by: Rick Johnson
PO Box 40451
Tucson, Az.

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He sat in the village tavern, playing chess with the Princess Davilah while Lyssandra danced with Red Sonja on the table-tops.

Well, what he was playing wasn’t exactly Chess as the origins of the Chess he had played lay in ancient India, changing as the game moved northeast into China and northwest into Europe. But it was close enough having the sixty-four square board of alternating black and white squares though this game was played from the corners and not the sides. Still,…

And Sonja didn’t know she was dancing with Lyssandra, both bare of foot, their shirts loose for even Sonja had left her chain-mail bikini in her room for more comfortable clothing. Both were on the table, the men cheering them on, their arms high and their hips moving in a way that distracted him form his game.

“You seem distracted, My Lord. Oh, I see, perhaps we should finish this another night and allow you your… baser pleasures.”

“I think not, Princess,” he replied. “I’m glad to see them enjoy themselves. The last year has been hard on Lyssandra.”

Changing the obviously unpleasant subject she continued, “You are a Noble, yet you travel with Commoners? I thought the Western Lands prohibited such an act?”

“I’m Irish, not really as Western as you would think. We Irish were never as separated from the Common People as other races. Plus although my ancestors were the Kings of Munster and Erin, that only meant that we controlled them more then they controlled us.”

“So, you are a Prince?” she asked hopefully.

“Prince? Hardly. Irish titles translate poorly into your language though my Lineage is far longer than most of Europe. I am Tierna which changes with the number of Tierna who swear Fealty to me or the number I swear Fealty to, I suppose that would translate now as ‘Baron’ or ‘Viscount’ for my ancestors were the younger brothers of the Ri, the Kings and so did not inherit. Why do you ask?”

“I’m just curious. Here you and I are the only persons of our Class and you are so different from any warrior or Noble that I’ve known. You avoid fighting but when you do, your ferocity is terrible to behold. You love a common…” she hesitated, “a Commoner that most men would cast aside and yet treat her as you do myself. You lust after the red-headed swordswoman but make no move to take or seduce her. In so many ways you are a man and yet a boy.”

Sonja kicked a man who had reached for her bare leg, then laughed and danced on, occasionally caressing the older woman with her hips and always smiling. The past years, she would have killed him, now she took it as the compliment it was, knowing that nothing would come of the action from either side. The man who would have been dead, just laughed, picked himself off the floor, raised the flagon he was handed and yelled, “To the Red-Haired bitch!” a toast that was echoed by all and surprisingly, Sonja let him live for that word. Well, he meant well and she was enjoying herself and she could always kill him later if need be. Until then, the music was loud, the ale strong and for the first time in months, she was content.

“Check in five moves,” the Princess said, bringing Jason back to reality. He looked at the board and asked, “How?”

“I thought that you were a Chess Master in your country?”

“Hardly a Master though I am considered to be good. Still, the Chess we play is different from this.” Then glancing to be certain the women were safe, he turned his attention to the board. He had no fears for Sonja sober though drunk as she was, the matter might be different. Still, he tried to focus on the game and in six moves, he lost. By then, both Sonja and Lyssandra were drunk enough to require help.

“Ok, boys, the show is over. Princess Davilah, will you help me please?”

Getting the women to their rooms was easy. Despite their attitude, both were still smaller and weaker than both Jason and Davila and they easily got them to their bed. It was when he tried to remove their clothes that trouble started. Jason lay Sonja onto her bed, she still so drunk she could barely move. When he tried to remove her shirt, for a woman nearly unconscious from drink, the punch she slammed into Jason’s stomach was far from poor. He fell back, desperately trying to not loose his dinner then when he could speak, called, “Then sleep in your own sweat and vomit.”

He then turned to Lyssandra, his lover who was on the floor, the Princess not being strong enough to carry her further. He managed to get her into the same bed as Sonja only because he had not the strength after that punch to carry her into their own room, and as he tried to undress his lover, she managed to moan, “Not tonight, I’m sick. Tomorrow I promise,” then she fell unconscious.

Jason pulled a blanket over them both and sighed, “It’s obvious that I’m sleeping alone tonight. Sweet dreams my love,” as he kissed Lyssandra, carefully avoiding Sonja as he did so.

As he left, the Princess asked, “Drink, My Lord?”

“After that punch, I couldn’t keep anything down. I can see why she sleeps alone. For some reason I am still awake, how about another game? I find I enjoy your conversation as much as your game.”

“Of course My Lord, though I am still … I’ll bring a bottle and the game to your room if you don’t mind. It will be quieter there.”

“Of course, Princess. Let me wash my face and perhaps throw up a bit…”

It was early the next morning when Jason awoke, naked and in bed next to Lyssandra. He rarely suffered a hangover but often did things he regretted later. But then, his hand rested on her belly and then moved lower, meeting no resistance other then for his lover to roll over onto her back and pull him to her. He was minutes into the act when he awoke enough to realize that this was different, felt different, tighter and more passionate and she was far more aggressive than normal. “You’re not Lyssandra!” he cried out only to receive hands on his rear cheeks with a voice begging, “Don’t stop! For the sake of Ishtar, Please don’t stop!” as she pulled him to her tighter.

He continued, without the passion he once felt but it was enjoyable and soon enough she arched, lifting him off the bed as she climaxed, forcing him to cover her mouth to prevent waking the Inn. Then as he finished with her, he lay there and said, “You took advantage of me.”

“Hmm, you enjoyed it as much as did I since your, woman, refused you. I feel no guilt.” Then a moment later, “If you feel so bad about your adultery, why are you still pressing me into the bed? Among pressing other things… Wait! Leave not! I meant no harm. I was born and raised in my father’s harem and until taken by Arzula Thome, saw nothing save Shadizar and that only when accompanied by the palace guards who allowed me to see what they chose. When you return me to my father, I must return to that life and would experience more.” She moved her hips suggestively. “Oh, you are done? Pity, I never felt such pleasure. Not last night and not yesterday at the Tower though I admit then I was more concerned with my future safety than my or your pleasure. Please, My Lord, allow me to sample the world as I can without recrimination. I want to experience everything I can before my father marries me to some foreign or even local Noble with political connections. Hmmm, I can feel you harden again. Tell me, please, what do men enjoy?”

Later, racked with guilt, he washed, well, then dressed and checked upon his companions, both of whom were still asleep. They had kicked the blanket off and were spooning but both still dressed and snoring in a most unladylike manner. At least neither had vomited or voided and soiled the bedding. He stared a moment then covered them again, glad that neither had been sick. Goddess! He knew that Lyssandra could drink him under the table but the Hyrkanian’s capacity made even Lyssandra seem a tea-totaler. Good thing he had robbed those guards they had killed on the way to rescue the Princess or he’d be chopping wood and washing dishes for a month to pay their bar bill. Then he left for breakfast.

When the two entered the main room, Sonja demanded ale and stared daggers at the Kosovo woman. Lyssandra sat next to her lover and stared at her meal, picking at the food. Neither had washed that morning which was unusual as Lyssandra bathed when she could and Sonja never missed a chance to clean herself. Jason stared a moment then asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Sonja thinks I took advantage of her in her drunkenness,” Lys replied, quietly. “I’m sorry Jason, I didn’t mean to. I was.. well, you know. Please forgive me. It won’t happen again.” She was pleading, as she had done in Immersea after her past indiscretions had been revealed. Instead of vitriol, Jason just laughed.

Slamming her mug on the table, Sonja, now wearing her chain bikini and sword, demanded, “”What in Tarim’s name is so funny! Should I remove both your heads right now!”

“No, please, I like my head where it is. No, Sonja,” he whispered, “nothing happened last night. It was I and the Princess who put you together because after punching me as you did, I had not the strength to take Lys to my own bed. Then I checked on you two this morning to find nothing untoward.”

Staring at the Irishman, Sonja moved closer and whispered, “How can you be certain?”

Staring up to her face was difficult, Sonja was impressively built and the bra she wore revealed more than it concealed and as was mentioned earlier, Jason preferred that part of a woman. “Because you were both dressed when I came in to check on you. Removing clothing from a woman, passed out, is simple. Putting it back on after the act is almost impossible. So if you are dressed, then you are untouched. Every man knows that.”

Sonja stared at the Princess who smiled, “The first part is true, I was there and helped carry you both to your room. As for the part about clothing.. I fear I am too innocent to know of such things.”

Sonja stared at Jason, then at Lyssandra, then laughed and sat, “Then, woman, if this happens again, try to not drink so much that you cannot find your own bed! Keep! Food! And lots of it! My stomach is empty and I would fill it before we leave for Shadizar!” It appeared that Sonja’s temper came and left as a storm and soon they were friends again.

