The encampment was silent. Weak morning light filtered through the boughs of ancient trees, illuminating blood-stained ground. Death masqueraded as slumber, still bodies resting where they had once fled or fought. The surprise attack had resulted in the slaughter of all but fourteen members of the Circle, some still entwined in the arms of their beloved, cold kindred. Some distance away from the remnants of the great bonfire around which they all once gathered, a scene of utter devastation awaited discovery. Rubble and debris had shattered mighty trees in two, wagons were obliterated, rock pulverized, and an enormous crater at the center still smoked and burned like holy incense before an altar.
Tara stood at its edge, in awe of the destruction. Her eyes searched what she could see of the camp, but no life could be found. The mighty horse at her side flared his nostrils, breathing loudly. He uttered a low rumble, then carefully picked a path to the only remaining structure in the camp. Tara followed, unaware that the wagon they approached had been Willow's home for the entirety of her life. Somehow, in the midst of a tremendous power that demolished everything within sight, this one place had been spared. Darkwood snorted and sniffed around the old wooden cart, still searching.
Her light steps bent the aching wooden boards that had served as steps for so many years, their protesting creaks breaking the stark silence of the forest. Inside, disarray had claimed the once tidy home, bottles and jars broken underfoot, books and papers shredded. Her gaze came to rest on a dried crown of flowers, still hanging above a curtained bed. Tara's heart leapt up wildly, suddenly knowing that this place belonged to the keeper of her own heart. The knowledge was foreign, and the feel of it twitched in her skin, but it was certain and without pause. This was Willow's home. Her fingers delicately traced the fragments of a lost life, while her chest ached with the need to find the girl.
Then her body went cold. She smelled blood, she felt its presence behind her, and a fear that she had never known coursed through her veins. Turning, Tara nearly gagged with the sight of carnage that confronted her. A body, old and frail, lay awkwardly, head at an unnatural angle, body vivisected from the neck down. Some organs were missing, others mangled beyond recognition. Pieces of skin and bone littered the bed around the fragile woman. Tara felt the pain that death had rendered, and it shook her thoroughly, down to her bowels. It was Hepsebah, her heart cried out. Not Willow, as she had initially feared, but still not a relief.
Dreading the emotion that threatened to consume her, Tara fled the wagon, falling sharply as the top step gave out. As she plunged, her ears caught the sharp twang of a bowstring, its arrow soaring into the structure where she had been standing. She landed hard, caught in the decaying wood, three enraged gypsies standing over her with weapons ready.
Movement woke Willow, bringing her suddenly and brutally back to awareness. The pain in her body was blinding, shutting out all memory of the events from the night before. In an attempt to move her arms, she felt the baby pressed against her wiggle again. It began to cry, a feeble sound at best. Willow inhaled, preparing to soothe it, when her chest caught fire. She coughed, flames coursing up through her throat. That was when the memory of the attack returned, viciously wounding her over and over. The screams cut at her, images of death burned her flesh, and Hepsebah.... Hepsebah's demise shattered her bones. Tears poured from the girl's eyes, though she could not bear to sob.
The infant cried again, this time louder. He called out, over and over, desperate for a reply. It came in the form of a tattered young man, cuts dried and caked with blood, contusions beginning to turn purple, and white knuckles still hanging on to his bow. Ren knelt beside the two at the edge of the woods, Willow, barely breathing, and the child, alert and unharmed. "Gobbler! Nuttail! Over here!"
His call was answered by two brothers, still strong enough to run despite their injuries. They were the last of their family, as were all the remaining gypsies. Short and barrel-chested like their father, the brothers came to stand behind their new leader, a mirror of Brennan and Ash not two days before. Sons of the proud elders of the Circle, Ren, Gobbler, and Nuttail had assumed charge of what remained of their people. Willow stared up at them through a haze of pain and misery. She knew immediately that the elders were among the dead.
Ren bent down and scooped the baby from the bloodied arms that held him. He quickly handed it off to Gobbler, turning his attention back to his childhood friend. "Can you move?"
Willow turned slowly, the broken arrow shard punishing the slight movement. Her face twisted, unable to voice the pain for fear of breathing too deeply. Nuttail swept aside the branches that had fallen from the girl's flight after her magic erupted. She was far from the inner circle, thrown clear of the blast she had created. Her survival was unfathomable. The stocky man at her feet helped Ren lift her as gently as they were able. Willow watched Nuttail's deep-set eyes, so brown and warm, close abruptly at the sight of her shoulder wound. I should be dead.
They carried the slim redhead back to the scraps of their fire, stepping over the legacy of their clan as it smoldered and decayed. Gathered at their central meeting point were all who had survived the onslaught of mercenaries and black sorcerers. Birch, his normal lanky nature interrupted by a crude splint on his right leg, trained a recently acquired crossbow at his quarry who sat at the base of a giant fir, tied firmly but facing the other direction. "This is the last," he announced to Ren.
