Author: Chris Cook
The path wound through the trees, occasionally edging away from the stream to go around a clump of trunks, so that a wagon or cart could follow it, but never straying far. Tara strained her senses to their limit as the forest became more dense, trying to pinpoint movements or sounds. She was sure there was something in the forest with them, but she didn't think it, or they, were aware of her, Willow and Amalee. Willow was moving with admirable care, leaving little trace of her passage and making even less noise as she picked her way through the fallen leaves and occasional branches that littered the path. Tara wondered if she somehow did it unconsciously, or if she had been taught how to move stealthily - if so, certainly by Ember, and they both owed her their thanks. Amalee was doing as well as could be expected - Tara guessed her father had taught her how best to move, perhaps to avoid attracting the attentions of wild animals on their journeys. She was sure-footed, and barely made more noise than Willow, only occasionally brushing a leafy branch from a bush in passing, and even then never a brittle one that might snap or snag on her clothes.
"The clearing's up ahead," Tara overheard her whisper to Willow, and at the same moment a chill ran down her spine.
"Willow," she said softly. Willow gently drew Amalee to a halt, keeping hold of her hand, and looked back at Tara.
"Trouble?" she asked in a whisper.
"I can't be sure," Tara said with a frown, "but I've got a very bad feeling... there's something in this forest that shouldn't be here."
"Maybe, but it's more... it's as if the land has been twisted, the rhythms are wrong. There's small movements, like animals but more fearful, the birds are flying in strange patterns, the sounds are... everything's just wrong," she finished with a shrug, "I'm sorry, I can't be more specific, I've never felt anything quite like this before."
"It's okay," Willow said, "I recognise it. There's demons here, and they've affected the land, their energy seeps from them into the ground and affects everything."
"It's interfering with my senses," Tara said, "it's difficult for me to tell exactly what's around us. I'm sure there's something here, I can't tell what exactly..." She glanced down at Amalee, who was absorbing all this with stern calm.
"It's okay sweetie," she said soothingly, "we'll protect you, whatever it is." The girl nodded, accepting Tara's assurance without question, and despite her concern Tara was both touched by Amalee's faith in her and Willow, and impressed at her calm in a frightening situation.
"I'm almost certain it's dangerous," she went on to Willow, "more than just animals like that blood hawk thing. Carvers, perhaps, or maybe something else. Damn, it's all distorted," she exclaimed quietly, frowning at herself.
"It's okay," Willow repeated, "tainted land is difficult for anyone, even a trained mage with years of experience, a-and you're probably still sensing a lot more than I am."
"I'm not sure if it knows we're here," Tara admitted, allowing Willow's words to soothe her frustration somewhat.
"Well if it does, I'm sure we'll find out soon enough," Willow said with a wry grimace. "We'll get through it."
"Yeah," Tara agreed, gripping her spear. They set off again, at a slower pace, now always cautious of what might be around the next bend in the path, or lurking behind the trees and bushes.
"Keep hold of my hand, honey," Willow said to Amalee, "if anything happens I'm going to cast a spell around us, but you have to be holding my hand for it to work."
"Okay," the girl nodded seriously.
"I don't want it to startle you," Willow went on, "you'll feel cold, and you'll see a sort of whitish-blue mist around you, like it's clinging to your body, so don't be afraid, that's just my magic. It's called a chill armour, it's what sorceresses use to protect themselves." She glanced back at Tara, and added quietly: "I can cast it around you, too."
"Can you cover all of us with the same strength?" Tara asked gently.
"No," Willow admitted, "it'd be easier with just two."
"Take care of her," Tara said with a nod at Amalee, "I should be okay. If I need help-"
"You'll get it," Willow said at once.
"I know," Tara smiled, "I won't hesitate."
"If anything sudden happens," Willow said, "like a fire spell, or arrows, I can do a flash-freeze armour around all three of us. It'll only last a few seconds, but it'll shield us against pretty much anything short of a catapult shot." Tara nodded.
