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The words of my old mentor came to mind. "It's not the broadsword that gets you, it's the dagger." The demon had let me escape with my life, but he'd taken my boots. As I followed my young warrior friend Alex down the rocky trail, every step was a painful jolt to the nerves in my bare feet. I couldn't go much further without something on my feet. Perhaps it was too much too expect thoughtfulness from a demon.
"Oww!" I cried, stopping and lifting my foot. The soft bottom of my foot was bleeding a little. The motion lifted my skirt just as Alex turned back to see what had happened, and I quickly put down my foot, saying a silent prayer that he hadn't seen anything. He showed no sign, instead reaching out to help me again.
"No!" I protested, pulling my arm back before he could take hold of it. He gave me a strange look, then shrugged, as if odd behavior was to be expected of a female. He'd already twice offered to carry me. It was probably time to tell him.
"Alex . . ." I said haltingly, "the demon . . . he cursed me. If any man touches me . . . it will cause me great discomfort . . ."
Alex looked alarmed that he had almost touched me. "In truth?" he asked. "why . . . what sort of discomfort? Pain?"
I struggled to look him in the eye. I was a terrible liar. "Well . . . I'm not sure . . . and I don't want to find out."
The young man nodded sympathetically. "This . . . . demon, what else did he say?"
I hated to lie to Alex, but I had no choice. With any luck, I could find my mentor, Ezekiel, before ever having to deal with the cursed ring the demon had placed inside me. "That was it, that the touch of a man would set off the ri—err, my discomfort."
Alex raised an eyebrow. "Usually magic is quite specific. Perhaps it is only flesh you must avoid." He looked thoughtful. "You could . . . ride on my shoulders, and I could carry you down the mountain. Clearly you cannot walk, and I have nothing to put on your feet."
I bit my lip. He was right, if I didn't touch his skin, I might be ok. And if we were wrong, then I'd find out soon enough. "Ok, let's try that. But you should put on your gloves."
"Yes, good idea," responded Alex, pulling out his black leather gloves and putting them on. Then he bent over, gesturing for me to climb on his back. With a deep breath, I took hold of his shoulders and hoisted myself up on his back. His arms moved under my thighs to hold me in place, while my arms went around his chest.
After a few moments, I realized I was still holding my breath, but nothing had happened. Either our thinking was correct, or Alex didn't desire me. That was another stipulation, the touch of a man who didn't desire me would have no effect. I felt my stomach tighten at the thought of the latter possibility.
"Well, I think it's ok," I announced, relief in my voice. "Good thinking, Alex!" I complimented him, patting him on the shoulder. He turned his head to smile at me, and then set off down the mountain, at double the pace we'd managed before. I gripped Alex's strong back tightly as he dashed down the treacherous slope like a mountain sheep, then relaxed as we reached flatter ground. I could feel his strong muscles working beneath my arms, and I sighed contentedly, holding on tightly. Alex's steady gait and the day's events weighed on my eyes, making them droop. I rested my head on the young man's leather-covered shoulder and closed my eyes to take a quick nap.
"Karina? Karina, are you awake?" the whisper near my ear made me pry my eyes open. It was dusk, and I looked up to see a sign above my head. Wrathgar Country Tavern. I mumbled something in a sleepy voice.
Alex chuckled, "so my sleeping beauty is awake? We're here, I brought you back to your inn. I thought you could freshen up, and then we could grab something to eat?"
"Yes, that sounds good," I said. Reluctantly, I climbed down off his shoulders, landing gingerly on my still sore feet. I turned to look at Alex, who didn't seem even a bit tired, despite carrying me on his shoulders for the two hour walk from the demon's cave. I realized I was staring at him, and I smiled, reaching up to his face, and then awkwardly patting his chest in thanks. Then my eyes widened as I remembered something.
"Oh dear," I exclaimed. "my money purse . . . the demon has it!"
Alex looked at me. "Are you sure? But . . . that has your payment for the task. How . . .?"
I had promised to pay Alex a small fee for his help, not because he'd asked for it, but because I knew he had no money. "Oh dear, Alex, I'm so sorry!" I said, my hand going to my lips. "I . . ."
The dear, he tried to hide his disappointment in me, but not before I saw it. I felt terrible, that I'd put him through all this for nothing. "I'm sorry . . ."I murmured. "I'll make it up to you, Alex, I promise!" I said. "I'll find another job, one that doesn't involve demons."
