The rhythmic motion of the horse's gait was the first sensation that directed Willow back towards consciousness. Pain was the second. Her head throbbed. Reluctant to open her eyes just yet, she allowed herself to relax into the arms that held her. Wait, I'm being held? Willow's heart sped up as the awareness of her surroundings finally caught up with her foggy brain. I'm on a horse. I'm being held. But I'm still alive. Relieved that she hadn't moved when she woke, the girl used her advantage to think out a strategy. Moving without trying to draw attention to herself, she tested her hands. Not bound. Her legs and feet were also free. Something about this wasn't right.
The horse changed direction and climbed up a small hill, shifting Willow closer into her captor's grasp. She felt strong but gentle arms and hands pull her in safely, balancing them both on the horse. Her legs draped to one side and her head rested against a shoulder, cradled and protected. Willow opened her eyes and looked up into the face of the blonde woman who had saved her only hours beforehand. Dawn broke around them.
"It's you," she whispered.
The horse slowed but continued on his way. "How is your head?" Willow reached up and touched the bump on her forehead. It screamed at her, and she winced. "You should rest," the blonde said in a soothing voice, gazing down protectively at the woman in her arms.
Willow couldn't imagine closing her eyes now. The Southerner's warm body was all around her, and she didn't want to miss a moment of the intimate contact. Her skin tingled with pleasure at being held so close. "What happened last night?"
Willow realized the other girl was guiding the horse without the use of reigns or hands. The animal responded to the subtle movements of the girl's legs and hips. "You were attacked."
"Gone?" Willow raised her head. "You mean dead? I saw you kill one of them. I saw him fall. Where did you come from? How did you find me in the forest? Or were you even looking for me?" the girl's random babble faded into a frown.
"Of course I found you." The arms around the redhead remained firm. "One is dead, one is not."
Head aching from pain and confusion, mingled with a returning fear from the night before, Willow sat up straighter. "Not dead?" Her face was contorted with fright. "But... Do you know what they are? What they're here for?"
"You." They stopped walking and stillness enveloped them.
"Then," slowly, Willow untangled herself from the embrace, "you know what I am."
"I do," came the answer. The blonde stared resolutely into the other girl's uncertain eyes. "You're beautiful."
Willow's breath caught in her throat. Her hands began to shake as the warrior girl's fingers found them. "You don't understand," she pulled back from the touch, though her heart beat desperately in the opposite direction. "This is dangerous. I'm dangerous." She looked away, instinctively following the curve of the landscape with her eyes until a specific landmark caught her eye. Home was near. "I should go," she turned back to look at the girl and felt a hand steady her. The world spun viciously around them as pain shot up her spine and radiated through her skull.
"You should listen to your head," the only solid point in Willow's world spoke up. Her arms kept the redhead still.
Willow rubbed the bump above her eyebrow. "My head isn't important. I need to warn-" her mouth snapped shut. Had she said too much? Resigning herself to honesty after letting the information slip, she offered only the most minute details. "My... family. They live nearby. I've got to warn them."
The warrior girl stared passively, unaffected. "They live among the trees," she stared at the woods before them. "Many in number. But they are safe." Willow gazed blankly back, startled by how much the girl knew. Her unspoken questions must have been plainly etched on her face. "Your... family... leaves many tracks in soft soil. I have followed all morning, but a spell protects your borders. I cannot pass through."
Without realizing it, Willow clutched for the charm at her neck. It was a simple gold coin from the Kingdom, a small hole at its center through which a silver chain passed. But though her fingers searched fitfully, no charm was found. It was gone. "You know about such things?" She forced the panic down into her stomach, out of her voice. She must have it.
"I am learning."
Willow let her hand drop. "You're not afraid... of magic..."
The purest blue eyes she had ever seen stared back at her. "I'm not afraid of you."
The gypsy found herself captivated once more by those eyes, despite the warnings in her mind not to trust. The Circle was highly secretive as a protective measure. They were taught as small children never to divulge any information to common-folk. She's anything but common, Willow bit her lower lip slightly. "Can I trust you?"
