Drawn faces and heavy hearts sat around the sagging table in the underground room far below the dangers of the castle above. Ulhetha stood with her hands resting on the edge of the table, eyes downcast. "I realize no one wants to hear this, but we must change our direction once more. The Black Knight is clearly not the person we had hoped."
"And what about Cam?" Birch jumped up, furious with their lack of planning. "We must find him."
"We will," Ulhetha reassured him. "But from what I gather happened in the square..."
"That devil dragged him off!" the young man screamed. "Let's track him down and return the favor." He balled his fists and held them aloft. Several nods and grunts of agreement sounded in the darkened room.
Hale quieted them with his booming voice, "That is enough!" Ulhetha sat, and all eyes turned to the other elder. "We are right to be upset, but this anger will only lead us to behave like the Royal Guard we despise. Cam knew the risks of speaking his mind in the open market." He glared at Birch. They all knew that Cam was liable to speak without provocation, and they had secretly hoped that Birch would tame him with his calm presence. "However, it would not be wise to make contact with the Black Knight again. We are on opposite sides of this fray. For now, we will watch him and try to discover his purpose here."
"Hale," Merl spoke unexpectedly, "I am not a man to rush in fool-heartedly, but do you not think we have watched and waited long enough?" Many sat forward on their stools and crates. Every breath went silent. "Cam, though stupid and rash, was right. I admired his courage, and I believe we must follow his lead."
"We would follow one who would lead us so boldly," Calla looked right at the old barkeep. Her blue eyes held him steady, challenging the source of his words. Hale joined her.
Ulhetha took stock of the crowd of rebels and then sighed dramatically. "I think you've just become a captain, Merl."
"Captain?" his head began to spin. "You misunderstand. Calla," he looked back at the woman he had befriended for so many years, "I am no leader."
"Well that's not entirely true, now, is it?" she retorted. They continued to glare at each other while the company around them squirmed and wrestled with questions and excitement.
"Very well," Merl lowered his eyes. "I may once have been such a man." He fiddled with his large hands, obviously wishing the conversation would head in a different direction. "I am but a humble barkeep now, Calla. I'm not young. What fight do you think is in me?"
"I have seen the fire in your eyes. You've traced every movement of the Royal Guard and the wyverns across this land, and you watch and listen to every person who walks through the threshold of your pub. You have been leading us for months without acknowledging it, you grumbling old brute. And though he is not proud," she announced, "this man once led the people's free army through the Known Lands!"
Several in the crowd stared with wide eyes. The last free army had not walked the Drylands for more than thirty years. They had been disbanded by the royal family when the Royal Guard was formed in the same year. The deeds of both armies were legendary. "Yes," he answered the question they dared not ask. "It is true. Those days are far behind me, though."
"Then I will inspire you to engage your skills once more," Ulhetha raised her eyebrows at him, "for this battle will not be unlike that which you faced three decades past." Merl raised his head in a sudden jerk. "We are bound for Torrent."
"You trusted her?" Aelish paced wildly about the guest chamber he had gracefully been given by the Queen's servants. Raven stood by the window, looking out over the grounds below distractedly. "She was a girl. A child, Raven. What if she-"
"Do you not trust my instincts?"
Aelish quieted his rant. "I do."
"Then let the child prove herself. She will not fail us."
Relaxing at his companion's certainty, the tall man approached the window as well and gazed over the fine vineyards and orchards. "What is your intention now that we are here?"
Raven paused for a long time before he answered slowly, "We shall listen and watch."
A light knock sounded at the chamber door. Aelish went to it and pulled the heavy oak toward him, inhaling sharply at the woman awaiting his discovery. "My Lady."
"Please, my name is Willow." At the sound of her name, Raven spun to face the entry. His heart quickened its pace as she entered, her dress trailing dark green silk and lace in her wake. She inclined her head to him and smiled slightly, though it appeared forced. "Black Knight." He nodded to her, unwilling to correct the formal title in favor of his preferred name. "I hope I am not intruding?"
"Absolutely not," Aelish took her elbow and guided her to a low couch set near the fire. A heavy chill had settled in through the castle walls, and the scent of snow and wind was in the air, making the handmaiden grateful for the blazing coals. "To what do we owe this pleasure?"
"I..." she hesitated, considering her words carefully, "I wish to welcome you to the castle. Perhaps I may guide you through the grounds, if it would please you?" She looked inquiringly at both men, but her eyes came to rest on the still figure of the dark man by the window.
