The men assembled stared with eyes hard as iron, their gaze trained on the thin framed figure at the edge of the snow-laden field. Behind lay the Southern Mountains, covered in glaciers and ice through every season of the year, their imposing stature dwarfing even the most magnificent of the towers of Sinter, the northernmost training academy in Laris. Beards encrusted with ice, the tall men blinked at the harsh wind, noting with satisfaction that the journey which lay ahead would be accompanied by a late summer storm. It was not a journey they relished for themselves, but for the outcast standing in their shadow it would surely mean a cold, bitter death. Such were the ways of the Southlanders. Murder and execution held no honor. Banishment was the cruelest of punishments for any crime.
Buffeted by the gale driving down the mountainside, the wiry girl in boy's clothing stood motionless. She understood her disgrace. She accepted banishment with the passionless stoicism she had learned from years of brutal training with the finest warriors in all of the South.
"Your name," the Elder at the center began, "will never again be spoken."
Beside him, a taller man lowered his head, "You have brought the greatest dishonor to this land, to our ways. Your death will be hollow. No one will mourn your passing."
She breathed through tight chest muscles.
"Call to your horse," a third commanded. No summons was required. A tall horse, black as a moonless winter night, strode through the field and came to rest behind his companion. The harsh wind struck his side and so spared the girl its constant discipline. "You are cast out. Leave us."
Turning away in one swift motion, the group of men marched back to the protection of the academy walls. Atop its stone were balanced the still bodies of dozens of boys, eyes and faces showing no emotion. Banishment was rare, and the crowd assembled took in the ceremony with quiet attention. She met no eyes, and none sought hers out. Her body was light with the lack of furs and heavy cloaks. All spoils of her battle conquests had been relinquished to the mentors, every comfort afforded a true warrior left behind in favor of an unencumbered march up the Pass of Death. In this moment, her sentence began, and the only life she knew or had ever dreamt of faded in a flurry of white powder. Swirls of dry snow drifted at her feet, marking her final moment in Laris. Cold was all she had known, and now it would mark her passing on the frozen landscape.
The foothills faded in and out of visibility as she walked. Biting cold crept through her meager furs. Despair and apathy drove her on, higher into the frigid air. Even her horse, freed of his saddle and bridle, marched with head lowered and eyes half-closed.
Her first memories filled her sight; grey snow, banked aside the abandoned streets of Sinter, the howling of storm winds through the under-town in which she dwelt, hunger that gnawed and clawed like the frost on her thin cloak, cold and damp biting her skin. No one had praised the moment of her birth, and none would mourn her death, the death of another street child, another flea-infested harbinger of disease. She recalled praying for death. "Andl?t," she whispered each night as she curled into a fetal position to sleep. Let me die.
On she walked, leaving behind the name that had been give to her when a kind warrior discovered her at the brink of death.
"I will name you Tara," he whispered as he carried her limp body under his wool cloak. He nursed her tiny body into health, then sharpened her mind and toned her muscles with hard work and studies. Tara took to her education with vigor, until the day the tired man offered his final instructions. "This world, this city," he nodded out the frosted window of their tiny home, "will never accept you, Tara. Women have no place here, apart from the necessities of men." He grimaced. "I did not find you to sell you in marriage or in sin. I saw in you what no one else looked for, and I have never found disappointment." The small girl smiled up at him, silent with respect. She never knew where he came from, nor why he rescued her from certain death on the nameless streets of Sinter. That night he taught her how to hide among men as one of them. The next day she was delivered to the training academy. Her new name was Taran. She never saw the quiet warrior again. Memories of him flooded her heart with an ache she could not bear.
Before his captain, Ben stood, or rather crouched. His right arm was tucked under his cloak, awkwardly pinned to his side by pain and fear of movement. In his left hand, outstretched to the captain, hung a gold coin on a silver chain.
Captain of the most effective band of mercenaries ever assembled under the Queen's authority, Menace bared his teeth at the wounded hunter. "We are not thieves, and yet you bring me trinkets," he snarled. "Tell me, Longmire," his voice drawled the name of Ben's home, "did you barter for apples as well?" The men assembled laughed mockingly, simultaneously terrified of their captain and eager for his approval.
Careful not to be stung by such intentional baiting, the mercenary held his tongue and position, eyes lowered in respect. "Captain, this was ripped from the throat of a powerful witch." Images of his humiliating defeat plagued his sight, forcing his eyelids closed.