Later in their room, Lyssandra was changing and sitting on the bed talking, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to drink so much. I just hadn’t danced in so long. And when we awoke and she found me wrapped around her…”

Leaning over, Jason kissed her and said, “Think nothing of it. I understand. Now, let’s get dressed and see what this town is like. We may never return and I travel to see the sights.”

“How much money did you take from those guards?” she asked as she made the bed, then stopped, smelled the blanket and pulled the blanket free to touch then smell the bedding. “Jason,” she growled.

“Something, my love?” he tried to hold her only to be pushed off.

“What whore did you have last night!”

“Last night?”

“You are a terrible liar so don’t even try. Who was it!”

“Lys, I was drunk. I .. you pushed me away and so Davila and I played chess and she kept pushing that Kothian wine at me and….”

“So! You were drunk and couldn’t control yourself! Is that why you weren’t upset at the thought of me and Sonja? You felt guilty and if I cheated on you, it justifies you cheating on me! But I didn’t cheat! You said so yourself so…” she threw the bedding at him, grabbed her sword and stalked out demanding, “If those beddings aren’t BURNED by the time I return, I’ll ask Sonja to help me geld you … you… dog!”

Sonja was finishing her meal with the Princess when Lyssandra strode into the room, took Sonja’s jack and drained it in one gulp. “More!” she demanded then stared at the Princess with daggers. “‘oh, oh, this doesn’t look good” Sonja thought.

“Is something wrong?” the Princess asked, carefully cutting her meal into small bites which she ate daintily. She was dressed well and even wore cosmetics, probably from that bundle she carried out of the Tower the day, no the night before last.

“Nothing,” Lys snapped, then drained the second jack and held it for more.

“It’s not his fault, you know. He IS a man and he was drunk and I wanted to experience .. well” she smiled as a Princess often does, a woman whose existence was bred to making people happy until they were sold to some fat pasha for a favorable trade agreement. Sonja was glad she was born as Common as was Lyssandra so could afford to be honest and accountable for her actions.

“But he was MINE, you…”

“You forget yourself! I am still a Zamoran Princess!” the look she gave was totally different from her previous one. “I travel with you, I even like you but I am NOT one of you nor am I bound by your rules!”

Lyssandra suddenly froze, then stood, curtseyed as best she could in pants and sword and apologized. No doubt the woman feared a beating. Despite her sword and bow, Lyssandra was still a woman who had been raised to fear the Nobility who held the power of life and death over their subjects.

“Please, sit again. I make no apologies for my actions for as I explained to your very embarrassed lover this morning, I was raised in a harem and know noting of the world. So until you return me to my father, I would experience all that I can, even the pleasures of… well those that are forbidden until marriage. His Grace knew not and thought I was you and tried to stop but I commanded and he had to obey. Hate me if you wish, and if you insist, I will touch him not again though I can see why you stay with the man. He is so young and .. accomplished. Are all men so?” She glanced at Sonja as well.

The red-head stared, this was such a different person than the other Zamoran Princesses she ad met. She had been hired to rescue one of the Kings too many daughters from a sorcerer and expected a spoiled brat, not this pleasant woman who took so much in stride. “I don’t know, Princess, my only experience was when a former soldier of my father’s forced me at sixteen. Since then…” She chose to not describe her vision and vow.

“Sixteen? I was fourteen and it was three Serbian soldiers to forced me. When my mother took me to the Watch, they just laughed and said that I deserved it for being a Slav.” Lyssandra jumped in, glad for some common ground to bind her to Sonja with whom she wished to be friends.

“Slav? Serb?”

“MY country, Kosovo, is inhabited by the Slavic race. But whenever the Serbians conquer, they treat us as slaves or lower. When the Ottoman’s conquered, they treated me no different as they threw me into the Caliph’s harem. They, at least saw no difference between Serb and Slav but also no difference between boy and woman.”

“So, neither of you enjoy the … marital act? I must confess, when Jason came to my room to rescue me, I insisted that he tell me the truth and he admitted that he had to make me useless to Arzula Thome, by rape or murder.” She laughed at the memory. “The poor man was so embarrassed at his words that I immediately admired him and insisted that he do the former to prevent the latter.” She sighed, “It was so fast I barely had time to forget the pain and seek enjoyment when it was over. So last night, I insisted that I know if it was always like that.” She smiled and continued, “It wasn’t. and later … I never felt so.. wonderful. Tell me, you have experience, I can tell, are all men like that? I will marry someday and knowing such pleasure would make even my future husband who I know not, tolerable?”

Sonja stared at this. A Princess asking a whore about sex? Sonja sat back, listening for although she had little desire in that area, she was curious as to why so many women pursued the act.

For her part, Lyssandra found herself in the position of power, a rare thing for a Commoner when facing a Boyer and adding to that, knowing far more and being a teacher made her feel… important! “All men are different. Some big, some small, some vigorous and some gentle. They ALL have tastes that range from the ludicrous to the perverse. Jason is.. well he is unimaginative at times though he is gentle and really cares about his partner’s pleasure and worries when I fail to… enjoy myself,” she laughed at that.”

“And what are Jason’s tastes?”

Sonja found Lyssandra staring at her bosom, with the Princess’ eyes following, then both laughed. “If you don’t distract him, Jason will play with the girls until you just want to slap him as a baby who bites when they nurse.”

Davila laughed too, ”I noticed that. Does it really matter if we are like you and I or like the Hyrkanian here? Does bigger feel better?”

“There? I know not. Sometimes, though, I have a desire to be…” she looked around and both women leaned closer as Lyssandra whispered, “spanked!” The Princess leaned back, shocked. Sonja just laughed.

“Really! Like a child?”

“More like a bad girl that needs a firm hand. Sometimes, Jason is too gentle and sometimes he is too anxious, not giving me the needed time to prepare.”

“Which is why you like women,” Sonja added to be malicious.

“You like women?” the Princess asked. “Some of the women in my fathers harem did that but only because when a half hundred women share the same man, he visits each so rarely. When they are found, they are whipped so are very… discrete. How? I mean, women have not that…”

Sonja laughed, even a princess had no words for that, “Is ’member’ the word you mean?” she suggested.

“yes,” she whispered, “member,” as if she were afraid she’d have her mouth washed for saying a bad word.

Now it was Lyssandra’s turn to laugh. “There are a hundred words for the male member, some polite, some proper only during the act but most are simply nasty. I call Jason’s ‘Mr. Happy’ to make it more fun for me. He hates that when I ask for Mr. Happy to come out and play.”

Jason entered then, saw them laughing and was torn between the desire to join in and the fear of his lover’s and the Princess’ anger. Then Lyssandra saw him, waved and called, “Jason, come here. Give me your purse.”

He leaned over to kiss her but she only offered her cheek. “I am still angry with you but spending all your money will calm me down. You need to figure out how to pay for the supplies we will need for the trip to Shadizar.”

All laughed, then stood, the Princess kissing him on his cheek, “I am far from angry with you,” she glanced down below his belt at that.

As they left, Sonja called back, “Goodbye Jason, .. and you too Mister Happy,” then she laughed as he blushed. Tarim this was fun. She could embarrass a man, tease a man and enjoy being around a man and not worry about having to kill him when he went too far because this man wouldn’t. If he can’t even spank his lover when she wants, he’d never try to force Sonja and so would live a long but dull life. Plus he was a good, though too cautious fighter which had earned her respect. Still, she didn’t understand what either woman saw in the man. He was defiantly no Conan. Neither in attitude nor size. Tarim! that barbarian had a set of shoulders she could ride across for a week. Dumb as a post at times but honorable and with a stomach that arrows would bounce off.

As soon as they left the inn, their conversation changed. Lys talked about how it was to grow up a third-class peasant in a conquered country, Davila talked about being a ‘prisoner’ in the Palace as if that could be a ‘prison’, Sonja talked about being a wanderer and never having a home. Then when they passed a clothes-maker, both stopped and talked about which color would bring out their eyes and complexion. Sonja found this girl-talk to be dull and totally uninteresting. For a moment she considered seeking out Jason but then, that man was equally boring. He knew so much about so many things, he thought he knew everything. He’d lecture for an hour on the life-cycle of a honeybee and how flowers were designed by Nature to attract the bee. It sounded too much like sex to her and after a few minutes of him talking about the different types of clouds and how heat and pressure created them, Sonja just wanted to scream and cut the man’s throat.

“I have business elsewhere, don’t get into trouble,” she said but it was clear that neither woman cared. So walking off, she explored the town and looked over the options for travel. Jason would probably try to buy a carriage for the Princess when a good horse and side-saddle would be better suited for the trip.