"You know the kingdom well?" Raven stepped toward her, noting that she gazed up at him without the fear he was accustomed to seeing.
"Parts of it," she admitted. "Will you join me, then?"
Raven nodded, and Aelish stood, offering her his hand. "This will be delightful," he smiled broadly.
She rose, her hand settling in comfortably within his strong grasp, but her face fell at his words. "I'm sorry, Master Aelish, you misunderstand." His smile vanished. "I come with a separate invitation for you, one I hope you may find of interest." She paused, taking in his apprehension. "The Princess has requested your presence. She waits for you in the north hall."
"Yes," she grinned at how pale the tall man had suddenly turned. The two travelers exchanged a cryptic glance. "Shall I call for someone to show you the way?"
"No," his warm skin glowed anew with his smile. "Please, do not let me keep you a moment longer. It was a pleasure to see you, Willow." He left in a whisper of cloth and leather, and silence consumed the room.
Raven tilted his head toward the beautiful woman and extended his elbow for her to grasp. She placed her hand on his black arm without reluctance, and then guided him down the many corridors and passageways through the ancient building. Her familiarity with the castle was astonishing after so little time within its walls, but it was the fresh air and trees of the gardens which beckoned them out to explore the grounds to the north of the cold structure. Willow's hand felt odd clinging to the man she believed had killed Tara, the same man who had killed Cam just one day before. Tinari had instructed her to get close to the knight. Befriend him, earn his trust, then deliver him to the Prince in one week's time. Those were the orders she had agreed to carry out.
"This place is so full of color and light," Raven interrupted her thoughts. She found herself wondering a hundred things at once about this mysterious man. How long had it been since he had spoken with his voice instead of his mind? Did he have a voice at all? Why did he hide behind a mask and gloves? "Thank you for bringing me here."
"It is my pleasure." Willow found herself staring at the strange man, unable to pull her eyes away.
"Few would engage me in conversation." The handmaiden felt sure that he was smiling at her. "You do not fear me."
"Should I?" He dropped his head and looked away from her. "Raven?" she spoke his name for the first time. He took a step away from her and faced her. "When was the last time you ate or drank in the company of another person?"
Willow felt his sudden burst of laughter in her mind, and it nearly tickled her into a giggle of her own. "It has been many years." His voice was surreal, and it made her ponder what it sounded like in the heads of other people.
"I imagine your life must be lonely." He chose not to answer, instead offering his elbow once more. They walked along the border of pear trees as the sun dipped low on the horizon, peeking out from behind the thick grey clouds for the first time that day. "I grew up among trees," the handmaiden talked to him, sensing that he wished not to speak for a time. "I come here when I need rest. It's quiet. The apple blossoms smell nice in spring." She desperately wished to ask him about her vision in the marketplace, but she dared not expose her knowledge or abilities. Every time she brushed against him as the strolled, she saw glimpses of Tara behind the pear trees or along the hedgerow.
"What brought you to this place, so far from your trees?"
"Fire and death, the same as everyone else in these times."
"It follows us all."
"Does it?" she stopped, instantly regretting her sharp tongue. Raven straightened at her obvious temper. "Forgive me," she whispered, unable to face him.
"Forgiveness is a precious thing," a note of uncertainty trembled in his voice. "Let it be saved until it is truly needed."
Jinna placed a cool cloth on Cam's forehead again, wiping away what remained of the dried blood. She had smuggled him out during the morning shift change in the dungeon, boldly directing the relieved guard to carry the boy's shrouded body over his immense shoulder. "Why do ye want this 'un, lil' bit?" he had grunted under the dead weight. "Dead bodies is nasty stuff."
"Tinari wants him," she had told him nonchalantly. The guard froze with Cam's body swinging over his back. "Says he needs to feed his wolves." The rest had been easy. Even a prison guard the size of a warhorse feared the Prince and his pack of rabid beasts. No one questioned that Raven had tortured and killed the boy the night before.
"Why did he spare me?" Cam asked through a swollen lip.
"Shut up, you idiot," Jinna warned. "He's a hero. And you're a loudmouth."
"Then why didn't he let the guard kill me?"
