Return to Hellebore Chapter Forty-Two


Author: Chris Cook
Rating: R
Copyright: Based on characters from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon and his talented minionators, and Diablo II by Blizzard Entertainment. All original material is copyright 2003 Chris Cook.

Tara was tired and sore by the time the first glimmers of sunlight spread across the morning sky. Her legs dragged as though she had encased them in heavy iron armour, the soles of her feet were hot and chafing inside her boots despite the soft linings, and her arms, bearing their precious cargo of a restlessly sleeping girl, felt liable to drop off at any moment. Nonetheless, something inside her managed to cause a spark of joy when she and Willow rounded a rise of stony ground that diverted the stream they followed a little way south, and saw the Kingsway river laid out in front of her.

The sunlight, peeking over the flat eastern horizon, was fresh and fiery, casting its hue into the rippling waters of the river and bringing them alive with colour. Tara paused for a moment, gazing at the view before her, and glanced sidelong at Willow, who looked as tired as she herself felt. When Willow gave a weary smile back at her, Tara noticed her eyes were still feline.

"Take off the amulet," Tara said quietly, "this is worth seeing in colour." Willow gave another smile, this time more at Tara's gentle voice than the relief of seeing the end of their long journey in sight, and undid the delicate chain around her neck.

"Oh wow," she said in a small voice, tired but still with a hint of her usual liveliness, "that's a sight..."

The stream they had followed out of the forest had been joined by many others during the night, swelling to a reasonable size and depth - not a river in its own right, but at least a body of water that it would be impossible to cross without swimming. It snaked down across the last traces of the highlands and joined the Kingsway in a modest delta, its final end concealed by a collection of reeds and long grasses. As they two women walked down towards the riverbank, the sun was still low enough to cast its gleam over the length of the stream, turning it into a trail of gold running through the lush grass.

"How're you feeling?" Willow asked ruefully as they wandered along beside the stream.

"Tired," Tara said honestly, "I could use a bite to eat... I'm not sure my arms are ever going to be the same again," she added with a grin.

"I think your pack's been getting heavier overnight," Willow replied, getting a soft laugh from Tara. Even fatigued as they were, the morning sun was lifting their spirits, the grasses brushing softly against their legs, and the knowledge that rest was near at hand, were giving Willow and Tara a measure of energy.

Just north of the stream's mouth was an old, sturdy pier and a shack. Willow wearily raised her staff just in case, carrying Tara's spear and bow in her other hand, but as they neared it became obvious that there was no danger. The river side of the shack was completely open, revealing nothing lurking inside beyond a couple of old wooden chairs and some boards laid between two short tree stumps, a makeshift bed. The pier started its length on dry land for a few metres, continuing straight as the ground dipped beneath the water, and stretching out several metres into the river, supported by ancient wooden pylons, moss-covered but strong. Without prompting Willow quickened her pace a little, reaching the shack first and sliding Tara's pack from her shoulders. By the time Tara arrived Willow had unrolled their blankets and spread them out on the wooden bed, and Tara gently laid Amalee down on it. She stirred as Tara set her down, and blinked wearily in the sunlight.

"That's the river," she yawned, "you..." another yawn, "walked all night?"

"Yep," Tara smiled, "we're a long way from the forest now."

"Oh... good..." the girl nodded sleepily. "If there's a boat... the fifth board," she pointed lazily towards the beginning of the pier, "flags... red is for trading... use the white one. It," she paused for another emphatic yawn, "means we want to talk. The boat'll stop for you."

"Thanks sweetie," Tara said.

"Get some rest now," Willow smiled, stroking the girl's tangled auburn hair, "we'll wake you when a boat comes along."

"Okay," Amalee agreed, "g'night... thank you..." she added as she drifted off to sleep. Willow and Tara glanced at each other and shared a smile, then Tara looked away down-river.

"Nothing in sight yet," she said, "but with the river traffic we saw at the dock, something should be along before nightfall. One of us should stay awake anyway-"

"I will," Willow said.

"You're sure?" Tara checked, doing her best not to look too tired.

"Sure," Willow nodded. "I'll wake you after you've had a nap and we can swap. Come on, I'll give you that massage I promised, and you can doze off for a while. It doesn't make sense to do it the other way around, you'd get all relaxed and then have to stay awake."

