Merl had known in his bones that his place was in the caverns below Torrent. He had held the line for as long as he was able, but his men knew what to do without his presence. His confident footsteps had led him down paths he had trod as a much younger man. The dark passage felt smaller, more confined, and he smiled briefly. Too much good food and ale had changed him from the soldier he had once been. His mind had never forgotten, but his body had softened. There had been shouting, blood, death and fear the last time he had taken these same steps, just as there was now. But she had been here, he let his mind drift. Merl gripped his long handled axe until his knuckles whitened. He would not allow history to repeat itself.
At first, the sea were too much for him to bear. The salt and mist were an affront to his nostrils, and his breath caught in his throat. Her memory was so near, and yet he knew she was beyond his grasp. As if time echoed itself, he heard her screams once more, and he turned to see Willow, her forward motion toward the water suddenly halted by a man he did not recognize. Merl narrowed the gap between himself and the girl, and his eyes instantly focused on Tinari. "I have cropped your tail before, cur," he spat. "I should have finished you decades ago."
The Prince curled his lips into a hideous smile. "Alas, old friend, age has worn heavily on you," he mocked.
Merl stole a glance at the red-haired girl. Something had gone terribly wrong, and the barkeep suddenly realized that control of the situation was spiraling out of everyone's hands. Desperate to prevent Tinari from obtaining what Merl knew he wanted, the rugged captain charged at him with full strength. He roared as he swung his axe high, bearing down on the dark Prince with the pent-up fury of a lifetime of regret.
"No!" Willow howled at them, leaping from her resting place in the shallow water. Tara's limp body slumped onto the rocks, and the Ancient stood to his full height. "You cannot! Stop, Merl!" Heedless, the old man fought on, pushing Tinari back further up the beach with each strike. "You don't understand!" she chased after them.
"They obey my will now, Willow," a soft voice brushed her hot skin from behind. She stopped dead in her tracks and turned, finding herself once more facing the hulking body of the Ancient. Warm eyes and a wrinkled smile welcomed her, but a warning in her heart would not allow her to take comfort in his gaze. "You have struggled for so long," he soothed. "Are we truly so different?" His white robe flowed gracefully in the wind, which Willow suddenly noticed was warmer. The sun would rise soon. "He is an evil man," the Ancient went on. "He confined me here, and he took away the one thing I held dear in this world." He looked out over the sea. "His death will bring her back to me."
"Like Tara's death brought you back?" Willow said through gritted teeth.
He faced her again and smiled in a fatherly way. "You are angry. That is natural. In time you will come to understand our ways. You are one of us, Willow."
"I will never be one of you." She stared hard at him, and flames once more danced over the curves of her skin. The fight behind her clashed loudly, and she heard Merl cry out. Tinari had drawn blood and now stood victoriously over the barkeep, his curved sword held high for the killing blow. Before she could say a word, before she could intervene or prevent what she knew would be tragic, Ren soared from a rocky outcrop above the two men, landing on Tinari with a thud. They tumbled into the sand, and his dagger, the same one which had been meant for Willow, now found purchase between the Prince's ribs. Tinari howled in pain, and the sound of his cries carried out over the turbulent water, cutting through the darkness as the first rays of pure sunlight broke free from the clouds.
Willow fell to her knees and screamed in vain. Her voice was lost in the wave of change which swept over the Known Lands. From within the depths of the ocean, a new figure arose. Her lithe body shed seaweed and water as she stepped gracefully into the other Ancient's arms. Together, they cast their eyes over their domain, and it answered the call of their minds and hearts. Spring overtook winter, the tide receded, and a warm wind cleared the air of its heavy scent of blood. Willow stood and looked around herself. The landscape was hardly familiar to her anymore. Fear crept into her veins and throbbed in her head. Tara was gone. Ren had killed Tinari. And now, defying everything she had come to understand in the night, two Ancients had been awakened and now stood mere paces from her in the sand.
"You took her from me," she whispered. "You took Tara from me."
"Willow?" a thin voice found its way through the mist of confusion in her mind. She dropped her chin and saw Wake. He held a small hand out to her. She clasped it with a firm grip and looked about the beach in search of the others. "It's not safe here."