They walked further, with the sun setting behind them, casting a red glow through the thick branches of the trees and giving the forest an eerie twilight quality. Tara became very aware suddenly of the stillness around them, as it seemed that all the tiny creatures of the forest were burrowing down and staying hidden in the fading light. Willow drew her attention to the trunk of a nearby tree.
"Those scratches," she pointed out, "too high for a Carver." The trunk was scratched in a crude pattern, two vertical marks and a series of horizontal lines crossing them. Tara glanced around as they went on, and noticed others here and there, different variations on the same patterns, and always with the same symbol underneath, a triangle pointing downwards, the scratches forming it continuing on after meeting at the shape's points, giving it a savage, jagged look.
"Do you recognise that?" Tara asked. Willow had seen the common marking too, and shook her head.
"Too generic," she said, "it could be any of a hundred things, depending on what made it. I don't think it's human, though."
"These marks weren't made by a knife," Tara said quietly.
"Stay close, honey," Willow whispered to Amalee.
"I will," she promised, frightened but controlling it admirably. "The clearing's after this next boulder."
They rounded the boulder, and Tara gasped quietly at the sight that awaited them. From the edge of the stream to the north, the trees gave way to the clearing for about fifty feet before closing in again, and those nearest the open ground had been decorated by more scratches, some even with reddish mud smeared on for effect, or branches nailed in place to create rough symbols, the inverted triangle being common. At the bases of the trunks lay various animal carcasses, in varying states of decay, some rotten and blackened, others still fresh. There were even a few primitive weapons here and there, spears and long two-handed axes, their blades dented and stained with blood.
All of this was just background, however, for the great monolith that stood upright in the centre of the clearing. One side of it was smooth - Tara saw long gouges in the ground where it had been dragged from the stream - the rest of it was old, weather-worn and rugged, like a remnant of some old, broken mountain. For all of its fifteen-foot height it was decorated with savage icons painted in black mud or, Tara suspected, blood, and all over it was festooned with rotting ropes made inexpertly from vines and creepers, circling it like gaudy, horrible decorations, and from them hung dozens of skulls, human and animal, along with bones, broken tools and weapons, and pieces of armour.
"What the hell is that," she whispered half to herself, frozen in her tracks for a moment, Willow and Amalee likewise awed and horrified at the sight of the huge stone.
"Herd-stone," Willow said darkly, her voice trembling, "this is a goat-man camp, that's like the symbol of their clan, their strength... we have to get out of here!" Tara agreed, but the three of them had barely taken their first strides towards the stream before there arose a crashing from all around them, as heavy, strong bodies smashed their way through the forest towards them. Tara spun around, placing herself between Willow and the nearest sound in the sudden chaos, glimpsing out of the corner of her eye the blue flash of Willow casting an armour, but before she could find a target it seemed that the threat was closer behind them, and she turned again, spear aimed. Willow likewise had her staff raised, cradled in the elbow of one arm like a crossbow while her other hand held Amalee's, keeping her between them. As dark shapes began to loom through the sun-reddened forest, the three of them backed towards the herd-stone, circling warily, waiting for the first attack.
"Keep the stone behind you honey," Willow said urgently, edging in front of Amalee as they ran out of room to retreat. Tara glanced at her, now side by side, and saw fright and determination in her eyes.
"We'll protect you, sweetie," she said to Amalee, who was trembling visibly, her knuckles white around Willow's hand. "Damn it," she swore under her breath, looking back out into the churning forest, "they knew we were here and I couldn't sense it."
"Don't blame yourself," Willow said, and with a glance Tara could tell that, given the time, she would have spared no effort to calm her and ease away her frustration and the slight gnawing guilt. But they had no time, so all Willow could do was offer the few, simple words, and a look that spoke volumes. Tara set her shoulders and faced the oncoming enemy.
