"So good to see you again, Willow," Ren grinned, for all the world looking like a boy who has found his long lost childhood friend. Raven stepped protectively between the two, though one man against thirteen was in no way a fair match. He felt Willow's trembling hand reach for his arm, not pulling him away but seeking safety behind him. "No hello for your fellow gypsy?"
"What are you doing, Ren?" she asked, heart pounding. "What is this all about?"
He smiled again. "I have come to claim the Red Sorceress, to deliver her to the Queen. Surely you did not think you could hide forever, especially under her very nose?"
Raven spared not a glance in her direction, but kept himself facing Ren throughout the conversation. The guardsmen had fanned out behind their leader, swords drawn and ready. The Black Knight watched each of them, noting their size, obvious strengths and weaknesses, where their eyes rested or darted. Each moved with short, quick steps, nervous energy winding their limbs into protective stances. They feared him.
"This is insane, Ren. You and I are family," Willow pleaded with the young man.
"Family?" His calm demeanor flipped to rage faster than an oil lamp lit with a torch. "You have the nerve to call us family after what you did?"
Willow wanted to look away in shame, wanted to hide behind her protector until the danger had passed, but she knew that her actions had been the cause of this confrontation. Clearly it had been brewing in Ren's mind for all the lost years between them, though the handmaiden could not have foreseen such a conclusion as this. She wondered briefly what Raven thought of the mysterious dialogue. "What happened back then..." her mind drifted to flame and smoke, momentarily allowing herself to remember the painful details of the night of Hepsebah's death, the death of so many, "It wasn't my fault." She raised her head to meet her former leader's accusing gaze. "It was not my fault, Ren."
"I lost my clan because of you!" he shouted. "My father died at the hands of mercenaries because of your impurities!" His face reddened with rage. "You brought that fate upon us, and I will see to it that you suffer for the lives you carelessly ripped apart." He nodded to the guards on either side of the garden. "Seize her."
They stepped forward, carefully surveying the risk of inflaming the Black Knight's temper. The Queen, however, had specifically given Ren authority to use the Royal Guard as he saw fit in the pursuit of the Red Sorceress, as Willow had suddenly come to be known. Shocked as they were that he had named the Princess' handmaiden that very night, they each wondered in turn what the Queen herself would say when the truth was known about the woman in whose charge her daughter had been placed for so many weeks. The first guard stepped within arm's length of Willow. He reached out to her with a leather gauntlet clad hand and froze. Something inside his mind told him to stop. It was a voice, small and frail. It sounded like his son. He turned, convinced that the boy must have followed him from his post at the edge of the castle, and he was prepared to chastise the six-year-old for interfering with his job, when a crushing blow drove him to the ground. Raven stood over him, fists clenched. From within his cloak he pulled the hidden sword, freshly sharpened and polished not two hours beforehand. The remaining eleven guardsmen braced themselves for a short fight.
Signaling the musicians to cease, the Queen rose from her seat and smiled benevolently at her assembled friends. "And now, lords and ladies, I am pleased to make two announcements. First, as this is a ball in his honor, I should like all of you to congratulate the Black Knight for devoting his service to this throne. By morning he shall be a captain in the Royal Guard, an honor shared by few." Everyone clapped and sighed in appreciation of the gesture. Oddly, the knight in question did not step forward to be received by his Queen. Unfazed, she continued. "I'm certain the ball has been most taxing on his social abilities," she joked, and many laughed as though on cue. Aelish, having taken his leave of the Princess after leading her back to her seat, departed quietly toward the courtyard in search of Raven. "My second announcement brings me more joy than you may know. Prince Tinari?" The dark man approached and bowed low, taking her offered hand in his. "In an agreement between our nations, and after much preparation on both our parts, I am pleased to announce the betrothal of Princess River to the Prince of Avinash." Exclamations of joy reverberated through the crowd. "It is with humble hearts we two nations shall come together in the Known Lands." Taking River's hand, she united the Prince and the Princess before her, stepping back to allow them center stage. Before bowing into darkness, she whispered into Tinari's ear, "Find him. Now."
