Return to Hellebore Chapter Fifty-Nine


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.

"You know, you were very nearly right," Willow said, as Tara reined Anji back to a gentle trot.

"Hmm?" she asked.

"The appeal of riding," Willow explained, "wind in your hair and all that... there's definitely something to it. When you urged her into a gallop and we just flew, that was pretty... wow," she shrugged. "And even when we weren't going all-out, when we were just jogging along, it's really kind of relaxing to just sit up here and watch the world go by. Also we've covered about four days' worth of walking distance. And, not forgetting this at all, having you cuddled up against me the whole way was absolutely lovely."

"So why am I only nearly right?" Tara inquired.

"My backside," Willow noted, "feels like it's been used as a football by a team of giants."

"Oh, baby," Tara exclaimed, transferring the reins to one hand so she could soothingly rub her hand across the top of Willow's thigh, "why didn't you say earlier?"

"Well, we do need to cover the distance," Willow admitted, "and like I said, there's benefits to riding... I'm okay," she protested, glancing back to see the concern in Tara's eyes, "I mean, sore, but it's nothing serious, just... well, you know."

"You really haven't ever ridden that much?" Tara said apologetically.

"I've definitely never spent this long in the saddle, or ridden this hard," Willow explained.

"It'll be okay," Tara assured her, "everyone gets sore at first, and I thought we might get a touch of stiffness in the muscles so I brought some oil that'll help soothe the soreness."

"I didn't mean to make you upset," Willow said feebly.

"You didn't," Tara said, "I'm sorry I didn't realise earlier... I remember what it was like when I started riding, years ago. I promise, once I rub some oil in, you'll feel as good as new."

"Just the thought of that is helping," Willow grinned over her shoulder.

"Tell you what," Tara purred, leaning closer, "just to make sure, I'll kiss it better as well."

"Yeah? You know, now I'm kind of glad I've never ridden this hard before, otherwise there'd be no reason to do that." She shifted uncomfortably in the saddle, and Tara wondered how long she'd been sore, and said nothing.

"I'm sure I could've thought of a reason," she said, giving Willow a comforting squeeze around her waist. "I promise," she added, her voice growing serious, "you'll feel better."

"I know," Willow said airily, "it's okay... I'm sure I knew this'd happen, I probably just put it out of my mind when I heard of it, like 'oh, you get sore the first time you ride hard, well I won't be riding so that doesn't apply to me'."

"That doesn't sound like my Willow," Tara noted, brushing her cheek against Willow's hair, "what happened to learning everything that's learnable?"

"I had a blind spot when it came to horses," Willow admitted, "nothing major, I just kind of stayed wary of them. They're so tall, and I'm a ground-level girl at heart... I'll grant you, Anji's a good girl. Can we give her a... a rub down, or a sugar lick, or something? What do horses like?"

"I'll give her a good rub down later," Tara said, "she's earned it, and if she's anything like the horses at home she'll enjoy it plenty. But that's for later, first I've got to give you a rub down."

"And you can bet I'll enjoy that plenty," Willow chuckled. "Let's hope we can get a private room, huh?"

Tara nodded, though she wondered if it would be possible. During the morning they had passed from the city, with its miles of closely-built houses and workshops and warehouses, to the farmlands surrounding it, a widespread patchwork of neatly-arranged fields that covered the gently rising slopes from the river delta to the distant highlands. Cows had stared blankly at them from fields; horses had come over to the high fences of their meadows to watch the towering warhorse gallop past; now and then they had happened to pass by while a farmer was near the road, tending his orchards or his crops, and given a quick wave to those who raised a hand in salute as they passed. But with Duncraig behind them, settlements had been few and far between - as if the mere presence of the city back on the river was enough to deter ill fortune, and the inhabitants of the isolated farmhouses had no need of walls or fortifications to feel secure at night.

It was an idyllic scene, particularly the small village - little more than a general store, a tavern and a smithy, where the road crossed a trail from the west - where Willow and Tara had paused for lunch, and to give Anji a little time to recover from the morning's ride. As the tavern's appearance suggested it catered solely to farmers interested in an ale after a day's work, they had eaten from their packed food, in the shadow of the general store, looking down the gentle slope to the distant city.

