Return to Hellebore Chapter Twenty-Six


Author: Chris Cook
Rating: NC-17
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.

Tara woke, yawned, and smiled down at Willow, who was pillowed on her breast and, even in sleep, gave every indication of enjoying her position. She wriggled slightly as Tara stretched, then opened her eyes and blinked lazily.

"'lo," she murmured.

"Hello," Tara replied, grinning.

"Wha' time's it?" Willow asked.

"Early," Tara said, "we're not moving yet."

"Oh, yeah. Raining still," she observed. She peered at Tara in the gloom of the unlit wagon. "What're you grinning at?" she asked.

"You must've been having a good dream," Tara said.

"I must've?" Willow enquired.

"My thigh's between your legs," Tara whispered, "it's, ah, pretty hot and wet down there."

"Heh," Willow chuckled, "yeah, guess it is..."

"Seems a shame to let all that lovely Willow-goodness go to waste," Tara purred, "why don't you bring it up here?" Willow looked hesitant for a moment, but at Tara's obliging nod she lifted herself up on hands and knees and straddled Tara's waist.

"Come on," Tara murmured, "don't be shy." Willow slowly moved further up, letting the blankets fall off her shoulders as she straightened up. Tara reached down an wrapped her arms around Willow's thighs, pulling her hips closer to her mouth.

"That's right," she breathed as Willow knelt on either side of her head, and gently lowered herself. "What a way to wake up..."

"Mmm," Willow agreed as Tara's tongue reached out and made contact with her sex, teasing her lips lightly. She held herself in position, her hands clutched around the front beam of the wagon, enjoying Tara's attention immensely but hesitant to overwhelm her in what was, she had to admit, an extremely vulnerable position. Tara substantially banished those doubts when her arms around Willow's thighs tightened, her mouth opened, and she firmly pulled Willow down onto her.

"Oh gods!" Willow gasped, barely able to stop herself from raising her voice to a pitch that would've had the whole campsite awake. "Oh I love you!" Her hips moved of their own accord, rolling her sex back and forth over Tara's lips as her tongue delved inside her. She still worried a little about pressing down too firmly on Tara, but with Tara not just allowing but downright insisting on such a strong contact, Willow began to let herself enjoy the moment, trusting to Tara to let her know if she needed to lift herself.

For Tara's part, she felt as if she was in heaven, with barely a moment since she had woken up, and already her lungs were full of Willow's scent, her mouth full of her taste, and her ears catching every sigh and moan that came from her lips. She felt Willow's thighs on either side of her tremble, and knew that her climax wasn't far away. Unwinding her right arm from around Willow's leg, she moved her lips up a little to her clit, nibbling and sucking with abandon while clearing the way for her finger to find Willow's entrance and slide into her.

Willow's breathing was fast and shallow, her lungs working to the rhythm Tara was setting within her. She let her head fall forward, staring down at Tara's eyes, which glittered with joy. Between Tara's lips on her clit and the thrusts of her finger into her, Willow felt as if she would either come or explode. Her breath caught, her body tensed and her sex tightened as she began to orgasm, and at that moment, on her last thrust, Tara drove two fingers into Willow and hit her sweet spot hard.

Willow threw her head back and opened her mouth in a silent scream of joy, feeling her insides flip over themselves as her climax began. As her sex began to spasm she suddenly needed Tara desperately, and lifted herself off her, kicking blankets out of the way as she moved her hips back to straddle her waist, grinding her wetness onto her stomach as her mouth found Tara's. She kissed Tara intensely, her passion only strengthened by tasting herself on her lover's lips, her tongue delving into Tara's mouth as she coated her waist with her juices.

Tara cuddled Willow and returned her kiss with matching passion, holding her as her body shook and trembled its way through the aftershocks of her climax. Willow's lips became softer, gentler and less insistent as her body relaxed, and finally she trailed downward, kissing down Tara's jaw and finally resting atop her, her lips pressed against her neck.

"A-are you okay?" Tara asked quietly. "That was kind of..." she paused and searched for the word.

"Wonderful," Willow finished for her. "I'm fine, baby, oh gods I'm fine."

"Good," Tara smiled, "I just... I was a bit, um, well, I came on strong a bit there at the end, I know."

"And I loved it," Willow said, pressing kisses to the side of her neck. "I don't think I'm ever going to sleep in again, if this is what happens when I wake up."

"You liked?" Tara asked rhetorically.

