The stars in the South were so much clearer and brighter, but it was freeing to lay in a field this far into the night without need of thick furs and cloaks. Brushing her hair off her face, the Southlander gazed at the horizon where the other girl had walked off. She was truly a mystery. Sorceress? Perhaps. Enchantress? Definitely, though not the type she'd been warned of. They had spoken of the beautiful women of the North, but she had not expected this. In her mind she ran her fingers through the girl's exotic red hair. Would it be hot to the touch, as it appeared? Her fingers tingled in anticipation. Never was she more grateful to the Order for banishing her. Well, she thought, if this is hell, I will finally be warm.
Rolling over in the tall grass, she saw her mighty warhorse wandering at the edge of the field. I should go after her, she thought. Why did I let her go? As if in reply, the animal raised his head, trotting over to her. She jumped lightly onto his bare back, her knees gripping to steady her. He picked up the redhead's scent and began to follow it deep into the forest.
Willow placed the meager supplies in her pack and laced it up. Though her journey was inevitable, it wasn't simple. Hepsebah had given her all the permission she required, and still it was not enough. It will only be a few days, she reminded herself. It's an adventure.
The cold night air was sharp in her lungs as she parted from the Inner Circle and wound her way through the trees. By dawn she would make it to the campsite where the Southerner slept, but it would require walking all night. Picking up her pace, Willow left the last of the firelight.
"I'm tired of this, Ben," the second man on horseback grumbled as they rode through the dark. "We haven't come across any settlements in days, and I'm hungry." He shifted in his saddle. "Ain't right, is all. That last village was real nice. We could've stayed there a while and made out well for it, you know." He sniffed poignantly. "Them ladies was pretty."
"Them ladies," the other man growled suddenly, "are in pieces now." His face was grim in the starlight. "You know what this job is about, Merch. And I should hope you'd know better than to get attached to..." He stiffened. "Want to get paid? Do the job. Comfort has no place in our work."
Merch slumped his shoulders. Four weeks of slaughtering was wearing on him. But Ben was right. This was an important job. They worked for the Queen directly, discreetly. And witchcraft was a deadly threat to the Drylands Kingdom. What the Queen's Men did with the bodies... He shuddered, fearful at the thought of their hollow eyes and dark ways. Ben had warned him not to watch, not to ask about them or their methods. Merch's last partner had made an accusation of witchcraft, saying that the butchering of bodies for sacrifice was dark magic. His screams as they cut him limb from limb still pounded in Merch's head when he slept.
The train of men had wound its way through the low hills and into the valley through Double Gap just three days before. Rumors of gypsy settlements had lured them to the southernmost corner of the Kingdom. Merch and Ben scouted ahead of the main group. The Queen's Men brought up the rear. Before them lay a thick forest of fir and pine trees.
Willow glided through the trees as though they were people in a market crowd. Even in the black of night, her footing was sure from a lifetime of playing, running, and working amidst the towering giants. The sounds of animals and birds were the chatter of childhood friends. Though heavily reliant on hunting to support their numbers, the Circle did its best to live in harmony with its forest neighbors. So when Willow saw a family of foxes bolt across her path with little heed to their exposure, she knew it was a warning. Stopping to scan for movement in the brush, her ears quickly caught the clop of shod horses. Two. She closed her eyes and listened. Yes, two horses with riders.
Willow's breath came fast and hard. She knew the Circle was safe, protected by an ancient gateway spell. Clutching the charm at her neck, a magical key to the camp, she considered running back. But she was far from the encampment and the spell's boundary. Fear gnawed at her senses and drove her deeper into the woods.
Then it hit her.
"She's alone," Willow breathed as she halted. "And she doesn't know." The girl turned and ran back toward the north field.
The black horse charged forth with renewed vigor when he caught a fresher scent. His rider gripped tighter to remain astride but was quiet as her friend worked to find the red-haired girl. Together they wound through the ancient firs, wary of the foreign sounds and scents.
