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The Battle for Yaralet
Yaralet was a prosperous city, nestled at the heart of a fertile land, and ruled by a wise and gentle queen. It was friendly with all its neighbors and served as a hub of trade and commerce. It was a shining jewel in this world of squalor.
There were many who coveted its riches, the queen herself the most prized above all, and many who attempted to woo their way to power and take the throne beside the still beautiful Queen Ereshka.
They were fools.
If those groveling dogs had the spies he did, or even if they listened to peasant rumors in the marketplace, they would know that the queen could not be wooed. They would know the queen takes her pet sorceress to bed each night. They would know the secret things the queen whispered to her magician under the blanket of stars. They would know about the promises of love and forever branded into heated flesh with fingers and lips.
Promises he was determined they would not live to keep.
The way to the throne of Yaralet was not through the bed of its whore queen. She would take no man into her chambers. There would be no royal wedding, at least there would not by her choice. His spies had informed him that Queen Ereshka's brothers had been urging her to wed to advantage, to expand their alliances and territory by marrying a landed lord. She had put them off every time; managing, somehow, to expose some traitorous fault in each suitor and saving herself from the marriage bed.
Well, he knew better than to try marrying his way into power. The queen was firmly ensconced on her throne, held there by people who loved her, and the only way to scrape the crust of her from the ruling seat of Yaralet was by force.
And force he had. In abundance.
He looked down into the valley and surveyed his army. They were a mottled collection of men of his own lands, mercenaries, and beastly creatures in the thrall of his advisor and priest. Ranged they were, but they had strength enough to wrest this place from its deviant queen and weakling sorceress.
He looked further down the valley and spied Queen Ereshka's defenses ready and waiting for him. Doubtless they would fight valiantly, but they would die. All of them. For they had no way to prepare for, no way of even knowing about, his priest's creatures, demonic ugly things with the strength of ten men and a terrible lust for human flesh.
The queen's pitiful army would fall this day and he would assume the throne of Yaralet with blood on his boots and a sword in hand.
The city was soft. Its people softer still. It needed a hard ruler. One who would command with an iron fist and grind opposition beneath his heel.
He, Grogan Murr, was just such a man.
With a flick of his wrist he set his horse moving forward, his priest falling in behind him, and his army marched forward to what would doubtless be his victory.
"They come, my queen," Iniri, Queen Ereshka's sorceress and handmaiden, announced as she watched the glinting armor of the enemy forces advance through the valley.
"So I see, love," Ereshka replied with a pensive frown, "The scouts have reported that though their army is large the bulk of their forces are made up of demons and the walking dead. Are your spells prepared to ward them off?"
Iniri had been preparing these spells for the last several days, as soon as they'd learned a force was marching through their territories she'd begun, and she had a wide selection ready to use at a moment's notice. Her powers has grown exponentially over the years she had been studying and she knew she was quite a force to be reckoned with for any sorcerer or worshipper of the dark god Set, but she had never been put to the test in this manner.
War had been a distant thing since she had entered the service of the then Princess Ereshka some twenty years ago. Of course she'd been involved in battles since following the warrior, now King, Conan's path to Yaralet in the not-so-distant past. But those battles had been small things; border skirmishes, city revolts, spy games. The situation facing her now was one altogether out of her experience. This was war. This was a much larger scale to use her powers in and while she had the support of many of Yaralet's priests and magicians she knew the bulk of the work would be hers to bear and she wasn't certain she wouldn't break under the strain, especially if this dragged out. Eventually her reserves of power would weaken, her spells would flag, and she would need to rest and replenish her energies or die in her efforts.
But for now she was fresh and ready to defend her home and her Queen, her love, from those that sought to do them harm.
"The wards are set, Ereshka. And I am ready to face this foe," Iniri looked up into her queen's eyes and saw the yearning, the worry, and the fear flowing through them. She stepped forward and pressed a sweet reassuring kiss to her lover's lips. "Fear not, my love. It will do you no good. We are as prepared as we may be here. The soldiers see you here and willing to meet our enemies, they take heart from that as I do, but they have families in the cities to fight for. And when we triumph over this fool we will wish to return home to peace and order that you provide. Go, rule Yaralet, keep it in one piece for us."
