RICK JOHNSON'S
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by: Rick Johnson
PO Box 40451
Tucson, Az.
85717
RikJohnson@juno.com


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A CASUAL MEETING IN ZAMORA

MEETING

The two were walking their horses to rest the steeds, the woman, older and showing a hard life wore pants, shirt and a vest to contain her small breasts and glanced around, touching occasionally the light straight sword at her hip from nervousness, then turned to her companion to speak. The man, taller but looking younger and lacking the occasional gray in the woman’s hair, was dressed in pants, boots and an embroidered shirt that hung so long that without pants he would be accused of wearing a short dress. Both had hats, his leather trimmed with fur, hers cloth and floppy, the sword at his hip was heavier, longer and the double-length handle showed long years of use while his calm demeanor let the blade hang untouched.

Finally the woman spoke out, “Jason, it’s time to admit it. We’re lost. We haven’t seen a farm or village in Leghes and this land should be covered in farms and villages. It’s not natural.”

The man, typically, refused to admit that he needed to ask directions, and so replied, “We aren’t really lost yet. I just don’t know where we are.. .exactly.”

“Exactly?” she snapped. Still sensitive to their relationship and fearing his leaving her, she was very upset to take such a chance. “Can you at least tell me what country we are in? You’ve traveled farther than I. Are we still in Yugoslavia at least? I’ve heard that Russia has steppes like these. Did we go too far east to escape that dragon?”

“I don’t think so. See those mountains? They don’t look like any I’ve seen and the steppes don’t have as many trees as this place. It’s not normal. Land is either forest or grass with the occasional copse of trees. In Africa the Elephants keep the forest down but in Europe trees spread until farmers cut and burn it clear for farmland. In the Russian and Asian Steppes, the forest never got a chance and trees are too rare. To have such open space like this isn’t right.”

“Well, no matter where we are, I’m getting hungry. And thirsty. And I want a real bed. And even a bath and I don’t see any of those here.”

Jason pulled his bow from his saddle, a short Mongol bow that could drive a heavy arrow through light armor at 300 meters and chose a small arrow with a broad head suitable for hunting bird or rabbit and looked around for anything. The grass was short, too short and somehow naturally short. In the Steppes, grass would be feet high to support the grazing animals but this seemed to grow to ankle-height then stop. No cattle could eat this but deer, sheep and horse would. And with such limited brush for cover, rabbits would come out only at night when the raptors were asleep. Still, he hoped for something, even grasshoppers. Even though he was Irish and she a Slav from Kosovo, his ancestry told him to never argue with a woman unless you wanted to wake up sewn in your blanket as she pounded you to bloody hell with a frying pan. Fortunately, a lifetime taught him to shoot well and if he could see it, he could hit it. He just needed to find something worth eating.

“At least I stopped you from robbing the Dragon’s Hoard or he’d still be chasing us. And out here, with no place to hide, we’d be roasted and crunched easily.” He was more worried about the lack of herbivores. Grassland like this should support herds of bison or wildebeest or horse or even kangaroo which would support prides and packs of wolf, lion and anything else that could eat the grass-eaters. To find such a food-source empty implies that something big enough to eat a herd was around and it was, hopefully, away chasing prey elsewhere. The alternative would be to stumble across it and find it to be very hungry. Thinking about this, he pulled his heavy war-quiver from the horse and strapped it to his belt. Lyssandra watched, then quietly followed with her lighter Turkish bow, loosening her sword. She was a city-girl more accustomed to a mugger in the alley or a Watch-man expecting a bribe or her ‘favors’ to avoid an arrest but the years with Jason had taught her to trust his survival instincts.

***

Red Sonja was hungry and her hunger made her angry. Short-tempered at the best of times, the growling in her belly just made her more irritable. Damn that Sorcerer! The Zamoran Steppes should be filled with herds of deer and antelope and even rabbit or hare but the thrice-damned sorcerer’s spells had chased all the game away. A part of her admired the tactic. Without game, an invading army couldn’t forage and that denied an army or even a small force the chance to move in quickly. Now they had to take supply wagons which would slow them to a crawl and would make them an easy target for the Sorcerer’s spells and demon-thralls. Had she any sense she would have told the king who hired her to shove his purse of gold and she’d head north to find more suitable employment.

Occasionally she saw a rabbit and once a solitary striped horse that barked at her then returned to grazing, seeing her as harmless. And harmless she was for being an indifferent archer, she had always depended on the well-worn sword at her hip, her father’s sword, which had always served her well in countless battles. But using a sword on a horse or even a hare worked only if you could get close enough to strike and the rare game here was too wary for that.

Plus her skin was beginning to burn for her red hair gave her a fair complexion which burned easily. Close to thirty in years, all of her former female friends in Hyrkania were long ago fat mothers and nearing grandmother status. Most of her male friends were ageing farmers, fathers, or those few who took up the sword, were mostly dead for Sonja was unique. A swords-woman who was still alive. Still, and she laughed at the thought, all those who had sought her life over the last fifteen years would be happy to know their nemesis who they could not harm, had finally died from starvation and sun-stroke. A not-so-fitting end to a successful career. Even the chain bikini she wore was hot and only the blanket she wore to save her skin prevented the metal links from heating beyond endurance. She needed food, water, shade and she needed them soon or the Princess she was to rescue would find herself married to some hellish monstrosity the Sorcerer who had stolen her wished to call forth while her rescuer fed the vultures.

As the sun rose, she turned to one of the isolated groves that grew in the lower areas, seeking water that could be found in trickles. Approaching, she saw the horses, hobbled and quietly grazing, two of them. Hobbled meant two riders and out here, riders were usually armed and dangerous so she moved downwind and approached carefully, prepared to rob for her dinner which she smelled as she moved into position.

As she came closer, leaving her horse behind to prevent noise, she glanced at the hobbled steeds, then stared. Those were giants, far larger than any horse in Hyboria, large enough to carry an Aquilonian knight in full armor and his gear. Then men who rode these monsters must be seven or eight feet tall at least. Briefly she considered backing away, for weakened by hunger, she was not willing to face two well-fed giants. But it was the ‘well-fed’ part that kept her going. She needed food and by Tarim, she would beg or steal or if need be, fight for her meal.

“Dobro utro,” a voice behind her spoke. A voice attached to a man who carrued not only sword but a bow that could kill at 300 yards.

***

Jason tossed the zebra he had shot over his saddle and commented, “Zebra’s are African, but this place doesn’t look like Africa. Also zebras are herd animals, not solitary like this one. This place is stranger and stranger.”

“Think later, my love,” Lyssandra said, the knowledge of a full stomach easing her mood. Though she had grown up poor and meat a very rare treat in Kosovo, being with Jason had shown her a better life where she never went hungry, never had to sell herself for dinner or clothing, never feared being assaulted again. And although his Title, his obvious wealth and disdain for money but a willingness to spend it freely would attract many a woman, Lyssandra loved him for the simple matter that he cared for her and tried to make her life comfortable. Not many men would care if their woman had a rock beneath their back as she slept or would see to her needs first. Her Irish companion was different, strange and she loved him dearly for it.

They approached the small grove hidden in the gully and as Lyssandra began to collect wood for their fire and fill their water-bags from the small stream, Jason took the zebra aside and hung it to bleed then unsaddled their horses and after hobbling them, let them graze on the strange short grass. Then he returned and began to butcher his kill. By the time he had a haunch ready for cooking, Lyssandra had the fire going and was collecting roots and nuts that would add to their meal. She had never tasted meat before she became an adult and Jason taught her that too much meat and too little vegetables caused the Gout that plagued the wealthy so they needed a balanced diet, heavy on the vegetables. She didn’t fully understand but the man was university educated and owned more books than most libraries and seemed to know everything so she listened.

Then after eating their fill, Jason made a grab for his lover and moments later she stopped laughing and giggling and whispered, “Stop! I mean it! I heard something.” And adjusted her clothing as Jason grumbled and reached for his weapons. “This had better not be your imagination again.” But Lys’ mood was always fickle and wouldn’t return until the question was solved. She had a lifetime of faking passion to make men feel special and would gladly do so for Jason but he liked his sex honest and that meant easing her feelings so he packed himself away and went searching. Lyssandra had been a Witch in Kosovo since she was 14 and used ‘heard’ when she meant ‘esp’ so Jason trusted her psychic impressions.

