The light frost that clung to the tall grasses stung Willow's hands and bare feet as she moved swiftly down into the dark valley. Sunlight would touch everything soon, melting away the early autumn cold and damp, stealing the sweetness from the precious herbs that must be gathered. In the light movement of her feet, Willow temporarily forgot the heavy burden of Hepsebah's illness. Throughout the shortening days it rested neatly on her thin shoulders, beckoning her to work harder, learn more. The people of the Circle came to her for cures now.
Stealing a glance at the Southern Mountains to her left, Willow not only saw the first, weak light of autumn sunrise, but another shape, both unexpected and ill-fitting of the quiet, secluded valley. The shadow moved slowly, deliberately. Willow stopped, arms still raised slightly for balance over the rocky hillside. "A horse," she muttered softly. Could it be wild? Doubtful, she thought, quickly scanning what she could see of the valley in the gathering mist. It would become dense fog soon. She remained still, watching as the powerful beast grazed. It fascinated her, drawing her closer. Willow made no effort to conceal herself. Smelling the girl as she approached, the horse lifted its great head, flaring its nostrils wide. A fair distance away, Willow smiled and continued walking at her steady pace. The stallion eyed her with a similar fascination. He neither panicked nor shied away, but picked up his damp hooves and marched nearer to the red-haired girl before him.
Willow reached a hand forward, lightly touching his muzzle as they met beside a thinly trickling meadow stream. "Hello," she whispered. "What is a fine thing like yourself doing out here all alone?" He nickered softly in response as she ran her hands down the length of his powerful jaw and neck. Black as coal from nose to tail, his coat was thick and curly. "You must be from the South," Willow breathed, stroking his shoulders. Her fingertips searched out the powerful muscles beneath the horse's fine coat. He was broad and tall. This was no ordinary cart horse from the Drylands. It was a war horse, bred by the Horsemasters far to the South, where the summers saw snow and ice and the winters froze the very air in your lungs.
Pleased with her discovery, Willow smiled and dropped her basket. There would still be herbs to collect tomorrow. She pressed her cheek to his neck, feeling the coarseness of his thick coat on her soft skin. Her hands brushed his long, curled mane back. She breathed deeply, calmed by the spiced alfalfa breath that swirled the thickening mist around them.
"I saw a Southlands warhorse meself, once," Jesse boasted to the little girl bouncing down the busy city street beside him.
"Was it like these?" an eight-year-old and highly skeptical Willow inquired, one eyebrow raised, one lowered. She pointed to the Baker's tired mare, grey and sagging with age. Eight-year-olds were not so easily fooled, and Willow was not about to be hoodwinked, even by her big friend.
Eyes twinkling with admiration for her realism, the old cobbler went on. "No, no! It was a fine black stallion, taller than me Pa. Broad as an ox it was!" He stretched his arms wide, absently toppling a basket of apples from its owner's cart. The shopkeeper cursed at the pair as they strolled merrily on. "Them from the South's not like to anythin' we have in these sad parts. Thick an' wooley coats they have. Manes an' tail hairs what curl, tighter ringlets than a princess a'goin' to a ball! Never a finer beast could be found in all o' the Known Lands."
"How would it get all the way up here?" she asked in disbelief.
Frowning, the wrinkled man made to brush her away with his hand. "If you're too old for my stories, just say so, eh? Don't wanna be wastin' yer time if'n ye can't be bothered..."
Willow clutched his arm with both hands and looked pleadingly into his grey eyes. "Please, Jesse? Tell me?"
