Return to Hellebore Chapter Fifty-One


Author: Chris Cook
Rating: NC-17
Copyright: Based on characters from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon and his talented minionators, and Diablo II by Blizzard Entertainment. All original material is copyright 2004 Chris Cook.

Tara blinked lazily as she woke up, then moaned at the wonderful sensation emanating from her breasts. With some effort, she managed to open her eyes all the way, and glanced down to see Willow nibbling on her left nipple, while her hand kept the other from feeling left out.

"Morning," Willow grinned in between licks.

"Mmmmorning," Tara managed, "a-are you... trying to give me... sexy dreams... again...?"

"Maybe," Willow admitted with a smile, moving slightly to settle her head on Tara's shoulder, as her free hand took the place of her lips. "Did it work?"

"Oh, baby," Tara sighed, "like you wouldn't believe." Willow's smile broadened with pride.

"You were sleeping so soundly," she said, "I thought, given you'd have to wake up anyway, you'd appreciate it being something worth waking up for."

"You don't have to do anything to be worth waking up for," Tara said fondly, "but, seeing as you did... that feels soooo beautiful..."

"Your dance must've tired you out," Willow quipped, "but hey, no complaints here, you're amazing. Did you ever do any of those Amazon ritual dances?"

"Not formally," Tara murmured, as Willow continued to gently stroke her breasts, teasing the nipples, "but... ah... some of the trainees... used to arrange performances in their free time... just for fun... I sometimes joined in... it turned out not to... mmm... be so difficult... a lot like practising with a spear... just learning the motions..."

"Did you ever consider joining a troupe?" Willow joked.

"Nah," Tara shook her head, "I think I've found my preferred style of dance... intimate performances, for an audience of one. That way I can go into the second half of my act."

"Which is?"

"The waltz, for two," Tara grinned.

"Best dance I've ever had," Willow laughed. "Oh, there's a letter for you from the army, the seal says it's from the training office."

"Just a formality," Tara said, "the General said he'd get it to me in writing, but he already told me what days I'd be instructing the archers. You've been up and about already?"

"Like I said, you were sleeping pretty soundly. I got the mail, and breakfast." Tara glanced over to the table, where a covered platter was waiting.

"Oh baby," she smiled at Willow, "you're so good to me."

"I do my best," Willow murmured, leaning down to teasingly lick at Tara's cleavage.

"Couldn't possibly be better," Tara sighed. "Anything else you got done while I was being a lazy Amazon?"

"Our dresses are headed down to the laundry," Willow said, "and I got a couple of replies to the letters I sent out. One from a mage's apprentice saying his mistress is travelling, but she'll be in touch when she gets back in a few weeks. The other from a mage with a workshop down near the river, saying to drop by some afternoon to get acquainted and see what we can work out. Actually I remember the letter that went to him, it was from Ember herself, rather than a formal one from the Order."

"An old friend of hers?" Tara wondered, stroking her hand up and down Willow's back.

"Probably," Willow agreed, wriggling enticingly, "if nothing urgent comes up today with Myrreon, I thought I'd go see him tomorrow afternoon."

"I've got instructing duties today and tomorrow," Tara said, "do you think you could manage a day off after that?"

"I definitely could," Willow grinned, "have you got something in mind?"

"Nothing yet," Tara replied lightly, "maybe we could visit Amalee, do some shopping... it's a big city, I'm sure there's more than enough to do. And of course," she grinned seductively, "there's a certain appeal to being able to stay in bed all morning."

"There is at that," Willow nodded. "Speaking of which, we should probably be getting up right about now, but then again I'm kind of leading somewhere with all this," she licked Tara's cleavage again, and gave her breasts a squeeze. "Do you think you and your luscious breasts might join me in the shower?" Tara laughed loudly, which in turn caused her to shudder in Willow's grip.

"My luscious breasts and I would be delighted," she giggled.

Tara watched a volley of arrows fly, and mostly hit near the bullseyes they were aimed at. None missed the targets completely, which was unsurprising. General Murine had told her, both in his letter and then when Tara had arrived at the barracks, that she would be working with trained archers initially. Depending on how she did, the General would either add her to the roster of instructors who worked with new recruits, or, if she proved able to improve the abilities of trained men, keep her with the soldiers, and perhaps see if she could pass on some of her skills to the army's own archery instructors at the same time.

Her first session seemed to be going well. She had been hesitant at first, especially on seeing her 'students', three dozen soldiers who according to the General had already completed a six month tour of duty. Her worries about whether they would even listen to her were quickly put to rest by Sergeant Sheerson, a lean tower of a man who informed the troops, in a booming voice, that they would not show the slightest disrespect to Lady Tara, that they would do exactly as she told them, and that they would treat every word she said as if it had come from the Power That Is herself. That got her through the introductory stages without any difficulties, and once the soldiers saw her demonstrate her abilities, she was confident that they respected her, archer to archer.

As for being able to teach them anything, as the morning session wore on Tara was more confident about achieving good results. To a man they were good archers, with steady aim and good arms. Tara found that this actually helped her - when she explained and demonstrated Amazon techniques, they were able to understand quickly, and their training allowed them to put what they learned into practice, and see the results. The General watched the first hour of the session from the side of the range, then departed to attend to other business after giving Tara an encouraging nod.