Ereshka's features hardened, "My council can manage the business of the cities well enough in my absence. I will not be moved from your side or from the presence of my soldiers. You are all willing to die for me; the least I may do is honor you all and witness the battle to come."
Iniri sighed in defeat. She reached a hand out to caress her Queen's face, "I meant no offense, no slight to your courage, I only wished to make you safe. Away from this battleground."
"What safer place is there for me than by the side of my most talented sorceress?" Ereshka asked rhetorically while catching Iniri's hands with her own and kissing her knuckles, "I will not leave you."
"As you wish," Iniri said, "At least take shelter in your tent. They are almost upon us."
One last kiss and Ereshka did as Iniri bid, settling in her open faced tent to watch the battle from between a line of royal guardsmen.
Iniri turned and stepped closer to the edge of the cliff she stood on, judging the positions of the enemy forces.
She raised her hands and began a chant.
Light poured from her fingertips and sank into the ground. From that spot a line of white fire sprang up and raced into the gap between the two armies forming a blazing wall from one side of the valley to the other.
She watched as the enemy was stymied, fearful of the roaring fire. They milled about before one discovered there was no heat to the blaze and charged through. Others followed his mad rush. In their headlong dash towards Yaralet's forces the enemy did not notice their numbers reduced fully by half.
The blaze was not meant to stop the living. Nor did it fully stop the demons or the shambling zombies, but as these monstrosities poured through the barrier they crumbled to dust on the other side before ever reaching those they were summoned to destroy.
Iniri smiled. The purification spell had worked. The dark god's minions could not threaten them for now.
Even so, she grimly reminded herself, Murr's human troops outnumbered Yaralet's by three to one. This battle could easily drag for weeks. Murr had a supply train and troops still on the way. Ereshka's army was highly trained and devoted, they had the advantage of position and superior weaponry, and her magics were performing admirably in reducing the enemy numbers but Iniri knew this could not last. Eventually sheer numbers would overwhelm them and without help they would be lost.
Still, they would hold for as long as they could. The battle had only just begun.
Yaralet had been under siege for many days. Her troops fought admirably and had stopped the enemy in their tracks, but they could not keep it up forever. Men were dying every day and Iniri's magics were weakening, she'd begun drawing power from priests and acolytes in her effort to hold back the demonic horde Murr had at his disposal but eventually she would falter and with her the barrier.
Blind Jerim had been travelling long in a saddle behind a youth apprenticed to Iniri. They had ridden hard and fast in search of the one man Queen Ereshka would trust to aid them.
So it was that they arrived in the capital city of Aquilonia, the country now ruled by the Cimmerian Conan, exhausted and battered but determined.
The young man steering the horse led them directly to the gates of the palace where they were challenged by rough sounding guards.
"Halt! State your business!"
The boy had not been sent to speak in this delicate situation but to steer a fast horse across many leagues. He had performed his service, and now it was Blind Jerim's turn to perform his.
"I am Jerim, emissary of Yaralet, sent by Queen Ereshka to bear a message to King Conan."
"You? A blind vagabond?" Jerim heard the unkind laughter of the guardsmen and felt the young man tense in the saddle before him, "Be gone from this place, beggar!"
Jerim slid from the saddle, ignoring the quiet noise of protest from the boy, and landed lightly on the ground with his staff of office supporting his weight. "Perhaps this will convince you of my standing," he said calmly while drawing a distinctive medallion from beneath his robe and flourishing his engraved staff. He heard the satisfying sound of stunned silence, "Now, you will escort me inside and request an audience for me with your King."
There was some muttering while Iniri's apprentice dismounted, an argument over who would take the blind man and his ride into the palace grounds, before he heard, "Follow me." The boy took his hand while he heard the guard lift the horses reins and they were moved inside.
Grogan Murr watched the battlefield carefully, his annoyance rising. Perhaps Yaralet was not as soft as it had first appeared. Already they had resisted him for too long. He was growing impatient.
