Author: Chris Cook
When she woke, Tara found herself immersed in a scarlet softness, which tickled her face slightly as she stirred. Identifying the familiar scent, she realised she was nestling with her face in Willow's hair, and smiled joyously as she tightened her arms around her lover. Willow murmured in her sleep, the hand on Tara's waist squeezing a fraction, the thigh draped over her shifting slightly.
"...mmmfr... strawberry boat..." she said quietly, before deepening her slumber again. Tara chuckled, keeping her body still so as not to disturb Willow, and moved her head back a little on the pillow, just enough to see Willow's face as she slept. She looked serene, happy... 'No bad dreams,' Tara sighed contentedly, 'not any more.'
Willow heaved a deep breath and rolled over, pinning Tara beneath her. Her lips opened on Tara's shoulder, tasting her skin, then she wriggled upwards, tracing a path of kisses up her neck towards her mouth. Tara eagerly opened to her as, somewhere between sleep and awareness, Willow descended on her lips and tasted deeply from them. She could feel Willow waking up through the kiss, in the way her mouth sought more contact, the way her tongue, at first slow to move, began venturing forth, running over Tara's lips, deep into her mouth. She couldn't hold back a gasp of pleasure as Willow finally lifted herself up on hands and knees and tilted her head sideways, kissing as deeply as she could, opening herself to Tara in return.
"Mmm... ah," Willow exclaimed, opening her eyes and pulling her lips from Tara's. "Morning... thought you'd wake me with a kiss? You're such a romantic, my sweet beauty..."
"Willow," Tara said in an amused murmur, "much as I'd love to take credit for the idea... look who's straddling who?"
"Hmm?" Willow blinked sleepily, then glanced down, realising their positions. "Oh... well it's only natural, isn't it? What did you think I was dreaming about, anyway..."
"I don't know," Tara purred, running her hands up Willow's sides, "what were you dreaming about?"
"Mmm, nice," Willow trembled at Tara's caresses, "ah... bath-time, actually..."
"Oh," Tara grinned, "that made a big impression, did it?" Willow giggled, and leant down to nuzzle at Tara's neck.
"You're not the only one who made an impression," she noted, her tongue tracing the outline of a rosy mark left by her lips the night before. Tara just smiled and shrugged.
"My turn?" she asked impishly, gripping Willow's hips and pulling her down to settle atop her waist.
"Your turn?" Willow echoed. "I seem to recall you and I each having... goddess, more 'turns' than I can count last night." She gyrated slowly, feeling the warmth between her thighs press against Tara's stomach. "And that was before we even made it to bed."
"Oh, well," Tara said, with a forced casualness that wasn't in the least convincing, "if you'd rather not..."
"I said nothing of the sort-" Willow began gleefully, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door. "Argh!" she complained quietly. Tara let out an exasperated sigh, then lithely rolled out from beneath Willow and slid to the edge of the bed.
"I'll get it," she muttered, "and you," she directed a sultry gaze Willow's way, "stay right there... my lips have business with you, and they won't be delayed." Content with the way Willow stretched beneath the blankets, biting her lip in arousal, she slid her legs to the floor and stood up.
"Yikes!" she squealed, grabbing for a robe.
"What?" Willow sat up quickly.
"Cold!" Tara frowned, hastily tying the robe's sash as the visitor on the other side of the door knocked again. Willow, experiencing the morning chill first-hand, quickly lay back down and burrowed underneath the blankets.
"Sorry, I was... asleep," Tara said as she opened the door, halting half-way when she realised the visitor wasn't one of their attendants, as she'd expected, but a page, resplendent in the livery of the Duke's personal staff, holding a sealed letter and staring at her.
"M-m-my a-a-apologies m-ma'am," he stammered, the hand holding the letter trembling, "th-th-the-" he paused and swallowed convulsively. His gaze, which had travelled Tara's length, fixed on her face as if he was afraid to do otherwise would be the end of him. Tara glanced down at herself, realising the robe she had grabbed wasn't the most modest she could have chosen, and that on top of that, in her haste she hadn't exactly covered herself completely - in tying the sash she had managed to catch a fold from the lower portion, lifting the hem of the robe up around the top of her thighs, and the front too had managed to get snagged somehow, leaving the neckline very revealing on one side...
'Giant-sized oops,' Tara thought, blushing furiously as she hastily rearranged herself, pulling the robe down over her thighs and closed over her cleavage. The page swallowed again as she returned her gaze to him, and took a deep breath.
"Apologies for the," he began, in a high-pitched squeak, then coughed and continued in a normal voice, "intrusion ma'am." Evidently feeling it safe to look elsewhere but Tara's face, he bowed deeply, then held out the letter. "His grace the Duke presents his compliments to Lady Tara of the Amazons and Lady Willow of the Zann Esu, and requests and requires their presence in the Century Hall for an audience no later than ten of the clock... um... good day ma'am," he finished with an air of slight desperation. He retreated quickly to the stairs as soon as the letter was out of his hand.
"What was that?" Willow asked, peeking out from beneath the blankets at the foot of the bed. Tara closed the door and opened the letter, which echoed the page's summons word for word, with the Ducal seal beneath.
"The Duke," she said, quickly reading the letter before setting it aside.
"What, in person?" Willow asked with a grin.
"No, just a very flustered page," Tara replied, undoing her robe again. "We've been summoned to the Century Hall, wherever that is." She glanced at the timepiece on the mantle. "We've got an hour, no hurry."
