The Kitten, the Witches and the Bad Wardrobe - Willow & Tara Forever

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 Post subject: Raven (updated November 25th)
PostPosted: Mon Apr 14, 2008 4:34 pm 
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3. Flaming O
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Joined: Sun Mar 23, 2008 7:07 pm
Posts: 149
Location: Seattle, WA
Title: Raven
Rating: PG13 up to R in later chapters
Disclaimer: No ownership, implied or real, of anything other than all those bills which keep piling up in my mailbox. Egads.
Summary: This is a very long story with many twists and turns. It's primarily AU fic in a medieval setting. Willow is a gypsy, Tara is a warrior from far away.
Feedback: Have at it. That's why I'm finally posting here.
Distribution: Please ask.

P.S.- You may have read this through chapter 6 on Uber WT. You won't find any changes in these posts, but I'm hoping to receive more feedback and input in this venue. The chapters I'm currently writing are presenting me with lots of challenges, and I'm begging for help.





Chapter 1

The light frost that clung to the tall grasses stung Willow’s hands and bare feet as she moved swiftly down into the dark valley. Sunlight would touch everything soon, melting away the early autumn cold and damp, stealing the sweetness from the precious herbs that must be gathered. In the light movement of her feet, Willow temporarily forgot the heavy burden of Hepsebah’s illness. Throughout the shortening days it rested neatly on her thin shoulders, beckoning her to work harder, learn more. The people of the Circle came to her for cures now.

Stealing a glance at the Southern Mountains to her left, Willow not only saw the first, weak light of autumn sunrise, but another shape, both unexpected and ill-fitting of the quiet, secluded valley. The shadow moved slowly, deliberately. Willow stopped, arms still raised slightly for balance over the rocky hillside. “A horse,” she muttered softly. Could it be wild? Doubtful, she thought, quickly scanning what she could see of the valley in the gathering mist. It would become dense fog soon. She remained still, watching as the powerful beast grazed. It fascinated her, drawing her closer. Willow made no effort to conceal herself. Smelling the girl as she approached, the horse lifted its great head, flaring its nostrils wide. A fair distance away, Willow smiled and continued walking at her steady pace. The stallion eyed her with a similar fascination. He neither panicked nor shied away, but picked up his damp hooves and marched nearer to the red-haired girl before him.

Willow reached a hand forward, lightly touching his muzzle as they met beside a thinly trickling meadow stream. “Hello,” she whispered. “What is a fine thing like yourself doing out here all alone?” He nickered softly in response as she ran her hands down the length of his powerful jaw and neck. Black as coal from nose to tail, his coat was thick and curly. “You must be from the South,” Willow breathed, stroking his shoulders. Her fingertips searched out the powerful muscles beneath the horse’s fine coat. He was broad and tall. This was no ordinary cart horse from the Drylands. It was a war horse, bred by the Horsemasters far to the South, where the summers saw snow and ice and the winters froze the very air in your lungs.

Pleased with her discovery, Willow smiled and dropped her basket. There would still be herbs to collect tomorrow. She pressed her cheek to his neck, feeling the coarseness of his thick coat on her soft skin. Her hands brushed his long, curled mane back. She breathed deeply, calmed by the spiced alfalfa breath that swirled the thickening mist around them.

"I saw a Southlands warhorse meself, once," Jesse boasted to the little girl bouncing down the busy city street beside him.

"Was it like these?" an eight-year-old and highly skeptical Willow inquired, one eyebrow raised, one lowered. She pointed to the Baker's tired mare, grey and sagging with age. Eight-year-olds were not so easily fooled, and Willow was not about to be hoodwinked, even by her big friend.

Eyes twinkling with admiration for her realism, the old cobbler went on. "No, no! It was a fine black stallion, taller than me Pa. Broad as an ox it was!" He stretched his arms wide, absently toppling a basket of apples from its owner's cart. The shopkeeper cursed at the pair as they strolled merrily on. "Them from the South's not like to anythin' we have in these sad parts. Thick an' wooley coats they have. Manes an' tail hairs what curl, tighter ringlets than a princess a'goin' to a ball! Never a finer beast could be found in all o' the Known Lands."

"How would it get all the way up here?" she asked in disbelief.

Frowning, the wrinkled man made to brush her away with his hand. "If you're too old for my stories, just say so, eh? Don't wanna be wastin' yer time if'n ye can't be bothered..."

Willow clutched his arm with both hands and looked pleadingly into his grey eyes. "Please, Jesse? Tell me?"

Taking her tiny hand in his big, calloused one, the cobbler led them on. He wore a small grin of victory as he continued. "Well, as I was sayin', me Pa an' I was out a'huntin' way south in the Kingdom. Me? I was smaller 'an you there. But he took me with 'im wherevers he wandered. Think we was huntin' stoat, or maybe mink. Could'a been fox, even. Cobblers need more 'an cowhide te keep the customers comin' back, he always used te say, he did." Willow fidgeted, bringing Jesse back onto topic. "Right," he cleared his throat. "Up an' over a ridge goes us, an' right into this big horse we stumble." Eyes glazing over, his ancient memories were vivid for them both, transforming the dusty marketplace into a thickly wooded hillside. Meat and fruit vendors pushed produce-leaden arms through the gathering leaves and branches that choked out their haggling in favor of birdsong. Willow's feet, hot and dry from the dirt road, were suddenly cool on the blanket of moss that crept over the forest floor.

"Did he have a pretty saddle?" The little girl danced and twirled in the filtered sunlight, her imagination filling in any missing details to the landscape. A patch of buttercups sprang up around her toes.

"No, no saddle a'tall. Nothin' on him but a look o' worry." Willow stared up at him, completely captivated. "Y'see, his rider was dyin' nearby. Pa always listened to beasts an' heard their words." The tiny redhead was duly impressed. "So we follows 'im an' find the poor fella'. Sick an' delirious with fever, pale... Death was comin' an' fast."

"Why was he sick?" The two of them, lost in their own mystical world, wandered to the end of the market and sat on a log at the back of Hepsebah's cart.

"That horrible pass from the Southlands through the mountains must've been too much fer 'im. Not many can survive cold like that." Willow nodded sagely, mimmicking Jesse's gesture. "Pa leaned down to 'im, blue lips an' all, and listened to his last words."

"What did he say?" the little girl bounced as she sat.

"Said he was a warrior, come up from the great ice-city of Laris." To Willow, the name was pure magic. “He said a few words in 'is native tongue after that. Only one me Pa knew was 'Drakkalis'," Jesse drew the word out, a far-off look taking over his eyes. He closed them and breathed deeply. "Then that big ol' horse o' his laid itself right down in the duff beside 'im an' made to die at his side."

Devastation washed over the child, forcing tears to well in her bottom eyelids. "They both died?"

"Well," Jesse straightened up and patted his knees with his palms, a signal he always used at the end of stories, "we didn't linger. Y'see, Southland men an' their horses are bound together for life an' death. An' death can be a private thing fer some, so's we left 'em to their own peace. Seemed fittin' an' right, it did. But..." he raised his bushy, grey eyebrows, leaving the tale incomplete.

Willow jumped up and stood in front of him, her skinny frame placing her eye-to-eye with the storyteller. Putting her hands on her hips, she made it clear she wouldn't let him leave without an explanation. Jesse let out an exasperated sigh. "If you must know..." he looked up, pleased with the tale's grip on the child. "I know fer a fact that I saw that horse again as we was headin' home." Willow's eyes grew wide with wonder. "Marchin', fine an' proud he was, right back up to that mountain pass."

Willow stared in wonder at the low sun on the treetops at the border of the Drylands Orchards. "Jesse?"

"Mm?" the old man turned back.

"What's Drakkalis?"

"Oh, that!" He lifted baskets into the wagon for Hepsebah, knowing their departure was near. "It's a little like Heaven, I s'pose, only for warriors an' such. That's where them Southlanders dream of goin' when they die. Towers an' a city of ice, it has. Full o' glory for those victorious in battle."

"Do they have a hell, too?"

"Yep," he chuckled. "That'd be here, up the North." Willow grinned back, satisfied that not every detail had to be true.



When she opened her eyes, Willow found herself staring directly into the eyes of a girl. Tall and broad-shouldered, and with a similar look of shock, the girl stared back. Willow straightened herself sharply, feeling her heart leap to her throat. Her mouth opened but no words came.

The stranger spoke first. “Croncoill.” The horse nickered and raised his ears. She looked around them, searching the mist apprehensively.

Willow knew the fog was too thick for any sense to be made of their surroundings. Her gypsy upbringing gave her the uncanny gift to navigate through it, though anyone else would quickly be lost. “I’m alone,” she offered. Looking quickly at the black beast, she added, “The horse... He’s yours?”

The tall girl’s blonde hair, pulled neatly into a short ponytail, swept over her shoulder as she turned to face Willow again. “Yes.” Her accent made Willow smile cautiously. Though her words were few, it was obvious her origins lay far south of the Drylands. Willow’s happiness made the other girl’s eyebrows furrow in confusion. She moved protectively toward her horse. “Are you a sorceress?”

Willow’s face fell. She stepped back, noticeably shaken. “Why would you say such a thing...” her voice trailed off.

“This mist,” the girl motioned, still confused and cautious. Though the small redhead appeared to be harmless, many things were not as they first seemed. “I have been told of the witches of the North, able to summon the weather at their will.” She looked the thin girl up and down, clearly wary.

Willow breathed deeply, forcing herself to relax. “Then you have heard a child’s tale, meant only to frighten,” she spoke plainly. “Have you never before seen fog?” A small smile played at her lips.

The blonde moved closer, stepping between the horse and Willow. Her face was serious, but it betrayed her youth. “I have seen little but snow. And I have been warned more than once about what lies in these lands.” Her blue eyes searched Willow’s face. “How can I not be shaken by one so beautiful? And is it so fantastic to think that this power,” her fingertips slipped through the damp air, “could belong to you?” Mystified and awe struck, she gazed at Willow.

The silence between them was thick. It pounded in Willow’s ears, slowly thrumming, unlike her fast-beating heart. Before her stood the most mysterious thing she had ever seen. This girl, beautiful and foreign, stole her breath and quickened her pulse. Willow wanted to know everything about her.

“Where are you from?” she began.

The girl pointed, arm outstretched to her right. Willow noticed her bare skin, pale but muscular. A shiver ran down her body, though her cloak kept the cold at bay. “Far south,” the girl answered, “though that seems plain to you. What is this place called?”

“We are at the edge of the Drylands,” Willow nodded north. “The heart of the Kingdom and its market are but four days journey from here.” She desperately wished to know the Southerner’s name, but prudence told her not to ask. People from the South were notoriously quiet and only gave their names to those they trusted. They still believed that names were powerful. “Is that where you’re headed?”

The black horse nickered, shoving the girl from behind with his muzzle. She laid a confident hand on his neck, never removing her eyes from the girl standing nearby. “Perhaps,” she replied, barely above a whisper, “if you will release me from this spell.” She eyed the misty vapors with suspicion.

A coy smile played at the corners of Willow’s mouth. Would it be so wrong to let this girl believe she was so powerful? Willow enjoyed the idea of captivating the stranger’s attention a while longer. Her time was short, though, as the sun broke fully over the mountaintops.

“I may be persuaded to help you,” Willow walked lightly around the girl and her horse, thinking fast for a way to keep her near. “But this can be a dangerous valley,” she smirked at the blatant lie. The Circle had stayed here for many years due to the protection and seclusion provided by the hills and trees. They moved frequently within its safe borders, but never beyond Double Gap to the north or the Southern foothills below. Willow peeked around the stallion’s posterior. “But the mist is our friend. Let it shroud our steps. I’ll guide you north.”

The girl stepped clear of the horse and looked around, puzzled by the thick whiteness surrounding her. She found herself even more puzzled by the unpredictable girl. “What payment would this require?”

Willow clutched the hem of her cloak nervously. “Your name.”

Silence.

Willow felt the moisture in the air gathering on her thick cloak as she played with the edge in her hand. She watched the tall girl think, motionless. Her blue eyes pierced Willow’s green ones, holding her silent, stealing what little breath she still held in her lungs.

“Very well,” the girl answered. “When we reach the market, I will tell you my name.” Willow thought she saw the girl flash a smile, but it was quickly gone.

Four days. She had four days. But only on the last would she know the Southerner’s name. Willow’s heart flopped ineffectively in her chest. It jumped at the thought of four days with her. Then it plummeted when she visualized day five. Dizzy and unsteady, she reached for the horse. His thick coat twined around her fingers, and he shifted to support her weight.


Last edited by taylorgirl6 on Wed Nov 25, 2009 5:28 pm, edited 11 times in total.

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Mon Apr 14, 2008 11:59 pm 
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19. Yummy Face
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Nice beginning... so they have 4 days to go before they reach the town... I hope Willow is able to keep Tara warm during the travel, maybe even with her own bodyheat *wink wink*

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Tue Apr 15, 2008 4:02 am 
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I actually really enjoyed reading your story. It's very well written. the language is sophisticated, and you have a good amount of mystery, chemistry and the storyline is engaging. Funnily enough i kept on imagining Willow as some Elvin figure from lord of the rings wondering around lothlorien or something. It seems quite magical. I'm very keen to see where this is heading :)

Another update soon?

Cheers

Lifty xo

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Tue Apr 15, 2008 5:35 am 
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I've actually read your story Raven on the Uber website and very much enjoyed it. I have actually been waiting for an update - I do hope that you will continue from where you currently are in the story (i.e. Chapter 6).

I liked the idea for the characters and the development of the plot was also quite interesting.

Keep up the writing! :D

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Tue Apr 15, 2008 6:23 am 
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3. Flaming O
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Thanks for the encouragement. And yes, LittleBit, I'm currently on chapter 12ish. Problem is, I decided to go back into chapter 8 and flush the storyline out a little bit. I've gotta account for some missing years.



Chapter 2

The girl glanced at Willow again. Willow saw it for certain this time. They had walked in silence all morning, Willow to the left of the huge, black horse, the girl to his right. At first it was only hope. Hope that she had looked Willow’s way. But hope could now shift to certainty. Willow’s brow wrinkled with her busy thoughts. Would they travel in utter silence for four days? Should she speak? And did the girl notice her own curious stares? Before she could answer her own questions, the horse stopped, its owner crouched down near a long, flat rock. Willow turned and watched the girl pull out what looked like dried meat.

When their eyes met, she realized she’d been staring and quickly looked away. “Can you not conjure food?” the girl asked.

Willow coughed as she swallowed a giggle. “Well,” she began, uncertain how to continue.

“They told me many things about the magic of the North, but I begin to think they know not from their own eyes,” she shook her head as she ate.

“What did they tell you?” Willow sat abruptly in the grass, slightly offended. “And who are they?”

The girl chewed slowly, amused at the demanding nature of the redhead. “The instructors.” Her simple answer found no foothold. Willow watched her blankly. “The ones who teach us war.” Willow’s eyes widened. Jesse had told her stories of the South. Warring tribes, kingdoms with huge armies, militia for hire… Perhaps these stories held some truth. “We were told that evil witches turn the air to fire in summer.” Willow rolled her eyes. All that snow had clearly cut off their common sense. “And that even the women who are not witches have magic in their blood.”

At this, the redhead’s eyebrows perked up. “All this talk of magic. Do you fear it?”

Conflict passed through the Southerner’s face briefly. “We have no magic in the South. Our power is determined by steel. But everyone knows that a sword cannot pierce the flesh of sorcery.” She looked at Willow carefully. “This is why we respect the boundary between our worlds.” Willow watched her closely as she continued. “None return after crossing the pass.” Her look was pensive, and Willow began to wonder what had brought this girl into a place she must surely fear. Before she could ask, the girl spoke again, “After all, they say that many a beautiful temptress dwells here…. And that they wait to steal our hearts and pry our names from our lips.” She looked triumphant as she smiled coyly, ringed in golden sunlight that refused to burn away the fog.

Willow wasn’t sure whether to smile at the compliment or frown at the slight. Temptress? Beautiful? Confused and heart stinging, she nearly shouted, “Well I think they just wanted to scare you! It all sounds ridiculous to me.” She blushed harder at her outburst but plowed forward nonetheless. “If you feel temptation, it’s hardly magic.” Willow swallowed hard.

The horse eyed the two girls as he grazed nearby. He snorted loudly, breaking their silence.

“I did not suspect magic,” she said simply, looking deeply into the red-haired girl’s green eyes. They sat for a long time, content to watch each other quietly.

“I’ll still take you,” Willow finally spoke. “To the market, I mean.” Her throat felt tight and dry. The light-haired girl smiled faintly, and for the first time, Willow noticed how long and delicate the girl’s eyelashes were.

__________________________________________________________

“Hepsebah!” Willow called out as she neared the small wagon they called home. Slowing only long enough to keep from knocking over the delicate jars and vials, she crashed through the curtain and practically into the old woman’s bed. Shock stole her speed as she realized the bed was empty. Willow looked around frantically before charging back out into the fading afternoon light. “Hepsebah!” she called again, fear finding its way into her voice.

Over by the huge bonfire in the center of the Circle’s camp, Ren threw split logs into the embers. “She’s with Rosemary, Willow.” His voice was short with irritation. “The baby came this morning.”

She stopped her frantic pursuit and lowered her head in shame. Birthing was her job. Hepsebah was far too sick to attend such duties. In her rush to help a foreigner, she had abandoned her own duties and her people.

“Is Rosemary… Are they-”

“They’re all fine,” Ren nearly spat. “Where were you, Willow?”

“I was… I mean, I…” Willows excuses sounded pathetic in her head as she was stared down by the strong young man. “I’m sorry.”

Sighing and throwing his work aside, Ren walked to where the girl stood. “We count on you. The Circle needs you, Willow. Everyone knows that Hepsebah…” Ren turned angrily and paced back to the fire. “Just be here,” he said through gritted teeth.

__________________________________________________________


“So…” the old woman sat next to Willow on the bottom step of the wagon.

“I messed up, huh?”

Hepsebah patted the girl’s knee. “Is that what you think?” The camp was still busy with people coming and going, all filled with the excitement of a new life among them. Willow had simply waited for the old healer to come back to their home, knowing that she would be disappointed. But now, sitting beside the old woman, the young girl drank in the scent of feverfew, comfrey, and pennyroyal, and she wanted nothing more than to relax into that comfort. Their lives had been intertwined since Willow was a baby, both steeped in the herbs and spices of a life of healing.

“Everyone needed me and I wasn’t here. What would you call that?”

