Crossover between ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and the ‘Conan’ stories of Robert E. Howard. Rating of this chapter is PG but it’s intended to be at least R eventually; I must confess that I’m writing this with one eye on next year’s Twisting the Hellmouth CoA Awards – specifically the ‘Joe Loves Lesbians’ Moderator’s Award. I just haven’t reached the femslash parts yet (and, as I find it very difficult to write sex scenes without them degenerating into parody, I might never do so). This instalment is 5,000 words. It would definitely pass the Bechdel Test - pretty much the whole chapter consists of two women talking about things other than men (although they do briefly mention a couple of men in passing).
The Witch’s Promise
It was the need to go to the bathroom – or, rather, the bushes – that finally convinced Tara that she was, indeed, alive. It also spurred her into doing a complete inventory of her possessions.
One pair of sandals, one pair of panties, a bra, a pair of jeans, and a light blue top decorated with blood-stains and two bullet holes. Plus a few small items from the pockets of the jeans; a twenty-dollar bill, thirty-six cents in change, a pair of folding nail scissors, a ChapStick, an apartment key, a quartz crystal, a small wad of tissues, and an emergency reserve tampon. Oh, and a wristwatch that was, to judge by the sun getting closer and closer to the horizon, at least eight or more hours slow by local time.
Not an inspiring collection of possessions with which to build an existence in a new world.
She would have expected the money to be useless but that turned out not to be the case. The bill was indeed useless, except for lighting fires, but Roshan believed that Tara would be able to spend the coins. Tara found it hardly credible but, apparently, the perfect roundness and crisp edges of modern minting were impressive enough to make them valuable. The cents would serve as the bronze coins known as ‘coppers’ or ‘tins’ in local parlance, depending on country, and the nickels would be acceptable as silver coins despite containing no silver whatsoever. The total, according to Roshan, would be enough to buy Tara a complete set of clothes, a pig, or two sheep.
Although she’d only want a pig, or two sheep, if she decided to start a new life as a peasant farmer and that didn’t have any appeal. What she was going to do was… well, ‘panic’ was the first thing that came to mind, but it didn’t seem a very productive course of action. Unfortunately she couldn’t think of anything else, other than clicking her heels together and saying ‘There’s no place like home…’
So she tried it. “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.”
Roshan stared at her, head tilted to one side, a crease forming between her eyebrows. The expression was familiar to Tara; for a second she couldn’t place why and then realized that it was an exact duplicate of one she’d often seen on Spike. The vampire would have followed the look with a question, something like “What the bleedin’ Hell are you doing, witch?”, but Roshan didn’t speak. Tara answered the unspoken question anyway.
“In my, uh, homeland,” she explained, “there is a story about a girl who gets carried off by, uh, a whirlwind. She ends up in a strange and distant land and can’t find a way home. A good witch advises her to see the wizard, who might be able to get her home, and so she sets off on a journey. She, uh, finds some magic shoes, and she joins up with some companions, and they get to the wizard but he tells her he won’t help her unless she defeats a wicked witch. So she sets off, and eventually kills the witch, but the wizard can’t get her home after all. Then the good witch tells her she can use the magic shoes to go home. She has to click her heels together three times and say ‘there’s no place like home’.”
“I see,” Roshan said. “Obviously it did not work for you.”
“I didn’t expect it to,” Tara said, “but there was no harm in trying.” She frowned and tapped her chin with a finger. It had just occurred to her that she’d meant to say ‘slippers’ in her abbreviated summary of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ but it had come out as ‘shoes’. Why would that be?
“Of course you have no magic shoes,” Roshan said. “You have given me an idea, however. Perhaps we should, like the girl in the story, seek the advice of a wizard.”
“There are wizards here?”
“Oh, yes,” Roshan assured her. “All cities have them. Most of them are evil and not to be trusted. There is one, however, about whom I have heard much that is good and little that is bad. Pelias the Sorcerer.”
“A good wizard? That sounds… good. Does he live around here?”
“His home was in Khorshemish, capital of Koth,” Roshan said, “and the country of Ophir lies between here and there. Five days hard ride, at the least, if we both had horses.”