"Good," Willow said, reaching out to catch Tara's hands and pull her towards the bed, "because there's something I am in a hurry for... it is cold," she added, rubbing Tara's back as she crawled beneath the blankets and settled into her embrace.
"Told you," Tara shrugged, running a slightly chilly finger up Willow's spine, making her shiver from something other than cold.
"This habit of yours," Willow said teasingly, "of giving the servants an eyeful whenever they come knocking on our door..."
"It's not a habit," Tara protested, as Willow paused to kiss her neck, "I... mmm... only did it by accident... a-and... ooh!" she exclaimed, as Willow gently lay on top of her, her leg coming to rest between Tara's thighs, pressing lightly on her centre.
"You were saying something?" Willow purred, pressing her thigh gently upward.
"Oooh-ah-aaah... ah..." Tara gasped, her hips lifting off the bed on their own, seeking firmer contact with Willow's leg, "I-I... was saying... wh-what was I saying?"
"Something about flashing the Palace staff by accident," Willow chuckled, pressing herself into Tara's embrace, feeling Tara's nipples, already hardened by the chill, poking into her breasts.
"Accident," Tara repeated with an exasperated grin, "anyway, I didn't know it'd be a page... thought it'd just be Lissa or Jesye..."
"Oh, so you don't mind giving them a show," Willow persisted, carefully keeping the contact between herself and the moist apex of Tara's thighs brief, teasing.
"I-I... ah," Tara gasped, as Willow allowed her a moment of firmer contact, before lifting away again, "a-at least... they're not... complete strangers..."
"Mmm," Willow murmured, as if unconvinced, "you know what I think? I think," she drawled slowly, as her hands wandered Tara's back, "you just like putting on a show..."
"Maybe I do," Tara countered, teasing the sides of Willow's breasts with her fingertips, "but only when they audience is you."
"Good," Willow moaned happily as Tara's hands finally cupped her breasts and squeezed, "good... oh... do you think... I could convince you to skip the showing... and move on to the main attraction?"
"I don't know," Tara said in a sultry whisper, "do you think you can... convince me?" With a parting caress she removed her hands from Willow and folded them neatly beneath her head, smiling up at Willow.
"I'll convince you, don't you worry," Willow breathed, "I'll convince you 'til you don't know your own name..." Tara beamed a smile, and Willow lowered herself to kiss it. As soon as her lips touched Tara's, however, she pulled back. Tara gasped slightly, obviously expecting to have been kissed deeply and thoroughly, and looked up at Willow questioningly.
"You're not the only one who can tease, you know," Willow said mischievously, leaning down again. Again she allowed only the most fleeting of kisses before recoiling, again Tara couldn't help herself from tilting her chin up, her open lips searching for Willow's.
"Patience," Willow grinned. Again and again she kissed Tara, each time only a fleeting, momentary touch to her lips, a lightning-quick caress of her tongue, a taste. Tara writhed sensuously beneath her, craving all the contact she could find.
"So beautiful," Willow murmured, working her way down Tara's jaw and neck with more teasing, feather-light kisses. Tara's arms being folded beneath her head draw her breasts up her chest, full and luxurious, mounds of smooth flesh resting, trembling. Willow licked her way down her cleavage, lightly, each touch of tongue or lips only leaving Tara wanting more. She spent a long while tasting Tara's breasts, one then the other, from above, beneath, either side. Tara's breathing was deep, laboured with desire, when Willow finally allowed herself to taste one of the nipples standing so proudly before her.
"Ah!" Tara exclaimed, arching her back into a deep curve, almost lifting Willow from the bed as she thrust herself towards the blissful contact. Her arms flexed above her, grabbing handfuls of pillow and clenching tight, her legs kicked beneath the blankets, while already her hips were rolling back and forth, seeking release for her yearning, dripping sex.
Supporting herself with her hands, Willow cheerfully denied Tara the contact she craved. Her tongue flicked back and forth across her nipples, touching their peaks or running up from beneath them, her lips ghosted around the straining points, but always only for a fraction of a second, enough to make Tara gasp, moan, writhe, never enough to satisfy.
"Goddess, Willow," Tara growled, unable to contain herself. Willow lifted her head for a moment to give a triumphant smile, then lowered herself again, trailing tantalising licks and kisses down Tara's stomach. Tara moaned with every breath now, and it took only the slightest touch of Willow's tongue on her inner thighs to part her legs, to reveal to Willow, in the warm, muffled light filtering in past the blankets piled over her back and shoulders, the glistening of Tara's nectar coating her.
"Beautiful," Willow murmured once more, settling herself down between Tara's legs. Tara strained towards her as she held back, inhaling her scent, her musk still thick, heady from a night of heated love and passion.
"Mmm," she purred, letting her tongue flick out, gathering a tiny sample of arousal from Tara's lips. She savoured the taste fully, while Tara groaned aloud and worked her hips desperately, then returned for another, and another. Daring Tara's restraint she let her lips settle around Tara's folds and sucked gently, tenderly and slowly, while her arms stealthily encircled Tara's thighs, her hands flattening against her hips.
"W-Willow," Tara gasped. Willow gave a last, faint lick to Tara's mound and lifted her head, staring up into Tara's wild gaze.
"You want?" she asked with silken ardour.
