Willow wrung her hands together in nervousness. The courtyard of the Princess' private garden was bathed in golden light, calendula and hazel returning the yellow light with intensified color. A crisp breeze chilled the handmaiden's bare arms. She wished silently for a shawl.
"I feared you would not return," River whispered behind her. Willow turned to find the beautiful Princess gazing at her with an expression she had never seen. Something in the girl's eyes made her fearful that she would disappoint her, that nothing she could say would satisfy the Princess' desires.
"I came as you requested, Highness."
River rushed at the girl with fury and relief both brimming over in her eyes. Tears coursed down her face and soaked the handmaiden's silk gown before Willow even realized the girl was clinging to her. They stood in the embrace until the sun disappeared behind the espaliered apple trees along the west wall of the garden. "Forgive me," River finally spoke, her voice thick with tears. She backed away and regarded Willow anew, taking in every nuance of her appearance as though they had been parted for much longer than a few hours. Without any warning or indication, the Princess fell to her knees, bowing her head in reverence. "I didn't know who you were. Forgive me."
Speechless, Willow knelt before the young woman and brought her hand along the perfect, royal line of her chin. River allowed her eyes to meet the redhead's once more. "I am your servant, Princess." Her words were tender, hopeful.
"No," long strands of black hair shook themselves loose and tumbled over the Princess' shoulders. "I am yours." River stared into the emerald depths of her friend's eyes, seeking and perhaps even finding in them all the mysteries which she had assigned to the Ancients since the story first implanted itself in her heart. "I knew you merely slept, awaiting the right moment to wake, to return to your home, your people. Forgive me for not seeing it sooner."
Willow sat back in wonder. She believes I am an Ancient. Before this moment, before this day, Willow would have laughed off such a wild fantasy. Now, kneeling in the well-tended soil of the Princess' garden, she understood so many things which had not made sense. Hepsebah had kept the truth from her to protect her and their clan, but her secrecy was their undoing. This was the thing that had set about every motion that pushed her away from the Circle. It had driven her north to Torrent, it had hidden her with the Cirque, and now it had brought her into the arms of royalty, in the very castle where her magic was least safe. My magic, Willow thought, her mind returning to the forest hidden behind the Princess' chambers. My magic. She recalled the sensation of walking through City Lost, of being guided by a force she could not name. My magic. Inara's words haunted her. What is this magic I possess? Her mind reeled at the possibilities, of the amount she did not know. "Forgive me for not knowing myself."
"You know the story of how the Ancients walked the land and parted the rivers, but how did they disappear? Where did they go?" Reza's audience was silent. "I will tell you." His beautiful brown eyes sparkled with delight. "They never left. They became what you see all around you. They became the cities and the trees, the rivers and the mountains, they became what they had created, for it was the only way they could watch over mankind. When the age of man came upon them, they knew their time had come and gone. Creator and creation cannot coexist forever. Some of them chose to become silent, to observe for all of eternity. Others resisted. 'We are powerful,' they said. 'Let man move aside for his gods!' And so a battle began. It was a battle of gods, a battle of Ancients, and its spoils, its cost, and its legacy became the inheritance of man."
A tiny girl, perhaps eight years old by Reza's eyes, crept into his lap and curled up in his arms. He brushed her fair hair from her tired face and traced the line of a bruise on her neck. Anger flared in his heart and tempered his words. "One of them, old, wise, and powerful beyond measure, carved out canyons and destroyed entire mountains with his rage. He crushed anything in his path, furious that mankind should have that which he made with his own hands. So livid was he, the other Ancients bound themselves together as one to destroy him. Unable to cast him into the underworld for all his power, they instead confined him in a stony prison for all time without end. There he remains, slowly poisoning the people who walk his halls and rest against his walls. Below him, deep within the earth, tunnels and caverns twist and wind and grow with each year that passes. Though he strains to reach that which might free him, his chains can only be undone by a spell."
