The heat of a midday sun beat down upon the tiny knot of figures at the verdant oasis. In the dappled sunlight under the sparse copse of trees, one warrior faced four.
Conyn, known far and wide as the greatest paladin in service to Princess Imelda, gathered herself, sizing up the ring of foes who were maintaining a respectful distance from her. She kept the broadsword low, its movements unpredictable. She tossed her head, throwing long golden tresses back from her face; the thick iron helm that she had removed in the heat lay at her feet, the sun glinting off it as if to scold her for such carelessness.
Carelessness? Call it utter madness. In fact, all of Conyn's armor and extra weapons were neatly packed into a bundle on the saddle of the horse that stood tethered several paces behind her, leaving her in only her thin green tunic: not even the rawest recruit would make such a mistake. Of course, things would have been much simpler if it really had been a mistake.
She seemed to be facing a typical band of the Usurper's irregular brigands: two men, two women. One of the women wore her red hair cropped short, the mark of a recent conscript; the other had been allowed to let her black hair grow past shoulders that sported the insignia of command on her leather surcoat. She stood back from the others, a short sword in her hand. The two men had their own swords drawn, poorly-wrought things that seemed as though they would wilt at the mere sight of Conyn's blade, Igraine. They came on in a frontal advance, while the red-haired woman brandished strips of smoothly-oiled leather, cracking them like a whip, as she attempted to flank their prey.
The men were a hulking pair, one savagely scarred, the other fat and sweating, and Conyn would have wagered that they brought little to the enterprise but muscle; certainly they wielded their swords with all the skill of an apprentice butcher. The women, naturally, would be the clever ones: brains, not brawn, would be the only way for them to advance in the Usurper's army.
Conyn feinted lightly with Igraine's tip, and watched her foes jump back. With the copse of trees at her back, it would be impossible for one to slip behind her without coming in range of Igraine's bite. She pictured the ease with which her swordarm might send this rabble to hell, and gritted her teeth in frustration.
How the hell did I get myself into this?
+++Three Days Earlier...
"I don't like it. It's risky, it's unpredictable, and relies too much on deception." Princess Imelda sent pale blue eyes around the rough wooden table, the movement stirring the panes of pale blond hair that framed her face. She glared at the small circle of her trusted advisers.
"Majesty, we have no choice." Bronwyn, her chief of staff, knew that the form of address was technically not correct for a monarch in exile, but it was an old habit that, along with her devotion to the shattered remnants of Synderia, died hard. "Prince Byl has made it abundantly clear that he will not join us in the fight to reclaim your throne from your cousin Charys, nor will he allow us asylum in his lands much longer. We haven't the troops for a full-on military assault. What choice have we but stealth and guile?" The older woman regarded the young princess with a mixture of fondness and dismay. I was just as pig-headed at twenty-five, she mused; I can only hope she will have the same ten years to outgrow it that I have had. The elegant diplomat ran a palm across her smooth dark hair, in its snood of white lace, and turned to a uniformed woman with steel-grey hair and eyes to match, who stood back from the rest of the group, in silent respect.
"Have you anything to add, Captain Tarn?"
The grey-haired woman pursed her lips. "Nothing." Her face was as bleak as her complexion. "We might have salvaged things had we negotiated with Charys last year. As it stands now, though " she spread her arms in a gesture of helplessness.
Imelda snorted in derision at the suggestion, then turned her icy gaze on the black-clad woman seated to her left.
"You--you and your kind. You're responsible for the bewitching of my troops, of my people!"
The sorceress Caressa smiled indulgently, shaking her head, waist-length sheets of jet-black hair rippling in the lamplight.
"The powers of the Virgin Sisterhood, like any discipline, may be used for good, or for ill. The fact that one of my sisters allowed greed to blind her to the true path, and joined with your usurping cousin, makes it doubly appropriate that I use my skills to restore you. My plan has its dangers but it also has great power."
