Return to Hellebore Chapter Twelve


Author: Chris Cook
Rating: R
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.

After Willow left the Amazon quarters, Tara changed into her armour, gave her family circlet a quick polish before putting it on, then made her way down to the small dining hall on the ground floor that had been given to the Amazons for use as a meeting room. Tryptin was already there, busy as always with a handful of letters and carrying on a conversation with a minor dignitary in extravagant purple robes. He nodded to Tara when he saw her, concluded his business with the other man, and crossed the room to her, pausing to offer a word or two of advice to the various emissaries who were seated at the hall's long tables, discussing business or politics with visitors from the surrounding towns.

"There's been a slight change of plans," he said after exchanging good mornings with her. "We'll be leaving here in three days, rather than five. A rider arrived last night carrying news from the port, and announcing another caravan is on its way. Some merchants, but mainly a party of ambassadors from Duncraig returning home - they hadn't expected to arrive back for another week, but apparently their ship made good time crossing the Great Ocean."

"They'll be with us all the way to Duncraig?" Tara asked.

"Yes, so it seems," Tryptin said, "their planned route is a little out of our way, further into the highlands away from the river to visit settlements, but it's worth the delay for the safety of a larger caravan. Some of the merchants coming down-river to Kingsport have been spreading rumours of bandit activity on the north roads - hard to tell how well-founded the rumours are, of course, but between our guards and the Duncraig caravan we'll have over thirty soldiers, which should deter any brigands we run across. They're arriving tomorrow morning, I think it would be beneficial if you were on hand to greet them with me. We hadn't planned to meet any of these people, but if they're of high standing in the Duncraig court as the messenger says, it will be useful to travel with them. Perhaps we'll have some of our work finished by the time we reach the city."

"I'll be there," Tara said.

"Good, thank you. Oh, also," Tryptin went on, "is Miss Willow going to be staying with you in future?"

"Oh," Tara said, "I-I'm not sure. I think... maybe, I'll ask her." She couldn't think of any reason why Willow wouldn't want to, but she didn't want to make decisions for her, especially when both of them were still adjusting to their relationship. Tryptin nodded understandingly.

"I'll ask the servants to prepare an extra portion at mealtimes," he said.

"Th-thank you," Tara said, "I-I'll ask her as soon as I see her. I-I think she probably will..."

"I wouldn't be surprised," Tryptin observed idly. At Tara's curious look, he elaborated: "I'm trained to notice things like this. Body language, expressions... believe me, if you want to get through a negotiation, the last thing you do is wait for people to tell you what they're thinking. Besides," he added with a grin, "the way you look at her, and she at you - I've seen that before."

"Oh?" Tara said hesitantly.

"There's a young woman waiting at home who looks at me like that," Tryptin explained with a smile. "I know what it feels like. It changes a person... for the better, I'm sure." He shrugged. "Let me know if there's anything I can do to make her feel welcome among us."

"I-I will," Tara promised, "thank you. Y-you've been very kind already." Tryptin gave her a modest look.

"You've looked very happy since you two met," he said, "it's a comfort to have helped." They stood in companionable silence for a moment, Tara thoughtful and smiling shyly, Tryptin glancing around the room, seeming to absorb the murmur of the dozen or so conversations that were going on around them.

"Well, the delegation from Karlsband will be here soon," Tryptin said finally, "they're a few minutes late for some reason. There are some matters of policy we'll have to discuss which could take the morning. I'll need you there, though I'm afraid there won't be much for you to do. Perhaps you'd like to get something to eat before they arrive? I'll send for you when they do."

"Of course," Tara nodded. Tryptin smiled, took another glance around at the various meetings in progress, then went into one of the private meeting rooms adjacent to the hall, signalling for a servant to follow him. Tara picked a piece of bread and some cheese from one of the platters on the tables, and took a seat at the side of the hall.

Unsurprisingly, her thoughts kept returning to Willow. For a moment she smiled in recollection of Willow's daring teasing before breakfast - the image of her wearing Tara's short black robe and nothing else wasn't one she'd forget in a long while. Indeed, it had been quite an effort for Tara to calm herself down, even after Willow had returned to her own room. Of course, that was hardly Willow's fault - she remembered her own behaviour, mercilessly teasing Willow as they lay together in bed, and afterwards flaunting herself for Willow, feeling just as warmed by the lusty gaze she had received as by the morning sun streaming through the window. She smiled at herself, at the notion of shy, quiet Tara displaying herself so obviously, deliberately choosing her lightest sleepwear, standing in front of Willow with full knowledge of how the curves of her body were being revealed - and instead of feeling embarrassed, she had been aroused by it. At one point, just before Willow had trumped her by stretching right in front of her with nothing but a short robe covering her, she had been imagining what it would be like to be naked in front of Willow, to have Willow's gaze travel all over her, her breasts, her nipples, between her legs... when Willow had stunned her, it had been those thoughts, still caught up in her fantasy, that had led her to return the favour, to grab her and kiss her, and then when she felt Willow relax, to slip her thigh between Willow's legs. The moment when Willow had thrust forward had been almost more than she could stand, when for a moment she felt the heat between Willow's thighs on her own - actually on her skin, with nothing between them! Just the memory of it- 'Stop it,' she insisted to herself, 'you're in a public place and you're about to sit in on a long session of negotiations, this is not the time to indulge in lurid recollections.'

