Ulhetha marched ahead of the others by twenty or more paces, though she carried twice their loads. Something was pushing her on at an insane pace, and the others were beginning to flag in their efforts to keep up. The first day had been simple in comparison to today's journey. Snow in the night had transformed the rolling hills into miniature mountains of slippery ice and thick slush, and the edges of their cloaks and skirts were damp and heavy. Forsythia kept an eye on Ivy, as she had done for so many years, and matched her steps to those of the girl. "We'll stop in a few minutes," she said encouragingly.
Ivy lifted her head, tossing the heavy cloak hood from her dark hair with both gloved hands. "How? Ulhetha isn't slowing down. She's taken two of my bags and another basket from you, and there she is," she pointed weakly, "marching off like a child to the fair! How old is she, anyway?"
Forsythia smiled. They had been good company for each other for so long that she couldn't think of a time when the younger woman wasn't nearby. "She may be old, and stubborn," her last words were louder, and they saw the old woman turn her head and sigh disgustedly, "but she knows what's best and what's right. You're only jealous of her stamina."
Laughing for the first time that morning, the two woman took one another's hands and pushed their pace harder. "She makes me miss Hepsebah," Ivy reminisced. "And that makes me miss home."
"Do you remember how the trees used to sing to us?"
The young woman smiled radiantly. "It was the first sound I remember from when I was little. Hepsebah always told me it was the forest calling us all home. If we ever got lost, all we had to do was follow the trees."
"After this is all over," Forsythia gripped her hand tightly, "that's where we're going. Ivy stopped and turned to face her, all the color draining from her face. "I mean it. We're going back."
"Back? You can't be serious."
"Back," she stated firmly. "Willow will fix this. She'll fix everything." The conviction in her eyes was powerful.
Ivy frowned. "She's only a girl."
"She's an Ancient!" Forsythia nearly shouted. "She has power we cannot comprehend!"
"We walk to face an army in Hillmarch," Ivy whispered through gritted teeth. "The one man we placed our faith in hasn't been seen since our last meeting. We have no weapons, no army, and no training. And let's not ignore the fact that we don't know where Willow is or when she intends to get to City Lost herself!"
"The Prophecy-" Forsythia began, but a firm hand on her shoulder stopped her.
Ulhetha held them both in her grip, having dropped half her load further up to get them under control. "The Prophecy says nothing about the two of you bickering like crows over crumbs." The younger women were silenced to shame by her glare. "Did you think this would be an easy journey? You," she turned to Ivy, "need to have some faith in the visions of an old woman. Do you think me so far gone that I would march us straight into death's hands?" Ivy shrank at her words. "And you!" this time she faced Forsythia. "Ivy is right. Willow is nothing more than a girl. A girl like you, or like Ivy, or, Ancients forbid, like myself. She cannot evade her destiny any more than we can." A flicker of fear danced through her eyes momentarily. Perhaps she was not so certain about the future after all. "Get yourselves together and get moving. We have somewhere to be."
Ren walked and ran alternately to keep himself warm. Winter had caught him off guard, and his chilled body shook as his temperature slowly dropped. There was no sign of civilization nearby, and nothing had allowed him to find a path or direction to follow. Exhausted and desperate, he forced himself on, whispering one word over and over to himself. "Wake, Wake, Wake," he mumbled. Willow had left after the funeral. All the elders were dead, their numbers were dangerously few, supplies were low or nonexistent, and no one knew how they would survive the winter. It had been terribly cold. Four more died of fever before spring came, and among them was Magnolia. Ren smiled as he thought of her booming voice handing out orders to anyone in earshot. She had held them together as a family through the hardest times. The loss of her tore the Circle apart, and Ren still blamed Willow. She had brought the mercenaries to their home. She had led them in. She was also the only healer left in the clan. With her departure she took their only chance of survival. Ren had taken Wake in when Mag first took ill. They had been father and son ever since that awful, cold night. The little boy had no memory of his adoptive mother any more than he had of his birth mother, Rosemary. Ren had been his only family. "Wake," he whispered as the snow caked around his ankles and up the backs of his calves. "Wake."
Now, lost and disoriented in the snow, Ren blamed Willow again. He had cursed her name when he first awoke. You should have killed me when you had the chance, he thought angrily. He remembered the underground cavern. He remembered Tinari and his wolves, the Black Knight, the little girl tied to the chair, and Willow. Willow had taken a nameless man into her arms to stop his bleeding. She had gazed with the eyes of love at the black one. Even Tinari was clearly vying for her attention. Ren slowed to a walk and spat the bitter taste from his mouth into the snow drifts. Everything was her fault. "Magic," he mumbled. Her magic had brought the fury of the Queen down upon them eight years before, and the result of that wrath had yet to cease. It's filth had leached into every action, every memory, every taste and smell of life that Ren knew. He hated her for it, and his hatred drove him on harder and faster over the low ridge of a hill. The top revealed something which made him smile evilly. Below was spread an enormous field of rubble and stone, the litter of a once great city. Its walls were crumbled and lost amidst the drifts of snow, but the peaks and spires of its castle could not be covered. Ren descended the hillside and set foot in City Lost.
Raven stood panting, his sword dripping with blood. The wound on his left arm was seeping red onto the stained snow at his feet. His chest heaved, and his grip on the hilt of the sharp blade tensed. Countless soldiers crowded in around him, each armed with a sword or dagger. At his back stood Willow, pale and terrified, but ready to fight to the death. The first thirteen guardsmen had been no match for the Black Knight's quick strikes, but they were simply the scouts for the roaming army. Their bloodied, mangled bodies formed a kind of circle around the two in the middle, giving pause to anyone willing to cross the boundary. Unaware that a conversation was taking place in the minds of their quarry, the soldiers held their positions and waited for a sign of weakness to attack. Their captain would arrive at any moment, and this stand-off would end.