The goat-men made no effort, now that their trap was sprung, to conceal their presence. Bushes were shoved aside, branches snapped and the dry kindling underfoot was crunched and broken by their hooves. As one they seemed to step out of the trees into the waning light, at least twenty of them by Tara's count, carrying huge axes, halberds, heavy-tipped spears - long, heavy weapons, designed for smashing and tearing. Their eyes blazed with hatred of all things living, and the thick muscles in their arms flexed, making the patches of fur covering their upper bodies bristle. They gave no thought to care or caution in their advance, some walking straight through the discarded carcasses at the edge of the clearing, smearing blood and entrails across the dirt with their hooves, a couple even kicking aside the weapons lying unused at their feet. Their attention was wholly on the intruders standing against their stone, and the only caution in them came from the dim recognition of the weapons they held, which checked their charge, bringing them to a halt barely metres away. Some of them glanced from side to side at their companions, assessing their strength and finding it overwhelming, and they began to stir and growl, some taking a step or two further forward.
"How many can you take at once?" Willow whispered, so softly Tara could barely hear.
"Three," Tara said, "maybe four." She knew it wasn't enough, that the moment either of them attacked the goat-men would all charge, and after that first attack - a blast of lightning from her spear, and cold from Willow - it would become a bloody melee, in which their chances of keeping Amalee safe and protected were remote to say the least. 'Our chances of just surviving aren't great either,' she admitted to herself, though at least she gave them a chance. Willow was fast, and had her chill armour, and Tara knew she was good enough to defend herself, and in a close fight, against real fighters, rather than untrained farmers, the goat-men's numbers would be as often a hindrance as a benefit to them, getting in each other's way as they swung and charged. But the thought of them surviving such a bloody, hard-fought battle, probably both wounded, certainly exhausted, and having to look to the ground and see a tiny, fragile little body that should have been full of life and joy made still and lifeless... Tara honestly couldn't imagine how she could cope with such a failure.
A bellow made her and Willow both jump, and even the goat-men seemed apprehensive, milling around, looking about themselves rather than at their prey. Opposite Willow and Tara the demons shuffled aside, leaving a path for one more of their number to step out of the forest and confront them. It was no ordinary specimen of its kind, however. Standing a full head taller than its minions - for they were clearly subordinate to it, even feared it, to judge by their attitude - the goat-lord was a massive, terrible figure, its broad, muscled chest decorated with crude patterns of self-inflicted scars, as well as the marks of countless battles, its arms clad in rags and tatters of chain-mail and armour plates, bound on by straps wound around them, its legs long, thick and covered in matted, oily fur. The horns that grew from its head were longer than those of its fellows, coiled around and marked with black mud-paint, their tips bound crudely in iron, hammered on and sealed with long bolts driven into the horn, ending in barbed points. One eye was missing, the flesh of its cheek stretched across the cavity in a great mass of scarred skin, and its brow still held the end of the deep gash that had caused the loss. It opened its jaws, revealing flat, black-stained teeth, and roared again, this time producing something that was barely recognisable as speech of some primitive kind, and it flourished its weapons, a pair of double-headed axes, each held in massive hands with thick fingers and cracked, blackened nails.
"Did it talk?" Tara whispered.
"It said its clan is going to eat us," Willow replied, too soft for Amalee to hear.
"Uh-huh," Tara said. She glanced from side to side, seeing nothing but savage goat-men glaring at her as far as she could see, with the stone blocking her view to the far side of the clearing behind them. She tightened her grip on her spear, and turned back to face the goat-lord.
"If I challenge the leader..." she whispered tentatively.
"Sorry," Willow said, and even now there was a note of rueful humour in her voice - it gave Tara a flush of courage - "goat-men don't do honourable combat, they're just all going to attack us at once. You give the leader your best shot, I'll try to keep the others at bay for a second or two."
"Willow," Tara said, her mind whirling as a sudden idea came to her, "when I say, cast the strongest armour you can around all three of us."
"What-" Willow began to ask.
"Trust me," Tara said. Without further hesitation, Willow shifted her staff, holding it in her elbow, freeing her other hand to hold the hand Tara offered her. Tara's lips moved silently, reciting an ancient Amazonian prayer, one from darker times in their history when hope was scarce, and what a warrior prayed for was not peace or tranquillity, but the strength to slay anything that dared darken the lands of her loved ones.
