Author: Chris Cook
Tara saw Willow curled up on their bed the moment she opened the door, and her jovial greeting died on her lips. Dropping her spear and pack hastily on the table she rushed to the bed, kneeling and leaning forward to reach her.
"Willow?" she whispered hesitantly. "Willow, are you awake? Wh-what's... Willow?"
Willow started at her touch, then the tension seemed to flee from her, replaced by lethargy as she slowly looked up at Tara, deep despair in her eyes.
"Tara," she murmured sadly. Tara's heart broke at seeing her eyes red from crying, and the trails of tears half-dried on her cheeks.
"Sweetie?" she asked, with quiet desperation, "talk to me? What's wrong? Please?" Willow swallowed, hesitated, then raised a hand towards Tara, as if she couldn't quite make up her mind whether to reach for her. Tara lay beside her and hugged her tightly, relieved to feel Willow's arms slowly close around her and hold her in return.
"Y-you're... you're in danger," Willow managed to say, in a choked voice still thick with unshed tears. "You're- something terrible... I'm not strong enough to stop it."
"What's going to happen baby?" Tara asked gently, leaning her head back just far enough to look into Willow's eyes.
"I-" Willow began, her voice failing her, "I can't-"
"Please?" Tara whispered. "Please, Willow? Whatever it is we'll face it, I promise. I won't leave you, no matter what." She frowned in dismay as this caused Willow to bury her face in the rumpled blankets and sob.
"Willow?" Tara pleaded.
"I-I have... I can't leave," Willow replied without looking up, "I- I have to, to protect you, b-but I can't-"
"Why?" Tara asked, with real fear in her voice. "Baby, why do you have to leave? Please tell me, please... don't leave me?" The last words came out in a whisper, the tremulous plea of a frightened child. Willow heard them though, and her arms, which had been hanging limp around Tara, now hugged her with fierce strength.
"I'm so sorry," she sobbed, "so sorry... I'm- I won't leave you baby, I promise... but I'm so afraid..."
"Just talk to me, Willow," Tara whispered, returning the hug, unfathomable relief in her voice. "Tell me what's going on." Willow managed to look up at her, and Tara lifted a hand to brush the tears from her cheeks, and then stroke her hair as they both lay down, resting their heads against the pillows.
"Th... the mage... I saw today," Willow began, pausing to gather her thoughts.
"Did he-" Tara began, fire flashing in her eyes. So close to her, Willow actually felt the flush of power through her, shamefully reminding her that Tara was not a woman incapable of defending herself. She shook her head quickly.
"No," she explained, "no, he's alright, he didn't do anything bad... I'll... Ember sent me to him for a reason..."
Willow talked, uninterrupted, for some time, while Tara listened, holding her and comfortingly stroking her hair. Willow spoke almost in a monotone, her voice as expressionless as it was normally lively. Tara frowned at first, when Willow told her who and what Niston Gelt was, but let her keep talking, and as Willow explained the ways of his priesthood, and added her belief that he was telling the truth, she relaxed. Only once did Willow falter, when describing the vision she had experienced.
"Deadly magic," she was explaining, "absolutely deadly... I was casting at-" There her voice caught, and she seemed unable to speak.
"Me?" Tara prompted softly. Willow nodded wretchedly, but Tara just kept stroking her hair, her other hand hugging Willow's waist, and after a moment she resumed her tale.
"Do you want to leave?" Tara asked, as calmly as she could, when Willow had finished. She made no motion to get up, or let go her hold on her.
"No!" Willow said vehemently. "No, by all the gods no, I never wanted to leave you. I... I was so afraid... I am afraid," she admitted, her voice growing small and shameful, "and I thought... I thought if I wasn't around you, I couldn't hurt you... I-"
"Shh, it's alright," Tara soothed her, as fresh tears fell from Willow's eyes.
"I'm so sorry," Willow said, fierce through her tears. She turned over in Tara's embrace and clung to her tightly. "I'm so sorry... I never wanted to hurt you, never..."
"You didn't," Tara whispered.
