Return to Hellebore Chapter Forty-Three


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

Tara awoke gently, to the light breeze off the river and the slow swaying of the deck beneath her, and most importantly to the feel of Willow in her arms. She had turned over in her sleep at some point, cuddling up against Tara with her arms tight around her, one leg thrown over Tara's waist, her calf pressing in behind Tara's thighs, holding her close. Her face was buried in Tara's hair, pressed against her neck, and Tara could have sworn she could feel the smile on her lips.

She slowly let her hands roam up and down Willow's back, one staying high on her shoulders, holding her, the other teasing aside the shift which had ridden up around Willow's waist, stroking her naked skin. Tara felt the breeze on the backs of her arms, and realised that their blankets had been pushed down, probably somewhere in the process of Willow rolling over and wrapping herself around her, so that only their hips and legs were covered by it. Tara sighed as she felt a cloud pass over head and sunlight fall on her and Willow, then her lips widened into a gleeful smile as she felt Willow's kiss against her neck.

Willow murmured sleepily as Tara gently crept her hand over her hip and down onto her stomach, rolling her onto her back even as she continued nuzzling tender kisses onto Tara's neck. Tara smiled as Willow's lips found her ear, and for a moment she contented herself with caressing Willow's stomach, sneaking the tips of her fingers beneath her shift now and then, and feeling the results conveyed to her through Willow's nibbling and sucking on her earlobe. She pressed her hand flat against Willow's abdomen, fingers splayed to touch as much of the warm, smooth skin as she could, truly felt Willow's lips curl into a smile against her neck, and dreamily opened her eyes to see the smile for herself-

Amalee was sitting up against the boat's hull, just on the other side of Willow, watching curiously, with a mildly perplexed look about her. Tara's eyes widened and her hand jerked out from beneath Willow's shift, which in turn startled Willow awake.

"Wha? Huh?" she asked, her voice thick with sleep. Tara felt herself go bright red with embarrassment, but made herself meet the girl's curious stare levelly.

"Hi," Amalee said, and Tara relaxed a little to hear the familiar brightness in her voice - no condemnation, no accusation. If anything, the girl seemed to be slightly gleeful at having caught her off-guard, as if she had been sneaking into the kitchen for a midnight snack.

"Um, hi sweetie," she replied with a sheepish grin.

"Hm? Oh... hi," Willow said, finally waking up enough to follow Tara's gaze and see Amalee. She looked back at Tara for a moment, then her eyes widened as she caught up on recent events, and she fought to keep her blush down, and not smile too much. 'Busted,' she mouthed to Tara, and it was only Tara's anxiety over how their young companion wound react to what she had seen that kept her from giggling.

"Are you in love with each other?" Amalee asked.

'Right to the point,' Tara mused, 'but what do I say? She's young, she's from a little village, probably educated by the church mostly... does she think this is a sin or something? What do I say? Oh well...'

"Yes sweetie," she said, "we're in love." Really, what other answer was there? To Tara's relief Amalee just nodded to herself, accepting this the same way she had accepted everything else she had learned since they had found her. She felt Willow relax, and realised they were still wrapped in a tight hug.

"Can women be in love with each other?" Amalee asked. "Isn't it just men and women?"

"Well... no," Tara said, taking a deep breath, "women can be in love with each other. Usually it's a man and a woman who fall in love, but not always. I-I know that the church doesn't agree, but where I come from it's normal for people to be in love with whoever they feel that way about, whether they're men or women." She cringed a little, studying Amalee's face as she tried to work out how she was taking it. Was she explaining too much... or being condescending?

"Oh," the girl said, "okay."

"A-are you okay?" Willow asked, disengaging herself gently from Tara. "Does it bother you that we're-"

"I don't think so," Amalee said, her expression changing to thoughtful introspection - Tara had to smile at how adorable she looked, she had a little of the same quality as Willow did when she was mulling over a problem.

"I don't know," she went on, "are Amazons different to other people? Or is everyone the same?"

"Um, well, we believe different things," Tara said hesitantly, "but otherwise, I think we're just the same as everyone else. It's not just us that... where women are sometimes in love."

"What do they think in the city?" Amalee asked warily. "Do they think it's okay, or are they like the church and think it's wrong?"