The maid huffed at him. "Didn't it ever cross your mind that he's trying to lay low? Maybe he needs you later. Maybe he knows he can't fight the entire Royal Guard by himself, and he needs some brave fool to ride into battle ahead of him." Cam scowled at her and turned away. His bruises and cuts looked bad, but he was remarkably uninjured. "But after your little stunt yesterday," she continued, "you're a dead man in this city. Your days of sunlight are over." Cam knew she was right. If the Royal Guard believed him to be dead, then that was how he must behave. Jinna dusted herself off and stood up, checking the boy's stock of food and supplies in the tiny underground room she had hidden him in. "If you're not here when I get back, I'll tell Raven to kill you for real this time."
"Back? Where are you going?"
"Someone has to tell Willow that Raven isn't evil, that he didn't murder you." Jinna didn't wait for any further argument. She ran down the narrow corridors and up countless flights of stairs, and a smile as wide as her lips could manage grew on her thin face. When Willow was told the truth, all would be right again. Jinna felt so sure and so safe, she never saw the arms from an obscured passage on her right reach out and grab her. Gasping, she found herself suddenly staring into the deadly face of Prince Tinari.
"Cut it," the Queen waved her hand loosely at the boxwood hedge on the south side of the orchard. A dozen gardeners trailed in her wake, each awaiting an order. Three burst into action and hacked at the small-leafed hedgerow with vigor. "Burn them," she glanced at a bunch of wild onions sprouting from a pile of orange leaves, crisp and delicate where they had fallen from the apple trees above. "And get rid of those foul onions." The men bowed and jumped to work. "I have no tolerance for unkempt things," she drawled to her companion. The tall, thin man walked several paces behind her. "You have made many promises. Will you see them through to their conclusion?"
"I will, Majesty."
She smiled, and winter advanced another step. "Good. I wish to have her in my grasp before the wedding is announced next week."
"It will be as you require," he bowed slightly, his short blond hair ruffling gently over his head. "May I ask what will be done with her?"
The Queen seemed pleased at his inquisitiveness. "She will be fed to the Prince's wolves. With her magic gone, our two nations will be primed to join. This strong city will flourish with purity." She spun and stared into the young man's boyish face. "You intrigue me, you know."
"You have no fear that I will execute you for your own crimes."
"Majesty, my crimes pale to that of the Red Sorceress. I come from humble gypsy origins, it is true. But I alone have done what is necessary to eradicate magic in this land, even though it required the breaking of my clan. Surely you would not think it strange that I hold the witch responsible?"
The Queen practically glowed with admiration for her cohort. "You will go far in the new royal order, Ren."
"Princess," Aelish bowed formally to the girl in the long, amber dress. She stood by the windows of the north hall which looked out over the training grounds and to the orchards on their right. Her radiant smile welcomed her guest, and she swept her arm wide to indicate a table and chairs, neatly arranged with tea service. Aelish helped the Princess into her seat, then remained standing and poured the golden liquid into delicate, porcelain cups.
"Thank you," River took her cup. "Please make yourself comfortable," she indicated the seat opposite herself. Aelish did as requested. He watched her sip the hot tea. Her fine, black eyelashes brushed her cheeks as she relished the taste, and the warrior felt his heart stir at the sight. "I am glad for your presence in my home." Her eyes remained firmly set on the cup in her hands.
"It is kind of you to welcome us so graciously," Aelish answered.
"My mother wishes to speak with Raven tonight. You will be expected as well." He nodded, unsure why she had mentioned the meeting. As if in reply, she raised her eyes to his. "You deserve fair warning. She intends to have you killed." Aelish felt the room go cold. He set the teacup back down on the polished surface of the table between them. "No matter your loyalties, and regardless of any pretense you show her, she has evidence from her military that Raven is indeed killing the wyverns. That, alone, is enough to warrant your death, though it would instead be labeled treason or some other such charge. Her role in the attacks is not commonly known."
"When will this occur?" Aelish thought of Raven, out walking alone with Willow.
"That, I cannot say," the sadness in the Princess's face could not dim her beauty, but it broke Aelish's heart no less. "I fear you have chosen a poor time to visit this city."
"I would not trade it," he addressed her boldly. "I will warn Raven when he returns. Thank you, Highness."
"Please," she moved to slow his departure, "stay a moment." He relaxed, wishing her hand had reached his arm. "Call me River."
"Very well, River," his smile warmed the chill in the room.
"I fear I must ask more of you, Aelish." River's voice was heavy with longing. "Surely you are loyal to the Black Knight?"
"I am. Though his ways are unorthodox, he has done more good than he wishes known."