"No," she agreed, "it isn't. We need to find your father and Merl." Stunned and bewildered, the odd pair found their way through sand and rock as untamed magic swept over the land. Willow refused to look behind herself, knowing full well that the Ancients were winding their way toward the higher footings of the crumbled castle. Everything changed in their footsteps. High mountain flowers sprang from the wet sand, and the sun moved higher in the sky than winter should have permitted. The bitter taste of imbalance made the handmaiden choke on each breath. "This is all wrong."
"We must set it right."
"Right?" Willow halted and fell to her knees, grabbing the boy by his shoulders. "How are we to make anything right, Wake? Tara is-" her words ceased, and she turned her eyes to the limp body in the receding surf.
"Kousa," he answered. Willow's face lost its color as she turned back to him. "You and I-"
"You are a child!" she yelled. "There is no you and I. And that woman is not to be trusted. She is evil."
"Evil she may be," Merl interrupted, "but my sister is no fool." Willow stood and looked him over, concerned that the battle above and on the shore had wounded the barkeep beyond recovery. "The boy is right, Willow. We cannot stay here, and you especially are not safe in this place. Let me-" he reached for her arm, but the young woman stepped back.
"Don't touch me," she growled.
"I only wish to help."
Her eyes wandered over the sand, finding countless dead bodies. She had not expected this. Her mind reeled at the sight of so much death and destruction. And Tara, she blinked slowly, wishing tears would soothe her. How could this have happened? Hepsebah warned me, she remembered. She told me not to bring her here, and I did it without realizing what she meant. Though the tears would not come, Willow rubbed her face with her hands. She thought hard, and she shoved her tender emotions deep within herself. There was a way, though she could not know what the outcome would be. Death had followed her from birth and had found its way into every crevice, every moment of her life. "If death is to be my partner, then I shall be the one to choose the steps of this dance," she whispered.
"You intend to bring her back," Merl replied. The girl's face, sad beyond what his own heart could bear to look upon, changed into a mask of anger and purpose.
"I intend to fix this world. I intend to bring about an end to this age, whether by death or life I cannot say." Her lips trembled. "Am I not an Ancient, after all?"
"You are more than an Ancient," Merl took a careful step closer. Behind him, Ren walked slowly, the bloody dagger still in his hand. "You have spent so long believing that you were less, and yet those of us who have watched over you have always known the truth."
"Hepsebah tried to explain it to me once," Ren came to stand beside his son. "I couldn't understand then, but now I see what it was all along. The legend..." his voice softened, and he dropped his gaze to Wake at his side. "This world has waited for change for too long."
"What do you mean?" she nearly shouted at him. "That legend is clearly about Tara.... about me..." Her voice caught in her throat, and the tears she so desired sprang forth.
"No," Merl finally reached her, taking both her trembling shoulders in his strong hands. "Listen to him. He speaks the truth."
"It is Wake," Ren went on. "Wake is the one the tale speaks of, Willow. He is the champion. He is the one the people have awaited for so long."
Merl shook her slightly. "Tara was nothing more than a masked woman. She was no Ancient, nor was she an Animarus." He glanced at the still body of Tinari. "Her place in this is done."
Willow turned her head toward the Ancients who now slowly climbed the sheer cliff overlooking the changing tide of the sea. "He took her." She glanced back at the older man. "He took her, Merl. I have to get her back."
"There is time," he soothed. "Let us begin our journey. I'll tell you a story along the way."
"Long ago, before the floods which shaped the history we now see about us, others walked these lands. Some were merciful and kind, but some were not so." Reza shut his eyelids again as more stone broke free from the turrets of the castle far behind them. Having taken cover in the shattered remnants of Merl's old tavern, though none of them knew it was his, Aelish, River, Trace, Jinna and Mara huddled together and listened to Reza's story. "The first were the Ancients. Tall and proud, they cared for this world as though it were their child. Some believe they created it. Others think they were simply the first to inherit it from the wilds of time before man. But as benevolent as they wished to be, some fell victim to the corruption of desire.
"Second were the Animari, powerful beasts whose magic once balanced that of the Ancients. They were meant to live in peace together. Such things, however, rarely work as they are intended. The Ancients refused to bow to the needs of humankind when their numbers grew. They believed that they were kings and queens, and that man should bow down to them. Some fought amongst themselves, and all fought with the Animari. Magic scarred the land and wiped out entire tribes of uncivilized men and women. The Animari were driven back into the wild, and their powers were diminished. Mankind bound itself together to fight the tremendous power of the Ancients, and so began a war which would not end for nearly a hundred years.