She called a halt and told the men to retrieve their arrows and line up for another round. They were working on snap shots - firing accurately without preparation time - which was a skill that she felt the Duncraig instructors had undervalued somewhat. It was natural, she supposed, to concentrate on accuracy at range, given that the most likely battleground in Westmarch was an open plain, rather than the dense jungles of the Amazon Isles. The soldiers, however, had seen battle to varying degrees, and had learned the hard way that nothing in battle goes to plan. Some of them had already taken it upon themselves to practice drawing and firing in one motion, and all of them were eager to learn more.

Tara stood at the practice line and fired with the soldiers, doing exactly as she had taught them - facing sideways, bow held down, arrow in hand, opening her eyes, turning and nocking her arrow as she lifted the bow, letting the string loose the moment the arrow was pointed towards the target. She had felt awkward when she had first been taught the technique, so she had worked extra hard on it, and it paid off - by the time she was fifteen she had been able to bullseye a target the moment her eye fell on it. The soldiers had a lot to learn, but showed promise, and they were slowing slightly to get used to the action, rather than trying to match her speed and making mistakes in the process. Solari had always taught the same thing: 'Don't try to do it perfectly first time. Just try to do it okay, and work from there.'

After each man had fired ten arrows at his target Tara called a halt, and once the arrows had been collected she dismissed them for lunch. She felt a sense of accomplishment when she noticed how many of them spared her a wave or a word of thanks before they headed back to the armoury to stow their weapons. 'This might work after all,' she smiled to herself.

For her own part, she was looking forward to lunch for more than the chance of a cool drink and something to fill her stomach. Before Tara had left their room for the barracks, Willow had asked if she got time off for lunch, and when Tara said she did, asked her to be at the gate to the Palace gardens at midday. Seeing the anticipatory grin on Willow's face, she didn't ask why - curiosity had plagued her during the short walk to the barracks, but the instructing had kept her mind busy, and besides, she knew it would be a good surprise. The gardens, on the northwest side of the Palace, were only a couple of blocks from the barracks, and Tara covered the distance quickly.

Willow was standing by the gates - huge old wooden doors, and a portcullis that looked like it hadn't been used in some time - and gave Tara a gleeful wave when she spied her across the street. Tara gave an answering wave and quickly crossed. Willow jogged forward a few steps to meet her, draping one arm around her waist and leaning in to kiss her. In her other hand she was holding a basket covered by a cloth, which Tara looked at, then raised a questioning eyebrow at Willow as they parted.

"What've you got there?" she asked.

"Patience," Willow smiled.

"Patience?" Tara teased. "This from the same Willow who gets over-excited at the tiniest little things?"

"For the record," Willow said mock-haughtily, "you've never seen me over-excited, the reason being, I'm with you, and you're worth all the excitement I can muster. Thanks," she said to the lone Palace guard standing at the gates, who nodded to allow them to pass.

"I will grant you," Willow went on, linking arms with Tara as the walked through the stone archway, "I get more visibly excited than most people. But I'm not most people, am I?"

"No you're not," Tara agreed, lifting Willow's hand to her lips, "you're my Willow." She gave her palm a gentle kiss. "And I love you, just the way you are."

"I love you too," Willow said warmly, "even more than I love being your Willow - and you know, I love being your Willow a lot."

"You've certainly never given me cause to doubt it," Tara said.

"Good," Willow nodded, "me neither, my beautiful Tara. Now come on, this way."

Willow led Tara into the gardens, a sculpted piece of nature in the heart of the city. Tara knew the land extended right up to the river to the north, though she couldn't see that far - the road from the gate curved away in the other direction, towards the Palace, and apart from that there were lush green trees and bushes as far as she could see, with gravel paths lined with painted rocks winding their way in and out. Birdsong was in the air, the sounds of the city were quite muffled by the high stone wall - it was tranquil and inviting as paradise, and reminded Tara of home, of the green lands down by the lake, where she imagined herself and Willow living one day.

Willow led them down one of the paths, past exotic flowers, and beneath the shade of leafy trees stretching their boughs over little lawns of soft, verdant grass. They came to an avenue through the small forest, wide enough for a small coach, lined on either side with ornate oil lamps, statues dotted here and there, and twin rows of bushes that were blooming with hundreds of tiny white flowers.

"It's just up ahead," Willow said mysteriously. Tara had already guessed, just from her choice of setting, that Willow had planned a picnic, but held her tongue, looking forward to seeing just what she had prepared, and the spot she had chosen. They followed the avenue some way, then Willow took a turn off to the other side, leading Tara along a narrow path between shrubs and bushes, with venerable old trees stretching their branches high above.

"Here," Willow said, letting Tara walk in front of her. She emerged from between two tall bushes into a tiny clearing, outlined by the trunks of some low trees, their branches intertwining to filter the sunlight from above into a soft pattern of light and shade. The grass was tall and soft, dotted with tiny flowers, blooms of rich red and gold and white and sky blue all over. A blanket had been laid out, with cushions spread at its edge, and at the centre a wood-covered metal ice bucket, with a bottle of wine, and two crystal glasses next to it. An unassuming statue of a woman in a robe stood just at the edge of the bushes, holding a dish, a bird-bath, kept full of water by a tiny brass spout bubbling merrily to itself. The trees enclosed the clearing on three sides - on the far side from Tara was the shore to a sparkling lake, with ducks paddling about, and not far off a little island, covered in long grass, reeds where it met the lake, and a pair of trees in the centre, short with wide branches.

