"We must kill him. There is no other way." Willow paced the stone floor of the underground room impatiently. "We must kill him." Her skin was flushed and her voice hoarse from screaming at the others in her haste to sign the Black Knight's death warrant.
Ulhetha had watched her for long enough. Irritated with the girl's behavior, she jumped up and grabbed Willow by the wrist. "By the Ancients," she cursed, instantly regretting her choice of words, "sit down and tell me what happened. I won't have any more of this useless screeching out of you. "We cannot simply murder the one man the resistance believes will be our salvation."
"Then let the resistance decide," Willow spat back. "That awful beast took Cam from the market square." Her words chilled the old woman's bones. "I doubt if he shall live till sunset." Less than a nod was needed to send Jinna off running. Ulhetha trusted her to find things out, and this was one time when her ability to hide and listen could save a life. "He approached us in the square," Willow began. Her eyes drifted towards the fire as she described the terrifying events.
Still stunned by her vision, Willow felt icy fingers wrap around her brain. Words formed in her mind, guided by a sonorous voice. "Let my words and deeds show my loyalty, Highness." Willow looked briefly at River, seeing that the voice was in her mind as well. The Princess had not moved.
The black rider stood, sheathing his weapon. His companion did the same. "I am Aelish," the second man spoke. "This is Raven. We are honored to be in your presence, Majesty."
River's trance was broken by the tall man's voice. Her eyes took in his armor, dusty from many miles of riding. His face was unshaven, his hair long, and his brown eyes seemed kind. "Welcome," she answered, the boldness of her voice thrilling everyone within earshot. "Please, call me River. This is my handmaiden, Willow."
Aelish turned to face her, bowing slightly. Raven, however, had not moved from his stance, though whether he stared at her could not be seen. Straining to contain the fear and anger in her chest, Willow could not reply. She breathed deeply. Though she searched for the voice and the vision in her mind, she could bring neither back. Tara had haunted her for so many years, and now, confronted with the man who may have killed her, Willow could no longer feel the betrayal which had governed their departure from one another. She only felt loss.
"The Royal Guard will accompany you into the keep," River motioned to the nearest soldiers. "Will you tell me if I can provide anything more you might require?" Though her words were calm and true, her eyes never parted from the brown-eyed warrior.
"We will. Thank you, River," he answered, smiling at her kindness.
"Our people require peace!" a loud voice from within the crowd shouted, ceasing the breath of hundreds. "We are hungry! Our homes are burnt and raided by the Queen's own hand, and our children are sold into slavery in the streets while you exchange pleasantries with the keeper of the wyverns!" Gasps and exclamations escaped the lips of those who stepped aside to reveal the naysayer. Cam, standing tall and proud, held his ground. "We will not stand by while everything we have worked for is ruined by the Queen or the Princess," he spat, "nor any other member of the Royal Family. This man," he pointed at Raven, pausing for several breaths, "this man," his voice and arm shook and trembled. Something was happening inside of the young man, a battle of sorts, and he strained against it, determined to speak his message, no matter how deadly it would prove to be. "This man is in league with the Queen. He is evil." The crowd whispered and looked from the boy to the masked man in wonder. The guardsmen, no longer waiting to be dispatched, strode forward in a half circle and closed in on him as his words grew desperate. "You cannot silence the whole kingdom! We will not die without fighting back! Even now, while you draw your swords to kill one unarmed man," and they did just that, "others are rising up. The will of the people will be heard!"
As the lead guardsman's sword was raised in preparation for a deadly strike, a thundering voice ripped through the crowd, bearing down on every mind. They turned their eyes as one to the Black Knight. "Stop." The command was low and simple, but all obeyed. The guard lowered his blade, and his company parted to allow Raven to walk through and stand before the heretic. "He speaks of my deeds and my intent. Let him witness it first hand. He is mine." He stared with his horrible black visage, challenging anyone present. None opposed him. He turned back to Cam, facing him silently for many long breaths. Leaving his weapons in favor of powerful fists, the Black Knight drew back and struck the young man across the chin with the back of his armored hand. Cam spun and staggered. Blood coursed in rivulets from the cuts created by the steel plates on Raven's gauntlets. Stepping forward, the black rider bore down on him with both fists joined, driving the boy to his knees. He offered no resistance. Raven's knee jerked up and into Cam's chest. He coughed, his eyes rolled back, and he collapsed in a heap. To the right of the Black Knight, a guardsman took a step nearer to them, preparing to drag Cam off. Raven held out a hand in warning. "I said he is mine. Leave him."
"And they just let him take the boy off?" Ulhetha asked incredulously. She, too, paced the smoky room, absently plucking herbs from their resting places and throwing them into the pot bubbling over the fire. Willow nodded, suddenly exhausted from the whole affair. "How can he have been so stupid?" the old woman threw the handful of thyme into the flames. It crackled and shriveled in the heat.
"Is it true?" Willow raised her head.
"Is what true?"
"What Cam said about the Queen and the Royal Guard."
Ulhetha pulled a chair over to where the handmaiden sat. She took Willow's hands gently in her own. "Few know the real culprits of the current devastation of this land. The Queen is one of them, though neither the least nor the greatest. Prince Tinari has tainted what remained of her purity with his anti-magic campaigns. And then there is the Mistress Kousa," Ulhetha took a long, cleansing breath. "That woman wishes to unleash an unspeakable evil." Willow glared at her knowingly. "Yes, yes, I should have told you. There is too much to speak of, little one, and never enough time to say it all."
"Hepsebah used to say that, too."
