The fierce sun beat down out of a cloudless sky. Not a breath of breeze stirred the air and the dry heat was crippling. The ropes that bound her wrists and arms to the crossbeam were tight and unyielding. Her skin beneath the rope was raw and abraded from her earlier struggles to free herself but they held fast and she was weakening rapidly. Crucifixion is a cruel way to die. Your entire body weight is supported by your shoulders but the act of breathing puts immense strain on your torso and it is exhausting. It is a slow, painful way to suffocate.

The cross she was hung on was one of three driven into what seemed to be the ruins of a paved road that stretched away across the desert into the haze. In the distance there seemed to be the impression of hills or mountains but the heat haze blurred everything. At the base of the cross, there was a pile of bones, including human skulls which where obviously the remains of previous occupants of the cross. Neither of the other crosses were occupied.

Something moved out in the hazy distance along the road, a shape that seemed to get larger as it approached. Kallisti prayed it was some sort of animal that would quickly end this suffering. The dark shape gradually resolved into a man, dark haired, wearing an animal skin kilt and boots, carrying an axe. Squinting at the sun’s glare she saw his face was scarred and battered, his bare torso and arms were heavily muscled but also showed their scars of battle. His eyes were a piercing blue under heavy brows that gave him a brooding look.

His walk along the road was more of a swagger, giving the impression he was afraid of nothing in this hostile environment. As he drew closer, she could hear him speak:

“First they took your family and your riches, then they took your health and your pride.” He stopped at the foot of the cross and looked up at her, “Finally they left you to die.” He suddenly swung the axe so that it chopped directly through the ropes binding her left arm to the cross. She scrabbled at the crossbeam to support herself and not snap her right arm as it took all her weight. In another second the axe sliced through the ropes on the right and she tumbled down from the cross, landing clumsily on the rocks at the base. She knelt in the sand, her limbs trembling from the exertion of the last few hours.

The man dropped a waterskin in front of her which she frantically grabbed for and drank deeply, coughing some of the water up as it hit her parched throat. The man kept talking:

“What will you do, Exile, when there is nothing left but to live or die?”

“Who the hell are you and where is this shit hole?” Kallisti croaked, her voice raspy from her dry throat. She drank some more water. The man looked down at her and she became conscious of her nudity. Summoning inner reserves she stood up in front of him, ignoring her nakedness. The man smiled grimly.

“I am Conan.” he said, as if it would mean something to her.

“Uh huh, and where is this place? How the hell did I get here and…” she glanced down at herself, her limbs aching but her strength rebuilding “…how come I’m young again?”

“I am Conan!” he introduced himself again.

“Yes dear, you said that already and you seem to think it should matter to me, but trust me I’ve never heard of you so if you are some sort of local hero, then you’ll have to forgive me as I don’t think I’m from round here.” Her mildly patronizing reply seemed to confuse him.

“I am Conan and these are the Lands of Exile of Hyborea!” he scowled at her.

“Okay so thats some progress at least,” she sighed, it was going to be one of those conversations! She sat down on a rock, massaging her arms which were stiff and sore from the captivity. There was a bracelet of some sort of gold or brass with a green gem encapsulated in its design around her left wrist. She twisted it to try to take it off but it was tight against her skin. “So is this all desert? Where does this road lead? Are there any settlements, towns, villages where I can pick up some clothes and food and try to talk to someone with a slightly more advanced vocabulary?”

“This is not how this usually goes.” The man’s shoulders seemed to slump. “Usually you say ‘Oh Conan, thank you for rescuing me, how can I ever repay you?’ and then…”

“Ah yes I see, but um, what if you are rescuing a man?” Kallisti squinted up at the man. Conan shrugged nonchalantly.

“Beggars can’t be choosers. Look you need to work out for yourself how to survive, that’s how this thing works. You’ve been sent here as punishment for something and you need to survive and try eventually to escape. I wouldn’t try to take the bracelet off,” he lifted his left arm to show an identical bracelet. “They are the thing that keeps you imprisoned here. See those obelisks on the tops of the hills?” He gestured behind her to a range of rocky hills not far behind where the crosses had been driven into the ground.  Regularly spaced along the summits of the hills were large black obelisks with ornate crosses at their top. “Those mark the boundary of where the bracelet will allow you to go. Try to go beyond and it will cause crippling pain and if you stay too long they will kill you.”

