Alone, exhausted beyond belief, yet still unable to let her mind or body rest, River sat by her window and stared out over the orchards. A chill wound down her neck and over her exposed arms. She glanced at the quilt beside her but allowed her attention to stray back once more to the man she had danced with for so many wonderful minutes earlier in the evening. "Aelish," she mouthed his name, smiling and wishing she could cry all at once. Dawn was still many hours away, and the early winter moonlight highlighted the falling snow over the trees and earth below. They had danced only briefly, but to River it had been a lifetime of joy.
"Your Highness," his brown eyes twinkled in the lamplight, "I would be most honored to have your hand for this dance." Her voice abandoned her, but her feet had proven loyal to her heart. His hands were so warm, his touch so gentle. All eyes were upon them as they began to move together, bowing and spinning to the steps of the formal dance. River's eyes wandered over her partner, noting with appreciation how beautiful he was. Gone was the constant rough stubble of a beard on his young face. His skin nearly glowed as he beamed at her. When he turned and bowed again, she watched the long hair in its ponytail swish over his black tunic and then return itself as he stood.
Aelish held his hand outstretched, beckoning her forward as the tune changed to something slow and soft. River cursed the gloves for interfering in their touch, but the sensation of his powerful hands grasping her tiny ones sent thrills up her arms and across the back of her neck. She tilted her head down and looked up at him with her large eyes. "You're terribly bold, sir."
"I am," he smiled in return. "But such is the mindset of a marked man." His humor failed him in that moment, and he watched River's face turn from him in sorrow. "I am sorry, Princess. Pardon my harsh words."
River turned her head toward him and let him see her tears, though they remained firmly on her eyelids. "Would you beg for my pardon were I anything other than a princess?"
"I would not waste my time," he answered, all too quickly. "I would beg for your hand instead." The elegant woman dancing in his grasp stopped and held her breath as the words sank in. Royalty and commoners alike vanished from the room, leaving the vacuous space to echo and thrum in her ears. Her sight was fixed upon his lips, and she knew in that moment that one kiss would be the end of everything in this world. One kiss would change what could be into what it could never be, and the weight of regret struck her as terribly heavy. Was it regret? How could one regret a birthright? Still, she could think of no better word for the cold sensation pumping from her heart and through her body. "Tonight," he broke her isolated thoughts, "let me ask for no more than a dance."
A thousand heartbeats later, River sat in her room, as cold and alone as she had been since birth. She could not deny that her mind had ventured off on many paths of daring escapes, of a life on the run with her mysterious warrior, of betrayal of her birthright and her people, but each time a glimmer of hope emerged, reality and rationality pinned her firmly to the ground. She was a princess. It was a fact which could not be denied, nor could it be circumvented. And somewhere in her chest she felt a loyalty to that title. The Queen, her mother, had proven a disastrous leader for the kingdom, and River knew that she alone could set things right. "But you think marrying me off to the Prince of Dogs will ensure your permanent rule over our home," she muttered angrily. Tears welled up in her eyes, not for her fear of Avinash and its prince, not for the loss of a love she would never be able to confess, but for something else entirely. She thought of the once fertile farmlands spreading out to the south of the castle, of the herds of sheep and goats which paraded over the South Road every spring on their way to pasture, of the scent of fresh hay on the backs of rickety wagons being driven by weary farmers, of the dusty market which had once sold vegetables and cheese and hand-knitted sweaters in every color you could imagine, and of the children who once ran and laughed through the orchards and vineyards over which she now looked. She loved her home. She loved her kingdom, and the state of it under her mother's authority made her desperate with fear. Who else would remain to fight for her people should she choose a path to fulfill her love of a man? Such choices were for those not born of royal blood, and River understood the significance of her role. Taking a deep breath, the Princess stood, still facing the moonlit field. "No Prince shall steal this land, and no Queen shall stand in my way. I will restore my kingdom and drive the demons from this castle."
"Then you'd better come with me," a low voice behind the Princess made her jump within her own skin. She spun around to see a hulking form in the shadows not two paces from her. "Because all three are looking for you tonight, and I'm not sure you want to face any of them in that nice dress." Merl stepped into the moonlight and held out his large, calloused hand.