"A warrior's horse is his only companion, the one soul he can entrust with his life. Likewise, your bond is eternal. Let his name be sacred as the Gods in your heart. Feed him when you starve, take comfort in his warmth, and trust his strength when you are weak. In return, he will lead you to Drakkalis." The Elder Horsemaster beamed at his fine assembly of new recruits. They will make proud warriors, he thought to himself. Gazing out at the sacred field of Laris' premier training academy, he watched the yearlings dance and chase in the cold light of dawn. The ritual of Pairing was ancient among their people. Horses chose their warriors, and a bond that could never break was formed. Behind him, twelve boys, young, quiet, patient, waited to be chosen by one of the mighty steeds. Like all children of Laris, they dreamt of this moment, a right of passage into adulthood, and the chance to become a great Warrior King among the frozen Southlands.
The stallion stopped abruptly when he smelled other horses. The muffled sound of a struggle made the girl's stomach lurch. It was her. She was certain. The blonde jumped down and ran, half stumbling, through the crooked roots and brambles. A bright light in the trees guided her forward over a tangled ridge. Crashing through the underbrush and into a small clearing, the warrior's body tensed at the scene spread before her.
Willow crept around the two mercenaries, wary of her every footfall and breath.
".... heard something in here, Ben, and that's for sure," she overheard the first man mumble. Both looked disoriented by the blackness of the forest.
"Shh," the second man, Ben, she assumed, warned the first. He pulled up on his reigns and surveyed what he could see of their surroundings.
Shaking off her fear, Willow turned from the horsemen and proceeded to the north. She breathed a heavy sigh of relief when she cleared a low ridge, thinking her path would be impossible to follow with pack animals.
The Circle had stayed in the valley for many weeks now, fearing the rumors of the Queen's hired witch-hunters. Much talk in the marketplace had everyone afraid for their lives and their livelihood. Theories were passed around with pints of ale in every pub in the kingdom. One thing was certain, though. They hunted out magic and witchcraft to the furthest reaches of the Drylands and murdered all accused of such power without question. Ren had overheard some of the Guard discussing the tactics employed in killing these "dangerous criminals," and passed the information to all in the Circle upon their last return to the valley. "The Queen sends her own dark sorcerers among them," he told an exhausted but fixated crowd of weary travelers. They huddled around the center fire, hoping to warm the chill of fear that crept into their bones. "They hire mercenaries to kill their suspects, then the sorcerers dismember and violate the bodies, offering up their... parts..." revulsion rippled through the Circle, "to demons of the sky." Ren paced around the fire, agitated by the gruesome images in his mind. "I have heard worse, but such tales are not fit for all to hear," he glanced pointedly at some of the women assembled, most notably Willow and Hepsebah. "Worst of all, word is beginning to spread that they seek and prize gypsies above all others. Our way of life may disappear sooner than any of us can prepare for."
Brennan, an elder of the Circle, stood, facing Ren. "I, too, have heard such tales. Ren is right. We are no longer safe in the marketplace." The families around him whispered in shock amongst themselves. "However," the people quieted, "our valley and our camp are safe, protected by our elders' spell." All around him, heads nodded in approval. "Our borders will protect us until we can find a safer place to trade our goods. Until then, we will continue to work together to support ourselves."
Willow had held Hepsebah's hand firmly throughout the impromptu meeting, forcing her own panic and fear down into the pit of her stomach. It was a well-known fact in the Drylands that gypsies were still familiar with earth magic. But over the generations, much of that power had been lost or forgotten with the taming of the land and beasts. Only a few within the Circle were endowed with gifts of magic now, and the old woman and her protege were among them. Hepsebah's gift of healing was of vast importance to the tribe. Willow, though not born to the Circle, was by far the most powerful of her people. Though the source of her gift was unknown, Hepsebah had taken it upon herself to hone the girl's skills and teach her to control the power within herself.
Now, faced with the very hunters she had nightmares of, Willow knew that she would be a highly prized catch. Perhaps if I draw them away, she thought as she picked her was through a patch of thick blackberry vines. A diversion. Yes, a diversion, she nodded absently. Stopping in a small clearing, the young woman knelt in the soft soil and began to mumble an ancient spell of light. As she spoke, a warm glow enveloped her, casting an amber hue onto her pale skin. Her body tingled with the sensation of magic flowing from the earth, up through her bones and out into the cold night air around her.
