Tara stood with her back to the wall, letting the cold of the stone creep into her body. It cooled her bones and made her fingers tremble in their gloves. Cold was not enough. She needed more to take the pain away. It had been easy at first. Willow had told her to leave. She had made the only choice given, and Tara had never resented her for that.
She blinked and opened her eyes below the mask, noticing that the last of the grey light was fading from the mist. Night would fall soon. It had been night when the reality of her purpose in this life had struck Tara so many years before. Cold wind howled, snow swirled about her feet. Her heart had been so heavy since Willow's last words in the quiet forest. Please go. Three days after that moment, Tara had fallen to her knees at the foothills of the Southern Mountains. She could not go back to Laris. She could not go north. She was alone and unwanted, and it tore the breath from her lungs. On the brink of despair, filled with shame for her self-loathing, Tara turned her face to the sky and saw a lone bird fly overhead. It was a raven.
The concept had been simple at first. Become that which you are not. She knew she could pass for a boy. Being a man was only slightly more challenging. Her voice, however, was the one thing which could give her secret away. Tara had stood and looked to the west. Far in the distance the marshlands were barely visible, and they nagged at her brain with an idea. Following her intuition, she began a journey which would end where she now stood, at the edge of the Known Lands.
"Do you wish to be alone?" The voice startled Tara. She broke from her thoughts and saw a slim form in the doorway to her right. The chamber they stood in was barely recognizable as a great hall. More than half of it was now at the bottom of the sea, and the ragged edge from which it was torn stood upon the precipice of a cliff over the crashing tide. The woman stepped into the fading light of evening, and for the first time in over eight years of loneliness, they saw one another as Willow and Tara. The red-haired gypsy let her eyes fall to the floor, uncertain of what to say or do next. Cold fear coursed through her veins, and her hot breath plumed into the damp air from her lips.
"I have wished many things," Tara replied. She stepped away from the ledge to stand in front of the other woman, boldly taking her into her arms. Willow's head came to rest on her shoulder, and they both trembled. "I have never wished to be apart from you," she whispered.
"I'm sorry," Willow sobbed suddenly, collapsing into the strong shoulders supporting her. "I'm so sorry."
Tara grabbed her fiercely and held her tight against her chest. "No," she soothed. "No, Willow. There is no reason for apology in this place. We are here together. Whatever came before," she paused, fighting back her own desire to collapse into the woman in her arms, "happened so that we could be with each other now."
Willow buried her face into the black cloth which bound Tara's neck and face. Hot tears soaked into the fabric, warming the warrior from decades of cold. "I never wanted you to go," she began, "and then everything fell apart. I couldn't stay. I came north. I even came here," she lifted her face and stared into the mask. "I felt you here. You haunted me day and night, and I knew that letting you walk away had been a mistake."
Two black gloves were removed, and a soft hand came to rest below Willow's chin, holding her firmly. "There were no mistakes."
"I hated you when I saw you that day." Tara knew which day she meant. "Everything I had heard, all the rumors..." Willow's voice faded when she realized the depth of her errors. "But you saved Cam. You spared him when no one else could have prevented his death." Tara nodded. "Why did you not tell me then who you were?" she pleaded.
The black warrior let her head fall, "I could not risk the chance that you would suffer for my lies. If anyone knew what lay beneath this mask..."
Willow reached out with delicate fingers, caressing the neck and jaw-line of her protector. She met no resistance when she loosened the fabric edge, nor when she pulled the mask and cowl from the face of the woman she loved. Pale skin and dark blonde hair shone brightly in the dim light. Blue eyes blinked rapidly, unaccustomed to seeing without a barrier. "I know," Willow whispered. Tara looked into her eyes, and the freedom overwhelmed her. "I know, and I love you no less. I even understand a little."
"I could not-" Tara tried to speak, but Willow's finger met her lips, hushing her tears and explanations. Tara cried. She cried for every day and every night that she had been something and someone she was not. And when her knees failed her, Willow held her steady. The power in her was amazing. Letting go of pride and strength, Tara rested her head and her heart in the hands of the beautiful woman. When at last she felt her breath calm, she turned her tear-stained face up to Willow and said, "Night has come."