"Give me some idea of why I should spare you, you slimy bastard!" the woman's voice boomed in the ramshackle brothel. Reza and Mara huddled together in a corner of the poorly furnished room, terrified. Only moments before, their lives had rested firmly in Sanjer's hands. Now his was in the angry grip of a woman who had burst through the front door, bringing with her sunlight and darkness. Sanjer had pulled them from below the floor by the scruff of their necks. Reza refused to let him near Mara, but neither of them had the strength to fight back. It would have been such a pathetic struggle, had they been reduced to that. Nine days of hiding, starvation, dehydration, and sleep deprivation had left Reza paler and weaker than he had ever been, so much so that his curiosity about death had turned into a longing. What else could bring relief from the pain? What else could cure the stark loneliness, the knowledge that he had not been able to save the last girls?
None of that mattered now. As they clung to each other, Reza and Mara listened and watched in utter fear and fascination.
"I've waited a long time for this, Sanjer," the woman spat at the man whose shirt was caught up in her fists. Strong arms held him firmly in place, an audience of one to her display of fury. A dark mist swirled about her feet, shrouding the cracked, broken floorboards of the once fine establishment. "It's only a shame I can't make it last longer," she taunted, "but I've got things to do, y'see."
"Anything you want-" Sanjer tried to beg, but his throat was snagged by a quick hand and squeezed until his eyes bulged.
"And that's exactly why you've just got to be removed from this fine world, old man. Anything you want for a price, wasn't it?" Her harsh, beautiful face tightened in a grimace. "How many other girls have you tortured since me?" She squeezed tighter, clearly not interested in a response. "There's a lot of blood around this place, Sanjer. Not just the kind you can see with your eyes." His jugular vein pulsed and pounded wildly in his neck as his heart cried out for air. "It's about time I came home to clean it up." Eyes straining, face and neck turning blue from lack of oxygen, arms flailing ineffectively, Sanjer fought back with the strength of an infant as the life was choked out of him. After a long time, even after he had ceased moving for many minutes, the woman's arm finally began to shake, and she released him. The lifeless body crumpled to the floor and lay still.
Reza watched her lower her head, and, although her back was to him, he could sense that tears were in her dark eyes. He never saw a sign of them when she turned and walked the short distance to where he and Mara sat. Quickly, forcefully, she reached a gloved hand out to him. "You'll have to pardon me," she began. "It's been a long day, and I'm not in the mood for elaborate stories. I'm Trace."
Shaken, ill from his bones to his skin, and dumbstruck by the death of his captor, Reza could only stare at her with wide eyes and utter his name in a whisper. "Reza. And Mara."
Seeing that her urgency had little effect on them, Trace reached into her cloak and pulled out a stoppered bottle made of brown glass. She uncorked it and put it to Reza's lips. Awkwardly, he drank. Liquid fire coursed down his throat and into his stomach, filling him with heat. She did the same for the little girl. It wasn't alcohol, but the taste was familiar to the estranged gypsy. "It's a secret recipe," she smiled. "Kid named Red made me plenty a long time ago."
"Red?" Mara looked up, light shining in her eyes. "Like the Red Sorceress?"
Trace placed the bottle back in her cloak and grabbed the weary hostages by the arms, hoisting them to their feet. Though shaky, they stood without aid. "You could say that," she answered. "Listen, I know you're tired, but something really big is happening, and we need to go." Reza looked her directly in the eye, suddenly awake after the sip of the mystery liquid. He had not released his grip on Mara, nor would he for days to come. Trace saw the defiance in his stare and sighed. She reached into another hidden pocket and pulled something small out. Reza's hand was opened by hers, and a gold coin was deposited in it. "She needs you. She needs all of us," Trace whispered. "It's time to go."
They walked in silence, and it was deafening. The snow crunched under their feet, under the hooves of the black warhorse, the cold wind whistled and sang over the rolling hills to the west of the castle and its city, the late birds lingered and chirped as they swooped low for what little food remained in the barren snow-scape, and Willow's heart pounded hard and slow in her aching chest. The night had passed in a whirlwind, leaving everyone separated and distraught. Her evening gown was torn and soaked, her red hair stuck to her face and neck with smears of blood from Raven's wounds, and the fine shoes meant for dancing were rapidly deteriorating into rags. She was cold. She was hungry. She was tired. And her heart ached and cried out with every step.
