Return to Hellebore Chapter Thirty-One


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.

The ground was broken and rocky on the downward slopes of the rise, but smoother and greener the further Willow and Tara walked. With an hour and a half, Tara guessed, of sunlight before evening, they reached a small wood growing in the bottom of the valley, beneath the final ridge, and skirting around to the north of it they found the cabin Tara had seen from afar.

"Do you think there's anyone here?" Willow wondered as they approached.

"No," Tara said, "I don't think so." She had her spear held protectively in front of her, but Willow felt a sense of calm about her that suggested her instincts weren't warning her of any close danger. Nevertheless, she slung her bow over her shoulder, keeping her right hand free to cast, and a firm grip on her staff with the other.

The cabin was a simple, rugged building, barely large enough to be considered a house more than a shed. On the far side, peeking over the top of the roof, was a stone chimney, while the walls were rough-cut wood. The two windows they could see were closed with shutters, but the door was half-open, its bottom corner resting against a stone in the patch of hard-packed dirt that served as a path in front of it. Rough tracks led off north, north-east and south, the last heading into the trees.

"Deserted," Tara murmured. Willow nodded absently - her nerves were still a little shaky from the day's events, but she wasn't getting any sense of foreboding from the crude little cabin. It didn't look as if it harboured dangerous people or skulking demons, merely that it was unused and neglected. Reaching the door, Tara tapped it with her spear-point, listening for any movement from within. Hearing none, she peered into the gloom inside, with Willow close behind her.

The cabin proved to be empty, and a cursory search suggested it had been for some time. There were two rooms, the first, which the front door opened into, little more than a wide hallway with a sturdy, simple table at one end, and hooks on the side wall for coats or weapons. There was a patch of dirt just inside the door, on the floor and on the doorframe, where boots had been scraped free of mud, but it had long since dried out. A few leaves had blown in through the open door, but on the table and all over the far end of the hall, sheltered from the wind, was a thick layer of dust.

The other room, through a side door at the end of the hall, was larger and suggested that it had once been more comfortably furnished. The stone fireplace opened there, with a few half-burned logs on an iron grate, and the floor in front of it was covered by an old rug, worn through to the floorboards in places, its colours long since faded to dusty browns and greys. There was a single chair, a shelf on the wall beside it, and a bed with a bundle of worn, dusty blankets draped carelessly over one end of it. Of who had once lived here, or what they had done, there was little trace.

"Maybe it's a hunter's cabin," Tara suggested, breaking the silence as they stood in the room, "someone from Kotram might come out here during the summer, and leave it empty the rest of the year. It's definitely more than a season since anyone was in here." She pushed open the shutters, which moved with a protesting creak, and checked the views from the three windows.

"Do you think it might be safe?" Willow asked. Tara stared thoughtfully out of the window she stood in front of, which faced back to the west, into the sun creeping towards the rise they had stood on hours earlier. For a moment she was lost in thought, then she glanced at Willow and gave her a smile.

"I think so," she said. "I haven't seen any sign of demons since the trail up on the hill, and I haven't sensed anything dangerous. I suppose, if we're careful, we'd be as safe here as out in the open. At least this way we're out of the wind, and we'll be dry if it rains." She caught Willow's hand and gave it a squeeze.

"Yay," Willow said with satisfaction. "No fire, though? Thought not," she added when Tara gave a rueful half-grin.

"From the outside, there'd be nothing to indicate this was anything but an abandoned cabin," she said, turning her attention back to their surroundings, "and it's been left alone so far. We'll stay here. But there's plenty of sunlight left, I'd like to find that stream I thought I saw. Coming?"

"You even have to ask?" said Willow wryly, giving Tara a quick hug and kissing her on the cheek.

After a couple of minutes following the trail into the woods Tara heard the sound of running water, a few paces before Willow noticed it as well. Ahead the trail passed by a large boulder, sitting incongruously in the middle of the trees, and when they rounded it they saw the sparkle of water in the sunlight ahead. The trail veered close to the stream, then back into the woods, while Willow and Tara brushed through the handful of bushes in their way and stood on the grassy bank, grinning at each other. The scene was unexpectedly lovely: the stream, winding through the woods, trickled into a shallow depression, forming a tiny lake before bubbling on its way. At the south end another boulder lay half-submerged, a great, flat rock tilted over so that it slanted gently beneath the water. The far bank was covered in wild flowers, blooming in red and white, and the sunlight came through the foliage in erratic rays, shifting lazily as the taller branches swayed in the gentle breeze above.