Opening her eyes to the light she had called forth, Willow spoke a simple command. "Go west." The light wavered, flickering and dancing over the little saplings surrounding the girl. "No," her voice was frustrated. "Listen to me!" she shouted in vain as the spell backfired, casting itself upon her fully. Willow panicked as the light flashed brightly and bathed her in an unnatural, horribly exposing glare. "No, no, no!" she waved her arms about in earnest, scrambling in the dirt to flee.
Predictably, the two horsemen burst over the ridge and tumbled into the clearing where a young witch sat, tears in her eyes and a halo about her fiery red hair. Never before had they seen such a genuine display of magic, and both men were momentarily dumbstruck.
Recovering quickly, Ben leapt from his steed and charged at the girl, drawing his sword. "By order of the Queen, you are to be put to death!"
Willow desperately crawled backwards, but the mercenary was faster, gripping her cloak and shirt in his gloved hand. He landed sharply on his knees as she fought, losing his sword and balance in the struggle. "Merch!" he bellowed.
The slower man was startled at the sound of his name and fumbled his way out of the saddle. His legs shook beneath him as he approached the two entwined bodies on the forest floor. Ben had managed to sit on the girl's legs, but she continued to fight him off as best she could. With each grunt of effort, her spell grew in strength, soon reaching a near blinding climax as Merch picked up his companion's sword.
Crossing his arm in front of his eyes, Merch never saw the second girl emerge from the trees behind him. Her movements were quick and final. With one hand she grabbed the recently acquired sword. With the other she held Merch by the scruff of his neck. The blade in her right hand slipped effortlessly through his tunic and between his ribs.
Ben watched helplessly as his partner, wide-eyed in surprise, fell to his knees and collapsed sideways into the grass. His gaze shifted to the intense eyes of the tall woman looming over him. She had yet to utter a single sound. Her vision was unaffected by the blazing light cast all around them as she surveyed her second target. "More sorcery," he whispered, his grip on the redhead shaking.
Willow stared in equal amazement. "You," she said aloud, relief evident in her tone. Who was this incredible warrior woman? Her thought went unanswered as Ben's elbow met with her forehead, blacking out the world around her, both in her head and in the forest. Consciousness having abandoned her, the spell vanished into the night, wisps of light trailing through the grass and back into the earth.
The mercenary leapt at the chance and shoved himself up and into the Southerner, his head forcing the air from her lungs as he drove into her chest. Dazed but seeking the upper hand, he pushed harder, wrapping his arms around her waist and forcing her to the ground under his immense weight. In the recent blackness, he lost sight of details and groped in the dark for the sword.
Lashing out with a strength the man could not fathom, the Southerner flipped him deftly onto his back by his right arm, rolled him onto his stomach and dislocated the shoulder with a quick jerk up and behind his back. Ben gagged from the pain but remained pinned in the dirt by the girl's boot.
"You are a hunter," she said simply, calmly as she held the huge man in place. "Speak," she commanded, pulling his arm higher.
The mercenary roared and coughed, his body rigid with agony. "Yes. A hunter," he spat.
"What do you hunt?" she questioned, almost conversationally. Though now an outcast, she had once been revered amongst her peers as being unsettlingly calm. One could almost imagine her examining her delicate fingernails during such an interrogation.
Until this moment, Ben had taken great pride in never having been beaten or captured under any circumstance. Though grim, he was glad Merch was not alive to witness this humiliation. "I hunt witchcraft. Magic is forbidden by order of the Queen."
"You ride with others. Many."
"You killed my only partner," he growled.
The beautiful warrior dug her heel into his back. "Lies will cost you much that you value."
"Fine! Fine." Ben gritted his teeth. "We are now twenty-six in number. We ride with the Queen's Men. Six of them."
Thinking for a moment, the girl held her prisoner fast. Witch hunters? So she had come to a land at war with itself. And it seemed that magic was as feared here as it was in the South. "The girl?"
"Oh, please. You are both clearly witches. Do not pretend," he sneered. "No woman," the word was brimming with contempt, "could posses the strength to subdue a man."
Tired of his ignorance, she pulled his arm high into the air. "Then tell your Queen that far greater powers lurk in these woods. I am the least of your fears." With that, she lifted the man by both armpits and drove him headlong into a tree trunk. He collapsed with a sickening thud.