"But I-" Willow protested haltingly, "-I said... you thought I wanted to-"
"I was upset," Tara admitted, "and worried. But not hurt. I knew there was something going on I didn't understand yet, and I... I was afraid that, for some reason, you would leave. But I knew you didn't want to, even if you believed you had to."
"I'm so sorry," Willow cried, "I'm stupid, I'm not thinking- I just-"
"Shh, baby," Tara murmured, "you're not stupid, don't ever think that. It's alright to be scared baby, it's alright... we'll make it through this. Just like we have before, together."
"Promise?" Willow asked, lifting her red-rimmed eyes to meet Tara's.
"I promise," Tara said sincerely, "somehow, we will get through this. I won't give you up. I can't."
"I'm just so-" Willow began. "The thought of hurting you... it's so terrible, it frightens me so much, I just want to run away... huh," she chuckled mirthlessly, "some sorceress I am."
"Don't say that," Tara said gently, "you're the bravest person I know. You remember putting all your trust in me, when we were surrounded by goat-men?"
"It's easy for me to trust you," Willow said without hesitation.
"Then trust me now," Tara went on. "I will not let that happen to you. I don't care if destiny and fate and all the powers in the world try to make it happen, I won't let it. You don't have to worry," she whispered, leaning over to rest her cheek against Willow's, "I know, baby, I know with all my heart, you won't hurt me. Look at me?" She gently guided Willow's gaze to hers again.
"I don't have any defences against you," she said softly, "I've let you into my heart completely, and you know why? Because I know I can. Because I know you make me safe. And if anything tries to change that," she shook her head for emphasis, "then it can go straight to hell, because I won't let it. You will not hurt me."
"I..." Willow said at last, "I-I believe you. Gods know I'm afraid, but I believe you. I believe in you."
"I believe in you too," Tara replied. "It's okay to be afraid. I am too. But we're together, baby, so... so I know we'll be alright. Whatever's going on, we'll defeat it." Willow swallowed, then nodded once, firmly.
"I love you," she whispered.
"I know," Tara smiled, "that's why I know we'll make it. I love you too, Willow."
"Tara," Willow murmured, capturing her lips for a moment, seeking reassurance and finding it.
"What do we do?" she asked.
"Well, first things first," Tara grinned, "it's getting close to dinner time. Let's get something to eat?" Willow smiled tentatively, and they both sat up.
"I promise," Tara whispered in her ear, "I won't let you go."
Rather than use the dining table Tara suggested they eat on the couch, and so they did, with trays balanced on their laps, Willow leaning contentedly against Tara, enjoying the constant gentle strokes and touches she gave whenever she had a hand free. Tara was glad to see Willow's smiled coming easier and more frequently as she relaxed - she knew they had to discuss her vision in more detail, but she would have been reluctant to bring it up so soon had Willow's distress continued.
"Okay then," she said quietly, stacking Willow's empty tray on top of hers and leaving both on a side table for later, "comfy?"
"Comfy," Willow said, with a small sigh but a resolute expression as she glanced up at Tara.
"Alright, let's start at the beginning. Do you think it would do any good to go back to Gelt tomorrow? I'm free all day, I'll go with you."
"I don't think so," Willow said, measuring her thoughts carefully, "I think he's told me all he can. Or at least all he's able to, according to the rules his priesthood has. He sort of suggested that the last thing he told me, to trust you, was something he shouldn't have said to an 'outsider', like it was something he was able to see, but shouldn't have shared. I..." she paused for thought, then continued: "I think he's done his best, for the sake of whatever loyalty he has to Ember, and now it's up to us." She shrugged. "Plus, being a priest of Rathma in a place like this, he must lead a fairly secretive life, so turning up on his doorstep demanding information would probably be... well, impolite." She gave Tara a little grin.
"Okay," Tara agreed. "Alright then... you believe he's told you the truth? About what he is, and what you saw?"
"I do," Willow said, "I'm not a truth-seer or anything, and even if I was from what he said it's possible he'd be able to counteract that kind of magic, but... well, I believe him. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe he was hiding his real intentions or his real nature... Ember always told me to trust my instincts though, and I think he's genuine. Besides, Ember obviously knew he was more than just a common mage, and I don't think he could have fooled her, not to the extent that she'd entrust me to him. All together, it... it makes sense that he is what he said."