"I need," Tara pleaded, nodding fitfully. Willow smiled, then pursed her lips and blew Tara a kiss. The relief on her face was almost that of release, and Willow was buoyed to realise that she had brought Tara so close that just the promise of the culmination of her teasing was almost enough to sate her. Etching Tara's joyous, yearning face in her memory, she closed her eyes, lowered herself to Tara's mound, and encircled her clit with hungry lips.
"Oh, Goddess!" Tara screamed as her climax crashed through her, set free after what seemed an eternity of agonising, blissful torment. Her hips bucked - Willow's grip around her thighs was like steel, and from denying her the release she craved, now she focused all her attention to the reverse, to giving her no respite from her release. As Tara moaned and writhed, Willow kept her lips firmly in place, her own moans at Tara's pleasure vibrating through them both, her tongue ceaseless in its caresses.
Sweat beaded on Tara's brow as she came and came, careless of who might hear her cries, all her being focused purely on the woman she loved, who she surrendered everything to, and in return was gifted with this most intense pleasure. Again and again her body shuddered, her core clenched and gushed its arousal, and whether her climax was repeating or whether it simply never ended, she had no idea. There was only Willow... nothing but Willow...
...surrounded by Willow. She returned to awareness cradled in Willow's embrace, to the deliciously tender sensation of being kissed. She sighed happily and curled her arms around Willow's waist, helping a little as Willow tugged the blankets back over both of them.
"You were right," she murmured when the lips opened against hers made their way down her cheek, "I can't remember my own name."
"It's 'Tara'," Willow offered with a giggle.
"Mmm," Tara smiled, "I like the way you say it..."
"Is that like how you say 'Willow'? Your lips mould the name, your tongue caresses it... sensual, like a slow kiss... you make 'Willow' the most beautiful name ever spoken."
"Yes," Tara nodded, "just like that."
"Taaaraaa," Willow murmured sexily into Tara's ear, eliciting a tremble from her, a tightening of the arms around her waist.
"What was it you were convincing me of?" she replied. "'Cause I think I'm thoroughly convinced..."
"I... actually, I forgot," Willow shrugged with a grin. "Tell you what, how about you and me go have a long, hot shower... maybe it'll come back to me?"
"I like that plan," Tara agreed, "except that it involves getting out of this lovely warm bed, with my lovely warm Willow... sigh, what a dilemma," she pouted theatrically, making Willow laugh.
"Come on, drama queen," she grinned, gingerly edging back the covers, "it's not that- yikes, it is cold. Hey, look." Tara followed her gaze to the window, seeing the outside patterned at the corners by intricate webs of frost.
"Here," Tara offered, quickly jumping out of bed to the dresser and retrieving a pair of long robes, one of which she tossed to Willow. "I'll get a fire going."
"You're a goddess," Willow said, pulling the robe on tight. She paused to kneel behind Tara, as she selected a couple of logs from the pile, and pulled the back of her robe down just enough to press a leisurely kiss to the nape of her neck.
"I try," Tara smiled. "Remember we've got to be ready to meet the Duke... what do you suppose he wants?"
"Guessing? Just going through the motions," Willow shrugged. She picked up her belt from the table, where she had left it lying the evening before, and began removing the various scrolls and potion vials from it, storing them neatly in the shelves of the writing desk.
"He's probably been given reports from the army by now," she went on, "the monastery, the demons, all that. If it's an audience, it's probably just that he needs to make an official statement. We did cause a decent-sized area of his realm to blow up, after all," she chuckled, "he'd have to acknowledge that one way or the other. Given that we got a polite invitation, not a squad of Palace guards, I guess he's read the reports from the Zann Esu delegation, and accepted their decision that we did well. I wouldn't be surprised if Tryptin got a word in his ear as well," she added.
"Fair enough," Tara nodded, carefully stacking the fireplace, "so... then what?"
"Well," Willow said, putting her belt aside and sitting on the table, staring speculatively out of the window, "then... I'm a free sorceress now, unless the Council specifically assigns me a mission, I can choose where to go... I'd actually like to continue travelling, just as they arranged for me. Stay here a while, then head into Khanduras, or go further west along the river... the only difference is that now I'd be travelling at my discretion, not at the Council's orders." She slid off the table and came over to where Tara had started a small fire, kneeling down at her side to feel its warmth.
"Of course, that means if I wanted to take time off, I could... If you want to return home with Tryptin and the others, I'll come with you. I'd like to see your home... our home."
Tara turned to her, a gentle smile on her face. She raised a hand to Willow's cheek and lightly stroked it, her fingertips tracing the contours of her face, brushing the corner of her lips in passing.
"We will go home one day," she promised, "but it doesn't have to be right away. There's so much of the world I haven't seen yet... I have the chance to see it, with you. I'd very much like to. Whatever we choose," she leaned in and grazed her lips over Willow's, "we'll be together."
"Forever?" Willow murmured.
"Forever and always," Tara nodded. She kissed Willow again, gently and slowly, and when she sat back on her heels there was a quirky smile on her lips. "When I asked 'then what', though," she added, "I just meant later today." Willow blinked, then abruptly laughed.
"In that case," she giggled, "um... well, the audience probably won't take long, just a few minutes standing in front of the Duke while he says his piece, then I don't know... Myrreon might be there, so I'll talk to him about resuming my studies, but that won't start until tomorrow at the earliest."
"I should check in at the barracks," Tara mentioned, "although with so many troops out in the field, there's probably not going to be anyone much to train for a couple of weeks."