"You know, I think whoever built that cabin was on to a good thing," Willow observed with a smile.

"Are you thinking of staying a few extra days in the wilderness?" Tara teased.

"Oh, that's tough," Willow frowned, "fresh sheets on the bed, hot food, no prowling monsters... civilisation has its good points. But then again, this..." She gestured vaguely around.

"You remember the house I told you about?" Tara said, hugging Willow from behind, "the one we'll make our home? The lake comes right up to the back of the house... a little ridge goes out from the shore on the left side, and curves around, almost enclosing it, like our own little private lake, with trees growing along the sides... we could plant flowers by the banks, just like this." Willow sighed happily, then turned and kissed Tara, very slowly and gently.

"I love you," she murmured when she finally leant back from Tara's lips.

"I know," Tara replied, "I love you." She returned Willow's kiss, just as gentle and peaceful, her tongue leisurely tracing Willow's lips, in lieu of any more frenzied activity. Willow moaned quietly into her mouth, and put on an adorable pout when Tara finally stepped back.

"We can't just kiss all day," she pointed out.

"Can't we?" Willow asked, raising her eyebrows.

"Okay, correction," Tara conceded with a grin, "we can't kiss all day today. Anyway, if we did, there wouldn't be any time for a bath." Willow's eyes lit up, and she glanced at the tiny lake.

"Really?" she asked. "You think it's safe? I mean... I don't want to end up fighting demons with no clothes on. Me with the no clothes, not the demons, they typically don't bother anyway." Tara laughed to herself and kissed the tip of Willow's nose.

"I don't feel any danger around," she said, "I think we can afford to be out of armour for a little while. Quickly though, we should get back to the cabin before the sun goes down."

"Gotcha," Willow said, "what do you think, an hour?" Tara glanced at the angle of the sunlight coming through the trees.

"Pretty close," she said, "no less than that. You get started, I'll just check the view from that rock." Willow nodded and sat down on the grass, pulling her boots off. She took a speculative whiff of one of them, and then gingerly put both boots down at arm's length.

"Okay," she said to herself, undoing her skirt, "cross-country walking equals intense need for regular bathing." She unslung the waterskin from her shoulder and put it and her belt aside, with Tara's pack.

"Hey Tara... Tara?" She looked down towards the big rock, but Tara was nowhere in sight. "Tara!" She breathed a sigh of relief as Tara straightened up from behind the rock.

"Willow?" she asked.

"Sorry," Willow said sheepishly, as Tara walked back to her, "guess I'm a bit jumpy." Tara sat down next to her and put a hand on her shoulder.

"It's alright," she said gently, "I can understand why. I was just looking at that rock, I only crouched down for a second."

"I know, I just glanced over at the wrong time," Willow said, embarrassed at herself, "I just... for a moment everything was starting to feel kind of normal again, and then you weren't there, I guess... my overreaction, sorry."

"No, don't be sorry," Tara said soothingly, helping Willow take off her armour, "it's nothing to be embarrassed about. We had a scare today, and I think maybe it was worse for you than it was for me."

"How?" Willow asked, feeling strangely vulnerable. "You were the one who... who was..."

"I had you," Tara said, "but you were the one who had to be strong."

"Strong how?" Willow asked, almost pleading. "I was... what could I have done? If I hadn't had the potion, if I hadn't had the journal, or if it had needed some other cure I didn't have with me, I... there would've been nothing I could do, I-" She choked back a sob. "I feel like I came so close to losing you, a-and I... I was so scared," she finally admitted. In an instant Tara was holding her, and she was crying on Tara's shoulder.

"Shh, it's alright," Tara murmured, "it's alright Willow, I'm here, I'm with you, just like I always will be."

"I-I'm sorry," Willow sobbed, "I don't know why I... why this is-"

"It's alright," Tara repeated, "it's alright... you had a scare, that's all. You just need to heal." She kissed Willow on the top of her head, then leant down to whisper in her ear: "and I know exactly the potion to cure you." Willow paused at the seductive tone in Tara's voice, confused.