“And a lot longer than that with me walking,” Tara said. “Even if I knew the way, which I don’t. Uh, could you tell me how to get there?”
“Tell you? I will take you, of course,” Roshan said. “Did you think I would leave the one who saved my life to wander alone? We must get you a horse, and supplies, and your coins will not suffice. Also there is a… problem.”
“A problem besides me not having a horse or enough money?”
“Alas, yes. Pelias has not been seen for some years and it is rumored that he has fallen into the hands of his rival, Tsotha-lanti, and languishes in captivity. That is providing he has not been sacrificed to some demon patron of Tsotha, of course, and such is possible, even probable.”
“Oh.” Tara bit her lip. “That, uh, kinda rules out us going to see him.”
Roshan shook her head and grinned. Her teeth flashed white and her eyes sparkled. “Not at all. Wizards are notorious for demanding payment for services rendered and their prices are high. If we called upon Pelias in normal circumstances, requesting his counsel or magical aid, we would need to bring with us pouches brimming with gold. Rescuing him from the dungeons of Tsotha-lanti should serve as a very acceptable substitute.”
Tara gulped. It sounded horribly dangerous. “We couldn’t just ask this, uh, Tsotha instead?”
Roshan shook her head again but this time there was no grin. “I have heard nothing good of Tsotha-lanti and, if I were to list all the bad I have heard, I would be talking all through the night. To approach him openly and ask for his help would be to walk into the very den of the lion. Nay, the lion would be kinder, for he would only kill and eat us once, and in Tsotha’s hands we would die a thousand deaths.”
Tara gulped again. Harder and deeper. “Are you, uh, sure trying to rescue the other w-wizard is a g-good idea?”
“Perhaps not,” Roshan conceded. She shrugged her shoulders. “Today I came as close to death as I have ever done merely by going to buy oats for Forouzan and meat and fresh fruit for myself. Still, taking risks without need is foolish, I agree, and I cannot deny that there would be risks aplenty. A course, then, to take when all others have been exhausted.”
“That seems sensible,” Tara agreed.
“So where shall we go, and what shall we do, instead?” Roshan asked. “My original plan to take service under King Conan is perhaps not the wisest move. Not if, in this country, girls who like girls are deemed to be witches and burned at the stake.”
“It’s b-barbaric!” Tara declared. “W-what do they have against witches and tribades anyway?” She had intended to say more but was brought to a halt by the realization that she hadn’t been able to say the word ‘lesbians’. It had been replaced, without her making any conscious decision, by the archaic term ‘tribades’. Was she, Tara wondered, actually speaking English or had she been somehow taught the local language in its place? There would be no such word as ‘lesbian’ in a world in which Sappho of Lesbos had never existed. She remembered the way ‘slippers’ had come out as ‘shoes’ when she told the story of the Wizard of Oz. Slippers were, if she remembered correctly, a relatively recent innovation. There wouldn’t be a word for them if they didn’t exist in this world.
Roshan didn’t notice Tara’s confusion. “I suspect,” she said, “that there is a law that gives those who execute a witch the right to the condemned one’s property. It may be that my preference for my own gender, sometimes said to be a characteristic of witches, was merely seized on as an excuse to kill me legally and, in fact, they were after my horse and goods.”
“That’s… horrible.” Tara grimaced. Of course, the same principle had been behind most of the witch-trials in Europe; a self-financing, self-perpetuating, chain of torture and death.
“If I am right, and there is such a law, it would have been passed by the late King Namedides,” Roshan continued. “No doubt the new king, Conan, will repeal it once it is brought to his attention. I have never met him but I know some who were his friends, and comrades, and from what they tell me of him he would not stand for such an unjust law.”
“I should hope not,” Tara said. If lesbianism was regarded as a mark of witchcraft, and if witchcraft was punishable by death, then as a lesbian who really was a witch Tara was in trouble twice over.