Despite his looks, Jason was much older than anyone else alive and had spent a lot of that time as a guerilla-fighter so had little trouble sneaking up on the woman who was sneaking up on them. Well, from his view she was beautiful and built. Younger than Lyssandra and with the body of an athlete which meant firm and red hair which was a plus to his Irish desires. Still, despite the stupidity of a chain mail bikini that barely covered her ample breasts (even Lys wore a full breastplate and byrnie in battle) she was obviously a professional. So he introduced himself with ready bow after making certain she was alone. Lys would do a more careful search while he kept the redhead occupied.

“Dobro utro,” a voice behind Sonja spoke in a language she had never heard though her knowledge of foreign speech would put many a scholar to shame. Standing quietly, for Sonja was embarrassed that as good as she was, someone else had discovered her, she looked the man over. Inches taller than the average Hyborian but inches shorter than Conan, that Cimmerian with whom she had occasionally traveled, he had the look of a professional soldier even though he couldn’t be more than 25. His clothes were foreign, his sword heavy and well-used but the bow he carried made her hesitate. It looked like the kind the Horsemen of Eastern Hyrkania carried and one that could easily send an arrow through her and the tree behind her without slowing.

The man had it pointed to the ground but nocked and within a second could raise the weapon, cheek that string and push the bow to full draw. And that second wouldn’t be enough for her to charge or even dodge. So she tried to speak to him, buying time, “Good afternoon.” Then when he indicated a lack of understanding, he tried another language and so did Sonja. Although Jason knew or heard almost every language in Europe and Asia and many in Africa, this bore nothing he could grasp. Both tried other languages and Jason decided to buy time for the woman was obviously ready to draw her sword and jump him and shooting her would be a waste of feminine beauty. Lys wouldn’t mind him dallying with the stranger, she understood that to a man sex was just sex and after her past, she had no right to argue his desires. Still, Jason didn’t like rape no matter which side of the barrel he was on.

They must have gone through a dozen languages each when an older woman arrived carrying a Turanian Bow, smaller and weaker than the Hyrkanian but just as lethal at that range. She spoke to the man in some language that resembled nothing Sonja had ever heard then when Sonja’s stomach growled again, she turned, then smiled and slapped her companion’s bow away and approached, lowering her own. Speaking softly, she took Sonja’s arm, softly and led her to their camp where one of the striped horses that roamed the steppes was butchered and cooking with some roots roasting nearby. After being invited with a motion, Sonja pulled her dagger and fell to, cutting pieces from the haunch and wolfing them down as the woman handed her a water-bag.

Lyssandra spoke to her companion, “Nothing. No one. Just her horse which is more a pony than a real horse. Also look at her! Not at her tits you animal, her body. See how short she is! I’m short because of starvation as I grew up but she is naturally that height. It’s like her horse and the grass are all naturally smaller here.”

“That Zebra, despite being solitary, was normal sized. And our horses were bred larger to carry knights in full armor. But centuries ago they were smaller. And so were people before better nutrition made us grow. In my time, everyone is taller than in your century so maybe we are in the distant past? No, can’t be, See that sword, steel! And he horse has stirrups which are medieval, not ancient. No, we are medieval or later, probably later since her sword is light enough to be spring-steel which wasn’t invented until your time.”

The rest of the day both tried to communicate but despite all their efforts, none had a language in common so they started from the basics deciding to learn the redhead’s language.

“Red Sonja of Hyrkania,” the Red-head said pointing to herself. These people were tall and strange but obviously not dangerous and as strangers they needed her more than she needed them which gave Sonja the advantage. She hated begging for food and being dependant on any man.

“Jason Obrien and Lyssandra Kosssovonova” Jason introduced themselves. “Well, do we call you ‘red’ or Ms Hyrkania?”

Exasperated with the obvious misunderstanding, Sonja touched herself and said “Sonja”, then her hair and said “Red”, then looked around and pointed to some blood and repeated ‘red’ then pointed to the northeast and said ‘Hyrkania’.

“Oh, you mean you are ‘Sonja the Red’, from Hyrkania. Well Sonja the Red, I am the Lord Jason Obrien of Innis in Hibernia.”

His companion poked him in the ribs and said, “Her eyes are about two feet higher than you are looking.”

“You have no right to complain. You’ve been staring too.”

“But I know what color her eyes are which you do not. Keep to business my lover.”

Sighing, Jason removed their translator amulets from his baggage and handed one to Lys. Created by a Sufi in Syria, they aided in learning languages through some magickal procedure that the European Witches never learned but the Arabs and those magickians in the East knew well. In Europe the Witches focused on healing, love and fertility, the Eastern magickians focused on wealth, power and devices like these. While wearing them, they would never forget a word once hearing the meaning and so could learn in days what would normally take weeks or months. And so the three spent the rest of the day and much of the evening learning words for ‘tree’ and ‘rock’ and ‘sword’ until it was too dark to see.

As Lys readied their bedroll, Jason removed his locator, wound it up, adjusted the compass to magnetic north and sighted the gnomen on the pole star to measure the angle above the horizon and then Sirius and a few other well-known stars. Looking like a small version of a sundial married to an amerallery sphere and combined with a compass and astrolabe, this was a simple device that could be made by anyone from the Ancient Egyptians forward but somehow had been ignored by everyone who preferred to worry about accurate time from Greenwich to measure longitude. After waiting until the device stopped moving, Jason looked at the readings and commented, “problems! The latitude is easy to calculate by measuring the angle of the Pole Star with the horizon. But when I correlate with Sirius and a few other stars, the angles are wrong. So once I compensate for the angles of stellar drift, I find we are about…eastern Romania where the Transylvanian Alps meet the Carpathian Mountains… maybe… 15,000 years ago, maybe as far as 20,000! That explains the difference in the land and biota.”

Lyssandra wasn’t shocked as that number, which she knew was high, simply didn’t have meaning for her. Until meeting Jason in Kosovo at age 35 or so (she lied to herself about that as often as she lied to her lover) she barely could count to twenty and couldn’t even sign her own name. But if he were concerned, then she would comfort him as best she could until he solved the problem. That was his talent, to solve problems. She just had to have faith and keep him relaxed enough to find the solution. In the meantime, she was alone with her lover and a very attractive woman and no pressing business. Pity she would have to do all the work in seduction, Jason being too stupid to tell when a woman was interested in him. But the redhead wasn’t looking at Jason as a lover or even as a friend but as a temporarily useful object. Lys had spent her life seeing men that way only this one earned her way with her sword and not on her back. Wearing that little clothing it was a wonder the woman hadn’t been gang-raped a hundred times or ruined her body with scar tissue or even froze to death. However, Sonja the Red didn’t look at Jason as a man and women who did that often preferred other women for their bed and that interested Lyssandra. In the meantime, her lover would need some attention. It would be fun to teach them both certain joys of which she was familiar.

Later on Sonja heard the two playing in their blankets, obviously the woman wanted more than the man was willing to give. Now that was a reversal of roles but then, the man was younger than even Sonja and the woman older so maybe he felt he had a better chance with the red-head than an older, graying woman and wanted to save himself. A dagger in the spleen would quickly change his mind.

Lyssandra kept grabbing asking, “doesn’t Mr Happy want to play? I know someone who would enjoy a visit. Perhaps we could arrange a meeting?”

“Stop that! She’ll hear us. I mean it! Why do you always get in the mood when I can’t?”

“But dear, I can tell you ARE in the mood. At least Mr Happy is in the mood. I’ll be quiet! I promise! Just lay there and go to sleep and I’ll play with Mr Happy.”

She lied, Jason thought. She always lies like that but is she faking it to embarrass him or does she really enjoy being watched, he had never figured out in the seven years they had been together. In the end, he had to cover her mouth which made her laugh and then he knew she was pretending but still, she did try to make him happy even though she insisted on embarrassing him at times, especially by naming his … private parts.