"Tara?" she asked.

"Make love to me," Tara whispered, "run your hands all over me, feel how alive I am... how alive you make me..."

"I-is it safe enough here?" Willow asked hesitantly, her body responding to Tara even as her mind was still caught between conflicting impulses.

"Yes," Tara purred, "I promise, nothing will hurt us. You want to, I know..."

"Oh gods I want to," Willow gasped, "I just... don't want to be careless, not after almost... losing-"

"I promise," Tara said again, "I would never risk myself, or you. You know that."

"I know," Willow echoed. Her tentative grin turned sultry, then almost predatory as she hugged Tara against her, and then quickly went to work on the buckles holding her armour on. Between her hands and Tara's the leathers were lying on the ground in no time, and Tara was left in her boots and underwear. With the sudden inflaming of passions so unexpected after their enforced abstention of the past two days, Willow was left breathless for a moment, gazing down the length of Tara's body, across her full breasts, the curves of her hips, her long, elegant legs, down to the points of her boots and back up again to meet her gaze. Tara leaned back on the grass and kicked off her boots, dipping her eyes momentarily. Willow followed her gaze down, then reached for the leather underwear around Tara's hips and dragged them down her legs, making herself wait until she had tossed them aside to join the rest of their clothes before looking back, granting herself the sight of her lover's naked form.

"Oh my gods," she breathed, all thoughts of making love to Tara momentarily displaced by the joy of simply seeing her, devouring the sight of her. Tara smiled, stretched, then slowly got to her feet and reached a hand down for Willow. Willow took it, was drawn to her feet in a daze, and followed Tara hand-in-hand over to the big boulder slanting out of the water. She blinked as she felt her feet cool, and realised belatedly that they had walked a little way into the small lake. Tara turned to her, leaned forward, lifted Willow's hand and pressed it to her chest, then to her lips for a gentle kiss. Then, all languid elegance, she lay down on the smooth surface of the boulder, glowing in the afternoon sun. Willow took a step forward and knelt next to her, breathing in little gasps. She gulped and licked her lips as Tara looked up at her, and nodded.

Without a word Willow leaned over Tara, almost kissing her. She could feel Tara's breath against her lips, tempting her, but still she hovered just beyond contact, staring into Tara's eyes, where she saw desire, anticipation, need, but above all peace. Leaning on one arm, she gingerly touched her free hand to Tara's stomach, eliciting a soft whimper from Tara, who writhed gently under her touch. Willow leant a fraction further, brushing her lips lightly on Tara's, not enough for a kiss, merely hints of contact, tantalising tastes of the softness of her lips. Her hand crept steadily upwards, her fingertips teasing the underside of Tara's breasts, straying into the cleavage between the two soft, flawless mounds resting like pillows against her chest. Tara gasped, tilted her head backward, reaching for Willow's lips, but still Willow held herself back, touching her, teasing her, her tongue darting out to taste Tara's lips, but never quite sealing the kiss. When Willow finally stretched her hand across Tara's right breast, squeezing gently, Tara let out a long, deep sigh, and her attempts to reach Willow dwindled away, replaced by a blissful calm where she stared into Willow's eyes and simply accepted whatever touch or caress she offered.

Willow slid her left leg over Tara's hips and straddled her, pressing her silk-covered sex against Tara's stomach while her other hand joined the first, completing her embrace of Tara's breasts. Tara smiled wider, if that was possible, and arched her back, pressing her waist up between Willow's wide-spread thighs, stretching her arms out above her head and using her body to please Willow. Willow bit her lip, resting more of her weight on Tara and more aggressively massaging her breasts, feeling her fingertips press into the yielding flesh, and Tara's nipples hard in the centres of her palms. Small, musical sounds emanated from Tara's through, escaping her lips as she gasped and clenched her teeth, writhing beneath Willow as if her climax was already near. For a long time Willow lost herself in the experience of pleasing Tara, feeling the delight of holding her breasts, their softness and weight, pressing against them and cupping them, and in Tara's answering gyrations, the firm pressure against her sex, knowing the pleasure she was giving her.