"Shopping," Willow said, as they stood up and turned from the fire's growing warmth, "my treat - I'm buying us the thickest, fluffiest, softest, most luxurious robes I can find. With matching slippers," she added, prompting a giggle from Tara. Reaching the table, she picked up her belt and undid the few remaining pouches.
"We could just wear warmer clothes," Tara suggested jokingly, "you know, rather than wander around in only our robes until it's time to go out."
"Ah, but you see, the thing about robes," Willow pointed out sagely, "is that they offer such excellent access to each other, and that's something I don't intend to give up... what's this?"
"What's what?" Tara asked. Willow slid the two notebooks out of their pouch, and Tara saw that several pages of parchment, neatly folded, had been slipped in between them. A brief note was written on the back of the topmost.
"'Have fun, from Cyan also. -E'. It's from Ember," she clarified, frowning in confusion.
"She's been ferreting through your journals?" Tara asked with a grin.
"She went through the scrolls and potions yesterday, while the delegation was deliberating, just a formality... Gods, I hope she didn't read our private journal," Willow said earnestly, "or see your drawings... there'll be no end to her teasing- what in the holy heavens?" She unfolded the aged parchment to reveal reams of text and diagrams, intricate equations and illustrations of runes, formulae, rituals, gestures.
"What is it?" Tara asked, frowning at the dense, indecipherable text.
"Elemental magic," Willow said in a hushed tone, "governing principles, applications, the primal theories... it's in code- this is from the journal!" she exclaimed in an astonished whisper. "This is Moac's! I recognise the code, it's part of his journal... why on earth did Ember put this in here?"
"It's the Seal, isn't it?" Tara asked. "She showed me the case yesterday while we were waiting, this is the section of the book they took out of it. Isn't it?"
"It looks like it," Willow nodded, "but why...?"
"I think I've got an idea," Tara said, comprehension dawning on her face. "Think about it - how many ancient manuscripts have you got at the moment? Unbound, like this."
"How many...? Um, well, I picked up a copy of a copy of Tremayne's 'Elemental Forces' in Kingsport... there's Passha's 'Primal Magical Nature', I've had that for a couple of years, but it comes in handy now and then... Warrach and Yseult's dissertation on microscopic force control, a couple of others, oh, and Myrreon's having a copy made of his Arctic Codex, that's a Vizjerei text on ice magic..."
"And how many are valuable?" Tara persisted. "Would any of them be worth stealing?"
"Well, to an unscrupulous mage," Willow hesitated, "no, not even then, really... they're not that difficult to find, it'd be easier to just track one down on your own... what are you getting at?"
"Ember's hiding the Seal where no-one will look for it," Tara explained, "I mean, if some madman or demon wanted to rebuild Hellebore, what would they do? They'd try to get the journal from the Zann Esu vaults-"
"That'd be practically impossible," Willow interjected.
"-and get the Seal case from Ember," Tara went on, "and from what you've told me of her, I don't like anyone's chances of achieving that, either. Who would think of trying to steal one of the manuscripts you're carrying around to study?"
"But... okay," Willow argued, "that's true, but giving me the pages... I mean, I'm not about to try to take over the world or anything, but it's still dangerous... What if I misused the magic? Or, what if someone did steal them from me, for some reason? Not that I'm about to let my guard down, but..."
"They still wouldn't have the rest of the journal," Tara pointed out, "and it's no different to Ember carrying the Seal. Except that no-one looking for the Seal would try to steal it from you - so far as everyone but you, me, Ember and Cyan know, these pages are in the case she's carrying. As for misusing it," Tara shook her head, "you made that mistake once, I'm sure Ember knows you better than to think you haven't learned from that. After all, you learn from everything."
"She's made me a Seal-bearer," Willow mused, "in secret... why me? I mean, why not one of the Council, or a more experienced sorceress, she knows plenty-"
"The same reason I would," Tara said gently, "because, even if all else fails, she trusts you. To keep this safe... and to put it to good use." Willow hesitated, idly tracing her fingertips over some of the patterns on the pages in her hand.
"You really think... she trusts me that much?" she asked. There was a note of awed hope in her voice, and Tara realised how important it was to Willow to believe she lived up to her mentor's expectations.
"Yes," she answered sincerely, lightly holding Willow's shoulders, "I really do."
"I..." Willow hesitated, "...oh my gods... b-but what do I do with it? I should keep it with me, I'll- no, I know, a spell, something I can set off if it's stolen, to destroy it, I'll have to look up the preparations for a standing fire spell-"
"Willow," Tara interrupted patiently, "have you ever, in your entire life, lost a book?"
"Well..." Willow replied, "no, not as such..."
"Look up spells later, then. Put it with your other books," Tara said warmly, "then come have a shower with me." Willow looked from Tara to the pages, and back again.
"Okay," she decided, and Tara felt the tension go out of her shoulders. "Only because it's you, mind," Willow added, "there's not many people in this world more tempting to me than an ancient, cryptic manuscript."
"I'm glad I'm one of them," Tara laughed. Willow slipped the pages back between the two notebooks, and put them in the desk.
"You're the only one," she replied. "You know, if the Power That Is wrote a notebook on how She brought the world into being... I swear you could tempt me away from it."
"Sweet talker," Tara smiled, taking her hand.
