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

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Thu Jul 17, 2008 12:27 am 
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3. Flaming O
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Awesome update! Sure won't mind seeing Willow come into her right, but sure wouldn't have minded hearing the Blavk Knight's voice either, could have clarified if he is indeed Tara.. Some explanation is sure needed between the two of them! Looking forward to the next installment to figure out what will happen next!

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Fairytales of yesterday will grow but never die
I can fly - my friends
~The Show Must Go On by Queen


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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Thu Jul 17, 2008 1:27 am 
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Ok, so I've been wavering at times about the true identity of TBK, but now, I'm making a stand. Tara is Raven, deep down I've always known it, but the clever misdirections in the narrative have, at times, chipped at my resolve on that one. But not anymore, this time I'm sticking to my guns, there's too much evidence now to go back.

Quote:
How many times must I save your life, mo rhua?


That's what Raven said in the dungeon, isn't it?

Now, we have a problem. Raven/Tara is taking Willow to City Lost, but didn't Hepsabah warn against that? But that's for later, I'm just curious how you will resolve the situation between them now. I'm seeing a lot of shouting, crying, recriminations and hot lusty make-up sex that melts the snow beneath them, but then again I have a very active imagination;-)

Ok, let me drag my mind from the gutter and back to the story!

What's been happening with Reza? The children are gone (dead),and then there's Kousa's delight at finding Wake. Are the two connected? Is she killing children, some sort of sacrifice of the innocents? See, active imagination again - lol.

It's been a real treat getting all these updates so close together cos I think otherwise the suspense would kill me!

Excellent stuff, thank you!

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Fri Jul 18, 2008 12:13 am 
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Ooh this is an exciting update ... now lets get back to it! :D

Great writing btw! :D

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-- 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: Fri Jul 18, 2008 8:44 am 
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Indeed, excitement abounds!! I'm working on chapter 25 at the moment, though there is much more in the world which demands my attention. I'll make time for everything. Thanks for all the positive feedback once more. It's great to see that I'm not boring anyone just yet.


rowanstar-

Congrats on dibs! I've often wondered if you share a kinship with Willow's mother in this story, what with the name and all...


Zampsa-

Funny you should mention it, I'm writing about River right this very moment.


Nenyath-

You know I can't give away too much in any one scene. It ain't my style. I like building the suspense and mystery when and where I can.


Paint the Sky-

I wondered how long you'd waver!! Glad to see I kept you guessing for so long. That was the goal, and it was harder than you'd think to achieve. And yes, you got the whisper right. What else could bring Willow back from the brink of death but the voice of the one thing which has driven her on for so long?

Quote:
Now, we have a problem. Raven/Tara is taking Willow to City Lost, but didn't Hepsabah warn against that?


Oooh. Yeah, there could be a problem with that. I wonder what Hepsebah was so worried about? As for the snow-melting make-up sex.... *distracted look* It's the waiting which makes the reward so much sweeter.

Quote:
What's been happening with Reza?


That poor guy is having the worst time. I've intentionally kept his story vague and at the edge of our focus. I guess it's like a venn diagram in my head, and there's so much more to him and the world of sin and perversion he's been thrown into. Much to everyone's relief (I'm sure), a solution is on the way, and with it the story (his and someone else's) will become much clearer. I think you'll enjoy what's around the corner in Sanjer's den of lust and despair.


LittleBit-

I'm workin' on it!! Come over and wash the car so I can get back to finishing chapter 25.




Loads of thanks and smiles to everyone for leaving such great feedback. I do it for you.
:bow

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Wed Jul 23, 2008 10:42 am 
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Be sure Taylorgirl, I don't want you to give anything away, the best things about fanfics in writing is the suspence! ;-)

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My soul is painted like the wings of butterflies
Fairytales of yesterday will grow but never die
I can fly - my friends
~The Show Must Go On by Queen


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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Wed Jul 23, 2008 10:55 am 
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Hello :)

Sorry for the lack of feedback but I am on holidays and can't log in often, I took the liberty to register the last few chapters to readthem on my computer even when I had no internet connection and I am still loving it.

I still hates the queen and tinari, still am curious about the Raven/Tara thing, and just really positive about this fic.

Thanks for it.

I am not sure when I'll be able to read the next chapter neither when I'll be able to feedback for it, but I am here! :)

Friendly,

Julia

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 Post subject: Re: Raven - updated 7/24
PostPosted: Thu Jul 24, 2008 4:15 pm 
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Nenyath-

Though you may think that you know what I know, I know that you don't know what you think you know, even though you might know what you don't yet know you know. Ya know? I'll keep you in the dark yet.


Julia-

Thanks for taking me with you on holiday! It's nice to hear that you're keeping up with things from afar. Feel free to catch up on feedback whenever it suits. I'll still be here.



As for everyone else, welcome to chapter 25. I'll apologize in advance for it being a little on the short side. Hopefully you'll understand that nothing else could go into this one.





Chapter 25



Alone, exhausted beyond belief, yet still unable to let her mind or body rest, River sat by her window and stared out over the orchards. A chill wound down her neck and over her exposed arms. She glanced at the quilt beside her but allowed her attention to stray back once more to the man she had danced with for so many wonderful minutes earlier in the evening. “Aelish,” she mouthed his name, smiling and wishing she could cry all at once. Dawn was still many hours away, and the early winter moonlight highlighted the falling snow over the trees and earth below. They had danced only briefly, but to River it had been a lifetime of joy.

“Your Highness,” his brown eyes twinkled in the lamplight, “I would be most honored to have your hand for this dance.” Her voice abandoned her, but her feet had proven loyal to her heart. His hands were so warm, his touch so gentle. All eyes were upon them as they began to move together, bowing and spinning to the steps of the formal dance. River’s eyes wandered over her partner, noting with appreciation how beautiful he was. Gone was the constant rough stubble of a beard on his young face. His skin nearly glowed as he beamed at her. When he turned and bowed again, she watched the long hair in its ponytail swish over his black tunic and then return itself as he stood.

Aelish held his hand outstretched, beckoning her forward as the tune changed to something slow and soft. River cursed the gloves for interfering in their touch, but the sensation of his powerful hands grasping her tiny ones sent thrills up her arms and across the back of her neck. She tilted her head down and looked up at him with her large eyes. “You’re terribly bold, sir.”

“I am,” he smiled in return. “But such is the mindset of a marked man.” His humor failed him in that moment, and he watched River’s face turn from him in sorrow. “I am sorry, Princess. Pardon my harsh words.”

River turned her head toward him and let him see her tears, though they remained firmly on her eyelids. “Would you beg for my pardon were I anything other than a princess?”

“I would not waste my time,” he answered, all too quickly. “I would beg for your hand instead.” The elegant woman dancing in his grasp stopped and held her breath as the words sank in. Royalty and commoners alike vanished from the room, leaving the vacuous space to echo and thrum in her ears. Her sight was fixed upon his lips, and she knew in that moment that one kiss would be the end of everything in this world. One kiss would change what could be into what it could never be, and the weight of regret struck her as terribly heavy. Was it regret? How could one regret a birthright? Still, she could think of no better word for the cold sensation pumping from her heart and through her body. “Tonight,” he broke her isolated thoughts, “let me ask for no more than a dance.”

A thousand heartbeats later, River sat in her room, as cold and alone as she had been since birth. She could not deny that her mind had ventured off on many paths of daring escapes, of a life on the run with her mysterious warrior, of betrayal of her birthright and her people, but each time a glimmer of hope emerged, reality and rationality pinned her firmly to the ground. She was a princess. It was a fact which could not be denied, nor could it be circumvented. And somewhere in her chest she felt a loyalty to that title. The Queen, her mother, had proven a disastrous leader for the kingdom, and River knew that she alone could set things right. “But you think marrying me off to the Prince of Dogs will ensure your permanent rule over our home,” she muttered angrily. Tears welled up in her eyes, not for her fear of Avinash and its prince, not for the loss of a love she would never be able to confess, but for something else entirely. She thought of the once fertile farmlands spreading out to the south of the castle, of the herds of sheep and goats which paraded over the South Road every spring on their way to pasture, of the scent of fresh hay on the backs of rickety wagons being driven by weary farmers, of the dusty market which had once sold vegetables and cheese and hand-knitted sweaters in every color you could imagine, and of the children who once ran and laughed through the orchards and vineyards over which she now looked. She loved her home. She loved her kingdom, and the state of it under her mother’s authority made her desperate with fear. Who else would remain to fight for her people should she choose a path to fulfill her love of a man? Such choices were for those not born of royal blood, and River understood the significance of her role. Taking a deep breath, the Princess stood, still facing the moonlit field. “No Prince shall steal this land, and no Queen shall stand in my way. I will restore my kingdom and drive the demons from this castle.”

“Then you’d better come with me,” a low voice behind the Princess made her jump within her own skin. She spun around to see a hulking form in the shadows not two paces from her. “Because all three are looking for you tonight, and I’m not sure you want to face any of them in that nice dress.” Merl stepped into the moonlight and held out his large, calloused hand.


__________________________________________________________________


“Give me some idea of why I should spare you, you slimy bastard!” the woman’s voice boomed in the ramshackle brothel. Reza and Mara huddled together in a corner of the poorly furnished room, terrified. Only moments before, their lives had rested firmly in Sanjer’s hands. Now his was in the angry grip of a woman who had burst through the front door, bringing with her sunlight and darkness. Sanjer had pulled them from below the floor by the scruff of their necks. Reza refused to let him near Mara, but neither of them had the strength to fight back. It would have been such a pathetic struggle, had they been reduced to that. Nine days of hiding, starvation, dehydration, and sleep deprivation had left Reza paler and weaker than he had ever been, so much so that his curiosity about death had turned into a longing. What else could bring relief from the pain? What else could cure the stark loneliness, the knowledge that he had not been able to save the last girls?

None of that mattered now. As they clung to each other, Reza and Mara listened and watched in utter fear and fascination.

