Smoke from the death pyres drifted through the trees, its swirling path lit by the setting sun of the first true day of winter. Thin, wispy clouds gathered in mourning at the horizon, shrouding the frozen landscape in grey and black. Below the leafless maples, fourteen gypsies stood around the great fire, its orange flames licking their wet faces in sequence.
Gobbler and Nuttail stood tall and proud, their eyes trained on the image of their father fighting to his last breath for their safety and freedom. Beside them, Magnolia held tiny Wake, both the last of their families as well. Ivy's hand was gripped by Forsythia, both shaking, both fearful of what their future held. Birch stood alone, at attention like the soldier his father had once been. Like so many others, his parents had sought a safer, kinder life in which to raise their children. Cimarron and Tupelo, children alone in the snow, cried as the faces of their loved ones grew dim.
But one found herself apart from the crowd, apart from the companionship of loss, though suffering more than any living soul in those trees could have found bearable. Willow lay on the cold earth, face and hands covered in dirt and pine needles, dress and cloak soaked from damp snow, tears coursing down her delicate face, heedless of her body's need for breath. She coughed and sputtered, but the tears ran on, wracking her body with sobs and fits of shaking. None dared approach her. No one had the strength to go near.
Hepsebah was gone, ash to the earth, smoke to the sky, and her memories locked away inside Willow's heart for an eternity of solitude and grief. Tara would never return. The forest that had protected and guided her from humble birth to young adulthood now rejected her, its leaves and needles taunting and chasing her in her dreams and in her conscious mind. She had waited for the mass funeral for the dead, but all that once held her to this place and these people was burnt. She mourned the passage of one life to another with her hot tears.
Heart and mind numb, Willow gathered herself and stood. She took nothing when she left, just the damp cloak upon her back to stave off the growing cold. Everyone assembled watched her departure, anger and loss mingled with the cedar incense of the pyre. It was an end of an age for all, innocence lost. The forest around them had forsaken their peaceful ways, and the feeble ties that remained would gradually break, frayed by the betrayal and loss of their last hope. Her slow steps carried her from their eyes until she vanished amidst the snow.
On the other side of the forest, a silent warrior sat astride her horse, reverently observing the smoke ascend. Though she had endured a life of deceit and a death of shame, never before had she felt this amount of agony. Her actions had been misinterpreted from birth, and it had finally cost her something more valuable than she knew she possessed. In her hand she clutched Willow's necklace, dropped by Ren in the struggle. "I choose to remember that which was true," she spoke aloud. "Let not my voice again be heard."
The hills of the valley were blanketed in snow, some drifting knee deep. Willow's tear-blotched face was blank and passive as she trudged on. She had walked for two days, unceasing, unyielding. The sensation in her legs and feet was gone, but her heart continued to ache, so she refused to stop. Walk until it doesn't hurt anymore. Walk until it's all numb. Clothes soaked and caked with ice, boots tearing and failing, her journey would end soon, whether by her choice or not. Before her loomed Double Gap, a canyon formed by centuries of rushing water. A full league wide and half that distance deep, the gap had claimed the lives of many a traveler in the Known Lands. Far below rushed the South Fork of the Double River, its icy current swift and strong, carrying with it anything it could tear from the rock and earth which confined it. The sheer drop had thrilled Willow's heart since her first crossing as a tiny child. Now she stared into its vacuous depth, blind to the peril which surrounded her.
"I've heard a few things 'bout Double Gap meself," Jesse stitched the heel of Willow's little boot, his eyes and hands steady despite his growing age. "There's many as been over it like you an' yours, but there's also a plenty of em' what never made it."
"It didn't look hard to me," Willow handed him the knife to cut the tough thread.
He scowled, "Always got an answer, you do." His eyes twinkled despite his frown. The tiny girl saw right through him, but resumed her listening pose once more, ever eager to hear of her big friend's travels and adventures. "'Ave you ever heard of the Canyonlands Town then?"