Well, it's going to take some kind of power, that's certain, Conyn thought. She wasn't accustomed to being party to this sort of high-level discussion, but as a soldier, she had responded at once.
She understood the situation: Imelda's ambitious cousin Charys had betrayed her, and in concert with her brother, General Hynde, had corrupted Daunta, a rogue member of the Virgin Sisterhood. Acting in concert with the two villains, Daunta had used her power to ensorcel key members of the council of advisors, and the military, and from there, the populace. It was only through the merest chance that her plans had suffered a delay, so that the spells reached fruition at a time when the Princess, her staff, and a small contingent of troops had been away from the city, and outside the fell power of the Virgin Sisterhood's magic. Otherwise, Charys' triumph would now be complete. Instead, Imelda still remained at large, with her small group of loyalists, to pursue her own reinstatement.
Not that it had done much good: Bronwyn and Conyn had attempted to rally their small force to retake the Palace, but they'd been beaten back by the superior numbers of the mesmerized troops that now marched to Charys' tune. Conyn had taken grim satisfaction at having fought her way right up to the usurper that day, and in the exchange of cuts, had managed to slash the bitch's right cheek near to the bone. Satisfaction was but temporary, though, as waves of the mesmerized soldiers threw her back, and finally forced the Princess and the remains of her party to flee, seeking asylum across the border.
And now, Conyn had been summoned to this council to be made part of the damndest plan she had ever heard: though she had not been told all the details yet, the first part of it didn't exactly please her: she was to expose herself to the enemy, and allow herself to be taken and brought, a helpless captive, to Charys.
"And why am I risking the life of my greatest fighter on this scheme?" Imelda glared in Conyn's direction, as though this had been her idea. "Am I sending her to a pointless death?"
"If there is one thing of which we may be certain," Bronwyn assured her. "it is that your cousin has given strict orders that Conyn be taken alive--she intends to pay her back for that scar."
"And once I am 'taken'," Conyn could barely spit out the word, "what then?" She had been a soldier long enough to know the futility of resistance to affairs of high state, but all she had heard so far spoke only of madness. "Am I to defeat Charys' army single-handed?"
"My apologies," Bronwyn favored her with a smile. "It's easy to forget that you've not been privy to all the discussions we've had on this subject. In fact, your prowess in battle is the last thing that will be needed for success. Indeed, it is when you are completely helpless in the power of our enemies that you will strike the greatest blow."
As Conyn tried to make sense of this, the Virgin Sorceress spoke.
"You will carry my power. The power to undo what the traitor to my order has done. In the midst of our enemies, you will bring forth the spirit of the White Phoenix. As it counterbalances the Black Phoenix that lies upon the population, the spell will be lifted."
"Carry it how?"
Caressa smiled, then glided in a soft whoosh of silken skirts and silken hair, to stand before the baffled Conyn.
Conyn shuddered as the witch's slender fingers slipped up into her hair, the fingernails grazing her scalp. Caressa moved both hands to cup the back of Conyn's head, and gently drew the warrior's face close to hers. Conyn flinched as the woman's red lips parted; though she had nothing but respect for those sisters who had sought their pleasure with others of their own kind, she preferred to slake her lust with brawny males, and had neither experienced nor desired a woman's intimate touch.
The contact of lips upon lips was a shock, and Conyn started, but the gentle grip in her hair kept their mouths in contact. In the next instant, Conyn felt herself filled to bursting with a tingling sensation-elation, terror, euphoria, dread a power she had never dreamed. Her muscles felt limp, her body almost sagged as Caressa's soft mouth filled her with its puissance. After an eternity, the witch released Conyn's head, and stepped back, a faraway look in her eyes.
"I " Conyn swallowed, and tried to start again. "I don't know what you just did to me, but "
"I have shared my essence with you," Caressa's voice was joyful, and Conyn was somewhat thankful for the interruption; she had no way to express what had just happened to her. The witch continued.