“I’ve waited a long time for this, Sanjer,” the woman spat at the man whose shirt was caught up in her fists. Strong arms held him firmly in place, an audience of one to her display of fury. A dark mist swirled about her feet, shrouding the cracked, broken floorboards of the once fine establishment. “It’s only a shame I can’t make it last longer,” she taunted, “but I’ve got things to do, y’see.”

“Anything you want-” Sanjer tried to beg, but his throat was snagged by a quick hand and squeezed until his eyes bulged.

“And that’s exactly why you’ve just got to be removed from this fine world, old man. Anything you want for a price, wasn’t it?” Her harsh, beautiful face tightened in a grimace. “How many other girls have you tortured since me?” She squeezed tighter, clearly not interested in a response. “There’s a lot of blood around this place, Sanjer. Not just the kind you can see with your eyes.” His jugular vein pulsed and pounded wildly in his neck as his heart cried out for air. “It’s about time I came home to clean it up.” Eyes straining, face and neck turning blue from lack of oxygen, arms flailing ineffectively, Sanjer fought back with the strength of an infant as the life was choked out of him. After a long time, even after he had ceased moving for many minutes, the woman’s arm finally began to shake, and she released him. The lifeless body crumpled to the floor and lay still.

Reza watched her lower her head, and, although her back was to him, he could sense that tears were in her dark eyes. He never saw a sign of them when she turned and walked the short distance to where he and Mara sat. Quickly, forcefully, she reached a gloved hand out to him. “You’ll have to pardon me,” she began. “It’s been a long day, and I’m not in the mood for elaborate stories. I’m Trace.”

Shaken, ill from his bones to his skin, and dumbstruck by the death of his captor, Reza could only stare at her with wide eyes and utter his name in a whisper. “Reza. And Mara.”

Seeing that her urgency had little effect on them, Trace reached into her cloak and pulled out a stoppered bottle made of brown glass. She uncorked it and put it to Reza’s lips. Awkwardly, he drank. Liquid fire coursed down his throat and into his stomach, filling him with heat. She did the same for the little girl. It wasn’t alcohol, but the taste was familiar to the estranged gypsy. “It’s a secret recipe,” she smiled. “Kid named Red made me plenty a long time ago.”

“Red?” Mara looked up, light shining in her eyes. “Like the Red Sorceress?”

Trace placed the bottle back in her cloak and grabbed the weary hostages by the arms, hoisting them to their feet. Though shaky, they stood without aid. “You could say that,” she answered. “Listen, I know you’re tired, but something really big is happening, and we need to go.” Reza looked her directly in the eye, suddenly awake after the sip of the mystery liquid. He had not released his grip on Mara, nor would he for days to come. Trace saw the defiance in his stare and sighed. She reached into another hidden pocket and pulled something small out. Reza’s hand was opened by hers, and a gold coin was deposited in it. “She needs you. She needs all of us,” Trace whispered. “It’s time to go.”


__________________________________________________________________


They walked in silence, and it was deafening. The snow crunched under their feet, under the hooves of the black warhorse, the cold wind whistled and sang over the rolling hills to the west of the castle and its city, the late birds lingered and chirped as they swooped low for what little food remained in the barren snow-scape, and Willow’s heart pounded hard and slow in her aching chest. The night had passed in a whirlwind, leaving everyone separated and distraught. Her evening gown was torn and soaked, her red hair stuck to her face and neck with smears of blood from Raven’s wounds, and the fine shoes meant for dancing were rapidly deteriorating into rags. She was cold. She was hungry. She was tired. And her heart ached and cried out with every step.

How could she have betrayed him? The memory of their argument only a few hours before leapt into Willow’s mind and twisted every thought she’d had about Raven. Could it be that he was not as he appeared? Could he be... She let the thought go unfinished. It was crazy. It was ridiculous to think that a mask could hide what she desired. Surely that voice had been but a figment of her imagination. Still, her betrayal stung no less. Now, after all that had transpired, she still did not know what had happened the night before.

“Where is Aelish?” she asked boldly, startling a flock of starlings beside the vague outline of the road they walked.

Raven refused to look at her. He continued to march through the ankle deep snow in silence. “He remained behind with the little maid.” The calm, deep voice had returned to her mind, the same one she had always heard when Raven spoke. Though he walked without any visible signs, she knew he must be in excruciating pain from his wounds. His swaying arms gave her intermittent glances of the torn cloak he had used to tie up the gashes on his left arm. She turned back to the road that stretched out over the hills and wondered how far they would have to walk to reach Torrent. The journey seemed impossible as her tender feet trudged on. Interrupting her thoughts, Raven spoke again, this time slowing his pace to glance in her direction. “You saved Aelish. Thank you.”

“I didn’t mean-” she plunged into an apology before she knew what her words were doing.

Raven stopped and held up a gloved hand to quiet her, and the mighty horse between them took a step back, snorting hot breath into the chilled air. He wandered off to nose in the white powder, and Willow noticed as though waking from a dream that his coat was thick and curly. It was the coat of a Southlands warhorse. “I understand,” he said softly.

“No,” her face reddened, “you cannot possibly understand.” Against her better judgement, the flow of confessions could not be stopped. “I wanted you dead!” she cried, stepping up to the dark rider. “I-” her voice faltered, “You took-” the words caught in her throat. “Tinari said...” but every explanation suddenly sounded so pathetic, she could not bear to hear herself speak. Her chest heaved with her rapid breath, but no amount of air could cure the dizziness which was taking over her spinning mind. “Everything has gone wrong,” she moaned, her eyes turning down to the snow. Her knees followed, depositing her weary frame into a kneeling position. “There was too much fire,” her voice cracked, and the tone of it rose as her grip on the present relaxed. “All the smoke and heat and blood, it was too much to bear. They all died,” she wailed, “and it wasn’t enough once. No, it wasn’t.” She shook her head deliriously. Raven stood there, watching as the world around them collapsed. “It was my fault they came. Each time it was because of me. It’s my power, you see,” she glanced up at him, searching for some comfort in his eyes, but nothing was there. All she saw was blackness. “Blackness,” she giggled. “Yes, that fits, too, I suppose. That’s all I have left, isn’t it.” She smiled, and her face broke from its hysterics into crumbling, body shaking sobs. “Hepsebah,” tears streamed down her pale cheeks. “Oh, Sippa,” she wailed, “I’m so sorry I got it all wrong. I’m so sorry.” She turned her chin up to the man standing over her, and more tears flowed afresh. “After everything, after all the pain and loss, all the cold and loneliness, I wanted to believe that you could be for me. Mine only. But not as you are. No, I wanted you to be something you could never be. I wanted you to be her. And my mind,” she laughed in a fragile way, “it made you into what I wanted, what I needed.”

Raven sank to his knees to face her. Slowly, as delicately as if he handled the tiniest infant, he took her into his hands, then enveloped her in his arms. It was the most amazing thing Willow had ever felt, and her body collapsed into him as though it was meant to rest there for all of her days. She was warm. She was safe. And somehow, she knew things would never be the same after that embrace. “You have made me into nothing more than what I have always been,” his true voice spoke in her ear. It was a sweet voice, full and dark, a voice that could wake you from the most terrible dream into a world of light, a voice that Willow had craved and dreamt of even in the nights she no longer remembered.

Allowing her head to turn slightly, she nuzzled into the wrapped and covered neck beside her cheek, and her arms found their way around the firm shoulders which held her steady. Her question was simple, it was obvious, yet it took more strength and courage than she knew she contained. “Tara?”

The black figure in her grasp backed away slowly and faced her. She could see the face. Perhaps she could sense it. Eyes from beneath held her own gaze, then turned. A crunch of footsteps in the snow directly behind them alerted her as to why the answer never came.


Last edited by taylorgirl6 on Fri Jul 25, 2008 9:28 am, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Thu Jul 24, 2008 5:19 pm 
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dibs? on one of my favorite stories? nuh uh...

this is an amazingly complex and thought-provoking tale...I don't think I've read anything quite like it on the board before. I was telling my wife that it's like reading Harry Potter (which I love), before we knew what the heck was going on, and we'd talk and talk on long hikes about what something meant and what would happen. I may have to entice her to read it too, just to have those long conversations.

keep up the good work. :)

-she


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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Thu Jul 24, 2008 11:06 pm 
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you write such in intricate story .. keep up the great work! :D

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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: Fri Jul 25, 2008 5:22 am 
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Yay for excellent update-y goodness... Good that River is finally getting out of Queen's and Tinari's influence... So "Faith" makes a reappearance... I hope the person/persons interupting Willow's and Tara's moment isn't/aren't Tinari's goon/goons...

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Fri Jul 25, 2008 6:39 am 
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damn, and there i was thinking we were going to get definite absolutely for sure answers about raven. kissing next time? :pray


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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Fri Jul 25, 2008 3:05 pm 
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mishki-

Dibs indeed!! You're so sweet. Thank you for that comment. And Harry Potter.... I'm not sure I deserve a compliment of that caliber, but I won't turn it down! Where do you hike? I tend to have the same conversations with my girlfriend when we hike as well. There's nothing better than delving into the intricacies of a story you love, and it made my day to know that you come here for just that. Thanks again.

LittleBit-

Yes I do! I think this one has truly gotten away from me in so many ways, but it's fun to sit down and let the tale take control. It's gone to many places I never intended, and I'm looking forward to finding out where we'll end up. Seriously. Every time I think I'm gonna get these people sorted out, a bad guy comes in and ruins things or a dragon snaps everyone up out of their saddles. It's crazy.


Zampsa-

You are so loyal! Alas, Tinari is off plotting other evil exploits at the moment. We'll get back to him in a little while.


what_we_do_is_secret-

Welcome! Definite? Absolute? Sure? Well now.... that'd be too easy. As for the kissing, I'm afraid to say that things are a little tangly right now for that kind of behavior. We don't want Willow kissing a mask, do we? And what if Raven isn't really Tara? Ooh, that'd be awkward.



Update anyone?