Resuming their journey they had found sizeable settlements just as scarce, and now looking ahead, they saw that the crossroads village Tara had decided should be their goal for the first day's ride was barely more substantial. Several buildings clustered around the road, which widened into a town square of sorts, though the east side was largely open to the farmland, with just a small storehouse. The buildings were on the west side of the square, where the road to Namon split off - a smithy was obvious by its chimney, and squinting into the late afternoon sun, Tara picked out a sign hanging in front of one of the other buildings, marking it as an inn, or at least a large tavern that would have rooms or some kind available.

"What's this one called?" Willow asked, after Tara pointed out the inn.

"Laban," she replied, "according to the army map. That map of Kert's I looked at on the caravan didn't even have the name marked, it just showed there was something here. I suppose it's not a major waypoint for travellers."

"I've been to places like this," Willow offered, "when I travelled with Ember. They just sort of turn up at crossroads - I guess it's the obvious place to put a store or a public building, to get the most people from the area. If there's not much trade passing through, or need to build defences, they just stay, well... crossroads towns. Your typical one would be at a four-way intersection - inn, warehouse, tavern and forge, at the four corners of the crossroads."

"This one might've decided it needed to defend itself," Tara pointed out, "look up there."

As they neared the square, Willow saw what Tara had seen - a tiny third storey addition to the tavern building, really just a wooden enclosure with a roof to keep the rain off, and a ladder leading down to a lower balcony. A man had just climbed up, and was now leaning against the side of the enclosure.

"A look-out," Tara said, "he carried up a heavy coat I think, he must be going to stay up there into the night."

"Would he see anything at night?" Willow wondered.

"There's not much cloud about," Tara mused, "and the moon'll be bright. If he's got good eyes, he could see enough to be useful."

"They haven't been attacked here, have they?" Willow frowned. "We didn't see any sign..."

"Maybe they're just being cautious. We're almost half-way to Kotram, after all - they must know what happened there." Willow shivered.

"I hadn't realised we'd covered so much ground," she murmured. "That we were so close..."

"You'll be okay," Tara said reassuringly.

"So long as I have you with me," Willow nodded, flashing a smile back at her.

Tara brought Anji to a halt in front of the tavern and helped Willow dismount - watching her stretch her legs, she was relieved to see she was not as stiff and sore as she'd feared. When she mentioned it, Willow grinned and quipped that she had a tough bottom. Chuckling to herself, Tara entered the tavern and spoke to the barkeep, leaving Willow talking to Anji outside.

"Sure, we've got rooms," he nodded, not lifting his eyes from the mug he was cleaning, "noting fancy, but clean and no drafts. That your horse outside?" He lifted his gaze just in time to catch Tara's surprised look - he wasn't standing near the windows. "Good ears," he grinned.

"Yes, she's ours," Tara replied.

"Two silvers a night, and I'll have old Wern look after her in the stalls by the forge. You'll find no real stables hereabouts, but the forge is warm and she'll be comfortable, and dry if it rains."

"Does two silvers cover dinner?" Tara asked.

"If soup's your fancy," the barkeep nodded, returning to his mugs, "you can pay extra for more - chef does simple fare, but you won't be disappointed, miss...?"

"Tara... lieutenant, of the Duke's army." Tara said. "One room, for two people."

"Thank'ee ma'am," the barkeep nodded cordially, taking the silvers, "I'll send Ralf out in a moment when he's done in the kitchen, he'll see to your horse and take you to your room." Tara thanked him and walked back into the waning sunlight outside, grinning to see Willow still standing by Anji, stroking her face and talking in a soft voice.

"Would you two like more private time?" she joked.

"Who'd ha' thought it, huh?" Willow shrugged. "Me friends with a horse... I think this might surprise even Ember."

"How're you feeling?" Tara asked, standing close by as Willow gave Anji a parting pat.