He was looking into the distance, deep in thought. Then his attention returned to me after a moment, as if he hadn't heard me speak. "Oh. Uh, it's no matter, Karina, you did your best. You don't need to pay me, but . . . I'd like to join you, on your adventures." He smiled and winked at me. "My bow might come in handy again."
"Oh, my god, that would be wonderful!" I blurted. My eyes must have lit up like two bright suns, because he laughed. I ignored him and continued babbling. "Let's leave now, um, we can travel back in the direction of the Wizard's Tower, and look for quests along the way."
"Hold on, little one," he said, laughing as I made a face at being called 'little one.' "You need some rest, why don't you stay the night at the inn. I have to make some arrangements before I leave. I should check up on my friend as well, make sure she's recovering. I'll return for you in the morning, how does that sound?"
Of its own volition, a frown appeared on my face at his mention of his 'friend,' the blond damsel in distress. Must I be so transparent? I thought, wanting to slap myself. I nodded quickly, forcing a smile. "Take your time!" I blurted too eagerly. "I'll just . . . prepare myself—wash up, I mean! For bed . . of course."
I realized then my best tactic would be to just keep my mouth shut. Alex stood there smiling at me curiously, perhaps wondering what distant star I had descended from. With a wink he turned to leave, "Yes, you . . . wash up, for bed of course, and get some rest. I'll be back in the morning," he said over his shoulder.
Twice I opened my mouth to speak to Alex, but I didn't know what to say. I bit my lip, watching the handsome warrior walk away from me. As I watched him go, my heart sank. Stupid me, offering him time with the pretty blond. Should I have asked him to stay the night? Would that be too forward? I reached up and pulled a strand of my dark brown hair in front of my face so I could see it. If only I knew a spell to make my hair blond, I thought. Then he'd want to spend the night with me, I wouldn't have to ask. I wanted to call out to him, to beg him to stay, but couldn't think of a reason that wouldn't sound desperate.
Then in the distant haze past the departing Alex, I could just make out three riders on horseback approaching. I suddenly had a strange ominous feeling, but from that distance it wasn't a rational fear. I shrugged it off and walked through the doors.
The small tavern inn was completely empty as I walked to the bar, which doubled as a check-in desk. I could use a good night's sleep before we set off for the Wizard's Tower in the morning. We could make the trip in three days probably, stopping if we found some side jobs. As I approached the bar, I noted the bartender's appraising look, and remembered the demon's warning about the ring. I realized that I had best cover myself up, for men in these parts were fond of stealing a touch when they passed by a pretty girl. Best to attract as little attention as possible.
"Ah, our visiting wizard returns!" said the bartender, his eyes on my tight-fitting top. "Did you slay the demon of the mountain?" His tone indicated skepticism in my abilities, so I ignored him and asked for my key. After realizing I wasn't going to answer him, the burly man humphed and rummaged through a drawer for my key, finding it and slapping it on the counter. I leaned over the counter to reach for the key, but just as my hands curled over the wooden key ring, the bartender reached out to grab it. "Not so fast, lassie," he said as I let go of the key just in time to avoid getting touched. "I'll expect payment for the room first," he added, his earlier friendliness having departed.
"I . . . left my money purse in my room, I'll pay you tomorrow," I lied, trying to look innocent.
The bartender leaned against the counter, so that he could take in the full view of my figure. Innocent I could do, but clearly I had to work on my lying. "A likely story," he sneered. "I suppose you'll have to find another way to pay me then, that is, if you want to stay another night."
I wasn't that innocent; I didn't like the sneer he gave me. I stood with my fists clenched, wondering what to do. It was at that moment, the doors to the tavern burst open. The innkeepers eyes reluctantly left me to look over my shoulder, and I saw his countenance darken. Turning, I gasped as I saw the three men I'd spotted earlier striding rapidly toward us. The larger man in front was dressed in a warrior mage's leather armor, decorated with red and gold trim. This man was physically powerful, and stood a good foot above my head. I cursed the demon again for taking my boots, and in turn a precious inch or two of height. His two followers were nearly as tall and muscular, and as the three men approached us, I felt myself take a step backward to bump up against the bar. Standing in front of these armored warriors in the demon's skimpy outfit, I fought to keep my hands from trying to cover myself. I was still a sorceress, and bowed to no man.
