended that to be the extent of it, but then Willow made a tiny sound, a sigh half-way between longing and disbelief. It was very quiet, not an abandoned moan of pleasure or a groan of passion, but it carried in it pure desire. Hearing it, realising she had caused it, Tara allowed herself no choice but to bring her lips to Willow's and kiss her properly.

It was unhurried, undemanding, but utterly arousing. Tara felt Willow's lips open first, and her own followed without thought, then the tips of their tongues were touching - not deep and sexual, the way their kiss in the morning had been, just a series of tiny points of contact between their lips, which was nonetheless completely intimate. The part of Tara still capable of proper thought realised that she shouldn't push further, not yet - she wasn't ready to spend the night with Willow, and if this kiss grew any more heated than it already was, it would be decidedly difficult, not to mention frustrating, to back away. Soon, she promised herself, not yet, but not very far away, and she knew she had within her the patience to wait until she was ready, when there would be no hesitation. In the meantime, she let herself get lost in the sensations of the kiss, the softness of Willow's lips moving slowly against hers, the gentle touch of Willow's hands on her back, even the tiny vibrations that ran through her throat as she gave little, inaudible sighs of pleasure.

At last, together, they reined in their movements, their lips closed, stayed lightly pressed against each other for a moment, then parted. Tara wondered briefly if there was anything she could say, but seeing the look in Willow's eyes she knew she didn't have to say anything. She turned and walked away down the corridor, stopping just briefly to glance over her shoulder as she turned the corner, to see Willow watching her, looking completely joyful.

Willow, staff in hand, did indeed show up outside the common room just as Tara and the Amazons were finishing their morning meal. Both of them were conscious of the merchants and negotiators still eating and discussing the day's business around them, so Tara restrained herself to holding Willow's free hand, and parting her lips in a silent, wished kiss that Willow saw and beamed at. 'Not that they'd mind,' Tara thought, as she cleared away her plates and ducked into her bedroom to collect Silverstrike, 'but some thing are best done in private.'

"Ready?" she asked Willow.

"Ready," Willow confirmed, taking Tara's hand again as they nodded their goodbyes to Tryptin and left the common room.

"So, a-any advice?" Tara asked as she let Willow lead her through the castle. "W-with unknown magical equipment, I mean."

"I don't think there'll be any problems," Willow said, with a fair degree of confidence. "I was just a bit worried about, you know, being there... it shouldn't be dangerous, but I guess it'd be like being on an old battlefield, you know?" Tara had never even seen a real battlefield, but she had spoken to enough of the older warriors to recognise what Willow meant, and she nodded. "Anyway," Willow went on, "I worked out all my jitters when I woke up, I-I'm pretty calm about it now. I'm still glad you're with me, of course," she hastened to assure Tara.

"Always," Tara promised, which she was gratified to see made Willow grin and blush at the same time.

"Um, there shouldn't be much to worry about," Willow said, "just... well, simple stuff. Don't read anything out loud unless you already know what it means. If there's any jars of blood or anything like that, or if - gods forbid - you cut a finger or something, don't get blood on anything that looks like a mystical artefact... it's all pretty much common sense. Powerful magic isn't easy, and demonology is only easy if you want to summon a demon, which we really don't, so I don't think we're in any danger of accidentally triggering anything. We'll take it slow, though."

Tara went over Willow's advice to herself, and concentrated on her senses as they crossed to the castle keep, heightening her awareness of the forms and sounds around her so that she wouldn't miss anything. In doing so she found she became very aware of Willow - the touch of her hand, the motion of her as they walked, even the faint trace of her scent. She was surprised to find it wasn't really a distraction, so much as a comfort. Soon enough they arrived at the door to the mage's rooms, high in the observatory tower. Two guards were standing outside, with another pair further up the corridor, keeping watch from a distance. They recognised Willow and stood aside, both of them glancing between her and Tara, their eyes drawn to her spear, which with its silver-white blade and inlaid decoration in the shaft was no doubt very different to the kind of weapons they were used to seeing.

The antechamber was small, and mundane. A couple of chairs, a small table - still with a tray bearing yesterday's lunch on it, which fortunately didn't include anything that was particularly pungent as it aged - a map of Kingsport and the surrounding countryside, and a simple chart showing phases of the moon, both pinned to a cork board attached to one wall. There was a narrow archway on one corner, with a spiral stairway leading up to the observatory on the floor above, and two doors. Willow checked the closed one first, peering in to confirm that it was the bedroom, before approaching the door that had been left ajar.

The room beyond was the largest of the suite. Three tall windows faced east, letting in the morning sun. Tapestries adorned all the walls that weren't occupied by shelves, ancient and worn, some displaying geometric patterns, others with the faded remnants of historical scenes. Aside from bookcases and sets of shelves between the windows and beside the door, two entire walls were covered with bookshelves that reached to the ceiling - there was even a ladder, its top supported by tiny wheels resting on a metal rail that ran the length of one of the top shelves. Up near the roof the shelves were closely-spaced, carrying tiny, thin volumes; lower down the shelves, and their occupants, were larger. The bottom shelf, a few inches from the floor, bore huge tomes bound in thick leather, with heavy brass corners and edges on the bindings, some of them large enough that they would need a whole table to themselves to be read.