She grinned at herself and took another bite of bread, crossing her legs to assuage, in a tiny way, the tingling between them. She thought for a moment about Tryptin's news, of the new caravan. Presumably it would keep the emissaries and Tryptin's people busy for the duration of the journey, and she guessed they might make good progress if the Duncraig ambassadors didn't have anything else much to occupy them along the way. That would leave her and Willow to their own devices most of the time - 'Goddess, you just don't stop, do you?' she thought. She wondered if their departure two days earlier than expected would affect Willow at all - perhaps, had she been studying as planned, but with Hydris imprisoned and in no condition to teach anything, she guessed it wouldn't be a problem. Two weeks or more, alone with Willow in a none-too-spacious wagon, sounded like heaven to Tara.

Of course, that was still a little while away. According to Tryptin they wouldn't be leaving for three days - she hadn't thought to ask whether the combined caravan would set out in the morning or afternoon, but she guessed morning, to get a full day's travel in before they had to stop for nightfall. Three days, at least one of which would be taken up with Hydris's trial - she frowned at the thought. There was the thief Josef, as well, Tara would have to attend his trial, although she imagined it would go fairly quickly. She wasn't looking forward to that - the memory of staring at the bolt in her hand, and slowly realising it had been fired at her, was not one she had yet quite come to terms with. But it was necessary, both to demonstrate to the Baron that she, and by extension the Amazon nation, approved of his handling of the event, and to conform with the Amazon custom that a warrior would always face her enemy if given the chance. Tara decided that, her trepidation aside, it would be good for her to look into the face of the man who had tried to kill her - she imagined it might make the whole business more solid in her mind, less ethereal, and so she wouldn't be forever looking over her shoulder, worrying whether she was being watched by some nebulous stalker. She sighed, and resigned herself to it.

A happier thought entirely was the evening's dinner. Tara hoped she wouldn't be seated far from Willow, and wondered how much time they would be able to spend together during the evening, whether there would be dancing, what Willow might wear. Her Zann Esu battlegear would surely suffice to make her the centre of attention, but Tara had a sneaking suspicion that Willow would surprise her, and couldn't wait to see how. Tara herself, of course, would be in her warrior gear again, though she thought it would be sufficient to wear her greaves and bracers, and leave her shoulder plates packed in her bedroom - they weren't the most comfortable things to wear, and the court had already got a good look at her in all her Amazon regalia, and she flattered herself that they wouldn't have forgotten it just yet. At least, the way Willow had praised her appearance... Tara couldn't stop herself from grinning again... and anyway, armoured women were a rarity in Westmarch.

She wondered how she would approach the topic of Willow's sleeping arrangements. Waking up next to her - even with her momentary fit of shyness at discovering she had groped Willow in her sleep - had been one of the most pleasant experiences of Tara's life, and one she was keen to repeat. 'Indefinitely,' she admitted to herself - that would be a conversation for another day, though. For now, she pondered what might be the best approach. She was sure Willow wouldn't object, but she didn't want to appear too demanding, or conversely too hesitant. She had a sudden image of herself blurting out 'Would you sleep with me tonight?' to Willow, and then having to explain that she actually meant sleep, as opposed to... not sleep.

That thought, too, was daunting. When would she be ready to sleep with Willow? No, no euphemisms - have sex... make love? She had no doubt it would be the latter, she couldn't imagine it being any other way. But she wondered whether the nervousness she felt would ever subside, or if it was just something she would have to overcome. At the same time as she was discovering the sheer power of her attraction to Willow, she was finding a new side to herself, a Tara who revelled in being sensual, in being sexual. It was something she had never really experienced before. She knew about sex, of course - Amazon children who were coming of age were taught enough to ensure they would approach adulthood wisely, or at least as wisely as adolescents ever would. And once the girls reached puberty, the late-night gossiping in the clan halls turned to matters of sex as often as not, and as they grew older the shared stories became more fact than fiction. Tara was fairly confident she knew how it all worked - well, she certainly knew how her own body worked - but until now the knowledge had been on an intellectual level. She had thought about the various activities that had been discussed in hushed voices among the trainee girls, been quietly excited by some of them, even fantasised when she had taken advantage of the privacy of her bedroom to explore herself. Even then, though, the fleeting images that had passed through her mind had been curiously vague - thoughts simply of being kissed, being touched, rather than any notion of a particular person kissing or touching her.

