Author: Chris Cook
Willow gave a quiet sigh as, at last, she saw sunlight filtering through the cracks in the cabin's shutters. After the night's events she hadn't felt safe so long as the dark endured - particularly when the moon set, leaving no light to see by or mark the time by its progress across the wall. Tara hadn't let her go, though Willow was relieved that she had managed a couple of hours of fitful sleep, still leaning against her shoulder, her arm curled around Willow's waist. Willow gently kissed her on the top of her head, and nudged her.
"Mmmwha?" she murmured. Willow felt her stirring, then she started, her arm tightened, and when she spoke her voice was anxious. "Willow?"
"It's alright," Willow whispered soothingly, "it's fine... just the dawn." Tara sighed and relaxed, reaching her other arm around Willow for a proper hug.
"Good," she said firmly, a shudder running through her.
"What do you say when we get a room at the inn tonight, we leave a candle burning?" Willow suggested. Tara squeezed her gently, then disentangled herself.
"No objections here," she said, standing up and stretching.
"We should get going," Willow suggested automatically. "If you think it's best, I mean... I was just thinking... well, honestly, I'd kind of like to get out of here as soon as possible." Tara turned and brushed a hand gently over her cheek.
"Me too," she admitted. "And anyway, the sooner we leave, the sooner we'll get to Kotram. I'll carry our bags, you take the blankets." She glanced at the shuttered window. "I don't think there's anything around here that wants them."
Willow felt a lot more like herself once she was outside in the sunlight, trying to shake a bit more dust out of the old blankets while Tara searched her pack for something to eat to start the day. She handed Willow a packet of dried food and crouched down, inspecting the ground just outside the door.
"Anything?" Willow asked.
"I'm not sure," Tara shrugged. "The ground's so packed down and dry, there's only tiny traces. Not just last night, though... I think perhaps whatever it was has been here before." She stood up with a frown. "I should've checked more thoroughly yesterday," she muttered. Willow stood beside her and touched her gently on the arm.
"Be honest," she said, "if you hadn't known for sure something had been here, would you have been able to tell just from the ground?" Tara sighed, then the tension left her shoulders.
"No," she shook her head, "no, I doubt it. Maybe with twenty years' more training."
"Then it's not your fault we didn't know," Willow said firmly, "and seeing as no harm came from it, it's not worth worrying about. Come here." Tara gratefully turned into Willow's hug, burying her face in her hair.
"I was scared," Tara admitted in a whisper, "I know it... whatever it was, it probably wasn't anything worse than what we've already faced, but... I wish we'd just come across it out in the open, in broad daylight. Seen what it was, fought it if we had to... I wish it hadn't been like that, so... slow. And hidden." Willow held her, and ran her fingers through Tara's hair soothingly.
"Me too," she said. "I wanted to just crawl into a corner and hide, but you know why I didn't?" Tara shook her head. "You," Willow said simply. "You were so alert and, and ready, I... no matter how frightening it gets, part of me always feels safe with you."
"Thank you," Tara smiled, pulling back just enough to see Willow, while remaining in her arms.
"Hey, I'm thanking you," Willow protested. She was relieved to see a genuinely amused smile on Tara's lips at that, and returned the grin when Tara leaned forward and the tips of their noses touched.
"I feel safe with you too," Tara said.
"That's all I need to know," Willow replied. "Now, shall we get out of here?"
"Let's," Tara agreed. Munching their bland rations they set off, Tara carrying her satchel and pack, Willow carrying the spare blankets. She wondered if they would return to the lake to wash them - today the shadows beneath the trees didn't look so inviting - but Tara evidently felt likewise, as they skirted around the north edge of the wood, finding the stream that fed the lake a mile or so from the cabin.
"Um, I was wondering," Willow began as they soaked and wrung out the blankets, cleaning them thoroughly, "do you have any idea what that thing might have been? Not to dwell on a scary subject, you know, but the curious part of me is kind of... well, curious."
"It's alright," Tara said, "I-I'm feeling better now."
"Not that curiosity is all-important," Willow admitted, "I mean, if you don't know, my curiosity can go jump in the lake, 'cause I'm not going back just to find out..." Tara chuckled.
"I think maybe an undead," she said as they started walking again. "I could feel something very faint, almost like an echo of a living thing. It definitely wasn't a demon, I'd have known in an instant if it were. It felt like something that was part of the natural world, but not quite right." She frowned. "Undead aren't demons, are they? I mean, it's not a demon sort of inhabiting the body, or anything like that?"
