Return to Hellebore Chapter Fifty-Three


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.

Gelt remained carefully motionless in the face of Willow's accusatory outburst.

"Please sit down," he said in a placid voice.

"Why?" Willow demanded.

"Well, it might be more comfortable than standing," he replied evenly. "Do as you wish - the door is unbolted, you could be out of here in seconds. Or, come to that, you could just as easily kill me. I'm unarmed, and have no protective spells prepared." Willow hesitated, and glanced quickly around the room for any sign of active magic.

"Consider why you are here," Gelt said, patiently but not unkindly, "Ember sent you to me. Do you believe she would knowingly put you in harm's way?"

"Not knowingly," Willow replied warily.

"Then do you believe she does not know what I am?" Gelt asked.

"You're going to tell me necromancers aren't evil?" Willow asked.

"Please," he said, gesturing to her chair. Cautiously, she picked it up and seated herself opposite him.

"Most necromancers are evil," Gelt said, leaning back, "however, they are not priests of Rathma. Just as not all elementalists are Zann Esu - many mages have a spell or two at their disposal that draws on primal elemental power. Almost all healers use primal fire magic, even if only on a passive level. There have even been evil mages who used the elements for their own ends. Fire, ice and lightning in the service of evil - does that make the Zann Esu evil?"

"Nicely put," Willow said sceptically. Gelt shrugged casually.

"I can only tell you," he said, "I can't make you believe it." Willow gave him a long, calculating stare.

"Okay," she said, "let's say Ember knows you're a ne- a priest of Rathma," she corrected herself.

"I can't deny the former," Gelt said, "but your courtesy is appreciated."

"Why send me here? And why like this, in secret, without at least telling me? I trust her, if she'd told me who you were-"

"She could have been overheard," Gelt sighed, "or her letters might have been read. There is no court in any of the lands of Sanctuary that does not live by influence, politics and suspicion, and the same is true of orders of mages. Even yours, which I might say is among the better. This way, so far as the Zann Esu are concerned, your sponsor sent you to meet an old friend of hers, a mage of some small merit she met on her travels once, who perhaps might have a word or two of wisdom for you - there is no reason for anyone to doubt this. If a sponsor were to be found to be consorting with necromancers, sending her impressionable young students to them, well, how would the Council of the Zann Esu react?"

"It... there'd be consequences," Willow allowed. "But if what you say is true - if - why the secrecy at all? The Council aren't zealots, if you're free of evil influences, and they were allowed to see that for themselves-"

"Ah, well," Gelt said, "let's just say the priesthood finds it convenient to remain in the shadows. It allows us to do what we believe we must do."

"And what's that?" Willow frowned.

"I suppose I had better explain, as best I can. Rathma represents balance. Balance in all things, and the most important balance, underlying all others, is that between order and chaos. The purpose of our priesthood, the goal we strive towards, is to maintain that balance, to see to it that neither chaos nor order gain the upper hand. You're going to ask what's wrong with order overcoming chaos?"

"The thought had crossed my mind," Willow said slowly.

"Would you want to live in heaven?" Gelt asked. "The Zann Esu know, so far as any mortal can, what heaven is."

"Perfect order," Willow said.

"Would you want that? Not an afterlife, heaven as the Zakarum church describes it, but to actually be alive, in the high heaven of the crystal arch? Most people would say yes, of course, but you didn't - I imagine this thought has occurred to you before."

"From time to time," Willow admitted.

"And knowing what heaven would do to a mortal life - render it changeless, sterile, unable to grow, to become more than it already is - it has occurred to you that it is just as well that the high heaven is reserved for angels, and when we die our souls will find rest in a place closer in nature to the mortal realm. Perfect order, and perfect chaos such as exists in the burning hells, exist because they should. But in their proper places - not here. Sanctuary is not for demons and angels, it is for mortals, and we require both order and chaos. Those who ignore this, and strive to impose total order... I'm sure you're familiar with the examples history affords us."

"Even so, some degree of order..."

"Oh, yes," Gelt nodded, "some degree, just as some degree of chaos is valuable, indeed necessary. But order is not an end in itself, any more than chaos is. What purpose could there be in causing chaos, destroying, simply because one can? Madness. But so too, there is no purpose in creating order simply for its own sake. Order is... it's a tool, it allows us to create stability, a place to be safe, to build for the future, to prepare for what might lie ahead. And chaos allows us to invent, to grow, to become more than we are. Both are necessary, and neither alone are enough. That is what Rathma means. There are times when chaos becomes too powerful - the Reckoning was one such time. Then we take up arms against the forces of chaos, to allow order to regain its position in the balance."

