Author: Chris Cook
Willow woke gently, from a troubled sleep where, nevertheless, she had been aware of the warmth surrounding her, protecting her. As the last shreds of sleep left her and her mind gathered itself, the warmth became Tara's arms, one tucked beneath the pillow, touching her shoulder on the far side, the other draped across her chest. Tara's fingertips leisurely stroked back and forth across her breast, so gently Willow barely noticed for a moment, until she realised the delightful sensation had to be coming from somewhere, and paid attention to where the hands touching her were. She opened her eyes, blinking away the sleep, and after a quick glance around the room, taking in the packed bags and readied clothes they had prepared the night before, turned her head over and found herself staring into Tara's eyes.
"Morning," Tara smiled.
"And good morning to you," Willow grinned, though it came out a little slurred as her body insisted there was no need to be fully awake just yet. "Watching me sleep?"
"Mmm-hmm," Tara nodded slightly, her gaze constant.
"Ah... that smile...?" Willow began.
"What smile?" Tara asked, choosing that moment to edge her fingers closer to Willow's nipple.
"Th-the one you just had," Willow explained, trying not to be distracted, "the one that was... like... a mother with a newborn child... or an angel seeing the world at peace..."
"I was smiling like that?" Tara said with a raised eyebrow.
"Nah... that's just the best I can describe it... you're even more beautiful than that."
"What about that smile?" Tara asked, blushing and making no effort to hide from Willow how touched she was by her words.
"That was just..." Willow began, and paused. "That smile was just from watching me sleep?"
"It was," Tara nodded. Willow closed her eyes for a moment, then met Tara's gaze again; opened her mouth to speak, then shook her head gently and leaned over to kiss her. Tara eagerly accepted her lips, while her arm beneath Willow coaxed her into rolling over, so that she ended up on top of her, lips still locked together. Tara's hands leisurely roamed Willow's back, revelling in the smoothness of her skin, gently urging her on as she dove deeper into her mouth.
"Oooh," Tara sighed as Willow's kisses moved down her neck. Willow diligently made her way down over Tara's shoulders, bestowing a ceaseless stream of kisses, intermingled with gentle nips here and there, and proceeded up Tara's arm when she stretched expansively, reaching out to either side across the rumpled sheets. By the time Willow reached her hand, kissing her palm and lightly nibbling on her fingertips, Tara had reached across with her free hand to stroke her hair, giving Willow the chance to turn her head and press a kiss to that palm as well, proceeding back to her body along the other arm.
"Oh... goddess..." Tara gasped. Letting her body lie full length over Tara's hips and legs, Willow nuzzled into her breasts, stroking her cheeks across their soft expanse, licking and kissing, and nibbling on her nipples, which drew from her an undulating moan that was pure pleasure. Tara moved her hands to hold Willow's head, winding her fingers through her tangled crimson hair, encouraging her to taste to her heart's delight as she arched her back, offering herself to Willow's eager mouth. Moving from one peak to the other, back and forth, she accepted Tara's offer, giving in return teasing, fleeting licks before finally drawing each nipple into her mouth in turn and sucking it to an achingly hard point.
Tara couldn't help but let out a whimper as Willow's mouth left her peaks, hard and glistening, to the cool morning air. But the loss of contact was only momentary, to allow her to continue her journey downward. Tara's moans drew together, every exhale voicing her bliss, as Willow trailed kisses across her stomach, licking her navel, then down onto her hips. She writhed slowly as Willow lifted herself up, and smiled to herself, murmuring and cooing in delight, as she felt the lips move down her thigh, deliberately avoiding her weeping centre, prolonging her pleasurable torment.
She spread her arms wide again, as Willow made her way back up her other leg, tilting her head back, gasping once and then giving her voice over to a series of moans that were melodic as they welled up from deep beneath her conscious mind. Willow smiled as she moved back up to Tara's lips, seeing her so content, so relaxed and full of pleasure, that she seemed to be in a waking dream, free of the trials and imperfections of the real world. Sensing Willow's regard, Tara opened her eyes and met her gaze.