"Well, I'll be sitting gingerly tonight," Willow admitted, "but don't worry," she added, laying a hand on Tara's forearm, "it's really not that bad. It's no worse than when we walked all the way from the monastery village to the river."

"I'm still giving you a massage," Tara insisted gently.

"Oh no question there," Willow smiled, "I just don't, you know... if it were you, I'd be getting all concerned and sympathetic, and worrying myself over you... I just don't want you to worry, that's all."

"It's okay," Tara said.

"Kind of going in circles, aren't we?" Willow murmured with a wry grin. "I get sore, so you get worried, so I get worried..."

"Let me worry a bit," Tara suggested, "then I'll give you a good rub with the healing oil, then you'll feel better, then I'll feel better, and everything will be good."

"I like that," Willow agreed, "making the circular logic work in our favour. Nice." She and Tara undid the buckles holding a pair of saddlebags to Anji's harness and hoisted them over their shoulders as a young boy in a much-used apron hurried out from the tavern's side door. He started visibly at the sight of Anji, but recovered from his surprise quickly.

"Lieutenant ma'am?" he asked. Tara nodded. "I'm to take your horse to the stalls, and then show you your room... is that okay?"

"Lieutenant?" Willow asked quietly as they followed the boy across the square, Anji's reins in Tara's hand.

"I wasn't sure how people here would respond to an Amazon," Tara shrugged, "but being an officer of the Duke's army should carry some weight."

"Do you want to give her her rub down first?" Willow asked, nodding towards Anji.

"You're sure?" Tara checked. "I can do it later..."

"She's earned it," Willow said, repeating Tara's words from earlier, "and then," she added, lowering her voice, "you can do me later..." Tara's lips formed a sly grin, and she leaned over to quickly give Willow a kiss on the cheek.

"Deal," she whispered. She looked back at the boy, who had been covertly sneaking glances at them as he talked to the old, sturdy man sitting by the forge's door.

"It's Ralf, isn't it?" she asked.

"Yes ma'am- lieutenant," the boy answered nervously. Tara gave him a reassuring smile.

"I'll be taking care of our horse for a few minutes, would you see Miss Willow to our room?" Ralf nodded, and watched as Willow slid her staff from its bindings on the horse's saddle. Tara lifted the bag from Willow's shoulder and offered her the one she had been carrying.

"This one's got the bedding," she said, "just in case the blankets aren't comfy enough. I'll be up in a little while?"

"I'll be ready," Willow promised with a glitter in her eye.

Their room was small and sparsely-furnished, but as promised it was clean, and thick shutters kept the oncoming evening's chill outside. A tiny coal stove with a chimney pipe provided enough warmth to get by, a series of iron hooks in one wall served as a wardrobe, and the mattresses on the twin beds, pushed together side by side, were thin, their covers worn by use. None of these mattered to Tara so much as the sight of Willow stretched out under the blankets of the nearer bed, looking over her shoulder at the sound of the door opening, a smile spreading across her face. Tara gave a warm answering smile as she leant her spear in the corner, beside Willow's staff.

"Hi," Willow murmured. "Is Anji all taken care of?"

"She'll be fine," Tara said, lowering her saddlebag to the floor beside the bed and kneeling by it as she searched within, "Wern - the smith - likes horses, and she gets along okay with him. Her stall's big enough, clean, well-stocked... she'll be comfortable enough."

"Did you give her a good rub down?" Willow grinned.

"I did my best," Tara admitted, "considering I was desperate to get up here and tend to you. I think she sensed it," she added in a conspiratorial tone, "when I said goodbye she sort of nudged me, like she was saying 'go on, go be with your lover you impatient thing.' Cheeky girl."

"Just as well horses can't talk," Willow mused, "or I bet she'd be making jokes at our expense all the way to Kotram and back. But," she added, stretching out on her stomach and reaching behind herself to pull back the blanket, "speaking of cheek..."

"Cheek of an entirely different sort," Tara grinned, taking in the sight. Willow had donned a silky green robe, long enough to reach her ankles, but she had pulled it to one side at her waist, leaving its shimmering folds spread out beside her, and herself naked from the waist down. Tara sat on the bed and gently stroked the back of Willow's thigh as her other hand undid the straps on her boots. She noticed the slight flinch Willow gave as her fingertips moved higher, towards her hips.