Stopping all conversation with his swift movement, a third man approached. Dressed in the red and black of his comrades, he reached for the coin with a leather-gloved hand and inspected it. Black eyes stared with intense focus at the charm, taking in its every line and curve. He smelled it, his features tensing in concentration. A tongue the color of fresh blood emerged from cracking, bluish lips. "It is a key," he mumbled, more to himself than to the terror-stricken men gathered about. All, including Ben, gave him a wide berth. He opened his eyes and looked into the face of Captain Menace who was sobered by the presence of the oldest of the Queen's Men. "They are protected, Captain. That is why they elude." His voice whined in an off-key melody. "But now we have an..... invitation," his grey-toothed grin sent shivers up the spines of the hunters.
Hepsebah pushed aside the tea that Willow had brewed for her. The old woman's appetite had faded again, her fever returned, and worry itched within the stomach of the girl by her side. The pale, wrinkled figure in the small wagon bed turned to smile at her nurse. "You won't stop, will you, stubborn little girl..." Willow brought forth a cool, damp cloth and wiped Hepsebah's brow. "And I suppose you've formed some grand notion of how you're going to save me?"
"I've been working on a spell-" Willow began quickly, but her eager words were brought to a halt by a withered hand on her own.
"There are more important forces brewing than spells to save old women, my dear. Tell me."
The redhead had never understood how it was that Hepsebah could see things as she did, but she wasted no time in wonder. "The Queen's militia.... They're here. In the forest." Quiet eyes watched the words spill from the terrified girl's mouth. "And," tears gathered behind Willow's eyes, "there's.... there's someone..." A small sob caught in her throat.
"The elders knew that this time would come, Willow. It could not be stopped," she soothed. "You must take this news to them. They need your strength." She gripped the girl's hand in her own, though her own strength was fading. "But," she began her warning, "the girl..." Willow looked up, a constant stream of tears staining her face and shirt. "Many things will change very quickly, and her part in this is yet to be written. The Circle will not understand. Perhaps you will not either."
"But," Willow's face filled with conflict, "Hepsebah, she saved me. Surely..."
"And many more will be saved in time," the sick healer interrupted, "but that day is not upon us. For now, you must protect your family."
Willow stayed with the only mother she had ever known until the old woman was asleep. She pulled the thick quilts up to cover her and left her to rest. Just outside the wagon door, Brennan, Ren, and four others stood waiting.
"How is she?" Brennan stepped forward, his long grey cloak trailing in the duff. He took Willow's hands in his own, offering strength.
The thin girl breathed in and out, releasing the tension that had built in her. "She's sleeping for now. But..."
Ren placed his hand on her shoulder, "I'm sorry, Willow. I know.... We all..." he struggled for words. "I shouldn't have yelled at you the other day." Willow smiled up at him through the remains of her tears. His short blonde hair stuck out at odd angles, a rebellious statement to the elders who held to the tradition of long hair. His angular face twitched slightly with the burden of emotion, a troubling parasite in his normally rigid nature. "You said you had news."
Wiping the salt from her face, Willow walked to the huge bonfire. Even in full daylight, it cast a dazzling glare around the camp. "A team of mercenaries has arrived." She heard a hitch in the breath of the men behind her. "They come with sorcerers, just as Ren proposed. Two of them...." she bit her tongue hard enough to draw a trickle of blood, "they hunted me. One is dead, but the other..."
"Then it is true," spoke a short, muscular man at the edge of the crowd. His great beard shook as he stepped closer to her. "They have come for us."
"They cannot find us," Ren protested. "Our spell-"
"Our spell will not hold!" the shorter man growled. "Did you not hear the same tales as I who sat beside you, boy? The enchantment that keeps us safe is old, Ren. And it was never meant to resist those black devils the Queen sends."
"My father conjured that spell," Brennan challenged. "It will hold."
"You are a fool to think as such."
"And you are dangerously close to provoking panic in our people, Ash," Brennan warned, the authority in his voice both calming and allowing no dispute. The men were quiet as their leader paced. "The ways of the Circle have been preserved since long before the formation of any kingdoms in the Known Lands. We have outlasted famine, drought, war, and the depravity of modern civilization." His passionate words leapt as flames from his heart, igniting the loyalty of his brethren. Their backs straightened, their eyes opened wide, and they gathered closer, prepared to risk all that they treasured for the sake of their families and their way of life. "It is because of our strength of will that we exist where every other gypsy clan has faded." He bore down on Ash, "You are the very reason we thrive, brother." He clasped the burly man's shoulder tightly in his palm. "Your zeal drives us to a might that will deliver us from this hard age." Ash laid a confident hand on the arm of the great man before him. "Our ways will not be lost." He looked each of the men in the eye, one by one, holding them in silent reverie.