Hepsebah looked up at the stars above the camp. “Well, little one, sometimes the where of things isn’t so clear.” Willow wrinkled her nose, not understanding the cryptic message. “Alright, I’ll speak more plainly. You were clearly needed elsewhere today.” Willow looked away, struck by how well the elder knew her, and wondering just how far that knowledge went. “Life isn’t always as complicated as we would like to make it, my dear. This Circle may not always be what you need. But your place will call you to where you are best suited to thrive. Just do your best to listen.” She took the girl’s hand in her own and held it tight. “You are a part of this Circle, but you will always be a part of something bigger, too.” Willow blinked back a tear in her eye.


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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Tue Apr 15, 2008 8:15 am 
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While I have time, I'll go ahead and post the next chapter. Feel free to leave feedback for whichever. And don't get used to this kind of prolific writing. Things will slow down after chapter 7 gets put up here.



Chapter 3

The stars in the South were so much clearer and brighter, but it was freeing to lay in a field this far into the night without need of thick furs and cloaks. Brushing her hair off her face, the Southlander gazed at the horizon where the other girl had walked off. She was truly a mystery. Sorceress? Perhaps. Enchantress? Definitely, though not the type she’d been warned of. They had spoken of the beautiful women of the North, but she had not expected this. In her mind she ran her fingers through the girl’s exotic red hair. Would it be hot to the touch, as it appeared? Her fingers tingled in anticipation. Never was she more grateful to the Order for banishing her. Well, she thought, if this is hell, I will finally be warm.

Rolling over in the tall grass, she saw her mighty warhorse wandering at the edge of the field. I should go after her, she thought. Why did I let her go? As if in reply, the animal raised his head, trotting over to her. She jumped lightly onto his bare back, her knees gripping to steady her. He picked up the redhead’s scent and began to follow it deep into the forest.

__________________________________________________________


Willow placed the meager supplies in her pack and laced it up. Though her journey was inevitable, it wasn’t simple. Hepsebah had given her all the permission she required, and still it was not enough. It will only be a few days, she reminded herself. It’s an adventure.

The cold night air was sharp in her lungs as she parted from the Inner Circle and wound her way through the trees. By dawn she would make it to the campsite where the Southerner slept, but it would require walking all night. Picking up her pace, Willow left the last of the firelight.

__________________________________________________________


“I’m tired of this, Ben,” the second man on horseback grumbled as they rode through the dark. “We haven’t come across any settlements in days, and I’m hungry.” He shifted in his saddle. “Ain’t right, is all. That last village was real nice. We could’ve stayed there a while and made out well for it, you know.” He sniffed poignantly. “Them ladies was pretty.”

“Them ladies,” the other man growled suddenly, “are in pieces now.” His face was grim in the starlight. “You know what this job is about, Merch. And I should hope you’d know better than to get attached to...” He stiffened. “Want to get paid? Do the job. Comfort has no place in our work.”

Merch slumped his shoulders. Four weeks of slaughtering was wearing on him. But Ben was right. This was an important job. They worked for the Queen directly, discreetly. And witchcraft was a deadly threat to the Drylands Kingdom. What the Queen’s Men did with the bodies... He shuddered, fearful at the thought of their hollow eyes and dark ways. Ben had warned him not to watch, not to ask about them or their methods. Merch’s last partner had made an accusation of witchcraft, saying that the butchering of bodies for sacrifice was dark magic. His screams as they cut him limb from limb still pounded in Merch’s head when he slept.

The train of men had wound its way through the low hills and into the valley through Double Gap just three days before. Rumors of gypsy settlements had lured them to the southernmost corner of the Kingdom. Merch and Ben scouted ahead of the main group. The Queen’s Men brought up the rear. Before them lay a thick forest of fir and pine trees.

__________________________________________________________


Willow glided through the trees as though they were people in a market crowd. Even in the black of night, her footing was sure from a lifetime of playing, running, and working amidst the towering giants. The sounds of animals and birds were the chatter of childhood friends. Though heavily reliant on hunting to support their numbers, the Circle did its best to live in harmony with its forest neighbors. So when Willow saw a family of foxes bolt across her path with little heed to their exposure, she knew it was a warning. Stopping to scan for movement in the brush, her ears quickly caught the clop of shod horses. Two. She closed her eyes and listened. Yes, two horses with riders.

Willow’s breath came fast and hard. She knew the Circle was safe, protected by an ancient gateway spell. Clutching the charm at her neck, a magical key to the camp, she considered running back. But she was far from the encampment and the spell’s boundary. Fear gnawed at her senses and drove her deeper into the woods.

Then it hit her.

“She’s alone,” Willow breathed as she halted. “And she doesn’t know.” The girl turned and ran back toward the north field.

__________________________________________________________


The black horse charged forth with renewed vigor when he caught a fresher scent. His rider gripped tighter to remain astride but was quiet as her friend worked to find the red-haired girl. Together they wound through the ancient firs, wary of the foreign sounds and scents.

“A warrior’s horse is his only companion, the one soul he can entrust with his life. Likewise, your bond is eternal. Let his name be sacred as the Gods in your heart. Feed him when you starve, take comfort in his warmth, and trust his strength when you are weak. In return, he will lead you to Drakkalis.” The Elder Horsemaster beamed at his fine assembly of new recruits. They will make proud warriors, he thought to himself. Gazing out at the sacred field of Laris’ premier training academy, he watched the yearlings dance and chase in the cold light of dawn. The ritual of Pairing was ancient among their people. Horses chose their warriors, and a bond that could never break was formed. Behind him, twelve boys, young, quiet, patient, waited to be chosen by one of the mighty steeds. Like all children of Laris, they dreamt of this moment, a right of passage into adulthood, and the chance to become a great Warrior King among the frozen Southlands.

The stallion stopped abruptly when he smelled other horses. The muffled sound of a struggle made the girl’s stomach lurch. It was her. She was certain. The blonde jumped down and ran, half stumbling, through the crooked roots and brambles. A bright light in the trees guided her forward over a tangled ridge. Crashing through the underbrush and into a small clearing, the warrior’s body tensed at the scene spread before her.

__________________________________________________________


Willow crept around the two mercenaries, wary of her every footfall and breath.

“.... heard something in here, Ben, and that’s for sure,” she overheard the first man mumble. Both looked disoriented by the blackness of the forest.

“Shh,” the second man, Ben, she assumed, warned the first. He pulled up on his reigns and surveyed what he could see of their surroundings.

Shaking off her fear, Willow turned from the horsemen and proceeded to the north. She breathed a heavy sigh of relief when she cleared a low ridge, thinking her path would be impossible to follow with pack animals.

The Circle had stayed in the valley for many weeks now, fearing the rumors of the Queen’s hired witch-hunters. Much talk in the marketplace had everyone afraid for their lives and their livelihood. Theories were passed around with pints of ale in every pub in the kingdom. One thing was certain, though. They hunted out magic and witchcraft to the furthest reaches of the Drylands and murdered all accused of such power without question. Ren had overheard some of the Guard discussing the tactics employed in killing these “dangerous criminals,” and passed the information to all in the Circle upon their last return to the valley. “The Queen sends her own dark sorcerers among them,” he told an exhausted but fixated crowd of weary travelers. They huddled around the center fire, hoping to warm the chill of fear that crept into their bones. “They hire mercenaries to kill their suspects, then the sorcerers dismember and violate the bodies, offering up their... parts...” revulsion rippled through the Circle, “to demons of the sky.” Ren paced around the fire, agitated by the gruesome images in his mind. “I have heard worse, but such tales are not fit for all to hear,” he glanced pointedly at some of the women assembled, most notably Willow and Hepsebah. “Worst of all, word is beginning to spread that they seek and prize gypsies above all others. Our way of life may disappear sooner than any of us can prepare for.”

Brennan, an elder of the Circle, stood, facing Ren. “I, too, have heard such tales. Ren is right. We are no longer safe in the marketplace.” The families around him whispered in shock amongst themselves. “However,” the people quieted, “our valley and our camp are safe, protected by our elders’ spell.” All around him, heads nodded in approval. “Our borders will protect us until we can find a safer place to trade our goods. Until then, we will continue to work together to support ourselves.”

Willow had held Hepsebah’s hand firmly throughout the impromptu meeting, forcing her own panic and fear down into the pit of her stomach. It was a well-known fact in the Drylands that gypsies were still familiar with earth magic. But over the generations, much of that power had been lost or forgotten with the taming of the land and beasts. Only a few within the Circle were endowed with gifts of magic now, and the old woman and her protege were among them. Hepsebah’s gift of healing was of vast importance to the tribe. Willow, though not born to the Circle, was by far the most powerful of her people. Though the source of her gift was unknown, Hepsebah had taken it upon herself to hone the girl’s skills and teach her to control the power within herself.

Now, faced with the very hunters she had nightmares of, Willow knew that she would be a highly prized catch. Perhaps if I draw them away, she thought as she picked her was through a patch of thick blackberry vines. A diversion. Yes, a diversion, she nodded absently. Stopping in a small clearing, the young woman knelt in the soft soil and began to mumble an ancient spell of light. As she spoke, a warm glow enveloped her, casting an amber hue onto her pale skin. Her body tingled with the sensation of magic flowing from the earth, up through her bones and out into the cold night air around her.

Opening her eyes to the light she had called forth, Willow spoke a simple command. “Go west.” The light wavered, flickering and dancing over the little saplings surrounding the girl. “No,” her voice was frustrated. “Listen to me!” she shouted in vain as the spell backfired, casting itself upon her fully. Willow panicked as the light flashed brightly and bathed her in an unnatural, horribly exposing glare. “No, no, no!” she waved her arms about in earnest, scrambling in the dirt to flee.

Predictably, the two horsemen burst over the ridge and tumbled into the clearing where a young witch sat, tears in her eyes and a halo about her fiery red hair. Never before had they seen such a genuine display of magic, and both men were momentarily dumbstruck.

Recovering quickly, Ben leapt from his steed and charged at the girl, drawing his sword. “By order of the Queen, you are to be put to death!”

Willow desperately crawled backwards, but the mercenary was faster, gripping her cloak and shirt in his gloved hand. He landed sharply on his knees as she fought, losing his sword and balance in the struggle. “Merch!” he bellowed.

The slower man was startled at the sound of his name and fumbled his way out of the saddle. His legs shook beneath him as he approached the two entwined bodies on the forest floor. Ben had managed to sit on the girl’s legs, but she continued to fight him off as best she could. With each grunt of effort, her spell grew in strength, soon reaching a near blinding climax as Merch picked up his companion’s sword.

Crossing his arm in front of his eyes, Merch never saw the second girl emerge from the trees behind him. Her movements were quick and final. With one hand she grabbed the recently acquired sword. With the other she held Merch by the scruff of his neck. The blade in her right hand slipped effortlessly through his tunic and between his ribs.

Ben watched helplessly as his partner, wide-eyed in surprise, fell to his knees and collapsed sideways into the grass. His gaze shifted to the intense eyes of the tall woman looming over him. She had yet to utter a single sound. Her vision was unaffected by the blazing light cast all around them as she surveyed her second target. “More sorcery,” he whispered, his grip on the redhead shaking.

Willow stared in equal amazement. “You,” she said aloud, relief evident in her tone. Who was this incredible warrior woman? Her thought went unanswered as Ben’s elbow met with her forehead, blacking out the world around her, both in her head and in the forest. Consciousness having abandoned her, the spell vanished into the night, wisps of light trailing through the grass and back into the earth.

The mercenary leapt at the chance and shoved himself up and into the Southerner, his head forcing the air from her lungs as he drove into her chest. Dazed but seeking the upper hand, he pushed harder, wrapping his arms around her waist and forcing her to the ground under his immense weight. In the recent blackness, he lost sight of details and groped in the dark for the sword.

Lashing out with a strength the man could not fathom, the Southerner flipped him deftly onto his back by his right arm, rolled him onto his stomach and dislocated the shoulder with a quick jerk up and behind his back. Ben gagged from the pain but remained pinned in the dirt by the girl’s boot.

“You are a hunter,” she said simply, calmly as she held the huge man in place. “Speak,” she commanded, pulling his arm higher.

The mercenary roared and coughed, his body rigid with agony. “Yes. A hunter,” he spat.

“What do you hunt?” she questioned, almost conversationally. Though now an outcast, she had once been revered amongst her peers as being unsettlingly calm. One could almost imagine her examining her delicate fingernails during such an interrogation.

Until this moment, Ben had taken great pride in never having been beaten or captured under any circumstance. Though grim, he was glad Merch was not alive to witness this humiliation. “I hunt witchcraft. Magic is forbidden by order of the Queen.”

“You ride with others. Many.”

“You killed my only partner,” he growled.

The beautiful warrior dug her heel into his back. “Lies will cost you much that you value.”

“Fine! Fine.” Ben gritted his teeth. “We are now twenty-six in number. We ride with the Queen’s Men. Six of them.”

Thinking for a moment, the girl held her prisoner fast. Witch hunters? So she had come to a land at war with itself. And it seemed that magic was as feared here as it was in the South. “The girl?”

“Oh, please. You are both clearly witches. Do not pretend,” he sneered. “No woman,” the word was brimming with contempt, “could posses the strength to subdue a man.”

Tired of his ignorance, she pulled his arm high into the air. “Then tell your Queen that far greater powers lurk in these woods. I am the least of your fears.” With that, she lifted the man by both armpits and drove him headlong into a tree trunk. He collapsed with a sickening thud.

__________________________________________________________


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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Tue Apr 15, 2008 11:09 am 
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I LOVE this fic! I've been reading it over at Chris' site.

I had all but given up on trying to find a new fic along the lines of this, since I've run out of them to read. Lol. And boom! I run into yours. I'm so grateful.

I've been ever-so patiently waiting for an update, so...

Please! For the love of gahd! Update soon! *begs*

Lol.

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
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Wow! What an interesting story. I'm so glad you decided to post it here. Everything is so beautifully written, but I'm especially enjoying "Warrior Tara", which I'm assuming is this beautiful woman's name. Both of their backgrounds are very intriguing and leaves me with many questions, so please, more of this story soon?


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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Tue Apr 15, 2008 3:30 pm 
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yay! More! This is fantastic.

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
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Thanks again for all the feedback, everybody. It's so encouraging to hear positive vibes. I'll get the next few chapters posted asap. Try not to bite your nails down too low.

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
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I might be imagining it but it appears as though even the earlier chapters are undergoing a slight facelift. Have you been making slight changes to the story? If so, then I'm liking it .... if not ... I apologise and will beg forgiveness! :D

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 16, 2008 7:12 am 
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It is possible that I may have uploaded my most recent copies of the first few chapters. I tend to edit my work to death. I'm also obsessed with making sure that everyone and everyTHING is where it needs to be for future reference. Honestly, I don't even know how this is going to end yet. My stories have a way of taking over and leading me astray. By the way, LittleBit, you must really be paying attention!!

On another note, it's okay to be harsh with me if things start going outta whack. While this has begun as a Willow & Tara fic, its destiny may be larger. Upon completion and with some editing, I'm hoping to submit this for publishing as a novel. That's one of the reasons you won't find any other BTVS characters here.

On we go!!




Chapter 4

 
The rhythmic motion of the horse's gait was the first sensation that directed Willow back towards consciousness. Pain was the second. Her head throbbed. Reluctant to open her eyes just yet, she allowed herself to relax into the arms that held her. Wait, I'm being held? Willow's heart sped up as the awareness of her surroundings finally caught up with her foggy brain. I'm on a horse. I'm being held. But I'm still alive. Relieved that she hadn't moved when she woke, the girl used her advantage to think out a strategy. Moving without trying to draw attention to herself, she tested her hands. Not bound. Her legs and feet were also free. Something about this wasn't right.

The horse changed direction and climbed up a small hill, shifting Willow closer into her captor's grasp. She felt strong but gentle arms and hands pull her in safely, balancing them both on the horse. Her legs draped to one side and her head rested against a shoulder, cradled and protected. Willow opened her eyes and looked up into the face of the blonde woman who had saved her only hours beforehand. Dawn broke around them.
 
"It's you," she whispered.
 
The horse slowed but continued on his way. "How is your head?" Willow reached up and touched the bump on her forehead. It screamed at her, and she winced. "You should rest," the blonde said in a soothing voice, gazing down protectively at the woman in her arms.
 
Willow couldn't imagine closing her eyes now. The Southerner's warm body was all around her, and she didn't want to miss a moment of the intimate contact. Her skin tingled with pleasure at being held so close. "What happened last night?"
 
Willow realized the other girl was guiding the horse without the use of reigns or hands. The animal responded to the subtle movements of the girl's legs and hips. "You were attacked."

 "Those men..."

"They're gone."
 
"Gone?" Willow raised her head. "You mean dead? I saw you kill one of them. I saw him fall. Where did you come from? How did you find me in the forest? Or were you even looking for me?" the girl's random babble faded into a frown.
 
"Of course I found you." The arms around the redhead remained firm. "One is dead, one is not."
 
Head aching from pain and confusion, mingled with a returning fear from the night before, Willow sat up straighter. "Not dead?" Her face was contorted with fright. "But... Do you know what they are? What they're here for?"
 
"You." They stopped walking and stillness enveloped them.
 
"Then," slowly, Willow untangled herself from the embrace, "you know what I am."
 
"I do," came the answer. The blonde stared resolutely into the other girl's uncertain eyes. "You're beautiful."
 
Willow's breath caught in her throat. Her hands began to shake as the warrior girl's fingers found them. "You don't understand," she pulled back from the touch, though her heart beat desperately in the opposite direction. "This is dangerous. I'm dangerous." She looked away, instinctively following the curve of the landscape with her eyes until a specific landmark caught her eye. Home was near. "I should go," she turned back to look at the girl and felt a hand steady her. The world spun viciously around them as pain shot up her spine and radiated through her skull.
 
"You should listen to your head," the only solid point in Willow's world spoke up. Her arms kept the redhead still.
 
Willow rubbed the bump above her eyebrow. "My head isn't important. I need to warn-" her mouth snapped shut. Had she said too much? Resigning herself to honesty after letting the information slip, she offered only the most minute details. "My... family. They live nearby. I've got to warn them."
 
The warrior girl stared passively, unaffected. "They live among the trees," she stared at the woods before them. "Many in number. But they are safe." Willow gazed blankly back, startled by how much the girl knew. Her unspoken questions must have been plainly etched on her face. "Your... family... leaves many tracks in soft soil. I have followed all morning, but a spell protects your borders. I cannot pass through."
 
