Despite the ridiculous gaps between updates, I decided to pick this one up again today. Here is a very belated Chapter 3. Alanna's gradually ticking off all the tasks and errands leading up to her plan. It has been several years since I read the SotL, so let me know if there are any continuity issues. Enjoy!!

Chapter 3

She arranged to meet Mistress Cooper again in the lower city at the end of that week, hoping that all her time away from the Palace wasn't attracting too much attention. People would start to ask questions if she spent every last free minute down there. They met at the seamstress' rooms for her final dress fitting before George's mother led her through a veritable maze of alleyways into the city's least reputable district. The roughly cobbled back streets they wandered through were far seedier than even the district around the Dancing Dove, and the people that haunted the streets bleaker than its usual patrons. The women leaning on street corners didn't laugh saucily, or advertise their prices with a twinkle in their eye- instead these girls, barely out of childhood, loitered half-naked with hollowed out cheeks. They passed few other pedestrians in the narrow, dingy streets and the few that they did see tended to keep their heads down and hurry to their destinations.

Alanna cast a wary look over at Eleni as she purposefully wound her way through the rabbit's warren of alleys. She thought of the small dagger she kept concealed under her dress and wished longingly for Lightning. Even though she could make good use of the dagger if it came to a confrontation, the visibility of a sword strapped to her hip made a confrontation that much less likely to begin with.

'Do you come here often?' she asked the older woman.

'Not often, no. While my son's reputation affords me far greater protection than most, there are many here that care little for him, nor the peculiar thieves' code of honour he enforces. However, the lady I'm taking you to has been of great help to me in the past and a woman of her... talents... cannot be found amongst more law abiding folk.'

Alanna wondered exactly what this witch's 'talents' involved, that required she live away from respectable people as they continued on.

When Mistress Cooper finally stopped outside an abandoned looking building, Alanna was surprised that anybody could possibly make their home there. The windows were boarded up and the horse-hair and plaster walls appeared to be crumbling. Eleni rapped against the rotting door and it creaked open to reveal a weathered old woman who hurried them inside.

The interior of the house was dark, lit only by hanging oil lamps, and a bizarre concoction of smells assaulted Alanna's senses. The floor was cluttered with barrels of Mithros knows what- some smelled vinegary, some like lye, and one or two that reeked distinctly of urine- and above their heads hung bunches of drying herbs and flowers. The fumes of the burning lamps mingled with the strong odours all around the room to produce a headache-inducing effluvium.

Mistress Cooper introduced her to the haggard looking woman and explained the nature of their visit. The witch merely 'hmmmed' vaguely in reply as she fossicked through a wall of sliding drawers. Eventually she clicked her tongue in satisfaction and brandished a handful of small vials filled with a curiously viscous liquid.

'This should do the trick, young one,' the woman wheezed with a paper-thin voice.

Alanna eyed them cautiously. 'What colour will they change my eyes to?'

'Which colour would you like?' She laid them out on a granite counter and pointed to each with an arthritic finger. 'I can give you smoky grey, clear blue, black, honey brown, dark brown, green, hazel- red even.'

With a questioning look in Mistress Cooper's direction, Alanna replied, 'Hazel might be best?'

The woman unstoppered one of the vials and tipped a drop on to a spoon, holding it expectantly towards Alanna. 'Don't you want to try it first? It won't last long.'

Hesitantly, Alanna took the spoon and licked the molasses-like drop off the end, grimacing at the bitter taste. It was only seconds before she began to feel a subtle prickling in her eyes and she rubbed them as they began to water. When she brought her hands away from her face the wrinkled old woman was holding a mirror and lamp up, allowing her to see her changed appearance. Staring back at her from the glass was a very different Alanna. Gone were her usually conspicuous violet eyes, replaced by brown and green flecked irises that looked surprisingly natural against her skin and hair.

Mistress Cooper smiled encouragingly. 'It looks perfect, Alanna. I dare say, if it weren't for the touch of the gods upon you, you might well have had eyes just like that.'

The old woman decanted more of the thick liquid into a clean vial and instructed Alanna to be sure she drank all of it, if she wished to have the spell last all night. The draught set her back more than she had expected, but its rapid and convincing effect was well worth it.

As she and Mistress Cooper made their farewells, the old woman caught Alanna by the wrist and turned an intense gaze on her. In the gray light flooding in from the open door the old woman's eyes seemed suddenly clearer and sharper.

'The Goddess has given you a hard path to walk, warrior woman,' the witch spoke quietly but firmly, with none of the raspiness of before. 'Love will ease that path, but be sure that it does not sway you from your purpose. You have great things to do yet.'

Slightly alarmed, Alanna looked for Eleni, but she was already waiting in the alleyway outside. She pulled her hand away and began to stutter, 'How...?'

But the old woman waved her off, ushering her out the door. 'We in the service of the Goddess are many and varied.' And with that cryptic explanation she closed the door, leaving Alanna on the street with Mistress Cooper utterly bewildered.

Alanna was quiet for the rest of the day, thinking about the old woman's strange warning and wondering what it was supposed to mean. The Goddess had told her to learn to love and love she had. It had been only short months since the night of her 17th birthday but already she was learning that crossing physical boundaries with Jonathan was but a small part of the business of loving another person. The real work to be done was in the opening up and sharing the hopes and fears that she had so tenaciously locked away to maintain her secret. The memory of her father's incapacitation after her mother's death still hung over her a good deal of the time and sometimes she felt she had to squash down the thrill of joy that Jonathan left in her for fear of becoming too accustomed to it. To love was to one day lose and that was a fear she had yet to accept.

Mistaking Alanna's pensive mood for tiredness, Mistress Cooper suggested they cut their day short after they had picked up the dress from the seamstress and Alanna, still distracted, changed back into her squire's ensemble and meandered back to the palace.

That afternoon, she was lying on her floor halfway under her bed as she tried to push the locked chest which now contained her new dress back under the bed frame when Jonathan unexpectedly called her name from the other side of the door. She bumped her head in surprise and cursed while she tried to scramble out from under the bed and pat down her rumpled tunic. She glanced in the mirror hurriedly to check that her eyes had resumed their normal colour before throwing open the door between her and Jonathan's rooms.

'Hi,' she tried to say as naturally as possible. 'What's up?

Jonathan stood on the other side of the threshold with a curious look on his face, one eyebrow raised. 'Everything ok?' he asked with a bemused tone.

'Sure,' she said, keeping up the bright tone. Jonathan knew most of her tells by now and she needed to dissuade his curiosity as much as possible. 'Everything's great. Was there something you needed?'

His eyes flicked over the room behind her as he replied, 'No, no. I was just going to ask if you wanted to come down to the practice courts. Gary and Alex are going to be sparring. Gary lost some crazy bet, and now Alex is making him fight him. I thought you might like to help Raoul and I heckle.'

Alanna was thankful he seemed to have dropped his questioning. 'You know I wouldn't want to miss that,' she said, grinning, as she pulled on a pair of boots.

A/N: Thanks for reading. Kindly leave a review!!