She had never before truly considered herself as a sexual being, even when she had brought herself to orgasm. She had enjoyed the sensations, but comparing the idea of touching herself with the idea of Willow touching her, even if in exactly the same way - it was something else entirely. This Tara who felt Willow's eyes on her, and wanted to feel more, this Tara who teased, and aroused, and was proud of being able to drive Willow to distraction, to the point where their mutual attraction boiled over and they both got a little lost in their desire - after a lifetime of being pensive and unassuming, it was something of a shock for Tara to find she was capable of such hedonistic abandon. Or, as her fellow trainees would say, 'a wild one in the sack'. Tara allowed herself a wicked grin. Who would have thought? Then again, she had a vague memory of someone once advancing the opinion that 'it's always the quiet ones'. Perhaps there was something in that.

She finished her snack and leant back in her seat, folding her arms while she waited. She wondered how much free rein to give that side of herself. She was glad that side of herself was there, and was present in Willow as well, to judge by the way she delighted in returning Tara's sensual teasing, but common sense had to have its place if they were to consummate their love the way Tara wanted to - perfectly. Perhaps that was over-ambitious, but Tara's instructors had always told her to set her goals high. 'Aim for the top,' Solari had been fond of saying, 'even if you fall a bit short, you'll be surprised how high you get.' This probably wasn't what her weapons instructor had had in mind, but Tara thought it sound advice. And if she and Willow gave in to their passions without a second thought, then perhaps it would be too soon, or too rushed, or one or both of them would still be too tentative, and wind up somehow unsatisfied. Tara wasn't worried that their relationship might be soured by the experience - she knew herself better than that, and she was convinced she knew Willow well enough to believe likewise - but their first time... the first time she made love to Willow... the first time would only happen once, and Tara wanted to be able to look back on it with nothing but joy.

Doubtless she would get the opportunity to discuss it with Willow. She sensed Willow felt the same way, that she wanted to spend some time at least getting familiar with the intimacy between them, so there was no great rush to establish ground rules. Sometime in the next couple of days, Tara mused, when Willow seemed receptive to such an intimate conversation, she would do her best to tell Willow what she was feeling, and why. That would be best - then there would be no doubts or misunderstandings between them, and they would be able to work out when they were ready, together, and enjoy both the growth of their love and the prospect of its consummation in the not-too-distant future without any anxiety, or trying to guess what the other was thinking.

That just left asking Willow to stay with her. Tara decided that, surely, she would have a moment alone with Willow to ask her during the evening. She had managed it once already, of course, but Willow had been tired and upset, and if Tara had felt nothing but chaste friendship for her she still wouldn't have let her go, to sleep alone in an empty room. Tara didn't delude herself that Willow was entirely free of the after-effects of her experience with the demon, or the sudden shock of finding traces of it in the mage's ritual, but she was at least dealing with it in her own time, finding what peace she could and rebuilding her dreams, rather than letting the nightmares take hold. Tara suspected it was a process that had begun long before they met - probably with Ember, who Tara felt indebted to for her kindness towards Willow - but it was a process still in motion, and one Tara committed herself to helping. Still, Willow today was not the shocked, anxious Willow of last night, and asking her to share Tara's bed was a different matter. Of course it was something Tara wanted, something she was sure Willow wanted, but that didn't account for the emotion involved - it was like saying that she wanted to make love to Willow. It was the simple truth, but the idea of it still sent her pulse racing.

'We'll see,' Tara promised herself, 'if worst comes to worst, just blurt it out and deal with blushing furiously for the rest of the night.' One thing was for sure: Tara would not let anything stand between her and once more waking up with Willow cradled in her arms.

Tara checked herself in the mirror one last time before walking out into the common room, where the most prominent of the emissaries and negotiators were gathering. She had left her hair down after drying it, liking the way her treatment had given it a slight waviness that she thought was much more appealing than its usual straightness. Leaving her hair untied wouldn't be practical for a warrior, but the evening was purely a social gathering, and as she had already been presented to the court as Tara, Amazon warrior, she decided to indulge herself and appear a little more... well, feminine. Not that her ceremonial dress and look was in any way un-feminine, but she acknowledged that there was quite a difference between that proud, aggressive image and the quiet elegance she was hoping to achieve tonight. If it weren't for Willow, of course, she doubted she'd have even given so much thought to her appearance.

Tryptin glanced at her, nodded amiably in approval, and motioned towards Melcan. Being an apprentice he was not strictly included in the party to attend the Baron's dinner, but Tryptin had suggested he come along as Tara's attendant, which would have the dual benefit of relieving Tara of the responsibility of handling a court dinner and her spear at the same time, and giving the boy a chance to observe his elders, while no-one would really be paying attention to him. Tara handed him Silverstrike, then fell in behind Tryptin as he and the other half-dozen Amazons left the common room and headed for the keep, where the dinner was being held in one of the smaller dining halls.