"I don't know," Tara admitted, "I guess we'll find out when we get there." She gave a little shrug.

"We're not going to hide how we feel, though," Willow added, straightening her shift and sitting up.

"They shouldn't think you're bad for being in love," Amalee said indignantly.

"Well, I hope they don't," Tara said. Amalee nodded decisively, then stood up and looked around.

"Mister Solaris said they had some bread rolls and stuff if I got hungry before dinner, is it okay if I go get one?" she asked.

"Sure sweetie," Tara said, "just be careful not to go near the edge of the deck."

"I won't," Amalee replied, in a 'don't be silly' tone of voice. Tara and Willow shared a smile as she buttoned up the neck of her shift and scuttled off between the crates.

"Should one of us stay with her?" Willow asked. "Not that I'm worried or anything, just, you know... heh, I guess I've sort of got into this way of thinking where it's us and everything else, and everything else is out to get us."

"It did seem like that for a while, didn't it?" Tara agreed. "I think we're safe here. I mean, so long as we don't run into, oh, pirates, or whatever they have on rivers to mess up your day. The captain's an honest man, I'm sure, and honourable. I got a very strong sense from him... I don't think a little girl like Amalee would have anything to fear on his boat."

"Good," Willow said emphatically, "she deserves a break... poor girl. Oh, heh, um, sorry about earlier... you know, the snuggling and all that... I didn't realise she was watching."

"Neither did I," Tara shrugged, "still, it didn't seem to bother her, so no harm done. And hey, it's not like you were the only one doing the snuggling."

"Yeah, that's true," Willow smiled, "even half asleep there's no mistaking the feel of Tara-hands getting adventurous." She shot Tara a grin. "There's just no stopping you, is there? That little lake a few days ago, and then in the catacombs," she shrugged helplessly, "any time you get half a chance, you're all over me."

"And you love it," Tara purred, sitting up behind Willow and slipping her hands underneath the material draped over her hips.

"Mmmyeah," Willow agreed, covering Tara's hands with her own, "yeah, I do..." Tara caressed her hips for a moment, playfully squeezing and kneading at Willow, then kissed her on the back of her neck and gave her a light swat on her bottom.

"Hey!" Willow protested, turning to face Tara. "Now you're deliberately turning me on."

"Uh-huh," Tara nodded, "pity this isn't really private." She stretched languidly. "I guess you'll just have to restrain yourself for a little while longer."

"Just you wait," Willow warned gleefully, "the moment I get you alone somewhere..." Tara met her stare, and in unison their smiles broadened, and broke into laughter.

"About Amalee," Willow said, a moment later as she and Tara were donning their armour, "you don't think the might get into trouble? I mean, from what I've heard Duncraig is a pretty liberal place, but... well, I don't like the thought of her telling people about us, and our adventure, and, you know, if she leaves in the part where we're in love, and someone objects... not that it's something we should be hiding, but, well, she's just a kid..." She gave Tara a worried look.

"She's a smart girl," Tara said, "more than most children her age, I think, especially from such a remote upbringing. I think she'll be okay. Besides, it's not like she's going to be on her own. This uncle of hers..."

"We'll see what he's like," Willow said, "make sure he's, you know, that he'll take care of her properly. She deserves a proper family, not just someone who keeps her fed and clothed because it's an obligation, or something like that."

"We'll make sure she's got a good home," Tara promised. She stood up and reached out a hand to Willow, pulling her to her feet and into a hug.

"See?" Willow pointed out. "Any chance you get..."

"Oh, you know how it is," Tara replied with forces casualness, "you're too luscious for me not to take every opportunity..." She leaned closer and kissed Willow, enjoying the little whimpers that came up her throat as she parted her lips and explored within, and the way Willow's hands clutched reflexively at her back as their tongues met and mingled.

"Oh yeah," Willow said breathlessly when their lips parted, "I know exactly... how it is..." They walked out onto the cargo deck, hand in hand, finding Amalee sitting with her back against a crate, looking out over the river ahead of them.

"It'll be dark soon," she explained, "Mister Solaris said you can see the city's lights when it gets dark." She resumed her scrutiny of the horizon, munching happily on a slice of nutbread. Willow hopped up onto the crate, swinging her legs off its edge, and Tara leant up against it, one hand lazily trailing up and down Willow's thigh.