Finally she could wait no longer. In a smooth motion she slid to one side, her sex still pressed against Tara's hip rather than lifting away from her, and her hands moved. One cradled Tara's head, her fingers slipping easily through the silky blonde hair, the other moved down her stomach and through the soft curls of hair at the apex of her thighs. Tara nodded, wordlessly pleading. Willow's fingers found her wetness, already soaking her sex and glistening on her inner thighs, and for a moment she smiled down at Tara, noting every tiny moan and whimper as her fingers played in her sex, stroking close to her clit, brushing against her lips and then at last seeking the crevice between them. She readied the tip of a finger at the entrance to Tara's passage, then almost kissed her, nipping her bottom lip and holding it for a moment. As she leant back, a second finger joined the first, poised to explore Tara's depths.

"Please," Tara whispered, and no voice bearing edicts from rulers, angels or gods could ever have achieved such total command of Willow's heart as that simple, heartfelt plea. Feeling as if somehow it was Tara making love to her, Willow slid her fingers into the tight, welcoming confines of her sex, and as Tara's lips parted again in a gasp Willow kissed her.

In the first gasp of pleasure at Willow entering her Tara had let her mouth open wide, and she made no effort to pull away when Willow's kiss claimed her, their lips sealed together, Willow's tongue venturing deep into the warmth of Tara's mouth. Tara sighed, moaned, whimpered, arched her back, bucked her hips, all without any thought of restraint, the sounds from her throat muffled by Willow lips, the motions of her body serving only to enfold Willow's fingers deeper into her sex. Willow's steadily thrusting fingertips searched out Tara's sweet spot and caressed it, first with soft, tender care, and slowly, building as Tara neared climax, more firmly stroking over the especially sensitive place within her. When Tara was an inch from climax Willow pressed the heel of her hand firmly against her clit, and buried her fingers in her, probing and stimulating the wet interior of her sex, again and again crossing over her sweet spot, pressing just a little firmer each time.

Tara brought her hands up to cup Willow's face as their kiss reached its climax, and her body heaved and let loose its bounty of arousal. As she came her lips moved against Willow's, closing on her tongue of lips and again opening wide, inviting her in. With every renewal of the kiss Willow flexed her fingers, sending another bout of sweet tremors through Tara. Tara let all the strength out of her body, completely relaxed in Willow's hold, and when at last the kiss ended she smiled up at her.

Willow returned her smile, feeling no urgent need to have her own body's wants attended to, but simply a great sense of satisfaction and peace. She realised that all afternoon she had felt uneasy, a remnant of the quick panic that had gripped her as she had frantically searched through the pages of Ember's journal for a treatment for Tara's wound. Even when she had found it, and Tara was well again, a part of her hadn't let go of the icy fear she had felt then. But now, it was gone.

"How...?" she began to ask, before being silenced by Tara's finger on her lips.

"Better?" she asked. Willow nodded, smiling and wondering. "Something I learned, in weapons training in fact," Tara went on, "some things you can understand perfectly with your mind, but your body has to learn as well. Like wielding a spear - you can see it done a hundred times, memorise every motion, but until you hold it in your hands, feel your own body going through those motions, you never quite grasp it."

"Uh-huh," said Willow, confused.

"When you were worried about me today," Tara said, running her finger up to rest against Willow's temple, "when it was over, your mind understood I was safe, that you weren't going to lose me. But your body," her hand travelled down Willow's neck to brush against her cleavage, "was still afraid."

"And now I'm not," Willow finished, marvelling at how Tara could know what she needed, when she herself hadn't really known.

"Now you're not," Tara echoed. "Now you've felt me in your arms again, felt me move under your hands... felt the pleasure you've given me... now you know in here," she tapped Willow's temple again, "and here," her fingers returned to her chest, "that you're not going to lose me."

"So I just needed a, ah, physical reminder?" Willow asked with a grin.

"Something like that," Tara nodded, sitting up slowly, "I'm sure it would've sunk in in a day or two that I'm not going anywhere, but," she leaned close, as if imparting a secret, "I kind of liked this way better."

"That's what I love about you," Willow said, "you make everything a joy."

"Just that?" Tara teased.

"That, and many, many other things," Willow purred, lifting her soaked fingers to her mouth, wetting her lips and then sucking them clean.