"Willow-kisses," she murmured happily, "I love Willow-kisses..." She smiled radiantly, then giggled to herself, simply unable to contain her joy.
"You can have all the Willow-kisses you want," Willow whispered, making good on her promise at once by pressing her lips to Tara's throat, beneath her jaw, and finally up to her mouth.
"Beautiful," Tara grinned, "mmm... surrounded by Willow-kisses..."
"Covered in them," Willow agreed.
"Except... one spot...?"
"I know," Willow smiled widely, "I saved the best for last." She began to make her way downwards once more, only to be stopped in mid-caress by Tara's voice:
"Yes?" She looked up, seeing anticipation in Tara's eyes.
Smiling her understanding, Willow shifted her legs to one side, turning as she kissed her way over Tara's bosom and stomach. Carefully swinging one leg over Tara's upper body, planting her knees among the pillows, she felt Tara's guiding hands on her hips, and as she lowered her lips to Tara's sex, finally tasting the glistening scent that had been driving her wild through her teasing, she let her hips settle over Tara, and felt the touch of her tongue on her folds.
With Tara hungrily loving her, Willow found it difficult to think of anything but returning her attentions in kind, but somehow she found the presence of mind to prolong both their pleasure. When she felt Tara shudder beneath her, bracing herself for her climax, she would ease off, as much as she could bring herself to do - and she was dimly aware of Tara teasing her likewise higher, denying her immediate release in order to bring her to one much sweeter. In her mind, the battle of wills became not to keep her own body in check, but to resist the temptation to devour Tara outright, to bring her to orgasm in one swift, intense flurry of kissing and licking. The prospect of Tara's climax shone in Willow's mind like a glorious beacon, and Tara's equally skilful loving between her own thighs threatened to rob her of the ability to do anything but grasp it.
Nevertheless, when she finally relented and buried herself in Tara, tasting the juices gathered on her folds and working her tongue into her channel through and beyond the point of no return, she had the satisfaction of feeling Tara explode beneath her into no ordinary release, but one born of intense craving and expert guidance to the peak of her pleasure. She had only time for that thought before her own body gave in to Tara's lips and tongue, and brought forth its bounty of wet satisfaction for her to eagerly lap up. She collapsed, blissfully, on top of Tara, inundated in the scent and taste of her pleasure. It was a considerable effort of will for her to move, to turn back around and lie, facing the right way, against her lover's side, but it was worth it for the utterly satiated smile on Tara's glistening lips that she saw as she laid her head on the pillows next to her.
'Love you,' Tara mouthed dreamily.
"I love you," Willow replied, snuggling closer to her. Tara's arms went around her, enveloping her.
"Can't we stay like this forever?" Willow asked with a sad smile.
"In bed?" Tara replied. She grinned and shook her head gently. "No... we have a job to do." Willow nodded her silent agreement.
"But in love?" Tara went on. "Yes... yes, we can stay like this forever. I intend to."
"Me too," Willow murmured, "me too... well," she sighed, patting the pillow with the hand not draped over Tara's waist, "let's go do this damned job of ours."
Willow hesitated as she saw Tara don her shoulder plate and begin to strap it into place. It was the one she had worn with her ceremonial armour before, polished bronze, and Willow had seen her the night before, carefully applying to it, and the matching greaves, a mixture of oil and powder that took away the shine and bright colour, leaving them a dull, inconspicuous grey. But it hadn't registered in her mind until now that-
"What's up?" Tara asked, startling Willow. She realised her face had given away her thoughts, and smiled sheepishly.
"Sorry," she murmured, "just... that armour with that shoulder plate... it's," her voice dropped to a whisper, "i-it's what I saw you wearing... the vision..." The curiosity in Tara's gaze turned to understanding, and she glanced down at the familiar bronze plate, hesitantly reaching for the buckle holding its main strap tight.
"I didn't realise before," Willow went on, halting her, "that's all... with it grey like that, it looked kind of like the leather one, in the dark and with everything else going on."