The old woman smiled, new wrinkles springing up in her cheeks. "My big sister always thought she was so smart. Your mother, on the other hand, knew that we were but children in this life."
Willow sat up sharply. "You knew my mother?"
"I did," Ulhetha nodded. "In fact, I helped bring you into this world." Her eyes misted over with the memory. "It was the most amazing birth these old eyes have witnessed." Willow moved closer, desperate to feel and see and hear what Ulhetha and Hepsebah must have taken for granted. "Rowan was pure radiance," Ulhetha went on, "and you, Willow, were the happiest baby ever to be born in an underground cave."
"Here?" the young woman looked around.
"Close. There are other tunnels and rooms. Your mother was in hiding, you see. She was one of the last of her kind, the last of the true Ancients to walk among her people in the Known Lands. When her existence was discovered, they hunted her down to kill her. They succeeded shortly after your birth." Willow felt tears gather on her bottom eyelids. "However, it is not such a simple thing to kill an Ancient, you know."
Willow had never considered her own mortality in such a light, nor had she thought about how an Ancient could die. "What happened to her?"
Ulhetha sighed and looked into the fire. "She wanted to watch over you, see you grow and become a woman. Hepsebah and I helped her become something different so that she could do just that. You remember the forest where you spent your childhood?" The red-haired gypsy nodded, filled with wonder. "That forest is your mother."
Jinna quieted her breathing as she spied through a tiny crack in the mortar. A narrow hall behind the prison had served her well many times in the past, but now, for the first time in her life, she feared what she might see. In a solitary room, confined between stone and steel with no windows nor any natural light, the Black Knight, his companion, and a very badly beaten Cam hid from the prying eyes of the prison guards. Jinna watched Aelish pace nervously. He spoke in whispers, but she could not hear the other side of his conversation. "You could have killed him, Raven. He's only a boy." He paused, listening. "I know," he sighed, resignedly, "heresy is punishable by death. Still," he bent down to the bruised young man, "are you sure he understood what you told him?" More silence. "Then we must find a way to get him out of here."
Cam groaned and opened his eyes, wincing at the pain. "I thought you said you weren't going to kill me."
"You're not dead," Aelish answered. "By all accounts, he spared your life. The Royal Guard would not have been so kind. What in the Known Lands would possess you to speak such things in the open market with all those people around?"
Cam struggled to sit up, feeling the welt on his chin with his free hand. "The voice of the people must be heard."
"Well you very nearly died for a short speech, boy. Your bravery is commendable, but your methods need rethinking."
"How can we think when we're starving?" he scowled.
Aelish stood and turned to Raven. "And you wonder why they seek a hero." He sighed, perhaps hearing an answer, perhaps not, then he turned back to the bruised boy. "We must smuggle you out of this place. Who can we contact?"
Mustering all her bravery, Jinna filled her lungs with air and whispered, "Psst!" All three men spun around and searched for the crack in the wall. Raven found her without pause. Where the barest of light once flowed through the tiny hole, now blackness coursed through it, frightening the little girl right down to her worn boots. "I can get him out," she spoke, overcoming her fear.
A heavy shadow interrupted the light which flowed over the interlocking stone floors of the high court, swiftly following the Prince's footsteps. Sighing with determination, he left the Queen's empty hall and raced through the corridors of the castle until he came upon the Princess' wing. Once there, he waited. Word of the display in the marketplace had traveled fast, penetrating the conversation of every member of royalty and service alike. While Tinari looked forward to meeting the so-called hero of the people, the timing could not have been worse. Still, an advantage could be found in the wreckage if he simply employed the right maneuvers at the right moments. While he thought and mused about the best direction in which to focus his power, the light beat of steps could be heard ascending the curved stairway from two flights below. The Prince smiled, licking his lips at the scent of a beautiful woman approaching.
Pure sunlight glinted off the red flame of her hair before the rest of her form could be seen. Tinari inhaled, quelling the desire he felt in his chest. Patience would bring her to him. Willow's steps sped up as her feet found the level floor and carpet which led to the Princess' chamber. She glanced upward for only a moment, but in that moment she saw something out of place. Tinari stepped from his shadowed place of rest and bowed slightly to her. "My Lady."
Willow drew back, pulling her hands to her chest. "Prince Tinari," she forced herself to speak. "I did not expect you."
"I believe the best things in life are unexpected," his smile revealed sharp teeth. The image made Willow's eyes dart around and search for the frightening wolves who accompanied him regularly. Her heart sped up as he neared. "I dare not waste your time, My Lady. I know the Princess will be awaiting you." Willow nodded. "I have come to propose something... most unexpected indeed." The handmaiden felt her hands begin to shake. "Please be assured, I am only interested in the safety of this kingdom and the well-being of the Princess. I believe you stand for the same things." His black eyes stared into her. "A threat has come to this castle, Lady Willow, and we are the only ones capable of stopping it. Will you aid me?"
Willow held her gaze up to his, unwilling to break it for even a moment. "What do you propose?"
"The Black Knight," he raised his eyebrows, "pretends to serve the Queen, but his true motives are quite the opposite. He will kill both the Queen and her daughter if given the chance. He will question any attention I show him, for my allegiance with the Queen is widely known. You, however, are but a handmaiden. The Princess' handmaiden, no less. He will be drawn to you." Willow pieced together the information as he spoke. "All I ask is that you return his attention. Woo him, court him, do as you like. Lead him to me, and I will ensure the Princess' safety for all time." His voice softened. "I know she is your friend."
"She is," Willow acknowledged.
"Then you will do as I ask?"
The young woman considered his bargain. This, she mused, will serve my needs more than he knows. "I will."