Morning broke over the treetops, bathing the gypsy camp in yellow. Though winter's edge was sharp and biting in the air, the evergreens lifted their arms and swayed in the breeze, greenery shifting and waving like an ancient dance rite. Fresh air greeted faces one by one, each noted in sequence by the restrained warrior at the edge of the small clearing. Her head was ducked in mock sleep, but her eyes and ears missed nothing of the Circle's movements. This imprisonment had lasted long enough. Not content to steal away under darkness, Tara had purposefully waited for daybreak to claim her freedom. Let them think of me as an enemy if they so desire. My heart lies not with their thoughts.
These gypsies were not what they had once appeared to be, and Tara found a new sensation in her heart when she thought of the love that grew there. Fear.
Willow was her only concern. She had learned through careful observation that the young woman had been wounded but lived. Tara knew exactly where to go once her bindings fell, though that moment must wait.
Taran crouched on the icy ground, skin numb from hours of cold and punishment. No furs or wool could protect exposed skin in the weather of the South. His lips were blue, chapped, and parted with shallow breath, and though his body begged for hot food and whiskey, he kept his face withdrawn. The end of his test drew nigh. Four days of deprivation, confinement, submission, and physical torture were at their end. Here the true test began.
"Four days and still you have no words for me?" the wickedly scarred soldier scraped at his fingernails with a cruel dagger. He smirked at the condition of his latest student. Bare arms were covered in fine cuts, the left shoulder had been dislocated at least once, and a welt the size of a river stone grew at the back of the boy's neck. More importantly, the boy's spirit was broken beyond repair. Never had the soldier seen such horribly blank eyes, a pure sign of the abandonment of all hope. The boys never handled this test well. Until this moment they had always been taught that submission was for the weak, that fighting was living, and anything less was death. This was the final test in their training. Any hint of dominance in the first three days of this task was forbidden and punishable by banishment. Only the finest warriors survived it. In fact, many of the aspiring warrior boys would die in the attempt.
Taran's strength was gone. Even hunger could not penetrate his mind. But beneath his shaking muscles and slowed heartbeat, the tiniest spark remained. Eleven years of training, broken bones, torn muscles, bruised skin, blackened eyes, bloodied mouths, and stinging cuts had forged a body capable of enduring the most harsh conditions and brutal opponents. But it was the solitary effort, the complete lack of dependency upon others that had constructed in him a will of iron. He inhaled, feeling the space between each rib expand, eyes closing at the needle of pain from those ribs and muscles which were torn and broken. He exhaled, cold breath a copy of the icy clouds above him. The soldier's words had released him from the bonds of discipline. This was day four. This was day four.
"Good morning, Forsythia," Willow stretched and yawned, wincing at the pain in her arm and shoulder. Though alive and recovering, her wound was still severe.
Her older and wiser friend frowned at her. "I'm certain I told you to stay still." She sighed heavily. "You should remember how lucky you are to be alive."
Willow lay back against the simple bed that had been constructed for her. Forsythia was right, but the energy of the camp made the young woman eager to get up and move. She had never been good at patience, let alone allowing her body to heal itself from injury or illness. "Is there any word about the prisoner? Has he spoken yet?"
Forsythia turned suddenly, "She, you mean. And no. She's definitely found her way under Ren's skin with her silence." Willow's heart fell to the forest floor. "He intends to execute her this morning."
Pain and all other sensation behind her, Willow leapt from the sickbed and ran, stumbling with uncoordinated limbs, into the center of the Circle's new camp. She could hear shouts of her name, though they came from far underwater, muffled and indistinct. Dizziness stole her vision in waves, colors dancing before her eyes like sunlit snowflakes. Her only care was finding Tara. Her frantic movement was halted by a firm pair of hands that caught and held her firmly.
"Willow!" the voice shouted at her. It wasn't Tara. "Willow, stop!" it shouted again, this time with a more familiar tone. Her eyes focused in on the hazel ones staring down at her, their face belonging to Ren. "What's gotten into you?"
"This is insanity!" Gobbler protested. "How can you...." he grimaced, deep-set eyes closing under thick eyebrows. "This is not our way, Ren."
The tall leader turned in a flourish, his cloak spinning, "Our ways have changed, friend. War is upon us. Did you not hear the cries of our families as they were slaughtered?" His lips quivered as passion escaped them. He reached out to the shoulders of his stout companion, grasping him firmly. Gobbler turned his eyes away at his leader's tears. "How many died? How much of our history has been erased?"
"So we counter with more death?"
Ren kept his hold on Gobbler. "We avenge their death."
