The scent of frying sausages and bacon wafted through the tent opening and under Willow's nose. Her eyelids fluttered, then parted, letting the filtered morning light into her eyes. She sat up abruptly, uncertain of her surroundings as she suddenly remembered her dream from the night before.
Red and gold leaves fluttered through the forest on an early autumn breeze. Her bare feet crunched in the dry, brittle covering over the warm soil as she picked her way to the furthest tent in the clearing. It was red and gold, exactly like the leaves. The cloth parted in anticipation of her arrival, and a soft whisper welcomed her. "Come, Willow," it called. Inside, a beautiful woman in a midnight blue gown greeted her with an enigmatic smile. Her straight, black hair was parted in the center of her head, revealing a third eye set in her brow. It pierced through Willow, seeing everything in her past, her present, and possibly her future. "Sit," the voice requested, though the woman's mouth did not move. Willow sat on a cushion of silk, drinking in the spicy aromas of incense and oil. Colors she had never before seen drew her attention astray, and every time she turned her gaze, she was met with the sight of yet another wonder she could not comprehend. "There is more time than you know," the voice reassured her. "You cannot take it all in at once." Willow returned the luminous smile that was offered, losing herself in the darkness of the third eye which penetrated her thoughts. "When you are ready, I will be here."
"Inara," she whispered into the vacant tent, aware that the dream was not simply a dream, but a message. Hepsebah had spoken to her in the same manner in the past, but those messages were never so complex, so beautiful, so real.
Hoping she was ready to face the uncertainty of another meeting with the band of misfits outside her temporary home, the redhead tidied her cot and left the warmth of the tent.
Turl and Catch were first to find her in the bustle of early morning meals and preparations. "Good morning," they said simultaneously, both bowing low to her. Their tightly muscled bodies rippled with strength as they bent before her. Willow found herself fascinated with their clothing, its vivid orange and blue accents far brighter than any cloth she had seen in the Drylands marketplace.
"Good morning, Turl and.... um..."
"Catch," the young man on the right grinned, his delicate face lighting up. "Most people forget my brother's name," he turned to his mirror image, "but I'll make it easy for you. You see, we're acrobats-"
"Of course she can see that," Turl interrupted.
Catch glared at him. "As I was saying," he turned back to Willow, smiling again, "he twirls and I catch! It's very easy to remember." Willow frowned, not entirely understanding. Catch sighed and rolled his eyes, "I know, I know, Turl and twirl. Right?" She nodded. "We toured far in the Northlands when we were children."
"Ah," she suddenly understood.
"Damnable Northlanders," Turl cursed. "It's not a difficult letter to pronounce if you just try. Our poor mother cried for weeks," he sighed. "After a while, we decided it would be too much trouble to change it on the billing posters, so it stuck." Willow choked back a giggle. The twin acrobats were odd, but she felt very warm in their presence.
"Are you hungry?" Catch took her arm gently. "Linn cooks the most magnificent sausages," he led her to the fire pit.
The sight of a mighty bonfire amidst the trees made her heart beat heavily. It reminded her of home so much that the tears flooded her eyes before she could control her reaction. Dozens of people milling around the hand-built tables and benches stopped to attend her. Turl guided her into a sturdy chair, Catch produced a colorful cloth to wipe away her tears, and Bog met her with a steaming cup of tea. Surprised at how quickly they all came to her aid, Willow felt a fresh bout of tears erupt from within, wracking her thin body with sobs.
A pair of hands tenderly combed her long, red hair over her shoulders, pulling her into a comforting embrace. "Shh," Penna rocked her. "It's alright now, Willow."
"It's just," she blurted out, "I haven't," sobs shook her uncontrollably.
Penna held her tighter. "You're safe here. I know it's hard to trust that after everything you must have been through, but we'll show you. Just let us keep you safe."
"What's all the fussin'?" a husky voice from behind called out. All eyes turned up, and Willow felt cold creep into her bones. A shadow fell across her, stealing the warmth and light from the fire.