Fire and smoke raged through the forest in Willow's dream. She sweated and tossed fitfully, fighting with quilts in her desire to flee. Her vision was obscured by the conflagration, but she knew Tara was near, just past the blazing cedars in front of her. We have to leave, she thought, the urgency driving sleep from her brain. We have to leave. Her delicate eyelashes fluttered, eyes opening in the dark of earliest morning. We have to leave. She turned uneasily in her small bed, damp clothes sticking to her body as she panted from the nightmare. "We have to leave," she whispered, fully aware that her dream was not what it seemed. She sat up and stumbled from the cot, grabbing her green wool cloak before charging for Hepsebah's bed.
"I was beginning to think you could sleep through a dragon hatching," the old woman chastised. "Stop fussing over me and wake the others. Let's hope my message to them is faster than you into a dressing gown."
Willow leapt over the three wooden steps at the wagon door and ran through the camp waking families with all the volume she could muster. "Everyone up! Now, dammit! We have to leave!"
Ren caught up to her, bow in hand, "It's too late, Willow. They are upon us."
Her stomach plunged to the forest floor. "No," she breathed, pulse pounding at a raging speed in her head.
Racing from wagon to tent, fire to fire, Gobbler and Nuttail hurled weapons at able-bodied men, shouting uncoordinated instructions. Women and children concealed themselves in their homes, arming themselves with knives and rocks, anything they could find to protect their children. Though their hurried preparations were necessary, they were far too late to fend off the skilled attackers who drove from the forest into the center of the Circle. Armor and sharpened blades clashed with linen and wooden tools, spilling the lifeblood of the gypsies over their home.
Three of them raced past, heading for Brennan's tent. Willow started in the same direction when a bolt from within the trees sped through the air and pierced her left shoulder, a breath away from her heart. A cry escaped her lips as she fell hard, earth and sky pressing into her from all sides. The pain caught in her throat as she struggled for air, battling to remain conscious.
Heavy boots trampled past on the soft earth in which Willow lay, oblivious to her strains. Loud cries and screams echoed about the camp, their disembodied voices sickening Willow to the core as she recovered by the fading embers of the fire. Focus, she shut her eyes. Focus and breathe. Her pulse slowed, despite the horrendous pain surging through her shoulder and arm and down into her chest. She opened her eyes to the carnage she once knew as home and forced down another urge to vomit or cry out. Bloodied and contorted bodies littered the ground. The tang of blood was heavy in the air, mixed with the smoke of burning carts and wagons.
Fumbling in the dirt, Willow crawled to the nearest victim. Holly, a woman barely older than herself, lay prone, her elegant neck nearly severed from her twisted body. Willow's hands shook violently at the sight of so much blood, so much death. Holly's eyes were frozen, still staring at her sister, Rosemary. Willow followed the gaze to the second limp form, revulsion clawing its way through her stomach. "Rosie?" she cried out. "No, no, not you," Willow begged, crawling on one good arm and bruised knees. She shook the young mother, desperate for a sign of life. Willow rolled her over, gasping at the tightly bundled child buried under its dead mother. She took the baby into her own cloak, fearful of another attack. It gurgled gently at her chest, ignorant of the terrors surrounding them. We've got to get out, her mind raced. Hepsebah.
Willow rushed past the lifeless forms of the Circle, their haunting faces imprinting themselves onto her memory for a lifetime of nightmares to come. Heather and Penn were still reaching for one another, wounds continuing to ooze with blood long after the killing strike. The entire Lohstag family huddled together by their own fire, mother and father headless, children shedding tears of blood. It was too much. Willow fell to her knees and wretched, her body convulsing with sobs. She had grown up with these families. They were her brothers and sisters, her uncles and cousins. In the background, she heard the slaughtering continue.
Ren shouted to two other clan members, his words lost in the din of metal on bone, arrows through flesh, the keening of death. Willow thought she saw him trounce a bloodied mercenary, but the night shadows of trees were full of movement, concealing details.
The injured girl collected herself once more, dragging herself to her feet. The wagon she shared with Hepsebah was set apart from the others, fifty paces from the inner circle. Willow's bare feet caught in the brush and threatened to throw her to the soil time and again as she plowed blindly to her last hope. Three bloodied men in red and black robes descended the humble wagon's steps, grinning with malice.
"No!" Willow screamed.
The men turned in time to see a ragged girl in a torn cloak step out of the trees, a broken bolt protruding from her flesh, and a look of anger that would make blood turn to frost, had they not purged themselves of such human vulnerabilities decades before. "Gentlemen," their leader tilted his head, "I believe we owe our trespass to this young lady."
"You murderous bastards!" her cries swarmed from her mouth and buried themselves deep in the soil, tree roots and bedrock trembling with the force. The Queen's Men braced themselves against the shaking earth. "You killed them," her voice quieted. Willow knew Hepsebah was gone. She felt the cold of death creep into her bones and settle in her ribs, numbing her physical pain. Her body calmed, her muscles relaxed, and a girlish smile teased the corners of her mouth.