"You propose we kill a woman." Gobbler watched as his friend snorted. "Yes, I am aware of her strength, and I, too, saw her come from Hepsebah's wagon, but those facts cannot change the nature of our deed. My heart..." his face softened, "my heart cannot condone this brutality." Ren paced in small circles, his steps warming the frost-laden soil. "And my sentiment does not stand alone."
Ren stopped walking and looked directly into Gobbler's face. His mind raced with the burdens and desires of leadership, the prospect of success, the heart-ache of failure, and now the devastation of betrayal. He had inherited the governance of his father's people from the blood of their sacrifice, and now he faced their treason. "I will do what is right for my people," he whispered, clenched fists trembling.
"Willow! No!" the shout from the edge of camp drew the men's attention. They both rushed forward into the path of the staggering woman, Ren catching her first. She fell against his solid chest, still struggling.
"Willow!" he begged, turning her head to face him. "Willow, stop! What's gotten into you?" Her eyes searched on, looking for something else. When at last her vision steadied, Ren's breath stopped. She had been looking for the warrior woman. Their eyes locked upon one another, and the pure emotion that charged between them was palpable in the frigid air. Ren knew and understood the silent correspondence. His arms fell slack, and his heart shattered once more, this time leaving him with nothing solid to beat under his breast. In the place where his affection had grown since childhood, he traded love for blackness, the measure of it equal to that which thronged between the two women.
Willow stood, free of the young man's embrace, finding strength and balance in the eyes of her confined beloved. The congregation around them froze in the light snowfall that dusted the trees and grass in white, breath halted, hearts trembling. Light footsteps guided her to the base of the tree, eyes never breaking from Tara.
"So," Ren stood behind them, "the picture becomes clear." He swaggered, moving closer, vigilant of the crowd's reactions. "The treachery came from within our own Circle." Willow's head turned to the voice behind her, once again vaguely aware that it was Ren who addressed her. She reached out to Tara with her left hand, taking possession of the captive with the subtle gesture. Ren withdrew her necklace charm from his cloak, triumph crowning his malicious grin. The people gathered inhaled as one, sold by their leader's symbolic act. "It has come to my attention," Ren spoke loudly, "that some of you do not support the act of execution." Gobbler visibly shrank, consumed by guilt. "I ask you now, what does the truth speak in your hearts? The facts!" he shouted. "This attack was planned!" Whispers danced in the air. Accusing glances fell on Willow and Tara.
"No," a voice spoke amidst the people, "it cannot be!"
"It is true!" another answered.
"Her charm," a third muttered. "It cannot be coincidence."
"We were betrayed!" Ren shouted with hatred. "Betrayed by one of our own, by one we trusted," the word was laced with venom. "So tell me, Willow," he closed in on the red-haired gypsy, her hand still firmly in contact with Tara's hip, "what was the price for our lives?" The murmurs amongst the Circle grew. Ren held the charm up to Willow's face. "You forsake your own people for this?" he looked the warrior up and down, disgust plain in his eyes. "Was Hepsebah's life so worthless?"
Willow was held speechless by his accusations. Did they honestly believe this was her doing? "Stop this, Ren. Will you not listen to reason?" she begged.
Ren's patience wore thin as parchment. He nodded at Tara, whose expression was one of utter confusion. "You place your heart in the hands of the only person who could have led that band of mercenaries into our home. Have you never considered her role in this tragedy?" Willow's touch faltered, her own eyes taking in the restrained warrior with apprehension. The exultant leader bent to whisper in her ear, "Your trust was misplaced," he crooned, "a simple mistake, to be sure. But let not her wiles misguide you further." Willow listened, her eyes growing cold at the sight of the one in whom she had placed the safekeeping of her heart and her secrets. Had she been betrayed? Was Tara capable of such deceit? "Where did she come from?" he asked, circling the girl like a hawk about its prey. "Did she pretend to need your help?" His words cut like broken glass, too close to her tender memories, memories which she had treasured. "Did you invite her in? Give her your charm, perhaps?"
"No!" Willow railed, her brow furrowed with confusion. "It wasn't like that. She saved me, Ren. She saved me from.... from them."
He smiled, teeth glistening in the pallid sunlight. "I see," he nodded. "Then how did she come to be in our camp at the same time those men were murdering our people? With your charm in her grasp, no less?" Willow turned her pained expression onto the woman before her. Their eyes met, though all understanding had ceased. "It was a cruel trick," Ren continued. "But it ends here." He strutted out amongst his people. "We are not murderers. Our way of life is peaceful. We did not ask for this massacre, we did nothing wrong to bring evil upon us." He held all eyes captive with his command. "But now we must decide how to rid ourselves of it." Heads nodded in approval.