The room was brightly lit by torches along the walls, spaced between banners and tapestries, and already full of the murmur of conversation when they arrived. The sound stilled somewhat, and the Baron rose from his chair to greet the Amazons, but Tara's eyes were instantly drawn to Willow, two seats along the table from him. She, and the rest of the diners, rose a fraction after the Baron, and Tara saw Willow's eyes quickly scan the faces of the Amazons before finding and settling on her. Willow smiled joyfully, and nodded discreetly to the chair beside her, which was empty - 'For me?' Tara hoped. She smiled in return, and found her gaze lingering on Willow while Tryptin accepted the Baron's welcome.

Willow had tied her hair back, knotted in a translucent silver scarf that made her scarlet hair only more striking, but she had left a few strands loose on either side of her brow, framing her face. Her dress was emerald green, like her battlegear, but more traditional in style. Staring at her from across the table as she stood, Tara could see the top of a long, flowing skirt composed of many layers of thin fabric, the outer folds of which seemed almost to float around her as she moved - Tara thought it must be light as air, and wondered what it would feel like to wear. 'Or touch.' Willow's middle was clad in a tight wrap of matching fabric that clung to the curves of her waist, and from that came a silky-smooth top that cupped her breasts, leaving a teardrop-shaped gap that revealed her cleavage before it wove into straps that were looped around the back of her neck, leaving her shoulders bare.

Tryptin took care of the formal greetings, though Tara noticed the Baron favour her with a nod, which she returned, and then the Amazons were shown to their seats. Tara was delighted to find herself shown to the empty chair beside Willow, which Melcan held out for her before taking his place at the end of the table, out of everyone's way. Tara smiled politely at the Baron's advisor, seated on her other side, before turning her attention entirely to Willow.

"You look lovely," Willow murmured as the conversations around them resumed. Tara felt herself blush faintly, and smiled.

"Th-thank you," she said, "so do you. I-I thought you'd come up with something to surprise me."

"Oh, I have," Willow promised with a mysterious smirk. Tara's eyes widened, but Willow seemed in no hurry to elaborate.

"So, is this traditional sorceress battlegear as well?" Tara asked. "Because if it is, y-you're easily the most elegant order ever." Willow chuckled.

"No, it's something I bought while I was in Entsteig," she said after taking a sip of wine. Tara noticed she didn't frown at all when she mentioned the place, and was pleased to see that her nerves weren't so frayed as they had been the previous night. "I used to wear full robes a lot," Willow explained, "'cause it's kind of cold up there, and one weekend when I was out in the city with the other girls - we always used to spend our free days around the Gotunberg markets - Saria dared me to buy this. 'Cause, you know, she figured I wouldn't, being all serious-minded as I was. So I did, just to see the look on her face."

"I'm glad you did," Tara said softly.

"Yeah, well," Willow grinned, "I never actually wore it until now. Down here everything I've got looks kind of exotic, I guess, but in Entsteig they're pretty reserved, a-and this would be considered, well, more revealing than a good young woman should be." Tara smiled, noticing the tiniest hint of a blush on Willow's cheeks, and leaned closer to her.

"It's not the most revealing thing you've worn today," she whispered, then leaned back and assumed her most innocent expression as Willow shot her a scandalised look.

With all the guests present the Baron signalled for the servants, who moved along the length of the table laying out plates, then bowls of a rather tasty vegetable soup that stirred Tara's appetite.

"Did you hear about the new caravan?" Willow asked after a few spoonfuls.

"Tryptin told me this morning," Tara said, "we'll be going north together. Y-you're staying with us?" she added.

"Of course," Willow reassured her, "besides, there's no reason for me to stay here any longer. I'll be with you all the way."

"We'll see whether you still think my snoring is cute by the time we get to Duncraig," Tara joked quietly, so only Willow could hear.

"Well, they say the cure for snoring is to roll the person onto their side," Willow observed playfully.

"There won't be much room in the wagon," Tara said.

"I know," Willow answered. Tara wasn't sure exactly what Willow meant by that, but she got the general idea well enough from the inviting glance Willow gave her.

"Um, speaking of sleeping arrangements," she said softly, wanting to get it out of the way, "I was thinking, i-if you'd like of course, maybe you'd stay, um, in the Amazon quarters while we're here? Um, with me, I-I mean." She felt her shyness reasserting itself, but risked a glance at Willow, and saw a lovely smile dawning on her face.

"I'd love to," Willow answered, keeping her voice down, "I was hoping I could..."

"Of course," Tara said instantly, "o-of course, I-I'd love you to as well." They shared a smile for a long moment, Willow gazing openly at Tara, Tara wishing they were alone so she could embrace Willow in a tight hug, just to be as close to her as possible.

