Tara noticed, with some surprise, that Conan had a hairy chest. Somehow she had expected that he would look just like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movies, smooth-chested and with his muscles clearly defined, but the real Conan was hairier and more rugged. He had just as much muscle as his movie counterpart but it was that of someone who had built it up through hard physical labor, and no doubt by swinging heavy swords and battle-axes in countless hours of practice and combat, rather than by pumping iron in a gym. And he needed a shave.
Not as much as did his wizard companion. Pelias somehow had the air of one who was normally clean-shaven but now, after what must have been years of imprisonment, had a straggly beard hanging down over his chest. He looked more like a hobo than like Gandalf but his forehead was high and his eyes had the gleam of intelligence.
“So, you came here to rescue King Conan?” Pelias asked.
“That is so, Master Pelias,” Roshan replied, “and it was our aim to rescue you also, if you still lived.”
“Oh?” Pelias raised an eyebrow. “Out of the goodness of your hearts?”
“We require the services of a wizard,” Roshan said, “and your reputation is that of one who can be trusted. I know of none other of which that is true.”
“Put aside your suspicions, Pelias,” Conan said. “I know this girl. You’re one of Damaspia’s girls from the Temple of Ishtar in Yarmouk, is that not so?”
“You are correct, Lord King,” Roshan said, “but how did you know? I was but a girl of thirteen when I saw you and surely you cannot remember me.”
“I remember a scrawny little girl, hiding behind a pillar, peering around it at me with wide eyes,” Conan said. “You’ve grown up nicely, lass. It would seem, though, that you decided a career as a priestess or a temple dancer was not for you.”
“Indeed so,” said Roshan. “Perhaps your stories, and those of Olaf, are to blame.”
Conan frowned. “It was not my intention to inspire anyone to follow in my footsteps,” he said. “I have prospered, true, but many times I have faced deadly peril. And, speaking of peril, there is a monstrous snake in these tunnels. It killed a guard who came to taunt me, and perhaps to slay me on account of a brother of his whom I slew long ago, and thus it was that I gained my freedom when he dropped the keys to my chains as he died. I would recommend that we make our way out of here before the snake comes back.”
“That would be Satha the Old One,” Pelias said, “chief of Tsotha’s pets. I know him of old, for I was forced to watch while ten of my acolytes were fed to the creature. A single victim will not sate his hunger.”
Tara gulped. “W-we’d better get g-going,” she said. “Aradia, finder of the lost, guide us back to the entrance to this dungeon.” The magical light dipped in acknowledgement and then set off along the corridor. Unfortunately Tara had forgotten to stipulate that Aradia should use the safest possible route and the glowing sphere led them right into the path of the colossal snake.- - - - -
“Why, the treacherous little snake!” Fred exclaimed. “I oughta taser his ass back to Quortoth.”
Angel drained the last drops from his third bag of blood in quick succession, lowered the empty container, and shook his head. “Don’t do anything hasty, Fred,” he advised. “Connor thought he had a good reason for what he did. Somehow he believes that I murdered Holtz. Justine tricked him, I think. I don’t want to take any action until I find out the truth. And find Cordy.”
Willow grimaced. “That’s not going to be easy,” she said. “Aradia wasn’t any help at all.”
“Which at least rules out Cordelia being in the Los Angeles area,” Buffy said. “I don’t think you’re going to get any quick answers on the Queen C front. So, maybe you can work on our problem first. Plus there’s this whole apocalypse thing, too, according to Giles. I guess it’s that time of year again.”
Angel shook his head slowly. “Let’s see if I’ve got this straight. Two Slayers and two vampires with souls is too big an edge for the forces of Good. That gives my old enemy the First Evil a loophole it can exploit to enter this world.”
“That is the situation in a nutshell,” Giles agreed.
“And it’s too late for staking Spike to solve the problem,” Angel went on.
“So the prophecy leads me to believe,” Giles confirmed.
“Bit bloody ungrateful of you,” Spike complained, “seeing as it was me that fished you out of Davy Jones’ Locker.”
“Okay, sorry,” Angel mumbled, hanging his head for a moment. “I don’t know what you thought you were playing at. I guess you were just copying me, as usual.”
“If that had been the case I’d have eaten a sodding gypsy,” Spike retorted. “Thought getting a soul would fix me up so I could tell the difference between right and wrong. How was I to know it would bugger things up like this? I don’t want the world to end. The World Cup is coming up and England is in the same group as Argentina.”
“Good Lord!” Giles exclaimed. “The Apocalypse will begin on Midsummer’s Day and the World Cup doesn’t finish until the end of June. We’ll miss the Final.”
“I think the end of the world is important for more reasons than just you two missing a soccer match,” Buffy said.
“That’s ‘Football’!” Giles and Spike chorused.
“Whatever. Anyway, I’d rather the world didn’t end at all,” Buffy said.
“Killing Faith is not an option,” Angel declared.
“Indeed not,” Giles said. “And it would be just as pointless as staking Spike.”
“Or staking Angel,” Spike muttered.
“The Slayer line has split,” Giles explained. “It passed to Kendra when Buffy died for the first time, and from Kendra to Faith, but when Buffy was… resurrected she was also… re-Called.”
Willow grimaced and stared down at her shoes.
“If either Buffy or Faith dies, another Slayer will be Called in her place,” Giles went on. “There are two Slayers now and there will continue to be two in the future. I can’t see any way around that. And, as a result, the First Evil will rise in a form far more powerful than when it tormented Angel.”
