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© Copyright 2017, Veronica Sloan, All Rights Reserved
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Disclaimer: This story contains explicit content, including graphic descriptions of sexual intercourse. It is intended for adults only. All characters depicted are over 18-years-old. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.
Cover created by Veronica Sloan. Cover Photo © Prometeus & Ospictures.
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The bard was crying again. It was the quiet kind this time, soft and sniffling under his breath, almost but not quite imperceptible beneath the wheezing of his pony. Trotting ahead of him on her dray mare, Olwen permitted a smile to cross her full, crimson lips. The bard got weepy when he was frightened. It usually meant something interesting was about to happen.
"Come then, Dan," she goaded the minstrel. "Where are your pretty songs now that the quest is at its end?"
Dan swallowed loudly and wiped his wet nostrils on his sleeve. "Forgive me, shield maiden, but my tongue has turned to lead. My fingers revolt against my hands. In the shadow of yonder tower I forget every pretty word I knew. Only madness remains."
Olwen snorted. "That's a lot of gabbing for a man with a lead tongue."
Behind her, Dan sputtered in his saddle. "The spire defies my senses! I am driven insane by its geometry!"
Olwen said nothing, preferring to let the man choke on his own cowardice. They had traveled for five days through an enchanted wood whose canopy was so thick it swallowed the sky. Now, at the forest's edge, the sorceress' tower could be seen through the spindly fingers of the white trees that bordered the wasteland. It loomed above them like a black spear thrust into the clouds.
Olwen dug her heels into her mare to urge her along the trail. Even here, where the swollen trunks of demon trees gave way to their ghostly cousins, the travelers could be lost. One step beyond the true path and the forest would become a maze again, its silence a hunting ground for the beasts that swam in its bottomless shadows. The barbarian kept her eyes ahead of her.
The bard lacked her resolve. His eyes wandered the shivering leaves and the impossible spire that rose above them. Were his pony not tethered to her saddle, he would have been lost days ago. "How it soars," he whispered. "How it sways!"
Indeed, the tower swayed, and as it did it cried out to the travelers. Perhaps it was only the grinding of its foundation stones but the sound was like low, slow laughter. There was no birdsong and no wind to muffle the laughter, nor any reply but the bard's incessant sniffling. He did not understand how the wind could forsake the ground when its mark was so clear upon the sky. Thick clouds swirled about the tower's unseen crown in a sickly-colored vortex. "Black magic!" he cried.
Olwen snapped the tether that bound his pony to her saddle. "Did you suppose the sorceress lived in a hut, or a cottage made of gingerbread?"
"We must go no further!" he wailed.
Without removing her eyes from the path, Olwen gripped the hilt of her short dirk. "Shall we part ways here, minstrel? Say the word and I will sever our fellowship."
"No, please!" he moaned.
"A confusing request to my barbarian ears," she said. "Do not beggars say 'please' when they wish for mercy?"
"I am not the daughter of mercy. You are in the wrong company." The edge of her dagger was already biting into the tether when the man sputtered out his apology.
"Forgive me, battle maid! I meant no disrespect."
"Then bite your tongue," she said, and sheathed the blade. "These past days have been unpleasant. The next few hours will be more of the same and all at once. I don't need you gibbering in my ear while I try to pierce the witch's illusions."
"Illusion?" Once more Dan cast his gaze to the awful sky. The clouds continued their endless churn. The swaying tower cackled. Its innumerable stories were made of rough hewn stone and black as oil, the few slits carved into its skin aglow with emerald fires. Gargoyles leered from its every surface and two-headed snakes appeared to wriggle from their mouths. "Then it is not real?" he breathed.
As they passed beneath the last, pale trees, the hooves of their animals kicked up red dust. Nothing grew around the tower, not even a weed. "Some is real," Olwen said, letting her eyes fall to the crimson earth. The hoof prints of their beasts remained in the dust, but only for a moment. When she craned her neck to look behind them, the dust at the forest's edge was undisturbed. "Keep your meager wits about you."
The tower's open mouth yawned before them. A hunchbacked soldier loped through it. The soldier was soon joined by another, then another, then many more, until the mouth was crowded by a small, malformed army. The soldiers were all bent-backed and nasty faced, sharp-toothed and wild eyed. They carried neither spears nor swords nor shields, but the fingers of their iron gauntlets were sharpened to curling points. "Turn back!" a voice within the company shouted.
Olwen leaned forward in her saddle. "I have business with your mistress!"
The hunchbacked soldiers licked their lips and turned to the unseen speaker in their midst. "Unlikely!" it cried.
"No?" Olwen chuckled. "The Sorceress Callista abducted the single most important man from the single richest kingdom in the land. That was six days ago. She must be expecting someone to come calling."
"The Prince shall never leave this place!"
Olwen slipped her dirk from its sheathe. "Unlikely," she muttered. She sliced Dan's tether from her saddle, then took her reins in hand and began a slow canter towards the soldiers.
Dan's pony followed obediently. "You cannot fight an army!" Dan cried.
The blonde barbarian did naught but smile. She returned her dirk to its sheathe and curled her fingers over the hilt of her Atlantean sword.
In the tower's mouth, the soldiers growled ominously. "Turn back!" the speaker exclaimed.
Olwen dug her heels into the mare's flanks. She broke into a gallop.
"Death awaits you!" the speaker cried. "Death! Death most foul!"