Hanging in the centre of the room was a low chandelier, the candles melted down to stumps, dribbling wax down their sides. Some of the droplets had fallen to the floor, dotting a geometric mosaic that had already been obscured by trails of coloured sand, laid out in a complex pattern that was difficult to see above the tiles themselves.

"Don't step into that," Willow advised. The thought had already occurred to Tara - the pattern was indistinct, and one part of it had been badly scuffed by someone's feet, but she was fairly sure she could make out a circle in the design, and even to her mind a circle meant summoning. She avoided the centre of the room, instead turning her attention to a long desk, positioned in front of what was evidently a lesser-used set of shelves. It had a few books open on it, but was mostly taken up by intricate metal devices, wheels and arcs of brass hinged together, with tiny numbers engraved on them. Tara thought one of them looked very much like a device Eponin, the mistress of her clan house, had in her study, that showed the positions of various significant stars at certain times, but many of the others were completely beyond her. Most of them were quite beautiful, she thought, but one stood out - a small construct of bent arcs and jagged vanes, fashioned from a dull grey metal. That alone looked somehow malevolent.

"Willow," she said, gesturing to it while keeping her hand well clear of it. Willow glanced at it, and frowned as if a dark suspicion had been confirmed.

"Oculus Daemonicus," she said with a slight shiver, "the demon's eye. It's a sort of orrery, like these others, but instead of stars and planets it shows the positions of the planes of Hell. Well, that settles it, he was using demonic magic."

"Y-you're sure he was using it?" Tara asked, hoping to assuage the dark cloud that seemed to settle on Willow as she pronounced her verdict.

"The circle is pretty strong evidence," she answered, though Tara could see she was grateful for the suggestion, "but the eye is conclusive. It's not just a positioning mechanism, they're made by followers of demonic magic. Part of their purpose is to help rituals like this one, to actually make contact with demons. I've seen one before, in the Zann Esu library - they have a sort of neutral setting, and if the mage didn't want to use this, this one would be aligned like that too. It's not."

She stood in front of the desk, glancing at Tara as if to steel herself, then reached for the device. Tara's first instinct was to question her, but she let herself trust that Willow knew what she was doing. She noticed a thin layer of mist form around her hand, as if the air was chilling - 'a form of defence?' she wondered. Willow gently took hold of one of the eye's protruding vanes and twisted it slightly. Two of the arcs slid a little way around their axles, and Willow let go. Tara thought that the thing seemed... well, deader than before, and was surprised to think she had been noticing something in it that might be thought of as alive. Willow noticed Tara staring at her hand, and wiggled her fingers, grinning.

"Like I said, we've got spells to keep us safe," she explained. "That was just in case, I wouldn't have touched the thing if I really thought it could be dangerous, but it's best to take precautions anyway."

"H-how does it work?" Tara asked. "The spell, I-I mean, not the eye."

"Oh, it's just an application of cold magic," she said, "we call it 'chill armour'. Informally, of course. Cold magic can slow down pretty much anything, just by freezing the energy out of it. A really powerful sorceress can cast an armour strong enough that any weapon trying to hit her just- well, stops," Willow shrugged. "I've seen it demonstrated. You can swing a sword at it, or fire an arrow, and all the force just gets leached out of it." Tara could see her cheering up as she put the demon's eye out of her mind. "Heh, you know, there's this really weird demonstration that trainees do when they're learning how to cast the armour, to show us how strong it can be. One of the elders, the really powerful sorceresses who teach us, cast an armour on herself, and then each of the trainees gets a short sword and takes a swing at her side. She - it was a woman called Prospera who taught my class - was just wearing traditional battlegear, you understand, just like I was the other night, completely open at the hips, where we were swinging at. I was really afraid I'd hurt her, even after I saw some of the others go first - nuh-uh," she said, grinning at Tara, "it was like hitting a stone column. I dropped the sword, and my arm ached all that afternoon. Prospera didn't even move!"

"Wow," said Tara, very impressed, "th-that must be pretty useful."

"You bet," said Willow with a grin, "but that's what cold magic is all about. Fire is the best magic for attacking, for doing damage, lightning is the most versatile - cold is all about defence."

"I'm glad you're good at it," Tara said sincerely. Willow beamed a smile at her, and leant forward to kiss her on the cheek for an instant. Tara was surprised to find herself blushing, but then glad that she was - she liked being able to be as bold as she had become around Willow, yet still feel so pleasantly flustered at such a little thing.

With Tara's help, Willow moved on to the shelves, climbing the ladder and sorting through the books on the high shelves, passing them down for Tara to stack in piles - 'safe' over near the door, and the handful Willow proclaimed 'evil', but harmless to handle, on the other side of the room, beneath the window. Most of the time was spent with Willow leafing through the books, searching for any reference to demonic magic and summoning, but Tara didn't mind the periods of inactivity. Willow was wearing a long skirt, but one slit up quite high for ease of movement, and when she was perched on the ladder skimming books, with Tara standing on the floor beside her, the skirt tended to pull to the side Willow leant to, leaving Tara's face barely inches from an expanse of smooth thigh that fascinated her. In the stretches of time when Willow was silently reading, she occupied herself blissfully by imagining leaning over just a fraction to kiss Willow's perfect skin, and luxuriated in the flutterings the thought caused in her, and found the morning passing quite quickly.

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Ten (Rated R)

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