"Once upon a time, a beautiful woman walked the forests of a valley far to the south of this awful city. Her skin cast a warm light onto everything that surrounded her, and she was loved by the trees and animals which dwelt there. She was kind and gentle."
"What did she look like?" one of the girls listening asked.
"Her hair was red, the color of autumn leaves which have turned, and her skin was so delicate and fair that the first light of morning looked dark against her face. She danced over the hills and streams, free and wild. Her people were gypsies. Real gypsies."
"But they've all been wiped out," the same girl interrupted.
Reza smiled at her, knowing the truth in his heart. "Alas, it is true that there are few travelers left in this country, but when freedom comes once more, you'll see them emerge from hiding. And our fair maiden is one of them. She was brought to her clan as a tiny baby. Her mother died in the arms of their elder, begging for her child to be kept safe and hidden. They did as she wished, but a fate bigger than her new family would come to seek the girl, for she would grow to become the most powerful witch in the Known Lands."
"The Red Sorceress," a small girl in the corner whispered, pulling the tattered blanket further up to her chin.
"It was she," Reza went on, captivating his audience with his resonant voice. "And from the most humble of births she came forth to claim the magic of the Ancients, for she is one of them."
"An Ancient?" the first girl nearly shouted, instantly hushed by the girls around her. Sanjer slept peacefully below them in the decrepit brothel, a long night's work resting heavily in his snores. They all listened as he dreamt on, catching the occasional clink of coins as he turned in the bed. He slept with his profits on good nights. On bad nights, Reza would not return to indulge the girls in tales of his travels.
"An Ancient," he whispered back. "The last of her kind." The young girls exchanged looks of wonder and fascination with one another, then pulled themselves closer together, closer to Reza, desperate to hear more. His stories had kept some of them alive. Most were too young even to work on farms, and it brought tears to his eyes every time Sanjer sent them into the arms of a customer. The older girls pretended to sleep on the far side of the room they all shared in the late mornings after the brothel had closed for business, but Reza sometimes caught the glint of an open eye watching as he spoke. Though he could not wipe away the bruises and cuts, he could whisk them away into the landscape of legends and myths, and every girl looked forward to the nights he joined them. "I have told you the Legend of the Ancients, but her part in it is not written in that tale."
"Tell us, Reza," the tiny girl in the corner spoke.
"First, I must tell you about the ancient city of Torrent. City Lost is where our story begins and ends, and to understand why and how, I must first tell you about its creation and destruction."
Cam and Birch ran down the dusty road, sparing few glances at the surrounding devastation mere miles from the gates of the city. The farms were long since abandoned, its people clawing and fighting with one another in the bread lines now. The Royal Guard announced that today was the last day it would allow such generosity from the monks of the city temple. How else were they to stop the flood of people entering the city each day? Cam had wanted to break the nose of the captain who made the declaration in the market square early in the morning. Birch, his friend and companion on their new journey, had restrained him. "We leave today, Cam. We will bring back hope. We will return to fight." His legs carried him, straight and true, down the old east road to Hillmarch. Cam struggled to keep pace. They traveled light; no packs to weigh them down, no provisions which would draw the attention of the guard, just two young men, running and smiling.
Birch had been the first to rise to Cam's call at the meeting underground. The Queen's Men and Royal Guard had been responsible for the death and scattering of his gypsy clan eight years before. No longer a boy, he yearned to bring justice to his family. He understood the importance of their mission. Though some elders disagreed, it was indeed time to act. Before long, no one would remain to hold the fight. His lungs burned with the effort of running, but his legs would not slow. Hillmarch drew nearer with each stride, quickening the pulse of both men.
Jinna leapt over the last three steps as she descended into the kitchens below the great halls of the castle. Pots and pans crashed, the mighty oven roared with heat, and Cook screamed at anyone within earshot. Jinna sighed. The kitchen had been her home since she was caught scavenging in the rubbish piles outside the keep walls. Cook kept her and used her as punishment for the theft, though Jinna suspected the fat woman only wanted a punching bag. Still, it was an improvement from life on the streets. Word traveled fast, even within the castle walls. Supplies dwindled, the guard grew angrier, and now the bread lines were being cut off. The little serving maid knew a good thing when she saw it, and facing Cook was better than facing starvation. The Princess was kind, as well, ensuring Jinna never went hungry anymore.
Willow, however... Jinna stopped to breathe by the storeroom door. She glanced at her left hand and saw that her fingers were trembling. What had happened in the Princess' chambers?
"Where have you been?" Cook bellowed, snatching the girl from her resting place by the back of her apron. She turned Jinna in her grasp, widening her eyes at the sight of blood all down the front of the maid's clothing. Her hand struck Jinna before the little girl saw it coming, hurtling her to the dirty floor in a heap. She rolled into a ball to protect herself, feeling the growing welt on her cheekbone with her recently healed hand. "You good-for-nothing scrap!" Cook kicked her roughly in the ribs. "You've missed cleaning up after lunch, and now you come into my clean kitchen with blood all over yourself! Get out before I slit your throat myself!"