The innkeeper spoke first. "Welcome, guests, to the Wrathgar tavern and inn. Can I get you a room for the night, or perhaps a fine meal and drink?"
The one in red stopped an uncomfortably short distance from me, and looked first at the bartender, then me. "I seek a young female sorceress, I heard there is one who recently came to your town. Do you know where I can find this female?" He looked at me with blue eyes, tinged with cruelty, and I knew then why I had sensed something from these travelers. My mentor had warned me once, about a sect of wizards called the Crusaders. According to the rumors, this sect of men believed that female wizards were an affront to the traditionally male-dominated domain of magic. There were stories of these Crusaders murdering wizards who chose to teach females. The things they did to the female wizards themselves did not bear repeating.
It was said the Crusaders usually traveled in groups of three – master and two apprentices. I looked from one man to the other. Well, if these men had come for a fight, they'd have one. I returned the man's gaze coolly, as I waited for the innkeeper to answer.
"I'm afraid I haven't seen one, sir. Perhaps you are mistaken, we are a simple town," answered the innkeeper behind my back. I tried not to let my surprise show. I had fully expected him to point me out. Perhaps he was waiting for a reward.
The blue eyes left me to glare at the innkeeper. "I assure you, innkeeper, I am not. And I am offering a reward of 10 silver pieces to the man who helps me find this sorceress."
There it was, 10 silver pieces ought to do the trick. Instead, the innkeeper just laughed. "10 silver pieces eh? She must be quite special, that you desire so to find her. How would I know her if I saw her? Would she be wearing a pointy hat and funny slippers then, eh?" The innkeeper chuckled at his own joke, but the three visitors didn't seem to share his sense of humor.
"You? In your ignorance, you would not know," replied blue eyes, dismissively. Then he looked at me again, his intense blue eyes cruel and confident. Suddenly I felt an urge to flee, the way a rabbit must feel facing a wolf. Who was I kidding, I couldn't take on three wizards, not in my tired state.
"We have ways to identify a magic user, however," said Blue Eyes. "A sorceress cannot hide her magical abilities from one such as I."
It was a convincing show, but I was pretty sure this man couldn't know for sure if I was the sorceress he was after, how could he? He was probably just fishing. I thought I should say something.
"I . . . sir, I'm not a . . . sorceress, I assure you," I babbled, not having to fake being nervous.
He smiled at me for a moment, then chuckled. "No, my lovely, I suspect you are not." He gestured down my body. "A female like you is built for more . . . earthly purposes."
I wasn't sure what he meant, but I got the general idea, and my hands balled into fists again. For once, I kept my mouth shut. The wizard was like any other man, taking a thrill at intimidating helpless women. He turned back to the innkeeper. "Tell me innkeeper, other than this one, are there any females here at your inn?"
I decided then I probably should take my cue to leave, so I mumbled an 'excuse me' to no one in particular and made my move toward the stairs. I was stopped almost immediately by a strong grip on my bare upper arm. I turned in alarm to look at the man in red who held me.
"Just a moment, girl," he said casually, "I'm not done with you yet."
I gaped at him in a mixture of anger and horror. He'd touched me. Clearly he desired me too, I could tell that from the way his eyes had been looking me up and down. Sure enough, I felt a tiny flaring of warmth between my thighs, deep inside me. I glared at him. "Take your hand off me! How dare you touch me! " Fear constricted my throat, so my shout came out more like a squeak.
He only looked at me with interest. As I felt a kind of warm throbbing begin between my thighs, I resisted the sudden urge to squeeze my legs together. I should have been more careful, I thought, anger rising to redden my face. "I . . . I need to go," I protested, hoping the appearance of impatience would mask my growing fear.
"Let her go," said the innkeeper. All eyes, including mine, turned to him in surprise. "She's my new serving girl . . . she needs to get ready for her shift." As if perfectly planned, the door to the inn opened and a small crowd of customers sidled in. The innkeeper nodded. "See, my customers are showing up, I need her to get to work."
I couldn't believe the gruff-looking barkeep was risking his own life to help me. I made a mental note to give the burly innkeeper a big kiss, but Blue Eyes was not quite ready to give up his prize. "I see, a serving girl," he said, still holding me by the arm and looking at me. "she is dressed strangely for a serving girl though."