"Careful," Tara warned, "you might tempt me too much, and then we'll be too exhausted in the morning to walk anywhere."

"Oh, don't worry," Willow grinned, "I'll wait until we're safe and snug in an inn or something, then I'll lick you 'til you can't move a muscle."

"Hmm, that's a claim I'll have to investigate further when the time comes," Tara murmured, idly dragging Willow's silken underwear over her hips and down her legs.

"It's not a claim, it's a promise," Willow corrected, lifting her feet free of her last article of clothing.

"Come here you," Tara said fondly, reaching one arm beneath Willow's knees and the other around her back, picking her up with just a slight exhalation of effort.

"Ooh!" Willow exclaimed. "Hey, wow you're strong."

"You're not that heavy," Tara pointed out, walking slowly out into the water. Willow looped her arms casually around Tara's neck.

"So now that my lovely Amazon warrior has come and swept me off my feet, now what?"

"Bath time," Tara said, and abruptly let herself fall backwards into the water.

"Wha- AH!" Willow squealed as the cold water splashed around her. Her legs flailed uselessly as Tara rose up, grinning a mischievous grin through strands of wet hair plastered over her face.

"That was thoroughly evil!" Willow protested, not quite able to keep herself from grinning in return.

"I'd say fortuitous," Tara pointed out, "who knows how long we'd have been out here if we hadn't cooled off?"

"Oh yeah?" Willow shot back, sweeping an arm across the water's surface, splashing Tara. Tara let go of her and dived backwards, splashing out of Willow's reach before regaining her footing and sending an answering wave towards Willow, completing the task of thoroughly soaking her. The two splashed and laughed for a few moments, finally coming to rest not far from the shore, hugging each other and giggling uncontrollably in waist-deep water.

"Truce?" Willow gasped.

"So long as we're agreed it's a draw," Tara replied, catching her breath and smiling, "an Amazon never accepts defeat."

"Heh," Willow chuckled, "sorceresses aren't exactly known for it either."

"Truce then," Tara agreed.

"Okay," Willow nodded, "but I'm not promising not to get you back at an undetermined future date." Tara grinned, kissed Willow on the forehead, and took her hand. Together they made their way back to the shore where their belongings were piled.

"Think you can catch me off guard, do you?" Tara teased.

"Oh, I know it," Willow replied. Tara handed her one of the blankets from her pack.

"It'll do as a towel," she said, "we won't need it while we're in shelter." Willow dried herself off and dressed, lastly wandering over to the boulder where her underwear was lying. She picked the silk up and examined it critically.

"Hmm?" Tara wondered, seeing her thoughtful expression.

"Got an idea," Willow said. Kneeling by the water she dipped the underwear in and scrubbed it for a moment, cleaning the fabric as best she could under the circumstances.

"What if the hosts of hell descend on us before they dry?" Tara asked lightly. "You're going to fight evil panty-less?"

"There's something I've occasionally wanted to try," Willow said, laying her underwear back on the rock, "it's tricky, but I might as well give it a shot..." She concentrated, and a misty haze formed around the soaked article of clothing. Tara finished pulling her boots on and came over to watch, as Willow closed her eyes, her brow furrowing as the mist swirled around, little streams of vapour moving in tight spirals within it. Finally, with a relieved exhale, Willow opened her eyes and dispersed the chilly vapour.

"What did you do?" Tara asked. Willow picked up the briefs and handed them to Tara, who jumped when she touched them.

"Yipes! They're cold... and dry, how did you do that?"

"Motion by temperature variance," Willow said with a grin, "same way I make ice bolts fly. Only, that's pretty simplistic, whereas drawing the moisture out of a pair of panties without accidentally shredding said panties... tricky. Interesting, though, much more delicate and subtle to the exercises I'm used to."

"You're a woman of many talents," Tara observed, handing Willow her underwear back.

"Want me to do yours?" Willow asked. Tara smiled her thanks, and wriggled out of her leather briefs.

"Never say no to clean underwear," Tara mused, scrubbing the leather in the stream's water. She watched, fascinated, as Willow bit her lip in concentration and drew the moisture out, leaving the leather as dry as if it had spent a day resting in the sun.