"As humans grew smarter, stronger and more organized, they pushed the Ancients further and further from their cities and villages. One by one, the gods-to-be were eliminated. Some were killed, others were imprisoned. The last two, the most powerful of their kind, were imprisoned within Torrent."
"But Torrent was crushed by the great floods," Aelish argued.
A wry smile curled Reza's lips. "True. And therein lies another story. Someday I will tell you all of it. For now, you need only know this. That was the work of gypsies, and that is how the gypsies came to be exiled for all of their generations to come." A look of sorrow overcame his tired face, and he breathed heavily. "Humankind will never know the sacrifice which was made by my people."
"Then those two Ancients were dangerous together?" Jinna asked. Reza nodded. "So the gypsies broke them apart..."
"And that's how the floods came," River finished the little girl's thought. "It's no wonder your people were exiled. They were blamed for the destruction of Torrent and all that was lost in the floods."
Reza continued his story. "A few Ancients survived, however, and never gave up protecting the Known Lands. They were vastly outnumbered, and men would have killed them had they known their true identities, so the Ancients hid among them, pretending to be farmers, tradesmen and commoners. Though different than normal men, they still had hearts and felt love, and over the years Ancients and humans became intertwined. Their magic, though diluted, was passed down into generations of mankind. Little of it is left these days, and only one true child of an Ancient remains."
"Willow," River whispered.
"But what of the Animari?" Aelish shifted uncomfortably in the cramped space.
Reza stole a glance back at the castle. "Most died out, and some bred with other animals. Giant wolves and wyverns were a few of the results. Others were captured and treated as servants. Far below the castle of this kingdom, the last of them has been awakened. It is he who has brought about this destruction."
"Then he is evil. We must destroy him," Aelish concluded.
"No," Reza jumped in alarm, "you shall do no such thing!" His companions were stunned to silence at his reaction. "You misunderstand, as did those who confined him. In the end, he allowed himself to be captured, he submitted to the dark magic which tied him to that horrible stone prison, and in doing so he saved the people of this city. It is only by his loss of control that the evil of mankind has been released. If you must blame someone for this, then blame those who cast the dark magic to confine him." Confused, no one could respond. Reza sighed in frustration. "Dark magic changes people. It allows them to do that which no man with a conscience would permit. This place," he looked around with disgust, "was built stone by stone with dark magic. The animarus within has been the only thing protecting us from it over the last hundred years."
"Then why is everything falling apart?" the Princess demanded.
"Good magic, pure magic awoke him from his slumber." Everyone knew what he meant. "He must be freed, and this city must be destroyed."
"Fine," Trace interjected for the first time since they took up their hiding place. "We let this animal out of its cage. How do we know it won't kill us?"
"We don't," he answered simply.
"You have the power to control it." Merl continued.
"Me?" Willow stopped and turned to the aging barkeep. "You must be out of your mind. I can barely control my own magic."
"Please, Willow, trust me in this."
"And why should I trust you?" she began walking once more. Ren and Wake stumbled along behind them by several paces.
He turned his head toward her, and the limp body in his arms swayed gently with the movement. "What does your heart tell you?"
Willow pushed her sadness down with each breath. Tara's death seemed more real the further they walked, and her lifeless body made the gypsy ache every time she glanced at it. Merl carried her like a sleeping child to its bed. She wondered briefly if he had been a father, if some child, grown or young, was thinking of him now, even as the world changed about them. "Very well," she nodded slightly. "We wake it, and I will control it."
"It is not truly an animal. It has intelligence we cannot fathom."
"It spoke to me in the castle," Willow thought back to the terrifying episodes in the corridors of the keep, her magic being drained from her body any time she mistakenly used it within those walls. "It was not a benevolent voice."
"Torture," Merl answered through gritted teeth, "changed it. Beneath its anger lies a selflessness I cannot expect you to see."
"Who did all of this?"
"Tinari," Reza replied, anger coloring his flesh.
"The Prince," River whispered, letting her eyes fall to her own shaking hands. "My betrothed." Aelish stiffened at the mention of his enemy, of the one who stood between him and the woman he loved.