The warrior brought her horse to a stop. "You must judge that for yourself, mo rhua." Willow watched the girl's lips as she spoke in her own language. "What does your heart say?"
"Mo rhua... That's your name for me?"
The blonde blushed, color creeping up her pale neck. "It is..." she looked away, then forced herself to return the gypsy's gaze. "It means 'my red.' I have never seen hair the color of fire." Her adoration was clear in her features. She gently reached up to Willow's hair, taking it between her fingers and brushing it over the girl's shoulder. In shyness, she ducked her head, "I.... I thought it would be hot." The strands were soft and cool in her hand, which lingered by the neck of the girl in her embrace, lightly touching the soft skin.
Willow reached up and took the hand with her own. "Here, let me fix that." Leaning in quickly, her lips met those of the Southlander. It took a moment for them to both realize what Willow had done. I'm kissing her. I'm kissing her and I don't even know her name. The redhead reluctantly withdrew her lips and opened her eyes. Blue eyes looked back at her ambiguously. Willow wanted nothing more than to feel those tender lips against her own once more. "My name is Willow."
"Willow," the blonde repeated, saying the word slowly, relishing the sensation of it in her mouth. "What does it mean?"
The redhead grinned, "It's a tree. I can show you sometime."
"Willow, mo rhua," she ran her fingers over the palm of Willow's hand. "It's beautiful. I won't forsake it." The redhead assumed this was important to Southland culture, but all she could care about in the moment was the ecstasy of those fingers tracing lines across her palm. "Tara."
Willow looked up, stunned that the girl had uttered what she assumed was her name. "Tara?"
"Yes," a smile crept into her lips. "Darkwood," she tilted her head toward the horse they sat upon. He nickered and shifted his weight as he nibbled at the tall meadow grass. "You must trust me, then?"
"Perhaps..." a childish smile played at the corner of Willow's mouth.
"Must I save your life again?"
Faking shock, the gypsy let her mouth fall open. Tara pressed her lips into Willow's, making her shock real. The warrior woman nibbled gently at Willow's bottom lip. Thin but strong arms slid up Tara's bare arms, encircling her neck and pulling them closer into the urgent embrace. Red hair wrapped around Tara's fingers as she took Willow into her arms. Heat charged up their bodies, fueled by the release of their pent-up desire. Kissing her way down Willow's neck, Tara caught her breath. "Is this magic?"
"Yes," the redhead whispered in her ear. The memory of her missing charm hit her like the mercenary's elbow to her forehead the night before. "Tara," she sobered up quickly, pulling the blonde up to face her. Tara must have sensed the urgency in her voice, quietly waiting for Willow to continue. "I lost my charm.... a.... a necklace. Do you have it?"
Willow began to fidget. Without that coin, she couldn't pass through the spell that protected the gypsy camp, even though it lay but a few minutes beyond the edge of the forest where they now sat. "We cannot go back for it," Tara warned. "There are more hunters." She watched the terror in the redhead's face grow, color draining from her cheeks. "I can return, but you must not follow. It isn't safe."
"How can you..." her face was twisted in anguish, though the Southlander couldn't comprehend the reason. "No, you can't go back either." Her voice was firm. It wasn't a request, and Tara had no intention of disobeying. "But we won't be safe here for long." She thought hard, furrowing her brow. "I need some supplies."
"You know plants? Herbs and trees?"
"Not in your tongue..."
Taking her by both hands, Willow leaned in close to make eye contact again. "Then you can find me water. This won't take long, but we need a secluded place, and I need to find a few things if I'm to get us to safety."
Tara lifted Willow more quickly than the redhead was prepared for, but she was steady on her feet when the ground met her. A protective hand lingered on her shoulder, waiting to see if her head would object to finding its own balance. "I'm fine," she reassured the girl astride the huge horse. Satisfied, Tara took off at a gallop.