"And when order grows too strong?" Willow challenged.

"Yes, that's the question, isn't it? When order grows strong, it will inevitably fail of its own accord - perfect order is not attainable in the mortal realm, thankfully. But in failing, such order may do tremendous damage, poisoning the minds of millions against new ideas, different ways of living. And the collapse of order leaves a vacuum into which chaos flows. It is, in most cases, preferable to ease the decline of an overbearing system of order, rather than allowing it to implode by itself."

"And how do you do that?"

"The same way we aid order," Gelt said, "there are always people who recognise, instinctively or for personal reasons, the danger of an imbalance. When chaos reigns, the brave take up arms to protect their little patches of order - their villages, their families, their way of life. And when it is order that grows too strong - people are not inherently orderly, so there are always those who do not conform. They are persecuted, shunned, driven out. You..." he seemed to concentrate for a moment, " love a woman. And you have encountered people who regard this as a sin."

"Yes," Willow nodded, "how did you...?"

"I will explain soon," Gelt replied, "in all likelihood, those people who denounced your partnership had never been themselves harmed by it, or by other similar men or women. They simply considered a system of order - one man, one woman - to be more important than your individual nature. There are always people who rebel, or are forced to rebel, against such prejudice, and it is those people we then come to the aid of. So long as their voices are heard, there is an avenue, however difficult, for tolerance - acceptance of the chaotic within human nature - to breed, even within the most strictly ordered society. Do you understand now what we believe, and why we believe it to be necessary?"

"I... yes," Willow said, "yes, I see... but why necromancy?"

"It is our nature," Gelt said. "Just as you are attuned to the primal elements, the priesthood of Rathma is composed of those attuned to balance. We can... see it, sense it. When a person, a group, a place is in balance, we know it. Likewise, even when all seems well, we can sense where a tiny imbalance has the potential to grow into a greater one. We sense all balances, not just that between order and chaos. Joy and grief, good and evil, nobility and selfishness, bravery and cowardice... life and death. All our abilities revolve around sensing the state of these dualities, and altering them. If it is necessary for us to employ force, we can strike fear into the hearts of brave men, turn loyal comrades against each other, sow seeds of doubt in the minds of prevailing foes, and ultimately twist the line between life and death - bring to the dead a measure of life, and thus raise an army from the graves of the slain." He regarded Willow's expression of distaste.

"It is not an ability we use lightly," he said quietly. "Nor do we use it often. We have other powers at our disposal, which we use when possible - some I have mentioned, others you may be familiar with, through rumour and story, such as the creation of golems, which are unliving forms imbued with a measure of life. But necromancy is the strongest force we wield. You're about to ask whether I've ever raised the dead?"

"Um... yeah," Willow admitted.

"After I read her letter, I imagined the kind of person who might suit her, as a student," he said with a mild grin, "the idea of someone intensely curious came to mind more than once. Yes, I have wielded necromancy. Three times, not counting my aprenticeship. The most recent, and most extensive, was six years ago. A renegade from the Zakarum church, a Paladin who had cast off his vows, made a pact with a demon, and was given necromantic abilities. I had no choice but to pit my magic against his."

"Six years ago..." Willow muttered to herself.

"You wouldn't have heard of it," Gelt said, "to my knowledge, no-one besides myself and my superiors in the priesthood are aware that the battle even took place. It is often best that such things pass unnoticed by the world at large. Fear is a powerful incentive to accept order, even when it is a strict, dangerous order. It is usually best for the general populace to feel safe in their homes. It promotes a more tolerant view of the everyday differences that stem from the chaotic within us all. Usually, of course - sometimes it is necessary to know of the danger, otherwise no-one would steel themselves against it."

"You'll understand if I'm still not quite at ease with all this," Willow frowned.

"Of course, of course. To be frank, it's probably for the best that you aren't. Necromancy is far more commonly practiced by the evil than the good. It's a power inherent to demons, whereas very few mortals are born with it, and fewer still join the priesthood. I honestly do not think it would be wise for you to be 'at ease' with the raising of the dead. I'm not."

"You're not?"

"It's a... have you ever seen an undead?"

"Yes," Willow said flatly.

"One brought harm to you," Gelt said, frowning.

"To my partner," Willow explained.

"Interesting," Gelt murmured to himself.

"What?" Willow asked sharply.