"Oh, baby, I loved," Willow enthused. "At first it was a bit, you know, strange to be... well, sitting on your face," she giggled. "But... oh, you make love to me so beautifully... a-and looking down at you, seeing you like that, enjoying me so much... I swear I could've come just from that sight alone." She smiled, then shifted up a little to bring her eyes level with Tara's.

"What about you?" she asked.

"Me?" Tara smiled, and then adopted her most sensual purr. "The first thing I did this day was to have my beautiful Willow come all over my face... and my stomach... and my leg, if you recall..." She grinned cheekily. "I guess you could say I'm well covered."

"Minx," Willow said, kissing her.

"It was exciting, hot... I felt really close to you, really... intimate," Tara said. Willow wrapped her arms tight around Tara and hugged her.

"I love you," she murmured. "Have I mentioned that yet today?"

"Yes you have," Tara grinned, "vehemently. I love you too, Willow. I love everything that you are, completely."

"You've got everything that I am," Willow promised, "completely. Ahhh," she sighed.

"I guess," she added after a moment, "one of us is going to have to go out in that rain and get breakfast."

"I'll go," Tara offered.

"No, I'll go," Willow insisted, "you went out last night, it's my turn."

"I'll change the blankets while you're out," Tara said.

"Yeah, we could probably use a new set," Willow mused, sitting up and reaching for the bag with her travelling clothes. "Oh, hey, how about you put a pan out on the front and catch some rainwater? I've got an itching to run my hands all over you, and a bath seems like a good excuse."

"Since when did you need an excuse?" Tara joked, sitting up as Willow dressed. Willow leaned over to her, cupping her left breast and squeezing firmly while her lips sought out Tara's mouth, opened it, and her tongue dove inside.

"I'm trying to be a modest lady," Willow said with a formal air, and a sly smile tugging the corners of her mouth, belying her claim.

"You're not trying very hard," Tara countered.

"No I'm not," Willow admitted. "Better put an extra pan out for water."

"Why's that?" Tara wondered. Willow grinned mischievously.

"Because," she explained, pulling on her boots, "probably about half-way through your bath I'm going to be making you all hot and sweaty again, and then I'll have to start over." She winked at Tara and disappeared out of the wagon, leaving Tara to smile after her.

When Willow returned, Tara was leaning out the back, with a cloak over her head to keep dry, attaching a sack full of blankets and other laundry to the outside of the wagon. Willow leaned under her hood and gave her a quick kiss, then gratefully scrambled back into the warmth of the wagon's interior, leaving her waterproof cape on a hook outside.

"What's cooking?" Tara asked, hugging Willow from behind and rubbing her arms, warming her quickly.

"Porridge," Willow said, uncovering the single large bowl she had brought back, releasing warm steam and an enticing aroma.

"Nice and warm," Tara smiled.

"Warm indeed," Willow agreed, leaning back into Tara's embrace and tilting her head to smile up at her.

"Eat up, vixen," Tara teased, picking a spoon out of the bowl and offering Willow a spoonful of the hot meal. Willow swallowed obediently, kissed Tara, then sat back and took her own spoon.

"I spoke to Tryptin," she said as they ate, "he said we'll definitely reach Harthim tonight. The north lookout saw that the weather at dawn looked lighter that way, he said. The storm's moving west by the look of it."

"I wonder how Kert's doing," Tara mused.

"Probably wet," Willow replied. "Shan just got back from checking the ford, he said the river's flowing high, so it's probably raining buckets up near the mountains."

"I hope he's okay," Tara said quietly.

"Yeah," Willow agreed. She glanced at Tara. "Fellow-warrior-type sentiment?" she asked with a half-smile.

"Something like that," Tara replied, an answering smile appearing on her lips. "He seems a good man, he takes his job seriously... No warrior really wants to be out there, alone, let alone soaking wet and miserable," she added with a grin. "We're taught, in training, that sometimes a warrior has to be alone, and when that happens, we recognise the courage it takes, and offer a prayer for her. Or him, in this case. I'll be glad to see him safe and sound when we get to Harthim. So long as we're on this journey together, he's one of us. I guess I've got that from Tryptin, wanting everyone to be safe and happy."

"No, I think you get that from you," Willow said softly. "It's just one of the many, many reasons I feel blessed to be loved by you." She leaned over and kissed Tara, gentle and tender, her lips soft as silk, warm as sunlight.