Mistress Kousa strode the length of her chamber, deep in thought. How could this have gone unnoticed? Her elegant burgundy gown trailed behind her, bound to her furious steps. Tired of thinking without having the answers she required, she stretched her fine neck and closed her eyes. A knock at her door brought her back to the present. "Enter," she called. The door opened, revealing the source of Kousa's predicament. Willow walked timidly into the center of the room, waiting by the chair she had sat in on the fateful morning her mistress had placed her with the Princess. "You may sit." Willow bowed her head slightly, then sat, gathering the sage green fabric of her gown in around her legs. "The life of royalty suits you."
"Thank you, Mistress Kousa," she answered, unable to look the woman in the eye.
"I believe we can cut through the useless part of this conversation, if you don't mind, Willow." The lady sat opposite the handmaiden, obviously worn and tired from ceaseless thinking. "Suffice it to say, information has come to me regarding your recent... actions." The redhead stiffened sharply. "I do not intend to cause you harm, nor will I hear any lies to the contrary of that which I know." She looked Willow in the eye, her glare stern. "This castle is not a safe haven for you. Prince Tinari is a witch hunter, though he would have his talents labeled in a different manner. Should you be caught casting a spell within these walls again, especially one of the magnitude which you cast yesterday, I fear the Princess may not be able to save you."
Willow commanded the tears in her eyes to hold fast. River had explained the act which had indeed saved the handmaiden's life. "I do not believe in the archaic sacrifice of animals to gods or Ancients," she had said, "but there was no other way to draw him off your course." The cat had been her only friend through much of her young life, offering comfort and silent support as the Princess grew within the constraints of royal life.
"I cannot, however, allow you to leave," the Mistress went on. "You were brought to this place for a reason, and I feel quite certain you will understand that fact once I explain a few things." The beautiful woman took a deep breath, steadying herself. "This castle, its walls, its floors, every nuance of its structure was created by the Ancients. More importantly, it is an Ancient." Willow felt her stomach drop abruptly. "He is one of the oldest, the wisest of His kind. The legend speaks of His imprisonment here," she stood and swept her arm wide over the delicate glass windows, "and of His imminent release at the turning of the age." She pivoted and stared directly at Willow. "That time has come, and you are the one to wake Him."
"Wake him?" Willow felt her pulse pound and throb in her ears. Her skin crawled at the sensation of being trapped inside the powerful, albeit contained, body of a fellow Ancient. Why had Ulhetha not told her of this?
"Yes. He is our God. We must free Him. And you," Kousa took three steps forward and grabbed Willow's shaking hands, "are the one with the power to release Him from that which binds Him to this prison. You are the one we have awaited." Something unspeakable shone in Mistress Kousa's eyes, stirring the fear in Willow's chest to a new height. "He has told me that you are the one."
"It's a disease. Plain as that."
"Don't be ridiculous!" the other man bellowed. "He was burnt. He's nothin' but scar under that thing."
"Burnt?" Henry Alvern piped in, taking a seat by the other two slave traders. "I heard he's cursed. Come across the Red Sorceress, he did, and she cursed him for all time."
"Because he's in league with the Queen is why!" The other two men sat back and thought about their obese companion's words.
"Oh, shut it, Henry," Merl growled.
"All I'm sayin'-"
The large bartender leaned over the counter and stared right into Henry's face. "I've had enough. You come in here day and night, getting people riled up over something you don't even know squat about. No one knows why he wears a mask. No one knows his loyalties. Let it go."
Henry sat back on his stool and considered his pint of ale with a thoughtful expression. "Word ain't good, Merl. You know that as well as I do. People just need something to talk about in dark times. It keeps my merchandise alive to think that the Black Knight could be comin' to save them all," he grinned maliciously. "Hope sells."