That damned sorceress wasn't as much a weakling as he'd been led to believe. It was she that had stopped him from taking Yaralet. Her magics had decimated his first wave of monsters and forced him to hold them back. He'd tried sending his human troops, but they were completely ineffective without the aid of demons and had been slaughtered. He had been forced to hold back the rest of his troops from attacking; else they'd just lose even greater numbers.
Even so, many charged headlong into the witch's barrier and met their fate on the other side. The blades of their enemies were thirsty and merciless.
There were deserters. Upon these hapless fools he unleashed his demons to feed their bloodlust. Deserters would not be allowed to live and speak to others of this humiliation. Those that were not devoured the moment they were found were dragged back to camp, tortured, maimed, and fed piece by piece to the demon horde and kept alive long enough to watch themselves disappear down the gullets of the hideous hell spawn.
And as his soldiers fell, by the enemy's hand or his own, his rage grew.
He was stalemated by a pitiful force he knew he could conquer and trapped in this bottlenecked valley. He would turn around if he had any land to return to, but he had nothing and his priest's creatures would kill him if he dared leave this unfinished. His men were turning on him. His priest looked upon him with scorn. And on a cliff that overlooked the entire affair that damnable queen and her sorceress lover looked down upon him and laughed at his failure.
Blind Jerim was led into an echoing chamber, one bare of any adornments or frivolities. How very fitting for Conan, once barbarian now King of the most powerful kingdom in the world, to strip away all the gilding of rule and set petitioners immediately before his stony northron sensibilities.
"Blind Jerim!" a deep and booming voice thundered into the silence, "I know you, friend."
Jerim heard the minute sounds that indicated the relaxation of the guard who'd escorted them here, apparently at ease now that he knew Jerim had spoken true.
"King Conan," Jerim replied with a strained grin, "You have come far in this world since we last met."
"Aye, much has changed. For you as well as for me," Jerim heard Conan's voice move closer to him and lessen to a more reasonable volume for conference. "My page told me you introduced yourself as emissary to Queen Ereshka of Yaralet. I had heard her brothers had placed her on the throne many years ago. It is to my sorrow that I have been unable to pay her a visit and congratulate her on her prospering lands."
"To her sorrow, as well, Conan," Jerim heard the guard bristle at the familiarity and heard the soft whisper of Conan's cape as his arm lifted in a quelling motion.
"I sense that you are not here for pleasantries, my old friend," Jerim felt Conan's heavy hand rest securely on his shoulder, "Tell me what brings you here."
"A pity that we meet again under such dire circumstances," Jerim explained, "but Yaralet is beset by a greedy warmonger, Grogan Murr, and his abominable priest. They send demons and the risen dead against us, servants of Set." He heard the low growl begin in Conan's chest, "My Queen offers you an alliance with Yaralet in return for your assistance. Trade routes that have long been closed to Aquilonia will once more be open to you and your people. She asks for your troops and you to lead them and she begs you to make all haste, else Yaralet is lost and the dark god will once more have a foothold in this world."
"It is no small thing for a queen to beg for the help of anyone," Conan's sonorous voice rattled the bones in Jerim's thin chest, "Much less for one as proud as I remember Ereshka being."
Jerim said the thing he hoped would convince Conan to aid them, "Iniri asks in the name of the friendship you once shared, and the friendship she hopes to build again, for you to come."
Conan laughed, "You needed not remind me of the waif, old man. I have no love for worshippers of Set and would see them all put in their graves. Better that I can help speed them on their journey to hell. Our alliance is made."
Jerim nearly sagged with relief as Conan's hand slapped his shoulder and shook his hand.
"Ready my troops!" the rugged king shouted, "We ride for Yaralet now!" To Jerim he said more quietly, "We will finalize our treaty after we rescue your queen and the waif from this Grogan Murr."
And so it was that Blind Jerim found himself once more astride a swift horse, this time seated behind a king, as they rode for Yaralet with three full companies stampeding behind them.