"My love," Tara whispered, her eyes still closed from the kiss.

"All yours," Willow said, "you'll never be alone. That's a promise." Tara opened her eyes and fixed Willow with a brilliant smile.

"Eat up," she said warmly, "I put the pans out on the front seat to fill with water, they're probably about full by now."

"Bath-time, then," Willow grinned, gulping down another spoonful of porridge.

"Absolutely," Tara purred, licking her lips.

In no time both Willow and Tara had polished off the remnants of their breakfast. Tara retrieved two water-filled pans from the driver's seat, holding the canvas flap in the front of the roof above herself to keep from getting wet, then sealing it securely shut to keep the rain out. She lay the pans on the flat, steady surface of one of the small crates lining the front of the wagon, and busied herself finding soap and washcloths from the baggage, while Willow laid out towels to keep the blankets dry.

"You first?" she asked when Tara looked back at her. Tara nodded and reached for the hem of her tunic, only to have Willow's hands beat her there.

"Lie back," Willow whispered, beaming. Her smile warmed Tara immeasurably, assuring her than nothing she could do would make Willow feel so content as to simply lie back and let herself be taken care of. Willow gently pulled Tara's tunic up her body as she lay down, pulling it over her head and off her arms.

"No underwear?" Willow asked slyly, undoing the cord of Tara's skirt to confirm that she was just as naked beneath her clothes below the waist as above.

"Didn't seem any need," Tara smiled, "you, ah, didn't exactly conceal your intentions to have me naked right after breakfast."

"No, I didn't, did I?" Willow mused playfully. "Better make good on those intentions, in that case." She slipped Tara's undone skirt out from underneath her and sat back on her heels to survey her naked lover. Tara, basking in the warmth of her gaze, stretched languorously, slowly reaching out her arms above her head as her legs flexed expansively, toes pointed. Willow bit her lip and leaned down to speak directly to Tara, staring into her eyes.

"You are, without a doubt," she said slowly, "the sexiest creature ever to walk the earth." Tara blinked slowly, a sensuous smile spreading across her face.

"And I'm all yours," she replied. Willow chuckled and kissed her, nibbling on her lower lip. She sat back and surveyed Tara again, her eyes following every curve of her body. She took a washcloth, wet it, and began rubbing soap into Tara's legs, lifting them from the blankets to work underneath them. Tara obediently held her legs up, one then the other, as Willow ran her hands up their length, starting at her toes and rubbing firmly all the way up her calves and thighs. She spent a while longer than was necessary running her hands over Tara's thighs, and the way Tara's breathing caught slightly each time her hands made their way up near her hips was not lost on her. With a smile full of promise she rinsed off Tara's legs and followed with her arms, soaping and rinsing while giving every indication of immense pleasure in touching her.

Tara sighed with delight as Willow, having dutifully soaped her stomach and shoulders, naturally came to her breasts and lingered. Willow took a breast in each hand and massaged steadily, establishing a rhythm where she would squeeze in with her fingertips as she pressed upwards, then stretch her hands flat and press her palms against Tara's nipples as she moved her hands down again. She paused a moment to quickly pull off her tunic and skirt, and straddled Tara clad only in her underwear, her bra slightly tight as she breathed deeply, and her briefs accomplishing nothing in terms of concealing the heated moistness that she settled on Tara's waist. Smiling down at Tara from astride her, she resumed her attentions to her breasts, slow and rhythmic, matching her motions to Tara's breathing.

Tara's nipples were already hard, and she began sighing and lazily tossing her head from side to side as Willow worked steadily on her breasts, massaging her with a determination that offered no respite for Tara to cool off or be distracted by other sensations. She closed her eyes and limited her world to only two sensations: one, Willow's hands on her chest, kneading her breasts in the most exquisite way, and two, the heat of Willow's sex, wet and inviting through the thin film of her underwear, pressed against her waist.

"You like that baby?" Willow murmured softly.

"Oh goddess yes," Tara sighed. Quite involuntarily she began arching her back, pressing herself into Willow's hands, unashamedly conveying the pleasure that Willow's touch was causing her. Willow got quite lost in her fascination with Tara's breasts, the way they moved, their softness, the sensuous way Tara moved when she squeezed them, the lusty way she would let out a long, deep sigh every time Willow rubbed her palms against her nipples. Without realising it she too began to move, her hips rolling back and forth, her sex pressing against Tara's stomach. She leaned forward, trusting Tara to support some of her weight, and angled her hips back to press her clit against Tara, the barrier of fabric between them inconsequential.

