by J. Falconer
Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle etc belong to MCA/Universal and Ren Pics, and anyone else who has an interest in Xena Warrior Princess, not me.
Copyright ã 2000: The characters in here belong to me. All rights reserved. No part or whole of this work may be copied or used in any shape, form, or manner whatsoever without the author's express written consent. If you want to use them, all you have to do is ask Ö nicely.
Violence disclaimer: This story depicts scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. Nothing too graphic (enter, stranger, at your riske Ė here there be icky bits), but readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
Love/Sex warning: This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live - move along, move along, nothing for you here ...
If you like it, let me know. All comments except for nasty ones are welcome!
Major vote of thanks to my ever patient beta readers Foreva Xena and Tragic Prose for taking valuable time out to read this. Without their feedback I would be totally stuffed.
Once upon a time, a little girl child was born to poor farming parents in a small village. Her parents named her Addison. From the time she said her first words, her parents realised that she would never fit into their simple lives. She was an adventurous sort, forever getting herself into strife, and did not think twice about talking to the various strangers who stopped in the village. She learnt much from them about the outside world, including some skill at arms. Often they would tell the lively little girl great stories of deeds done by mighty heroes. She loved these stories, and longed to forge one of her own. Her mother and father did not understand this, and attempted to discourage her from her dreams. They often made fun of her ambitions and called her unkind names. They told her that she was nothing more than a poor, ugly, clumsy girl and that her dream were nothing but foolishness. She was urged her to accept the husband her parents had chosen for her, as she needed a man since she would never amount to anything herself. As her spirits sank, her desire to leave became overwhelming. Finally, unable to abide their daughters spirit and deviant values, they gave in to her wishes, packed a knapsack for her, and bid her an relieved farewell, glad to be troubled no more by their ungrateful daughter.
She kissed her parentsí goodbye (she was a good-natured girl and loved her parents despite everything). She slung her threadbare, thin knapsack over her slightly pudgy shoulder and led her old, knock kneed horse out of the deteriorating stable and set forth with her patchy armor, faded clothes, old rusty sword and noble dreams.
She traveled far and wide for about two years, performing deeds of valor to the best of her limited abilities, laughed at by all she encountered, often beaten and denied her promised rewards, despite her good and courageous actions.
One day, as she was guiding her old and tired horse through a lush forest down an old, rutted dirt road leading from the latest village she had been driven from, she saw an ancient tree by the side of the road, much larger than itís fellows. It was extremely tall, aged dark brown bark smooth and comforting, foliage verdant green. As the gentle wind blew through the branches, stirring the leaves so they sounded like rushing water, she felt her eyes grow heavy, and she longed to rest her weary body.
Looking around the tree, which was the thickness of five men, she thought to herself, "Surely no one would mind if I stopped here for a while, and rested my eyes? I am hungry and tired. I will rest myself and continue on and perhaps find some food later."
So thinking, she led her understanding horse behind the tree, and tethered it to the thick undergrowth, settled herself between the great roots and was soon asleep.
Feeling herself gently shaken, she opened her eyes and peered around her uncertainly, and gave a start. Gone was the thick forest from all around her, instead she floated freely in a place filled with a gentle mist. She reveled in her weightlessness, and spun and looped through the mist in sheer joy. Up ahead of her, the whiteness began clearing, as a light shone through.
Covering her eyes and peering ahead, she was slowly overcome by the steadily increasing golden radiance. Fingers no longer able to block the otherworldly beauty of the glow, she tumbled, so that if she had been on the ground, she would have been completely prone, unable and unwilling to look at the light that surrounded her, caressing her with gentle, feather light fingers of warmth.
"Addison," whispered an ethereal voice from the center of the glow, femininity surrounding her, encasing her, comforting her, easing her fears.
Addison was ashamed of her plainness, and considered herself unworthy of the voice, so did not immediately answer.
"Addison," came the silky, deepish voice again, gentle warmth flowing through the sound.
Addison found her vocal cords, voice sounding ugly to her ears, afraid to speak.
"Who are you? How do you know me?"
The voice tinkled sweet laughter, gentleness soothing her.
"It matters not," the voice said simply. "You must help me."
"How?" Addison was entranced that such a heavenly sounding woman could ever want to associate with the likes of her.
Addison immediately wanted to help her with all her heart, but was afraid. Yet she mustered her courage into her hands and asked the next question.
"How can I help free you?"
"You must do something for me. You must seek my ring."
"Where is it?" cried Addison.
"One dayís walk from the tree, there is a forgotten castle. Deep in the dungeons of the castle, you will find my ring. You must retrieve it, and return here."
It sounded an easy enough task, so Addison readily agreed. She knew in her heart she would do anything that the voice asked her to do, no matter the consequences to herself.
"I will do as you have asked," she said.
"Come back to the tree when you are finished," said the gentle, silky voice, steadily fading as the light faded until Addison found herself floating alone in the world of mist. Abruptly, the weightlessness vanished and she felt herself plummet downwards. She sucked in a huge lung full of breath and began to scream Ö
Ö when abruptly she woke with a vicious twitch. The leaves on the trees sighed in cadence with her heaving chest. She quickly sat up, hand clasped to her forehead. She gave a shaky sigh and checked herself. Still the same patchy armor, the dirty torn clothes held together with briars, boots with gaping holes in the soles. "What a dream," she muttered to herself, and easily stood, though her heart was still hammering with shock, completely refreshed and no longer hungry.
