Change swept over the landscape from north to south, heedless of mountain ranges, towns or cities, regardless of lives kept or lost. A retrieval mission at its outset, Captain Vrint's army was now over five-thousand in strength, but hope of finding the red-haired sorceress had dwindled. In exchange, and under the Queen's immoral authority, the Royal Guard grasped the Drylands communities by their most vulnerable needs. Crops suffered under near constant drought, conspirators were jailed and executed, and fear seeded in the soil faster than grass or trees. Intolerant of township law that differed from royal decree, the Queen's Royal Guard became the most fearsome military force in the Known Lands, its vice grip on her people both exacting and deadly. Even the most minor offense was punishable by imprisonment. The surplus of prisoners had brought about a healthy slave trading market, changing the thriving Drylands marketplace into a dusty, dirty, shameful hub of vassal commerce. Espionage and treachery were thriving businesses that attracted new recruits daily. As commodities became scarce, morals and ideals were traded for meat and bread.
Far to the south, a growing threat hovered over towns and villages alike. Fires raged, wyverns decimated entire settlements, and hoards of displaced townsfolk flowed north into the Drylands city. Rumors of rogue militia were whispered in every pub from Vail to Deathwatch since the Queen's declaration of death warrants for any gypsies or harbingers of magic within the kingdom's boundaries was issued. A new price was attached. The delivery of a living witch to the Drylands castle was now worth fifty golds, a sum which could turn even the most loyal hearts against kith or kin.
Not all, however, had given into the darkness of the age. Heros rose up from the ashes of villages burnt, rebels sprang from within the Drylands city, and brave travelers joined forces alike, all determined to see freedom in the Known Lands before all recognizable civilization was lost to royal oppression. Some were born noble and righteous, others came from the depths of poverty. Together, they held the mighty strength of the Royal Guard at bay, using tree and landscape to their benefit. Insurgents within the castle walls conspired, planned, and waited, every ear bent low to the ground in expectancy of the day a genuine leader would emerge. Some prayed to the witch goddess the Queen so eagerly sought, others turned their eyes to the sky, hoping in vain for a foe to the wyverns. After eight years of tyranny, most every chest in the Known Lands held its breath in anticipation.
Henry tipped the mug up over his thick mustache, cool ale washing over his dry lips. Dense creamy foam lapped at the edge of the cup. Half the drink gone, he set the mug down on the beaten wood surface of the bar. "What's the news today, Merl?" He threw another coin at the bartender, raising his eyebrows in request of a second drink.
Merl filled a pitcher and set it beside his customer. "More of that black devil," he growled. "Bad for business, he is."
Henry grinned a toothy smile, foam in his beard. "But good for the slave trade, friend." Merl grimaced, hoping his only regular customer apart from the royal guardsmen wouldn't notice. He had little stomach for the selling and trading of flesh in the market. Dark times had plagued the Drylands for decades, but these last few years stole hope from even the heartiest souls in the Kingdom. "Tell me the latest, then."
"More fires," Merl wiped the bar with a grey cloth, "Longmire, this time. Those who didn't perish will surely pour into the city soon." The skies were filled with smoke nearly every day.
"And the Black Knight?"
"More of the same," the barkeep said disinterestedly. "You don't honestly believe the rumors, do you?"
The fat slave-trader laughed, his great belly shaking, though his mug of beer was held steady. "I sense fear in your voice, old man," he taunted, drawing the attention of the senior guardsmen in a far corner. "A giant of a man, he is!" he bellowed, arms held wide. All eyes were on him as he regaled them with the tale. "Dressed head to toe in black, astride an enormous black steed, he stalks the countryside for victims of his cruel wrath." Merl looked away. "His fury is brought down upon them with fire from the mouths of dragons!" the large man shook his fists dramatically. "None can stop him for he is Death itself."
The two guards clapped and shouted in approval, laughing at the gullibility of commoners. They had all heard the stories. Farmers, tradesmen, and maids all spoke of the fearful Bringer of Death. Merl listened to each of them, finding the small truths in the fantastic details. He knew more than anyone in the Kingdom about the Black Knight and the fire-spitting wyverns from the East. In his room above the inn, he kept a hand-drawn map of the Known Lands, each village or town attacked marked with a date. Nearly every settlement east and south of the Kingdom had been burned. Longmire marked a northwest progression of their pattern of attack. The Kingdom was slowly being surrounded.