“Unfortunately obtaining an audience with the king may be a problem,” Roshan went on. “There are names that I could drop, once in his presence, which would ensure a hearing. They would mean nothing to his aides, however, and so actually getting there would not be easy.” She pursed her lips. “It might be better to leave this country, and go somewhere else, at least for the time being.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Tara said, “as I don’t know anything about any of the countries here anyway.” She chewed on her lower lip for a moment and then followed up on the thought that had occurred to her earlier. “Roshan – what language am I speaking?”
Those heavy eyebrows descended low and a crease formed between them. “Hyborian, specifically the dialect spoken in Aquilonia,” Roshan replied, staring straight into Tara’s eyes. “Your accent is that of Gunderland, as would be expected from someone of your coloring, and if I had not seen with my own eyes you appearing from nowhere, and your strange coins and those tiny and cunningly fashioned shears, I would think that your tale of being from another world was a made-up story.”
Even though Tara had been expecting something like that it still sent a cold shiver down her back. “Oh,” was all she could say. She’d been taught another language, somehow, replacing English, although she’d been able to read the printing on the twenty and the inscriptions on her coins, and she didn’t understand how except that it was obviously by magic. What had Willow done?
“That was a strange thing to ask,” Roshan went on. “How did you not know?”
“I, uh, thought I was speaking m-my own language,” Tara explained, “b-b-but I, uh, there w-wasn’t, uh, things came out wrong, and then I thought that it w-w-was strange if they spoke my language in another world, so I asked.”
The furrows in Roshan’s forehead became more pronounced. “I am not sure I understand,” she said. “I speak six languages but I always know which one I am speaking.”
“I don’t understand it either,” Tara said, “b-but it has to be something t-to do with m-m-m-magic.” What had Willow done? What had Willow done? The question kept repeating itself in her head, over and over again, and then eventually some answers started occurring to her.
Tara put a hand to her chest and probed the hole in her top with a finger. She’d been shot, she was sure of it, and the bullet had gone all the way through. It would have been a potentially fatal wound. Willow had been right there, in front of her, close enough to have been splattered by Tara’s blood. What would Willow have done? She would have resorted to magic. Not raised Tara from the dead, probably, not after what had happened with Buffy. So, what? A possible answer took shape in Tara’s mind.
“She sent me back in time,” Tara muttered, speaking to herself and not to Roshan. “To before I was… killed, it must be, but she overshot big time. Only I don’t recognize any of the countries, and I was always pretty good at history, and I don’t think this is the past I know.”
“I did not understand all that you said,” Roshan commented, making Tara jump as she suddenly remembered that the other girl was there, “but I take it that you now know who sent you here?”
“I think so,” Tara confirmed.
The frown remained on Roshan’s face but now her lower lip protruded in a pout. “I had thought you might have been sent to me by Ishtar. When I could not get free by my own efforts I resorted to prayer. I asked that someone should come to my aid, perhaps a mighty warrior or perhaps a true witch, and when you appeared I thought my prayers had been answered.”
“Oh.” Tara bit her lip again. Willow had a habit of treating spells as if they were computer programs. To obtain result A perform ritual B. If a spell didn’t produce the desired result she would assume that she’d done something wrong; a mispronunciation, a mistake in a gesture, a flaw in the ingredients. She could never come to grips with the concept that powerful spells were… negotiations. Requests, entreaties, or demands made of beings with their own agendas; sometimes benevolent, sometimes capricious, occasionally downright evil. And it wasn’t always the evil ones who were the trickiest.
“Maybe your goddess, and my friend, both were involved in me coming here,” Tara suggested. It was a possible scenario. Willow might, as Tara suspected, have tried to dodge Tara’s death by sending her back in time to before she was shot; whatever deity she had called upon had either been Ishtar, who had granted two prayers with one move, or else one deity had traded off favors with another. It would do as a working hypothesis until Tara could manage to come up with some more definite information; if, that is, she ever did find out more.
Roshan’s frown vanished and was replaced by a smile that showed off her gleaming white teeth. Tara’s thoughts shot off on a tangent, thinking about dental health in a world without modern dental care but also without refined sugar, and from there veered off to considerations of other matters of personal hygiene. It would be a couple of weeks before tampons became an issue but, when they did, she only had the one. She really didn’t want to find out what they used as pads in this age… She turned her attention back to Roshan, who was speaking again, and put the digressions out of her mind.