"And the spell he did for you was what he said it was," Tara added. "From what he told you, how definite do you think that power was? Was he showing you what will be, or what might be?" Willow gave this careful consideration.
"I think he believed it," she said eventually, "I'm not sure I do - what I saw was... well, I don't want to believe it," she admitted, "part of me can't... but the intellectual side of me says that he believed I saw something that will happen, not something that might happen. And it seems from what he said that his priesthood are good at this sort of thing. And, again, Ember sent me to him for this. She doesn't put much store in predestination, as a rule, so if she thought it was important enough..." She frowned to herself.
"You remember I told you once about the Priestesses of Zerae?" Tara asked. "The ones that have visions, like the Oracles in your order." Willow nodded, and Tara went on, "Well, they believe that what they see is the future at that moment. Sort of like... like being on a boat and looking ahead. You can see where you'll end up, but if you change the sails, your course changes. They say that the, the act of seeing the future changes it."
"Yeah," Willow nodded, "I understand... I don't think that's what Gelt's priesthood believes, though."
"Maybe they don't, but Ember does," Tara suggested. Willow glanced up at her, and Tara could see her digest the idea, as a grin tugged at the corners of her mouth.
"Maybe," she said slowly, "I- the thing is," she confessed, "I'd absolutely love to find some way where what I saw isn't real, and everything's okay. I-I don't want to dismiss it too easily, though. It's tempting to dismiss it, but-"
"But we don't want to be unprepared for anything that does happen," Tara finished. "I agree. Okay, let's look at it this way: we have a chance to change what will happen. I want to believe everything's okay, too," she smiled, "but not if it means putting either of us in danger. Whatever happens, we'll be ready, I promise."
"Right," Willow said firmly, "that's a plan I can follow one hundred per cent."
"Then we've got a plan," Tara said, hugging Willow and giving her a playful pat on her stomach. "Alright, so... your vision. Tell me everything you can remember, as much detail as you can. Anything might be important."
"There wasn't much," Willow admitted, "and I didn't recognise anything at the time... apart from you," she added with a frown. Tara gave her a reassuring squeeze.
"Maybe we'll recognise something if it turns up," she suggested, "it might give us the chance we need to do something differently." Willow looked up at her with a grin.
"Good thinking," she noted, "okay... first it was just a few sensations... like- bits of experiences, but not the whole thing. Sort of... like you'd get if you had déjà vu, and take away the actual experience of whatever it is you're doing that seems familiar. Just the sense of something... Okay, first I felt as if I was standing in front of a window during the day, I don't know where - might even have been here," she shrugged, waving a hand in the direction of the window opposite them, beyond the bed, "I just don't know. There was definitely sunlight, and a... like a sense of the space beyond the window, but I think it was closed. Looking out on a view that I wasn't part of, like from behind glass. I didn't feel the wind, of hear anything from it. Not a whole lot to go on."
"You never know," Tara offered.
"Yeah," Willow agreed. "Next there was a book - I think it was a book. I just felt paper on my fingers like I was turning pages, but there was a, a sort of weight to it, which is why I think book rather than a pile of paper or something. No idea what it was, though. Then I felt like you were with me. I always feel better when you're close," she said, smiling up at Tara, "I felt that, I'm sure. Then I felt wind blowing, I don't know if I was running, or riding, or if it was just a strong wind - just the feel of my hair blowing around. Then a, a sort of confined feeling, not trapped exactly, just... like I'm in an enclosed space, and it's kind of dark and damp. Not scary, just... like a cellar, or a basement. Or maybe just an old room without any candles lit. Some place that hadn't been disturbed in a while, it had that sort of... still feeling. I felt myself cast a spell, a minor one, I'm not sure what. Cold magic, not from a scroll, but nothing powerful. Then I felt off balance, like I'd stubbed my toe, and was just feeling myself overbalance but I hadn't started falling yet."