They looked around at the darkness which enveloped them, and resigned themselves to it. "It has," Willow answered. "I must go."
"You must." Willow took a step back, but Tara refused to release her hands. "Please wait."
"I would wait for you until the end of the world, Tara." She reached her arms around the warrior's neck and kissed her, drawing them both into the heat of their dormant passion. Lips and tongues and teeth fought for purchase, desperately driving them together in the mist and cold of winter by the sea. "This is not the end," Willow whispered, her hands still entwined in golden hair. She spun quickly, leaving the space in front of Tara to fill with chilled air, and dashed to the far doorway, disappearing into the night.
The earth trembled below their feet, and the wind howled in their ears. The line was silent and still with anticipation. No one dared to break the spell which held them so boldly against such odds, no one wished to consider how bleak their chances truly were. Bare hands gripped the wooden handles of axes and spears. A few broadswords glinted in the moonlight which faded and reappeared with the fast moving clouds. Snow began to fall, and delicate flakes alighted on the beards and faces of a hundred men. They were farmers. They were market vendors. They were barkeeps. They were tradesmen. None of them were trained soldiers. Some of them were barely old enough to recall times when slavery was frowned upon. Not one of them had witnessed the great floods, nor had they seen the boon of rebuilding and prosperity shortly after. Every one of those men had seen the hardest times the Known Lands had given its people. Every one of them was tired and angry and ready to make the change that their land needed. They held their weapons proudly and stared the enemy in the face. Three-thousand well-trained, armed soldiers stared back at them, victory already in their eyes.
A cry sounded in the quiet, and every man present looked south. A horse from within the ranks of the Queen's Army leapt into the open field, running past the rebels. He tossed his rider as though the man were less than a saddle blanket, then ran valiantly around the ranks of humble men. Fain saw him and inhaled sharply. The horse was not a good sign. "Relinquish your arms!" he bellowed at them. "Surrender now and you will be treated with fairness in the Queen's court."
Merl stepped forward, meeting the captain's gaze. "Nothing about that woman is fair," he spat. "We would rather die here than live under her tyranny."
The men on all sides of him cheered and chanted at the soldiers. "Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!" The night echoed with their courage, and the hearts of their foes began to tremble.
"I will offer you a bargain," Merl pointed his finger at the chest of the man forty paces in front of him. "Surrender now and you will live to be judged in the court of free men."
Fain laughed heartily. "Have you not counted your own numbers, old man? We stand upon the fertile soil of your grave. You cannot bargain with death."
"Ah," Merl's eyebrows rose in appreciation, "but you will soon see that I have done just that." The line of soldiers facing the rebels looked nervously about themselves. "We fight for freedom!" he bellowed.
"Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!" his comrades answered back. Farmers and tradesmen alike lifted their weapons in preparation for battle. Three thousand trained soldiers held the line opposite, and for every one who held fear and superstition, another two craved the blood and glory of war. Flexing their muscles in anticipation, they growled and glared at their enemy.
"Soldiers!" Fain called out, raising a fist in signal. When it dropped, he would give the order to attack. His eyes, however, darted to the right, to the lone figure riding fast through the thickening snow. The man was hidden by darkness at first, and then the moonlight broke free from winter's grasp, illuminating the snow and the black horse beneath the rider. The Black Knight galloped into the gap between the two armies, sword held high. As he passed, a cheer went up among the free men.
Before Fain could react, the rebels were upon them. They drove hard up the field, cutting through the ranks of armored soldiers, and men who had spent their lives as trained killers fell under rusty blades from the haylofts of barns. The rebels had had a plan all along. Merl led them up the center of the crowd of bodies, dividing the army in two. There they divided further, each half of the line pushing the soldiers back and away from the other group. Raven rode through the masses, cutting a swath of terror and death with each devastating blow of his sword. The soldiers, disoriented and overwhelmed by their own sheer numbers as they crushed in on one another, scrambled for any advantage they could find. Those on horseback fared better than their companions on foot, though many feet and hooves fell victim to the rebels' sly tricks. Two of their fastest runners in the group to the south held ropes between them. They ran around and between, under and through, twisting and pulling with every step, narrowly missing the swing of axes and blades as they met up once more behind the bulk of the army. The two runners leaned back on their ropes and pulled with every ounce of strength they possessed, pulling hundreds of soldiers to the frozen ground.