"Okay," Tara allowed, smiling slightly as she realised she sounded like Amalee, reluctantly giving in to reason when part of her wanted to take all the burden on herself. "I guess I could use it," she added, flexing her arms, "heh, that's odd... my arms feel all springy."

"Yeah?" Willow asked, laying out the last remaining blankets on the soft ground beside the pier for Tara to lie on.

"Well, I've been holding them up against a weight for so long, now they just want to push upwards... I try to relax and they just sort of drift upwards." She demonstrated with a grin, as her arms refused to fall to her sides.

"Lie down, you," Willow said fondly, "let's see what we can do about these tired muscles of yours. It can't be more than a day or two to Duncraig by boat, and you're going to need to be in top condition once we get there."


"I bet there's a big, warm, cozy bed waiting for us," Willow grinned, "and I intend to make full use of it for more than just sleeping."

"Oh..." Tara smiled as she lay down. While she settled herself, Willow peered at the first few boards of the pier, which this far back were laying directly on the ground, and lifted up the edge of the fifth one along. Just as Amalee had said, there were a pair of wooden poles with oilskin wrappings around their tops, and coloured material peeking out from underneath, as well as an old, roughly-made fishing rod and a couple of reels of line.

"There's our flags," she noted, turning to Tara, who was lying flat on her stomach, her head tilted sideways to look up at Willow.

"Oh baby, that's an inviting sight," Willow purred, surveying Tara's back and legs. Without quite shaking off her devilish grin she swung herself astride Tara's hips, leaning forward and reaching out to wrap her fingers around Tara's upper arms.

"Ahhhh..." Tara sighed, as Willow's hands went to work, kneading the tired muscles along the length of her arms.

"I read a book about this once," Willow said softly, "see, it's just as well I read so much, isn't it? You never know the kind of useful information I could pick up."

"Mmm," Tara agreed, "useful... and divine... is it some kind of magic?" she asked with a chuckle.

"The best kind," Willow joked.

"Feels like it," Tara sighed happily.

"Don't get too worked up, you're supposed to be relaxing," Willow chided her tenderly. "You've had a big day... and night... hey, I meant to tell you, you were really great back there, during the ambush. All strong and sure and, and powerful... that was some magic you did too, any lightning sorceress would be proud to master a spell like that."

"Well," Tara said indistinctly, "it wasn't... just me..."

"Yeah, I know, your goddess too," Willow nodded, "but that doesn't mean you weren't amazing. Gods forbid that sort of thing happen to us on a regular basis, but you know, I can't think of anyone, not even the most powerful sorceresses in the Zann Esu, I'd feel safer beside. When you did that spell, the determination, what I saw in your eyes... I knew we'd make it."

"Thank you," Tara murmured, "love... you know, that was... something I've never felt before... and when it was over, the feeling then... oh that's nice," she sighed as Willow squeezed her forearms lovingly, "the feeling when they'd scattered, and you'd defeated the leader... I think maybe I understand how people can choose to live their lives as soldiers, or adventurers... knowing the cause was good... standing there, just you and me, against something evil, and holding it back... quite a feeling."

"Yeah," Willow admitted, "I felt it too. They say victory tastes sweet."

"Mmm," Tara nodded slightly, "yeah... not that I'd make... a habit of it. Couldn't be a soldier... I couldn't do that, fight like that, unless I chose to... not because of orders... you'd have to," she yawned, "to trust... your commander, completely... to make the right choices... I can only trust... you like that..."

"Thank you, baby," Willow murmured, leaning down to nudge Tara's hair out of her way and place a kiss on the back of her neck. "I trust you too, completely. You know that, don't you?"

"I know," Tara sighed contentedly, "you didn't hesitate... when I told you to cast your armour over us."

"When you say 'trust me', there's nothing to hesitate about. Especially when you say it in that take-charge voice," Willow sighed at the memory, "you know, not that fighting is a good thing, necessary, sure, sometimes, but not what I'd really want to do with my life, or for you to do with yours, but..." she paused, and a smile spread across her face, "the way you were back there, that was actually a bit of a turn on."

"A bit?" Tara asked slyly.

"Okay, a lot," Willow admitted with a chuckle.

"Luckily," Tara murmured, "I don't have to be in a fight to take charge... I can do it just fine in a bed, too..."

"I've never been in any doubt of that," Willow assured her.