"No, that's possessed," Willow said, quite casual now that her mind was working in its accustomed analytical fashion. "Undead are caused by demons, but they're not demons themselves. Usually caused by demons, that is. Humans can do it too, but that's necromancy. Normally it's the presence of demonic energy, for example," she cast an arm around, "if the area happens to contain a bunch of wretched little demon hybrids prowling around making trouble. The life force in them isn't natural - part of it is, the part that used to be a normal creature, but part of it is demonic, which is probably what you sense when you sense them."
"They're not supposed to be part of this world," Tara surmised.
"Got it in one," Willow agreed. "Demons being here upsets the... well, the world, I guess, the balance of nature, whatever you want to call it. Like the world is a big clockwork engine, with all the parts working together, with each other - demons are like pebbles dropped into it. They get in the gears and jam things up."
"That causes undead?" Tara asked.
"Essentially," Willow said. "They upset all the balances in nature. And one of those balances is between life and death. Sometimes, when the balance is upset, the energy can run the wrong way - a dead body can actually gain energy, come back to life, sort of. Only there's no soul to guide it, to make it properly living, so they're just," she shrugged, "hungry. Most primitive instincts, I guess, survive and feed. That's why they attack people. But they're really not aware like people, the accounts I've read say they're prone to random behaviour, suddenly turning aggressive or passive for no reason, losing control of their limbs, going berserk. Sometimes the energy in them just fails for no reason, and they fall over dead. Deader. Or re-dead. Something like that," she shrugged. "True demons can use necromantic magic deliberately, and control the undead they create, but they make lousy soldiers anyway. That's why they created hybrid demons, according to the accounts of the Sin Wars."
Tara took Willow's hand to help her up over a jagged boulder blocking their path, and kept hold as they proceeded up the slope.
"Are there really human necromancers?" she asked. "You've mentioned them once or twice, I think, but I wasn't sure if you were joking or not."
"Did I?" Willow asked.
"Oh, days ago," Tara explained.
"Oh, right. They exist, somewhere. You're sure you want to know? I don't want to give you nightmares or anything..." Tara grinned and brought Willow's hand up to her lips, kissing her palm.
"You can tell me," she said, "I'm a big girl."
"Yeah, I noticed," Willow replied, licking her lips and deliberately looking elsewhere than Tara's face. Tara gave a lopsided smile and swatted Willow on the bottom. "Oh!" she exclaimed.
"Tease an Amazon, will you?" Tara retorted.
"Is that supposed to discourage me, though?" Willow enquired, prompting Tara to roll her eyes. "Okay, okay... let's see, necromancers. Well, for a start, I really doubt that a necromancer is what's causing all this, the one thing that's consistent about all the stories and myths about necromancers is that they hate demons, and demons hate them."
"Why's that?" Tara wondered.
"Probably the same reason demons hate each other," Willow supposed, "they're rivals. Nothing about necromancers is really solid, all there is is legends and stories that might be true, or maybe they were true once and then got embellished over the years. The Order has some books about them, solid facts supposedly, but they're kept in a special library that only the Council is allowed into. Once or twice Ember let me look at a book from the Council library - she's not a Councillor herself, but the Council basically let her do whatever she wants, seeing as she's one of the best sorceresses there is. Those were just really advanced texts on cold magic, though, I never saw any of the necromantic volumes. But there's plenty of stories flying around, I guess there's grains of truth in most of them."
"There's a couple of Amazon myths about men who could command the dead," Tara said, "but they're really old, they're pretty much just figures of darkness, like goblins and bogeymen."
"What's a bogeyman?" Willow asked.
"You know, a monster in a children's story," Tara said airily. "Hide under the bed, behind the wardrobe door, that sort of thing."
"Don't they scare the kids?"
"A bit," Tara said, "but in the stories they're always defeated in the end. They're usually big and scary, but afraid of people who stand up to them."
"Learning to be brave at a young age, huh?" Willow grinned.
"I guess," Tara said, with a slight blush. "Mind you, some of the stories we told each other when we were kids had me hiding under the blankets now and then."
"My mother used to say an evil cow would come get me if I didn't eat my vegetables," Willow said reflectively. She noticed Tara's incredulous look. "What?"
"An evil cow," Tara echoed.
"Yeah," Willow said defensively, "like, a cow standing on its hind legs, with a big axe, and it'd creep around the farms at night and hide outside the bedroom window, and the last thing I'd hear would be this 'moo' and then it'd be too late..." she trailed off. "Well, hey, I was five years old."
