Tara gazed out over the frosted plains, over trees glazed with ice, far beyond the distance one could walk within a day. Tall, glacier-bound mountains reached up toward the clear sky, challenging it with their frozen stance. Her eyes threatened to close from the pure, white light reflected, but she forced them open after each blink. No amount of punishment, no length of imprisonment could ever give her the peace her heart desired. Banishment from her homeland had been the first blow, Willow's rejection the second. Now, everything she was, everything she had ever been, everything the future could hold for her was wrong. I am a perversion and a dishonor. Her breathing grew rapid and shallow. There is no forgiveness for my deeds.
Her bare skin began to redden in the cold. Gooseflesh crept up her exposed arms and legs, bringing with it a shiver that defied willpower. Tara took the bitter air into her lungs again, forcing her body to relax and accept the rapid drop in temperature. Born into the coldest place in the Known Lands, her flesh remembered the freedom it once possessed. Fur and wool were luxuries. Luxuries meant nothing to a warrior. Freedom, strength, intelligence; these were the things which kept a body warm on the coldest nights. Now, here, Tara's naked form accepted its place in the frozen world. Her mind, following true, arrived calm and ready to accept its place as well.
"I will find her. I will go to her and lay my heart before her. I cannot deny what I am, nor can I seek forgiveness. Be it wrath or hatred, I will face it with flesh bared." Tara opened her blue eyes to the sun and let herself think of Willow and only Willow for the first time in eight years. Her heart beat faster as her fingers felt the cool, red hair slip through her hands. "Tell me my fate, mo rhua."
Merl awoke to sunlight pouring through his window, lighting the dust motes from piles of books and maps on the chest at the end of his bed. He sighed and closed his eyes. Since the meeting several days past, his life had become a whirlwind. Nothing could be what it once was now, not since the fateful day he had seen the red-haired girl in the slave line. He tried not to let his mind dwell on her, but his heart was desperate to see those eyes, to look into them and find Rowan, if indeed she was there. Kousa had taken her, to where he did not know, and he suddenly regretted the bargain he had struck with her. "Damn her," he muttered. This was not the first time his sister had made someone disappear. Her own children had been gone for many years now, though they were terribly young when Merl last saw them. He longed to see them again, to feel a connection to some part of his family, so divided, so different than what it had been in his own childhood. Calla had become more family to him over the years than his own blood had ever been. "Damn her as well." He grunted and rolled out of the bed, pulling his quilts back into order. Calla had been relentless in her pursuit of his past. Could she not see that some things were best left to silence? He tied the laces of his heavy boots slowly, methodically. No one discussed the people's free army. It simply wasn't spoken of.
She would be waiting for him in the meeting hall, that much he knew for certain. Today the first group would leave for Torrent, and Calla was among them. Torrent, he paused as his heavy feet descended the stair to his bar. Did he honestly believe he could walk into that city without the full weight of a lifetime of grief collapsing his very bones? Merl shook his head wearily and continued down to the bar and back into the storeroom. Ulhetha had known just what to say to make him go. Though he felt certain it would be the death of him, he would do just that.
Merl reached between the fold of his loose shirt and pulled out a key on a thin chain. As times had become more dangerous, he had moved its hiding place from the loose floorboard to his own chest. He slipped the key into the hidden panel door and turned the lock. Much to his surprise, a body collapsed inward, pushing the door back into his foot. A half-starved face blinked in the filtered light and gazed up at him, bewildered.
"Cam?" the old man knelt quickly, cradling the boy's head in his immense hands. "Ancients among us!" he exclaimed. "You're alive!"
"Sorry to disappoint you," the frail young man grinned. "Spare a pint?"
Merl hopped around like a father with a newborn child, first carrying the withered Cam up to his still warm bed, then returning with food, water and ale. Cam attempted to wave him off, but weakness got the better of him, and Merl would not allow him to speak until he had restore his strength a bit. The boy ate like a wild dog, ravenous and shaking all through his meal.
"He didn't kill you."
"No," Cam chewed on the last piece of bread, relishing the sensation of a full belly. "That's not important now, Merl. I think something bigger is happening in that castle, and we have to get everyone out."