What with one thing and another, showering took the better part of half an hour, and belatedly realising the time, Willow and Tara dried quickly, hoping to find just enough time to squeeze in breakfast before having to venture forth for their audience with the Duke. Jesye, it seemed, had anticipated this, and had a hot breakfast already waiting when Tara descended the stairs to the attendant's room to see what the kitchen could whip up in a hurry.
"There's a letter for you Miss," she said to Willow, after placing bowls of hot porridge and a jug of fruit juice on the table, "and one for you too, Miss," she added to Tara, reaching into the shoulder bag she had with her. To Willow she handed a slim, plain envelope; to Tara, a package wrapped in waterproof oilcloth. On the bed she carefully laid out Tara's armour and Willow's battlegear, both having been carefully cleaned by the Palace laundry, paused to stock another log onto the fire with her customary efficiency, then departed.
"It's from one of the faculties in the university," Willow explained, opening her letter, "a response to one of the letters I sent when we arrived."
"What took them so long?" Tara wondered.
"That's colleges for you," Willow said idly, "it's probably been collecting dust on a desk somewhere until someone remembered... what's yours?"
"From home," Tara smiled. Willow put aside her letter and started on her breakfast, watching Tara contentedly as she opened the package, grinning all the while.
"It's from Eponin," Tara went on, drawing out a letter folded at the top of the package, "she... oh my Goddess..." Willow was on her feet, having seen the joy in Tara's eyes turn to surprise, then disbelief, as she read the page.
"What?" she asked, coming to stand at Tara's side. Looking down, she saw the oilcloth contained a slim wooden box, square and flat. With a shaking hand Tara put down the accompanying letter and undid the tiny brass latch on the box. She paused, and for a moment seemed lost in hesitation. Willow's gaze moved between the box and her face - there was no fear or dismay in her eyes, but something made her anxious, apprehensive. Willow put a hand gently on her shoulder in mute support; Tara glanced at her, her eyes warming, with a hint of moisture, and then she looked down and opened the box.
Within, resting on a bed of padded red silk, was a slim gold circlet, in every way the double of the one now sitting on the mantle, that Tara wore as part of her ceremonial or battledress.
"What does it mean?" Willow frowned, confused. "Eponin sent you another circlet? Why-" she broke off as she saw Tara's lip tremble.
"For y-you," she said in a tiny, awed voice. She swallowed and said again, "it's for you." She turned to Willow, who was struck dumb by dawning comprehension.
"I-I wrote from Kingsport," she explained, "I knew... even so soon after we'd met, I believe with all my heart... you're special. I knew I'd follow you anywhere, a-and... and never want to let you go. I knew I loved you... and then, I was finally coming to believe that... that you loved me... somehow, I was the one you loved..." She swallowed again and continued.
"In the letter I sent back home, I told her... everything. What I felt for you, what I dreamed of... I told her I wanted to stay with you, and that one day, I hoped you would come home with me, to the Islands... to become," her voice fell to a whisper, "to become part of my family."
Willow tried to speak, but found it completely beyond her. Tara stared at her, searching her face, then took a steadying breath and went on.
"You remember I told you," she said, "an Amazon is never alone, never without a family. As an orphan I was accepted into Eponin's family... but my family, my mother and father, their ancestors before them, they're still a part of me too. I wear my mother's circlet... and it's the tradition that if someone like me, orphaned, is..." she glanced down nervously, "is joined, with another... then, my true family line is restored. B-because," she reached hesitantly for Willow, stroked her cheek, "I'm not alone... I have you."
Again Willow wanted to speak, but no words would come to her, nor would her mouth and throat answer her - all she could do was lift her hand, to hold Tara's gently, firmly against her cheek.
"N-normally," Tara went on, after a moment of anxious silence, "the mistress of the clan house would approve such a joining, the restoration of a family line within the clan... I-I wanted... back then, everything was so new, so I only hoped... one day, to present you to Eponin, to ask for her approval... I was sure she would... and th-then she'd have a new circlet made, a-and enter in the clan's records the rebirth of my... our family..."
"Th-this...?" Willow asked, finally able to form a word. She reached for the circlet, but her fingertips shied away from touching it. Tara nodded shyly.
"I-I guess I must've described you well," she said with a tremulous smile. "She's entrusted me with my family's future, under her clan... she's made the choice mine... to offer this... t-to you... i-if you... if you want...?" her voice trailed into silence, as she stared, yearning, into Willow's eyes.
"A-a-are..." Willow stammered, "a-are you... asking... me...?"
"I am," Tara whispered, "I... Willow, you're... my love... will you marry me?"
Willow stood rooted to the spot, unable to move or speak to save her life. Her mouth hung open, lower lip trembling; her hand, holding Tara's to her face, fell silently down, her arms hanging at her sides.
"I-I know it's... well, not a long time," Tara said, anxiety creeping up her cheeks in the form of a blush, as the silence went on, "we haven't known each other that long, I mean... but we've shared so much... I can't imagine my life now without you, I... if you want to wait, I-I understand, there's no rush... I'm yours, I always will be... do you want...? Sh-should I have waited...? I'm sorry, if it's too soon, I-"
The sadness creeping into her eyes in an instant overrode the shock and awe keeping Willow silent, and at last she found her voice.
"I will," she whispered, interrupting Tara's doubts.
"Wh-what...?" Tara asked, the shining hope in her gaze rekindled in the blink of an eye.
