Return to Hellebore Chapter Twenty-Nine


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.

Willow sat on a rock, exhausted and trying to rub some life back into her aching legs. Beside her Tara stood, eyes closed, perfectly still. Willow glanced at her every few seconds, keeping herself from despairing by the constant reminders of her presence. She knew neither of them could afford the luxury of being scared.

"Nothing," Tara said after a moment, opening her eyes and sitting down.

"How far away can you sense?" Willow asked quietly.

"Maybe a mile," Tara guessed, "no less than that, certainly. Creatures with demon blood are easier, they feel... wrong. Like something sick, or dying. And the fact that they're pursuing us should make them easier to sense. Their thoughts are turned towards us, so my thoughts can find them. There might be some closer to us than a mile, but if there are, they either don't know about us, or aren't interested in chasing us." She sighed, her shoulders slumped. "Are you okay?"

Willow smiled, sadly but sweetly, and put her arm around Tara's shoulders, comforting and warm.

"I should be asking you," she said softly, "does it hurt?" Tara glanced at the bandage on her arm, and absently brushed her fingers lightly over it.

"Not really," she said, "they're just scrapes, really... they'll heal." Willow nodded, then put both arms around Tara's waist and hugged her fiercely.

"Thank the gods you're okay," she whispered, tears welling up in her eyes, "if you were hurt, or, or... I don't know what I'd do, Tara. You're everything to me, everything in the world." Tara sniffed back her own tears and put her good arm around Willow's shoulders, kissing the top of her head.

"Nothing can take me from you," she promised, "nothing, not demons or monsters or anything." Willow smiled, knowing how perilous their safety was, in a wilderness seemingly overrun by brutal demon creatures, but unable to hear Tara's words without being heartened by them. She hadn't realised just how badly she had been scared - at first everything was happening too fast, and she had reacted purely by instinct, to protect Tara and fight as she had been taught. And then she had had no choice but to bottle up her fear and panic, and concentrate all her will on keeping up her pace at Tara's side, not slowing them both down - for she knew Tara could never leave her behind - as the braying, roaring goat-men chased them across the broken, rocky ground of the Kingsway highlands. It had seemed to go on forever, staggering along with one hand in Tara's, the other clumsily clutching her staff and bow together, snatched as they ran from the road. More than once Willow had wished she had spent less time reading in libraries and more time exercising. Fit as she was - for the Zann Esu maintained that a healthy body was as necessary as a healthy mind for proper mastery of the elements - she tired far earlier than Tara. Whenever those thoughts crossed her mind, she found herself noticing Tara's body, the tireless striding of her powerful legs, her elegant, efficient gait, and the sheen of sweat that made her skin glisten. But always the sounds of pursuit would drag her mind away from the only joyful thoughts she could muster.

Eventually, when even Tara was showing signs of fatigue, and the sun was dipping low in the west, edging towards the distant mountain peaks, the braying and thundering of hooves was just an echo on the wind, and then not even that. There had been no question of trying to double back or circle around to head back towards the road, not with the mass of goat-men spread out behind them, but in a straight line their legs, powerful as they were, could not carry them as fast as the two women, or negotiate the rocky terrain as easily. Tara had stopped, able to detect no trace of pursuit with the skills her Amazon tutors had taught her, and when she and Willow risked a trip to the summit of a nearby hill, they could see nothing moving towards them. It took half an hour to find a suitable place to stop - a hollow on the edge of a small wood, several miles from the hill - but at last, by the standards of the day's terrible events, they were safe. Willow had barely managed the strength to help Tara bandage her wound before she sat down, her legs refusing to support her any longer, and Tara had stood beside her, pushing her tracker senses as far as she could for any sign of danger.

"D-do you think the caravan made it?" she asked after a moment. Neither of them had any way of knowing, of course, but her concern for the people who, over the past two weeks, had become her friends was such that she had to ask.