“If you were indeed sent to me by my goddess then it is even more my duty to take care of you,” Roshan said. “First we must decide where to spend the night. I spent last night in the city of Shamar, on the border of Aquilonia with Ophir, and I think we should head in that general direction. It is much too far away to reach before nightfall, which draws near, and I am not inclined to seek out a village after my… earlier experience.”
“I don’t blame you,” Tara said.
“Which means,” Roshan went on, “that we must spend the night under the stars. Luckily the weather is dry and it should not get too cold at this time of year.”
Tara looked at the sun. It was definitely sinking low, as she’d noticed earlier when comparing the local time with that shown on her watch, and in an hour or so it would be dark. “I guess so,” she said. “Not that I’m tired. To me this is still the morning. It’s only a couple of hours since I woke up.”
Roshan’s frown returned. “Still the morning?” She cocked her head to one side. “The sages of Corinthia say that when it is noon there it wants yet two hours until noon in Zingara,” she said. “I do not understand how they can know that, for they surely cannot be in both places at once, but their wisdom is acknowledged by all. You must, then, have traveled a far greater distance even than all the leagues that lie between Zingara and Corinthia.”
Tara realized that, when she’d told the other girl that she’d come from another world, Roshan hadn’t understood. Not all that surprising, really, in a medieval-type world. “A long, long, way,” she said. “If this was my world my home would be, uh, across the Western Ocean, I think.”
“In that case perhaps you could find a ship to take you home,” Roshan suggested. The frown was still on her face and her lips were turned down. “You would need a captain both brave and desperate, I think, and bribe him with much gold, but I think I might be able to find such a man in Argos or the Barachan Isles.”
Tara shook her head. “It wouldn’t work,” she said. “This isn’t my world. If I did sail across the ocean I’d probably find a land that was a little like my home but not the same.” Whether this was an alternate past, or an alternate present-day Earth that had taken a very different course, the Americas were likely to be nothing like the world she knew. The Native Americans would, presumably, be living as they had done prior to the arrival of the Europeans and the introduction of the horse.
“Then we shall not sail there,” Roshan said. Her smile was back, as broad as ever, and her eyes seemed to twinkle. “Perhaps, if you like, I could take you to my own city of Yarmouk. From there, if you wish, we could visit Corinthia. Consulting the sages there would be safer than seeking the aid of wizards.”
“That sounds like a plan,” Tara said, giving Roshan a smile in return.
“It is a plan,” Roshan said, her smile remaining but her forehead creasing up. “My plan is that we go from here to Ophir, and then across Koth, and thence to Yarmouk.”
“I mean, it sounds like a good plan,” Tara clarified. “It’s just the way some of my, uh, people speak. We don’t always bother to say all the words. If I can’t go home then, yes, I’d be happy to go with you to your home city. Uh, if you don’t mind, that is. I can’t expect you to keep looking after me. I’ll have to find some way to earn money. I just don’t know what I can do in your world.”
“My money is your money, for as long as I live,” Roshan said. “Without your aid I would have burned.”
“That doesn’t mean I should expect you to support me indefinitely,” Tara said.
Roshan gave Tara a very Californian eye-roll. “Why not? You were sent here from another world to save my life. It would be shameful of me to take that aid without repaying you in any way that I can. If I can help you return to your own world I will do so. If that is not possible then I shall help you to live in mine.”
Tara sensed that she had offended the other girl. “I, uh, you’re too kind,” she said. “I don’t want to take anything for granted.”
“You are not taking me for granted, Tara,” Roshan said. “I owe you a debt and, also, I like you. To aid you will be my pleasure as well as my duty.”
“Thank you,” Tara said. “It’s very g-good of you.”
Roshan shrugged. “If it had been I who was transported to your world, and I had met you in the reverse circumstances, would you not do the same for me? I look at your eyes, which are those of one who is good and kind, and I can tell that you would. It is decided. Let us speak of it no more.”
