The plain was virtually choked of life, the baked earth broken up by nothing more than the occasional desiccated shrub. The sun sat low in the sky, claustrophobically close to the ground, striving to incinerate everything which had withstood her the day before.
The air shimmered; the first heat haze of the day, but not the last. But then the heat haze became circular, pumped full of swirling colour, and did something which was far from typical of such phenomena; it spat out a wizard in a black latex leotard.
Halfshaft stood there, head bowed, oblivious to his surroundings. Beneath his straggly grey beard, his chin wobbled with emotion at the trauma he had experienced in recent weeks. Here was an elderly man, trying not to weep at the tragic direction his life had taken.
A large horse appeared on the horizon, heading his way at a gallop. The rider was in full armour. He appeared unsteady, clinging to the horse’s neck as if injured. Halfshaft looked up, and waited. He was in the middle of a deserted plain. What else was there to do?
“I know you can’t hear me,” he whispered into the vortex from which he had emerged. “But I’m sorry.”
The rider attempted to bring his horse to a halt, with mixed success. The horse stopped rather more abruptly than was planned, and the knight sailed over his head, landing with a crash at Halfshaft’s feet. The horse decided that its work here was done, and trotted off in search of something less energetic to do.
The knight attempted to get to stand up, but found this to be rather more of a challenge than anticipated. With a sigh, Halfshaft went to his assistance, pulling him up into a vertical position on the third or fourth attempt.
The knight pulled up his visor. He was in his late thirties, a little overweight, but his face was unexpectedly friendly. A man whom Halfshaft recognised.
“Alright, Mate,” said Rod. “Glad you’re here. It’s all kicking off big time back at the castle.”
“Fighting,” Rod clarified. “Lots of it. They need us; they won’t last two minutes without our help. Are you in?”
Halfshaft didn’t answer straightaway. Rod stared at him expectantly, like a puppy waiting to be taken for a walk. A full fifteen seconds passed, which was by coincidence the maximum length of Rod’s attention span. He trotted away in search of his horse, but quickly tired of that too, and returned to the wizard’s side, to find out his friend’s decision. Still no sign of one, though, which worried him. Ordinarily, the wizard was all attitude and misplaced bravado. Since they had last been together, something must have happened, something which had crushed the spirit out of him. He would have to retrieve it quickly if he was to be any use to anyone.
“Takina’s here,” Rod said. Takina was an Amazon outcast, and the object of Halfshaft’s unrequited love or lust (Rod was never quite sure which).
The wizard brightened up straightaway. “Takina? The real one?”
Rod nodded. It was a strange question, but he had heard stranger, especially down the pub on a Friday night.
“Have you checked out her bottom?” Halfshaft enquired cautiously, as if the whole world depended upon the answer.
“All the time. Haven’t we all, though?”
Halfshaft laughed, in a slightly deranged fashion. “Count me in, then,” he whispered. “What do you want me to do?”
“You could help me catch that bloody horse, for a start.”
They tried catching the horse for thirty minutes, but it did not seem keen on being caught, so they gave up the chase. Rod had, in any event, declared that the castle was only half an hour’s walk away, and he had only taken the horse as it had seemed like a laugh at the time.
Before they set off, Rod opted to ditch his armour. He had been jogging around in soaring temperatures, trying to overtake the stubborn horse, and the perspiration was dripping off him by the bucketful. He was not a particularly slim man, and the amount of sweat he had secreted was in danger of rusting the armour from the inside.
It took a full hour to get it off him. Beneath it, he was wearing a pair of jeans, and a black t-shirt bearing the legend “FREE (ono)”. He was one of just two men on the Planet Hedral from Earth, and his clothes looked strangely out of place. Especially when juxtapositioned with a beardy old wizard in a black latex leotard. Anyone else would have asked the wizard why he was wearing such strange clothes, especially when his normal choice of garment was the standard wizard-ware of star-spangled robe and pointy hat. But not Rod. If he wanted to look like a twat, then he was perfectly entitled to do so. Besides, they were mates. They had twice saved the world, and if that didn’t entitle you to be a little different from the rest, then he didn’t know what did.
“Have you got any water?” Halfshaft asked, as the temperature climber ever higher.
Rd raised his eyes and tutted. “Course I have. I’m not gonna be riding around in this heat without a drink, am I? I’m not stupid!”
“Can I have some?”
“It’s on the horse.”
Halfshaft gave him a disdainful look. Rod grinned back at him. His mate was starting to get feisty again, which was a good sign. If he could get him to start screeching and jumping up and down on the spot like an angry munchkin, then he would be back to his normal self.
There was movement up ahead, a woman on a horse, with two other riders staggered not far behind her. She was almost dressed in what appeared to be a furry bikini. An Amazon.
Halfshaft inhaled sharply. “Is that her?”
“Takina? Yeah.” Rod remembered the conversation they had had earlier. What was it? Something about her bottom. “You may want to give her a hug or something before you check out her arse.”