"I'd say the odds were in their favour," Tara said hopefully. "The Carvers looked pretty shaken up by the goat-men, and remember how you said they retreat at the first sign of trouble? There were lots of guards, and Amazon men can fight pretty well, too."

"I hope they're okay," Willow said. "What about the goat-men?"

"They seemed to all be interested in us," Tara said morosely, but with a touch of a smile. "All the ones I saw when they appeared charged us, none towards the caravan."

"Well that's good to know," Willow said with a wry grin.

"Yeah," Tara replied, a genuine smile on her lips as Willow looked up to her, "just as well the most powerful demons I've ever seen got a fixation on us and chased us half-way across the highlands." Willow laughed, the stress of their flight releasing itself.

"If you think about it, it's really quite flattering," she joked, as Tara joined her laughter. They laughed together for a moment before subsiding, their tension spent.

"Well," Tara sighed, "I suppose this is as safe a place as we'll find to spend the night." Willow looked worried.

"In the open?" she asked.

"I'll know if a demon comes near us," Tara assured her, "and I don't see much sign of animals moving through here. So long as we're careful, there's no reason to think we'll give away our position. If those goat-men are searching thoroughly for us, it'll take weeks to cover all this ground, and if they're not searching thoroughly, they won't see us from a distance."

"Good," Willow said, "good... did I mention how glad I am you're here? Not that I'd wish this sort of thing on you, you understand, just-"

"I know," Tara smiled fondly, "I'm glad I'm here, too. I'm with you."

"No campfire though?" Willow asked ruefully.

"Not unless you know a way to make warmth without smoke or light," Tara said with a shrug.

"Drat," Willow said, "I knew I should've been a fire sorceress, they can do that."

"You can condense fresh water," Tara pointed out.

"That's true," Willow nodded, "at least we won't need to hunt a clean stream to drink from."

"Alright," Tara said, sliding off the rock to sit on the ground, Willow joining her, "we need a plan."

"Do you think we can make it back to the caravan?" Willow wondered.

"It'd be risky," Tara said, "those creatures are still out there, and we'd be heading straight for them. There's no telling how far they've spread out... I looked back a couple of times, and they were moving outwards as they chased us, to stop us doubling back. Besides, we don't know exactly where the caravan will be. Assuming they fought their way clear - which I'm sure they did," she added with a reassuring smile, "they'll have headed for the next camp site, so they could defend themselves properly if there was another attack. Once they find we're missing, they'll probably have the outriders look for us, but I don't think they'll come this far from the road - there's too much ground to cover, and too much chance of a rider being ambushed while they search."

"So, no caravan," Willow mused, "damn, I was really starting to like our wagon."

"We have an advantage," Tara pointed out, "the Amazons still with the caravan. Tryptin, and probably others among them, will know what direction I'll take. Amazon warriors have clear rules when they get separated from their pride. Tryptin will assume I'll follow those rules, and so they'll know where we'll head."

"Where's that?" Willow asked.

"The nearest safe town or village," Tara said. "From what I remember of Kert's map, there's a town close by here, further east. Kotram, I think it was called, and the map showed it as being fairly large. It's on the road leading from Harthim down to the river. It's not on the caravan's route, but it's easily the closest town to where the attack happened. They'll assume we'll head for there, and send a rider along the roads to meet us."

"Sounds like a plan," Willow said. "How far do you think we are from it?"

"You remember the ridge east of us we saw from the hill?" Tara asked. "From the map, I think it's probably no more than a day's journey on foot past that. Say, a day and a half from here, travelling carefully, and only during daylight. Think your legs will make it?" she added with a grin.

"Absolutely," Willow said, "so long as it's not all-out running, I'm full of stamina. Stamina-girl, that's me."

"Pity we have to stay alert," Tara mused, her voice low and seductive, "otherwise we'd be able to confirm that for ourselves."

"Demons are so inconsiderate," Willow agreed, almost with a straight face. She leaned over to give Tara a quick kiss, then sat back.

"So, Kotram it is," she said.