"I wish the voice were real," she thought sadly, as the leaves on the trees quivered, the gentle wind stirring them. The wind became slightly stronger, and on it, she heard a ghostly whisper, "Donít forget Addison, the ring Ö" It faded, and Addison looked all around her searching for the source of the sound, but finding nothing. She and her horse eyed each other uneasily.
"Well, it certainly canít hurt to go and look to see if there is a ruined castle," she thought to herself.
Soon Addison and her horse were underway. They slowly made their way through the lush, dense forest, down the winding dirt road. As it began to peter out to nothingness, the thick, ferny undergrowth halting her forward progress, Addison began to wonder about her sensibilities. She rode the rest of the day and well after dark until finally she pulled the horse up, sighed, and made camp for the night. It was too late to go searching for food (much to her frustrated stomachís dismay), so she finished off the last of her trail rations she had gotten from a kind woman a village or two ago.
When she woke up, the sun was shining easily over the trees, light filtering through the dense forest all around her. She busily cleaned up her campsite, saddled her horse, preparing to go nowhere. As she swung easily up into the saddle, she caught a sliver of gray out of the corner of her eye. A bright sunbeam shone squarely in her eye, causing her to blink uncertainly. She shielded her eyes and looked up, seeing a flat face of crumbling stone, resting on a cliff in the distance. Curious, she spurred her horse on through the thick undergrowth, until she reached the base of a sheer cliff.
She looked up at the cracked rocks, eyes making out shadows of handholds against the unforgiving surface of stone, and sighed.
"Why did it have to be a cliff?" she muttered to herself. "I really hate heights Ö"
She dismounted and let the horse go, and it wandered back to the undergrowth, searching for something to eat. She made her way to the base of the cliff, and began to climb, holes in boots causing her grief the entire way up. As she struggled upwards, trembling as adrenaline coursed through her system, hands being cut to shreds, blisters forming on her feet, she muttered black comments about ruined castles on cliffs. As the hot sun shone relentlessly down on her, she struggled not to look down, and not to let her fear overpower her.
Finally, she hauled herself, body heaving and protesting, up the last handholds to the top. Sweating profusely, muscles strained and aching, she heaved herself over the ledge, and lay panting on her back in the rocky sand, only a couple of feet from the crumbling gray stone of the castleís decayed outer wall. When she had gotten her breath back, she carefully stood, grimacing at the thin pain in her feet, and inched her way across the ledge, around the long, crumbly stone wall. She carefully, sweatily, made her way around the corner, rocks digging into her back, trying not to look down. Heaving a sigh of relief as she set foot on more solid ground, she looked out at an enormous dirt clearing in front of the castle, eye following the neglected remains of the road that had once led to the door. When she noticed that it led down a steep grassy slope into the forest, and she began cursing vehemently again.
"Noooo, I couldnít take the road, could I? I had to take the cliff Ö"
Shaking her head in self recrimination, she turned around and looked around at the castle. It truly was a forgotten stronghold, almost obliterated by time; all walls had crumbled, the mortar holding stones together long eroded away. The stone, once shiny and clean was now dark gray, mottled black in places by the ravages of time. She noticed the huge rotten wooden gate lying carelessly open, almost decayed into nothingness. She briefly checked her armor and her rusty sword, squared her shoulders and strode purposefully through the wreckage into the ruined square courtyard.
Around her, on each of the broken walls were two doors apiece. All walls were whole and heartily maintained, state of repair cheerfully defiant of the graceful decay of the rest of the structure. Every door was sensibly pulled closed, holding chance visitors at bay.
"What now?" she said aloud. As she was pondering the situation, deep in thought, she almost jumped out of her skin when her legs were suddenly nudged from behind. She stumbled forward with a startled squawk, whirling to find an enormous black cat, the size of a lion sitting back on itís haunches, quietly cleaning itís whiskers with one massive sharp clawed paw.
Addison approached it uncertainly. It sat there placidly, no sign of aggression in its comfortable demeanor. Its fur was black and silky, and it studied her guardedly through its ministrations with clear, oddly intelligent yellow eyes. She was transfixed by itís beauty, and slowly leant forward to touch itís shining fur. The cat stiffened, and she leapt back. Then, when it did not move any more, reached forward with more confidence and began to pet itís great head.
It arched into her touch, and began to purr, a great rusty sound. It stood, and began to gracefully circle her legs.
She stroked and smoothed its soft hair for a while, then regretfully stopped and slowly stood to return to her thoughts. However, the beauty of the cat continued to distract her. Finally she leant down and petted it one final time, and she said to it in a gentle voice, "You are the most beautiful creature I have ever seen. What on earth is such a lovely thing like you doing here?"
The cat merely arched its back and rubbed its huge head against her legs, and purred louder.