"How did it hold the axe?" Tara asked innocently.
"Well it," Willow began, then frowned in thought, "I guess... hooves, huh? Actually, I don't know, I never really thought about it. Um, I guess it sort of, balanced it on its arms, I mean its fore-legs, like," she held her wrists together, miming holding something between them, "and then sort of swung it around... only it'd probably end up hitting itself..." Tara laughed and pulled Willow close for a kiss.
"You have too much fun listening to me ramble," Willow griped.
"But you're so adorable when you do it," Tara pointed out. Willow looked at her sidelong for a moment, then grinned.
"Well, okay," she said, "but only because I love you."
"I love you too," Tara said fondly, "my cutest sorceress in the whole world." Willow smiled widely. "Moo," Tara added, in a quiet voice just as Willow turned away.
"You just said 'moo'," Willow said levelly.
"Why would I moo that?" Tara asked with a straight face.
"Argh!" Willow groaned in mock-exasperation. "I'm never going to live this down, am I?" She watched Tara laugh, waited until she glanced away, then gave her a light whack on her leather-clad backside.
"Yipes!" she squeaked.
"Anyway, necromancers," Willow went on, as if nothing had happened, "there used to be mmph!" She was cut off as Tara leaned over and kissed her firmly on the lips.
"I love being with you," Tara said softly, no longer teasing at all, but with gentle humour shining in her eyes.
"Yeah I got that impression," Willow breathed, her lips still tingling.
"You don't mind being teased, do you?" Tara asked sincerely.
"Not a bit," Willow said, equally sincere. "Moo," she added with a grin.
"Moo," Tara replied. "What were you saying?"
"What was I saying? Oh, yeah... okay, according to the legends - the ones that might be a bit reliable on some level, anyway - there used to be a whole cult of mages who practiced necromantic magic. They lived somewhere out in Kehjistan, really deep in the jungles where it's dangerous to go, far away from Kurast or the other cities. Of course the other mage clans wouldn't have anything to do with them, I mean, no surprise there... but there was kind of a hierarchy, the most powerful necromancers ruling the others, I guess because they could control the biggest armies of undead."
"Did anyone ever find them?"
"Only in stories," Willow said with a vague wave of her hand, "you know the kind of thing, the noble prince has his princess stolen away by necromancers who want to sacrifice her for... I don't know, something or other... and he has to track them down and rescue her. All pretty fanciful, just stuff made up by people who didn't know the first thing about necromancy... well, that's not a surprise, I guess. But for real, no-one knows. According to the histories the Zakarum church declared a holy war on them a couple of centuries ago and send an army of paladins out to track them down and destroy them."
"What happened?" Tara asked. Willow shrugged.
"They didn't find anything," she said. "Not really good story material... actually I read one book that said the same army went out again, determined not to fail a second time, and they were never heard from again. But that's definitely made up, because several of the more reliable histories actually name some of the paladins who were in the army, and they were involved in other campaigns at the same time as they were supposed to be out in the jungle being overwhelmed by armies of darkness."
"But the story of the army that trudged through the jungle for a few weeks and then came home without finding anything doesn't really work for a bard," Tara grinned.
"Not unless they're very good at singing it," Willow agreed.
"So are they all gone?" Tara asked.
"Officially, the Order maintains that there are still necromancers somewhere. Probably there's just a few, maybe a dozen or so. Even an army couldn't find a dozen people hiding in the Kehjistan jungle, it's just too big. There was a story that said the necromancers had a huge city, deep in the jungle, called Rathma, this great big empire of the undead that they ruled. Even in the jungle the paladins would have found that, if it really existed."
"More bogeymen," Tara mused.
"Probably," Willow agreed, "I mean, what good is a big scary sorcerer if he doesn't have a creepy lair with giant spiders and spooky architecture and stuff? I tell ya, I wouldn't like to be a bard plying my trade if the best I had to work with was 'Prince Charming ventured forth into the spooky camp site in a jungle clearing to rescue has maiden.' But yeah, what it boils down to is, necromantic magic is real, necromancers are real, but if you're seeing undead it's a whole lot more likely that it's demons causing it."
With the sun still rising in the east Willow and Tara reached the crest of the rise, and looked out over the landscape beyond. Willow glanced back, over the valley behind them to the ridge they had stood on the day before.
"We're covering some serious ground," she said. Tara nodded.