"And you know," Tara went on, "when you were fighting the leader..." she looked back at Willow and raised an eyebrow seductively.

"Oh... really?" Willow grinned, suddenly too pleased with herself for words.

"Mmm-hmm," Tara nodded, laying her head back down, "I was worried of course... to see you fighting that thing... frightening... but at the same time... wow..."

"Oh," Willow grinned, surprised, "me? Wow?"

"Always wow you," Tara replied sleepily. She lifted her head, with some effort, and glanced over her shoulder as she felt Willow loosen the laces of her armour.

"Relax," Willow said lightly, "I'm just making sure I earn my wow... besides, it's calm here, nothing to threaten us... it's broad daylight and I can see easily a mile back up to the highlands before it gets rough, so nothing can surprise us... and Amalee's fast asleep," she added, checking quickly with a glance over her shoulder. "And you, my luscious Amazon, are lying beneath me, and your skin feels so good underneath my hands... if I didn't get amorous thoughts from a situation like this, something would be wrong with me."

"Heh," Tara chuckled, "well then... I'm in your hands..."

"Uh-huh," Willow agreed, gently sliding the unfastened armour out from beneath Tara, folding the last available blanket over her waist, ready to cover her when she was done. She lay her palms on Tara's naked back and slowly dragged them down to her waist, curling her fingers just enough to scratch lightly on Tara's skin.

"Ohhhh," Tara sighed, "do that again..." Willow complied, earning another dreamy sigh.

"Arms feel good," Tara commented lazily, crossing her forearms beneath her head as a pillow as she relaxed under Willow's hands.

"Good," Willow said, "that just leaves the rest of you..." She leaned down and kissed Tara's back here and there, finally making her way up to Tara's ear while her hands continued to stroke and knead their way around.

"Go to sleep," she whispered, "and dream of what else my hands might do with you."

"Mmm," Tara murmured, "love you... thank you... beautiful..."

"You're welcome," Willow said, sensing Tara falling asleep even as she spoke. She continued lovingly stroking her back for some time, occasionally pressing firmly but mostly just enjoying the feel of her, marvelling at her perfection and thanking all the gods she could think of that they had come through the nightmare behind them unscathed. Her stroking became lighter until finally she was merely running her fingertips across Tara's skin, and, careful not to disturb the sleeping Amazon, she swung herself off her hips and pulled the blanket up over her back.

"Sleep well," she whispered, "I'll be here when you wake up." She sat for a moment, watching Tara sleep, then with a last smile got up and wandered around a little. She checked on Amalee, who was fast asleep, but with a tiny, worried frown marring her face. Willow sat down beside her and stroked her hair for a moment until the frown disappeared, then got back up, not quite trusting herself to relax for fear she might fall asleep without meaning to. She wandered a little way out onto the pier, where the breeze along the river brushed against her face, making her feel a little more alert. Frequently gazing back at Tara on the grass and Amalee in the little shack, she paced lazily to and fro along the pier's length.

'Not such a bad little adventure, all things considered,' she mused, stepping off the pier for a moment to kneel on the riverbank and splash a little water on her face. 'We're both still in one piece, plus we've got a bunch more blankets, some torches, a couple of books, and hey, an adorable little girl. Considering we started out running for our lives across unknown territory with no time to prepare, things turned out pretty well. Now there's just the vengeful demon queen to worry about.' On that thought, she meandered back to the shack and picked the summoner mage's diary from her satchel, leafing through the pages as she walked back along the pier.

'Okay, we're not in imminent danger, and I'll be damned if I'm waking Tara up before, oh, an hour before midday, she deserves a decent nap. Might as well put this old brain of mine to work. Lemme see...' She found the pages detailing the mage's preparations to summon a storm caster, and took careful note of the equipment he described using, the rituals he prepared, and the steps he took to cast his spell and protect himself.