"Willow..." Tara said, searching for the words to express what she felt.

"You like?" Willow said with a radiant smile, taking her arm again and leading her to the cushions, where they both say down.

"Beautiful," Tara sighed, "just... totally beautiful."

"Nothing's too good for my Tara," Willow said with a shy smile, setting the basket and her satchel down on the blanket. She reached for the wine and poured some into both glasses, handing one to Tara.

"It's light spring wine," she said, "just a couple of glasses won't affect your aim at all, so don't worry about this afternoon."

"You think of everything," Tara smiled. She settled back on her cushions and looked at Willow, who was smiling fondly at her.

"You know," Willow said, keeping her gaze, "it's been twenty-five days now since we met. Which isn't really a set moment that you'd normally celebrate, but hey, why not... In the past twenty-five days I've had a demon nearly summoned right in front of me by a psychotic mage, I've had Carvers attack me, I've found out that same demon has a massive grudge against me, I've come this close to being captured by yet another psychotic mage, I've had the wits frightened out of me by something going 'bump' in the night, I've walked across miles of wilderness with all sorts of nasty things chasing me, and I've been surrounded by a whole clan of goat-men and fought their truly massive leader - but you know what?" She settled back, still staring into Tara's gaze. "They've been the best twenty-five days of my life, and I wouldn't swap them for anything."

"Me neither," Tara said, "and in my case, you can add 'got shot at' and 'got clawed by a zombie' to that list." She was pleased that Willow laughed - the bad memories were only memories. "There's nowhere I wouldn't go with you," she went on, "nothing I wouldn't face to stay with you. I love you... I love the person I've become by being in love with you." Willow's expression was pure joy.

"Twenty-five days," she said in a voice thick with emotion. She raised her glass. "To many more."

"A lifetime's worth," Tara agreed, touching her glass to Willow's before taking a mouthful.

"Mmm," she murmured, "sweet."

"Yeah," Willow said, setting her glass down carefully before leaning over to kiss Tara, slowly and thoroughly. Tara struggled just to keep from dropping her glass, overcome by the intense sensations of Willow's mouth on hers, her tongue touching her lips, gently moving inside, the taste of her, and the wine on her lips, the soft press of Willow's hands as she drew her into an embrace, the jolt of desire that rocked through her as Willow's leg nudged up against hers.

"Here," Willow whispered, taking Tara's glass, "let me get that for you." Never moving from Tara's side, she drained what was left in her glass, then kissed her again, sealing their lips together. Tara tasted the wine, and licked eagerly at Willow's tongue, moaning into her mouth as the sweet liquid flowed between them.

Without consciously realising it, Tara found her right hand had worked the waist of Willow's skirt down to caress her hip; her other hand had pulled free the hem of her tunic and slipped beneath it, against Willow's back; Willow's hand was on her thigh, beneath her short leather skirt. Smiling devilishly as Willow paused in her kissing, she pulled her astride her thigh.

"Ooh," Willow purred, "so it's not just me feeling frisky?"

"Never," Tara murmured, "anytime I'm around you - especially when you do something this beautifully loving - you know it just makes me want you like nothing else." Willow grinned and pressed kisses onto Tara's neck and shoulder.

"Mmm, lovely," Tara sighed, "see? Completely robbed of... common sense... rational thinking... just want to love you..."

"I hope you're not expecting me curb your amorous tendencies," Willow warned, "because from where I'm lying, I don't see a problem." She worked her way back up to brush her lips across Tara's, her tongue sneaking out to lick at her moist lips, and slowly thrust her hips against Tara's leg, her thigh slipping between Tara's at the same time.

"Nope, no problem at all," she whispered, as Tara's hands tugged gently on her skirt, finding the tie at her waist and undoing it. As Tara slid the material off her, Willow kissed her way back down her neck to nuzzle in her cleavage, while her hand not around Tara holding her tightly lifted her skirt up around her waist. There was a brief pause while both women wriggled out of their underwear, then Willow lay down against Tara, each feeling the other's moist warmth on her bare thigh.

"Ooooh," they moaned simultaneously. Neither could resist a small giggle at that, then Tara's hand around Willow's waist urged her to press forward, while her other hand wound into her hair and brought her to her lips to taste her again. Willow moaned openly into the kiss, allowing Tara complete access to her, the elation of her lover's exploration of her mouth joining the building desire emanating from her core as they began a rhythm of pressing and moving against one another.

"I've been thinking about this..." Tara sighed, "you... all day..."

"Me too," Willow breathed, "oh gods... my goddess... you're so hot..."

"Mmm," Tara murmured into Willow's ear, "feel that... on your skin... wet... just like I can feel you, baby..." Her breathing, and Willow's, was becoming rougher, more desperate, as their rocking motions pressed their clits and glistening folds against each other's thighs.

"Oh god-dess ye-es," Willow whispered in a halting voice, "yes... oh yesss... feel... me..."

"I... ahhh... can," Tara purred, "I can... feel... y-you... a-as if it... it were me... goddess... come..."

