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The Woad to Wuin, Page 2

Peter David

  Truthfully, although I was not exactly resistant to the concept, I’m not sure I could have kept her off me even had I desired to. She was unstoppable, and thanks to the ring, I was more than up to the challenge.

  And later I was up to it again. And again.

  And again.

  All through the night.

  I lost count. By the time the morning came, my head was swimming with exhaustion, my belly practically in pain from lack of nourishment. But my suddenly very public private was still fresh as ever, and Sharee just as enthusiastic. I let her have her way with me again, this time so bone weary that I didn’t even move. I just lay there, splayed on the cave floor, and thought about bathing in freezing water.

  Finally Sharee fell asleep, and I knew beyond question that I had to get the hell out of there.

  Apparently realizing that the joy ride was over, my seemingly insatiable rod slumped a bit, but not enough for me to pull the ring off. Quickly I dressed and bolted from the cave. I figured that Sharee would be waiting for me when, or if, I got back.

  I was ravenously hungry at that point. Perhaps Sharee could live on love, but I did not share that capacity. I moved quickly through the woods, counting on my staff—my wooden one, not the betraying member in my breeches—for more support than even my lame leg usually required. Animals seemed to be giving me wide berth, however, and the few nuts and leaves I could safely eat off the trees were hardly enough to keep me going, particularly after the evening of ardor I had spent.

  I made my way to the main east/west road which ran through the upper section of the Tucker Forest and cut east. I knew there was an inn along the way. It wasn’t much, but I figured that at least they’d have some sort of minimal food there, and I could replenish myself. I also needed to distance myself from Sharee for a time. I assuredly couldn’t go back to sleeping in the cave with her; the woman obviously would not leave me alone. Not as long as I had this Significant Other to deal with.

  I felt it stirring with renewed life as I approached the inn, and drew my cape even more tightly around myself. Fortunately enough it was a brisk morning, so no one would question why I was keeping myself so covered up.

  Once inside, I took a table toward the back, in a corner, with the intention of keeping entirely to myself. The innkeeper, a dyspeptic-looking fellow, glanced at me suspiciously. I held up the money, jingled it slightly, and that seemed enough to satisfy him. He moved away as the serving girl approached me. I’ll admit she was a comely thing, which is what made what happened next somewhat tolerable.

  “A stein of mead,” I told her, “and do you have any decent mutton?”

  She looked me up and down. Even though I was covered up, I suddenly felt as if her gaze was boring right to where I didn’t want it to go. I crossed my legs, cleared my throat, and started to repeat the question.

  “Upstairs,” she interrupted. “First door on the right. Now.”

  “But … I haven’t eaten.”

  She brought her face toward mine, and her breath was warm and pleasant. “I’ll be your appetizer … and your main course … and your dessert …”

  Oh, my gods. “Miss … I … that is to say …”

  “Upstairs, now,” and there was iron in her voice, “or I’ll take you right here.”

  She meant it. I could see it in her eyes, hear it in her tone, she was quite serious.

  I went upstairs, to the room she indicated. There was a bed there with a lumpy mattress. Ten seconds later she was there, and the waitress provided room service.

  Five minutes later the waitress’s mother burst in on us, shocked and appalled. She threw her sobbing daughter out, slammed the door behind her, faced me, and I knew then what was coming.

  I was worried that the tavern keeper was the husband, and figured that he’d be upstairs in short order with an ax … or, worse, love in his eyes. But such was not the case; they were simply a mother and daughter who worked at the tavern.

  And they had friends.

  Lots of friends.

  Now I have to tell you, a situation like this had, at one time, been one of my fantasies. I grew up in a tavern, saw whores in action. And I had always wondered what it would be like to be so in demand that people—women, in my case—would throw themselves at me by the cartload, and even be willing to pay me, just for the privilege of melding their bodies with mine.

  Well, no one was offering me money, although I have no doubt that I could have fleeced them for all they were worth. I likely would have, too, had any of them given me the chance to talk.