The next morning Sonja awoke and readied her horse to find Lyssandra wrapped in Jason’s arms. For a brief moment, she mourned her many chances for that kind of affection. When they finally awoke, Jason glanced at the redhead, turned red himself and went to get their horses while Lyssandra made breakfast and prepared lunch. When he returned, he knelt behind the older woman, hugged her and kissed the back of her shoulder then went on to pack their gear. Despite their age difference, it was obvious that they loved each other. Not the passionate love of youth but the mature love where volumes of poetry could be written by a brief squeeze of the hands. The love she remembered her parents having before…

They rode and walked with Sonja sometimes between them, sometimes on one side as they encouraged her to talk to them. Sonja choose Zamoran as the language since they were in that country and by lunch she noticed that their language was interspersed with Zamoran words as if they didn’t know they were beginning to speak the language, and it all started with those amulets they put on the day before. “Sorcery,” she thought with distaste. Here she was hunting a sorcerer and being accompanied by sorcerers. Was this a plan or an accident? With sorcerers you never knew. These two could be sent by Arzula Thome to distract and kill her. Or they could be a couple seeking Arzula Thome’s power and using Red Sonja for their own ends. You never knew with those kind.

As the day went on, all three noticed that they were understanding more and more but still, a vocabulary without declension or conjugation limits conversation so try as they would, and each attempt helped, they were still able only to understand only the simplest sentences by the time they camped.

Morning came and the two rushed back to the nearby trees and held their horses who tried to panic as a dragon flew overhead. Sonja had seen few dragons in her life and none in the open like this one which seemed to be hunting for something. From the looks on her companions, she guessed that they had something to do with the beast and resolved to part at the earliest opportunity. Sorcerers, warriors and now dragons! Her life was rapidly becoming far too dangerous.

Jason calmed the horses, then lay against the tree and fell asleep. One thing he had never been able to teach Lys was to sleep and eat when you could and not be too choosey about either. Lyssandra was just exasperated with the man for he woke up early like all soldiers while she had a lifetime of staying up late and sleeping in. She tried to match his schedule but it was difficult at the best of times and sometimes she would lay there, watch him sleep and wonder what he saw in her. Now this Sonja the Red was something. Younger, more attractive, red hair, an obvious swordswoman-adventurer and much larger and firmer where men like Jason liked, she wouldn’t blame him for leaving her for the Hyrkanian. So she sat in the shade, patted the grass next to her and as Sonja sat, passed some jerky they had smoked and the water bag and encouraged the woman to talk.

Sonja disliked talking as a life alone had made her taciturn but if talking would help these two learn, she talked. And somehow Sonja found herself opening up and talking about her life, her missing family, her Oath and her regrets. The older woman was listening as if she really cared and having someone listen to her and knowing that most of what she said was totally incomprehensible made it easier. Sonja hadn’t talked like this in years and it felt good.

It wasn’t long before Jason awoke and scanned the horizon with his telescope then handed it to Lys who did the same. Sonja at first thought this was magick but when Lyssandra gave it to her, she saw it was a leather-covered tube that slid into another one with glass at both ends. Sonja had paid a penny once to a street entertainer who had a lens like this. For a copper coin you could look through the glass and see small things larger. This tube was the same only it made far things look closer. Damn! Why didn’t anyone else think of turning that entertainer’s toy into such a useful object?

Then when all were certain that the dragon was gone, they continued on, eating in the saddle and stopping only when they found a grove for camp. Jason refused a fire, doubtless fearing it would attract the dragon and they slept in their blanket, Sonja finding herself mildly jealous of Lyssandra who had someone to keep her warm.

“Good Morning, Red Sonja,” Jason said in Zamoran as he tied some wildflowers to Lyssandra’s saddle. “Did you sleep well?”

“As best as can be expected. How can you speak Zamoran so easily now?” For a moment she wondered where he found flowers then that thought was replaced by ‘no one gives me flowers’ which was replaced by ‘stupid custom, flowers to unlock a woman’s heart’.

“These amulets. They help us learn a new language quickly. We remember your words and as we sleep the info collects and gives us the language. I hate using them really as they give me a frightful migraine but sometimes they are necessary.” He took Lyssandra’s amulet and packed them away as the trio broke camp. Lyssandra found the flowers, smiled at her lover as she smelled the blossoms and held them to her heart. Jason did things like that. Foolish things that were a total surprise but still…

Finally, Sonja snapped, “Who the hell are you and where did you come from?”

“How about some manners!” Jason snapped back.

Lyssandra answered, “Jason is a bit testy at times but he means well. I’m from Kosovo, a part of the Kingdom of Hungary or the Ottoman Empire or the Serbian Empire. I guess it all depends on whose army is inside the borders that month. Jason, Lord Innis, is from Ireland, a large island far to the west on the Ocean. He likes to travel and I follow where he goes. Where are we?”

“I’ve never heard of those places and there aren’t and large islands past the Pictish Wilderness, just miles and miles of ocean until you fall off the edge of the world. This place is Zamora, the southern region in fact. If we keep traveling we should reach Koth in a few more days. I’m from Hyrkania which is past the Vialet Sea some months to the north-east. Now I’ve been everywhere from Kush to Vanaheim, from the Pictish Wilderness to Khitai and have never seen anyone like you or heard of those nations. So either you are lying to me or you are mad.”

“Or from another time,” Jason added. “The truth is that we come from some 18,000 years in the future. And I come from another 500 years past Lyssandra’s time. Frankly, I don’t understand this as our historians say that at this, your time, man is still living in caves, wearing animal skins and using stone tools, yet you are as technically advanced as anyone in Lyssandra’s time.”

Sonja looked and Jason could see she was toying with the idea but not totally rejecting or accepting it. “I would think you were mad but your horses are giants, you speak no known language and wear clothing so strange I cannot remember ever seeing anything like that. So if this is true, how did you come here?”

“I’m not certain. In Lys’ time, armour became so heavy that it was impossible for normal horses like yours to bear the weight so the various nations went on a binge to breed larger and stronger horses. These are seen as normal in my time though some are far larger. And with better food, people grew taller and larger too. A few centuries before Lyssandra, the average height was inches shorter, in my time, I am seen as average or even a bit short.

“But as for how? I was a Captain in Olaf Redbeard’s Mercenary Army bound to Kosovo where I met Lys in 1480 or so though that date means nothing to you. After some years, I and another captain, Felix, were sent to capture a rogue General named Merrick. Felix betrayed us, killed most of my men and tortured Lys, myself and those he was able to capture. We were rescued, re-attacked and killed Merrick but Felix escaped.

“Then Lys tracked Felix down to the castle of a mad necromancer who was obsessed with bringing the dead to life and Felix sought him to return life to Merrick. So we went to Hungary to stop them and kill Felix.” Jason paused then until Sonja asked, “And did you?”

“Did we what?”

“Kill Felix and the necromancer?’

“No. The necromancer was long dead and his castle in ruins and inhabited by Saxon raiders, the undead results of Lord Wraith’s experiments and a dragon. We stopped Felix from bringing Merrick back but were unable to kill him because the Saxons broke in to interfere.”

“But!” Lys added, “As we were running from the Saxons, Felix chased us with Merrick’s head into the Dragon’s lair and… The dragon ate them both!” she laughed at this.

“Unfortunately,’ Jason continued, “The dragon thought we had raided his hoard and chased us. We ran east into Romania which is so haunted you can’t kick a rock without releasing a vampire, werewolf or ghost and we got caught in a thunderstorm. Lightening, rain, wind, fox-fire and elmo’s fire all over the place. When the storm ended and the sky cleared, we were here. Somehow that storm sent us eighteen thousand years into the past. And from what we saw yesterday, the dragon came back too. What about you?”

“And why dress so when more armor would be safer?” Lys asked.

“My name is Red Sonja of Hyrkania. My family was killed and I raped by one of my father’s former friends. I escaped death and a goddess gave me strength to live and fight if I would swear to give myself to no man save he who defeats me in battle. What I wear is normal here. Some wear less, most more but I’ve never seen a swordswoman wear as much clothing as you do. City-bred women, yes but not those in our profession.

“So I travel and currently am serving the King of Shadizar whose daughter was stolen by a sorcerer named Arzula Thome who wishes to marry her to some demon-spawn and thus have an army of foul fields to use in his plans to conquer the world. If I can rescue the girl, kill the sorcerer and stop his plans, then all will be good. If not…” she left the rest unsaid.

“Obviously, the magick of your time is far more powerful than that of ours. But my Locator says that there is a chance of a gateway home in that direction so I guess we will be traveling together for at least a time. That is if you will have us as companions.”

