Violence Warning - This story depicts scenes of violence. A salamander is killed, and a gate is badly damaged. You are warned.
Subtext / Sex - A woman kisses another woman's hand at the end. I don't think this is illegal even in the state of Oklahoma, but if it's going to disturb you, you should probably skip this story.
All comments are welcomed at: Gunhilda@ionet.net
The Captain was radioing for a pick-up as Jane took a look around her. While low winds and high humidity were helping the fire fighters, the tinder-dry brush and tall oak trees of Blaylock Park were ready to explode at the slightest touch of flames in the broiling afternoon heat. She frowned, spotting what appeared to be a column of smoke rising from the hilltop behind them.
"Hey Cap," she said pointing. "Looks like we may have a spot fire behind us."
"Damn," he said, looking. "Not much we can do about it without water or shovels. Check it out, would you? That's a picnic area up there. With any luck it'll just be somebody's abandoned barbecue." He handed her a radio. "Give me a call when you get a fix on it so I can contact CP if we need any help."
"Right-O," Jane said, groaning inwardly, and hefted her ax. Dutifully she trudged up the hillside in her heavy turnouts and boots. She was still wearing her SCBA, needed earlier, which only made the steep climb even worse.
When finally she pushed through the last tangle of brush to step onto the short grass of the picnic area, she stopped to catch her breath and assess the situation. The top of the hill was ringed in a perfect circle of fire. Through the leaping flames she could just see what appeared to be a girl lying asleep on her back on top of the picnic table at the very crest of the hill.
Jane ran forward, waving her arms and ax. "Hey!!" she shouted. "Wake up!! What do you think you're doing?!! Wake up!!"
When the heat from the flames became too much to bear, she stopped. The girl still hadn't moved. But then, neither had the flames. It appeared as if the fire had been deliberately set using gasoline or some other flammable liquid to form a perfect circle around the picnic table.
"Hey!" she shouted again, then pulled out her radio. "Hey Cap, this is Jane. You gotta copy?"
"Yeah, Jane, I gotcha. Whadda we have?"
"Looks like a gasoline fire - round the top of the hill. It's not spreading fast, but there's a girl trapped in the center. Can you get a rig up here, pronto? I'm going in for her."
She could imagine the profuse swearing on the other end that must surely have greeted this announcement, but all that came across the radio was her Captain's "10-4." She snapped up her coat, and pulled on her SCBA mask, turned on her tank, and took a deep breath of bottled air. She then picked up her ax and walked through the flames.
The heat was intense even through her turnouts, reaffirming her belief that some synthetic fuel was burning. Short grass didn't burn that hot or produce seven-foot flames. When she stepped clear of the flames on the other side, she turned off her tank and disconnected her regulator as she approached the picnic table. The girl still hadn't moved, but her rather immodest paper-thin white dress blew slightly in the smoky breeze, and her unusually long reddish blonde hair spilled over the sides of the table. Jane approached her cautiously, looking for any indication as to why she might be unconscious. Her skin was deathly pale, and Jane noticed with growing alarm that she did not appear to be breathing. Could this be some kind of ritual suicide?!
She ripped off her mask and pulled off her gloves. "Hey miss!" she shouted, roughly shaking the girl's shoulder. Jane noted that her skin, at least, was still warm to touch. "You all right, Miss?" she asked.
When the girl still did not respond, Jane put her ear to the girl's mouth and watched to see if her chest was rising and falling. She neither heard, felt, nor saw any indication that the girl was breathing. "Damn!" She pinched the girl's nose closed and started to do mouth to mouth resuscitation.
The moment her lips closed over the girl's mouth, however, the world seemed to lurch, and Jane's stomach heaved as she grabbed onto the picnic table for support only to discover it wasn't there. She collapsed to her knees instead, holding her head in her hands to keep it from exploding. A thousand explanations for her sudden illness ran through her agonized mind: heat exhaustion, carbon monoxide poisoning, stroke, heart attack... all she knew was that her entire being felt like it was being torn inside-out then reassembled upside down and backwards.
Then, as abruptly as the sensation started, it ended. For a moment she couldn't believe she was still alive. The pain had been so intense, the nausea so overpowering... Slowly she opened her eyes. The girl was lying on the stone floor in front of her, eyes still closed, her face peaceful and pale. Jane noted rather distantly that she was extraordinarily beautiful.