Aelish burst through the door to a scene he could not believe. Raven and Willow were surrounded by Royal Guards. Heavy snow was beginning to blanket the courtyard where they struggled, each man falling in sequence below the kicks and punches delivered from the Black Knight. Of the twelve who had approached, only three now stood. Willow, refusing to abandon Raven to their swords, had kept herself in the center of the fray. Her efforts were slight in comparison, but none had yet caught her, nor had they wounded her. Something was amiss. Aelish quickly scanned the courtyard until he found the one person not involved in the fight. A tall, blond man, dressed plainly but clearly in charge, stood near the doorway, always watchful of Willow's whereabouts. Needing no more information, Aelish drove at him with the force of ten men, knocking him to the ground with a double-fisted blow. Blood trickled from a cut on the young man's head, but he made no effort to rise. Content, Aelish rushed in to help his comrade.
"This is the last time I take you to a formal event," he shouted as he kicked a guard in the kidneys, pushing the man into a thorny bush headfirst.
Raven stood, dusting his tunic free of snow, and turned to the one man he had entrusted with his life. "We leave. Now." He then turned to Willow and took her hand delicately. "I told you I would give you what you wanted, and I intend to do just that. But it has recently been brought to my attention that your safety is in jeopardy here."
Willow surveyed the carnage in the once pristine garden courtyard. "You're leaving."
"So am I."
Clasping her hand more firmly, Raven led them off at a run. He quickly relinquished control to the handmaiden, however, as she knew the halls and passageways of the castle better than any of them. Time had run out for each of them, though neither could have guessed what lay in store for the other. Now, with no time to consider options or reasons, they simply ran. Willow led them out a far side of the castle, down a path they each recalled, and directly to the stables. Two horses whinnied at their approach.
Raven swung the stable gates wide and leapt onto his black horse, pulling Willow up behind him. Aelish was right behind them, his horse pulling at the reigns as it sensed their panic.
"Wait!" Willow shouted. Raven leaned back, stopping his horse instantly. She saw no reigns in his hands, but let the thought go as more pressing needs weighed on her mind. "Cam and Jinna. Are they dead?"
"No," Raven shook his head. "Both live. They left our care days ago."
"They are missing. We cannot leave them behind. Jinna knows too much."
"This is ridiculous!" Aelish shouted. "Every guardsman in this kingdom will be out for our heads in a matter of minutes, and you want to go back in?"
She stared at him with her powerful green eyes. No argument would be heard by her. "Leave me if you must, but I will not abandon them. Jinna is a child." Without another word, and before Aelish had finished hearing her words, Raven set his horse off at a gallop. As they rode, Willow curled her arms around his waist. Though their speed was immense, her faith in him never waned.
"Can you find her?" he asked as they galloped down the road, damp with gathering snow.
Putting aside her fears of being caught using magic, Willow began to chant under her breath. A spell, simple but powerful, grew. It surged with her words, though Raven could not quite make out what she was saying. Behind them, Aelish followed at a dangerously close pace. As she chanted, he watched her body begin to glow.
She is below ground, Willow spoke directly into Raven's mind, surrounding his brain with her words as he had done so many times with her. Take the gate you see on your left. The hall is wide and straight. Ride through. He did just as he was told, brazenly charging the mighty warhorse through the castle entrance and into the stone hall at the side of the massive keep. Following each direction, they spun around corners, descended stairways and galloped through halls leaving shocked guardsmen behind them with each turn. Barely able to remain upon the horse's back when they leapt down another level into the dungeons, Raven dropped to the ground and lifted Willow from the saddle with practiced ease. "We're close!" she shouted, taking off at a run. Her companions could do little but follow her blindly.
After two more turns, they came to a large, wooden door, locked and barred against them. Willow pounded against it with frustration, her skin still aglow from the spell. Raven nudged her aside gently and rammed the door with his shoulder. It moved only slightly. Aelish joined him, adding twice the power to each blow. Again and again they pounded at the door, pushing it further and further with each try until finally, splintering under the pressure, it broke inward and delivered them all into a dimly lit room. Unprotected and ill prepared in their entry, both men only barely heard the twang of a crossbow as they stumbled to find their footing. Thinking the culprit had missed, Raven glanced quickly at Aelish, then looked around the room until he spotted a figure dressed in white hovering in the darkness. Beside him sat a little girl, tied firmly to her chair.