She sighed, and returned to her study of the time-ravaged courtyard. Disappointed that the stroking did not continue, the cat silently padded away from her, leaving the ruined courtyard to its sole human guest.
Since each of the doors looked as good as the other, she went to the closest one and studied it carefully. It was completely flat, polished grain of the wood giving nothing away, and lay sensibly shut against the outside world. There was no latch and she wondered how to open it. Finally, experimentally, she gave it a push, and it opened easily on cleanly oiled hinges. Surprised, she stepped through, light filtering through the broken walls, weeds growing in the cracks between the gray stone, rocks carelessly strewn in the dusty remains of a passage. She wandered down the ruined corridor, turned the corner, and abruptly met a dead end. She turned to go back up the other corridor, following itís silent twists and turns through a number half remembered, once noble rooms, until it also eventually ended in a crumbled stone wall. Sighing, she went back the way she came. When she came back out into the sunny courtyard, she tried another door, on the shadowed wall opposite the first one.
That too, had the same results, corridors initially promising, abruptly ending with a crumbling stone blockage, as with the passages behind the third and the fourth.
Frustrated, she tried a fifth door.
When she pushed it open, she was met with semi sentient inky blackness.
"This must be the one," she murmured. She turned back to try and find comfort in the empty, dusty courtyard. The cat, the only other living thing in the cheerless place had never returned, much to her disappointment. "Here goes nothing," she said quietly, drew her sword, and stepped through the doorway into the abyss.
The door slammed shut straight behind her, sound muted in the thick musty air, causing her to yelp. She jumped again when suddenly a torch next to the door flickered to uneasy life, casting greasy, misshapen shadows on the cold, impenetrable stone walls. Trying to ease her hammering heart, and losing her death grip on the sword, she grabbed the torch with firm, though slightly shaking fingers, and swung it in front of her, and saw crumbled, almost obliterated wooden stairs in front of her.
She took the first step, no handholds being available on the smooth walls, stairs very steep. She set her jaw grimly as the stair creaked uneasily, mustered her courage, and began the long journey downwards.
Every hundred stairs was a landing, crumbling, worm eaten, condition worsening with every downward flight traversed. The stone walls gave way to wooden walls, rotten earth littering the slippery, roughly hewn rock stairs after about five landings. The torch continued to burn with uneasy flame, flickering shadows making her nauseous, light barely penetrating the expectant darkness. Addisonís courage became sorely tried, as her disquiet grew.
After she had reached the tenth landing, she went down five more stairs, and reached the solid, rotten earth of a central passage. The light of the flickering torch became less noticeable, as an otherworldly light shone into uneasy view at the end of the long passage.
She eyed the light, itís shine hideous, feeling even queasier as shadows the colour of rotten flesh danced and drew themselves out longer than the eye could comfortably handle. She tried hard not to look, and grimly stumbled down the passage, past black passages on the left and the right, shrouded cells with troubled skeletal inhabitants.
The cell with the light source drew her close. She sheathed her sword, needing both hands to steady her torch.
She entered it on rubbery legs, barely able to function through the nausea gripping her, twisting her gut. On a pedestal in the center of the huge cell, sat the ring. It was a wooden ring, once polished, now black and almost ruined through lack of care. In staring at this spectacle, she did not dare look at the source of the light, physically unable to do so anyway.
As she staggered to the pedestal and took the ring, she suddenly became aware of the sinking temperature of the room, and that the light had transformed her flesh into the fearful black and greenish tinge of a corpse. Stomach rebelling, she whirled and saw a shrouded figure, not six feet from her, ten feet in height, starting to moan, a deep tortured sound, gaining in strength and volume, grotesquely eager for her life force.
She yelped at the sight, as the wraith glided straight for her, siren song of pain and misery freezing her legs. It began to reach out for her, howling red eyes snaring her, as the tears flowed from her eyes, life slowly leaching out of her body. She knew that one touch from the wraith was lethal, but could not make herself move to escape onslaught.
Then, from behind her, she dimly heard a voice saying, "Run."
Focusing all her might on the voice, she whirled, haltingly backing away from the wraith, spell broken at the sound of the silky, confident voice.
"Who is that?" she whispered, unable to speak louder.
"Itís me, the cat," came the impatient voice, as the large cat sauntered casually into view.
"I didnít know you could talk," said Addison shakily, confused, urgent.
"You didnít ask," responded the cat shortly, hissing and spitting, eyeing the wraith calculatingly with feral yellow eyes narrowed into slits. "Now, RUN!"
The wraith swung towards the cat, which stood firm in the face of the spectral being, luxurious black fur standing full on end, poised to spring. He inched around the edge of the cell, away from Addison, wraith eagerly tracking it. As cat and wraith moved, Addison saw she had a clear passage to the door. Still grasping her torch, she slipped the ring onto her thumb, and ran full steam back out of the cell, the way she had come, ignoring the ugly shadows, torch seemingly glued to her hand.
The cat hissed and spat and growled fiercely behind her, as the wraithís moaning gained in volume and eagerness.