We are surrounded, not trapped, Raven's voice was calm, steady, everything Willow felt she was not in her own heart. I will get you out.
How? Willow twitched as her fear grew. The muscular back behind her own never betrayed her. Raven was solid, sure, and confident. You are wounded, and there must be fifty of them...
I see sixty-two, he answered, and Willow realized that he had indeed been counting the soldiers. They wait for their captain. We do not have long. Will you trust me?
The red-haired gypsy took a deep breath and spoke aloud. "I'm not leaving you here. You need me."
"I need you alive. You're unarmed and untrained."
Willow considered his words carefully, letting her irritation build a fire in the pit of her stomach. She stepped away from him, drawing a quick gasp from three of the closest soldiers who saw an opportunity present itself at her separation from the fear-inspiring Black Knight. They turned their swords and crouched, prepared to spring at her. Raven spun and caught sight of her foolish maneuver as well. "You think you know what's best for me," she said aloud, bringing the soldiers into the middle of their quarrel. The three guards behind her leapt forward, closing the gap to her exposed body in less than six strides. Willow threw her right hand back at them, holding her palm up to stop them. "Back off!" her voice thundered. The air snapped like a sapling in the wind, and all three ran headfirst into an invisible wall at the edge of her fingers. They tumbled into the snow, sending up plumes of white powder onto the soldiers beside them, who all took a step back.
Raven crouched low and turned the sword in his right hand. Battle had begun. "Have you a death wish?" he shouted at her. His voice was rising in pitch as the tension increased around them. Two men charged at him, each growling and shouting as they ran. The first drove directly forward, sword aimed at the Black Knight's chest, the second held back two steps, his short sword held close to his own body. Raven sprang right, missing the first blade, and stepped out with his left leg, forcing the first sword and its owner to the ground under his boot. Placing all of his weight on the pivoting boot heel, he turned and kicked the second soldier in the chest, sending him sprawling into three others behind him.
"Death wish?" Willow screamed. "You're the one who wants to fight sixty-two men single-handedly!" As casually as if she walked through a garden, she strolled over to the carnage around her companion, heedless of the delicate balance of agility and timing required to fight off a trained army. Raven was forced to work around her as the redhead went on with her tirade, "You are without a doubt the most stubborn," another soldier grunted and cried out as Raven's blade cut through his pathetic armor and sliced the flesh from his ribs, "willful," another pushed forward, meeting the butt end of the Black Knight's hilt with his forehead, "arrogant woman I have ever known!"
The next wave of soldiers stopped in their tracks. "Sorry, miss," one of them spoke dumbly, "but that one's a man, for sure," he pointed at Raven.
Fed up with everything, Willow marched directly up to him, drew back her right arm, and punched him squarely in the nose. Stunned and bloodied, he stumbled backwards into the arms of his comrades. "I have had enough!" Willow screamed, bursting eardrums with her volume. With her last word, a thickening in the air burst outward from the center of the circle, knocking every remaining soldier from his feet and back three or more paces. They landed simultaneously in the trampled snow, clearing the view down the hillside and into Hillmarch. A line of men on horseback was driving towards them at full speed. Word of their arrival had traveled fast. The full army would be upon them in moments.
Before she could object, Raven jumped up and grabbed Willow's punching hand, dragging her from the crowd of fighters at a run. Her feet struggled to keep pace with him. She knew she had gone too far. Two against sixty-two had been impossible odds, and now they were running away, alive and uninjured. She felt the bruises forming in the knuckles of her right fist, but Raven refused to let go. His grip told her all she needed to know. They had been lucky once. It wouldn't happen that way a second time, and riders on horseback were too much for them alone. Glancing back over her shoulder, the line of riders was growing. It blackened the horizon and swarmed at them like angry wasps.
"We cannot outrun them," Raven told her quietly, gently, though he never let his pace waver. The gravity of their situation stole her breath. The thunder of hooves shook the earth below their feet. Off to their far right, a single riderless horse ran. It narrowed the gap to them with each mighty stride. Willow felt Raven look at the horse and adjust his own pace to match it. He intended to jump into the saddle at a run.
"Don't let go," she begged him between ragged breaths. The powerful gloved hand wrapped around her own tightened, and she felt herself lifted from the earth in a single, breathless motion. Her unplanned landing was not so seamless, and she grunted when the edge of the saddle bit into her legs, but she was safe no less. The horse increased its speed once both riders were settled, and a cloud of white powder obscured the mass of soldiers at their heels. Willow closed her eyes and wrapped her arms tightly around Raven. Using her magic had felt good. Using her fist had felt even better. She pulled herself closer to the black rider and looked up at the grey sky, and the world fell out from under her. "Look out!" she screamed, but her words were too late.
Raven turned his head just in time to see everything close in on them at once. The guardsmen had surrounded them on three sides, and the gap in which they rode was now too narrow for a deer, much less a warhorse. Time slowed, and the eyes below the black mask blinked, their lashes brushing the inside of their confinement. To their left, the captain of the Royal Guard smiled in victory, his body bouncing up and down to the rhythm of his horse's gait. His head was violently snapped forward as the talons of a wyvern plowed through the troops, crushing and parting bodies on its way toward the two in the center of the mass. Hulking claws the size of field scythes opened and grabbed Raven and Willow in one quick snap. There was no time to breathe, no time to speak, and nothing to prevent them from being plucked off the face of the Known Lands by the small dragon. Higher and faster they flew, further and further away from the horde of men and swords, until all that they had known as solid and true disappeared in the damp, grey clouds of a winter sky.