The Queen's Men, masters of their dark power, circled the young woman, easy prey for hungry beasts. Grey, drawn faces, willingly infested with the gruesome byproduct of their evil wont, examined their next victim. Red serpent tongues flicked in and out, tantalized by the potency of fresh power, untamed, unkempt, and only held back by a slight, feminine form which teased at their lecherous minds and loins. "She smells delightful, the tallest bowed to his elder, the action a mockery of a genteel lord at a banquet in his honor, his speech both delicate and precise.
"Quite right," another agreed as they waltzed. "Far more moist than the last."
"And such power," chimed in the next.
Willow stood, watching the carousel of black sorcery spin about her. It was comical. She nearly laughed. Let them come, she chuckled, delirious with untapped grief. Fire churned in her belly, growing stronger until her palms broke out in a cool sweat and her stomach lurched. The infant tucked in her cloak began to howl. It was an unearthly bellow, dousing the roaring flames that consumed the camp. The bonfire guttered and died, embers smoldering in the blanket of dark that fell.
The redhead swallowed, choking back the heat as it rushed and coursed through her shaking body. "My death is a fair price for yours," she mumbled, eyes losing focus. The magic boiled under her skin, desperate to taste fresh air. There was a moment of regret before she let go, a moment of sorrow for the innocent child at her breast, and a fevered hunger to see Tara again. Then it was gone, and a fury that shook the gates of hell burst forth, engulfing everything within close range of the gypsy girl.
My left arm for a sword, Tara scowled as another mercenary plowed into her, a jagged knife shard in his hand. She dodged him easily, ducking and tossing him with her shoulder. He landed in a heap behind her, head cracked open on a protruding rock. Three more charged at her, bloody swords and daggers raised.
Tara had tracked them into the forest since late evening, aware that the safety of the Circle was in dire jeopardy. They crossed the border of the camp just after midnight. That was when the Southlander began picking the hunters off from the rear. Her first steps into the Circle landed in pools of blood.
Though trained and rugged from years of service in the Drylands, the bounty hunters were no match for Tara's speed and quiet skill. The only sound to escape her was the rhythmic breathing of her methodical efforts.
"Right! Crouch! Roll!" the instructor bellowed, gritting his teeth. Thirty-six boys in perfect formation hung on his every word, pushing themselves to their physical limits. Fourteen bore cuts that trickled red onto the compact snow field. "Again!" The boys stood. "Right!" Arms swung right, palms forward. "Crouch!" They lunged, bruised knees numb on the ice. "Roll!" Arms still outstretched, they twisted their imaginary opponents off-balance.
Tara waited for them. The first, a wiry man in oiled leather and chain mail, bared his yellow teeth and swung a double axe. The warrior girl, still unarmed, watched his display, fascinated by his pre-battle enthusiasm. She stood, straight and tall, body turned aside to her opponent. When he moved to strike, she grasped the handle of his axe, pushed forward into a crouch, and rolled, forcing the hunter to drop his weapon. She used her momentum to right herself into a protected stance, the double axe now firmly in her possession.
The two mercenaries in the background stepped up to their comrade. Perhaps they are more serious now, Tara wondered. Unwilling to waste time, she jumped into the fray, axe held close to her body.
She punched forward with the flat of the blade, solid steel meeting with the face of the middle fighter. His nose cracked loudly as she spun the axe in her hands, turning it ninety degrees, the head catching the arm of the taller man, the handle landing squarely in the chest of the third. She twisted, jamming the handle into a burly chest and simultaneously slicing an arm. All three men floundered, the left finding himself under a boot with an axe handle crashing into his shocked face. His skull collapsed under the blow, a grisly crunch resounding through the trees.
Roaring with a battle cry, the tall hunter leapt at Tara, his sword finding only air as she stepped aside and swung a fatal arc with the weapon in her hand.
The last mercenary found his feet once more, blood gushing from his nose. He wiped his face with a hairy arm, trying to reconcile the conflict before him. Tara stood, still and silent once more. In any other time or place, one might assume the pale young woman was listening to birdsong, waiting to meet a friend in a busy city square, or enjoying a pristine view, anything but systematically killing professional soldiers. Her perfectly relaxed composure unnerved the stout hunter, tremors rising from his boots. "What are you?" his voice grated like a wagon on crushed rock.
Tara blinked, and blood danced on the edge of the blade she held. What am I? The question burned behind her eyes. The weapon in her grasp leapt forth, slicing air and patience in a tight circle, its rising angle catching the last fighter under the chin. His hands relaxed from the handle of his knife, dropping to the ground like his knees, head split up the center. Let the Gods answer you.