"How did you contact a demon like Shadai?" she muttered to the book, reading it closely. That had bothered her ever since she and Tara had gone through the mage's room and found out his plans, and the fate that had befallen him, and ultimately driven him to death. 'Mage plans to summon some minor demon to do his foul bidding. Okay, fine, no problem, it's a classic in the ambition-before-wisdom tales. But how do you go from reaching out to a storm caster, a crummy little construct entity that's half-bound to the mortal realm already, to accidentally making contact with one of the most powerful demons in history, trapped in the deepest realms of the burning hells? You can't do that, it takes too much energy... I mean, the summoner in Entsteig turned out to be a Vizjerei prodigy, according to their records he'd been casting twentieth-tier elemental and druidic magic by the time he was five. And this guy here is just some lowly Ennead scholar who was jealous of his masters' powers. If he'd wanted to reach Shadai he shouldn't have been able to, not with twenty years' preparation and a hundred apprentices assisting him.'

She sighed, and remembered one of the lessons Ember had taught her: collect your information first, then form conclusions. She went over the details she had gathered and pieced them together. 'Okay, our guy had the Black Tome, so he knew where to find a fracture point in the mortal realm barriers. Let's see... he used a threefold circle with split points and a pentagram binding pattern, that's all pretty standard for this kind of thing. He had a pair of strangler blossoms, so that might've helped extend the extra-planar range of the spell... let's be generous and say he was aiming for a fifth-tier storm caster, and the spell would've worked... add up the power bases... factor in planetary forces... planar shifts...' She spent a moment doing esoteric magical calculations before reaching her conclusion:

"No way," she said out loud. The conclusions were quite clear - even using the most optimistic projections, the mage should have been absolutely incapable of projecting his spell's energy deep enough into the realms beyond the mortal plane to contact a demon like Shadai. 'Even a demon one-tenth of her power,' Willow mused, 'it's just not possible. What am I missing?'

Another of Ember's teachings came to her. 'If it's not working,' she had said once, speaking about one of Willow's early attempts to decode a manuscript in the Order's vaults, 'remember it doesn't mean you're doing everything wrong. Just one minor detail can upset an otherwise perfect structure of logic. Find the detail, and it'll work.' Just as she had said, Willow had discovered two nights later that her translation notes were partly based on an old Horadrim scroll that, it seemed, had been rewritten itself by a none-too-careful translator at some stage. Once she had discovered that, the manuscript she was working on practically decoded itself.

'Okay then,' she thought, 'let's see what we're basing all this on. Our summoner was in contact with Shadai, do we know this for sure? He called the demon 'Mistress', that means it's a female, and there aren't many. She created a rod of command, only two female demons could do that, and Andariel was soundly defeated during the Reckoning. Let's say we're ninety-nine per cent sure it's Shadai we're dealing with. That's sensible; besides, Andariel is more powerful, that just makes the whole problem more illogical. Okay, our mage was in contact with Shadai, let's call that a fact. That began during his summoning ritual, fact. Therefore the ritual reached Shadai. That's all solid. How could the ritual reach her? A third party boosted the spell? Never heard of anything like that happening. In fact, no, a split-point circle can't be externally influenced without disturbing it and collapsing the spell. Okay, so the ritual must, from our mage alone, have had the power to reach Shadai.

'And that's impossible. What's the detail that's wrong? Our mage had that kind of power? No, if that were true he wouldn't have needed a storm caster, that'd be like a soldier ignoring his sword and searching for a penknife to fight with. Shadai dwells on, what, the fortieth arc of the sixth circle of hell? And this spell, at most, could have reached the first arc of the tenth boundary, not even the first circle. But he reached Shadai. His spell had the range to get to her...' Willow felt a chill race down her spine that had nothing to do with the lively breeze blowing along the river.

'Shadai was within the spell's range. She wasn't where she should be, she was somewhere closer. Some other part of hell, an outer boundary region? No, if a demon is banished, they're banished back to their proper place, that's never failed, not in any banishing that's ever been recorded. So... she wasn't sent back to hell. She wasn't banished!'

"Aw crap!" she said out loud, snapping the diary shut.

'Okay, calm down, think logically,' she admonished herself, 'she's not walking the earth, you know that. People tend to notice a huge demon queen who makes the sky burn and water turn to blood. If she'd escaped from the hospice somehow, we'd all know by now. Something else happened. She wasn't banished, but she didn't escape, she went... somewhere else. Where else can you go?' She paced back and forth, thinking furiously. 'Trans-planar regions? No, too discordant, any consciousness that stayed there for more than a few seconds would be broken apart, and she'd end up being banished back to hell anyway. Dimensional bridging? No, not with a demon, no matter how powerful. Ethereal realms? The ethereal realms,' she fixed on the thought, sensing a possibility, 'it'd be dangerous... the risk of failure, of being banished, maybe even diminished in power as a result... a demon would have to be desperate...'