"There you go," Willow said, handing them back to Tara, "now we're sparkling and pristine again." They picked up the rest of their things and started on their way back to the cabin.

"You know, you never cease to amaze me," Tara said fondly as they walked.

"Thanks," Willow smiled, "yeah, who'd have thought Zann Esu training would make me the perfect travelling laundry service?"

"Oh, I never assume you can't do anything," Tara replied. "Just as well, though. I was thinking we should clean at least our underwear tomorrow, but I didn't really want to travel cross-country with nothing under my skirt while they were drying out."

"Yeah, imagine if you had to high-kick a Carver," Willow pointed out. Tara shuddered theatrically.

"No thank you," she said, "I'm a one-woman Amazon. You're the only one who gets to see the, um, intimate side of me."

"Good," Willow said, squeezing Tara's hand affectionately.

They reached the cabin just as the sun was starting to set, and in the little remaining light Tara did her best to clean up the old blankets they had found there, taking them outside and whacking them against a nearby tree to try to beat the dust out of them, with marginal success.

"They're still kind of dirty," she said apologetically when she returned, to find Willow laying out the sleeping bag on the empty bed frame.

"Doesn't matter," Willow said, "you're right, I don't think we'll need more than one blanket tonight. That padding on the back of your pack is kind of soft, it'll make an okay pillow. Do you think they'd be okay if we washed them? We could tomorrow, before we set out, and then wring them dry, I don't know if I can dry out something that big all at once, but we could get them dry enough to carry them, and they'd dry out properly during the day, so if we need them..."

"We'll be in Kotram by tomorrow afternoon," Tara reminded her. Willow grinned a sheepish grin.

"Oh, yeah," she said, "I forgot. Well, not really, I guess I was just kind of getting into the whole survivalist thing, us against the wilderness, with just our wits and whatever we can scrounge up to help us. Plus I'm a natural scavenger." Tara retrieved a serve of rations from her pack, which broken in half and combined with a share of berries she had found on the way back from the stream was enough to keep their stomachs from complaining.

"You know, back in Kehjistan I used to accumulate all sorts of junk," Willow said idly as they ate. "I always figured, 'hey, it might be useful somehow', and kept everything I ever bought or found. My room back in the Order city's full of little trinkets and things that looked useful at some point, and bits and pieces from everywhere I'd been. One time we, Ember and me, we took a boat across to Lut Gholein, and I came back with a statue."

"A statue?" Tara echoed.

"Yep. Life-sized bust of a cat priestess - like, cat-person, not cat - with this big ornate headdress, all painted with shiny black fur and green eyes and everything. They had some trouble, back in the Reckoning, in Lut Gholein with cat people, the chaos energy from the Prime Evils turned them savage, and some caravans crossing the Aranoch desert got attacked by bands of them. There used to be lots of them living in the city as well, but when that happened either they were affected by the chaos, or they got chased out anyway, and their houses got torn down. That's what Ember told me, anyway, I think she was around there during part of it. I found this old statue in the back of this dusty little antique shop, mostly just selling junk no-one in their right mind would want, and when I mentioned I was thinking of buying it, Ember just shrugged and arranged to have it loaded on our boat for when we went back to Kurast."

"That's sad," Tara said. "About the cats, I mean, not the statue-buying, that's just adorably quirky. Are there any left?"

"In Lut Gholein, no," Willow said, "maybe somewhere in the desert, no-one knows, but there's rumours that after the Reckoning ended, the tribes out there that had survived went back to normal, but stayed out there because they were ashamed of what they'd done. There's lots in Kehjistan, all over the place - it's where they come from originally - but they keep their distance from people most of the time. Ember said they all vanished about a year before the Reckoning, as if they felt it was coming and wanted to avoid it, so they weren't driven savage like the ones in Aranoch. But they still prefer to keep to themselves, apparently, and from what Ember's told me they never came back to the big cities like Kurast in the kind of numbers they'd had once. I've actually never seen a cat person up close - there's one, a male called Night Claw, who comes to the Order every few months to exchange information, but I only ever saw him from a distance. I wish I'd met that one in Kingsport."

"Marela," Tara remembered, "well, we can see if she's still around if we ever go back there. I think she'll like you."

"Really?" Willow smiled.