Willow tried to lift her head, but the pain subdued her every effort. She sank into a fitful, feverish sleep, still in the arms of the boy she had known since her first memories.
"Slower than a tree sloth, slower than a snail!" the little red-haired girl taunted, racing through the trees. "Slower than lobsters and a big, black whale! Slower than the Royal Guard, knittin' a rug, slower than a lizard, slower than a slug!!"
A skinny tow-headed boy ran along the trail behind her, desperate to catch up. "No I'm not!" He gritted his teeth and pumped his legs harder.
Willow grinned back at him, keeping her lead easily. Ren never caught her when they played chase. Would he ever learn? The two children tore through the underbrush in their playground. The forest was home, shelter, and safety. Within its borders, they learned all they needed to survive in the Known Lands.
"Hey!" Willow stopped abruptly, the little boy colliding with her from behind. "Look..." she pointed.
Ren watched with wide eyes. A hart, antlers tall and proud, grazed in the light-filled meadow before them. Its reddish coat was flawless, its eyes black and wary. Its white-bordered tail twitched as it chewed. "Let's catch it," the ten-year-old boy proposed.
Willow, a year older and clearly in charge, frowned at his suggestion. "No. It's wild, Ren. Let it be." They breathed quietly. "We live with wild things. They keep us safe."
"But father kills deer all the time."
"Yes," she acquiesced. "But that's different. "We don't kill things we don't need."
"These are our woods," he protested. "That makes anything in it ours!"
The girl put her hands on her hips, "We belong to these woods." Her voice was firm, final. "Not the other way around." She lifted her head victoriously. "Anyway, how are you going to catch a deer when you can't even keep up with me?" With that, she bolted, frightening the wild animal. They ran in opposite directions.
Ren and Nuttail covered Willow with what remaining blankets and rugs they could find. Supplies were scarce, and many were wounded. "Will she recover?" Nuttail asked.
Ren ran his fingers through his hair, dislodging dirt and pine needles. "We must remove that bolt."
Gobbler stepped between them, kneeling by the side of the sick girl. "How are we supposed to heal a healer?"
"Get Ivy and Forsythia. They'll know what to do," Ren ordered. "I'm not leaving her until her fever breaks."
"But," Gobbler turned, "the prisoner..."
Their leader sighed heavily. He was torn between duty and devotion. "Very well. I'll question him."
Gobbler cleared his throat, "Her." Ren stared at him, incapable of replying.
Willow ran through the trees again, this time older, taller, and faster still. Her thin arms extended out to her sides, catching the cedar boughs in her flight. A wrinkled brow and tear stains marred her beautiful face, the smooth skin hidden by a mask of pain. Her simple woven dress tore on the climbing roses that fought for sunlight in the thick forest, but she sprinted on. On through tall grass, on past the low hills that marked the border of the woodland, on through the torrent of yellow foxtails, dancing in the autumn breeze, she ran. Her lungs and her thighs ached for pause, but she was unrelenting in the punishment of her own body. A stream bed of small stones caught her foot and pulled her to the ground, bringing release to the prodigious sobs that wracked her light frame. She cried like she had not done since childhood, weeping with a fury that corrupted the silence of the fields around her.
"I'm not!" she shouted. "I'm not! I never will be!" Her cries went unanswered, carried away on the current of air that rode from the foothills of the Southern Mountains, down the grassy plain, and north to the Kingdom.
They had all betrayed her, Hepsebah, Ren, everyone. She refused to be treated as a possession, property to be traded. Hepsebah had tried to make it sound so normal. "Everyone is betrothed, little one. You've seen this so many times. Why are you upset now that it is upon you?"
Why? she spoke in her mind. Because it is not right! I belong to no one! She was furious still, hours after the announcement that she would be married to Ren by tomorrow night. It was no better than trading a mule in the marketplace. Her fists balled in anger at the words playing over and over in her head.
"You're mine, Willow," he had stated so simply, so confidently. "You have always been and you will always be."
You're mine. You're mine. You're mine.
Willow moaned in her feverish slumber, unable to retreat from the dreams that taunted her. Ivy wiped her brow with a damp towel once more, worry heavy in her young face. "She's worse, Syth," she called to the young woman mixing herbs by the pathetic fire. All able hands were out searching for firewood that had not already been burnt to the ground the night before. Supplies and food were low, the people were devastated, and none had the heart to reconstruct their homes amidst the dead. They had set up a temporary camp at the far edge of the forest, far from the stench of decaying bodies.
Forsythia turned her concerned eyes from the salve to the young woman in the arms of Ivy. Willow's normally pale complexion was ashen. They had removed the broken arrow shaft hours beforehand, but the girl had lost more blood than her body could handle. She would die before morning.