'Goddess Zerae,' she thought to herself, letting her lips recite the ritual prayer by instinct, and hoping the demons would hesitate for just a few seconds, to give her time, 'goddess of storms, grant me your power, show your anger at these creatures who defile the land, who threaten my love, who would take the life of a child. Goddess of vengeance, for what this foulness has wrought, let the power of the storm cleanse them from the world.' At the same time she concentrated on her focus like never before, willing her weapon into an instrument of magic, crafting the shape of the power that she hoped would come, giving it form and purpose. She had never before called on Zerae as goddess of vengeance - the form of the goddess she admired was that of a bringer of justice, a judge whose power saw that the doers of evil never escaped the consequences of their acts, but now she thought of the destroyed villages, the dead, and the innocent, brave child whose whole life had been torn away from her, and she called on her goddess to show them the pain they had caused. She even allowed herself a tiny grin as she felt the power begin to flow, the first tiny crack open between her mortal world and the realm beyond.
"Now," she said to Willow, and held up her spear. Willow's hand in hers tightened, and an intense burst of blue light flashed before her eyes, and she felt a deep cold settle over her, like being suddenly immersed in freezing water. She had only a brief instant to wonder at the power Willow commanded before her own power was upon her, the red-tainted clouds above darkening and swirling into a vortex in the space of a heartbeat. Tara felt the first surge, and a bolt of energy leapt from her spear, straight up into the storm - that itself was more powerful than anything she had felt before - and on its heels, racing down the corridor the first blast had torn through the air, a thunderbolt of immense power, lighting the forest clearing like day, touching the silver tip of her spear for just a second before leaping from it into the herd-stone.
"Down!" Tara yelled, in the split second before a massive, thunderous crack obliterated all other sounds. She felt Willow hit the ground beside her as she threw herself down, and Amalee was lying flat against her leg, the intense chill of Willow's spell still covering them.
The herd-stone exploded with shattering force, casting jagged shrapnel, white-hot and steaming, all around itself. The mass of goat-men roared and collapsed as one, the lucky ones merely stunned and burned by the sudden blast of super-heated air, others suddenly torn apart by spinning fragments of rock, legs cut from beneath them, arms severed, bodies punched open and heads smashed to bloody pulps. Tara felt impacts on her back, but no pain - Willow's magic kept the whirling fragments of rock from doing any harm to them. As the thunderbolt faded away the air was filled with a din of braying and roaring, pain and anger mixed together, and above it all the voice of the goat-lord, a bellow of pure rage.
Tara squeezed Willow's hand for reassurance, and got shakily to her feet. The intense magic had weakened her momentarily, but she summoned her own strength as best she could, holding her spear in a firm, unwavering grip, aiming the point out around her at the demons staggering back to their hooves. Several lay unmoving, and most of those who rose were wounded, but still the fire burned in their eyes, and they tightened their grips on their weapons, ignoring the pain from shattered bones and torn flesh. When they looked up at the remnants of the stone, now a shattered stump, making little crackling noises as it cooled, and saw Tara, they hesitated.
'Thank all the gods,' Tara thought, intensely relieved, as for a moment she had wondered if the creatures were even able to feel fear. She raised her spear, and called on the tiny amount of magic left to her in her exhausted state, forcing a grim smile to her face as a ripple of lightning ran down the shaft and over the blade. She glared as formidably as she could muster, and released the energy. A bolt leapt from the point of the spear into the air ahead of her, dissipating quickly, but it was enough. With a clamour of howling, the goat-men fell back, turned, and ran. The goat-lord turned in dismay, bellowing at its fellows, but they paid it no heed as they crashed into the forest, shoving each other out of their way, collapsing and scrambling back upright, escape the only thought in their bestial minds. Finally only the goat-lord remained, roaring in rage at the flight of its clan, a huge gash in its stomach pumping blood, its face marred by a new wound across its cheek, one horn a broken stump, but the rage in its eyes when it turned on Tara was undiluted. Tara braced herself to receive his charge, praying for whatever power she could summon, when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
"I've got him," Willow said grimly, stepping in front of her. She walked out towards the towering goat-lord, circling to one side to draw him away from Tara and Amalee, who scrambled up behind Tara, clutching her waist, her eyes wide, fixed on Willow and the demon. Willow brandished her staff, which was turning dark, icy ripples running across a shaft that suddenly seemed much older and harder than mere wood. The goat-lord glared at her, took a step towards her - 'Careful, Willow,' Tara prayed - then hesitated, and looked back towards the other two humans in its domain.