Without realizing it, Willow clutched for the charm at her neck. It was a simple gold coin from the Kingdom, a small hole at its center through which a silver chain passed. But though her fingers searched fitfully, no charm was found. It was gone. "You know about such things?" She forced the panic down into her stomach, out of her voice. She must have it.
 
"I am learning."
 
Willow let her hand drop. "You're not afraid... of magic..."
 
The purest blue eyes she had ever seen stared back at her. "I'm not afraid of you."

The gypsy found herself captivated once more by those eyes, despite the warnings in her mind not to trust. The Circle was highly secretive as a protective measure. They were taught as small children never to divulge any information to common-folk. She's anything but common, Willow bit her lower lip slightly. "Can I trust you?"
 
The warrior brought her horse to a stop. "You must judge that for yourself, mo rhua." Willow watched the girl's lips as she spoke in her own language. "What does your heart say?"
 
"Mo rhua... That's your name for me?"
 
The blonde blushed, color creeping up her pale neck. "It is..." she looked away, then forced herself to return the gypsy's gaze. "It means 'my red.' I have never seen hair the color of fire." Her adoration was clear in her features. She gently reached up to Willow's hair, taking it between her fingers and brushing it over the girl's shoulder. In shyness, she ducked her head, "I.... I thought it would be hot." The strands were soft and cool in her hand, which lingered by the neck of the girl in her embrace, lightly touching the soft skin. 
 
Willow reached up and took the hand with her own. "Here, let me fix that." Leaning in quickly, her lips met those of the Southlander. It took a moment for them to both realize what Willow had done. I'm kissing her. I'm kissing her and I don't even know her name. The redhead reluctantly withdrew her lips and opened her eyes. Blue eyes looked back at her ambiguously. Willow wanted nothing more than to feel those tender lips against her own once more. "My name is Willow."
 
"Willow," the blonde repeated, saying the word slowly, relishing the sensation of it in her mouth. "What does it mean?"
 
The redhead grinned, "It's a tree. I can show you sometime."
 
"Willow, mo rhua," she ran her fingers over the palm of Willow's hand. "It's beautiful. I won't forsake it." The redhead assumed this was important to Southland culture, but all she could care about in the moment was the ecstasy of those fingers tracing lines across her palm. "Tara."
 
Willow looked up, stunned that the girl had uttered what she assumed was her name. "Tara?"
 
"Yes," a smile crept into her lips. "Darkwood," she tilted her head toward the horse they sat upon. He nickered and shifted his weight as he nibbled at the tall meadow grass. "You must trust me, then?"
 
"Perhaps..." a childish smile played at the corner of Willow's mouth.
 
"Must I save your life again?"
 
Faking shock, the gypsy let her mouth fall open. Tara pressed her lips into Willow's, making her shock real. The warrior woman nibbled gently at Willow's bottom lip. Thin but strong arms slid up Tara's bare arms, encircling her neck and pulling them closer into the urgent embrace. Red hair wrapped around Tara's fingers as she took Willow into her arms. Heat charged up their bodies, fueled by the release of their pent-up desire. Kissing her way down Willow's neck, Tara caught her breath. "Is this magic?"
 
"Yes," the redhead whispered in her ear. The memory of her missing charm hit her like the mercenary's elbow to her forehead the night before. "Tara," she sobered up quickly, pulling the blonde up to face her. Tara must have sensed the urgency in her voice, quietly waiting for Willow to continue. "I lost my charm.... a.... a necklace. Do you have it?"
 
"No."
 
Willow began to fidget. Without that coin, she couldn't pass through the spell that protected the gypsy camp, even though it lay but a few minutes beyond the edge of the forest where they now sat. "We cannot go back for it," Tara warned. "There are more hunters." She watched the terror in the redhead's face grow, color draining from her cheeks. "I can return, but you must not follow. It isn't safe."
 
"How can you..." her face was twisted in anguish, though the Southlander couldn't comprehend the reason. "No, you can't go back either." Her voice was firm. It wasn't a request, and Tara had no intention of disobeying. "But we won't be safe here for long." She thought hard, furrowing her brow. "I need some supplies."
 
"Tell me."
 
"You know plants? Herbs and trees?"
 
"Not in your tongue..."
 
Taking her by both hands, Willow leaned in close to make eye contact again. "Then you can find me water. This won't take long, but we need a secluded place, and I need to find a few things if I'm to get us to safety."
 
Tara lifted Willow more quickly than the redhead was prepared for, but she was steady on her feet when the ground met her. A protective hand lingered on her shoulder, waiting to see if her head would object to finding its own balance. "I'm fine," she reassured the girl astride the huge horse. Satisfied, Tara took off at a gallop.
 
 
__________________________________________________________________

 
 
Herbs. Plants. Magic. Witchcraft. Tara's mind raced as Darkwood ran through the meadow, the early morning sunlight still cold and pale. She closed her eyes and felt Willow's lips on her own again. The sweet taste of her kiss, the softness of her skin, and that beautiful hair, so cool and deceptive, drove her to distraction. Opening her eyes to the rush of cold air, Tara spotted a tiny gurgling stream and leaned back to tell Darkwood to stop. She leapt from his broad back down onto the dew-leaden grass. A row of tall pines provided cover to the north, but they would be exposed on all other sides. Fair enough, she nodded to herself. As for the flurry of thoughts at the edge of her mind, they were pushed back for later consideration. She needs me now. Whatever it is she has lost, it must surely be of great importance.
 
 
__________________________________________________________________

 
 
Willow filled her cloak with the few herbs her spell would require. Everything she needed was in ready supply, but her heart still beat furiously in her chest. Her charm was gone, and there were mercenaries hunting her and her clan nearby. And then there was Tara... Spell, spell, spell, she chastised herself for thinking about the kiss again. There was no time for such pleasures now.
 
The thunder of hooves broke her reverie. Willow raised her head to see the black horse and its rider bearing down on her at full speed. Tara simply reached a hand down to the redhead as they slowed. When Willow grabbed hold, a force stronger than she could reckon from the warrior hoisted her up and onto the horse. A slight gasp escaped her, making the blonde grin. They rode a short distance to the stream in silence, both understanding that time might be in short supply.
 
Tara again carefully delivered her companion from the tremendous height of the warhorse, following her to the trickle of water. Darkwood trotted off, taking up a defensive position on their western side. "We will keep watch."
 
Willow nodded her understanding. "I hope this won't take long." Her hands were already working with the crushed plants, a mysterious process Tara longed to watch, but she dutifully took up her own position on the east side of the stream, leaving the redhead to work at her back. The low mumbles of ancient words almost mimicked the babbling stream near Tara's feet. Early morning faded into mid-day as the girl worked, her guardians quietly patrolling the meadow in earnest. Just as the wind picked up, Tara felt a small hand take hers from behind. "I'm exhausted," Willow moaned.
 
Tara turned to face her and gave a questioning look. Willow held up a green stone, the gleam of satisfaction clear in her eyes. "This is why I wear a charm around my neck. It takes forever to enchant these damned things if one is lost." Tara took the stone in her hand. It felt just as she expected, cool and hard, no different than any other stone in such a field. The gypsy explained carefully, "It's a key. Simple as that. But it's the only way into the camp."
 
"Your people are travelers." She handed the stone back, letting her fingers brush against those of the beautiful redhead.
 
"Gypsies. We call ourselves the Circle. Each family has its own name. Few remain these days." She looked into the distance, perhaps back to a time when the world was a different place. Sadly, time only flows onward. The blissful peace of Hepsebah's youth was far from this place now. Even Willow's mother had lived a hard life, and the young woman herself had little first-hand knowledge of peace or prosperity. "Those hunters are looking for us, but they want me. They want Hepsebah, too. We're some of the only ones left..."
 
"They seek your magic," Tara concluded. "Hepsebah."
 
"She's..." Willow thought for a beat. How could she explain so much that she herself did not understand? "She's my only true family. And even that..." She met the Southerner's patient eyes. "She's old. Sick as well. I must take care of her."
 
Tara brushed the back of her hand over the redhead's fair cheek. "You must go to her."
 
"But," Willow began, "I can't just leave you here..." Nor could she take the foreigner with her. The rules of the Circle were clear. None but the clan may enter the camp. It was strictly forbidden to break such rules.
 
"I have found you before. I will do so again," Tara soothed.

Willow took the girl’s hand in her own and turned so that they both faced the low hills to their east. “Do you see the rock?” Tara nodded. A bare, yellow rock, nearly as tall as Darkwood sat at the edge of the field. “It’s a marker. There are more, you’ll see them if you look hard enough. Do you see the scratch at its base?” Again the warrior nodded. “A half circle left is autumn. Full circle is winter. Half circle right is spring. A simple line marks summer.”

Tara was beginning to understand the primitive writing. “I see an intersecting line as well. All these signs speak of times of year. When you are near, you mark the stone.”

Eyes sparkling bright, the gypsy clasped the hand in her own. “Now I know you can find me.” Without another word, without allowing another moment to pass that might permit hesitation, Willow bolted for the forest near the stone. She spared a brief glance back to the girl and her horse in the meadow of wildflowers.


Last edited by taylorgirl6 on Wed May 21, 2008 1:33 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Wed Apr 16, 2008 7:59 am 
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Yay for excellent update-y goodness... I hope Willow is soon able to join Tara...

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
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Yay!

I've been reading your story on Through the Looking-glass too, and I really love it!!
The setting is very original, and I like the fact that there is an important background to the story (with Willow's family for instance) and I assume you' ve already imagined much more things about the two opposite countries, cultures, etc.
And I love the interactions between the girls, they are so sweet!

Looking forward to an update! :wave

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
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Now that the fence contractors are here, I can get back to work before I have to go to work. There is just never enough time in the day to write.




Chapter 5


The men assembled stared with eyes hard as iron, their gaze trained on the thin framed figure at the edge of the snow-laden field. Behind lay the Southern Mountains, covered in glaciers and ice through every season of the year, their imposing stature dwarfing even the most magnificent of the towers of Sinter, the northernmost training academy in Laris. Beards encrusted with ice, the tall men blinked at the harsh wind, noting with satisfaction that the journey which lay ahead would be accompanied by a late summer storm. It was not a journey they relished for themselves, but for the outcast standing in their shadow it would surely mean a cold, bitter death. Such were the ways of the Southlanders. Murder and execution held no honor. Banishment was the cruelest of punishments for any crime.

Buffeted by the gale driving down the mountainside, the wiry girl in boy’s clothing stood motionless. She understood her disgrace. She accepted banishment with the passionless stoicism she had learned from years of brutal training with the finest warriors in all of the South.

“Your name,” the Elder at the center began, “will never again be spoken.”

Beside him, a taller man lowered his head, “You have brought the greatest dishonor to this land, to our ways. Your death will be hollow. No one will mourn your passing.”

She breathed through tight chest muscles.

“Call to your horse,” a third commanded. No summons was required. A tall horse, black as a moonless winter night, strode through the field and came to rest behind his companion. The harsh wind struck his side and so spared the girl its constant discipline. “You are cast out. Leave us.”

Turning away in one swift motion, the group of men marched back to the protection of the academy walls. Atop its stone were balanced the still bodies of dozens of boys, eyes and faces showing no emotion. Banishment was rare, and the crowd assembled took in the ceremony with quiet attention. She met no eyes, and none sought hers out. Her body was light with the lack of furs and heavy cloaks. All spoils of her battle conquests had been relinquished to the mentors, every comfort afforded a true warrior left behind in favor of an unencumbered march up the Pass of Death. In this moment, her sentence began, and the only life she knew or had ever dreamt of faded in a flurry of white powder. Swirls of dry snow drifted at her feet, marking her final moment in Laris. Cold was all she had known, and now it would mark her passing on the frozen landscape.

The foothills faded in and out of visibility as she walked. Biting cold crept through her meager furs. Despair and apathy drove her on, higher into the frigid air. Even her horse, freed of his saddle and bridle, marched with head lowered and eyes half-closed.

Her first memories filled her sight; grey snow, banked aside the abandoned streets of Sinter, the howling of storm winds through the under-town in which she dwelt, hunger that gnawed and clawed like the frost on her thin cloak, cold and damp biting her skin. No one had praised the moment of her birth, and none would mourn her death, the death of another street child, another flea-infested harbinger of disease. She recalled praying for death. “Andlåt,” she whispered each night as she curled into a fetal position to sleep.
Let me die.

On she walked, leaving behind the name that had been give to her when a kind warrior discovered her at the brink of death.

“I will name you Tara,” he whispered as he carried her limp body under his wool cloak. He nursed her tiny body into health, then sharpened her mind and toned her muscles with hard work and studies. Tara took to her education with vigor, until the day the tired man offered his final instructions. “This world, this city,” he nodded out the frosted window of their tiny home, “will never accept you, Tara. Women have no place here, apart from the necessities of men.” He grimaced. “I did not find you to sell you in marriage or in sin. I saw in you what no one else looked for, and I have never found disappointment.” The small girl smiled up at him, silent with respect. She never knew where he came from, nor why he rescued her from certain death on the nameless streets of Sinter. That night he taught her how to hide among men as one of them. The next day she was delivered to the training academy. Her new name was Taran. She never saw the quiet warrior again. Memories of him flooded her heart with an ache she could not bear.



__________________________________________________________________


Before his captain, Ben stood, or rather crouched. His right arm was tucked under his cloak, awkwardly pinned to his side by pain and fear of movement. In his left hand, outstretched to the captain, hung a gold coin on a silver chain.

Captain of the most effective band of mercenaries ever assembled under the Queen’s authority, Menace bared his teeth at the wounded hunter. “We are not thieves, and yet you bring me trinkets,” he snarled. “Tell me, Longmire,” his voice drawled the name of Ben’s home, “did you barter for apples as well?” The men assembled laughed mockingly, simultaneously terrified of their captain and eager for his approval.

Careful not to be stung by such intentional baiting, the mercenary held his tongue and position, eyes lowered in respect. “Captain, this was ripped from the throat of a powerful witch.” Images of his humiliating defeat plagued his sight, forcing his eyelids closed.

Stopping all conversation with his swift movement, a third man approached. Dressed in the red and black of his comrades, he reached for the coin with a leather-gloved hand and inspected it. Black eyes stared with intense focus at the charm, taking in its every line and curve. He smelled it, his features tensing in concentration. A tongue the color of fresh blood emerged from cracking, bluish lips. “It is a key,” he mumbled, more to himself than to the terror-stricken men gathered about. All, including Ben, gave him a wide berth. He opened his eyes and looked into the face of Captain Menace who was sobered by the presence of the oldest of the Queen’s Men. “They are protected, Captain. That is why they elude.” His voice whined in an off-key melody. “But now we have an..... invitation,” his grey-toothed grin sent shivers up the spines of the hunters.


__________________________________________________________________



Hepsebah pushed aside the tea that Willow had brewed for her. The old woman’s appetite had faded again, her fever returned, and worry itched within the stomach of the girl by her side. The pale, wrinkled figure in the small wagon bed turned to smile at her nurse. “You won’t stop, will you, stubborn little girl...” Willow brought forth a cool, damp cloth and wiped Hepsebah’s brow. “And I suppose you’ve formed some grand notion of how you’re going to save me?”

“I’ve been working on a spell-” Willow began quickly, but her eager words were brought to a halt by a withered hand on her own.

“There are more important forces brewing than spells to save old women, my dear. Tell me.”

The redhead had never understood how it was that Hepsebah could see things as she did, but she wasted no time in wonder. “The Queen’s militia.... They’re here. In the forest.” Quiet eyes watched the words spill from the terrified girl’s mouth. “And,” tears gathered behind Willow’s eyes, “there’s.... there’s someone...” A small sob caught in her throat.

“The elders knew that this time would come, Willow. It could not be stopped,” she soothed. “You must take this news to them. They need your strength.” She gripped the girl’s hand in her own, though her own strength was fading. “But,” she began her warning, “the girl...” Willow looked up, a constant stream of tears staining her face and shirt. “Many things will change very quickly, and her part in this is yet to be written. The Circle will not understand. Perhaps you will not either.”

“But,” Willow’s face filled with conflict, “Hepsebah, she saved me. Surely...”

“And many more will be saved in time,” the sick healer interrupted, “but that day is not upon us. For now, you must protect your family.”

Willow stayed with the only mother she had ever known until the old woman was asleep. She pulled the thick quilts up to cover her and left her to rest. Just outside the wagon door, Brennan, Ren, and four others stood waiting.

“How is she?” Brennan stepped forward, his long grey cloak trailing in the duff. He took Willow’s hands in his own, offering strength.

The thin girl breathed in and out, releasing the tension that had built in her. “She’s sleeping for now. But...”

Ren placed his hand on her shoulder, “I’m sorry, Willow. I know.... We all...” he struggled for words. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you the other day.” Willow smiled up at him through the remains of her tears. His short blonde hair stuck out at odd angles, a rebellious statement to the elders who held to the tradition of long hair. His angular face twitched slightly with the burden of emotion, a troubling parasite in his normally rigid nature. “You said you had news.”

Wiping the salt from her face, Willow walked to the huge bonfire. Even in full daylight, it cast a dazzling glare around the camp. “A team of mercenaries has arrived.” She heard a hitch in the breath of the men behind her. “They come with sorcerers, just as Ren proposed. Two of them....” she bit her tongue hard enough to draw a trickle of blood, “they hunted me. One is dead, but the other...”

“Then it is true,” spoke a short, muscular man at the edge of the crowd. His great beard shook as he stepped closer to her. “They have come for us.”

“They cannot find us,” Ren protested. “Our spell-”

“Our spell will not hold!” the shorter man growled. “Did you not hear the same tales as I who sat beside you, boy? The enchantment that keeps us safe is old, Ren. And it was never meant to resist those black devils the Queen sends.”

“My father conjured that spell,” Brennan challenged. “It will hold.”

“You are a fool to think as such.”

“And you are dangerously close to provoking panic in our people, Ash,” Brennan warned, the authority in his voice both calming and allowing no dispute. The men were quiet as their leader paced. “The ways of the Circle have been preserved since long before the formation of any kingdoms in the Known Lands. We have outlasted famine, drought, war, and the depravity of modern civilization.” His passionate words leapt as flames from his heart, igniting the loyalty of his brethren. Their backs straightened, their eyes opened wide, and they gathered closer, prepared to risk all that they treasured for the sake of their families and their way of life. “It is because of our strength of will that we exist where every other gypsy clan has faded.” He bore down on Ash, “You are the very reason we thrive, brother.” He clasped the burly man’s shoulder tightly in his palm. “Your zeal drives us to a might that will deliver us from this hard age.” Ash laid a confident hand on the arm of the great man before him. “Our ways will not be lost.” He looked each of the men in the eye, one by one, holding them in silent reverie.