The town was small, mostly to support the farms that grew in the shadow of the Larsha Hills and the herds that grazed the plains to the north. It was literally a hundred houses and businesses at a crossroads with the Temple to Zath, the Spider God in the center, farms to the east and north and animal pens to the southwest since the winds came from the northeast. There was plenty of room around the Temple though Sonja suspected that this was to catch any spiders that escaped from the Temple. Although human sacrifice was legal in the larger cities, here, with such a small population, sacrifices were the occasional foreign criminal or mostly livestock. Fortunately, the spider-god didn’t eat very often so was fed maybe two or three times a month.

Northeast was the Temple to Ishtar with a large warehouse hiding the two temples from each other. She supposed that there was a Temple to Nergal somewhere but was unable to find it. Just as fortunate was that the Inn they rented was hidden from the Spider Temple by a cluster of businesses. Why they would call the Inn the ‘Blue Gill Inn’ was a mystery she didn’t want to ask. The sign outside looked nothing like a gill either, more like a crescent moon.

Sonja looked over the roads leaving the town, four, one for each direction. The Northern road led almost directly north to the Road of Kings and was called ‘The Road to Shadizar’ even though it terminated almost forty miles east of the capital of Zamora. The Eastern Road that followed the Larsha hills to Arenjun was called ‘The Road to the Tower’ despite the fact that it missed the tower which was reached by a goat-trail. The Western Road was the continuation of the Eastern and was simply called “The Western Road’. Sonja looked at a map and the real name was ‘The Larsha Road’. And the Southern Road was called ‘The Road to the Pass’ even though there was no pass there, the nearest being forty miles west. Sonja then stopped trying to understand how these people thought.

Most of the houses were built of mud and stone, wood here being rare and expensive and of one or two stories high. The Zath Temple was a three story pyramid with an opening at the top and the tallest building in the town, though not the largest, the warehouse having that honor. Half the houses were business on the ground floor with living space on the second. Those that were fully residential often had two separate families living on the different floors. The Blue Gill Inn was the largest Inn and Tavern in the town, hosting a large common-room and in the back, seven rooms for guests. Both Jason and the Princess had insisted on the best Inn and the biggest rooms as if size mattered to anyone but a man and Royalty. But next to the Inn was a bath-house where all had spent much of the first day, Sonja and the Princess insisting on separate bathing areas from Jason. With a heavy curtain and light wall dividing the room, that was easily done. Apparently the entire cluster of buildings had been bought by the Inn-Keepers over the years or generations until they had a total of six, one for the Common Room, one for the sleeping rooms, another for the bath, another for the kitchen and one for the family. They even had a small garden out back for herbs and spices and Jason and Lyssandra spent far too much time watching the garden and asking questions about the medical and magical uses of each plant. Lyssandra, it seemed, had supplemented her dishonorable income by selling potions in Arabel, the city in Kosovo she called home. If there was a wall or had ever been a wall around the town, it was long gone, robbed for building material. In a couple places, Sonja found what looked like the remains of the town wall against which the people has built their houses then torn down the wall between houses to finish their homes.

From a military standpoint, this town was totally indefensible. But when the nearest pass was forty miles west and guarded by a fortress with the next fifty miles east, and when the kings hired sorcerers to locate bandit troops which were captured and fed to their spider-gods, Sonja supposed they didn’t need such protection. They probably had a militia they called up in times of need so the guards Sonja and Jason had killed a couple days ago were not missed much as they worked for Arzula Thome and probably rarely paid for what they took.

She was musing about this when she saw another tavern, a noisy one whose sign bore a poor drawing of a green Turnip. These Zamorans really were strange, Sonja thought as she entered. Jason and Davila may like comfort but the noise of a cheap tavern was music to Sonja’s ears though as she entered, she did wonder where the customers had come from. Most of the town was deserted and working in the fields and pastures and so the taverns were generally closed until sundown.

Well, Sonja had lived her life on the edge and her curiosity was as well known as her determination so she pushed the door open and entered, allowing her eyes to adjust to the darkness.

Conversation ceased.

Looking around, she slowly moved her sheath forward to make for an easy draw for the room tavern was filled with the mercenary soldiers of Arzula Thome, the same soldiers she and Jason and Lyssandra had not only fought a couple days before, but the same ones whose employer they had killed. The door slammed behind her and she didn’t need to know that one of the recently unemployed had locked her in.

Jason was tired. He had looked around for some way to barter or earn the funds necessary for the trip back to Shadizar. Fifty-five miles to the Road of Kings and another forty to Shadizar making a total of almost a hundred miles. At twenty miles a day, if lucky, they could be on the road for five or more days so needed that much money. Sonja had simply cut across the grasslands, living off the land but with the Princess in tow, that was no longer an option. Despite her abilities, the Princess needed to travel in some comfort and safety and with regular meals. And chopping wood wouldn’t earn the money he needed.

Finally, someone told him that there were people at a tavern called the Green Turnip that might be able to help out so he made it there, getting lost often along the total lack of planning that passed for this town.

Sonja was drinking, “and then she took ALL his money and told him she would spend it frivolously and he had damn well better find some more to pay for the trip to Shadizar! And he DID it! Gave her the purse without a word!”

The mercenary Captain at the bar laughed, “And he’s doing them both! How can he screw even one woman without any balls?”

“That’s not all,” Sonja slurred, taking another drink, “She named his…[hic]… his, you know!”

“So, everyone names their dick. What does she call it? The Mighty Pole Axe? The Beast That Terrifies Women?”

“Nope. She calls it…” Sonja had to lean over and whisper which produced a snort of ale from the man’s nose and laughter beyond all keen. The biggest man Sonja had ever seen came to the bar, slammed his jack for more ale and demanded, “What’s so funny?”

Torlock, the merc Captain, managed to explain between wiping his mustache and laughing “You know that guy who faced us down outside the Tower a couple days ago? Well….” which caused the giant to break out himself.

“Torlock, I didn’t mean for this to get around.” Sonja suddenly had a feeling of dread, like when you put a harmless snake in your best friend’s sleeping roll only to realize that you got the colors wrong and it’s ‘red next to brown makes a man go down’. That was when Jason stepped into the tavern.

As always, the room quieted to size up the intruder, then Mormak, the giant walked up to Jason and said, “No hard feelings, it was just business. Guys, meet Mister Happy! My name is Pussy Invader and this is Pole Arm and over there is Clit-Splitter and… Sonja never knew how he did it but the Irishman turned redder and redder as he spotted her.

“Maybe if I just drink my ale he won’t notice me,” she murmured. “oh Tarim, oh TarimohTarinohTarimohTarim…”

“Like a beautiful mostly-naked redhead wearing a sword comes in here a dozen times a day,” commented Torlock as he watched the show.

Jason then hit the giant.. Mormak, aka Pussy Invader towered over Jason by more than a foot and it took two blows to bring him down to his level, Jason hitting him three more times on the way to the floor. Then the rest of the mercs jumped him.

Torlock took another drink and asked, “Aren’t you going to help your friend?”

“He’s doing fine alone.” She replied as one merc slammed into the bar and began to fall to his knees. Torlock took a grip of the man’s hair, lifted his head and shoved his jack into his mouth. The merc woke up, drained most of the ale, then staggered back into the fray.

“Does damn good for a man with no balls,” Torlock mentioned as he started to take another drink, then noticed the blood in the jack. He reached in, pulled out a tooth, dropped it back and sliding the jack Away, called, “Keep, a clean mug if you please.”

“Oh oh, fun time is over,” Torlock nudged the redhead as a dozen very large farm-boys entered, each carrying what looked like axe-handles. The group spread along the wall then advanced with long years of practice, breaking heads whether standing or not.

Sonja grabbed Torlock’s beard, pulled him down to her level, kissed him hard, released him and said, “gotta go,” then took off into the room. “Those two are teaching me some very bad habits!” she said to herself as she slammed her jack into the head of one merc, pulled at her Irish friend, ducking a blow that came from nowhere as she screamed, “The Neighborhood WATCH IS HERE! WE HAVE TO GO NOW!!! She pulled him out the back door and down an alley where he leaned over a drinking trough and ducked his head. The man was a mess but most of the blood didn’t appear to be his.

“What the hell was that all about… you TOLD THEM!”

“Damn!” Sonja pushed him backwards into the trough and ran.

Now Sonja had been called a lot of things in her life but there are two words that never applied to her, whore and stupid. The first is obvious to anyone who knew her but the second was proven when she turned and ran. “I have a head start! He’s tired from all that fighting! I should be able to get away!” such were the thoughts that ran through her mind as she ran through the town, heedless of obstacles, just away. She felt like when she was a kid in Hyrkania, running from her brothers and only pretending to be scared. She leapt tables, ran around stalls and ducked down every alley that promised cover. Once she stopped to catch her breath, tossed the stall-keeper a silver coin and threw a basket of overripe fruit and vegetables into Jason’s path. He slipped, slid and fell face down into the mess. Sonja didn’t wait for him to get up.