"Hey!" Willow yelled. "Over here!" The goat-lord seemed undecided, looking dazedly between her and Tara. Willow glanced at Tara desperately as the huge demon took a step towards her and Amalee, then looked back at it.
"Soh cha beh!" she yelled at the top of her voice. The goat-lord jerked as if it had been struck, and seemed to forget anything but Willow existed, roaring and brandishing its two axes in a display of undiluted rage. Willow held her staff ready, the icy mist of her armour covering her body, and nodded deliberately as the beast stared at her.
"Yeah, that's right," she muttered to herself, "you heard me."
The goat-lord roared again and lifted the larger of its axes, plainly intending to smash Willow out of existence with a single blow. Tara saw Willow anticipate the attack and tense to avoid it, but still her heart leapt into her throat as the huge, battered blade swung down. Willow darted back out of its path and swung her staff, and for the briefest instant, just as the staff passed by the axe blade, the mist around it coalesced into a glimmering, icy blade on its end, like a pole-axe. The two blades struck together with a shattering clang, the ice-blade dissolving out of existence even as it broke against the iron, but Willow had a mildly triumphant expression, and the goat-lord howled in pain, hurling away its axe, which had turned white with frost. The weapon shattered as it hit the ground, and the demon flexed its hand, which steamed with cold, tiny fragments of skin blistering and cracking off, revealing frost-bitten blood underneath.
The goat-lord swung its other axe, but it apparently had the wit to learn from its mistakes, and jerked the blade out of the way as Willow again dodged and drove her staff at it. Willow didn't check her pace, instead continuing her missed swing, spinning in place, and whipping the end of her staff at the demon. The icy axe-blade flew free and shattered against its bicep, leaving a gash of frost, twisted armour and icy shards buried in flesh.
'Careful Willow!' Tara silently pleaded, as the massive creature went berserk with rage, charging her heedless of the injury, both arms swinging wildly. Willow danced out of the way - Tara recognised the fluidity of movement born of long hours of training, and thanked the Zann Esu for not neglecting the more physical aspects of combat - and aimed her staff as the demon thundered past her, the mist around its tip crystallising into bolt after bolt of ice that pounded against the goat-lord's tough hide, denting and buckling the scraps of metal covering its shoulders and arms, tearing at its exposed flesh wherever they found it. The beast was slowing, but it seemed to be oblivious to its wounds as it turned back towards Willow, swinging its remaining axe at her in a slow but devastating arc. Willow ducked and rolled out of the way, managing to keep her staff aimed all the while, maintaining the bombardment of ice that staggered and infuriated the demon.
"Stand back sweetie," Tara said to Amalee, feeling her strength return as the after-effects of her magic began to wear off. She planted her spear in the ground beside her and drew her bow, summoning what power she could - her ability to focus was still limited - aiming at the goat-lord's massive neck.
"Willow!" she called, choosing her time, when Willow could afford a quick glance at her without putting herself in danger.
"Fire away!" Willow replied, ducking back. She kept hold of her staff with one hand, the bolts merging into a jet of freezing mist that blinded the roaring goat-lord, and with her free hand reached to her belt and drew something from a pouch. She tossed it towards the demon - Tara had a brief glimpse of a tiny shard of ice spinning through the air - then the bowstring whipped its arrow forward, the arrowhead bursting into flame as it flew. The shot wasn't perfect - the goat-lord was reeling around, and caught the impact on its shoulder rather than in the neck - but the magic was stronger than Tara had hoped for, and a burst of angry flame tore out of the arrow as it struck, scorching the demon's skin and burning its fur. An instant later the shard Willow had thrown was enveloped in the fire, and the goat-lord was hurled back to its knees by a blast of ice, an unearthly explosion in cold blue hues.