“Dear Goddess, what has that bitch done to me?” Kallisti sighed and took another swig from the now half empty waterskin. “Okay first thing first, food, water, shelter. Where do you come from and how far is it?” She got to her feet again a little stiffly but the feeling was returning to her limbs, although she was tired and hungry. Instinctively, her mind reached for her daggers but nothing happened – there was no space where her daggers would normally be found. Their absence made here feel like she had lost part of herself – they had been her companions for so long – the first one marking the dramatic change her life took when she escaped her life of thieving, assisted by her future husband Deldus and the second one stolen from the God of Death!

“You can’t come with me, you have to make your own way – that’s the whole point of this place.” He reached into the small backpack he wore. “Here you can have this,” he handed her a reddish orange fruit that looked like a cross between a peach and a prickly pear. Hungrily she bit into the skin which broke letting out a flood of sweet juice that spilled down her chin.

“Wow that is good!” she licked her lips. “Okay so I’ve got to make my own way so at least give me a clue as to which direction to go rather than blindly tramp across the desert stark naked! Is there a settlement or something nearby where I can get stuff from.”

“No settlements and most of the other people you will meet will be aggressive and unfriendly – this place has a bad effect on people. I’ve got used to it – I hate everyone anyway, so it is nothing unusual.” he grinned wolfishly. “Although I could change my mind with you.” he raised his eyebrows suggestively. Kallisti sighed.

“Well I suppose you did save my life, gave me water and a rather delicious fruit, I’ve given it away for less, but at least let me have the waterskin and a knife afterwards… and don’t be too rough, I’ve had a hard day so far…”

Conan grinned again and started to unbuckle his belt…

***

Kallisti followed the broken paving stones of the path through the desert, the waterskin slung over her shoulder, a dagger in one hand and another of the fruits in the other. Conan had wandered off after the entertainment, saying that they’d meet again if she survived her trials in the portentous manner he seemed to adopt at times. She had not managed to bargain any sort of clothing from him, quite probably because he hardly had any himself. Her main concern with the lack of clothing were insects and scratches not modesty. Conan had said she should travel north – he had pointed which direction that was – and she should eventually find “The River”. He had even pronounced the capital letters!

The derelict roadway through the desert took her through a ruined building, bleached white stone pillars and tumbled walls. Inside there was evidence of an old campfire but it seemed deserted. Overhead she spotted the lurking black shapes of large birds that circled round – they looked like vultures, but were some way off. Continuing down the path, the rocky landscape ahead grew closer and the desert started to show signs of life  with some scrubby bushes which carried dark purple berries. The survival training she had been though so many years before warned her away from eating unknown berries – there were too many that were toxic to make the risk worthwhile.

The sand underfoot showed signs of plants trying to grow, initially some tough grasses and then as she reached the shelter of the first of the rocky outcrops, mosses and shorter grass. There was obviously a water supply nearby that was allowing these plants to survive unlike the desert behind her. Suddenly, rounding the rocks she saw a wide swath of green dotted with palm trees and glinting just up ahead the silvery glint of the river Conan had mentioned. Kallisti felt an immense relief as the waterskin had been empty for a while now. The urge to run to the river was overwhelming but her past experiences told her to wait and see what else might be using the river for sustenance.

Her wariness was justified as she saw some sort of large long legged turtle in amongst the palm trees so skirted around this animal, not knowing if it would be hostile or docile. The landscape she could see across the other side of the river was rocky but rising up to higher ground. There were sandy islands in the river which also seemed to have these turtles on them and further down to her right was a tall rocky peak which had been carved into an enormous statue that looked like some sort of guardian with a spear held out before them! Across the other side of the river, a couple of hundred yards away was a matching statue.