"Poor baby," she murmured lovingly, sliding her feet free and rising up to kneel over Willow, straddling her knees. "How bad does it ache?"

"It's not that bad," Willow said, with perhaps a little forced casualness. "Mmm," she hummed as Tara's fingertips traced feather-light patterns over her thighs, "and getting better all the time."

"This will feel hot for a moment," Tara said, reaching down to pick up the small vial of oil she had extracted from her bag, "and I have to press hard... you'll be okay?"

"Feels hot already," Willow murmured into the pillow. Tara reached down and carefully moved more of the robe aside, exposing Willow's lower back. She tipped a little oil onto her palms and rubbed them together, spreading it evenly. A flush of heat passed through her hands, and she smiled.

"Ready?" she asked.

"Will you quit stalling and feel me up?" Willow grinned over her shoulder. Tara gave her a wink and leaned forward, beginning by pressing her palms against the cheeks of Willow's bottom, gripping with firm, gentle fingers.

"Oh! Oooh... mmm," Willow exclaimed, first in surprise, and perhaps a little pain, then relief, and finally pleasure as the oil did its work, seeping into her skin and relaxing her tired muscles. Tara rubbed her way down her thighs, slipping lightly downwards then pressing firmly back up with every stroke, earning a series of contented moans from Willow. She could feel the tension in her thighs and hips evaporating beneath her touch, so palpable it was as if she could literally see healing flowing from her hands, replacing Willow's aching soreness with calm pleasure.

"Good?" she murmured.

"Oh baby," Willow sighed, "you have the hands of a goddess... what is that oil you're using? I've never felt anything quite like that..."

"It's called sunset oil," Tara explained, softening her grip now that Willow was relaxing, "so called, so they say, because it's for soothing the body after a long, eventful day."

"The Order has something kind of similar," Willow said dreamily, "fire sorceresses make it as part of their healing training... helps out during the physical training... but it's not like this... just hot, then you relax. This is... this is like I'm lowering myself into a steaming hot bath. First the heat that you want to recoil from for a second, then you realize you can take it... relax, and touch your skin to the water... slowly edge lower until you're surrounded... it's so good..."

"I'm not sure whether it's Amazon in origin, or if we brought it back from the mainland somewhere," Tara said idly, kneading away at Willow's thighs, "if they don't have it here, maybe Tryptin should see about having one of the merchant emissaries set up a contract to export it?"

"Oh goddess," Willow sighed happily, "that's so good... heh, you'll have merchantmen moored five deep at the docks to take on cargo if you do. Every horseman and fighter in Westmarch will bless the Amazon nation..."

"Definitely sounds like a good move on our part then," Tara chuckled. "How's the saddle-soreness?"

"Oh baby, it's bliss," Willow grinned. "Not the soreness, I mean... that's gone... totally gone... just good feelings and the Tara-hands causing them now..."

"You're not the only one getting good feelings," Tara replied, intent satisfaction written on her face as she massaged away Willow's tension.

"Mmm... yeah, I can definitely feel you enjoying your work," Willow murmured. "Starting to wonder if you left the saddle cushions behind just so you could massage me better afterwards..."

"I'd never do that," Tara said sincerely.

"Hmm? Oh! No, I was just teasing," Willow said quickly, staring over her shoulder, "I know you'd never- That was a silly thing to say, I'm sorry."

"It's alright," Tara offered gently.

"Yeah, but... I'm sorry anyway," Willow said with a rueful grin. "I've seen, sometimes, gentle, thoughtful people get... well, taken for granted. Everyone just assumes that's how they are, never realises how difficult it can be to care so much, when there's so much to care about... I don't want you to feel like that, like I don't realise how wonderful you are... oooh..." she purred as Tara pressed her palms against the backs of her thighs, and worked them upwards, fingers working sensually across her muscles.

"I know you do, sweetie," she said warmly.

