This is a sequel to the BtVS/Conan crossover The Hour of the Troll that I wrote two years ago. In that story Willow’s spell to banish Olaf to the Land of the Trolls misfired slightly and sent him to join Conan the Barbarian in the Hyborian Age.
Now Willow, seeking to bring Tara back from death in ‘Seeing Red’/‘Villains’, is given the chance to save Tara by sending her to the Hyborian Age in Olaf’s wake. She accepts – but, with Tara stranded ten thousand years ago in an alternate past, will Willow ever be able to get her back? And Tara no sooner arrives there than she is immediately plunged into deadly peril…
Crossover between ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and the ‘Conan’ stories of Robert E. Howard. I’m posting the Prologue and Chapter One together because of the Prologue’s extreme brevity. Rating R, may contain violence and femslash. It’s not intended to be very long, probably about the same length as the original Olaf story or a little longer, but you know how tales grow in the telling. This installment is 4,750 words.
The Witch’s Promise
Know, O Prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars – Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming West.
Hither came Tara MacLay, tawny-haired, sleepy-eyed, flowers in hand, a witch, a weaver, a lesbian, with occasional mild melancholies and sometimes a little mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under her sandaled feet and then apologize profusely and try to repair them.
Let me tell you of those days of high adventure…
Tara lay sprawled on the floor. Her light blue top was marked by a red stain surrounding a ragged circular hole nine millimeters across. She wasn’t breathing.
“Come on, baby,” Willow sobbed. She put her hands on Tara’s chest, trying to remember what she had heard about performing CPR, but she couldn’t remember what to do. All practical thoughts had been driven from her head by the shock. If it had been a matter of magic...
A red glow lit her eyes. She lifted her head and howled out a command. “By Osiris,” she called, “I command you! Bring her back.” The room went dark. A swirling cloud of blue-gray vapor gathered just below the ceiling. “Hear me, Keeper of Darkness!”
The clouds formed into the shape of a massive face with a stern expression. Lightning flickered around it as it spoke in a deep and booming voice. “Witch, how dare you invoke Osiris in this task!”
“Please,” Willow begged, “please, please bring her back.”
“You may not violate the laws of natural passing,” the face reminded her.
Willow’s eyes opened very wide. “How? How is this natural?”
“It is a human death, by human means,” the cloud pointed out. “You raised one killed by mystical forces. This is not the same. She is taken by natural order. It is done.”
“It can’t be!” Willow’s face contorted. “You have to bring her back.”
“I do not have to do any such thing,” the ghostly presence told her. “Do not presume to command me, witch.”
“I beseech you,” Willow pleaded. “Please. I’ll do anything. Pay any price.”
The flickers of lightning ceased for a moment and the cloud’s features grew less distinct. They reformed in a somewhat less menacing form. “Any price?”
“I know there are always consequences,” Willow said. “I don’t care. I’ll pay any price to get Tara back.”
“You ask for what is undreamed of,” said the figure of mist. “I cannot return her to the here and now. It is beyond my power in the circumstances.” It became clearer, more solid in appearance, and the lightning flashed again. “Hmm. ‘Undreamed of’. An age undreamed of? Perhaps there is something that I can do after all.”
“Not to the here and now?” Willow’s eyes were still oozing tears but now her brow was furrowed in concentration. “So, to the there and then? What does that mean?”
“You opened a gateway a year and more ago,” the Keeper of Darkness reminded her, “and banished one through it. I can… divert your loved one to that destination.”
“To the Land of the Trolls?” Willow’s eyes opened wide. “They’d kill her!”
“The alternative is that she dies now,” the envoy of Osiris pointed out. “It would not be to the Land of the Trolls, witch. Your aim was awry. The troll went to Hyboria, to the Age of High Adventure, and prospered there. Shall I send Tara to join him in that realm, restored to life, or remain here and perish irrevocably? Decide quickly, witch, for once she passes the Veil of the Dead and faces judgment there can be no diversion.”
