Author: Paul aka Darth Pacula
Two decades later, Willow stretched her slender body lazily in her chair, ignoring the creak as the rickety structure threatened to collapse, and peered insolently at her opponent. The pass of time had seen the once scrawny street rat become a beautiful woman, slim but well muscled by years of hard labor.
Long days beneath a harsh sun had left her once pale skin tanned and freckled, and her tousled mop of red hair had become long and lustrous. Falling past her shoulder blades, the bulk of Willow's hair had been gathered together and woven into a simple braid. The hair on the sides of her head had been tied into a mass of smaller braids with narrow leather thongs, and colored beads woven into the ends that clicked against each other with each toss of her head.
A tight pair of emerald silk trousers showed off Willow's legs to an almost indecent degree, and she wore a fine pair of riding boots that reached to mid calf, the brown leather scuffed from long use. A loose blouse of cream-colored linen, embroidered at collar and wrists with an elaborate pattern of rose blossoms and thorned stems, and an open leather vest completed her attire. The shirt had a deep, plunging neckline that showed of the swell of Willow's modest cleavage, and the sleeves had been left unlaced and rolled back to leave her hands free. A salt-stained tricorner hat sat upside down on the table before her.
"Well?" she drawled, treating her opponent to a carefree smirk, before taking another swig of ale from a battered tankard sitting beside her hat.
From the other side of the table, Rren scowled like a petulant child, which was not a good look on a full grown man. But the permanently down turned corners of his mouth made it look as if it was an expression he adopted on a regular basis. Rren gave every impression of being a man who was constantly dissatisfied with his lot in life, an attitude which seemed rather childish, given the fine cut of his obviously expensive clothes, and the willingly profligate manner in which he'd been losing money this night.
Still, Willow had no compunction in lightening her opponent's coin purse; something about his round cheeked face and pomaded black hair rubbed her the wrong way. And judging by the hand of cards she currently held, Willow was quite sure that she was going to lighten that purse yet again.
"Well?" she repeated. "Are you in, or are you out?"
Biting his lower lip, Rren ignored her in favor of glaring at his own hand. Sighing loudly, and pointedly, Willow occupied herself by scanning the rest of the room, a private gaming chamber at the back of a tavern who's name utterly escaped Willow for the moment. The walls were peeling, the roof colored by damp, and the furniture was, as Willow had already noticed, threatening to collapse at any moment.
All of these signs loudly announced that this wasn't one of the finer taverns in the coastal metropolis of Devastapol. Which was exactly the reason that Willow liked it. The finer establishments in this, or any other city on the shores of the Endless Sea tended to be infested by the wealthy and noble born, and Willow's childhood on the streets and alleys of Northport, then working aboard the ships that plied the waves had left her with a deep disdain of that breed. Such sorts rarely frequented such places as this, and those that did came to do business with people such as Willow.
They came to do business with smugglers and pirates.
Willow wasn't sure if this Rren fellow was such a one, but she was perfectly happy to take his money. The only problem might lie with the fellows clustered behind him. There were five of them, bravos, street toughs and mercenaries all, clad in rough clothes and studded leather jerkins. All of them were armed, and looked the sort who'd slit a throat for a copper penny. Willow was intimately familiar with their kind; indeed, much of her crew was made up of a similar sort.
One exception was the man who stood just behind her, shifting anxiously from one foot to the other. A dark haired, and open-faced young man, Xander was her first mate, and one of her dearest friends, a rare commodity for a smuggler like Willow. He was a fine sailor, and dependable as a rock in a tough situation. Willow just wished that he would stop moving about so much; it was making him look shifty.
"Will you stop that!" Willow hissed back at him from the corner of her mouth.
Xander blinked, then leaned forward to whisper in Willow's ear. "Stop what?"
"Moving around so much! You're making me nervous!"
He looked down at his feet, as if he hadn't even known they were moving. "I can't help it," he hissed back. Xander darted a look back at a small pile of broken lumber swept into one corner. "I can't exactly sit down, can I?"