“We’re doooomed,” Spike said, adopting a thick Scottish accent. “Doomed, I tell you.”
Giles threw back his head and, much to the surprise of the uncomprehending Americans, laughed out loud. “Stupid boy,” he said.
Spike laughed in return. “Captain Mainwaring never said that to Frazer,” he pointed out.
“No, he said it to… Pike,” Giles replied. “Close enough.”
The two Englishmen, or rather the English man and the English vampire, laughed again. The Americans, their eyebrows raised, stared at them.
“This is some English thing, right?” said Buffy.
“Indeed so, in fact perhaps the epitome of Englishness,” Giles confirmed. “We laugh in the face of danger.”
“So do I,” said Xander, “and then I run away.”
“Bollocks,” said Spike. “Got to say this for you, donut boy, you stick in there to the end.”
“Uh, thanks,” Xander said.
“Except when it comes to getting married,” Anya put in.
“We’re getting off the point,” Willow said. “Somehow we have to find a way to bring Tara back from the world of muscle-bound barbarians. Then we have to find a way to stop the First Evil destroying this world.”
“Seems to me,” said Spike, “there’s not a lot of point in bringing back the girl if the world’s going to end next month. Might make more sense for us all to bugger off there to join her. Don’t like the idea of running away and leaving the world in deep shit, and I’m not mad keen on going to a world with no mod cons and no telly, but we might not have any other option.”
Buffy’s forehead furrowed. “Giles,” she said, “suppose I wasn’t in this world? Wouldn’t that fix the split in the Slayer line? We could avoid the Apocalypse altogether.”
“Hmm.” Giles put his forefinger to where the bridge of his glasses would have been if he hadn’t switched to wearing contacts. He lowered his hand and stared at the finger. “Yes. That is… quite possible. But that would mean you would be exiled to a barbaric and primitive world. It’s hardly the ideal solution.”
“I know, but better me than the whole world, right?” Buffy said, her voice brittle with fake perkiness.
Giles frowned and bit on his lower lip. “Ah, hmm, perhaps,” he said.
“You’re putting a lot of faith in this prophecy,” Angel said. “Prophecies can be tampered with. I know.”
“Faith,” Willow muttered under her breath.
“I am convinced of the veracity of this particular prophecy,” Giles said. “I stumbled upon it quite by accident. I can’t see how anyone could have anticipated, and prepared for, such an unlikely contingency. And it led me directly to where Spike had gone to regain his soul – unfortunately just a few hours too late to stop him.”
“Faith!” Willow repeated, this time aloud. “We could send Faith to Hyboria. That would fix the split in the Slayer line without Buffy having to go into exile. I mean, Faith’s in jail anyway, so it wouldn’t be such a huge deal for her. She’d probably enjoy it.”
“That’s… rather a good idea, actually,” said Giles.
“No,” Angel growled. “You’re not going to banish Faith into another dimension just like that. She’s not expendable.”
“Certainly she isn’t,” Giles said. “I’m sure that’s not what Willow meant. It would only be if she consented.”
“And I think she might,” Willow said. “I bet she’d regard it as better than being in jail.”
Angel glowered at her for a moment, his shoulders tensed, but then he relaxed slightly. “I’ll put it to her,” he said, “and see what she says. But if she says ‘no’ that’s the end of it, right?”
“Of course,” Giles agreed. “It would be a totally immoral action to send her to another dimension against her will. And, even setting aside the moral considerations, it would hardly be practical. We would have to extract her from her prison first and that would be immensely more difficult without her active cooperation.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” said Angel. “Okay, I’ll see what she says.”
“It might be the answer to getting your friend Tara back, too,” Fred said. “When I modified the Morris, Thorne, and Yurtsever equations to account for magical forces the results implied that a wormhole involving time travel would be one-way. We could send someone through but we couldn’t pull them back. But if someone went through a portal with a suitable activation device then they could open another one to come back; or, in this instance, pass the device to Tara so that she could come back through.”
“You mean, like a Stone of Recall in Dungeons and Dragons?” Xander commented.
“Pretty much,” Fred agreed. “I think we might be in business.”- - - - -
The snake was immense; far bigger than Glory’s Sobekian Cobra Demon, bigger than the biggest anaconda, and the twin fangs in the upper jaw indicated that it was venomous rather than a constrictor. Although venom would be overkill as the fangs were the size of scimitars. Being bitten by it would make the bite of a saber-tooth tiger look like a love nip from Miss Kitty Fantastico. It raised itself up in a striking position and towered over the humans.
Conan raised his sword and tensed for action. Roshan drew her saber. Against such a monster, however, their blades would be of little use. Tara tried to think of a spell but couldn’t come up with anything that would be more of an irritation to the gigantic snake.
Then Tara noticed that Pelias was moving his hands, his fingers weaving a pattern that could only be the gestures of spell-casting, and he spoke under his breath what must have been mystical words. The snake froze rigid for a brief moment then closed its mouth, lowered its head, and recoiled. Pelias made a high-pitched chittering sound and the snake whirled about and slithered away at high speed.
“Crom!” Conan exclaimed. “That was close. And strange; never have I seen a snake act as if scared before, still less a monster like that. What did he see to frighten him?”
“The scaled people see what escapes the mortal eye,” Pelias answered. “You see my fleshly guise; Satha saw my naked soul.”