Chapter 26




Ulhetha marched ahead of the others by twenty or more paces, though she carried twice their loads. Something was pushing her on at an insane pace, and the others were beginning to flag in their efforts to keep up. The first day had been simple in comparison to today’s journey. Snow in the night had transformed the rolling hills into miniature mountains of slippery ice and thick slush, and the edges of their cloaks and skirts were damp and heavy. Forsythia kept an eye on Ivy, as she had done for so many years, and matched her steps to those of the girl. “We’ll stop in a few minutes,” she said encouragingly.

Ivy lifted her head, tossing the heavy cloak hood from her dark hair with both gloved hands. “How? Ulhetha isn’t slowing down. She’s taken two of my bags and another basket from you, and there she is,” she pointed weakly, “marching off like a child to the fair! How old is she, anyway?”

Forsythia smiled. They had been good company for each other for so long that she couldn’t think of a time when the younger woman wasn’t nearby. “She may be old, and stubborn,” her last words were louder, and they saw the old woman turn her head and sigh disgustedly, “but she knows what’s best and what’s right. You’re only jealous of her stamina.”

Laughing for the first time that morning, the two woman took one another’s hands and pushed their pace harder. “She makes me miss Hepsebah,” Ivy reminisced. “And that makes me miss home.”

“Do you remember how the trees used to sing to us?”

The young woman smiled radiantly. “It was the first sound I remember from when I was little. Hepsebah always told me it was the forest calling us all home. If we ever got lost, all we had to do was follow the trees.”

“After this is all over,” Forsythia gripped her hand tightly, “that’s where we’re going. Ivy stopped and turned to face her, all the color draining from her face. “I mean it. We’re going back.”

“Back? You can’t be serious.”

“Back,” she stated firmly. “Willow will fix this. She’ll fix everything.” The conviction in her eyes was powerful.

Ivy frowned. “She’s only a girl.”

“She’s an Ancient!” Forsythia nearly shouted. “She has power we cannot comprehend!”

“We walk to face an army in Hillmarch,” Ivy whispered through gritted teeth. “The one man we placed our faith in hasn’t been seen since our last meeting. We have no weapons, no army, and no training. And let’s not ignore the fact that we don’t know where Willow is or when she intends to get to City Lost herself!”

“The Prophecy-” Forsythia began, but a firm hand on her shoulder stopped her.

Ulhetha held them both in her grip, having dropped half her load further up to get them under control. “The Prophecy says nothing about the two of you bickering like crows over crumbs.” The younger women were silenced to shame by her glare. “Did you think this would be an easy journey? You,” she turned to Ivy, “need to have some faith in the visions of an old woman. Do you think me so far gone that I would march us straight into death’s hands?” Ivy shrank at her words. “And you!” this time she faced Forsythia. “Ivy is right. Willow is nothing more than a girl. A girl like you, or like Ivy, or, Ancients forbid, like myself. She cannot evade her destiny any more than we can.” A flicker of fear danced through her eyes momentarily. Perhaps she was not so certain about the future after all. “Get yourselves together and get moving. We have somewhere to be.”


__________________________________________________________________


Ren walked and ran alternately to keep himself warm. Winter had caught him off guard, and his chilled body shook as his temperature slowly dropped. There was no sign of civilization nearby, and nothing had allowed him to find a path or direction to follow. Exhausted and desperate, he forced himself on, whispering one word over and over to himself. “Wake, Wake, Wake,” he mumbled. Willow had left after the funeral. All the elders were dead, their numbers were dangerously few, supplies were low or nonexistent, and no one knew how they would survive the winter. It had been terribly cold. Four more died of fever before spring came, and among them was Magnolia. Ren smiled as he thought of her booming voice handing out orders to anyone in earshot. She had held them together as a family through the hardest times. The loss of her tore the Circle apart, and Ren still blamed Willow. She had brought the mercenaries to their home. She had led them in. She was also the only healer left in the clan. With her departure she took their only chance of survival. Ren had taken Wake in when Mag first took ill. They had been father and son ever since that awful, cold night. The little boy had no memory of his adoptive mother any more than he had of his birth mother, Rosemary. Ren had been his only family. “Wake,” he whispered as the snow caked around his ankles and up the backs of his calves. “Wake.”

Now, lost and disoriented in the snow, Ren blamed Willow again. He had cursed her name when he first awoke. You should have killed me when you had the chance, he thought angrily. He remembered the underground cavern. He remembered Tinari and his wolves, the Black Knight, the little girl tied to the chair, and Willow. Willow had taken a nameless man into her arms to stop his bleeding. She had gazed with the eyes of love at the black one. Even Tinari was clearly vying for her attention. Ren slowed to a walk and spat the bitter taste from his mouth into the snow drifts. Everything was her fault. “Magic,” he mumbled. Her magic had brought the fury of the Queen down upon them eight years before, and the result of that wrath had yet to cease. It’s filth had leached into every action, every memory, every taste and smell of life that Ren knew. He hated her for it, and his hatred drove him on harder and faster over the low ridge of a hill. The top revealed something which made him smile evilly. Below was spread an enormous field of rubble and stone, the litter of a once great city. Its walls were crumbled and lost amidst the drifts of snow, but the peaks and spires of its castle could not be covered. Ren descended the hillside and set foot in City Lost.


__________________________________________________________________


Raven stood panting, his sword dripping with blood. The wound on his left arm was seeping red onto the stained snow at his feet. His chest heaved, and his grip on the hilt of the sharp blade tensed. Countless soldiers crowded in around him, each armed with a sword or dagger. At his back stood Willow, pale and terrified, but ready to fight to the death. The first thirteen guardsmen had been no match for the Black Knight’s quick strikes, but they were simply the scouts for the roaming army. Their bloodied, mangled bodies formed a kind of circle around the two in the middle, giving pause to anyone willing to cross the boundary. Unaware that a conversation was taking place in the minds of their quarry, the soldiers held their positions and waited for a sign of weakness to attack. Their captain would arrive at any moment, and this stand-off would end.

We’re trapped.

We are surrounded, not trapped,
Raven’s voice was calm, steady, everything Willow felt she was not in her own heart. I will get you out.

How? Willow twitched as her fear grew. The muscular back behind her own never betrayed her. Raven was solid, sure, and confident. You are wounded, and there must be fifty of them...

I see sixty-two, he answered, and Willow realized that he had indeed been counting the soldiers. They wait for their captain. We do not have long. Will you trust me?

The red-haired gypsy took a deep breath and spoke aloud. "I’m not leaving you here. You need me.”

“I need you alive. You’re unarmed and untrained.”

Willow considered his words carefully, letting her irritation build a fire in the pit of her stomach. She stepped away from him, drawing a quick gasp from three of the closest soldiers who saw an opportunity present itself at her separation from the fear-inspiring Black Knight. They turned their swords and crouched, prepared to spring at her. Raven spun and caught sight of her foolish maneuver as well. “You think you know what’s best for me,” she said aloud, bringing the soldiers into the middle of their quarrel. The three guards behind her leapt forward, closing the gap to her exposed body in less than six strides. Willow threw her right hand back at them, holding her palm up to stop them. “Back off!” her voice thundered. The air snapped like a sapling in the wind, and all three ran headfirst into an invisible wall at the edge of her fingers. They tumbled into the snow, sending up plumes of white powder onto the soldiers beside them, who all took a step back.

Raven crouched low and turned the sword in his right hand. Battle had begun. “Have you a death wish?” he shouted at her. His voice was rising in pitch as the tension increased around them. Two men charged at him, each growling and shouting as they ran. The first drove directly forward, sword aimed at the Black Knight’s chest, the second held back two steps, his short sword held close to his own body. Raven sprang right, missing the first blade, and stepped out with his left leg, forcing the first sword and its owner to the ground under his boot. Placing all of his weight on the pivoting boot heel, he turned and kicked the second soldier in the chest, sending him sprawling into three others behind him.

“Death wish?” Willow screamed. “You’re the one who wants to fight sixty-two men single-handedly!” As casually as if she walked through a garden, she strolled over to the carnage around her companion, heedless of the delicate balance of agility and timing required to fight off a trained army. Raven was forced to work around her as the redhead went on with her tirade, “You are without a doubt the most stubborn,” another soldier grunted and cried out as Raven’s blade cut through his pathetic armor and sliced the flesh from his ribs, “willful,” another pushed forward, meeting the butt end of the Black Knight’s hilt with his forehead, “arrogant woman I have ever known!”

The next wave of soldiers stopped in their tracks. “Sorry, miss,” one of them spoke dumbly, “but that one’s a man, for sure,” he pointed at Raven.

Fed up with everything, Willow marched directly up to him, drew back her right arm, and punched him squarely in the nose. Stunned and bloodied, he stumbled backwards into the arms of his comrades. “I have had enough!” Willow screamed, bursting eardrums with her volume. With her last word, a thickening in the air burst outward from the center of the circle, knocking every remaining soldier from his feet and back three or more paces. They landed simultaneously in the trampled snow, clearing the view down the hillside and into Hillmarch. A line of men on horseback was driving towards them at full speed. Word of their arrival had traveled fast. The full army would be upon them in moments.

Before she could object, Raven jumped up and grabbed Willow’s punching hand, dragging her from the crowd of fighters at a run. Her feet struggled to keep pace with him. She knew she had gone too far. Two against sixty-two had been impossible odds, and now they were running away, alive and uninjured. She felt the bruises forming in the knuckles of her right fist, but Raven refused to let go. His grip told her all she needed to know. They had been lucky once. It wouldn’t happen that way a second time, and riders on horseback were too much for them alone. Glancing back over her shoulder, the line of riders was growing. It blackened the horizon and swarmed at them like angry wasps.

“We cannot outrun them,” Raven told her quietly, gently, though he never let his pace waver. The gravity of their situation stole her breath. The thunder of hooves shook the earth below their feet. Off to their far right, a single riderless horse ran. It narrowed the gap to them with each mighty stride. Willow felt Raven look at the horse and adjust his own pace to match it. He intended to jump into the saddle at a run.