"Oh, not that she was hurt, of course not... but you felt the hurt as if it were your own. In any case, you saw the creature. How did it feel, for you to look upon it?"

"It was..." Willow searched for the right words. "It shouldn't have been."

"True. The dead have completed their journey on the mortal plane. Their souls and spirits have gone... wherever they may go, and their remains should be allowed to rest in peace, as they say. To become one with the earth once more. It is a terrible thing to see a body, that once housed a fragile, beautiful mortal spirit, dragged from its rest, animated by soulless power." Willow nodded. "Now," Gelt said, "imagine what it is like to be the cause of it."

"So why do it?"

"At times, it must be done. Any weapon is terrible, ultimately. A sword may be used to defend, to achieve great good, but the only purpose inherent to it is to kill. Whatever noble goals its wielder may seek to achieve, all a sword is, and can ever be, is an instrument for inflicting suffering and death. A tool for killing, nothing more, and that is terrible."

"You're saying necromancy is the same?" Willow asked, a challenging tone in her voice.

"I am saying necromancy is the extreme end of that dichotomy," Gelt replied calmly. "A terrible power, which we of the priesthood wield for good. Or what we consider to be good - I may tell you we have a special insight into the nature and processes of good and evil, but even so we acknowledge that our judgements are our own, not those of a higher being who claims absolute knowledge. We are but mortals, and as mortals our judgement may be flawed at times. We try our best, though. As I said, we don't wield our powers lightly. I will say, though, that never in the history of our priesthood has a priest of Rathma served a demon. Not once."

"Why tell me all this?" Willow asked. "Why did Ember send me to you? Just to learn about necromancy? I don't mean to offend you, but this is not a subject I'm really eager to pursue."

"Good," Gelt said without hesitation. "And no, I don't imagine you are here simply to meet a necromancer in person, and certainly not to study necromancy. One must be born to it, in any case. But I am explaining this to you so that you will know, in full, who and what I am. I did not wish to meet you under false pretences, you see - I don't think it would have been advisable to do so. If I may draw your attention to something..." He flipped through a few papers on his desk and handed Willow one which she recognised as Ember's.

"The letter she wrote, that you sent to me," Gelt explained. "You'll note that, among all the formalities one might expect in such a request to meet a student of hers, she asks that I 'see what I can see in you'. A casual phrase, but I don't believe she meant it as such - she knew better."

"What did she mean?" Willow asked, still with an air of suspicion.

"Well... allow me to demonstrate." Gelt reached to a shelf behind him and drew out a slim book, then lifted a coin purse from one of his pockets and fished out a copper coin. He laid the book flat on the table, then balanced the thin coin on top of it, on its edge, holding it upright with the tip of his finger.

"Which way will it fall?" he asked. "To the left, or to the right?"

"I don't know," Willow said, frowning, "either way's just as likely." Gelt nodded, then with his other hand lifted up the left edge of the book, keeping the coin held upright relative to the now-slanted cover.

"And now?" he asked.

"To the right," Willow said. Gelt let the coin fall, and slide down the book's cover to the desktop.

"Imagine the coin is a man," he said, "making a choice. The book is the world around him, influencing his choice. Suppose he has to fetch wood from the woodpile, will he walk or run the distance from his doorstep? If it's sunny he'll walk, and enjoy the sun, if it's raining he'll run, to be back under the shelter of his roof as quick as possible. If you know whether it's sunny or raining, you know what choice he will make, even though you do not know the workings of the man's mind.

"That's a simple example, but it will suffice. Priests of Rathma see balances, and a choice is simply a balance that tips to one side or the other. We can sense, to continue the example, whether the man will walk or run, because the way his balance tips is already known to us."

"Are you saying you can see the future?" Willow asked with a sceptical frown.

"You're right to be sceptical," Gelt nodded, "and of course it's not so simple. Even if that simple example - suppose the man is in a hurry, he may run even if it's dry. Or if he's depressed he may trudge through the rain, conscious of nothing but his gloomy mood. Any single choice is affected by millions, perhaps billions of previous choices. To the sight of Rathma, this turns a simple yes-or-no choice into a murky mire of 'perhaps', 'maybe', 'what if'... but it can also reinforce certain choices. That we are attuned to balance, to choice, affords us a great insight into the present. We can also see, sometimes, a part of the future that the present is leading us to. Whether what we see will come to pass, or whether events will transpire differently... that we do not know until we arrive at the moment of choice - when the future becomes the present."

"Probability," Willow said, "you can see what's likely to happen."