Conan and Roshan both looked askance at Pelias and moved away from him slightly. Neither of them sheathed their swords – well, Conan couldn’t have done so anyway, as his present scanty clothing didn’t include a scabbard, but it was fairly obvious to Tara that he wouldn’t have put the sword away even if he did possess the necessary sheath.
Pelias stood up a little straighter, his chest expanded slightly, and a half-smile played on his lips. Tara was reminded, very strongly, of Spike playing his ‘Big Bad’ persona to the hilt. And it was likely to have similarly unfortunate results when it came to group cohesion and mutual co-operation.
“Uh, Master Pelias, could I have a quick word?” Tara asked.
“You may, young witch,” Pelias said. His tone was somewhat patronizing, even arrogant, but Tara didn’t let it bother her; she decided to treat it as if he was Obi-Wan Kenobi speaking to ‘Young Luke’ and not as if Pelias was being deliberately insulting.
Tara moved a little way away from the other two and Pelias, his eyebrows raised, followed her. A furrow between Roshan’s eyebrows as she watched indicated that she was uncomfortable with Tara’s proximity to the wizard but she did nothing to interfere. It occurred to Tara that Willow, in the same position, would have voiced her objections strongly but that Roshan was more inclined to trust Tara’s judgment. She suppressed the thought, feeling that she was being disloyal to Willow – although she’d already been about as disloyal to Willow as you could get.
Tara felt a blush coming to her cheeks and put aside those side-thoughts to concentrate on the business at hand. Giving a powerful wizard a good talking-to was an intimidating prospect. She managed to summon up the nerve to proceed only by concentrating on his present similarity, in his bedraggled state, to Rincewind rather than the more imposing persona that he’d no doubt present once he’d had his beard trimmed and found some less ragged robes.
“Master Pelias,” she said quietly, “King Conan, and my companion Roshan, will think better of you if you tell the truth about the snake. That ‘naked soul’ thing might make you sound like a Big Bad but it’s no way to win friends and influence people.”
“Oh? I take it you recognized what I did,” Pelias said.
“A Fear spell,” Tara confirmed. “That chittering noise sounded like a mongoose to me. I’d bet it saw us as four giant mongeese – uh, mongooses.”
Pelias nodded confirmation. “You are knowledgeable indeed. Not many Brythunians would know what a mongoose is, let alone recognize its call.”
“That’s all part of why we were hoping to get you to help us,” Tara said, “but we can go into that once we’re out of here. For now, just fix things so that Conan doesn’t keep one eye on you when he should be using both eyes to watch out for Tsotha-lanti’s creatures and King Strabonus’ men.”
“There is sense in your words,” Pelias conceded. He pursed his lips. “Conan is not one of the credulous peasantry, and your companion must have qualities beyond the ordinary to have penetrated the castle with you, and it is neither possible nor necessary for me to strike them with awe and thus impose my will upon them. Very well, I will do as you suggest.” He strode back to the others. “King Conan, milady Roshan,” Pelias said, “our perspicacious companion Tara of Brythunia has asked me to confess to the truth of my victory over Satha the serpent. In fact I drove him away with a simple spell of Fear. He saw, not my soul, but the four of us in the guise of mongooses larger than tigers.”
Roshan rolled her eyes and her lips moved in a silent word that Tara guessed to be “Men!”
“Ah,” said Conan, and the muscles in his shoulders relaxed. “I have seen mongooses in Vendhya; like unto large stoats, or otters, they are and they prey upon venomous snakes. So your soul, then, is like that of other men and your words were to claim wizardly prestige.”
“That… is correct,” Pelias admitted. “Tara has made me see that this is pointless in this company – although, once we leave this place, I may make similar claims to cow lesser men into obedience.”
“The threat of my sword should do that,” Conan said, “but in this place, where men have lived under the domination of Tsotha for years, your wizardly mien should make things much easier.” He resumed his forward progress through the corridors and the rest followed.
“How are we going to get you out of the castle, anyway?” Tara asked. “I cast a spell to make people take no notice of us, as we came in, but I don’t think it will stretch to cover four. Do you know something similar, Master Pelias?”
“I intend to take control of the palace,” Pelias announced. “I imagine that King Conan will need to return to Aquilonia with all speed?”
“Indeed so,” Conan confirmed. “I must return quickly, muster the army, and resist the invasion. They have a considerable head start and I fear they will take the city of Shamar, at the very least, before I can bring any forces to bear to oppose them.”
“We shall see,” said Pelias. Tara thought he sounded smug, as if he knew something they didn’t know, but unless he’d invented the world’s first airplane, or had a Teleport spell in his repertoire, she couldn’t guess what it might be.
At that point they reached the steel grille at the exit to the dungeon. “Ah, by the ivory hips of Ishtar, I see Shukeli,” Pelias exclaimed, as he saw the dead body that lay just beyond the bars, “who hanged my young acolytes up by their feet and laughed as he skinned them. Your work, Conan?”
Tara shuddered. The other two didn’t show any such reaction.
“Yes, I slew him,” Conan said. “He slammed the door in my face as I came up from the dungeon. I was just an instant too late to stop him from shooting home the bolt.”
“As I thought,” said Roshan. “I had to move the corpse so that we could open the door.”
“I hope no-one came up behind you and bolted it again,” said Conan.
“If they have I can open it with magic,” Tara said.
“If they have I can animate Shukeli’s dead form to operate the bolt for us,” Pelias said, simultaneously with Tara and almost drowning her voice out. “Your pardon, Lady Tara. I think you said something along the same lines.”