“Don’t let go,” she begged him between ragged breaths. The powerful gloved hand wrapped around her own tightened, and she felt herself lifted from the earth in a single, breathless motion. Her unplanned landing was not so seamless, and she grunted when the edge of the saddle bit into her legs, but she was safe no less. The horse increased its speed once both riders were settled, and a cloud of white powder obscured the mass of soldiers at their heels. Willow closed her eyes and wrapped her arms tightly around Raven. Using her magic had felt good. Using her fist had felt even better. She pulled herself closer to the black rider and looked up at the grey sky, and the world fell out from under her. “Look out!” she screamed, but her words were too late.

Raven turned his head just in time to see everything close in on them at once. The guardsmen had surrounded them on three sides, and the gap in which they rode was now too narrow for a deer, much less a warhorse. Time slowed, and the eyes below the black mask blinked, their lashes brushing the inside of their confinement. To their left, the captain of the Royal Guard smiled in victory, his body bouncing up and down to the rhythm of his horse’s gait. His head was violently snapped forward as the talons of a wyvern plowed through the troops, crushing and parting bodies on its way toward the two in the center of the mass. Hulking claws the size of field scythes opened and grabbed Raven and Willow in one quick snap. There was no time to breathe, no time to speak, and nothing to prevent them from being plucked off the face of the Known Lands by the small dragon. Higher and faster they flew, further and further away from the horde of men and swords, until all that they had known as solid and true disappeared in the damp, grey clouds of a winter sky.


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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Fri Jul 25, 2008 4:49 pm 
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Yay for great update-y goodness... So Ren is also going to the Lost City, that can't be good... I hope Ren and Tinari meet an end that is fitting for their black hearts... So a wyvern "rescued" Willow and Tara... I hope that when they arrive at the Lost City there are lots and lots of :wtkiss ...

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Sat Jul 26, 2008 4:55 am 
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I get two for the price of one.

Chapter 25: Poor River, torn between duty and love. You gave her a real air of maturity here, and I'm hoping that in fulfilling her own promise to her lands and people that she gets the love she deseves.

I can't say how happy I am that Reza's misery at the hand's of Sanjar is finally over. I think you gave Sanjar a more merciful death than he deserved though - lol.

I see you're still playing mind games with Raven's identity, but I'm standing firm. I refuse to belive that it was Willow's need for Tara that was projected onto Raven to lead her and us to the same conclusion.

Chapter 26: Damn, Ren doesn't learn, does he? Everything is still Willow's fault as far as he is concerened. I can't say I like it that he is in City Lost, I'm seeing nothing good coming from that.

I loved the opening interchange with the three women. The element of doubt from Ivy, the total conviction from Forsythia, and just that hint of fear from Ulhetha - it sort of sums up everything we feel reading this. We are never on steady ground with this fic. So much has happened already and you always make sure we are kept unbalanced, and interested.

Have Willow and Raven been rescued? Knowing you it's a case of 'out of the frying pan and into the fire'.

The scene with Willow, Raven and the soldiers was well done. I loved all action Willow and the calm but determined Raven, and I even managed a laugh among the carnage and tension:

Quote:
“You are without a doubt the most stubborn,” another soldier grunted and cried out as Raven’s blade cut through his pathetic armor and sliced the flesh from his ribs, “willful,” another pushed forward, meeting the butt end of the Black Knight’s hilt with his forehead, “arrogant woman I have ever known!”

The next wave of soldiers stopped in their tracks. “Sorry, miss,” one of them spoke dumbly, “but that one’s a man, for sure,” he pointed at Raven.


I wonder where the wyvern is taking them? And, who sent it?

Bloody brilliant storytelling.

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Mon Jul 28, 2008 4:14 am 
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You know I've got a really bad feeling about Ren, he reminds me of Henry Bowers from 'It' by Stephen King and how he almost fucks up everything at the end of the story but you don't really pay much attention to him until then.


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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Tue Jul 29, 2008 6:01 am 
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that was awesome and Willow getting all angry was actually very funny and very well written! :D

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Sun Aug 03, 2008 3:45 pm 
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I've just found this story and I absolutely adore it. In fact, I've spent the majority of my weekend reading it. You've created an amazing world that I cannot get enough of, and I eagerly await the next update! :)


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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Mon Aug 04, 2008 11:02 am 
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Zampsa1975-

While it's true that Tinari and Ren might both deserve cruel ends, I'm hoping you'll appreciate what I choose to do instead. After all, real life doesn't always turn out the way you want either.


PTS-

I love how deeply you read into this story.

River is growing up in so many ways right now. It takes a lot of courage to give up something you want for what truly needs to be done. I hope she can stick with it.

As much of a pain in the ass Ren is, his role is so important here. I battled for a long time with what to do with him, and I kept coming back to giving him a fiery death scene or having his evil ways be his undoing... The thing is, he's more than he appears. Everyone who chooses the wrong path started out where the rest of us stand. What's to say we couldn't end up like him in the end?

Writing action scenes is so difficult. There must be an art to it, and so I continue to study it with humble awe. As for Willow's little outburst, I think she's tired of no one taking her seriously. I had fun writing that bit... Do you think Raven realizes who he's escaping with?


what_we_do_is_secret-

Well if you didn't see him coming, you can't say I didn't warn you!


LittleBit-

Thank you! I had a good time with it. You can't be serious all the time.


mixxie-

Welcome! I'm starting to see a lot of new faces around here. It's a great feeling. The next chapter is about half done at this point, so your wait won't take long. Thanks for spending a little time here.

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Mon Aug 04, 2008 2:32 pm 
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Damn, I thought it was an update. I had my dibs all ready and waiting.

:kdevil PTS: Waiting to pounce!!

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Tue Aug 12, 2008 3:44 am 
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I am totally loving this fic! I am currently reading chapter 15 but i wanted to say keep up this great story!!!
Love the setting and the fast pace. The only thing i don't really get is how much time has passed since Willow was in the camp up north and when she was captured and how much time she has spend in the castle so far..
R.

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Wed Aug 13, 2008 7:22 pm 
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A big thank you to everyone who has kept up with the long and short chapters. A little feedback for the loyal? Yes.

PTS-

Good luck with dibs on this one. Pounce away!!


Renatecs-

That is such a kind complement. Thank you. Take your time catching up. The space between chapters is getting a little longer these days. As for the time between the Cirque and the castle, I've intentionally left that a little vague and undefined. Sorry. You can assume it's been less than a year.... ish. The beginning timeline moved at a slower pace, and there were many gaps in between what I showed you. In later chapters, the pace picks up considerably. Were moving hourly in the current chapters. I hope that makes sense, and thanks for pitching in some feedback.



Thanks again to everyone who faithfully sticks around in anticipation of the next update. Chapter 27 is long and full of good stuff. I hope everyone enjoys.









Chapter 27



Merl ran faster than the Princess believed a man of his age was capable. She had given up trying to free her hand from his. The grip of a hand which had spent a lifetime prying open kegs and casks was impossible to shake loose. Panting as they flew up another stairway, River blurted out, “Where are we going? This isn’t the way out!”

Merl didn’t bother to answer her. She noticed with each step that an assortment of blades was hidden beneath the man’s large cloak. After more twists and turns, they came to a solid oak door. River recognized it immediately. Merl didn’t wait to knock. He burst through the door and into the immense, vaulted room, darting right and left to find its inhabitant. “Kousa!” he shouted in impatience.

A beautiful woman in a burgundy gown emerged from a doorway. She stared wildly at the barkeep. “Merl? What are you doing in my-”

“No time for questions!” he bellowed. His free hand grabbed hers with a sharp jerk. “We need to leave this place.”

Mistress Kousa took her hand back, making River wonder at the mysterious woman’s strength. “I will do no such thing.” There was a savage look in her eyes that River did not know. Something was changing the people in this city. The Princess had seen that odd look in the faces of everyone she had passed since the end of the ball. It frightened her. “The tide has turned, brother.”

Merl slowed down for the first time since he had brought River out of her chambers. He let the girl’s hand drop, and he looked into the dark eyes of the woman before him. River saw the family resemblance, but could not think of two more opposite personalities to be united by blood. She thought of her mother, then, and withdrew her original judgement. From behind Mistress Kousa, a small boy peeked out from the darkness. His eyes met with River’s. “I know you want to be stubborn, Kousa,” Merl continued, “but this is no time to argue. This place holds death for any who stay in it. You know the power it is capable of.”

“I know it better than you realize,” she snapped at him. “It is by my will that this power will be released!”

Merl stepped back. “Then it is true,” he mumbled. “You were the one-”

“You have always thought you knew so much, brother,” Kousa sneered in anger. “But you do not understand Him! He alone will heal this land of its sickness, and the Ancients will again be free!” In her ravings, Merl caught sight of the tiny boy. Instinct filled in the gap between shock and action, and he grabbed the child’s shirt, hauling him off his feet and up under the strong man’s arm. The room spun around Wake as he was pulled from the room and out into the hall at a run.

“She’s crazy!” River shouted as they ran back the way they had come.

“She believes in a story,” Merl grunted as he ran with his burden. Deep below them, the castle groaned and rumbled.

Wake shifted in the man’s grip, allowing himself to be carried on Merl’s hip. “Where are we going?” his voice trembled with the vibration of running.

“Someplace safer than here,” Merl glanced at him. “There are tunnels.”

“But they don’t lead anywhere,” River gasped, her legs burning with heat from running up and down flights of stairs. Darkness consumed most of the halls now, and what few torches lit the passages were burning low. Something was not right. It should be morning by now. Daylight should be streaming through the mighty windows on every level of the keep, and yet no light shone. They ran from one torch to the next, hopeful that the hall would not turn before they could see again. With darkness before them, Merl and River slowed their pace, searching for a path on either side. River heard her companion grunt in pain, and she knew he had collided with something. She stepped awkwardly, trying to slow and turn, but something rough caught her shoulder and chest, and she fell down hard on her face in the darkness. “Merl?” she called out, though her voice was shallow with pain.

“I had hoped you would call out my name if you were hurt,” a soft voice answered right next to her ear. River jumped and twisted away from the body she had entangled with when she fell, but strong, gentle hands caught and steadied her.