"What do you mean, bigger?" Merl fussed over the boy's cuts and scrapes. "What could be bigger than that black devil? He's the reason we're leaving." Cam stared up at him, his hollow eyes lost. "Right," Merl cursed himself, "how could you know? The council decided we must leave. The first group departs today."
"So perhaps we will be safe after all..." he muttered.
"Everyone thought you were dead. They still think that. With no hero to lead us..." Merl paused and looked around the tiny room aimlessly. "Well, they decided I was to lead us all to Torrent."
"Then it is true."
The barkeep turned his head and looked at the boy. "What is true?"
"Jinna is lost. She smuggled me from the prison, but she never returned. It was her duty to set Raven's reputation right." He frowned suddenly. "I fear the worst for her."
Throughout the castle and the whole of the kingdom, word of the Black Knight's promotion was bursting like water through a dam. Tonight they would celebrate, despite the dour mood which had settled nearly permanently over each household and business. Surely this news showed a turning point! Hearts and eyes looked to the Queen once more, convinced that she desired the best for her people. And, under her power and authority, the Black Knight could once more be revered as a hero, a man who could set right the imbalance in the Drylands.
The only heart not lifted by the announcement of a ball, by the celebrations which drove the castle staff crazily about the kitchens and halls, was the Princess' handmaiden. She sat alone in her chamber, staring mindlessly out the window over the orchards. Raven had been there hours before, and her intention was to face him, to ask him directly about Jinna, about Cam, perhaps even about Tara. Something, however, had stopped her. Alone in her reverie, her hands trembled as she realized what that Something was. Her eyes refused to shed tears, though her pale face and reddened cheeks bore the marks of tears past. The ball was but a few hours away. Tonight she would tell him the truth, and perhaps a few answers to her own questions would be given. "Tonight," she whispered. "Tonight." Her eyes moved westward and sought the unseen horizon of the ocean shore.
"You will accept him with grace and a humble mind," the Queen lectured. "This is an honor to our entire nation. It is an honor to Avinash as well. I will not see you behave in anything less than a perfectly royal fashion. Do I make your role plain?"
"Yes, mother," River answered quietly. He head was bowed, not in respect, but in dire sadness. The day had come. Long had it rested on the horizon, long had she feared it, though its distance had given her short comfort. The weeks of companionship with Willow had put her royal duty to the back of her mind. She longed for that companionship now, for Willow's strong presence and guidance to hold her up when her legs cried out to betray her and let her fall to the floor. But, more than a marriage to an evil prince, she feared her own mother's wrath. So it was fear that kept her upright, and fear which drove the demure answers from her lips into the stuffy air of her mother's private chamber.
"Good. You will be the shining star of the ball, my dear. Do not disappoint me."
Aelish polished his leather for the third time, intent on having it perfect. His fingertips were black with stain, and his nails would require a full hour of scrubbing after his efforts, but the ceaseless activity helped to clear his mind. Tonight they would attend a ball in their honor. Raven would be made a captain. They would be led away promptly after. Both knew that they would be marched to their death. While the thought of sabotage and death plotting should have shaken the warrior to his core, the only thought which held any sway over his mind was the Princess. She would be there tonight. He would bow before her. He would dance in her presence. Then he would leave, never to see her again.
The chamber door burst open, waking Aelish from his thought. Raven strode in, his own leather polished to a sheen it had not bore for many years. They nodded to one another, and Aelish continued his work. "Our blades are sharp, and the horses are ready," he told his friend.
Raven nodded again. "Never before have we ridden into battle so well dressed," he joked. Aelish looked up from his blackened hands and smiled. His companion rarely made light of anything. Their circumstance must be more dire than Raven had let on. A change had washed over them both since their stay in the castle had begun, and neither knew how to acknowledge it, though it seeped into every word and movement they shared.
"You will surely break her heart," Aelish turned away, letting his mind find rest in the polishing.
"I must. Will your departure not bring the same for the Princess?"
He closed his eyes, breath feathering over his lips. "My heart has already broken enough for us both. Perhaps that will be enough to spare hers."