Tara opened her eyes and fixed Willow with a needful gaze. Willow leant further forward, her hands still massaging Tara's breasts as they kissed, and Tara's hands reached down to pull Willow's briefs down her thighs.

"You're so hot," Tara breathed, her lips still close enough to brush Willow's as she spoke. Willow moaned in reply, and Tara put one hand to the back of her head, drawing her into another, more intense kiss, while her other arm went around her waist, pulling Willow's hips back as she raised her thigh. Willow moaned again, louder, into Tara's mouth as she felt the firm contact, the lips of her sex spreading against the top of Tara's thigh as her clit pressed against her hip just above. Tara raised her thigh higher, and Willow, with her underwear still around her thighs keeping her from spreading her legs very far on either side of Tara, instead rested more of her weight on her hips, on Tara, bucking wildly as her clit ground against Tara's skin.

"Oh baby," she moaned as she came, "oh gods, oh gods, oh... gods... Tara..." She kissed Tara again, deeply, then took a shuddering breath and collapsed on top of her, all will to move momentarily abandoning her.

"My beauty," Tara whispered, "my perfect love Willow..." Willow opened her mouth to say something, though she couldn't imagine what, in reply, when she was interrupted by a creak from the front of the wagon, as someone climbed up and settled onto the driver's seat. Willow met Tara's stare, and both giggled like schoolgirls with a shared secret.

"Good morning!" Willow called.

"Morning miss Willow," the driver replied through the canvas screen between them. "Morning miss Tara."

"Good morning," Tara called out, glancing up at the canvas. When she looked back at Willow she giggled again, silently. Willow, with some effort, lifted herself up to once again sit across Tara's waist, taking a moment to free her soaked briefs from around her legs. She steadied the pans of water, making sure they wouldn't tip as the wagon lurched gently into motion. Then she made sure she had Tara's full attention, licked her lips, dipped her gaze momentarily downward, and put a finger to her lips.

"Shhh," she advised softly. Tara smiled and nodded. Willow got up on hands and knees, moving slowly and with rhythm deliberately to give Tara a delectable view of her pert breasts swaying beneath her, then settled luxuriously down between Tara's legs, her head pillowed on her right thigh. She reached out with her tongue and gave a long lick to the opposite leg, tasting her own wetness so recently spread there. With long, careful strokes she cleaned her arousal off Tara's skin, making sure she accounted for every trace.

Tara steadfastly resisted the temptation to moan when she saw, and felt, what Willow was doing. 'Licking her own juices off my thigh,' she thought, 'oh goddess she's sexy, I think I'm going to burst!' She bit her lip and endured the pleasurable torment as Willow's tongue slowly worked its way closer and closer to her centre, which was adding ample amounts of her own arousal to the bouquet her lover was tasting.

Finally Willow's tongue touched the base of her sex and ran up, the tip nudging between her lips, finally passing over her clit as Willow nuzzled into her dark gold curls. Willow lifted her tongue and returned it to the bottom of Tara's centre, repeating her motions again, and again, each long, firm lick following just the same path through her. Tara closed her eyes again, swallowing the urge to moan out loud as Willow patiently, sensually continued to lick at her sex, enjoying her like a gourmet with a fine desert.

Willow grew more bold, pressing her tongue down harder as Tara began to rock her hips in response to her attentions. She braced herself with her arms and moved her head back and forth, Tara's hips moving quite dramatically, both falling into a rhythm in which Tara would lift her hips off the towel beneath her with each stroke of Willow's tongue, as if Willow's caress was lifting her. In a strange, wonderful way Willow felt that Tara was making love back to her, her sex kissing her tongue, enfolding it in warmth with every stroke. She leaned further into Tara, her lips now pressing against her as well, paying closer attention to her clit with every thrust of her tongue. She could feel Tara close to climax, and wanted her orgasm to flow from this contact, this caress she had started, that had so beautifully escalated to the point where Tara was lifting herself up, pressing herself into Willow's mouth, freely offering her arousal, the warmth and wetness of her sex, with the utmost certainty that Willow would accept her, all of her, her warmth into her skin, her juices into her body, the total immersion of her senses into her lover, just as freely.