An image formed in Willow's mind, of Shadai in the hospice, roaring in desperate rage as her form was torn apart by fire, ice and lightning. A demon bent on inflicting pain and torment on the living, bound in hell for centuries upon centuries, brought to the mortal plane against all odds, and facing banishment before the last strands of her summoning spell had even worn off.

'Yeah, she was desperate enough,' Willow thought glumly. She glanced at Tara, sleeping peacefully on the grass. 'Oh damn, I have to tell her, don't I? Damn it, of course I have to tell her, she's not a child. I can at least let her sleep, though, and tell her when I wake her later. No sense disturbing her now, a couple of hours won't make a difference. It's not like there's anything we can do about it now, except get to Duncraig and contact the Order, and whatever mages they have there.' She sighed, and returned to her pacing, nonetheless trying to work out what rituals would need to be done, how Shadai might safely be found and banished properly, what complications would arise from trying to deal with a demon trapped in an ethereal realm compared to one clad in flesh and blood.

Tara stirred and woke slowly, smiling at the feel of Willow's hand against her cheek. She leaned her head sideways to kiss her palm, then opened her eyes and blinked in the light from the sun, now high in the sky.

"I can see a sail off to the south," Willow said as Tara rolled over and sat up, forgetting she was half-naked until the blanket fell off her.

"A boat?" Tara asked.

"Wha? Oh... yeah, yeah, heading up river, it'll be here in maybe ten minutes or so," Willow said, recovering from her distraction and forcing her eyes up from Tara's breasts to her face. Tara smiled slyly and demurely held the blanket over her chest, reaching her other arm around Willow's shoulders to draw her close for a kiss. Willow, already distracted, forgot everything for a moment as Tara's lips opened hers, and both enjoyed the kiss wholeheartedly until Tara finally leaned back a fraction.

"I was a little sleepy before," she purred, "did I remember to tell you I love you?"

"I-I think you did," Willow said, grinning from ear to ear.

"Well, no reason not to say it again," Tara smiled.

"I love you too," Willow said. "Oh," she realised, "heh, that proves it, you really do make my brain switch off when you kiss me, I forgot completely... anyway, I'd better tell you before we wake Amalee, it's not really happy news."

"What?" Tara asked, concerned as she pulled on her armour.

"Um, I was doing some thinking," Willow explained, "about the mage and Shadai, and how they were able to do what they did, you remember I was saying it shouldn't have been possible... well, I figured out how to explain it..."

Tara listened carefully as Willow outlined her theory, and even as Willow felt mostly regret at having to burden her with the knowledge that all was not well, she was nonetheless impressed at how easily she seemed to grasp the mechanics of summoning and banishing as they were explained to her.

"Okay," Tara said when Willow had finished, "so Shadai is in an ethereal realm. You said trapped?"

"Yeah," Willow nodded, "yeah, if she could get out she would have, and everything would be, you know, world-wide chaos and destruction, the dead rising, demons marching to war... it'd make the last few days look like a holiday, so yeah, I figure whatever realm she hid in, she's stuck there until someone else breaks her free. Which is what Hydris tried to do, and what the mage at the monastery was going to do."

"And that summoning would be much easier than summoning Shadai from hell?" Tara asked.

"Oh yeah," Willow agreed grimly, as Tara, now fully-dressed, walked with her to the end of the pier, where Willow held up the white flag in the breeze for the distant boat to see.

"Yeah, in dimensional terms, the ethereal planes are right next door to us," she went on, "summoning something out of them is... well, it's tricky, but it takes expertise, not power. Most mages could learn how to do it, if they wanted to. It's just that normally the ethereal realms don't have anything in them that anyone would want to summon - not that anyone in their right mind would want to summon anything, I mean, but... well, it's just disembodied anger and misery. It's happened now and then that a disreputable mage would summon and bind a spectre or a wraith, which live in the ethereal realms, to guard their secrets from intruders, but they're pretty unreliable, difficult to really control, not very bright... prone to not noticing things happening around them. If you're lucky, you could walk right through a wraith without it noticing, they're pretty crude consciousnesses."

"But now Shadai is trapped in an ethereal realm," Tara said, "that's how she snared the mages we've encountered?"