“I’m not used to companions, having gotten used to being alone these last years, nor am I happy with being chased by a dragon, even one as small as yours, but it seems we are going in the same direction and a couple archers may come in handy.”

“Small? Our dragon is small?” Lys commented. “Saint George of the Christians is famous for, in full armor and on horseback, he slew a dragon barely ten to twelve feet long and much of that tail. A dragon more than a fifty feet is a giant to us.”

“It seems than your time breeds giant horses, tall men, inept sorcerers and tiny dragons. What a safe place it must be to live with nothing to fear,” the redhead laughed.

“Not so safe as you think. We all have our troubles. I met Jason when the Catholics were about to torture and burn me for praying to a god different from theirs. I lost my mother to Plague, one child to starvation and another when the Turks invaded. I cannot recall how many times I was held down and raped over my life. Jason was a galley slave and his family was killed by the English who invaded his nation. I don’t see how any time can be safer than another, we just get used to the dangers we grow up with.”

“Perhaps, but right now killing Arzula Thome will make my time very much safer.”

The trip south took longer than expected because Jason insisted on moving from one grove to another to find water and avoid the Dragon who they occasionally saw in the distance. During that time, Jason kept mostly to himself for his Irish nature was such that he was not as open and friendly as was his lover who quickly accepted Red Sonja as her new best friend, much to the Hyrkanian’s dismay. Men, Lyssandra thought, were wonderful for killing spiders, protecting their women and keeping warm at night but they were fools when a woman needed a shoulder to cry on.

As they planned their overnights around the locations of trees and water, they stopped at least an hour before sundown and while Jason collected wood, Lyssandra asked, “You said that when you were saved, you made a vow to your goddess to not give yourself to a man who hasn’t defeated you in battle?”

“True. She gave me the strength and ability to fight as well as any man. So far no one has defeated me.”

“So, you haven’t been with a man since…”

“No!” Sonja snapped. “I am very good with a sword.” She said more softly.

“Hmm, I do admit that before Jason, and sometimes even with him, I often dreamt about sleeping alone and never missed sex when I could avoid it. But aside from that one year when we separated after… Felix, I rarely went more than a few days alone.”

“Why?” the redhead asked not really curious. To her, sex was a bad memory still fresh after more than fifteen years.

“I had to eat.”

Doxie, trollop. The words flew through her mind. A woman who sold herself for a few coins. No wonder she tried so hard to make Jason happy. The alternative was to return to the streets and taverns. Curious though how they seemed to actually care for each other. Well, lust blinded men and security blinded women. Sonja was glad she could support herself, alone. She may die from a gut-wound someday but she’d die with her self-respect intact.

“Sonja, I was wondering. Jason loves me. I don’t know why but he does and what I first did for security, safety and money, I now do gladly for love because he won my heart years ago by simply being a kind man who cares for my comfort and forgives me my past.

“But you swore to give yourself to only to a man who could beat you in combat? That means a kind man, a loving man, a decent man who cares for you, for your comfort and happiness will never be your lover simply because he is less capable with a sword than are you?

“But a mean man, a vicious man, a cruel giant of a man who beats and rapes his way across the world may defeat you so you will willingly give yourself to such a beast? This sounds a bit .. well sick to me. Jason conquered my heart with kindness, not violence. But your goddess wants someone to beat you, abuse, you, rape you and only then can you love him?”

“I don’t think… I never thought… damn!” and Sonja stood and strode away, more angry with herself for she had never thought of it that way. She always assumed that the man who defeated her would be good and kind and loving and many had tried. But all had failed. Even Conan who she cared for more than the rest barely defeated her that one time and then by trickery and even then when she submitted, he left in anger before the act for her refusal to participate. But all the good men were, at best, indifferent swordsmen. The best fighters were the kind who had assaulted her, murdered her family. She was denied a loving man who would give her flowers and make her bed soft and worry for her needs and feelings. And most of all, she was denied a man who would want a home and wife and children. Children Sonja would never have for fighters rarely settle down to raise families.

She saw Jason carrying wood and strode to him, grabbed him by the shirt and kissed him hard. Then she pushed him away when he failed to respond and demanded, “Attack me!”

“What?” Jason was totally lost.

“Attack me! I see your looks. I know you want me. Defeat me and I am yours. Or is that blade at your side useless!” Then she drew and struck at the man who was saved only by the wood he tossed before them. By the time Sonja had cut her way through the falling firewood, he had drawn and backed away under her assault. She thrust, struck, cut, her anger overcoming herself and always he backed away, defending himself easily but never returning a blow.

Finally she overreached, though by design or exhaustion or boredom Jason didn’t know, and he took advantage to step in and grab her by her throat to say quietly, “Please calm down!”

“No, you calm down,” as her dagger pressed into his belly. She had drawn and almost killed him as he shook her.

Jason looked down, released her with good grace and commented, “Good move. I shall watch for that in the future.” Then he bowed to her but she turned and strode off.

When Lys arrived, he asked, “What was that about?”

“I think she realized for the first time what she had given up. Don’t worry dear, it’s a woman thing. You wouldn’t understand. Your lips are bruised. Are you hurt?”

“More surprised than anything. Remember those Amazons in the Company? Sonja reminds me of them. Man-haters but the Amazons were lovers because that is how they were raised. She hates all men for what one did long ago.”

“Some people refuse to let the past go. I’m so happy you aren’t one of them. So, how was it?”

“How was what,” he asked as he bent to retrieve the firewood.

“The kiss. Did you like it?”

“I didn’t have a chance to notice. She was a bit rough.”

“Sometimes you like it that way. Were her lips soft and tasty?”

“What are you…”

She came closer, whispering, “Did you like her more than me? Were you excited by her touch? Her desire? Do you want her? Did you enjoy her armor pressing into your chest? Were her breasts as firm as her lips? Did you want her to make you hers?”

“Stop that!”

“Did you…” then laughing, “I’m only joking. Hey, don’t run away, you’re dropping the wood!”

Jason made a point to keep the fire between him and Sonja which she appreciated and all ate in silence save Lyssandra who was smirking at some private joke. Then when Jason left to water a tree, Lys spoke to Sonja, “I’ve not seen you fight but I spent seven years with Jason. He’s trained armies, killed vampires in their nest, fought more battles than I can count. He would have taken you easily had he wished.”

“I don’t think so. I’m far better than I look. Otherwise I’d be dead or so scarred I’d have to cover everything.”

Changing the subject as unprofitable until she saw them both in a real fight, “You vow, does it apply only to men?”

“What do you mean?” Sonja asked, totally lost.

“Men! You said you’d not give yourself to any man safe one who defeated you. What about women?”

????

Lys laughed and leaned forward. “Jason and I have an understanding. I like men and love him but after a lifetime of male poundings, sometimes, I desire someone… softer. Gentler. Someone who understands that lovemaking takes time. Jason doesn’t prevent me from seeking my own gender occasionally.” She fell forward as Sonja moved aside to prevent being kissed. “Well, you said ‘men’! I thought that fifteen years is a long time and there are other ways.”

“Did I miss something?” Jason asked, seeing his lover on the ground and Sonja standing apart.

Sighing, “Nothing, my love. Nothing at all. Just a misunderstanding.”

“So, how was it?” he asked.

“It wasn’t!” she snapped.

“Did you want to touch her soft cherry-like lips, to feel her creamy skin under your hands, to press yourself against her firm breasts..cf I’m only joking! Turnabout and all that…” as he ducked a thrown rock.

“Well, My DEAR! Your joking has just cost you a night’s fun and fantasy. Sleep alone!” she yelled as she stomped away.

Jason glanced at Sonja who took her blanket and left in the opposite direction after giving Jason one of the dirtiest looks possible. “Women! Never understood them, never will!”

Sonja lay there on her blanket, her naked dagger within reach, more for habit than comfort because she really didn’t think either would visit her. Though she secretly wished at least one would try. Then she rolled over, embarrassed at the ‘one’ comment. Lyssandra was so easy to like. Maybe it was her former profession that forced her to be pleasant to get more pay but she was definitely a likeable person and as much as Sonja hated to admit it, she was lonely for a friend, a woman who understood her life and needs and would listen without trying to ‘fix’ her with ‘physical love’. Lyssandra had been raped more times than she remembered, had lost her mother and even her children and yet managed to live a normal life. Sonja lost her parents and had been raped but once and could not let it go. Jason… Well he was no Conan but he was gentle and he was good with that sword. She actually tried to hurt him and failed. Maybe she held back. She really didn’t want to kill the man though she was certain that she could have. Still, it was romantic to lay here, under the nearly full moon, wishing for company, watching the clouds pass overhead, see the occasional bird blot the moon, their arms and legs spread with their wings…. Suddenly awake she yelled, “Harpies!” and took her sword and dagger and ran for cover under the trees. They would have to land to get her and that would put them at her mercy.