"Mmmm!" Willow bit her lip to keep from crying out, instead giving voice to a high-pitched moan of ecstasy as her sex clenched and gushed her delight. Tara was close, so close that the mere feeling of Willow's juices gracing her skin sparked the quaking climax building inside her. She held Willow to her, one arm around her shoulders, the other her hips, holding them against her own, keeping their sexes tightly pressed against skin that now glowed with the other's arousal. Every shudder, every sigh as they recovered from climax was passed through touch to the other, sharing everything.

"Oh gods," Willow at last happily sighed, "oh... gods..."

"Willow?" Tara gently inquired.

"Just... gods," Willow murmured, nuzzling against Tara's neck, "you're so, so... beautiful doesn't even begin to cover it. You're more than beauty, you... you make beauty, you create it... you bring it into my world."

"I love you," Tara said simply.

"I could never doubt that," Willow smiled, "never, never ever. I love you, my sweet," she kissed Tara on the lips, "beautiful," and again, "sexy," again, "lovely Tara." With one last kiss, gently opening Tara's mouth and dipping in with her tongue, she finally slid off her thigh and lay beside her, gazing at her in complete adoration.

"So," she grinned after a moment in which they simply enjoyed the sight of each other, "thinking of this all day, huh?"

"Uh-huh," Tara said with a smile, "well, asking me to meet you at the Palace garden sort of put the idea of a picnic in my head. And, well," she admitted with an adorable blush, "then I might have imagined a brief, um, interlude in the privacy of the bushes."

"Well that just shows how well you know me," Willow laughed, "besides, it's been at least four hours since we made love in the shower, that's plenty of time for me to build up a new appetite for you. Actually," she grinned sheepishly, "four seconds would do fine as well."

"You're not the only one," Tara said with an answering grin. They shared a chuckle, then Willow sat up and reached for her basket.

"Feeling hungry?"

"Always," Tara said, with a gleam in her eyes. Willow laughed to herself.

"No doubt about it," she joked, "four seconds, and she's at it again."

"What've we got?" Tara asked, sitting up beside Willow.

"Oh, plenty - um, bread, cheese, there's a salad in that bowl, some fruit, there's a flask of juice somewhere, oh, and look!" she finished, fishing a stem out of the basket.

"Our favourite," Tara smiled.

"Fresh cherries," Willow nodded, picking one off its stem and holding it out to Tara, who devoured it right out of her fingers.

"They're not pearl cherries, so they've got seeds," Willow added. "I definitely owe Jesye some thanks, I asked her where a nice spot in the gardens might be and she told me about this little hideaway, and then she just showed up at Myrreon's workshop just before lunch with the basket from the kitchens."

"Wow," Tara mused, "that's impressive. I hope someone on the Duke's staff asks about our attendants sometime, I'd really like to give them a glowing report."

"Me too," Willow agreed. "I think Jesye might have had a bit of an ulterior motive though, I get the impression she might just have a teensy crush on Zan."


"Just a hunch. I mean, she's always nice, but she seems even more... I don't know, lively? I noticed her looking a bit more, I'm not sure how to put it - she smiles a bit wider, her face sort of lights up. I guess, next time we meet somewhere, watch me when I see you, I bet it's just the same." Tara blew her a kiss, which she returned.

"Anyway," she went on, "I thought I noticed her brighten when he answered the door yesterday, and she was definitely sneaking a glance at him now and then today. Not that I doubt she was glad to give me a hand preparing this little surprise for you, she was just as enthusiastic after we left the tower, but," she smiled, "I bet having an excuse to go up there seemed like a nice bonus."

"You might be right," Tara said, "I was kind of too nervous yesterday to be really paying much attention to how she was acting. But, you remember you told me Lissa had been assigned to Myrreon's rooms once? Maybe Jesye was too. I mean, they're friends, maybe they worked the same shifts, or something..."

"...and Jesye developed a liking for the mysterious, handsome mage's assistant," Willow concluded, "yeah, I can see that."

"Is he mysterious?" Tara asked. "I didn't spend much time with him."

"Not on purpose," Willow said, "but... well, I think he's very deep. Lots of layers, and he seems like he might be a very private person too. Combined with the exotic looks, yeah, I guess there's a bit of mystery to him. He's very friendly, though. We get along well."

"Where's he from originally?" Tara wondered.

"I'm not sure exactly," Willow admitted, "I asked him, but he didn't want to go into it, so I didn't press. Somewhere in the far east. Way beyond the lands the Order has reliable information on, anyway. Like I said he's private - he was very polite about it, but I could see he didn't really want to talk about it. Maybe they're not happy memories - there's some scary rumours about that part of the world."

"Maybe," Tara nodded, "he's happy here?"

"He seems to be," Willow said, opening the salad bowl and placing it between them. "Myrreon's very complimentary about his abilities, and he seems to enjoy assisting - Myrreon gives him a lot of responsibility, it's not just carrying books and beakers around. He's got a very precise mind, very methodical, analytical - I think he liked the challenge that Myrreon's projects give him."

"I don't suppose you know if he knows about Jesye?" Tara smiled.

"No idea," Willow shrugged, "we're friendly, but I get the impression he takes a long time to get to know someone. Most of what we've talked about has just been magic, either general stuff, or specific to what we're working on. Maybe, though - he did ask about her, just in passing, how she's doing as our attendant, and he's not the sort to just make casual conversation for no reason. Maybe she's in with a chance there."

"What about Ocean?" Tara asked. "Have you worked with her?"