Turl and Catch slapped each other's hands in victory after the completion of their first special mission. "Good run, little brother!"
"Why thank you, Turl," they bowed playfully to one another at the edge of the mighty battle. "Shall we move on, then?"
"We shall," Turl grinned. Each sped off in a separate direction, soon lost in the din and mayhem.
The Black Knight, his sword sheathed in blood, glanced at the sky. It was time. With three leaps, his horse cleared the confused crowd of soldiers. While disoriented, the troops were still lethal in number alone. Raven tightened his knees on the saddle and urged the horse on faster. He rode for the second tangle of bodies to the north. The rebels had driven them farther than Raven had thought they would be capable. Cries of pain and despair sounded from within the mixed ranks of men, and the clash of steel and bone was enough to deafen anyone near. But above their cries, above the keening of death and the bellows of victory, another sound was heard. Every face turned toward the screeching, and when they began to flee, no one cared who was underfoot. The Queen's Army looked up to see the Black Knight, rejected by death, plowing toward them at a reckless speed. Behind and above him was a wyvern, wings spread wide as it swooped low over them all. "Run," Raven growled, and they did.
Deep within the deteriorating castle, Willow ran through ancient halls and stumbled over the wreckage of floods and neglect. Her breath was ragged in her dry throat, and her heart pounded in her ears. What am I supposed to do? she wondered. Ulhetha had been no use. Who else could tell her how to wake an Ancient? She wished for guidance, and she prayed silently for the companionship of her friends. When the tunnel stopped and the sea crashed at her feet, Willow slid to a halt. Her tattered gown blew around her in the wind, and her hair caught in her eyelashes. What am I supposed to do?
Aelish ran swiftly through the damp streets of the city, the Princess and Jinna trailing close behind. None of them had gotten any rest since the ball, and their nerves were frayed beyond recovery. At every turn, a new problem had arisen, and they were the only ones working to salvage what they could of the broken city. Soldiers had turned fully upon the people, drawing swords upon innocent woman and children in what could only be described as an unnatural fury. Arguments sounded from every building from the castle to the city walls.
"Let her go!" Aelish called out in a voice of authority. He rushed at the small family, a woman and man carrying a small child. They had been fighting loudly, arms flailing as they stood brazenly in the street. Tired of breaking up such problems, the young warrior pushed his way between the three without asking questions. "I said," he pushed the man, "let her go this instant!"
Scared brown eyes stared back at him, and the man staggered at the mild push. The child clung to his neck with a determination Aelish had never seen. "Hey!" the woman grabbed Aelish's tunic, spinning him to face her. "Don't push him around," she warned, her dark eyes threatening with a gleam.
"But," Aelish tried to explain, "I-"
"You wanted to be a hero," she taunted him. "But I already saved him and the girl. We don't need you."
River and Jinna caught up, out of breath from running. "Aelish?" the Princess asked between gasps.
Before she realized what was happening, the young man with the child was kneeling at her feet. His head was lowered in respect, but he slowly raised it to stare into her eyes. "Your Highness?"
Everyone stared at him in shock. The Princess was all but unrecognizable. Her hair hung about her shoulders in tangles, her dress was torn and burnt in three places from the barroom brawl earlier that day, and that which was undamaged was covered in mud and grit from the rain and snow which had refused to let up since dawn. Amazed at the humble gesture, River sank to her own knees and looked into the eyes of the man. "What is your name?"
"I'm Reza," he answered. "I've been looking for you." River sat back in shock.
Ren had followed her. He had watched every move she made from the moment she had emerged on the turret that afternoon, entangled with the Black Knight. Abomination, he cursed under his breath. She stood alone on the rocks at the edge of the sea, staring mindlessly into the blackness of the waves and the night. He knew the Black Knight's secret. He knew Willow's secret as well. It had been unfortunate that he could not hand her over to the Queen himself, for that would have been a wonderfully joyous moment in his life, but Ren could finally see that a direct solution would be required in this matter.