“I’ll be able to bring her back from there, right?”
“It may be possible,” the Keeper said, “if you penetrate the mysteries. Choose quickly, witch.”
“How long do I have?”
“Before you must choose?” The Keeper paused for a second, as if calculating, and then spoke in measured tones. “Twenty-eight seconds.”
“What? I need time to think.”
“I make not the rules,” the dark envoy stated. “Choose. Fifteen seconds.”
“Okay!” Willow stood up and shouted loudly. “Send her to where Olaf went! Do it.”
A blackness swallowed the room, blotting out all light for a moment, and the Keeper’s voice boomed out “It is done.” The darkness cleared and Willow could see again.
Tara’s body had vanished.
Tara saw a splatter of red appear on the front of Willow’s shirt. “Your shirt…” she began to say, and then she felt a pain in her chest. It was quickly followed by weakness, dizziness, and then a sensation of falling. Everything went dark, for a moment, and then light returned and she could see again. The pain, the weakness, and the dizziness were gone.
Tara blinked and then opened her eyes very wide. She wasn’t in the bedroom any longer. She was outside, in bright sunlight, and nowhere she’d ever been before.
It was some sort of town square, apparently, a wide-open space surrounded by buildings. And if those buildings were in California the only place she could be was a movie set. The ground was unpaved, the square being made up of nothing but well-trodden bare earth, and some of the houses had thatched roofs! There were people in the square; men wearing odd pointed caps on their heads with the tips bent over forwards – Phrygian caps, a flash of memory from a History class told her – and clad in drab smocks and tunics, and women in shapeless sacking dresses with headscarves tied over their hair. Most of the people carried clubs, hoes, or pitchforks and a few of them, oddly considering that it was broad daylight, brandished flaming torches.
A second glance showed Tara that not all of the women wore shapeless sacks. There was one who stood out as different in every way. Her long dark hair hung loose, her slim body was dressed in a tight black shirt and breeches, and, most noticeably, her wrists were tied and she was being frog-marched toward…
A stake. An actual stake, witches for the burning at, with logs and kindling piled up around its base. If this wasn’t a movie then the young woman was in a whole lot of trouble.
And so was Tara.
Her arrival hadn’t gone unnoticed. Heads turned, eyes were trained on her, and jaws dropped.
“She appeared out of nowhere!” someone called. “She must be another witch!”
“Seize her!” another voice yelled. “Burn the witch!”
“I’m n-not a w-w-witch,” Tara claimed, her long-conquered stammer returning as much because she was lying as because of the stress of the situation.
“She lies!” was the immediate response. “Burn the witch!” A dozen voices took up the cry and most of the crowd began to move toward her. Only those holding the bound woman remained behind.
Tara glanced around her, hoping desperately that Willow or Buffy had been transported along with her to wherever this strange place was, but there was no sign of them. Instead, as she turned to look behind her, she saw a large man coming at her with his hands raised to grab her arms. She twisted, and tried to dodge, but was only partially successful. She managed to keep her arms free but his big hands clamped down on her shoulders.
“I have the witch!” the man cried triumphantly.
Tara was close to panic. She couldn’t think of any spells, she was no good at fighting, and she couldn’t run away unless she could free herself from the man’s grip. In the nick of time she remembered some lessons Spike had given her during That Dreadful Summer.
“You’re bleedin’ hopeless, Glinda,” Spike had said, “got the co-ordination of Bambi on ice and the killer instinct of the Dalai Lama, but these moves are simple enough even you should be able to get the hang of them. ’Least you might be able to make the bugger let you go so you can run for your life, anyway, give me or the Bot a chance to come to your rescue.”
With his words in her mind she formed her hand into a blade, brought it up between her captor’s arms, and drove it forward into his face. A vampire could have countered by tossing her away, although at least that would have achieved the objective of forcing him to let her go, but this human was completely unable to do anything to prevent her hitting him smack on the nose.