"Lady Tara?" A voice broke her out of her reverie. She turned to see Stefan, the archer, across the table two seats down.

"Oh, h-hello," she said, "good to see you."

"Likewise," he said. "I'm sorry to interrupt you..."

"No, of course," Tara said quickly, wondering just how long she and Willow had been wrapped up in each other's gaze. "Um, this is Willow, she's a sorceress, we're travelling together."

"Hello," said Willow.

"Yes, I remember your entrance the other night," Stefan said with a grin that would have been presumptuous had he been twenty years younger. As it was, Willow blushed and Tara had to stifle a giggle.

"Willow, this is Stefan," she introduced him, "h-he's the castle's best archer, we met before the hunt."

"Second-best until you leave, I fear," Stefan said after exchanging polite greetings with Willow, "but if it's not too much trouble, I really would appreciate the contest I mentioned that day. My reputation may take a slight beating, but it'll be a story to tell my grandson in a couple of years."

"O-of course," Tara said, "wh-when would suit you?"

"We haven't recruited any new guards recently," Stefan said, "so my training duties are light at the moment. But if it's not an imposition on your time, tomorrow afternoon would be a good opportunity. There's a regular meeting in Maresburg, the town nearest the castle, mostly for the local sportsmen and guards of course, but I attend more often than not - as a spectator, usually, to judge the talent of the competitors. I think the townsfolk would think it a memorable occasion to see an Amazon archer."

"I-I'm fairly sure I'm free then," Tara said, "if you'll excuse me a moment... Tryptin?"

"We can spare you for the afternoon," he said before returning to a discussion he was having with the master-at-arms. He was sitting next to Stefan, but Tara hadn't even noticed him paying any attention to the conversation. 'Then again,' she thought, 'he's the head of the mission. Keeping an eye and an ear on everything is part of his job.'

"Excellent," Stefan declared, "I look forward to it."

"As do I," spoke up the Baron from down the table, raising his glass to Stefan.

"What kind of contest?" Willow asked, when the Baron turned away to call for the main course. "Well, archery obviously," she answered herself before Tara could, "but, I mean, just target practice?"

"I don't know," Tara admitted, "probably something like that." She grinned. "I-I've heard that at contests like this, it's customary for the competitors to ask for the favour of a beautiful lady beforehand." She looked at Willow shyly.

"I've heard that too," Willow said softly, leaning close to Tara, "the ladies choose warriors to compete for them. Want to be my warrior?" she whispered. Tara nodded and turned to face Willow fully.

"A-and you'll be my beautiful lady?" she asked.

"Oh yes," Willow breathed, "I certainly will." Tara felt the urge to kiss Willow, and had to ignore it - 'Just for now,' she promised herself. She wondered how exactly they had gone from idly chatter to teasing to something very intimate and special, all in the space of a few words. It seemed she couldn't be around Willow without feeling elated. 'Tryptin was right,' she mused, 'love changes you.' Then again, she wondered if what she was feeling was in fact who she had always been, deep down. She felt freer than ever before.

A moment later she felt Willow's toes stroking the back of her ankle. She had worn light sandals, rather than the full-height boots to go with her greaves - they weren't necessary except as protection - so while the front of her calves were covered in bronze, the backs were bare, apart from the leather straps holding the armour in place. Checking that no-one was paying her very much attention, she leaned back and stole a quick glance beneath the table. One of Willow's short boots lay empty, and she was deliberately stroking Tara's lower leg with her naked foot, all the while appearing to be smiling amiably at her, as if nothing at all was going on. Tara stared at her, eyes wide - Willow merely raised an eyebrow, then glanced away and appeared to take an interest in a discussion on her other side, between the head of Kingsport's merchant guild, sitting beside the Baron, and Jasken, the gemstone dealer from the caravan, opposite him. Willow turned slightly in her seat, apparently to face the men she was listening to, but in doing so she allowed herself a greater freedom of movement with her leg. She pressed her foot against the back of Tara's calf, and slid it slowly all the way up to the straps at her knee.

Tara gulped a breath of air and did her best to look entirely relaxed. She fixed her eyes on her food - someone had evidently mentioned her preferences to the servants, so that instead of the roast she had been given a plate full of vegetables in a delicious cream sauce. She was just working her way through the potatoes - crispy, with a spicy bite to them, which led her to think that the Baron didn't employ his cooks exclusively for their talent with meat - when an idea occurred to her.

