Pure, golden sunlight fell across Willow's eyelids, filling her with warmth. She smiled before she opened her eyes, knowing without seeing that it was spring, that the day would be beautiful, and that her true love was but a breath away from her side. Stay, she told herself. Don't wake just yet. She felt the soft rise and fall of Tara's chest, the rhythmic breathing a sign of her own heavy slumber. Before she could stop herself, Willow blinked and gazed at the spot where Tara should be. Her heart caught in her throat, as it had done nearly every morning since she came to City Lost. She was alone, and the cold was creeping over her as the dream faded. Breathing hard to fight back the tears that stung her eyes, she sat up and greeted the harsh coastal winter once more.
Three days had followed one another alike, each bringing her a dream in the night that was more real to her than the hours she spent awake exploring the ruins of the city which sheltered her. She had decided it was indeed this place which granted the dreams. Stories about the Ancients nagged at her mind as she combed through fallen towers and overgrown streets, searching for something she could not name. She was driven by a need to find it, whatever it could be, but the reality of the magic in Torrent was settling in on her more and more each morning. It was numbing her desire to leave, to go north where she had planned. Fear and loneliness followed her steps through abandoned pathways and around crumbled walls.
Some say they was tree shepherds, others'll tell ye they separated the rivers an' the sea, Jesse's voice whispered to her as she searched. He would know where to look. He would know what she sought. Frustrated, Willow wished she could curse his name aloud, but her heart broke at the thought. She sat down abruptly on a wall that framed the outer edge of what remained of the mighty stone city over the sea. "Why did I come here?" she asked the wind. "Why did this place draw me in?"
Far below her, the violent waves crashed and cascaded over the bare rock, sending foam and mist high into the air. A rumble shivered through the earth, tickling her feet and vibrating up into her bones. Willow immediately stood, frightened by the sensation. Had her words been heard? All was stillness about her. Magic was thick in the air, sweet and heavy in her throat. "Reveal," she spoke aloud, her voice thick with authority. A bright light flashed in response, making her cringe and cover her eyes with the back of her hand. She peeked after a moment, seeing a trail of green mist leading away from the precipitous edge. Willow glanced around in apprehension, but she knew she was alone. "Should've thought of that three days ago," she muttered as she began to follow the tinted haze.
The greenness swirled about her as she followed the trail it provided. It meandered through the mossy cobblestones, down into the heart of the ancient castle and towers, and led her directly into an overgrown wall of ivy and blackberry brambles. Air moved the vines gently. Sighing with irritation at the scrapes and cuts to come, she pulled the curtain of vegetation aside and plunged into utter darkness. Feeling around with shaking fingers, Willow found the rough walls of a hallway, possibly a tunnel. The floor pitched steeply into the blackness, and a dank smell of stagnant air met her nose. This is it, her mind told her. This is what you were searching for. Well, she sighed again, it won't do any good to explore in the dark.
Closing her eyes in concentration, Willow called upon the fire that surged in her blood to surface. Using magic in this place caused no conflict in her mind, unlike the world beyond these walls. Perhaps it was the constant restraint Hepsebah had taught her, or the knowledge of the harsh penalties for casting inside the Drylands city walls, but Willow rarely felt safe calling upon her power elsewhere. Here, however, it felt natural, comfortable, and right. Her skin began to glow, pale at first, then it grew warm and rosy with increasing intensity. She opened her eyes and gasped, awe-stricken by the perfectly preserved corridor in which she stood. Tapestries and paintings reflected the pleasant light, their colors still vibrant and true. Above her hung the armor of an ancient army, the shine still polished, the leather still soft. Her feet guided her down, descending as the tunnel twisted in an immense circle below what was once the main hall of the castle.
After many revolutions, the walls and floors changed to rough stone, devoid of decoration. A fresh breeze caught her attention, drawing her deeper. Something about the structure of this tunnel was familiar, though Willow's mind could not find a memory to fit it. Deeper still, the rough stone became polished rock. Her hands brushed against it, delighting in its perfectly smooth texture. And, despite her depth, there was no doubt that the walls were warm. It was only a hint of warmth, but it was no fantasy or trick of the mind. Something radiated heat from within. Everything about this place fascinated her. The scent of magic in the air, its warmth in the stone, and the perfection with which this city was created enchanted her.