"Yes," Gelt said, "not a certainty, but a guide. Useful, at times, in moderation. It is called, as I said, 'the sight of Rathma', and I believe this is what Ember referred to. She wants me to look into the balances that make up your life, and uncover where they may take you. The spell will allow you - only you - to see fragments of what may be your future. I chose to reveal my allegiance to you out of... well, loyalty to Ember, as a friend and former comrade, and because I feel it would be reprehensible for me to use my magic on you in this way without your consent, which you could not give if you were unaware of what I am."

"I see," Willow nodded. Gelt paused, then continued.

"This, also, is not something I do lightly," he warned. "The gifts of the sight can be as much a burden as a blessing, and can lead to as much harm as good. In some cases, in fact, the sight can be used as a weapon - a curse. It is rare to do so, but effective, or so I'm told. The choice must be yours, and you must know the dangers involved."

"Okay," Willow said levelly, "what are they?"

"There is no physical peril," Gely said, "you will see, hear and feel what is to come, but you will be unaffected by it, in body at least. Mentally... well," he said with a grim look, "if a man were to look into the future, and see some great suffering to come, what effect might that have on his psyche? I use this as an example only, you understand. Many people - almost all, at one time or another - choose to exist in a state of, well, denial regarding the future. They choose not to think about various inevitabilities - old age, and death. It can be distressing to be confronted with your future in such a way as to force you to accept it."

"Yeah," Willow nodded, "yeah, I see what you mean."

"That is the risk," Gelt said. "Balance against it Ember's desire for you to see. I'm sure she cares for you, perhaps loves you like a daughter. She would not want you to experience the sight without reason. What that reason may be, I cannot say, nor is it for me to say. There is much that I can see about you - your love for your partner, your great thirst and aptitude for learning, your intellect... and considerable wisdom, for one so young. I see many trials, both fresh in your mind, and not so recent, and that the past few days have been less trying for you. Many things, but not all things, and it is not for me to say what could yet be important to you. Choose, though - do you wish to see?" Willow took a deep breath.

"I- yeah," she said after a thoughtful pause, "yeah, I do. Ember's never steered me wrong, a-and there's... there's something going on that could turn out dangerous. I think maybe she knew, at least suspected, it wasn't over. So yeah," she nodded to herself, "sight me."

"Very well," Gelt said gravely, "You will be perfectly safe while I perform the magic. You will see things, hear things - they will be distorted, perhaps dreamlike. You alone will experience what you see, I will know nothing of it unless you choose to tell me. The details given by the sight are considered highly personal among the priesthood, so I will not ask you to share them - you may, if you wish, or you may wish only to share them with those you feel closest to, or to keep them to yourself. The first experiences you have will be weak, and they will grow from there until they seem as real as the world around you now. Then they will fade again, until the spell is over. Try to remain calm. Remember, what you experience has not yet come to pass, and cannot harm you now."

"Okay," Willow nodded solemnly.

"I must use a small amount of my blood to prepare the spell. Don't be alarmed." Gelt took the sickle off its peg on the wall and carefully pricked his palm, drawing a bead of blood. He took a deep breath then began to chant very softly, almost inaudibly. He held his palm facing up, and the blood began to flow, in a very thin, faint stream, into the air, a wisp of scarlet that formed a circle.

"The magic of Rathma calls on no power but our own," he explained quietly, "no demon or god holds sway with us. Like the Zann Esu, we are of and for the mortal realm. The sight exposes you to no outside influence. You need not fear."

"I understand," said Willow, her voice wavering but her gaze level.

"Then it begins," Gelt said. The circle vanished, and Willow's eyes closed. Gelt stared at her, breathing deeply and quickly, as if exerting some great continuous effort. His hands clenched, knuckles turning white. He set his jaw, while his breaths became more laboured, shallower, as if he was in pain. After a moment he seemed to become accustomed to whatever sensations were troubling him, and continued his vigil, while Willow remained motionless.

"Ah!" she suddenly cried, eyes flying open. Gelt jerked, startled, then wrapped his arms around his middle and gritted his teeth against some deep ache. Willow stared around herself wildly, beginning to rise from her chair, before she remembered where she was, and her breathing calmed. As awareness returned to her, her face fell, and tears began to fill her eyes.

"Wh-what I saw," she began, looking at Gelt. She halted when she saw his state. "Are you alright?"