Though her stressed legs hated her for it, she leapt up the stairs two at a time, past the landings, and finally stopped to rest on an uncounted landing, chest heaving, sweat pouring out of her, torch guttering grimly. She was again bathed in an unearthly glow, and barreled back up the stairs, heart slamming in her chest, vision graying from the exertion. She could think of nothing but taking the stairs one step at a time, as fast as her legs would let her.
Every time she stopped to rest, the glow crept and gained in strength again, and she had to run from the wraith.
Finally she reached the top landing, lungs afire, chest heaving, vision spotted with black.
With a trembling hand, she held up the torch and studied the door. There was no handle.
"Open the door!" screamed the welcome voice of the cat from behind her. Dimly she was amazed she hadnít noticed he was behind her, and very grateful he was still alive.
"How?" she screamed back. "Thereís no handle!"
"Sink your fingers into the wood and pull!"
She did as she was told. Gulping, she closed her eyes, and thrust her hand forward. It closed easily around a handle, and she pulled with all her might, stumbling backward as it opened towards her. The unearthly glow was getting stronger, the dreadful soul freezing moaning gaining once again in volume and strength.
She launched herself through the doorway, as the cat shot through her legs, and she fell in an ungraceful bruised heap in the dusty courtyard, door slamming shut behind them, breathing heavily, throat aching, legs unwilling to carry her any further. Finally her stomach caught up with her, and she vomited until she felt as though her insides were trying to escape.
The cat flopped down next to her, eyeing her in alarm, as the door bent outwards, and the surreal, enraged screaming of the thwarted wraith increased in fever and intensity behind them.
Addison studied the door with alarm, adrenaline coursing through her system again, ready to flee no matter what her abused senses thought. The cat looked on, unruffled, cleaning itís whiskers.
"Is that door going to break?" she asked anxiously.
"No," said the cat easily. "The door is enchanted. It keeps the wraith in, and guests out."
"How was I able to get through?" she asked, as she digested this information.
"Getting in is the easy part, the door will open for anyone. Getting out is the hard part. I am the guardian of the door. Itís my decision whether to let you out or not."
Addison eyed the cat in shock, scalp crawling. "Thankyou," she said, meaning it.
"Youíre welcome," the cat replied smugly, grinning.
"Why did you come for me? Why let me out?" Addison was not sure she wanted to know, but thought she should ask.
"You are the first person who has ever shown me any kindness," replied the cat, eyes glittering at her intently, grooming forgotten.
"I canít believe no one ever gave a creature as lovely as yourself any kindness at all," she said, unbelievingly, eyeing the big creatureís beauty.
The catís face creased into a smile, yellow eyes flashing, fangs bared. "Thankyou dear one. If ever you need my help, simply call for the cat, and I will come." He bounded off gracefully, out of the courtyard and towards the forest.
"Thankyou cat," said Addison softly. She looked at the still protesting door, howls of the wraith becoming less vicious as the sound began to fade away, the wraith returning to itís lair in the bowels of the earth, thwarted.
Truly revolted by the decaying, abandoned castle, Addison picked her aching body up out of the dirt, and with gladness in her heart, left the ruined castle.
She carefully went down the steep green slope leading away from the castle, once again entering the rampant green forest, and fought her way through the thick, ferny undergrowth to her peacefully grazing horse. She carefully packed the ring into her saddlebags, mounted her horse, and headed back to the tree. On the way back, she stopped overnight by a swiftly flowing, clear stream. Woken in the morning by the sunlight shining into her face, breaking her uneasy slumber, she washed her filthy clothes and body as best she could.
Finally she reached the tree again, exhausted and starving. She had not found anything to eat, except for some berries in an overgrown patch, growing wild by the side of the rarely used road. Exhausted, she crawled into the hollow formed by the treeís protective roots, and fell into a deep sleep, over the gnawing, growling emptiness of her stomach.
She soon found herself once again with the shining light.
"Addison," came the gentle quiet voice, soothing her, surrounding her.
"Iím here," she said, prone once more, unwilling to allow the cleansing, glowing light see her ugliness.
"Did you get the ring?"
"I have it," she said, thinking of it safely encased in her saddlebags.
"Thankyou Addison," sighed the voice, full of warmth. "Next, you must fetch my crown."
"Where is it?"
"Two days ride from here you will find a lake. Under the water in the center of the lake you will find the crown."
"I will do as you have asked."
With that, Addison again found herself leaving the peaceful place, to awake fully refreshed and no longer hungry. Purposefully, she mounted her horse and set off for the lake.
She rode through the thick forest two days, dense foliage on both sides of the narrow twisting almost forgotten road, eating what she could find along the way. Finally, the flourishing forest became less dense, and she found herself on a lush green grass, overlooking an unwholesome shallow lake. It was surrounded by almost impenetrable forest on three sides, and a sheer sandy rock face on the fourth side. She made her way to the lake, stopping when she was standing at the slimy waterís edge in front of brown and dead reeds, falling limply into the murky, oily water. She grimaced in disgust at the sulphurous smell and muttered, "Here goes nothing."
She took a couple of steps back, ran forward, took a deep breath and launched herself into the soured water with a heavy splash. Her body swiftly became covered in the greenish slime of the algae infested water. With powerful strokes, she pulled herself down into the water.