The barbarian ripped her sword from its leather scabbard and flourished it in the air. She raised her voice in a giddy roar of challenge.
"Kill!" the speaker screamed. "Kill her!"
Dan screamed in reply and pulled desperately at his pony's reins. The creature refused to obey and cantered crookedly after the mare, bouncing its rider from side to side. Dan only ceased his staccato screams when his gold tooth bit into his tongue.
The hunchbacked soldiers loped towards Olwen's racing mare, their voices raised in harmonious malice. Their talons raked the earth, throwing red clouds behind that billowed against the nightmare tower. Their tongues lolled past their lips in manic anticipation, their sharp teeth bared in fury. Running on all fours, the nearest soldier threw back its head in a monstrous howl. It raised its hackles, prepared to lunge--
Olwen reared back her mare and brought its hooves down on the soldier's helmet. His skull was stove in like a bloody egg.
The other soldiers scrabbled in the dirt, slipping over each other and yipping like whipped curs. One leapt over the still-flailing corpse to snap at Olwen's leather boot. With one ferocious swing, she snicked off its head. The remaining soldiers fled from the ensuing font of blood, yipping and screaming. "No!" the leader shouted. "Get her! Kill her! Kill! Kill!"
Olwen freed her boot from its stirrup and brought her heel down on a fleeing soldier's face. He squealed as he rolled. "Kill!" the leader screamed, but the company was in chaos. Olwen whirled her sword over her head and hooted at any soldier that dared too close. One, braver than the others, barked at her, drool spraying from its curling lips. She slapped its face with the flat of her sword and sent it scurrying away. "Dogs," she snarled. She jumped from her mare and ran into the crimson cloud left by their escape.
Inside, their leader still screamed commands. The soldiers circled but did not attack. They did not obey. They did not heel. "You bring dogs against me?" Olwen seethed. Through the dust, she perceived the silhouette of the speaker; she carried no sword or clawed gauntlet, but a whip was curled at her hip. Too late she reeled back her arm, and Olwen kicked her full in the chest.
The woman hit the earth with a strangled grunt. Her whip arm was pinned behind her and her hip was canted at a broken angle. When Olwen loomed above her, she wheezed through bloody lips. A trembling glove lifted into the air. "Mercy!" she rasped.
Olwen raised her sword aloft and tensed for the killing blow. She was stopped by Dan's own wheezy cry: "Idiot! Olwen is not the daughter of mercy! Enjoy your stay in Hell, you black fury!" The bard clumsily freed himself from his pony's saddle and stumbled to her side. "Off with her head, shield maiden, and this sorceress scum will trouble the land no more."
The barbarian cuffed the man's ear and he went down into the dust. While he squealed like one of the circling soldiers, she slipped her sword back into its scabbard. "This is no sorceress, you little dolt. Just her kennelmaster, I suspect. Is that right, wench?"
Still lying in the barbarian's shadow, her arm and hip twisted beneath her, the woman moaned her assent. At once, the armor melted off the hunchbacked soldiers and their nervous mouths lengthened into twitching muzzles. They shook themselves, then tucked their tails between their legs and fled. A few brave hounds slunk nearer, whining for their broken master. They eyed Olwen miserably and pressed their bellies to the crimson ground.
Olwen dropped her boot onto the kennelmaster's breast. "I consider this an insult," she said, and leaned her considerable weight onto the woman's broken ribs. The barbarian was a neck and head taller than most men and her bare thigh rippled with sweat-greased muscle.
The kennelmaster's scream echoed into the dark mouth of the tower. "There was not time," she choked, "to train them! My mistress did not expect--" Olwen dug her heel in and the woman cried bloody misery.
The barbarian's eyes were a piercing blue, like lightning over a winter sea and even less inviting. "Your mistress is a fool," she spat. "A hundred mercenaries are circling her forest, no doubt bewitched by its tantalizing traps, but I am not impressed. I expected better. If she would send dogs against me, why not summon them from the kennels of hell? Those bloodthirsty bitches never lose their quarry."
"Please!" the kennelmaster shrieked. Beneath the skin of her fragile breast, the tip of one broken rib was perilously close to scraping her heart.
Olwen was not moved. The rage in her voice was fierce enough to make the dogs howl in pain. "This quest is not worth my sword!" She raised her eyes to the black abyss and bellowed, "I am Olwen! Daughter of Malice and the last scion of Kreon the Mad! Warrior of the Island of Screams! I took the balls from the minotaur of Gazaar and the teeth from Orlok DeVar! Do you hear me, Callista? The men lost in your maze might consider you in such worthy company, but I say you are more cowardly than your flea-bit mongrels." She pulled the Atlantean sword from its scabbard. "Now watch me cleave your kennelmaster in twain."
As Olwen raised her sword above her head, an ethereal voice cried from within the tower. It rang like the song of crystal. "Do not slay her, barbarian. Your quarrel is with me."
"Aye," Olwen replied, "but anything that gets in my way will be destroyed. You put this woman in my way." She brought the blade down.
"No!" the voice screamed. Dan was thrown backwards by the force of its power.
Olwen halted her swing at the tip of the kennelmaster's nose. "Do not ask me for mercy," Olwen growled. "You know I have none."
"And yet you were merciful to me," the voice replied.
"That was a long time ago," Olwen said, "and an obvious mistake."
"Because here we are. Now reveal yourself or I kill this woman. Your lover?"