Phidi watched them climb the crumbling walls from the sea, and every eye rested upon them. Their eyes were blue as water, their flesh shone like the pale new moon in spring. Though Phidi himself was captivated by the sight of them, the young boy could not understand the change which swept over the land and through the hearts of the men on the battlefield around him. One moment they slaughtered one another mercilessly, the next they held hands and clasped each other in loving embraces. Weapons were dropped onto the snowy field, and throngs of wildflowers sprouted up around them, shrouding blades and arrows with blossoms and vines. The Ancients walked amongst the adoring crowd of men, occasionally bowing low to touch one or comfort another, and their sweet words flowed over the valley and low hills like a summer breeze.
"We have returned, my children," the giant of a man whispered. Hundreds of men fell to their knees and bowed to the pair, tears of joy flowing freely over the bloodied field. "Long have we slumbered at the edge of the world, but the time has come once again for us to rule mankind with fairness and compassion. Your God-King and his Queen have returned."
"Let your hearts feel naught but joy," crooned the woman by his side. "You are in our care now." All around them fell to the ground and humbled themselves.
"I don't understand," Phidi whispered to himself as he watched. His fingertips were numb from gripping the rough edge of stone he had hidden behind when he fell from the wyvern's back during the battle. The man who had thrown him had the face of a beast, and the memory sent shivers up the boy's spine. The Black Knight's plan had indeed involved pushing the attacking troops over the precipice, but things had not turned out as any of them could have predicted. Phidi turned and gazed at the cliff. The edge where he now stood was silent. Those who had not fallen had pushed the line back, and slowly the two divided groups of men were reunited in the valley below the crumbled castle. All would have been lost for the rebels had it not been for the sudden presence of the Ancients. Still, it left Phidi's stomach feeling decidedly nervous. "This isn't right. I've got to find Penna."
"Too late," a voice behind startled the boy, and he spun quickly. Penna smiled in victory. "Sorry," she said insincerely. They had taken turns in their own little game of sneak-and-startle since Phidi was barely old enough to walk, and it still made them smile. Relieved to see her, the boy ran to his big sister's arms and gripped her tightly. Grim prowled around their feet as they stood together, his long, blue tail curling around their legs as he crept low to the ground. "It's alright now," Penna stroked her brother's hair.
"Say it. Please, Penna?" he asked. She could hear the tears in his eyes even though his face was buried in her cloak.
"How old was he?" Willow had asked as she and Penna sat by the fire late into the evening.
"Six," came the reply, though Penna couldn't look into her friend's eyes. "I was sixteen. I thought..." her voice faded as she gripped the mug of tea in her hands. "I didn't know how hard it would be. Not leaving," she looked up sharply. "That part was easy." Her anger was still heavy in the air around them and Willow began to see a side of the young woman she never would have guessed could have existed. "Phidi cried, but I was relieved. I'd always taken care of him when we were younger, but it was different after we ran."
"You had to be a sister and a mother," Willow encouraged her.
Penna nodded. "Life without a real home is hard enough," her brown eyes glowed with the firelight as she went on, "but we had to run. We had to hide." The two stared at each other for a breath, each knowing that the other understood. Memories overwhelmed them both as they sipped their tea. When Penna spoke again, her voice was laced with a heaviness Willow had never heard from her before. "We couldn't get out of the city. We tried everything, but the Royal Guard at the time was merciless, and our kind was to be slaughtered on sight. Some days we got close to making it past the gates, but I would panic and pull us back into a hiding place. Phidi was so young… He couldn't understand." She brushed the long hair back from her ears, revealing their fur-lined tips. "It was easy enough for me to hide, but his scales were so green!" She laughed despite herself, and a self-conscious hand flew to cover her mouth.
Willow giggled along with her, silently affording the permission Penna so desperately needed. "He was a bit… alarming when I first met him," the gypsy reluctantly admitted. Her thoughts drifted to the enormous crate in the forest, to Phidi's trust in her, and she held his secret close to her chest as Penna continued.
