Return to Hellebore Chapter Thirty


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.

Tara awoke to Willow kissing her, the tip of her tongue gently brushing her lips. Her first thought was to respond in kind, and she did, opening her mouth and accepting Willow's kiss with a playful swirl of her own tongue. Even when she remembered with a twinge of disappointment where they were, she had to admit it was one of the best ways to wake up she could think of. Certainly the only viable one to use in the middle of potentially hostile territory.

"Morning, love," she mumbled, stretching briefly then wriggling out of her bedroll. Willow gave her another kiss, just a quick one, then together they set about rolling up the sleeping bag and blankets so they would fit back into Tara's pack. She noticed Willow seemed ill at ease, speaking little, her face slipping into the beginnings of a frown now and then, when she seemed not to be concentrating. Whenever she saw Tara glance at her, she favoured her with a warm smile, and Tara put it down to anxiety over their uncertain path back to safety. She wondered briefly whether to try to talk to Willow about it, pondering a few ways of bringing the subject up, and trying to ease her concerns, but ultimately decided that it could wait at least until they had got a start on the day's journey. Already the sun, which had been a mere glow on the horizon when Tara had awoken, was high enough to cast real daylight across the land.

As it turned out, finding a way to approach the topic proved unnecessary. As soon as Tara had taken their bearings and decided on a path to follow, Willow, walking by her side and carrying the three quivers of arrows slung over her shoulder so as to spread the load of their possessions, began to lay out her concerns.

"I was thinking, during the night," she explained, "you know, about the demons, and everything that happened. I'm not sure... I mean, I could be imagining things, well, I really hope I am, actually, but I don't think so, and anyway, you should know, because it affects you too, you being out here with me and all-"

"Willow?" Tara prompted gently, smiling despite herself at Willow's nervous babble.

"Right," Willow grinned sheepishly, "concise, got it. Okay, the thing is... I think maybe they were after us. Well, me. Specifically me." Tara stopped in her tracks and turned to Willow, who shrugged with a helpless half-grin and took her hand, nodding ahead to indicate they should keep moving.

"W-why do you think that?" Tara asked, as they continued on their way. Even as she asked, she admitted to herself that it might be possible - Willow knew these kinds of things better than she did, unquestionably, and the sudden appearance of the monstrous creatures had brought to mind Hydris's attempted attack in the court room. One moment all had seemed peaceful, the next hell was reaching out for them. But Tara didn't want to believe it, and it took some effort of will to acknowledge the possibility, rather than dismissing out of hand that foul, evil creatures were consciously working to take her Willow from her.

"It fits the facts," Willow explained with a frown, "unfortunately. Did you see any of the goat-men attack anyone else?" Tara frowned herself, then shook her head. "Me neither," Willow went on, "I couldn't see much of the caravan, but it sounded like there was a pitched battle going on between the Carvers and the guards. But the goat-men all ignored that, and went for us."

"Maybe they saw us as the greater threat?" Tara asked. "I mean, we kind of, well, annihilated the Carvers that went for us."

"I'm not sure," Willow said, "so far as I know, goat-men have worse vision than a human, I don't think they could have seen us through the dust, before we saw them. And by the time we'd seen them, the Carvers were panicking, and neither of us were attacking them. We would've just looked like a couple of young women at the side of the road. Okay, young women with a bunch of demonic corpses at our feet, but from what I've read about goat-men they're not big thinkers. They're basically in it for the violence, and I think they would have gone for the battle. Maybe a couple would take a swing at us, but not all of them."

"I see what you mean," Tara agreed reluctantly, "and they certainly wouldn't have all followed us when we ran."

"Well, again, maybe a couple would," Willow allowed, "they're kind of bloody-minded, but yeah, not all of them. And between you and me, I'm the only one who's pissed off a major demon."

"That settles the why," Tara concurred grimly, "she's holding a grudge?"