She stretched out her leg underneath the table, giving Willow unrestricted access to her leg. She thought she caught the faintest trace of a grin on Willow's face, but it was well-hidden. Willow shifted again in her seat, however, to curl her leg upwards, her toes stroking the underside of Tara's outstretched thigh. 'Flexible,' Tara thought with a wicked grin, hastily replaced by an expression of bland interest in the dinner conversation around her. That put Willow in exactly the position Tara wanted, but she held off on her plan for a few minutes, enjoying the feel of Willow's covert attentions, and periodically glancing around to make sure that none of the other diners had any idea what was going on. Truly, they were safe enough - the table was big and solid, and everyone's chairs were pulled up close to it, so that most of the action was taking place beneath four inches of wood. Tara reassured herself that she could only see Willow's interesting position because she was right next to her, able to lean back and look in the gap between their chairs.

'Right then,' she thought mischievously. Next time Willow caressed her down to the knee, Tara abruptly bent her leg, trapping Willow's foot between her calf and thigh. Willow jumped slightly, not enough for anyone to notice, but resisted the urge she must have felt to turn back towards Tara. Tara took another bite of her dinner, dabbed her lips delicately with her napkin, and on returning it to her lap left her hand beneath the table, while she took her glass in the other and sipped her wine. She reached out with a single finger, and gently tickled Willow's ankle. She noticed a certain rigid set to Willow's jaw that hadn't been there previously, but all in all, she thought, Willow was holding up remarkably well. She slowly trailed her finger along the back of Willow's calf - she couldn't quite reach her knee without bending down, which would have been too obvious, so instead she shifted a little closer to Willow and transferred her touch to Willow's thigh, dragging her fingertip back and forth in the gap where the slit of her skirt had pulled open.

Willow finally turned to give her a sidelong look, and Tara contrived to look as guileless as possible. Willow wiggled her foot a little, but Tara held her firmly in place, so she leaned over to Tara, her expression one of resolute innocence.

"You're driving me wild," she whispered.

"Mmm-hmm," Tara answered.

"I'll get you for this," Willow promised.

"Good," Tara said with a quick grin. Willow smiled, probably a little more sexily than she had intended to, and sat up straight again, as Tara continued to stroke her leg, alternative between her ankle and thigh. Tara cast her covert glances as she made her way through her dinner one-handed, noticing the enticing way her chest moved as her breathing became a little faster and deeper. From where Tara was sitting, Willow's dress offered a fantastic view of her cleavage. After a few minutes Willow leaned back to her.

"My leg's getting tired," she admitted. Tara relaxed her leg and let Willow go, earning a grateful smile from her. Willow let her foot fall back to the floor, and sneakily wiggled back into her boot, then gave Tara a look that had more than a hint of suggestion in it. Tara frowned slightly, confused, and Willow dropped her eyes for a moment, looking down between them. She resumed her nonchalant behaviour, paying attention to whoever around them was talking, as Tara discreetly glanced down, and saw that Willow had managed to pull her skirt up a little way, so that the top of the skirt was bunched around her waist on Tara's side, and the slit ran all the way up to her hip. Tara leaned over towards Willow, reaching her fork across the table to skewer another potato from one of the platters, while beneath the table she took a handful of Willow's thigh, right up where it met her hip, and gave her a playful squeeze. Willow squirmed slightly in her seat, pushing herself into Tara's hand.

"Miss Willow, if I may?" came a voice from down the table. 'Damn,' Tara thought wholeheartedly, sitting back and letting Willow answer without being distracted. The speaker was a middle-aged man with a thin grey moustache. Tara had vaguely noticed him before, when the Amazons had arrived - he had stood with the help of a cane, and his clothes were finely tailored.

"I understand your order of mages values purity above all else?" he asked Willow.

"That's right," she said. "We use only elemental magic, which can't be influenced the way other magics can."

"Quite," said the man, "but surely there is more to it than just a particular brand of magic? Or are your elemental sorceresses incapable of evil?"

"No, of course not," Willow explained, "the purity of the magic is that it's free of influence, of any kind of influence, good or evil. That way, a sorceress can't be manipulated by outside forces. But, of course, it means we're entirely responsible for how we conduct ourselves."

"Of course," the man said with a friendly smile. "But can't the same be said of other orders? Surely one would not contemplate, for example, that a paladin of Zakarum could be made to do evil by his devotion to his faith?" Tara frowned, noticing something irritatingly persistent about the way the man was questioning Willow.

"I-it's not that simple," Willow protested, "the Zakarum worship a power of light, but they're only human. It's possible for another force, a demon for instance, to use that worship to corrupt them, if it can trick them into believing that it's an angel. The paladins call them 'false lights', they spend a lot of time training to recognise them, a-and resist them."

"But they're only human," the man repeated, nodding. "Yes, I understand. Tell me, have any of your order ever become corrupted?" The conversations along the length of the table were falling silent, leaving all attention on Willow and the man. She took a moment to think about her answer.

"Corrupted, no," she said. "No, in our histories, and those of the Horadrim, there are no records of any sorceresses who have ever served demons."