“Uh, I’d just move the bolt,” Tara said. “I don’t do things with… dead bodies.”
“A simpler solution, indeed,” Pelias said, “but neither is required. The door is not locked.”
They passed through and shot the bolt home behind them; no-one wanted the giant snake to emerge and start wandering through the palace. Tara and Roshan led the way up the stairs and towards Tsotha-lanti’s chamber.
“Silks, and satins, and gold, I see,” Pelias said, once they had reached their destination. “Tsotha-lanti professes to be above such luxuries of the flesh, being half-demon as he is, but it seems he is as fond of human comforts as anyone else. I make no secret of my liking for pleasant surroundings; the Art requires me to shun certain pleasures but I take full advantage of those permitted to me. Is that a jug of wine I see?”
“Indeed it is,” Conan said, and he gathered up four crystal goblets and then picked up the jug.
“It is hardly fitting for a king to pour the wine,” Pelias protested.
“The devil with that,” Conan said. “My servants are in my capital, several days’ ride away, and all I see here are allies; friends, even. I do not regard it as beneath my dignity to pour out wine for my comrades.” He filled up the goblets and handed them to the others.
“Uh, thank you, Lord King,” Tara said, remembering that Roshan had used that form of address and presuming that it was probably correct.
“There is no need to stand on ceremony,” Conan said. “I was plain Conan for many years and, after all, none of you are my subjects. I’d as soon you called me by my name, at least until I am back in my capital with my crown upon my head, and even then I would not bother with formalities except that to do otherwise would scandalize my court.” He drained his goblet in one swallow. “Crom, I needed that. Well, Pelias, what now?”
“Ah, I see a viewing crystal,” Pelias said. He took a sip of his wine then set down the goblet and went over to the object that had attracted his attention. “A childish toy, useful only when there is no time for the higher science, but that describes our present circumstance quite accurately. Let us see how Strabonus and Amalrus are proceeding with their mission of conquest.” He waved his hand over the crystal globe and uttered a mystic phrase that sounded, to Tara, very like the occasions when Giles had spoken incantations in Sumerian. A picture formed within the crystal ball.
“By Crom!” Conan exclaimed. “That is Shamar! The armies of Koth and Ophir are forming up to besiege it.”
Tara could see a walled city, which did indeed look very like the one she and Roshan had passed through not long before, and around it were a mass of horsemen and men on foot. A thousand flaming torches lit up the scene. The horsemen seemed to be doing little or nothing other than caring for their steeds. The footmen, however, were engaged in a flurry of activity; digging ditches, cutting down trees, and assembling large wooden structures which she presumed to be siege towers.
“I could reach there by noon tomorrow, if I found a fast horse and rode it to death,” Conan said, “but I would be outside the walls with an army between me and the defenders. Even if I could get past them I would be little more than an extra sword-arm and a rallying point. Probably I could achieve nothing more than to die with my people when the town falls – as fall it will, within a few days, if relief does not arrive. I need to get to Tarantia to muster the troops and lead an army to the aid of Shamar. Yet that is a journey of five days’ hard ride. Before the army could arrive the city would have fallen and the invaders would be ravaging the southern provinces unchecked.”
“I fear the situation is worse than that,” Pelias said. “See now how things transpire in Tarantia.”
The scene changed to what Tara presumed must be a different city. Her knowledge of medieval society was sketchy but it was easy enough to recognize that there was a riot going on. The others all gleaned much more information from the picture in the globe.
“So,” Conan growled, “my people turn on me the moment my back is turned.”
“They think you slain at the plain of Shamu,” Roshan pointed out. “Our enemies will have lost no time in proclaiming their victory.”
“That is so,” Pelias said, “and Tsotha-lanti will have used sorcery to ensure that the news spread far and fast. I take it that those troops being driven from the city, showing great discipline and restraint in their withdrawal, are the soldiers of your most trusted barons?”
“They are,” Conan said. “Count Trocero of Poitan and his retainers. I had expected them to hold the city for me.”
“I recall, from before I was imprisoned here,” Pelias said, “that Poitan contended against the rest of Aquilonia, seeking greater autonomy, and there was armed conflict between Trocero and King Numenides for a time.”
“That is so,” said Conan, “and it was one factor that led Trocero to assist me in claiming the throne.”
“Then it is no surprise that the people of the capital are revolting against what they see almost as foreign rule,” said Pelias. “Do any of the line of Numenides still live?”
“Aye,” said Conan. “Prince Arpello of Pelia. Strabonus and Amalrus delighted in informing me that he is their puppet and will be their proxy king of Aquilonia. And I see his banners flying where mine should fly. The people are rising in favor of one who has already sold them into foreign rule.” He slammed his goblet down on a table hard enough to shatter it. “Damn him! If I could just be there! I could break his grip on the city before it took hold, and have an army on its way within a day – but I am stuck here. It seems my escape has saved my life but failed to save my kingdom.”
Tara tried to think in terms of a world with no phones, no broadcast media, and no means of transport faster than a galloping horse. Even the Wild West had had the telegraph. The lack of long-distance communications meant that no-one in Aquilonia had any idea that their king still lived, and was free, and so they would act as if he was dead and the country would fall to the foreign invaders. She had no idea of how she could make any useful contribution. The only teleportation spell she knew was the one she and Willow had used against Glory – and the complete absence of any control over the destination ruled it out as a solution to the present problem.