"A week passed, and then another," her eyes grew dark, "and I thought we wouldn't make it. I went in search of food for us, and something happened. Phidi... He was hungry, and he didn't understand why people reacted to him they way they did... A man caught him and began to call for the guards. When I returned," she glanced up, and tears clung to her lower eyelids, "they were dragging him off to the gallows." Penna sniffed and brushed the back of her hand over her face. "That was when I met her." Silence and understanding passed between the two women as the constellations overhead crept through the night sky. If no sleep was to be had, then it was better to spend it in the company of a friend. "Even in the panic of losing my baby brother, I still saw something in her that made my breath catch. Faith was-" Penna stopped abruptly, and her wide eyes scanned the darkness beyond the firelight around where they sat.
Raising her eyebrows in comprehension, Willow spoke gently. "Trace was what?" Penna's chest was still tight with fear at the slip of her tongue. "Go on," Willow said.
"She was," Penna thought for a moment, "she was the bravest person I had ever seen." A faint smile lit behind her eyes as she retold the story of their escape from the kingdom. "She attacked the guard. Killed him on the spot. I grabbed Phidi and we ran. We ran so fast that the world was a blur. I still don't know how we made it out. Trace was covered in cuts and bruises from.... from before she found us." There was more behind her words, and Willow sensed that it was not for her to question. "Others came over the months that followed, and we became what you see now. Every one of us has run from something," she stared pointedly at the gypsy. "That's what makes us a family. We hide each other. We take care of each other. Nothing comes before family." Willow's face darkened as she let her mind return to the forest of her childhood, to the kind faces of the clan that had sheltered her and raised her in the absence of her own mother. "Phidi and I would tell each other little promises when times got hard," Penna fidgeted with her mug, tracing the fine details along the border of the rim. "So long as there are stars in the night sky, I'll always find you." Willow sat back and cast her eyes to the darkness above them. "So long as the sun rises each day, I'll always find you."
"Until the rivers run dry and the wind no longer blows, you are mine and I am yours," Penna whispered into the boy's hair. "I'll always find you." He gripped tighter to her, letting her warmth spread through him.
"You weren't meant to live, you know."
"I was a marked man."
"And yet here you stand, now, with me." Her voice was soft, only audible a mere breath from her lips.
"Here I stand," he agreed. "You realize that the world we know will end on this day."
"I suppose," her eyes drifted away from the darkness and looked out over what remained of the kingdom. "Still, I feel as though I am frozen."
"No, my lady," he ducked his head in the darkness, and a ripple of regret passed through them both. "What cruel twist of fate it may have been to place us together in such a fashion, I would not trade this path for any other." A warm hand reached out to her in the blackness, and their fingers intertwined. "If I was not meant to live, and I survived despite my destiny, then surely we know not what lies ahead."
"Aelish-" she began, but a gentle finger found her lips and quieted her.
"Shh," he whispered. "It will be decided by every footstep that follows this moment. And in this moment, I wish for you to remember what I would give to honor your heart. I have seen it in your eyes, River. You love this city. You love these people." Her back still turned to him as it had been throughout their secret conversation, the Princess felt his grip tighten. "We are the last hope for this place, and I will not see it fall under your leadership. What strength I possess," she felt his face rest against the back of her head, and his breath warmed her neck as he spoke, "and what love there is in my heart, I give it freely here and now. I will defend this place from its end with my life."
Willow walked slightly ahead of the rest, her head held high, her eyes sparkling in the bright sunlight, her hands outstretched beside her lithe body. There was no need to speak, no need to chant, no words which could grant her more power than the depths of her magic now showed. A fiery glow trailed behind her as each stride grew in length. Her footsteps began to shake the ground.
"What's happening?" Wake called out to his father over the rumble.
Merl, still carrying Tara's lifeless body, turned his head toward the boy as they walked. "She's summoning her powers." Ren stepped closer to the boy as they traveled, ever vigilant. "She can get to the castle faster then we can," he went on, his eyes following her body as it hovered above the field beyond Hillmarch. They had followed the tunnels as far as was needed, and now they walked above ground.