Taking her tiny hand in his big, calloused one, the cobbler led them on. He wore a small grin of victory as he continued. "Well, as I was sayin', me Pa an' I was out a'huntin' way south in the Kingdom. Me? I was smaller 'an you there. But he took me with 'im wherevers he wandered. Think we was huntin' stoat, or maybe mink. Could'a been fox, even. Cobblers need more 'an cowhide te keep the customers comin' back, he always used te say, he did." Willow fidgeted, bringing Jesse back onto topic. "Right," he cleared his throat. "Up an' over a ridge goes us, an' right into this big horse we stumble." Eyes glazing over, his ancient memories were vivid for them both, transforming the dusty marketplace into a thickly wooded hillside. Meat and fruit vendors pushed produce-leaden arms through the gathering leaves and branches that choked out their haggling in favor of birdsong. Willow's feet, hot and dry from the dirt road, were suddenly cool on the blanket of moss that crept over the forest floor.
"Did he have a pretty saddle?" The little girl danced and twirled in the filtered sunlight, her imagination filling in any missing details to the landscape. A patch of buttercups sprang up around her toes.
"No, no saddle a'tall. Nothin' on him but a look o' worry." Willow stared up at him, completely captivated. "Y'see, his rider was dyin' nearby. Pa always listened to beasts an' heard their words." The tiny redhead was duly impressed. "So we follows 'im an' find the poor fella'. Sick an' delirious with fever, pale... Death was comin' an' fast."
"Why was he sick?" The two of them, lost in their own mystical world, wandered to the end of the market and sat on a log at the back of Hepsebah's cart.
"That horrible pass from the Southlands through the mountains must've been too much fer 'im. Not many can survive cold like that." Willow nodded sagely, mimmicking Jesse's gesture. "Pa leaned down to 'im, blue lips an' all, and listened to his last words."
"What did he say?" the little girl bounced as she sat.
"Said he was a warrior, come up from the great ice-city of Laris." To Willow, the name was pure magic. "He said a few words in 'is native tongue after that. Only one me Pa knew was 'Drakkalis'," Jesse drew the word out, a far-off look taking over his eyes. He closed them and breathed deeply. "Then that big ol' horse o' his laid itself right down in the duff beside 'im an' made to die at his side."
Devastation washed over the child, forcing tears to well in her bottom eyelids. "They both died?"
"Well," Jesse straightened up and patted his knees with his palms, a signal he always used at the end of stories, "we didn't linger. Y'see, Southland men an' their horses are bound together for life an' death. An' death can be a private thing fer some, so's we left 'em to their own peace. Seemed fittin' an' right, it did. But..." he raised his bushy, grey eyebrows, leaving the tale incomplete.
Willow jumped up and stood in front of him, her skinny frame placing her eye-to-eye with the storyteller. Putting her hands on her hips, she made it clear she wouldn't let him leave without an explanation. Jesse let out an exasperated sigh. "If you must know..." he looked up, pleased with the tale's grip on the child. "I know fer a fact that I saw that horse again as we was headin' home." Willow's eyes grew wide with wonder. "Marchin', fine an' proud he was, right back up to that mountain pass."
Willow stared in wonder at the low sun on the treetops at the border of the Drylands Orchards. "Jesse?"
"Mm?" the old man turned back.
"Oh, that!" He lifted baskets into the wagon for Hepsebah, knowing their departure was near. "It's a little like Heaven, I s'pose, only for warriors an' such. That's where them Southlanders dream of goin' when they die. Towers an' a city of ice, it has. Full o' glory for those victorious in battle."
"Do they have a hell, too?"
"Yep," he chuckled. "That'd be here, up the North." Willow grinned back, satisfied that not every detail had to be true.
When she opened her eyes, Willow found herself staring directly into the eyes of a girl. Tall and broad-shouldered, and with a similar look of shock, the girl stared back. Willow straightened herself sharply, feeling her heart leap to her throat. Her mouth opened but no words came.
The stranger spoke first. "Croncoill." The horse nickered and raised his ears. She looked around them, searching the mist apprehensively.
Willow knew the fog was too thick for any sense to be made of their surroundings. Her gypsy upbringing gave her the uncanny gift to navigate through it, though anyone else would quickly be lost. "I'm alone," she offered. Looking quickly at the black beast, she added, "The horse... He's yours?"