The red-haired girl thought for a moment, "No." Hepsebah pulled back the curtain of the wagon, stepping carefully with a tray of steaming tea mugs balanced in her hands. She sat beside the others, offering them tea as Jesse continued.
"Mmm," he inhaled and sighed in loud appreciation, "pennyroyal and woodruff?" he asked. Hepsebah nodded. "You always know wha' a stiff back needs, don't ye."
The old woman smiled, "I think I've enough of that myself to know, old man. It has a bit of willow bark as well," she grinned at the child sitting between them. "Always good for what ails, aren't you." Willow smiled back, happy and content to be surrounded by her make-shift family. "But weren't you about to tell our Little Tree a story?"
"Right!" he set his half-drained mug of tea down. "Canyonlands it was, weren't it?" Willow nodded vigorously. "Good tale tha' is," he agreed. "Once there was this big town in th' Canyonlands," he began. "Must'a had a couple hundred folk livin' there, happy and productive-like, they was. Bit o' farmin'," his eyes glazed over as he remembered the details, "cattle mostly, as I recall. An' the town was righ' pretty, it was. Them people liked travelers te stop an' bring coin in. And many a traveler did." Hepsebah nodded in agreement. "Such a pity it was when it all ended," he frowned. "Y' see, they went an' built that town too close te the edge, they did, an' one day the earth jus' up an' says, 'That's mine an' I'll have it back, right and proper.' And so's it does just tha', swallows em up an' carries the whole town downstream." Willow gasped. "Yes, yes," the old man closed his eyes, "They all fell, houses, farms, the lot of it. An' when it all settled down, Double Gap was all that was lef' behind. Y' see, it weren't always Double Gap and Double River. Once they hailed it Fortune River, but tha' couldn'a stay after such a terrible disaster. Thems tha' saw the carnage first-'and said they'd never forget the screams an' bellows."
Willow took a deep breath. "Is that why Brennan shushed us all before we crossed?" she inquired of Hepsebah.
"It is," the elderly woman replied. "We show respect to those who died with our silence. And now that you know what happened there, you, too, must offer them your reverence." She pulled a dried flower from within her faded apron. "Do you remember the words?"
Willow took the wild rose blossom delicately. She closed her eyes and recited as she had been taught, "For those who passed before us, sub rosa." The flower tingled in her hand, then crumbled to dust, her fingers grasping as it dropped to the earth at her feet.
Voices of the dead rose up from the river, shouting, beckoning, warning. The wind buffeted her back, pushing Willow forward, one step following another, closer and closer to the edge. Dried earth and stones slipped from the ledge and fell, their descent swallowed by the cacophony of sound echoing through the wide canyon. One voice stood out from the others, their laments pushed aside. "Follow us," it called, clear and crisp amidst the muffled sorrows. "Follow us," Willow heard the voice distinctly. "Follow us."
A thin current of air caught the dry snow that drifted across the gap, forging a trail over the rocky bridge that had been formed from the disappearance of Canyonland Town. Narrow and treacherous, it wound from ledge to outcrop, providing the only known passage across the Double River for over fifty leagues in either direction. Willow's stumbling steps took her forward, following the voice that beckoned. As she walked she began to see faint marks in the snow, vague outlines shifting in the wind, emerging into footprints as she continued. Willow looked up sharply. Who else could be out in this weather? The wind swirled around the frozen girl, driving her on. Faced with a growing winter storm, she could no longer fathom how she had made this journey so many times before with ponies and wagons in tow. She recalled the steep, narrow path, the vicious winds, and the roar of the river below, but laced with ice and snow, Double Gap had become a death trap once more. The wind howled and snarled, baring its icy teeth at the frail body which clung to the rocks aside the stone bridge.