__________________________________________________________________


Fire and smoke raged through the forest in Willow’s dream. She sweated and tossed fitfully, fighting with quilts in her desire to flee. Her vision was obscured by the conflagration, but she knew Tara was near, just past the blazing cedars in front of her. We have to leave, she thought, the urgency driving sleep from her brain. We have to leave. Her delicate eyelashes fluttered, eyes opening in the dark of earliest morning. We have to leave. She turned uneasily in her small bed, damp clothes sticking to her body as she panted from the nightmare. “We have to leave,” she whispered, fully aware that her dream was not what it seemed. She sat up and stumbled from the cot, grabbing her green wool cloak before charging for Hepsebah’s bed.

“I was beginning to think you could sleep through a dragon hatching,” the old woman chastised. “Stop fussing over me and wake the others. Let’s hope my message to them is faster than you into a dressing gown.”

Willow leapt over the three wooden steps at the wagon door and ran through the camp waking families with all the volume she could muster. “Everyone up! Now, dammit! We have to leave!”

Ren caught up to her, bow in hand, “It’s too late, Willow. They are upon us.”

Her stomach plunged to the forest floor. “No,” she breathed, pulse pounding at a raging speed in her head.

Racing from wagon to tent, fire to fire, Gobbler and Nuttail hurled weapons at able-bodied men, shouting uncoordinated instructions. Women and children concealed themselves in their homes, arming themselves with knives and rocks, anything they could find to protect their children. Though their hurried preparations were necessary, they were far too late to fend off the skilled attackers who drove from the forest into the center of the Circle. Armor and sharpened blades clashed with linen and wooden tools, spilling the lifeblood of the gypsies over their home.

Three of them raced past, heading for Brennan’s tent. Willow started in the same direction when a bolt from within the trees sped through the air and pierced her left shoulder, a breath away from her heart. A cry escaped her lips as she fell hard, earth and sky pressing into her from all sides. The pain caught in her throat as she struggled for air, battling to remain conscious.

Heavy boots trampled past on the soft earth in which Willow lay, oblivious to her strains. Loud cries and screams echoed about the camp, their disembodied voices sickening Willow to the core as she recovered by the fading embers of the fire. Focus, she shut her eyes. Focus and breathe. Her pulse slowed, despite the horrendous pain surging through her shoulder and arm and down into her chest. She opened her eyes to the carnage she once knew as home and forced down another urge to vomit or cry out. Bloodied and contorted bodies littered the ground. The tang of blood was heavy in the air, mixed with the smoke of burning carts and wagons.

Fumbling in the dirt, Willow crawled to the nearest victim. Holly, a woman barely older than herself, lay prone, her elegant neck nearly severed from her twisted body. Willow’s hands shook violently at the sight of so much blood, so much death. Holly’s eyes were frozen, still staring at her sister, Rosemary. Willow followed the gaze to the second limp form, revulsion clawing its way through her stomach. “Rosie?” she cried out. “No, no, not you,” Willow begged, crawling on one good arm and bruised knees. She shook the young mother, desperate for a sign of life. Willow rolled her over, gasping at the tightly bundled child buried under its dead mother. She took the baby into her own cloak, fearful of another attack. It gurgled gently at her chest, ignorant of the terrors surrounding them. We’ve got to get out, her mind raced. Hepsebah.

Willow rushed past the lifeless forms of the Circle, their haunting faces imprinting themselves onto her memory for a lifetime of nightmares to come. Heather and Penn were still reaching for one another, wounds continuing to ooze with blood long after the killing strike. The entire Lohstag family huddled together by their own fire, mother and father headless, children shedding tears of blood. It was too much. Willow fell to her knees and wretched, her body convulsing with sobs. She had grown up with these families. They were her brothers and sisters, her uncles and cousins. In the background, she heard the slaughtering continue.

Ren shouted to two other clan members, his words lost in the din of metal on bone, arrows through flesh, the keening of death. Willow thought she saw him trounce a bloodied mercenary, but the night shadows of trees were full of movement, concealing details.

The injured girl collected herself once more, dragging herself to her feet. The wagon she shared with Hepsebah was set apart from the others, fifty paces from the inner circle. Willow’s bare feet caught in the brush and threatened to throw her to the soil time and again as she plowed blindly to her last hope. Three bloodied men in red and black robes descended the humble wagon’s steps, grinning with malice.

“No!” Willow screamed.

The men turned in time to see a ragged girl in a torn cloak step out of the trees, a broken bolt protruding from her flesh, and a look of anger that would make blood turn to frost, had they not purged themselves of such human vulnerabilities decades before. “Gentlemen,” their leader tilted his head, “I believe we owe our trespass to this young lady.”

“You murderous bastards!” her cries swarmed from her mouth and buried themselves deep in the soil, tree roots and bedrock trembling with the force. The Queen’s Men braced themselves against the shaking earth. “You killed them,” her voice quieted. Willow knew Hepsebah was gone. She felt the cold of death creep into her bones and settle in her ribs, numbing her physical pain. Her body calmed, her muscles relaxed, and a girlish smile teased the corners of her mouth.

The Queen’s Men, masters of their dark power, circled the young woman, easy prey for hungry beasts. Grey, drawn faces, willingly infested with the gruesome byproduct of their evil wont, examined their next victim. Red serpent tongues flicked in and out, tantalized by the potency of fresh power, untamed, unkempt, and only held back by a slight, feminine form which teased at their lecherous minds and loins. “She smells delightful," the tallest bowed to his elder, the action a mockery of a genteel lord at a banquet in his honor, his speech both delicate and precise.

“Quite right,” another agreed as they waltzed. “Far more moist than the last.”

“And such power,” chimed in the next.

Willow stood, watching the carousel of black sorcery spin about her. It was comical. She nearly laughed. Let them come, she chuckled, delirious with untapped grief. Fire churned in her belly, growing stronger until her palms broke out in a cool sweat and her stomach lurched. The infant tucked in her cloak began to howl. It was an unearthly bellow, dousing the roaring flames that consumed the camp. The bonfire guttered and died, embers smoldering in the blanket of dark that fell.

The redhead swallowed, choking back the heat as it rushed and coursed through her shaking body. “My death is a fair price for yours,” she mumbled, eyes losing focus. The magic boiled under her skin, desperate to taste fresh air. There was a moment of regret before she let go, a moment of sorrow for the innocent child at her breast, and a fevered hunger to see Tara again. Then it was gone, and a fury that shook the gates of hell burst forth, engulfing everything within close range of the gypsy girl.


__________________________________________________________________


My left arm for a sword, Tara scowled as another mercenary plowed into her, a jagged knife shard in his hand. She dodged him easily, ducking and tossing him with her shoulder. He landed in a heap behind her, head cracked open on a protruding rock. Three more charged at her, bloody swords and daggers raised.

Tara had tracked them into the forest since late evening, aware that the safety of the Circle was in dire jeopardy. They crossed the border of the camp just after midnight. That was when the Southlander began picking the hunters off from the rear. Her first steps into the Circle landed in pools of blood.

Though trained and rugged from years of service in the Drylands, the bounty hunters were no match for Tara’s speed and quiet skill. The only sound to escape her was the rhythmic breathing of her methodical efforts.

“Right! Crouch! Roll!” the instructor bellowed, gritting his teeth. Thirty-six boys in perfect formation hung on his every word, pushing themselves to their physical limits. Fourteen bore cuts that trickled red onto the compact snow field. “Again!” The boys stood. “Right!” Arms swung right, palms forward. “Crouch!” They lunged, bruised knees numb on the ice. “Roll!” Arms still outstretched, they twisted their imaginary opponents off-balance.

Tara waited for them. The first, a wiry man in oiled leather and chain mail, bared his yellow teeth and swung a double axe. The warrior girl, still unarmed, watched his display, fascinated by his pre-battle enthusiasm. She stood, straight and tall, body turned aside to her opponent. When he moved to strike, she grasped the handle of his axe, pushed forward into a crouch, and rolled, forcing the hunter to drop his weapon. She used her momentum to right herself into a protected stance, the double axe now firmly in her possession.

The two mercenaries in the background stepped up to their comrade. Perhaps they are more serious now, Tara wondered. Unwilling to waste time, she jumped into the fray, axe held close to her body.

Three.

She punched forward with the flat of the blade, solid steel meeting with the face of the middle fighter. His nose cracked loudly as she spun the axe in her hands, turning it ninety degrees, the head catching the arm of the taller man, the handle landing squarely in the chest of the third. She twisted, jamming the handle into a burly chest and simultaneously slicing an arm. All three men floundered, the left finding himself under a boot with an axe handle crashing into his shocked face. His skull collapsed under the blow, a grisly crunch resounding through the trees.

Two.

Roaring with a battle cry, the tall hunter leapt at Tara, his sword finding only air as she stepped aside and swung a fatal arc with the weapon in her hand.

One.

The last mercenary found his feet once more, blood gushing from his nose. He wiped his face with a hairy arm, trying to reconcile the conflict before him. Tara stood, still and silent once more. In any other time or place, one might assume the pale young woman was listening to birdsong, waiting to meet a friend in a busy city square, or enjoying a pristine view, anything but systematically killing professional soldiers. Her perfectly relaxed composure unnerved the stout hunter, tremors rising from his boots. “What are you?” his voice grated like a wagon on crushed rock.

Tara blinked, and blood danced on the edge of the blade she held. What am I? The question burned behind her eyes. The weapon in her grasp leapt forth, slicing air and patience in a tight circle, its rising angle catching the last fighter under the chin. His hands relaxed from the handle of his knife, dropping to the ground like his knees, head split up the center. Let the Gods answer you.


Last edited by taylorgirl6 on Wed May 21, 2008 2:33 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Wed Apr 16, 2008 8:28 am 
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Location: Seattle, WA
And on we march to chapter 6. This should pull everyone up to speed on where we last left off on the Uber site.




Chapter 6


The encampment was silent. Weak morning light filtered through the boughs of ancient trees, illuminating blood-stained ground. Death masqueraded as slumber, still bodies resting where they had once fled or fought. The surprise attack had resulted in the slaughter of all but fourteen members of the Circle, some still entwined in the arms of their beloved, cold kindred. Some distance away from the remnants of the great bonfire around which they all once gathered, a scene of utter devastation awaited discovery. Rubble and debris had shattered mighty trees in two, wagons were obliterated, rock pulverized, and an enormous crater at the center still smoked and burned like holy incense before an altar.

Tara stood at its edge, in awe of the destruction. Her eyes searched what she could see of the camp, but no life could be found. The mighty horse at her side flared his nostrils, breathing loudly. He uttered a low rumble, then carefully picked a path to the only remaining structure in the camp. Tara followed, unaware that the wagon they approached had been Willow’s home for the entirety of her life. Somehow, in the midst of a tremendous power that demolished everything within sight, this one place had been spared. Darkwood snorted and sniffed around the old wooden cart, still searching.

Her light steps bent the aching wooden boards that had served as steps for so many years, their protesting creaks breaking the stark silence of the forest. Inside, disarray had claimed the once tidy home, bottles and jars broken underfoot, books and papers shredded. Her gaze came to rest on a dried crown of flowers, still hanging above a curtained bed. Tara’s heart leapt up wildly, suddenly knowing that this place belonged to the keeper of her own heart. The knowledge was foreign, and the feel of it twitched in her skin, but it was certain and without pause. This was Willow’s home. Her fingers delicately traced the fragments of a lost life, while her chest ached with the need to find the girl.

Then her body went cold. She smelled blood, she felt its presence behind her, and a fear that she had never known coursed through her veins. Turning, Tara nearly gagged with the sight of carnage that confronted her. A body, old and frail, lay awkwardly, head at an unnatural angle, body vivisected from the neck down. Some organs were missing, others mangled beyond recognition. Pieces of skin and bone littered the bed around the fragile woman. Tara felt the pain that death had rendered, and it shook her thoroughly, down to her bowels. It was Hepsebah, her heart cried out. Not Willow, as she had initially feared, but still not a relief.

Dreading the emotion that threatened to consume her, Tara fled the wagon, falling sharply as the top step gave out. As she plunged, her ears caught the sharp twang of a bowstring, its arrow soaring into the structure where she had been standing. She landed hard, caught in the decaying wood, three enraged gypsies standing over her with weapons ready.


__________________________________________________________________


Movement woke Willow, bringing her suddenly and brutally back to awareness. The pain in her body was blinding, shutting out all memory of the events from the night before. In an attempt to move her arms, she felt the baby pressed against her wiggle again. It began to cry, a feeble sound at best. Willow inhaled, preparing to soothe it, when her chest caught fire. She coughed, flames coursing up through her throat. That was when the memory of the attack returned, viciously wounding her over and over. The screams cut at her, images of death burned her flesh, and Hepsebah.... Hepsebah’s demise shattered her bones. Tears poured from the girl’s eyes, though she could not bear to sob.

The infant cried again, this time louder. He called out, over and over, desperate for a reply. It came in the form of a tattered young man, cuts dried and caked with blood, contusions beginning to turn purple, and white knuckles still hanging on to his bow. Ren knelt beside the two at the edge of the woods, Willow, barely breathing, and the child, alert and unharmed. “Gobbler! Nuttail! Over here!”

His call was answered by two brothers, still strong enough to run despite their injuries. They were the last of their family, as were all the remaining gypsies. Short and barrel-chested like their father, the brothers came to stand behind their new leader, a mirror of Brennan and Ash not two days before. Sons of the proud elders of the Circle, Ren, Gobbler, and Nuttail had assumed charge of what remained of their people. Willow stared up at them through a haze of pain and misery. She knew immediately that the elders were among the dead.

Ren bent down and scooped the baby from the bloodied arms that held him. He quickly handed it off to Gobbler, turning his attention back to his childhood friend. “Can you move?”

Willow turned slowly, the broken arrow shard punishing the slight movement. Her face twisted, unable to voice the pain for fear of breathing too deeply. Nuttail swept aside the branches that had fallen from the girl’s flight after her magic erupted. She was far from the inner circle, thrown clear of the blast she had created. Her survival was unfathomable. The stocky man at her feet helped Ren lift her as gently as they were able. Willow watched Nuttail’s deep-set eyes, so brown and warm, close abruptly at the sight of her shoulder wound. I should be dead.

They carried the slim redhead back to the scraps of their fire, stepping over the legacy of their clan as it smoldered and decayed. Gathered at their central meeting point were all who had survived the onslaught of mercenaries and black sorcerers. Birch, his normal lanky nature interrupted by a crude splint on his right leg, trained a recently acquired crossbow at his quarry who sat at the base of a giant fir, tied firmly but facing the other direction. “This is the last,” he announced to Ren.

Willow tried to lift her head, but the pain subdued her every effort. She sank into a fitful, feverish sleep, still in the arms of the boy she had known since her first memories.

“Slower than a tree sloth, slower than a snail!” the little red-haired girl taunted, racing through the trees. “Slower than lobsters and a big, black whale! Slower than the Royal Guard, knittin’ a rug, slower than a lizard, slower than a slug!!”

A skinny tow-headed boy ran along the trail behind her, desperate to catch up. “No I’m not!” He gritted his teeth and pumped his legs harder.

Willow grinned back at him, keeping her lead easily. Ren never caught her when they played chase. Would he ever learn? The two children tore through the underbrush in their playground. The forest was home, shelter, and safety. Within its borders, they learned all they needed to survive in the Known Lands.

“Hey!” Willow stopped abruptly, the little boy colliding with her from behind. “Look...” she pointed.

Ren watched with wide eyes. A hart, antlers tall and proud, grazed in the light-filled meadow before them. Its reddish coat was flawless, its eyes black and wary. Its white-bordered tail twitched as it chewed. “Let’s catch it,” the ten-year-old boy proposed.

Willow, a year older and clearly in charge, frowned at his suggestion. “No. It’s wild, Ren. Let it be.” They breathed quietly. “We live with wild things. They keep us safe.”

“But father kills deer all the time.”

“Yes,” she acquiesced. “But that’s different. “We don’t kill things we don’t need.”

“These are our woods,” he protested. “That makes anything in it ours!”

The girl put her hands on her hips, “We belong to these woods.” Her voice was firm, final. “Not the other way around.” She lifted her head victoriously. “Anyway, how are you going to catch a deer when you can’t even keep up with me?” With that, she bolted, frightening the wild animal. They ran in opposite directions.


Ren and Nuttail covered Willow with what remaining blankets and rugs they could find. Supplies were scarce, and many were wounded. “Will she recover?” Nuttail asked.

Ren ran his fingers through his hair, dislodging dirt and pine needles. “We must remove that bolt.”

Gobbler stepped between them, kneeling by the side of the sick girl. “How are we supposed to heal a healer?”

“Get Ivy and Forsythia. They’ll know what to do,” Ren ordered. “I’m not leaving her until her fever breaks.”

“But,” Gobbler turned, “the prisoner...”

Their leader sighed heavily. He was torn between duty and devotion. “Very well. I’ll question him.”

Gobbler cleared his throat, “Her.” Ren stared at him, incapable of replying.

Willow ran through the trees again, this time older, taller, and faster still. Her thin arms extended out to her sides, catching the cedar boughs in her flight. A wrinkled brow and tear stains marred her beautiful face, the smooth skin hidden by a mask of pain. Her simple woven dress tore on the climbing roses that fought for sunlight in the thick forest, but she sprinted on. On through tall grass, on past the low hills that marked the border of the woodland, on through the torrent of yellow foxtails, dancing in the autumn breeze, she ran. Her lungs and her thighs ached for pause, but she was unrelenting in the punishment of her own body. A stream bed of small stones caught her foot and pulled her to the ground, bringing release to the prodigious sobs that wracked her light frame. She cried like she had not done since childhood, weeping with a fury that corrupted the silence of the fields around her.

“I’m not!” she shouted. “I’m not! I never will be!” Her cries went unanswered, carried away on the current of air that rode from the foothills of the Southern Mountains, down the grassy plain, and north to the Kingdom.

They had all betrayed her, Hepsebah, Ren, everyone. She refused to be treated as a possession, property to be traded. Hepsebah had tried to make it sound so normal. “Everyone is betrothed, little one. You’ve seen this so many times. Why are you upset now that it is upon you?”