By Set! He is Grogan Murr! Loyal vassal of Set, feared warlord of the civilized countries, and butcher of men! He would not be bested by a pair of godforsaken sluts! He would win here if he had to see each and every one of his soldiers massacred in the effort. And he would see them burn.
Oh yes, they would burn.
That unnatural queen and her pet whore would be at his mercy. He would tear them to pieces. He would make them watch Yaralet fall, watch their people slain or put under the yoke of slavery, before he would take them both. They would feel what it was to have a real man between their legs. He would enjoy watching them scream and yowl as he brutalized them, made them see their only worth was as drudges and broodmares, slaves to his lusts and whims.
Only after they were broken, after their country was gone and their people decimated, and they begged for the sweet release of death would he finish them as he did deserters with the added pleasure that they would be kept alive long enough to be set upon the pyres and offered as sacrifice to his god, the dark god, the peerless, the great and mighty Set. Then, as they realized the horror of their fate, he would set them ablaze and relish in their agony.
They would burn!
He would have them!
He is the Unstoppable Grogan Murr!
Iniri was really feeling the effects of the use of her magics. It was a constant drain on her endurance, both mental and physical, and she had no time to replenish her strength. If she slept for too long her spells would fail, the spells drew their power from her but only while she was conscious and they could only attach to one person at a time, the priests who maintained them while she catnapped didn't have the power to hold them so she could get a solid night's sleep. So she must be awake nearly all day every day to be certain the spells would not fail outright and open the gates for the demons to demolish the Yaralet forces. Many days of this constant strain was wearing her down.
Her head was a morass of muddled thinking. She was working almost entirely on muscle memory; eat when food was placed before her (she didn't notice that sometimes it was Ereshka feeding her), sleep when relief came for her (similarly, she didn't notice that it was Ereshka ordering the clergy to take her place), and maintain the spells (there was nothing Ereshka could do for her here but hope, and pray that Jerim returned with the help that would end this stalemate). She was able to converse while the spell drew its power from her, but she could not do much else without losing focus on the steady flow of magic.
It seemed that Grogan Murr had been waiting for Iniri to falter before making a move against their forces and sending his army, demon and man alike, in a mad charge against the barrier. Iniri felt each unholy creature as it passed through, siphoning a bit more of her strength as her magics worked to destroy them. She could no longer draw on the powers from the priests and acolytes, they were far more drained than she, and her own reserves were wavering.
The only way to strengthen the barrier would be to make a sacrifice to the dark gods, and Iniri would never give them dominion over her. For if she made such a sacrifice she would make her magics useless, the two could not be combined. She served the light, the good, the righteous gods and they allowed her to protect.
"No!" Iniri heard Ereshka cry, "The barrier is slipping! Demons are getting through!"
Iniri poured her focus into her magic, sending whatever strength she had left into the flickering protection she'd kept strong for days. "I am sorry, Ereshka. I don't have enough power to hold it anymore."
"Then take some from me!" Ereshka demanded. She'd watched how Iniri was able to draw power from the priests and acolytes in service to Yaralet, it seemed simple enough. "I've seen it work with others, take from me."
"Draining power away from another person also drains life!" Iniri cried over the din of battle, the howling of the demons and the wailing of the wounded, "It is safer with the priests; they know the sacrifice they make and are able to ward against losing too much. You have no training. If we tried it may well kill you!"
"Then I die in service to my people, as they die in service to me!" Ereshka returned hotly, "I'll not watch my men die while there is something I may do to prevent it."
"I will not do it, Ereshka."
"You will." Ereshka replied, suddenly hard and commanding, "I order you to."
For a moment Iniri was stunned. Never before had Ereshka used that tone with her. Never before had Ereshka given her an order. Always in their previous interactions, Ereshka would ask things of Iniri as friend or lover, but never had she commanded as a superior to a subordinate. But just because it had never happened and just because Ereshka demanded Iniri obey did not mean that Iniri would. "No," she said coldly, turning her full attention once more tending the best protection against the demons they had.