"Of course not," the man said quickly, "but there are other forms of corruption, aren't there? It's not uncommon that people, quite without the aid of magic, can become corrupted by power, or privilege. Or immoral behaviour, even." The silence around the table had become tense, and Tara suddenly wished the man would shut up and leave Willow alone.

"Humans aren't perfect," Willow said, with an edge to her voice, "but we do our best to devote ourselves to serving the forces of good, a-and avoid situations that could... induce us to ignore that service."

"A sound policy," the man said graciously, "but how then would your order feel about you being in the close company of your, uh, friend from the Amazons?"

"Excuse me?" Willow blurted out, while Tara blinked in shock at the implied insult. The other Amazons were exchanging concerned glances, several of the other guests were plainly embarrassed by the turn the conversation had taken, and the Baron's master-at-arms was glaring furiously at the speaker.

"You're aware, Miss Willow," he went on, "of the tendency of their women to... associate with each other? Clearly contrary to correct moral behaviour. I wonder how you might reconcile such a situation with your devotion to purity?"

"Von Karlin!" snapped the Baron.

"I meant no offence, Baron," the man, von Karlin, said, raising his hands in a gesture of appeasement. "Among their own tribe, the practices of our honoured guests are their own. I merely observe that, in civilised society, it is unacceptable to-"

"If you meant no offence," the Baron said in a raised voice, "you should have refrained from being offensive!"

"Of course, Baron," von Karlin said with a thin smile. He stood and dropped his napkin on the table beside his half-empty plate. "If you'll excuse me?" He stalked out without waiting for the Baron's leave. There was an uncomfortable silence in the wake of his departure.

"Let that be the end of that," the Baron said firmly. There was a general sigh of relief as conversations quietly resumed between the assembled guests. Tara turned to Willow, noticing a strained look on her face.

"A-are you alright?" she asked. Willow looked at her quickly, then nodded.

"Fine," she said, "just- it was unexpected, that's all. It was bound to happen sooner or later." She took a gulp of wine and sighed.

"It shouldn't," Tara quietly observed. Willow gave her a sad smile.

"I know," she said, before her gaze turned caring. "Are you okay?"

"Fine," Tara answered. "I-I was prepared for something like that... we know how some people feel about Amazons, a-and women, um, being with each other. It's just... it's not nice," she finished, painfully aware of how inadequate that was to describe the way von Karlin's words had hurt her. She knew she was a good person, and there was nothing wrong with her love for Willow - but it was a difficult thing, to have a complete stranger barely glance at her, and yet condemn her.

"Hey," Willow said softly, leaning close to Tara, "I am proud of the way I feel about you." Tara's mouth opened, but she couldn't find the words to tell Willow how grateful she was. Instead, she kissed Willow quickly on the cheek, and the surprised joy in Willow's eyes made her feel like she had just been blessed.

The rest of the evening passed uneventfully, both Willow and Tara being engaged in conversations with the other guests sitting near them, or listening to each other when they had a free moment. Tara was gratified to find Willow leaning on her elbow, hanging on her every word, as she discussed the government of the Amazon nation with the Baron's advisor, who introduced himself as Franzef, and a few minutes later she found herself just as entranced by Willow's description to Stefan of how a shard of ice could be created already in motion, so that it flew like an arrow without needing to be physically launched. Tara set aside her wineglass after a short while, suspecting that the light wine might be a little stronger than it seemed. That theory was confirmed when the Baron finally called an end to the night, and Willow stumbled slightly as she rose from her seat. Tara caught her arm and kept her upright, but Willow was still a touch unstable on her feet as they made their way back to the south wing of the castle, on the tail of the rest of the Amazons.

"Funny," Willow observed with a grin, "I must be a li'l tired."

"You're drunk," Tara told her indulgently.

"Nonsense," Willow proclaimed. "I'm perfetly sober. Pereft... perf... Okay, p'rhaps you've got a point," she conceded. Tara smiled and kept a steady grip on Willow's arm, which she admitted probably wasn't strictly necessary, with Willow having her staff to support her, but she wasn't about to refuse the opportunity to walk arm-in-arm with her. Willow let herself be guided to Tara's bedroom, and gave her a kiss on the cheek as Tara took her staff to lean in the corner with her spear. Tara extinguished most of the candles lighting the room, leaving only a couple near the mirror to cast a little light to see by. Willow slid out of her boots, then fumbled with the scarf in her hair for a moment before she gave up and let Tara untie it, humming to herself as Tara enjoyed running her fingers through her silky hair.

"Would'ya untie me while you're back there?" Willow asked. Tara glanced down at the back of Willow's dress, noticing it was held together by a corset-like series of loops, tied in a bow just beneath her shoulders. She undid the straps around the back of Willow's neck first, and Willow stood up straight as Tara then undid the cord on her back, loosening the loops a little then turning to her trunk.