“It’s not like that,” Halfshaft glowered. “Where I’ve just come from, there was a fake Takina. She looked exactly like her. The only way to tell them apart was her bottom.”
Rod laughed. “That would never stand up in court, Mate. Especially not from a bloke wearing a leotard.”
Takina was just a hundred yards away by now. The wizard suddenly felt embarrassed. He was so longing to see her again, but whatever would she think of him, dressed like this? He would have turned and fled, had there been anywhere to go.
She drew up her horse just a few feet away, and cast a look over her shoulder at her pursuers. Halfshaft looked up at her with something approaching adoration. Cynics might say it was because she was blonde, curvaceous in all the right places, and wearing a fur bikini that could not have cost the lives of more than two or three squirrels at most. But it was so much more than that for him. They had been through Hell and back together (and, if there was anyone who could make that comparison, it was him, having literally escaped from the Underworld during their last outing together), and all the way through she had supported him, stood by him, and – best of all – believed in him. As a wizard who knew just two spells, both of them crap ones, someone having faith in him was a novel experience, and a very powerful thing indeed.
She looked at him, smiled, and wheeled her horse around to face the first of the two men galloping towards her. She unsheathed a wickedly sharp sword from the scabbard slung across her back, and waited. The first of her pursuers unsheathed his own sword and increased his speed, confident that his much heavier horse would give him the momentum to crush her beneath hoof and blade.
Halfshaft panicked, as he was prone to do. She was no warrior. Yes, she was an Amazon, brought up by the fierce, bad-assed tribe which consisted entirely of tall women who knew had to handle a weapon. But she had been more servant than soldier, more cook than combatant. She had committed the ultimate Amazon sin of being below six foot tall, and had been consigned to the role of a domestic as punishment.
Halfshaft rounded on Rod. “I can’t believe you came out with all that armour, and no sword! We could have helped her!”
“I did come out with a sword.”
“Give it to me, then.”
“Give it to me!”
“It’s on the horse with the water bottle.”
Halfshaft screamed at him. Had he been wearing his wizard’s hat, he would have removed it, and used it to beat his friend to within an inch of his life (or however close to one’s life it’s possible to be beaten using floppy fabric). He knew Rod’s heart was in the right place, but had found from experience that Earthlings were the most irritating race in the Universe.
Takina tacked her horse a few paces to the left, positioning herself squarely between the oncoming horseman and her friends, shielding them from danger. And then the larger horse rammed into the lighter one, the impact almost throwing the Amazon from her saddle. Her horse staggered backwards, but kept its footing. Blades flashed on both sides.
The second horseman was closing fast. Behind him, they could now make out a third and fourth. Things had rarely looked less promising for them.
Halfshaft tried to come to Takina’s assistance, but was nearly trampled by the horses as they jostled against one another. Rod seized him by the lapel of his leotard, pulling him out of harm’s way. He fought to free himself, to return to the fray, but Rod held him fast.
“I’ve got to help her!”
“How does throwing yourself under a horse help anyone?”
“I’ve got to help her!”
“Yeah, you said. But she doesn’t need it. Look.”
The horseman dropped to the ground between them, very much deceased. Takina wheeled her horse around to face her next assailant. He reined in his horse, coming to a circumspect halt a dozen yards away.
“Surrender, or die,” the man shouted, sounding far from sure of himself.
“Bugger off!” replied Takina.
Rod smiled. “I taught her that.”
Takina went on the assault, her sword slicing into him before he had a chance to defend himself. He slipped from the saddle, as dead as his colleague.
Halfshaft looked on in astonishment. “Takina can’t fight like that. That’s not her, is it?”
“Yeah, she can, and yeah, it is. There’s a lot happened since we last saw you. I’ll tell you about it if we live that long.”
The third horseman arrived, charging towards her much as the first had done. But then the fourth and final rider caught up with him, slicing off his head from behind. Takina let out a whoop of a war-cry and raised her sword in salute. The rider reciprocated, whooping and saluting her in reply.
And then she was dismounted, throwing herself into Halfshaft’s arms. Any doubts he had expressed about her identity evaporated as soon as he was holding her. She was warm and she was real, and just for second or two she was his. He clung on to her, resisting the urge to cry. She was here, she was safe, she was hugging the life out of him. Everything was well with the world for a minute or two.
She stood back, and looked him up and down.
“Why are you wearing all-in-one vest and pants?” she enquired.
“It’s hard to tan in a wizard’s robes,” Rod replied on his behalf.
Halfshaft smiled, but said nothing. He was so happy to see her, much happier than he could ever tell her. The way she had embraced him, it was obvious that she had really missed him. Nothing could ruin this for him.
She turned to introduce him to the new-comer. The man was tall, as blond as her, and dressed in green. Obviously a wood elf.
“Troy, this is Halfshaft, by best friend ever.”
Troy dropped from his horse to offer him his hand. Halfshaft gave it a non-committal shake, hoping to get the formalities over as quickly as possible so he could try to wheedle another cuddle from the Amazon (who was, after all, his self-confessed best friend).
“Halfshaft, this is Troy.”