"I'll use another one," Tara said, "the leather one will do fine-"
"Wait," Willow said, taking a step closer to her. "Why this one?" Tara looked at her blankly, so she elaborated, "I mean, you went to the trouble of staining the metal last night, when you could've just used a leather shoulder pad, so... why this one?" Tara nodded her understanding.
"This is what I'd wear if I knew I would have to fight," she explained. "The coloured leathers for the ceremonial armour are for show, but the shoulder plate, the greaves, the boots, they're the best I have - this is what I'd choose, knowing I'll have to fight. But there's really not that much difference, I could change-"
"No," Willow said, shaking her head, "no, I... I don't think which clothes we wear will decide what happens, or doesn't happen..." Her face firmed with resolve. "Wear this," she said, "it's the best armour for the job."
"You're sure?" Tara offered.
"Yeah," Willow said, "I'm sure. And I'll wear my battlegear. No compromises, right?"
"Right," Tara nodded. A mischievous smile appeared on her lips as Willow turned back to her preparations. "Though I still can't believe sorceresses actually fight in those outfits." Willow knew she was purposefully trying to brighten the mood, now that the decision had been made, and she was grateful for it.
"Oh yeah?" she grinned, turning back, "and this is purely for practical reasons?" She brushed aside the leather straps hanging from the back of Tara's belt and gave her bottom a squeeze - the back of her leather underwear was, to avoid becoming creased and uncomfortable during fighting, narrow all the way.
"It's for ease of movement," Tara protested.
"Sure," Willow nodded, disbelief clear in her voice, "and it's pure coincidence that it shows off your gorgeous backside... ease of access, more like."
"Well, I could wear a pair with more coverage, if you'd like?"
"Oh, don't get me wrong," Willow said, holding up her hands in acceptance, "ease of access suits me just fine."
"Vixen," Tara grinned.
"Likewise," Willow shot back. They shared a smile, then both leaned forward for a fleeting kiss.
While Tara finished putting on and adjusting her armour, Willow laid out her battlegear, freshly cleaned and pressed by the Palace laundry. She smiled to herself, feeling Tara's eyes on her as she slipped out of her morning robe and plain undergarments, and pulled on the emerald underwear that matched her fighting gear. Tara made an appreciative sound as she arched her back, fixing the catch on her bra.
"What?" she grinned back.
"Oh, just they match your eyes," Tara said, pretending she hadn't been watching every move Willow had made. "And that green looks great against your skin... I like the way that bra holds you..." her voice drifted dreamily, "that's a sexy waist line, too... I don't suppose you'd turn around?"
"Don't you have arrows to bundle up, or something?" Willow laughed. Tara sat down at the table, pulled one of the quivers there onto her lap, and began pulling out bunches of arrows, fixing cords around their heads and shafts. Her hands worked with easy familiarity at the task, despite her eyes never once leaving Willow.
"You," Willow said, resuming her own task of getting dressed, "are incorrigible. Absolutely incorrigible."
"How could I not be?" Tara smiled. "You're so gorgeous... are you telling me you've never looked in the mirror while you were getting dressed and thought 'wow'?"
"Normally I think 'wow I have morning hair'," Willow grumbled amiably, "have I mentioned how lovely it is to have you brush my hair in the morning?"
"Three times already today," Tara noted, glancing away briefly to find an oilcloth to wrap the bundle of arrows as she started another one.
"Really 'wow'?" Willow asked.
"You know the answer," Tara replied, "you just want to hear me say it again." She looked back at Willow. "Really 'wow'," she said warmly. Willow beamed a smile at her, then resumed getting dressed. While Tara continued to bundle up spare arrows for the journey, she wrapped her skirt around her hips, donned her long-sleeved top with practiced ease, and began adjusting the pouches on her belt before putting it on.
"What do you think," she said idly, "scrolls or potions on the belt?"
"Potions," Tara said, "you're less likely to need to use a scroll in an instant." They had spent some time the night before going over the various items Willow had procured from Duncraig's magic shops, so that Tara recognised each different scroll, stone or vial, and knew how to use them. Willow nodded and slipped one of the scroll cases off her belt, fixing it to her backpack instead and replacing it with more padded cylinders for her potions.