"Kotram it is," Tara agreed. "We should plan ahead, hopefully we won't run into any more demons, but it still won't be a particularly easy trip. Let's take stock - what do we have?"

"Item: one mildly exhausted sorceress, with staff and bow," Willow said promptly. "Luckily, clad in hard-wearing armour. Unfortunately, wearing really silly underwear." Tara stifled a giggle.

"The armour won't interfere with your casting, if you need to?" Tara asked. "I-I mean, you were wonderful today, but your battlegear, the open body?"

"Oh, no," Willow said dismissively, "that's just for really refined magic, absolute control, that sort of thing. For hurling ice bolts at monsters, it's no different than, well, you wearing tracker armour, rather than your usual leathers."

"Good," Tara said, "what else?"

"Scrolls," Willow said, "nothing particularly useful, unless we happen to find something magical and we need to figure out how it works. Runes, again more useful for studying things than roughing it in the wilderness. I could rig up a circle around us that'll wake us if it's disturbed, but only about twenty feet across."

"That's good," Tara said, "I don't think we should both sleep at the same time, but that's a good precaution to take anyway."

"That'll only take a couple of minutes," Willow went on. "Potions, for healing. They're... I don't think we should use them unless they're really necessary, I've heard they're kind of unpleasant."

"I'll see how my arm feels tomorrow," Tara said, "but at the moment, I think it's okay. Let's not use them until we have to."

"Okay," Willow agreed. "Spell components for basic stuff, lighting fires - not that we can risk it - creating light, setting up protective circles against enemy magic. I don't think there's ever been an account of goat-men using any kind of magic, but I'll set that up with the alarm circle, just in case a Carver strayed this far. It won't be that powerful, but you never know, eh? Um, charms, the only one that might be useful is a shroud charm. You break it open, and wherever you are, everywhere within about fifty feet becomes dark as night for an hour. I'm not sure if that'll be useful," she said hesitantly.

"It might be," Tara said, "it's good to have it as an option, just in case."

"Lastly," Willow finished, "books - our journal, and Ember's. I have no idea how, exactly, but I think that'll be useful."

"From what you've told me, Ember's a very experienced sorceress," Tara pointed out. "Her journal could be invaluable. It's a good thing you added that extra book pouch."

"Yeah," Willow agreed. "Oh, and your drawings, of course. Just in case, at some point on our perilous journey, we really need to stare at pictures of ourselves naked."

"I wouldn't say no," Tara grinned, "though, whenever it's safe, feel free to stare at the real thing."

"Oh I will," Willow promised. "What else do we have?"

"One inexperienced but determined Amazon," Tara said with a smile, "also in armour, but with more practical underwear."

"Durable and sexy," Willow mused, "I've got to get myself some of those."

"Leather isn't quite as comfortable as yours," Tara pointed out. "Bow and spear, total of three quivers of arrows. Not that fighting all the demonic creatures around here on our own is a good idea, but if the goat-men and Carvers haven't wiped them all out, I can probably catch us a rabbit or something to eat, and we can have a small fire while it's still light to cook it."

"You'll eat meat?" Willow asked, surprised.

"If I have to," Tara said, shrugging. "I'd rather not, but I haven't seen much in the way of edible plants around here. In any case, there's dried rations in my pack, not very tasty - well, actually, about as bland as you can imagine - but enough for three days, for the two of us, so with luck we'll be at Kotram before I have to hunt for food."

"If it's, I mean, if you'd rather not," Willow offered, "I could probably catch something, and you could have the rations, that'd last six days then, wouldn't it?" Tara smiled and stroked Willow's thigh affectionately.

"It's alright," she said, "I appreciate it, I really do, but if it's a matter of survival, I don't have a problem. Normally I wouldn't, but normally I'd be in a city, with farms and gardens. Out here," she waved her other hand around airily, encompassing their surroundings, "this is how the wilderness works, and this is how we'll survive."

"Well, okay," Willow said, "if you're sure..." Tara gently took Willow's hand and kissed it.