Soon she saw Lyssandra and Davila shopping, carrying bundles and as Sonja ran past, she screamed, “Run!”

Lyssandra hadn’t survived war-torn Kosovo for forty-some years by looking around when someone yelled ‘duck’. When she saw Sonja run, instincts took over and she was moving before the word entered her ear. Davila was the opposite. Growing up pampered in the Palace, she never had to worry about her own life. So when she saw the two strongest and bravest women she had ever known run like rabbits, she looked around and saw Jason stagger into the open and for the first time in her life, said, “Shit!” then pulled her dress to an indecent height and took off after her friends.

She never did catch up with them but she tried. And when they ran into a grape field, she followed, loosing them almost instantly until she was tripped and dragged under cover, a hand over her mouth.

“How good is he at tracking?” Sonja asked.

All three were now lay on their bellies in the dirt hiding under grape vines as Lyssandra whispered, “Not as good as he thinks he is.”

“Then we can wait him out?”

“Probably. He’ll get tired soon and seek a bath. Then we can find a place to sleep tonight and by morning he’ll be ok, I hope.”

“Lys, you two have made my life a lot more interesting than I prefer.” Sonja was laughing.

“Good! You need to yank that pole axe from your ass and relax a bit.”

A month ago Sonja would have killed the women for speaking to her like that but today, today only, she laughed. She didn’t laugh enough and found that she enjoyed the sensation.-

“Shhh, Davila covered Sonja’s mouth. He’ll hear us. What’s he yelling?”

Lyssandra listened then said, “I don’t know, I don’t understand Irish but I don’t think it’s ‘I love you’.” Then she rolled onto her back, pulled some grapes and began to eat them, offering some to her friends. “Did you know Jason can braid three cherry stems with his tongue. I saw women in Arabel swoon when he did that.”

“Why is that so special?” Davila asked. Sonja was also blank-faced.

Lyssandra laughed, “Maybe, when he calms down, I’ll have him demonstrate for you.”

Sonja mentioned as she munched on a grape, “Cherries don’t grow here.”

Lys then broke out in laughter. Fortunately, Jason had already left. “It’s not the cherries that is important. Oh never mind. You have to experience it to understand. I think it’s safe now. I could use a bath and a drink.”

“Yes, a drink, a lot of drinks,” Davila added.

As they stood and brushed leaves and dirt from their clothing, Sonja added, “Drink is how we got into this mess. We really should consider going on the wagon. Come on, I know a tavern on the other side of town. It’s dirty and messy and all broken up from a recent fight. I just know you’ll hate it.”

“Then why are we going there?” Davila asked.

“Why not?” both warrior women said in unison.

“By the way,” Sonja asked, “How much money do you have left. I kinda owe the place a big bar bill.” She didn’t mention the damages she might have to pay for.

Jason was not happy, not happy indeed. But he also wasn’t stupid and when he demanded a good bath and the biggest bottle of wine in the Inn, the young girl who followed him was allowed to wash his back but he sent her away when she offered more. So he moved form one dirty bathtub to a clean one, soaked and drank and eventually calmed down. Well, he’d not be able to face those mercs down again. They’d simply laugh at him and force him to kill them all…. Or be killed trying. He had spent a lifetime avoiding fair fights. Barely five foot ten inches, he wasn’t the ‘tall, dark, handsome’ man with washboard abs that so many women swooned over. But he was good. From his youth with the IRA to his teen years as an Iraqi galley-slave and Arab pirate to his years as a merc, he had spent much of his time learning to fight only because it was the safest way to keep him alive. But fighting fair was a certain path to getting killed so he cheated. He was a guerilla fighter who lured armies into places where he could cut them down from safety, he carried a knife to a fist-fight and he avoided facing people bigger than he was unless he knew with no doubt that he was better. That bar fight wasn’t his first, but it was the stupidest one he had ever been in. These weren’t stupid redneck farmers or wanna-be bad-boys, these were seasoned mercs. Men who had been trained to kill and were alive because they learned that lesson very well. And he took them on? What the hell was he thinking! He wasn’t thinking, that was the problem. He thought or bluffed his way out of too many situations, avoiding that one lucky knife-cut that had ended so many of his mate’s lives.

So, time to think. He sipped instead of drinking!

  1. One: he had cheated on his lover with Davila. He had yelled and screamed and nearly stoned Lyssandra for doing the same and here he was, doing what he denigrated her for doing.
    Solution: don’t do it again and spend the next year making amends to Lyssandra.
    Problem: They were stuck together for the next week or two until they could return Davila to her father, who, hopefully wouldn’t find out about what had happened.
    Complications: Damn, Davila was good in bed. Damn good for a virgin who normally had to be taught everything.
  2. Two: Money. They had almost none now. Lyssandra had punished him by spending all the money he had taken from Arzula Thome’s guards so now he had to figure out how to pay for the trip north.
    Solution: unknown.

  3. Three: Zamora. They were stuck some eighteen thousand years in the past. His home and family were, wouldn’t exist for a long time and … the tower!
    Mercs don’t work for free. They aren’t patriots who will risk their lives for a piece of cloth, they require cold hard cash! Arzula Thome had an army at his service and that army needed to be paid and that meant that there was money in that tower! True, any merc easily learns the cardinal rule that Saxons had to be taught over and over, “Loot THEN burn!” So the mercs would have looted Arzula Thome’s tower but any sorcerer smart enough to carve even a tiny empire from any nation and hold it would be smart enough to scatter his wealth in different places in case someone managed to loot the piggy-bank.

    Also his locator had pointed in this direction so there must be a StarGate here and Arzula Thome would have built his tower over a power nexus. Probably where multiple Ley Lines crossed over quartz-bearing ore to generate the piezo-electric fields that powered the StarGates. He wouldn’t recognize the StarGate but he would detect the power and tap into that power. He would see things through the StarGate and think he was divining through a crystal ball or some such. He would see aliens and think they were demons and he could bring them here and control them. All Jason had to do would be to search the tower, or the remains since Sonja and Lyssandra had burned the thing, for anything useful like money, gold, a StarGate… Relaxing, he decided to leave as soon as his bath was done and his clothes were cleaned. He’d leave a note, no, a message as Lyssandra wasn’t as literate as she should be and he still didn’t read or write Zamoran.

    They were singing, singing very well considering the amount of ale that was flowing through their kidneys. One a tall beautiful Redhead with pale skin and an impressive body that could easily be admired as she was wearing nothing but a chain-mail bikini and a light sword and dagger. Another, an older woman of shorter height, brown hair streaked with gray and with a slighter build that she preferred to cover, hence her pants, shirt and vest to contain her smaller breasts and stretch-lines. She also wore a light sword and a knife. The final was taller, darker of skin and almost hawk-nosed but still attractive. Mid-twenties and wearing a nice dress that was now as dirty as the clothing of her companions. All three were singing, staggering and laughing. “Shhh, he’ll hear us,” she shouted. “Let him,” the redhead laughed. I can take him.”

    “That’s my job,” Lyssandra managed to say. “Oh, you mean. I was thinking….”

    “What about me?” The Princess asked. Can I help?

    “Help who?” Sonja asked, trying to focus. “Help me fight or Lys fu.. sc… [hic] whatever she does?”

    “I do it all! And I do it good! Jason has never had cause to complain about me.”

    “Then why did he….” Sonja stopped just before crossing that line.

    “Yes, Davila, why DID Jason go to you? What did you do that I didn’t?”

    “How the hell should I know? I was a virgin.” She had definitely picked up some bad habits from her friends.

    The trio staggered into the inn, then passed the couple late customers who were passed out or on the verge, staggered to the rear rooms and tried to kick the door to Jason’s room open. Unfortunately, the effort of lifting their legs in unison caused then to fall in a heap which elicited more laughter plus a comment from Davila “I think I’m going to be sick! Someone hold my hair.” Fortunately, she wasn’t for Lys kept missing her hair and they were still in a pile in the hall.

    “Jason,’ Lyssandra whispered.

    “not like that,” Sonja said, “JAS[hic] JAS[hic] Jas[hic] to hell with it. Hey YOU!” she kicked at the door with her boot. No answer.

    “Do you think he’s left me?” Lys was suddenly crying. “I’m not as young or busty as he likes but I try. I try to be a good lover and companion. I try to play chess and talk with him and now he’s left me…”

    Davila held and comforted the older woman, “I’m certain he would never leave you. I wouldn’t leave you. He’s probably asleep. It’s ok, stop crying, we’ll get him for you.”