Ivy soothed her restless charge, cooing like a mother to a child, hopeful that rest would recover what herbs could not. Her long, auburn hair draped over her shoulder and around burnt arms, wrapped with the torn hem of her own dress. Forsythia was one of the only gypsies uninjured, and she had taken over the role of healer for the tribe. Ivy's arms had been badly scarred by the flames that consumed her family's home. Forsythia only hoped that her barely sufficient skills would save those that remained. They would all bear the scars of this day for the remainder of their lifetimes.
She brushed back a tangled mop of curly black hair and came to sit beside the two younger women. Her bodice was stained with blood and dirt from an entire day of wrapping, mending, stitching, and binding. Like so many others, nary a moment had been spent in mourning for her own lost family. Thirty years of life in this forest had not worn on her like this single day. She let her eyes rest upon Ivy, quietly assessing the girl's ability to continue working. They had both toiled since dawn.
Ivy's eyes were tired, and she longed to crawl into the arms of her mother, but the bodies of her kin were kept at a distance, too badly mutilated for a teenaged girl to witness. Forsythia had borne the news to her when they found her under a smoldering beech. Ivy had not left her sight since.
"We must wait the fever out," Forsythia gently applied more salve to the arrow wound.
Tara watched as the tall blond man paced around her. His actions were anxious, agitated, and spoke of a great unease at his core. She assumed he had taken lead of the Circle, watching as other members approached him randomly, seeking direction, reporting findings. Something continued to nag at his attention, set at the edge of the new camp. Tara could not see that far, but her eyes caught the glint of a fire whenever he moved away from her view. Her lithe body was relaxed against the giant fir tree, bound by singed, knotted sisal. The binding was insufficient, but she allowed herself to remain imprisoned, reluctant to enrage her captors further. Surely Willow would explain everything. Tara glanced toward the fire again, concern in the pit of her stomach rising.
"The enemy," their Captain held them with his low, rumbling voice, an icy draught of water through a high mountain pass, "will bind you. He will watch you as a snow leopard watches a hare." His lessons took place on Caslonn Overlook, high above the city. Twenty-seven boys remained. The others had died in training. Taran stood among them, body covered in scars from mock battle, arms and legs bound to poles that jutted from the icy cliff. None among them were friends. Surviving warrior training was a solitary act, devoid of companionship. "He will watch for weakness," the elder growled, hungry to taste their fear. His enormous, muscled frame approached the last boy in the line of twelve-year-old recruits. He flexed his shoulders, then bent to stare at the dark-haired child. "Tell me your name." No reply was offered. "I said," he bellowed, "tell me your name!" He struck the boy with the flat of a giant palm, knocking his head wildly against the post. The child, bruised from days of endless warring, stood silently. His teacher rounded on the others. "We do not relent!" The boys stared back at him, each challenging him. "We do not give them our secrets!" He crouched low, a tiger preparing to pounce. His voice was a husky whisper, "We wait."
Tara waited. She watched, observing more than her captors realized. The leader is called Ren. How careless they were with names! Each proclaimed the other's name in greeting, loud enough for a whole forest to eavesdrop. The two stocky ones with beards are his closest friends. Nuttail relayed another update as the captive looked on. He whispered and pointed to the distant fire. Ren nodded solemnly. Something there drew his attention like nothing else in the obliterated camp.
"How did you enter our camp?" he spoke to Tara without looking at her. His eyes stayed with the growing light of the campfire. Dusk settled in around them. "I am certain you heard my question. Will you not answer?" His tone was gentle, light, not what his body portrayed. Tara continued to watch him, her mouth firmly closed. Ren rounded on her, eyes ablaze. "You will answer me!" When she did not, he struck her, knocking her head back into the tree. The tiniest of smiles played at her mouth, her training memory even more poignant. Her stark quiet crawled under the young man's skin, shifting inside him like a hungry eel. He glared at the blonde fighter, rage thrumming in his ears.
Before he could begin another round of shouting, Birch appeared from the direction of their previous camp. His face was heavy with sorrow for the sights of what lay behind him. Ren went to him, intent on finding something that would assist his interrogation of the silent woman. After a brief exchange of information, Birch withdrew something small and shiny from his cloak and handed it to Ren.
The leader turned the charm over and over in his hand, a dilirium of victory dancing in his eyes. He held it up for Tara to see, closing in on her. "So I have my answer," he began. "What I do not know is how you came by such a charm. Though I think there is much to tell. Shall I ask Willow?"
Tara's face was impassive. There was something about his question that made her suspect a bluff, but the bluff was of far less importance than the newfound knowledge that Willow must not be alright. Was that why she had not come? A glimmer of an idea gnawed at her mind.