The tall girl's blonde hair, pulled neatly into a short ponytail, swept over her shoulder as she turned to face Willow again. "Yes." Her accent made Willow smile cautiously. Though her words were few, it was obvious her origins lay far south of the Drylands. Willow's happiness made the other girl's eyebrows furrow in confusion. She moved protectively toward her horse. "Are you a sorceress?"
Willow's face fell. She stepped back, noticeably shaken. "Why would you say such a thing..." her voice trailed off.
"This mist," the girl motioned, still confused and cautious. Though the small redhead appeared to be harmless, many things were not as they first seemed. "I have been told of the witches of the North, able to summon the weather at their will." She looked the thin girl up and down, clearly wary.
Willow breathed deeply, forcing herself to relax. "Then you have heard a child's tale, meant only to frighten," she spoke plainly. "Have you never before seen fog?" A small smile played at her lips.
The blonde moved closer, stepping between the horse and Willow. Her face was serious, but it betrayed her youth. "I have seen little but snow. And I have been warned more than once about what lies in these lands." Her blue eyes searched Willow's face. "How can I not be shaken by one so beautiful? And is it so fantastic to think that this power," her fingertips slipped through the damp air, "could belong to you?" Mystified and awe struck, she gazed at Willow.
The silence between them was thick. It pounded in Willow's ears, slowly thrumming, unlike her fast-beating heart. Before her stood the most mysterious thing she had ever seen. This girl, beautiful and foreign, stole her breath and quickened her pulse. Willow wanted to know everything about her.
"Where are you from?" she began.
The girl pointed, arm outstretched to her right. Willow noticed her bare skin, pale but muscular. A shiver ran down her body, though her cloak kept the cold at bay. "Far south," the girl answered, "though that seems plain to you. What is this place called?"
"We are at the edge of the Drylands," Willow nodded north. "The heart of the Kingdom and its market are but four days journey from here." She desperately wished to know the Southerner's name, but prudence told her not to ask. People from the South were notoriously quiet and only gave their names to those they trusted. They still believed that names were powerful. "Is that where you're headed?"
The black horse nickered, shoving the girl from behind with his muzzle. She laid a confident hand on his neck, never removing her eyes from the girl standing nearby. "Perhaps," she replied, barely above a whisper, "if you will release me from this spell." She eyed the misty vapors with suspicion.
A coy smile played at the corners of Willow's mouth. Would it be so wrong to let this girl believe she was so powerful? Willow enjoyed the idea of captivating the stranger's attention a while longer. Her time was short, though, as the sun broke fully over the mountaintops.
"I may be persuaded to help you," Willow walked lightly around the girl and her horse, thinking fast for a way to keep her near. "But this can be a dangerous valley," she smirked at the blatant lie. The Circle had stayed here for many years due to the protection and seclusion provided by the hills and trees. They moved frequently within its safe borders, but never beyond Double Gap to the north or the Southern foothills below. Willow peeked around the stallion's posterior. "But the mist is our friend. Let it shroud our steps. I'll guide you north."
The girl stepped clear of the horse and looked around, puzzled by the thick whiteness surrounding her. She found herself even more puzzled by the unpredictable girl. "What payment would this require?"
Willow clutched the hem of her cloak nervously. "Your name."
Willow felt the moisture in the air gathering on her thick cloak as she played with the edge in her hand. She watched the tall girl think, motionless. Her blue eyes pierced Willow's green ones, holding her silent, stealing what little breath she still held in her lungs.
"Very well," the girl answered. "When we reach the market, I will tell you my name." Willow thought she saw the girl flash a smile, but it was quickly gone.
Four days. She had four days. But only on the last would she know the Southerner's name. Willow's heart flopped ineffectively in her chest. It jumped at the thought of four days with her. Then it plummeted when she visualized day five. Dizzy and unsteady, she reached for the horse. His thick coat twined around her fingers, and he shifted to support her weight.