As she sank further into the murky water, she felt cold, strong hands on all sides, drawing her down. She began to panic as her lungs begged her for fresh, clean air. Down and down they pulled to unknowable depths as her oxygen-starved brain finally gave in and the world went black as she lost consciousness.
When she awoke, she became aware of a cold hardness beneath her wet back, warm, damp, fishy air around her. She slowly opened her eyes, drawing a deep breath into her protesting lungs, trying to make out shapes in the dimness. Her head pounded abusively at her, body aching from the journey down into the lake, protesting mightily as she tried to sit up.
Slowly her eyes adjusted to the dimness, and she made out the room she was in. It was circular, with long dirty white pillars stretching from floor to ceiling in the dampness, four doorways leading out into slimy, darkly unknowable corridors. She looked down at what she had been lying on, and saw with a start that it was a grayish white stone altar, slimy from the airís fetid dampness. She turned, and about six feet behind her was another column, waist height, neglected, tarnished crown resting easily on top.
She pulled herself heavily off the altar, and had not taken one step towards the crown on wobbly legs when figures appeared from the shadows. Slithering and sliding towards her were odd, greenish silver, scaly half people on malformed flippers, gills showing clearly on the sides of their thick necks, unclean whitish eyes shining blindly at her. Their croaky voices whispered all around her.
"We want you - "
"To be one of us - "
"No," said Addison firmly, struggling to control her revulsion at the wet, slapping sounds as they flopped around, encircling her. The voices quieted in fits and starts.
"I want the crown," she said, voice firm, not revealing her inner struggle to control her stomach.
"No - "
"You may not - "
"Have the crown - "
"We want you - "
"To join with us - "
With a cry of disgust, she avoided the slippery, cold, slimy fingers tearing at her tattered clothes. She drew her rusty old sword, slapping the flopping and flapping creatures away from her, hilt sinking into the soft, noxious flesh of her captors. She felt her shirt tear, as she slid from one hard grasp, tripped and grabbed the crown off the pedestal. Instantly the room began to groan and creak, and the voices became triumphant.
"You should not - "
"Have done that - "
"Now you will - "
"Have to join us - "
A thin stream of water flowed through one corner of the ceiling of the room, slimy greenish black water streaming down the wall.
The hands renewed their efforts, as Addison began to swing her sword, cutting through soft flesh, slaying the guardians of the crown as they flopped and slapped all around her. Soon the room was flowing with thin, icy red blood as the fish people we slain. The cracking and groaning of protesting supports began to increase as she clutched the crown to her body, trying to kill more invaders, replenishing numbers slowly overcoming her. The stench of rotting fish began to overpower her, and she gagged. Great fountains of water jetted through the ever widening cracks in the walls, filling the room, and Addisonís panic rose as the water level in the temple rose with the jets of filth pouring through the splintered walls.
She put the crown on her head, and it sank clean over, to land around her neck. She sheathed her sword, needing both hands free to float in the putrescence, still struggling to keep clear of the ever increasing number of assailants. Rock exploded inwards midway up the most rotten wall of the temple, the gaping hole rapidly being covered by fouled water. Addison kicked and flailed trying to avoid the hands clutching her possessively. They began to scatter as the unearthly light in the temple began to fade into nothingness.
Struggling not to gag, she sucked a mighty breath of fishy air into her lungs and dived through the hole. The rushing water sapped much of her strength, but she fought her way through, captors temporarily losing her. She blew out a thin stream of bubbles to orient herself, following them upwards.
Just when she thought she was going to pass out, she exploded through the surface of the stagnant water, sucking in huge lung full's of blessedly sulphurous air. The water below her feet began to swirl uneasily, and she felt the feather light touches of the half people, trying desperately to grasp her feet.
She grimly pulled her way through the water with powerful strokes, cloying touches maddeningly just behind and below her. When she reached the dead reeds of the shore, she dragged herself out of the water, coughing, almost dead from the exertion. Behind her, the water foamed as the quasi people attempted to catch her. They began to emerge from the water, slippery hands blindly thrust forward to grab her, as she hurriedly drew her sword and swung again. The blunt, rusty blade met soft, rotten flesh, whispers and murmurs turning to grunts of pain.
Slowly she hacked and struggled her way to her nervous steed, no longer grazing on the lush grass. She dragged herself into the saddle, kicking and flailing as the horde attempted to drag her off the horse. The horse, for once willing to move at a pace above an amble, ran out of the meadow, Addison hanging on for dear life, back into the lush forest. At the borders of the forest, her captors stopped, seemingly unable to pursue her. The whispers turned to bubbly, creaky cries of anguish as she slipped away from them.
She stopped at a stream to wash some of the slime off her, unable to abide itís rotten stench, but it would not come off. It stayed on as thick as ever, much to her everlasting revulsion. She packed the crown into her saddlebags, near to the ring.
Tired, filthy and starved, she slowly rode back to the tree, head bowed.
Once at its graceful trunk, she sank down into a deep sleep.
"Addison," came the now familiar voice, caressing her name.