Willow fought the urge to grin; in a typical display of Xander's luck, he'd found the one chair that had gone past the stage where it only threatened to collapse, and instead carried through on its threat.
The chink of metal on metal grabbed Willow's attention, and she returned to the game. Rren had raised her, and was regarding Willow with an arrogant smirk. One corner of Willow's lips twitched in a lazy smile, and Rren's face fell. This really isn't his game, she thought gleefully.
Reaching into her upended hat, Willow drew forth a small leather pouch, and upended its clinking contents onto the existing pile of currency. The twenty gold crowns she'd added more than doubled the existing bet.
"I raise," she declared, and Rren bristled.
"I can't match that!" he complained, and Willow pretended to only just then notice the handful of copper pennies and a single silver mark that was all that remained on Rren's side of the table. She was, of course, acting; Willow knew perfectly well how much money her opponent had on him, and she meant to take every last penny.
"No! Really?" she gasped theatrically, and behind her Xander stifled a laugh. Willow reached out to scoop up the game's final pot, but Rren grabbed her by the wrist. The barbed glance Willow hurled at Rren made him yank his hand back as if burned.
"I can't match your bet in coin, but I have something else that you should be willing to accept," he blustered, scowling impotently, furious at being so obviously intimidated by a woman. Willow had met his kind before; just because she didn't have a piece of meat hanging between her legs, he thought she was less than him in every way. Just another reason to take this wretch for all he's worth, thought Willow. If he's got something else to bet, I'll be happy to take that too.
She drew back, slumping once more into her chair with a lazily imperious gesture. Jerking his head, Rren sent one of his bodyguards out of the room. The rest of them waited, the tension in the room noticeably growing as Rren fiddled with his cards and shot sullen looks in Willow's direction.
Disguising the movement as a lazy stretch, Willow surreptitiously eased the dagger she kept at the small of her back in its sheath. Doing likewise with the sabre at her hip might push tension into actual violence.
Finally, the errant bodyguard returned, with another person following close behind, and Willow's attention immediately perked up. The newcomer was a voluptuous young woman, clad in a simple cotton dress, with hair the color of spun gold falling in a shining wave all the way to her waist. The blonde kept her head bowed, face half hidden beneath a curtain of hair, and her entire demeanor screamed of subservience.
Tis a pity, Willow mused, she's a fine figure of a woman, to be sure. But I like my lovers to have a touch of spirit.
"What's this?" she asked aloud, smirking. "Are you offerin' me her services to darn my socks? I don't think that quite covers the bet."
Lips curling disdainfully, Rren shook his head. "No, I'm offering you her," he sneered, beckoning the blonde over to his side. "Show your face, damn it!"
Obediently, the blonde lifted her head and looked straight at Willow, and the redhead found herself staring into the most beautiful pair of cornflower blue eyes she'd ever seen. But even captivated as she was, Willow couldn't help but notice that the eyes staring into her own were utterly blank and lifeless. They might as well have been made of glass, beautiful but soulless.
What happened to kill you inside, my lovely? wondered Willow, feeling the faint stirrings of anger now. But she buried them beneath a facade of jaded amusement.
"You're trying to bet the services of your wife?" she asked, sounding unimpressed. "I don't care how good a seamstress she is, darning my socks is hardly worth twenty crowns, no matter how fine the stitching."
"My wife?" Rren exploded in a burst of cutting laughter. "My pretty little Tara here is my slave. My pleasure slave." He drew out the word pleasure in a disturbingly perverse manner.
Rren directed a sly glance at the tattoo on the fleshy part of Willow's hand between thumb and forefinger. It was a labrys; the image of a double-headed axe, a symbol that marked Willow as a worshiper of Sappho, the aspect of the Goddess of Love dedicated to the love shared between women.
"I'm sure you find her talents to your liking," sneered Rren pointedly, "and if you don't, you can always sell her. With her skills, she's worth far more than twenty crowns."