"Trace," Penna reasoned, "I told you last night. This is Willow. She's come to-"
"Ain't no one come to do nothin' less I say it's so," the darkness slunk further over the misfits, overwhelming Willow's vision. She turned her head to the left and saw a figure she couldn't seem to focus her eyes on. A murky silhouette strode between the crowd and where the redhead sat, clearly staring into her, though she couldn't even find eyes in the blackness. "So," the voice continued, clearly female, "this is what it's all about? This tiny thing is supposed to be one of us?"
"Willow," Penna faced the girl, "this is Trace. She's-"
"I'm in charge, and don't let that slip your mind. These misfits," a shadowy arm reached out from behind a cloak and motioned at the crowd assembled, "they're alive because of me. Alive. Would have been dead at the hands of your kind had it not been for my quick thinking." The anger coming from the inky shape was far more palpable than her form. "So don't let her pathetic nature deceive you," she spoke to her followers. "Her kind kills our kind."
Linn stepped into the argument, a pan of sizzling sausages still in his hand. Two strides brought him from the far side of the fire to where Willow sat, stunned to silence by the violent words being thrown about. "Calla sent her."
"I don't give a damn if the Ancients sent her!" Trace roared. "Just look at her," Willow felt a hand wave over her features. "Two eyes, two ears, perfect little nose," Trace taunted. "Ain't nothin' freakish about her."
Confused, Willow decided speaking up could make things worse, but perhaps it might also heal the situation. It was worth trying. All of this bickering was getting them nowhere, and she was tired of being the subject without having a voice. Hoping she wasn't sealing her death warrant with the unstable leader, she stood and faced the shadow, bringing her arms out to both sides of her body, palms up. The trees shivered around them, though no wind blew. "Shadow to light," Willow spoke, her voice firm and commanding. A swift wind suddenly leapt from the nearest tree branches and swept through the gathering, blowing grit into the eyes of her onlookers. Sunlight met their eyelids, encouraging them to look once more upon the scene. Willow still stood with her arms wide, though before her now stood a muscular girl in tight black leather and silk, a long black hooded cloak trailing behind her in the remnants of the conjured breeze. Daylight played over the dark waves of hair which sprung from beneath the hood. Menacing black eyes shot through Willow, furious at what she had done.
"So," the woman's sultry voice now sounded more human, more normal, and it clearly came from a visible source. Her cherry red lips curled into a cruel smile. "Turns out Red here might just fit in after all." She eyed the gypsy with what could only be described as hunger, then turned to address Penna. "Take her to Inara."
"But-" Penna began. She was silenced with a harsh stare. "Of course."
Stepping back into her dream from the night before, Willow walked through the madronas to the furthest tent in the encampment. Penna had refused to accompany her. "Inara is..." she stared off into the trees, thinking. "She keeps to herself. We don't go to her unless we're invited." Mustering what bravery she had left, Willow took hold of the beautifully decorated tent cloth and pulled it aside. She stepped into a paradise of color and spice, nearly identical to that which she had dreamt. Colored glass bottles lined the walls, gilt-edged frames of painted landscapes and people graced what vacant spots remained amidst the chaos of objects. Feeling suddenly ashamed, Willow removed her worn boots and threw them out of the tent behind her.
"Thank you," a voice whispered in her mind. Willow glanced around to find the source, her eyes landing on the same woman from her dream. Her legs were curled under her as she sat on a pillow of silk. "You want to understand me," the voice went on, "but this is not the time for that." The woman's mouth never moved, though Willow knew without hesitation that the words came from her. A third eye blinked at her as the redhead crept forward to sit beside Inara. "Trace believes I can see into a person's mind, see their thoughts, know what they fear, what they love, and what they will do." Her delicate fingers sought out Willow's arm, taking it gently and rolling up the sleeve. Willow felt no reason to resist. "But I am only capable of seeing what you permit." Her hands felt Willow's skin, tracing up and down her forearm.
"Can you see others,"Willow asked eagerly. "Others far away?"
Inara turned all three eyes up to meet Willow's questioning gaze. "You wish to find Tara, and yet it frightens you more than you will acknowledge." The truth cutting her too closely, Willow withdrew her arm and looked away. Though Inara was correct, Willow had hoped to mask her question under the guise of finding out about the Circle, perhaps even Calla and Verla. "Before you can find her, you must reconcile your past. Only then will she reveal herself to you."