Jane did a sudden mental double take. Stone floor? She was kneeling in the center of a large, round, stone room with a high vaulted ceiling. The walls were covered in colorful tapestries, and the white marble floor had a black spiral starting in the center which spun out wards to the walls. It looked remarkably like something out of a medieval castle, and as she looked around dazedly, a young boy dressed in particolored tights leapt to his feet and ran out of the room, slamming the heavy wooden door behind him.
Jane pushed back her nomex hood and ran her fingers through her short, sweat matted hair. Okay. There was nothing familiar here. No picnic table. No Blaylock Park. No company 22. No fire, even.
Okay, simple, she thought. She was dead. Or maybe just delirious. In a coma or something. That had to be it. She was unconscious. She'd had heat stroke or a heart attack back on the hill, and her mind had wandered off into this fantastic dreamland.
"Great hero, your kiss has awakened me from sleep," said a husky voice, and Jane's attention snapped back to the girl.
She had pushed herself up on one elbow and was smiling at Jane shyly.
"Say what?" Jane asked, wiping her forehead, distracted by the clarity of the girl's emerald green eyes.
The girl's smile faltered for just a moment as if some disturbing thought had crossed her mind, but said again, "Your kiss has awakened me from sleep, great hero. I thank you."
Jane thought that her dream was taking a rather bizarre turn. "I... uh... I didn't kiss you. I didn't think you were breathing, so I was trying to give you mouth to mouth."
The girl pushed herself up to her knees, staring at Jane in amazement. "You.... you're a woman!"
Jane bit back her initial angry reply. "You got a problem with that?" she asked instead. It wasn't like women weren't serving in fire departments all across the country!
The girl blinked at her with innocent eyes for a moment, then covered her mouth with her hand, muffling what sounded suspiciously like a giggle. "No," she said seriously from behind her hand, shaking her head slowly. Her green eyes watched Jane with something akin to fear and awe.
"Good," Jane said. "I don't need that kinda crap right now." She sighed heavily, and looked around the room again. "Listen, I don't suppose you know what's going on here, do you? Like, am I dead or something? Where the heck are we?"
The girl stood up gracefully and shook her head. "No, you're not dead," she said, and Jane realized that there was something strange about the way the she was talking. She said something else, and Jane noted that the sounds issuing from the her mouth did not match her lip movements. It was like watching a movie with the soundtrack out of sync, or a foreign movie dubbed in English. It was unreal to see it coming from a person standing in front of her.
"What is your name?" the girl asked again when Jane didn't answer.
"Oh, uh, I'm Jane. Jane Brunovski. With the Tulsa Fire Department. And, uh... you are?"
The girl curtsied so low and elegantly that Jane marveled she didn't strain something. "I am Princess Liadin, youngest daughter of King Melion the Third; your humble and eternal servant."
Jane chuckled. Too bad she wasn't Lucy Lawless or Reneé O'Connor. She could have handled either one of those two as her "humble and eternal servant." Still, a princess was rather intriguing, and now that she thought about it, she rather resembled Reneé.
At that moment the heavy wooden door flew open and into the room stepped a tall, gray-haired man who looked vaguely like Sir Lawrence Olivier playing the part of Shakespeare's Hamlet, only older. Behind him processed a long line of somber looking old men with gray beards wearing floor-length white robes. To Jane, they looked suspiciously like a senior citizen's chapter of the KKK.
"Welcome, hero, to Castle Grumfield," Hamlet said, gesturing expansively with his arms, smiling at her broadly. "I hope you find my daughter to your liking."
Something in his attitude reminded Jane of a used-car salesman about to try to sell her an El Camino. "She seems like a nice enough person," she said slowly. "Why the heck do y'all keep calling me `hero'?"
"You're a woman!" the man exclaimed in horror, and almost as one, the old men took an involuntary step backwards. The shocked intake of breath was audible in the high vaulted room.
Jane took a firmer grip on her ax. "Yeah, and what's the problem with that?!"
When no one else seemed willing to speak, the Princess answered in a meek voice, "You're supposed to want to marry me."
The Princess looked at her father, but he still stood unmoving, his face alternating between shades of crimson and white.