Troy patted him roughly on the shoulder, in a manner which Halfshaft considered to be both patronising and over-familiar, but he gave the elf a half-smile in exchange.
All trace of the smile evaporated, however, as Takina completed the introduction.
“Troy is my mate.”
“Mate as in friend?”
She laughed. “No. Mate as in mate. We have sex together, to make Amazon babies.”
“Not just to have babies,” Troy laughed, and at that moment Halfshaft hated him as he had never hated anyone before in his long and vengeful life.
Rod and Halfshaft accompanied the happy couple back to the castle on two of the horses of their vanquished adversaries. Halfshaft had told them that his riding was a bit rusty, and that he’d be willing to share a saddle with Takina, but Troy insisted that they have one horse each so they were not hampered if they had to fight off another attack.
“Bastard,” mumbled the wizard under his breath, but it didn’t have the cathartic effect he had hoped for.
They rode back fairly slowly, to allow for the poor horsemanship of both Rod and Halfshaft, and all the while the wizard seethed. Takina and Troy kept looking at each other, sharing smiles, talking to each other even! It was disgusting.
Troy was ridiculously handsome. How could she possibly be attracted to that? He would clearly be vain and self-obsessed, putting his needs above hers, being unfaithful to her, making her stay at home to wash his pulling pants whilst he was out courting other ladies. What sort of monster had she got herself involved with?
He wondered if they had already made the “beast-with-two-backs”, and almost fell off his horse in fury. But then a thought occurred. They could not have done. No-one could mate with a wood-elf, and then go on to date them, for one very good reason. They always ate their mates after sex.
Two emotions swamped him at the same time. The first was fear for her safety. That animal was clearly planning to munch her in more ways than one! She was in danger of a horrible death, unless he could convince her that the love of her life had particularly perverted taste-buds.
The second was relief. Not only would she have nothing to do with that man once the truth was known, but she had obviously not had all that much to do with him already. The fact that she was still breathing, and had no deep bite-marks on her body (most of which he was able to get a pretty good view of when she wasn’t looking), was evidence of that.
He geed his horse forwards, and squeezed it into the irritatingly tight gap between Takina and Troy.
“Can I have a word?” he asked her.
Troy laughed. “I can take a hint.” He dropped back a dozen yards to accompany Rod, who was lagging a little behind.
“It is good to see you again,” Takina said. “I have missed you.”
“Still, it’s good to see that that hasn’t stopped you making new friends.”
“Troy, you mean? He is such a fine soldier. The castle would have fallen weeks ago but for him. He has taught me to fight, to use a sword. To ride a horse as well. I knew - ”
“He’s a wood elf.”
“I know. I have worked that one out for myself.”
“Takina, it gives me no pleasure at all to say this, but if you ever have sex with him, he’ll eat you. That’s what wood-elves do.”
“I know they do.”
“You do?” This rather took the wind out of his sails. He was hoping to drop his bombshell, for her to have a massive row with her boyfriend, and for the two of them to strop off in different directions (if it was possible to strop off on horse-back). But if she knew already, why hadn’t she dumped him already?
“He’s changed. Back when we were last here, I was kidnapped by trollesses and set to work as a sex-slave at a slave-market. Troy was to be my first customer.”
“But then he found out I was a virgin, and he lost interest in me straight away. He told me that wood-elves eat their mates after they have coupled, and that virgins lack flavour. He said that he might just as well have had a chicken sandwich.”
“Then I got kidnapped by the sons of Ragnar, and well, you know the rest as we met again not long afterwards. And then there was the time-tunnel, and then there was here, and then there was Troy again. I can hardly believe how lucky I am to have found him.”
“And he fancied a chicken sandwich this time round, did he?”
“No. He wanted an Amazon. He wanted me. Not at first. I was here for months before he even spoke to me. But he saw the way I fight, and I saw the way he fights, and we could not help ourselves.”
“It sounds like he’s been helping himself quite a lot.”
She gave him a hurt look. “I hoped you’d be happy for me.”
“How could I be? You’re in danger.”
“He is no danger to me. He has changed. We have – been intimate, and he has not touched a hair on my body. Not with his hands, anyway.”
Halfshaft felt sick. He wanted to argue the point, convince her that she was in danger, that people don’t just abandon life-long cannibalistic habits at the drop of a hat (or, in this case, the drop of their pants), but he couldn’t bear to talk to her after what she had just told him. The thought of the two of them together was more than he could take. He loved her, and he knew that he was decades too old for her to feel the same way about him. Theirs was a love that could never be. But that didn’t make it any easier to watch her frolicking in the arms of another man.
“He’s dangerous,” Halfshaft whispered, his voice giving out on him. “It’s only a matter of time. I don’t want to see you hurt.”
He dropped his horse back. She turned her head, watching him over her bare shoulder as he rejoined Rod. Troy took his place at her side straightaway.
“Everything alright, mate?” Rod enquired of the wizard, as annoyingly cheerful as ever.
Halfshaft shook his head. No, everything was not all right. It was as far from alright as it was possible to be.