"Now that the spirit resides in you, I will teach you the Old Words of Power. When you are in the presence of Charys, Daunta, and the rest, you will simply raise your voice in this chant. Across the miles, I will sense the unleashing of that force, and I will then join my power with the White Phoenix, to counteract and defeat the Black Phoenix that holds Synderia in thrall. It will be your voice, and my spirit, working together, that will free Synderia."
"And suppose Charys decides to keep me gagged?"
"In the palace, surrounded by her troops and cronies, why would she?"
"Sheer devilment comes to mind."
"I think not," Bronwyn put in. "She's certain to want to hear you offer her your submission. To beg for mercy."
"As though there were hope of that!" the golden-tressed warrior bristled. The effects of Caressa's kiss were starting to lift, and she felt her own defiant spirit returning.
"She will want your humiliation to be public and unmistakable, to hear words of surrender from your own mouth."
Conyn grunted. "I'm not in the habit of surrendering to anyone, but particularly not to another woman." She grinned wryly. "Mind, surrendering to that Ranger I met in the tavern the other night was a rather different story."
"It's a damned shame that Daunta didn't meet someone like him," grumbled Bronwyn. At Conyn's puzzled look, Caressa smiled ruefully.
"From time to time, members of the Sisterhood have decided to renounce the order, in order to to sample the pleasures to be had from a man. Were Daunta to do so, even once, then she would, of course, no longer be one of the Virgin Sisterhood. Her powers, and her hold on Syrmania, would vanish."
"So why don't we just get the bitch laid?" Conyn burst out, careless of protocol.
Faces flushed, and Caressa stifled a giggle.
"That's a revolting suggestion," snarled Imelda.
You really are a damn ice princess, aren't you? Conyn thought.
Bronwyn cleared her throat in the awkward silence.
"Doubtless, if there were some realistic prospect of doing so if she had expressed an interest "
"Interest be damned!" Conyn sputtered. "Just find some likely young buck "
"We'd still need to get someone in there to effect it," Imelda snapped coldly. "Even if I were willing to countenance something so base."
Conyn shrugged. She didn't see her suggestion as being any madder than what she'd just been dragooned into, but there was clearly to be no debate on the topic.
"Now, if we can proceed " Imelda growled.
"Of course," Caressa took Conyn's hand in her own. "Come. Let me teach you the words of power so that you can bait our trap!" Caressa handed her a small, leather-covered journal.
As she glanced at it, Conyn wondered if she'd ever heard of bait walking into its own trap before.
And now, Conyn knew, it was time to put the mad scheme into action. She snarled in impotent fury; nothing would give her more pleasure than to dispatch this band of jackals with a few strokes of her sword. Even more than pain or danger, the shame of allowing herself to be "defeated," to be made captive, even as part of this ruse, was galling.
Make it seem real- they must not suspect, she'd been reminded. But don't go too far. Much as she hated to do so, she reined herself in; even the bounty on her head might be forgotten in the flush of battle should she actually kill one of them.
Instead, she combined feint and slash in a movement too slow to draw blood, but enough to send the flat of her sword against the scarred man's sword hand, causing steel to drop from his nerveless fingers.
Pick it up, you bastard. By the gods, you're slow. Almost without thinking, Conyn parried the second man's stroke, delivering a kick to his ribs that sent him sprawling as the first one finally recovered his sword.
Red fury mottled both faces as they gathered themselves for another advance.
"Remember, take her alive." The female officer's voice was cool and deliberate.
And now, Conyn thought grimly, it's time to play out the farce.
A carefully measured misstep, a calculated slip of her left foot, and Conyn stumbled forward. From the corner of her eye, she saw the scarred man's eyes widen, seeing his enemy's guard let down, as if he couldn't believe his luck.
And well he might not, she grumbled to herself as she saw the butt of his sword descend toward her head. Gods, he was so clumsy, she practically had to put her head into the path of the damn thing.