"I will," Willow repeated, her voice firming, "I will. I will marry you. I will..." she trailed off as the enormity of her words hit her. "...oh my gods... I will marry you." Her lips curved into a smile, then she let out a gasp of joyful laughter, as if simply unable to contain the emotions within her.
"Y-you will?" Tara asked, her face that of someone staring into the eyes of a goddess, wondering if she dared believe it was true.
"Yes," Willow nodded.
"You and I...?"
"Willow..." Tara said at last, searching for something to say, some magical words that would be anything but woefully inadequate for the love flowering inside her.
"I think you mean 'my betrothed'," Willow suggested with a dazzling smile, quickly answered by Tara.
"Yes," she said, "yes, I do." Gently, tenderly, her movements guided by angels, Tara cupped Willow's cheeks in both hands, leant forward, closed her eyes, and brought their lips together.
It was as if she was discovering Willow's lips for the first time, as she had so many days and nights ago, late in a drafty corridor in a castle far away. Her first thought was the same: 'so soft... oh Goddess, so soft...' and though she had initiated the kiss this time, just as she had been then she was now rendered speechless, immobile, her mind and soul a blank slate that was filled by the tender caress of Willow's lips on hers. Love filled her, gave her warmth and life and dreams, and then her life, memories of home and strange wilderness, of happiness and loneliness, danger and sanctuary, memories of all the times of bliss she and Willow had shared, shy, tender adoration, soaring passion, burning desire - all returned to her, settled around the core of perfect, pure love.
She drew her lips from Willow's, felt her breathe a sigh against her cheek, and at last opened her eyes again.
"Willow," she whispered, robbed of all other thought when Willow's eyes opened, and connected with her gaze.
"Tara," Willow answered, her face flushed with love and arousal, her chest rising and falling with deep breaths. A smile tugged at her mouth, turning up the corners, and Tara smiled too, as if her joy and Willow's were inseparable.
"S-so," Willow ventured in an awe-struck voice, "i-is it... there's a ceremony?"
"Ceremony..." Tara repeated dazedly, still held tight in Willow's gaze.
"M-marriage," Willow said, nodding slightly, "if I... I mean, if that's how it goes... when an Amazon and a, a... whatever I am," she grinned sheepishly.
"Ceremony," Tara said again, her mind catching up, "yes! Yes, there's- what do you mean, whatever you are?"
"I was just wondering," Willow explained, "I'm not an Amazon, I didn't know if your traditions were different in that case, or..." she shrugged.
"Willow," Tara said tenderly, "you... you can be. You don't have to be born Amazon, if you and I become family, you have as much right to call yourself Amazon as I do. If that's what you want," she added with a shy smile.
"That is exactly what I want," Willow replied, then ventured a grin. "Besides, there's no sorceress marriage rite... I-I'd be deeply honoured to be your wife, as an Amazon." Tara nodded, then with trembling hands undid the sash around her waist.
"This is our way," she explained quietly, slipping the robe from her shoulders. She then reached down to the table behind herself, and after a moment's blind searching her hand found the circlet, still nestled in its silken case.
"I am naked before you," she whispered, the words of a ritual apparent in her tone, "body and soul. All that I am you see, and all that you see I offer to you. If it is your wish, by my honour and that which I hold sacred, I am yours." Tentatively, she held out the circlet.
Willow's breath caught, and then her hands were reaching forward. About to touch the slim arc of gold she paused, then her hands quickly drew back, undoing her sash and discarding her robe in turn. She took a step closer to Tara and gently put her hands on the circlet, holding it but not yet taking it from Tara's hands, their fingertips touching.
"I-I offer myself," she said in a tiny whisper, "all that I am... a-as I accept you, so I am yours." Tara's eyes dropped to the circlet as Willow at last lifted it from her hands, and her gaze followed it as she lifted it to her head, slipped its ends carefully over her ears, and slid it back until it rested on her brow. As Willow's hands withdrew, Tara let out a great sigh, almost a moan of release, from deep inside herself.
"W-we are joined," she said, taking a step forward herself, her hands finding Willow's and holding them. "B-by our tradition, in one year we shall be wed... if that is your wish," she added. This time though, all her nervousness was gone, and Willow saw only playful joy behind her eyes.
"It is my wish," she replied, "very much."
"Then it will be," Tara whispered. She paused, then added: "Amazon."
"My Gods," Willow breathed, "Amazon... me..." She let out a soft cascade of breath, a quiet, jubilant laugh. "We're family now?"
"We are," Tara nodded. Willow nodded too, then her smile became an impish grin.
"That doesn't make us sisters, does it?" she asked. Tara snorted a laugh.
"No it most certainly does not," she chuckled. "Oh Goddess, I don't think I've ever been so nervous in my entire life..."
"Why?" Willow smiled. "It's not like I was going to say no."
"I know," Tara laughed, "but... Goddess, I just proposed marriage. If you can't get nervous at that, what can you?"
"I'll admit to more than a few butterflies in the stomach myself," Willow offered, "I... I dreamed, you know? But when it's real... was taking off my robe right? That was a custom, wasn't it?"
"For me, yes," Tara said, "as the one proposing... it's why proposals are generally done in private... you didn't have to, it's not required by tradition, but" her smile broadened, if that were possible, "it meant so much to me that you did... and," she raised an eyebrow, and her smile turned sultry, "it's very much appreciated."
"Mmm," Willow purred, "well I have to say, I like your customs very much indeed... we're betrothed for a year, then?"