Merl traced the roads and rivers with his fingers, trying to decipher where the wyverns had come from. They were a new plague in the Drylands. The first had been sighted in the far southeast, where the ruins of a small village still smoldered. Only two had survived that initial attack to tell the tale that now circulated in every dwelling in the Kingdom. Though he could not find the exact point, Merl also searched for where and when the Black Knight had become intertwined with the terrible wyverns.
Most of his informational sources were too scared of both to give accurate details. Floods of people streamed into the Kingdom every day, all poor, all hungry, many becoming slaves before the end of their first day. The aging man wiped his face with a calloused hand, his short beard bristling at the thought of what Henry did with his slaves before they were sold. "That fat, greedy man should burn like the villages in the south," he muttered as he continued to read the maps. His mind wandered to the face of the girl he had seen in Henry's line this morning, and he suddenly found his eyes incapable of seeing the lines on the map. He stood and paced the tiny room, his shins scraping on the foot of the wooden framed bed in the corner. "Damn," he whispered. He turned to look out the grubby window behind him, eager to see something, but not sure what he needed. Merl was restless. He had watched hundreds of innocent people marched through the city streets by Henry's henchmen, sold for coins into unspeakable lives of terror, unending work, prostitution, or worse things he could not bring himself to imagine. But something about that girl had caught his eye. Try as he might, he could not let it go.
Merl had stood at the edge of the market, where the sunlight was less intense. Spring was giving way to the heat of summer, and he relished the cool shade of the fruit vendors. He handed over two small silver coins for a handful of red plums. "Still got that sweet tooth, eh?" the old woman selling her grandchildren's harvest grinned, her last three teeth shining in the light.
He grinned back, "You know me too well, Caff." He patted her shriveled hand with his own immense one. "How are the boys, then?"
Caff frowned, her wrinkled face, turning away slightly. "Well, you know how things are, Merl."
He nodded. "I do." His eyes wandered over to the line of new slaves, a long row of haggard bodies chained and tied together as they marched slowly through the market into the square. Bare, dirty feet shuffled in the dust, some staggering, supported by the sheer mass of their fellow captives. He saw Henry, the paunchy tyrant in charge of the slave trade, eyeing each with a practiced gaze from a distance, pricing them. Merl was sickened by the legal sale of court criminals, but any who interfered joined their ranks. Rescuing bondsmen was hardly a proper way to make a political statement in such autocratic times, so Merl chose to observe and remain silent. "I don't care how anxious they get, Caff. Keep them out of this city."
The tiny woman looked into Merl's worn, grey eyes. "I will," she promised. "But you know how much power an old woman has over three growing boys. Were you any different?"
He smiled again, squeezing the hand under his own. He bit into the first plum, juice running down his chin into his short beard. That was when he turned, when he saw her, and when his world shifted. Merl turned his head innocently, thoughts in another time and place, but eyes finding a face that took him elsewhere. Her eyes were hollow, and her body had seen far better days, but the chin could not be mistaken. The green of her eyes was identical. Her hair was the same color of red. Merl tried to breathe, but all he could do was watch the girl walk along in the line.
Merl again stood in the market, facing the square at its center, this time in the broad sunlight of late afternoon. His feet had carried him this far, but he could go no further. At the far edge of the market stood the slave-trader's tent. Its dingy cloth, once white, flapped open in the breeze. Merl could hear laughter, fueled by wine and ale. Henry had left his pub half drunk. It would take little more to put him out for the night.
"Who would suspect our humble barkeep has a desire for slave girls?" a sultry voice behind Merl shook him from his trance. He turned suddenly, coming face to face with a tall, thin woman in a cloak. Long waves of auburn hair peeked from within the burgundy hood, and eyes of gold danced in the waning light. Merl relaxed slightly, facing the tent once more. He sighed heavily. "Fine," she mumbled, "ignore my astounding wit. But don't think I'll forget this anytime soon."