"Some discomfort," he said in a strained voice, "it will pass... no permanent harm." He took a deep breath and sat up straight, if stiffly. "Our way requires a price be paid in return for our abilities. Another thing that separates us from the," he winced, then recovered, "the necromancers who make deals with demons in return for their powers." Willow frowned with concern, bit her lip, then held out a hand. A haze of frost appeared on the desk, coalesced into the form of a cup, and filled with clear water. Gelt grinned to himself, and gingerly took it.

"Thank you," he said, sipping the water. "I should have prepared a glass of water myself, but I underestimated the drain of the magic on me. That was an unusual casting."

"It didn't fade away like you said," Willow offered, her voice trembling a little. "Just... I saw things, and then suddenly it was over."

"I think you should not tell me what you saw," Gelt said, gulping the rest of the water down and taking a deep, steadying breath. Without concentrating Willow dissolved the cup back into a mist, which quickly faded away.

"No?" she asked, though her voice betrayed relief.

"The sight was ended prematurely," Gelt explained, "a choice was reached for which I could not reach a point of resolution."

"What does that mean?"

"To bestow sight on another is, essentially, to infer their future choices from the content of their present character. Your spirit guided your path, and determined what you saw. The last thing you experienced was a glimpse of a choice you will, at some point, have to make. For whatever reason, it is a choice your spirit is unable to face now. All the powers of all the priests of Rathma - and, I am sure, the similar powers of seers, scryers, prophets and oracles - cannot see what you will decide. And thus, everything beyond that moment is hidden from us. Even from you - which path you choose will remain a mystery until the moment arrives, and you make the choice as it presents itself to you." He fell silent, and stared at her, with a degree of concern in his gaze.

"Th-thank you," Willow said, gathering her wits, "for trying... I'm s-sorry I was suspicious earlier..."

"Oh, think nothing of it," Gelt said with a wave of his hand, "I'm sorry, in fact. I can see this experience has upset you, and I regret that. I believe that Ember asked for me to do this for a reason, and had your best interests at heart. Perhaps that will afford you some measure of comfort."

"I-I'll try," Willow said. She looked around herself, then slowly stood. "I should go... if there's nothing else?"

"No," Gelt said sadly, "no, that is all I can do for you. Even for one such as Ember, there are things I cannot reveal. I have said and done all I can." He stood and opened the door for Willow. She gave him a fleeting, haunted smile as she stepped past him.

"Willow," he said abruptly. She turned on the landing and looked back at him. He frowned to himself, as if wrestling with some inner struggle.

"I should not say this, not to an outsider, but... the bond you share with your partner - such things have great power. When the moment comes, trust her."

"Thank you," Willow said, swallowing and looking away.

"Good fortune to you," Gelt said. She turned and climbed down the stairs, hearing the door close behind her.

Willow walked joylessly through the narrow city streets, heading slowly back towards the Palace but in truth not paying very much attention to where she was going. Aside from the miniscule amount of concentration needed to keep from walking into anyone, her thoughts were entirely turned inward. She walked by other pedestrians, people enjoying a meal at tables outside taverns, children playing games up and down the pavements, all without sparing a glance or a thought. The present flowed around her, and she ignored it - the future plagued her, and she hunched her shoulders, cast her eyes down, and hoped to reach the privacy of her room before she could no longer hold back the tears.

Over and over, against all better judgement, she replayed the vision in her mind. She wondered balefully how far she would get - when would it become too much, how far would she still have to go when the memories crippled her, and left her crying on a street corner? Doggedly she walked onwards, as again and again she lived what she had foreseen.

At first it had been indistinct, as Gelt had told her it would be, a vague jumble of sensations and familiarities that made no sense. The impression she was standing by a window, with sunlight filtered through glass on her skin. The feel of paper beneath her fingers as she turned the pages of a book. The leap her heart took when Tara was near her, when she felt light and almost able to fly if she wanted. Wind in her hair. A smell, old and dank, like a cellar that had never been aired. The familiar sensation of a minor spell, like a tickle running up the inside of her spine. Something like losing her balance, stumbling.

Then in the space of a heartbeat everything was suddenly vivid and real. Her surroundings were still indistinct - open sky, dark shapes nearby like standing stones, a storm overhead, strange colours hanging in the air - but at the centre of her vision she could see as clearly as she saw the pavement in front of her. Tara, her Tara, surrounded by an aura of pure, primal ice, a shroud of cold magic so intense she had never seen the like. The vision lasted only a fraction of a second, but in the instant that it faded it had left Willow with the sickening realisation that it was her energy, her magic around Tara, inescapably surrounding her, turning her to ice, flowing through her as if she were nothing. She had seen the future - she was killing Tara.