"Uh-huh," Tara nodded, licking her lips, "if you'd like, I'd like to-"
"-return to the Islands in a year's time," Willow completed the sentence, and Tara nodded. "Then that's what we'll do. But in the meantime..." she trailed off, her gaze darting between Tara's eyes and her parted lips.
"Yes?" she murmured.
"Tara..." Willow breathed, "I want to make love to you right now."
"Yes," Tara growled.
She took Willow in her arms, kissing her passionately, and Willow responded at once, her arms around Tara's back, pulling her closer even as her mouth opened and her tongue met Tara's inside. With one quick step her legs touched the bed behind her, and Tara advanced, lowering her to the tangled sheets and blankets. Tara's bold kiss drew moans from her, each swallowed as her lips and tongue were devoured, while her legs parted, inviting the press of Tara's thigh against her centre.
"Yes," she gasped raggedly into the lips consuming her. She raised her leg just as Tara straddled it, feeling at once the heated wetness waiting for her touch, and as if ordained by the gods to join, they moved together. Hips surged forward and drew back, skin rubbed against flushed folds and eager, tender nubs, and still they kissed, as their bodies together moved as one, fuelling the fires inside, spilling liquid passion across their thighs.
"I love you," Tara murmured, her lips moving across Willow's but never leaving them.
"I love you-" Willow whispered back, stealing the second it took before her hand went to the back of Tara's head, pulling her down, opening her mouth again to her exploration. Tara let out a carefree groan of delight, her hands clutching at Willow's back, her legs trembling, every part of her body feeling light as a feather, energised like the heart of a thunderstorm, yearning for release. Almost disbelieving of both the racing speed and blinding intensity of the feelings within her, Willow felt herself rise to join Tara, her pleasure needing only the knowledge that it was shared to deluge her.
In a moment of oblivious passion and pure clarity, both women tensed, their hands pressed against smooth skin beaded with sweat, their legs entangled, trembling against each other's centres. Then climax was upon them - wedded moans welled up from within their throats, mingling in their joined mouths, as a single release dawned in two cores, flooding through their joined bodies like a wave washing intertwined lovers on the ocean's shore.
When the waves at last receded, the lovers found themselves in the centre of the bed, their limbs wrapped around each other, held as tightly as could be. Their lips remained pressed together, and after a moment, as one they began to taste each other anew, tongues stirring to life, eyes fluttering open for a glimpse of an answering gaze before closing again, hands beginning new explorations of their bodies.
"My Willow," Tara whispered.
"My Tara," Willow replied, pausing to gaze at her.
"That I am," Tara smiled, "it's official." She trailed her fingertips up Willow's side and over her shoulder, finally reaching up and lightly touching the circlet Willow still wore.
"You can take this off if you want," she said, "once it's accepted, it's yours forever."
"Leave it on," Willow grinned. Tara's mouth turned upwards to an answering grin, and she tenderly kissed her betrothed, tasting her lips like a fine delicacy.
"You are so beautiful," Willow murmured.
"You're a goddess," Tara replied, "my goddess..."
"Yours," Willow smiled, resting her forehead lightly against Tara's, careful not to press too hard as the circlet touched her skin, "all yours... to hold, to kiss, to caress, to taste, to take and play with and devour and be pleasured and sate your insatiable hunger with and... and always, always to love."
"Always," Tara agreed. "All that, huh?"
"Uh-huh," Willow nodded, "all that. So, lover... betrothed... my wife-to-be... how shall I love you now?" She ran the tip of her tongue over her lips, wetting them.
"You said something about insatiable hunger?" Tara purred, stirring her leg between Willow's thighs.
"Ahhh... I did..."
"You've whetted my appetite..."
"I'll do more than that," Willow promised, "I'll..." she trailed off, a sudden expression of confusion clouding her features.
"What?" Tara asked, as her frown turned to shock.
"The Duke!" she exclaimed. "The, the audience, this morning, we-"
"Oh hell!" Tara yelped, scrambling off the bed and reaching for her armour, which had been pushed to the floor at some point.
"Damn damn damn," Willow muttered, "is my battlegear over there?"
"Here," Tara said, tossing the rumpled garments to her, while trying to unpack her bronze breastplate and greaves from the drawers at the same time. Willow was by her side in a moment, gathering her boots, turning her skirt the right way out, shaking the potion and scroll pouches off her belt with one hand while the other packed her notebooks, and the pages Ember had given her, back in with the other.
Half-dressed, something made her pause and turn to Tara, just as Tara left the half-tied laces on her leather and turned to her. For a moment they were unhurried, stepping into each other's reach, arms gentle around each other's waists, lips meeting like clouds in the sky, patient and inevitable, calm and soft.
"My Tara," Willow whispered.
"My Willow," Tara replied. For a moment they hesitated, desire kindling in their gazes.
"We have to go," Willow sighed, as if searching for a way to convince herself otherwise.
"They'll send someone looking for us soon," Tara nodded.
"They'd probably hear strange sounds, and burst right in," Willow added.
"And catch us in the act," Tara agreed.
"Goddess I want to."
They shared one more quiet kiss, then reluctantly parted, and resumed their frenzied attempt to get dressed in some presentable fashion as fast as possible.