"Yes?" She was grateful she could not look up at the unearthly beauty of the clean, golden light.
"Do you have my crown?"
"I have your crown," she mumbled, ashamed of her filthiness, unconsciously curling her body in a futile attempt to keep her odor and vile appearance to herself.
The voice was warm, gentle, non judgmental. "Thankyou Addison. Now you must seek my sword."
"Where is it?"
"In the center of the forest, you will find a witch. She has my sword. You must also bring back a cup of her brew."
"I will do as you have asked." For once she was glad to leave the voice, deeply ashamed of her disreputable state.
With that, Addison woke up, refreshed and well fed.
She got up off the forgiving ground, and mounted her horse.
She took an almost disused road leading away from the tree, and rode for approximately half a day, until the forest began to peter out, and a rundown cottage with dim windows and flaking faded paint peeling off the walls like shedding dry skin, came into view.
Addison made sure the crown and the ring were securely stowed away in her saddlebags, and she let the horse go. It wandered safely off into the forest, in search of food.
Gamely, she made her way into the clearing and up to the hovel. She knocked on the rotted door, expecting it to splinter under her blows, hearing creaking and rustling from inside. Eventually, the door was flung open, and an extraordinarily ugly old hag peered out. She was ancient, bent; her shriveled face half eaten by sores, pus running freely down her wrinkled face.
"Dear sweet Addison," the hideous old bag crooned with her rusty voice, displaying yellow tusks, rarely used smile causing great weeping cracks to appear in her face. "You have been sent for the sword, havenít you?"
"Yes, I have," said Addison, rattled and revolted at the spectacle and evil smell of the crone, trying to sound confident. "Where have you hidden it?"
"I havenít hidden it anywhere," cackled the old woman, liquid drizzling down the seams in her neck. "All you have to do is take it off my champion. You will be given three tries."
From behind her wizened body appeared a clean Knight in shining silvery armor. He stepped arrogantly out from around her, brushing her aside, sizing up his opponent as he unsheathed his sword. Addison stared at him with grim eyes, acutely aware of her rusty sword and battered armor.
"HAH!" yelled the knight, and swung an almost six foot sword at her. As she backed away, she drew her sword and defended herself, praying the rusty weapon would not shatter.
The fight began.
Addison lunged and defended, hacked and slashed at the knight. He easily caught all her moves, and almost hacked her to ribbons. Finally he smashed her with one heavily gauntlet fist, and she collapsed in a bruised and unconscious heap, more dead than alive.
When she finally woke up again, the clearing was empty, hovel and knight gone. Addison, bleeding freely from a dozen cuts, dragged herself back into the forest. She feasted on what roots she could find in the nourishing earth, and fell into a deep sleep.
At dawn of the next day, she awoke again, and took in the sad state of her armor. She had several deep sword cuts to her arms and legs, and her armor was dented and scratched, but no worse than it had been before. She checked her sword, sharpening away itís bluntness as best she could with her crumbling whetstone, then grimly strode out to the clearing where her opponent was waiting for her.
Again, they fought for the entire day, Addison trying determinedly to hurt him, but to no avail. Every blow she landed healed itself instantly, as the witch looked on and cackled in glee, amusement growing by the minute. Finally, after a particularly ringing blow, her sword shattered and she staggered, only to be felled by a mighty blow from the evil knightís fist.
When she came to again, bruised, battered and bleeding freely again, she dragged herself off into the forest, clutching the hilt of her broken sword, back to her faithful horse who nuzzled her in greeting. Exhausted, she put her arms around her knees, and began to cry her heart out.
"Oh cat," she whispered. "You told me to call if I ever needed help. I need help."
She looked down as more tears trickled from her eyes.
"Addison," came the soft voice of the cat, slinking into the clearing, and rubbing itís huge head against her bloody, slimy body.
She threw her tired and dirty arms around its neck and cried into the thick fur.
"Iím so miserable, cat," she sobbed.
"What the matter?" responded the cat.
"I have to fight a knight, and I know I canít win," she sobbed.
"Yes you can," said the cat. "I have been watching your other battles. The knightís weakness is his blindness and his heart."
"What?" asked Addison, shocked.
"The knight is blind. He is tracking you by smell and by sound. Unfortunately the witch has enchanted the knight. He does not need his sight, as she has enhanced his other senses. With these gifts, he will never lose a battle. The only way he can be killed is if his heart is torn from his body."
Addison eyed her slime covered body, winced at her ever present obnoxious odor and sighed miserably.
"How on earth am I going to stop him? This mess wonít come off my body, and my armor is all thatís protecting me."
"Remove your armor - it will do you no good. Leave the rest to me."
The cat began to purr, and Addisonís eyes became heavier as the rhythmic sound sent her off to a deep sleep.
When she woke the next morning, the cat was gone and her armor was off. Blushing, she realised she was in her almost non existent underwear. She studied her arms, noticing they were covered in a layer of soil. She wiped it experimentally, and noticed that it would not come off, even when she spat on it. She suddenly took a deep breath, nose telling her that for the first time since the lake, that disgusting, fishy smell was gone. Grinning, she picked up her sadly truncated sword, kissed her surprised horse on the muzzle, and ran off to the clearing to kill the knight.