Tara finished packing her spare arrows, then stood and fixed her quiver on her back, nestled in easy reach over her shoulder, with her pack behind it. Over her other shoulder, where she would never reach for one by mistake, were the ends of five special arrows, the shafts daubed with blue dye and the feathers fixed in a spiral - Willow knew they were the arrows they had crafted the night before, Tara making the shafts and fixing to them the Arreat ice arrowheads that Willow had used her magic to sculpt from the crystals she bought. Tara swung her bow into the hooks that secured it to her back, then reached into the corner and took hold of her spear, brushing her fingers across the sea-green ribbon she had tied tightly around the shaft.
Willow joined her in the doorway, sleek and exotic in her battlegear. She held her staff lightly, just below the matching ribbon tied around it. Her belt was ringed with potion cases and tiny pouches, and on her left hip was a slim book pouch, containing the volume she and Tara had compiled containing everything they could find out about what lay ahead - legends of Hellebore, the layout of the monastery and catacombs, details of demonic summoning and ethereal magics, copied from dozens of books, or from Willow's phenomenal memory of the texts she had studied in the Zann Esu libraries. Around her neck was a thin leather cord, bare at the moment, with the two charms - protective and necromantic - in a pouch, preserving their power. Tara wore a matching cord beneath her leather breastplate, and kept her matching charms in a tiny pocket on her harness.
In her hand she had her Zann Esu diadem, and Tara's family circlet. She looked at them together, then smiled and handed the gold circlet to Tara.
"My mother's family crest," Tara said, partly to herself, as she held it, "she, and ten generations before her wore this. A-a proud heritage. I've never worn this into battle."
"You'll make them proud," Willow said, gently guiding Tara's hands up to her brow, where she slipped on the circlet. Willow brushed her fingers lightly over the shining gold, the only thing Tara wore that wasn't muted in colour, either by dye or design. She then looked down at the silver diadem in her own hands, and smiled at it.
"Any specific meaning?" Tara asked. Willow shook her head.
"Just Zann Esu," she replied, "every trainee gets one, up until she gets her colours. This one... this was Ember's, though. There's no magic to it, there's hundreds just like it... but she gave me this one, when she accepted me as her student. She told me she wanted me to wear it. I guess twenty, twenty-five years ago, she wore it, when she was just a trainee." Tara put a hand on her shoulder, and with her other hand guided Willow to put the diadem on.
"You'll make her proud," she said quietly as the silver settled on her brow.
Willow looked on warily as Tara opened the stable door and led Anji out into the barracks courtyard.
"Has she grown overnight?" she asked with a nervous smile. The horse was larger than any of the ones she'd seen before, either on her journeys with Ember or on the caravan from Kingsport. They had only been able to spare a few minutes the day before to visit her, not enough time to take her out of her stall. Willow, with Tara's encouragement, had timidly patted the horse's long face, and she had seemed quite tranquil. Seeing her out in the open was another thing altogether.
"She looked smaller in her stall?" Tara asked, flashing Willow a smile.
"Uh-huh," Willow nodded earnestly.
"Don't worry, she's a sweetie," Tara said, patting Anji on the side of her neck. "Aren't you girl?" The horse gave a little toss of her head and snorted, at which Willow smiled despite herself - it really did seem that she was answering Tara's idly question.
"Well, if you say so," she allowed, taking a few steps closer. Anji eyed her curiously, with a slightly reserved air.
"I promise," Tara added, "she gets the 'Tara seal of approval'." She leant towards the horse and rested her forehead against her long face.
"You remember Willow, right?" she murmured softly. "She's very special, so be good to her, huh? You want to say hello to her?" She looked back at Willow, who held up her hands in mock surrender.
"Okay, okay," she grinned, finally coming to stand close to the horse, opposite Tara. She reached out a nervous hand and laid it on Anji's face, settling into a gentle rhythm of patting her, and relaxing as protests and bites were not forthcoming.