Willow watched him speak, fear mounting in her belly. This was not the boy she had shared her childhood games with. His voice was laced with venom, his movements sharp and jagged. She sensed the warrior beside her tense as they watched the same signals. The polished edge of a knife reflected the weak light in the forest as he pulled it purposefully from his boot.
"My father was taken," Ren growled. "He was beheaded." Gobbler and Nuttail breathed heavily, remembering the sight of their own father dying in defense of all that they prized. "Rosemary was gutted." The women became agitated, whispering amongst one another, conspiring in their pain. "They killed our children." Magnolia hugged the tiny baby to her chest, anger blazing in her eyes. "And before us stands the last of them, the very one who betrayed us from within our own ranks by tricking our sister." Ren turned the knife over in his hand, admiring its elegant curve. "Do your hearts speak of forgiveness?" he stood taller. "Do our dead ask for kindness?" The gypsies seethed in hatred. "Or do they cry out for blood?"
Cries of anger and torment surged through the broken shards of families torn apart by death and destruction. Driven to a primal rage by their leader's vehemence, they chanted for blood.
Infused with their fervor, Ren pivoted on his heels, knife aiming for the neck of his hostage. Petrified in fear and shock, Willow clutched at the woman bound to the tree, but instead felt a free hand take her own. She turned to see Tara duck and throw her away from the fight. Ren's knife buried itself in the thick cedar bark, his gritted teeth drawing blood from his lip. Tara crouched in the dirt, free of the pathetic ropes that she had allowed to bind her.
Awake, aware, calculating, plotting, Taran looked up into the eyes of the soldier who paced the icy ground. He took in everything. The air was frigid, still, no wind blew, and the scent of day old snow drifted lazily about. No soldier, whether trained by battle or scarred by experience, could have foreseen the fire that exploded from within the wiry boy on the side of that icy cliff. Taran lunged high and hard, throwing every ounce of his weight and strength into the huge man before him. Together, they tumbled from the frozen edge, rolling through powder down the perilous trail to the training camp below. A blizzard of ice cascaded down around them as they struggled to find a footing in the changing terrain. The soldier strained and lashed out, catching a glimpse of the boy who sought him out, delivering expertly placed kicks and blows even as they continued to fall and roll. Before he slipped over the edge into oblivion, he saw once more the awful blankness of Taran's eyes staring down at him, devoid of the passion of battle, but dancing with the light of the victory of survival.
The fit warrior swung her leg out, knocking Ren's feet from below himself. Eyes of restrained fury shot out at the crowd, challenging any who dared to attack. Though weaponless, it was apparent to all that Tara was fully capable of rendering each useless with her expert maneuvers. Her muscles bulged under her soft skin, ready and poised where she knelt on the forest floor. She eyed each person, one at a time, searching for defiance. "Sheep with sharp teeth are only dangerous to themselves," she hissed, speaking each word slowly. She carefully stood, keeping a watchful eye on the ineffective leader sprawled out below her. His knife was far from his own reach. "A true leader inspires passion, not fear."
It was then that Willow stood next to her. Tara turned to face the young woman, taking in her horrible wound. Her face softened as she addressed the redhead. "His lies do not change the truth." Willow thought she saw a tear at the edge of the warrior's majestic blue eyes. "But your heart must decide where its loyalty will lie."
They held each other in silent regard, alone amidst the mass of enraged and confused gypsies. Snow, delicate and quiet, graced Willow's eyelashes, displaying before Tara a beauty she could barely stand to witness. Hot tears washed away the cold crystals as Willow blinked and cast aside her desires. "Please go," she breathed. Tara heard the command, but her feet would not obey. She stared dumbly, incapable of movement. Willow held her gaze for a moment, then turned to leave the clearing. Forsythia ran forward to grasp the girl's arm in support, leading her away to safety. Others followed, leaving Tara alone with Ren.
The wiry young man stood cautiously, feet set wide, eyes unblinking, untrusting. Tara kept her back to him, unwilling to acknowledge him as a threat. "I can still kill you," his voice was dark and rough in contrast to his blond, boyish appearance. "And I will do as I must to protect my people."
"Your lies are so strong even your mind is their prisoner," she whispered, still not facing him. Her feet began to move, slowly, dutifully obeying Willow's command. The trees surrounding the Southlander guided her gently between them, branches parting and bowing in respect to her passing.
Far behind her in the protection of the firs and a family who could never begin to understand her sacrifice, Willow watched Tara walk away forever.