Throughout his sales pitch, Rren paid no attention whatsoever to Willow's face, choosing instead to ogle her breasts, or he would have seen an expression of freezing, icy fury flash across Willow's face. Rren's bodyguards didn't share his blinkered vision, and placed wary hands upon the hilts of their weapons.
"She's a slave?" Willow growled flatly.
"Oh aye, and a delightedly obedient one at that," Rren replied, still talking to his opponent's chest. "Is she acceptable collateral?"
Willow's reply was a single clipped word. "Certainly."
A slight exclamation of surprise came from Xander, but Willow silenced him with an imperious glare, before settling back in her seat in a display of apparent relaxation. She gestured for Rren to show his cards. With an arrogant smirk, Rren did exactly that, one by one.
Willow's face fell; three of the five faded, wrinkled playing cards bore similar markings. The Lord of Fire, a man wreathed in fire, but not burning. The Lord of Water, rising from the ocean, dripping with water. The Lord of Earth, a figure carved from stone, striding across a lake of burning lava. Three of the four elemental lords, a potentially winning hand.
Rren laughed openly at the crestfallen expression on Willow's face, sniggering like a spoiled little boy as he leaned forward to scrape his winnings back to his side of the table. It was Willow's turn now to grab him by the wrist, and Rren stiffened in indignation.
His expression of triumph withered and died as Willow revealed her cards one handed with a deliberately slow pace. Four Priestesses looked up at Rren with serene, painted faces. Rren's eyes flicked up as Willow revealed her last card, just in time to catch her mocking grin.
"Oh dear," Willow gasped breathlessly, "Have I won again?"
Rren furiously snatched his hand away, unable to take his eyes off the cards that had just cost him a small fortune.
"So I guess your slave is all mine now," finished Willow, in a voice like silk-sheathed steel.
His head shot back up at that, and Rren lunged to his feet, sending his chair hurtling backwards, face livid with rage. "You cheated me, you bitch!" he snarled, fists clenched. "You thieving whore!"
Darting to her feet, Willow kicked her own chair backwards, narrowly missing Xander. "Whore? Whore! That's a bit rich, coming from a slave-mongering bastard!" she spat back at him, pointing an accusing finger. "Is it my fault that you can't play cards worth a damn?"
If it was possible, Rren's face purpled even further until he was on the verge of apoplexy. He slammed a fist down on the tabletop. "You cheating slut! You'll not keep a single penny of my money!"
There was a flash of silver, and eight inches of razor edged steel was naked in Willow's fist, held low and angled up in the manner of someone who knew what they were doing. "I'd like to see you try and take it," she growled.
Eyes widening in sudden apprehension, Rren lurched backwards, closer to the door. Glancing furiously at his bodyguards, he waved them forward. "What am I paying you for! Gut the bitch! Kill 'em both!"
All five of them inched forwards, drawing short swords and daggers, or pulling iron-banded cudgels from their belts. In response, Xander drew his own cutlass, and Willow half drew her sabre in warning. None of Rren's toughs displayed any enthusiasm to press the attack, for they all knew the odds were that at least one of them would die in the attack, and they lacked the discipline of trained soldiers.
And all the while, Tara stood motionless, staring blankly at the opposite wall as if she wasn't surrounded by people wielding lethal weapons.
"What are you waiting for, damn your eyes!" railed Rren angrily, even as he was cravenly stepping further back himself. "Slaughter the pair of them!"
Willow's blade slipped the rest of the way out of its scabbard with a soft whisper, and she spun it in an elaborate flourish. Then, looking past Rren to a suddenly open door, she grinned like a fox amongst the chickens.
A heavily tanned hand reached around from behind Rren, catching him by the jaw and wrenching his head back, while a second hand whipped around to place a forward curving knife at his throat. Rren froze, but the knife's edge was sharp enough that it drew a crimson, beaded line on Rren's neck with the faintest of whispers.
"I really don't think ye wanna be doin' that, laddies," drawled a dry, guttural voice. "On the grounds that yon fancy man canna be payin' ye if I saw his head clean off."