"Probably," Willow said, "a summoning, for a storm caster for example, would reach through the ethereal realms to the planes beyond, and eventually to the various regions of hell. So... well, in spiritual terms, she's got a big rope trap out waiting for any fool who tries to summon anything, and when she catches someone, she tries to bend them to her will, and make them summon her."

"What can we do?" Tara asked, her face hardening into the determination that Willow was coming to recognise, and put much of her faith in.

"Here and now, nothing," she said, "but when we get to Duncraig I'll talk to their mages, and send messages as fast as I can to the Order. They'll start working on detection spells, to find out where exactly she is - if no-one's sensed her presence, that means she's hiding pretty deep - and once they find her, probably a bunch of the most powerful sorceresses will work together on a banishing. The Vizjerei will work on it as well, and the other clans. The clans don't always get along, but when it comes to demons we all know which side we're on."

"Alright," Tara said, "so there's no immediate danger?"

"Yes and no," Willow said with a miserable shrug, "judging by what's happened so far, Shadai can't actually reach out into the world and do anything by herself, so we're safe from her directly. But there's always a couple of idiots in far-flung places dabbling in summoning. As long as this goes on, any one of them could reach her, and bring her back. And," she paused and looked sadly at Tara, "it does kind of seem that whenever that happens, they're going to come after me." Tara quickly wrapped her in a tight hug, pressing herself against Willow.

"We'll be okay," she whispered in her ear, "we've survived so far, and now we know what we're up against, and we're just a couple of days away from the biggest city in Westmarch. She won't get you Willow, I promise you that." She pulled back just far enough to meet Willow's gaze.

"You're mine," she said tenderly, "and I'm yours, I'm not complete without you. There's no way I'm going to let some horrible bitch of a demon take you away from me. I promise."

"I..." Willow hesitated, heartened by Tara's words, yet still distraught. "How do you do that? How can you make me feel safe when there's this, this thing out there, waiting for a chance to get at me? Oh gods, this is... it's not fair, you don't deserve this... hell, I don't deserve this, we don't..."

"No, we don't," Tara agreed, "but this is what we've got, so we'll deal with it together."

"How can you be so strong?" Willow asked, tears streaking her face.

"Because I have you," Tara said gently, "no matter what happens, I have you. It'll be alright," she soothed Willow, hugging her again, "we're not alone... we'll have your Order, and the other mages, all of them with us, working to defeat her and send her back to hell where she'll never be able to hurt us again." She smiled, then laughed joyously.

"What?" Willow said, grinning despite herself. It felt good, no matter what, to hear Tara laugh.

"This is it," Tara said, "don't you see? We didn't know why she was causing all this, how she was reaching us, but now we know how to stop it!"

"You're... you're right," Willow said with a sheepish smile, "gods, I didn't think... we can put a stop to it. You're right, it's a good thing. Definitely a good thing." She wiped her tears away and smiled properly, then she hugged Tara again, and kissed her passionately, feeling her heart lift at the prospect of an end to their troubles. Tara leaned back against one of the pier's upright pylons, fully enjoying the feeling of Willow sucking on her lip, darting her tongue into her mouth, kissing her way across her cheek and finally licking and sucking her earlobe.

"Mmm... oh," Tara sighed as Willow's tongue flicked against her ear, "oh baby... okay, gotta stop now," she panted, "boat'll be here soon... any more and I'm going to drag you into the long grass right now..." Willow leaned back with a thoroughly gleeful smile on her face.

"You've certainly got a way with those lips of yours," Tara grinned.

"And that's after more than a full day on my feet," Willow replied, "just imagine what I'll be like fully rested and ready to play."

"If I imagine that I don't think I'll be able to stay standing up," Tara said, reaching out to give Willow a squeeze on her hip. They both giggled, then glanced along the river towards the sail, which was rapidly approaching, enough that they could both make out the shape of the boat beneath it.

As the boat neared they saw it was actually two hulls, with a wide deck spanning the gap between them, deep enough to be a cargo hold. It had two masts, the taller one bearing a slanted triangular sail, fully unfurled and rounded with wind, the other one smaller, set forward of the main mast, and with its sail rolled up. Tara, with her keener eyesight, made out the designs on the two flags flying from the main mast, and from her descriptions Willow identified one as the flag of a Duncraig merchant trader, and the other as the city flag of Lut Gholein, the capital of the desert realm of Aranoch. A tiny figure waved at them from the prow of the nearer hull, and the craft slowed, the sail rippling as it spilled wind, and two people made their way down to the rear of the hull, where they busied themselves about a small launch tethered there.