"Thank you," she said.

"I love you," Willow said simply, by way of explanation, warmed by Tara's smile. "So, apart from super-bland rations, what've you got there?"

"Two blankets and a bedroll," Tara said, "not very luxurious, but weatherproof, and enough to keep a person warm during the night. Needle and thread, and some leather scraps, for patching armour. A waterskin, empty, but-"

"But I can draw water out of thin air," Willow finished, "so it'll be full soon enough."

"A bottle of bramble oil, and a small flask of normal oil, the burning kind. Some more bandages, a few herbs and lotions, for healing. Spare bowstrings, a shoulder satchel, a couple of small pouches, cotton cloth, pen and ink, a knife, um, some chalk, I think... I'm pretty sure that's all."

"Amazons believe in being prepared," Willow observed.

"That we do," Tara agreed. "You never know when you're going to be ambushed and chased all over the place by rabid goat demons."

"Yeah, that's what everyone says," Willow joked, "I guess you just don't ever think it'll happen to you."

With the sun already starting to disappear behind the mountains, Willow and Tara both began their preparations to see out the night in their current location. Willow used Tara's knife to draw her circle in the ground around the edge of the hollow they were in, placing a rune stone at each compass point and sealing the sentry spell with a pinch of Aranoch night sand dropped in the exact centre. Tara spent the time studying the surrounding landscape, memorising the positions of trees and bushes, the contours of the land and, as she explained it, 'the feel of the place'. With the last of the day's light she opened their journal and copied the brief map of the area that Ember had made, adding in as much detail as she could remember from Kert's map.

The sun vanished not long after, and by moonlight Willow arranged the bedroll and blankets in a little depression in the ground Tara made with her spear-point, as protected from the elements as was possible. With the soft, broken soil beneath the sleeping bag's sturdy material, Willow found it not entirely uncomfortable when she slid herself into the bedroll, her head pillowed no one of the blankets, rolled up. Tara divided up their rations and they ate in silence, both worried about what lay ahead, but thankful to be together. When they were both finished, Tara leant over and lay the other blanket over Willow, kissing her softly on the cheek.

"Love you," Willow said quietly.

"I know," Tara replied, and Willow could hear her smile, just from her voice. "I love you too."

"Just thought of something," Willow added.


"Who got the first bullseye? We both hit the Carvers at the same time." With the moon waning and its light only slightly penetrating the canopy of trees, Willow sensed rather than saw Tara sit back slightly as she thought.

"You did," she said at last, "your spell flew faster than my arrow, I think." She chuckled ruefully. "You win the bet. Anything you want me to do?" In the dark, Willow reached out and found Tara's hand.

"Don't get hurt," she whispered, her voice wavering. "If... if something happened... I couldn't." She paused, gulping back a sob. "I need you."

"Oh Willow," Tara whispered, leaning over to kiss Willow's forehead tenderly, then moving down a little to capture her lips in a brief, intense kiss.

"I'm going to make a promise to you," she said, "as an Amazon warrior, a matter of honour. Somewhere up ahead is a safe place, and in that place there's a bedroom with a fireplace, and a warm fire burning, and a big, big bed with soft pillows and warm blankets and silky sheets. We will get there, Willow, you and me, we will get there, and I will lay you down and make love to you all night until the sun comes up. On my honour as an Amazon, a faithful child of Athulua, I swear this." She kissed Willow once again, on the lips.

"Did I mention I love you?" Willow said, her voice small but warm.

"Yes you did," Tara whispered fondly, "I love you, Willow. I always will. Now sleep, my sweet sorceress. I'll watch over you."

"You'll wake me after midnight?" Willow asked. "You need to sleep too."

"I will," Tara promised. Willow brought Tara's hand to her lips and kissed it, softly, then lay back. Tara sat beside her, listening to her breathing as she fell asleep, tiredness winning out over tension.