"I don't mean to sound condescending," she began hesitantly, "but you're really keeping up well. I mean, I've had plenty of proof you're energetic," she added with a sly grin, "but this kind of thing isn't easy if you're not used to it."
"I've had a bit of training," Willow said as they started down towards the grassy plain, "mostly just general keep-fit stuff with the Order. Healthy body, healthy mind, and all that. Though just between you and me, I like our way of being energetic a lot more than fitness training."
"Me too," Tara smiled, "I'd recommend it to Solari, but I'm keeping you to myself."
"Darn right you are," Willow grinned. "I used to have to walk a fair bit anyway. Some of the trips Ember would take me on were to places that weren't really easily accessible. Take a boat as far up river as it went, then walk the rest of the way to some tribal village where they've never seen stone buildings or steel weapons. Spending half a day tramping through a steaming jungle makes temperate grasslands look pretty inviting by comparison."
"The jungles get hot in Kehjistan?" Tara asked.
"Oh, like you wouldn't believe," Willow said. "It's not so bad downriver near Kurast, or around the Order's city, but when you get into the deep jungle it's stinking hot, so humid you feel like you can't breathe..." she made a face. "There were times when I'd flare off magic just to cool myself down."
"How did Ember cope?"
"If you ever meet her, don't tell her I said this," Willow warned, "but I think she kind of likes being the go-anywhere do-anything sorceress who never gets bothered by anything. I asked her if the heat was getting to her once when we were up-river, and she said she'd been in hotter places. The Aranoch desert, I guess. I've never been into the desert itself, just to Lut Gholein which is on the coast, but it was hot enough there. After we'd been there I stopped complaining about going up-river."
"What did you go for?" Tara asked.
"Magic," Willow said, "always magic. Sometimes I think Ember personally knows every single mage in all of Sanctuary. Everywhere we went she'd bring me to see people, from all the mage clans, and all sorts of other mages. The Order doesn't strictly approve of training with outside mages, unless they've gone through some exhaustive approval process with the Council, but Ember just does what she likes and no-one ever objects."
"Not that different to what you're doing now. What you're *supposed* to be doing now," Tara corrected herself.
"Yeah," Willow agreed thoughtfully, "yeah, it is... I wonder if she meant it that way?"
"What?" Tara asked.
"I was just thinking," Willow said, "if I hadn't, you know, got into that mess in Entsteig, I wonder if Ember was going to take me on a trip like this anyway... then I'd have met you anyway," she added with a grin.
"That's a nice thought," Tara said.
"Yeah, it is," Willow agreed, "maybe there's something in this destiny stuff after all. Heh, I wonder how Ember got the Council to decide to order me to do something she was going to have me do anyway. That'd be just like her, always half a dozen steps ahead. Next time I see her I'm teaching her your Command game, I bet she'll pick it up right away."
"I'd like to meet her," Tara said softly. Willow looked sidelong at her, smiling.
"I'll make sure you do," she promised. She kept her gaze on Tara for a moment as they continued down the slope. "You're not tired, are you?" she asked. "You didn't get much sleep. Do you want to stop for a bit?"
"I suppose it wouldn't hurt," Tara admitted.
"You look like maybe you could use it," Willow added, as they continued a little way further down to a suitable scatter of rocks half-buried in the slope. Tara sat down, and held out an arm for Willow to sit with her, nestled up against her.
"Yeah, well," Tara said vaguely, "creepy stalking undead-things don't make for a restful sleep. Tonight will be better."
"Yup," Willow agreed, "nice hot bath, and then a loooong rest for both of us. I've missed sleeping with you cuddled up against me."
"I have too," Tara smiled.
"And then when we wake up," Willow went on, with a thoughtful grin, "we can take advantage of the other benefits of sharing a bed... and then have another nice long nap after we're all tired out... or maybe another bath together... back to bed..."
"Someone's imagination is running full speed," Tara said, nuzzling into the side of Willow's neck. "What if there's a rider from the caravan waiting for us, and we have to set off right away?"
"Oh now that just wouldn't be fair," Willow proclaimed. She paused, and peered out into the distance. "You don't see any riders, do you?"
"Too far," Tara said, "I can see the villages and the keep, nothing smaller. No towers though, it's not a castle..."
"I'll look it up," Willow said, reaching for the journal.
"Will it be in there?" Tara asked.
"One advantage to studying with a go-anywhere do-anything sorceress like Ember," Willow said, flipping pages idly, "she's gone everywhere and done everything." Tara stared out into the distance again, as Willow skimmed through the pages.