Willow leapt forward before the beast could recover and slammed the end of her staff into its chest, impaling it on four razor-sharp points that appeared around the shaft an instant before it struck. The goat-lord howled in pain and reared up, raising its axe to strike down at her, but its strength failed and the heavy weapon toppled from its hand. Tara could already see patches of frozen white blossom from beneath its skin around the impact of the staff. It raised its other hand, grabbing the staff, trying to pull the weapon out of its body, but the instant its fingers closed around the shaft they too began to turn white and brittle. The goat-lord turned its mad, uncomprehending gaze on Willow as its wrist broke, leaving the fragments of its hand to shower to the ground and it jerked away the icy stump, and then the frost was racing over its body, blooming from within it all down its torso, along its limbs, and up its neck. It opened its mouth for one last bellow of fury, but its voice was cut off, frozen as was the rest of it. Willow jerked her staff back, leaving the demon a still, silent form of pure ice. She adjusted her grip and swung one last time, the end of her staff cracking against the demon's frozen head, smashing into it and toppling the lifeless ice of its body. The goat-lord's final fate was to shatter against the ground, scattering into a heap of shards which lay silent, slowly melting in the last rays of the sun.
For a moment everything was still, then Willow turned towards Tara and Amalee, and Tara realised it was over, and ran to her side, barely remembering to snatch her spear from the ground as she went. They embraced tightly, almost desperately, burying their faces in each other's hair and taking heaving gasps of air, between relief and sobbing. They looked down as a small pair of arms went around them both, and they sank to their knees, including Amalee in their hug. Tara finally lifted her head to look at Willow, overjoyed but also worried, sensing the exhaustion in her.
"A-are you okay?" she asked. Willow nodded, tired but unconcerned.
"Just a bit of magic drain," she said with a grin, "I'll be fine. It'll wear off in a few minutes..." she yawned, "...I don't usually cast that many spells so quickly. You?"
"Okay," Tara smiled, "same as you, tired from the magic, but getting better." She looked at Amalee. "Are you okay sweetie?"
"Yes," the girl nodded, a stunned expression on her face. "Is the beast-man dead?"
"Yes honey," Willow said, "it's pretty definitively dead."
"Good," Amalee said with a relieved smile, hugging them both again. Willow smiled at Tara, then glanced around.
"How're you for walking?" she asked.
"Ready when you are," Tara said, "rest a moment, though, wait until you're recovered."
"I'm okay," Willow insisted gently, "I was always quick at recovery. It'll probably be a few minutes before I could do all that again, of course, but it's not like walking's strenuous, and I kind of think we should get out of here."
"Alright," Tara agreed, "sweetie, are you okay to walk some more?"
"Yes," Amalee said promptly, "I don't like this place."
"Me neither," Tara said with a grin. "Okay, let's see how far we can get before the sun sets completely."
Tara helped Willow to her feet, which wasn't strictly necessary - true to her word, Willow was recovering from her magic with impressive speed - but she didn't protest being helped up, nor when Tara held on to her for a moment, gently touching her lips to Willow's cheek. Amalee dutifully took Willow's hand as they crossed the clearing, and allowed Tara to carry her as they crossed the shallow stream, to keep her thin boots from getting soaked. She pointed out the start of the trail that ran by the north side of the stream, and the three set off with the setting sun on their backs.
"Are you sure you're okay, honey?" Willow asked Amalee tentatively. The girl seemed absorbed in her thoughts, a marked contrast to the inquisitive enthusiasm she had shown earlier in the day. Tara wondered how many nights she would wake from nightmares because of what they had gone through. Amalee looked at Willow, paused in thought, then smiled faintly.
"I'm okay," she nodded, "I was frightened when all the beast-men came out of the forest, but I'm not now. You beat them, just like the heroes in stories." She paused again, glancing away in thought, and when she looked back at Willow her eyes had regained their curious gleam.
"What did you say to the beast-man to make him angry?" she asked. Willow spared Tara a glance, sharing her relief that Amalee had accepted their escape - victory, perhaps - without being too troubled by the prospect of what might have happened.
"Actually, yeah," Tara put in, "what did you say?"