It collided with the back of her skull with an explosion of pain, pools of black, and flashes of green and red filling her vision as she slumped toward the ground. Her head swam, and Conyn realized that at least the time for play-acting was over, as her nerveless fingers lost their grip on the sword that clattered to the ground, to be quickly kicked away by the female officer.
Smart, Conyn thought. I might have been shamming.
But, of course, it was no sham. Conyn's stumble and fall might have been a feint, but there was nothing of artifice about the blow, or the way it jarred her senses.
She sank to her knees, grunting despite herself at the pain. Someone kicked her in the small of the back, and she sprawled prone on the ground.
"Bind her!" crowed the officer triumphantly, and Conyn felt the weight of a knee dig into her back as one of the men pinned her to the ground, yanking her arms painfully up and back, and crossing her hands over each other. The red-haired woman darted down, brandishing the coils of leather. She wrapped them around Conyn's wrists, binding them fast together.
"Tighter," came the command, and Conyn's elbows were wrenched together with a force that drove her face into the dirt. She sputtered furiously as the scarred man held her arms in place while the redhead deftly slid loops of leather above and below her elbows. The leather seemed to bite right through Conyn's tunic into her skin as the woman pulled the ends tight, twisting her arms into one painful limb; her shoulders were already beginning to throb.
"All right, let's see her." The officer couldn't hide her excitement: she was going to deliver Queen Charys' fiercest opponent into her clutches. She thrilled, not simply to the prospect of the reward, but of the renown she would receive as the conqueror of the mighty Conyn.
Conyn felt the man on her right clamp a meaty paw down on her shoulder, and bury his other fist in her thick golden mane; from her left, the red-haired woman similarly seized her by a shoulder and a fistful of hair, and the two jerked her up from the ground; Conyn felt as though they would pull her in halves. Her legs were still wobbly from the blow, but that didn't matter much, as her captors were holding her up by their painful grips on her shoulders and in her hair. Plot or no plot, Conyn reflexively tested her bonds: the leather bit deep, abrading her skin, leaving no hint of slack or carelessness.
"So, this is the great Conyn," the officer sneered, and Conyn had the feeling that much similar gloating from her enemies lay ahead. "Once the greatest of Synderia's warriors, who should be serving Queen Charys, but instead is the lackey of the ridiculous once-Princess-now-outlaw Imelda."
"I am no lackey," Conyn snapped angrily. "And your so-called 'Queen' is a usurping slut!"
Instantly, Conyn cursed her folly: she was supposed to play the part of a captive now, not risk provoking this officer into some rash act.
But the woman just smirked, and turned to look at her troops.
The scarred man reached into his tunic, and pulled out a coarse rag, which he balled up in his hand. The red-haired woman produced a strap of leather from about her waist, somewhat wider and thicker than those she had used on Conyn's wrists and arms, and handed it to him. The man approached Conyn, knotting the filthy cloth into the center of the leather strap.
"Curse you!'` Conyn shook her head; plan or no plan, she wasn't having that disgusting thing in her mouth. "You won't-aggg--!!"
From behind, the woman yanked down hard on two handfuls of Conyn's hair, pulling the bound warrior's head back, her mouth still gaping with her attempted defiance, and the gag of cloth and leather was jammed between her teeth. She nearly choked on the taste of the man's thick, sweaty fingers as he filled her mouth with the gag.
She gulped and glugged and grunted; she then felt the woman pull upwards on the grip in her hair, lifting the heavy tresses above her head, baring her neck, so that the man could fasten the leather strap at its nape, which he did with brutal satisfaction, one knot over another, and another, until the lump of leather dug into the tender flesh at the back of her neck. She shook her head like a trapped beast, but the gag was already too far into her mouth to dislodge it; it chafed at the corners of her mouth, and forced her to press on it with her tongue to keep from choking.