"There," she murmured after a moment, "you're a good girl, aren't you?" She quickly retracted her hand as Anji whinnied.
"It's okay," Tara soothed her, "she's just agreeing with you."
"Heh," Willow chuckled at herself, "she's a big girl... okay..." She resumed her petting. "Okay... good girl. We're friends, huh?" Tara left her post at Anji's side, leaving Willow to pet the horse alone, as she stood by her side, a hand gently resting on her hip.
"She likes you," she said quietly in Willow's ear, "of course, I can understand that." Willow glanced back at Tara with a smile, then looked at the horse again, relieved to have gotten over the first hurdle in becoming accustomed to their new travelling companion.
She was truly a different breed to the common horses they had previously seen. In purely physical terms, for one thing - she stood nineteen hands high, according to the stablehand Tara had talked to the day before, though it was obvious to any onlooker that she was from a line of massive, imposing beasts. Though her shape had all the beauty of the equine form, the power in her was plain to see. But it was also in the way she moved - Willow had realised that, seeing her in her stall, she hadn't really seen her at all. Out in the open she had a grace, a purposeful elegance, that was almost magical to watch. It wasn't simply cosmetic, though - in every line of her body, and every motion, was a controlled force, a sense of design in her, that set her apart from her smaller brothers and sisters. It was like - Willow searched for a way to describe it - like the difference between a fighting blade and a kitchen knife. Both could be used as weapons, but one was improvised, while the other was born to the role. The term 'warhorse' was more than just a name.
"Like you," Willow said thoughtfully, glancing at Tara.
"I'm like a horse?" Tara chuckled.
"You're like a goddess," Willow replied, reaching down to give her hip a squeeze. "No, I mean the way she's so gentle and, and soft, but at the same time she's so strong."
"That she is," Tara agreed, "talk to her a bit longer, I'll get our things onto her."
"I'll help," Willow offered.
"No, I've got them," Tara insisted, "just... get to know her. You'll like her, she's very smart. When I was with her yesterday in the stables, I could've sworn she understood every word I was saying."
With an acquiescent shrug, Willow returned her attention to Anji, petting her and talking, awkwardly at first. Tara meanwhile began fixing the saddlebags they had prepared to Anji's saddle and harness, making sure the weight was distributed evenly. The horse seemed not to notice the load at all, though having seen the kind of plate armour commonly worn by heavy cavalry before, Willow couldn't say she was surprised - their travelling supplies and equipment must have seemed like a bare back by comparison to her. She continued to pet her, getting used to being in her presence without being on her guard, and even rested her forehead against her face, the way Tara had done.
"How are you two getting on?" Tara asked once their gear was stowed, though she had been close enough to hear every word.
"I think she does like me," Willow said bashfully.
"Of course she does," Tara grinned. "Ready to get into the saddle?"
"Okay," Willow said cautiously, "am I in front or behind?"
"In front," Tara said, walking Willow around to Anji's side, "the saddle's made for two. The stablehand said they had one like this yesterday, so I asked him to get it ready. You get up first." She held the stirrup for Willow, steadying her with her other hand - from the tall warhorse, the stirrups hung easily above waist level, and Willow found it a bit of a stretch to get her foot into it.
"Up you go," Tara prompted as Willow paused. With a deep intake of breath she pushed off the ground, and aided by Tara's helping hand on her bottom propelled herself up and over the saddle, coming to rest comfortably upright.
"Yikes," she said mildly, looking down, "I've never been up this high..."
"You said it yourself, she's a big girl," Tara grinned.
"You know," Willow said thoughtfully, trying to suppress a mischievous smile, "I don't think I've ever had my legs this far apart... except with you, in private." Tara giggled and gave her a playful slap on the thigh.
"Shift forward, funny girl," she said, "take your feet out of the stirrups."
"Wait, what do I balance with?" Willow asked quickly.
"See these curves in the sides of the saddle?" Tara pointed. "Rest your legs there, you'll sort of fit in, I think. And use your hands to balance as well."