Taking the cue without hesitation, Jinna jumped to her feet and fled down the corridor to the far north end of the castle. She twisted and turned with each new passage that presented itself, deftly navigating the underground maze from months of practice just such as this. The Princess was not her only safe haven.
With a crash and a thud, Jinna found herself piled onto the pale body of the red-headed witch who had healed her just four flights up and several moments past. Alone in the cold stone hall, they regarded one another in silence, neither certain of what to say. Finally, deciding her fear of Cook won out over her fear of magic, Jinna rolled to the side and helped her friend find her feet. She dusted the young woman off, inspecting her for injuries. "Alright to walk?" she looked up into Willow's green eyes. The hand-maiden nodded. Jinna took her hand, "Come on, then."
Ulhetha and Calla crushed the herbs they were handed and dropped them in the steaming pot over the blazing fire set into the stone wall of the ancient tunnel room. The sounds of the training camp above them were silent, incapable of penetrating the earth and rock which separated them. Hidden far below the surface, they conducted the business of their coven in utter secrecy. "We need blood," Ulhetha called to the other two women at the far end of the cold, damp room.
"Blood?" Calla cringed. "I thought you said this was a harmless vision spell?"
The old woman regarded her with piercing blue eyes. "It is. But even the most harmless incantation requires power." She stirred the bubbling mixture. "You have felt the magic when you butcher an animal. It's blood what casts that spell, and nothing can substitute it." Her wisdom won out. "Now go and find me blood. Better yet, get a knife."
As if on cue, the door to their chamber burst open, and a blood-stained serving maid tumbled into the room. "Jinna!" Calla rushed to the girl. "What in the Known Lands happened to you?"
Before any answer could be offered, Ulhetha grabbed the apron from Jinna's tiny body and pitched it whole into the pot. Calla frowned at her, but pressed on for details with a firm look. "You won't believe me," Jinna replied.
"Did Cook hurt you again?"
"No..." the little girl let her eyes wander around the room, frequently checking the doorway behind her. "Well, yes, but that's not how I cut myself." Calla, ever protective of the maid, began to check her, head to toe, as any mother would a wounded child. "Calla, stop it. I'm fine." She batted at the woman's hands in frustration. "There's something more important going on. I need help." All eyes in the room were already upon her, but now even Ulhetha listened. Instead of speaking of the amazing events which had transpired, Jinna turned and called over her shoulder. "Willow?"
Every heart in the underground room hesitated at the sound of that name, and they each saw a different young woman enter the chamber. Her steps were slow and uncertain, but they were one and the same as the movements of the Willow they had each once known. Calla ran forward first, seizing her lost friend in a powerful embrace. "Is it truly you?"
Willow gasped for air in the tight arms which held her, and joy overwhelmed her. Had Calla been here all along? "Calla," she whispered into the wavy hair brushing over her face. "How did you come to be here?"
"We could ask the same of you," a familiar voice spoke up from the corner. Willow opened her teary eyes to find the faces of Forsythia and Ivy staring back at her. They rushed forward as well, piling onto the hugging women, each trying to grasp their long-lost friend. "Gods above, Willow," Forsythia shouted, "we all thought you were dead!"
"Ivy? Forsythia?" Willow could hardly believe what her hands told her was real. "You're all real?"
"Of course we're real," Ivy stroked the hand-maiden's hair. Willow beamed at her friends, noting how each was older, how the years had worn on them all.
"If you're all done," Jinna interrupted, "we have a bigger problem to deal with." The women parted reluctantly. "The Princess said to hide you until sunset. She wants you back then."
"Hiding?" Calla stepped forward. "What's this about?"
Willow didn't know how to explain anything that had happened. None of it made any sense. "I... Something happened in the Princess' chambers during lunch."
"Something happened, alright," Jinna sat with a thud in one of the worn chairs at the side of the fire. Ulhetha sat beside her and took the girl's left hand in her own, as if she knew the details already. "Willow's a witch."
The old woman sighed. "Of course she is, little one." Something about the grey-haired woman was familiar to Willow, though she could not place the face or the voice. "I think I understand, though. She must have cast a spell to heal you."
"It wasn't no ordinary spell," Jinna objected. "She was glowing, and she went all shiny... River sent us both away. That prince is sure to be looking for us this very minute."
"Prince?" Willow interjected. How much was there that she still did not know? When Ulhetha looked up into her eyes, Willow knew. Somehow, she knew in her belly that she was meant to find this woman. They beheld one another in silence for a long time before Willow's brain gave her the answer. "Hepsebah."
The old woman closed her eyes in pain. "She was my sister." Forsythia drew close to her and placed a comforting hand on Ulhetha's shoulder. "They told me of her death. I've been waiting for you to come here for so many years."
Willow fell to her knees on the hard floor, reaching out with her hands to the woman who had Hepsebah's eyes. A familiar smile welcomed her in, taking the offered hands gently. Choking back the tears once more, Willow told her about the vision she'd had. The details she recalled were incredible and very real to all who listened. Jinna, for her part, stayed quieter than any could remember in recent times. Willow hesitated at the final words the motherly figure had given her, deciding to keep the information about Tara to herself. Surely, she thought, it will not matter to them. Tara's gone. Hepsebah just didn't know. How could she know what would happen?