Herbs. Plants. Magic. Witchcraft. Tara's mind raced as Darkwood ran through the meadow, the early morning sunlight still cold and pale. She closed her eyes and felt Willow's lips on her own again. The sweet taste of her kiss, the softness of her skin, and that beautiful hair, so cool and deceptive, drove her to distraction. Opening her eyes to the rush of cold air, Tara spotted a tiny gurgling stream and leaned back to tell Darkwood to stop. She leapt from his broad back down onto the dew-leaden grass. A row of tall pines provided cover to the north, but they would be exposed on all other sides. Fair enough, she nodded to herself. As for the flurry of thoughts at the edge of her mind, they were pushed back for later consideration. She needs me now. Whatever it is she has lost, it must surely be of great importance.
Willow filled her cloak with the few herbs her spell would require. Everything she needed was in ready supply, but her heart still beat furiously in her chest. Her charm was gone, and there were mercenaries hunting her and her clan nearby. And then there was Tara... Spell, spell, spell, she chastised herself for thinking about the kiss again. There was no time for such pleasures now.
The thunder of hooves broke her reverie. Willow raised her head to see the black horse and its rider bearing down on her at full speed. Tara simply reached a hand down to the redhead as they slowed. When Willow grabbed hold, a force stronger than she could reckon from the warrior hoisted her up and onto the horse. A slight gasp escaped her, making the blonde grin. They rode a short distance to the stream in silence, both understanding that time might be in short supply.
Tara again carefully delivered her companion from the tremendous height of the warhorse, following her to the trickle of water. Darkwood trotted off, taking up a defensive position on their western side. "We will keep watch."
Willow nodded her understanding. "I hope this won't take long." Her hands were already working with the crushed plants, a mysterious process Tara longed to watch, but she dutifully took up her own position on the east side of the stream, leaving the redhead to work at her back. The low mumbles of ancient words almost mimicked the babbling stream near Tara's feet. Early morning faded into mid-day as the girl worked, her guardians quietly patrolling the meadow in earnest. Just as the wind picked up, Tara felt a small hand take hers from behind. "I'm exhausted," Willow moaned.
Tara turned to face her and gave a questioning look. Willow held up a green stone, the gleam of satisfaction clear in her eyes. "This is why I wear a charm around my neck. It takes forever to enchant these damned things if one is lost." Tara took the stone in her hand. It felt just as she expected, cool and hard, no different than any other stone in such a field. The gypsy explained carefully, "It's a key. Simple as that. But it's the only way into the camp."
"Your people are travelers." She handed the stone back, letting her fingers brush against those of the beautiful redhead.
"Gypsies. We call ourselves the Circle. Each family has its own name. Few remain these days." She looked into the distance, perhaps back to a time when the world was a different place. Sadly, time only flows onward. The blissful peace of Hepsebah's youth was far from this place now. Even Willow's mother had lived a hard life, and the young woman herself had little first-hand knowledge of peace or prosperity. "Those hunters are looking for us, but they want me. They want Hepsebah, too. We're some of the only ones left..."
"They seek your magic," Tara concluded. "Hepsebah."
"She's..." Willow thought for a beat. How could she explain so much that she herself did not understand? "She's my only true family. And even that..." She met the Southerner's patient eyes. "She's old. Sick as well. I must take care of her."
Tara brushed the back of her hand over the redhead's fair cheek. "You must go to her."
"But," Willow began, "I can't just leave you here..." Nor could she take the foreigner with her. The rules of the Circle were clear. None but the clan may enter the camp. It was strictly forbidden to break such rules.
"I have found you before. I will do so again," Tara soothed.
Willow took the girl's hand in her own and turned so that they both faced the low hills to their east. "Do you see the rock?" Tara nodded. A bare, yellow rock, nearly as tall as Darkwood sat at the edge of the field. "It's a marker. There are more, you'll see them if you look hard enough. Do you see the scratch at its base?" Again the warrior nodded. "A half circle left is autumn. Full circle is winter. Half circle right is spring. A simple line marks summer."
Tara was beginning to understand the primitive writing. "I see an intersecting line as well. All these signs speak of times of year. When you are near, you mark the stone."
Eyes sparkling bright, the gypsy clasped the hand in her own. "Now I know you can find me." Without another word, without allowing another moment to pass that might permit hesitation, Willow bolted for the forest near the stone. She spared a brief glance back to the girl and her horse in the meadow of wildflowers.