She is so delicate, he mused as he watched her balance on one foot. Ren had admired her since his first memories. Willow had been his best friend. She had been the trusted source of his inner-most thoughts. She had been everything he dreamt of and longed for until the day she ran from his arms and cried her rejection of him out onto the forest meadows. She had never truly come back. He had waited for such a very long time. Years had been wasted in hope, and it left such a bitter taste in his mouth that Ren wanted to spit in hatred. When she left for good, there was nothing left of their clan. The Circle was broken, and nothing could mend what they had lost. Wake was all he had left of that life now, and there was little hope for the boy's future. Magic had been forbidden when he was a child, but now Ren knew that it was truly dying out in the Known Lands. It was only a matter of time before it, too, would become a fable, a legend no greater than dragons and beasts of the sea, no less than an army of free men, and no different than gypsies and free travelers who once roamed the plains and forests.
Did she know? Ren bit his lip, wishing he could comfort her and strangle her with the same hands he now tensed into fists by his side. Willow crouched on the rocks, deep in thought. Her silhouette faded and reappeared as the wind tumbled clouds under the moon. Did she know what was going to happen? Did she know that her own actions had been the catalyst? He shook his head silently. No, she believed she was innocent. She believed that her magic was by chance, that her survival was luck, and that her destiny was clear. Ren, however, knew otherwise. He pulled a long, thin dagger from within his belt and held it before his face in the darkness. The hilt was smooth and cool in his bare hands. "The end of this age will come by the hand of nothing more than a man," he whispered.
Snow and mist swirled about their faces, and the earth shook underfoot as the soldiers ran and fought. Those who fell were trampled mercilessly. Though the people of the Drylands had felt that a war was being waged over the years, none of the Queen's Royal Guard had ever considered their actions war-like. They had fought villagers and townspeople. They had pillaged and burnt, they had intimidated, and occasionally they had killed. But never in the long years of searching for the Queen's quarry had they been faced with weapons and anger. Never had they been challenged. The rebels crowded in on them with each step, screaming in rage. Though untrained, what they lacked in accuracy or precision was made up for in their bloodlust. Many had fallen, but even the wounded fought on with a fervor none of the soldiers could muster for their own cause. This battle had begun as a joke. It would end as a fight for survival. Captain Fain, one of the few left astride his horse, continued to shout orders in vain. His troops were separated, aimless, and blind with their own fear.
On the other side of the battlefield, a directionless army used what little strength they had left to fend off the attacking gypsies and rebels. They were losing ground by the minute, slowly backing toward the edge of the rocky landscape over the sea. Overhead, Phidi whooped and sang as his wyvern flew in terrifying circles. The small dragon rushed toward the ground and pushed the retreating army in on itself, herding them toward the edge. Raven followed their progress from within the pile of men, hacking and pushing the other side of the group toward the center.
"How much further?" a familiar voice called out above the din.
The Black Knight searched the crowd, finally seeing a half-bloodied face staring up at him. It was Birch. "Fifty paces," he answered. "Drive them hard!" Together they sliced through flesh and dented armor, two against hundreds. The black horse reared up and cleared an opening with his hooves, sending dozens of soldiers to the ground. Birch leapt into the clearing, delivering killing blows to the grounded men. Above the helmets, Raven could see the blackness of the sea. "Fall back, Birch! Fall back!"
The young man strode on, oblivious to the Black Knight's warning. His dull sword struck another soldier in the ribs, deftly slipping between plates of armor. When he turned toward Raven with a smile of victory on his lips, his eyes turned to the three armed soldiers rushing at him from his right. Their weapons met his own, but his offense was too late. Together, in a crunch of steel and bone, the four bodies tumbled and fell over the stone and into darkness below. "Birch!!" Raven screamed. One foot parted with its stirrup as he planned to leap after the boy, but the wind changed. Inches from contact, Raven realized that the wyvern was too close. Leathery wings flapped uselessly and caught the Black Knight's shoulders with their solid edge. He was hit hard, tumbling him from the saddle and into the air. As he fell, his face was turned upward, and he saw with sudden despair that two rode the back of the beast. Phidi screamed in terror as Prince Tinari gripped him by the shirt and tossed him from the wyvern's back. Desperate to free himself from the unwelcome rider, the wyvern tumbled and turned, free-falling over the edge above Raven. Mist overtook them all as the rocky shore, more than fifty feet below, rushed up at them.