"Follow us," the voice called out again. Despite her delirium, Willow knew she was hearing someone speak aloud, though the pass was clear apart from snow and wind. The footprints which guided her grew more distinct with each step. Eyelashes covered in ice, she trudged on. Though her progress was slow, Willow found the meager road widen with each step. Looking behind, Double Gap stood broad and solemn at her back.
Blizzard raging as evening settled over the Canyonlands, WIllow quickly lost sight of her surroundings. The sorrow in her heart found the foreground once more, taking advantage of the solitude which the storm wrought upon her. Willow fell to her knees, succumbing to exhaustion and grief. With what little strength she still possessed, she searched in her cloak for the dried flower she always kept there. Her frozen fingertips fumbled blindly, finally coming to rest on the fragile petals she sought. "Caoinim, lethnala. Hear my cry. To those who once passed, sub rosa. To those who remain, caoinim. Take me! Caoinim!" Dry sobs wracked her body. Willow hunkered down in the frozen landscape, heedless to the wind and snow which consumed her. It took only a moment to render her thin body invisible in the blanket of white. Colder than ice, Willow sobbed into the earth, resigning herself to an end of pain and grief. Her breathing slowed as she fell asleep at last.
"Jesse?" Willow called out as she ran through the shop doors. No warm smile greeted her as it had for the last ten years. Silence and dust covered the workbench and tools. Willow ran back out into the sun, headed for the marketplace. "He's gone!" she shouted with a dry throat as soon as Hepsebah came into view. "He's gone."
Hepsebah frowned. "That's ill news." She shared the young teen's concern. "His shop?"
"Dust," the girl answered. She leapt up the wagon steps. "I'll find him," she called out.
The old healer followed her with surprising speed. "No, Willow. You mustn't." At her feet the girl was already beginning a locator spell. She held a crystal tied to a string over a crude, hand-drawn map of the Kingdom. Hepsebah took her shoulders and shook the girl, "Stop. You know the rules," Willow's eyes met hers, "and the dangers." Her grip on the girl was firm.
Willow sighed heavily, dropping the crystal. "We have to find him somehow, Sippa." Her childhood name for the old woman was a sure way to soften hearts and rules, but Hepsebah would not be swayed on this matter.
"I understand you're upset, but getting yourself arrested for casting inside the Kingdom walls won't help us find Jesse. We'll find another way."
"Fine," Willow scowled. She rose and stormed off into the open market.
Hepsebah watched the fourteen-year-old make her way through the crowd. "She is so much like you, Rowan," she whispered.
Weaving and ducking through the mass of bodies, Willow wound her way toward the stables. Perhaps Jesse was helping the farrier as he sometimes did. Either way she would find what she sought. Hepsebah couldn't stop her if she couldn't see her. Willow searched the stables high and low. She found neither the cobbler nor the farrier. Alone in the hayloft, she watched stable boys come and go. Her simple hiding place would guarantee her ample time to cast the locator spell once more. Closing her eyes, she focused on Jesse's face. Hepsebah had taught her spells and recipes, tinctures and enchantments, salves and charms, but there was a wild edge to the girl's magic. As a child it had burst out upon her uncontrollably. Though not much older now, Willow worked regularly to reign in her power. That practice had led to a secret discovery: Willow did not need herbs and charms to cast spells. The only supplies necessary were inside her, desperate to claw their way out. Fear kept her from divulging this information to Hepsebah, but something else in the back of her mind told her that this gift would be important, and it must be refined.
Sitting cross-legged in the straw, the red-haired gypsy girl chanted softly under her breath, eyes closed, mind trained on Jesse's features. Over and over she mumbled the words, deep in her trance. Behind her eyelids, Willow began to see pictures, initially hazy and indistinct. As she sank deeper into her meditative state, the images fell into focus. She saw prison walls. She saw men chained and bound to iron gates, starved, beaten, wailing and begging for death. Her mind recoiled from the horrors beset before her, but nothing could pull her from the vision. She was as much a captive as her ailing friend.