"Was that right after you felt yourself casting the spell?" Tara asked.
"Well, there wasn't anything between them, but I don't think they were related - I don't think it was the spell making me feel that, whatever it was. Then... well, that was when the real vision hit me."
"Tell me," Tara said gently.
"It was... everything around you was blurry, like - like I could only properly see what I was focussing on, and everything else was peripheral. I'm sure it was open sky overhead. Cloudy, overcast, a storm, I think. There were these dark shapes all around, like pillars, or standing stones, I'm not sure, I couldn't see them properly. Just... things, standing upright. I think stone, just a feeling. There were these patches of, of colour, in the air. It must have been some sort of magic, but I don't know what, nothing I've ever seen before."
"Between the stones?" Tara asked. "Or in front of them?"
"Maybe," Willow nodded, "they might have been connected. They were all around. Some kinds of magic need standing stones, or some sort of constructs like them, to work, to help focus the energy. The Zann Esu don't practice them, we study them, but not to use. A sorceress isn't supposed to rely on anything but her own abilities. I haven't actually seen those kinds of spells in action, so perhaps it was something like that."
"Anything else?" Tara prompted, as Willow paused and frowned to herself.
"No," she said, "that was all I could see... I remember feeling sort of... threatened. Not by you," she added hastily, "just the sense that, that something was happening, and I had to do something. I wish I could be clearer, but it was all jumbled up-"
"It's alright," Tara assured her. "What about me?" Willow took a deep breath.
"It was difficult to see," she said, "all the magic in the air... You were in your armour, the light set. You looked... not afraid. Tense, but not afraid... like I said though, it was difficult to see, so I might be wrong."
"I doubt it," Tara said, "you're pretty perceptive when it comes to what I'm feeling."
"Well, I try," Willow said bashfully. "That's just about all I could see though. You had your spear, I think - some weapon, anyway. Not your bow, though it might have been on your back, I'm not sure. Not in your hand, at any rate."
"And the spell you were casting?" Tara asked softly.
"I know it," Willow admitted, "it's not a spell, it's... it's what you get when you don't cast a spell. Just pure power, drawn from the flow of the elements and released into the world, with no form, no purpose. Normally a mage - any mage, not just sorceresses - forms a spell and draws on the power for it at the same time. We're taught, as a last-ditch measure, how to draw on power alone. Without having to form a spell, you can draw more power, but because there's no spell there's no way to control it. It's very dangerous, we're taught only to attempt it if we're absolutely sure there's no other option. We're taught how to do it, but only in minute amounts, the rest is all theory. If a sorceress draws on the full extent of her power, without controlling it, there's a fair chance she'll kill herself doing it. But it's just as destructive to anything else. It's for when you've got nothing to lose, and you're dead if you do nothing."
"One last roll of the dice," Tara quipped, "all or nothing."
"Yeah," Willow nodded, "yeah, pretty much. In Entsteig, in the library when I saw Shadai, that's probably what I should have done, instead of trying to fight my way out of it and banish her. According to Zann Esu rules, anyway," she added.
"What are the odds of surviving something like that?"
"With cold magic? About half-half. According to the texts, anyway, it's not something that sorceresses experiment with. But there are times when it's had to have been done. It's supposedly impossible to do it safely, if you draw on that much power, but it can be survived. All the magic flying around would probably cause freezing, cuts, maybe disruptive internal damage. Wild magic, without a spell to shape it, can be pretty unpredictable. That's using cold, at any rate. With fire it's more predictable, but the odds of surviving are lower. Lightning... they say you never know what you'll get. Maybe vaporised, maybe tossed around like a rag doll, maybe not a scratch. It's really not the same stuff as storm lightning, it's primal energy, very unpredictable."
"And what you saw was cold magic?" Tara asked.
"Definitely," Willow said, "I doubt I could draw on much power from another element even if I threw everything into it, and anyway, I'm sure it was cold. I saw the freezing, the- I knew it. It's the magic I've been casting since I was a little girl, I should know what it feels like by now."
"It's alright, I'm not questioning you," Tara said soothingly.