"It will be safer this way," Willow had reasoned with them before they left the relative safety of the caverns.
"This is hardly safe," Merl argued. "What you propose-"
"What I propose," the young woman cut him off, "is the only way it can be done." The men were silenced by her anger.
"Dammit, Willow," Merl stood, "you cannot simply take them on yourself. I only just found you," he pleaded. "I will not let you endanger your life like this." His tone was fatherly and commanding.
Staring into him with a temper to match, Willow fired back. "And where have you been?" she demanded. "Where were you when my clan was slaughtered in the forest? Where were you when I was hunted day and night by the Royal Guard?" Her voice cracked as she screamed at him, poring out a lifetime of anger and fear with each biting word. "They burned everything," she cried, "every time they came for me, they came with fire. They burned the trees, they burned our homes, they burned Hepsebah," she wailed. "And you!" she pointed a finger at Merl's chest, driving all of her pain into him with her words, "You sat in your tavern and mourned over all you had lost while I struggled to live!" Merl shrank as she forced him back one step at a time. "When do I get to mourn? When do I get to sit down and cry over what I've lost?" The tears washed over Willow's reddened face and dripped from her chin. Her eyes fell to Tara's pale face. "When do I get to feel the loss of everything I've ever loved," her voice weakened, and she looked back up into her father's eyes. "I had nothing left. I didn't even have her. Do you even know how many have been taken from me?"
"Willow," Merl tried to calm her, but the words would not come.
"That animal killed her, Merl," she went on through gritted teeth, "and they took her soul. That... thing," she said the word with contempt dripping from her lips, "he took her."
"Then we get her back," Ren spoke for the first time. He stood and placed a hand on Willow's shoulder. "Together." They had agreed in the awkward discussion which followed to separate after they found their way aboveground. Willow would continue east to the Drylands castle, and Merl, Ren and Wake would look for the others. Now, watching her shimmering body fade into the spring sunlight, Ren wondered aloud if they had done the right thing. "I always knew she was something more than the rest of us, but I never imagined..."
"No one imagined this," Merl murmured back. "Rowan and Hepsebah wanted to prevent it, but a power like that cannot be contained forever." They both glanced at the boy between them. "You cannot keep him safe, Ren."
"This world needs him."
Wake continued to stare into the distance where Willow had disappeared. "Perhaps it is selfish, but so do I," Ren placed a protective hand on the boy's head.
"There comes a time when every father must place the life of his child before his own." The two men regarded each other in the silence of their journey. Together they walked the long road to the city gates. No more words passed between them.
"You know her," the littler girl gazed up at the older one.
"Yes," Jinna answered. Her eyes never strayed from the doorway they watched. Trace had given her very specific orders, and she intended to carry them out flawlessly.
"Is she kind?"
The little maid considered the question for a long time before she bothered to answer. "She saved my life once."
"Will you tell me about it?"
Jinna sighed heavily, her eyes still fixed on the passageway. "Why do you want to know?"
Mara leaned forward, resting her chin in her hands. She was used to hiding, but Reza had always made the long hours more bearable by telling her stories. Every one of them from Sanjer's house had lived day by day on the details of the Red Sorceress' adventures. Some had said she wasn't real, but Mara paid them no attention. She believed Reza, and she knew that one day Willow would come to save them all. "Because she's magical. She can fix all of this."
"Right, kid," a voice behind them startled the girls and made them jump. Trace had snuck up on them and now stared at the door from the secluded spot below the stairs. "I suppose that means no one else can be a hero." She would have scowled at them, but the door was more important.
"Reza always said Willow would save us from Sanjer." Mara looked up at Trace and began to memorize the details of her face. Dark brown eyes blinked only when necessary, perfect skin refused to show the marks of the last dozen scuffles they had been involved in as they fought their way back into the castle, and long strands of wavy, chestnut hair fell over her ears as she trained her focus on the door to Kousa's chamber with a stoic intensity.
"Sorry I beat her to it. Next time I'll let you wait for Red."
"Thank you," the tiny voice answered.