"A bit," Willow said, "she's an apprentice, so mostly when Myrreon's talking to me she's keeping an eye on whatever he was doing beforehand. Now she is a mystery... Zan's taught me a few of her signs, so she can 'talk' to me a bit, enough that we can work together well enough for simple stuff. She understands me, of course, just I have to be able to read her signs to understand her."

"She never talks?"

"Zan says she can't," Willow explained, "not human speech, anyway, apparently she's just not capable of forming most of the sounds."

"Are there snake-people?" Tara asked. "A species, I mean? A society?"

"Sort of," Willow said, "there's a species that live deep in the Aranoch desert called Vipermagi, sort of serpent-men - humanoid upper body, with arms and shoulders and head, but covered with scales and sort of snake-shaped, and from their chest down these long, powerful snake bodies. They're- well, to put it bluntly, they're evil. They hate all other creatures... this isn't just second-hand sources, you understand, Ember's told me about them herself, and she's really not the kind to hold onto old prejudices. So far as I know - and I've read a lot of what the Order has about human-like species - they're the only serpentine race there is, aside from your basic snakes."

"Ocean's not one of them, is she?" Tara asked with a frown.

"No, she's not," Willow agreed, "for one thing, she's got legs, and besides, all the accounts I've read that mention it say that Vipermagi are asexual, they all appear male by our standards, except they can reproduce with each other - they lay eggs - whereas Ocean's definitely a woman, they way humans would see it... I didn't want to pry, particularly seeing as I don't know her well enough myself, and would've had to ask Zan. I mean, where she comes from isn't a problem - Zan obviously thinks she's no danger at all, Myrreon sort of treats her like a daughter, and she seems to look up to him kind of like a father. She's the gentlest person, as well. Just from being around her a little, I can't imagine her ever wanting to hurt anyone, or be cruel. She reminds me of you, in that respect."

"Thank you," Tara smiled.

"But yeah, she's a bit of a mystery. Unless she's the product of some very powerful mage doing something really insane with humans and snakes, I'd guess she's half Vipermagus. That can happen sometimes with some of the human-like races, cats in particular, there's some accounts of cat-people mating with humans... well, mating in the physical sense they do all the time, apparently, but there's reliable sources saying that there have been half-cat half-human children born to cat and human parents. I've never heard of a half-Vipermagus though, there's no reference to any ever having been born in anything I've read, and all things being equal I'd have guessed that humans and Vipermagi were incompatible, on a child-bearing level. And yet," she waved a hand vaguely, "there she is. Where it counts she's about as unlike a Vipermagus as you could imagine, but that'd be my best guess. She's even got their skill at astronomy."

"The orrery?" Tara asked.

"Yeah, Myrreon says she's brilliant with it, she actually helped redesign some parts of it. And Vipermagi are famous - infamous, actually - for sky magic. Ember told me that during the Reckoning, when things looked bad for Lut Gholein, and the Vipermagi thought they'd have all of Aranoch to themselves, they actually brought on an eclipse that lasted for twenty days before their temple was found and the spell was broken."

"Yipes," Tara murmured.

"I'm sure Ocean's a good person, though," Willow went on, "she's just... well, I guess she's like Zan, she's very private. Mind you, if she was born in Aranoch, they hate Vipermagi there, so it can't have been easy for her. Poor girl... oh, hey, though, you'll love this, speaking of the orrery-" She leant over and began fishing in her satchel.

"Where is the darned thing? Oh, here, hold this." She handed Tara the disc they had transmuted the day before.

"You've still got this thing?"

"Yeah... still a mystery. I mean, it's completely magically inert. Odd composition though."

"Oh?" Willow abandoned her quest in her satchel for a moment and picked the disc back out of Tara's hands.

"It's covered by a thin gold layer," she explained, "but underneath that - we did a bunch of equivalence spells to see what it was made of exactly - underneath that there's twenty-seven different alloys, each in a ring that's locked into the alloys next to it. And I mean locked, it's not like they could have been slotted together, there's parts where they have bolts and hooks actually inside the next ring, so they had to be made by magic, or a very very talented craftsman. The precision in it is amazing, but so far as we can tell, it doesn't do anything. There's no sign of wear on the edges, so it wasn't made sharp and blunted over time - Zan still thinks it's a chakram, but it doesn't even fly well. He tried skimming it across the workshop, and just knocked over an empty easel a few metres away. If it weren't for the gold it'd be decorative, in a way - sort of a show-off piece - but as it is, it might just as well be one metal inside it rather than dozens." She shrugged and handed it back to Tara. "We sent a description down to the university library - they've got literally more books than anyone could read in a lifetime-"

"Even you?"

"Even me," Willow nodded, "but the mages have always got the librarians looking up something or other, so if they don't know where to look, they just give them the description of whatever it is. Sooner or later, if it's there, it'll turn up. Maybe in some obscure book of party decorations for mages who like metalwork, I don't know."

"Why would anyone go to all the trouble of hiding something like this?"

"Beats me," Willow said, her attention on the contents of her satchel again, "maybe it's a piece of something else, who knows... ah, here it is." She proudly held up a pair of small metal spheres, each an inch across, their polished silver surfaces shining brightly. Willow held the top one, and the other hung a few inches beneath it. Tara peered closer, looking for a strand of silk, a thin wire, but there was nothing.