"Raven?" Aelish asked in a curious voice. His companion turned his attention back to where they had landed inside the crumbled remains of the door, only to find the other warrior gazing at him with the strangest expression he had ever seen. Aelish's hands crept up his chest to where a bolt protruded from between his ribs. He collapsed almost instantly.
Willow dove to where he slumped on the floor, failing to catch his head before he hit the stone. She looked up at Raven, then found Prince Tinari and his captive in the darkness. "Jinna!" she cried. The little girl struggled against her ropes and gag.
"I must thank you, Willow. It seems you have followed through on our bargain after all." The Prince's voice, as sweet as a spider in her own web, wound its way around them. "I had begun to wonder where your loyalties were, especially after the interesting stories Ren told me about you just now." With a glance, another door swung open, revealing a bruised, bleeding, and fiercely angered Ren. In his hand was a sword abandoned by a lifeless guardsman in the courtyard far above their heads. "And now, though I could not have planned it so well had I tried, I find myself in a remarkable position of power." He grinned, and the wolves behind him began to growl. "On one hand I have the infamous Black Knight, suddenly crippled by the loss of his dear friend. On the other, I have the equally well-known Red Sorceress, who has betrayed the masked man she loves." He steepled his hands before his black, hungry eyes. "I cannot deny that I have desired this moment with all my passion," he licked his lips, sharp teeth glowing within. "Have you not also hungered for the truth?" His eyes stared deeply into Willow's. "How long have you walked hand in hand with a faceless hero? How many nights did you drift off to sleep, imagining the face of the man to whom you would surrender yourself, body and soul? Would you care to take a glance?" He stepped closer to Raven, hand lifted dramatically to snatch away the cowl. "Or do you fear his deformity so much that you would rather never know what lies beneath all that blackness?" He withdrew his hand with a flourish.
Willow glanced at the man standing beside her, fearing for all of their lives, but finding herself equally drawn in by the Prince's alluring words. She could not deny that her mind had gone many times to a place she would rather not acknowledge. Raven turned to face her, blackness enveloping her sight. Avinash, her mind echoed back, reminding her of the warning from so long before. Avinash, it cried out to her. Avinash! Just then, without warning, the memory crashed down upon her.
"They make stories," Jesse spat bitterly, carving a wooden heel for a boot in the vice upon his worktable. "Though they say they're pure from th' filth o' magic, they lie. Never believe ‘em, li'l one."
"Why not?" Willow asked, oblivious to the danger and warning in Jesse's voice.
"Because they're thieves, is why!" he charged at her, still holding the knife. The little girl shrank back in her chair, terrified of her big friend. "They say they wanna cleanse, but all they do is steal!" His face was red and flushed from anger. He panted and puffed a few times, then backed away, dropping the old knife to the table. "I'm sorry," he whispered, shaken beyond anything Willow had ever seen. "I'm sorry."
Willow, small and scared, stood and walked to where her friend leaned against a tall shelf. She wrapped her thin arms around his waist and hugged him tightly. "They took something from you."
"Tha' they did," he agreed, turning to pat her head by his waist. She looked up at him with the purity of innocence, and tears welled up in his old eyes. "They took my Belle from me." His face crumbled in sorrow, but he went on. "Once, long afore so many things changed in these here lands, I loved a woman." He smiled at the memory, and the little girl smiled with him. "We loved each other good, we did, an' I never thought ‘bout how things can end." The wrinkles in his eyes returned. "T'was Avinash what killed my Belle. So never believe what they say," he looked her right in the eye, saying each word slowly and carefully. "Never believe what they say. There's magic in their words, an' they'll steal yours from you first chance they get."