The growing throb deep inside me was incredibly distracting, and the pleasurable sensations combined with my fear to make me tremble a bit. The Crusader seemed to notice and his grip tightened, increasing my apprehension. The innkeeper broke the silence.
"Her uniform is in the back room, she was just about to go get changed. I'll ask you for the last time to let my girl go." The innkeeper turned his head and nodded, and I followed his eyes over to the corner of the large room. There stood a well-built and hard-looking man watching the proceedings as if he'd been there all the time. The man's hand moved to his sword, and then the wizard seemed to pause. "Very well, innkeeper," said the blue-eyed wizard, and for a second, I thought I would be let go, but then my hopes were dashed. "We'll take only a moment then."
My shaking increased, and inexplicably the imminent danger I faced seemed to be heightening the sensations of warm pleasure between my thighs. Of their own accord, my thighs squeezed together. With my short skirt leaving little to the imagination, the movement caught the eye of the man who held me, and he grinned in amusement as he held up a hand to my face. As I watched in horror tinged with fascination, his hand began to glow a greenish blue. It was some sort of detection spell, I could tell from the colors, and I knew I had only seconds before I was discovered. I knew the three of them could stop me before I could use my magic – I needed a good old fashioned weapon. Eying the crusader's dagger at his belt, I prepared to grab it. Perhaps if I could take out the leader, the other two would think twice about a magical exchange. I was about to make my move, when the wizard spoke.
"She is not the one," he said to his two apprentices, his voice tinged with disappointment. "This one has no magic ability whatsoever. A pity, I was looking forward to performing the rituals on her."
I was sure he saw my surprise before I could wipe it from my face, but the wizard had too much confidence in his spell to second guess my reaction. Then I remembered the demon's words. With activation of the ring inside me, my magic abilities would disappear. As always, I marveled at fate's impeccable timing.
"Alright, wizard, you've had your fun, now let her go," said the innkeeper. Reluctantly, the Crusader let go of my arm. I stood there glaring at the man who only moments ago had had me trembling in fear. I rubbed the soreness in my arm. With a final look at me that spoke of unfinished business, the wizard and his men turned. Moving to a table to sit down, the leader spoke over his shoulder, "we'll stay the night here, innkeeper. Tis not up to our usual standards, but we've tired of traveling. Have your serving girl bring us a meal and some ale."
When his back was turned, I stuck out my tongue and made a face, only to realize the innkeeper was looking at me. Embarrassed at my childish response to the sudden relief, I smiled sheepishly. His craggy face cracked a slight grin, then he gestured toward the kitchen. He was right - we still had to play out our ruse as long as the Crusaders were here. I quickly followed the large man back through the kitchen door. Out of earshot, he turned to face me. I immediately thanked him.
"Sir, I want to thank you for what you did back there. I probably owe you my life!" I said, meaning it.
I noticed the large man had kind eyes up close. He shook his head. "I have no love for those Crusader types – fanatics if you ask me. I do however need a serving girl, for my last one is swollen with child. I'll give you a free room for the night, plus a small cut of the takings, probably a few silver a night. It's hard work, but the pay is good. How's that sound?"
He was right, it was much better pay than I expected. A few silver pieces would be enough for Alex and I to get by for a couple days, and besides, until those men left, I was stuck. I nodded my agreement.
"Good!" said the man. "You can call me Max, by the way. The guard's name is Jorus, if you get in trouble with the customers, just give him a yell. Now hurry and get into your uniform."
Big Max handed me a small pile of clothing and a pair of short boots, and then directed me toward the meat storage room for me to change. Eying the soft white boots eagerly, I went into the room and set down the clothes on a bench.
The storage room smelled strongly of cured meat, and I felt a pang of hunger. As the fear of the encounter with the wizard wore off, I became increasingly aware of the effect of the ring inside me. I felt a warm, almost comforting heat in my belly, and I felt a strange urge to touch myself. Of course I was not the type to do such a thing, even the urge made me feel embarrassed. A powerful sorceress would never give in to such base urges, I'd been taught that many a time. Still, as I pulled off my skirt and top, the cool air on my skin made me shiver, and I was shocked as I looked down to see my nipples fully erect and sensitive. The sensations were growing, but they were hardly overwhelming. If the demon's purpose was to get me to offer myself to strange men, he'd have to do more than this. I was beginning to think the demon had underestimated my self control – the ring's effects were actually quite pleasant, and distracting rather than debilitating.