As the night wore on, Tara sat, and thought. At times Willow would stir, or perhaps breathe a tiny, pleading sigh that gave some indication that her dreams were less than peaceful, and Tara would reach beneath the edge of her bedroll to lay a hand on her shoulder, or lean over to kiss her forehead, which would calm her. Every now and then, when Willow seemed content, she would get up and walk around a little, her footfalls silent, to keep herself from getting sore from sitting too long in the same position. The night was chilly, but while she was sitting, close to the ground in their little hollow, the winds skimmed overhead, and in the still air beneath them the cold was bearable.

Tara thought back on her actions during the day. She had no memory of willing herself to set her spear in the ground and nock the first arrow to her bowstring, it had just happened, as instinctive as reaching out when she needed to grab something, or walking to cross a room. Of course, they were instincts trained into her all her life, when as a young girl she had been shown how to take care of herself, and later had decided to continue training, to learn to handle weapons and truly fight, rather than just defend. Why had she made that choice? She thought back, trying to recapture the motives of a moment years ago. Necessity? No-one ever made a point of it, and certainly no-one was ever pressured into training if they didn't want to, but it had been no great secret that the Amazon Nation had lost some of its best during the Reckoning, and even ten, fifteen years later there was a great demand for trained women to join the prides that defended the Amazon Isles. But no, Tara mused, she had never felt as though her training was something she had to do, out of motivations not her own.

She had wanted to be a warrior. Part of it, she acknowledged, was that once her training truly began, and she was taught to focus magical energies, she turned out to be unusually proficient at it. She had thought more than once that, with this gift inside her, it would have been foolish not to learn how to use it. But now that she thought about it, that wasn't the same thing as wanting to be a warrior. She had learned how to wield a bow, a spear, a sword in a pinch, and how to shoot fire arrows and let loose lightning strikes from her spear - but they were skills, and the satisfaction she felt from practising and improving at them was no different to her satisfaction in drawing, or singing. She had to admit, perhaps she had mistaken that satisfaction for the drive to succeed as a warrior. After all, she knew - if only from second-hand accounts - that men in the other realms of the world often joined the armies of their lords, sometimes with little training, usually with no magic, and even marched to war of their own accord. Tara could not imagine herself living such a life. Perhaps that was what Solari had seen lacking in her - 'killer instinct', she had called it. Tara admitted, it certainly didn't sound like something she could lay claim to. She had always prided herself on her gentle nature, taking a quiet satisfaction when it was noted by her tutors, or by Eponin, how her first instinct was to heal, to reach out, to help.

So, Tara mused, had it been a mistake to train? No, she couldn't accept that. If the day had proved nothing else, it had proved to Tara that her skills, her training, her ability to fight, could be a force for good. She had protected Willow - not that Willow was helpless, but the two of them had been a far more formidable target than either would have been alone. The Carvers had never laid a claw on either of them, and up until the goat-men had made their presence known, the tide had definitely been against the attackers. Tara found she could be proud of that. There had been evil, and she had been able to fight it, to help protect what was good, and noble, and worth fighting for. She glanced down at the sleeping form beside her, visible by the moonlight and Tara's keen eyesight, and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek.

Perhaps, unknown to her at the time, that had been her motivation all along. Not to become a soldier and spend her life on guard, waiting for the next threat, but to have the ability to defend herself and those she loved if the need arose. She thought of her parents, her mother in particular. When Tara was old enough, Eponin had spent a great deal of time with her, making sure she knew who her parents had been, as a way of understanding how she herself came to be. Her mother had been a warrior, had spent some years with the prides, but later she had turned away from the life of a soldier, and spent much time studying ancient records, piecing together fragments of the history of the Amazons from those myths and stories that remained. Tara had read her mother's work, and recognised a keen intellect behind them, the insight of a scholar married with an artistic flair that gave a vibrancy to the accounts of how their ancestors had lived. And her father had been a farmer, a kind and gentle man who, though strong and quick to stand up for his friends and loved ones, had never in his life spent even a day treading a soldier's path. Yet both had taken up arms when danger threatened, regardless that the life they had chosen was a peaceful one, and through their sacrifice, so many people had lived who would otherwise have died. So many lives saved, so many children who had not had to wonder why they would never see their parents again, so many parents who had not had to grieve for their sons and daughters, so many lovers who had not had to somehow find sleep in an empty bed. There were times when Tara, as a girl, had cried for the mother and father she had never known, but always she had the knowledge of what they had achieved to comfort her.