"So is 'Solaris' the proper name for our captain?" Tara asked Willow. "I wasn't sure how to address him, after he introduced himself."

"Oh, he's from Lut Gholein," Willow explained, "they go in for long names there. That was sort of a formal greeting, but yeah, in normal conversation he'd be just Solaris. Or 'captain', it he wants, I guess."

"Is the rest a family name?" Tara asked.

"Ancestors," Willow said, "on the male side... they're a little patriarchal in Aranoch, though the current Lord is supposedly big on making everything equal. But the names are an old tradition - 'ibn' means 'son of', so he's Solaris son of Meshif son of Teshren. Sometimes they include their ancestral land, or their tribe if they're descended from nomads, but families who've lived in the cities for a while don't always bother with that. I guess in this case, maybe he'd consider the boat his home, but there isn't a naming tradition that includes boats. They're a desert people originally." Tara nodded thoughtfully.

"Actually," she said, "those naming traditions are a bit like what we use for ceremonies back home."

"You have extended names?" Willow asked. "What's yours?"

"Well," Tara said, "the ceremonial name is, like you'd expect, only required in ceremonies - during worship, or formal occasions, we don't use them for introductions. The tradition is that an Amazon's name, as spoken in a ceremony, says who he or she is, what... what defines them, as a person, what makes that person who he or she truly is. So they can change, as people change, and depending on the ceremony being conducted the name might change as well. Only the Amazon herself - or himself, you get the idea - can speak her name in full, or give permission for others to speak it. Names used to be a lot more important and significant, mostly no-one thinks of them nowadays unless they're needed for a ritual or a ceremony. The last time I spoke my full name was when I began my training, years ago. Then I gave my name as Tara nela Selena."

"'Daughter of'," Willow translated, and Tara nodded.

"I didn't become a warrior just to follow in my mother's footsteps," she explained, "but her memory was part of my decision, and the most important influence on me then, as a warrior trainee. It's common nowadays, at least until you become an adult, to have your mother or father as part of your ceremonial name." She paused, and smiled up at Willow.

"But now," she said her voice softening, and growing more serious at the same time, "my full name, by which our gods and goddesses call me, is Tara lal Willow, and you may call me that whenever you wish."

"'Lal'...?" Willow asked, searching her memory, a smile already forming on her lips.

"'Beloved of'," Tara translated. Willow bit her lip, and her eyes filled with moisture.

"Of course, it's just an old tradition," Tara went on, smiling and reaching up to wipe away the joyous tears that rolled over her cheeks, "if you hadn't reminded me of it I probably wouldn't have thought of it. Still, it's important, even today, to allow another person to speak your full name. I-I'm glad you reminded me of it, actually..."

"Tara lal Willow," Willow whispered. Tara put a finger on her cheek and gently guided her down, bringing their faces level.

"Just the way you say 'Tara' is enough," she murmured, "I feel so loved..." They kissed again, slowly and tenderly at first. Willow was the first to reach her fingers through Tara's hair and hold her close, delving into her mouth, while Tara cupped Willow's cheeks in her hands and blissfully surrendered herself to Willow's lips. They stayed together, foreheads touching, even after their lips parted. Amalee, who had glanced back at them, rolled her eyes, gave a theatrical sigh, and turned back to the view of the river. Both Willow and Tara fought an attack of the giggles.

"Well then," Tara said, putting a hand to her cheek to calm herself, "I don't know about you, but I could use a meal."

"Sounds good," Willow agreed. "I'll say this, travel by river is a lot better than on the open seas. All that tossing about, the last thing I wanted was to think about food."

"This boat doesn't roll much," Tara commented, taking Willow's hand as she hopped down from her perch on the crate.

"I haven't ever seen one quite like this," Willow admitted, "the name is from Aranoch - a djinn is a spirit, sort of like a, a fairy, or a sprite. Those slanted sails are the kind they use on the merchant ships out of Lut Gholein, but the hull I don't know. Back in Kurast they use twin hulls, but I've only ever seen them on small boats, like the launch, never one this big."

"My father designed it," said Solaris from behind them. "Sorry," he added sheepishly, seeing them both jump slightly.