“Very well,” Tara said. She had meant to say ‘okay’ but, once again, the words actually spoken did not match her intentions.
Roshan smiled again and, in one smooth motion, mounted her horse. She stretched out a hand to Tara. “Up behind me,” she said, “and we shall move on in search of a suitable place to camp for the night.”
Tara obeyed and the horse moved off at a gentle trot. For a little while they rode without conversation, the only sound being that from the horse’s hooves and its occasional snorts, and then Roshan spoke again.
“Tell me of your world,” she said. “In what ways is it different from this one?”
“I don’t know enough about your world to be able to answer that,” Tara replied. “I’ve only seen one village, and a few fields, and heard you mention a couple of places. But I’ll tell you about my world if you tell me about yours.”
“Of course,” Roshan said. “You first.”
Tara had no idea how to describe twenty-first century America to a warrior woman from a world with peasants, witch-burning, and wizards. She decided to start with the small things and told Roshan about Sunnydale, about Willow, and about Buffy and the others. She didn’t go into detail, of course, merely giving brief descriptions and character sketches, and throwing in a few background items about America.
“This Buffy, the Slayer, she sounds a little like me,” Roshan commented, “although I am no stronger than other women and I do not know if I could defeat demons. Also I fight only for pay.”
“Oh?” Tara raised her eyebrows even though Roshan couldn’t see her face. “Really?”
“No, not only for pay,” Roshan admitted, confirming Tara’s impression. “Also for my family, or my friends, if they were in danger. To defend those I care about.”
“Just like Buffy, really,” Tara said.
“You flatter me,” Roshan said, her voice giving away that she was smiling, “but I will try to live up to her. So, it was she who taught you to fight so well?”
“Uh, actually, no,” Tara said. “It was Spike, the vampire, and really he just taught me a few moves to help me protect myself. I’m really not any good at fighting. What you saw is pretty much all I can do. It’s just that the, uh, villagers were even worse at it than I am.”
Roshan turned in the saddle and looked at Tara. “High indeed must be the standards by which you judge yourself, if you say you are not skilled at combat,” she said. “I would like you to teach me what he taught you.”
“I really don’t know all that much,” Tara said, “but I’ll be happy to show you what I do know.”
“Strange indeed to have a vampire as a friend,” Roshan went on, turning to face forward once more. “In our tales they lurk in Stygian crypts, preying upon unwary tomb robbers, grim and terrible creatures who have given up all that made them human in exchange for eternal youth.”
“They’re much the same back home,” Tara said, “but Spike was… different.” Calling Spike a ‘friend’ might have been stretching the truth a little but she wasn’t going to bother correcting Roshan. She left the topic of Spike and moved on to talk about the other Scoobies.
“I saw a spot a little way back that would make a suitable campsite,” Roshan interrupted her, after a minute or so. “I doubt if we will find anywhere better before dusk and so we shall go back to that place.” She spoke curtly, almost harshly, rather to Tara’s surprise.
“You’re the expert,” Tara said, as Roshan turned the horse around and they retraced their steps. Tara was slightly taken aback by the change in Roshan’s tone. It was almost as if Roshan had seized upon an excuse to cut Tara’s account off short. Had she somehow offended Roshan? Tara couldn’t imagine how. She’d only been describing Willow. Maybe Roshan had simply become bored with listening to tales of people she’d never met.
“This will do,” Roshan said, bringing the horse to a halt in a grassy area no different, in Tara’s eyes, from a dozen other places they had passed. Tara clambered down from the horse’s back, stood on the grass, and stretched to ease her aching limbs. Roshan dismounted in one smooth motion.
“You are unaccustomed to riding, I think,” Roshan observed.
“It’s been a while since I last rode a horse,” Tara confirmed. “We don’t use horses much back where I come from. We have, uh, horseless carriages.”
“Pulled by slaves, then? Surely that must be slow and awkward,” Roshan said. She lifted a set of saddle-bags from the horse and deposited them on the ground.
Tara shook her head. “They don’t need anything to pull them. They move by themselves.” She tried to think of a word meaning ‘engine’ and came up blank. There was no equivalent term in the local language. “It’s, uh, magic.”