Further down the passageway, a light caught her eye. Willow hastened to the source, nearly stumbling off the sheer edge as it crumbled beneath her feet. She reached out for a wall and caught herself at the last moment. Before her was the full might of the Drowning Sea, its rolling tide crashing a mere three steps from where she stood. So this was the end of the tunnel. Her mind disagreed with what she saw, insisting that there must be more, but it was obvious that whatever had once been in this place was now in the ownership of the watery depths. Above her soared the sheer cliffs of the coastline, the edge of what the floods had left behind. In her mind, she watched the city tear itself in half at the beck and call of the mighty ocean, walls and towers collapsing in the destruction. The mental image left her cold and shaken. More had been lost here than any man alive today knew. She felt it. Sadness and remorse permeated the very earth, soaking into the stone floor under her feet.
Reluctantly, she retraced her steps. Tracing a line with her fingers as she ascended the long corridor, something incongruous with the glossy stone caught her attention. She turned to examine it. Carved into the very wall were words she could not decipher. Her fingertips explored the foreign message, searching for a way to understand what had been written, but it was unrecognizable to her.
"Damn this whole thing," she swore. "All this effort for nothing. A tunnel to nowhere, a message I can't read..." Sighing one last time, Willow turned and proceeded to the surface. "What good is half a city?" In her mind, Jesse's stories flared and nagged once more, though still offering her no more than they had the day before. There was still something to be found here. She knew that as well as she knew her own name. This, however, was not the time to walk in circles.
Willow stared back at the silhouette of the leaning tower which had sheltered her for many days and nights, regret pulling sharply at her. I know I must continue. I must, she reassured herself. Light rain soaked into her cloak, chilling her as she stood motionless. Walking would warm her sufficiently, if only she could convince herself to go. Tucking a loose strand of hair back into the protection of her hood, she turned and walked further north, further from the ruined city which called out to her. For six days she had been closer to the memory of Tara than she imagined possible. Forget her, she told herself sharply. She betrayed you and your people. But her heart would not allow that thought to remain without contest. What had Ren's purpose been in placing such suspicion within the Circle? Willow shook the argument out of her head and began to march vigorously. There was no answer which would offer peace.
Around her the landscape changed from sandy bluffs to thick stands of twisted cedars and madronas, their branches and bark a testament to the powerful force of wind and sea-spray along the coastline. Gnarled and deformed, they clung to the rock and sand with a tenacity few other forms of life would put forth in such inhospitable circumstances. Willow clung to her walking instructions with a similar vigor, desperate to drive the thoughts of the past from her untamed mind.
Hepsebah was gone. Jesse was gone. Now even Tara had left, and Willow felt more alone than thought she could bear. The dream of waking up every morning beside the Southlander had ripped open the heavily scarred wound that had threatened to tear her heart in two. As she walked, she rubbed her shoulder absently. Her true scar ached and pulled as the cold overtook her. Tiny stones and pebbles crept from the landscape and stole into her pockets, working their way up into her body and around her delicate heart, building the beginnings of a thick wall, its sole purpose to seal in the pain of loneliness and death. Willow held back her tears, using them instead as mortar.
Morning faded to night and back into day once more, bringing a rare glimpse of sunshine to the smoother coastline of the Western Shores. The red haired girl had walked through the night, afraid of what her dreams would bring, and terrified of what they would not. Standing atop a steep hill which had stolen her breath, Willow decided to stop for breakfast. The bright orange light of sunrise flooded the valley to her right, casting long shadows from houses and other buildings she could not make out in the contrast. Squinting, she decided this must be Hillmarch. Hillmarch, she thought as she chewed the still soft bread from Calla's oven. Then this is the last day of my journey. Pleased with her progress, Willow ate quickly and gathered her things. If she kept up a swift pace, she would arrive by nightfall.