"I wonder if it's a church, or a temple of some sort," she said to herself. "At home some of our outlying towns are built around a temple, it's always the biggest, strongest building."
"I don't see anything," Willow said after a moment's searching, "maybe it just wasn't notable enough for Ember to write down. I'm sure she's travelled through Westmarch at some point. Or maybe she came a different way, along the river or something." Tara nodded, but something had caught her eye. Willow noticed her attention waver, and looked up.
"Something," Tara said, "I can't quite tell..." She gazed up into the cloudless sky. Willow followed her gaze, but couldn't see anything.
"Something up there?" she asked. "A bird?"
"Something small," Tara said, "not strong... are there demons that fly?"
"A few," Willow said, her hand closing around her staff, "small ones, like birds."
"It's coming closer," Tara said, "hold this..." Willow took her spear, and watched as Tara stood and drew her bow from her back. She gave a quick glance to the sky, where Tara was staring, but couldn't see anything.
"I can feel it more strongly," Tara said, nocking an arrow to her string, "it's not a natural animal..." She aimed, and Willow again stared into the sky. She imagined she could just see a tiny speck, moving in the blue, then Tara fired, and her arrow shot away, quickly becoming just a speck itself.
"Got it," Tara said.
"I'll take your word for it," Willow said, impressed. "You could see that? I just saw a dot, and I'm not even sure I saw that."
"I saw its wings," Tara said, "and I felt it. It was like a bird of prey, but... hateful. Birds don't hate, they just hunt because it's how they live."
"How could you sense that?" Willow asked, getting to her feet and handing Tara her spear back. Tara shrugged.
"Instinct," she said, "the way it moved. I'm not really sure." Willow leant against her back and hugged her.
"You're a woman of many talents," she said reassuringly.
"Thanks," Tara said quietly.
"I don't suppose you saw where it landed?" Willow asked.
"Down there a way," Tara said, pointing down the slope.
"We should probably see what it was," Willow said with a frown, "not that I think a skewered demon bird sounds inviting, but we might learn a thing or two if I can figure out what kind of creature it was."
"Well, I'm ready," Tara said, "let's go then." Willow nodded and they set off again, Tara slotting her bow back into place on her back, Willow returning the journal to its pouch. On glancing at Tara, she noticed her looking somewhat disturbed.
"What's up?" Tara blinked at Willow, then shook her head.
"Oh, just thinking," she said, "you know, I was sent here - on the diplomatic mission, I mean - because Solari didn't think I had the 'killer instinct' to be a soldier. I guess she was wrong." She sounded less than pleased, and Willow immediately put a hand on her shoulder, hoping to comfort her.
"You're bothered that you shot a demon?" she asked, hoping for a grin. Tara just shrugged.
"Not really," she said unconvincingly. She glanced at Willow and saw in her eyes that she hadn't reassured her. "It's just how it happened," she said, "I sensed it, and the moment it was close enough - boom," she mimed firing an arrow. Willow trailed her fingers down Tara's arm and took her hand.
"Why does that bother you?" she asked. "It's not as though it might have been a peaceful demon. There's no such thing. Trust me, I know."
"I know," Tara said, managing a small smile for Willow, "I know... I just never really imagined I could be that... efficient."
"It's not the first time," Willow pointed out gently, "the Carvers that attacked us..."
"That was different," Tara said with a shake of her head, "they were attacking us."
"This one would've," Willow said with certainty. "Believe me, you didn't kill a harmless animal, or something that might've just flown by and left us, or anyone else, alone. Look at me," she insisted, gently halting Tara and turning her so they stood face to face. "It was a demon. I've studied them, I've read the journals of hundreds of sorceresses who've fought them for centuries, and I've seen one of the biggest, nastiest ones right up close. They don't belong here. They don't create, they don't nurture, they don't respect anything that does. They're absolutely not worth feeling the least bit guilty over, especially not when you're out in the wilderness being chased by them, and especially not for the most compassionate, gentle, noble person I have ever known." Tara looked surprised at Willow's vehemence, then an odd, sad smile came over her face.
"Thank you," she said, with a sincere smile.
"You're welcome," Willow replied, brushing the corner of her lips with her thumb. "Better?"
"Better," Tara said gratefully. "I guess... I just needed to hear that. Reassure myself I'm not turning into something I'd rather not be."