“Youch!” the man yelped. He released her shoulders and clasped both hands to his face.
“Sorry,” Tara said, automatically. She backed away, hastily, as several other villagers approached. One jabbed at her with a pitchfork, but from far too far away, and the tines didn’t even come close. Then one of the men ran straight at her, hands outstretched, in a manner very reminiscent of a fledgling vamp rushing heedlessly in for the kill.
Spike had taught her the counter to that one, too. Again, he’d only been concerned with keeping her out of a vampire’s grasp, as actually disabling a vampire was something she could only achieve with spells, and that helped her to go through with the move without needing to worry about harming a human.
She shifted her feet and turned, going through a maneuver Spike had referred to as a ‘step-turn’, and the man’s rush missed. Her right hand ended up in exactly the right position to deliver a shove to his back as he shot past.
The result was spectacular. He was just starting to twist, trying to change the angle of his grab, and her push made him lose his footing and crash to the ground. The man wasn’t able to do anything at all to save himself and he hit the hard-packed earth traveling very fast indeed. The breath must have been driven from his body and he made no immediate attempt to get up; he merely lay on the ground wheezing and gasping for breath.
This time Tara managed to stop herself from uttering an apology. “I don’t want to hurt anyone,” she told the mob, who seemed to have lost some of their enthusiasm for the attack and who were milling around a few yards away, “but I’ll defend myself.”
Her first attacker wiped the back of his hand across his nose, bringing it away streaked with blood, and snarled at her. “Vile sorceress,” he growled, “I shall smite you senseless and drag you to the stake.” He lumbered forward with a fist swinging.
Spike hadn’t taught her how to deal with that sort of attack. It would have been pointless back in Sunnydale; once a vampire started punching, instead of grabbing, only a very strong man could hope to block its blows. Xander could just about hold his own, on a good day and if the vampire was newly turned, but Tara would have stood no chance. This was no vampire, however, and she had to do something besides standing still to be hit. The only evasive move she knew was the step-turn and so that’s what she did.
The fist whistled past her head, missing her by mere inches, and the big oaf overbalanced as his blow didn’t encounter the expected resistance. He spun three quarters of the way around, ending up almost with his back to Tara, and she only knew one thing to do in that circumstance. She pushed him.
She caught him completely off-balance. He went sprawling, flinging out his arms to save himself, and landed with all his weight on his right hand. His agonized yell, and the way he rolled on the ground clutching at his wrist, was a clear indicator that the wrist was broken or seriously sprained.
“By Mitra!” one of the other peasants exclaimed. “She is as dangerous as the other one!”
The other one. Tara latched onto the thought. She needed help; she’d been victorious, so far, only by sheer luck and the incompetence of her opponents, and as soon as the would-be witch-burners gathered themselves together and made a concerted rush she’d be overwhelmed. The obvious ally was the woman being dragged toward the stake and, anyway, Tara would have wanted to save her from that dreadful fate even if Tara herself had been in no danger whatsoever.
Tara stared at the other ‘witch’. Definitely a young woman, extremely pretty in a dark and sultry way, with a slim and athletic build. There was nothing about her that said ‘witch’ to Tara. If Tara had had to guess at a pre-Industrial profession for the girl she would have gone for ‘pirate’. Not that you could go by appearances, of course, but Tara was still inclined to suspect that the girl wasn’t a witch at all. It could be that in this place, wherever or whenever it was, a ‘witch’ was defined as a woman who was capable of defending herself by means either magical or physical. Or perhaps it was ‘appearing out of nowhere’ which was the distinguishing characteristic, the ‘witch’s mark’, and the dark girl had been transported here in a similar fashion to Tara.
The girl was struggling in the grasp of two men, putting up a creditable fight, but with her hands tied she was unable to resist effectively and was being inexorably dragged toward the stake.