“Aelish?” she whispered. Her eyes strained to see in the blackness, but the slightest outline of his face was enough to send her fully into his arms. He held her tightly, taking joy in how close they could be where none could witness. “I thought my mother...”

“Shh,” he rested his forehead against hers. “I’m fine. Wounded, a little lost, but fine. Are you alright, River?”

Choosing to answer him with her heart, the Princess pulled him closer and kissed him tenderly on the lips. Her hands held the back of his head firmly, ensuring that no streak of nobility or righteousness could interfere. When their lips parted, they saw more than the faint light could allow. River’s breath was shallow, sore from her heart to her head with each breath, and Aelish knew then that their kiss was meant for the dark alone. He took her hands within his own, clutching them tightly. He nodded, telling her that it was alright. He understood.

“River?” another voice called out. Thin hands searched the carpets and walls until they grasped the Princess’ fine, silk gown. “It is you?”

“Jinna!” River called out, taking the maid into her arms. Though still unable to see properly, they knew that time was short. “We have to get out of the castle. Is everyone alright to walk?” River asked.

“Can’t you see us?” the little boy answered from only a step or two aside.

River shook her head, then felt silly for doing so. “We need a torch. We need light. Can we go back, Merl?”

“We don’t need to go back,” the little boy crept closer. “I can see just fine. Do you want to see, too?”

Merl found the others in the faint light and did his best to help them all stand. “I’ll go back. Wait here.”

“Wait!” the boy shouted. A loud sound snapped in their ears, and then a golden light began to shimmer in the shadows. Jinna’s open mouth was the first thing River saw. Merl’s astonishment was the second. Between them stood the little boy, his hands alight with magic. “Can you see now?”

Aelish bent down on one knee to face the little boy. “Where did you come from?”

“The forest,” he answered simply.

River placed a hand on the warrior’s shoulder, and they looked into each other’s eyes. Perhaps all was not lost. Aelish stood and faced her, wishing with every fiber of his being that he could take her into his arms once more. “We cannot linger,” he spoke aloud, though his words were for the Princess.

“The tunnels will take us to Torrent,” Merl stepped forward, eyeing the glowing boy with suspicion.

“Torrent?” River shook herself from the magic of Aelish’s gaze. “I cannot leave my people.”

“Your Majesty, we have already decided-” Merl tried to explain, but a royal hand stopped him mid-speech.

“That was before we came into the company of a warrior and a cunning spy,” she winked at Jinna. “Your place is in Torrent, Merl. Mine is here.”

The barkeep’s face twisted in frustration. “Princess, I cannot allow this. Please listen to reason. This castle is changing. It isn’t safe for any of us, least of all the leader of our people.”

“What about everyone else who is still here?” Jinna asked quietly.

Merl took a deep breath and considered her words. “Jinna is right. The safety of my people is more important than anything you can suggest.” River took his large hand in her own and willed him to look at her. He did, and his face was filled with humility. “You are a noble man, and you fight for a just cause. I will not forget your deeds when you return.” He nodded, understanding that argument with the Princess would not lead to a favorable result. “Take the boy. You may need him. I will send Raven when I find him.”

“Raven is already gone,” Aelish interrupted. He looked away at the mention of his friend, pain obvious in his young face. “Willow is with him. They ride for City Lost this very hour.”

The shock of his news took River by surprise, but she went on, unwilling to spare the time they didn’t have on her own emotions. “All the more reason for us to go our separate ways.” She looked down at the boy whose hands still glowed with a warm light. “What is your name?”

“Wake,” he answered, unafraid.

“Merl is a good man, Wake. You can trust him.”

“You’re the Princess,” he stared at her with large eyes. She nodded. “Should I kneel for you?”

River smiled down at the child in awe of her. “No, you need not do any such thing. All I ask is that you obey Merl and go with him. I think you may have an important role to play in what is to come.” She thought about her friend, the handmaiden to whom she had become so attached, and of how their ways had parted as well. “When you find Willow,” she addressed Merl, “will you deliver a message for me?” Merl nodded, giving her his full attention. “Tell her that we will restore the balance within the kingdom, and that the people here will be safe under our watch.” Aelish stood proudly by her side, knowing that he was meant to reside in that place until the end of his days, whether as her protector or as the champion of her city, even though it meant sacrificing his heart’s desire. “And tell her,” River choked back her own sorrow, “tell her... we will rewrite the prophecy together once this is done, and it will speak of friendship and love... and cheesecake.”

Merl listened to the cryptic message, then bowed humbly before his Princess. Wake took his hand, and together they walked into the darkness, lit by the magic of a boy no one knew was coming.


__________________________________________________________________


The world spun below them. The air grew colder and thinner with each beat of the leathery wings. Willow strained ineffectively against the talons which pressed dangerously into her ribs. She could feel Raven at her back, their bodies crushed together awkwardly, painfully. A gloved hand reached around and took her own, indicating that she should stop struggling.

“It will fly higher yet. There is little time,” the voice behind her bellowed out into the mist and clouds.

Panic, Willow thought. That was the sound in Raven’s voice. It was panic. “How do we get free?” she screamed, though her words were whipped away on the sharp wind. Her hand squeezed the gloved one tightly.

“We don’t.”

The wyvern shot up through the clouds, bursting through onto an incredible scene. Hundreds of miles of clouds spread below them, lit by a fierce, golden sun. It looked nothing like the world below. Here there was no gloom, no snow, no grey. Had her lungs not been pinched by the solid talons, Willow would have gasped at the beauty. The tiny dragon circled one lowered wing, the other carving a half moon in the sky. Their vision changed to a panoramic view of the mighty, snow-covered mountains to the south. Tara came from the south, Willow mused, realizing that her brain was shutting down. They were climbing too high, and the air was thinning. I would like to see Laris someday.

We are not bound for Laris, mo rhua. Today we travel to Drakkalis. The gloved hand gripped harder, and she felt both fear and bravery surge through into her own hand. Willow strained to look at the masked warrior behind her.

“I just found you,” she whispered. “This isn’t how it was supposed to be.” Her head rested on Tara’s shoulder. Darkness crept into her eyes, so that she could barely make out the horizon, the edge of the cloud-scape over the mountains. The wyvern turned again, and Willow felt her stomach and her heart lurch as it descended. They plummeted into the clouds, building speed as the beast tucked its wings into the sides of its body. It turned and spiraled, as though flying was a dance. Its scales were soon covered in condensation, and the mist around them robbed Willow of any visual bearing she could use. She felt the stone wall before it came into view, and the shock of its nearness made her stiffen in fright. The wings of the wyvern snapped open and lifted them over the edge, flapping gently as they hovered over a high, flat turret. The talons released, and both captives fell to the stone surface in a heap.

Willow rolled to her side and tried to sit up, but the world would not stop spinning. A horrible chill spread through her body, sending her into violent convulsions, and she wretched as her stomach and head suffered the brunt of the shaking. She breathed deeply, taking in everything that had just happened. She was alive. They had been rescued, not devoured. They... She pushed herself up onto both hands, kneeling on the cold stone, and crawled over to the black, limp body nearby. “Tara,” she whispered. “Tara,” her voice grew more urgent. She reached out and took the gloved hand in her own once more, shaking it to get a response. “Wake up,” she begged. “Please, Tara. Wake up.” The masked head rolled side to side a few times, then the black figure struggled and pushed itself into a sitting position. “Are you alright?” Willow asked, creeping closer. She began feeling all over the obscured body for wounds.

Firm hands met her own, reassuring her that they had both survived the flight without much injury. “I’m fine.”

“I thought,” Willow began, still frantic. “I thought we were,” tears streamed down her stained face. “Oh, Tara...”

Strong despite their wounds and cuts, the warrior’s arms took Willow in, holding the shaking girl close. “We’re not. Everything is fine now.” The hands behind Willow’s back left her shoulders briefly, removing first one and then the other glove. Bare, pale flesh glared out against the remaining black. The hands returned, stroking the young woman’s tangled hair, pulling her closer in. “We found each other. Nothing else matters.”

“This,” the redhead’s hand drifted up to the black face and traced the lines of features she could feel below, “this matters.” They beheld one another in the stillness. A thick fog pulled walls and stone in and out of their sight. Nodding, Raven reached for the edge of the bindings, but the bare hands stopped with a jerk.

“Could it be true?” a foreign voice echoed out in the mist and fog. Willow jumped at the sound and turned to face the stairway. Through the grey light, two figures emerged. One, tall and thin, walked confidently toward the couple. By her side was a second, lower silhouette, slinking and prowling low to the ground. “Willow?” the voice called. Dark, wavy hair and delicate, fur-lined ears framed a familiar face. Her brown eyes twinkled in the dim light, filling with tears as she knelt before her old friend.

“Penna!” Willow leapt forward, taking the other woman in her arms. They hugged as though it had been years, not months, which had passed between them. Willow pulled back and gazed into her friend’s beautiful face. “Oh, Penna,” she smiled through her own tears, “it’s so good to see you.” The blue tiger padded up to them and butted his head into Willow’s shoulder, pushing them both with his weight. He purred and wrapped his long tail around them. “Grim,” she stroked his thick fur, and the memories of the friends she had been torn from overwhelmed her.

“Me, too, right?” Phidi ran up to them anxiously.

“Yes, you, too!” Willow pulled him into the hug, clinging desperately onto all of them. “I’ve missed you.” A shadow crept over them, and they all looked up at the Black Knight who towered over them. Willow blushed, then reached for a hand to stand. She was lifted gently, and came to stand in the arms of her protector.

“You know the Black Knight?” Phidi gazed up at them with wide eyes. “That’s really him!”

Penna stood as well, eyeing the stranger with suspicion. “You trust him?” she asked her friend. Grim growled and lowered his ears.