"Well, how could anyone not?" Tara replied.

"Aw," Willow said, leaning in to kiss her. They finished their meal quickly, and Tara closed the shutters after one last look out at the dark landscape. She returned to the bed, where Willow had wriggled into the bedroll, and gave her a goodnight kiss on the forehead as she settled down and prodded the pack beneath her head, making it comfortable.

"Sweet dreams," she murmured.

"The sweetest," Willow smiled, "love you."

"I love you too."

The moon, already some distance on its path across the night sky, shed just enough light through the cracks in the shutters for Tara to watch Willow as she settled down and soon fell asleep. She leaned back on her chair beside the bed, listening to the night-time sounds from outside. She found that, without a fire going in the hearth to warm the cabin, she actually preferred to be outside, where the sounds were a little less muffled, the breeze blew gently on her face, and all in all the world seemed a little more alive. Then again, she mused, hearing the treetops sway in the wind, it was a little more than a gentle breeze out there, and shelter from the wind and the chance of rain was not something to be scoffed at either. She wondered idly if a balcony could be added to the house by the lake back home, so they could sleep out there on calm summer nights. That led her to imagining the house populated with Willow's collection of 'trinkets and bits and pieces', which she imagined as a assortment of magical, mysterious relics of far-off lands and traditions lost in the mists of time.

Unwilling to leave Willow's side to check the sky, Tara found herself marking time by the shaft of moonlight coming through a particularly wide crack in the shutters above the bed, and hazarded a guess at where it would fall on midnight. When it reached there - the right-side edge of the fireplace - Tara waited a while longer, then reluctantly woke Willow with a kiss and swapped places with her. She was surprised and pleased when, after lying down, she felt Willow's lips against hers in a long, passionate kiss that brought to mind their brief, carefree moment by the little lake in the forest. Willow pressed another kiss, light and tender, against Tara's forehead, then gently stroked her hair as she fell asleep.

Willow unknowingly found herself constructing a similar system as Tara's to tell the time, though in her case she compared the set-up of shutter, wall and moonlight to various intricate sundials the Order kept in its libraries, which Willow had studied during the occasional periods she had gone through in which mechanisms of all sorts were the focus of her fascination. Once satisfied that she had thought through all the measurements accurately, she passed the time by going over in her mind how to best explain her drying-by-cold-variation spell, as if she were writing one of the papers that sorceresses wrote and kept in the Order libraries whenever they hit upon a particularly novel use of their elemental powers. Willow smiled to herself, imagining sorceresses the world over studying Willow's Laundry Dryer and practising on bits of damp cloth.

She was drawn slowly out of her reverie by a vague sense of unease, and she frowned, listening intently for a sound from outside that might have disturbed her. She couldn't hear anything, no matter how hard she pushed herself to detect every tiny sound, filtering out the creaking of branches and the whistling of the wind, yet the uneasiness remained. She was on the verge of discounting it and relaxing when, at last, her ears pricked up to something from outside. Somewhere nearby, on one of the trails to the north, she had heard a footstep.

Holding her breath she turned to Tara, only to see the tiniest reflections of the moonlight on the opposite wall in her eyes. Straining her eyes, Willow saw Tara blinking in the darkness - she must have just awoken, she guessed, her honed senses alerting her even in sleep that all was not well. Willow placed a hand gently on her shoulder, and felt Tara start a little, then relax under her touch. Slowly, not making a sound, Tara slid out of the sleeping bag and crouched beside Willow's chair. Willow carefully lifted herself off the chair, thankful she had managed it without the wood creaking, and waited beside Tara, listening.

For several moments Willow could hear nothing more - had the sound been something else that she had mistaken? Or had it just come during a lull in the wind, and was now being obscured. Her hand closed around her staff, and she glanced at Tara. Tara held up a hand, just visible in the gloom, touched a finger just below her left eye, then to her left ear, then pointed across the room, towards the fireplace, northwards. Willow nodded, understanding well enough - Tara had sensed something as well.