"I'll go wake Amalee," Willow offered, now that it was evident the boat was stopping for them. Tara nodded, and a moment later Willow rejoined her, carrying their bags and weapons, with Amalee in tow, wiping the sleep from her eyes.

"It's the Genie," she said, "daddy used to trade with them sometimes. I think we can trust them," she added, glancing up at Willow and Tara.

"Good," Willow smiled, putting an arm around her shoulder, keeping her other around Tara's waist on her other side. The small launch eventually detached itself from the boat, overtaking it easily with its single sail full and speeding towards the pier. There were two men aboard: one, who seemed to be the captain, stood on the prow, dressed in a long, bright blue coat with a grey sash across his chest. The other was dressed in a similar coat, though less colourful, and stood further back, keeping hold of the sail ropes and the tiller.

The crewman brought the launch sliding up to the end of the pier with some precision, and tossed a rope which Tara caught and looped loosely around one of the pylons. The captain stepped up off the prow onto the pier and gave the three women standing there a measured stare. He was not notably tall or heavily-built, but he had an air of easy authority about him, something that suggested a steel edge beneath his genial smile and casual manner. He wore a blue turban, matching his coat, which Willow and Tara now saw was delicately embroidered with geometric patterns along its edges, and beneath it, on a wide belt, was a sheathed sword, a curved scimitar with tiny jewels glinting on the hilt. He had a long, carefully cut moustache and a devilish-looking pointed beard, and his skin was coffee-coloured, which offset his eyes, pale blue and lively, moving across Willow and Tara's faces, pausing on Tara's spear and the bows across their backs. The other man, similar-looking but broader across the shoulders, and with his face clean-shaven, stayed on the launch, tightening the mooring rope and keeping the tiller steady.

"Salaam," he said, nodding and touching the fingers of his right hand to his forehead. "What might- wait," he interrupted himself, staring at Amalee, "I know you, don't I?"

"Hello," she replied with a smile. The man smiled in return, then looked back at Willow and Tara.

"But I don't know you," he said, cautiously but not impolitely.

"Salaam," Willow said, touching her forehead, "I'm Willow of the Zann Esu, this is Tara of the Amazons," Tara copied the greeting gesture, "we need your help."

"There is trouble?" the man asked. "The girl's father...?" he added, his voice quieter, for form's sake, though there was no way to keep Amalee from hearing, standing so close. Willow shook her head.

"The villages and monastery inland were destroyed," Willow explained quietly, "our caravan was attacked further west, and we were making for the river. She was the only person we found." The man's face fell, as he made no effort to conceal how he was struck by the news.

"Oh, little one," he said to Amalee, "I am sorry. Your father was a good man."

"Willow and Tara saved me," Amalee said, nodding sadly in acceptance of his sympathy. "They fought off the beast-men and carried me all the way here."

"Can you take us to Duncraig?" Tara asked, as the man looked back at them with a more open gaze.

"That was a noble thing you did," he said, "I am Solaris Ibn Meshif Ibn Teshren, my vessel is the Djinn. I will take you to Duncraig."

"Thank you, Solaris," Willow said.

"Thank you," Tara echoed, accepting the man's help at getting down into the wide body of the launch. Together they helped Amalee down, and once she was seated Willow passed across Tara's pack, her satchel and their other belongings, with Amalee dutifully stowed behind her seat.

"All set?" Solaris asked as Willow took her seat after lifting the mooring rope clear of its pylon. "Don't stand up, we'll be there in no time. My first mate," he added, gesturing to the crewman holding the tiller, who salaamed to them.

"Refash Ibn Jurel Ibn Nerriv," he introduced himself.

"I'd heard talk of some trouble in the lands south of the city," Solaris went on, "but it was just talk, you know how it is. I never imagined it would be so bad... all the villages?"

"I'm afraid so," Willow said, "it's... there was a powerful mage, he died, but there's still demons and creatures everywhere."

"Hmm," Solaris frowned, "sounds like the army will have a job to do when they finish securing the eastern border. And these beast-men, they are demons?"