The shadows played over the lady's fine features, accentuating her high cheekbones and delicate complexion. "Quid pro quo," she said, irritation biting through her voice. "I require a...." she considered her choice of words carefully, "an alibi, so to speak." Merl again faced her, raising an eyebrow in inquiry. "No, no, you beastly thing, not for me." She lifted her fine nose, "I hardly think that would be convincing." The barkeep snorted in agreement. "But I do recall my personal guard was quite heavily inebriated when he returned to his quarters last night," she suggested.
Merl studied her as she spoke, the urge to laugh in her haughty face nagging with her ever word. "Fine," he acquiesced. The lady nodded and strode forward across the square, halted by one last comment from her coconspirator. "You were nicer when we were kids, sis." She turned and smiled, then walked confidently to the tent.
"So I says to him, 'It'll never fit, pal!'" Henry burst out laughing at his own joke, his comrades joining in the humor. All three men stopped and stared as the well-dressed lady entered their place of business. Standing and encouraging his friends to do the same, Henry gestured at a recently available seat, "Mistress Kousa."
She smiled and sat, brushing the graceful fabric from her head. A pile of perfect curls was revealed, elegantly piled and pinned at the nape of her long neck. The slave-traders were stunned to silence by her beauty and authority. "Thank you, Mr. Alvern. Gentlemen?"
They each sat, apart for Henry, who paced the large room, kicking bottles aside in an attempt to hide their drunken exploits. "What brings a fine lady like yourself from the castle on an evening like this?" he inquired, a nervous edge to his voice. Henry was well aware of Mistress Kousa's influence within the royal family, as well as the Royal Guard. It was rare, however, to find her amongst the commoners of the marketplace, business or otherwise.
"I have been informed that you have something I require."
Greed crept into his fat face. "I do?" he replied, the very picture of innocence.
"I have need of a girl. One was delivered to you this morning." The lady grew impatient.
Henry thought over her request, his pensive expression only mildly interrupted by his obvious desire to exploit the situation to its fullest. "I don't seem to recall a girl..."
"I'm sure you don't," the beautiful woman smiled, her expression placid but very dangerous. "Oddly enough," her smile grew devilish, "the royal tax assessor doesn't seem to recall your payment last quarter." She drummed her fingers on her lap.
Behind Henry, the thinnest and youngest member of the slave-traders union winced, fully aware of the bargain that was being struck. His uncle was ruthless, but he was no idiot. Thayer Alvern listened to everything that passed between the two parties, watching for the tiniest details. There were multiple interests in the girl they had acquired today, the first a mundane bounty-hunter, claiming her to be the great red-haired witch queen the Royal Guard sought. Henry had laughed at him outright. Another offer was made by the owner of the highly reputed brothel on the south edge of the city. Sanjer was vile, but he paid well for his women. Now a noble woman of the castle sought the girl, though her reasons were as mysterious as her presence. Thayer had never met the Mistress Kousa, though his uncle had told him many times of the powerful families at the beck and call of the Queen.
"And you think I'll simply hand over an obviously valuable item for your pale threats of blackmail?" Henry growled, his face reddening.
Mistress Kousa rose and faced the portly slave-master, her spine straight and tall, chin held high. "I will not be spoken to in that tone, Mr. Alvern. Remember your place," she warned. All men present shrank at her exhortation. "Now," she spoke calmly, "I came here this evening to make a purchase. I see no reason for this transaction to end poorly." Henry breathed in and out, his great belly shaking with the effort. "Since you believe her value to be high, I will allow a payment that reflects your interests." She withdrew a simple purse, opened it, and placed five gold coins on the shabby table at the center of the room. Any wishes for protest were silenced by her solid stare. "Bring her to me. Now."
Willow gazed up at the jewel blue sky of twilight, entranced by its beauty. In her mind, she was resting in the meadow she always ran to as a child. In reality, she was surrounded by fellow slaves, crowded into a cage built for animals. Most had run out of the energy required to fight or struggle. All were hungry and tired. No one had the strength for anger anymore. The stench of human filth was hardly bearable.