"Neat, huh?" Willow said, swinging the sphere back and forth - it moved exactly as if it were attached on a string. "It's a test piece for something Myrreon and Ocean are trying to build into the orrery, so it won't have to have to many moving parts. Apparently it's still prone to throwing a gear late at night now and then."

"How does it work?"

"It's one of those simple/complicated things - easy to do, but you need a particular sort of genius to think it up in the first place. What you do is, you make two spheres, or whatever, it doesn't matter what they are so long as they're as close to identical as you can get. These are just a silver-tin mix. Now, everything has energy - people have so much energy they're practically bursting with it, living energy, souls, magic - but everything, even something as simple as this, has energy, even if it's just the energy that makes it exist."

"Uh-huh," Tara said, gently prodding the lower sphere, watching it swing on its invisible tether.

"What Myrreon's done is to swap some of the energy from one sphere to the other, and vice versa. It works because they're almost identical - the differences are minute, the kind of imperfections that even magical forging can't entirely get rid of. But that means their energies are very, very close to being identical. If you tried to swap two different things, it wouldn't work, because the energy from one wouldn't, well, 'fit' in the other. But this works, and the result is, they're permanently 'paired'."

"So they stay together?"

"Well, that's more of a side-effect, this is the distance apart the spheres were when the experiment was done, so they sort of default back to that. You can separate them, though." She caught the other sphere and gently tugged them apart. "The real benefit is... well, here, hold this."

Tara took the sphere that Willow offered and held it in her palm. Willow meanwhile leant over and touched the other sphere to the ice slowly melting in the wine chiller.

"Ah!" Tara exclaimed, almost dropping her sphere. She relaxed, and rolled it around in her palm. "It's cold. Not ice cold, but... like a cold breeze."

"I want to ask 'isn't that cool', but I'd never stoop to such a pun," Willow joked, earning a giggle from Tara. "See, because they're paired, they sort of transmit their physical state from one to the other. What you felt wasn't actually the sphere getting cold, although it would after a while, if I left this one in the water and it cooled down. But when I held this sphere close to the ice, an echo of the ice existed around your sphere. So you were sort of feeling an echo of what it would have been like if you hand had been holding my sphere, and seeing as your hand was underneath it, and I was holding mine above the icy water, your hand felt cold."

"Wow," Tara said, rolling the sphere between her fingers.

"It's really just a toy," Willow said, reaching over towards Tara. As she held her sphere over Tara's hand, the other sphere tugged gently towards it, finally seeming to latch on and float up as Willow lifted her hand. "Myrreon's made other versions, paired gears and stuff, to work on eliminating some of the connecting struts in the orrery that keep getting jammed. These are just a test he did, to see if it would work." She shrugged and dropped them back into her satchel. "Zan had an idea for using them to send messages, sort of coded, like smoke signals - touch one sphere to a block of ice and they'd feel it at the other end, something like that - but it didn't work out, the pairing effect starts to fade after they get more than five miles or so apart."

"All these fascinating things you do," Tara mused.

"I promise I'll keep you up-to-date until you get time to visit the workshop again," Willow replied.

"Yay," Tara murmured happily. She happened to glance up at the statue, with its bird-bath.

"Oh! Look." She leaned over beside Willow and pointed. A small bird, small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, was perched on the edge of the dish, taking sips of the water. It was a brilliant scarlet over its wings and head, and pure white underneath. Sensing the attention on it, it glanced up, tilted its head to peer at Willow and Tara with each eye, then went back to dipping its stubby little beak in the water.

"Red Paladin," Willow whispered, "a baby... there must be a nest nearby. Oh, isn't it cute?" Tara smiled, both at the little bird and at Willow's enthusiasm, and gathered her in a hug from behind. They watched for a moment more until the baby Paladin, evidently having had its fill, waddled around to face the other way on the edge of the dish, then quick as a flash flitted into the air and vanished out over the lake.

"They're very tame," Willow said, "out in the wild you don't see them much, 'cause everything else is bigger and stronger, and they're pretty timid, but... it's kind of like nature intended them to live in parks and gardens. The babies are a bit skittish, but the grown ones - they don't really grow that much, they're all tiny, but adult ones have these lovely long tails - they'll come and perch on your finger, they're not afraid of people at all."

"Beautiful," Tara sighed, "everything's beautiful, this is..." she waved a hand vaguely around the clearing, "everything is just beautiful. Thank you Willow, thank you so much, I..."

"You're welcome," Willow said, "always."

"You know," Tara said softly, "you don't have to do a thing, not a single thing, for me to love you completely, and yet, you do all this... I feel so, so... like my heart's full of love, you know?"

"Yeah," Willow smiled, leaning back in Tara's embrace, looking up at her, "I know exactly how you feel."

"The Duchess's niece was at the training field this afternoon," Tara mentioned as she and Willow ate dinner in their room that evening.

"Oh?" Willow prompted. "Do I have to go freeze her solid, or did she get the idea last night?"

"No freezing," Tara laughed, "she - Lindia - she was polite, courteous, and nothing more. We just exchanged a few words anyway, she spent most of the time riding up and down along the medium archery range."

"Riding?" Willow asked.

"She's a horse archer," Tara said, "a good one. I had a look at some of her arrows after she'd made a run, her accuracy is good - exceptional, when you take into account that she's riding across the firing line at a fast canter."