Why? she spoke in her mind. Because it is not right! I belong to no one! She was furious still, hours after the announcement that she would be married to Ren by tomorrow night. It was no better than trading a mule in the marketplace. Her fists balled in anger at the words playing over and over in her head.

“You’re mine, Willow,” he had stated so simply, so confidently. “You have always been and you will always be.”


You’re mine. You’re mine. You’re mine.

Willow moaned in her feverish slumber, unable to retreat from the dreams that taunted her. Ivy wiped her brow with a damp towel once more, worry heavy in her young face. “She’s worse, Syth,” she called to the young woman mixing herbs by the pathetic fire. All able hands were out searching for firewood that had not already been burnt to the ground the night before. Supplies and food were low, the people were devastated, and none had the heart to reconstruct their homes amidst the dead. They had set up a temporary camp at the far edge of the forest, far from the stench of decaying bodies.

Forsythia turned her concerned eyes from the salve to the young woman in the arms of Ivy. Willow’s normally pale complexion was ashen. They had removed the broken arrow shaft hours beforehand, but the girl had lost more blood than her body could handle. She would die before morning.

Ivy soothed her restless charge, cooing like a mother to a child, hopeful that rest would recover what herbs could not. Her long, auburn hair draped over her shoulder and around burnt arms, wrapped with the torn hem of her own dress. Forsythia was one of the only gypsies uninjured, and she had taken over the role of healer for the tribe. Ivy’s arms had been badly scarred by the flames that consumed her family’s home. Forsythia only hoped that her barely sufficient skills would save those that remained. They would all bear the scars of this day for the remainder of their lifetimes.

She brushed back a tangled mop of curly black hair and came to sit beside the two younger women. Her bodice was stained with blood and dirt from an entire day of wrapping, mending, stitching, and binding. Like so many others, nary a moment had been spent in mourning for her own lost family. Thirty years of life in this forest had not worn on her like this single day. She let her eyes rest upon Ivy, quietly assessing the girl’s ability to continue working. They had both toiled since dawn.

Ivy’s eyes were tired, and she longed to crawl into the arms of her mother, but the bodies of her kin were kept at a distance, too badly mutilated for a teenaged girl to witness. Forsythia had borne the news to her when they found her under a smoldering beech. Ivy had not left her sight since.

“We must wait the fever out,” Forsythia gently applied more salve to the arrow wound.


__________________________________________________________________


Tara watched as the tall blond man paced around her. His actions were anxious, agitated, and spoke of a great unease at his core. She assumed he had taken lead of the Circle, watching as other members approached him randomly, seeking direction, reporting findings. Something continued to nag at his attention, set at the edge of the new camp. Tara could not see that far, but her eyes caught the glint of a fire whenever he moved away from her view. Her lithe body was relaxed against the giant fir tree, bound by singed, knotted sisal. The binding was insufficient, but she allowed herself to remain imprisoned, reluctant to enrage her captors further. Surely Willow would explain everything. Tara glanced toward the fire again, concern in the pit of her stomach rising.

“The enemy,” their Captain held them with his low, rumbling voice, an icy draught of water through a high mountain pass, “will bind you. He will watch you as a snow leopard watches a hare.” His lessons took place on Caslonn Overlook, high above the city. Twenty-seven boys remained. The others had died in training. Taran stood among them, body covered in scars from mock battle, arms and legs bound to poles that jutted from the icy cliff. None among them were friends. Surviving warrior training was a solitary act, devoid of companionship. “He will watch for weakness,” the elder growled, hungry to taste their fear. His enormous, muscled frame approached the last boy in the line of twelve-year-old recruits. He flexed his shoulders, then bent to stare at the dark-haired child. “Tell me your name.” No reply was offered. “I said,” he bellowed, “tell me your name!” He struck the boy with the flat of a giant palm, knocking his head wildly against the post. The child, bruised from days of endless warring, stood silently. His teacher rounded on the others. “We do not relent!” The boys stared back at him, each challenging him. “We do not give them our secrets!” He crouched low, a tiger preparing to pounce. His voice was a husky whisper, “We wait.”

Tara waited. She watched, observing more than her captors realized. The leader is called Ren. How careless they were with names! Each proclaimed the other's name in greeting, loud enough for a whole forest to eavesdrop. The two stocky ones with beards are his closest friends. Nuttail relayed another update as the captive looked on. He whispered and pointed to the distant fire. Ren nodded solemnly. Something there drew his attention like nothing else in the obliterated camp.
 
"How did you enter our camp?" he spoke to Tara without looking at her. His eyes stayed with the growing light of the campfire. Dusk settled in around them. "I am certain you heard my question. Will you not answer?" His tone was gentle, light, not what his body portrayed. Tara continued to watch him, her mouth firmly closed. Ren rounded on her, eyes ablaze. "You will answer me!" When she did not, he struck her, knocking her head back into the tree. The tiniest of smiles played at her mouth, her training memory even more poignant. Her stark quiet crawled under the young man's skin, shifting inside him like a hungry eel. He glared at the blonde fighter, rage thrumming in his ears.
 
Before he could begin another round of shouting, Birch appeared from the direction of their previous camp. His face was heavy with sorrow for the sights of what lay behind him. Ren went to him, intent on finding something that would assist his interrogation of the silent woman. After a brief exchange of information, Birch withdrew something small and shiny from his cloak and handed it to Ren.
 
The leader turned the charm over and over in his hand, a delirium of victory dancing in his eyes. He held it up for Tara to see, closing in on her. "So I have my answer," he began. "What I do not know is how you came by such a charm. Though I think there is much to tell. Shall I ask Willow?"
 
Tara's face was impassive. There was something about his question that made her suspect a bluff, but the bluff was of far less importance than the newfound knowledge that Willow must not be alright. Was that why she had not come? A glimmer of an idea gnawed at her mind.

 
__________________________________________________________________


Forsythia's head nodded as she dozed by the fire, her body curled in on itself. She and Ivy had stayed by Willow's side all day and into the early evening, the younger of the two exhausted to the point of falling asleep while sitting upright. Forsythia had sent her away to rest until morning. Ren now sat with Willow's hand in his own. The young woman was growing cold, her fever replaced by a fading pulse and a heart that felt little reason to beat. The quiet leader watched her furrowed brow and prayed to his gods.
 
A commotion apart from the deathbed by the fire roused the two in drowsy vigil. "It's a horrid idea!" Gobbler hissed at his female companion, a ruddy-complected girl who held Rosemary's infant at her chest.
 
"You think you know everything," she scolded, her high-pitched voice grating on Ren's frayed nerves.
 
"I tried to stop her," the hefty young man shook his head pleadingly at the scowl that took up residence on Ren's forehead. "She has this ridiculous plan..."
 
"Ridiculous?" she screeched. "I don't see any of you doing anything but wait for the poor girl to die, so perhaps you should consider my 'ridiculous plan'," she mocked.
 
Gobbler cringed, hating the plump girl's knack for winning arguments. He stepped aside, allowing her to pass, and glanced apologetically at Ren.
 
Friends since birth, Ren was more a brother than anything else to Gobbler and Nuttail. He had laughed himself to near sickness when Ash had announced Gobbler's betrothal to Magnolia. They had been happily bickering ever since. Babe in arms, she strode confidently into the mess of bandages and compresses. Ren was so stunned, he dropped Willow's hand and moved aside. "The baby?" he questioned.
 
Magnolia arranged the tiny child in the crook of Willow's good arm. "We don't exactly know what he can do, now. Do we?" She pressed her lips together, watching with hope.
 
Tiny blue eyes looked up at his wounded savior, taking in all the sights that frightened the adults with the grace of a child who had yet to know true pain. He would grow up without his mother, father, or any other members of his blood family, but in this moment, set apart from the gravity of death, he was surrounded by a love which had delivered him from the cruelties of genocide. This one woman had pulled him to her breast and spared him when even his mother could no longer protect him. He gurgled and waved his arms, content with her slack grasp. Ren and the others watched as the baby played with the tattered sleeve of the redhead's dress.
 
"This is futile, Mag," her husband sighed.
 
The tiny boy cried out in response, and Gobbler could have sworn the little thing said, "Hey!" Magnolia stepped back, alarmed at the shout. "Hey! Hey! Hey!" he rang out, his voice piercing and clear. "Hey!" his tiny lungs heaved with the effort.
 
Willow turned her head to the child in her arm, sweat beading on her brow. "Shh..." she soothed.
 
 
__________________________________________________________________


"What do you remember?" Ivy fussed at Willow's cuts and scrapes, more alert than she had been in her life. No one in the camp had slept after the baby cried out. Busy at work and grateful to be alive, everyone smiled at one another and joked about little Wake The Dead.
 
Willow laid back against the piles of rugs they had gathered for her. "I found Rosemary and Holly," her voice choked, but she pressed on, "and the baby..."
 
Ivy smiled broadly. "He's been named Wake."
 
Raising her eyebrows in approval, she continued. "I was trying to get us out, but Hepsebah..." her voice faded once more, losing its ability to recover.
 
The slim teen stopped her attentiveness and bowed her head. Hepsebah was a loss to them all, but she knew what it meant to Willow. They had both lost their families. No one knew how the Circle would find its feet after the massacre. Ivy could find no words to share her pain or alleviate her friend's. They were both spared the awkwardness by the arrival of their newly appointed leader.
 
"Willow," he smiled. "I'm so glad you're feeling better. Ivy? Would you excuse us?" Her long hair swept behind her as she fled to allow them privacy. Ren sat in the dirt beside his childhood friend, clasping her hand once more, this time pleased to find it warm. "How are you feeling? Really..."
 
Willow mustered a half-hearted smile, "Can't say I've been worse." They both pretended to chuckle, but the pain around them was still too fresh. "Ivy says there is a captive?"
 
Ren's face dropped, anger flashing in his eyes. "That is true. I have learned little though." Willow looked up questioningly. "Silent warrior type," he answered. He fished in his shirt and pulled out her gold coin. "But I did find this."
 
Willow's eyes widened. "On the prisoner?" She took the charm, turning it over and over in her hand.
 
Her friend studied her features. "How did you lose it?"
 
"There was a struggle..." Willow started. "I had to make a new one to get home." she choked back the missing details, fearful that guilt would show easily in her pale skin.
 
"Well it is returned. I will attempt to discover more." He stood to leave, grabbing the charm from her hand.

Willow flinched at his action, suddenly frightened by his intentions. "Ren," she called after him. He turned. "I'm sorry about your father."
 
"And I for Hepsebah. So many were lost." He looked older than eighteen, suddenly weighed down by the needs of an entire clan in his charge. Brennan had taken the position of head elder with his father at his side. Ren was anything but prepared for what lay ahead, and he was fully aware of his immediate inadequacies. "But I still have you," he smiled once more, sending a shiver down Willow's aching spine.


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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Wed Apr 16, 2008 9:52 am 
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Yay for another great double update-y goodness...

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Wed Apr 16, 2008 12:04 pm 
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Wow!! This is a fantastic story, beautifully written and crafted with such attention to detail that I was drawn in immediatly to their world.

I loved the innocent Willow in the first chapters and I really felt her pain during the slaughter of her people. Tara's character is beautifully put together, her silence, strenght, her capacity for love, and most of all her kick-ass fighting skills.

Her possesion of Willow's coin worries me, if she remains true to her training and divulges nothing it may cost her dear, lets hope Willow gets wind that the prisioner is female before Ren does anything harmful.

This has all the signs of being another epic, I can't wait to read more.

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Wed Apr 16, 2008 7:52 pm 
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I just noticed chapter 7 got posted today on the Uber site, so this is kind of redundant. Oh well.



Chapter 7


Morning broke over the treetops, bathing the gypsy camp in yellow. Though winter's edge was sharp and biting in the air, the evergreens lifted their arms and swayed in the breeze, greenery shifting and waving like an ancient dance rite. Fresh air greeted faces one by one, each noted in sequence by the restrained warrior at the edge of the small clearing. Her head was ducked in mock sleep, but her eyes and ears missed nothing of the Circle's movements. This imprisonment had lasted long enough. Not content to steal away under darkness, Tara had purposefully waited for daybreak to claim her freedom. Let them think of me as an enemy if they so desire. My heart lies not with their thoughts.

These gypsies were not what they had once appeared to be, and Tara found a new sensation in her heart when she thought of the love that grew there. Fear.

Willow was her only concern. She had learned through careful observation that the young woman had been wounded but lived. Tara knew exactly where to go once her bindings fell, though that moment must wait.

Taran crouched on the icy ground, skin numb from hours of cold and punishment. No furs or wool could protect exposed skin in the weather of the South. His lips were blue, chapped, and parted with shallow breath, and though his body begged for hot food and whiskey, he kept his face withdrawn. The end of his test drew nigh. Four days of deprivation, confinement, submission, and physical torture were at their end. Here the true test began.

"Four days and still you have no words for me?" the wickedly scarred soldier scraped at his fingernails with a cruel dagger. He smirked at the condition of his latest student. Bare arms were covered in fine cuts, the left shoulder had been dislocated at least once, and a welt the size of a river stone grew at the back of the boy's neck. More importantly, the boy's spirit was broken beyond repair. Never had the soldier seen such horribly blank eyes, a pure sign of the abandonment of all hope. The boys never handled this test well. Until this moment they had always been taught that submission was for the weak, that fighting was living, and anything less was death. This was the final test in their training. Any hint of dominance in the first three days of this task was forbidden and punishable by banishment. Only the finest warriors survived it. In fact, many of the aspiring warrior boys would die in the attempt.

Taran’s strength was gone. Even hunger could not penetrate his mind. But beneath his shaking muscles and slowed heartbeat, the tiniest spark remained. Eleven years of training, broken bones, torn muscles, bruised skin, blackened eyes, bloodied mouths, and stinging cuts had forged a body capable of enduring the most harsh conditions and brutal opponents. But it was the solitary effort, the complete lack of dependency upon others that had constructed in him a will of iron. He inhaled, feeling the space between each rib expand, eyes closing at the needle of pain from those ribs and muscles which were torn and broken. He exhaled, cold breath a copy of the icy clouds above him. The soldier’s words had released him from the bonds of discipline. This was day four. This was day four.



“Good morning, Forsythia,” Willow stretched and yawned, wincing at the pain in her arm and shoulder. Though alive and recovering, her wound was still severe.

Her older and wiser friend frowned at her. “I’m certain I told you to stay still.” She sighed heavily. “You should remember how lucky you are to be alive.”

Willow lay back against the simple bed that had been constructed for her. Forsythia was right, but the energy of the camp made the young woman eager to get up and move. She had never been good at patience, let alone allowing her body to heal itself from injury or illness. “Is there any word about the prisoner? Has he spoken yet?”

Forsythia turned suddenly, “She, you mean. And no. She’s definitely found her way under Ren’s skin with her silence.” Willow’s heart fell to the forest floor. “He intends to execute her this morning.”

Pain and all other sensation behind her, Willow leapt from the sickbed and ran, stumbling with uncoordinated limbs, into the center of the Circle’s new camp. She could hear shouts of her name, though they came from far underwater, muffled and indistinct. Dizziness stole her vision in waves, colors dancing before her eyes like sunlit snowflakes. Her only care was finding Tara. Her frantic movement was halted by a firm pair of hands that caught and held her firmly.

“Willow!” the voice shouted at her. It wasn’t Tara. “Willow, stop!” it shouted again, this time with a more familiar tone. Her eyes focused in on the hazel ones staring down at her, their face belonging to Ren. “What’s gotten into you?”


_____________________________________________________________


“This is insanity!” Gobbler protested. “How can you....” he grimaced, deep-set eyes closing under thick eyebrows. “This is not our way, Ren.”

The tall leader turned in a flourish, his cloak spinning, “Our ways have changed, friend. War is upon us. Did you not hear the cries of our families as they were slaughtered?” His lips quivered as passion escaped them. He reached out to the shoulders of his stout companion, grasping him firmly. Gobbler turned his eyes away at his leader’s tears. “How many died? How much of our history has been erased?”

“So we counter with more death?”

Ren kept his hold on Gobbler. “We avenge their death.”

“You propose we kill a woman.” Gobbler watched as his friend snorted. “Yes, I am aware of her strength, and I, too, saw her come from Hepsebah’s wagon, but those facts cannot change the nature of our deed. My heart...” his face softened, “my heart cannot condone this brutality.” Ren paced in small circles, his steps warming the frost-laden soil. “And my sentiment does not stand alone.”

Ren stopped walking and looked directly into Gobbler’s face. His mind raced with the burdens and desires of leadership, the prospect of success, the heart-ache of failure, and now the devastation of betrayal. He had inherited the governance of his father’s people from the blood of their sacrifice, and now he faced their treason. “I will do what is right for my people,” he whispered, clenched fists trembling.

“Willow! No!” the shout from the edge of camp drew the men’s attention. They both rushed forward into the path of the staggering woman, Ren catching her first. She fell against his solid chest, still struggling.

“Willow!” he begged, turning her head to face him. “Willow, stop! What’s gotten into you?” Her eyes searched on, looking for something else. When at last her vision steadied, Ren’s breath stopped. She had been looking for the warrior woman. Their eyes locked upon one another, and the pure emotion that charged between them was palpable in the frigid air. Ren knew and understood the silent correspondence. His arms fell slack, and his heart shattered once more, this time leaving him with nothing solid to beat under his breast. In the place where his affection had grown since childhood, he traded love for blackness, the measure of it equal to that which thronged between the two women.

Willow stood, free of the young man’s embrace, finding strength and balance in the eyes of her confined beloved. The congregation around them froze in the light snowfall that dusted the trees and grass in white, breath halted, hearts trembling. Light footsteps guided her to the base of the tree, eyes never breaking from Tara.

“So,” Ren stood behind them, “the picture becomes clear.” He swaggered, moving closer, vigilant of the crowd’s reactions. “The treachery came from within our own Circle.” Willow’s head turned to the voice behind her, once again vaguely aware that it was Ren who addressed her. She reached out to Tara with her left hand, taking possession of the captive with the subtle gesture. Ren withdrew her necklace charm from his cloak, triumph crowning his malicious grin. The people gathered inhaled as one, sold by their leader’s symbolic act. “It has come to my attention,” Ren spoke loudly, “that some of you do not support the act of execution.” Gobbler visibly shrank, consumed by guilt. “I ask you now, what does the truth speak in your hearts? The facts!” he shouted. “This attack was planned!” Whispers danced in the air. Accusing glances fell on Willow and Tara.