Together, the old man and his little red-haired friend sat in the low branches of an apple tree in the far corner of the orchard below the city walls. Before them were spread the fields that separated the kingdom proper from Hillmarch. "Good tradin' te be had in Hillmarch, there is," Jesse cut pieces from a crisp, red apple and handed them to the little girl. "Best farmland in all the kingdom. Did I ever tell you why they call it by tha' name?"
"Because of that big hill behind it?" she turned her head. "Sippa says the ocean is on the other side." Her bare legs swung back and forth under the branch in the warm summer air.
"Tis indeed," he answered, "as is City Lost. You remember me tale 'bout Torrent, y' do." She nodded eagerly. The story of the city that washed into the sea was her favorite. "Well after the survivors fled, they were lookin' fer anythin' uphill-like. Water can't climb, ye know." His eyes misted over with his memories. "Sunrise th' next day, it was, they looked up t' the east, an' there was the biggest hill ye can imagine. Tired an' wore to the bone, they was, but up they climbs anyhow. S'pose ye could say they marched!" he chuckled. "Most stayed there at first, after all o' what they'd been through, makin' Hillmarch the biggest city in these here parts fer s'long as most knew."
Willow stared at the town below the hill. "But the castle is here," she said quietly. "What happened?"
"Curiosity, I s'pose," Jesse cut another slice of apple, sweet juice running down his gnarled hands. "Y'see, these here spires an' towers an' all 'ave been loomin' fer longer than anyone can reckon. Made by the Ancients, remember?" Willow grinned and nodded again. "Y' can't place somethin' like tha' in front of a band of ragged, lost people an' not expect 'em te come a'runnin'. Bigger 'an Hillmarch, it didn't take long fer Drylands te take the crown."
Firelight glowed between the thick trees, orange and red flickering over the painted features of a tall, skinny man on the border of the woodland clearing. The black diamonds drawn around his elongated eyes emphasized the paleness of his irises, a light blue which was repeated up his forehead and over his bald scalp. Crimson stripes followed his jaw line and plunged under his shirt down onto his hairless chest, thin and bony. He shifted weight from his right foot to his left, groaning. His stint of guard duty was nearly over. "And Syra had better be on time tonight, or so help me..." he mumbled into the darkness. He stretched his long, spindly arms out fully, brushing the laurels on either side of the camp entrance. The quarterstaff in his left hand scraped the ground, but the sound was lost to the din of constant music and clatter within the clearing. A drummer pounded on his skins, the rhythm wild and frantic, accompanied by flutes and strings and instruments which bore no name nor any definition of the sound which escaped them. Their tones met and collided in discord, then twisted round one another in perfect harmony. Bare feet beat their own tempo into the soil, sometimes matching that of the music, sometimes straying off into their own creation. It was a death march and a celebration all at once.
"I don't see why we can't just make a gate out of you, Linn," a tiny man behind spoke, making the stretching giant jump in fright. "After all, you have got the wingspan of a wyvern."
Linn bent himself in half to stare at the plump little dwarf of a man at his feet. "Better to string you and your filthy little brothers together and form a line of impenetrable stench, don't you think?" He sniffed, curling his nostrils in intense displeasure. "Nice to see you on time, for once," he leaned the staff against the nearest tree. "It's quiet tonight. Try not fall asleep."
The dwarf snorted at him, their banter the common accompaniment to the change in shifts. Though secluded this far from any proper civilizations, the encampment retained their original guard duties as they had when traveling to and from the city of Drylands. Dangerous times had pushed them beyond the reach of the Royal Guard, to the edge of the Known Lands and into the depths of poverty. The only entrance to their newly permanent home was guarded day and night in rotating shifts by all who lived within its protecting border.
Syra took out his own dagger from the leather belt that hung low around his plump waistline, checking that its blade was still sharp and true. He looked up and noticed that his spindly comrade was still there, staring oddly into the forest. "Thought you were anxious to get to your tent?"
"I would be," Linn replied, "were it not for that," he pointed with an arm that was longer than most men's legs.