She worked her way through the grove to find her companions now alert with drawn bows. Lyssandra’s vest flopping open but her shirt still on. Jason was barefoot but in pants and his white undershirt which probably made him a good target. An instant later he stepped out, pushed the bow to draw (you couldn’t pull a Hyrkanian or Turanian bow), released and stepped back under cover in one fluid motion. Instantly a scream from above as the arrow struck and Lyssandra followed with her own bow, slower than Jason but no less deadly.

“Don’t waste arrows,” he commented as he loosed again, the heavy arrow missing two nearby harpies but killing two others as the shaft penetrated the bodies flying higher up. Jason was killing the ones at a distance and leaving the closer to his lover and her weaker bow and lower skill. Still they were taking their toll so Sonja focused on those that had landed.

Killing harpies in the air with a sword was near impossible. They could easily rise above and drop spears or rocks from the safety of height. But on the ground, their wings were a problem, getting entangled in branches, slowing movements. Sonja approached, blocked, thrust, cut, thrust, moved on and on, killing what she could, crippling those she must intending to finish them later. Then it was done.

The survivors flew away, Jason moving out to shoot them as they left, Lyssandra watching his back in case of a laggard and Sonja killing the wounded. “Jason, Lyssandra, pack up! We need to get out of here fast!”

Not asking time-consuming questions, the two followed, tossing gear into bags and saddling their steeds, neither thinking to finish dressing until long gone. Then as Jason pulled a boot on and Lyssandra laced her vest during a rest, he asked, “Why leave? Are you expecting their return?”

“No,’ Sonja snapped, “I’m expecting the survivors to report to Arzula Thome our location and then he’ll send something nastier after us. That’s why he is safe, he drove away the game to prevent an army’s approach and he kills anyone in the steppes before they can reach him. He’ll know we are coming now!”

“Magick in our time isn’t this powerful. Mostly healings, love spells, the occasional questioning a corpse or death curse and half those fail to work. I gather your magick is far stronger.” Jason asked.

“What you describe is done by any back-alley conjurer. These sorcerers are dangerous and can burn a man at a dozen miles with a single thought. They call demons from all the hells and raise armies of the dead. The only thing that stops them from taking over the world is that they fight among themselves more than they seek to conquer.” They rode on, racing to put distance and resting only when their horses were tired until sunrise found them under another grove where they collapsed, their horses heaving. Jason forced himself to stand and remove the tack so he could rub the stallion down. He might need it in good condition and a good horse could carry an exhausted rider better than an exhausted horse carry a fresh rider. Sonja and Lys followed knowing without being told the wisdom of his act.

“Ideas?” Jason asked, counting his arrows of which he had few left.

“Same as before. Find his tower, get in, kill him, rescue the princess and burn whatever we can find to prevent another wizard from using his knowledge.”


ARZULA THOME

The trio approached a small village with crumbling walls but large herds of sheep and croplands. For some hours the rolling grasslands had been gradually changing to rolling hills to lead to the crumbling mountains in the south. Sonja was, for some unaccountable reason, talkative as they rode.

“Those hills are the border between Zamora and Koth. Though low, they are almost impassable in the Winter snows and Spring floods and the few open passes have small forts to guard Zamora though their main reason is to extract tolls from the merchants and travelers. Cattle are raised up north but sheep are the norm here with horses on the steppes. Koth and Zamora have been at peace for so long that no one tries to keep the walls in shape though that will change as Turan continues to move west. For now, the king is mostly a face on the coins for Arzula Thome rules here and any soldiers you see are mercenaries he hires to defend his tower. This village is but one that supplies him and his soldiers with food and the occasional unwilling girl.” She spat that last comment and continued, “Arzula Thome was once just another Stygian exile driven out by more powerful sorcerers. At first he was allowed to remain because his presence kept other Sorcerers away but lately he has became so powerful that he is king in all but name in the Larsha Province.

“He kidnapped the Kings Daughter, one of them at least since the King has more than he can count, and seeks to sacrifice her to some demon-god for the power to raise an army of demons. And for that he needs a high-born virgin or so I am told. We have to stop him before this happens.”

“kind of takes the fun out of being pure,” Lys joked.

“Sacrifice?” Jason commented. “That means a specific time. Probably Full Moon, probably an Equinox or Solstice. Possibly some conjunction. Do you know which of these is near?”

“You seem to know something of these matters. But the Full Moon is but days ahead and… the Summer Solstice approaches in near the same time, maybe they will coincide.”

“Days? How about the New Moon? Dark of the Moon for Dark Rites.” Suggested Lyssandra. “Though if the Summer Solstice occurs on the Full Moon, that would be a powerful time for the event.”

“Possibly, the Christians would burn cats and destroy the Stone Circles on the Summer Solstice. Sounds good so we have about two or three days to stop him, rescue the girl and save the world. Doable.”

“Or, my love,” Lys laughed, “relieve the princess of her innocence. No maidenhead, no value. I think that would be your job as we women, neither being virgins and so are safe, remove the Sorcerer.”

“I think that you, my dear, are better suited for seduction than am I.”

“Undoubtedly, though your sword would feel better to her than mine which, though longer and harder is edged and pointed. Sonja, did I mention that we slept as brother and sister for weeks until I was able to convince him that I was otherwise inclined. The man is wonderful in so many ways but leave him to seduce a virgin and her chastity is safe forever.”

Sonja laughed at this banter which would leave most men angry but this man from Ireland was more good-natured than most she was finding. Though he showed some fear when sighting the dragon, he refused to be conquered by the emotion and continued on. Kind, gentle, courageous in battle and not afraid to hug his lover in public. “Well then, since we cannot rely on your lover to remove the vital requirement from the princess, we should be certain that we rescue her or kill Arzula Thome. Beware!”

This was as a troop of soldiers approached.

The troop wasn’t large and the casual manner in which they approached showed their disdain for one man and two women though both Jason and Lyssandra wished that they had some armor or at least shield and helmet. Sonja just smiled and waited.

Soon their leader looked them over and demanded of Jason, “What do you here!”

“Lost! My woman and I come from a long way and got lost. We’re looking for Kosovo. Can you tell us where it is?”

“Kosovo? What kind of name is that? Is that a city or a state or a horse?” The others laughed at his joke which Jason felt showed how bored and stupid these mercs were. He hired better in Kosovo and those weren’t nearly as good as his Irish kern attendants. Still, his sword was loose, he had an idea of Sonja’s skill and saw she was ready and tense and Lyssandra would take her time on defense until she could kill her man. And since there were only a half dozen…

Then Sonja struck, killing one man before anyone saw her draw. The second fell a moment later and by then everyone was hacking away with drawn steel. Jason allowed an overhand blow to slide off the flat of his blade then he snapped and bit deep in his opponents neck before the man could recover then rushed to help Lyssandra who was backing away though her horse was the larger.

Finally she spurred her mount which snapped out to bite the neck of the steed facing her. His horse screamed in pain and tried to fight back which caused its mount to loose momentum and clutch the reins, a fact that gave Lyssandra her opening. Years with men had taught her to ride, not fight her mount so she easily remained upright by thigh and hip power alone as she thrust for the armpit. That scream of pain, gave her the chance to pull her blade free then slash against the man’s unprotected throat and he went down with crushed windpipe, bleeding from neck and armpit.

Sonja faced two, a testament to the regard the mercs had learned to give her and she defended until she found an opening and thrust for the heart. It was a shallow blow but adequate and turning, found the last falling with cleft shoulder, Jason wrenching his sword free as the man fell.

Looking around, the herders were moving their flocks away but otherwise pretending that they had seen nothing. Jason didn’t expect them to help but if they thought that they could make some cash or earn the Sorcerer’s gratitude, they’d turn the trio in without remorse. “Why did we kill them, if I may ask?” Jason looked to the red-head.