"Undoubtedly," Willow nodded, "demons aren't exactly the forgiving type. And for them, being summoned is like all their dreams coming true. If they dream, I'm not sure on that. A demon like Shadai would get maybe one chance in a thousand years, if that, to find a mage who's powerful enough to summon her, and insane enough to want to. So, put yourself in her spiky cloven hooves: you've been imprisoned in hell since the Sin Wars, when you finally get a chance to return to the mortal realm, full of humans to be unpleasant to, and with very few mages strong enough to threaten you. And the moment you get there, this little girl of a sorceress pops a banishing spell on you which, dumb idea though it was," she admitted with a rueful grin, "keeps you busy just long enough for a bunch of really powerful sorceresses to show up and blast you back to hell. Plus you're a demon, and therefore full of every negative impulse and personality trait in existence, with none of the positives. How do you feel?"

"She's holding a grudge," Tara said.

"That's one way of putting it," Willow agreed. "And I'm starting to think, maybe instead of just moping around hell, she's sort of fixated on getting back at me. Maybe the others, too - Ember, Cyan, Symphony, Prospera, they were all there, they were the ones who destroyed Shadai's form, weakened her enough that my banishing spell worked. We have to warn them, I have to send a message back to the Order as soon as we get out of this."

"We will," Tara said reassuringly. "I'm sure they're okay, the way you describe them they're all powerful sorceresses."

"They are," Willow nodded, "some of the best."

"Well, if the best Shadai can do to us is chase us with goat-men, they're probably not going to get into any danger they can't get out of. We'll send a letter as soon as we reach Kotram, give it to a rider going back to Kingsport, or to Duncraig, whichever is quicker."

"Right," Willow agreed, "okay. Okay, that'll work. You're right, they'll be okay, a-and if anything happens they'll probably be able to figure it out themselves anyway..."

"Okay," Tara said, giving Willow's hand a squeeze. "What about the goat-men?"

"I don't know," Willow admitted, "somehow she's influencing them, it's the only explanation that makes sense... but she can't be, even a demon as powerful as she is can't project her will out of hell without someone actively helping on this end, doing a ritual to contact her."

"Goat-men can't do that?" Tara asked. Willow shook her head.

"Too dumb. They can barely tell humans from other demons - you saw what they did to those Carvers. They probably didn't even realise they were on the same side. Well, as much as demons ever cooperate."

"Are there demons that can do those kind of spells?"

"Some," Willow said thoughtfully. "I've read accounts in the Order libraries from sorceresses who've seen liches and ghoul lords practice demonic magic to communicate with their masters in hell. And, yeah, some of them were supposed to have goat-men as their slaves, sort of their personal fighters, 'cause ghoul lords are physically pretty fragile..."

"That must be it," Tara concluded, "if they were trying to get to you, then there must be one of these ghoul lords, or some other kind of demon like them, controlling them."

"I can't think of any other explanation," Willow said. "Of course, that doesn't mean there isn't one, just that I can't think of it. But yeah, that's probably it."

"It doesn't change our plan, though?" Tara asked. "We get to Kotram, then rejoin the caravan as soon as a rider shows up."

"Yeah," Willow said hesitantly, "but... it means that-"

"What?" Tara asked, as Willow shook her head and took a breath to try to steady herself. Willow stopped abruptly and looked around, as if she couldn't meet Tara's gaze.

"It means I'm putting you in danger," she said angrily. "You weren't at the hospice, but now there's demons chasing after you, a-and mages trying to kill you, and, and gods know what else! Just because you're with me. I mean..." she stopped, gulped down a breath of air, and lifted her hand to lightly touch the bandage on Tara's arm.

"This is my fault," she said quietly. Tara immediately gathered Willow in her arms, and held her as her tears started to flow.

"Shh," she soothed Willow, as her body shook with sobs, "it's not your fault, Willow, it's not. These are evil creatures, Willow, and you're, you're not one of them, you're good, you're the most wonderful thing in the world, and you can't blame yourself for what they do."

"But they hurt you," Willow said in a tiny, pleading voice, "because of me..."

"They tried to hurt you," Tara said, "I will never let that happen, Willow, not if there's anything I can do to stop it. I'm okay, and you're not hurt, and we'll get through this together, okay?" Willow clung to her, her sobs becoming quieter, but not entirely gone. Tara took her head in her hands, lifting her so she could see her face, and wipe the tears from Willow's cheeks with her thumbs.