"You see," she continued, "the ring of fire was to test your courage. The Wizards sent me to world after world throughout the dimensions in order to find the one who can help us. We need a hero who is able - and unafraid - to walk through fire without the aid of magic. When you saw me, you came to me, just as the Wizards had hoped some hero would do. It was your kiss of love that brought us back to the castle Spiral. Once here, my father was to offer you my hand in marriage if you would but perform a heroic deed to save our troubled kingdom."
Jane rubbed her forehead, trying to make sense out of the insanity of it all. "Let me get this straight... You and your fire circle have been bouncing around the universe for... God only knows how long?... trying to trap some Hercules into giving you a kiss?"
The Princess nodded her head gravely.
Jane frowned. "OK... I guess that makes a warped sort of sense. So what's this heroic deed you need someone to do?"
Hamlet stepped forward, chin held high, composure regained. "We need a great warrior to slay a salamander."
Jane's mind flew back to her childhood when she found a four-inch spotted salamander under a rock in a stream bed while on vacation to upstate New York. She'd kept him in a terrarium for five years feeding him worms. She decided she must be missing something. "You got some weird allergy to amphibians or something?"
They stared at her uncomprehending, and Jane wondered if the foreign movie soundtrack had just blipped. "Salamanders.... amphibians.... you know.... small slimy critters that live under rocks.... kinda like frogs....?"
"Are you mocking us?" the King asked.
"Mocking you? Oh no...! If you need me to kill a salamander for you, I suspect I could probably do it...."
"We could not allow a woman to put herself into such grave peril. It would shame us all."
Jane had heard similar words far too often from "men-of-the-old-school" who had protested long and loud against allowing women into the fire service. "Listen, bub," she began, not caring one whit if he was a king and could probably have her head chopped off for lesser offenses than being rude to him, "I'm not afraid of any stupid salamander! Hell, I'd fight a demon for you if you wanted! Where I come from, women are allowed to be heroes... and a lot of them do a damn good job of it!"
They stared at her in a variety of shocked, stunned, disbelieving, and appalled expressions.
It was Hamlet who recovered himself first. "You'd fight a demon, you say? Salamander fire is twice as hot as demons' breath, and you'd have no help of magic in this quest. You carry an ax. Do you know how to use it?"
The question took Jane by surprise. To chop down trees... cut through roofs... pry open doors.... But killing monsters? All this talk of demons and fire was suddenly making her a bit nervous, despite her show of bravado. Still, how much trouble could something called a "salamander" be? She nodded firmly.
"Is it enchanted?"
"You mean... like magic?"
"Is there any other sort?"
Jane wondered if she was really and truly losing her mind. "TFD doesn't feel the need to...uh, enchant its tools... But it's steel. An iron alloy. Stronger than iron, actually."
The graybeards muttered amongst themselves at this announcement, and several of them nodded their heads approvingly.
The King, too, nodded. "I must consult with the council of Wizards," he said, looking at the old men. "Liadin, please keep our guest company for a moment." With that he strode to the door, the Wizards trailing after him like so many ducklings, and together they streamed out of the room leaving Jane and the Princess alone again.
The Princess looked at Jane shyly. "Do you know what a salamander is? They are large, with claws and teeth... Very dangerous..."
Jane tried to picture her pet salamander as a fire-breathing monster and failed entirely. She shrugged. "So? I'm willing to give it a shot. None of this is probably real, anyway, so what the hey?"
"But I assure you, it is real! You could be killed!"
"Yeah, and I could be run over by a bus tomorrow, too. Being a hero is part of my job description, OK?"
The princess looked at her worshipfully and opened her mouth to reply, but the door was thrown open with a boom, interrupting her. Hamlet reentered followed by his flock.
As he began to speak, his ears blushed bright scarlet. "Because we are in such desperate straits, we have decided to allow you to attempt this deed... if you are still willing, that is," he added in a rush.
Jane rolled her eyes. "Just show me where the damn thing is."
Hamlet's mouth snapped shut, and he blinked at her, bewildered.
Jane realized that she was totally beyond his comprehension. He'd sent his daughter out as bait to capture Beowulf or Siegfried, and what he'd gotten instead was a rabid feminist, like a deep sea fisherman reeling in a great white shark instead of the expected tuna. She grinned mischievously and gestured to the door. "Well? Shall we go salamander hunting?"