"Damn you!" Ereshka shouted, "You will use my power!" Ereshka did not care if she died as long as her people and her country survived. That was why she did what she did next. Without warning, and without touching any part of Iniri but her face, she crushed their lips together in a punishing kiss hard enough that clashing teeth split their lips.
As Iniri stared wide eyed and unseeing she tasted the metallic tang of blood on her tongue, hers mixed with Ereshka's, and felt magical power flare within her. The power, born of a willing sort of blood sacrifice, surged out of her. It was stronger than any magic she had ever felt, more powerful than even the dark god's highest priests could ever attain. This was a blood sacrifice made willingly, out of love and the desire to protect. It was the only type of blood sacrifice her gods of mercy would accept, she knew this with certainty as she was gifted with a vision of her kindly gods' smiling faces, and they granted her power. Power enough to burn the demon horde from the whole of the valley as her gods used the mixed blood and Iniri's body as a conduit to send the dark god's minions back to hell.
When she felt the last of her gods' powers leave her and Ereshka's lips fall away from her own she regained the sight of this world and heard a ragged cheer rise from the valley.
She and Ereshka both turned their eyes to the valley below. Troops flying Aquilonian colors had joined the Yaralet forces and were in the process of routing Grogan Murr's troops. Of the demonic horde there was no sign, seared from the world of the living by incredible magics. In midst of it all there rode the Aquilonian King, Conan, sword bearing down on the heads of the enemy and letting loose a wrathful battle cry. They turned again when a hoarse aged voice hailed them and were met with the sight of a bow-legged Jerim grinning at them.
"Jerim!" Ereshka called, "Well met, my friend. I see you brought the help we needed."
"Yes, my queen," Jerim returned, "though it was a rough ride here. Our old friend was eager to wet his blade. He barely stopped long enough to set me on my own two feet before he was leading his troops into the fray." Jerim chuckled. Conan had ever been a warrior; the sedate life of a ruler must have been wearing thin for such a man of action.
"I am glad he was so eager," Ereshka and Iniri met Jerim at the bottom of the cliff. They no longer needed concern themselves with the battle now that Conan was on the field and the demons were gone. Conan and his men would have things easily in hand. "Tell me, did he accept my offer of alliance?"
"He did. He was so impatient to help we have not yet written anything down. He offered to formalize the agreement after the war was won," Jerim chuckled again.
"You have done all of Yaralet a great service, Jerim," Ereshka gratefully thanked her blind spymaster.
"I have done myself a service in taking steps to ensure the continuing prosperity of my home, my queen," Jerim returned. "It is Iniri and King Conan who did the most for Yaralet."
"And Conan will be rewarded with the friendship of Yaralet and its appreciative queen. As for my dear court magician, we need to have a talk about following orders," Ereshka said pointedly, but with a hint of humor, "but I'm sure I can think of some way to reward her."
Iniri reached out, grazing her thumb over Ereshka's split lip and sealing the wound, "I think a hearty meal and a night's rest will be reward enough for me, my queen. You can reprimand me when I have all my senses to better appreciate the lesson."
"Hmm," Ereshka's eyes softened as she looked upon her exhausted lover. The lecture could certainly wait. "We'll see. Let us meet with Conan on the battlefield. I'm sure he has things settled by now."
"Hail, Queen Ereshka!" Conan roared when he laid eyes on the small walking party his broad grin sparkling in the sunlight, "It has been a good day!"
Ereshka smiled at the barbarian turned thief turned king, "You always were happier when you had an enemy to defeat. Politics of state not to your taste, King Conan?"
Conan's laughter boomed throughout the valley, "Too many pretty words to couch the ugly truths, Highness. Battle is much more straightforward."
"You have the right of things there, my lord," Ereshka replied.
"Come," Conan said, turning suddenly serious and casting his eyes over Ereshka, Iniri, and Jerim, "We have caught a mongrel. It is for you to decide its fate."
Conan's men mingled with Ereshka's own split to allow the monarchs passage through the slick battlefield. The fearsome king led Ereshka's small party to a ring of guards at the center of which was a maddened figure secured and thrashing in ropes.