“I was bored. Besides, they would have taken us to Arzula Thome and I’d rather meet him without chains. Let’s move on.”

“Can we at least rob the bodies before the peasants arrive? Lys and I are broke and could use some cash and such.”

Sonja looked with some disgust for he had struck his second man from behind when the man’s attention had been diverted. Some may see that as smart, Sonja saw it as cowardly. And robbing the dead was just wrong.

Minutes later the two strangers rejoined the Hyrkanian, their larger mounts easily overtaking hers and they rode on past the town. Lys had bathed maybe once a year her entire life before meeting Jason but the Irishman’s fanaticism for cleanliness was second only to that of a wealthy Sultan. And having spent two years in an Ottoman Harem she had opportunity to bathe all she wanted. But with Jason, it was fun and she learned to enjoy the experience of being clean and wearing freshly washed clothes. Sonja, she thought, needed only to stand in the rain and oil her minimal armor to prevent rust. Thus Lyssandra and Jason looked with regret to the village that they avoided for fear that someone would report them.

“A plan would be nice,” Jason commented as they approached the tower in the distance.

“And when did any of your plans ever go the way they were planned?” Lyssandra asked.

“THAT is why I have back-up plans. But we know nothing about his strengths, the number of soldiers, access to the Keep, nothing. This rush in and kill is for Scots.”

“Will you two shut up!” Sonja snapped. “I don’t know if Arzula Thome can smell the blood we spilled but someone, the soldiers if we let them live, the herders eventually, will tell him we are here and then he’ll use his arcane powers to search for us. So unless you have some spell to prevent detection, we must keep moving.”

“I do,” Lys replied.

“You do what?” Sonja stared.

“Have a spell to prevent detection. It only prevents detection by magick so a physical search might find us but it will deflect magick if we are careful. Those are Mountain Ash aren’t they? It’s called the Rowan Cross Spell.”

Not convinced and disliking magic of any form, she let herself be persuaded only by the desire to finish the task quickly but what happened was so simple she didn’t see it as magic at all. Lyssandra rode to the tree, looked them over until she found a branch she liked, then poured some water and a bit of bread to the roots. Then she cut some small branches which she tied into a cross with hair from each of them while softly saying words about ‘eyes that shall be blind’ and such. When done, she tied some string to the crosses and looped them over each of their necks and said, “Ignore it and so will he ignore us. It may help against his soldiers but if we are clumsy, I cannot stop someone from investigating the clatter of a dropped sword or shield.”

Sonja tried to ignore the crosses but the ends of the sticks continued to poke into her breasts so she finally shoved one end under the metal links to keep the thing from moving around. Lyssandra with her smaller chest and more clothing didn’t notice what she now wore.

They made a fireless camp near the tower, too close for Sonja’s mood but they seemed to be safe and so rested and ate as Jason circled the tower with his ‘far-seeing device’ as Sonja counted guards, especially those who left and those who returned. When he returned he had a drawing of the tower and explained the structure.

“It’s a simple tower with wall. No moat. Primitive really. The wall is easy to climb and I could undermine the Keep in a couple days.”

“Can you dig while that sorcerer is throwing fireballs down the shaft? Or sending giant spiders after you?”

“How big a spider?” He held his hands apart a few inches then slowly moved them to a foot and said, “Come on! Stop joking. How big?”

Sonja spread his hands as far apart as they would go and said, “That’s just the head and some are larger.”

“That’s impossible! Nothing with an exoskeleton could grow that large. It couldn’t breathe and would be crushed with its own weight. You must be joking!”

Sonja smiled and motioned him to follow her to a nearby shaft surrounded by silk ropes. “Ready your bow!” then she tapped on a white rope the size of her smallest finger and backed away with drawn sword.

Instantly a spider ran from the opening, a spider with a body the size of a wolfhound and legs easily a couple feet long. So surprised was Jason he was almost under the thing before he shot, his arrow crunching through its skin and pinning it to the ground as Sonja casually walked up and removed the head of the thing. “This is why Zamora is called ‘Spider-Haunted’.” Now take a nap! she thought with some smugness.

Jason just stood there, looking at the monster. His whole life he had supported the search for the Loch-Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman, Brontosaurs in the Congo and had even seen for himself a 50 foot shark in the giant-squid infested waters off New Zealand but everything he believed said a spider this size was impossible. It was too heavy for its size, it was too large to breathe through its tubes. It was just… And Sonja said there were monsters bigger than a steer? He moved away, cut a shaft and carved it to a pole, then pulled a spearhead from his bow-case, fit the socket over the pole and fitted a couple cross-bars to the socket of the spear, tapping them in until he was satisfied. Lyssandra did the same with a smaller spearhead, she skin whiter than Sonja’s complexion.

“A boar-spear. Have a taste for pork?” she smiled.

Jason resisted the urge to slap her smile off but said, “When the Prince sent us to Romania to clean out a band of bandits that had settled in a castle built by Vlad Dracula, we weren’t told that the bandits were vampires. So we paired off, a spearman to impale the vampire and hold it while the partner removed its head. I figure the same should work for spiders.”

Impressed at how well Jason was dealing with his obvious terror Sonja commented, “Good idea. And it should work. On the smaller ones. Watch out for the ones the Zamorans worship. They catch the big ones, feed them sacrifices and they tend to grow really big.”

“How big?” he managed to ask.

“That dragon that has been looking for you? It would be as a fly in a web to some I’ve seen.” Then she walked off laughing to herself. She hadn’t had this much fun since she danced on tables in taverns when she was just starting out as a mercenary. Tarim, she hadn’t thought about those days in years. Was she really that young and carefree? What happened to sour her so?

They approached the wall at sundown. Well, as the sun sank behind a mountain leaving the tower in deep shade that is. Jason removed his boots and with rope and dagger and spear hanging from his body, climbed the wall, fingers and toes finding easy purchase in the missing mortar. He was half-way up before he began to wonder why Sonja sent him first. It wasn’t like her to allow someone else to run point. Slowing, he anchored his feet and fingers near the top then slowly peeked over the top. No guards meant that they were very careless or there was something nastier than human guards waiting. Thoughts of ten foot tarantulas running along the walkway filed his mind until he realized that there was no walkway. The wall at the top was barely a foot thick and dropped to the ground without interruption. It was just a wall. Jason had build garden walls stronger than this one. But still, he hadn’t lived so long by being careless so he watched for a very long time, seeking any movement, any silk, any sign of danger. Then he reached over the wall, slid his dagger into a crack on the inside of the wall, looped the rope over it and dropped it to the women below.

Shortly all three were laying on the wall as Sonja asked, “worried?”

“No, terrified is more like it. Next time you go first.”

“Ok,” she said and tossed the rope over the inside and slid down to land and draw in one movement. Jason noticed, “Lys, she is in the open. Avoid cover. Give whatever jumps at us a chance to warn us before it kills.” Then he was over and down. He had six arrows left, a bow that could penetrate a decent pine door, a good broadsword and no armor. Plus he wasn’t getting paid for this either. So why the hell was he risking his and Lyssandra’s life like this? Maybe he should just marry her and live on the beach and watch his sword rust away to nothing. A moment later Lys joined them, they replaced their boots and Sonja led the trio to a doorway where Jason entered first, watching the ceiling for spiders. Instead he met two guards who were obviously not expecting company and more than Jason was expecting human guards. Jason punched one in the throat and as he went down choking, pulled the other to him and slammed the man’s unprotected head against the wall to crush the skull.

“Impressive!” Sonja commented as she entered. “I didn’t think you had that in you. The Princess is probably in an upper floor of the tower for fresh air and to prevent escape. Lyssandra and I will kill Arzula Thome who is higher still, you rescue the princess. We’ll meet at the horses when done.” She nodded to Lys and moved on as the older woman took Jason aside, “A moment my lover.”

“You know how important this job is. I don’t know why the Gods sent us here but I trust Their Will so if we are thrown into this rescue, it must be very important to our future. That sorcerer NEEDS a Virgin Princess to sacrifice or all his plans are for naught. He doesn’t have time to capture a replacement so this is his only chance. BUT, my love, he needs both virgin and princess. Both! Remove either and the spell fails. To save the world you must prevent this sacrifice so while we kill the sorcerer, you must make the Princess useless to him.”