"Really? I kind of took her for a, you know, a casual adventuress - goes out riding on her own, has a poke around remote areas and ruins, but really doesn't do anything much more difficult than sleep on the hard ground once in a while. They're not uncommon, men too. Ride into town, show off a bit, move on before someone asks you to do something difficult like clear up a nest of Carvers or something."

"Apparently not," Tara shrugged, skewering the last slice of baked potato on her fork, "my Sergeant - well, he's assigned to me while I'm instructing - actually knows her a little from a campaign his unit was part of last winter. According to him she's got a noble commission, brevet-captain, and she spent three months leading some of their best scouts on hit-and-run expeditions when they were scouring the eastern highlands for demonic beasts."

"A real adventuress," Willow mused, "well... I bet that helps catch the attention of the noblewomen."

"So is she forgiven for giving your girl a look-over at the opera?" Tara joked.

"Well," Willow said, making a show of considering it, "I guess... so long as she's just looking. Besides, there's no denying you are eminently look-over-able. It's a real word," Willow protested as Tara giggled.

"I seem to remember she thought you were worth a look too," Tara grinned, "on which I happen to agree. A lot more than a look, in fact."

"Agree with her you may," Willow smiled, pushing her empty plate aside, "but you're the only one who gets more than a look. Do you happen to fancy a little more than a look?"

"I said a lot more," Tara replied, standing up and coming around the table, "and yes, as a matter of fact, I do." She faced Willow, giving her her best sultry smile. "Is my Willow amenable to being more than looked at?"

"Your Willow is amenable to anything you please," Willow replied, lightly biting her lower lip and ducking her head to look up at Tara through her lashes. "Looking... or anything else."

"I had an idea this afternoon," Tara leant down to whisper in Willow's ear, "why don't you go get comfortable, and I'll join you." Willow turned her head to steal a quick kiss, then sauntered over towards the bed, glancing over her shoulder now and then. Even as Tara gathered up the plates to put outside the door, Willow could feel her eyes on her. She took her time undressing, making a show of undoing the laces on her tunic, sliding her skirt slowly down her legs, discarding her bra, then sitting down on the soft bedspread, arching her back as she slipped her underwear off. By this time Tara had put out most of the candles, bringing the room's lighting down to its usual comforting night-time glow. While Willow pulled back the covers, slowly slid her legs up onto the bed and stretched out, her eyes never left Tara, who disrobed with more than a little elegant teasing in her motions, and how she chose to tantalising reveal glimpses of herself before finally shedding her clothes completely.

"These," Tara said, picking up the pair of spheres Willow had left on the mantelpiece when she returned from the afternoon's study, "they're quite safe?"

"Um, yeah, perfectly," Willow said, her brows furrowing in confusion. Tara sauntered over to the bed and knelt down beside it, bringing her face level with Willow's.

"So if I were to touch this one to my lips," she said, holding up a sphere, "and this one," she caught the other, hovering a few inches below the first, "to yours...?"

"I'd... it'd feel like you were kissing me," Willow said, comprehension dawning on her.

"If I were to hold this one... here," she touched one sphere to Willow's hardening nipple, "and this one...?" she slowly brought the other to her lips and kissed it.

"Ooh," Willow exclaimed softly, "I felt you..."

"You like?" Tara asked gently.

"I like," Willow nodded, grinning broadly.

"So," Tara breathed, giving the spheres a quick tug apart to separate them, "if I were to..." One hand disappeared down, beneath where the edge of the bed cut off Willow's line of sight. Her eyes went to Tara's, and she watched as she licked her lips, as they parted slightly, as she let out a faint sigh that turned into a smile. She raised her hand again, opening it like a stage illusionist who had made a card disappear by slight of hand, then rose slowly, looking down at Willow as she stood tall, proud and naked. The sphere was nowhere in sight, but Willow, breathing in heavy, aroused sighs, knew exactly where she had put it.

"Now," Tara whispered, elegantly lifting a leg over Willow and settling onto the bed, straddling her, "if we..." She held up the remaining sphere, and even before she had brought it all the way up to Willow's face she darted down and pressed her lips against the smooth metal. Tara let out a startled gasp, as if Willow had truly, intimately kissed her, and Willow was elated to feel on her lips an echo of the warmth and wetness she knew was within Tara.

"Oh," Tara gasped, "oh baby... oh Willow... It's... I..."

"Tara?" Willow asked softly, "is it okay-" She was cut off as Tara practically lunged at her, devouring her mouth in a searing, heart-racing kiss. Her lips and tongue moved with such passion, such single-minded desire, that Willow felt as Tara's kisses were all over her, inside and out, caressing every inch of her body.

"So, you like too, huh?" Willow murmured when Tara finally came up for breath.

"Oh," she moaned, kissing Willow's cheeks, "oh Willow baby, I like so much..."

"Then I guess," Willow said, managing to sound at least a little teasingly nonchalant, "I know what you'd like me to do with this?" She brought her hand to Tara's and took the sphere from it. Tara stared at her hand, then let out a great, sensual sigh and stretched herself out full-length on the bed, her head resting on Willow's chest, her lips tasting her breasts and nipples as she writhed slowly, too aroused even to keep still. Her eyes followed Willow's hand as she lowered it, rolling the sphere down her chest and stomach, her quick, shallow breathing a reflection of the sensations of warmth and silkiness she felt moving down her body.