"Sir," one of Conan's captains saluted, "the leader of the enemy forces, Grogan Murr. Taken captive and held on your orders, sir."
"Here, the cause of your troubles of late, Queen Ereshka," Conan let his captain rest at ease and gestured to the prisoner. "What would you have us do with him?"
At the sound of Ereshka's name, Grogan Murr looked up. His eyes were wild and full of insanity, and his teeth chomped and gnashed. His face went redder than it already was and he threw himself against the bonds holding him making the soldiers holding his ropes strain to keep him still. "I'll not be at the mercy of this bitch whore of a queen!" the madman shouted and spit at Ereshka's feet.
Conan backhanded the churlish brute, "You will hold your tongue or I will tear it from your mouth, dog. You are powerless now."
Grogan Murr shrieked and roared his defiance, his sounds more like a wounded animal than a man.
Ereshka looked upon him coldly; she conferred in glances with Iniri, and came to a decision. "I want nothing more to do with this fool, King Conan, save to see him executed for his crimes against Yaralet."
"So it shall be," Conan intoned. He drew his broadsword once more and with one brutally efficient swing he severed Grogan Murr's head from his shoulders. "Burn the body. And the bodies of his men."
Ereshka looked at Conan a question in her eyes so Conan explained, "It has been my experience that those who serve the dark arts rarely stay dead as long as their bodies remain. I would not have this one return to menace the world again."
"What would you have us do with the captured enemy soldiers?" Conan asked.
"Press them into service burying our dead and building the pyres. Once that is done send them back to their homes or hire them." She knew most armies were built of mercenaries who didn't believe in the cause or their employer, but were only in it for the pay; she saw no reason to spill more blood if it could be avoided.
Conan turned to his captain and soldiers, "You heard her. See to it."
They rushed to obey.
It was several days later and Conan's queen had arrived in Yaralet to be reunited with her king and meet some old friends of his that actually had fond memories with him, a rarity where her husband was concerned.
Iniri, once they'd reached the palace, had collapsed into a days long sleep that none could wake her from. Queen Ereshka had been concerned, but not overly so. She'd seen how wasted Iniri had become, drained by the expenditure of power, and was content to let her rest. She still lay with her at night listening to the sorceress breathe and feeling her heart beating beneath her palm. Even so, she was pleased when she woke early one morning to find Iniri looking back at her and smiling.
"Good morning," the sorceress whispered. She reached up to finger the stripe of silver Ereshka had gained in her hair from the magics working upon her. The thick lock served as visual evidence that she had sacrificed a part of herself to save her people.
"You're awake," Ereshka said, still muzzy headed from sleep, "You've been asleep for days."
"I know. I had a vision while I slept."
That woke Ereshka fully, "What of?" Iniri's visions tended to bode ill for the subject, but she was smiling still so perhaps for once she'd been granted a happy vision.
"Conan's son," Iniri said, her smile growing wider.
"His wife is pregnant even now. Several months along." Ereshka said, "They've lost one son already. You're certain he'll have a son again?"
"Would Conan sire anything else?" Iniri questioned back with a laugh. "The child was a young boy in my vision, learning at his father's side."
"And was Conan happy?"
"Very. As was his queen. Pregnant again in my vision." Iniri let mischief dance in her eyes, "I believe our Conan will be blessed with little ones."
"Do you ever think of having children?" Ereshka asked, sad that she could not provide that for her lover and wistful that she'd never managed to have one herself.
Iniri shook her head, "I have never wanted one. But if there were some way to make a child of both of us," she paused, reaching out to grasp Ereshka's hands, "then I would bear you dozens of children."
"Well, perhaps your magics could help us find a way," Ereshka said, "All I know for certain is that I will not leave this country to one of my brothers' spoiled wastrels."
"No, your nephews are ill-suited to rule." Iniri mused.
"Hm. Come, we have an alliance made with Conan to formalize and you have yet to meet his wife."
"Ah, so" Iniri said rising from the bed, "a fun day ahead?"
Ereshka smiled, "A fun day, indeed, my love."
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