Tara’s brows lowered and she clenched her teeth. She couldn’t stand by and let someone be burned as a witch. But what could she do to stop it?
She couldn’t fight; she might possibly manage to defend herself against another unskilled attack but there was no way she could successfully take the fight to the enemy. She knew only a few combat spells, almost all intended for use against vampires, and she was loath to harm anyone with magic anyway.
The worst case scenario was if this weird place in which she’d found herself really was a film set. If she’d been somehow swapped with an actress, whether physically or mentally with a Draconian Katra spell the way Faith had swapped with Buffy, and the mob were extras and bit-part actors simply following a script, then lighting them on fire would be Bad; an extremely harsh punishment for merely appearing in a movie, even if the film in question turned out to be a sequel to the appalling ‘Dungeons and Dragons’. She couldn’t see any sign of cameras, or a director, but that didn’t mean they weren’t around somewhere. She couldn’t risk it.
Tara knew one harmless but incapacitating spell, able to make half a dozen or so weak-willed people fall instantly asleep, but using it would probably trigger an all-out attack by those not affected. If she aimed it at the girl’s captors it might put the girl to sleep as well; it shouldn’t, in theory, but Tara had never tried the spell out in a combat situation and she wasn’t absolutely sure of how discriminating it would be. What she needed was a way of freeing the girl from her bonds at a distance…
And then she had it. A spell her mother had taught her, long ago, intended for untangling snarled fishing lines and the like, but with broader applications. “Neo amhlaich!” she commanded, pointing at her chosen target.
The ropes around the girl’s wrists untied themselves and fell away. Her hands were free. She was still being held by two men, of course, but they were holding her by the upper arms and were thrown into confusion by the change in circumstances. She lowered a hand to the groin of one of the men, took hold, and squeezed.
Her captor yelled out, released his hold, and grabbed for her clutching hand. She let go, avoided his grab, and used that free hand to punch the other man in the mouth. He didn’t immediately release his grip on her arm and so she twisted her body and brought up a knee. This time he let go, doubled up, and now both the men were covering their groins with their hands. She brought her right arm around and struck one of the men on the jaw with the heel of her hand, knocking him to the ground, and then repeated the procedure with the other one. That one didn’t fall and so she kicked him behind the knee, sending him stumbling, and rabbit-punched him on the back of the neck. He went down and lay still. The girl was free.
She turned around, away from Tara, and ran like the wind.
“Oh.” Tara gazed at the woman, her hoped-for ally, who was disappearing between the houses, and pouted. It seemed remarkably ungrateful. Now Tara was alone, facing an angry mob, and running out of options.
“The other witch has escaped” shouted someone from the crowd, and a few of the peasants ran off in that direction. The majority remained fixated on Tara. They were spreading out now, some of them heading off to the sides, working their way around to encircle her. Her outlook seemed grim.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” Tara told them, “but I will if you make me. I’m leaving. Don’t try to stop me.” It was obvious by now that this was no film set. The changes that she’d made to the script would have caused any director to shout ‘Cut!’ long ago. She still wasn’t enthusiastic about causing permanent harm to humans but at least they’d be would-be witch burners and not innocent actors.
Her words were ignored. “She can’t stand against us all,” a man at the back of the crowd called. “Seize her!” The crowd surged forward.
Frantically Tara cast her Sleep spell. “Dormire!” she cried, accompanying the words with the necessary gestures, and five of the attackers slumped to the ground. The others faltered and their charge petered out. Some began to back away.
“I w-warned you,” Tara said. “Get out of my w-way. I’m leaving.” Not that she had any idea of where she could go, of course, but away from this place seemed like a good first step. She could see fields through one of the gaps between the buildings, meaning that she probably wouldn’t find herself trapped up a blind alley if she went that way, and so she chose that direction.
For a few seconds no-one tried to stop her. Then a cry sounded out “They only sleep! We have nothing to fear. Seize the witch!” and the mob surged forward once more.