The knight was there to greet her, as he had always been. But this time, when she advanced towards him in eerie silence, he did not move. Surpressing the urge to yell her battle cry, she launched herself at him, and sprang through his lowered defenses. He crashed to the ground, her on top, and they began rolling in the dirt. She slashed at him with her broken sword, and like a hot knife through butter, sliced through his armor to his unprotected chest below. She cut deep into his chest, and pierced his heart, strong beat steadily failing, then coming to a reluctant end.
The witch abruptly stopped cackling as the armored body grew still.
Splashed by the fountaining blood, Addison hauled herself to her feet and strode purposefully toward the witch.
"Addison, you must cut out his heart!" cried the cat, which had reappeared during the course of the battle, running towards the twitching knight. Addisonís turn to the cat was what undoubtedly saved her life as the cat loped towards the now sitting knight. He had enough time to weakly grasp his sword and hurl it towards to the frozen Addison. She felt the wind of itís passing by her body, as it impaled the witch.
The cat tackled the knight, slamming him back into the earth, then roared and launched itís head into the bleeding chest, to reappear seconds later with the bloody, beating pierced heart still beating in itís jaws. The knight uttered a high mewling sound, which slowly faded to silence as the prone body protestingly twitched and died.
The witch screamed at the same time, body suppurating and falling apart at the seams. She finally burst with a wet bang, coating the hovel, the body of the knight, Addison and the cat in thick stinking clots of drying blood and putrid flesh. Addison felt oddly weak as she pawed the hideous substances off her face. On unsteady legs, she made her way, grabbing the miraculously clean and shining sword, on into the stinking, cluttered hovel. Blinking in the doorway for several seconds while her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she quickly spied the black pot bubbling over the fire, obnoxious stench forcing itís way greasily into her lungs.
She grabbed a semi clean bowl from a dirty, cluttered table nearby. Careful not to get any of the foul liquid on her body, she filled the bowl, and staggered out of the hovel on steadily weakening legs.
"Letís get out of here," she said to the shell shocked cat, who stared at her, uncomprehendingly, blood dripping from its muzzle.
The cat followed her meekly as she made her way to her horse. She felt fresh liquid dribbling down her side, and for the first time realised that the sword she was holding had torn open her side. Through the steadily increasing pain, she moaned, "The knight has killed me."
"Youíre not dead yet," said the cat gamely. "We must get back to the tree. Hurry!"
So saying, the cat forced the dying young woman back onto her unhappy horse. He made her tie herself to the saddle and they set off into the forest, back to the tree, the bowl safely carried in his mouth, sword tied to the side of the horse.
Addisonís limbs had stopped obeying her, and her consciousness faded in and out. By the time they had reached the stream, her side was a solid wall of blazing agony through which thick blackish blood continued to ooze at a slow, steady rate. They could not stop; Addison was almost gone, determination to help the gentle loving voice was all that spurred her on.
Finally they reached the tree, and Addison fell off her horse, old rope tying her to the saddle snapping, to the base of the tree, and knew no more as she sank into unconsciousness.
"Addison," came the concerned velvety voice, surrounding her in warmth and love. "Hurry! There isnít much time. You must take the crown and hang it on the tree. Place the sword with the ring on the earth at the roots of the trunk, and pour the brew over it. Hurry!"
The urgency in the voice was undeniable, and Addison was unable to do more than grunt her assent. She was so weak, almost dead, and doubted her body would cooperate long enough for her to do what was being asked of her.
There was a sudden strong pain in her leg, and she opened her eyes, face grayish white, and whispered for the cat to stop chewing on her leg.
"We need Ö to place Ö the crown Ö on a branch Ö sword Ö ring Ö at roots Ö brew over Ö sword Ö ring Ö" her voice trailed off, too weak to continue.
The old horse surprisingly and obliging held still as the cat clawed the saddlebags off with the sword tied safely to their side. He dragged them over to the semi conscious Addison. He nipped her in the leg again.
It was will power alone that got her to her knees as her clumsy fingers clawed the objects free from their casing. On her knees, she took the crown in her shaking arms, lifting the heavy object and placing it on a knothole. She pushed the sword and the ring to the roots of the tree that had sheltered her, and as she collapsed knocking the bowl from the anxious catís mouth, spilling itís contents all over the sword and the ring.
She forced air into and out of her slowing lungs, as her vision darkened. She felt the distant embrace of death, as the last drops of blood began to ooze from her malnourished, abused body.
Slowly, Addison began to hear voices around her as she surfaced towards consciousness. Her eyes opened as the voices abruptly vanished, and she felt rather than saw that she was lying in a clean bed, clean clothes lying neatly folded at the end of the bed.
Wide eyed, she stared all around her. She was in a huge four poster bed, costly silks draped all around her. For the first time she noticed her state of undress as the soft covers fell from her body as she sat up. She peered down at herself, noticing that most of the cuts had faded to thin scars, the sword wound in her side a shallowly scabbed cut.