Silence followed her tale, and Ivy broke up the time of thought by stirring the concoction on the fire. "You must go to Torrent," Ulhetha finally announced.
"I've already been there," Willow answered. "Nothing remains. I left with more questions than I entered with."
"No," the old woman said impatiently, "that's not what Hepsebah meant. You must go back. It's the only way you'll wake the Ancients." Jinna gasped. All eyes turned to her, but she couldn't take back the loud sound. In shame, she covered her mouth.
"Wake the Ancients? Are you serious?" Calla asked.
"Why does everyone question me?" she dropped her hands in her lap and stood suddenly. "Did you think those stories came from someone's overactive imagination?" No one dared reply. "The Ancients live and breathe all around us. Even now, in this very room, they grace us with their presence." She looked directly at Willow. "I know this isn't how Hepsebah or Rowan wanted you to find out, Willow, but you are an Ancient." Her voice was firm and unforgiving. "And it's up to you to wake the others."
Raven and Aelish rode hard. The dirt road sped by under the hooves of their steeds, coughing up a thick cloud of dust in their wake. Hillmarch had been easy to bypass. The Drylands City now grew nearer with every rise and fall of their bodies, the rhythmic gait governing their breath and sight. Tree and grass changed to fields lying fallow. Barns and cottages blinked quiet, dark eyes at the passing warriors, speaking tales of their abandonment. This story was no different than any other they had seen in their joint travels. What the drought had not claimed, the Royal Guard had taken, leaving the people with no reason to stay in the homes and villages their forebears had built. The City had called to them all, one by one, offering hope and salvation. Unlike previous travelers, Raven knew he would not find such miracles behind the city gates. His shrouded eyes saw what others could not. The road to the Drylands City was a vortex that pulled its victims in without forgiveness. He and Aelish were but the last in a long line of servants to the City's cause.
In the distance, two figures ran toward the riders. Aelish turned to his companion in wonder, placing his hand on the hilt of his sword. Surely no one was foolish enough to run toward the Queen's army. Raven shook his head, and Aelish released the blade. Remaining astride their horses, both men took in the dusty, lanky boys who skidded to a halt before them. To the left, a spindly young man with sweaty hair matted to his brow stared agape, his eyes large with amazement. To the right, a shorter but stockier boy smiled widely, apparently pleased with himself. His pleasure disappeared when he looked into the face of the black rider.
"You're in a hurry," Aelish called down to them.
"We," the younger boy tried to answer, but his throat was dry from running and the sudden realization that looking for the Black Knight and finding him were two terribly different things indeed. "You're... you're the..."
"You seek me," Raven answered, speaking directly into the minds of the two young men. It shook them down to their bowels. "Speak your intent"
The boy on the right stepped forward boldly, trying to push his fear of the faceless rider to the back of his mind. "My name is Cam. My people need your help."
Aelish exchanged a glance with his partner. "We are not mercenaries for hire, boy. Tell the Royal Guard of your need."
They made to ride on, but Cam stepped into their path. "The Royal Guard is the cause of our need. No one can aid us but you." His eyes pleaded with the men, despite his obvious fear. "Will you not hear us?"
Raven dismounted and paced around the boys, taking in their clothing and lack of supplies. "You ran all this way to find us?"
"To find you, Black Knight."
"So that is what I am called," Raven mused. "And what is it you believe I will do for you and your people?"
Birch eyed his friend with admiration. Though still shaking, the younger boy did not hesitate to answer the rider's question. "The Queen's Royal Guard is responsible for all that you see. This country once flourished. Now they steal our food and water, they destroy our homes and imprison our people, and they blame everything on the wyverns you kill. We are at war, but we cannot fight." Cam turned to face the black rider, staring him boldly in the black depths of his nonexistent face. "You have killed dragons. You are powerful. The Queen will fear you." His chest heaved with the passion which boiled in his blood.
Raven considered his words. "You realize your sentiment is heresy." The boys watched him circle them once more and mount his horse. "This is not my war." Before they could respond, the black rider urged his horse forward and galloped on to the Drylands castle.
"You're accusations are surprising," the Queen paced the secret hall behind her court. Torch light flickered over the old stone walls and played shadows over her fine face. Outside, far beyond the many walls of stone which separated them from fresh air, the afternoon sunlight was making long shadows stretch over the parched land that led up to the gates of the kingdom's gardens. "Surely you know I will not allow any further intrusion into my daughter's private life until after the ceremony."
"Yes, Highness," the Prince bowed slightly, choking back his desire to order her actions to his liking.
"Her new handmaiden, however," the elegant woman suggested, leaving the comment to hang in the air.
"The Lady Willow? Surely you do not suspect her of having power."
The Queen smiled wryly. "You fancy the young woman. I will caution you, Tinari," the Queen raised a gloved hand, "beauty and power are rarely separate entities. Spend your free time as you choose, but do not make a fool of my daughter with your actions. It took far too long to arrange the marriage of our countries with your joined hands."
The Prince bowed to her again, stung by the accuracy of her perception.