Jesye hurried the two women through the corridors of the Palace, carrying Willow's staff and Tara's spear and bow, even as Willow was still adjusting the folds of her top, and Tara was doing up the last of her harness straps, one hand holding her breastplate in place until she got it secured. They finished just in time, as Jesye brought them to a pair of ornate old oak doors, carved with abstract scrollwork along the edges. She handed Tara her bow, Willow her staff, then Tara her spear, the bow having gone onto her back, accepted their profuse thanks with humble grace, and quickly straightened her tunic before straightening and knocking on the oak.
The doors opened from within, and Willow and Tara both froze as dozens of people stood from the seats on either side of a crimson-carpeted aisle and turned towards them. With Jesye's subtle prompting they walked down the aisle, gazing in bewilderment at the crowd. Tryptin and the Amazons were there, to a man smiling with pride, and Ember, next to Tryptin - Willow noticed her eyes flicker to the circlet still on her brow, and the older sorceress raised her eyebrows and beamed after whispering a question to Tryptin and receiving a nod in reply. On Ember's other side were Cyan and Sirillia, and the three lightning sorceresses from the Zann Esu delegation, with half a dozen eminent-looking mages from the university accompanying them. There were a dozen officers from the barracks, some that Tara had spoken with now and then, some she merely knew by sight; Myrreon, resplendent in his colourful Vizjerei robes, Zan and Ocean, similarly attired, on either side of him. Tara saw another familiar face, and nudged Willow - both forgot their confusion and nervousness as they saw Amalee wave, with Brydan holding her as she stood on her seat to gain height, his other hand around the waist of Joma, who smiled serenely as she cradled their son in her arms. Solaris and Refash were standing nearby, both in striking blue coats, trimmed with gold, and matching turbans, and beside them was Lissa, beaming.
With only the occasional nudge from Jesye to keep them moving, they reached the end of the aisle, where the Duke himself stood, the Duchess at his side, and an advisor of some stature, to judge by his elaborate attire, on his other side. Behind them were a pair of guards, and to Willow and Tara's surprise, to the Duchess's side stood Lindia, looking like she had just ridden in, still in the same leather outfit she wore in the wilderness. She gave the couple a wink, but otherwise remained impassive.
"Lady Tara, warrior of the Amazon Nation," the Duke said in a loud, clear voice, "Lady Willow, sorceress of the Zann Esu-" the advisor glanced at Willow's circlet and murmured something, "and of the Amazon Nation also," the Duke went on, barely missing a beat, "as Duke of this city and realm, and Regent of Westmarch, I greet you in honour." And he bowed, not the bow of a lord to a guest, but a deep bow of respect. Taken aback, Willow and Tara exchanged glanced, before hastily returning the Duke's bow, bending low themselves as he had done.
"Three days ago," the Duke continued, "you two, alone, confronted a foe the likes of which has not been seen in Westmarch since the days of legend, a captain in the legions of the burning hells, such as would strike fear into an army, and threatened to reduce our proud city, this realm, and perhaps more, to ruin and chaos. Let it be known," he raised his voice slightly, addressing the crowd, "that Lady Tara and Lady Willow faced this foe with the courage, purpose and prowess of true valour. That they confronted this great enemy, and cast it down into the pit from which it was spawned. Let their deeds live in legend."
He paused as a cheer rose from the assembled audience. Willow and Tara again exchanged glanced, neither able to muster a coherent thought. When they turned their attention back to the Duke, the advisor had produced a cushion on which were two glimmering rings. The Duke took them, one in each hand, and held them for the gathering to see.
"By the power invested in my as Duke and Regent to the line of kings," he said, "from this day forth, I decree that Lady Tara and Lady Willow be invested as Knights Lioness of Westmarch. With the blessings of this realm," he held the two rings out to Willow and Tara, "may you bring honour to this ancient order."
Acting purely on instinct both women reached out and took the rings from the Duke's hands. They turned to each other, holding the slim bands of gold up, staring at them. Tara saw, engraved in masterful detail, the shield of a knightly order, a lioness stern and defiant above the heraldry. Around the band, in an elaborate hand, was carved 'Tara, Warrior of the Amazon Nation'. Glancing at the matching ring in Willow's hands, her keen eyes could just make out 'Willow, Zann Esu' engraved there.
Her eyes met Willow's, and in that moment all else fell away. Without realising it she brought her hands to Willow's, gently pressing the ring into her palm, accepting Willow's in return. She closed her hand around it, then lifted it in her fingertips. Willow held out her hand, ready. The entire hall seemed to hold its breath as Tara slipped the ring onto Willow's middle finger. Then it was Willow's turn - she lifted the ring from her palm, gently held Tara's hand, and stared into her fathomless gaze as she put the ring onto Tara's finger.
The hall erupted with applause, but Willow and Tara remained lost in each other. Each taking a step forward, then stood face to face, a fraction of an inch between them. They dimly registered what was going on around them: the Duke leading the applause with stately dignity, Tryptin and the Amazons singing a victorious salute in High Amazonian, Amalee clapping and bouncing with delight, Ember's face streaked with proud tears... but they had eyes only for each other.
"I love you, my Willow," Tara whispered. Her lips remained parted a fraction, hoping.
"I love you, my Tara," Willow replied. She tilted her head back a little, the lift of her chin inviting. Their arms went around one another, their eyes closed, and once more, they kissed.
"All else is transitory; the time will come when even the gods fade away. But love endures. Cherish love; nurture it, protect it, rejoice in its coming. Be true to love. And should any being, be they man or woman, demon or god, seek to take from you that which you love, defy them. For love gives you that power."
-Athulua, Goddess of the Amazons