    Sonja managed to stand up, banged on the door with her fist because she wasn’t able to free her dagger and demanded, “Jason you sheep-turd! Open up and take care of your woman. You… you, oh Tarim I’m going to be sick.” And this time she was. “Well, we can’t touch that door now. Leave the bastard! We’ll find you someone better. I know this barbarian with shoulders so wide we all can sit on them. Shouldn’t have turned him down.” She staggered to the next room, managed to open the door and the three, Lyssandra still crying and being comforted by Davila entered, barely managed to drop their sword-belts before the fell into the bed and passed out.

    Sonja awoke, pushed Lyssandra off her arm who murmured, “not tonight Jason, tomorrow, I promise” just before she wrapped herself around Davila. Then climbing over both women, Sonja dropped her chain to the floor, massaged some blood back into her swollen and bruised breasts (that chain may look great and distract her opponents but it was miserable to sleep in) then tasted her mouth, breathed into her hand and sniffed then made it to the wash basin where she spent a long time washing her mouth and teeth. Then she took the extra blanket, wrapped it around herself, checked to ensure that the Princess was still alive (it would be embarrassing to tell the king, “yes, we rescued your daughter and almost got her home safely but I got her drunk and she drowned in her own vomit. Sorry about that”) and left for the common room where she found the Keep’s daughter cleaning up.

    ”I need a bath. A hot bath with lot’s of soap. Don’t yell, I’m right here! And some hot willow-bark tea. Throw the whole damn tree into the pot. Then go check on my friends and drag them into the bathing room too. Not now you silly girl, after I’m settled in. So why are you staring? MOVE! Oh my aching head.” Sonja sat at a bench, pushed a tankard away with a moan and lay her head down and was almost asleep when the girl returned.

    She was sipping the tea, why did Willow Bark make your headache feel better? She wondered, when her companions entered, groaned and slid into their tubs. “I am never drinking again,” Davila moaned.

    “I say that every time,” added Lyssandra.

    Hours(?) later, they wished it were days, the Inn-Keep’s daughter entered to change their bath water, fortunately they had used a lot of valuable soap that would go on their bill, to give them a message. “Your companion, Lord Obrien, left a message for you. He said he was going to back to the Tower to search for something… let me remember…. Stars? Doors? Assets? Something like that.”

    “You stupid girl, when did he leave?” Sonja demanded then sank back with a moan.

    “Yesterday. He came in all bloody and stinking, you take a lot of baths but I guess you need them, had his clothes washed and mended then dressed and left.”

    “Yesterday, after our little joke backfired. That must have been when we were headed for the tavern. Jason never takes long baths.” Lyssandra added. “He has a day’s lead on us and would have arrived before dark. He hasn’t come back so he is still there. Maybe hurt. My poor love! He needs me and I was getting drunk. I’ll never give him cause to mistrust me again.”

    “You!” Davila snapped. “I was the one he cheated on you with.”

    “I forgive you. You were just a helpless young girl seduced by his charms.”

    “Jason has charms?” Sonja asked. “Last night he was a rutting pig who needed to be gelded and now he’s mister wonderful?”

    “Have you ever been in love?” Lys asked. Sonja quieted then for the memories of what she had refused and who she had rejected still hurt. Sometimes, times like this, when she saw how Jason and Lyssandra were together, she wished that she had taken some of those offers up. “Ok, let’s have some food prepared for the trip, saddle the horses and go after him. Davila, you should remain here where it’s safe.”

    “No.” she said, then added, “You are to protect me and how can you do that if I am here and you are there? Plus, Arzula Thome is dead, his tower burned and it’s safer there with you then here alone with a bunch of Arzula Thome’s former soldiers who know who I am and think how much ransom I would fetch. It’s a wonder they haven’t tried to steal me before.”

    “I think they are too busy after that beating yesterday trying to dig themselves from that pig-pit the farmers tossed them into. Once they get out and sober up, then they’ll consider you and revenge on Jason for what he did to them. You are right, you are safer with us.” Sonja explained. “I have an idea, how much money do you have left, Lys?”

    “A few coppers, not even enough to pay the bath bill. When we ran from Jason, I dropped our purchases so those are gone too.”

    “Damn! I was hoping to buy Torlock and his men off.”

    “I have money,” Davila offered.


    “Arzula Thome liked to flaunt his power. He made certain I had gowns and jewelry and wealth in my rooms but also made certain that I knew those things wouldn’t help me. You think I dressed poorly because he stripped me of my belongings? No, I dressed that way out of despair. When Jason came to rescue me, I took a bag into which I had long before tossed a couple dresses, some jewelry and a lot of money. I may be a Princess but I am far from stupid and planned for escape or rescue from the day I was captured. I also stored more money and jewelry in a safe place behind some loose stones in the wall in case I needed to bribe a guard. Of course they were more scared of Arzula Thome than desirous of me. Even though the tower burned, my cache should still be safe.”

    “Davila, I could so easily,” Lys kissed the woman, full on her mouth and as surprised as Davila was, she accepted the kiss. “Well, that was different. Nicer than…” she said. Then, embarrassed, “We should go soon.”

    The three rode to the pig-pit, the only place that could be called a jail in the town and a few coppers let them approach the prisoners. Sonja tossed a bundle down, “Torlock, here is food and drink. I’m sorry for this mess but they won’t let you free until tomorrow so I did what I could. I’d do more but we are leaving for Shadizar now to return the Princess Davila to her father and want to be on the road north before it gets too hot. Here is food, ale and I also paid some of the bar bill though I couldn’t afford the damage bill so you’ll have to take care of that. Again, I’m sorry for you being here but…”

    “I understand Sonja, Perhaps we’ll meet again. Thanks for the supplies and safe journey.”

    Sonja left and as they rode to the north road, Sonja commented, “That bastard lied to me! He intends to follow us and take Davila and maybe even sell us into slavery. I should have poisoned that ale.”

    “We lied to him,” Davila spoke. “But that sleeping drought Lys put in the ale and the bribe to the town’s headman will keep them in that pit for some time. Hopefully enough time. You thought well Lys.”

    “Seven years with Jason taught me a few things. Avoiding a fight is often better than surviving one, he would say. Now they think we are on the road north and will follow at full speed. We will go east to the Tower then west to the next pass and take that road north. I just wish we could have found more horses to buy for pack.”

    Sonja was content. Although she enjoyed the solitary life of aimless wandering, here, today, she had good friends, a goal, promise of wealth and a massive hangover that threatened to burst her head with every step. At least she was wearing a comfortable shirt and shorts, her chain still needing some cleaning. And so she found herself humming an old song from Hyrkania and soon, she had taught her companions the words and they rode to the east, singing, softly, a song that only she knew the words to.


    I recall a story once about some philosophers in Khitai who were discussing the answer to the question:

    What is the most dangerous act a man can perform?”

    The story goes that there were many answers that ranged from trying to assassinate the Khan who ruled Khitai to invading the island of Zipingu to face their warriors who carried their terrible curved swords, to hunting mountain tigers alone. And there were the humorous stories like painting your face with honey to allow a bear to kiss you.

    Everyone had an opinion until one man stood, Chang the orphan who once had four brothers who all died in a single battle. Chang offered, “The most dangerous act a man can perform is to bitch-slap Conan of Cimmeria!”

    The room nodded in agreement until Wang the Eunuch struggled to his foot, and stared with his single eye and through broken teeth struggled to say, “No, the most dangerous act a man can perform is to try to rape Red Sonja of Hyrkania!”

    Again the room nodded until one monk stood and cried ‘Conan!” then another cried, “Sonja!” and the monastery that posed the question erupted into violence, equally divided into those who felt bitch-slapping Conan of Cimmeria was the more dangerous and those who thought trying to rape Red Sonja of Hyrkania was the most dangerous.

    Ordinarily, seeing a bunch of elderly monks and philosophers fight would be a comical sight but this order believed in a sound body and so practiced all forms of martial Arts and so soon enough, bodies and parts of bodies littered the room with the argument spreading like a plague to engulf the entire Temple.

    As the Temple burned to the ground, a simple cook who had run at the first onset of violence turned to the gardener who was equally wise and laughed, “Verily, the most dangerous act one can perform is to bitch-slap Sonja while attempting to rape Conan.”

    The humble gardener looked back and raising his hoe, cried, “You idiot!” and killed the cook on the spot.

    To this day no one knows what the gardener thought was the most dangerous act a man can perform for he could not write and it is said that he spent his days raising squash for which he had a fondness.

    Now, being a but smarter than the average person, I have never attempted to bitch-slap Conan of Cimmeria or rape Red Sonja of Hyrkania and fortunately, I live so far away that the opportunity to attempt neither will never present itself. So I cannot argue which is the most dangerous.