"I can't leave you," she said, "I can't, and I won't. I will stay by your side Willow, always, there's simply no other choice for me to make, and no other choice I would make even if I could. Okay?" Willow nodded, tears still shining in her eyes. Tara leaned forward and kissed her, very gently.

"Okay?" she asked again, softly.

"Okay," Willow said. They let go of each other, keeping their hands held, and continued on their way along the outskirts of the wood, towards the rise ahead.

"I know you feel this is something that's your problem, not mine," Tara said gently, "but it's not. If these creatures, and Shadai, threaten you, then they're threatening me too. You're mine, Willow, just like I'm yours. That's... you're the most perfect, beautiful part of my life, and I won't let anything take you away from me. What would you do, if demons were hunting me?" Willow nodded her understanding.

"Freeze them so hard they'll take centuries to melt in the hellfire," she said firmly.

"That's my sorceress," Tara grinned.

"Thank you," Willow said sincerely, "thank you for... gods, for being you, for being amazing."

"All yours," Tara said, "and more. You're welcome. Come on," she added, quickening her pace, "are you okay for a bit more speed?"

"Ready when you are," Willow grinned.

"If you're right about the demons, they'll definitely be looking for us. Do goat-men sleep?"

"Um, I think so. Yes, definitely, I read once about them sleeping underground whenever they can. I'm not sure for how long, though."

"Well, we've probably still got a decent lead on them," Tara went on, "and like I said yesterday, they'll have to go carefully or risk going past us without noticing, so that gives us the edge. With luck, we'll reach Kotram tomorrow, before they get anywhere near us again."

"Lead the way," Willow nodded, and the pair set off at a brisk walk.

The walk up the rise was tiring, if not particularly difficult to persevere with, and more than once Willow envied Tara, who didn't seem to be feeling the exertion at all. She spent some time in admiration of Tara's legs, noting her strong, elegant muscles and the light sheen of sweat that built as they neared the top, but eventually her curiosity got the better of her.

"Do you do a lot of walking normally?" she wondered out loud.

"At times," Tara said lightly, "in training, of course, but sometimes I just go walking in the forest. Amazons have to be able to keep up on long marches, of course, we don't have lots of horses so if for some reason, for example, we had to send a group of prides from Tran Athulua to the coast, to repel invaders or board a fleet for one of the other islands, it'd be on foot. One of the final training stages includes a march from the city all the way to the eastern shore, along the old forest tracks. Each girl starts one day ahead of the next, and we have twenty-five days to make the journey, surviving just on what we can carry, and what the forest provides."

"How far is that?"

"Here to Kingsport, roughly," Tara guessed.

"Wow," Willow murmured, the path up the rise suddenly put in perspective for her. "And you did that on your own?"

"Yep," Tara said, "twenty-three days, plus an hour or so on the next day. I could've jogged the last part in the evening of the last day, but there wasn't any need to hurry."

"So this is just a stroll for you in comparison," Willow grinned.

"Physically? It's not that hard," Tara allowed, "but it's not the same. There I was at home, I knew the forest, there were no dangers I didn't know about, and in the unlikely event of something happening, there were instructors tracking us all the way. Here... the land is unfamiliar, I'm still getting used to the feel of it, and getting an idea for how to live off it, if need be."

"How's that?" Willow asked.

"Just observing," Tara explained, "seeing where the edible plants are, how frequently they grow along our path, how many we can expect up ahead if we need them. What kinds of animals are around, what sort of camp site we need to find to be secure... whether we'll have good weather or bad, how much warning there'll be if a storm comes." She offered Willow a smile, and squeezed her hand warmly. "At least I still have my home with me."

"Aw, and now I just have to kiss you," Willow said, stopping briefly to press a kiss against Tara's lips. They continued up the rise arm-in-arm, smiling.

"And what do your Amazon senses tell you about the land now?" Willow asked.