"I'm not sure I feel very stable," Willow complained, doing as Tara asked.
"It's okay," Tara assured her, lifting her foot into the stirrup and bracing herself, "you'll have my arms either side of you when we're riding." She pushed off and swung astride the horse behind Willow, resting her hands on Willow's hips as she fitted her other foot into the right stirrup. Turning briefly to give their bags one last check, making sure everything was closed and securely fastened, she took the reins from where they lay looped over the saddle, and settled in with her elbows either side of Willow.
"You're sure we're not too heavy?" Willow asked, craning her neck to look back at Tara.
"Do you really want to be riding your own horse?" Tara asked. She grinned at Willow's prompt shake of the head. "We're fine," she went on, "aren't we Anji? No problem?" The horse neighed an answer, which to Willow sounded quite content.
"Good girl," Tara said automatically, "well then, shall we go?"
"Let's," Willow nodded. Tara tossed the reins lightly and gave a gentle prompting squeeze with her knees, and Anji strolled forward, towards the barracks gates.
"Lady Tara!" a voice called from the administrative building as they passed. Tara reined in as a sergeant hurried out, one hand raised in greeting.
"Sergeant Sheerson," Tara said to Willow, "from my archery classes... hello sergeant, this is Willow, my partner."
"Milady," Sheerson said, bowing deeply, "and Lady Tara... I hear yesterday you'd be scouting the Kotram highland, I'm sorry I missed you when you came in this morning... they've given you Anji?"
"You know her?" Tara asked.
"Aye, she's a fine mare," Sheerson nodded, "dependable as the seasons, I'd trust my own dear mam to her. She'll carry you well and keep you safe, but I'll add my prayers to your journey, too, milady."
"Thank you," Tara said, as Willow smiled and nodded her thanks.
"Take care milady," he said, stepping back, "to both of you."
"We will," Tara waved, nudging Anji to a slow walk, "we'll be back before you know it."
"I'll drink to that," came the reply, and then the sergeant turned and walked back to the doorway he had emerged from.
"Milady?" Willow asked.
"That's what he always calls me," Tara said, "he's very respectful. Remember I told you about him making sure the soldiers didn't show any disrespect that first day I started training them? I think his superiors might have given him the idea I'm some kind of noblewoman."
"I like it," Willow grinned, "milady Tara..."
"I like 'my lady Tara'," Tara murmured. She held the reins in one hand, curling her free arm around Willow's waist.
"Hmm, cosy," Willow purred, "can we ride like this all the time?"
"When we're at a steady pace," Tara said, "I'll keep both hands on the reins when we get out into the open and speed up."
"Speed up," Willow repeated flatly.
"You'll be fine," Tara promised, "wind in your hair, exhilaration flowing through you... me pressed tight up against your back...?"
"When you put it that way, you know, it doesn't sound so bad," Willow grinned back at her.
Tara kept Anji at a sedate pace, in line with the rest of the traffic on horseback, as they moved down the wide street with the barracks and university on one side, the Palace on the other. Willow began to find the experience quite relaxing - her previous endeavours on horseback, while uneventful enough, had always been accompanied by a carefully-suppressed anxiety that the beast would suddenly decide to go berserk and toss her off its back. Willow felt safe now.
'Gee,' she mused with a grin, 'I wonder why that is.' She leaned back a fraction, just enough to snuggle up against Tara's chest, and felt the arm around her waist tighten tenderly. The open midriff of her Zann Esu gear let her feel every tiny motion of Tara's fingers, which were lazily moving back and forth against her upper hip. It reminded her very much of the times they had lain in bed in the morning, with nothing pressing to do, and Tara had stroked her hair as she lay with her head cushioned on her chest, listening to her heartbeat. She mentally reclassified horse riding, at least when she rode with Tara, from 'bearable' to 'I could learn to look forward to this'.
She glanced back at Tara as she steered Anji off to the right, down the road beside the university's main quadrangle, heading into the 'magic marketplace' square, where Willow had spent most of her shopping time the day before.
"Short cut?" she asked.
"A surprise," Tara smiled, "wait and see."