“By the time I can get to Tarantia,” Conan went on, “it will be too late to do any good. All my damnable nobles will have scattered to their own cursed fiefs on the word of my death. Raising an army will be hell – and before I could gather more than a token force Strabonus will be hammering at the gates. And if I don’t get there… now that the crowd have driven out Trocero there will be no-one to stop Arpello from seizing the crown – and he’ll hand it over to Strabonus in return for a mock throne. Then, once Strabonus turns his back, Arpello will try to revolt – but the barons won’t back him and it will only give Strabonus the excuse to annex the country openly. Amalrus, no doubt, will be content with the scraps from the Kothian table. Crom, Ymir, and Set! Could I but fly like lightning to Tarantia!”
Tara was struck by the contrast between this Conan and the one in the movies. She couldn’t imagine Arnie’s character conducting a serious analysis of a political situation; smiting enemies with a large sword had been movie-Conan’s response to all problems. It would probably work here, too, if Conan hadn’t been a couple of hundred miles from where the smiting needed to be done.
“What if I could get you to your capital before the dawn?” Pelias said.
“Then things would be entirely different,” Conan said. “I could stop those riots in short order, throw Arpello into prison, bring back Trocero before he has gone too far, and have an army on the march by the morrow. But one would need to be able to fly like a speeding arrow to reach Tarantia so quickly.”
“Exactly,” said Pelias. “There are creatures not of earth and sea but of the skies and the far reaches above. They dwell apart, unguessed of by men, and affairs on this world hold no interest to them. Yet to him who holds the Master-words and Signs, and the Knowledge underlying all, they are neither malignant nor inaccessible. I can summon one to bear you to Tarantia with wings far swifter than those of an eagle.”
“That would be a marvel indeed,” said Conan, “and would render my task far easier. Yet I would not depart and leave you alone amongst your enemies. And what of the girls?”
“We can slip out and merge with the populace of Khorshemish,” Roshan said. “They will not know we had anything to do with your escape. And, in truth,” she added, pouting, “our contribution was minor and you would have escaped without our aid.”
“And you need not fear for me,” Pelias said. “Soon the people of Khorshemish will know that they have a new master. Slay Strabonus at the siege of Shamar and I will do the rest. Hmm. I do not wish to rule the kingdom. I must find out who is the heir to the throne.”
“Strabonus has no children,” Conan said. “He married quite recently but word has it that it was a matter of politics and he pays his wife little attention.”
Tara suspected that the wife in question might well have been one of the pair of women she had observed getting it on in a nearby bedroom. Roshan had said that she suspected that one of the two was participating out of frustration, rather than because she genuinely swung that way, and Conan’s tale might be the explanation.
“His brother leads a revolt against his rule in the eastern provinces of Koth,” Conan continued. “Doubtless the brother would take the throne if the chance arose. I know little about him save only that he is popular with his soldiers and, perhaps because of that, he is holding his own with some success despite the far greater resources Strabonus commands. He might well make a better king than his brother.”
“And he would be unlikely to seek revenge for Strabonus’ fall,” said Pelias. “Excellent. Now, Conan, if you would accompany me to the top of the tower, I shall summon the child of the stars to transport you on your way.”
“First let me find some clothing,” Conan said. “It would be too easy for Arpello to raise a cry that I was an impostor if I arrived clad only in this loincloth.”
This was another example of the differences between this real-life Conan and the one portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movies. Tara couldn’t stop herself from breaking into a laugh. “S-sorry,” she said, as three pairs of eyebrows were raised. “It’s just that, where I come from, they tell tales about Conan’s exploits and, in them, he always
wears nothing but a loincloth. It’s never seemed very practical to me and it seems I was right.”
“Crom’s blood, girl, the skalds of your land must never have felt a Cimmerian winter,” Conan said. The grin on his face showed that he was in no way offended. “It is true that I first found some measure of fame in Zamora, where it is hot, and there were times when I wore no more than I wear now. In Kush I went lightly clad, too, for such is the custom in those lands. But in the northern climes I dress warmly and, if going into battle, I would always wear at least a mail hauberk if given the choice. Bare skin does not turn aside blades.”
“And rags do not inspire respect,” Pelias said. “Your words, Tara, have reminded me that I should emulate Conan and seek out robes worthy of my position.”
‘And a pointy hat,’ Tara thought, ‘although probably not with ‘WIZZARD’ embroidered on it.’ This time she managed to keep her inward laughter to herself.- - - - -
Conan returned to the chamber clad in breeches and a hauberk of gilded scales. He had a plumed helm tucked under his arm and a broadsword hung at his hip. “This garb must belong to an officer,” he said. “It will serve very well when I make my entrance. Summon your flying demon, Pelias, and I shall be off to Tarantia.”
“It must be done at the top of the tower, under the sky,” said Pelias. “Follow me.”
“Come to me in Tarantia as soon as word of my victory reaches you,” Conan told the girls, as they ascended the stair, “and I will reward you.”
“Actually what we really want is for you to repeal a law,” Tara said.
Conan halted. “What law is this?” he asked.
“The law saying that people can burn witches, and keep the witch’s possessions,” Tara said, “and that one way to recognize witches is that they, uh, like other girls.”
Conan gave a loud peal of laughter. “Ah, sits the wind in that quarter? I had thought that one of you two might make a fine Queen for Aquilonia, for I admire women of courage, but I suppose that is out of the question.”
“Q-queen? M-me?” Tara could feel her eyes widening into huge circles.