Merl closed his eyes and tried to breathe deeply, but he could not. Without regard to the guardsmen who filled his pub, he reached across the bar and grabbed Henry with a massive fist. The slave-traders shirt tore and crumpled in his powerful grip. "You and your kind are filthy, despicable creatures from the underworld!" he roared. "People are not animals. You treat them like dogs, and then you gloat at your earnings and get fat off their misfortune." He looked the hideous man up and down, clearly disgusted by the rolls of flesh trembling under his fury. "You will never have another drink in this city from my pub or any other, and you had best watch yourself once you walk outside of these walls." Fire blazed in Merl's eyes as he held the heavy man steady in front of him for a long moment. The clink of sword and dagger from the guardsmen who had approached beside them brought Merl out of his angry trance. His peripheral vision caught the slightest hint of fear in the Royal Guardsmen's eyes, but he knew he had reached the limit of their tolerance. Reluctantly, he let Henry go. The fat slave-master sat wit a thump, outraged and terrified. "Get out," Merl slurred through gritted teeth.
"Where is she?" Jinna paced the Princess' chamber again, her tiny feet flying rapidly over the thick carpets, now returned to their appropriate shade of pale cream. "I told her to come right after."
River took hold of the serving maid's wrist and pulled her to a stop. "She will come, Jinna. Have patience."
Jinna glared at her, "You think she's someone different now that you know. But she's not. She's still just Willow." River let the little girl's hand go, stung by the comment. "Maybe she is an Ancient. What difference should it make?"
"It should make every difference," the Princess whispered, looking out the window onto the light of late morning over the orchards. Though the little maid could never understand, to River it was obvious. Willow was not the same person she had been two days ago.
As though Jinna's calling had summoned her, Willow stepped through the threshold of the Princess's chambers with a pallid expression. Both girls rushed to her and helped her sit. "What happened to you?" Jinna stroked her forehead which was damp and cold.
"I," she began, but suddenly she could not find the words to continue. Her encounter with Mistress Kousa had left her shaken and unsure of everything. Mustering all her resolve, she tensed her shoulders and spoke through gritted teeth. "I've had enough of this. Enough of the secrets, enough of the lies, enough of Ancients and witchcraft and sorcery and everyone wanting me to be someone I'm not!" Her chest heaved with the power of her anger and frustration.
"It's alright," River soothed. "You're with us." She walked forward and took Willow's hand in her own. "Just be Willow."
"I've brought something I think you'll like," Jinna smiled, hoping she could lighten Willow's mood. The little girl jumped up and ran to the sideboard, uncovering a tray with a practiced hand. Willow watched her cut and serve something which looked like cake. She carried the three plates delicately and set them on the low table between the couches. "Calla said she couldn't sleep last night," Jinna explained. "She made this a dozen times over before she got it just right."
The two young women lifted their plates and stared at the delicacy. "What does she call it?" Willow inquired, delighted at the distraction offered by her little friend.
"She hasn't decided," Jinna ran a finger through her own, popping the dollop of cake into her mouth before either of her companions could object.
Willow boldly did the same, making River giggle. As soon as the creamy substance hit her tongue, Willow relaxed into a smile she could not resist. Calla's baking was second to none. "It's heavenly," she sighed, reaching for more. All three ignored their silver in favor of eating like children. "Cream is the food of the gods," Willow spoke before she realized what she had said. The other two girls froze, thick cream covering their fingers and lips. A beat passed in silence, then River suddenly burst out laughing. Jinna followed suit, loudly giggling away the tension. Color crept up Willow's neck and into her delicate face as she struggled not to laugh as well. Her mouth was full of the cake.
"Cheesecake," Jinna suddenly named it. "It's cheesecake."
All three smiled at her choice of names to describe the new delicacy, and they plunged sticky fingers back into the uncut cake, hungry for more. "Forsake the gods," River teased, "I shall declare this creamy cake the food of royalty." She laughed despite the shock she felt at being so bold with her words.
Feigning anger, Willow pulled the entire tray toward her side of the table. "Absolutely not!"
River leaned over and took a handful of cheesecake threateningly. "I shall, and there is no Ancient who can stop me." The grin on her face was radiant, highlighted by bits of cream and crust. "All the people of my kingdom shall have cheesecake! I'll order so much made that we can paint the sky with it!" she shouted in victory.