And now here she was, in a wilderness prowled by strange and terrible creatures, with her life, and the life of her love, dependant on their own wits and abilities, and perhaps, though she was loathe to admit it, dependant on luck as much as anything else. And who knew what sacrifices might have to be made? Tara was not in the habit of praying when it came to the circumstances of her life - she gladly joined in the festivities on the various holy days dedicated to the gods and goddesses, and each year sent a word of thanks to her parents wherever they were, but otherwise she left the divine realm to its own affairs - but now she felt the need to at least acknowledge the need in herself to do something, even if it was only to send a prayer to Athulua. 'Watch over us,' she asked silently, 'you know already I'll do everything in my power to see her safe. I couldn't bear to lose her. If it's at all possible, spare her the pain of losing me. I know without a doubt, if it comes down to one or the other, I will save her rather than myself, but please, if any of what happens here is within your domain, please don't take me from her.' She shed a single tear, but despite the melancholy thoughts, she found she was feeling slightly better. She supposed it was a matter not of harbouring the worrying notions, but of admitting to them, not trying to deceive herself, and trusting to the gods that the worst would not come to pass.

Tara let Willow sleep as long as she dared, but knew she would be upset if she was allowed to sleep all night; and besides, Tara knew well enough that she needed some rest herself, to help keep her senses fresh. She took a moment to replace the bandage on her arm, testing her movement and finding it easy and only a little sore, then sighed to herself, still unhappy to disturb Willow's sleep. She leaned over, placing a kiss first on Willow's forehead, softly, then on her lips, more insistent. Willow responded, smiling and opening her lips, a tiny moan muffled by Tara's mouth, and then she was awake, and the realisation of their situation came back to her.

"My turn?" she whispered as Tara leaned back, giving her room to slide out of the bedroll.

"Afraid so," Tara replied, "it's after midnight." Quite a bit more than an hour after midnight, she admitted to herself, but Willow offered no complaint when she glanced skyward, checking the position of the moon.

"Well, it's all warmed up for you," Willow said quietly, patting the sleeping bag. Tara gave her a grateful kiss, undid her harness and lay down, finding the scent of Willow's hair still in the rolled-up blanket as she lay her head on it.

"Didn't sense anything," she murmured as Willow leaned over her. "Small animals, nothing dangerous. Best to stay down out of the wind."

"I will," Willow promised, "get some rest."

"Wake me before dawn," Tara said.

"I will," Willow said again. "That was a lovely way to wake up, by the way, even out here in the middle of nowhere."

"My pleasure," Tara mumbled.

"I'm sure it was," Willow whispered, sensing Tara drifting off to sleep. She straightened the blanket covering her bedroll, then stroked her hair for a while, until her breathing was deep and even. While Tara slept, Willow concentrated on listening to the sounds of the woods around them, until she felt accustomed to them, and hoped that anything out of place would catch her attention. Never having really been outdoors for any great amount of time, she found she was somewhat intrigued by all the muted activity that was going on under cover of night, the scuttling of small creatures and the rustling in the nearby bushes. She had imagined night to be a time of rest, as it was for people, but the woods and their inhabitants seemed as alive as ever.

It was comforting in a way, Willow mused, as she took a stroll around the perimeter of her circle before settling down next to Tara again. The small, inoffensive creatures going about their lives were something she couldn't quite reconcile with the monsters that had chased them. She was reassured by that, and as her thoughts turned more towards the demons of the previous day, the occasional scuttling of some small creature up and down the trunk of a tree a short distance away kept reminding her that, no matter what dangers she and Tara had faced, and might still have to face, they were not lost to the world, and safety was still within their reach.