The water in the river near the bank was clear and seemed empty of fish – memories of an incident near Thapsus with flesh eating fish still made her wary of diving into unknown stretches of water! The bank was shallow and lined with palm trees and appeared to be clear of any danger. Taking this opportunity she dashed to the river, cupping the water in her hands and splashing it on her face. The cool water felt so good! Dunking the waterskin in, she filled it and satisfied her thirst before refilling it again. Tucking the dagger into the strap of the waterskin, she waded into the river and immersed herself in the cool water – the relief from the desert heat was astounding. She immersed her head and scrubbed her hair in the water to get the sand, dust and dirt from the desert out.

Surfacing again she heard a splash from behind and spinning round saw the long dark grey shape of a crocodile heading towards her! She stood up in the thigh-deep water and knew she could not run away through the water and the predator would be on her in a second. Something in her mind clicked, just like it used to do in the old days, a plan seemed to appear in her mind and without hesitation she acted. The crocodile lunged forward toward her, mouth agape but in that moment it lost sight of its prey as she leapt forward, one foot landing on its snout as she ran down the scaly back of the large river predator and before it could work out what had happened, she was leaping past its thrashing tail and sprinting back along the beach away from it. Glancing over her shoulder she could see the crocodile turning back and forth looking for her, not seeing where she had gone.

Looking forward she realised she was getting too lose to the turtles so angled back toward the river edge and slowed down, looking around just in case there were more crocodiles or other predators. To her right she saw a tangled pile of rocks with scrubby bush so headed toward it and scrambled up the rocks, somewhere the crocodile would not be able to reach her if it eventually worked out where she had gone. She could still see it further down the beach, it was not following her so she relaxed and sat on the top of the rock, catching her breath.

Here hair was still wet from the river so she tried the old cantrip she’d learned as a teenager that was the most common magic she had been using for years and years – would it still work wherever this was? To her relief, she felt her wet hair shiver as it rearranged itself, combing out any tangles and drying itself. It was a little bit of vanity, but it was familiar and gave her comfort in this alien land.

Just below the rock and further inland she saw a tree which had some familar-looking fruits, so climbed down to collect some. Testing that they were the same that Conan had given her, she collected as many as she could carry and returned to the safety of the rock as the sun was getting low in the sky and the shadows were lengthening. Feasting on the fruits she made sure the stones that were left from the fruit were tossed far away so that they didn’t attract any insects or attention to her concealed hiding place.

The sun set quickly which told her that wherever she was, she was near the equator. Her eyes were heavy after all that had happened – she had no idea how long she had been hanging on the cross, but her arms were still abraded and aching – in fact fact she ached everywhere, as if her muscles had not been used for a long time. As she struggled to fend off sleep, she wondered how she had regained her youth – it seemed she was back in her twenties again, which was probably a good thing as at that age she was at her peak of fitness and capability. Well she certainly was not in Mardona anymore and this landscape did not match any she had learned about in Laar, Bragor or Ereba. Carina had obviously done something to transport her to this savage prison.

It was still dark when she woke with a start from the sleep that had crept up on her unawares. What was is she had heard? Sitting up from the bushes she had concealed herself behind she saw in the distance the flickering light of a campfire further up the river amongst a strand of palm trees. She spotted several other pools of firelight positioned along the river in the distance and even across the river in amongst the hills further way were glows that showed campsites. The landscape was illuminated by a pearly luminescence from a moon in the sky. Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness and she could see her way down from her rocky sanctuary. Silently climbing down, she shivered as the night had turned chill after the baking heat of the day. Keeping to the shadows and moving silently was second nature to her, a skill she’d learned as a youth playing in the streets of Urswell.

The campfire showed two men in ragged clothes and a naked girl crouching between them on all fours – Kallisti suddenly realised what she was seeing! The two men were not being gentle and she heard the girl cry out before her voice was muffled and one of the men let out a grunt of release. The man who had been kneeling before her head stood up grabbed her by her straggly matted hair and punched her face.

“Stupid whore, mind your teeth!” the man cursed her “We should pull her teeth to make sure she doesn’t bite or scrape!” he laughed crudely as the second man kneeling behind her achieved release and pulled up his breeches. He stood up and kicked the girl in the backside, laughing. She slumped to the ground, curling up as the men went to the fireside where there was a spit with some sort of meat roasting over the fire. Kallisti’s mouth watered at the smell of the cooking meat and her stomach rumbled, the fruit had been nice but it was not very filling.