"Well... I just want to remind you anyway," Willow said, relaxing again, "you are the kindest, gentlest person I've ever known... you're a healer in the truest sense of the word - not in the professional sense, but just... in every way you can, you make things better... like me... you make me better..."

"It's my pleasure," Tara smiled.

"Mine too," Willow agreed. "In fact... oh gods... harder baby..." Tara's smile widened, and she redoubled her efforts, concentrating on stimulating Willow's sensitive inner thighs now that the soreness of the day's ride was quite taken care of.

"You were about to say something?" she teased.

"Uh-huh... move your fingers a little higher and you'll get the gist of it," Willow purred.

"I wish I could," Tara murmured, leaning forward while her hands again cupped Willow's rear, "but this oil really shouldn't be used on, ah, delicate areas..."

"Darn," Willow sighed.

"Don't worry," Tara whispered, "I have a back-up plan." She leaned forward the last fraction necessary to kiss the nape of her neck. As her lips parted, she drew her tongue up the length of Willow's neck to her hairline, enjoying the shudder than ran through the body beneath her.

"Turn over," she breathed.

"I like this plan," Willow murmured happily as she complied. Her eyes found Tara staring down at her, warm anticipation flowing through her gaze, and at the first touch of their lips her eyelids fluttered closed. Her hands crept up Tara's back, sliding over the warm, smooth leather covering her. As Tara deepened their kiss, widening her tongue's exploration of the mouth she had claimed, Willow's fingers wove into the laces running down the sides of her armour and gripped her firmly by them, holding her close.

"You want this off?" Tara murmured, her lips still caressing Willow's as she spoke.

"Nuh-uh," Willow shook her head slightly, "I want my warrior."

"You've got her," Tara grinned broadly, recapturing Willow's lips.

"Mmm..." Willow sighed deep in her throat, as her hips, aided by Tara's hands, lifted off the bed. She spread her legs, gasping into Tara's kiss as she felt leather touch her mound, smooth and hard against her curls of hair.

"And what," Tara purred, breaking the kiss only to caress Willow's ear with her heated breaths, "do you want your warrior to do to you?"

"Wh-what do I...?" Willow murmured, surprised not to find Tara, playing the warrior, taking charge of her at her body's clear invitation.

"That's right," Tara breathed, "how would you have your warrior please you?"

Tara's words painted clearly in Willow's mind - not the familiar fantasy of herself at the tender mercy of her sensual, powerful lover, but instead a new scene of indulgence, in which Tara was giving herself over to Willow's words, her wishes, her pleasure. The thought of Tara like that - warrior Tara, strong, beautiful and powerful - guided by her lover's voice; the submission of this sensually dominant persona of hers was unexpected, and thrilling. The touch of Tara's tongue on her earlobe, gentle and supplicant, confirmed her intentions, and what she wanted to give Willow now.

"I want..." she began, forcing her voice to work in the face of the incredible arousal inside her. She knew what she wanted - what her body had been aching for all through Tara's massage, while her hands had healed and then aroused with their sure caresses. In a moment of lucidity she found an odd sort of symmetry to her need - submitting herself to her body's desires, just as Tara was giving herself to her lover's. She chuckled at the thought, which when she spoke gave her voice a languidly sensual quality.

"I want you to taste me," she said. The moment the words were out of her mouth Tara was upon her, kissing her with beautiful abandon. Her tongue darted back and forth, supremely confident that there would be no objection to her fierce, unhesitant foray - but even then, Willow felt the suggestion Tara had planted in her mind take hold, knew that here and now Tara was hers, for all that her actions suggested the opposite. The combination of passionate intensity and underlying acquiescence to Willow drove her completely to distraction - the thought alone of being taken by her sexy, leather-clad Tara was enough to cast all else from Willow's mind, and the reality was far, far more intense than the thought.

Tara finally pulled back, her tongue lingering for a moment after her mouth left Willow's, reaching for one last taste of her lips before vanishing behind a loving, lusting smile.

"Like that?" Tara whispered. "You want me... to kiss your sex... just like that?"

"Goddess yes," Willow groaned.