Beside her in the hay, a small boy came to sit, calm and quiet beside her reverie. He watched her eyes twitch and roll beneath closed lids, saw the glistening sweat gather on her brow, and heard the strange sounds escape her lips. Unafraid, he reached out to her, touching her arm with his hand. "It's only a dream," he reassured her. "Wake up."
Willow's eyes snapped open, suddenly alert. She stared into the face of the boy, his short, tightly curled hair framing his tan skin. Large brown eyes stared back, a slight smile hidden underneath. He was younger, but not by much. "I have to go," Willow spoke quickly, trying to remember where she sat. The vision had overwhelmed her.
"I know," the boy answered. "That's why I came. Someone had to wake you up." Willow gazed at him fully, shaken and mistrustful. There was, however, something terribly familiar about this boy. "You'll find him in the north dungeon."
Willow left without waiting for another word. They did find Jesse, twelve days later. Brennan sent two of his best men into the dungeons in search of the cobbler, only to find his broken, battered body in the dirt. They brought him back to the valley when they returned, greeted by the tears of the entire camp. No one explained to the bereft girl why a whole clan had risked their lives for a shoemaker with no gypsy blood in him, but she paid it no heed. Her heart was shattered from the loss. No words crossed her lips for weeks after as she grieved. The mystery of Jesse's death followed her to the brink of her own.
"... and I told that boy, 'You will not be running off to that ridiculus battle!' That's what I said." Willow could hear a voice rambling on, but the words were muffled and indistinct. "But run he did, crazy fool." Pain in her head forced her eyes to stay closed. She could sense light and warmth, but it was far away. "Hasn't been home in nigh on two years now." More pain fought for the girl's attention, nagging at her bones and muscles in sequence. She wanted to cry out from the agony, but that would mean acknowledging consciousness, and Willow wasn't prepared to go that far. "Good thing we have Calla then, isn't it? Right, you are. She takes good care of us, she does. Maybe you'll wake up for her today. She told me you might sleep a long time, but I think the smell of her mushroom soup will bring you round in no time."
Willow did smell the soup, and it was heavenly. Her eyes opened without permission, stabbing her brain with a pain hotter than an iron poker, sharper than a butcher's knife. She closed them at once, wincing from the torment. The scent of hot bread wafted under her nostrils next, taunting her. She felt hungrier than she could ever recall in her lifetime, stomach empty and growling. Trying her eyes once more, hazy images of a fire came into her vision.
"Calla!" the annoying voice beside her screeched. "She's awake!"
Footsteps ran over wooden floorboards, echoing menacingly in Willow's head. She flinched, shutting her eyes and gritting her teeth. "I'm sorry," a sensitive voice hovered next to the redhead's ear. "You must be suffering horribly."
A cool, damp cloth wiped the girl's brow and face, gently inviting her eyes to open once more. Willow stared up at the fuzzy outline of a girl with long blonde hair. "Tara?" she asked, struggling to center her vision.
"My name is Calla," the voice answered, its owner's face coming into sharper contrast as Willow gazed on. "I worried you'd never wake after everything you'd been through. This is a miracle." Willow took shallow breaths, subconsciously taking count of limbs, fingers, toes. What had she been through? "Can you try to eat? It'd be good for you." A firm but petite hand slipped behind her shoulders and brought her up a tiny amount. Pain roared through Willow's body, but she was too weak to fight. "There," the girl kept talking in a soothing tone. "We'll take it slow. Soup first."
"Where..." Willow whispered, her voice disembodied and foreign to her own ears. A spoon alighted on her bottom lip which burned at the sudden contact. A cloth beneath her chin caught the drips of broth, guiding her to drink regardless of discomfort. The taste was even better than the scent, despite the sensitivity of her flesh. She drank on, one spoonful at a time.