“Magic must be widespread indeed in your world if magical chariots have taken the place of horses,” Roshan commented. She unbuckled the saddle’s straps and lifted it free. “Tell me more of your world,” she requested.
Tara raised her eyebrows. She’d been sure that Roshan had been fed up with hearing her talk. It seemed that her deduction had been incorrect. Something else, then, had caused that oddly curt note to creep into the other girl’s voice. “Very well,” she agreed, and began to relate tales of the marvels of modern technology; hampered, quite often, by the absence of the words with which to describe them. Roshan listened, making occasional pertinent comments, while she went about the business of preparing for the night’s rest.
“I will not light a fire until after it is completely dark,” Roshan said eventually, during a natural break in Tara’s tale. “Smoke can be seen at a great distance, and may draw unwelcome attention, whereas the trees around us will screen the fire from prying eyes except at close quarters.”
“That makes sense,” Tara agreed. She looked at the sky, trying to gauge the position of the sun, but the trees made it difficult. All she could tell was that some of the brighter stars were already visible. There was enough light to read by, she thought, but not for much longer. Not that she had anything to read…
“Roshan, do you have a map?” Tara asked, struck by a sudden thought. “Uh, a one showing the countries around here, that is, not just a one of this area.”
“I do not,” Roshan said. “Had I parchment, and a stick of charcoal, I could draw one. Alas, I have neither.” She pursed her lips. “I could perhaps scratch out a crude map on the ground, if there is a patch of bare earth large enough, that might serve to give you an idea of how the countries lie in relation to each other.”
“No, it’s alright, it’s not that important,” Tara said. “I’m sure I’ll see one eventually. You could tell me about the, uh, lay of the land instead. That would be just as good.”
“Of course,” Roshan said, smiling, and she began. She unpacked blankets, dried food, an oilskin package of dry kindling, and a water-skin, and as she did so she talked of the world in which she lived.
The names flowed in an exotic and unfamiliar stream. Aquilonia, Nemedia, Argos, Ophir, Koth, Zingara, Shem, Corinthia, Cimmeria, Khauran, Khoraja, Yarmouk, Zamora, Stygia. Tara lost track almost immediately of their geographical relationship with each other. She gathered that Aquilonia, where they were now, was the wealthiest and most powerful kingdom on the continent. Yarmouk, Roshan’s homeland, was a little city-state that ranked on this world’s scale of influence as probably the equivalent of Luxembourg.
Armies were made up of knights in armor, bowmen, and pikemen. The most sophisticated piece of military hardware available was the crossbow. Gunpowder was unknown, except perhaps as the secret behind some of the things wizards could do, the only transport not reliant on muscle power was the sailing ship, and the only device in common use that could really be called a ‘machine’ was the water-mill. Very much like the historical Middle Ages, technology-wise, although the political and religious structure of the world seemed to be very different.
Adjusting to this world was going to be difficult. It wasn’t as if she had any choice, however, and at least she had found someone to help her. Someone who seemed to be extremely competent, who was friendly and pleasant, and who definitely seemed to like… Tara… a lot…
Tara suddenly felt her cheeks flame as realization struck home. ‘Like’ wasn’t quite the right word. That was why Roshan had reacted negatively when Tara had talked about Willow. Sleeping Beauty probably wouldn’t have been wildly enthusiastic if Prince Charming, after hacking his way through the thorn forest and waking her with a kiss, had launched into a glowing description of Snow White.
Tara shot a quick glance, from under lowered eyelids, at the other girl. Roshan was bent over in the act of lighting a fire, looking away from Tara, and she wouldn’t have noticed Tara’s blush. So Tara could, if she wanted, pretend to be still oblivious to Roshan’s interest. Or she could actively discourage Roshan. Then again… if she was stuck in this world indefinitely, perhaps rebuffing Roshan might not be such a good idea. Better to stay safely in the land of De Nile, for the time being, and act as if she hadn’t noticed.
Tara stared up at the stars, flaming brightly in a jet-black sky, and wondered how Willow was coping without her.
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.