"Huh? No- I'm sorry," Willow shook her head, "I didn't mean it like that, it's just that... this is all so unbelievable. What I'm saying is something I- If you'd asked me yesterday, I'd have said it was impossible. But I saw it..." She trailed off and turned over, kneeling on the couch beside Tara, with no tears yet in her eyes, but her sorrow plainly written on her face.
"Why is this happening?" she asked plaintively. "Why can everyone else lead a normal life, but everywhere I turn sooner or later there's demons, or madmen, or nightmares? No, it's alright," she said with a wan smile, as Tara opened her mouth, "I know I'm just being childish, but... I'm okay."
"Here," Tara offered, opening her arms to Willow, who gratefully sank into her embrace, resting against her with her head pillowed on Tara's chest.
"I'm okay," she repeated, "I guess... it's been a bad day. I guess I just needed to vent a little."
"I understand," Tara offered, "you know, you'll get no argument from me. I wish we could just get on with our lives, instead of having to worry and deal with goddess-knows-what looming over us."
"But we don't get to choose what life throws in our path, huh?" Willow said wryly.
"No we don't," Tara sighed, "and sometimes it's a blessing, to be surprised, and enjoy unexpected moments... and sometimes," she grinned down, "it's a real pain in the butt." Willow snorted with sudden laughter.
"You know what?" Tara asked, sobering.
"Well, if it were true what you've said now and then... that I could have anyone I want? Any of those people out there with normal lives, who never get chased by monsters, never have to deal with dark forces, or fight for their lives... I wouldn't. I'd choose you, over anyone else in the whole world, monster chases and all. And because I've got you in my life, I feel like the luckiest, most blessed women alive."
"Tara," Willow whispered, lifting her head. Her eyes were moist, but it was joy, not sadness, that sent the tears trickling down her cheeks now.
"I promise," she said, slowly and deliberately, meeting Tara's gaze unwaveringly, "I promise with all my heart, I am yours, a-and I'll be yours forever. No matter what happens, no matter how frightened I get, no matter how much danger the world throws at us, I promise I'll be at your side. I know I've said before I'll stay with you forever, and - not that I didn't mean it, but I guess I was just thinking of the good side of things. Well now I've... now it's tough, and now I'm promising anyway. I'm... I'm yours."
Tara smiled, bit her lip, then leaned forward and kisses Willow, very softly. Their lips brushed together like clouds, then opened, but still there was no haste and no pressure. Just love; Willow was utterly captured by the gentle kiss, and when it finally ended, when Tara leaned back again, she felt completely satisfied, and forgiven for her fears.
"I love you," she whispered, even before her eyes opened again.
"I know," Tara replied, "I love you. Hey," her tone became more playful, "how about a long, hot bath before we go to bed?"
"Yeah?" Willow grinned.
"Tell you what," Tara said, sitting up, "I happen to know you were ogling a hot young Amazon down at the barracks today. Perhaps I could arrange for her to bathe with you?"
"I can't say no to that," Willow replied, bouncing to her feet. Tara stood with her, and held her for a moment, smiling with her arms loosely around Willow's waist.
"Welcome back," she murmured.
"That's my adorably excitable Willow."
"Well... she's never far away," Willow shrugged with a smile, "you know just how to excite me." They kissed for a moment, then Tara disengaged her hug and led Willow towards the bathroom.
"I wasn't ogling," Willow pointed out half-way, "I was... discreetly observing. A casual passer-by wouldn't have noticed anything thing untoward in the way I was looking, regardless of what I was thinking."
"Sure," Tara nodded, "you were practically drooling."
"Well... maybe a little," Willow conceded as Tara began filling the bath, "but you know, she was a very hot Amazon. Exceptionally hot, in fact."
"You'll just have to wander down to the barracks more often," Tara suggested, "maybe you'll get to 'discreetly observe' her some more." She adjusted the water temperature, held her hand under the tap to test it, then sat on the side of the tub and gave Willow her full, appreciative attention as she undressed.