"Your father?" Tara asked politely, as Amalee got up and joined them on their way back to the rear of the deck, where the cabins were.

"Meshif," Solaris said, "a great man. He runs the docks in Lut Gholein for Lord Jerhyn now, but back in his younger days he was a great sailor and boat builder. He built this boat for me, for my coming-of-age."

In front of the boat's small cabins a table had been set up, surrounded by chairs, all with slightly splayed legs that kept then steady as the deck swayed slightly. One man was already seated, pouring wine, while a younger man, barely out of his teens, was unwrapping preserved food and setting it out.

"My night-crew," Solaris said, "Taryn, master of the watch, and Vatif, his deck-hand - his first year before the mast, and a fine crewman he's becoming." Both paused, Taryn getting to his feet, and introduced themselves, extended names and all.

"Sit, sit," Meshif said, "we usually dine on deck, it's too cramped inside, and the weather's good for it. Eh Taryn?"

"Good for today and tomorrow," Taryn said, in a thickly-accented voice, "but the day after, big storm."

"Well, none of our concern, we'll be safe in dock by then. Taryn is never wrong about the weather, you know," he added to Willow and Tara, "why, one time - you remember, last time we sailed up the peninsula? - he looked into a clear sky, not a cloud from horizon to horizon, and told me we had three days before the biggest storm we'd ever seen. And you were right, weren't you?" Taryn shrugged modestly, then looked somewhat bashful as Amalee sat next to him and peered intently at the stylised tattoos on his arm, left showing by his sleeveless tunic.

"What's that one?" she asked, pointing to a circular design.

"Oh? Ah, well..." he said, "this here is the name of a ship, see? That's the writing we use back home in Aranoch, though not usually in a circle like that. It says 'Dragonfly', she was a very famous ship..."

"Just don't show her the one on your shoulder," Solaris murmured good-naturedly, "she's not old enough to hear that story. Ah, here we go," he said, as Vatif set a platter down in the centre of the table and took a seat himself.

"Is Refash joining us?" Willow asked. Amalee was absorbed in Taryn's story, prompting him for details now and then.

"He's on helm watch," Solaris said, "the Djinn's a fine boat, but she doesn't steer herself. He'll join us once these two finish up and go on duty."

"You keep sailing at night?" Tara asked. "I thought you'd drop anchor, or something?"

"No need on the Kingsway," Solaris said, tucking into a sandwich, "you've never seen the river at night? Well, it's quite a marvel, you can look forward to it."

"I've been meaning to ask, if I may," Tara said, "your name, Solaris... you're not Amazon, but that's an Amazon name...?"

"It is an Amazon name," Solaris agreed, "but no, I'm not Amazon. Born and raised in Lut Gholein. But named for an Amazon. You see," he settled back in his seat, pausing occasionally to take a bite of dinner, "twenty years ago, when I was just an uncomfortable passenger in my mother's womb - don't look so surprised, I don't look that much older, do I?"

"It's the beard," Willow offered.

"Ah yes," Solaris smiled, "I think if I shaved, none of these Westmarch captains would take me seriously, they'd say 'go fetch your master, cabin-boy,' as if I haven't been on the water for more years than I've been on land! Hah!" he laughed jovially. "Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yes, the time of shadows, what they call the Reckoning nowadays. A great evil lay over the land and the seas, and there was not a captain in Lut Gholein who would risk the crossing of the Twin Seas to Kurast. They say unnatural creatures, huge beasts of the deep, had risen up and were swallowing whole ships in one gulp!" He became more animated, noticing that Amalee was listening in as well.

"A shadow lay over Lut Gholein," he went on, "the work of a foul creature that dwelled out in the desert. Many brave men of the city guard ventured out, but none returned, and even the city itself became dangerous, with evil stalking beneath the ground, in the old sewer tunnels, and venturing out at night. They say even the day became as night, with the sun shrouded in blackness. But," he held up a hand, smiling at Amalee, who was on the edge of her seat, "when all seemed lost, there came a band of warriors from the west, a master of strange magics, a tall Amazon warrior, and a quiet young woman from Kurast. They had fought great battles together back in the west, and were following the trail of evil, undoing the work of the dark creatures as they went.