"You'll never get the chance!" Willow took the momentary opportunity to have the upper hand and launched the remainder of the cake fully at the Princess, covering her bodice with sweet cream. The two painted each other with cheesecake and laughed until their sides ached, finally collapsing back on the couches. Although different than the last time, the Princess' chamber was once again ruined and in need of a thorough cleaning.
"I've never tasted anything like it," Willow sat back with a sigh, heedless of the mess they had created.
Jinna wiped her face on her apron, "I'm going to be sick if I eat more. It's so sweet." Her friends smiled in the joy of the moment. "Now that you're both calmer," she rolled her eyes slightly, "there's something we have to do today."
Jinna explained things hurriedly, then whisked the Princess and her handmaiden off into the marketplace. Something was brewing amongst the people. All were oddly quiet, yet whispers flew and tickled Willow's ears, disappearing when she turned to find their source. "Jinna, why are we here?"
The little girl sighed, exasperated. "I told you, something important is about to happen."
"How do you know?" River bent down to look the maid in the eye. Unlike her mother, the Princess delighted in walking amidst her people. She held no fear of them in her heart, and they loved her for her near constant presence among them, even in the dark and dangerous times of the present.
"Everything that happens in the kingdom goes through the kitchens, one way or another."
A hush fell over the crowd. Everyone looked up at the city gates, not two-hundred strides from the center of the busy market. The normal bustle of immigrants had ceased, leaving only two men on horseback at the entrance to the Drylands City. They walked slowly, purposefully down the dusty street, parting the silent crowd before them. At its apex stood the Princess and her company. Though dressed plainly and unaccompanied by the Royal Guard, her beauty set her apart from the commoners of her city. Hundreds of pairs of eyes watched the black rider and his warrior companion approach her, stopping within arm's reach. River's hand clutched at Willow's, grasping her hard enough to cause pain. Jinna sought a hiding place behind the red-haired gypsy. Even the birds were silent as the Black Knight dismounted and drew his sword. As though in slow motion, unstoppable and terrible, he drew his sword and strode up to the Princess, swinging the blade with a practiced hand. His steps thundered in the dry, compact earth, feathering the dust in swirls around his polished, black boots. Late morning sunlight glinted off the sharp edge of his sword as it twisted and turned, raised up over his shrouded head. The breath in River's chest refused to move as she stared at the blade.
He has come to kill me.
Willow inhaled, the only person among hundreds to do so. The sword dropped, the flat of the blade scoring the earth in its descent. It was placed before the Princess' feet, its owner kneeling on one knee before royalty. Wide eyes watched the black rider's companion perform the same movements, an old rite of respect performed by servants of the royal family in public greeting. So long removed from its practice, few in attendance could recall its origins.
Touch his head, Willow urged the Princess in her mind, but River failed to move so much as a muscle. She was frozen in panic and terror. Touch his head. The custom of receiving warriors from battle was common enough, but the Princess was clearly incapable of performing her royal duty. In her stead, the hand maiden reached forward and touched the back of the Black Knight's head, covered in a black cowl, with her hand. Her brain lit on fire with the images that coursed through her from the connection.
Fire and smoke raged through the trees. Willow saw faces she thought she recognized, but they moved too quickly. A sense of pain and loss struck her squarely in the chest, knocking the wind from her lungs. Freezing wind and snow pelted her body, driving the smoky haze into the background. Before her towered the Pass of Death leading up into the Southern Mountains. A blond woman on a powerful black horse ascended, sparing a momentary glance over her shoulder. Tara stared into her eyes, piercing her heart with a sadness her heart could not contain. Her own hand suddenly felt heavy, and she lifted it. The Black Knight's sword was firmly in her grip. Willow realized all too late that she was merely a spectator in this vision. Though she fought with all the strength of her mind and body, she could not resist the Black Knight's swift movements and deadly strike. Tara fell under his sharp blade, never having offered the slightest hinderance.
Willow snapped back to the marketplace, trembling from the vision. Her hand still rested on the back of the foreign man's head. She removed it, and he lifted his black face to her.