"Close your eyes?" The lilt in Tara's voice left no doubt that it was a request, not an order. Willow smiled serenely and complied, murmuring quietly as she felt Tara's hands gently let her hips settle for a moment on the rumpled sheets.

Tara leaned back, biting her lip to stem the tide of anticipation in her that demanded she sample Willow's nectar without delay. She could see the excitement in Willow's trembling body, and was utterly delighted at being the cause of it - and truth be told, the experience of placing herself at Willow's service, herself still arrayed in her armour while her lover was naked and vulnerable, was a surprising thrill for her as well. She had known the effect her Amazon armour had on Willow - it was easy for her to imagine, since she found Willow's Zann Esu battlegear scintillatingly sexy - but she had not truly realised how much she had allowed Willow's erotic vision of her powerful, sensual warrior to permeate her own mind. Now she was in that warrior persona - which she had not previously thought of as such, truly - and surrendering to Willow.

'I bet no other warrior ever enjoyed surrender this much,' she grinned silently. Quickly, conscious of the urgency of Willow's need, and her own need to satisfy her, she daubed a fresh supply of oil on her fingers, and placed her hands carefully on either side of Willow's hips, not quite touching her. She leaned down, crouching so as not to stretch her legs off the end of the single bed, and breathed a hot, heady breath across Willow's mound.

"Ah!" Willow exclaimed, her hips lifting towards Tara's lips, affording her the opportunity to slip her oiled hands beneath her buttocks and grip her firmly. The bite of the oil's heat and the firm, loving entry of Tara's tongue came as one sensation, and the delighted squeal that arose from Willow's throat left no doubt as to how stimulating the combination was. She surged in Tara's hold, pressing herself into her kiss, offering and demanding everything. Tara allowed herself to become lost in the sensual flood of emotion that always came with making love to Willow, as all her senses filled with pleasure, and the proof, in Willow's cries of passion, in the writhing of her body and the wetness of her core, that her deep, all-consuming desire to please Willow was bearing fruit.

Willow's hands clutched at the sheets, then flew to her body, one flattening against her stomach, fingers splayed as if to massage the climax welling up within her, the other covering her mouth in a half-successful attempt to stifle the loud moan she couldn't help but give voice to as her core clenched and released its wave of pleasure. Tara held her hips firmly, keeping her lips and tongue in contact with Willow's sex as aftershocks followed climax, and slowly the urgency in both their bodies was replaced with languid satisfaction. Finally, with a last kiss on Willow's clit, so soft it felt to Willow like a breath, Tara made her way up the bed and lay down, one arm tucked comfortably under the single pillow, the other around Willow's waist, playing idly with the undone end of the sash from her robe.

"Did your warrior please you well?" she smiled.

"Oh, goddess," Willow sighed, "so well... goddess... when you took me, with your hands underneath me, and the oil, the heat was so amazing... like... like you were reaching through my skin, right to my core, warming me up..."

"I thought you'd like it," Tara murmured, laying her head on Willow's shoulder. "I've always liked how sunset oil felt after a long day doing spear routines, or riding when I first started... of course, it never occurred to me to use it quite like this," she added with a sly smile.

"Just as well," Willow chuckled, "you'd have ended up all hot and bothered, and unable to touch yourself where you really wanted to..." Tara laughed and nodded. "Speaking of really wanting to touch you," Willow went on casually, "do you still get sore from riding?"

"Oh, just a little," Tara admitted, "on a ride like today, sure, but it passes when I stretch my legs a bit." She watched Willow out of the corner of her eye, grinning lop-sidedly as she waited for the question she knew was coming.

"Not even a bit?" Willow dutifully asked.

"Well now that you mention it," Tara gave in eagerly, "I could definitely be kissed better...?"

Willow and Tara came down the stairs to the tavern's common dining room, doing their best to look casual, though the hint of a knowing grin snuck into their expressions now and then. The chef, already busy attending to the evening crowd, barely looked at them as he handed them plates of bread and soup, but several of the patrons spared more than a passing glance at them as they took a table away from the bar, Willow pausing to speak to the barman.