"When they discovered the terrible plight out city was in, they ventured into the desert, and for days nothing was heard of them. But then, when all had given up hope, the sun returned, and the day after the city had finally seen sunlight again, they returned from the desert, and sought passage across the Twin Seas, where they believed the evil they followed had fled. Well, there were few ships in dock, and few captains brave enough to try their luck on those seas, but my father went to them and said to them, 'you have saved all our lives, so my ship is yours.' And on board they went, the mage keeping to his cabin alone, and the Amazon with the Kurasti woman, tending to wounds she had taken during the battles they had fought in the desert, nursing her back to health. My father did not pry into their affairs, you understand - they said a great demon had been defeated, and he left it at that, and prayed for the woman's health.

"Now, it seemed the voyage was going well, but in the centre of the Twin Seas, they say the sea bed is split by a great trench, so deep that the bottom reaches through the world and into darkness that has never seen light. Perhaps it is so, for as my father's ship crossed the middle of the sea, a huge creature rose up, a giant beast the size of a ship itself, with a dozen tentacles, each as thick as a great tree. My father's crew had never seen such a beast - the bolts of their crossbows bounced off its hide, and when they turned the deck ballista on it, and buried a steel bolt five feet long in its belly, it seemed only to make it angrier. The man came on deck from his cabin and began to weave some arcane magic, but before he could complete his spell he was hit by the beast's waving tentacle, and knocked out against the mast - it was a mercy he was not sent overboard, for the ship was being tossed around as if by the mother of all storms! Then..." he paused, and looked at Amalee. "Do you know what happened next?"

"The Amazon fought the sea monster?" she guessed.

"She did," Solaris said, "my father saw with his own eyes the Amazon fire her bow at the sea, and freeze it solid for a hundred yards in every direction! And the monster thrashed around and smashed at the ice, trying to get free, but every time it broke through it set free a huge mass of ice, which swirled in the water and crashed into it. Only ahead of my father's ship was the water still warm, and so they escaped, as the great beast was crushed by its own struggles." He sat back in his seat again and grinned at Amalee, who was quite satisfied with the monster's grisly end.

"So, the Amazon woman saved my father's life, and the life of his crew, and never asked for anything in return. He took her and her companions to the Kurast docks, where they said their farewells to him, but he remembered the Amazon woman's heroism, the fearlessness with which she faced that titan from the deep, and so he named me after her. Her name was-"

"Solari?" guessed Tara.

"You know her?" Solaris asked wide-eyed.

"She would have been twenty-four, twenty-five?" Tara asked. "Blonde hair, brown eyes, carried a bow with blue steel tips?"

"Exactly how my father described her to me," the captain nodded.

"She was my weapons instructor," Tara said, "she taught me archery and spear-work, and how to wield Amazon magic."

"Ah," Solaris nodded, "then, it's no surprise you came through unscathed from your encounters with the creatures inland, eh? You have heard this story of the sea beast?"

"No," Tara said, "no, she used to tell us - her trainees - stories now and then, but usually not about herself."

"Of course," Solaris said, "such is often the way. The brave have their fill of adventure, and then leave the telling of their tales to others - so it's no surprise you two tell of your journey across the highlands as if it were nothing, eh? But I think we may hear that story nonetheless, from one who is eager to tell it?" He grinned at Amalee, who was bouncing in her seat with good-natured impatience.

She described, at great length, their journey from the ruins of her village to the river, talking animatedly as dusk became evening, and Vatif lit a handful of oil lamps fixed to the deck railings for light. Tara shared glances with Willow now and then, feeling herself blush as Amalee described her calling on the lightning in terms that made her seem to be some mythic demi-goddess, and she found herself smiling at Willow's matching blush as her fight with the goat-lord was recounted in heroic detail. The girl's vocabulary and grasp of story-telling was impressive to say the least, and Tara noticed that, though she invariably cast her two protectors in the most noble, heroic light, she was faithful to the events she had witnessed, and never truly exaggerated their feats, or omitted their worries and hesitations along the way.

"You know, she would make quite a bard," Willow murmured softly, after Amalee had finished holding the attention of the three sailors, and dinner had drawn to a close.

"She would," Tara agreed, "she had my attention, and I already knew what happened. How does a girl from a rural village learn to tell stories like that?"