"I-I'll get you a robe," she said, debating whether to give Willow the revealing black one she had worn the previous night, or something slightly more modest.

"No need," Willow said promptly. Tara turned back to see her wriggle her torso free of her dress, and let it slide silkily down her legs to the floor. She might have easily spent a long time staring contentedly at Willow's smooth back, or her slim, perfectly-formed legs, or even contemplating the fact that Willow was now naked from the waist up. But she did none of these things, because without any control at all, she found all her attention drawn to Willow's bottom. Instead of being covered by briefs, the round cheeks of her rear were quite bare - from between them, a thin wisp of silk emerged, widening into a triangle just as it joined the waistband of the most revealing piece of underwear Tara had ever seen. It was like the leather underwear that went with her armour, she thought distractedly, but instead of being thick and slightly uncomfortable, made for durability and so as not to become a nuisance during strenuous fighting, this seemed designed for a single purpose: to make Willow's backside look more delectable than Tara could ever have imagined.

"Like what you see?" Willow murmured, looking at Tara over her shoulder.

"It's... sexy," Tara managed, her fixed stare telling the full story.

"Goes with the dress," Willow said, leaning forward to pull back the covers on the bed. "Told you I'd surprise you." She knelt on the edge of the bed for a moment, giving Tara an absolutely perfect view of what was burned into her memory as an absolutely perfect bottom, then she lay down and pulled the blankets up over herself, rolling over onto her back once she was covered.

"You coming?" she asked.

'Almost,' Tara thought, making herself blush and grin at the same time. She could hear in Willow's voice that she was sleepy - probably made a bit drowsy by the wine, she thought, and seeing as it didn't seem getting to sleep would be a problem, she decided she could afford to tease Willow some more, without it leading to either of them becoming unduly frustrated.

She undid her bracers and laid them on the table, then turned around and put first one foot, then the other, up on the chair as she undid the straps on her greaves. She saw Willow watching her, and gave each leg a quick stroke, from ankle to thigh, as she removed the armour from them - Willow's eyes followed her hands each time. Then she undid the short leather skirt she had chosen to go with the outfit, holding it with one hand to keep it from falling straight away. Turning away from Willow, she slowly bent over, sliding the skirt down her legs as she went, until she was touching her toes. As always, the feel of Willow's gaze unashamedly fixed on her body stirred something in Tara. She tossed the skirt away and stood up, removing her circlet and running her fingers through her hair, which was starting to return to its usual straightness. Keeping an eye on Willow in the mirror, she took hold of her tunic in both hands and slowly pulled it up over her head. With one arm she sent it flying into the laundry basket on the floor, then reached behind herself to unhook the bra she had worn beneath it, seeing as there had been no need to wear the harness that went with her full armour. With a quick motion she released the catch, then slid the straps from first one shoulder, then the other, and let the material fall into her hands. She stood still for a moment, watching Willow in the mirror, then she leant down and blew out the remaining candles.

There was no moonlight to speak of coming through the clouds outside, so the room was in near-total darkness even before Tara closed the shutters and slid into her side of the bed. She reached out for Willow, and found her already shifting into the position she had fallen asleep in the night before, in the middle of the bed so Tara could lie against her, with an arm around her waist.

"Tara?" Willow said quietly.

"Yes honey?"

"You're beautiful," Willow said simply.

"So are you," Tara replied.

"I've... I..." Willow hesitated, then shifted as she looked over her shoulder, even though she could barely see anything. "Tara?"


"I love you," she said. Tara swallowed, and took a deep breath.

"I'm not just saying that because I'm full of wine," Willow said quickly, "I'm not that drunk anyway... and I've known I loved you for... it seems so long already... a-and not long enough, you know? I-I want right now to last forever, a-and I can't wait for tomorrow and the next day, and all the time I'm going to spend with you. Or maybe I am drunk, I'm not sure I know what that means..."

"I know what it means," Tara said softly.

"You do?" Willow asked.

"It means you love me the way I love you," Tara whispered. Willow's breath caught for a second, then she rolled over, her arms going around Tara's waist.

"You-" she said in a small voice.

"I love you, Willow," Tara repeated.

"Oh gods Tara," Willow whispered, "I love you so much. I... I th-think I'm gonna cry," she admitted.

"Shh, it's alright," Tara assured her, "go to sleep. I love you, my beautiful Willow."

"Mmm, I love you... my warrior," Willow said sleepily. She kissed Tara, gently letting her tongue roam past her lips, finishing by taking Tara's lip between her own and sucking it longingly, then rolled over again in her arms, covering Tara's hand on her stomach with her own. Tara cradled her, enjoying the feeling of her breasts naked against Willow's back, and listened to the rhythm of Willow's breathing until she was sure she was asleep. Then, at last, she let her eyes close on the happiest day of her life.

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Fourteen (Rated NC-17)

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