"Yeah, sure," Willow nodded, "you know how good I am at waiting and seeing... what's down this way? Gelt's gone off wherever he's gone, I'm pretty sure you're not wanting one last game of football before we set out... it's not the hospital, the nurses said Joma would be well enough to be home today, the way she was doing... the school of the sciences? I bet that's it, isn't it?"
"You're just too smart," Tara chastised jokingly, "I had to go down here yesterday, one of the scout officers recommended a shop for travelling gear, so I stopped by the school as well and asked if it would be okay for us to see Amalee before we left. They said she'd be there today."
"Aw, sweetie," Willow murmured, releasing one hand's grip from the saddle to stroke Tara's hand, "you think of everything."
"I hope I've thought of everything," Tara joked, "it'll be embarrassing if we have to turn back half-way because I forgot to bring the bedrolls."
"Heh," Willow chuckled, "oh, yeah, sleeping outdoors... I'd forgotten just how much I love that..." She grinned back at Tara, then looked around at the people milling around the square as they rode through it - haggling with vendors in the tiny specialist suppliers lining the streets, carrying on animated conversations with each other as they weaved through the other pedestrians, standing in the doorways of shops, ever on the look-out for a potential customer. Here there was a mother, baby cradled expertly in one arm as she carried in her other a bag full of fresh produce from the markets; there a pair of children tossing a ball to each other; a soldier chatting idly to a minor noblewoman, enjoying her attention while she listened to him talk of far-off places; a mage delivering a long monologue, his apprentice scurrying beside him, noting down his words in a journal.
"What're you thinking?" Tara asked idly from behind her.
"Oh, just... looking," Willow replied, "it's odd, not even having to think about where I'm going. I guess I'm not used to being on horseback - or I suppose it'd be different if I had the reins. Now, I can just look around... look at all the people."
"It's a busy city," Tara noted.
"Mmm," Willow agreed, "but it's a good kind of busy... it's a good city. Is Tran Athulua like this? The people, I mean?"
"Not quite so crowded," Tara said, "but, in a way, yes... it feels safe. No dark corners you have to stay out of, and... and people care. You can walk past someone you don't know, and give them a smile, just out of politeness, and they'll smile back... just because you're both glad that the other is feeling good."
"I can imagine it," Willow said, leaning back against Tara, "a little less crowded? So, here and there, little pockets of peace and quiet? A secluded garden, or a fountain you can sit by and watch the water flow... space to be content... hmm," she chuckled, "I'm philosophical today. Must be the altitude."
"You're pretty close to the mark," Tara smiled, "though you mostly only get fountains in the city centre, or near the edges where it reaches the ground. It's a bit of work to pump water up to the treetops otherwise. But yeah, plenty of peaceful spots, just off to one side from all the activity. Just the kind of place to sit and watch the world go by... with your lover holding you hand, resting her head on your shoulder..."
"Yeah," Willow sighed, "sunlight coming through the leaves?"
"You'd make me homesick," Tara pointed out, "if I didn't have everything I need to feel at home right here." Willow laughed softly as she felt Tara's lips press a kiss onto the back of her neck.
"You know I do too," she said.
"I know," Tara murmured.
"It sounds lovely... exactly the kind of place where I'd want to make a home, with you."
"We will," Tara said, "I promise. One day we'll sit on the shade of the temple of Athulua, and watch all the people in the great market that'd held every year, at the beginning of summer. You'll lean over and take my hand, and I'll reach around your shoulders and hug you, and then I'll say..."
"What?" Willow grinned.
"Well, obviously," Tara said, giving Willow's hip a playful squeeze, "I'll say 'See? I told you so'."
"It's a date," Willow laughed.
The school of the sciences looked very much like an old temple from its stone belltower and stained-glass windows, and it dominated the square it was in, standing alone, surrounded at a distance by general stores and craftsmen's workshops. There were traces of the old stone walls that would once have separated the grounds from the hubbub of the city about them, but now they were only an odd stone here and there, and only a wrought-iron fence stood between the grassy gardens and the cobbled streets. Tara brought Anji around to the old gatehouse and dismounted easily, helping Willow down.