Willow looked from Raven to Tinari to Ren, seeing clearly for the first time since she had stumbled into the dark room so far below the surface of the castle. Under her hands, she felt Aelish's heart slow its rhythm, daunted by the penetrating bolt in his chest. His breath was ragged and shallow. Her own shoulder wound ached at the memory of such a similar injury, and it grounded her so that she could face her fears, face the evil, and face the truth. "You," she stared at Ren, "are nothing more than a scared little boy who can't take the rejection of a woman." He recoiled at her words. "And you," her vicious stare turned to Tinari, "will never taste my magic unless you intend to choke on it." Her hands glowed as they covered Aelish's wound, and the light in the small room grew as her power unfurled itself. "Now back away or die underground." The light in her eyes began to scorch their skin.
Raven, sensing the heat and power at his side, unsheathed his sword once more, twirling it deftly in his right hand. He stared into the black eyes of the Prince in silk robes. Tinari licked his teeth. Raven's fingers tensed around the hilt of his blade, eager to drive the heavy sword into the throat of the evil wolf master. As if waiting for just such a signal, the wolves from their dark resting place leapt forth. Seven of them raced toward the cluster of people by the door, held back by one man and his sword. Ren, equally heedless of Willow's warning, took that same moment to charge at her. Raven swung his sword with both hands as the wolves descended, slicing their bellies wide open. Blood sprayed wildly about the room, and the screech of death shattered everyone's hearing. Two wolves lay split open on the dusty floor.
Jinna, still bound to the chair, watched with eyes wide as the carnage piled up around her. She strained against her bonds, terrified that one misstep could be the end of her. Tinari, however, never let anyone near her, despite the tangle of bodies and weapons. Out of the corner of her eye, Jinna saw Ren dive toward Willow, and she screamed through her gag.
Eyes and hands focused on Aelish, Willow could not see Ren coming, but she felt him. As her magic grew, so did her innate senses, and the ripple of air as the other gypsy rushed at her touched her hair and skin just enough to draw her attention to her right. Calm and centered, her motion toward him was nearly effortless, her gaze so quiet and undisturbed that Ren had less than a breath to consider the wisdom of his actions. Two steps away, he felt the floor beneath him shift, and with his last step his foot felt no earth at all. Willow's right arm, extended softly, seemed to push him down. Down and down into the earth he fell, sword still grasped by his bare hand, his body surrounded by blackness on all sides. As he descended, the scent of the air around him changed, no longer earthy and damp, but now crisp and fresh, the hint of pines and fir trees lacing each inhalation. Ren opened his eyes just as the ground rushed at him, snow exploding in a powdery cloud as he landed with a thud.
What Jinna had seen defied all the logic that life had taught her. The man who had launched himself at the handmaiden had disappeared into the floor. Willow returned her attention to the wounded man where she sat, her bodily glow becoming brighter with each pulse of the magic flowing through her veins. Aelish's eyes bulged from the power, and he coughed and spat as the bolt was pulled through his chest. No sign of the wound was left behind.
Teeth against steel clashed and clanged so near to Raven's face that his mask was wet with blood and drool. Hungry wolves surrounded him, relentless in their attack. Try as he might, they were beginning to overwhelm him. Distracted by the light, he glanced at Willow and Aelish, instantly regretting such a simple misstep. With a growl and a flash of red, two wolves latched onto his left arm with every ounce of strength they possessed.
"Raven!" Willow cried out, suddenly aware of the dangers around them all. For the slightest moment, she allowed herself to think about what move she should make next. The castle, on the other hand, had its own ideas. Cackling with delight, the walls and floor of the underground chamber twisted and deformed, sending all of its victims into a heap. Her magic had fed it just enough. Willow closed her eyes and saw the red, hungry face. "No," she whispered, "not now."
Her head swam and her stomach churned. Fire surged through her veins and poured from her flesh back into the cool floor beneath her hands and knees. Laughter, her head ached. So much laughter. Make it stop.
"My freedom is inevitable," came the answer.
"No," she whimpered, shutting her eyes tightly in search of a quiet place in her mind to hide.
"Was not your own freedom bought with blood?"
Somewhere nearby, a voice tried to scream. Willow turned her head away from the awful sound. I must leave this place. Why did I come?
"I called to you. You came to find me."
She could feel its hot breath on her skin, its sweat in her hair. It was everywhere, all around her. "You lie," she called out to the beast. "I came for..." her voice quivered and failed when she could not recall who or what had drawn her underground. I am underground. Her bearings returned slowly, twisting her stomach further into knots.