"You're outside of Vail, in a small village. Red Springs," the caretaker explained as Willow recovered. "I'm Calla," she smiled, "and that's my mother, Verla." The old woman grinned widely and waved like a child. "We've kept an eye on you for quite a while now. I thought you were dead when I found you out there." Willow looked in the direction of her nod, realizing the darkness was not a product of night, but of snow drifts over the tiny cabin's windows. Wind howled outside the walls, urging the fire in the grate to dance. "How do you feel now?"
The frail gypsy tried to speak again, this time with success. "Much better, thank you."
Calla smiled. "Perhaps some solid food would set well with you?" She turned quickly and disappeared.
"My little girl makes the best squire bread in the village," the old woman bragged. Willow found her yellow teeth and wispy grey hair unsettling, though she didn't know why. "What's your name, little girl lost?"
"Willow," she answered before she could stop herself.
"Of course," Verla smiled again. "You're the one they want to kill. I remember now." She started to hum absently and searched in her lap for the knitting which kept her company when her children left.
Willow's blood ran cold, gripping her body with a shiver she could not control. "What did you say?"
"I said they came to kill you. And they'll return. They won't stop until you're dead." The old woman's face was light and joyful, oblivious to the fear she dealt. Forcing down the panic in her chest, Willow breathed as calmly as she was able. Calla returned from the kitchen bearing a plate of freshly baked bread. "Did you bring honey, dear?"
"Yes, mother," she grinned. "How are you two getting on?"
"Her name is Willow," Verla told her as she spread her slice of bread with honey and butter. Willow could only smile faintly. "I think the cold damaged her head."
Calla gasped, "Mother!" She leaned in toward Willow's ear and whispered, "I'm sorry, she's not well. Sometimes she says things..." The look on the young woman's face was so full of sorrow, Willow nearly wished she could comfort her. "Please, eat as much as you like. It may take a few days, but I'm sure you'll be back on your feet soon."
Willow ate and rested, and after four more days of being cared for, she was indeed back on her feet. The snow had finally stopped, and light streamed in through the small window in the kitchen where she sat with her new friend. Calla had proven to be as warm and comforting as her mother was disturbing and aloof. "She actually said that in front of the whole village?"
Calla laughed, "Yes, it's quite true. I know it sounds terrible," her smile faded, "and in some ways it is. I wouldn't wish this burden upon anyone. So I try to find humor in it when I can." Willow had come to admire Calla's quick wit and rosy smile. Her wavy, blonde hair fell down her back as she stooped to pick up a dropped towel. Every so often, she turned and her hair shifted, glinting gold in the confined light of indoors. Willow found herself stricken by those moments, overcome by a longing for Tara. "You have that look again," Calla commented.
"What look?" Willow was suddenly worried. Physically, her body had suffered more than it should have rightly taken. The wound in her left shoulder had scarred badly, and her range of motion would never return to normal. A mild case of frostbite had not helped her initial recovery. It was only by Calla's quick action and knowledge that Willow had kept her fingers and toes intact.
"That look you get sometimes. You're thinking of someone." Willow blushed against her will. Calla instantly smiled, encouraged by being on the right path. "You know, it's obvious you were running from something, but are you sure you're running in the right direction?"
Willow resumed her task of sifting flour into the clay bowl. "I simply need to go north." She busied her hands and eyes with work.
Calla watched her for a moment, then resigned herself to the dead end she had forced them into. "I'm sorry, Willow. I didn't mean to upset you."
"You didn't," she started to say, then smiled as the blonde caught her gaze, "well, perhaps you did, but I know you didn't intend to. I just..." Calla's hand was on her own, giving her permission to save the explanation for another time. They finished making bread dough in companionable silence.
"I know you'll want to leave soon," Calla suddenly spoke after a long time of quiet work. "I've seen you stare out the window more with each passing day."
Willow stood beside her and handed her a towel to retrieve the kettle from the fire. Calla poured the steaming water into the teapot on the scarred table at the center of the tiny room. They sat and waited for their tea to steep. "I can't stay," Willow began. "And please let me explain for once," she held up a hand to the blonde's usual retort. "You were right. I was running from something. I think I'll be running for a while." Her eyes misted over with the memory of fire and death, as well as the loss of her home and family. "So before anyone finds me here, I need to travel on. It's for your safety as well as mine."