"She's cruel, Penna," the little green boy wrapped a python around his shoulders and neck as he walked with his older sister. "She scared Willow." His forked tongue darted over his teeth every time he spoke the letter s. "She scared me, too."
Penna ruffled his short hair affectionately as they made their way through the camp together. "She doesn't mean it, you know. She just.... she wants everyone to respect her as a leader. We've been through such hard times..."
"You always defend her!" he stopped, backing away from Penna's touch.
"I-" the cat tamer couldn't find the words to explain anything to Phidi anymore. He was growing and changing, and with each passing year he became more independent, more intelligent, more wild. She silently cursed their parents again. Abandoning your children because they're not like other boys and girls was a far more cruel punishment than anything Trace was capable of, but Penna could not bear to tell her little brother that. "This is our home, Phidi, and we have to abide by her rules."
Grim's eyes followed the twitching tail of the snake wrapped around the little boy. Life at the edge of civilization had become boring for the wild beast, and he took the only pleasure he could find these days in taunting and chasing the reptiles Phidi kept.
"Fine. But that doesn't mean I have to abide by your rules," Phidi yelled at her, then stormed off into the trees. "And keep that hairy thing away from my friends!" he called out over his shoulder.
Penna sighed and glared at her cat. Grim shrank appropriately, not needing another stern warning. Behind them the trees rustled, and they turned to see Willow emerge from the cover of frosty needles and leaves. "I'm sorry," she began. "I didn't mean to interrupt."
Grim took the opportunity to improve relations with his master by prancing around the newcomer, rubbing his immense body against her legs. He purred so loudly, Willow truly felt the earth rumble beneath her feet. She stood completely still, terrified the tiger would turn on her in an instant. Penna snapped her fingers and pointed, and the blue feline crept back behind her, where he spent the majority of his time. "No, Willow, I'm sorry. This whole situation must be a complete shock to you."
Willow smiled, allowing herself to relax. Something about Penna was truly charming, though Willow couldn't pinpoint what it was. Grim unnerved her to no end, but he was clearly under the young woman's control. "I used to travel to the kingdom, but I never had the fortune of seeing anything as spectacular as this place."
"We stopped traveling, too. Dangerous times, right?" Her warm smile erased all of the fear that Willow had felt earlier that morning. "May I ask you something?" Willow shrugged, internally hesitant at what the question might be. "You're a true gypsy, aren't you?"
Willow looked away, staring intently at the peeling bark of a nearby madrona. Its gray-green leaves shivered in the brisk wind. She didn't know what she was. Hepsebah had taken her in as a tiny child when Rowan, her mother, had died of a horrible fever. Willow's earliest memories were of the Circle, of traveling, of trees. Her father had never been discussed, nor had her birth, nor Rowan's past. So many mysteries permeated her life that Willow sometimes wondered if she knew her own name for certain. "I was."
Penna tried to hide her excitement by ducking her head. Her long, brown hair fell over her face and away from her neck. For the first time since she had arrived, Willow noticed that her friend's ears were covered in a lofty fuzz and slightly pointed at the tips. The fine hair continued down the girl's neck and disappeared below her wool sweater. She glanced back up at Willow with a bright smile on her face. "Will you tell me about it? What it's like to be magical? Really magical?"
Tilting her head at the request, Willow grinned back. "I might," she teased, "if you will tell me what it's like to be a cat..."
Penna laughed suddenly, then reached forward to take Willow's arm in her own. "You'll fit in just right here."
The Royal Guard stood at attention at the castle gates, their red and black banners waving majestically in the cold wind of winter. A light frost clung to the full beard on their Captain's face. "You bring news?"
A haggard messenger stood at attention beside his mud-stained pony, quivering under the glare of authority from the guardsmen. "News for the Queen," he replied boldly.
The Captain nodded at his best soldier. "Escort him."