"Doing some discreet observation of your own?" Willow quipped as she swayed naked past Tara and stepped into the bath. She sank into the water with a sigh, then folded her arms on the side of the tub and rested her chin on them, watching as Tara loosened her armour.
"An Amazon should always be aware of her surroundings," she replied, "particularly people. It's amazing what you can learn, just by taking note of every subtle nuance." Willow chuckled to herself, and leaned back to turn off the tap. She glanced at the small shelf above the taps, studied the small bottles there - stealing glances back at Tara all the while - and finally selected a scented bath oil and poured a little into the water, swirling it around.
Tara shed her armour and skirt, sneaking a look at Willow over her shoulder as she stood before her, wearing only her boots and briefs. Ignoring the bench beside the bath she lifted her leg and planted her heel against the wall, at waist-height, as she undid the buckles on her boots, first one leg and then the other. Kicking the boots away under the bench, and stood with her back to Willow, hooked her thumbs into the waist of her underwear, and in one slow, elegant motion leaned down, dragging them over the curve of her bottom, down her legs, and finally letting them fall around her ankles.
"Like?" she grinned as she turned around and stepped over the side of the bath.
"Beautiful," Willow murmured, "you'll be pleased to know I took careful note of each and every subtle nuance."
"Well good," Tara smiled, "I'd hate to think my nuances were going to waste."
"Never," Willow laughed, "come here."
By virtue of already having the soap and washcloth ready, Willow bathed Tara first, making no secret of her appreciation for her body as she ran her hands all over her, nor making much effort to conceal her interest in Tara beyond bathing her, as her hands lingered in all the right places, and touched in just the right ways. By the time she handed the washcloth to Tara and settled back into her arms, they were both thoroughly at ease, giving and receiving physical contact as easily as the time of day.
"Want to hear a story?" Tara offered, as Willow lay back against her, arching her back slightly as Tara caressed her chest and stomach. At an affirmative murmur, Tara grinned and went on:
"Many, many years ago... when Athulua and Kethryes wandered the harsh lands of the old warlords and chieftains, gathering their following of the downtrodden, the enslaved, the persecuted, all those who hoped for a better life. They had travelled for years, and had been joined by many others - Zerae, Hefaetrus, Karcheus, Elasia, Anishe, Jamaron, dozens of them, who all now watch over the Amazons from their homes in the world beyond, as our gods and goddesses. But this was when they were just men and women, gathered together in search of the chance for a new life. More than anything they wanted a homeland, somewhere to build their homes, plant their crops, raise their families and not have to worry about where they would find shelter next. But no-one would take them - wherever they went, the rulers were distrustful of them, and would not allow them to make homes on their land unless they agreed to abide by the old, unjust laws that demanded some live as slaves, some be condemned for their choices... so they journeyed farther and farther, hoping to find their home somewhere over the horizon.
"Karcheus, who had travelled much in his young life, and whose keen eyes and ears had revealed many rumours and secrets to him, had once heard of a man he believed could help them, called Misiya, the mariner, a man from far away, who because of his foreign ways and appearance was mistrusted in all the ports he put into. But his home was the sea, which he was master of, and it was said that if he wished he could sail around the world, and never lose his way. Athulua led her people to the mouth of the river Tiera, where rumour said Misiya could be found. They made camp outside the city and waited, and on the eighth day a strange ship came into view, unlike any of those at anchor in the harbour. She was Misiya's ship, the Valkyrie, and the mariner himself was at her helm.
"Learning of the plight of Athulua's people, he agreed that he would join them, for a while at least, and carry them on the Valkyrie to the far-off land of Westmarch, where they hoped to find a kind ruler who would allow them to settle and make their homes. But as they loaded their supplies and livestock aboard, a priest of the sea god Marvulla, from the city, appeared, calling on Misiya to give up his ship. The priest said that only men of the city and river were worthy of Marvulla's blessing, and demanded that Misiya and his new crew of refugees disband and abandon their journey. Misiya refused, and so the priest cursed him. 'I call on Marvulla,' he said, pointing his gnarled old staff at Misiya and his ship, 'If you and your unclean vessel take to the seas on this voyage, a great storm shall arise and beset you, your ship will be destroyed, and you shall never see the shores of Westmarch.'"