"There's more useful plants than I thought at first," Tara mused, "probably as the ground gets less rocky towards the river we'll find more. Could be a reprieve for the rabbits, even if we do have to supplement our rations."

"Well that's good," Willow agreed.

"I'm starting to get a feel for the woods, as well," Tara went on, "the trees, the plants beneath them, the animals sheltering there, it's different to those on the islands, but in a way it's similar as well. Like sisters, each their own, but like each other."

"No kidding," Willow said, fascinated with how Tara saw an environment that, up until now, she herself had considered scenery between cities.

"It's something I've thought about before," Tara explained, "it was actually when I was doing my training march that I got the idea. Something... well, odd, happened, and it got me thinking."

"What was that?"

"Well," Tara recounted, "it was on the eighteenth day, I was in the deepest part of the forest, the eastern basin between the city plateau and the hills by the coast. It's probably the oldest part of the forest on Philios, and the only area apart from some wild lands in the north that's actually dangerous - not for a trained warrior," she hastened to reassure Willow, "but for someone who couldn't track and defend themselves, there are some animals that defend their territory aggressively, and it could be easy to stray near their nests or dens and make them think they were threatened. That didn't happen, though, I saw signs of a couple of nests but stayed clear of them.

"Anyway, I was walking along, just sort of letting my senses guide me - I knew I was making good time, and didn't have to hurry - and I suddenly felt like I was being watched. And when an Amazon feels like that, it means she is being watched, after enough training you can sort of feel a... a parallel, I suppose, in the tiny reactions of whatever's watching you. In tiny little ways - breathing, small motions, tension - when you watch someone, you react to them. Well, I felt something nearby reacting to me, to my motions. But it didn't feel threatening, just... curious? It's a sense I can't really explain, maybe it's just a development of tracking skills, but I could feel a faint echo, or something like that. It wasn't afraid of me, or hostile in any way, it was just watching me to see what I was. And after a while, it was sort of... satisfied, I guess, and it blended in with the forest until it wasn't there any more."

"What was it?" Willow asked. "Did you ever find out?"

"Not for sure," Tara replied, "I never felt it again, and I never saw anything. I think, though, maybe it was a bramble hulk."

"Really?" Willow was surprised. "I thought you said they were only on Lycander."

"They are," Tara said with a shrug, "so far as anyone knows. At least, there's a part of Lycander, the deep forest there, that we leave pretty much alone, apart from veteran warriors who're welcome there, and conduct all the trade between us and them. But from the way that hulks are described, what I sensed felt like one of them. It was like the forest, but slightly more... focused, more alert. Like the difference between a normal person and a warrior, which I guess they are. Guardians of the forest, that's what they're supposed to be."

"So there might be one on Philios as well?" Willow wondered.

"Actually," Tara said, "a while later I found something that made me think back on that, and that maybe explains it. There's some legends - really old ones - that say when a bramble hulk is in danger, it can become part of the forest, just merge completely with the big, old trees. Its bark becomes the tree's bark, its blood becomes their sap, and its spirit... I guess its spirit is always part of the forest anyway. And they can re-emerge in different places, because the forest is all one thing."

"Like, it could go into one tree and come out of another?"

"That's what the legends say," Tara said, "and in a way it makes sense. Like I said, a forest is one thing, more than just a collection of individual trees. The whole forest, all the trees and plants and even the animals to an extent, all grow and feed and wither and die together, not individually. If one tree is hurt, it affects the whole forest, and if part of the forest is strong, it can spread and make the whole forest strong. So there's all these links between the individual living things, as if in spirit they're all one living thing. I suppose hulks can move through the whole forest because of that. And I was wondering, what if it's not just true of one forest?"

"But Lycander's an island," Willow pointed out, "there's, what, how many miles of ocean between it and Philios?"

"But the living forest isn't completely isolated," Tara observed, "the streams that flow through it flow into the ocean, and the plants on the shores, mangroves and so on, drink those waters, and there are tides that move between all three islands. And the smaller plants, flowers and those sorts of things, some of them spread their seeds on the wind, and they could be carried from one island to another. Not the big trees, of course, it's pretty difficult to fly an acorn across fifty miles of ocean... unless it falls in the water, and floats... maybe even that's possible, once in a while, perhaps. And of course it's all very slow, and mostly they're isolated from each other, but..."