The bravos menacing Willow and Xander drew to a halt, relief peeking out from behind their masks of protective machismo. They were fine when performing casual protection, or hassling otherwise helpless victims, but prey that threatened to fight back wasn't to their liking.
"What took you so long, Mocker?" complained Willow, even though she was grinning broadly.
A head appeared over Rren's shoulder. A shaggy mop of brown hair, graying at the temples was tied back from a tanned face by a leather thong. Slate-gray eyes twinkled merrily above a hawkish nose that had been broken multiple times in the past. A thick scarlet chevron was tattooed on his face, the point situated on the bridge of his nose and flaring down each cheek. When he spoke, he revealed teeth stained crimson, a result of a bloodroot chewing habit.
"Well, if I'd a known ye were gettin' yerself inta mischief Cap'n, I'd have been here sooner," replied the man named Mockery, Willow's second mate. "Honestly, we canna let ye go anywhere without a chaperone, can we?"
"Hey!" protested Xander indignantly. "What am I, chopped liver?"
"Nah ... chopped liver looks nicer, don't it," snickered Mocker, and Rren quietly whimpered as the blade at his throat bit a little tighter at the movement.
Willow stamped her booted foot on the floor, hard, to get their attention. "Who's the captain here?" she demanded, eyes narrowed dangerously. "Cuz I'm pretty sure it's me! So how about we act like it for a change!"
"Sorry, Cap'n," chorused both men contritely, in near harmony with each other.
"You lot," she snapped, indicating the mob of Rren's bravos, an instinctive note of command in her voice. "Get up against that far wall, or my man will give your master a second, red smile."
"With a smile on me lips, and a song in me heart, Cap'n," agreed Mocker cheerfully. The five street toughs dutifully obeyed, shuffling up against the far wall. Willow noticed one of them lustfully eying the slave girl, and glared at him ferociously.
The object of all this attention still hadn't moved, other than to bow her head once more and hide her face behind that glorious curtain of hair. What was her name again? wondered Willow. I know he said it, I'm sure of that. But I'll be damned if I can remember it.
"Xander, snag the loot. And don't forget my hat," Willow ordered, distracted by the quandary currently facing her. Her instincts, honed by a life on the street and then in a dangerous profession, told Willow that she should abandon the girl, that she would slow their escape. It wasn't fair, it wasn't nice, but it was a cold, harsh reality.
But something wouldn't let Willow do that, some other, different instinct refused to let Willow leave the slave girl to her fate. It wasn't that Willow was physically attracted to her, though she undoubtedly was. Willow wasn't the type of woman to be swayed by a pretty face, or graceful curves. No, it was something else, something Willow couldn't explain.
She didn't like that; Willow always liked to be in control. It was why she'd scrimped, and saved and stolen enough to buy her own ship. It was why she'd hardened her heart after her mother's demise, why she refused to let anyone touch her heart, why she constantly strove to make herself harder, meaner.
But Willow found herself unable to do it. It wasn't that she was a slave; though she hated the institution personally, Willow was realistic enough to know that she couldn't abolish slavery all on her own. It wasn't pity, though Willow would freely admit that the slave girl cut a pitiable figure.
Tara. Her name was Tara.
Willow surrendered, sheathing her dagger and holding out her hand. Tara's head tilted slightly, almost imperceptibly, to look at the redhead's proffered appendage. She looked up, vivid blue eyes peeking through her fringe. They were still disturbingly blank, lifeless.
"Don't you ..." Rren started to snarl, before his voice choked off with a pained yelp. Willow heard a steady stream of quiet, but vividly detailed threats come from behind her in Mockery's voice. Xander was beginning to mutter too, concerned by the delay, but Willow focused solely on the woman in front of her.
Tara looked back down at Willow's hand again as the redhead extended it further, studying it as if she had never seen its like before. Take it, willed Willow. Take it.
Finally, she took it.
"Cap'n?" inquired Mocker calmly. "What now?"
Willow turned her head to look at her companions, Xander with her hat clasped to his chest, Mockery peering over Rren's shoulder, wearing a wicked grin.
"Now? Now, we run."