“Indeed,” said Conan. “I like women who are bold and resourceful as well as pretty. The pampered ladies of the court hold no appeal for me. You two are much more to my taste. Alas, I suspect that I am not to yours.”
“It’s, uh, nothing personal,” Tara said, “it’s just that, well, you’re a man.”
Conan laughed again. “I am indeed. Ah, well, I shall have to look elsewhere for my queen. It is a shame that Princess Amestris chose Olaf over me. She would have been ideal.”
“That reminds me,” Roshan said, “Olaf sends you his regards. They have two children now, a son and a daughter, and the son takes after his father.”
“A mighty warrior to be, no doubt,” said Conan.
“I thought you were in a desperate hurry to get to your capital,” Pelias commented sourly, “and yet you tarry for gossip.”
“Two minutes are not crucial,” Conan replied, “and this is relevant. My friendship with Olaf is well known. So, too, is my past relationship with Queen Yasmela of Khoraja and my service of Captain of the Guard under Queen Taramis of Khauran. I wonder if Strabonus’ true objective is, not Aquilonia, but those petty kingdoms along his southern border. If he moved to annex them I would have come to their defense. Koth could never hope to hold Aquilonia indefinitely, and the motive behind the invasion puzzled me, but perhaps Strabonus aims only to remove it as a threat so that he can expand his empire to the south without interference.”
“A pre-emptive strike,” Tara commented.
“Exactly,” said Conan, raising his eyebrows. Tara guessed that he was surprised at a woman making a pertinent comment about military politics. “If I am correct then Prince Arpello might have good reason to believe that he will be allowed to be a true king of Aquilonia. Probably Ophir will annex Shamar, and the lands to the south of it, and Strabonus will be satisfied with a free hand to act against the petty kingdoms. Of course if Aquilonia erupts into civil war that will serve Strabonus’ ends just as well.”
Yasmela of Khoraja, you say?” Pelias commented. “What happened to King Khossus?”
“He is king once more,” Conan answered. “Yasmela was Queen Regent when I knew her; her brother was held captive by Amalrus of Ophir at the time. I helped to rescue him, later, and he returned to his place on the throne.” He frowned. “Amalrus was working with Strabonus at that time. I should have been more suspicious when Amalrus claimed that he felt threatened by Koth and invited me to the meeting which turned into an ambush.”
“I was born in Khoraja,” Pelias said. “You could be right in your deductions. Strabonus has long coveted Khoraja and the wealth it gains from the trade routes. But the motives behind their actions are unimportant now. What matters is how to deal with them.”
“True,” said Conan, “although it will be a useful lesson to remember for the future. But, for now, things can be set right by cutting off Arpello’s head and then crushing the armies of Koth and Ophir at Shamal.”
“It would be as well to ensure that Strabonus and Amalrus lose their heads as well,” said Pelias.
“And Tsotha-lanti the sorcerer too,” Conan added.
“I fear that cutting off Tsotha’s head will not suffice,” Pelias warned. “There are rituals that must be performed to ensure that he stays dead. I will join you at the battlefield and do what is necessary.”
“That would be wise,” said Conan. “Well, let us tarry no more.” He resumed his ascent of the staircase. “Summon your flying demon steed, and I will be off.”
“Don’t forget to repeal the law about witches,” Roshan reminded him, as they emerged onto the top of the tower.
“I did not even know that there was such a law,” Conan said. “Of course I shall have it repealed as soon as the invaders have been crushed. If any genuine witches have been burned I would be amazed; for, if they truly have dark powers of sorcery, they will not suffer themselves to be taken. Those who burn are, I would think, innocent victims of envy and malice.”
“It would have happened to me in one of your southern villages,” Roshan said, “had Tara not arrived and rescued me. And I have no powers of witchcraft whatsoever.”
“But the lady Tara has,” said Conan, “which proves my point. Come to me as soon as the war ends. You shall witness the law being repealed and also receive a suitable reward for your deeds.”
Not that they had achieved much, Tara thought, as Conan had managed to free himself and Pelias before the two girls arrived. Conan seemed willing to give points for effort, however, and perhaps they had made the escape go a little smoother than it would have done in their absence. She was hardly in a position to turn down the reward, anyway, and she put aside the fleeting thought and watched as Pelias summoned his demon.
The creature that swooped down out of the sky was the size of a light plane. It bore a strong resemblance to the giant pterosaur from ‘Walking With Dinosaurs’, except that it was covered in white fur; Tara suspected that it might be a genuine pterosaur, summoned from the past or from an alternate dimension, rather than a demon.
“Crom!” Conan exclaimed. “I have never seen a beast like this one. Can it really carry me to Tarantia?”
“Indeed it can,” Pelias assured him, as the creature landed. “You will be at your capital by dawn.”
“It is well that I have just used the privy,” Conan remarked, causing Tara to have to suppress a giggle, and then he donned his helm and climbed onto the monstrous pterosaur. He settled himself astride it, his legs around the base of its neck, and waved to Pelias. The sorcerer uttered a command and the pterosaur lumbered forward and dived off the edge of the tower.
“Cro-o-o-o-m!” Conan cried, as they plummeted downward, but the beast was only using gravity to gain the necessary airspeed for laden flight. Such a massive creature presumably had the same problems with vertical take-off as a swan or an albatross. Once it had gathered speed it swooped upward, ascending rapidly, and soared away. Within moments the pterosaur and its passenger were out of sight.