Following his direction, they both stared at the hooded figure emerging from the trees. It glided over the forest brambles and roots of trees as though it were a part of the woods itself. As it drew closer, Linn picked out details. The hood and cloak were of dark green wool. Slowly, the edges of a face came into view; pale skin, a delicate jaw line, rosy cheeks and lips, and eyes that glowed green in the fading light of the surrounding vegetation. Gloved hands reached up to remove the hood as she stopped before the guardsmen, revealing long, red hair tumbling over her narrow shoulders. Willow stared at the odd looking men with as much fascination as they displayed while they stared at her. She extended a hand, palm first, as Calla had instructed.
Linn was first to respond, mirroring her gesture, until their palms touched lightly. His immense frame loomed over her, casting her face into shadow. "Welcome, stranger." He cocked his head to one side, curious as to how she knew of their greetings and ways.
"Thank you," she smiled. "My name is Willow. I was sent by Calla."
"...and here you'll find the fire pit. We share meals here. I know it doesn't look like much, but these are hard times for outcasts, you know," Linn explained as they walked through the camp. After proffering Calla's name, both men had lit up and welcomed the girl as though she were truly one of their own.
Linn had introduced her to the most fantastic people she had ever set eyes upon, each one more strange and unique than the last. Bog, an enormous fellow with a belly the size of a marsh hog, had nearly crushed her hand with excitement. In only a moment of introduction, he had consumed six apples, a round of hard cheese, and two full loaves of bread. "A light snack," he had blushed.
Turl and Catch, twin brothers and acrobats, had spun around Willow until she was dizzy. "Do they ever slow down?" she asked her guide. Linn simply smiled a toothy grin, his black make-up making his face a bit scary.
"This is Phidi," Linn went on, catching the attention of a thin boy dressed in green scales. His hair stuck up at odd angles, and the lines of his face were tinted green to match his scaly exterior. He smiled at her with a forked tongue dashing between his teeth. Willow jumped back in alarm, making the boy's smile even larger.
"Phidi!" a girl from a far tent called. "That was rude!" She strode across the grassy opening and faced Willow with a bright, charming smile. She extended her palm as they had all done, "I'm sorry, he's my little brother." Willow met her hand and held it for a moment. "I'm Penna."
"Willow," came the reply, though the red-haired girl's voice was getting weaker by the moment. What had Calla gotten her into? Who were all these people? Penna looked warmly at her, her hazel eyes and dark brown hair soft and inviting, unlike the oddities of all the other members of this camp. Before she could express how grateful she was to meet someone who looked normal, a frighteningly large cat crept up behind the girl. Blue striped fur bristled, and deadly claws cut into the soft earth under its tremendous paws. Willow froze in terror at the sight of a beast the size of a full-grown man, with enough power to destroy everyone and everything in the forest.
"What is it?" Penna's face went pale. "Willow?" She turned just in time to see the feline crouch at her feet, prepared to pounce. "Grim," she scolded. The cat turned its eyes up in guilt. "She's one of us. A gypsy. Leave her be."
Gypsy? Willow's mind turned dangerously. The mystery of these people crawled under her skin. They cannot be gypsies, she reasoned. Everything she knew and had learned about nature and mankind was being challenged, and now this strange cat tamer had proclaimed something so far beyond her comprehension that Willow nearly collapsed under the weight of it all. Arms and hands reached for her quickly, holding her upright. "I'm sorry, I..." Willow glanced around at the freakish faces, each showing genuine concern for her well-being. Could she learn to trust them? Would they catch her as swiftly if they knew her past?
"You must be weary," Penna approached her, offering a hand. Willow took it, allowing herself to be led from the gathering crowd of misfits. The blue tiger followed, appearing protective of his master. "Grim won't hurt you," Penna saw that Willow was following the cat with her eyes. "He understands the rules. This is my tent," she gestured with her free hand. Willow suddenly realized she was still holding the girl's left hand and immediately let go. "I'd be honored if you'd let me shelter you." Willow nodded, exhaustion settling in on her like wet sand. "We can leave everything else for the morning." Warm colors surrounded them as they bent to enter through the low doorway. Shaking off the chill of damp winter, Willow followed Penna's cues to lay down in the soft cot on the far side of the main room. The cat tamer's voice trailed on gently as consciousness slipped from the gypsy, sleep claiming her for the first time in two days.