Conan the Cimmerian is black haired and sullen-eyed; a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, who came sword in hand to tread the jewelled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.
Willow Rosenberg is a red-haired Jewish lesbian wiccan who thinks that eating a banana before lunch is an act of wild rebellion.
Together, they fight evil sorcery.
The girl's fear had not subsided by the time they regained the path and Conan had unknotted the reins. Eventually he sidestepped her reluctance through direct action: he simply gathered her up in one brawny arm and leaped into the saddle. Then, holding her in front of him, he turned his horse around and cantered back the way he had come. Apart from an initial yelp of protest, she made no attempt to struggle, but clung to the horse's mane with white knuckles.
Relax," he chuckled as his arm tightened around her to hold her steady. "You're safe with me." But the witch showed no signs of relaxing - nor, fortunately, of kicking and fighting; instead she sat there, rigid and upright, and kept her eyes locked firmly on the horse's neck as if to avoid looking at the trees that flickered past them so rapidly. She made no attempt to speak to him either, and soon Conan relaxed into the philosphical quiet that is the mark of the habitual wanderer.
They rode thus all through the day, with only a few brief stops to rest or to find water and tend to their needs. The barbarian had some dried meat in his saddlebags, which he shared with the witch; she grimaced as she bit into its tough leatheriness, but chewed and swallowed it down without protest. It was only as the setting sun cast their shadows long on the path before them that Conan began looking around him for a suitable place to camp for the night. He remembered a stream that crossed the road, but it was not until the dying sun had shed its blood over the western horizon and the dark shadows were filling the gaps between the trees that his horse's hooves splashed up water.
Checking the reins, he looked around him cautiously then urged his steed into a small clearing beside the stream. Satisfied, he dismounted lightly then swung his companion down to the ground. She staggered and clung to a tree for support, clearly unused to such exertions.
The Cimmerian grinned, then rummaged in his baggage for a metal pan. He handed it to the girl then told her to fill it with water, then see about collecting firewood for a campfire. He then turned back to his horse, only to realise that she hadn't set about her tasks, but was standing there glaring at him.
"Anything else, my lord?" The edge of sarcasm in her voice could have cut steel. "Ooh, would you like me to cook your dinner too while you relax?"
He shrugged. "Can you cook?"
"Aargh! For the Goddess's sake, what did your last slave die of?"
He looked more serious at that. "In Cimmeria, we do not keep slaves. It is only so-called civilised men who keep other men as animals. Among us, a war captive is either adopted honorably into the tribe, exchanged for ransom, or killed." He paused thoughtfully. "I was a slave myself once, as a youth. As soon as I reached my full strength I strangled the overseer with my own chains, hacked through them with his axe, and made my escape."
"Uh, yay for you?"
He realised she was still looking angry - and slightly incredulous - and added, "While you fetch wood and water, I must care for the horse; wipe him down, see that he is fed and watered and secured safely for the night. Then I'll hunt up some dinner for us. Does that satisfy your sense of fairness, my lady?"
"Uh, horse stuff. Looking after the horse. The big horse with huge scary yellow teeth. Yes, you do that; I'll uh, just go and get the water, 'kay?"
He carefully hid his smile as he pulled a small hatchet out of the saddlebag and gave it to her along with the pan. "Do you know how to use this?"
"Sure. Chopping firewood can't be too different to chopping demons' heads off, right?"
"And that's, uh, something you've done before?"
"Yup. Well, mostly it's my friend who does the axe work. I'm more about the spells. But I do know one side of an edged weapon from the other."
He shook his head, bemused once again by the contradictions his companion presented. But she set about her task willingly enough, despite struggling under the weight of the water in the full pan, and then began dragging dead branches into the clearing and hacking some of them into kindling. In the meantime he had finished taking care of the horse, and twisted its bridle between its forelegs as a hobble before setting it free to crop the short grass that grew along the riverbank. The saddle and baggage were piled neatly next to the growing heap of firewood, and Conan pulled out a sling.
"It's a shame I've no bow; I noticed deer tracks back up the road a way. Venison would have made a fine meal for us." He noticed the witch turn a little pale, then put her head down and concentrate on sending the wood she was chopping into hundreds of tiny splinters. "Once you have enough, get the fire lit and start the water on to heat. I'll go and see if I can find a rabbit or a pheasant."
She bit her lip, then tried to look brave. "I don't know much about p-preparing wild game. You'll have to do all that stuff."
"Of course." As he spoke he was pulling off his shirt and removing the heavy iron suit of mail he wore beneath it; the weight and noise would only hinder him as he went to hunt for prey. Stripped down to loincloth and sandles, his naturally pale skin tanned a deep brown by the warm southern sun, he looked like a ghost of the forest in the shadows. Willow looked up, saw his near-nakedness, blushed and ducked her head back down, concentrating on the pile of firewood she was putting together. He sighed.
"Not like that. Put the kindling on the ground first, then build up a cone of smaller twigs around it, like a tent. Only use the dry dead wood to start with. Once the fire's going well you can add the larger branches. Do you have a flint and steel?"