Tara reached down and wound her hands into Willow's hair, holding her against her sex as she finally came. Willow opened her jaw wide, engulfing as much of Tara as she could within the warmth of her mouth, her tongue working up and down furiously, gathering the juices flowing from Tara and stimulating her clit, urging more from her. Tara's mouth opened in a silent exclamation of passion, and for a long moment she was motionless, hips held up in mid-air, Willow pressed against her, perfectly still as her insides roiled and surged with her orgasm. She made not a sound, until all of a sudden she went limp and thudded back to the towel and blankets beneath her, and a tiny sigh escaped her. She let her head fall sideways, to allow her to look down at Willow, who was slowly making her way up her body, her sensual gait on hands and knees, and the supremely satisfied smile on her face both reminiscent of a big cat, content to prowl and bask in the sunlight.

"You're amazing," Tara whispered as Willow lay down on top of her, kissing her chin and neck.

"How could I love you, and try for anything less?" Willow replied.

"Oh Willow," Tara sighed, "you're so... oh goddess, there aren't words. I love you."

"I love you," Willow repeated. "Heh, I was right," she added with a chuckle.

"How's that?"

"I am going to have to wash you again."

Willow and Tara's bathing, with its accompanying teasing, touching and kissing, ended up taking much of the morning. With the rain keeping up a steady downpour outside, easing compared to the day before but still far more than would be enjoyable, even in a heavy cloak and hood, both then settled into the confines of the wagon for the day. Willow leafed through Ember's journal some more, finding a rough map of the area they were in, which Tara compared to what she remembered of Kert's map. While searching through Willow's satchels after lunch for a more detailed chart, which Willow was sure was in there somewhere, Tara came across a small set of pipes.

"Are these yours?" she asked curiously.

"Yep," Willow confirmed with a glance. "My artistic side. I'm not that good, but I can carry a tune. Better than I sing, anyway."

"Would you?" Tara asked, offering the pipes to Willow, who accepted them with a hesitant smile.

"I might be a bit out of practice," she cautioned as she crossed her legs and raised the pipes to her lips. She blew a couple of random notes, bringing the tones of the instrument back to her mind, then smiled at Tara and sounded the first three notes of a scale, pure and gentle.

"Do re mi," Tara sang in reply. Willow smiled wider, then repeated her three notes, which Tara again echoed. Willow improvised a quick melody.

"Do re mi, do re mi, fa, mi, re," Tara followed. Willow repeated it again, then kept going as Tara followed her in time, two bars behind and harmonising perfectly. Willow let herself flow through the music, as she had occasionally used to do when the mood took her, now delighted to find this new way of bringing a smile to Tara's lips. She felt too a wonderful sense of contentment at her music joining with Tara's, the two of them creating something beautiful together, and it was with no small regret that she finally drew their melody to a close, scaling back to the simple sequence of notes that she began with.

"That was fun," she said, grinning.

"Yeah," Tara agreed, "you've got a good ear for music."

"Just not when I sing," Willow joked.

"Maybe," Tara said, "you never know. I didn't try singing until I was fifteen, until then I had no idea I'd enjoy it, or be any good. How would you like to try a duet some time?"

"For you, anything," Willow smiled.

The caravan was within sight of the torchlights of Harthim when the sun set, and with their forward scout letting the townsfolk know they were on their way, and thus to keep the gates open, they entered the town just as evening was setting in. As it turned out the only inn was too small to accommodate more than a handful of the caravan's passengers, so Willow and Tara, along with the Amazons and most of the Duncraig ambassadors, stayed in their wagons.

"No great loss," Willow proclaimed ruefully, returning after fetching a hot dinner from the kitchen. "I had a peek in one of the rooms, the beds are tiny and they look kind of draughty." Tara shrugged and gratefully accepted a vegetable stew Willow had scavenged before the inn's cook had tipped in any bits of rabbit, which most of the other travellers were having. They sat down to eat outside their wagon, the caravan's wagons having been parked underneath a wide wooden shelter, somewhat like a barn, that served to keep the rain off the carts and baggage of visiting travellers.

"I was thinking," Willow said as they ate, "I might stitch an extra layer into my book pouch. Keep Ember's journal on hand, as well as our journal. What do you think?"

"Good idea," Tara agreed. "I was having a look through it this afternoon. She's certainly seen a lot of interesting things."

"Yeah, she used to be quite the traveller," Willow said. "She got a bit of a reputation as an adventurer in the Order. Some of the students said she only accepted the sponsor's position in the city because she'd run out of new places to explore."