“I understand. Rescue the Princess, get her out and wait for you. I know the drill!”

“No, love you don’t. She cannot be used by Arzula. If it comes to that, you must rape her or kill her. Either will prevent the spell. Don’t be so shocked. She can get over rape easier than she can get over death. You got over being raped as did I as will the Princess. So you must choose. Rape her to remove her virginity or kill her to remove her sacrificial value. Either or.”

“Lys, I can’t…” She slapped him, the noise loud in the hall.

“LISTEN TO ME! The Gods brought us here to help Sonja stop this sorcerer. NOTHING else matters. You MUST prevent the sacrifice. Save her if you can but if need be, remove her virginity or her life. I know it’s distasteful, my love, but we all do things we dislike for a greater good and this is one. Now go!” then she kissed him and sent him off.

“Thank you,” Sonja said when the other woman joined her. “I couldn’t have made that demand even in jest.”

“Don’t worry. Jason thinks more of his own life than any man I know and even then he’ll die before he sends an innocent to their death. I can’t even get him to spank me when I pretend to be a bad girl so I know he won’t be able to violate or harm the girl. So with that in mind, he’ll rescue her even if he must cut his way through an army of giant spiders to do so, and when we meet, he’ll be there with the Princess, both alive.”

“Good. Zamorans don’t prize their daughter’s virginity as much as do some people but they do prize their children’s lives. If your ruse works, Jason will rescue the girl and we can focus on killing the sorcerer for one job is easier to do than two.”

***

Jason moved upwards seeking and soon enough he found a door guarded by two alert and well-armed guards. “That is either Arzula Thome or the Princess” he thought as he pulled his dagger and the eighteen inch fighting knife he had earlier taken from one of the dead mercenaries. Taking a deep breath, he flipped the handles and walked forward, his hands appearing empty but the naked blades laying along his forearm. It was a ruse he used often and one that never failed.

“Attend!” He snapped. “Arzula Thome needs the girl now! Why are you just standing there! Open that door and get her ready now!” His subterfuge allowed him to get close to the guards before they realized that here was someone new and so stopped the stranger.

“Who are you and where is our Captain?” one demanded.

“I don’t know who you are talking about. I was sent by Arzula himself to fetch the girl so move it!” Then when neither guard made any move other then to advance, Jason flipped the blades to fighting position and before either guard could draw, one had a dagger driven upward from chin to brain, the other fell gurgling as the fighting knife opened his throat. Then tying a piece of cloak around the heads to stop them from bleeding over the floor, he searched and found the key which he used to open the door to the room.

Inside, the Princess gasped and backed away as Jason dragged the bodies inside them wiped as much blood from the outside as he could. Then he entered the room and closed the door. “Relax, I am Jason Obrien, Lord Innis of Ireland. I am helping Red Sonja of Hyrkania to rescue you. Stay calm, follow orders and we’ll get out safely.” He gave her a quick glance as he re-locked the door. Not as young as he expected, maybe mid-20s? Attractive though her dark skin and large nose gave her an Italian look. She also wore a heavy plain dress more designed to keep her warm than fashionable.

The eyes of the princess darted to the bodies and her rescuer and Jason stood to move around and examine the room, the captive keeping as far from him as possible. The room had two windows, too narrow to climb through and the bars deeply set in aged mortar prevented even a bird’s escape. The interior was bare, Spartan containing a rope bed, some worn blankets and little else. “Arzula Thome prizes your virginity more than your comfort, it seems” he said casually. “I suppose the only way out is the door. Would you please gather what you need and we’ll leave.”

“My father sent you?

“He did not. He sent Red Sonja. We met her on the road and she enlisted our aid.” Looking over the armor of the dead guards, The Irishman rejected it all as too small for his frame. Though near six-feet in height, the guards he had killed were some inches shorter and pounds slimmer but with broader shoulders. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time he had fought unarmoured. At least this way he could run faster.

The Princess approached, “You are to save me?”

“If I can.” Jason was deliberately non-committal.

“Treat me not as a stupid child. Arzula Thome may need a virgin princess but he made the mistake of choosing one with intelligence for my younger sisters were too well guarded. I may not be the child-like beauty men dream about but I am attractive and play well at board games like chess I know he needs me and why so don’t pretend. How long do we have before I must die?”

“A couple days at most. We believe he will choose the night of the Full Moon on the Summer Solstice to do the task. I need you out of here before then.”

“Arzula Thome has forced me to watch unnamable horrors. I saw things that will haunt my nightmares for the rest of my life. Command and I will obey.”

“Then, Princess, change into something more suitable for running if you can. Allow me to lead and fight, do NOT grab my arm in fear and obey instantly. If I know you are safe, I can save myself so do not place yourself in danger during our escape.”

“Fear not that, My Lord. I value my life too much and would quit this place.” She snapped as she pulled her dress off. Jason thought about turning away but then, … Well she wasn’t some twelve year old girl so age must not have been important either. “Must you stare so!”

“Sorry. I’m with someone, my lover, but you are much younger and far nicer to… I apologize My Princess.”

Naked, with dress held before herself, she came to him, knowing that he really meant those words, “I accept your apology. Tell me, Lord Innis, If you cannot rescue me, what are your orders?”

“I must prevent the sacrifice at all costs. If I cannot rescue you alive, I must ensure that you are useless to Arzula Thome.”

“You are blushing. I’ve not seen that in a man before. Will you kill me to prevent the sacrifice?”

“If need be though I hope I won’t have to. If you obey, we should be safe enough.”

“Honesty, I like that in a man. It is such a rare commodity in the Nobles.” She pulled a shirt over herself and found some pants and shoes. “I’m not accustomed to wearing a man’s clothing but Arzula Thome felt I would be safer around his soldiers thus.”

“I suspect that had anyone touched you, they would be fed to the spiders.. or wish he had done that.”

She laughed at that, “So they believed with good reason. And believe me, I tried to make myself useless to him. But all feared him more than they desired me. You are different. You don’t fear Arzula Thome. And your face has kindness written upon it. How much time before we must leave?”

“I’ve been listening. I’d like to wait for a distraction. If we leave now and run into more guards, I’ll be hard put to save us both. I think once the fighting above starts, we can go.”

“Above?”

“Sonja and Lyssandra seek his life as I seek your safety. We divided forces to make the tasks easier.”

“Arzula Thome sleeps below. They will find his chamber above empty. We have time.”

“Time? For what?”

“For what must be done. I cannot be a virgin when he comes for me. I tried with the guards and failed, you must not fail me.” She returned to the bed and sat. “We have no time for romance, just come here and make me a woman. Thus only can I be certain that I will be safe.”

“Princess, my lover is out there. I cannot betray her.”

“Betrayal is forgivable if it prevents the destruction of my nation. Come, this won’t take long I hope. Just be gentle and firm and we can leave with my fears relieved.”

***

The two women made their way upwards, passing the occasional guard unseen until at the topmost level, they saw two guards before an ornate door. “Why do wizards always have to be so high? It would be easier if they did their evil deeds on the ground floor,” Sonja murmured as she drew her sword and advanced alone. She never expected the older woman to fight at her side still she was beginning to like her enough to feel disappointment as the two armed men charged with raised spears. Sonja started forward then the first guard fell with an arrow in his chest, the second an instant later to leave the door unguarded.

“Why risk your life when I have a bow?” Lys smirked. Sonja was about t open the door then stopped. The stars ended at a narrow curved hall that followed the outer wall. The door was at the other end. Why? Why not in the middle? So taking a spear from the floor, she pushed the door open to reveal darkness. Still on guard she called out, “Torch.”

Lyssandra took a torch from the wall and tossed it into the room which was another long curved hall with another door at the far end. “I don’t like this,” she mentioned.

“Get more.” Both saw the lines of string or rope sizzling on the floor.

With a three more in hand, Lys asked, “How many do you think?”

“It only takes one,” then she threw the torch high to entangle it among the webbing that covered the roof and wall. A moment later the webbing flared to flame as the torch set it on fire. “I’ve never seen silk burn like that, the older woman commented then jumped back as a multi-legged horror fell to the floor and scuttled to them. Sonja pierced it with her spear and pushed it back as Lys sent an arrow through the monster. The Turkish bow sent the arrow completely through the monster and bounced off the far wall and still the spider fought to reach its prey. Two more arrows penetrated the head of the horror but if the thing had a brain, her shafts could not find it so she dropped her bow and picking up another torch, thrust it into the thing’s maw. Between the spear, the arrows and the torch, the spider backed away, pulling the spear from Sonja’s hands and as she drew her sword, it shuddered and died. Even burning web falling from the roof onto it could not induce movement so the two women decided that it was finally dead.