"That is the question I am bound to find an answer to. Cam's family has asked me to have his body returned to them."
"What do you believe they will find when they are reunited with him?" Aelish sat forward.
He watched River stand and draw near the full length windows again. She spied her handmaiden walking closely with Raven along the border of the orchard. "Were I to believe that Cam had truly met the end you would have me think, do you believe I would allow your friend to walk with mine unattended?"
"Had the boy been taken by the guard, he surely would have died, River. Raven did only what he believed best." There was a quiet pleading in the man's voice, as if he needed the Princess to understand how he could befriend and trust someone who masqueraded as a monster. "But I'm sure you already knew that, as Jinna has told you."
"Jinna?" River spun. "You know where she is?"
Aelish stood, alarmed. The little girl was to have left Cam safely and returned to her normal duties this morning. "You mean to say you did not know Cam's fate before we spoke?"
"I did not."
"Yet you chose to warn us."
The Princess took three measured steps, bringing her within a breath of the rugged man. He knew she must be able to hear the pounding of his heart, so near was she. "Do not prove my instincts wrong."
The walk had been pleasant. Willow recoiled at the thought. She should hate this man! She should hate him and lead him to his own death for what he had done to Cam, to Tara. How many others had he murdered in cold blood? What is happening to me? Panic drove her through new halls she had never seen, past unopened doors and paintings hung with shrouds, and finally into the dark passageways that few knew existed anymore. How could she have entered into a bargain with the Prince? I am a fool, she chastised herself. I am a fool and now it may cost me dearly. Images of the Black Knight flooded her eyes and darkened her sight. He plagued her. Though the vision of Tara's death had been all too real, once faced with him, she could not find the anger to want for his death any longer. So many have died because of me. Is that my purpose in this life? Am I but a bringer of death? Tinari would be furious if he knew. He would be furious if he knew a great many things, she argued with herself. Willow inhaled deeply, pleasantly surprised to catch the scent of greenery. A branch in the next corridor caught her eye, and she wound around the corner to find the wood she had summoned so few days before. Where once it had been filled with saplings and tender, young trees, it now flourished with heavy-barked firs whose roots and limbs pushed gaping cracks in the stone walls and floors. Her feet guided her delicately over the uneven ground, and her hands steadied her exploration by grasping the strong trunks. Her eyes closed, and her face relaxed. Pure, clean air, laced with the sweetness of sap, drifted over her nostrils. I miss the forest of my home. In her mind, the trees whispered back. She felt comforted and sat among the gnarled roots, leaning fondly against the flaking bark of a madrona.
"I know that this place is important, but I am called elsewhere," she spoke to the trees. "Ulhetha sees that which has not yet come to pass. Even Hepsebah wished me to go back to Torrent." The trees sighed and bobbed in the breeze, though neither a window nor a door could be seen for a great distance.
From within the many folds of her gown, Willow pulled the tidemark Reza had given her long before the thousands of transformations she had endured. It was still warm in her hand. "I have not forgotten you," she spoke to it, though it was the brown-haired boy her heart called out to. She knew not what had become of him, only that it was ill news for him not to have found her again. "Help me find those who are lost," she whispered, beginning the enchanting ritual for the message-bearing coin. "Bring them to me at the edge of the world."
"Even now, as we hide," his voice was little more than breath, "she searches for us. Even now, she calls to us to join her. She calls to every gypsy, to every traveler of the wide world, to every free man and woman and child, and to those who have never tasted freedom. She calls. Can you hear her voice?" The tiny girl nodded, and Reza smiled at her. "And although she does not hear the answer, it rings over the hills and dry farmland, it flies on wings, it rides on horseback, and it carries on the smoke of a thousand fires. We will answer as well, though we must wait to go to her."
"Why?" The girl's hair bounced in lazy ringlets at her shoulders.
"We wait because what gifts we bring to her are not meant for battle. And battle is what awaits the Red Sorceress. But others will rise to her call, though darkness will look to overcome them all. Indeed, out of darkness a new light will shine, though none will see how bright nor how misfortunate it will turn out to be. You have heard the story of the beast and the girl who learned to love his heart, despite his terrifying face and claws?" Again, she nodded, eager to hear more of the tale. Every so often, footsteps could be heard on the floorboards above, and Reza would stop. They would both hold their breath and stare until the feet passed. "Love is not always simple," he went on. "And like the beast, sometimes things which are ugly or frightening turn out to be quite different in the end."