"What's she like?" Tara asked.

"Oh, gods, where do I begin?" Willow replied. "She's... she has this sort of manner about her, it's like she knows everything. She doesn't go around spouting off knowledge like a walking library or anything, just... whatever's going on, or whatever's being talked about, no matter what it is, she's got this little smile, like she knows it already. She's kind of fun to be around, a lot more than most of the tutors anyway. Once she accepted me as her apprentice she'd take me all sorts of places, like the Zakarum city, and the villages far up the Argentek river - nothing to do with sorcery training, but she never explained her methods, just smiled and said 'it'll be fun'. I learned a whole lot without even realising I was learning anything."

"She sounds a good teacher," Tara observed.

"Oh, yeah," Willow agreed, "the best. Earlier, when we were all learning together, it was all about the theory of magic, how spells are formed, practising until we got it right... you know, the first three months I was with Ember, she never even tested me with spells? She'd just talk with me, about all sorts of things, like history and wildlife, and how the clouds moved, and what different kinds of rocks looked like... and, the funny thing, it wasn't just her telling me things, I'd always end up talking just as much as she did, and she'd always listen to me, like she was really interested, and never give me any indication I was babbling too much, or that she wanted me to keep quiet and learn."

"The other sponsors weren't like her?" Tara asked.

"Not exactly," Willow said, "it's pretty common for a sponsor and her apprentice to become good friends - I mean, you spend a fair chunk of your life as a trainee with them, I guess you either love 'em or hate 'em, and sponsors are always the love 'em kind. That's sort of a trainee joke," Willow chuckled, "we said that all the nice sorceresses become sponsors, and the ones that turn into crabby old bats become councillors. We never saw much of the sorceresses who actually run the Order, they were just these silent, stern-looking women who'd come by the training halls occasionally when we were practising and glare at us as if we weren't trying hard enough. Anyway... but yeah, Ember was pretty special as a sponsor. She was a bit like a mother, and a bit like a sister - sometimes I'd go to her for help about one thing or another, and she'd listen to me and give me advice, and it was like she was older and wiser, and I was this young thing listening to her wisdom. In a good way, I mean, it was comforting... she could be someone I'd look up to. And then other times we'd be talking and laughing and, it was like we were on the same level. She's about forty, but she could seem so young. And yeah, some of the other girls were a bit jealous of me, getting her as my sponsor... they'd have to practice creating fireballs and chain lightnings and stuff, and I'd be practising by making snowmen out of water, or we'd make little birds out of ice and fly them around the cloisters."

Willow's anecdotes about her training kept Tara entertained until both their plates were empty, and she offered to take them back into the inn. When she returned Tara was still outside the wagon, arms crossed, staring uneasily out across the town's main square. The gates on the other side, only their covered torches plainly visible through the rain, were closed. Willow could just make out a handful of figures moving slowly back and forth.

"Kert hasn't come in yet," Tara said quietly. "Shan just went out to go up into the tower and see if he can see him. Not much chance, in this weather."

"He's probably just running late," Willow said, "what with the heavy rain out to the west..." She put an arm around Tara's shoulders, and together they stood silently for a while, watching as Shan returned from the gate, shaking off his wet cloak once he reached the shelter of the wagon enclosure. He spoke with a young sergeant, Kert's second-in-command, then paced restlessly back and forth as the sergeant made his way towards the town sheriff's office.

Without any conscious intent, a small group of people formed near the wagons, sitting on stools around the warmth of a fire that had been started, staring silently into the flames, and occasionally glancing up at the closed gates, barely visible in the gloom across the square. Shan checked the view from the watchtower again, before giving up and returning to his pacing. Tryptin sat by the fire, staring off into the night. Gerrid drifted out from the inn to join them, his restless manner clearly showing his unease. Kert's sergeant, Grant, joined them, staring into the fire for the most part, every once in a while stoking it idly with a stick, or fetching a new log to keep it going against the night's cold. Melcan appeared with some drink, and bread still hot from the kitchen's oven, which was eaten in silence. Tryptin asked idly a while later if Tara had brought a Command set, and played a game against her, with Willow, Shan and Grant watching, though always glancing over their shoulder every now and then.