“With that blaze illuminating the hall, if there were more, we’d see them so Arzula Thome must have only one guardian.” Sonja mentioned as she fetched the second spear. They backed to a narrow window to breathe and when the fire had settled down, they heard alarms sound.

“Someone saw the blaze, let’s finish it now before reinforcements arrive.” And the two ran down the hall to burst through the final door.

***

With the alarm, Jason called, “Now we go.” And took up a spear and shield as the Princess followed, a knife in her hand. Once in the outer hall, he screamed and ran forward, chilling and giving pause to the men before him. Then transfixing the first, he pushed the rest down the stairs. The Princess followed him as he moved downward, cutting with the fighting knife as he did so, causing enough damage to prevent pursuit for a man with a deep gash in his arm thinks more of a bandage than of hunting an escaped prisoner.

Soon enough the were on the first floor and Jason threw himself among the guards there, cutting and hacking as he screamed an Irish war cry and soon he and the princess were alone with the dead, the dying and the wounded who chose to ignore the madman among their company. “Come!” And he ran followed by the princess.

“Can you climb a rope?” he gasped.

“No. But I can make one.”

“We have one over the wall so we seek the main gate. When it is clear, go past.”

At the gate, he paused, slung the shield he took from a dead guard to arm, placed a helmet upon his head, drew his broadsword and advanced at a walk. He needed the time to catch his breath and wanted them to charge him. A running man trips over a pebble and out here, he could maneuver in the open with a longer sword which hindered his opponents inside.

As the guards charged, Jason ducked to a low squat, swinging his shield overhead to block the first blow and ignoring that man who passed him, cut low, severing the foot of the next man and breaking his other ankle. He fell screaming as Jason stood, swung the shield to strike the first man in the back and then blocked the third with his sword and punched that man with the shield in the face. Three injured too badly to fight so he advanced on the final two and moved between them. Screaming he turned to charge one, leaving his back open then as the first backed off in fear for self-preservation, Jason turned, ducked and stabbed the man behind who thought he had an opening. Then standing, Jason moved forward, blocked a blow and cut a high horizontal cut the struck the man’s helmet. As the guard saw stars, Jason continued the move, circling and using shoulder strength, cut against the guard’s neck as his shield dropped. The way was now clear and he had to run to catch the princess who had taken him at his word and was already down the road.

“This way,” he called and led her into the trees. “Watch for webbing. It should shine in the moonlight.” And so slowly, they made their way through the trees, avoiding anything that looked like a spider or snake.

When they reached the horses, Jason sat on a log and removed his shield as he sheathed his sword then checked his bow. Three arrows left. Shouldn’t there be more? No matter, he could have more made later.

“Thank you,’ the princess cam to him. “I feel safe, totally safe for the first time in months. How long before your woman arrives?”

Pointing to the burning tower, Jason said, “Soon I hope. As the roof beams burn, the fire will work it’s way down and the open doors and windows act as a bellows. Even steel will melt inside there so I hope they get out soon.”

“Thank you for remaining here with me. I no longer fear Arzula Thome but his soldiers and the spiders and lions and wolves scare me.” She kissed him then and not at all in gratitude.

***

Kicking the door open, the women found the chamber empty of life. True there were shelves lined with books along the wall, more books that Lyssandra had seen outside Jason’s home and that man was a collector who read anything he could find. In the center was a magical circle with writings in a language Lys couldn’t describe but wasn’t Latin or Arabic script. She avoided that like a scorpion but of the sorcerer they saw naught.

“Damn!” Sonja swore. Now we have to search for him. At least we can slow his necromancy.” And she knocked over braziers into the circle then tossed oils and books from the shelves into the fire. The stink proved that the pages of some of the books were not paper.

“Jason could never burn these books,” Lyssandra commented as she helped feed the fire. “He’d even try to stop us.”

“Let him. This knowledge is evil and must end!”

“Sonja, knowledge is like a knife, it isn’t good or evil. It’s what you do with it that makes that decision.”

“Perhaps, but Arzula Thome uses it for evil and so would the wizard that replaces him. So we prevent that evil. Come, before we are trapped.” And they ran from the room as the flames began to follow the wood bookshelves and paneling to the wooden ceiling. In the spider-hall. The roof was already beginning to burn and outside that, they saw the smoke leaking from the spaces between the wall and roof. “It won’t be long now. At least we slowed him a bit.”

Down the stairs they ran, Sonja in the lead and anyone who stood before her died beneath her fury. Lys had been fighting for barely eight years and most of that with Jason doing most of the killing so she was content to follow. Then at the bottom, they saw a man in embroidered robes directing an army. “Arzula Thome!” Sonja swore and attacked on the instant. Men who stood before her died. Men who failed to get away died. And through it all Arzula Thome screamed promises of wealth and power to whomever killed the red-haired demon and curses of an eternity of pain to those who ran. Finally, stepping to the rear the wizard began an incantation and blue flames appeared between his hands and glowed brighter as he prepared to burn Sonja to the ground.

Then he choked, an arrow appearing in his chest. A moment later another struck and Lyssandra called to Sonja, “Distance is my friend. Why risk when I can shoot!” She sent a third into Arzula’s throat, the point striking and severing his spine and tossing him back to die as the eldritch flames began to consume his robe.

The soldiers then broke. Between the demon among them and their master dead below, they had no stomach for battle and ran. Joining the Hyrkanian, Lys asked, ‘now?”

“Now we take proof!” and with a single stroke, severed the foul head of the wizard which she wrapped in a cloth. “Then, we run like hell before this place falls around us!”

***

They saw Jason facing a troop of soldiers at the horses, the Princess behind him. Lyssandra was out of arrows and drew her sword intending to fight next to her lover when Sonja called out, “Your master is dead! See! If you fight, no ne will pay you and revenge may be too costly.”

The mercs looked from one group to the other weighing revenge for costing them their wages against the dangers of these three that had done what an army could not… then the leader snapped, “Sheath! Fall Back. It’s over. We need to find another job.” And without another look, they returned to the burning tower to salvage whatever they could. None saw the dragon approach the tower, attracted as a moth to a flame.

Red Sonja approached the princess and said, “Princess Davilah, your father sent me to rescue you and return you to Shadizar. I’m glad to see that you are well and alive. So might I suggest that we retire to the village and seek a bath and clean bed for the night, then we can leave for home in the morning.”

Turning to Red Sonja, she replied, “Of course, It has been a long time and I shall do what I can to help you return me to my father. Pleas lead on and thank you.”

They walked the horses with the Princess riding as Sonja commented, “I’m glad she shows no worse for the wear so you obviously didn’t need to do either of the alternatives we decided.”

“No, she was very willing to escape the hold of her captor.”

“Good. With Arzula Thome dead and his tower burning, the steppes will soon be filled with herds and our trip north will be all the easier. Now, Jason, I saw the results of your handiwork in the tower and am impressed with your skills. I think we should drink the village tavern dry, dance on a table until dawn and then see if you can defeat me fairly. It’ll be a long ride to Shadizar and I’m curious about a few things Lyssandra mentioned on the way here.”

“In the meantime,” Lyssandra whispered in his ear, “you need a bath tonight and your clothes washed before her father realizes what happened. So, whose lips are softer? Mine, Sonja’s or hers?” followed by a quick touch of her tongue. How many days or weeks to Shadizar and how grateful would the Princess or how willing would Sonja be to her attentions. This, Lyssandra thought, could be fun.

The Princess Davilah glanced at Jason who was now holding his lover and began calculating the possibilities of a marriage with a heroic but impoverished foreign Noble from an unknown nation against the danger of trying to take him away from an older swordswoman who so obviously loved him.

Lyssandra was happy to be with the man she loved, the Princess was grateful to be free and safe and Jason was content to see new places. And as for Sonja, she had some things to think about and besides, being around Lyssandra reminded her how much fun it was to laugh and sing and dance again like when she was younger. Maybe, with some help, she could recapture those feelings?

END

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