"I told him to pay," the old man beside her rambled on. Willow had lost track of all the stories she'd heard since her arrest two weeks before. Her mind and body had worn thin from the deprivation of food and sleep. "But he said, 'No, no, they won't come for us,' but they did. They came."
Willow watched his mouth move, the words fading into the heat radiating up from the dirt floor of their prison. Her mind hadn't recovered from the shock of her transition. Fifteen days ago she was a free woman. Now she was about to be sold as a slave. "I'm a slave," she whispered. "I'm a slave." Her lips were cracked and dry, caked with blood from the most recent beating she had received from the guards.
"No, you are a free traveler," someone behind her whispered back. She turned her head and found herself staring into the swollen, black eye of a half starved man. The tight, dark curls of his hair framed his tanned face in a way Willow found familiar, though she could not place her feeling with a name. "I've been watching over you. I'm sorry I couldn't help you last night," he indicated her swollen lip.
"Who are you?" Willow sat up.
Her new-found friend glanced around the pen, "A fellow traveler. From the north."
Scooting closer, the redhead examined his clothes. Thin and worn and caked with dirt, he looked like everyone else imprisoned there. His face, however, told a different story. Dark skin, smooth and tanned from long days in the sun, framed his dark brown eyes. "What clan?" she asked.
His eyes fell in sadness. "The Risen."
Rumors of the ancient gypsy clans from the north had trickled down to where Willow had once lived with her own clan. Though none were still together as families, their memory lived on in individuals who still traveled the hills and plains, living a nomadic life. The Risen had settled near Deathwatch a century before, the strongest of all the northern gypsy clans who had survived the great floods. "How did you get here?" Willow's face softened, her eyes keen to the pain the man suffered.
"That's not important." He took in their surroundings again, this time pulling a small object from within his shirt. He handed it to Willow, his touch lingering for a moment. "I know who you are, and I know your significance." He stared deeply into the young woman's eyes, reading her from the inside out. Willow felt warm metal in her hand. "There are others," he whispered, his hands opening hers.
She watched him trace lines across her palm over the tiny metal tidemark. Crossing her palm, then drawing short lines along three of her fingers, his lips moved with the incantation.
"I've brought you a gift," Jesse stretched out his hand, palm up. In it was a faded silk scarf, bundled and wrinkled. Willow scrunched her nose at the sight of the ugly orange cloth. "No, silly girl," the old man laughed, "unwrap it." He nudged her with his great, scarred hand. The skinny child reached for the scarf, pulling open its ends with delicate hands. The summer sun glinted off the golden edge of a thin coin, rippled and worn from the passage of countless hands. Willow gently touched it where it sat nestled in the crumpled cloth. Her big green eyes looked up at Jesse with wonder. "It's a tidemark," he explained. "From the north. Go on," he encouraged.
Willow took the coin in her own hand, feeling its warmth against her skin. Gold was rare enough outside the Drylands Castle walls, but this coin was even more unique, shaped by hand, not minted by the metal-smiths of the Treasury. "How did you get it?" she inquired.
Beaming with pride, he began his short tale. "Glad you asked. See, I was out on an... errand," Willow noticed the ghost of a frown pass his face, but it fled quickly as he went on. "Anyway, I meets this fella come down from the north to trade, I'm supposin'. All full o' bluster and fancy talk, he was," Jesse puffed up his chest in imitation, his actions rewarded by a giggle from the girl at his side. "So's I asked him had he been near Deathwatch. 'Yes,' says him, 'an' you wouldn'a believe what I found there.'" Willow watched in rapt attention. "Pulls ou' a big ol' leather satchel full o' treasures, all of em worthless tripe, no more from th' north than you or I. Except this," he pointed at the coin in her hand. Willow stared at it again, taking in every tiny detail of its surface on both sides. "'I'll take tha,' says I, and he says back, 'Tis a worthless, worn coin, my man. Would you not rather 'ave somethin' pretty-like fer yer wife then?' An' I chuckles as I always do," he grinned a wide smile. "'No,' I answers, 'jus' the coin.' We traded on the spot."