Sunset came early, answering the call of winter's need for darkness. Lamps were lit, curtains were drawn, and fires were built up. Musicians took their place at the end of the great hall, tuning strings and tightening drum skins as the temperature and light grew. Colorful gowns and dresses spun and twirled in the candlelight of twelve ornate chandeliers, turning to the lilting rhythm of the minstrels. At the far end, the Queen and the Princess sat upon their dais, smiling gently at the adoring crowd. Willow, resplendent in an emerald gown of velvet and lace, stood at the right hand of her friend. Both looked as though they were prepared to flee at a moment's notice, if given the chance.
Three bells rang, each piercing the chatter and beat, until the crowd had parted and the music stopped. Following the red carpet to the double doors at the far end of the hall, everyone watched the two black figures approach, pause, and then stride confidently into the center of the ball. They knelt before the royal family in a flourish, then rose, heads still bowed.
"Welcome, honored guests," the Queen's voice filled the enormous hall. "Tonight we dance in celebration of you." She waved her arms at the musicians. "Something joyful," she commanded, and they obeyed with a stately tune, enchanting the crowd to take to their feet at once.
Defying every royal order and commandment ever spoken or written, Aelish remained at the foot of the dais, extending his right arm to the Princess. "Your Highness," he spoke boldly, "I would be most honored to have your hand for this dance."
River froze in shock. Would her mother permit such an audacious offer? Hearing no contest to the young man's request, and with a not-so-delicate nudge from her handmaiden, the Princess stood, her fine, black hair swinging gracefully back from her shoulders. She descended the three carpeted steps slowly, her feet and hands trembling, until she reached Aelish's outstretched hand. He clasped her own and steadied her. His brown eyes calmed her, and the music overwhelmed them as he swept her off into the spinning crowd.
Willow watched them go, a kind of jealousy carving at her own heart, though she knew the pain they must both be feeling. Her own eyes rose to see Raven slipping out into the garden courtyard beside the great hall. Free of her duty to the Princess, she followed him, genuinely relieved to part company with the bustle and heat of the dance. Crisp night air greeted her eagerly at the door, and the lightest flurry of snow descended onto the roses and dried flowers surrounding the stone path. Far from the light of the fires and candles, Raven stood in the pale moonlight under a bare maple. He appeared to be examining its bark with much interest. Willow's footsteps in the light frosting of snow sounded in his ears, and he turned to face her. So used to him had she become, she no longer saw the black cloth. Somewhere in her mind, she had assigned a face to the faceless knight, and the eyes which stared at her plainly longed to stare forever. She could not deny her own similar desire, but she had not come to him tonight to declare her love for him. "I know what you feel," she began, her voice strong and clear, "and I am certain you see it in my eyes as well." He turned and faced her fully. "But I cannot love you, Raven, despite what my heart desires." Surely, she could see his heart break, through the blackness, through the thick layers of leather and cloth which hid his shame from the eyes of others. "Tonight I have come to tell you why."
"You need not. I understand."
"No," her words bit at him sharply. "You do not. And I must explain, if not for you then for myself." Raven inhaled and prepared himself to listen to the words he knew would tear what was left of his to pieces. "I saw something when you first came into this castle. I touched you and I saw someone from my past." Willow's hands began to shake so violently that she clasped them together before her waist. "Her name was Tara. I don't know what you did to her, nor what became of her after your encounter. Initially I thought you had killed her, but, try as I have for so many days, I cannot find that sort of evil in you now. I appeal to you with everything I have, Raven. I must know where she is. I cannot love you because it is her name my heart truly cries out for." Willow stepped forward and took his gloved hands in her bare ones. "Forgive me for leading your heart to my own when it was not free to give, but you are the only connection I have to find her. Please tell me," she begged.
Raven watched her speak, spellbound by her words and her love, even if it was not for him. Despite his strength, his own hands trembled at her touch. The scent of her hair and skin entwined with the crisp scent of snow were intoxicating, though he knew he could not pull her to him as he so desired. "I will tell you what you wish to know," he agreed, but before his words could continue, a shadow fell over the door to the great hall. Raven looked up and stepped back from the handmaiden.
In the door stood a slight figure, simply dressed and unarmed. The same could not be said for the dozen guardsmen behind him, each wielding a broadsword. His short, blond hair and wicked sneer of triumph doubled as the guards flowed into the courtyard toward the couple at its far end. Willow turned as the man strode nearer, and her heart failed her. "Ren," she whispered through shaking lips.