"She's smart, that's for sure," Willow said, "I noticed phrases here and there, and ways she constructed the scenes, that sounded like the mythology she probably heard in church lessons. I guess she used the same techniques, and adapted them to the story she was telling, but to do it that well, pretty much by instinct... whatever she eventually decides to do with herself, the future looks bright."

"You're proud of her," Tara observed, leaning up against a rail.

"Yeah," Willow agreed.

"I am too. It's funny, isn't it? We've known her for, what, two days, and we're carrying on like proud parents..." She and Willow shared a smile, then Willow turned around and leaned back against Tara, covering Tara's hands with her own as they went around her waist.

"The future looks bright," Willow said again.

"Ladies," Solaris called, "if you'd like to come up to the helm for a moment, I think you'll want to see this. Yes, you too," he added to Amalee, who had begun to open her mouth to ask. The three of them followed Solaris and Taryn across to the far side of the cabins, up a ladder onto the small deck on top of them, where Refash stood at the wheel, surrounded by a set of instruments, each fixed in a wooden pedestal in the deck.

"There," Solaris said, gesturing out ahead of them, "the Kingsway river in all her glory!"

Willow, Tara and Amalee looked, and were duly impressed. As far as they could see - two or three miles, to the next bend in the river - the water was alive with starlight, reflected brighter than the night sky itself. It was as if some god had laid out a glittering trail of diamonds for them to follow.

"It's beautiful," Willow whispered, unconsciously catching Tara's hand and holding it.

"Ten years ago, they invented this in Duncraig," Solaris said, "the alchemists brew up a potion that reflects the lights of the night sky, the stars and the moon, so brightly they say you cannot look upon the mixture in its pure form. They put it into the river, so on a clear night like this, with a good helmsman, you can navigate as surely as if the sun was shining. And we have good helmsmen, of course - Refash knows this river as well as he knows his own ancestry, and Taryn-" he turned to Taryn, who had taken the wheel from Refash, "when you were a mere boy, you were a deckhand on the first boat to sail this river guided by starlight, weren't you?" He turned back to the river ahead, and put both hands on the forward rail.

"It is a sight, is it not?" he said, with more than a little awe in his voice. "Aye... some apprentice in a workshop awakes one day with an idea, goes to his chemicals and powders, and then this... such a thing of beauty. And the world is changed - in good weather, a fast ship can reach Duncraig in three days from Kingsport, travelling day and night. We're not *that* fast, but under this clear sky, I promise you ladies, when you wake tomorrow it will be to see the city growing near."

"So soon?" Willow asked.

"No doubt," Solaris said earnestly, "by midday tomorrow you will be enjoying lunch in the gardens of the Duncraig markets, and I- hah, I'll probably be haggling with some wizened old goods trader who wants to charge me five crowns a barrel for dragon oil! They have many miracles in Duncraig, and believe me, their businessmen are surely one of them. Are we close enough... yes, there!" He pointed to the horizon, just to the right of the glittering river, where the night sky was lit with a faint, warm glow. "You see it?"

"What is it?" Tara asked. "Torches?"

"A beacon?" Willow suggested.

"That," Solaris said proudly, "is Duncraig itself! Even in the dead of night the lights shine, and the city is alive with people. It'll be light by the time we reach the city proper, but to approach it at night... a man could believe he was sailing towards the towers of heaven. The spires reach high, glittering with lamps and torchlight, and always there are bursts of light from the wizards' quarter, from their experiments I'm told."

"Flare light," Willow said, "burning off excess magic... always?"

"I have seen it," Solaris said, "ten minutes do not go by but there is a silent jet of light rising from the rooves of the mages' workshops and studies, reds and greens and blues, like majestic fireworks. They have metal rods, you see, fixed in place, to guide the power into the sky... well, you would know of this better than I, of course."

"I've seen that kind of thing," Willow nodded, "but to be flaring that much... gods, they must be busy. How many mages are there in the city, do you know?"

"Many," Solaris said, "how many I do not know, but they are always around, in their robes, buying strange things for their work. I get good prices for bringing in preserved powders and plants, when we come back from Kurast, or out to the western coast. Many mages, but then again, in that city, there are a great many people of every kind. Ever since I was a boy, there has been talk of Duncraig, and how the wealth of the world is flowing there. Many people make the long journey to get their share of the prosperity - from all over Westmarch, Khanduras, Aranoch, Kehjistan, Entsteig, and a few from even further, from countries that most here have never heard the names of." He shook his head in wonder, then stretched and yawned.