"No one is here now. No one lives but you. You are the key to the lock which binds me to stone."
Pain shot up Willow's arms, into her wrists, her elbows, coursing through her shoulders and stealing the air from her lungs. She tried to wretch, but her muscles were already seized in spasm. "Lies," she said through clenched teeth.
"All that you have known is lies. I am no different. Free me, and I will tell you the truth." The voice was slowly becoming more human, more delicate.
"Lies!" she fought back. "I will have no more lies!" Willow opened her eyes to darkness. The room continued to spin, but figures danced in her vision. The beast was not among them. "I know why I came." The color was gone from her flesh, and her body shook violently. Too much had been drained. Too much had been stolen. "And you cannot stop me from leaving." Her eyes rolled back, the world melted into black around her, and the handmaiden collapsed.
Raven stared down at the wolves piled about his boots. The floor was thick with blood and fur, the air tainted with the smell of death. His left arm bled in profusion, covering his sleeve and gauntlet in red. Ren had disappeared. Aelish lay by the door, still immobile. And Willow... He turned to find her, forcibly calming himself when he spotted her in a heap alone on the floor. She was not moving.
"Pity," came the smooth voice from behind, "I would have liked a taste of that one myself." Tinari strode around the room, dagger in hand, playing with the sharp tip of the blade. Nary a single drop of blood spoiled his white silk. "I suppose you thought her a fine prize for the lonely hero?" he mocked. With the tip of his polished boot, he pushed her prone form onto its side, revealing the lifeless face of the handmaiden for Raven to stare into. "Not too late, is it? Still warm, I'm sure."
His cold grin intensified Raven's grip on the sword in his right hand. "There are no more dogs to fight for you."
In answer, Tinari lowered his stance, holding the dagger before him. He charged at the Black Knight, aiming for the wounded arm. Raven twisted out of his way, barely able to return the blow. To his surprise, he suddenly saw the Prince's true intent, far too late to prevent him. Tinari grabbed Jinna by her ropes, cutting her free and holding the blade below her throat. Still gagged, she cried out ineffectively. "This is not the end, Black Knight," he chuckled victoriously. "But it is a fair beginning." Backing himself and his captive slowly out the door which had been broken, Tinari never parted his gaze from Raven. As the blackness of the hall threatened to swallow them, an odd expression crossed the Prince's smug face. He fell back without warning, losing his grip on the kitchen maid, dagger falling from his grasp and skittering off into the passageway beyond. Aelish sat up stiffly, a proud, if pale, grin crossing his face. His boot had risen behind the Prince's heel just in time, and Jinna now rested safely in his strong arms. He pulled the gag from her mouth gently. Tinari scrambled to his feet and took off at a run, unwilling to try his chances unarmed.
Unable to find the words to express his own relief, Raven took three steps and fell to his knees, clasping Aelish in his hands. They looked each other in the eyes as best they were able, and Aelish smiled. "Sorry I was late."
"Willow!" Jinna jumped up and ran to her still friend, fearing the worst. The two men followed her, each searching for some sign of life in the pale body. "Is she breathing?" the little girl panicked.
Raven pushed the other two away, taking the gypsy's head into his hands. He bent low to her face, listening, feeling for breath, then did something so odd the others could not fathom his reasoning. He whispered words in her ear, low and quiet, a message only the handmaiden could have heard. A moment went by, followed by another, and then something truly miraculous occurred. Willow's eyes fluttered, her chest rose and she coughed in spasms, and she fell against Raven's chest once more, though this time breathing as one in a deep sleep. He lifted her body in his arms and turned for the door. "We must go."
"Wait," Aelish answered. Raven swung round, his arm still bleeding and shaking below the handmaiden's shoulders. "Not this time, old friend." His eyes were soft and purposeful in the dim light, and Raven could see that they had come to a crossroads. "I am not whole. I will slow you, as will the child. I'll get her to safety. Take Willow. Go!" Waiting not one second longer, the Black Knight carried the Red Sorceress from the underground passageways into the darkness and snow of an early winter's night.