"I get it," Willow completed her thought, "forests are slow things naturally, like... if you measured a person by heartbeats, the equivalent for forests would be years, the seasons coming and going."

"Exactly," Tara went on, "and in something that slow, and... and massive, all those little points of contact between one forest and another could build a sort of bond between them. And maybe the hulks can move through those as well."

"So the bramble hulks think you're satisfactory?" Willow concluded. "Well, I can agree with that sentiment... even if I'd use stronger terms." Tara smiled.

"Thanks," she murmured, "and yeah, when I wondered if that's what it was, it was kind of... pleasing. I like the forest, I like the living world, so it's nice to know that, I guess, it likes me as well." She started to say something else, but stumbled.

"Hey, whoa," Willow exclaimed, clutching Tara's arm to steady her, "are you okay? What's wrong?"

"I don't know," Tara said, frowning, "I just felt kind of faint for a moment... like I'd just stood up too fast, you know?" She shook her head. "It's passing now, it was just..." Her frown deepened, and as one she and Willow looked at the bandage on her arm.

"Does it hurt?" Willow asked, as Tara started unwrapping it.

"No," Tara said, stopping for a moment to prod the bandage, "actually it's a bit numb... I changed it last night, I didn't feel anything wrong, but it was dark..." She finished removing the bandage, and Willow let out a little gasp. The cuts in her arm seemed to be clean, with no sign of infection in the wounds, but the skin around them was tinged with grey.

"That's not good," Tara said distantly. Willow tentatively touched a fingertip to the discoloured skin, looking for any sign from Tara that it hurt.

"Feels cold," she said with a frown. She guided Tara to a rock to sit on, and unfastened the pouch on her hip.

"What're you doing?"

"I remember Ember saying something about cold skin once," she explained, producing the journal, "she was talking about cold magic mainly, about making your skin cold - you know, like I did with my tongue that time - but she said something about it being like you'd had a run-in with a zombie. At the time I didn't think to ask..." She lapsed into silence for a moment, turning the pages and scanning through them with impressive speed, her lips silently framing unfamiliar words as she did so.

"Here," she said at last, "here it is, 'undead have been known to cause a sickness, the grave's touch, especially those who died recently' - well, that fits, that poor man hadn't been dead sixty seconds. Let me see, open wounds, skeletons, herbs, ah! Oh no... 'if untreated, the grave's touch will proceed through the body over the course of approximately two weeks, aided by cold and hindered by warmth, until it reaches the brain, where," her voice dropped to a choked whisper, "it will end in death." She held her breath, reading furiously, her other hand tight around Tara's.

"Come on, come on, please please please," she muttered to herself, "yes! Yes, here, treatable by healing potions of Kurast manufacture," she looked up at Tara, with desperate excitement in her eyes, "I've got those! I've got two, this says you only need one!" She fumbled at the tiny leather cylinders on her belt, opening one and producing a slim vial filled with ruby red liquid, which she handed to Tara.

"I just drink it?" Tara asked. Willow nodded.

"It only takes a few seconds to work," she said quickly, "they're designed to be used in battle if need be, so they can't afford to take too long to work, only," a frown crossed her face, and she hugged Tara around the waist, "only, when it works, it's going to hurt."

"How much?" Tara asked with a deep, steadying breath. Willow looked almost as distressed as she had been a moment ago.

"A lot," she said, "it's... the way it works is partly by nullifying toxins and poisons, but also by magically accelerating the body's own healing. So it can repair cuts and so on, even broken bones if they're set first-" She halted herself before she could start to babble aimlessly. "All the healing that would normally take, oh, weeks or so, happens in a few seconds, but all the soreness, a-and the little twinges of pain and aches and stuff you'd get while you were healing, all that is compressed as well. The alchemists are always talking about figuring out how to do one without the other, but no-one's got it yet..." she trailed off miserably.

