"What have your thought?" Willow asked, suddenly anxious to hear it.
Tara grinned. Sometimes talking to Willow was like speaking to a little girl, but she liked that, she really did. Since the first time she had met her, when both of them were children, she had been taken by her innocence and goodness. All that swinging of swords - even if now the swords were real - was still little Willow playing knight. She could train with the Slayer, she could fool grown men and beat them to the ground. But she, Tara, with the little time they had spent together, she seemed to know Willow upside down. She knew what hid behind Willow's insistence on attacking her. It was because the redhead didn't know a better way of approaching her. She had never meant to kill her.
"I want to see the tree" Tara said, simply.
"The tree? The willow tree?"
"Yes, that one."
"But- but the tree is in my kingdom! If someone finds you..."
"Princess, right now you're in my kingdom. You're the one in danger, and you don't mind. Why should I? I want you to take me to the lake, to the tree, okay, friend?"
"Yes, My Lady..." Willow muttered ironically, standing up.
However, Tara wanted to get changed first; she didn't want to be "running around the forest" barefoot and in her nightgown, so she went to her dresser and dug out a fresh cotton dress and a pair of small boots. Willow simply watched unconsciously (the blonde's back facing her), until Tara grabbed the corners of her nightgown and started pulling it off through her head. She felt like a voyeur, and strangely nervous, as if she was contemplating something forbidden for her, so she turned around and stared out the window. At the sky, at the moon, at the pit of freezing water she knew too well. At anything. She wasn't used to seeing anyone naked; in fact, except for herself, she had never seen anyone naked. And the only thing she had seen, the small strap of Tara's back, had been enough to give her an eerie feeling. Not bad-eerie, just curious-shuddery-eerie.
When Tara finished dressing up and sliding her sword in her belt, she walked to Willow and placed a hand on her shoulder.
"Ready", she said, peering down at the ten meter fall.
"Do you want me to, uh..." Willow murmured, extending her arms.
"Princess..." Tara sighed, rolling her eyes "Do I have to remind you that I'm no damsel in distress?"
Without waiting for an answer, Tara jumped out the window, descending down the rope with the agility of a monkey. Wow, Willow thought, wow at her yellow hair rising with the wind; wow at her skill going down the rope. And... perfect landing, by the way. When she was totally sure that Tara was alright (foolish worrying), she secured her sword in her belt and grabbed her armor, sliding down the rope using just one arm and her legs.
Now the delicate part, avoiding the guards. Willow took the lead, clutching her armor with one arm and using the other to guide Tara. The two girls crouched and advanced that way, using the shadows and the bushes to hide. Willow was stern, biting her lower lip and deeply concentrated, while Tara kept a permanent little smile on her lips.
They got to the little forest eventually, which meant that they were safe. Unless they built a fire or something like that, no lookout from the castle could spot them. Willow found her horse, untied him, secured her armor on one of the horse's leather straps, and brought him close to Tara so that she could mount him.
"You left your horse here while you went to my room?" Tara asked, not showing the smallest intention of mounting him.
"Well, of course. And last night too."
"Poor thing, and now you mean him to carry us both?"
Willow was completely bewildered. What with the horse? That was what horses were for; riding them, leaving them tied up to something until their owner needed them again. She just stared at Tara, hoping the blonde could make out her perplex face in the darkness.
"I'm just saying... that you should treat him better" Tara said, stroking the horse's light-brown fur.
"Okay, whatever. Could we just get out of here, please? This isn't the time to-"
"No, Willow, you don't get it. This is your horse, he's been carrying you around for all your little adventures and he's going to carry you into battle soon enough. I'm not telling you to kiss him, just... treat him better. Here, try."
The blonde handed her the reins, and folded her arms before her breast, waiting. Willow wrinkled her nose, she had never in her life heard anyone talking like Tara did. The things she said... weird things, coming out of nowhere. And the things she did too, like the first time they met, when she had taken her horse into the stables herself. Crazy stuff, like wanting to be a witch. And now, she wanted her to treat the horse better. How?
"Be nice to him, say his name, stroke his snout... just be nice."
"His name?" Willow frowned "He doesn't have a name."
"Really? You're telling me you didn't name your horse?" Tara took the reins from Willow's hands "I don't want to see you riding this horse, I'll be the one holding the reins, and you'll see the difference. Now I understand; you haven't gotten over your horse-fear."
Horse-fear? She had no horse-fear left! Willow pouted but she didn't dare to contradict Tara again. She gripped the saddle and mounted, and then held her hand to help Tara. This time, she allowed to be helped, and mounted the horse behind Willow, taking the reins.
"Now," Tara whispered, her mouth close to Willow's ear, "Lesson number one; horses are intelligent animals, they don't need to be slapped or beaten to understand things. Be gentle. Understood?"
The redhead just nodded, too astonished to even mouth an answer. Seemingly satisfied, Tara guided the horse out of the forest. At first Willow couldn't focus on anything apart from the weirdness of not being the one that rode the horse. She moved her legs uneasily, unconsciously wanting to direct the horse like she had always done, but Tara was in command; her hands held the reins; she could feel her knuckles rapping her lower back now and again.
They got to the end of the hills, which marked the border between their kingdoms. Careful now, Willow thought, squinting her eyes and grasping the saddle with all her force. She couldn't help it, she couldn't bear not being the one that led the horse. However, Tara descended the hills expertly, swiftly. The horse was responding to her gentle commands; he didn't jerk abruptly like when Willow gave him an order; he moved with slenderness, he seemed to glide, instead of galloping. Now she saw the difference.
"Now you're noticing" Tara whispered, again nearing Willow's ear.
"Yeah, how did you know?"
"I feel you, I feel you moving with the horse. You were rigid before, trying to move in the opposite direction that the horse was moving. If you're tense, he will be tense too. By the way, we're in your kingdom now, Princess, where do you want me to go?"
Willow gave her directions. They were not to trespass the town's walls, just go around them. Soon enough, they got to the place. It was a small forest that looked like an oasis in the middle of the valley, with low trees and the almost secluded lake. Tara led the horse to the small clearing, where the lake was, and dismounted. Willow did the same, and pulled the horse towards a tree to tie him up.
"What?" the girl cried "Now what have I done wrong?"
"You should tie the horse closer to the lake, in case he wants to take a drink."
Grumbling, Willow did as she was told and then dutifully returned to the blonde. Tara seemed to be completely happy where she was , looking at the lake, with the moon reflecting on its dark surface. Perfectly happy and content.
Tara was feeling at ease. She had enjoyed teasing Willow, but it was for a good cause. Her poor horse was not to blame of Willow's fear. Besides, now they were before the lake, and it was a marvelous place. Peaceful, away from the war preparations that haunted her all over the place.
And, even if they had spent very little time together, she had really missed Willow. Apart from their jokes about being "friends", she missed having a real friend, someone that wasn't paid to keep her company and someone that wasn't those stuck-up, rich family girls who only cared about grooming and marrying conveniently. She was forced to talk and relate to those girls, and she just couldn't express how she despised them. God knew she missed roaming the forest, riding horse down a prairie... she missed nature, she missed her mother.
She remembered the day - a month ago - when she had reunited with Willow after eight or nine years. This time, it had been her father the one that celebrated a party in his castle, inviting everyone important; specially, his good friend the King of the Lowlands: Willow's father.