Willow turned to face the Black Knight. The slightest turn of the dark head was all the signal she needed. Now she understood. It had nothing to do with hiding from the past, and perhaps it had nothing to do with Willow entirely. There was a deeper need, a calling which overruled her desire. Raven had become a symbol for the people. He was more than a man. He was more than a hero. He was the one thing which could keep the spirit of these people alive and fighting when all else had failed. Around them gathered dozens of familiar faces and even more Willow had never known. The resistance from within the Drylands City stood proudly. Between were those few gypsies who remained in the Known Lands and had traveled for weeks to reach the edge of the world. Dull swords and sharpened spears were held in hands that belonged on plow handles and horse carts. Weary, smudged faces gazed through the fog at the Red Sorceress and the Black Knight. Against the most impossible odds, they had all completed their journey.

Raven stood still, waiting for Willow's decision. No one else in their presence could have known the inner battle that waged in their hearts. So many years had passed, so many journeys had begun and completed, and so much pain and sorrow had transpired between them, only to be forsaken once more. In her own mind, Willow saw the woman in the mask, bound by something far more important than a need to hide. No one here would know Tara the Southlands warrior, but every mouth in the Known Lands had uttered the name of the Black Knight. Feared or revered, he was the one thing which could upset the imbalance of power in the battle to come. All this time, she mused, I held your hand, I walked by your side, and my heart knew what my mind would not permit.

Turning back to her friends, Willow inhaled the damp air and held it in her lungs. Her lips smiled, but her heart sank in her chest. “Sometimes things are not as they appear on the outside.” She said, then turned to the others. “This is the Black Knight.” With the last of that breath, she let Tara go once more.

__________________________________________________________________


Alone in his mind, though thousands rode in the cloud of snow around him, Captain Fain mentally chastised himself. All had been abandoned in the hunt for the Black Knight. His sudden appearance had mobilized the entire army. Again the Black Knight had eluded them, and again they had failed the Queen. Fain pushed his horse on faster, overtaking his lieutenants and commanders in a fury of snow and ice. They had watched the wyvern kill Captain Vrint, and immediately Fain had taken over. Never before had they encountered a wyvern they could not summon or control. He gritted his teeth at the thought of his leader’s untimely death. Vrint was surely disappointed in how things had turned out. This time, however, the outcome would differ. Fain steadied himself as City Lost came into view at the edge of the hills. He had instructed his men not to summon the wyverns without his approval. They could no longer be trusted. This masked warrior, however, was tired and wounded, and, he found himself hoping, possibly dead. As impossible as it sounded, Fain had warned his troops that the Black Knight might have survived the attack.

Then there was the red-haired woman who had been with him. Could it have been the sorceress they had sought for so many years? Captain Fain shook his head and let the thought pass. They would follow the information which had been provided in the night, and if the Black Knight or the witch were found, so much the better.

“You will be interested in what news I bring,” the man had bowed humbly at their feet the night before. Vrint and Fain eyed him with suspicion, but with such great numbers in their camp, there was no cause for alarm. They took him into the ornate tent and offered him tea. He took it graciously, though he never removed his gloves.

“You are not the Queen’s messenger,” Vrint had said. He was an intelligent man, and his army revered his leadership. Under him they had trampled every village from the foothills in the south to Longmire and beyond with fewer casualties than the training camp could claim in a year’s time.

“I am not,” the foreign man smiled, his dark skin parting to reveal very white teeth. “I am, however, an observant traveler. Perhaps you would like to know who intends to journey to City Lost?”

Fain glanced at his Captain. Both men understood the importance of strange travelers in these parts. Vrint sat forward. “Who travels to the edge of the Known Lands? And how do you come by such knowledge?”

Slowly drinking his tea, the man patiently replied, “I believe there are over a hundred of them now. They intend to assemble in City Lost. To what end, I know not.” He paused, then caught the Captain’s eye with his last words. “Gypsies.” Vrint and Fain no longer struggled to hide their astonishment. Had they not all been wiped out? “Rebels as well,” the man went on.

“What fortune do you seek for such knowledge?” Fain interjected. Something about this stranger made his heart beat with warnings.

Astonished at the suggestion, the foreigner clasped at his chest dramatically. “No, no, kind sir, you misunderstand.” His lips curled into a most terrifying smile. “I merely seek to help the Queen restore what she has lost!”

“Lost?” Vrint bellowed. He stood quickly and drew his sword, pointing it at the dark man’s throat. “Your words are poison! We would know if the Queen had lost anything of value.”

“Would you?” he answered, sneering at the Captain’s outburst. “Then surely you have heard of the kidnapping?”

Vrint stole a glance at Fain, who looked dumbly back at his leader. No such word had reached them. “Kidnapped? Who has been kidnapped?”

“Why the Princess, of course!” The sly messenger pushed the tip of the sword aside and stood to face the Captain of the Royal Guard. “The leader of the rebels stole away with her in the night.” His tone was serious now, and both men realized that they were not in the presence of a mere traveler. This man was someone and something else entirely. “But that is not all he took. A child walks with them. If all three are allowed to join in Torrent with the Red Sorceress, this world,” he swept his arms dramatically, “everything you see, everything you desire and hold true in your hearts will be destroyed. Everything.”

Vrint withdrew his sword and took a step back. “Who are you?”

The dark man drew himself up to his full height and scowled menacingly at the soldiers. “I am the King in these lands,” he answered. “You may call me Tinari.” His name echoed in the small space, shaking the bones of the two men. “You will ride for Torrent. You will find the gypsies and the rebels, and you will kill every single one you see. Men, women, children,” he inhaled, “kill everything you see.” He turned with a flourish, but stopped just short of the tent flap. “Oh, and if you happen upon the witch, do not harm her.” He glared at them with the eyes of a wolf. “She is mine.”


__________________________________________________________________


Reunions and introductions had continued on for over an hour before Merl lost his patience. He had traveled without rest since the night before, running with Wake in his arms. The tunnels below the Drylands and Hillmarch were twisted and cruel, affording no natural light or fresh air. Exhausted but awake for the entire journey, Wake had lit their way. He now stood behind the immense man, overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of unique people who had gathered in this crumbling city. Wide eyes stared at loud dwarves with heavy clubs and brave words, and Wake openly gawked at the scaly, green boy who cooed and whispered to the wyvern perched on the grey stone wall overlooking the sea. The brown-haired woman had a blue tiger. Another woman was covered in feathers. She was talking with what appeared to be commoners from the marketplace he had visited when his father brought him into the city. Merl checked in on him regularly, tousling his hair with a friendly hand. He noticed now that the giant barkeep was losing his kind nature, and a nervous energy pulsed in his veins.

Merl stepped forward, eyes lowered before the infamous witch. His steps were sure and steady, but his heart thumped wildly under the old chest plate he had once worn as a captain, a leader of free men. Silence overtook the crowd as he addressed Willow. “The Queen’s Army rides this way. They will arrive by nightfall. We are out of time, and we do not have the numbers to fight them.” He held his head high. “We can create a diversion, though.” He looked into Willow’s eyes and held back the urge to ask the questions he had considered for so many sleepless nights. “You’re the one Ulhetha told me about,” he mumbled.

“She is,” the old woman separated herself from the assembly. The journey had worn on them all, but Willow noticed immediately how tired Ulhetha looked. “I think just about everyone knows now, little one.” She grasped Willow’s hand in her own and held it tight. “This is Merl,” she nodded to the aging man. “He leads the resistance. I wish there was more time for you two to talk about everything you have in common, but time is the one thing we have never had enough of.” Willow glanced around at the faces in the mist and wondered how everyone had made the treacherous journey to join her in this final place.

“We will meet the enemy on the battlefield. I cannot guarantee how much time you will have.” Merl held his quaking hands steady.

Willow understood. It was a sacrifice they believed would make the difference for all the people in the Drylands who could not fight. “I do not know how much I’ll need,” she answered, looking at Merl. Something about him was familiar, but she could not place his face or his name. “You know this place.” He nodded. "I will be in the deepest tunnels."

"They lead only to the sea now."

The loneliness of Torrent crept into the gypsy's bones once more. There was a despair in this place that even the strongest love could not fight. "Protect that entrance with your lives." Merl nodded, then turned on his heel and signaled to his makeshift troops. He stopped before the mist came between them. “The Princess,” he began, “sends a message.” Willow held her breath, anxious to hear news of her friend. “She remained behind with the other warrior,” he inclined his head mistrustfully toward Raven, “and the little maid. They will secure the city. She,” he paused, uncertain of the rest of her message, “she also mentioned a cake.”

“Cheesecake,” Willow whispered, a smile returning to her solemn face.

Merl nodded, then returned to his duties. All but the smallest followed him, men and women alike. What children there were took up positions in turrets and spires as lookouts. All but one left in the crowd. Wake, unsure of his place, approached the red-haired woman. She must be the one in charge, he thought.

Willow caught sight of the boy, and her heart changed its rhythm. She knew him. Her heart knew him, even though her eyes had never seen him. She knelt to see him at his own level, and a question scrawled itself across her brow. Similarly, Wake felt drawn to the kneeling woman. Her beautiful face had haunted his dreams for as long as he could remember. One step from her, he stopped, and with a trembling hand he reached out to her face. She was as real as any person he had known. “It’s you,” he said.

She took his hand in her own. “I remember you...” His soft, hazel eyes held her own, trusting her to recall what was buried so far in the past. “Wake?” she asked, suddenly panicked. “Wake?” he voice became frantic.

The little boy smiled, though his eyes remained wide. “You know me.”

“I,” Willow felt the tears on her face before she realized she was crying, “You and I...” The explanation would not come. Without warning, she pulled the boy into her arms and hugged him tight against her. She could smell the forest in his hair. “I remember when you were born.”

“Father says I saved your life,” Wake breathed as she held him. “What did I do?”

“I was asleep. You woke me up.” It took a moment for the words to sink in. “Father?” she asked. “Who is your father?” She took him by the shoulders and held him back to look at him. Rosemary stared back at her in the boy’s flushed cheeks and pink lips.

“Father’s name is Ren. He’s been looking for you, too.”


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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Wed Aug 13, 2008 9:39 pm 
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dibs. yay for early mornings!!! :kdevil :kdevil

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
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Excellent update-y goodness... I hope Willow and Tara are able to spend some alone time together before the battle...

