The last of the hollow winter sunlight faded into dusk as Willow's footsteps drove her deeper and further into the protection of the trees, alone, free and safe once more. She whispered greetings to them each as she passed, her gloved fingers lightly brushing their bark. Though she could never understand why or how, trees comforted her. It was as though they intended to keep her safe, to hide her from all that might harm. The scent of incense from Inara's tent still clung to her hair and skin, driving her ever on. Willow found herself simultaneously drawn to and fearful of the mysterious woman, even after their encounter earlier in the evening. Unable to fathom what had pulled her in to talk to the mystic, the redhead shook herself back to the present.
Her hands stopped to feel the dips and curves of a small yew, though her feet carried her on. Lost in the intricate details of branches and bark, the young woman nearly stumbled right into a wooden wall set amidst the lofty evergreens. Waking herself into shock, Willow explored the foreign structure with both hands. "It's a box," she whispered, head tilted back to see the top and sides of the immense crate. It had obviously been constructed by hand, and not by a true carpenter. Splintered boards sagged and overlapped at odd angles, reminding her of the kinds of fortresses she and Ren used to build as children in their own woods. The memory of stealing boards and wire from Gobbler and Nuttail's father, Ash, made her smile. They had all suffered the punishment of their deed as one, none willing to give up the single thief. As she explored, a deep rumbling from within shook the earth. Willow stepped back, colliding with someone whose presence she hadn't noticed. Gasping, she turned and faced Phidi.
"Willow," he beamed at her. "You found my secret."
She wasn't quite sure what kind of secret could be contained in a wooden cage taller than a wagon, nor was she comforted by the boy's conspiratorial grin. "Phidi, what is this?"
He approached the crate slowly, extending a hand, but not touching the wall. "I found it. It was just an egg." He faced her again, "I nursed it when it hatched. Penna doesn't know. Will you tell her?"
Her breathing returning to normal, Willow reached out and took the boy's scaly hand. "It sounds dangerous. How long have you had it in there?"
"It's been growing since winter began. I think its wings are big enough now." His tongue flashed between his teeth. "It's tame. It understands me. Please don't tell her, Willow. He's my friend."
Still holding his hand, she sighed and knelt in the frosty underbrush. Eyes level with his, she shook his hand firmly. "I can keep your secret, but only as long as it's safe."
Finding her way through the murky shadows of dusk, she stretched out an arm again, always searching for connections lost. Her gloves were tucked away, not for lack of cold, but rather to intensify sensation. Her childhood home haunted her steps, beckoning her to cry out for the loved ones she had lost. She had counted on all of them remaining true, protecting her as times changed, guiding her from youth to adulthood. Now they were even more lost than she.
"You're a dream finder," she asked aloud, less a question than a statement. Her hands held the delicate china cup Inara had provided.
The mysterious, dark woman smiled. "I have been known as such. A person can be known by many names."
Dream finders, Willow considered as she ambled through low branches and blackberry vines. Some said they were but a tale of far travelers. Jesse had once told her about their existence. Far to the west, beyond the marshes, trees grew so tall the sky could not contain them. In them, the dream finders dwelt. They had no language, for they spoke with their minds. Few from the Known Lands had ever ventured that far, but fewer still had returned with tales of the mysterious fortune tellers.
"You're far from home, then," Willow drank her tea, still feeling as though she was caught in a dream. Her surroundings were too bright, too colorful, too perfect.
"You think of home as a place. In your dreams, home is on fire." Crying before she could stop herself, Willow dropped the ornate cup, its cream colored shape shattering into a hundred tiny pieces. Light from the numerous candles and lanterns within the tent illuminated each shard. "Can you not see that, even divided, they still shine?"
Stopping to breathe in the scent of the sea on the wind, thoughts of the family she once knew drifted past. Gobbler, Nuttail and Ren laughed by the great fire while Mag scolded them for drinking too much ale. Ivy and Rosemary laughed somewhere off in the trees, their voices trickling in amongst the tiny streams that parted meadows from forested glades. Behind her, Willow could smell Hepsebah's tea brewing.
"And then there is Tara."
Willow wanted to leave. She brushed her hand over her damp face, cursing silently at her tears. "She's gone."
"You fight so hard to put her further away, and yet you fought to keep her close in Torrent." Inara continued to stare intently into Willow with all of her eyes. "You can find peace here, if that is your wish, but it cannot last."
Torrent, the red-haired gypsy closed her eyes. What a cursed place that had been. It still called and taunted her from afar.
"Even the Ancients can't make me go back to that place," she nearly spat. "It's nothing but a lie."
"Ancients?" Inara sat up suddenly.