"Go," she muttered to herself, as the Palace walls loomed up ahead of her and she turned towards the distant gates, "just go." She swallowed and concentrated on her breathing, unwilling to let herself shatter until she was alone.

'No,' she told herself, 'I don't have time to cry. I don't have that luxury. I know what I have to do. Be strong. Walk away. Just get my bags and leave, and she'll be safe. I'll never see her again, but she'll be safe, whatever I saw can't happen, and I can live. I won't have her, but I can live if she's safe. I can live. She'll keep me alive, even if I can't have her. I can't lose her. I can't. I can't!'

She had to stop, pause a moment and take a deep breath, before she resumed her course towards the gates. She was biting her tongue by the time she made it to the Palace, making for her and Tara's room as quickly as she could. She turned down corridors here and there to avoid the Palace's other inhabitants, but there were plenty of ways through the rambling building. She wanted to be alone.

'I can do this,' she thought, 'I can. I have to. I can't hurt her, I can't, I can't-'

"I can't," she muttered, without realising her voice had picked up her thoughts. She whispered fiercely to herself, as her legs carried her up the spiral staircase.

"I can't hurt her, I can't ki..." she couldn't even say the word, " No, I can't. He was lying, he tricked me, it's not going to happen..." She knew she was deluding herself. 'Don't be weak,' she silently told herself, 'I saw it as if I was there. He wasn't lying. I don't believe that, I just want to. If he was lying, if it wasn't real, then everything's okay, and I want that so much... gods I wish he was lying, why can't he have been lying? Oh gods, what do I do? What can I do?'

She was vaguely aware of Lissa looking up at her from the attendant room as she passed on the landing, but she didn't look or give any indication that she wanted anything, so she was left alone as she climbed the last few stairs and pushed open the door to the bedroom. She leaned heavily against the door as it closed behind her, letting her staff fall to lean against the corner of the wall, and dropped her satchel from her shoulder, leaving it where it lay on the floor. Without really seeing she looked around - bar the bed, which had been made sometime during the day, everything was exactly as she had left it that morning, half an hour after Tara had kissed her goodbye and headed out to the barracks. Willow absently touched her lips, remembering the kiss.

She staggered wearily across the room, slumping onto the long, soft couch beneath the window. Having foolishly allowed herself the luxury of remembering a kiss, the memories came fast now, watching Tara at practice, watching her shower, knowing the way she moved, the way she touched herself, was all for her to watch. Kissing her, teasing her, flirting over lunch, promising fulfilment later. 'Promising,' Willow thought, 'oh gods... oh please forgive me...'

"I promised..." she whispered to herself, willing the tears to come, to wash away her thoughts. All she was given were memories of things she had said to Tara - that she would stay with her, never leave, all the places she would show her, the wonders she had seen on her travels that she would share... the life they would have.

"What life?" she demanded of herself. "There is no life, there isn't- nothing. If you stay, there's nothing, she'll... she-" Willow felt a tear slip from her eye, leaving a wet trail down her cheek. "It'll be my fault," she whispered, almost pleading with herself, "it'll be my fault, if I don't... if I can't leave, a-and she... it's my fault. It will be. I have to go. Now. Get up! Now!" Dashing away the tears that were flowing freely now, she got to her feet and stomped over to the desk, where she had left some of her books out. She looked at them, trying to think.

"Just take what you need," she said to herself, ignoring the tears, "just... the ones you need. And-" 'And what?' her thoughts demanded treacherously. 'Leave the rest? Leave half me life here for her to find, and wonder what drove me away? She'll come after me. I should write her a letter, I should explain- I should...'

The sight of the slim leather-bound book she had bought a few days earlier put a halt to her thoughts. She opened it and felt the blank pages slip past her fingers. She had been going to start it today. She had guessed she would be back from meeting Gelt before Tara returned from the barracks, and she remembered thinking, as she had walked to meet Tara for lunch, that she would start with her first sight of her, in the wagon just by Kingsport docks, as she had sat among her books, looked up at the newcomer, noticed her cleavage first of all - she had imagined Tara's laugh as she read that - then looked up into her face, and seen such a gentle soul in her eyes...

The book fell from her hands, landing on its spine on the desk and falling shut. Willow stared about herself, looking for some safe haven from the life that was too perfect to leave, and the future too terrible to face. Finding none, she staggered to the bed, threw herself across it, curled up, dragging the covers around her, and cried like she had never before cried in her life.

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Fifty-Five

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