“No,” a voice spoke amidst the people, “it cannot be!”

“It is true!” another answered.

“Her charm,” a third muttered. “It cannot be coincidence.”

“We were betrayed!” Ren shouted with hatred. “Betrayed by one of our own, by one we trusted,” the word was laced with venom. “So tell me, Willow,” he closed in on the red-haired gypsy, her hand still firmly in contact with Tara’s hip, “what was the price for our lives?” The murmurs amongst the Circle grew. Ren held the charm up to Willow’s face. “You forsake your own people for this?” he looked the warrior up and down, disgust plain in his eyes. “Was Hepsebah’s life so worthless?”

Willow was held speechless by his accusations. Did they honestly believe this was her doing? “Stop this, Ren. Will you not listen to reason?” she begged.

Ren’s patience wore thin as parchment. He nodded at Tara, whose expression was one of utter confusion. “You place your heart in the hands of the only person who could have led that band of mercenaries into our home. Have you never considered her role in this tragedy?” Willow’s touch faltered, her own eyes taking in the restrained warrior with apprehension. The exultant leader bent to whisper in her ear, “Your trust was misplaced,” he crooned, “a simple mistake, to be sure. But let not her wiles misguide you further.” Willow listened, her eyes growing cold at the sight of the one in whom she had placed the safekeeping of her heart and her secrets. Had she been betrayed? Was Tara capable of such deceit? “Where did she come from?” he asked, circling the girl like a hawk about its prey. “Did she pretend to need your help?” His words cut like broken glass, too close to her tender memories, memories which she had treasured. “Did you invite her in? Give her your charm, perhaps?”

“No!” Willow railed, her brow furrowed with confusion. “It wasn’t like that. She saved me, Ren. She saved me from.... from them.”

He smiled, teeth glistening in the pallid sunlight. “I see,” he nodded. “Then how did she come to be in our camp at the same time those men were murdering our people? With your charm in her grasp, no less?” Willow turned her pained expression onto the woman before her. Their eyes met, though all understanding had ceased. “It was a cruel trick,” Ren continued. “But it ends here.” He strutted out amongst his people. “We are not murderers. Our way of life is peaceful. We did not ask for this massacre, we did nothing wrong to bring evil upon us.” He held all eyes captive with his command. “But now we must decide how to rid ourselves of it.” Heads nodded in approval.

Willow watched him speak, fear mounting in her belly. This was not the boy she had shared her childhood games with. His voice was laced with venom, his movements sharp and jagged. She sensed the warrior beside her tense as they watched the same signals. The polished edge of a knife reflected the weak light in the forest as he pulled it purposefully from his boot.

“My father was taken,” Ren growled. “He was beheaded.” Gobbler and Nuttail breathed heavily, remembering the sight of their own father dying in defense of all that they prized. “Rosemary was gutted.” The women became agitated, whispering amongst one another, conspiring in their pain. “They killed our children.” Magnolia hugged the tiny baby to her chest, anger blazing in her eyes. “And before us stands the last of them, the very one who betrayed us from within our own ranks by tricking our sister.” Ren turned the knife over in his hand, admiring its elegant curve. “Do your hearts speak of forgiveness?” he stood taller. “Do our dead ask for kindness?” The gypsies seethed in hatred. “Or do they cry out for blood?”

Cries of anger and torment surged through the broken shards of families torn apart by death and destruction. Driven to a primal rage by their leader’s vehemence, they chanted for blood.

Infused with their fervor, Ren pivoted on his heels, knife aiming for the neck of his hostage. Petrified in fear and shock, Willow clutched at the woman bound to the tree, but instead felt a free hand take her own. She turned to see Tara duck and throw her away from the fight. Ren’s knife buried itself in the thick cedar bark, his gritted teeth drawing blood from his lip. Tara crouched in the dirt, free of the pathetic ropes that she had allowed to bind her.


Awake, aware, calculating, plotting, Taran looked up into the eyes of the soldier who paced the icy ground. He took in everything. The air was frigid, still, no wind blew, and the scent of day old snow drifted lazily about. No soldier, whether trained by battle or scarred by experience, could have foreseen the fire that exploded from within the wiry boy on the side of that icy cliff. Taran lunged high and hard, throwing every ounce of his weight and strength into the huge man before him. Together, they tumbled from the frozen edge, rolling through powder down the perilous trail to the training camp below. A blizzard of ice cascaded down around them as they struggled to find a footing in the changing terrain. The soldier strained and lashed out, catching a glimpse of the boy who sought him out, delivering expertly placed kicks and blows even as they continued to fall and roll. Before he slipped over the edge into oblivion, he saw once more the awful blankness of Taran’s eyes staring down at him, devoid of the passion of battle, but dancing with the light of the victory of survival.


The fit warrior swung her leg out, knocking Ren’s feet from below himself. Eyes of restrained fury shot out at the crowd, challenging any who dared to attack. Though weaponless, it was apparent to all that Tara was fully capable of rendering each useless with her expert maneuvers. Her muscles bulged under her soft skin, ready and poised where she knelt on the forest floor. She eyed each person, one at a time, searching for defiance. “Sheep with sharp teeth are only dangerous to themselves,” she hissed, speaking each word slowly. She carefully stood, keeping a watchful eye on the ineffective leader sprawled out below her. His knife was far from his own reach. “A true leader inspires passion, not fear.”

It was then that Willow stood next to her. Tara turned to face the young woman, taking in her horrible wound. Her face softened as she addressed the redhead. “His lies do not change the truth.” Willow thought she saw a tear at the edge of the warrior’s majestic blue eyes. “But your heart must decide where its loyalty will lie.”

They held each other in silent regard, alone amidst the mass of enraged and confused gypsies. Snow, delicate and quiet, graced Willow’s eyelashes, displaying before Tara a beauty she could barely stand to witness. Hot tears washed away the cold crystals as Willow blinked and cast aside her desires. “Please go,” she breathed. Tara heard the command, but her feet would not obey. She stared dumbly, incapable of movement. Willow held her gaze for a moment, then turned to leave the clearing. Forsythia ran forward to grasp the girl’s arm in support, leading her away to safety. Others followed, leaving Tara alone with Ren.

The wiry young man stood cautiously, feet set wide, eyes unblinking, untrusting. Tara kept her back to him, unwilling to acknowledge him as a threat. “I can still kill you,” his voice was dark and rough in contrast to his blond, boyish appearance. “And I will do as I must to protect my people.”

“Your lies are so strong even your mind is their prisoner,” she whispered, still not facing him. Her feet began to move, slowly, dutifully obeying Willow’s command. The trees surrounding the Southlander guided her gently between them, branches parting and bowing in respect to her passing.

Far behind her in the protection of the firs and a family who could never begin to understand her sacrifice, Willow watched Tara walk away forever.


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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Wed Apr 16, 2008 8:10 pm 
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not forever....there has to be more.

great update!

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Thu Apr 17, 2008 5:29 am 
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Oh, of course there's more. Don't be ridiculous. However, things are going to get worse before they get better.

So now we find ourselves at a point where the plot diverges. And I need some serious guidance. I have an additional 3 or 4 chapters written but neither edited nor complete. I decided that two of those chapters are a bit too far ahead in the future, so I've gone back to fill in a little lost time.

Input?

Ideas?

I'd be happy to share what I've started with those interested, but for anyone looking for a complete story, things could get choppy. Bear in mind there are two plot lines in this. Willow goes one way, Tara another. We'll be following Willow for the time being. Where Tara goes and what happens to her is a part of the prequel, yet to be written. The result of her journey will become apparent in later chapters, but a lot of unresolved issues will crop up, hence a prequel will be necessary.

Hit me with your mojo.

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Thu Apr 17, 2008 5:58 am 
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I'm a little confused about her actions (tara) after this point being in a prequel...shouldn't a prequel involve the time before she met willow? and i dunno, personally I'd follow willow as well since she seems to be the focus of the story, but I'd post small bits, maybe at the end of chapters, showing small scenes of what Tara is up to. That's just me though. I'd offer suggestions or whatever, but I have no clue where you plan on taking the story. are you planning on the main bad guys being that kingdom or whatever that's wiping out magic? are tara and willow going to fight against them? maybe try to outline a lot of it beforehand so you have some kind of picture as to where it's going. I'm looking forward to more whatever you wind up doing. it's a great story

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Thu Apr 17, 2008 6:50 am 
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ObsidianEsper wrote:
I'm a little confused about her actions (tara) after this point being in a prequel...shouldn't a prequel involve the time before she met willow?


Ah! Yes and no. There's a lot to tell in the BW (before willow) times, and the remainder of the prequel runs simultaneously to Willow's experiences. For now, Tara's destiny has to remain a mystery. She's got a very big role to play later in this story, and if I divulge her current whereabouts, it'll ruin the surprise. (Drat!)

Quote:
are you planning on the main bad guys being that kingdom or whatever that's wiping out magic?


Yes. Every fantasy story needs a really good bad guy. That'd be the Queen (who you get to meet later), though she's been hinted at previously (ie - the Queen's Men). The depths of her evil need to be staggering. I've gotta figure out some truly terrible deeds which could be done under her instruction to drive that point home.

Quote:
are tara and willow going to fight against them?


Well, I can't give that much away just yet. I will say that someone will have to fight her in the big finale. There will be multiple players there. In the meantime, I need to build up a cast of supporting people. I'm even running out of names now in chapter 9ish.

Thanks for the suggestions. It's good to refocus.

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Last edited by taylorgirl6 on Mon Jul 16, 2012 8:21 am, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Thu Apr 17, 2008 7:21 am 
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sound interesting...Though regarding the prequel...would that be a different story all together? If so, Maybe instead you could try to do a series of chapters that flash back to the time before willow. This doesn't happen often in actual books, but in shows and anime(i'm an anime nerd) there are often several episodes that reveal a person's back story, or what happened before the show began to put that person where they are. and then you could mix chapters, one following willow, the next tara, or several willow one tara, or just clips of current tara at the ends or starts of chapters. I think that'd be better than a different story for a prequel. but that's just me. If you need supporting characters you could always mix in the other scooby characters who haven't shown up. I'm sure they'd be fun supporting characters. I'm looking forward to more though.

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Thu Apr 17, 2008 8:39 pm 
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3. Flaming O
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WARNING: This is an exceptionally long chapter for a post. On paper, it's long. Here, it's ungainly.

Chapter 8 is only recently finished and rough edited. Literally today. I considered chopping it up into two parts, and I could proceed with that. Let me know how it comes across.






Chapter 8


Smoke from the death pyres drifted through the trees, its swirling path lit by the setting sun of the first true day of winter. Thin, wispy clouds gathered in mourning at the horizon, shrouding the frozen landscape in grey and black. Below the leafless maples, fourteen gypsies stood around the great fire, its orange flames licking their wet faces in sequence.

Gobbler and Nuttail stood tall and proud, their eyes trained on the image of their father fighting to his last breath for their safety and freedom. Beside them, Magnolia held tiny Wake, both the last of their families as well. Ivy’s hand was gripped by Forsythia, both shaking, both fearful of what their future held. Birch stood alone, at attention like the soldier his father had once been. Like so many others, his parents had sought a safer, kinder life in which to raise their children. Cimarron and Tupelo, children alone in the snow, cried as the faces of their loved ones grew dim.

But one found herself apart from the crowd, apart from the companionship of loss, though suffering more than any living soul in those trees could have found bearable. Willow lay on the cold earth, face and hands covered in dirt and pine needles, dress and cloak soaked from damp snow, tears coursing down her delicate face, heedless of her body’s need for breath. She coughed and sputtered, but the tears ran on, wracking her body with sobs and fits of shaking. None dared approach her. No one had the strength to go near.

Hepsebah was gone, ash to the earth, smoke to the sky, and her memories locked away inside Willow’s heart for an eternity of solitude and grief. Tara would never return. The forest that had protected and guided her from humble birth to young adulthood now rejected her, its leaves and needles taunting and chasing her in her dreams and in her conscious mind. She had waited for the mass funeral for the dead, but all that once held her to this place and these people was burnt. She mourned the passage of one life to another with her hot tears.

Heart and mind numb, Willow gathered herself and stood. She took nothing when she left, just the damp cloak upon her back to stave off the growing cold. Everyone assembled watched her departure, anger and loss mingled with the cedar incense of the pyre. It was an end of an age for all, innocence lost. The forest around them had forsaken their peaceful ways, and the feeble ties that remained would gradually break, frayed by the betrayal and loss of their last hope. Her slow steps carried her from their eyes until she vanished amidst the snow.


__________________________________________________________________


On the other side of the forest, a silent warrior sat astride her horse, reverently observing the smoke ascend. Though she had endured a life of deceit and a death of shame, never before had she felt this amount of agony. Her actions had been misinterpreted from birth, and it had finally cost her something more valuable than she knew she possessed. In her hand she clutched Willow’s necklace, dropped by Ren in the struggle. “I choose to remember that which was true,” she spoke aloud. “Let not my voice again be heard.”


__________________________________________________________________


The hills of the valley were blanketed in snow, some drifting knee deep. Willow’s tear-blotched face was blank and passive as she trudged on. She had walked for two days, unceasing, unyielding. The sensation in her legs and feet was gone, but her heart continued to ache, so she refused to stop. Walk until it doesn’t hurt anymore. Walk until it’s all numb. Clothes soaked and caked with ice, boots tearing and failing, her journey would end soon, whether by her choice or not. Before her loomed Double Gap, a canyon formed by centuries of rushing water. A full league wide and half that distance deep, the gap had claimed the lives of many a traveler in the Known Lands. Far below rushed the South Fork of the Double River, its icy current swift and strong, carrying with it anything it could tear from the rock and earth which confined it. The sheer drop had thrilled Willow’s heart since her first crossing as a tiny child. Now she stared into its vacuous depth, blind to the peril which surrounded her.

“I’ve heard a few things ‘bout Double Gap meself,” Jesse stitched the heel of Willow’s little boot, his eyes and hands steady despite his growing age. “There’s many as been over it like you an’ yours, but there’s also a plenty of em’ what never made it.”

“It didn’t look hard to me,” Willow handed him the knife to cut the tough thread.

He scowled, “Always got an answer, you do.” His eyes twinkled despite his frown. The tiny girl saw right through him, but resumed her listening pose once more, ever eager to hear of her big friend’s travels and adventures. “’Ave you ever heard of the Canyonlands Town then?”

The red-haired girl thought for a moment, “No.” Hepsebah pulled back the curtain of the wagon, stepping carefully with a tray of steaming tea mugs balanced in her hands. She sat beside the others, offering them tea as Jesse continued.

“Mmm,” he inhaled and sighed in loud appreciation, “pennyroyal and woodruff?” he asked. Hepsebah nodded. “You always know wha’ a stiff back needs, don’t ye.”

The old woman smiled, “I think I’ve enough of that myself to know, old man. It has a bit of willow bark as well,” she grinned at the child sitting between them. “Always good for what ails, aren’t you.” Willow smiled back, happy and content to be surrounded by her make-shift family. “But weren’t you about to tell our Little Tree a story?”

“Right!” he set his half-drained mug of tea down. “Canyonlands it was, weren’t it?” Willow nodded vigorously. “Good tale tha’ is,” he agreed. “Once there was this big town in th’ Canyonlands,” he began. “Must’a had a couple hundred folk livin’ there, happy and productive-like, they was. Bit o’ farmin’,” his eyes glazed over as he remembered the details, “cattle mostly, as I recall. An’ the town was righ’ pretty, it was. Them people liked travelers te stop an’ bring coin in. And many a traveler did.” Hepsebah nodded in agreement. “Such a pity it was when it all ended,” he frowned. “Y’ see, they went an’ built that town too close te the edge, they did, an’ one day the earth jus’ up an’ says, ‘That’s mine an’ I’ll have it back, right and proper.’ And so’s it does just tha’, swallows em up an’ carries the whole town downstream.” Willow gasped. “Yes, yes,” the old man closed his eyes, “They all fell, houses, farms, the lot of it. An’ when it all settled down, Double Gap was all that was lef’ behind. Y’ see, it weren’t always Double Gap and Double River. Once they hailed it Fortune River, but tha’ couldn’a stay after such a terrible disaster. Thems tha’ saw the carnage first-’and said they’d never forget the screams an’ bellows.”

Willow took a deep breath. “Is that why Brennan shushed us all before we crossed?” she inquired of Hepsebah.

“It is,” the elderly woman replied. “We show respect to those who died with our silence. And now that you know what happened there, you, too, must offer them your reverence.” She pulled a dried flower from within her faded apron. “Do you remember the words?”

Willow took the wild rose blossom delicately. She closed her eyes and recited as she had been taught, “For those who passed before us, sub rosa.” The flower tingled in her hand, then crumbled to dust, her fingers grasping as it dropped to the earth at her feet.


Voices of the dead rose up from the river, shouting, beckoning, warning. The wind buffeted her back, pushing Willow forward, one step following another, closer and closer to the edge. Dried earth and stones slipped from the ledge and fell, their descent swallowed by the cacophony of sound echoing through the wide canyon. One voice stood out from the others, their laments pushed aside. “Follow us,” it called, clear and crisp amidst the muffled sorrows. “Follow us,” Willow heard the voice distinctly. “Follow us.”

A thin current of air caught the dry snow that drifted across the gap, forging a trail over the rocky bridge that had been formed from the disappearance of Canyonland Town. Narrow and treacherous, it wound from ledge to outcrop, providing the only known passage across the Double River for over fifty leagues in either direction. Willow’s stumbling steps took her forward, following the voice that beckoned. As she walked she began to see faint marks in the snow, vague outlines shifting in the wind, emerging into footprints as she continued. Willow looked up sharply. Who else could be out in this weather? The wind swirled around the frozen girl, driving her on. Faced with a growing winter storm, she could no longer fathom how she had made this journey so many times before with ponies and wagons in tow. She recalled the steep, narrow path, the vicious winds, and the roar of the river below, but laced with ice and snow, Double Gap had become a death trap once more. The wind howled and snarled, baring its icy teeth at the frail body which clung to the rocks aside the stone bridge.

“Follow us,” the voice called out again. Despite her delirium, Willow knew she was hearing someone speak aloud, though the pass was clear apart from snow and wind. The footprints which guided her grew more distinct with each step. Eyelashes covered in ice, she trudged on. Though her progress was slow, Willow found the meager road widen with each step. Looking behind, Double Gap stood broad and solemn at her back.