"Um," Willow looked sheepish, "well, assuming I got the language right, and I think I did, given how he reacted... I called him a woman." She looked vaguely embarrassed. "Not that I think that's an insult, no way, but goat-men are kind of fixated on pure physical strength a-and masculinity, some of the texts I've read suggest that they don't think women are capable of fighting, really, and basically for a goat-man fighting is all that there is in life, so because of that they think women aren't really 'real' people... I kind of hazarded a guess that taking a stab at his masculinity would annoy him..."
"He looked mad," Amalee said.
"He did, didn't he?" Willow agreed. "Probably half of it was from Tara defeating the rest of the clan, I think seeing them get decimated by someone they wouldn't have considered a 'proper' warrior, well, that put him in a bad mood." She smiled at Amalee, and then glanced over her head at Tara and mouthed 'really pissed off'. Tara laughed quietly to herself.
"So now they know women are proper warriors?" Amalee asked.
"Maybe," Willow guessed, "but then again, goat-men are pretty thick, so maybe they'll just get confused and forget it ever happened."
"I'm not going to forget it," Amalee said vehemently, "when we get to the city I'm going to tell my uncle and everyone else all about it, how you weren't afraid of them at all, and how you," she looked at Tara, "made the lightning strike and blew up the lot of them, and how you," she looked back to Willow, "fought the biggest beast-men and froze him and how you," to Tara, "shot him with the fire arrow, and it went boom and there was all ice and fire and..." she paused. "I'll write it down properly so everyone knows how it was," she promised.
"How about that?" Willow grinned at Tara. "We've got our own bard now."
"I saw a bard once," Amalee said, "he told stories about the old wizards and heroes and how they defeated the demons in the big war a long time ago. But he couldn't have seen it for himself, because no-one could live that long. I bet he just heard the stories and remembered them, and then told them like he was there. But I'll tell stories about you that I actually saw, because I was there when you defeated all the demons."
"Well... okay," Tara said with a bemused shrug, "sure."
"I'll write it all down when we get to the city," Amalee went on.
"Back to normal, huh?" Willow said softly to Tara.
"I was worried," Tara admitted quietly, "I mean, I was worried about all of us, but especially her, having to go through that... I don't know how I feel about being a 'hero', but it's probably good for her to think of it all like that."
"Well, I know how I feel about you being a hero," Willow smiled, "I feel very, very proud of you."
"You too," Tara replied warmly. "We should go on as long as we can," she went on, her expression becoming more serious, "the goat-men that got away will probably be scattered for a while, but if they're as single-minded as you describe them..."
"Yep," Willow agreed, "they'll regroup before long. It'd be best if we're way away from here before that happens. Probably, with fewer of them, and no leader, we could fight them off again, but I'd rather not have to."
"There'll be enough moonlight for me to see well tonight," Tara said, glancing up at the scattered clouds in the darkening sky, "if you wear the amulet, we could both keep going well into the night."
"What about Amalee?" Willow asked, keeping her voice down so the girl wouldn't overhear and insist she could manage. "She won't be able to keep walking that long..."
"I'll carry her," Tara said, surprising Willow, "I've been trained for long distances, remember? She's not that heavy, and some of the training I did was carrying extra loads, just to get used to it. Just promise me you'll give my arms a massage when we stop?"
"Done," Willow nodded, "I'll take your pack? It's not that heavy."
"Okay," Tara agreed. "How far do you think you can go?"
"I'm feeling pretty good," Willow said, "a bit tired, okay, but you know, after the drain wears off, doing magic does kind of give me a boost, like I've gone swimming in cold water. Well, I guess that's not surprising, cold magic and all..."
"Good," Tara said, turning to Amalee, walking in front of them. "Sweetie, we think it'd be good for us to keep going during the night, and try to get to the river in one go. Now I know you're okay to keep up with us-"
"Of course," the girl insisted.
"But just in case we need you rested and alert tomorrow, would you let me carry you in a little while, so you can rest a little?"
"Well... okay," Amalee allowed.
"Thank you sweetie," Tara smiled. "Well then, we'll keep going as long as we can, and then you can take a nap while I carry you, and we'll keep on to the river. And then, we'll find a safe spot to wait, get on the next boat that passes, and we'll go all the way to the city."