The demons, though... Willow shivered at the thought, and partly from the cold in the night air, but found a certain sense of normality in cataloguing what she had seen, and deriving what conclusions she could from it. Even if the subject were great mad beasts waving poleaxes around, she was still Willow, who used to spend her evenings in libraries reading ancient texts. So, what had she learned? Well, she thought, reciting her conclusions to herself as if to a tutor, demons don't get on with each other. That was an advantage. Everyone who knew anything about demons knew that they hated each other with a passion surpassed only by their hatred for living things, and tended to fight at the merest perceived provocation, even when they were supposedly allied to each other. It was a matter of record that during the Sin Wars, victory was often secured by killing the captains of the demonic armies infesting the world, whereupon their subordinates would turn on each other, rallying whatever supporters they could, and do horrendous damage to their forces while trying to wrest control from one another. Well, things hadn't changed - Willow thought back to the first appearance of the goat-men, the anger and fear they had caused in the Carvers, not counting the way they casually butchered the smaller demons who were unlucky enough to get in their way.

Carvers, then, she thought, idly drawing a pattern in the dirt with the end of her staff. She would have to add a note to their journal when they got out of this about the Carvers tunnelling under the road, as she didn't recall ever reading about them using such a tactic. The blast the opened the tunnel to the surface was fire magic, Willow was certain. She had seen the sudden disturbances in the air, felt the greasy, oily sensation of a sizeable magical build-up - very poorly controlled, to cause such blatant side-effects, but that was consistent with Carver magic. So, she concluded, a fire spell that powerful would have required a particularly old, powerful Carver. Maybe that explained the unusually inventive ambush. Many sorceresses had noted in their writings that Carvers, as with many of the minor hybridised demons, got more devious and cunning with age.

The goat-men, though... they worried Willow, with greater cause than simply their resilience and ferocity. The Carvers, upon launching their ambush, had attacked indiscriminately, a number of them heading for the closer, weaker-looking target of the two women nearby, but most of them sticking to what was presumably their original aim, and charging the caravan. Willow worried about new newfound friends, Tryptin in particular - he had always been so kind, so considerate in making sure her and Tara's needs were met wherever they happened to be - but thinking rationally, she was inclined to agree with Tara's assessment, and assume that the Carvers had been fought off. The caravan was stronger than was usual for its size, more guards per wagon, and from what Tara said the Amazon men were no liability when it came to combat - certainly, aside from one or two older diplomats, they all were strong, in good health, and active-looking. With a stronger enemy than the Carvers had expected, their fellows falling left and right to the unexpected threat of a sorceress and an Amazon warrior, and then much stronger rival demons appearing on the scene... yes, Willow concluded, everything she knew about the creatures told her that they would have given up and sought the refuse of the nearest hiding place they could find.

'All very well,' Willow thought to herself, 'but what about the goat-men?' They were a definite concern, above and beyond the pure physical threat they posed. Firstly, they were rare, considered extinct in civilised areas. Secondly, they were stronger, more brutal and more resilient than Carvers by several orders of magnitude. Thirdly, Willow hadn't seen a single one of them that had not headed straight for her and Tara. That wasn't normal, she was sure - unless for some reason they had taken some particular dislike to magic and any human who wielded it, but that was a stretch of the imagination. Willow shrugged to herself morosely. She had too many questions there, and needed more information before she could make anything but a guess at the answers. She resolved to check Ember's journal once they were moving during the day, and also - though she hesitated briefly - to share her concerns with Tara, and see what they might come up with together. She hoped briefly for another option, to be able to spare her love from considering such an ominous possibility, but knew there was none; if she kept her suspicions to herself, she risked them both.

The most likely answer was that the demons had deliberately attacked her, and if that was true, they had to reach safety, and fast.

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Thirty-One

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