"No juice," she said to Tara, as she took her seat beside her and set down a pitcher of water and two glasses. "They've got a light cider, places like this usually do an okay cider, and it won't be that strong... what do you think? It's just water otherwise."

"One glass," Tara nodded.

"Me too," Willow agreed, signalling to the barman, "I don't really like the idea of heading into the wilderness with a hangover... although," she mused, "it would be an added incentive to take down any demons we find, just to keep them from making too much noise."

"There is that," Tara smiled, "and besides, you're cute when you're tipsy. Remember the Baron's feast?"

"I wasn't that tipsy," Willow protested with a grin, "I could walk in a straight line."

"Provided you were leaning on me," Tara noted, dipping her spoon in her soup and taking a sip.

"Well you offered, and I wasn't going to argue, was I?" Willow took a sip, and nodded.

"Not bad," she said, "I could go to bed satisfied on a meal of this."

"Is that all it takes?" Tara joked.

"Well, you did already see to my other needs," Willow said in a low voice, "very comprehensively... not that I'm not ready and willing for more."

"That's good to know," Tara grinned. They ate in silence for a moment, watching the odd farmer tramp in now and then, each hanging a thick coat by the door before joining the small crowd by the bar.

"You know," Willow said idly, "there used to be a practice among the northern tribes of getting drunk before going into battle. They had a special caste among their warriors, supposed to be touched by the gods - not blessed exactly, just not quite earthly. They'd wear no armour at all, just bear skins, and get roaring drunk and fight with these huge two-handed hammers."

"Well, if nothing else, it sounds like it'd give the enemy a nasty shock," Tara shrugged.

"I wouldn't be surprised," Willow nodded. "It's an old legend. There's a bear clan nowadays, sort of a warrior brotherhood, which they say is descended from those warriors. I'm not sure if they still get drunk or not."

"If they do, they might have a couple of recruits here," Tara said with a raised eyebrow and a grin. Willow glanced at the bar, where one of the patrons was swaying on his seat and explaining something to his friends, with expansive hand gestures that came perilously close to knocking his mug off the bar.

A chorus of greetings met a new arrival as the front door opened, but the chatter died down as the patrons saw the newcomer's grim expression. He was a middle-aged man, who walked with a limp but otherwise seemed quite fit and healthy. His clothes were well-tailored, similar to those worn by gentlemen back in the city, though his coat, which he hung alongside the others, was thick and hard-wearing. Willow gave a quick glance to Tara, who was also observing the man - she shrugged, and Willow looked back.

"Good evening t'ye, sir," the barkeep said, temporarily abandoning his other customers to pour the newcomer an ale.

"Sadly, it is not," he said in a clear, precise voice - definitely an educated man, Willow surmised. The various men at the bar continued to wait in silence, clearly expecting an explanation of the man's statement. He sighed and leaned on the bar, ale in hand.

"I have had a messenger from the Lohnbras property," he said, raising his voice so everyone could hear, "three cattle were killed last night, and they say there are clear signs that the attackers were not beasts." A murmur went through the room.

"No men have seen the creatures," the man went on, raising his voice a notch to quiet the crowd, "nor has there been sign of them near houses or barns, only in open fields. But..." he paused, and sighed, "the danger is there. I have sent word to the city-"

"Why has the army not come already?" one of the men at the bar protested. "Ye sent word last week, did ye not?"

"I did," the newcomer nodded, "but at the moment, it seems the situation does not allow for a military presence here, unless the threat becomes more immediate."

"Unless a man dies?" the patron asked. "This past week we've seen the campfires of these damned things, coming farther north - well, they're coming here, aren't they? They've blackened Kotram and the countryside there and now it's fresh pickings they're after!"

The newcomer held up a hand for calm, then leant over the bar as the barkeep beckoned, listening as he spoke quietly. Despite being distracted, his appeal for quiet seemed enough to settle the protesting man back into his seat, with a discontented mutter. The newcomer glanced over at Willow and Tara, spoke again with the barkeep, then nodded and stood up straight.

"A moment, please," he said to the crowd. He approached Willow and Tara's table and nodded in greeting.