"A Prince to his nation, perhaps," the storyteller went on, "but an enemy to this land since he took his first steps here a hundred years ago." Shocked gasps came from every mouth, and Reza waited for silence before he explained. "Tinari and his kind are magic thieves. They steal power with a touch, and the giant wolves have been a part of their society for decades. Tinari is the worst of them. His command over his own power grows by the day, and he lusts for more. He has become part Animarus, and he seeks the power of the Ancients. Three already have fallen under his blade, but the last will provide him with the power of a true god. He needs her because she is partly human."
"It was he who imprisoned the two Ancients here, then?"
Merl nodded. "Though he wished to kill them for their power, he was no match for them combined. Imprisoning them was his only alternative."
"He's dead, Merl," Willow shook her head in disbelief at all she was learning. "None of his deeds matter now."
"Ah," the old man smiled, "but the same could be said for the Black Knight."
Willow turned on him in anger, "I will find a way to bring her back! I will release her from him!"
"And so shall Tinari find a way," he warned gently. Willow calmed herself and thought about Merl's words. If what he spoke was true, then Tinari would only grow stronger in the body of the Ancient. "Now do you see why we must wake him?"
"He is the only one strong enough," Willow concluded. "Merl," she began, "how have you come to know these things?"
His steps slowed, and his shoulders suddenly dropped in weakness. Willow watched a shadow cross his face. "I was young once, though I'm sure that's difficult for you to believe."
"He was a captain of free men. They fought tyranny and evil, they liberated villages from cruel lords, and they defied the King when he formed this very city. Tinari played his own role in that battle. Magic was banned within the city gates, gypsies became the hunted, and any rumor of an Ancient was quickly responded to with force." Thin tears formed in Reza's eyes. "One who had been in hiding for a short time believed that she could help the army of free men. Though her allies warned her that she should let mankind sort itself out, she felt driven to follow her heart. It led her straight to the captain."
"The first time I saw her I knew that the world would not be the same without her beside me. I let my heart lead us to her death." Merl sat abruptly on a rocky ledge, still cradling Tara in his strong arms.
"They fell in love, and he tried to lead her to safety. He knew what Tinari was capable of, and he knew the Prince would kill her for her magic."
"I tried to convince her to hide, to run back to the gypsies she had claimed as her own family. She wouldn't listen." Merl gazed into Willow's eyes. "You have her same stubbornness."
"They ran," Reza went on, "and Tinari followed. Thinking they could hide in City Lost, the abandoned castle by the sea, they fled to its walls, and they took shelter in its ruins."
"He found us," Merl's eyes misted over with the memory. "I fought him with ten times the strength I have now, but he was too powerful. He took her magic and left her to die."
"But she lived," Reza's voice lifted. "Though on the very brink of death, she survived the journey to the gypsy camp in the captain's arms. There he was forced to leave her in the care of her people."
"Hepsebah took her from me," tears washed over Merl's scarred face. "She said Rowan would be at peace in the forest. I saw her draw her last breath..." He looked up into Willow's face. "How could I have known there was a child?" he pleaded.
"Hepsebah had to keep Willow from him. It was the only way to protect her, to protect all that would come when she became an adult," Reza finished his tale with an exhausted look.
Willow touched him with trembling fingers. Her hand rested on his shoulder, and she let loose her own tears. "You loved my mother," her voice was so soft, so quiet, that Merl had to follow her lips to understand the words. "Sippa did what she thought was best."
"You're alive. She was right to keep you from me."
"Perhaps she was right," Willow knelt, still touching him, "but we are together now. Surely she meant for this to happen as well. Tinari would have killed me had it not been for you and Ren," she glanced at the other gypsy. He held Wake close and watched them from afar. "Now that I understand what I must do, you know that I must continue on my own."
"Willow," Merl bravely placed a hand on her arm, "this is not something you must do alone."
Green eyes stared up at him, and something between them connected. "My mother is still here, you know. The trees-" she stopped, and thoughts blurred her mind with their speed. Merl watched her think. "I won't be alone," she finally said.
"Then what is our part in all of this?" River asked.
Reza watched another turret crumble and fall from the top of the castle. All around them people fought and ran, cried and screamed. The city was falling apart. "She must lose herself, you see. One age is ending, and another is beginning. Ancients and mankind cannot coexist. Though she may not yet understand, a sacrifice must be made. We must be the ones to catch her when she falls."