Trace blinked and let her eyes fall to the tiny child who sat next to her in the shadows. "What did you say?"
"Thank you," Mara repeated herself.
Unable to look the child in the eye, Trace turned back to the door. "I didn't do it for you."
"You killed him. You did what no one else could. You saved Reza. You saved me."
"Listen, kid," Trace turned her attention back to Mara, her brow furrowed with anger. "Sanjer had it coming from a long time ago. Someone should have slit his throat back when I..." She bit her lip, and a drop of blood sank into her tongue. "I didn't save anyone." Her hair fell across her face as she turned back to the door. Before Mara could say more, she felt a hand pressing on the top of her head. Trace pushed both of the little girls down into the darkness as the door opened. From within the chamber emerged a cloaked figure, the folds of its disguise lit intermittently by blue, red, and green light.
Silently, carefully, the slim figure of a man crept through the corridors and stairways of the castle, always staying near to the walls, though never touching them. His lips moved, but no words were heard as his soft feet took two steps at a time. Reza closed his eyes when he pushed open the last enormous oak door. Blazing sunlight poured into the corridor and bathed him in an unnatural spring warmth. He stepped into the golden rays and slowly opened his eyes, wary at all that he saw. "So it is true," he muttered. All around the turret upon which he stood the kingdom lay in disarray. Blood and stone blocked the streets, many of the buildings had collapsed, bodies were strewn about in the dust and damp, but the colors of renewal and growth tinted everything a disconcerting yellow. Death and rebirth were at war, and the latter would not save what remained of the city.
"When they are awakened, they will regain control of this land," he had told them only an hour before. "They did not choose to slumber, and they will take revenge upon this world for how it wronged them long ago. Under the guise of benevolent gods, they will tear the Known Lands into pieces, and mankind will be the first to suffer their wrath." His words had shaken the others to their core.
"But the Ancients are kind. Willow is one of them," River had argued.
Reza shook his head. "She is half human, Princess. They are nothing like her. And they will not stop until their imprisonment has been avenged, until those who bound them to that broken city are bought to their knees in pain." Now, as he set his eyes upon the land the Princess held so dear, Reza saw the beginning of the end. "We will all die if they are not stopped. It will begin with small changes. Your heart will tell you what is true and what is false," he warned.
"How do we stop them?" Trace stepped out of the shadow and faced the gypsy. Her right hand rested on the hilt of a long dagger she kept at her belt. "How do I kill a god?"
"You cannot kill them!" Aelish shouted, standing in between Reza and Trace. "They are the Ancients," he spat. "We owe them our existence."
"Haven't you heard Reza's words? They want to kill us," she bore down on him, muscles tense and ready to spring. Her eyes blazed in the dim light.
"And what if he is wrong?" Aelish charged. "What if they are not the enemy he proclaims?"
"Stop!" Reza pleaded, his delicate voice piercing the others' argument with its purity. "Can't you see?" His eyes held unshed tears as he placed a tender hand on the arm of Trace and Aelish. "This is what I spoke of. This is the evil of this place, the anger which will overtake our senses if we allow it." Unwilling to let their matched gaze falter, both relaxed slightly and listened. "His grip on this place is slipping. He cannot contain the anger that permeates the stone and earth in this city. We are all vulnerable to it. Everything is falling out of balance. Everything," he whispered.
"Then we shall set it right," Trace declared through her clenched jaw.
Aelish breathed deeply, then turned to the storyteller. "What of Raven?" he asked simply. "What role has he in all of this?"
Still at a loss for an answer, the gypsy looked up into the blue sky. He had not had the heart to tell the warrior what had become of his friend, nor what his friend truly was beneath leather and mask. Reza's gift was not sight of the future, nor was it to see the past. Stories came to him from one moment to the next through the course of each day, and his visions were of the present, of what was already decided by fate. Calling up his other gift, Reza closed his eyes and searched the Known Lands for the one who could answer all of their questions, the one who could set the balance right once more in these damaged times, the one whose fate was not set, but still undecided. When at last he found her, her power took his breath away. There was no need to call to her. Willow was coming.