"Oh well," Tara said, with a resigned shrug, "a-at least it kind of fits in with the whole balance concept." She gave Willow a weak smile, which Willow returned. "Do one thing for me?" she asked, in a quieter, more serious voice.

"Anything," Willow said.

"Hold me."

"Oh gods, always," Willow said at once. Tara nodded, kissed Willow tenderly on the forehead, then pulled out the tiny stopper in the vial.

"Wait," Willow said, fumbling with her belt. She undid it and slid off the empty potion cylinder.

"Um, maybe," she said, offering it to Tara, "if it hurts too much... maybe bite down on this?" She cringed as she said it.

"Thank you," Tara said gently. She held the cylinder in one hand, the vial in the other. Carefully she leant into Willow's embrace, her arms around Willow's back. In a swift motion she tipped the contents of the vial into her mouth and swallowed, then steeled herself against the expected pain, ready to bite down on the leather if need be, and hoping she could weather the worst of it without crying out or clutching too hard, or anything that would upset Willow more.

The liquid tasted faintly of apples, and though it wasn't cold at all, it sent a chill through Tara as she swallowed, like ice water. She closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing, slow in, slow out... and then, a twinge of pain shot through her arm, and another, and suddenly it was burning hot as if she'd plunged it into the molten steel of a forge. There was no dizziness or nausea, which she was just aware enough to be thankful for, but the pain itself was the most intense she had ever felt. For a moment it felt as if the heat had got into her blood, that white-hot metal was flowing through her veins, through her whole body - she bit down hard, then opened her mouth to scream, the cylinder falling to the ground, but she stopped herself by force of will, allowing nothing but a tiny whimper to escape.

Then it was over, and she was panting, sweating, clinging to Willow like the last survivor of a shipwreck, tossed on the ocean and clutching at driftwood for her life's sake. The sudden cessation of the pain left her confused, and it took a moment for her to realise Willow was whispering fiercely into her ear.

"-gonna be alright baby, I promise, you're gonna be fine, I'm so sorry, gods I'm sorry, I'll protect you, I'll make it okay, I'm so sorry..."

"Willow," Tara said, surprising herself with the sound of her own voice - she had expected a weak whisper, but her voice was strong and level. Willow paused, and Tara searched for something to say to reassure her, to stop her blaming herself. And then she realised:

"You saved me," she said, kissing Willow's neck, hugging her warmly.

"I wha?" Willow asked as Tara pulled back just enough to look at her.

"You did," Tara said, "I'd never have known what to do on my own, and I wouldn't have had any potions. You saved my life."

"I..." Willow hesitated, pausing as if to test the unfamiliar idea. "Well, okay," she said dismissively after a moment, "but it's not like it was me, technically... I mean, I just had the potion on me, and I had to look it up to know what was wrong... anyone could've done that."

"But you did," Tara smiled. She leaned forward again and kissed Willow firmly, and the vigour with which she opened Willow's lips and explored inside her mouth seemed to be heartening for both of them.

"Um..." Willow said with a bemused smile once Tara released her lips, "so... you're feeling okay?" Tara stretched, keeping an arm around Willow, now for comfort rather than support.

"Actually, I feel great," she said. "I feel... refreshed, relaxed... like I just woke up."

"Oh," Willow nodded, "oh, well, good. Good. You're okay," she added to herself, and lunged forward to return Tara's kiss, this time seeking, and gaining, admittance to Tara's mouth and taking her time enjoying it.

"You're okay," she repeated, leaning back. "It's all good. Yay!" Tara smiled, and quickly touched the tip of her nose to Willow's.

"And you're adorable," she grinned.

"I'm relieved," Willow explained.

"And adorable," Tara pointed out. She stretched her arm and looked at it. "Hey," she said, surprised, "all better." Willow nodded and ran her fingers down Tara's arm, which was perfectly healed, without a trace of the cuts that had been there moments earlier, or the discoloured skin around them.

"That's the idea," she said. Tara stood up and offered her hand to Willow.

"Shall we go?" Willow took her hand, stood up, and looped her arm around Tara's.