Two hours later, Jane found herself dismounting from a horse on the side of a blackened, desolate mountainside across the charred valley from Castle Grumfield.
Not wanting to get too close to the salamander's lair, the King and his Wizards had stopped a good hundred yards further downhill. Only one of his knights, a young, hawk-nosed fellow named Cownatcher was brave enough to accompany her to the steaming mouth of the cave where the salamander supposedly lurked.
"Smells like rotten eggs, doesn't it?" Jane commented, peering dubiously into the darkness.
"That is the salamander," Cownatcher said, taking the reigns to her horse, and his voice quavered slightly.
"Oh, well," Jane shrugged, "Here goes nothing," No matter how silly it sounded, it was probably best to be prepared. She took off her helmet, pulled up her hood, and slipped the rubber straps of her mask over her head, tightening them until she had a good seal around her face. She put her helmet back on, and breathed through the hose. She wouldn't hook her low-pressure tube to the regulator until she had to. Picking up her ax again, she pulled out her flashlight and stepped into the darkness.
The passage was fairly smooth and surprisingly straight. Jane was starting to wonder if she'd ever get to the end when the temperature started rising and the rotten egg smell grew worse. The tunnel dipped steeply downhill, and far in the distance she noticed a glow of reddish orange light.
Jane turned off her flashlight and turned on her air tank, finally hooking up to the regulator. The passage opened up into a large vaulted room. In the center of the room, filling the air with radiant heat, was a pool of bubbling, boiling lava.
With a roar it came up out of the pool, all spines and claws and teeth, burning incandescent orange. Jane stumbled backwards in surprise and sudden horror, and barely saw the coal-black eyes fix on her before its red maw opened and a burst of flame exploded out wards, engulfing her. She could feel the heat through her turnouts and realized, appalled, that her gear would not last long against such temperatures.
Her mind whirled in sudden panic, and she charged forward, ax in hands, thinking in a distant sort of way that this was not any kind of salamander but rather a dragon, and how in the world could somebody mistake one for the other?!
She charged straight out of the flames and stood staring at the lava pool with no monster in sight.
Red-hot iron pokers raked across her right leg and she stumbled sideways, swinging her ax wildly in front of her. It struck something hard and unyielding, and she almost lost her grip on the ax handle as she struggled to regain her balance.
Suddenly she was free of the flames. The pokers ripped across her leg again and she spun once more, this time swinging the ax in a full arc like it was a baseball bat. It disappeared into blinding white flames, but she had the satisfaction of feeling the blade strike deep. There was a deafening howl, and the ax was wrenched from her hands.
The flames flashed, then flickered out, and Jane found herself staring down into the eyes of the beast only three feet in front of her. The eyes, she noticed, were no longer coal-black. Now they burned with a fire the color of molten lava. Her ax was embedded in its side behind one of the bright red, spine-covered forelegs. Orange fire dripped from the wound, and the steel ax blade was starting to glow red from heat.
Jane fought back another wave of panic. How could such a creature exist?! How could she possibly hope to fight it?! How could she kill something made of fire without water? She stood poised to dodge, waiting for it to charge.
Instead, it backed up. Flame flickered around its nostrils and curled around the teeth in its half open mouth. It backed up toward the pool of lava.
"Oh no you don't, baby," Jane said. She wasn't about to let it get away.
It opened its mouth and fire poured over her again even as she leapt forward, grabbing for the ax. Her gloved fingers closed around the handle, and she wrenched it free.
The salamander howled in rage, whipping sideways, and Jane swung for the spiny neck. Again the blade stuck deeply, and fire spouted from the wound. The salamander gave one last mighty roar, then collapsed on its side, writhing.
Jane stepped forward, and with all her might, struck the neck again... and again... until the head severed from the body and the writhing stopped.
She watched the still form warily. Even headless she was afraid it might somehow try to harm her, but it did not move.
Finally, she inhaled deeply and realized that she'd been holding her breath. She'd done it! It was dead!
She stepped forward, and pain shot up her leg. Looking down, she saw that her pants' leg had been shredded, and the skin beneath that, too. "Damn." It looked bad, but there wasn't any bleeding. The burning claws had cauterized the wounds even as they'd made them.