  Apparently there was a village nearby, and all I can surmise from the parade of female flesh that marched in and out of my room was that the menfolk were not doing their job. The women came to me in all shapes, all sizes, young and old, pretty and … less so. I tried to keep a smile on my face, tell myself that this was the price of fame. I literally, however, lost track of time. Day and night became meaningless to me. Oh, I was fed, at least. The tavern wench kept bringing me food. At one point the innkeeper stuck his head in, grinned, and said, “Keep at it, my lad! That’s the ticket!” as if he was my best friend in the world. I managed a meager wave and realized that he was probably charging the women admission. He was making my money. It didn’t seem fair, and if any part of me had been able to rise from the bed aside from the one part of me that appeared inexhaustible, I would have done something about it.

  I tried to leave, several times. They wouldn’t let me. Finally they tied me to the bed. There are worse ways to pass one’s hours, but none come readily to mind.


  I have no idea when Walker and his people showed up. It could have been a day later, a week later. I was floating in a haze of exhaustion and numbness. All I knew was that there was a thumping up the stairs, and the door burst open. For a moment I thought it was a mob of angry husbands, come either to chop me to bits or—for all I knew—have their way with me. Then I squinted as I recognized that improbably heroic face. I was nude from the waist down, obviously. I couldn’t remember a time anymore when I’d worn breeches. He took one look, turned to others crowding in, and said firmly, “He has the ring.”

  There was certainly no use denying it. “You want it? Take it,” I mumbled in exhaustion.

  Walker stomped in, tossing a blanket over me. Producing a blade, he severed the bonds holding my hands to the bedframe. “It is not ours to take. I will not ask how you came by it; the past no longer matters. Thanks to the ring, you are now the possessor of the One Thing Which Rules Them All.”

  “The One Thing being …” and I pointed to my happy soldier.

  “Yes.” He nodded, and the others mimicked the nod. “That thing.”

  “And ‘them all’ would be … women.”

  “Yes,” Walker said once more. “What you possess is a ring, forged in the—”

  I held up my hands and rose from the bed, fumbling about for my breeches. “No. Don’t tell me.”

  “But you should know,” said Walker.

  “Yes, it’s a really good story,” one of the dwarfs said, in a slightly whiny tone.

  “I don’t care!” I insisted. “It probably involves some powerful magic user somewhere, and dark forces, and evil hordes wanting it back. Right?”

  “Well … essentially, yes,” Walker admitted, looking a bit uncomfortable.

  “Fine. Save it. And get them out of here.” I pointed at the cluster of women that was already assembling, seeming rather distressed over the prospect of my possible departure. “All I want to know is how to get rid of the thing.”

  “You must toss it,” said Walker solemnly, “into the Flaming Nether Regions. Only there will it be melted, its threat ended for all time.”

  I knew the Flaming Nether Regions well enough. I had once been squire to a knight, Sir Umbrage, who hailed from thereabouts.

  You may be wondering why I did not question the interest this mixed bag of meddlers might have had in the ring. I shall make it plain: Clearly they were heroes. Bubo, previous
possessor of this lovely trinket, had probably been as much in demand as I was. Walker’s people had obviously been serving to keep women away from him … or perhaps him away from women … while they escorted him to the Flaming Nether Regions. They were in the midst of some great quest, into which I had been unwillingly—and unwittingly—drawn. I like neither heroes nor quests, because becoming involved with either invariably gets people killed. I have no patience for adventures, even though I perpetually seem to find myself in the middle of them, and the sooner I depart their vicinity, the better. Far from dauntless, I am easily daunted. I want nothing but to make money, have some fame, fortune, and fun, and survive to die of old age in my bed.

  In short, I’m just like you. Look down your nose at me at your peril, for it is yourself you very likely judge.

  So I had no interest in what had brought them to this point in time. I simply said, “Take me there.”

  We set off.

  There was much trouble along the way.