"You're in trouble," Calla concluded. Willow nodded. "Then let me help you."
"No, Calla, you've done enough. I couldn't possibly allow-"
"Nonsense," the baker stood, collecting odd things from around the kitchen. "I won't have you traveling in this weather without supplies, and I happen to have a few connections between here and the heart of the kingdom." She paused and looked into the distance, her gaze clearly not on the dried flowers before her. "In fact, I think I know of a place where you could go and not be found... if that would help?"
Willow poured the tea into two simple clay mugs. She had grown so accustomed to life with this simple family, it pained her to consider leaving. "I shouldn't be so proud to refuse any kind of help," she smiled thinly. "How am I ever going to repay you for all of this?"
Calla sat again, taking her tea and blowing across the top. A smoky, sweet steam enveloped the two young women as they conspired. "There is something..." They stared at one another while Calla considered her request. Would Willow agree? "I don't really know anything about you, where you come from, that sort of thing." Willow looked away awkwardly, still wary about saying too much, even though every fiber of her body told her she could trust this new friend. "But it's clear to me that you possess certain... gifts." Calla looked up from her tea into Willow's wild, green eyes. "Verla has been sick for so long..."
"She's not sick," Willow answered before the request could be made. "And I can't heal her." Calla nodded. She had expected as much. "She's a seer."
The red-haired gypsy set her mug down on the table. "She sees things which... things which have not yet occurred." Calla stared in wide-eyed amazement. "Some of what she sees may never come to pass. It's a difficult gift to live with."
Calla turned toward the other room, listening to her mother's soft snores. "I say it's a curse." She sighed heavily. "It certainly explains many things. She spoke to you as well, didn't she?" Willow tried to smile, but the warning from four days before had remained at the forefront of her thoughts both day and night. Her frown was enough answer. "You believe what she forsees."
"I do," Willow agreed. "Either way, I must still go." Reluctant to waste time, Willow rose and walked into the other room, gently waking the old woman. Calla followed her, curiosity winning out over fear. "Verla?" Willow whispered.
"I'm awake, little tree," the old woman answered, keeping her eyes shut. "You want to know more, don't you?"
"Yes, please. What can you tell me?"
Verla breathed deeply and sat up a little, eyes cracking open in the dim light from the fireplace. "You've made a terrible mistake, you know." Willow shuddered, unsure of whether Calla's mother meant something in the past or the future. "You can't stop them coming." She was clearly upset at what she saw in her mind.
"Can't stop whom?" Willow urged her on.
"The men in black," Verla whispered, as though they were nearby in the tiny house with the women. "There is a knight among them, and he wants you. He won't rest until he finds you."
"A black knight?" Calla came to sit at her mother's side. "I don't understand."
"Of course you don't," the old woman snapped. "You spend all your time thinking I've gone crazy. You don't listen."
Calla took a deep breath. "I'm listening now."
Verla eyed her with suspicion, then turned back to Willow. "You know what you have to do, don't you, dear?"
"No," Willow nearly cried. "I don't! I can't fathom any of this. How can they still come after me when they were all killed before?" Verla and Calla waited patiently for her to calm down, startled by her outburst. "I'm sorry," she shrank back down into the chair by the fire. "I didn't mean to..."
"That's the fire you need," Verla interrupted her, taking up the knitting in her lap. "It'll come in handy later on." She began the stitches that soothed her troubled mind. "When he finds you," she murmured, "you won't recognize him. And I wouldn't recommend believing everything he tells you."
"Are you sure you're ready to go so soon?" Calla asked as she handed Willow another loaf of bread wrapped in cloth. "It seems like you only just woke up a day or two ago." She hadn't looked Willow in the eye all morning. They both knew the journey must begin today.