"Certainly," she replied with a smile. "Oh, wait, let me get that..." She quickly gathered up the fallen potion pouch and replaced it on her belt, then went to put the journal back, but reconsidered and kept it in her hand.

"Going to do some reading?" Tara asked as they set off again.

"Can't hurt," Willow said, using her thumb to flip the pages of the small book over as she held it one-handed. "Actually I want to see if there's anything about Carvers controlling human undead, I got the impression from what I remember that they only resurrect their own... maybe we can get a better idea of whatever's controlling the goat-men." Tara smiled, spreading her senses around her once again, but otherwise just enjoying being with Willow, and listening to her absent-minded narration as she read.

"Lemme see... undead... come on, it's got to be around here somewhere... one of these days I'm going to go through this book and write up an index or something. Could be a ghoul lord... I mean, undead are their thing, hence the name, lords of ghouls... that's a kind of zombie, they're a bit more energetic than the everyday sort, takes more concentrated necromantic magic to raise them, I think... never really paid that much attention to necromancy, I mean, undead aren't like demons, it's usually easier to just ice them than try to counter the magic animating them... icky stuff anyway..." Tara stole occasional glances at Willow, biting her lip at the cuteness of the intense expression of concentration on her face, and together they walked on.

It was almost midday when they reached the crest of the rise and looked out across the Kingsway valley. In the far distance, visible only as a glitter of reflected sunlight, the river peeked through the small hills surrounding it. Nearer, beyond another large ridge perhaps two dozen miles away, a grey-brown blob surrounded by patches of uniform colour suggested a town and its fields.

"That must be it," Willow observed.

"It's in the right place," Tara said, "and as large as the map showed it. Stone buildings on the central hill, with smaller wooden buildings lower down. A keep and surrounding villages, I guess."

"You can see that?" Willow asked. "I can only just make out that it's there at all."

"Amazon eyesight," Tara replied with a grin.

"Ah, so those gorgeous blue eyes of yours aren't just decorative," Willow said, nodding to herself. Tara's hand, around her waist, snuck lower to swat her on the bottom.

"Come on, my cheeky sorceress," she said, taking Willow's hand again, "we've still got a lot of ground to cover. I think maybe... wait a moment."

"What?" Willow asked, as Tara changed direction slightly, kneeling down to examine the ground after a few paces.

"Something's walked here," she said as Willow knelt beside her, "lots of people." Willow looked either way along the top of the rise.

"Doesn't look like a trail," she observed.

"No, not people," Tara frowned, "clawed feet, there's indentations in the dirt... if that rain we had passed over here at all, maybe... ten days, two weeks ago."


"They're the right size," Tara sighed, "it could've been a band of them. Moving at night, they wouldn't have worried about being seen, so they kept to the ridge..." She peered off into the distance, northward where the rise curled around to the west. "I wonder if it was the band that attacked the caravan?"

"They can't have known we were coming," Willow said, "ten days ago we hadn't even set out from the castle."

"I suppose something comes along the road sooner or later," Tara mused. "I don't see any other tracks, nothing more recent certainly... well, no matter then." She stood up and inspected the terrain ahead of them, absently fishing a pair of wrapped rations from the satchel slung over her shoulder.

"We should try to reach the foot of that next rise by evening," she said, handing one to Willow, "it looks like there might be a stream, maybe even a building. Something wooden, I don't think it's trees..." Willow peered where Tara was looking, which was obscured by distance and haze.

"I'll have to take your word for it," she said with a grin, "that's pretty impressive."

"It's just a vague shape," Tara shrugged, "maybe a hunting cabin or something like that. But if it looks safe, I wouldn't say no to having a roof over our heads for our last night out in the wilderness. You?"

"Me too," Willow nodded. "Do you think we'll make it?" Tara again inspected the ground between them and their impromptu destination.

"It's not too far, but the ground is a bit broken, some more hills down there... I think we'll reach it before the sun sets."

"Well," Willow said, holding out her free hand to Tara, "let's cover some ground then."

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Thirty-Two (Rated NC-17)

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