One of the gifts she had been granted from her Goddess SuoConna was an aura that tended to make people more favourable toward her. It had  stood her in good stead for decades, even though her eldest son had learned to resist her ‘charm’ and resented her ability to get along with people. This was a time when this ability would come in handy. Cautiously she moved closer to the campfire and called out:

“Hello, I mean you no harm…” The reaction of the men was immediate, both standing and reaching for crude clubs made from rocks wedged into tree branches. They were looking around, not having seen her yet.

“Show yourself!” The taller man who had joked about pulling the girl’s teeth snarled.

“I’m here.” she said moving further toward the fire. “You don’t need the weapons, I’m not armed and I mean you no harm, I just want to shelter by your fire for the night.” They spotted her at the edges of the firelight and leering grins appeared on their faces.

“Hey hey, fresh meat!” the second man said. They were both dressed in rags made up from scraps of clothing held together with bits of animal skin and string that appeared to have been made from grass. The taller man was lean but muscled, the second man smaller with the saggy skin of someone who used to be fatter But had lost a lot of weight quickly. “You can have that slut,” he gestured toward the cowering girl, “while I fancy myself this fresh whore. Come here slut!”

Kallisti sighed, well she had at least tried to be nice. “My mistake I’ll leave you in peace then.” she said, backing away.

“Oh no you don’t!” The taller man swung his arm and something hit her in the side of her head hard – a stone from the sling she had not seen in his hand. She shook off the dizziness and the stars in her eyes as she saw them rush toward her. Her instincts took over and she dodged the swing of the smaller man’s club, spinning around and lashing out with a roundhouse kick that connected with his shoulder, sending him crashing back to the ground with a cry of pain.

Drawing her dagger she crouched as the larger man circled to her right which would have caught her between the two men if she had not already dealt with the first.

“That’s a nice little present you have there” the man sneered, his eyes watching the dagger. “Did you let Conan fuck you for that little girl? When I take it form you I promise not to hurt you much – that’s a nice body and wouldn’t want to ruin it too quickly, it would be such a waste.” He lunged at her but it was a feint as she heard movement behind her and realised the other man was not out of the fight. Dropping to a crouch she lashed out again with s sweeping kick that connected with the tall man, knocking him back. Spinning around from that attack she dodged the second swing of the smaller man and jabbed with the dagger at his face.

Shying back, the second man didn’t see the kick aimed at his groin that connected bringing a squeal of agony and making him double over around the pain. The follow up kick to the face snapped his head back with a sickening crack that collapsed him into an immobile boneless heap, eyes staring widely as his broken neck sent him into unconsciousness and eventually death.

A roar of anger from behind her sent her diving out of the way of the club that caught her a glancing blow on her left arm that sent her sprawling. The follow up swing of the club slammed down where her head would have been a fraction of a second earlier as she rolled aside and kicked out again at the man’s legs. Lying on her side, however, she could not put enough force into the kick but was able to roll way far enough to regain her feet and resume the crouched fighting stance of a knife fighter. The man warily circled to her right back toward the fire. He lunged again but laughed as she jumped back from the feint.

She was getting tired from this fight so she tried her own feint with the dagger held in her right hand and saw the man’s reactions were not as fast as her own as he swept the club round to parry and defend. The advantage was with her now so she feinted left and right, high and low as he backed away. Then as he watched another feint from her right hand,  she lunged with her left hand and sliced him with the dagger he had not noticed her swap from one hand to the other. Blood gushed from the cut she had made at his throat, surgically slicing the artery.

Kallisti advanced as the man dropped the club and clutched at the fatal wound to his throat. He glared at her with hatred and she kicked him in the chest while his life drained away. He slumped to the ground, his face a mask of blood from his wound, hands still feebly trying to stop the flow of blood, but mercilessly she kicked his arms away and stood over him while he died.