    But I have seen dragons on a rampage. Observed a single newly-hatched Wurm eat a knight in full armor who thought he was a hero. I have seen villages devastated so I can state with some certainty that the most dangerous act a man can perform is to anger a dragon, or possibly to forget there is a dragon which usually leads to the man angering the monster for Dragons don’t think they are at the top of the food chain, they know it!


    The dragon circled the tower, attracted by the flame as a moth. Earlier, it had flown through a storm and then when the skies cleared, found itself lost and over a grassland quite unlike its forest in Hungary over which it reigned as king and god. It searched for landmarks that would lead it back to its cave and hoard and finally decided that this was impossible and with the attitude of the warm-blooded reptile which some thought was the last dinosaur, the dragon simply gave up its past and sought a new home as a base to conquer again.

    Once it found a flock of strange man-things that flew like birds and as it investigated, one threw a spear at the dragon which resulted in a simple roll and then a gulp. The dragon, hungry, followed and ate every single harpy from the air long before they could return to their base which was the Tower of Arzula Thome. Then thinking that the terrified meat was probably returning to their roost, and finding no game below, the dragon flew southward seeking a new home in the distant hills.

    It searched for some time until the light from the burning tower attracted it and circling, saw the groups of man-things below. One group of four faced another group of ten then they separated and both left, the smaller to the west, the larger to the north. The dragon noted both directions planning to search for new property later and then circled the burning tower, its night vision dampening the firelight so it could see the men and horses below. It noted their numbers, positions and evaluated their weapons then dove in a power dive that arched upward carrying one large man from his horse.

    The dragon ate the man in flight, banked and returned for a second.

    Now horses are considered to be the stupidest of all domesticated beasts but when an animal evolves from a five-toed creature the size of a fox terrier into a thousand pound animal in such a short time, it must be doing something right and what the early proto-horses wanted was to survive and they decided that running away seemed to offer a better chance for survival than standing and fighting. So while lions and tigers and dogs focused on teeth and claws, the proto-horse focused on legs and so the horses main purpose for existence is to simply run away at the first sign of danger. When a horse runs at a crowd pf people, it isn’t trying to run over you, it is aiming at the space between you and the guy next to you and you can stand still and let it pass you by or you can step into its path and discover how little a thousand pounds of meat traveling at thirty-five miles an hour who is running away from danger cares for your puny one-hundred seventy pounds of … nothing.

    The horses threw their riders and ran away as fast as they could, leaving the men who thought they were the top of the food chain and the smartest things on the Earth to stand and fight.

    The dragon ate them all, one at a time, easily avoiding their spears and arrows and striking from the air or ground, always from the dark and usually from behind, picking off those who strayed and then flaming that last group who had formed a square with pikes.

    Had those Khitian philosophers observed the carnage, they would have agreed that the horse is certainly more intelligent than the man for those horses remain alive to this day, forming a herd on the plains of Zamora and eating grass and running away which man thinks of as cowardly but the horse sees as wise. And who can argue for the horses live and eat and man dies and is eaten.

    Finally full, the dragon flamed to the sky to announce its presence and entered the Tower whose fire was nearly out. The dragon easily extinguished the remaining fires by methods known only by a beast whose life deals with that element and then searched until it found the warm cave below. The fact that the cave was already inhabited concerned the dragon not at all. The fact that the inhabitants were spiders, some as large as a horse, only slowed the dragon a bit as it flamed the cavern to ashes before it entered. It then sought every small opening and flamed them also until the place was clean and safe. Satisfied, it then curled up and fell asleep, not caring if it slept for hours or years but intending to seek gold to replace its lost hoard when it awoke for wherever man lived, gold could be found and dragons love to hoard gold above all things.

    Jason rode east along the Road that the people of Pelwan called ‘The Road to Arzula Thome’s Tower’ or simply ‘the Tower Road’. After some checking, he learned that the road was actually the ‘Larsha Road’ and never went near the Sorcerer’s tower but passed it by some miles and you have to take a secondary road to the Tower. Jason was not in the best of shape and ordinarily the thought of such an action so soon after a major bar-fight would be terrifying but a bottle of Kothian Wine had dulled not only the aches on his body and fists, it also dulled his good sense which is why he was in this mess, another bottle the night before and a romp with a Princess whose father could easily have him killed when he discovered that his daughter was no longer ‘pure’. Still, the memory was pleasant for most women endure their first dozen or more escapades and take time to learn to enjoy the act. Davila was one of the few who took to sex like a fish to water and that scared Jason for he loved sex, far more than Lyssandra who he loved also. Pity he couldn’t mix Davila’s youth and enthusiasm with Sonja’s body and Lyssandra’s mind and personality. Now that would be a woman to admire and marry.

    Unfortunately, he once had a business partner in South East Asia, Jalovier by name, back when he was traveling with that Russian woman, Luba, whom he had saved from Chinese Pirates and then became lovers. They were treasure hunters and found a fortune in Khmer gold. So they celebrated and when Jason went down to fetch another bottle, he returned to find Jalovier celebrating with Luba. Jalovier got off of Jason’s lover, struck him with a club, breaking three ribs and told him, “The problem is that you are a nice guy! And the problem with nice guys like you is that you have nothing, not women, not wealth, not position, that cannot and willnot be taken from you by people like me!” Then Jalovier pushed him out the window and for the weeks Jason spent in the hospital, he thought about this. When released, Jason discovered that Jalovier had left Bangkok with his share of the fortune and also with Jason’s share and with Luba, Jason’s lover.

    No, a woman that perfect would attract people like Jalovier like flies and he’d be robbed of health, wealth and woman once again. Better Lyssandra as she is. Despite their rocky beginnings and her mistrust of men in general (which lead to her countless affairs while they were married), they did love each other and got along well, now that they had mostly resolved their problems. You just had to decide if the other person was worth what you had to give up. And Jason had to give up anger at her past. Lys had to give up her past and focus on the future with the man she loved.

    He wasn’t too concerned with Davila. That complication would take care of itself in a week or two. He just had to be very careful around her for despite her Zamoran looks which were exotic but not to his taste, she was damn good in bed. So this trip alone would do them both good. It would give Jason some time to figure out how to fix that mistake and it would give Lys and Davila a chance to work things out. Maybe he’d be lucky and Lys would kill Davila and things could return to normal?

    It took an hour and a half to find the road to the tower then less than an hour to reach the tower. Jason rode, walked the horse to cool it and rode again and there it was. Still smoking but no fires could be seen though he’d have to be careful for moving anything could allow a gust of air that would ignite embers that were trying to go out.

    Outside the gates he found arms scattered about with shields and some helmets but no people or horses or bodies. Jason collected the best of the scattered arrows he could find to replace those he had used, lifted the boar spear he retained for spiders and entered carefully. Even the bodies he had killed on the way out were gone. People would have taken the gear when they buried the dead so this must be some animal. Giant spiders that dragged the bodies away? No! There were no webs or silk. Wolves or perhaps the wolf-like but intelligent Wargs? Lions or tigers or bears, oh my? There should be some evidence of what had happened but…. Nothing. So when faced with the unknown, Jason hid his horse close enough to find easily, readied his spear with a cross-piece to prevent a spider of other horror from climbing the shaft and explored, being careful to make no noise at all. Years in Ireland and Africa and Kosovo hunting enemies more numerous than he had taught him the value of walking lightly and he was even able to surprise some ravens that didn’t see him until he was very close.

    The central tower was gone, a shell with stone stairs and many stone edges projecting from the inside of the tower to support floors but no floors or roof remained. He climbed the stairs carefully, stepping over burned wood but not disturbing them until he was at the top. From here he could even see Pelwan Town, her farms and the grasslands beyond. The view was magnificent and he could see Arzula Thome coming up here to just look. Climbing down, he figured that the floors must have been of pine to burn so quickly. Thick Oak would have survived as the fire burned from the top down, the top floor crashing down and then as the heat climbed, never causing the lower, cooler floor to kindle as the air came up from the cooler ground.

    The ground floor was filled with burned wreckage but the side rooms were intact. Nothing taken, the tapestries singed but not burned, all remaining as the inhabitants fled. Jason searched, finding some money but not much else of value then explored the barracks that ringed the tower wall. These had been occupied by the mercs and their meager belongings remained, but nothing of value. No merc with half a brain would leave his money behind while he was on patrol or guard duty. The temptation for his fellows to rob him could not be ignored.

    There were chests all over the place and he had little trouble picking the locks which were similar to the old Viking Locks that could be picked with a dagger if it were thin enough and you knew where to apply pressure. Inside each were extra clothing, a few personal items from shaving and mending gear to a chess set in one but still, no money or valuables.

    So he then moved below aware that spiders could be overhead but they appeared to have been burned out. An occasional body, charred almost to ashes lay around but nothing living. Jason knew the fire didn’t do this, it was as if someone had entered with a flame-thrower and cleaned the place of vermin.