"Oooh," Tara purred, "smooth..." Willow grinned at her, taking in the length of her body with her eyes, her back arching, her legs slowly moving back and forth, pressing her hips against the sheets. Tara turned her lidded gaze back on Willow's face as her hand passed her waist, and it was with Tara staring into her eyes that Willow gently parted her nether lips, slipped a single finger into herself a little way, and then tucked her thumb behind the sphere in her palm and nudged it forward.

Between its modest size, smooth surface and the abundance of moisture glistening on Willow's sex, it was no effort at all to slip the sphere between her folds and into her channel. She had to fight to keep her eyes open, to hold onto the erotic spectacle of pleasure overtaking Tara's face, as she filled with the sensation of her lover within her, not a part of her, fingers or tongue, inside the hollow of her sex, but Tara's warmth, Tara's wetness, the tight clenching of her muscles and the silky smoothness of her core, coexisting with Willow's own centre, as if a part of her. With a trembling hand, Willow slipped a finger into herself, and nudged the sphere deeper, settling it where it wouldn't immediately push out as her inner muscles worked.

Then she did close her eyes, her last glimpse being of Tara doing the same, and she knew from what she felt within that the last gentle nudge had pushed the sphere to the same place Tara held hers. It was no longer a foreign sensation she felt, but something so close to the pleasure radiating from her own sex that it seemed to Willow that she and Tara had merged, that they were both feeling the sensations of a single body, a single core of love feeding them both. Gathering herself, controlling her ragged breathing, she essayed a quick squeeze of her muscles, and was instantly rewarded by the sound of Tara's gasp of delight, and the feeling, within herself, of her lover's answering spasm of pleasure. That in turn sent another wave of pleasure through her, drawing another moan from Tara as she too experienced it.

"Oh gods," Willow gasped, "oh gods, this is... oh baby you feel so wonderful."

"I feel you," Tara moaned, her head resting on Willow's shoulder, hot breath flowing across her neck, "I feel you like I'm part of you... I... oh goddess... I-I can't keep myself... can't hold on... for long..."

"Tara?" Willow asked, hugging her. "Do you...?"

"Yes," Tara said at once, "yes, I want to feel you... all the way... everything, my love."

"Everything," Willow agreed, as Tara's hand moved down between her legs. Tara shifted, her other hand moving beneath herself, and then, at the same time, both sets of fingers found their destinations.

"Oh!" Willow exclaimed, jolting as Tara caressed her clit, while within her she felt the effects of Tara's attentions to her own sex, the squeezing, the incredible heat and wetness, climbing, soaring.

"Willow," Tara chanted like a mantra, "Willow... Willow..." Willow knew - from her voice, her breathing, the trembling in her form, and from the echo within herself - that she was very, very close. She herself was seconds from climax, but a need overtook her, to give Tara more.

"I love you," she moaned, her hand moving to cover Tara's between her legs, holding Tara's fingers to herself, the pressure on her clit setting her off. As the wave of heat crashed within her, as Tara cried out in ecstasy, she felt the answering climax, felt Tara respond to her pleasure, and Tara's pleasure become a part of her own.

"Willow!" Tara howled.

"Tara! Oh goddess," Willow exclaimed, "oh my goddess, oh! Oh... oh Tara... lover..." She shuddered her way through a strong aftershock, which with the same pleasure from Tara had almost the strength of another climax in itself. As her core slowly, very slowly, settled and calmed, she drew Tara to herself, enveloped her in a hug, and kissed her as if she was intent on achieving by pure passion the same kind of joining that magic had just given them.

The kiss - deep, probing and intense - ended only when Tara shifted her hips on top of Willow's, and both gave a little involuntary gasp as the spheres within them tugged gently, finding their partners close enough to link. Tara pressed a final kiss to Willow's lips and sat up a little, sliding her hips down over Willow's thighs. With a luxurious sigh Willow felt the small sphere slide out of her, and parted her legs to let it fall into Tara's palm. With a gentle motion Tara drew its twin out of herself, and set the pair on the bedside table as she lay back down, cuddling around Willow, submitting most willingly to her embrace.

"That was..." Willow began, searching for the words.

"Beautiful," Tara finished in a soft, devoted whisper.

"Beautiful," Willow agreed.

"You're always beautiful," Tara went on, "always... every touch, every moment... I don't- That was a wonderful experience," she said, "but I don't want you to think there's any experience you can't give me on your own."

"I know," Willow assured her, "it was very, very good, but nothing's better than just you and me, making love. We don't need anything else."

"That said," Tara smiled, nuzzling into Willow's hair, spread out on the pillow, "do you get to keep those?"

"I think so," Willow said, lifting her head slightly to give Tara a grin, "they're not actually useful for anything in the workshop, and Myrreon gave them to me... I'll ask him, but yeah, I think we get to keep them."

"Good," Tara said firmly. "The utter, complete perfection of making love to you," she kissed Willow's neck, "may be all I need, but there's nothing wrong with a little... magical experimentation?"

"Not at all," Willow agreed, "variety is the spice of life, after all. And I'd like our life to be nice and spicy."

"Mmm, my spicy sorceress," Tara murmured, slowly kissing her way across Willow's shoulder, then starting down towards her breast.

"Ooh," Willow smiled, "you like what you taste?"

"Always," Tara said, her voice muffled against Willow's skin, "now lie back... I'm hungry."

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Fifty-Three

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