Willow paused and reached a hand out to her friend's arm. "Calla, you've done more for me than anyone would. I'll be indebted to you forever." They continued to stuff food and supplies into a pack Calla had given her. The instructions were simple. Willow was to head northwest to the shore of the Drowning Sea and travel north through the ruins of City Lost until she found the western road into the kingdom. There, where the path was still small enough to wind between the tightly woven madronas, she would find a group of people who might harbor her in their midst.
"Words cannot prepare you for what you will see," she had warned the night before. "But they will remember my name and their debt to me."
Willow chose not to inquire further. She set off with the faint light of an overcast sunrise. The snow from her previous journey still lingered, its memory taunting and biting at her body. She pulled her cloak tightly around herself and marched up the hill and out of the vicinity of Red Springs.
Rolling hills transformed into sandy dunes as the cold day passed over Willow's progress. Her mind wandered back to the many journeys of her people as she walked a steady pace. They had not always remained in one place for so long. Traveling had been their way of life for centuries before, but the necessity of hiding for safety had stolen the very thing which defined the Circle as a culture. Willow's muscles relaxed as she breathed in the frigid air, untainted by the containment of roofs and walls. She tasted the sea and salt on the wind.
"The Great Western Shores were once the site of an enormous city built in the biggest meadow ye ever did see," Jesse threw his arms wide, as he so frequently did to display the size of ancient things. Over the years, Willow was beginning to learn that the only thing which divided the past from the present was size. "The walls o' the city would shine in the sunlight, brighter 'an the sun on a cloudless day. Polished like a river stone, they were."
The little girl sitting on the workbench looked up from the leather Jesse had given her to play with. "What was the city called?"
A far-away look settled in the old man's eyes. "Torrent," he answered. "T'was the largest city in the Known Lands back then," he mused.
Standing on a bluff overlooking the boiling sea in all its fury, Willow saw why the city had once been called by such a name. Far below, the water churned and spewed thirty feet or higher into the air. Jagged rocks and cliffs protruded from every surface, above and below the waves. In the distance, she could barely see the outline of City Lost, the remnants of Torrent left behind after they were abandoned during the mighty floods. It was nothing more than an end of journeys now, a place where no one dared return after the horrible legacy of destruction it bore on the generations before them. A single spire remained of the once proud castle, its peak listing dangerously toward the water.
"Ancients built most o' the cities in the Known Lands, y'see. They still hold all o' those dark secrets from so far in the past tha' not a single man alive can remember what they be." Jesse polished the beautifully crafted shoes he had spent the better part of the week finishing. His stained hands worked faster than Willow's eyes could follow, the cloth he held becoming a yellow blur in her tired gaze.
"Tell me about-" a yawn cut off her request, "about the Ancients again, Jesse." She settled down into the make-shift bed he kept in the shop for her.
His voice fell to a whisper. "Tonight," he tucked a thick blanket around her chin, "I'll tell ye the best story of all. Once, the Ancients walked in these here parts. True, it's been a long string o' lifetimes wha' seen em' gone, but if ye listen right quiet-like, y'can hear 'em sometimes, breathin' in the wind an' sighin' when the trees dance. Them's what made the castle 'ere, an' the ruined city as well. There's not many as know tha' bit. Some say they was tree shepherds, others'll tell ye they separated the rivers an' the sea." His voice grew low and quiet as the little girl slipped into a world of fairytale dreams. "But none's more true 'an how they tamed the beasts of this wild world afore they called us up to take their place..."
Willow stared at the glare of sunset on the polished rock of City Lost. The rest of the story was a mystery to her, and Jesse never spoke of it again. Somewhere in her mind, she knew it lurked, waiting for the right trigger to bring it to the surface. Her memory had brought her this far before, though never in conjunction with an opportunity to explore the source of the enigmatic story like that which presented itself to her now. Tomorrow she would reach the remains of Torrent.