How could she have betrayed him? The memory of their argument only a few hours before leapt into Willow's mind and twisted every thought she'd had about Raven. Could it be that he was not as he appeared? Could he be... She let the thought go unfinished. It was crazy. It was ridiculous to think that a mask could hide what she desired. Surely that voice had been but a figment of her imagination. Still, her betrayal stung no less. Now, after all that had transpired, she still did not know what had happened the night before.
"Where is Aelish?" she asked boldly, startling a flock of starlings beside the vague outline of the road they walked.
Raven refused to look at her. He continued to march through the ankle deep snow in silence. "He remained behind with the little maid." The calm, deep voice had returned to her mind, the same one she had always heard when Raven spoke. Though he walked without any visible signs, she knew he must be in excruciating pain from his wounds. His swaying arms gave her intermittent glances of the torn cloak he had used to tie up the gashes on his left arm. She turned back to the road that stretched out over the hills and wondered how far they would have to walk to reach Torrent. The journey seemed impossible as her tender feet trudged on. Interrupting her thoughts, Raven spoke again, this time slowing his pace to glance in her direction. "You saved Aelish. Thank you."
"I didn't mean-" she plunged into an apology before she knew what her words were doing.
Raven stopped and held up a gloved hand to quiet her, and the mighty horse between them took a step back, snorting hot breath into the chilled air. He wandered off to nose in the white powder, and Willow noticed as though waking from a dream that his coat was thick and curly. It was the coat of a Southlands warhorse. "I understand," he said softly.
"No," her face reddened, "you cannot possibly understand." Against her better judgement, the flow of confessions could not be stopped. "I wanted you dead!" she cried, stepping up to the dark rider. "I-" her voice faltered, "You took-" the words caught in her throat. "Tinari said..." but every explanation suddenly sounded so pathetic, she could not bear to hear herself speak. Her chest heaved with her rapid breath, but no amount of air could cure the dizziness which was taking over her spinning mind. "Everything has gone wrong," she moaned, her eyes turning down to the snow. Her knees followed, depositing her weary frame into a kneeling position. "There was too much fire," her voice cracked, and the tone of it rose as her grip on the present relaxed. "All the smoke and heat and blood, it was too much to bear. They all died," she wailed, "and it wasn't enough once. No, it wasn't." She shook her head deliriously. Raven stood there, watching as the world around them collapsed. "It was my fault they came. Each time it was because of me. It's my power, you see," she glanced up at him, searching for some comfort in his eyes, but nothing was there. All she saw was blackness. "Blackness," she giggled. "Yes, that fits, too, I suppose. That's all I have left, isn't it." She smiled, and her face broke from its hysterics into crumbling, body shaking sobs. "Hepsebah," tears streamed down her pale cheeks. "Oh, Sippa," she wailed, "I'm so sorry I got it all wrong. I'm so sorry." She turned her chin up to the man standing over her, and more tears flowed afresh. "After everything, after all the pain and loss, all the cold and loneliness, I wanted to believe that you could be for me. Mine only. But not as you are. No, I wanted you to be something you could never be. I wanted you to be her. And my mind," she laughed in a fragile way, "it made you into what I wanted, what I needed."
Raven sank to his knees to face her. Slowly, as delicately as if he handled the tiniest infant, he took her into his hands, then enveloped her in his arms. It was the most amazing thing Willow had ever felt, and her body collapsed into him as though it was meant to rest there for all of her days. She was warm. She was safe. And somehow, she knew things would never be the same after that embrace. "You have made me into nothing more than what I have always been," his true voice spoke in her ear. It was a sweet voice, full and dark, a voice that could wake you from the most terrible dream into a world of light, a voice that Willow had craved and dreamt of even in the nights she no longer remembered.
Allowing her head to turn slightly, she nuzzled into the wrapped and covered neck beside her cheek, and her arms found their way around the firm shoulders which held her steady. Her question was simple, it was obvious, yet it took more strength and courage than she knew she contained. "Tara?"
The black figure in her grasp backed away slowly and faced her. She could see the face. Perhaps she could sense it. Eyes from beneath held her own gaze, then turned. A crunch of footsteps in the snow directly behind them alerted her as to why the answer never came.