A short while later Gerrid asked if there was any chance of going out to look for Kert, but Grant said quietly that, between the dark and the rain, they might ride right past him without knowing, and carrying open flames ran the risk of attracting any animals prowling the night. A long silence fell, during which Gerrid stood at the edge of the enclosure, his cape keeping off the occasional gust of wind that blew some rain in, and Willow and Tara sat together on the tailboard of their wagon, close enough to have a view of the square but well out of the rain, both huddled in a blanket around their shoulders.

"Thank you," Tara said quietly, out of the silence.

"What for?" Willow asked.

"Just... being you," Tara said, glancing at Willow with the ghost of a smile. "Sitting up with me, without question, just because a soldier neither of us really knows is out there somewhere."

"I'm worried too," Willow said softly. "And hey, it's not like I could just leave you and go to sleep inside. You're here, so I'm here, and that's how it is. Wouldn't have it any other way." She gave Tara's shoulders a squeeze, getting a smile out of her, then with her free hand took Tara's, and rested her head on her shoulder, staring out with her into the night.

"When I was old enough," Tara said quietly, "Eponin told me about my parents. So I'd know what they died for, so I could sit memorial properly for them. I wasn't born on the islands, it was on the mainland. My mother and father were living in a town not far from the coast. There was still a lot of unrest, because of the Reckoning. Evil creatures, packs of demons and monsters, all through the mainland jungles. Not long after I was born a huge wave of them came down out of the mountains and swept through the jungle. My parents brought all the people from the town to the shore, got them onto boats, including me, and then they went back. My mother was a warrior, and my father was very strong, and very brave. Once I was safe they went back, them and two other Amazons, my aunt and another woman, to bring more people out, to get them from the villages around the town to the boats.

"All through the night the boats waited, and every now and then a group of people would reach the dock and board, and they'd tell the master of the boats that the Amazons were still out there, making it safe for more people to reach the road to the shore. They kept waiting as long as they could, even when they could see the jungle on fire on the horizon, this glow in the night sky. But then no more people came, and just before dawn creatures started coming from the edge of the jungle, trying to get across the docks and onto the boats. They fought them off for as long as they could, with longbows and crossbows, shooting them down as they tried to get across the dock, just... trying to wait one moment longer. But eventually there were too many, and the boats had to leave.

"And that was it," she finished. "They sailed to the islands, and I was taken in by Eponin's family." She shrugged, and Willow hugged her tighter.

"I-I'm sorry," Tara said, "I don't mean to be all depressing..."

"It's alright," Willow said, with absolute conviction. Tara nodded her thanks, and hugged Willow in return.

"Two hundred and thirty-seven people were on the boats," she said after a moment. "Ninety-two of them arrived after the first group, when the town was evacuated. Every year, I sit memorial for my parents. My aunt and her friend, too, but they have other loved ones who sit memorial for them. It's not a ceremony or anything, just on the day they gave their lives to save those people, I sit for a moment and remember what they did, and remind myself that I'm proud of them. Is it after midnight, do you think?"

"Definitely," Willow said, "at least an hour." Tara nodded, and gazed up at the sky, such as was visible through the rain.

"Mom, dad," she whispered, "thanks. I'm proud to be your daughter." She sniffed quietly, and Willow saw a single tear fall down her cheek. She reached up and tenderly brushed it away before resting her head back on Tara's shoulder.

"I love you," Tara said simply after a moment.

"I love you too," Willow replied. They both looked up as a shout echoed across the square from the gate. Gerrid hurried out into the rain with Grant, while Tryptin and Shan stood at the edge of the enclosure and watched. The town gates swung open a little way, enough to admit a man on horseback before they were closed again. Willow and Tara both recognised it as Kert, from his clothes and the gear on his horse, before he got under the shelter of the enclosure and dismounted, casting off his rain-soaked cloak. Gerrid was at his side talking quickly, while Grant followed a few paces behind him, waiting for orders. He spoke to Tryptin and Shan briefly before heading towards the inn, but as he went he caught sight of Willow and Tara sitting outside their wagon, and inclined his head with a brief smile. Tara nodded in return, and then he was gone, headed towards the warmth of the inn's kitchen, and Willow was stretching her legs off the tailboard.

"Come on," Tara said sleepily, "let's go to bed." She and Willow climbed into their wagon, undressed, and burrowed together underneath their blankets, quickly warming each other and their bed against the chill of the night. Willow snuggled back into Tara, and Tara stretched and curled herself around Willow, enfolding her in her embrace.

"Love you," she murmured, "goodnight."

"G'night," Willow yawned, "love you too."

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Twenty-Eight (Rated NC-17)

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