The girl glanced at Willow again. Willow saw it for certain this time. They had walked in silence all morning, Willow to the left of the huge, black horse, the girl to his right. At first it was only hope. Hope that she had looked Willow's way. But hope could now shift to certainty. Willow's brow wrinkled with her busy thoughts. Would they travel in utter silence for four days? Should she speak? And did the girl notice her own curious stares? Before she could answer her own questions, the horse stopped, its owner crouched down near a long, flat rock. Willow turned and watched the girl pull out what looked like dried meat.
When their eyes met, she realized she'd been staring and quickly looked away. "Can you not conjure food?" the girl asked.
Willow coughed as she swallowed a giggle. "Well," she began, uncertain how to continue.
"They told me many things about the magic of the North, but I begin to think they know not from their own eyes," she shook her head as she ate.
"What did they tell you?" Willow sat abruptly in the grass, slightly offended. "And who are they?"
The girl chewed slowly, amused at the demanding nature of the redhead. "The instructors." Her simple answer found no foothold. Willow watched her blankly. "The ones who teach us war." Willow's eyes widened. Jesse had told her stories of the South. Warring tribes, kingdoms with huge armies, militia for hire... Perhaps these stories held some truth. "We were told that evil witches turn the air to fire in summer." Willow rolled her eyes. All that snow had clearly cut off their common sense. "And that even the women who are not witches have magic in their blood."
At this, the redhead's eyebrows perked up. "All this talk of magic. Do you fear it?"
Conflict passed through the Southerner's face briefly. "We have no magic in the South. Our power is determined by steel. But everyone knows that a sword cannot pierce the flesh of sorcery." She looked at Willow carefully. "This is why we respect the boundary between our worlds." Willow watched her closely as she continued. "None return after crossing the pass." Her look was pensive, and Willow began to wonder what had brought this girl into a place she must surely fear. Before she could ask, the girl spoke again, "After all, they say that many a beautiful temptress dwells here.... And that they wait to steal our hearts and pry our names from our lips." She looked triumphant as she smiled coyly, ringed in golden sunlight that refused to burn away the fog.
Willow wasn't sure whether to smile at the compliment or frown at the slight. Temptress? Beautiful? Confused and heart stinging, she nearly shouted, "Well I think they just wanted to scare you! It all sounds ridiculous to me." She blushed harder at her outburst but plowed forward nonetheless. "If you feel temptation, it's hardly magic." Willow swallowed hard.
The horse eyed the two girls as he grazed nearby. He snorted loudly, breaking their silence.
"I did not suspect magic," she said simply, looking deeply into the red-haired girl's green eyes. They sat for a long time, content to watch each other quietly.
"I'll still take you," Willow finally spoke. "To the market, I mean." Her throat felt tight and dry. The light-haired girl smiled faintly, and for the first time, Willow noticed how long and delicate the girl's eyelashes were.
"Hepsebah!" Willow called out as she neared the small wagon they called home. Slowing only long enough to keep from knocking over the delicate jars and vials, she crashed through the curtain and practically into the old woman's bed. Shock stole her speed as she realized the bed was empty. Willow looked around frantically before charging back out into the fading afternoon light. "Hepsebah!" she called again, fear finding its way into her voice.
Over by the huge bonfire in the center of the Circle's camp, Ren threw split logs into the embers. "She's with Rosemary, Willow." His voice was short with irritation. "The baby came this morning."
She stopped her frantic pursuit and lowered her head in shame. Birthing was her job. Hepsebah was far too sick to attend such duties. In her rush to help a foreigner, she had abandoned her own duties and her people.
"Is Rosemary... Are they-"
"They're all fine," Ren nearly spat. "Where were you, Willow?"
"I was... I mean, I..." Willows excuses sounded pathetic in her head as she was stared down by the strong young man. "I'm sorry."
Sighing and throwing his work aside, Ren walked to where the girl stood. "We count on you. The Circle needs you, Willow. Everyone knows that Hepsebah..." Ren turned angrily and paced back to the fire. "Just be here," he said through gritted teeth.
"So..." the old woman sat next to Willow on the bottom step of the wagon.
"I messed up, huh?"
Hepsebah patted the girl's knee. "Is that what you think?" The camp was still busy with people coming and going, all filled with the excitement of a new life among them. Willow had simply waited for the old healer to come back to their home, knowing that she would be disappointed. But now, sitting beside the old woman, the young girl drank in the scent of feverfew, comfrey, and pennyroyal, and she wanted nothing more than to relax into that comfort. Their lives had been intertwined since Willow was a baby, both steeped in the herbs and spices of a life of healing.
"Everyone needed me and I wasn't here. What would you call that?"
Hepsebah looked up at the stars above the camp. "Well, little one, sometimes the where of things isn't so clear." Willow wrinkled her nose, not understanding the cryptic message. "Alright, I'll speak more plainly. You were clearly needed elsewhere today." Willow looked away, struck by how well the elder knew her, and wondering just how far that knowledge went. "Life isn't always as complicated as we would like to make it, my dear. This Circle may not always be what you need. But your place will call you to where you are best suited to thrive. Just do your best to listen." She took the girl's hand in her own and held it tight. "You are a part of this Circle, but you will always be a part of something bigger, too." Willow blinked back a tear in her eye.