    Below the ground floor he stumbled into a large room, then he saw…, thoughts of wealth driven from his mind with the occupants of the room.

    The three rode north to throw the mercs off then turned east, then south to join the Larsha Road to Arzula Thome’s tower. Their mood was jovial even though they had to pile most of their gear and food on two horses which is all the townspeople could spare even with the gold Davila offered. And then, they only grudgingly turned these over when they learned who she was. Two pack horses and the one riding horse they had stolen from Torlock’s men. They had tried to steal more but even the locals balked at that fearing the mercenaries who were there more than the king who was weeks away. But it was enough. Davila found her nightmare turn into a very pleasant adventure. She was safe, that she had no doubts for Sonja and probably Lyssandra would die to protect her and she believed that neither was capable of being killed by mortal man. And Jason, she felt her heart skip a beat at the thought of the man. She had seen him fight. Watched him kill more men in one battle than anyone save the Northern Barbarians in the stories the women told in the harem. Sonja had told them how Jason had taken on the entire bar and was easily winning when the farmboys entered to save the mercs from his fury. Well, she didn’t tell it like that but Davila’s way was much more romantic. And in bed… Ishtar she never believed sex would be so wonderful. Lyssandra said it was because Jason cared about his partner but most men did not and sex became a chore. How could something so wonderful be a chore? Jason may love the older woman but really, Jason was of Noble Birth and Nobles simply did not marry Commoners, especially ones with Lyssandra’s past. They married Princesses especially Princesses with grateful fathers who would give her husband an entire Province to rule. Especially to a noble who was as battle-proven as was Jason and not some fop like most of her brothers were turning out to be. Still, that kiss Lyssandra had given her had stirred.. something inside her and she intended to experiment herself. She still intended to take the Irish Noble from the Kosovo woman but a little playtime would be easily forgiven, especially if the playtime didn’t include a man for Zamoran Law allowed a man to play around but a wife caught with another man was stoned to death in the town square..

    And so they rode on, each lost in their thoughts, Davila enjoying the sunshine and the company knowing that when they found Jason, she would be instrumental in his rescue and he’d see her in a new light.

    It wasn’t until they turned south that Davila’s mood darkened. The last time she came south on this road, she as a virgin prisoner, destined to be sacrificed to some nameless demon so that Arzula Thome could wrest power from her father. The horrors she had witnessed nearly overcame her and Sonja had to ask, “Davila, are you ok? Should we turn around and leave you at that farmhouse?”

    “No, no. I’ll be ok. Just memories. Let us push on and rescue my… our… friend.” She was terrified and only the fear of showing her terror in front of the Common warriors prevented her from running away, away form the memories.

    Sonja insisted on leaving the road and approaching from the side where they would be covered by the trees and brush even though doing so placed them at the mercy of the spiders that infested the woods. But if they strode carefully, and avoided the silk lines, they should be safe.

    Soon they found a byrnie, torn and bloodied and Sonja picked it up to say, “I’ve never seen riveted chain torn like this. It wasn’t rent by sword or axe, it was.. torn. See how the links are stretched until they popped? Nothing I know could do this.” Lyssandra looked up and said, “The branches are broken, this was dropped from above the trees.” There were pieces of the chain scattered about, bloody and rent as if some giant had torn it like cloth. Davila paused, again terrified and shook, wanting to … she didn’t even think of what that word was but it would soil her dress and they would laugh at the stain but she wanted to do so to release her fear.

    Sonja looked at her and said, “Are you ok? Lys?”

    Lyssandra returned and took Davila’s hands in her own. “I understand. I’m scared too. It’s different with Jason and Sonja, they are warriors. I’m just an ageing whore pretending to be a warrior. Go back, the road is safe. Goodbye Davila, goodbye Sonja.”

    “Good bye?” Sonja asked. She hated to desert her friends and had never done so before.

    “Your duty is to the princess Davila, to return her to her father. You can do this far better than can I. But my duty is to the man I love so we must part, you to your duty, me to mine. I’ve enjoyed our time together but all things end.” As much as she wanted to kiss Sonja goodbye, she wanted to end with pleasant memories more and being punched by the redhead would mar her speech. So Lyssandra returned to her horse and left the two alone.

    Sonja watched the older woman leave, knowing that she was going to her death. With her or Jason to aid Lys, she would live. Alone, she was good but not good enough. Still, “Let’s go Davila,” Sonja turned her horses and began to leave the forest.

    “Where are we going? Shouldn’t we help them?”

    “Yes, we should but she’s right. My first duty is to you. If you weren’t here and I was recovering some stolen property, I’d gladly abandon my duty to help her but I cannot abandon you. I have to return you to your father, safe. So as much as it pains me, we return to Shadizar.”

    “You cannot!” She struggled to find a way, “I’m, I’m with child. Yes, I carry the Lord Jason’s baby and my father wouldn’t want the father of his grandson to die before he made me an honest woman.”

    “No you aren’t. It’s been only two days. Try again.”

    “I’m terrified that those mercenaries will overcome you and sell me into slavery. We need the added protection of those two.”

    “Not good enough and you are wrong. We both, hell all four of us know I can protect you easily alone. Try again.” They were riding south now, slowly to give Davila time to come up with a good reason.

    “Because they are our friends! Dammit Sonja, I’m terrified. If you saw Arzula Thome feed his guards to the spiders for imagined transgressions, be forced me to watch them scream as they were en-webbed, you’d be scared too. Hell, I want to pee down my legs from terror but they need us! I know the Tower better than any of you. You know Zamora. We can help them survive.”

    “Now THAT I can believe, Let’s go,” she said turning to the south again. Now happy that that she could do what she wanted. Duty was all well and good but it did interfere with what you knew was right.

    “Thank you Sonja, you are very brave, the bravest person I ever met, including Jason.”

    “No I’m not. Bravery is overcoming fear. I’m not afraid so have nothing to overcome because I know I’ll survive and triumph. Lyssandra is afraid and you are terrified yet you both go on. That makes you braver than me.”

    The duo met up with Lyssandra as she was picking her way forward at a reckless pace. “Stupid woman, she’ll nudge a spider line or make noise and attract whatever killed those men.” Then catching up, Sonja ordered, “Slow down, be more careful and quiet. Jason is alive and will be until we arrive or dead and I doubt that as the man would hesitate to run from danger and not worry about being called a coward, so since we haven’t met him running away, he must be alive and well.”

    “Thank you Sonja. I’m glad you decided to help me. I couldn’t have done this without you but what about Davila?”

    “I figure that if we succeed, His Majesty will never know and if we all die, I don’t have to report I failed.” She laughed at that thought. She was Red Sonja of Hyrkania, she didn’t know how to fail.

    They continued for a time, finding nothing then, a breastplate with three holes in it, and more blood. Lyssandra explained, “Erik, our Company sergeant, carried a War Hammer with a spike on the back. He would put holes in plate like this.” She was happy that she could find a normal explanation for the damage until Sonja asked, “Three holes in a row?”

    Then a helmet, crushed and more armor, also rent in a most terrible manner. Then Sonja found it. It was the size and shape of one of the Kite-Shields Aquilonian Knights carried on horseback but lacking any handles and much lighter with a rib the length of the object for strength. She handed it to Lyssandra who swore in Slovak. Davila asked, “What’s wrong? It’s a just a shield. Perhaps from Koth or Turan, doubtless belonging to one of Arzula Thome’s guards..”

    Handing the object to her, Sonja said, “It’s not a shield, it’s a scale, a dragon’s scale. It ate everyone who remained here and then .. Lys, it would find a cave to sleep off the meal. Where do you think it would go?”

    “I don’t know. The only dragon I ever saw was at Wraith’s Keep and that one chased us here to your time. Maybe the dungeon or some cave beneath the Tower?”

    Davila perked up at that and said, “Cave? Beneath the Tower? I know where it is, come on, let’s go.” When the others hesitated she laughed, “What are you guys? Little girls afraid of their own shadow. Come on!” and nothing they asked would force more from the Princess other than “I know where it is.”

    Sonja whispered to Lyssandra, “I think the strain has broken her mind.”

    They found Jason’s horse, happily grazing in a paddock with a stream for water and left their own then proceeded on foot, Davila happy and anxious while Sonja and Lyssandra kept trying to quiet her to no avail.

    Finally she saw the tower, burned out and that stopped her as memories flooded her mind. Finally she moved forward only to follow her friends who stopped at the Gate as Sonja said, “fighting, lots of blood but no bodies.”

    Davila spoke in a hollow voice, “This is where Jason killed the guards as he took me out. He was terrible to behold and any who stood before him fell like wheat to the scythe. This way.”