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 Post subject: Re: Raven
PostPosted: Thu Aug 14, 2008 2:56 am 
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Hey, that was a great update, things are really moving forward now. I'm interested as to whether Willow has any idea what she's actually got to do or if she's just trusting that it will come to her. its great that the resistance are all together in one place now..except for the princess and aelish..ok almost all together.

i'm worried about them going to battle with the queen's soldiers too, i think they might get slightly massacred.

and woo! raven is tara! woo!


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 Post subject: Re: Raven (updated august 13)
PostPosted: Thu Aug 14, 2008 5:51 pm 
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I love this fic, its awesome! Update soon i so wanna know what happens.


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 Post subject: Re: Raven (updated august 13)
PostPosted: Thu Aug 14, 2008 10:14 pm 
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I love these long chapters. So many tiny details and beautiful words to lap up and savour.

First off, damn, I'm stupid, I forgot all about Phidi's secret pet. I should know by now that nothing is randomly written here.

I loved the parallel between River and Willow, sacrificing all (for the moment) for a greater good.

Well, Kousa has gone entirely over to the 'darkside'. Was she hoping that Wake could wake the ancient?

The thing about magic playing in my head is this: As each magic user is killed perhaps their magic leaves them and is absorbed, en mass, by those who remain, making them stronger. Magic is energy, energy is not lost but is redistributed and finds the same energy to bond to.

That would explain Wakes power in someone so young, and Willow's growth. That would mean there aren't many magic users left in the whole of the lands.

So, if the queen suceeded in killing Willow, her power would pass to Wake and he would have the means to raise the Ancient. Kousa had all the bases covered, then.

Ok, so that's wild speculation on my part, but it keeps me amused.

Has Ren betrayed all the others to save his son? That would make sense to me. It couldn't just be his hurt and humiliation over Willow's rejection to allow him to abandon his culture.

It really feels like we are coming to the big finish. All the players are in place.

I only hope Willow and Tara get a little alone time before the battle. After all, River got her kiss, don't our other couple deserve that and more?

Oh, yeah, loved the cheesecake getting a mention again :pinky

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 Post subject: Re: Raven (updated august 13)
PostPosted: Fri Aug 15, 2008 5:13 am 
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awesome update ... I hope that you will soon allow tara and willow to get together ... but I am enjoying the journey tremendously! :D

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 Post subject: Re: Raven (updated august 13)
PostPosted: Sun Aug 17, 2008 10:21 am 
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Hello,

Being back from my vacations I can at least read this chapter!

I don't know how to feel, I mean I am really worried because the situation is quite desperate, but at the same time I am glad Willow recognized at least Tara (and especially that Tara at least made herself known!).

I hope they'll work out all the misunderstanding they have, but for now we have an injured black knight, a Red Sorceress only now really discovering her true power, many well intentionned people but maybe not enough to face the queen's army... And a mad prince out somewhere being not only mad but totaly scary. Ok I have decided how I feel. Scared, excited, and impatient for the next chapter :-D!!!

Thanks for this great fic.

Friendly,

Julia

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 Post subject: Re: Raven (updated august 13)
PostPosted: Fri Aug 22, 2008 10:53 pm 
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I miss this fic! It hasnt been that long since the last update but it feels like its been forever!


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 Post subject: Re: Raven (updated august 13)
PostPosted: Mon Aug 25, 2008 8:55 am 
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Chapter 28




Tara stood with her back to the wall, letting the cold of the stone creep into her body. It cooled her bones and made her fingers tremble in their gloves. Cold was not enough. She needed more to take the pain away. It had been easy at first. Willow had told her to leave. She had made the only choice given, and Tara had never resented her for that.

She blinked and opened her eyes below the mask, noticing that the last of the grey light was fading from the mist. Night would fall soon. It had been night when the reality of her purpose in this life had struck Tara so many years before. Cold wind howled, snow swirled about her feet. Her heart had been so heavy since Willow’s last words in the quiet forest. Please go. Three days after that moment, Tara had fallen to her knees at the foothills of the Southern Mountains. She could not go back to Laris. She could not go north. She was alone and unwanted, and it tore the breath from her lungs. On the brink of despair, filled with shame for her self-loathing, Tara turned her face to the sky and saw a lone bird fly overhead. It was a raven.

The concept had been simple at first. Become that which you are not. She knew she could pass for a boy. Being a man was only slightly more challenging. Her voice, however, was the one thing which could give her secret away. Tara had stood and looked to the west. Far in the distance the marshlands were barely visible, and they nagged at her brain with an idea. Following her intuition, she began a journey which would end where she now stood, at the edge of the Known Lands.

“Do you wish to be alone?” The voice startled Tara. She broke from her thoughts and saw a slim form in the doorway to her right. The chamber they stood in was barely recognizable as a great hall. More than half of it was now at the bottom of the sea, and the ragged edge from which it was torn stood upon the precipice of a cliff over the crashing tide. The woman stepped into the fading light of evening, and for the first time in over eight years of loneliness, they saw one another as Willow and Tara. The red-haired gypsy let her eyes fall to the floor, uncertain of what to say or do next. Cold fear coursed through her veins, and her hot breath plumed into the damp air from her lips.

“I have wished many things,” Tara replied. She stepped away from the ledge to stand in front of the other woman, boldly taking her into her arms. Willow’s head came to rest on her shoulder, and they both trembled. “I have never wished to be apart from you,” she whispered.

“I’m sorry,” Willow sobbed suddenly, collapsing into the strong shoulders supporting her. “I’m so sorry.”

Tara grabbed her fiercely and held her tight against her chest. “No,” she soothed. “No, Willow. There is no reason for apology in this place. We are here together. Whatever came before,” she paused, fighting back her own desire to collapse into the woman in her arms, “happened so that we could be with each other now.”

Willow buried her face into the black cloth which bound Tara’s neck and face. Hot tears soaked into the fabric, warming the warrior from decades of cold. “I never wanted you to go,” she began, “and then everything fell apart. I couldn’t stay. I came north. I even came here,” she lifted her face and stared into the mask. “I felt you here. You haunted me day and night, and I knew that letting you walk away had been a mistake.”

Two black gloves were removed, and a soft hand came to rest below Willow’s chin, holding her firmly. “There were no mistakes.”

“I hated you when I saw you that day.” Tara knew which day she meant. “Everything I had heard, all the rumors...” Willow’s voice faded when she realized the depth of her errors. “But you saved Cam. You spared him when no one else could have prevented his death.” Tara nodded. “Why did you not tell me then who you were?” she pleaded.

The black warrior let her head fall, “I could not risk the chance that you would suffer for my lies. If anyone knew what lay beneath this mask...”

Willow reached out with delicate fingers, caressing the neck and jaw-line of her protector. She met no resistance when she loosened the fabric edge, nor when she pulled the mask and cowl from the face of the woman she loved. Pale skin and dark blonde hair shone brightly in the dim light. Blue eyes blinked rapidly, unaccustomed to seeing without a barrier. “I know,” Willow whispered. Tara looked into her eyes, and the freedom overwhelmed her. “I know, and I love you no less. I even understand a little.”

“I could not-” Tara tried to speak, but Willow’s finger met her lips, hushing her tears and explanations. Tara cried. She cried for every day and every night that she had been something and someone she was not. And when her knees failed her, Willow held her steady. The power in her was amazing. Letting go of pride and strength, Tara rested her head and her heart in the hands of the beautiful woman. When at last she felt her breath calm, she turned her tear-stained face up to Willow and said, “Night has come.”

They looked around at the darkness which enveloped them, and resigned themselves to it. “It has,” Willow answered. “I must go.”

“You must.” Willow took a step back, but Tara refused to release her hands. “Please wait.”

“I would wait for you until the end of the world, Tara.” She reached her arms around the warrior’s neck and kissed her, drawing them both into the heat of their dormant passion. Lips and tongues and teeth fought for purchase, desperately driving them together in the mist and cold of winter by the sea. “This is not the end,” Willow whispered, her hands still entwined in golden hair. She spun quickly, leaving the space in front of Tara to fill with chilled air, and dashed to the far doorway, disappearing into the night.


__________________________________________________________________


The earth trembled below their feet, and the wind howled in their ears. The line was silent and still with anticipation. No one dared to break the spell which held them so boldly against such odds, no one wished to consider how bleak their chances truly were. Bare hands gripped the wooden handles of axes and spears. A few broadswords glinted in the moonlight which faded and reappeared with the fast moving clouds. Snow began to fall, and delicate flakes alighted on the beards and faces of a hundred men. They were farmers. They were market vendors. They were barkeeps. They were tradesmen. None of them were trained soldiers. Some of them were barely old enough to recall times when slavery was frowned upon. Not one of them had witnessed the great floods, nor had they seen the boon of rebuilding and prosperity shortly after. Every one of those men had seen the hardest times the Known Lands had given its people. Every one of them was tired and angry and ready to make the change that their land needed. They held their weapons proudly and stared the enemy in the face. Three-thousand well-trained, armed soldiers stared back at them, victory already in their eyes.

A cry sounded in the quiet, and every man present looked south. A horse from within the ranks of the Queen's Army leapt into the open field, running past the rebels. He tossed his rider as though the man were less than a saddle blanket, then ran valiantly around the ranks of humble men. Fain saw him and inhaled sharply. The horse was not a good sign. “Relinquish your arms!” he bellowed at them. “Surrender now and you will be treated with fairness in the Queen’s court.”

Merl stepped forward, meeting the captain’s gaze. “Nothing about that woman is fair,” he spat. “We would rather die here than live under her tyranny.”

The men on all sides of him cheered and chanted at the soldiers. “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” The night echoed with their courage, and the hearts of their foes began to tremble.

“I will offer you a bargain,” Merl pointed his finger at the chest of the man forty paces in front of him. “Surrender now and you will live to be judged in the court of free men.”

Fain laughed heartily. “Have you not counted your own numbers, old man? We stand upon the fertile soil of your grave. You cannot bargain with death.”

“Ah,” Merl’s eyebrows rose in appreciation, “but you will soon see that I have done just that.” The line of soldiers facing the rebels looked nervously about themselves. “We fight for freedom!” he bellowed.

“Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” his comrades answered back. Farmers and tradesmen alike lifted their weapons in preparation for battle. Three thousand trained soldiers held the line opposite, and for every one who held fear and superstition, another two craved the blood and glory of war. Flexing their muscles in anticipation, they growled and glared at their enemy.

“Soldiers!” Fain called out, raising a fist in signal. When it dropped, he would give the order to attack. His eyes, however, darted to the right, to the lone figure riding fast through the thickening snow. The man was hidden by darkness at first, and then the moonlight broke free from winter’s grasp, illuminating the snow and the black horse beneath the rider. The Black Knight galloped into the gap between the two armies, sword held high. As he passed, a cheer went up among the free men.

Before Fain could react, the rebels were upon them. They drove hard up the field, cutting through the ranks of armored soldiers, and men who had spent their lives as trained killers fell under rusty blades from the haylofts of barns. The rebels had had a plan all along. Merl led them up the center of the crowd of bodies, dividing the army in two. There they divided further, each half of the line pushing the soldiers back and away from the other group. Raven rode through the masses, cutting a swath of terror and death with each devastating blow of his sword. The soldiers, disoriented and overwhelmed by their own sheer numbers as they crushed in on one another, scrambled for any advantage they could find. Those on horseback fared better than their companions on foot, though many feet and hooves fell victim to the rebels’ sly tricks. Two of their fastest runners in the group to the south held ropes between them. They ran around and between, under and through, twisting and pulling with every step, narrowly missing the swing of axes and blades as they met up once more behind the bulk of the army. The two runners leaned back on their ropes and pulled with every ounce of strength they possessed, pulling hundreds of soldiers to the frozen ground.

Turl and Catch slapped each other’s hands in victory after the completion of their first special mission. “Good run, little brother!”

“Why thank you, Turl,” they bowed playfully to one another at the edge of the mighty battle. “Shall we move on, then?”

“We shall,” Turl grinned. Each sped off in a separate direction, soon lost in the din and mayhem.

The Black Knight, his sword sheathed in blood, glanced at the sky. It was time. With three leaps, his horse cleared the confused crowd of soldiers. While disoriented, the troops were still lethal in number alone. Raven tightened his knees on the saddle and urged the horse on faster. He rode for the second tangle of bodies to the north. The rebels had driven them farther than Raven had thought they would be capable. Cries of pain and despair sounded from within the mixed ranks of men, and the clash of steel and bone was enough to deafen anyone near. But above their cries, above the keening of death and the bellows of victory, another sound was heard. Every face turned toward the screeching, and when they began to flee, no one cared who was underfoot. The Queen’s Army looked up to see the Black Knight, rejected by death, plowing toward them at a reckless speed. Behind and above him was a wyvern, wings spread wide as it swooped low over them all. “Run,” Raven growled, and they did.


__________________________________________________________________


Deep within the deteriorating castle, Willow ran through ancient halls and stumbled over the wreckage of floods and neglect. Her breath was ragged in her dry throat, and her heart pounded in her ears. What am I supposed to do? she wondered. Ulhetha had been no use. Who else could tell her how to wake an Ancient? She wished for guidance, and she prayed silently for the companionship of her friends. When the tunnel stopped and the sea crashed at her feet, Willow slid to a halt. Her tattered gown blew around her in the wind, and her hair caught in her eyelashes. What am I supposed to do?


__________________________________________________________________


Aelish ran swiftly through the damp streets of the city, the Princess and Jinna trailing close behind. None of them had gotten any rest since the ball, and their nerves were frayed beyond recovery. At every turn, a new problem had arisen, and they were the only ones working to salvage what they could of the broken city. Soldiers had turned fully upon the people, drawing swords upon innocent woman and children in what could only be described as an unnatural fury. Arguments sounded from every building from the castle to the city walls.

“Let her go!” Aelish called out in a voice of authority. He rushed at the small family, a woman and man carrying a small child. They had been fighting loudly, arms flailing as they stood brazenly in the street. Tired of breaking up such problems, the young warrior pushed his way between the three without asking questions. “I said,” he pushed the man, “let her go this instant!”

Scared brown eyes stared back at him, and the man staggered at the mild push. The child clung to his neck with a determination Aelish had never seen. “Hey!” the woman grabbed Aelish’s tunic, spinning him to face her. “Don’t push him around,” she warned, her dark eyes threatening with a gleam.

“But,” Aelish tried to explain, “I-”

“You wanted to be a hero,” she taunted him. “But I already saved him and the girl. We don’t need you.”

River and Jinna caught up, out of breath from running. “Aelish?” the Princess asked between gasps.

Before she realized what was happening, the young man with the child was kneeling at her feet. His head was lowered in respect, but he slowly raised it to stare into her eyes. “Your Highness?”

Everyone stared at him in shock. The Princess was all but unrecognizable. Her hair hung about her shoulders in tangles, her dress was torn and burnt in three places from the barroom brawl earlier that day, and that which was undamaged was covered in mud and grit from the rain and snow which had refused to let up since dawn. Amazed at the humble gesture, River sank to her own knees and looked into the eyes of the man. “What is your name?”

“I’m Reza,” he answered. “I’ve been looking for you.” River sat back in shock.


__________________________________________________________________


Ren had followed her. He had watched every move she made from the moment she had emerged on the turret that afternoon, entangled with the Black Knight. Abomination, he cursed under his breath. She stood alone on the rocks at the edge of the sea, staring mindlessly into the blackness of the waves and the night. He knew the Black Knight’s secret. He knew Willow’s secret as well. It had been unfortunate that he could not hand her over to the Queen himself, for that would have been a wonderfully joyous moment in his life, but Ren could finally see that a direct solution would be required in this matter.

She is so delicate, he mused as he watched her balance on one foot. Ren had admired her since his first memories. Willow had been his best friend. She had been the trusted source of his inner-most thoughts. She had been everything he dreamt of and longed for until the day she ran from his arms and cried her rejection of him out onto the forest meadows. She had never truly come back. He had waited for such a very long time. Years had been wasted in hope, and it left such a bitter taste in his mouth that Ren wanted to spit in hatred. When she left for good, there was nothing left of their clan. The Circle was broken, and nothing could mend what they had lost. Wake was all he had left of that life now, and there was little hope for the boy’s future. Magic had been forbidden when he was a child, but now Ren knew that it was truly dying out in the Known Lands. It was only a matter of time before it, too, would become a fable, a legend no greater than dragons and beasts of the sea, no less than an army of free men, and no different than gypsies and free travelers who once roamed the plains and forests.

Did she know? Ren bit his lip, wishing he could comfort her and strangle her with the same hands he now tensed into fists by his side. Willow crouched on the rocks, deep in thought. Her silhouette faded and reappeared as the wind tumbled clouds under the moon. Did she know what was going to happen? Did she know that her own actions had been the catalyst? He shook his head silently. No, she believed she was innocent. She believed that her magic was by chance, that her survival was luck, and that her destiny was clear. Ren, however, knew otherwise. He pulled a long, thin dagger from within his belt and held it before his face in the darkness. The hilt was smooth and cool in his bare hands. “The end of this age will come by the hand of nothing more than a man,” he whispered.


__________________________________________________________________


Snow and mist swirled about their faces, and the earth shook underfoot as the soldiers ran and fought. Those who fell were trampled mercilessly. Though the people of the Drylands had felt that a war was being waged over the years, none of the Queen’s Royal Guard had ever considered their actions war-like. They had fought villagers and townspeople. They had pillaged and burnt, they had intimidated, and occasionally they had killed. But never in the long years of searching for the Queen’s quarry had they been faced with weapons and anger. Never had they been challenged. The rebels crowded in on them with each step, screaming in rage. Though untrained, what they lacked in accuracy or precision was made up for in their bloodlust. Many had fallen, but even the wounded fought on with a fervor none of the soldiers could muster for their own cause. This battle had begun as a joke. It would end as a fight for survival. Captain Fain, one of the few left astride his horse, continued to shout orders in vain. His troops were separated, aimless, and blind with their own fear.

On the other side of the battlefield, a directionless army used what little strength they had left to fend off the attacking gypsies and rebels. They were losing ground by the minute, slowly backing toward the edge of the rocky landscape over the sea. Overhead, Phidi whooped and sang as his wyvern flew in terrifying circles. The small dragon rushed toward the ground and pushed the retreating army in on itself, herding them toward the edge. Raven followed their progress from within the pile of men, hacking and pushing the other side of the group toward the center.

“How much further?” a familiar voice called out above the din.

The Black Knight searched the crowd, finally seeing a half-bloodied face staring up at him. It was Birch. “Fifty paces,” he answered. “Drive them hard!” Together they sliced through flesh and dented armor, two against hundreds. The black horse reared up and cleared an opening with his hooves, sending dozens of soldiers to the ground. Birch leapt into the clearing, delivering killing blows to the grounded men. Above the helmets, Raven could see the blackness of the sea. “Fall back, Birch! Fall back!”

The young man strode on, oblivious to the Black Knight’s warning. His dull sword struck another soldier in the ribs, deftly slipping between plates of armor. When he turned toward Raven with a smile of victory on his lips, his eyes turned to the three armed soldiers rushing at him from his right. Their weapons met his own, but his offense was too late. Together, in a crunch of steel and bone, the four bodies tumbled and fell over the stone and into darkness below. “Birch!!” Raven screamed. One foot parted with its stirrup as he planned to leap after the boy, but the wind changed. Inches from contact, Raven realized that the wyvern was too close. Leathery wings flapped uselessly and caught the Black Knight’s shoulders with their solid edge. He was hit hard, tumbling him from the saddle and into the air. As he fell, his face was turned upward, and he saw with sudden despair that two rode the back of the beast. Phidi screamed in terror as Prince Tinari gripped him by the shirt and tossed him from the wyvern’s back. Desperate to free himself from the unwelcome rider, the wyvern tumbled and turned, free-falling over the edge above Raven. Mist overtook them all as the rocky shore, more than fifty feet below, rushed up at them.


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