Forsythia's head nodded as she dozed by the fire, her body curled in on itself. She and Ivy had stayed by Willow's side all day and into the early evening, the younger of the two exhausted to the point of falling asleep while sitting upright. Forsythia had sent her away to rest until morning. Ren now sat with Willow's hand in his own. The young woman was growing cold, her fever replaced by a fading pulse and a heart that felt little reason to beat. The quiet leader watched her furrowed brow and prayed to his gods.
A commotion apart from the deathbed by the fire roused the two in drowsy vigil. "It's a horrid idea!" Gobbler hissed at his female companion, a ruddy-complected girl who held Rosemary's infant at her chest.
"You think you know everything," she scolded, her high-pitched voice grating on Ren's frayed nerves.
"I tried to stop her," the hefty young man shook his head pleadingly at the scowl that took up residence on Ren's forehead. "She has this ridiculous plan..."
"Ridiculous?" she screeched. "I don't see any of you doing anything but wait for the poor girl to die, so perhaps you should consider my 'ridiculous plan'," she mocked.
Gobbler cringed, hating the plump girl's knack for winning arguments. He stepped aside, allowing her to pass, and glanced apologetically at Ren.
Friends since birth, Ren was more a brother than anything else to Gobbler and Nuttail. He had laughed himself to near sickness when Ash had announced Gobbler's betrothal to Magnolia. They had been happily bickering ever since. Babe in arms, she strode confidently into the mess of bandages and compresses. Ren was so stunned, he dropped Willow's hand and moved aside. "The baby?" he questioned.
Magnolia arranged the tiny child in the crook of Willow's good arm. "We don't exactly know what he can do, now. Do we?" She pressed her lips together, watching with hope.
Tiny blue eyes looked up at his wounded savior, taking in all the sights that frightened the adults with the grace of a child who had yet to know true pain. He would grow up without his mother, father, or any other members of his blood family, but in this moment, set apart from the gravity of death, he was surrounded by a love which had delivered him from the cruelties of genocide. This one woman had pulled him to her breast and spared him when even his mother could no longer protect him. He gurgled and waved his arms, content with her slack grasp. Ren and the others watched as the baby played with the tattered sleeve of the redhead's dress.
"This is futile, Mag," her husband sighed.
The tiny boy cried out in response, and Gobbler could have sworn the little thing said, "Hey!" Magnolia stepped back, alarmed at the shout. "Hey! Hey! Hey!" he rang out, his voice piercing and clear. "Hey!" his tiny lungs heaved with the effort.
Willow turned her head to the child in her arm, sweat beading on her brow. "Shh..." she soothed.
"What do you remember?" Ivy fussed at Willow's cuts and scrapes, more alert than she had been in her life. No one in the camp had slept after the baby cried out. Busy at work and grateful to be alive, everyone smiled at one another and joked about little Wake The Dead.
Willow laid back against the piles of rugs they had gathered for her. "I found Rosemary and Holly," her voice choked, but she pressed on, "and the baby..."
Ivy smiled broadly. "He's been named Wake."
Raising her eyebrows in approval, she continued. "I was trying to get us out, but Hepsebah..." her voice faded once more, losing its ability to recover.
The slim teen stopped her attentiveness and bowed her head. Hepsebah was a loss to them all, but she knew what it meant to Willow. They had both lost their families. No one knew how the Circle would find its feet after the massacre. Ivy could find no words to share her pain or alleviate her friend's. They were both spared the awkwardness by the arrival of their newly appointed leader.
"Willow," he smiled. "I'm so glad you're feeling better. Ivy? Would you excuse us?" Her long hair swept behind her as she fled to allow them privacy. Ren sat in the dirt beside his childhood friend, clasping her hand once more, this time pleased to find it warm. "How are you feeling? Really..."
Willow mustered a half-hearted smile, "Can't say I've been worse." They both pretended to chuckle, but the pain around them was still too fresh. "Ivy says there is a captive?"
Ren's face dropped, anger flashing in his eyes. "That is true. I have learned little though." Willow looked up questioningly. "Silent warrior type," he answered. He fished in his shirt and pulled out her gold coin. "But I did find this."
Willow's eyes widened. "On the prisoner?" She took the charm, turning it over and over in her hand.
Her friend studied her features. "How did you lose it?"
"There was a struggle..." Willow started. "I had to make a new one to get home." she choked back the missing details, fearful that guilt would show easily in her pale skin.
"Well it is returned. I will attempt to discover more." He stood to leave, grabbing the charm from her hand.
Willow flinched at his action, suddenly frightened by his intentions. "Ren," she called after him. He turned. "I'm sorry about your father."
"And I for Hepsebah. So many were lost." He looked older than eighteen, suddenly weighed down by the needs of an entire clan in his charge. Brennan had taken the position of head elder with his father at his side. Ren was anything but prepared for what lay ahead, and he was fully aware of his immediate inadequacies. "But I still have you," he smiled once more, sending a shiver down Willow's aching spine.