Willow turned the coin over and over. She handed it back to him, "I can't take that from you, Jesse. It must be worth a lot."
He picked it up once more and deposited it in her tiny palm. "Once, when gypsies roamed all o' the Known Lands," he closed her fingers around the metal, "messages was hard to send. Winter would freeze trails an' roads, an' long distances claimed lives. So up north there, the Risen clan started makin' these here tidemarks." The old cobbler opened the girl's hand again, this time motioning over the coin with his own hand. As he spoke, she felt heat radiate from the metal, warming her hand. "Don't burn like parchment, nor fall ter pieces if it gets wet. An' if it fell in ter th' wrong 'ands, no harm done." His hands continued to work. "But w' the righ' key, ye could unlock th' message innit." His eyebrows furrowed together in concentration, hands working to no avail. At last, he sighed heavily and dropped his hands into his dusty lap. "An' there ye have it. Won't open fer the wrong person."
Willow stared in awe at the tidemark in her hand. "There's still a message inside," she whispered.
Jesse nodded, "An' there it'll stay till th' right person finds it an' pulls it out."
Watching the bruised man whisper over her palm, Willow felt the same warmth grow in her palm. "Do you know the words?" he asked.
He took her other hand in his own, showing her the motions he had drawn. "The enchantment is simple." They traced a spiral from her thumb to her first finger, a cross leading to her wrist, and three short lines up her fingers. "Maela, roeda, tala," he breathed.
Something tickled at Willow's ears. She fought the urge to swat at the insects that had bit and stung her flesh through the day, and then she realized a voice was speaking to her. Her eyes brightened, caught by the battered man's grin. "... trust in our messenger," the soft voice buzzed. "Reza will lead you home to us. The awakening has begun. City Lost holds the answers you seek." As quickly as it began, the voice disappeared, leaving the awe-stricken redhead to stare at the gypsy sitting before her.
"Reza," she said.
He smiled. "Yes."
"You were the boy... the one who found me," she put together ties lost, her eyes blurring in and out of focus as she saw first the present, then the horrible past of Jesse's death. Her mind raced, and she was suddenly aware of everything near them; the ache of her muscles, the chatter of voices, sobs of elderly men, horses marching through the open market, laughter of men nearby. Willow had been asleep. Years had passed before her shrouded eyes, people had come and gone, and she had slumbered through it all. Awake at last, she was hit with the pain and anguish that she had worked so hard to leave behind. She had not been in the company of any true gypsies since leaving the Circle eight years ago.
Reza watched the transition silently. When he saw that she had begun to come back, he spoke to her with gentle words and eyes that comforted. "We have searched for you for years, Willow." He gripped her trembling hands in his own. "I did not expect to find you here, but I am glad for my arrest."
"But," the whirlwind of emotion and revelation spun the ground beneath her, "why have you sought me?"
Reza grinned widely, clearly expecting her skepticism. "Your reputation precedes you. Though scattered, we are not lost." Willow thought his speech was overly cryptic. "I dare not speak of more in this place. I have sent word to help on the outside," he gestured minutely at the bars that confined them.
Before either could say more, the slave-masters arrived with their brutish guards. Chains and keys clanged and jingled, and rough hands grabbed and pulled at bodies, searching for one in specific. Willow glanced desperately at Reza, both in alarm at the sudden intrusion. The question in her eyes was answered by confusion in his. Both queries were resolved by a gruff voice. "Here she is," he grunted, taking hold of her short hair. Willow spared a pained look at her fellow gypsy as he faded into the background of prisoners, her feet dragging in the loose dirt as she was hauled from the cell and deposited into chains.
"It's a shame," a new voice grated in her ear, "you would have brought me a fair coin at market tomorrow." She turned her eyes to the speaker, aghast at his enormous size. "Should have sold you to Sanjer, I suppose." He sighed. "Alas, my own skin's worth more than you will ever be. Drag her to the Lady!" he shouted.
On command, the guard took her hair again, heaving Willow to her feet. The chains about her wrists and ankles bit into her tender skin, limiting her steps. She could not look back at the only face that had been friendly in the last two weeks, though her heart begged her to try. Tucked safely in her hand was the tidemark.