The sound came back, just as it had been before, the dull thud of a foot on the hard-packed earth on the trail. A pause, then another thud, as if something were walking very slowly, halting each time it put one foot in front of the other. Willow's mind worked incessantly, sifting through ideas and possibilities - what could she tell from the sound? A claw? A boot? A hoof? What would each sound like, how could she tell them apart. With a frown she realised she didn't have the experience to do so - that was the kind of thing Tara had proven herself far more adept at. Yet there was no way Tara could risk making a sound. Willow glanced at her again, and drew strength from the way Tara crouched silently, alert as a hawk, but even with all her senses focused on the distant sound, aware enough of Willow to offer her a quick glance and, Willow felt, though she could not see it in the dark, a smile. She could feel the tension in Tara's body, but it wasn't the tension of a small animal fearful of a predator - Tara was tense like an athlete watching the starter's flag, waiting for it to fall, ready to explode into motion without a moment's hesitation.

The sound came closer: thud, pause, thud, pause. Willow began to hear something in the pauses, a kind of scratching, scraping sound. Thud, scrape. Something being dragged, step by step? Willow had a sudden image of a man with a twisted, lame leg, lurching forward and dragging the limb behind him - her imagination supplied rotting flesh, horns, glowing eyes, claws and all manner of demonic attributes until she clamped down on it. 'Who needs monsters when you can freak yourself out just as well?' she thought with a self-deprecating smile.

The sound was definitely coming closer - along the north path, she guessed, not that it really made a difference, but she found more use in setting her mind to drawing conclusions than imagining nightmare monsters. Thud, scrape, thud, scrape. Willow glanced at Tara nervously, and was absurdly thankful when Tara's hand found hers on the darkened floor and held on. The sound approached the cabin, coming around it to the west. The thuds grew softer, and Willow realised that it had left the path and was walking through the unkempt long grass. There was a rustle of a small plant being brushed past, then silence. Willow gulped and willed herself to remain totally silent, to be so still that even Tara's Amazon senses wouldn't detect even the faintest trace of an air current from her. She suddenly felt as though her breathing was far too loud, her chest was rising and falling too much, that the motion would give them away.

Only her determination to remain still and silent kept her from jumping when a shadow fell across one of the shafts of moonlight shining on the opposite wall. Tara's hand in hers squeezed warmly, lovingly, reassuring her and calming her at the same time. Whatever it was, it was right outside the cabin, standing by the south wall, blocking the light. One by one the shafts blacked out, then the first one reappeared as the thing moved on. Willow held her breath - it must be almost at the path leading to the door, any moment now-

Thud. It was a boot, she was sure from the sound of it against the hardened ground. Not a demon? A person? Willow wondered fitfully what to do - remain silent? Call out? Even if it wasn't a demon, that didn't mean it would be a friend. What would anyone be doing trudging slowly through the wilderness at this hour? Thud, then the dragging sound again. One more thud, one more scrape. Willow sensed rather than heard Tara raise her spear, covering the door to the hallway.

There was a faint sound from the other door, a tiny rap, as if someone were knocking but trying not to be heard. Willow wished now they had closed the front door - they had left it open, to give the impression that the cabin was just as abandoned as when they had found it, but now Willow wondered whether the thing outside was stealthily slipping through the half-open door, creeping along the hall - no, of course not, they would hear its feet on the wooden floorboards far louder than on the dirt trails outside. Again a tiny knock on the wood of the door, then a fitful scratching, scrabbling sound, as if fingers were running over the rough wood, the nails catching on knots and splinters.

Then thud, scrape... the moonlight blacked out from right to left, then appeared again. Something - an arm? - knocked against the corner of the cabin as the thing rounded it, then after a moment more of silence, again the slow, dreary footsteps sounded on the northern trail. Willow listened, trying to defy the trembling that threatened to overcome her, as the sound faded away into the distance, and finally there was nothing but the whistle of the wind, and the creaking of branches from the south.

Tara stood slowly, and Willow stood with her, still doing her best not to show her fright. She felt Tara's hand squeeze hers once, then Tara sat back down on the bed, gently tugging on Willow's arm, asking her to join her. Willow sat down at once, letting out a long, shuddering breath, and when she felt Tara against her, their arms touching as they sat side-by-side, she was surprised to feel Tara trembling just as she was. Willow reached for her, her own fear forgotten, just for a moment, and Tara reached for Willow. They stayed that way, embracing, waiting for the dawn, the rest of the night.

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Thirty-Three

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