"Well, if you'll forgive me ladies," he said, "it's time I turned in. If you need anything during the night Taryn will be here, and Vatif will be around and about. Don't trouble yourselves if you feel us stop for a moment during the night, if she's on schedule the Lioness is somewhere up ahead, coming downriver, and we'll pause to exchange news. The captain is an old friend of mine." He yawned again. "Oh, excuse me... this is what I get for waking early for morning watch. Well... goodnight ladies."

"I'm not really sleepy," Amalee protested later, when Willow and Tara were laying out the blankets for the night's rest. "I practically slept all day."

"I know sweetie," Tara said, "but we could all use a proper rest, without waking up all the time. And besides, you want to be wide awake for the city tomorrow?"

"I do," Willow said emphatically, "I had no idea there were so many mages there, I'd thought- I mean, trade and commerce okay, and of course the place is growing like you wouldn't believe, but the way Solaris described it, it sounds like it's the western capital of the magical world. Sort of like Kurast without the tropical heat," she mused to herself, "I could actually get to like that, I never really liked the heat that much, and mosquitos, ick..." she yawned.

"Are you looking forward to it too?" Amalee asked Tara.

"Oh yes," Tara said, "I'll be able to see my friends from the caravan again - at least, we should do," she added, her face darkening with a tiny amount of worry, quickly dispelled by Willow's comforting smile.

"And I'll get to meet the Duke," Tara went on, "and see the palace."

"Wow, you know the Duke?" Amalee asked.

"Well, no," Tara admitted, "but that's what I'm doing on this journey, meeting all the rulers on behalf of the Amazons."

"Bedtime, honey," Willow reminded Amalee gently, patting the blankets she had laid out for her.

"Okay," she said, with only a small sigh. All three of them sat down on the blankets, Willow and Tara busying themselves with removing boots and unstrapping their around in preparation for bed. Amalee paused, and looked at them for a moment.

"What's up sweetie?" Tara asked, noticing a moist gleam in the little girl's eyes. Without warning she flung herself at Willow and Tara, hugging both of them fiercely.

"I'm so glad you found me," she whispered hoarsely, "I'm going to miss you two when we get to the city."

"It's okay honey," Willow soothed her, stroking her hair, "we'll visit you all the time, won't we?"

"Of course," Tara confirmed, "after all, you'll be our best friend in the whole city, you'll see plenty of us."


"Promise," Tara smiled. Amalee loosened her hold, and Willow coaxed her into the blankets, while Tara finished taking off her armour, again donning her borrowed shift to sleep in.

"Sleep well, honey," Willow whispered to Amalee, "sweet dreams." She watched over her for a moment, patting the back of her hand, until the girl's breathing became the slow rhythm of sleep. With a last smile she turned back to Tara, who was kneeling close to her, smiling seductively.

"Oh, well," Willow whispered, "I know what I'll be dreaming of."

"Dream all you like," Tara murmured, so close her breath warmed Willow's cheek, "tomorrow night, I'll make sure you get everything you've dreamed of."

"Everything?" Willow asked, sliding her arms around Tara's waist, pulling up the bottom of the shift to press her hands against her skin.

"Well, not the dancing fish, or whatever you come up with this time," Tara grinned, "but all the good bits... all night." She nipped playfully at Willow's ear, then helped her out of her armour and on with her shift, her hands straying over Willow's sides and thighs until at last they were covered.

"Goodnight, my sweet Willow," Tara whispered.

"Goodnight my love," Willow replied. She turned and began to lie down next to Amalee, hesitating half-way and turning back towards Tara.

"You two can cuddle if you want," Amalee said.

"Thank you honey," Willow laughed, sitting back up and hugging Tara tightly. As she lay down again, Tara went with her, adopting her customary position, curled up against Willow's back, as Willow gently lay a hand on Amalee's arm.

"G'night," the girl said sleepily.

"Goodnight honey," Willow replied.

"Goodnight," Tara added, "sweet dreams... both of you."

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Forty-Five

Return to Story Archive
Return to Main Page