She regarded the corpse, still burning fire. She couldn't haul the whole thing back, not with her leg like it was, so she decided to take the head instead, just in case anybody decided to doubt she had done what she claimed. She tucked the grisly trophy under one arm, dripping fire down her coat, and, trailing her ax with her other hand, wearily limped up the long passageway to the sunlight above.
She emerged triumphant, expecting cheers and congratulations from Hamlet, Wizards and Cownatcher. Instead, she found the burned mountainside bare of all life except for one ragged crow that squawked at her from the skeletal arm of a dead tree.
"Great," Jane muttered, pushing back her helmet. "Just great. The bastards deserted me!" She looked at the gleaming white splash of marble across the valley that was Grumfield Castle and groaned. Briefly she wondered if Beowulf and Siegfried had been forced to hoof it back to civilization on foot after slaying their monsters. Somehow the stories just skipped that part.... about the long hike back with the wounded leg lugging 50 pounds of salamander head plus gear. "The bastards left me to die!!!" she shouted at the crow, who croaked again and flew off, leaving her utterly abandoned.
The salamander head had stopped dripping fire many hours ago when Jane finally limped across the bridge and up the winding road to the castle gate. Her way was lit by the light of two moons shining brightly overhead.
When she reached the castle wall she set the head down and pounded on the wooden gate with the butt of her ax. "Hello!" she shouted. "Hello?!"
"Gate closes at sunset!" a bored voice drifted down from somewhere above.
"Open up!" Jane shouted. "I killed the salamander! I demand to see the King!"
Raucous laughter showered her from both guard tower and castle wall. "Come back in the morning, madwoman!"
"Mad woman?" Jane repeated. "You're right about the MAD part, bub, but you ain't seen nothin' yet!" She'd had several miles of pain to build up her anger, and she thought it would feel good to hack something to pieces. She slammed down her face shield and hefted her ax. If they weren't going to open the gate for her, she'd just open it herself.
Her first strike left a three inch deep gash in the wood and the resounding boom that resulted did much to appease her fury. She stepped back to survey the damage.
Two heads poked out of the guard room window. One peered over the castle wall.
Jane grinned up at them, then stepped forward and swung again. BOOM. BOOM. It normally took her about five chops to get a house door open. The gate would take a little longer. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.
"Hey! Stop that!" one of the guards shouted.
"Open the gate!" Jane called back. BOOM. BOOM. She pried out a chunk of wood with a satisfying shredding sound. BOOM.
"I'm warning you, woman! Stand back from that gate upon peril of your life!"
Jane heard footsteps running along the castle wall above the gate and urgent shouts from the courtyard beyond. She surveyed her situation. The gate was recessed a couple feet into the wall so it would be extremely difficult for them to hit her with arrows unless they opened the door. "Let me in, dammit!" she yelled. "I want to go home!" BOOM. BOOM. Her steel blade cut through the iron bindings with ease.
"I command you, cease and desist!" a guard shouted, his voice coming from a slit in the stone directly overhead. "Stand back!"
"Open up!" Jane replied, holding her ground.
"You asked for it!"
There was a sudden rushing sound from the slit and hot oil poured out, drenching her. She froze in place as her helmet deflected it from her face and neck, and it ran streaming down the shoulders of her coat, covering her with a thick layer of boiling grease. When the deluge stopped, she gripped her ax again, now slimy with oil, and decided she didn't care for these people. With a sigh, she began to hack away again.
"Stop it! Stop it!" a frantic voice cried from the other side. "We'll open it! We'll open it! Just stop chopping the gate!"
There was a grinding of chains from the guard tower and slowly the gate lifted. On the other side were 12 armed guards, swords and armor gleaming coldly in the moonlight.
Jane grinned at them, hot oil still dripping from her helmet, and held up the salamander head by one of its horns. "Howdy boys. Just bringing a present for your King."
Twelve faces exchanged disbelieving glances. A plumed helmet stepped forward. "I must ask you to disarm yourself."
"Oh, I don't think so," Jane said, still smiling, resting the ax on her shoulder comfortably. "Why don't you just take me to the King."
The plumed guard swallowed, and nobody moved.