Roshan’s eyes were wide and her mouth gaped open. She recovered her composure, after Conan had disappeared into the dark sky, and managed to regain control of her face. “By Ishtar’s nipples!” she exclaimed. “Even forewarned I could scarce believe what I saw.”
“Definitely something you don’t see every day,” Tara agreed. She was a lot less awestruck than the other girl; compared to some of the things she’d seen in Sunnydale, a barbarian flying off on the back of a giant pterosaur didn’t come into the jaw-dropping category. “Well, now that Conan has gone, it’s time to turn our attention to Pelias,” she said. “If he’s to make a suitable impression on the denizens of the castle, when everyone wakes up in the morning, we’d better give our wizard a makeover.”- - - - -
Pelias stared at the little nail scissors. “How ingenious,” he commented. “The ingenuity and craftsmanship is beyond anything that I have seen before. That did not come from Brythunia, I will wager, but from somewhere with artisans of much greater skill. I would think it a relic of lost Atlantis save that there is no sign of corrosion or wear.”
It had never occurred to Tara that a gadget as simple as a pair of scissors would be so impressive to people from a pre-industrial civilization. The local equivalent didn’t have a pivot where the blades crossed; instead it was constructed from a single piece of metal, bent into an elongated ‘U’ shape, with the tips flattened out into blades. The curved part at the base was springy and the cutting operation was performed by squeezing the blades past each other. It resembled the hand-operated shears that sheep-farmers used before the invention of powered shears. Tara would have struggled to cope but Roshan, obviously well accustomed to the device, was using it with speed and precision to trim Pelias’ hair and beard. Tara used her much smaller scissors to tidy the wizard’s eyebrows and mustache, trim away his nasal hair, and give him a badly-needed manicure – although a pedicure was further than she was prepared to go.
“I’m not really from Brythunia,” Tara admitted. “In fact I’m from another world. Hey! Keep your head still or you’ll end up with mismatched eyebrows. That wouldn’t be very impressive.”
Pelias chuckled. “Indeed not, lady. Very well, I shall sit motionless, but you must explain your astounding claim.”
Tara obeyed, relating the tale of her arrival in Hyboria, as she and Roshan worked to transform Pelias from ‘homeless man’ into ‘majestic wizard’. He accepted her story with less incredulity than she had expected; although, when she thought about it, she realized that someone who could summon creatures from other dimensions must have the concept pretty much worked out.
“Sending you from this world into another realm would not be easy,” said Pelias, when Tara had finished relating her tale, “but not excessively difficult either, for a wizard of my talents, especially as you would not be resisting. Making sure that you arrive safely in the world from which you came, however, is far more challenging. I shall need to devote considerable thought to the matter and, at the moment, I am afraid that my priorities must lie elsewhere.”
“That’s… understandable,” Tara said; she had intended to say ‘okay’ but hadn’t been able to put the word into the local language. “I can wait.”
“Once I have established control here, and I have sent Tsotha-lanti back to the hells in which he was spawned, then I will give your problem my full attention,” Pelias promised. “Now, are you satisfied with my appearance?”
The two girls took a step back and scrutinized the wizard. “I think that will do,” Roshan said.
“Yes, much better,” Tara agreed. “You’d make an excellent Gandalf.” She saw the blank look on Pelias’ face, realized that she’d just used an analogy that would be completely meaningless here, and hastened to explain. “Uh, he’s the greatest wizard where I come from,” she said, keeping her explanation simple by not mentioning that Gandalf was a fictional character. “He’s renowned for being able to control the situation through his sheer presence rather than by doing anything exceptional with his magic.”
Pelias nodded. “I shall do both,” he said, “but it will make things easier if I present an imposing appearance.”
“You would look better if you bathed,” Roshan pointed out, “and you will need robes appropriate to your status.”
“There will be suitable robes in Tsotha-lanti’s chests,” Pelias said, “but a bath will be harder. Summoning servants to draw and heat water would reveal my presence here before I am ready. Hmm. I think that I shall have to enlist the services of the elemental spirits of fire and water. I would not use high magic for such a trivial purpose in normal circumstances but, in the present situation, I think that it is permissible.”
“Yes, definitely,” Tara agreed, mentally comparing Willow’s somewhat cavalier attitude toward the use of magic with that of the vastly more experienced Pelias. And it brought to mind something else. In approximately five days’ time natural biological processes were going to present her with a problem that was unlikely, in this world to have been solved in a fashion that she’d find acceptable. Would it be legitimate, in the circumstances, to use magic to replicate her single, solitary, tampon?- - - - -
Faith pursed her lips and frowned. “I ain’t wicked crazy about going to some garbage-dump barbarian world,” she said, “but I guess I can live with it. It ain’t like the California Institution for Women’s any bed of roses. I’ll go.”
“Are you sure?” Angel said. “I don’t want you to feel you’re being forced into this.”
“Well, if the world’s gonna end if we both stay here, better it’s the girl in jail who goes off to play Red Sonja than the girl who has a house and a kid sister and friends and shit.” Faith broke into a grin. “Hey, I might even enjoy it.”
“Can you get out of here when you need to?” Angel asked.
“No problemo,” Faith said. “Level Three security wasn’t designed with Slayers in mind.” Her gaze flicked briefly to the video camera that looked down on them. “Uh, as long as the guards aren’t listening in, that is, or I’ll be stuffed into maximum security before I can blink.”