"You're not," Willow said as they continued down the hill, "you're so not. You may be coming to terms with the dangers out here, and adapting to them, but you will never, ever become careless with life. I just can't believe you have it in you. And I certainly haven't seen any evidence of it. Trust me, if I did, I wouldn't hide it from you."
"I do trust you," Tara said warmly.
The creature had fallen in a disorderly heap, pierced through the body and quite dead. Willow knelt down to examine it, while Tara maintained a distance that kept her from smelling the black fluid leaking out of it.
"It's a blood hawk," Willow said, "a bit of a big one, according to the texts I've read. Wingspan's almost a metre." She poked it with the tip of her staff, and shrugged as the patch of wing she touched disintegrated into a small puddle of goo. "Yuck. Do you want the arrow back?"
"Um, i-if it's possible without either of us having to touch that thing," Tara said hesitantly.
"I think I can manage that," Willow said, flexing her hand. She directed a stream of condensation down onto the dead creature, freezing it solid. A tiny shard of ice leapt from her palm and struck the icy mass, shattering it into a small pile of cracked pieces, from which Willow withdrew the arrow. She inspected it, aimed a quick burst of cold over the shaft and head to clean off any remaining black blood, then handed it back to Tara, who took it gingerly.
"They're scavengers," Willow explained as they set off, now near the base of the hill and the beginning of the plain, "the small ones feed on dead animals, but once they get bigger they go after larger prey, and living creatures. They're pretty common, not much of a threat on their own. Farmers sometimes organise armed parties to find their nests, where there's usually a bunch of them hanging around. They're not difficult to kill, just pesky. Fast little things, and vicious."
"Have you ever seen one before?" Tara asked.
"Nah," Willow replied, "sketches of them, in the bestiaries the Order keeps in its libraries. One of them had really detailed drawings someone had done of a dead one being dissected, that wasn't exactly the most fun thing I've ever read. Put me off my lunch. They say their claws can be used as charms, but only if you can get them off while they're still alive. Not very powerful anyway."
"What do the nests look like?"
"You'll know if you see one," Willow promised, "big, slimy, pulsating masses of yuck."
"I think I just lost my appetite too," Tara grinned.
"Sorry," Willow said with an apologetic smile. "With luck we won't see one, they don't usually nest on plains anyway. They're supposed to prefer more secluded places, where they won't be easy to find. It's not difficult for half a dozen men to get a few swords and smash up a nest, so they don't build them where they're likely to be found. They're not intelligent at all, but they've got enough animal instinct for that."
"Well, I guess that's one less for some farmer to deal with," Tara said with a glance over her shoulder. In a few paces they reached level ground, and Tara took a deep breath.
"Last stretch," Willow commented.
"Uh-huh," Tara said, "only an hour's walk or so. Do you want to stop for an early lunch, or finish it off now?"
"Let's go for the town," Willow said with a grin, "I wouldn't mind lunch to include a table and hot food, how about you?"
"Lunch including me?" Tara smiled slyly. "I like the sound of that." Willow laughed.
"It doesn't take much to get you thinking vixen-y thoughts, does it?"
"Not when it's you I'm thinking about," Tara replied.
"Well then, let's go," Willow said, looping her arm through Tara's elbow, "the sooner we're there the sooner we can have lunch. And then dessert," she added with a sidelong grin.
The road to the west-most of the villages surrounding Kotram ran away to the south, so Willow and Tara had to skirt around the high wood and earth wall to reach the gate.
"Looks like they're used to keeping trouble at bay," Tara commented, glancing at the protective wall. Hard-packed earth rose up two metres, sharply slanted and reinforced with wooden spikes driven through it. From the top of that, a wall of three metre long trunks rose up, their tips sharpened to points. There were more than a couple of scratches and marks in the wood, but they were big, sturdy trunks, and nowhere in the wall was there any sign of serious damage.
"Suits me fine," Willow said, "I could do with a big wall between me and open ground for a while."
"Me too," Tara agreed, "sleeping under the stars is a lot nicer back home where you can do it without being interrupted by things that go bump in the night."
"Or be interrupted when we're going bump in the night," Willow added, prompting a laugh from Tara.
"Yes, or that- ...oh," Tara said, training off as she rounded the reinforced wooden pillar at the side of the gate and looked through, into the village. Willow noticed her expression, incomprehension mixed with shock, and quickly came to her side to see for herself.
"Oh hell," she said flatly. As far as they could see, across the village square, in the tavern, the store-houses, the barns and stables, and the houses and workshops, there was not a soul in sight. The village was completely empty.