Forgetting modesty, she swung her legs over the side of the bed, hoping to quickly crawl into her clothes and escape before the people who had put her here threw her out, as others had done so often in the past. Glancing around her, she pulled on the new shirt and breeches, tugged on the new boots, and stealthily made her way through the ornate, airy, bright room to the heavy wooden door, to sneak out.
At that moment, the door opened, and like a deer in hunterís sights, she froze, knowing the time for cruelty had come. She bowed her head low, waiting to be evicted as the garbage she felt she was.
"Ahh, youíre awake and dressed," said an all too familiar voice.
"Cat!" exclaimed Addison, daring to look up, seeing a tall black haired man with startling yellow eyes looking kindly down at her. His skin was pale and luminous, face clean shaven, dressed in a neat, clean uniform.
"Yes, Addison, it's me," he said, deep voice kind. "Iím very glad Iím not a cat anymore, and I am very deeply grateful you helped our kingdom and our gentle queen."
"Oh," said Addison, seeing a chance to flee. "Thatís no bother at all. Iíll just be on my way now. Places to go, people to see - "
"Nonsense," said the man firmly. "My Queen would never forgive me if she knew I let you go."
Addison bowed her head, unwilling to let the kind man see her distress. The urge to flee was very strong.
She heard him suck in breath, felt him bow low. "Your Majesty," he said, flustered. "I was going to bring Addison to you Ö"
"Thank you," came the smooth voice from Addisonís dreams, as she sank to her knees, unwilling to look up.
"I would like to speak to Addison."
Again, the man bowed low, and left.
The gentle presence came further into the room, to stand directly in front of Addison. She found herself staring into the skirts of a long, finely crafted white dress.
"Itís okay," mumbled Addison. "Iíll just be leaving you now. Iíll get out of your way. Thank you for the clothes."
She tried to sidestep the figure, but a strong, gentle hand on her shoulder stopped her.
"Addison," came the soft voice of the glowing light.
She looked downwards, unwilling to let the owner of that luscious voice see her face.
"Addison, look at me," came the gentle, feminine voice insistently.
Still Addison hung her head. "I canít," she said, in her darkest nightmare of shame at having to face the rejection of the golden voiced creature.
The other long fingered hand cupped her chin very gently forcing her to look up.
She was staring into the face of perfection. It was a very tall woman, with a flood of black hair tumbling down her back, held back from her face by a simple gold crown. She had the high cheekbones and pointed ears of an elf. The sapphire eyes burned into her with love, trapping her, pinning her, never wanting to let her go. Hands gently grasped her numbed shoulders and guided her to her feet, sweet perfume filling her lungs.
"I think you are the most beautiful elf I have ever laid my eyes on," she said, love for Addison flowing through her crystalline eyes. "I love you as much as I did when I married you."
"How on earth could you ever love as ugly a creature as me?" asked Addison, aching, tears pooling in her eyes, wanting against all odds to believe the elven woman. Suddenly the Queenís words registered, and shock stilled her heart for an instant. "What do you mean, married?"
"You are the Elf King, and I am the Elf Queen," she said, putting a strong arm around Addison, pulled her in close and guided her towards the mirror, bathed in the golden sunshine of the castle in the Elven forest.
Holding her, loving her, the Elven Queen put her in front of the mirror.
For an instant Addison stared at the reflection of the two of them together, safely held in the Queenís arms. It was different to what she remembered. Instead of a short pudgy girl with stringy blonde hair, she saw a woman with shining golden hair, fair complexion, and arresting luminous green eyes. She twisted her hair to the side, and saw the pointed ears of an elf.
The Elf Queenís strong arms slipped around Addisonís waist, turning her, and she found herself mesmerized as the Queenís ruby lips slowly, gently brushed hers. She craved the contact, and pulled the Queens head down as she deepened the kiss. As the passion increased, the floodgates to memory opened, and the Queenís strong arms held her, steadied her, as she staggered. "I remember," she said softly, pausing as she processed the images that were flooding her mind. "Balthazar the human magician came to us, and fell in love with you. You would not be parted from me, so he cursed us and our lands, and split us up for all time."
The elegant Queenís face creased into a white smile. "Iím so glad you couldnít stay away from me. The otherworld he exiled me to was unbearable without you."
Addison, the Elven King, snorted, then smirked. "You should have seen what he did to me. He turned me into a human child and left me with human parents. They detested me. Up until now, my life has been miserable. I also donít think our Captain of the Guard appreciated being turned into a cat."
The Queen gave her sultry laugh, and pulled Addison in close again. "Itís been so long," she murmured, and leant down to claim her loveís lips in a long and hungry kiss. Passion overwhelmed them, and they urgently shed their clothes as they staggered over to the bed to reacquaint themselves with one another.
The elven forest slowly recovered from the curse of the magician Balthazar, and the elves chose not to reintroduce themselves to their short-lived human neighbors, preferring to fade into myth. They searched for Balthazar, and when they finally found news of him, they discovered he had been killed in a battle with a Knight, after foolishly taking her kingdom. Addison sent word to the humans who had fostered her, letting them know all was well, and she was still alive, but they did not deign to respond to her, fearing that she had finally gone mad.
And they all lived happily ever after.
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