“Don’t worry,” Angel assured her, “I’ve got a gizmo in my pocket that Fred and Willow cooked up, mixing technology and magic, to make sure we can talk privately. Anyone who listens in won’t take any notice whatever we say. Even if they’re listening to a recording it’ll be just the same. We can talk about anything we like.”
“Wicked cool,” Faith said. “Okay, I can get out easy enough, but I’ll need transportation to get from here to Sunnydale.”
“We’ll work something out,” Angel promised. “Anything else?”
“Yeah, I’ll need some shit to take with me, yah know? A sword, and a bow and arrows, and a sweet set of leathers. And a whole lot of pills. ‘Cause, yah know, I can’t see me getting Conan the Barbarian to put a rubber on his dick. Or one of those contraceptive implant things might be even better. And a back-pack full of a shitload of feminine hygiene items. They’re rationed here and there’s nothing like not having enough to make you realize how much you’d miss them.”
“Uh, right,” Angel said, squirming slightly in his seat. “I’ll get Fred to put a supply kit together. She was trapped in a barbarian dimension herself for five years so she’ll know something about what sort of things you’d regret not taking. And I’ll remind her about the… hygiene items.”
Faith nodded. “Yeah, thanks. Just make sure she – Fred is a she, right? – doesn’t forget the weapons. I bet I’m gonna need them.”
Angel smiled. “Don’t worry, there’s no danger of Fred forgetting about weapons.” He glanced at his watch. “We don’t have much time left so I’d better finish off quickly. I can’t rely on there being another rainy day when the time comes to give you the signal to break out, they’re pretty few and far between at this time of year, and even today I’m cutting it fine and I might have to make a dash for the car under an umbrella. It might not be me who gives you the word and tells you where to find the transportation.”
Angel frowned. “Wesley isn’t part of our group at the moment,” he said. “We had a… disagreement. Probably it’ll be Willow sending you a mental message from outside the jail.”
Faith looked down at her hands. “Willow hates me,” she said, “and with good reason.”
“When I tell her that you’re willing to help her get Tara back,” Angel said, “Willow will forgive you for everything. You don’t need to worry.”
“I hope so,” Faith said. “I owe Tara one anyway. She’d never done nothing to me, hell, I’d never even met her before, and I was real mean to her for no reason at all. It’s only fair that I make things right. And I get to save the world at the same time, which is a bonus.”
“A pretty important bonus,” Angel said. “So I can tell everyone to go ahead with the plan?”
“Sure thing,” Faith said. “I’m good to go. Five by five.”- - - - -
Tara re-cast the Notice-us-not spell before she and Roshan left the palace. The guards on the doors, few in number and not particularly alert, were oblivious as the two girls walked past them.
“I would never have believed that two attractive girls, clad in the revealing attire of Koth, could walk past soldiers on guard duty without them even turning their heads,” Roshan commented. “I wonder if they would still ignore us if I took off my top.” She lifted her hands to the fastenings of the band of cloth that covered her breasts.
“Don’t you dare!” Tara hissed. “There’s a limit to the power of the spell. If you stretch it too far it might snap and then we’re in trouble.”
Roshan pouted. “Very well,” she said, lowering her hands. “But this has been an adventure somewhat lacking in excitement. We were too late to rescue Conan before he freed himself. Pelias the Sorcerer drove off the giant snake, with no need for me to raise a sword, and then sent Conan home on the back of a flying demon. Pelias won all the glory. All we did was to trim his beard and cut his hair.”
Tara shrugged. “It needed to be done,” she said. “And there’s nothing wrong with things being lacking in excitement. After the fifth time you’ve been chased around a cemetery by a vampire you realize that exciting is over-rated. It’s much better if things go smoothly and without fuss.”
“True,” Roshan conceded. “I did but jest. I was not really going to display my breasts to the guardsmen. They are reserved for you.”
Tara could feel her cheeks heat up. “Uh, thanks,” she said. By now they had reached the outer door. Roshan opened it, they passed through, and Tara closed it behind them. “I think I’ll drop the spell now, if you think it’s safe,” she told Roshan. “It’s been a long day, I’m beginning to get tired, and keeping the spell going is a little draining. If I keep it up until we get back to the inn I’ll be too tired to do anything else.”
“I would not want that,” Roshan said. “There still could be an exciting end to the evening but only if you have the energy.”
It was blatantly obvious what she meant. Tara bit her lip. She could claim that she was too tired for sex, and nothing would happen, but did she want to? She’d already been unfaithful to Willow – several times, in several different positions – and as well hung for a sheep as for a lamb. And, to be honest, Tara wanted it too. Not only had she become very fond of Roshan but the sex was, frankly, awesome. If there was such a thing as a Sex Olympics in this age Roshan would be a shoe-in for the Gold in the Lesbian event. And, with the relief of tension after their successful mission, Tara was feeling quite horny herself.
“Now that kind of excitement I can live with,” Tara said. “I’d say it’s safe to release the spell now. Do you agree?”
“I do,” Roshan said. “It matters not if we are seen merely in the vicinity of the palace. There are many innocent reasons for us to be here. Conan’s escape will not have been noticed yet and, when it is, there is no reason for anyone to suspect that it was anything to do with us.”
The logic was sound. Tara released the spell and the two girls walked back to the inn, restricting their conversation to innocuous topics, looking forward to a meal and then bed.
It was pure bad luck that put the wrong person in the right position to see them and, when word spread through the city that the King of Aquilonia had escaped, to remember.
And to resolve to take action.