    She led them to the Tower itself, where the place of Sonja and Lyssandra’s battle with Arzula Thome and his guards was now buried in burned out rubble. Again no bodies so she led them to the stone stairs and Lyssandra commented, “Jason came this way. He went up then back down,” pointing to the footprints in the ash.

    Davila led them to the remains of the upper floor where she had been imprisoned. “I think this is my floor.” Each floor had the stone wall bulge inward and flattened to support the wood beams of the floor. As it was a couple feet wide to support the floor beams, Davila had no trouble walking along the wall to her apartment. “I think this is the window… yes! I can see the plains and would spend hours watching for rescue that never came. Here!” she worried a stone free and reached into the hollow to pull forth three bags, damaged by heat that penetrated the stone but otherwise unharmed, “As soon as I realized why I was here, I dug this stone loose, removed the rubble within and began to collect and store wealth. I sought to seduce my guards to make me worthless or bribe them to free me but all feared Arzula Thome.. all save My Lord Jason of course of feared nothing and made me a woman. A very happy woman at that.”

    Each bag contained clothing, coins of the realm and jewelry. “I planned well but never had the opportunity for my guards feared Arzula Thome more than they desired me or my gold. I think he enjoyed watching my failures at bribery or seduction.”

    Disliking the turn her comments had taken, Lyssandra added, “His steps go up. I think we should see what he felt so important to observe.” And led them up the stone stairs past the missing floors until they reached the ledge that contained the roof.

    “What an amazing sight!” she exclaimed. “See here in the ash, he rested his arms and stared at the vision. Such beauty! I can imagine Arzula Thome coming here to observe the sights and enjoy nature.”

    Sonja joined her and added, “Rather he would come her to lord over his domain, master of all the saw.”

    “A man who could have this view and not love these sights has no soul”

    “As I said, come, Lyssandra.” Sonja finished.

    They returned to the floor and explored, following Jason’s footsteps in the ash as Lyssandra said, “See, he was here and searched every barracks.”

    “How do you know he did this and not some looter?”

    “Because whomever was here replaced the belongings in the box. Jason is like that. Looters would have broken the chests and scattered the contents. Jason picked the locks and replaced all that he did not take.”

    “Your lover is a strange man to waste time like that.”

    “It infuriates me and makes me love him all the more. Well, now what?”

    The caverns are below,” Davila said. “Follow. Arzula Thome would drag me below and watch the feedings. He told me that in every area is but one Queen Spider who produces sterile female eggs and fertile male eggs. The males mate with her and are eaten. The females escape and spread to bring their foul mother prey but bear no young themselves. He says it keeps their numbers down. The Zoth in Pelwan is one of the Queens males, imprisoned but ever in desire to escape and mate with the Queen knowing that would be his doom. This is why I no longer fear, for if the dragon entered her cavern, she and her children would kill and eat it.”

    “How can you be certain?” Sonja asked. “The Dragon is a hundred feet long.”

    Davila laughed. “Arzula Thome would drive herds of cattle into the cavern and none escaped. Fighting bulls would break their horns on the stone seeking escape. She is big, bigger than a house, trapped in the cave by her size, fed by Arzula Thome or her children who drag prey to her. Doubtless the dead guards were carried to her by her young. Yet, she and her young feared Arzula Thome who would enter her very lair and perform his terrible sorceries in the center of the cavern, surrounded by her webbing. He would bring me there, force me to watch the feedings and tell me that once he sacrificed me to his demonic gods, he would feed my body to the spiders. I think that if we remain outside the door, we will be safe for none of her monstrous spawn ever crossed the threshold. Just beware of those that roam free though they prefer to hunt at night and fear the sun.”

    She showed them the entrance and led them down to the bolted and barred door but suddenly Sonja turned and said, “I hear a noise, what lies beyond that door?”

    “I know not. He never spoke of it and I was too terrified to ask.”

    “Lys, make ready, ”Sonja ordered and Lyssandra drew her bow with an arrow taken from outside for she had rearmed her quiver as did Jason, with the lost arrows of the dead.

    Sonja tested the door and finding it unbolted, forced it open and both entered, Sonja with drawn sword, Lyssandra with nocked arrow. “Jason, what the hell are you doing?” Lyssandra demanded of her lover who was calmly reading a book by candlelight.

    “Hello, my dear. I found Arzula Thome’s library and have been trying to figure them out.”

    “I thought we had burned those evil tomes,” Sonja accused.

    “Burned?” Jason asked.

    “An accident when the Tower came alight. Again, what are you doing here? We feared you were dead.”

    “Dead? Me? Hardly. I came here to seek money for our trip and found this instead.” He motioned to the dozen or so books around.

    “Are you planning to take his foul place?” Sonja demanded.

    “What? Of course not. But magick is magick. What my Aunt Katheryn in Ireland said is the same as Lyssandra’s coven in Kosovo said which is the same as the Sufis in Syria and the same as the sorcerers in Japan. The rules are the same despite the words. All I had to figure out is what the symbols meant.”

    “So you read Stygan?”

    “Stygan? Oh, these books, I do not but that doesn’t matter as the diagrams tell volumes. Here! This is the reference to the cavern below where the StarGate lies. Of course he calls it a power center or source of power or some such foolishness but really, it is little more than a bunch of underground streams crossing under quartz-bearing iron-ore to produce the StarGate effect. Lys, if I can tune it right, we can get home!”

    “Home? But what about..” she motioned to Davila and Sonja.

    “Sonja planned to come here alone, rescue Davila alone and return her to Shadizar alone. All we did was help her. With Arzula Thome dead and his army dead or imprisoned, her task is simple. She doesn’t need us.” Looking at the redhead, admitting her strength, added, “She never needed us as much as we needed her.”

    Sonja entered the conversation. “You believe that in the cavern below is a ‘stargate’ to your time and you want to go home?”

    “Don’t you want to go home?”

    “My home was burned and my family murdered. The road is my home.”

    “As was mine in Ireland. The Brits burned my house with my wife and children inside. Still, Innis is my home and I miss it and I have other children in Haven that I miss.”

    “Children,” Sonja said with more than a hint of sadness. “Sometimes I wish I had taken the time to have babies of my own. Jason, I’ll help you as best I can but there is danger below.”

    “Worse than we’ve faced so far?”

    “Probably. That dragon that followed you is here and a Queen spider larger than a house and with hundreds of her brood. But I will do what I can to help you. Davila, lead the way.”

    “NO! You have your life, I want mine. I brought you here to find Jason. I want Jason. If he leaves I am nothing, nothing! I want him, want to marry him, to bear his children and rule Zamora with him.”

    Sonja would have slapped the girl for her selfishness but Lyssandra took her in her arms, “Davila, I understand but even if you made Jason happy in so many other ways, and you can, even more than can I, he loves his daughters and cries nightly for their loss. I held him as he cried for his dead children in Ireland and I hold him as he weeps for his lost children in Haven. If you take from him this chance to return to his children, he will return you to your father and maybe you can convince him to marry you but he will learn to hate you for the loss of his daughters. And no matter how many you give him, he will always miss those you took from him. You need to give him a chance.”

    Davila was crying and looked at Jason who wept for the Irish always held their emotions close to heart and said, “I will. Jason, My Lord, when you are with your children and in Lyssandra’s arms, remember that I loved you enough to give you up for your children. Come.” As they left, she slipped a dagger from its place and thought, “He may not remain with me but I will not live without him.”

    She took them to the massive door that Arzula Thome used to contain the horrors within and showed them the mechanism to open the smaller entrance that Arzula Thome used. As it opened, Davila said, “Look within and observe the Queen who really rules this part of Zamora. She who Arzula Thome used to enforce his will, to subjugate the mercenaries at his service and in fear of which the villages of Larsha Province fed and served him. Observe the Queen spider against whom even that dragon you fear is but fodder, she who guards Arzula Thome’s foul sorceries and through which you must pass to return home. Jason I warn you, I will give my life to draw her and her children away to buy you time to use this stargate of yours, and my last thoughts will be of you” and without warning she ran into the cavern to stop, frozen.

    All entered with drawn weapons to find not a room of spider silk and its foul producers but a large and well fed dragon sleeping in the center of a dimly-lit cavern, wrapped around the quartz and stone circle embedded into the limestone floor. About the beast was naught but ash and a few charred bodies, including one pile of charred flesh the size of a house, the remains of the mightiest spider in southern Zamora. Even Davila knew that all that they possessed, spear, arrow, sword and even courage was useless against the monster that slept below.

    Cac! Well, this mucks up my plans a bit,” Jason commented almost casually. He stared a moment then took Davila by the hand and pulled her from the room, Lyssandra and Sonja following. Then he sealed the room tight and walked away into the sunshine without a word.


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