Two men raced ahead of their fellows. One had a hoe raised high to strike and the other held a pitchfork as if it was a pike. They looked as if they intended to kill.
Tara cringed. In her position Buffy would, no doubt, catch the pitchfork, pull it from its wielder’s hands, and use the butt end to club both men into unconsciousness. Spike, even handicapped by his chip, would dodge in such a way that he sent one man crashing into the other. Tara knew in theory how she could do it, she could almost hear Spike’s voice coaching her, but she also knew that she just didn’t have the reactions and the coordination to pull it off successfully. The Sleep spell wasn’t powerful enough, accurate enough, or reliable enough for this situation. She knew only one spell that might serve; normally she’d regard it as far too dangerous to use against humans, in fact the only time she’d ever used it had been against a Hellion demon who had captured Anya, but then again normally humans weren’t trying to kill her with agricultural implements. Desperate times called for desperate measures…
She thrust out her hand and shouted out “Dissolvo!” A bolt of light shot forth from her fingers, fanned out, and struck both of the charging men. They were lifted from their feet and thrown bodily backward. The rest of the mob halted dead in their tracks. A handful of men and women turned and ran.
“She can’t stop us all,” someone shouted, probably that same person at the back who, with ‘the bravery of being out of range’, had inspired their first charge. “Get her!”
The majority held back, too cowed by Tara’s display to risk themselves, but a few obeyed. Five men and two women ran at Tara waving their farm tools. They were coming at her from all sides and there was no way that she would be able to stop them all.
“Cowardly jackals, flee or die!” a female voice yelled. A horse thundered toward the mob, its rider brandishing a saber, and the peasants scattered. The dark-haired girl was back, in the nick of time, coming to Tara’s aid after all.
One man grabbed at the rider but was struck by the horse’s shoulder and slammed to the ground. Another lunged at her with a pitch-fork; she swayed in the saddle, avoiding the thrust, and then straightened up and retaliated with a saber-cut that split the man’s head open. He went down and lay still. Then she was through the crowd and bringing the horse to a halt beside Tara.
“Up behind me,” she called, extending a hand. Tara caught hold with one hand, put her other hand on the horse’s rump, and half vaulted, half was tugged, up onto the horse behind her savior. “Hold tight,” the girl warned, and spurred the horse to a gallop.
Tara could ride, and ride well, but perching precariously behind another rider was something new for her. She took hold of the dark-haired girl’s waist, held on tight, and gripped the horse with her legs as best she could when she was behind the saddle. The horse’s hooves pounded the earth, the houses shot past almost in a blur and then gave way to fields, and Tara was jolted up and down until her spine ached with the jarring. The fields were replaced by scrub and long grass, and then by trees, and the horse slowed down.
“They will not follow us this far,” the girl said, and she reined in the horse. “We can rest for a while.”
Tara took the hint and dismounted. Her muscles protested, and she knew she’d be sore next day, but at least she managed to get to the ground without falling or, worse, pulling the other girl down with her. Once she was clear the dark-haired girl dismounted in one smooth move.
“You have my gratitude for saving my life,” the girl said. She still had the saber in her hand; she bent down, plucked a handful of grass, and used it to wipe clean the blade. “I was certain I was going to die this day. Had you not freed me I would have burned.”
“I couldn’t let that happen,” Tara said. “You saved me in return so, uh, I guess w-we’re even.” She studied the other girl. Long straight hair so dark as to be almost jet black, skin of a light olive brown shade that looked Latina to Tara, big brown eyes with long thick lashes, full and sensuous lips; only a rather prominent aquiline nose, and heavy eyebrows that had obviously never been plucked and shaped, detracted from what would otherwise have been a face of remarkable beauty. Jewish, Arab, or possibly Italian, Tara deduced, rather than Latina.