Gradually she became aware of the sounds of the night again, her senses returning to normal once more after the intense focus of the fight. A lethargy overtook her – she still had not recovered from the crucifixion and the exertion of this fight had drained her physically and emotionally. This was the first time she had killed in many years, what had come easy in her youth now she found distressing, even if they deserved it! Even through all that, her old instincts exerted themselves again and she checked the two bodies to make sure they were dead, She then went to the fire and a sudden hunger made her grab at the meat roasting on the spit. It was a rabbit or some medium sized rodent and tasted delicious after the hunger she felt. It was only then she remembered the girl and quickly turned round to where she had been lying at the edge of the circle of light from the campfire. Cursing herself for turning her back on a potential enemy, she realised the girl had not moved but was curled up with her eyes tightly shut. Calming down again, she slipped the dagger back into the sheath in the waterskin strap and moved over to kneel beside the girl.

“Its okay I’m not going to hurt you.” she said reassuringly, trying to project a feeling of calm and peacefulness toward the girl. The tension in the girl’s shoulders relaxed slightly and she opened her eyes. “You’re safe now, those men won’t hurt you again.” The girl looked up at her with empty and emotionless eyes. Kallisti now noticed the metal collar around the girl’s neck. The skin under the collar was calloused and stained from wearing it for a long time. “Are you hungry?”

“Yes Mistress.” she said quietly.

“I’m not your mistress – call me Kallisti” The girl looked at her blankly.

“Yes Mistress”

“Come to the fire and eat, you look starved.” Kallsiti could see that the girl was thin and hollow eyed. She was obviously a slave but had not been looked after properly by these men. The girl got on her hands and knees and crawled to the fireside, then adopted a kneeling position where her back was arched, pushing her breasts forward. Kallisti recognised this type of behaviour – her time infiltrating the slave traders of Ereba had taught her more than she cared to know about slave training, particularly female slave training. She collected some of the meat from the spit and gave it to the girl who just held it in her hands looking up at Kallisti.

“Eat it.” Kallisti’s heart went out to this poor girl who had to be told to eat even when she was starving. She held a very special contempt for slavers and slave owners and it brought back memories of an isolated snow-bound Inn from many years before. “What is your name?” She looked over the girl, noting the dirty matted hair, the bruises on her arms, back and legs. Her face was dirty and bruised but she had a pert nose and a slight overbite.  The hair under the dirt seemed to have a faint reddish hue and almost without thinking Kallisti activated the cleaning cantrip.

The girl cried out as her hair seemed to come alive, moving of its own accord as long matted tangles started unravelling and the dirt was stripped away. The girl cowered in fright. “Its alright don’t worry its just cleaning your hair.” Kallisti reassured her. It took several minutes for the magic to do its work, longer than Kallisti was used to but the girl seem to have been neglected for a long time. Eventually it settled down again to reveal the girl’s hair as a vibrant bronze colour, shoulder length and wavy with just a hint of the scent of apples. A look of awe came over the girl’s face  as she touched her hair and pulled it in front of her to look at it. There were tears in her eyes as she looked to Kallisti.

“Its okay, its just a little bit of magic that makes things easier. You didn’t tell me what your name is?”

“I don’t know Mistress – they just called me slave or girl or other words.” she lowered her eyes again. Kallisti scowled.

“How long have you been a slave?” she reached out to the girl’s face and lifted her chin again to catch her eyes. The girl shrugged. Her eyes were no longer dull and emotionless as before but slightly nervous. Kallisti felt a lump in her throat, this girl had been a slave for a long time. “You are not my slave, I don’t believe in slavery. I will look after you though – just like I would my daughter.” her voice caught as she thought of her family – would she ever see them again? Recovering her composure, she made a decision. “You deserve a name and I will call you Bianca as you remind me of my granddaughter.”

The girl’s eyes widened in surprise and she lowered her head again, but this time there was a faint smile on her lips. “Thank you Mistress.”

“You need to stop calling me that, my name is Kallisti.”

“Yes Mistress.” Kallisti sighed, this might take a long time!

A thought occurred to her so she stood and moved over to the corpses – she couldn’t’ leave them here as they’d soon start to stink. The pool of blood from the tall man had soaked into the sand and there was a strong coppery smell as it dried. His death had splashed blood all around and Kallisti knew it would attract insects and other scavengers. Quickly stripping the corpse of its belongings, she dragged it away from the firelight, further back along the river bank. She then went back and did the same for the other corpse. This ended up with a small pile of belongings, two clubs, a sling with some regularly shaped stones in a pouch made from a crudely stitched animal skin and some scraps of clothing that looked more like rags, and more patches of animal skin, tied together with plaited grass. A small bag also made from animal skins contained some sharpened stone shards and some more plaited grass.