Jane shook some of the oil off the salamander head. "Listen, guys, I'm really tired. You've been wanting someone to kill the salamander, right? So I've done it. Problem solved. Now, I just want to go home. But I have to deliver this head to your King first, see? So why don't you just take me to him? I was here earlier... with Princess Liadin and what's his name, Sir Cownatcher. All you have to do is tell them I'm back."
The plumed guard snapped to attention and turned to his men. "Watch her," he commanded, then trotted smartly up the steps into the castle proper.
While they waited for him to return, Jane tried unsuccessfully to wipe some of the oil off her coat and gear. It smelled vaguely like dead fish. "Cool night, huh?" she said conversationally despite her steaming coat. "You just have the two moons or you got any others? Must do weird things to the tides, huh?"
They stared at her in silence.
She sighed. "Nice armor," she continued, then gave up with a shrug.
After what seemed like decades, the plumed guard reappeared and Jane was escorted into the King's audience hall. Hamlet was sitting on a throne at the other end with Princess Liadin, looking miserable and unhappy, standing on one side and a strapping young man standing on the other. The white robed Wizards were flocked behind the throne. Jane squelched her way down the length of the hall leaving a trail of smelly yellow oil on the marble floor, thankful that her boots provided good traction. She stopped before the throne and held up the head. "Your majesty, I have killed the salamander."
"We are most pleased," Hamlet said royally, flushing again to the very roots of his hair, then forced a smile. "What may I do to reward your service?"
Jane hadn't really expected an apology for being abandoned, but decided not to pursue the subject. She pursed her lips and shrugged. "Send me home?"
"Of course, of course," the King said regally. "But it would, ah, be improper not to provide you with some some other sort of payment or reward. If you will not have my daughter's hand in marriage, you may instead have my youngest son." He gestured to the strapping young man beside him. The man flexed his muscles proudly and smiled broadly at Jane.
Jane snorted to herself, and rubbed her chin thoughtfully, forgetting that her glove was covered with oil. She made a face. "Well, now, your majesty, your offer is most generous, but if I was gunna choose one or the other, I'd really prefer the Princess, but, honestly, I'd just like to be sent home."
Hamlet stared at her, bemused, but the Princess looked up, her expression of misery transformed into one of startled surprise.
Jane smiled at her.
"Take me with you," Liadin breathed, suddenly.
"What?!" Hamlet exclaimed, turning to his daughter with a frown.
The Princess ignored him, holding Jane's eyes with her own. "Please take me with you. You say that in your world women are allowed to be heroes?"
Jane nodded, wondering what she might be getting herself into.
"Then I beg of you… All my life, I've dreamed of being something more…" she trailed off, blushing under her father's horrified, disbelieving gaze.
That was enough for Jane. "Your majesty," she said, "a deal is a deal. I have slain your salamander, and in payment, I ask for your daughter, Liadin."
The king raised an eyebrow, but Jane could almost read his thoughts - better to lose a daughter than a son. "Very well," he said, and smiled regally.
Later, after a harrowing walk back down the oil covered floor with Wizards slipping and sliding in every direction around her, Jane eventually found herself back in the room with the spiral floor, the Princess standing awkwardly at her side.
Remembering the nausea that had accompanied her first trip, she gestured to the floor. "Um, perhaps we should sit?"
The Princess nodded, and gracefully sat down, crossing her legs. Jane plunked down beside her, feeling about as graceful as a pregnant yak in all her gear.
The old men began to chant and do a strange dance where they waved their arms like they were trying to fly. Just as Jane was wondering if working magic always made one look like a complete and utter tom fool, the world turned inside out again, and she screamed silently from the pain. And again, just as she thought she would die from the agony, she was abruptly turned right-side in again, and the pain stopped. She opened her eyes and was rewarded by the site of Blaylock Park in the broiling heat of summer, surrounded by a dying circle of flame.
"We're home," she said, and looked at the Princess, who was, almost to her surprise, still sitting beside her.
Tentatively, Liadin reached out and grasped Jane's hand. "Thank you, my hero," she said quietly, and kissed her fingers with gentle lips.
At her touch, Jane's stomach did a flip flop that had nothing to do with any Wizards' magic. She swallowed. "You're welcome."
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