Blizzard raging as evening settled over the Canyonlands, WIllow quickly lost sight of her surroundings. The sorrow in her heart found the foreground once more, taking advantage of the solitude which the storm wrought upon her. Willow fell to her knees, succumbing to exhaustion and grief. With what little strength she still possessed, she searched in her cloak for the dried flower she always kept there. Her frozen fingertips fumbled blindly, finally coming to rest on the fragile petals she sought. “Caoinim, lethnala. Hear my cry. To those who once passed, sub rosa. To those who remain, caoinim. Take me! Caoinim!” Dry sobs wracked her body. Willow hunkered down in the frozen landscape, heedless to the wind and snow which consumed her. It took only a moment to render her thin body invisible in the blanket of white. Colder than ice, Willow sobbed into the earth, resigning herself to an end of pain and grief. Her breathing slowed as she fell asleep at last.



“Jesse?” Willow called out as she ran through the shop doors. No warm smile greeted her as it had for the last ten years. Silence and dust covered the workbench and tools. Willow ran back out into the sun, headed for the marketplace. “He’s gone!” she shouted with a dry throat as soon as Hepsebah came into view. “He’s gone.”

Hepsebah frowned. “That’s ill news.” She shared the young teen’s concern. “His shop?”

“Dust,” the girl answered. She leapt up the wagon steps. “I’ll find him,” she called out.

The old healer followed her with surprising speed. “No, Willow. You mustn't.” At her feet the girl was already beginning a locator spell. She held a crystal tied to a string over a crude, hand-drawn map of the Kingdom. Hepsebah took her shoulders and shook the girl, “Stop. You know the rules,” Willow’s eyes met hers, “and the dangers.” Her grip on the girl was firm.

Willow sighed heavily, dropping the crystal. “We have to find him somehow, Sippa.” Her childhood name for the old woman was a sure way to soften hearts and rules, but Hepsebah would not be swayed on this matter.

“I understand you’re upset, but getting yourself arrested for casting inside the Kingdom walls won’t help us find Jesse. We’ll find another way.”

“Fine,” Willow scowled. She rose and stormed off into the open market.

Hepsebah watched the fourteen-year-old make her way through the crowd. “She is so much like you, Rowan,” she whispered.

Weaving and ducking through the mass of bodies, Willow wound her way toward the stables. Perhaps Jesse was helping the farrier as he sometimes did. Either way she would find what she sought. Hepsebah couldn’t stop her if she couldn’t see her. Willow searched the stables high and low. She found neither the cobbler nor the farrier. Alone in the hayloft, she watched stable boys come and go. Her simple hiding place would guarantee her ample time to cast the locator spell once more. Closing her eyes, she focused on Jesse’s face. Hepsebah had taught her spells and recipes, tinctures and enchantments, salves and charms, but there was a wild edge to the girl’s magic. As a child it had burst out upon her uncontrollably. Though not much older now, Willow worked regularly to reign in her power. That practice had led to a secret discovery: Willow did not need herbs and charms to cast spells. The only supplies necessary were inside her, desperate to claw their way out. Fear kept her from divulging this information to Hepsebah, but something else in the back of her mind told her that this gift would be important, and it must be refined.

Sitting cross-legged in the straw, the red-haired gypsy girl chanted softly under her breath, eyes closed, mind trained on Jesse’s features. Over and over she mumbled the words, deep in her trance. Behind her eyelids, Willow began to see pictures, initially hazy and indistinct. As she sank deeper into her meditative state, the images fell into focus. She saw prison walls. She saw men chained and bound to iron gates, starved, beaten, wailing and begging for death. Her mind recoiled from the horrors beset before her, but nothing could pull her from the vision. She was as much a captive as her ailing friend.

Beside her in the hay, a small boy came to sit, calm and quiet beside her reverie. He watched her eyes twitch and roll beneath closed lids, saw the glistening sweat gather on her brow, and heard the strange sounds escape her lips. Unafraid, he reached out to her, touching her arm with his hand. “It’s only a dream,” he reassured her. “Wake up.”

Willow’s eyes snapped open, suddenly alert. She stared into the face of the boy, his short, tightly curled hair framing his tan skin. Large brown eyes stared back, a slight smile hidden underneath. He was younger, but not by much. “I have to go,” Willow spoke quickly, trying to remember where she sat. The vision had overwhelmed her.

“I know,” the boy answered. “That’s why I came. Someone had to wake you up.” Willow gazed at him fully, shaken and mistrustful. There was, however, something terribly familiar about this boy. “You’ll find him in the north dungeon.”

Willow left without waiting for another word. They did find Jesse, twelve days later. Brennan sent two of his best men into the dungeons in search of the cobbler, only to find his broken, battered body in the dirt. They brought him back to the valley when they returned, greeted by the tears of the entire camp. No one explained to the bereft girl why a whole clan had risked their lives for a shoemaker with no gypsy blood in him, but she paid it no heed. Her heart was shattered from the loss. No words crossed her lips for weeks after as she grieved. The mystery of Jesse’s death followed her to the brink of her own.



__________________________________________________________________



“... and I told that boy, ‘You will not be running off to that ridiculus battle!’ That’s what I said.” Willow could hear a voice rambling on, but the words were muffled and indistinct. “But run he did, crazy fool.” Pain in her head forced her eyes to stay closed. She could sense light and warmth, but it was far away. “Hasn’t been home in nigh on two years now.” More pain fought for the girl’s attention, nagging at her bones and muscles in sequence. She wanted to cry out from the agony, but that would mean acknowledging consciousness, and Willow wasn’t prepared to go that far. “Good thing we have Calla then, isn’t it? Right, you are. She takes good care of us, she does. Maybe you’ll wake up for her today. She told me you might sleep a long time, but I think the smell of her mushroom soup will bring you round in no time.”

Willow did smell the soup, and it was heavenly. Her eyes opened without permission, stabbing her brain with a pain hotter than an iron poker, sharper than a butcher’s knife. She closed them at once, wincing from the torment. The scent of hot bread wafted under her nostrils next, taunting her. She felt hungrier than she could ever recall in her lifetime, stomach empty and growling. Trying her eyes once more, hazy images of a fire came into her vision.

“Calla!” the annoying voice beside her screeched. “She’s awake!”

Footsteps ran over wooden floorboards, echoing menacingly in Willow’s head. She flinched, shutting her eyes and gritting her teeth. “I’m sorry,” a sensitive voice hovered next to the redhead’s ear. “You must be suffering horribly.”

A cool, damp cloth wiped the girl’s brow and face, gently inviting her eyes to open once more. Willow stared up at the fuzzy outline of a girl with long blonde hair. “Tara?” she asked, struggling to center her vision.

“My name is Calla,” the voice answered, its owner’s face coming into sharper contrast as Willow gazed on. “I worried you’d never wake after everything you’d been through. This is a miracle.” Willow took shallow breaths, subconsciously taking count of limbs, fingers, toes. What had she been through? “Can you try to eat? It’d be good for you.” A firm but petite hand slipped behind her shoulders and brought her up a tiny amount. Pain roared through Willow’s body, but she was too weak to fight. “There,” the girl kept talking in a soothing tone. “We’ll take it slow. Soup first.”

“Where...” Willow whispered, her voice disembodied and foreign to her own ears. A spoon alighted on her bottom lip which burned at the sudden contact. A cloth beneath her chin caught the drips of broth, guiding her to drink regardless of discomfort. The taste was even better than the scent, despite the sensitivity of her flesh. She drank on, one spoonful at a time.

"You're outside of Vail, in a small village. Red Springs," the caretaker explained as Willow recovered. "I'm Calla," she smiled, "and that's my mother, Verla." The old woman grinned widely and waved like a child. "We've kept an eye on you for quite a while now. I thought you were dead when I found you out there." Willow looked in the direction of her nod, realizing the darkness was not a product of night, but of snow drifts over the tiny cabin's windows. Wind howled outside the walls, urging the fire in the grate to dance. "How do you feel now?"

The frail gypsy tried to speak again, this time with success. "Much better, thank you."

Calla smiled. "Perhaps some solid food would set well with you?" She turned quickly and disappeared.

"My little girl makes the best squire bread in the village," the old woman bragged. Willow found her yellow teeth and wispy grey hair unsettling, though she didn't know why. "What's your name, little girl lost?"

"Willow," she answered before she could stop herself.

"Of course," Verla smiled again. "You're the one they want to kill. I remember now." She started to hum absently and searched in her lap for the knitting which kept her company when her children left.

Willow's blood ran cold, gripping her body with a shiver she could not control. "What did you say?"

"I said they came to kill you. And they'll return. They won't stop until you're dead." The old woman's face was light and joyful, oblivious to the fear she dealt. Forcing down the panic in her chest, Willow breathed as calmly as she was able. Calla returned from the kitchen bearing a plate of freshly baked bread. "Did you bring honey, dear?"

"Yes, mother," she grinned. "How are you two getting on?"

"Her name is Willow," Verla told her as she spread her slice of bread with honey and butter. Willow could only smile faintly. "I think the cold damaged her head."

Calla gasped, "Mother!" She leaned in toward Willow's ear and whispered, "I'm sorry, she's not well. Sometimes she says things…" The look on the young woman's face was so full of sorrow, Willow nearly wished she could comfort her. "Please, eat as much as you like. It may take a few days, but I'm sure you'll be back on your feet soon."

Willow ate and rested, and after four more days of being cared for, she was indeed back on her feet. The snow had finally stopped, and light streamed in through the small window in the kitchen where she sat with her new friend. Calla had proven to be as warm and comforting as her mother was disturbing and aloof. "She actually said that in front of the whole village?"

Calla laughed, "Yes, it's quite true. I know it sounds terrible," her smile faded, "and in some ways it is. I wouldn't wish this burden upon anyone. So I try to find humor in it when I can." Willow had come to admire Calla's quick wit and rosy smile. Her wavy, blonde hair fell down her back as she stooped to pick up a dropped towel. Every so often, she turned and her hair shifted, glinting gold in the confined light of indoors. Willow found herself stricken by those moments, overcome by a longing for Tara. "You have that look again," Calla commented.

"What look?" Willow was suddenly worried. Physically, her body had suffered more than it should have rightly taken. The wound in her left shoulder had scarred badly, and her range of motion would never return to normal. A mild case of frostbite had not helped her initial recovery. It was only by Calla's quick action and knowledge that Willow had kept her fingers and toes intact.

"That look you get sometimes. You're thinking of someone." Willow blushed against her will. Calla instantly smiled, encouraged by being on the right path. "You know, it's obvious you were running from something, but are you sure you're running in the right direction?"

Willow resumed her task of sifting flour into the clay bowl. "I simply need to go north." She busied her hands and eyes with work.

Calla watched her for a moment, then resigned herself to the dead end she had forced them into. "I'm sorry, Willow. I didn't mean to upset you."

"You didn't," she started to say, then smiled as the blonde caught her gaze, "well, perhaps you did, but I know you didn't intend to. I just…" Calla's hand was on her own, giving her permission to save the explanation for another time. They finished making bread dough in companionable silence.

"I know you'll want to leave soon," Calla suddenly spoke after a long time of quiet work. "I've seen you stare out the window more with each passing day."

Willow stood beside her and handed her a towel to retrieve the kettle from the fire. Calla poured the steaming water into the teapot on the scarred table at the center of the tiny room. They sat and waited for their tea to steep. "I can't stay," Willow began. "And please let me explain for once," she held up a hand to the blonde's usual retort. "You were right. I was running from something. I think I'll be running for a while." Her eyes misted over with the memory of fire and death, as well as the loss of her home and family. "So before anyone finds me here, I need to travel on. It's for your safety as well as mine."

"You're in trouble," Calla concluded. Willow nodded. "Then let me help you."

"No, Calla, you've done enough. I couldn't possibly allow-"

"Nonsense," the baker stood, collecting odd things from around the kitchen. "I won't have you traveling in this weather without supplies, and I happen to have a few connections between here and the heart of the kingdom." She paused and looked into the distance, her gaze clearly not on the dried flowers before her. "In fact, I think I know of a place where you could go and not be found… if that would help?"

Willow poured the tea into two simple clay mugs. She had grown so accustomed to life with this simple family, it pained her to consider leaving. "I shouldn't be so proud to refuse any kind of help," she smiled thinly. "How am I ever going to repay you for all of this?"

Calla sat again, taking her tea and blowing across the top. A smoky, sweet steam enveloped the two young women as they conspired. "There is something…" They stared at one another while Calla considered her request. Would Willow agree? "I don't really know anything about you, where you come from, that sort of thing." Willow looked away awkwardly, still wary about saying too much, even though every fiber of her body told her she could trust this new friend. "But it's clear to me that you possess certain… gifts." Calla looked up from her tea into Willow's wild, green eyes. "Verla has been sick for so long…"

"She's not sick," Willow answered before the request could be made. "And I can't heal her." Calla nodded. She had expected as much. "She's a seer."

"A seer?"

The red-haired gypsy set her mug down on the table. "She sees things which… things which have not yet occurred." Calla stared in wide-eyed amazement. "Some of what she sees may never come to pass. It's a difficult gift to live with."

Calla turned toward the other room, listening to her mother's soft snores. "I say it's a curse." She sighed heavily. "It certainly explains many things. She spoke to you as well, didn't she?" Willow tried to smile, but the warning from four days before had remained at the forefront of her thoughts both day and night. Her frown was enough answer. "You believe what she forsees."

"I do," Willow agreed. "Either way, I must still go." Reluctant to waste time, Willow rose and walked into the other room, gently waking the old woman. Calla followed her, curiosity winning out over fear. "Verla?" Willow whispered.

"I'm awake, little tree," the old woman answered, keeping her eyes shut. "You want to know more, don't you?"

"Yes, please. What can you tell me?"

Verla breathed deeply and sat up a little, eyes cracking open in the dim light from the fireplace. "You've made a terrible mistake, you know." Willow shuddered, unsure of whether Calla's mother meant something in the past or the future. "You can't stop them coming." She was clearly upset at what she saw in her mind.

"Can't stop whom?" Willow urged her on.

"The men in black," Verla whispered, as though they were nearby in the tiny house with the women. "There is a knight among them, and he wants you. He won't rest until he finds you."

"A black knight?" Calla came to sit at her mother's side. "I don't understand."

"Of course you don't," the old woman snapped. "You spend all your time thinking I've gone crazy. You don't listen."

Calla took a deep breath. "I'm listening now."

Verla eyed her with suspicion, then turned back to Willow. "You know what you have to do, don't you, dear?"

"No," Willow nearly cried. "I don't! I can't fathom any of this. How can they still come after me when they were all killed before?" Verla and Calla waited patiently for her to calm down, startled by her outburst. "I'm sorry," she shrank back down into the chair by the fire. "I didn't mean to…"

"That's the fire you need," Verla interrupted her, taking up the knitting in her lap. "It'll come in handy later on." She began the stitches that soothed her troubled mind. "When he finds you," she murmured, "you won't recognize him. And I wouldn't recommend believing everything he tells you."

__________________________________________________________________


"Are you sure you're ready to go so soon?" Calla asked as she handed Willow another loaf of bread wrapped in cloth. "It seems like you only just woke up a day or two ago." She hadn't looked Willow in the eye all morning. They both knew the journey must begin today.

Willow paused and reached a hand out to her friend’s arm. “Calla, you’ve done more for me than anyone would. I’ll be indebted to you forever.” They continued to stuff food and supplies into a pack Calla had given her. The instructions were simple. Willow was to head northwest to the shore of the Drowning Sea and travel north through the ruins of City Lost until she found the western road into the kingdom. There, where the path was still small enough to wind between the tightly woven madronas, she would find a group of people who might harbor her in their midst.

"Words cannot prepare you for what you will see," she had warned the night before. "But they will remember my name and their debt to me."

Willow chose not to inquire further. She set off with the faint light of an overcast sunrise. The snow from her previous journey still lingered, its memory taunting and biting at her body. She pulled her cloak tightly around herself and marched up the hill and out of the vicinity of Red Springs.

Rolling hills transformed into sandy dunes as the cold day passed over Willow’s progress. Her mind wandered back to the many journeys of her people as she walked a steady pace. They had not always remained in one place for so long. Traveling had been their way of life for centuries before, but the necessity of hiding for safety had stolen the very thing which defined the Circle as a culture. Willow’s muscles relaxed as she breathed in the frigid air, untainted by the containment of roofs and walls. She tasted the sea and salt on the wind.

“The Great Western Shores were once the site of an enormous city built in the biggest meadow ye ever did see,” Jesse threw his arms wide, as he so frequently did to display the size of ancient things. Over the years, Willow was beginning to learn that the only thing which divided the past from the present was size. “The walls o’ the city would shine in the sunlight, brighter ‘an the sun on a cloudless day. Polished like a river stone, they were.”

The little girl sitting on the workbench looked up from the leather Jesse had given her to play with. “What was the city called?”

A far-away look settled in the old man’s eyes. “Torrent,” he answered. “T’was the largest city in the Known Lands back then,” he mused.


Standing on a bluff overlooking the boiling sea in all its fury, Willow saw why the city had once been called by such a name. Far below, the water churned and spewed thirty feet or higher into the air. Jagged rocks and cliffs protruded from every surface, above and below the waves. In the distance, she could barely see the outline of City Lost, the remnants of Torrent left behind after they were abandoned during the mighty floods. It was nothing more than an end of journeys now, a place where no one dared return after the horrible legacy of destruction it bore on the generations before them. A single spire remained of the once proud castle, its peak listing dangerously toward the water.

“Ancients built most o’ the cities in the Known Lands, y’see. They still hold all o’ those dark secrets from so far in the past tha’ not a single man alive can remember what they be.” Jesse polished the beautifully crafted shoes he had spent the better part of the week finishing. His stained hands worked faster than Willow’s eyes could follow, the cloth he held becoming a yellow blur in her tired gaze.

“Tell me about-” a yawn cut off her request, “about the Ancients again, Jesse.” She settled down into the make-shift bed he kept in the shop for her.

His voice fell to a whisper. “Tonight,” he tucked a thick blanket around her chin, “I’ll tell ye the best story of all. Once, the Ancients walked in these here parts. True, it’s been a long string o’ lifetimes wha’ seen em’ gone, but if ye listen right quiet-like, y’can hear ‘em sometimes, breathin’ in the wind an’ sighin’ when the trees dance. Them’s what made the castle ‘ere, an’ the ruined city as well. There’s not many as know tha’ bit. Some say they was tree shepherds, others’ll tell ye they separated the rivers an’ the sea.” His voice grew low and quiet as the little girl slipped into a world of fairytale dreams. “But none’s more true ‘an how they tamed the beasts of this wild world afore they called us up to take their place...”