  I could go into detail, of course. I could tell you about the dark warriors who set upon us, the flaming black hailstones, the totally unexpected return assault of the Harpers Bizarre, who apparently were now under the command of a great and powerful weaver, the rampaging fishlike killer creature called the Orcuh, and much, much more. But it was not a pleasant period, just about everyone in the group was killed, I spent the entire time with a raging tumescence in my breeches, and one of the dwarfs—Thither, I think it was—kept eyeing me in a manner I found most disturbing. I was frankly relieved when the Orcuh stepped on him.

  So you’ll pardon me if I simply say, again, that there was much trouble along the way, until finally only an exhausted Walker and myself were left to stand on the edge of the formidable precipice overlooking the Flaming Nether Regions.

  Far, far below raged the Regions. A continuous lava flow, the origin of which no one knew, flames licking upward with formidable intensity, and smoke billowing, making it extremely difficult to see more than a foot or so down.

  “All right,” I said to Walker. “Now what?” I had my hand discreetly around the ring, trying to pull it off, thinking that now that it had reached its inevitable destiny, the damned thing would go without a struggle. Unfortunately I was as hard, and the ring as stubborn, as ever.

  “You throw the ring in,” said Walker matter-of-factly.

  “Yes, well, small problem. The ring doesn’t appear to be cooperating.”

  “That does not surprise me.”

  “Well, it surprises me!” I retorted, wiping sweat from my brow. “You made it sound simple! Get to the Flaming Nether Regions, toss the ring in, we’re done! How do I remove it?”

  “The ring will only detach itself,” said Walker, “when the bearer’s heart stops.”

  “What?” I felt all the remaining blood in my body that wasn’t elsewhere pounding in my temples. “You mean when I die?” I now realized that, obviously, when Bubo had died, the ring had fallen through his leggings and onto the ground where I’d found it. “You couldn’t think to mention that earlier? I’m supposed to kill myself? That doesn’t leave much of an upside for me!”

  “There is … an alternative,” Walker said.

  “Good! Excellent! What is it?” Relief was flooding through me.

  Walker produced a very sharp-looking knife. “Cut it off.”

  I took the knife, turning it over in my hand. Yes, indeed, very sharp. “And this will cut through the ring?” I said doubtfully.

  “No, nothing can cut through the ring.”

  As I said, I’m not stupid. I quickly realized where this was going. I fought down rising panic. “So my choice, you’re saying to me … is either death … or a life not worth living.”

  “Think of it this way,” Walker said, trying to sound commiserating. “Certainly in the past days, you’ve received a lifetime’s worth of attention to your member. Is that not enough?”

  “No! Most certainly not! And I—”


  The cackling, unexpected voice caught us both unawares. We turned, standing there on the edge of the gorge, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

  Bubo was approaching us, his head still at that bizarre angle from when the noose had snapped his neck. He did not, however, appear to realize that he was deceased. His skin was the color of curdled milk and shared some of the same aroma. His eyes were wide and solid black, his teeth rotting in his head. As he approached, his hands were spasming, as if he was trying to clutch something with them. “My precious! Mine!” he cried out, sounding like a screeching baby bird.

  “Stay back!” Walker said to me. “He wants the ring!”

  “If he can get it off me with an option other than what you’ve offered, he can have it!”

  “No! Don’t you understand? If the dark weaver who forged the ring gets it back, no woman in the world will be safe!”

  “I’ll buy them all locked chastity belts! It will work out fine!” I was tugging at the stubborn ring. “Here! Your old friend wants you back! Go! Go!”

  “Undead thing,” Walker said defiantly, facing the creature which had been Bubo. “You do not frighten me.” He started to pull his sword.

  Bubo didn’t wait. He leaped through the air as if he weighed nothing, landed squarely on Walker’s shoulders and gripped Walker’s head with his feet. With a quick twist of his hips, he snapped Walker’s neck. Walker’s dead body collapsed like a sack of potatoes, his sword still only half drawn.