"A what? Oh, you mean like an early mediaeval version of a cigarette lighter. Nope. I don't smoke. Which, uh, probably sounds like a crazy thing for me to say since obviously I personally don't smoke, and you probably don't even have tobacco here yet. Unless you smoke weed. Hee! Which, uh, no, that would be a perfectly valid cultural choice for you to make if you did, so..."
Feeling slightly lost, Conan started rummaging in his bags again for his own tinderbox. But the witch interrupted him with a "Wait!", and when he turned back she was looking stubborn.
"I may not know anything about campfires or horses and hunting and all this Boy Scout stuff, but some things I can do." She glared fiercely at the heap of kindling and muttered something under her breath. The wood instantly burst into flame, completely of its own accord. The witch smiled triumphantly, then nervously looked up at the sky.
"It's not going to start raining now, is it?"
Conan mastered his own nerves at the sight of magic being used so blatantly in front of him. "I don't think so. It seems your spells are useful after all, girl. Can you draw the prey here too, to save me hunting for it?"
"No!" The look she gave him was so angry Conan was afraid for a moment that he too would burst into flame. "I'm sorry but no. Please don't ask me to do anything like that."
He shrugged, then picked up his sling and made his way into the forest without another word. Given her reaction to his question, it probably wouldn't be wise either to ask if she could use her magic to skin the animals he hoped to catch...
Game was plentiful in the shadowed woodlands, as animals came down to the stream to drink in the last twilight moments before the night. He even saw a stag bend its proud-antlered head to the water; but with just a sling he did not want to risk only wounding the animal, and held his fire. Soon after, though, a pair of coneys wandered incautiously past the covert where he lay hidden, and in moments they were stretched out bloody on the grass. He slung them over his shoulder then flitted like a shadow through the dark woodland back to the campsite.
One filling meal of rabbit stew later, Conan banked down the fire and took his blanket from the saddle-roll to made a bed for his companion. He himself sat down cross-legged on the other side of the fire and stared moodily into the red embers.
"Aren't you going to sleep?"
"There are bandits in the woods, as you yourself discovered. I must watch and wake."
"Bandits. Yikes. So, you weren't going to suggest we take turns watching? How will you manage tomorrow if you don't get any sleep?"
"I can doze in the saddle; I've done it before."
"Doesn't sound very practical to me. I've got a better idea. Where's that axe?" She rummaged around in the darkness until she found it stuck into a treestump, and handed it to him imperiously. "Cut me four branches, as straight as possible, about the length of your arm. They must be living wood, and leave the leaves on. Leave the leaves. Heh. So, go on! Shoo!"
Somewhat taken aback, Conan took the axe and walked off towards the edge of the clearing, managing to refrain from asking the witch what her own last slave died of. He suspected he wouldn't like the answer.
He returned to find his companion staring into the fire, a scowl of concentration on his face. She smiled up at him briefly as he returned, then stood.
"I think I've worked out the best spell to use. It's an adaptation of a Calatrian warding enchantment. If anyone with hostile intent approaches within a hundred yards, it'll make a noise like sixty-four crying babies all at once. Which should, uh, scare off just about anything, and will certainly wake both of us up. So unless that happens -and let's hope it doesn't, 'cause seriously? - we can both get to sleep."
And without another word she walked off to the edge of the campsite, looking back over her shoulder in clear expectation that the Cimmerian would follow. When he did she gestured for him to thrust the branch upright into the earth, then closed her eyes and began chanting. Green fire played over the leaves still attached to the stem, then seemed to soak into the wood and vanish from sight. Conan felt the hairs on his arms stand up, and fought to control his superstitious reaction. As magic went, this spell seemed harmless enough, even beneficial; but the barbarian was not one to put his trust in sorcery. Especially when it came to sleeping under its supposed protection; he preferred the feel of good, honest steel in his hand. A man could rely on that, when all else failed.
As he followed Willow from corner to corner of their campsite and they repeated the ritual, Conan pondered the wisdom of his actions. In the dark of the woods, getting involved in a battle between two sorcerors seemed more and more like foolishness to him. Mere mortals were often the unregarded victims in such a war of powers. Certainly this girl seemed pleasant enough now - if somewhat peculiar in her habits and speech - but she was a witch all the same. Who knew what she would be like if she reclaimed her full powers? Perhaps Conan was helping to create an even worse threat to the people of the world.
Perhaps it would be wisdom for him to slip away in the darkness, ride his horse hard through the night, be far away from here come morning. Let the two magicians fight their battle without him, and devils take them both. Perhaps that would be best.
Conan shook his head angrily. Perhaps it would; but for all his rough manners the Cimmerian had a certain barbaric code of chivalry. Having once taken this woman under his protection, he could not abandon her to her fate alone in the forest. He would stay; but he would watch her carefully, trusting her as little as the snake-charmers of Vendhya trust the hooded cobras that nestle in their baskets.
Oblivious to his thoughts, Willow smiled at him, her enchantment complete. She bade him good-night before settling down again in her blankets. In the black sky above, a sickle moon crept softly into the sky and shed wan silver light over the stillness of their campsite.