"Goat-men," Willow said, "there was a clan of them in the forest between here and Kotram."

"Goat-men," Solaris said with a frown, "yes, I've heard of their kind. And you fought them? Then the stories of Amazons and sorceresses don't exaggerate!"

"A whole tribe of them attacked us," Amalee put in enthusiastically, "but Tara made a thunderstorm and the lightning blew up their stone and they all ran, except for the leader, and Willow fought him with her staff, and she froze him and he broke into bits all over the ground!"

"I see," Solaris said, impressed. "Well, this is a story I must hear... but later, perhaps," he added, glancing at Willow and Tara, "you look like you've had a long journey."

"They carried me all night," Amalee offered.

"There were still goat-men around," Willow explained, "it wasn't safe to stay."

"You've earned your rest indeed," Solaris said seriously, "I'm sorry I can't offer you a cabin, but the Djinn has little in the way of luxuries. You'll have mattresses and blankets though, and if a corner of the cargo deck isn't too meagre by way of accommodations, it'll be yours until we reach Duncraig, and I'll see you're not disturbed."

"Thank you," Tara said gratefully. Willow nodded, suddenly feeling the weight of her fatigue.

Once the launch nudged up to the stern of the Djinn's port hull and its crew climbed aboard the larger vessel, Solaris proved as good as his word, pausing only to tell his helmsman to tighten the sails before he and Refash busied themselves preparing a place for their guests. The cargo deck was slung between the two hulls, with a raised walkway on either side and a pair of tiny cabins to the rear, which Solaris said apologetically were already occupied. Nonetheless he provided admirably for Willow, Tara and Amalee, digging out mattresses, blankets and padded cushions from storage lockers, arranging them in a space at the front of the deck, with the starboard hull on one side, a tall crate behind, and the metre's clearance beneath the walkway providing a sheltered space in which to set up a temporary bed. Refash fixed a tarpaulin in place over the gap between the crate and the forward rail, giving them some privacy, and offered to find another for a makeshift roof, though he promised he would make sure no-one went forward on the starboard walkway, from where they might be able to look down on the little sleeping area. Solaris vanished for a moment, and returned with three simple cotton shifts, a bowl of dried fruit and bread and a bottle of juice.

"We always carry extra stores," he said, "just in case, and we're only a day from port now, so there's food to spare. If you need anything I'll be aft."

"Thank you," Tara said, as Willow and Amalee disappeared behind the tarpaulin to prepare for their rest.

"God bless you both," Solaris said, "the girl's father will be glad that she is in your care." With that he turned and walked back between the crates towards the aft deck. Up above the mainsail filled with air and the boat picked up speed, sending a breeze across the deck. Tara lifted the corner of the tarpaulin and crawled through, finding the space beyond sheltered from the wind for the most part, letting in only a little draft from the open area in front, where the river stretched out ahead of them.

Amalee was already asleep, curled up beneath some blankets against the side of the hull. Willow was wearily undoing her armour, which Tara helped her with, receiving a grateful smile as her fingers quickly undid the buckles and straps holding the leather in place, while Willow switched her attention to pulling off her boots. Willow reached for a shift once Tara finished taking her armour off, but Tara touched the back of her hand, stilling it, and enfolded her in a warm, tender hug, laying her head on Willow's shoulder.

"We made it," she whispered, loving the feel of Willow's almost-naked body in her arms.

"We did," Willow agreed. She glanced down into her lap. "Silly underwear and all," she added with a quiet chuckle. Tara looked at the thin silk which was Willow's only clothing at that moment, and joined her gentle laughter.

"I'm going to get something like that when we reach Duncraig," she said idly as Willow pulled on a shift.

"Ooh, promise?" Willow sighed.

"Oh yeah," Tara smiled, as Willow lay down. Tara took off her own armour and boots as Willow arranged the bedding around herself, reaching an arm out on top of the blankets to rest around Amalee's waist as she slept, which brought a little smile to the girl's face. She glanced back over her shoulder as Tara settled down behind her, her arm staying under the blankets, hugging Willow.

"I love you," she whispered. Tara smiled and kissed her shoulder.

"I know," she replied, "I love you too. Sweet dreams, my Willow..."

"Mmm-hmm," Willow agreed, as both of them fell asleep.

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Forty-Four

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