A broad chested guard in full dress armor stepped out of the line, his chain mail jingling with every movement. Still shaking, the messenger abandoned his pony and walked before the quiet soldier. This was Went's first journey into the heart of the kingdom. His eyes darted nervously about at the tall spires and broad towers of the Drylands castle, its thick stone walls bedecked in the Queen's red and black banners. Guardsmen patrolled every inch of the keep, nodding formally to one another as they passed deeper into the courtyards and walls. Went considered striking up a conversation with his escort, but decided silence was far more prudent.
After walking for what felt like an eternity, the soldier behind Went stepped ahead and held out a gloved hand in warning. "Wait here." He disappeared into a large hall lit with torches on both sides. At the end, Went could see a throne. Both sides of the entrance to the hall were blocked by the most enormous men the messenger had ever laid eyes upon. Eyes hidden beneath battle helmets, they maintained their position perfectly, never moving, never shifting weight from one foot to another. Went caught himself staring at them and forced himself to look away. "Come," the captain's guardsman announced, frightening Went out of his reverie. Together, they walked the length of a crimson carpet through the throne room, each footfall bringing them closer to where the Queen sat. At the base of the dais, the soldier pushed Went's shoulder harshly, forcing him into a kneeling position.
Went squeezed his eyes shut and kept his head down, wishing he had never been so greedy as to accept a dangerous job like this for only two silvers. "You have something for me," the Queen's smooth voice filled the stone hall, chilling both the messenger and the guardsmen alike.
Daring to look up, Went found himself a mere three strides from the seated Queen, her blood-red gown cascading elegantly over the steps. Icy, blue eyes held him fast, preventing him from looking away. "Yes, Your Majesty. I bring a message." Went silently exhaled, grateful he hadn't stuttered. Though terror-stricken, he was captivated by the Queen's beauty. Her fine, amber hair was pulled and braided into a loop above the low collar of her dress, accentuating the graceful curve of her long neck.
"I will hear it," she announced.
"A friend," he began, "in the south sends their warmest regards, but ill tidings as well. The gypsies live, but your men do not." A chill ran through the bones of the messenger as the Queen's fury shot from her eyes. "There is, however, a remedy," he continued quickly. "One among them, a girl, carries that which you seek."
"Where will I find her?" the Queen demanded.
"I know not, precisely," Went answered, panicked at the Queen's anger. "She headed north some weeks ago. But she is unmistakable. She has hair the color of flames."
The Queen stood and paced about her throne. Her breath came fitfully, and her hands worked at one another with obvious impatience. "Is that all?"
"No," Went replied. "Your friend wishes me to tell you that if you require assistance locating the girl, it will be offered."
She turned to face him again, "At what price."
"My master did not specify."
Went suddenly felt a cold, steel blade at his throat. He hadn't even noticed the guard approach him from behind. "Describe your master to me," the Queen commanded.
"I-" Went choked, wincing at the sharpness of the sword cutting into his skin. "I would, had I met him."
"Him?" she charged at the boy.
"I don't know!" the messenger screamed in panic. "I never saw the one who paid me! Whoever it was sent a child," he breathed hard. "A child. She gave me two silvers.... made me recite the message three times until I learned it full."
Frustrated, the Queen backed away from the boy and sat once more upon her throne. With a glance to her soldier, the messenger was released. Went rubbed his neck, still fearful that he would never again see the outside of the castle. "You will answer this message, and I will not give you three chances to memorize the reply. Tell this.... friend... that I am willing to negotiate a price for their services. I want that girl, and I want her alive, no matter how long it takes. Furthermore, if I am toyed with in this matter, your master can expect to witness the full fury and force of my Royal Guard. This anonymity will not be tolerated." With a wave of her hand, the soldier lifted Went to his feet and marched the boy out of the throne room.
Behind her, in the shadows of the ancient stone columns, an ornately dressed man emerged, his milky white silken suit and pale blue vest shining in the torch light. "I admit that you were right," he conceded. "It was the gypsies of the south after all. But now the one we seek has fled. Do you honestly think this stranger who claims to be a friend to the throne will give you what you desire?"
The Queen continued to stare down the long carpet after the forgotten steps of the messenger boy who had brought her more hope and promise than she had felt in a decade. "It matters not. It is enough to know that she exists." The man behind her nodded. "If we kill enough of her people, she will come to us."