“Well I’m sure we can make something useful out of this.” She looked at the grass, it had been made well, considering what it was. “Seems that they were a bit more industrious than just lecherous wankers if they made this.” Bianca coughed, still looking at the ground in front of her. “Oh, you did this?” Bianca nodded and glanced up at Kallisti.

“Grew up in a tannery.” she said. Kallisti smiled.

“Well that might come in useful – tomorrow lets see if we can make something to protect my feet. I’m not used to walking barefoot and my feet are killing me – along with my shoulders and back and… well everything. I don’t know about you but I feel exhausted and as much as I don’t want to leave us unprotected, I don’t think I can keep my eyes open.” This was a calculated risk, the girl seemed docile enough but it could be a very convincing act.

The mossy patch near the fire seemed the most comfortable place to sleep so she settled down on it. Looking at Bianca, she patted the space beside her. The girl crawled over and lay down beside Kallisti. With a smile Kallisti indicated that the girl should roll over to face the fire. Snuggling up behind her, Kallisti wrapped her arms around the girl, spooning with her. This was the safest way to sleep as if the girl moved, she would wake up. She checked the dagger was hidden within reach, just in case. At first the girl’s back was tense, but Kallisti hugged her reassuringly.

“Its alright my dear, we’re here to sleep, I’m here to protect you.” The tension in the girl seemed to dissipate and her hands moved over Kallisti’s, their fingers entwining.

***

She woke with a start, realising she was alone. So much for expecting to wake up if the girl moved! Sitting up, she saw Bianca sitting beside the pile of clothing scraps, sorting though them and putting them into two piles.

“Mistress!” she realised Kallisti was awake and scrambled into the kneeling position with back arched and head lowered.

“No you shouldn’t do that please Bianca.” Kallisti moved to the girl once again lifting her chin to look into her eyes. The girl’s expression was nervous and unsure. Kallisti felt moved to tenderly kiss her forehead. Bianca caught her breath.

Kallisti glanced over her shoulder back at the campfire. “Did you put more wood on the fire?” she looked around and there seemed no evidence of a woodpile. Bianca shook her head.

“It always stays alight – there are lots of them all over and they just stay alight.”

“So what have you been doing?” Kallisti peered at the piles of booty they had acquired so far. One pile had animal skins, a second had scraps of cloth and the third had the weapons. She took Bianca’s hand and pulled her to her feet. “You don’t have to kneel in front of me all the time.” Bianca lowered her head.

“If you wish Mistress. I was looking at what we have and I think I can made you some foot coverings. I noticed your feet are not used to walking on rock so you should protect them until they toughen up.”

“Yes, I grew up bare-footed in Urswell but over the years I grew more used to wearing heels than being bare-foot. Need to find something for breakfast.” She looked around. “You carry on with that and I’ll be back in a few minutes.” she added, spotting something just a bit further along the riverbank. Bianca looked worried. “I’ll only be gone a few minutes, stay here and finish my lovely shoes.” she gestured to the animal skins. Bianca sat down and began working on the skins with the sharp stones they’ve found in the pouch.

A short while later, Kallisti reappeared from further along the beach, carrying two large eggs she had acquired from one of the turtle’s nests. Making a hole in the top of each egg with the tip of the dagger, she packed them against the base of the campfire to bake them. Bianca showed her the skins she had prepared and Kallisti let her fit them over her bruised feet. The skins were a basic fit with a leather thong that tied around her ankle but it was a welcome relief.

“That is marvellous, thank you Bianca, they will save my poor feet. Next could you put something together to support my boobs – I’m not used to running around with them jiggling about so much nowadays! You should make some for yourself as well and also something to cover up down there.” she grinned, cupping her own breasts to support them. Bianca smiled and set to work with the scraps of skins and cords. Within a relatively short time they were both clothed in supporting tops, loincloths and foot-wraps, ready to take on anything, well almost!