"Rotten old priest," Willow frowned, turning over so Tara could wash her back.
"Misiya scorned the priest," Tara went on, smiling, "but later he went to Athulua and Kethryes, and confided his fears. The sea was a treacherous mistress, he said, and a curse was no laughing matter - even a mariner such as himself would be powerless if the sea turned against them. Athulua and Kethryes listened to him, and then talked with their people, and they agreed that they would rather set forth, following their own path in spite of the scorn of others, than turn back and return to the lives they had once known, governed by cruel and unjust rulers. They said to Misiya that, if he still wished to make the voyage, they could sail with him.
"Dark clouds were already gathering above the far horizon, but nonetheless Misiya took his ship out and set a course for Westmarch, trusting his instincts to guide them to a land which would not even be visible for many weeks. But as the priest warned, the clouds grew to a storm, the sea churned, and huge waves tossed the Valkyrie, sending her far off course. Misiya fought with all his might and guile, but as he had feared the sea was far stronger than any man or ship. Farther and farther they were driven by the storm, far out into the sea, away from any land on Misiya's charts, and the Valkyrie began to creak and groan, her old, trusty timbers battered by the massive waves.
"On the sixth night of the voyage, Misiya finally came to believe that they were doomed, for the storm showed no sign of abating, and his precious Valkyrie was on the verge of breaking apart, her hull leaking, her sails in tatters, her masts cracked or fallen. But just when all seemed lost, and Athulua's people feared they would never see land again, a strange fire surrounded the Valkyrie, keeping her from being broken, and she surged forwards, as if steering herself. And then, in waters that had never been charted, they saw a shore, and Misiya guided his ailing ship to land, sustained by the strange magic around her just long enough to carry her crew to safety. I bet you know where they were, don't you?"
"The Amazon Isles?" Willow grinned, cuddling up to Tara.
"That's right," Tara nodded.
"So, the nasty old sea god's curse came true, but the Amazons found their homeland anyway," Willow murmured. "I like the sound of that story."
"I thought you might," Tara said, gently stroking Willow's hair. "I know it's hardly the same thing, but... you never know what might happen. That was just a vague curse, whereas, well, what you saw didn't leave much room for interpretation. I don't blame you for fearing the worst. But just remember how much you love me. I don't think that leaves any 'room for interpretation'." She gave Willow a supportive smile. "Between fate, and your love, I know which one I trust more."
"You're a goddess," Willow murmured, smiling and shaking her head, "no matter how much I need you, you're strong for me."
"I do my best," Tara said with a bashful grin. "I'm sure, sooner or later, I'll need you to be strong for me, and you will be."
"I hope so," Willow replied earnestly.
"I know so," Tara told her. "C'mon, let's get to bed."
"I liked that story," Willow said again, as she and Tara dried each other off. "Is Misiya one of your gods as well?"
"Oh yes," Tara nodded, "we're not a big ocean-going people, but we sail between the islands, and there's a few captains who take their ships further, to reach Westmarch or the Twin Seas, and they always offer a prayer for Misiya to guide them safely on their journey, and back home. They say he shines as the brightest star in the sky, and all ships can steer by his light."
"The axis star," Willow observed.
"That's the one," Tara replied, "we call it the Mariner, after Misiya. And his ship, the Valkyrie, gave its name to Athulua's handmaidens."
"I remember you telling me about them," Willow noted. She and Tara hung up their towels, gathered their clothes and returned to the bedroom, preparing for sleep. Once Willow has slipped under the covers, Tara quickly donned a robe and pulled the bell-cord for Lissa, who appeared at the door and took their empty dinner plates.
"Miss," she asked, "is everything alright? I don't mean to pry, but... Miss Willow seemed upset earlier...? Is she alright?"
"She's had... troubling news," Tara said, "but we're okay. Thanks for asking." She gave Lissa a grateful look, then turned from her relieved grin and met Willow's gaze, sharing a warm moment with her.
"We'll be fine."