  I started to back up, but there wasn’t far to go. “Stay back!” I shouted hollowly, holding my walking staff threateningly. There was a vicious blade in one end of it, but I doubted such a thing would be of use against something already dead. “Stay back, or I’ll … I’ll …”

  In truth, I had no idea what I would do. Bubo, however, did not wait to find out. With a scream he leaped across the intervening distance, howling, “Give it back to me! My pretty! My pretty ring! My precious, mine!” Either he didn’t realize where we were or, in his undead and obsessed state, he simply didn’t care. He slammed into me, knocking my walking staff from my hands, driving me back, and suddenly there was nothing below me but the yawning gorge of flame and death.

  We tumbled, falling through the smoke, but barely a few feet below, there was a rocky ledge extending that I hadn’t seen before. I struck it, rolled off, grabbed it with my desperate hands, and hung there.

  Bubo was holding on to my left leg.

  I tried to kick him off with my right, but that was my lame leg, and I had little strength in it. Bubo didn’t even seem to notice. Instead he clambered up my leg, and—gods help me—shoved his hand into my breeches, his cold, clammy palm wrapping around the still unbudging ring, my protuberance now his only means of support.

  “Mine!” he howled, holding on to it. “Mine! Mine!”

  It was too much.

  My brain shut down.

  My heart stopped.

  I died.

  For an instant.

  The next thing I knew, I was slammed back to life. The world whirling around me, I realized that I had fallen, but fallen onto yet another outcropping of rock. The smoke had hidden the fact that the cliff face was not exactly smooth.

  I heard screaming below me, and looked over the edge of the rock formation which had proven my salvation. Bubo had been less fortunate. My death, however brief, had been sufficient for the ring to slip free, and Bubo with it. I saw him spiraling down, down toward the flame, screaming and shouting, “I have it! I have my precious back!” tumbling end over end, probably not even aware of what was happening. I heard his shouting continue, all the way down, and then there was a sudden roar of flame as Bubo and the ring hit the lava below. Somewhere—in my own imaginings, most likely—I could swear I heard a deep, pained voice of anger roaring in fury as the ring melted in the fiery furnace of the Flaming Nether Regions … which was, I suppose, only fitting.

  It took me quite some time to climb, hand over careful hand, back up to the edge of th
e cliff from which I had tumbled. Walker was lying there, dead as a stump. I checked him over, pulled some valuables off him, and kicked his body over the edge. I had no more need of it than he did, and saw no reason to leave it lying about.

  Tired, bone-weary, I had nowhere else to go and so started heading back to the cave. I didn’t know whether Sharee would be waiting there or not, and at that moment I didn’t especially care. I just wanted somewhere that I could collapse.

  The journey back to the Tucker Forest was considerably less adventurous than when I had been heading toward the Flaming Nether Regions. I could only conclude that whatever beasties and vile creatures had taken an interest in my sojourn while I was in possession of the ring, they now simply did not care since it was no longer on my person. That really does summarize why I am the last individual that you’d want to have along on a quest. No matter what the object was that we might have managed to acquire, as soon as someone threatened my life over it, I would not hesitate to hand it over to them. There were very few riches or treasures—or anything, really—that I would consider worth dying for. Oh, I might try to trick my way out of the proceedings, but if a sword is to my throat or it seems as if I’m going to have to fight overwhelming odds in order to hold on to whatever it is, then to hell with it.

  But I couldn’t help but wonder, as I trudged along, why it was that I found myself pulled into these sorts of escapades. Not only was I not an audacious soul by nature, but I was in fact the opposite. The fewer quests for me, the better I liked it.

  Why, you may ask, was I so reluctant to engage in adventures?

  Simple answer: fear of getting killed.

  And why not? That’s what it all gets down to in the end, isn’t it? In my life I had survived mad bird creatures of several varieties, warlords, crazed kings of the frozen north, unicorn stampedes, and a lethal attack by the greatest hero in the land. I had managed to keep my head safely attached to my body mostly through strategy and a little luck … all right, a lot of luck. But how long was I reasonably supposed to think that my good fortune would hold up? It could not possibly do so forever … and I didn’t want to be around when it did finally run out.