Plagues and curses on all schemes and conspiracies! Conyn couldn't help it-- never before had an adversary rendered her helpless, never before had she been forced to endure captivity, and certainly she had never before found herself trussed like a calf to market, muzzled and stifled like a rabid dog. Her stomach lurched as it came home to her that the moment for resistance had passed. If she were going to balk at a plan that now seemed utterly insane to her, she should have slaughtered these swine as soon as they came upon her. Now, though, in service to her Princess, she had allowed herself to be bound and gagged, and was completely at her enemies' mercy.
While the fat man rummaged in Conyn's pack, the scarred man and the red-haired woman resumed their task of rendering their prisoner helpless. The leather that bound her elbows was joined to the end of a large roll of heavy cord, and the man began to wrap the cord about Conyn, pinning her arms tight to her torso, and gleefully creating a yoke that encircled her breasts, forcing them into even greater prominence as the green tunic was stretched taut by the bondage.
Meanwhile, the woman had cut a few shorter lengths of the cord, and bent down, tying one end around Conyn's left ankle, then joining it to her right, with but a few inches of play between them. As disgusting as the bung in her mouth was, Conyn had to bite down on it to resist the temptation to kick the little tramp in the head.
The woman straightened up, and now all four of the Usurper's troops regarded their captive: thoroughly bound, gagged, hobbled, and helpless.
They look like starving wolves surveying their next meal. And, unless the warrior misread them, more than one of them was experiencing a primal form of hunger as they surveyed the bosom that swelled its bonds, the flashing green eyes, and cascade of golden locks.
Another risk that no one at that damn meeting considered. Well, considering what a miserable prude Imelda is, it was hardly surprising.
Fortunately for her, in this group, greed appeared to trump lust, at least for the present, and orders were given for her to be taken at once to the palace. The fat man approached with the horses, Conyn's now among them, and the black-haired officer ordered them to mount up.
Conyn felt herself thrown bodily, face-down, across the saddle of one of the beasts, like a sack of meal for delivery to market.
Aye, delivery, that's what I am. Pray that I'm able to deliver my own part when the time comes.
Her vision was now limited to the dust beneath them, the horse's nearest leg, and the curtain of her hair that spilled near to the ground. But what she couldn't see, she could certainly feel, as her captors secured her in place: with the prisoner's body bent like a bow, the younger woman gathered up Conyn's long tresses in her hands, and deftly braided a length of cord into them. She tugged it, making certain it was secure, and Conyn couldn't suppress the shriek of pain and outrage that disappeared into her gag. The rope was then passed under the horse's belly, and the other end knotted around Conyn's ankles. Pulled taut, it forced her face into the warm flesh of the horse's side, and every movement seemed to shift the pain and tension from her legs to her scalp, and back again.
She had evidently been placed upon the black-haired officer's mount; the woman mounted behind her captive, and delivered a gloating smack! to Conyn's all-too-prominently displayed rump; the captive warrior realized, with an added flush of rage, that she had been struck with the flat of her own sword! The miserable bitch had dared to keep Igraine, too, as a prize of conquest.
"The great Conyn!" A sneer rang in Conyn's ears, followed by another smack across her behind with the sword. "Just a pretty bauble decorating my saddle now, and soon to make me the most honored officer in the Queen's host!"
Conyn gave one last, impulsive strain at her bonds, and then sagged against the pounding of the beast's torso as she was borne across the desert to humiliating captivity, with her fate in the hands of some crackpot witch!
Crackpot? Conyn forced herself to remember their encounter, the suffusion of power that had nearly overcome her, like nothing she'd ever imagined. Maybe, just maybe, the woman could make good on her promise. Maybe this really would all end with the restoration of Imelda, the vanquishing of evil foes, and a place of honor at court for Conyn herself. Hope might be all she had, but bound, gagged, and strapped across a saddle, it would have to do.
All she had to do was live through it all. And at this point, she wasn't sure she'd have wagered even a week's pay on that possibility.
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