“You were in not such dire peril,” the girl pointed out, “for you were free, and had felled many of the villagers, whereas I had been captured and bound. You are a true witch of great power. I had thought all such were ugly old crones, like in the stories, but you are young and pretty.” Tara felt a blush coming to her cheeks. The girl didn’t see it; she had turned away to face the horse and was sliding the saber into a scabbard that hung from the front of the saddle. She then took hold of the reins and turned back to Tara. “I must walk Forouzan to cool her down after the gallop,” she said. “Walk with us so that we may continue to talk.”
“Of course,” Tara said. She moved to walk beside the other girl. “Uh, what’s your name?” she asked. It wasn’t the question that was at the forefront of her mind but it seemed only polite.
“I am Roshan, daughter of Vahauka, from the city of Yarmouk on the border between Shem and Koth,” the girl replied. “And may I know yours?”
“Tara MacLay,” Tara answered. The additional information Roshan had included in her reply, along with her name, made Tara’s head swim. Yarmouk, Shem, Koth? Tara had never heard of any such places. Where on Earth was she? Or, in fact, was she somewhere beyond Earth? “Uh, from Sunnydale in California,” she added.
Roshan came to a halt and turned to stare at Tara. “I have not heard of that land, and I thought that I knew all the realms between the Vilayet Sea and the Western Ocean,” she said.
“And I’ve never heard of the places you mentioned,” Tara said. “I don’t think this is my, uh, my w-world. I think I’ve been, uh, transported here by magic.” She could feel tears starting to form and fought for control. Questions flitted across her mind too quickly for her to actually ask them. Where was she, how did she get here, and, most importantly, how would she get home? Did Willow know what had happened?
“I would have thought such a thing impossible,” Roshan said, resuming her forward progress, “but I myself saw you appear in the village square. One second you were not there and then you were. I would not have believed it had I not seen it for myself.”
“I, uh, don’t really know how it happened,” Tara said. “Uh, how come they were going to burn you as a witch? It’s pretty obvious you’re not one.”
Roshan laughed. “I am a… well, let us say a ‘scout’,” she said. “I am traveling to Tarantia, hoping to take service under the new King of Aquilonia, and I paused at the village to purchase supplies. One of the menfolk made advances to me, pressing me to share his bed, and I rebuffed him. I thought to put an end to further attentions by revealing that I have no interest in men, as my desires are inflamed only by women, but it seems that in this land such a trait is…” Her voice trailed away, her eyebrows rose, and she came to a halt once more. “You are hurt,” she said, “and badly, I think. Why did you not say?”
“Hurt? I don’t think so,” Tara said. She looked down and realized that her light blue top was indeed marred by a large blotch of blood. Perhaps one of the attacking mob at the village had managed to nick her and, in all the excitement, Tara hadn’t felt it. She put a hand down inside her top, and felt for a cut, but found nothing. She spotted something else and, eyes widening, pulled out her hand and examined her top more closely.
There was a ragged circular hole in the center of the bloodstain. Surely nothing could have made such a hole, and drawn so much blood, without her noticing? She remembered the splatter of red on Willow’s shirt…
Tara tried to look over her shoulder at her back, failed, and turned around. “Is there any blood on my back?” she asked Roshan.
“Indeed there is,” Roshan replied. “By the nipples of Ishtar, you must have been skewered right through! By what witchcraft did you survive?”
Tara felt herself beginning to tremble. “I don’t think I did,” she said, her voice sinking almost to a whisper. “I think this must be my afterlife. I think I must be dead.”
Disclaimer: The Buffyverse characters in this story do not belong to me, but are being used for amusement only and all rights to them remain with Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, the writers of the original episode, and the TV and production companies responsible for the original television show. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER ©2002 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer trademark is used without express permission from Fox. The works of Robert E. Howard, including the Conan stories, are in the public domain according to United Kingdom copyright law. In the United States the copyright is claimed by Conan, Inc. and by Paradox Entertainment Inc.