Willow stared at the glare of sunset on the polished rock of City Lost. The rest of the story was a mystery to her, and Jesse never spoke of it again. Somewhere in her mind, she knew it lurked, waiting for the right trigger to bring it to the surface. Her memory had brought her this far before, though never in conjunction with an opportunity to explore the source of the enigmatic story like that which presented itself to her now. Tomorrow she would reach the remains of Torrent.


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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Fri Apr 18, 2008 4:38 am 
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Yay for update-y goodness... lenght was ok... not too long...

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Sat Apr 19, 2008 10:13 am 
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Location: Seattle, WA
Chapter 9


Pure, golden sunlight fell across Willow’s eyelids, filling her with warmth. She smiled before she opened her eyes, knowing without seeing that it was spring, that the day would be beautiful, and that her true love was but a breath away from her side. Stay, she told herself. Don’t wake just yet. She felt the soft rise and fall of Tara’s chest, the rhythmic breathing a sign of her own heavy slumber. Before she could stop herself, Willow blinked and gazed at the spot where Tara should be. Her heart caught in her throat, as it had done nearly every morning since she came to City Lost. She was alone, and the cold was creeping over her as the dream faded. Breathing hard to fight back the tears that stung her eyes, she sat up and greeted the harsh coastal winter once more.

Three days had followed one another alike, each bringing her a dream in the night that was more real to her than the hours she spent awake exploring the ruins of the city which sheltered her. She had decided it was indeed this place which granted the dreams. Stories about the Ancients nagged at her mind as she combed through fallen towers and overgrown streets, searching for something she could not name. She was driven by a need to find it, whatever it could be, but the reality of the magic in Torrent was settling in on her more and more each morning. It was numbing her desire to leave, to go north where she had planned. Fear and loneliness followed her steps through abandoned pathways and around crumbled walls.

Some say they was tree shepherds, others’ll tell ye they separated the rivers an’ the sea, Jesse’s voice whispered to her as she searched. He would know where to look. He would know what she sought. Frustrated, Willow wished she could curse his name aloud, but her heart broke at the thought. She sat down abruptly on a wall that framed the outer edge of what remained of the mighty stone city over the sea. “Why did I come here?” she asked the wind. “Why did this place draw me in?”

Far below her, the violent waves crashed and cascaded over the bare rock, sending foam and mist high into the air. A rumble shivered through the earth, tickling her feet and vibrating up into her bones. Willow immediately stood, frightened by the sensation. Had her words been heard? All was stillness about her. Magic was thick in the air, sweet and heavy in her throat. “Reveal,” she spoke aloud, her voice thick with authority. A bright light flashed in response, making her cringe and cover her eyes with the back of her hand. She peeked after a moment, seeing a trail of green mist leading away from the precipitous edge. Willow glanced around in apprehension, but she knew she was alone. “Should’ve thought of that three days ago,” she muttered as she began to follow the tinted haze.

The greenness swirled about her as she followed the trail it provided. It meandered through the mossy cobblestones, down into the heart of the ancient castle and towers, and led her directly into an overgrown wall of ivy and blackberry brambles. Air moved the vines gently. Sighing with irritation at the scrapes and cuts to come, she pulled the curtain of vegetation aside and plunged into utter darkness. Feeling around with shaking fingers, Willow found the rough walls of a hallway, possibly a tunnel. The floor pitched steeply into the blackness, and a dank smell of stagnant air met her nose. This is it, her mind told her. This is what you were searching for. Well, she sighed again, it won’t do any good to explore in the dark.

Closing her eyes in concentration, Willow called upon the fire that surged in her blood to surface. Using magic in this place caused no conflict in her mind, unlike the world beyond these walls. Perhaps it was the constant restraint Hepsebah had taught her, or the knowledge of the harsh penalties for casting inside the Drylands city walls, but Willow rarely felt safe calling upon her power elsewhere. Here, however, it felt natural, comfortable, and right. Her skin began to glow, pale at first, then it grew warm and rosy with increasing intensity. She opened her eyes and gasped, awe-stricken by the perfectly preserved corridor in which she stood. Tapestries and paintings reflected the pleasant light, their colors still vibrant and true. Above her hung the armor of an ancient army, the shine still polished, the leather still soft. Her feet guided her down, descending as the tunnel twisted in an immense circle below what was once the main hall of the castle.

After many revolutions, the walls and floors changed to rough stone, devoid of decoration. A fresh breeze caught her attention, drawing her deeper. Something about the structure of this tunnel was familiar, though Willow’s mind could not find a memory to fit it. Deeper still, the rough stone became polished rock. Her hands brushed against it, delighting in its perfectly smooth texture. And, despite her depth, there was no doubt that the walls were warm. It was only a hint of warmth, but it was no fantasy or trick of the mind. Something radiated heat from within. Everything about this place fascinated her. The scent of magic in the air, its warmth in the stone, and the perfection with which this city was created enchanted her.

Further down the passageway, a light caught her eye. Willow hastened to the source, nearly stumbling off the sheer edge as it crumbled beneath her feet. She reached out for a wall and caught herself at the last moment. Before her was the full might of the Drowning Sea, its rolling tide crashing a mere three steps from where she stood. So this was the end of the tunnel. Her mind disagreed with what she saw, insisting that there must be more, but it was obvious that whatever had once been in this place was now in the ownership of the watery depths. Above her soared the sheer cliffs of the coastline, the edge of what the floods had left behind. In her mind, she watched the city tear itself in half at the beck and call of the mighty ocean, walls and towers collapsing in the destruction. The mental image left her cold and shaken. More had been lost here than any man alive today knew. She felt it. Sadness and remorse permeated the very earth, soaking into the stone floor under her feet.

Reluctantly, she retraced her steps. Tracing a line with her fingers as she ascended the long corridor, something incongruous with the glossy stone caught her attention. She turned to examine it. Carved into the very wall were words she could not decipher. Her fingertips explored the foreign message, searching for a way to understand what had been written, but it was unrecognizable to her.

“Damn this whole thing,” she swore. “All this effort for nothing. A tunnel to nowhere, a message I can’t read...” Sighing one last time, Willow turned and proceeded to the surface. “What good is half a city?” In her mind, Jesse’s stories flared and nagged once more, though still offering her no more than they had the day before. There was still something to be found here. She knew that as well as she knew her own name. This, however, was not the time to walk in circles.


__________________________________________________________________


Willow stared back at the silhouette of the leaning tower which had sheltered her for many days and nights, regret pulling sharply at her. I know I must continue. I must, she reassured herself. Light rain soaked into her cloak, chilling her as she stood motionless. Walking would warm her sufficiently, if only she could convince herself to go. Tucking a loose strand of hair back into the protection of her hood, she turned and walked further north, further from the ruined city which called out to her. For six days she had been closer to the memory of Tara than she imagined possible. Forget her, she told herself sharply. She betrayed you and your people. But her heart would not allow that thought to remain without contest. What had Ren’s purpose been in placing such suspicion within the Circle? Willow shook the argument out of her head and began to march vigorously. There was no answer which would offer peace.

Around her the landscape changed from sandy bluffs to thick stands of twisted cedars and madronas, their branches and bark a testament to the powerful force of wind and sea-spray along the coastline. Gnarled and deformed, they clung to the rock and sand with a tenacity few other forms of life would put forth in such inhospitable circumstances. Willow clung to her walking instructions with a similar vigor, desperate to drive the thoughts of the past from her untamed mind.

Hepsebah was gone. Jesse was gone. Now even Tara had left, and Willow felt more alone than thought she could bear. The dream of waking up every morning beside the Southlander had ripped open the heavily scarred wound that had threatened to tear her heart in two. As she walked, she rubbed her shoulder absently. Her true scar ached and pulled as the cold overtook her. Tiny stones and pebbles crept from the landscape and stole into her pockets, working their way up into her body and around her delicate heart, building the beginnings of a thick wall, its sole purpose to seal in the pain of loneliness and death. Willow held back her tears, using them instead as mortar.


__________________________________________________________________



Morning faded to night and back into day once more, bringing a rare glimpse of sunshine to the smoother coastline of the Western Shores. The red haired girl had walked through the night, afraid of what her dreams would bring, and terrified of what they would not. Standing atop a steep hill which had stolen her breath, Willow decided to stop for breakfast. The bright orange light of sunrise flooded the valley to her right, casting long shadows from houses and other buildings she could not make out in the contrast. Squinting, she decided this must be Hillmarch. Hillmarch, she thought as she chewed the still soft bread from Calla’s oven. Then this is the last day of my journey. Pleased with her progress, Willow ate quickly and gathered her things. If she kept up a swift pace, she would arrive by nightfall.

Together, the old man and his little red-haired friend sat in the low branches of an apple tree in the far corner of the orchard below the city walls. Before them were spread the fields that separated the kingdom proper from Hillmarch. “Good tradin’ te be had in Hillmarch, there is,” Jesse cut pieces from a crisp, red apple and handed them to the little girl. “Best farmland in all the kingdom. Did I ever tell you why they call it by tha’ name?”

“Because of that big hill behind it?” she turned her head. “Sippa says the ocean is on the other side.” Her bare legs swung back and forth under the branch in the warm summer air.

“Tis indeed,” he answered, “as is City Lost. You remember me tale ‘bout Torrent, y’ do.” She nodded eagerly. The story of the city that washed into the sea was her favorite. “Well after the survivors fled, they were lookin’ fer anythin’ uphill-like. Water can’t climb, ye know.” His eyes misted over with his memories. “Sunrise th’ next day, it was, they looked up t’ the east, an’ there was the biggest hill ye can imagine. Tired an’ wore to the bone, they was, but up they climbs anyhow. S’pose ye could say they marched!” he chuckled. “Most stayed there at first, after all o’ what they’d been through, makin’ Hillmarch the biggest city in these here parts fer s’long as most knew.”

Willow stared at the town below the hill. “But the castle is here,” she said quietly. “What happened?”

“Curiosity, I s’pose,” Jesse cut another slice of apple, sweet juice running down his gnarled hands. “Y’see, these here spires an’ towers an’ all ‘ave been loomin’ fer longer than anyone can reckon. Made by the Ancients, remember?” Willow grinned and nodded again. “Y’ can’t place somethin’ like tha’ in front of a band of ragged, lost people an’ not expect ‘em te come a’runnin’. Bigger ‘an Hillmarch, it didn’t take long fer Drylands te take the crown.”



__________________________________________________________________


Firelight glowed between the thick trees, orange and red flickering over the painted features of a tall, skinny man on the border of the woodland clearing. The black diamonds drawn around his elongated eyes emphasized the paleness of his irises, a light blue which was repeated up his forehead and over his bald scalp. Crimson stripes followed his jaw line and plunged under his shirt down onto his hairless chest, thin and bony. He shifted weight from his right foot to his left, groaning. His stint of guard duty was nearly over. “And Syra had better be on time tonight, or so help me...” he mumbled into the darkness. He stretched his long, spindly arms out fully, brushing the laurels on either side of the camp entrance. The quarterstaff in his left hand scraped the ground, but the sound was lost to the din of constant music and clatter within the clearing. A drummer pounded on his skins, the rhythm wild and frantic, accompanied by flutes and strings and instruments which bore no name nor any definition of the sound which escaped them. Their tones met and collided in discord, then twisted round one another in perfect harmony. Bare feet beat their own tempo into the soil, sometimes matching that of the music, sometimes straying off into their own creation. It was a death march and a celebration all at once.

“I don’t see why we can’t just make a gate out of you, Linn,” a tiny man behind spoke, making the stretching giant jump in fright. “After all, you have got the wingspan of a wyvern.”

Linn bent himself in half to stare at the plump little dwarf of a man at his feet. “Better to string you and your filthy little brothers together and form a line of impenetrable stench, don’t you think?” He sniffed, curling his nostrils in intense displeasure. “Nice to see you on time, for once,” he leaned the staff against the nearest tree. “It’s quiet tonight. Try not fall asleep.”

The dwarf snorted at him, their banter the common accompaniment to the change in shifts. Though secluded this far from any proper civilizations, the encampment retained their original guard duties as they had when traveling to and from the city of Drylands. Dangerous times had pushed them beyond the reach of the Royal Guard, to the edge of the Known Lands and into the depths of poverty. The only entrance to their newly permanent home was guarded day and night in rotating shifts by all who lived within its protecting border.

Syra took out his own dagger from the leather belt that hung low around his plump waistline, checking that its blade was still sharp and true. He looked up and noticed that his spindly comrade was still there, staring oddly into the forest. “Thought you were anxious to get to your tent?”

“I would be,” Linn replied, “were it not for that,” he pointed with an arm that was longer than most men’s legs.

Following his direction, they both stared at the hooded figure emerging from the trees. It glided over the forest brambles and roots of trees as though it were a part of the woods itself. As it drew closer, Linn picked out details. The hood and cloak were of dark green wool. Slowly, the edges of a face came into view; pale skin, a delicate jaw line, rosy cheeks and lips, and eyes that glowed green in the fading light of the surrounding vegetation. Gloved hands reached up to remove the hood as she stopped before the guardsmen, revealing long, red hair tumbling over her narrow shoulders. Willow stared at the odd looking men with as much fascination as they displayed while they stared at her. She extended a hand, palm first, as Calla had instructed.

Linn was first to respond, mirroring her gesture, until their palms touched lightly. His immense frame loomed over her, casting her face into shadow. “Welcome, stranger.” He cocked his head to one side, curious as to how she knew of their greetings and ways.

“Thank you,” she smiled. “My name is Willow. I was sent by Calla.”


__________________________________________________________________


“...and here you’ll find the fire pit. We share meals here. I know it doesn’t look like much, but these are hard times for outcasts, you know,” Linn explained as they walked through the camp. After proffering Calla’s name, both men had lit up and welcomed the girl as though she were truly one of their own.

Linn had introduced her to the most fantastic people she had ever set eyes upon, each one more strange and unique than the last. Bog, an enormous fellow with a belly the size of a marsh hog, had nearly crushed her hand with excitement. In only a moment of introduction, he had consumed six apples, a round of hard cheese, and two full loaves of bread. “A light snack,” he had blushed.

Turl and Catch, twin brothers and acrobats, had spun around Willow until she was dizzy. “Do they ever slow down?” she asked her guide. Linn simply smiled a toothy grin, his black make-up making his face a bit scary.

“This is Phidi,” Linn went on, catching the attention of a thin boy dressed in green scales. His hair stuck up at odd angles, and the lines of his face were tinted green to match his scaly exterior. He smiled at her with a forked tongue dashing between his teeth. Willow jumped back in alarm, making the boy’s smile even larger.

“Phidi!” a girl from a far tent called. “That was rude!” She strode across the grassy opening and faced Willow with a bright, charming smile. She extended her palm as they had all done, “I’m sorry, he’s my little brother.” Willow met her hand and held it for a moment. “I’m Penna.”

“Willow,” came the reply, though the red-haired girl’s voice was getting weaker by the moment. What had Calla gotten her into? Who were all these people? Penna looked warmly at her, her hazel eyes and dark brown hair soft and inviting, unlike the oddities of all the other members of this camp. Before she could express how grateful she was to meet someone who looked normal, a frighteningly large cat crept up behind the girl. Blue striped fur bristled, and deadly claws cut into the soft earth under its tremendous paws. Willow froze in terror at the sight of a beast the size of a full-grown man, with enough power to destroy everyone and everything in the forest.

“What is it?” Penna’s face went pale. “Willow?” She turned just in time to see the feline crouch at her feet, prepared to pounce. “Grim,” she scolded. The cat turned its eyes up in guilt. “She’s one of us. A gypsy. Leave her be.”

Gypsy? Willow’s mind turned dangerously. The mystery of these people crawled under her skin. They cannot be gypsies, she reasoned. Everything she knew and had learned about nature and mankind was being challenged, and now this strange cat tamer had proclaimed something so far beyond her comprehension that Willow nearly collapsed under the weight of it all. Arms and hands reached for her quickly, holding her upright. “I’m sorry, I...” Willow glanced around at the freakish faces, each showing genuine concern for her well-being. Could she learn to trust them? Would they catch her as swiftly if they knew her past?

“You must be weary,” Penna approached her, offering a hand. Willow took it, allowing herself to be led from the gathering crowd of misfits. The blue tiger followed, appearing protective of his master. “Grim won’t hurt you,” Penna saw that Willow was following the cat with her eyes. “He understands the rules. This is my tent,” she gestured with her free hand. Willow suddenly realized she was still holding the girl’s left hand and immediately let go. “I’d be honored if you’d let me shelter you.” Willow nodded, exhaustion settling in on her like wet sand. “We can leave everything else for the morning.” Warm colors surrounded them as they bent to enter through the low doorway. Shaking off the chill of damp winter, Willow followed Penna’s cues to lay down in the soft cot on the far side of the main room. The cat tamer’s voice trailed on gently as consciousness slipped from the gypsy, sleep claiming her for the first time in two days.


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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Sun Apr 20, 2008 5:52 am 
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6. Sassy Eggs
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Posts: 465
I'm really enjoying your writing .. very captivating and the characters you describe are utterly facinating. I cannot wait to read more.

Keep up the great work! :D

_________________
Patience is a virtue I have yet to acquire
-- me


I am my beloved and my beloved is mine
-- King Solomon's Song of Songs


Only reality can escape the limits of our imagination
-- Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances


Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself
-- Jean-Paul Sartre


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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Sun Apr 20, 2008 11:53 am 
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3. Flaming O
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That's great to hear. I'm getting into parts of this story where I'm terribly uncertain about what and how I'm writing. So it's good to know it doesn't all sound ridiculous.

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Mon Apr 21, 2008 4:06 am 
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6. Sassy Eggs
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But I did forget to add that I was so sad when Willow told Tara to leave .. I think you should re-work that part of the story to really make it clear why Willow asked Tara to leave (it's kind of left up to the imagination of the reader). I think you wrote it that way because you were trying to showed the Willow was thinking more of the "family" than herself. But then suddenly you have her leaving and one is left to wonder a wee bit.

_________________
Patience is a virtue I have yet to acquire
-- me


I am my beloved and my beloved is mine
-- King Solomon's Song of Songs


Only reality can escape the limits of our imagination
-- Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances


Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself
-- Jean-Paul Sartre


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