A thousand voices spoke inside Willow's mind all at once, deafening her, ringing in her ears, shaking her skull, and nearly ripping her mind apart. She screamed, a ghastly sound ripping itself free of her lungs. The floor pitched left and right, then struck her hard as she went down. She awoke moments later in the mystic's arms. "I'm sorry," the woman said over and over, the voice in Willow's mind soft and soothing once more. "I thought you knew. I'm sorry."
Chasing the strange thoughts and memories of that moment from her mind, Willow turned and walked back toward the camp. She hadn't asked for an explanation, and she didn't intend to inquire further.
"You trust her already," Trace sneered. "Doesn't take much, I guess."
Penna glared back at her from the edge of the fire. Her hands were freezing cold, and the warmth of the blaze simply wasn't enough to chase away the chill tonight. "I suggest you mind yourself around Willow," she warned. "She's powerful."
Trace snorted and laughed. "Powerful? Listen to you! That little girl has nothin' up her sleeve apart from a bag of old tricks. She ain't magical, she ain't powerful, and she ain't a gypsy." The well-built leader straightened herself up to her full height, pushing her chest out proudly. "We're the only gypsies left in the Known Lands, Penna. Just me, you, and a bunch of freaks who couldn't fit in with normals like her if we tried." Penna absently combed her hair back over her ears, hiding the downy fur that grew down her neck. "Listen up, Pen," Trace leaned forward, taking the younger girl's chin in her hand delicately, "we're a family here." They held each other's gaze for several breaths, Trace holding the dark-haired girl protectively. Penna's eyes never wavered. "You really wanna risk all that by havin' Red in camp with us?" The leader's tone was more gentle than she had intended, almost plaintive. "Fine. She can stay. Just don't come cryin' to me if things turn ugly."
"Faith, I-" Penna tried to thank her, but her words were cut off by the leader's harsh grip on her face.
"I told you," she said through gritted teeth, "that ain't my name."
A rustle in the underbrush caught their attention, Trace dropping Penna's chin quickly. The subject of their conversation emerged from the towering trees, appearing, for all they could see, as though she had been one of them up until the moment the firelight struck her cloak. The rest of camp was quiet. It was late, and all but the twin acrobats on guard duty were asleep in their tents. "You've been gone a while," Trace mentioned, hoping to put Willow on the spot.
"I needed to walk," the redhead answered, moving closer to the fire.
"Well you should be careful around here after dark," she emphasized the last word, a shadowy gloom swirling around her feet. The cloud grew until it consumed her entire form in blackness, then blew away in an instant, leaving the place where she once stood vacant.
Penna sighed heavily, tired of the leader's theatrics. "Our camp is perfectly safe," she reassured her new friend. "Just mind the smoke and mirrors within," she smirked.
"You love her," Willow said all too quickly, suddenly aware that she may have stepped out of her place.
Her pale face coloring, Penna smiled a little. "I suppose it's obvious enough. Phidi wouldn't forgive me if he knew."
"You can't always choose who you love," the red-haired girl kept her eyes focused on Penna, resisting the urge to look away, pushing the thoughts of Tara's warm hands from her mind. They beheld one another in silent regard for a long time, neither wishing to break the silence nor the bond of friendship which grew stronger with each passing day. Willow's mind turned to thoughts of the painted, misshapen, distorted faces in the camp, feeling her heart close in on itself one last time. They're good people, she reasoned. But love will only bring death and more pain. I can become one of them without letting them in. She continued to smile at Penna, content to sacrifice her emotional needs for the security of lies. Calla was right. No one will come looking for me here.
"Send them at once," the Queen ordered. "Leave no city standing until she is found." Her arm remained outstretched, even as she faded from the Captain's view. He marched through the cold halls, eager to taste the winter air and ride into the wind once more. It was the highest privilege in the Known Lands to serve the Queen, and Captain Vrint wore it well. His armor was polished, the leather oiled, and his sword bore an edge sharp enough to shave a pack of giant wolves.
"Ready the horses!" he barked at the stablehands who met him near the main gate. His second and third in command saluted him, awaiting their orders. "Charge," the Captain began with the lieutenant, "get me your best fifty. We leave at sunset." His heart longing for the honor of battle, Charge leapt into action. Turning to walk along the immense castle wall, Vrint signaled for the first in command below him to follow. "Change is heavy in the wind," he began. "This mission will bring us to the very edge of the kingdom, and it will redefine our role as hero to the people." The commander nodded sagely. "Be sure to bring our new weapon on the journey, Fain. We shall lay waste to any who would harbor this sorceress."
Assembled at the castle gate, fifty-two trained, armed men sat astride their war horses. Together they set their course for the southernmost reaches of the kingdom, knowing that the future course of history would forever be traced back to their departure. The winter sun set low on the horizon, taking with it any hope for peace which had remained in the Known Lands.