"Hold the reins?" she asked. "I'll just be a moment." Willow nodded, and she disappeared into the gatehouse for a moment, appearing again with a middle-aged woman who hurried across the gardens towards the school.
"They'll bring her out," Tara explained as she walked back to Willow, "we can't bring Anji inside, obviously, and I'd like to keep an eye on her. Not that this place is exactly teeming with brigands," she added wryly, "but, you know..."
"...she's carrying all our gear, and your prized spear," Willow finished, "yeah. Do we stay out here?"
"We'll meet her in the garden," Tara said, taking the reins from Willow and looping them back over the saddle.
"Anji, wait," she said in a clear tone. The horse clomped a hoof and ducked her head.
"How much does she understand?" Willow wondered as they walked past the gatehouse and took a seat at a bench beside the path to the school. Anji waited patiently outside the gate. "I know she kind of understands a lot, but literally...?"
"The stablehand told me the commands she's trained to respond to," Tara said, "wait, follow, graze, defend, fight, home... things like that. I'll go through them tonight if you like. I'd do it while we travel, but I don't want to say the words too often while she can hear - she won't react unless you say them like an order, but still, best not to be too confusing. She's a bright girl, but we're new to her - we should keep things simple while we get used to each other."
"On the other hand, she's most definitely used to us," Tara grinned, as Amalee came dashing along the path. The woman from the gatehouse looked on from a distance, smiling but with a protective alertness to her stance, as the girl flung herself at the two women, hugging them both at once.
"Good to see you too," Willow laughed.
"How's your aunt?" Tara asked.
"She came home this morning," Amalee said breathlessly, "she brought William, and I got to hold him before school, he's so cute!"
"Must be something to do with the name," Tara grinned at Willow.
"Is that your horse?" the girl went on. "It's a warhorse, isn't it? Uncle got a book for me all about the city, it's for grown-ups but he's helping me read it, so I'll know everything about it, it had a picture of a warhorse. Are they all that big? Is it a he or a she?"
"Do your teachers get exhausted answering all your questions?" Tara smiled, at which Amalee grinned bashfully. "We're borrowing her from the Duke's army, she's a she, yes they're pretty much all that size... was that everything?"
"You're going on a trip?" Amalee asked. "Where?" Willow and Tara exchanged a glance, then Tara sighed and offered the girl a comforting hand.
"We have to go back to the monastery," she said, "there's something there we have to do." Amalee's eyes went wide - her first instinct was obviously fright, but she controlled it well, and her expression quickly turned to determination.
"I'll guide you," she said, a slight tremble in her voice, "I know the way, remember?"
"It's okay sweetie," Tara said, "you stay here this time. We'll be alright."
"You're sure?" Amalee asked.
"You were very brave last time," Willow assured her, "you showed us which way to go, so we know now. You can stay, and we'll go and come back in no time."
"There's other paths," the girl went on half-heartedly, caught between fear of the danger she had seen first-hand, and reluctance to let her friends face it alone.
"It's alright," Tara said soothingly, "sweetie, this time it's our journey, just Willow and me. This is where you belong, with your uncle and aunt and your new brother."
"What about you?" Amalee asked plaintively.
"Willow has to go on this journey," Tara explained, "it's part of being a sorceress. And I have to go with her, because that's where I belong, with her."
"You have to go?" Amalee asked Willow.
"I have to," she confirmed, "I'm a sorceress, like Tara said, and this is something that I have to do. It's why there are sorceresses, and warriors... to keep everyone else safe."
Amalee sat between them, looking downcast, then her shoulders squared and she looked at Willow and Tara in turn.
"You'll take care of each other, right?" she asked. "That's right, isn't it? I asked uncle what being in love means, and he said it means you make each other happy, and you take care of each other. Is that right?"
"Yes honey," Willow smiled, "that's right."
"That's okay then," Amalee sighed, seeming relieved, "so long as you're taking care of each other, everything'll be fine."