"Good evening to you both," he said politely, "may I join you for a moment or two?" Willow looked to Tara, with a tiny shrug of her shoulders to show her surprise.

"You're welcome to," Tara said after a moment's hesitation.

"Thank you," the man said, picking a vacant chair from nearby and seating himself across the table from Willow and Tara.

"My name is Konran," he went on, "I own one of the nearby farms, and keep the strongboxes for the local farmers - we're not large enough to have a town hall or mayor here, but I suppose you could say I'm the informal leader of our small town."

"Pleased to meet you," Tara said formally, allowing herself to relax in the face of the man's politeness, "I'm Tara."

"Willow," Willow added.

"Thank you for your time," Konran said, "I won't take much of it. As you no doubt just heard, there have been some disturbing events on local properties - to be frank, we fear the damned ones from the south may be moving this way. Plater there tells me that you're from the Duke's army," he nodded to Tara, "I wonder if I could prevail upon you to share any knowledge you are able to, either to allay our fears, or at least let us know what we may be facing."

Tara glanced at Willow, who offered a supportive smile, then around the common room. The tavern's patrons were keeping quiet, obviously paying attention to the conversation going on in the corner between their elder and the visitors.

"I'm an Amazon," she said to Konran, "I'm acting as a scout for the army. Willow is my partner, and a sorceress of the Zann Esu order. We intend to travel to the Kotram monastery and," she paused, wondering how to phrase their intentions, "and investigate the nature of the threat there."

"So it is the monastery," Konran nodded to himself, "we suspected, that area being the centre of the trouble, but there's been little reliable information. May I ask... are these creatures organised? Scavengers, you see, are no great threat - well, to livestock yes, and we can do our best to drive them away, and defend our homes. But, if this is something like an army... well, we are not fighters, you see... we don't have the ability to defend against such a foe." He looked expectantly at Tara.

"I'm not sure," she admitted, "we have suspicions, but suspecting and knowing are two different things..." She glanced at Willow. "So far as I know, if there were a... a leader to these creatures, it wouldn't have reason to move towards you."

"That's right," Willow agreed, turning to Konran, "we can't be sure, but I think this is probably scavenging, like you said. But don't take chances, these things are dangerous."

"You've seen them?" Konran asked.

"We've been there before," Willow said, "the monastery, the wilderness..." The man looked suitably impressed.

"Just the two of you?" he asked. "Forgive me, I'm underestimating you both... one thing, if I might ask... is the army coming? We've had no sure response, you see, and some of us worry that, well," he lowered his voice again, "the Duke may not order a military action until it's too late for us."

"The army's to the north of Duncraig," Tara said, "the Duke isn't leaving you alone, he just doesn't have enough men to fight two campaigns at once. But I'm sure, if the demons do attack in numbers, the Duke will send troops immediately. I'm sorry, I just don't know more than that."

"You've set my mind at ease as best you could," Konran said, "thank you both, and safe journey to you." He stood and went back to the bar, where the patrons gathered around him. Tara watched him go, then turned back to Willow.

"I hope it is just scavenging," she said, "I mean... you and me, we can manage. We can lie low, or avoid any big groups of demons, and fight our way our of trouble if we have to, but... if they come here, then what? We can't go on the offensive, or stop a tribe of demons from marching if we see them... what will they do here?"

"They've got look-outs," Tara said, "if worst comes to worst, they'll have warning, and they'll be able to leave before any big bands of demons arrive."

"They'll have to leave their homes," Willow said sadly, "there'll be nothing left when they get back."

"They'll have their families," Tara said, "their children, their loved ones... it won't be like the Kotram villages. They'll have warning, and Duncraig is only a day's ride away." She shifted her chair closer to Willow's and slipped an arm around her waist.

"It'll be okay," she said softly. "Bad things may happen to them, but these people... they'll survive, and rebuild. That's how it goes. You can't keep trouble from happening, you just have to make sure you get through it. They'll be okay." She leaned closer and rested her forehead against Willow's. "We'll be okay."

A small, grateful smile turned up the corners of Willow's lips.

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Sixty-One

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