Tell the People What She Wore
Copyright © 2004Christine Morgan
“That is one itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie --”
“Plusfour elven chain.”
“-- bikini,” Destria finished before the shopkeeper’s interruption sank in. She blinked. “Excuse me, did you say plusfour?”
He nodded. “Which, as you know, means that four levels of defensive --”
It was her turn to interrupt. “Defensive enchantments have been cast upon it. Yes, I do know. My brother is a wizard.”
The slightly smug, slightly condescending look left his face, to be replaced with one of cunning slyness. “Then I’m sure you can appreciate the value of such a rare item!”
“And the expense, no doubt,” Destria said sourly. “Sorry, no. Even if it is stronger than a steel corselet, what are the chances that my foe’s blow is going to land on one of those skimpy scraps of elfmesh?”
Now the shopkeeper, who might not have been an unpleasant fellow if not for his chameleonic changes of expression, took on an offended look. “Lady --” and he made the word an insult, “I sell armor and weapons, not useless decorations! Here is the invoice from the Academagicia, which clearly states that this ensemble offers whole-body protection. Head to toe!”
“The Academagicia!” Destria rolled her eyes. “That explains it. Pock-faced undergraduates who’ve never set a hand upon a real woman!” But, a voice in the back of her head was whispering, you’d have an even better armorrating than Brak!
“Clearly, I was in error showing this to you,” he said in a huff. “Here, this plusone ringmail --”
Destria ran a hand down her hauberk. “Already have plusone. I was looking for something either stronger or lighter.”
“I’m afraid the elven chain is the only other selection I have in your size.”
“My size!” She held up the bottom piece and laughed. “My size indeed! It’s elf-cut on the sides; maybe the elvenfolk have legs that go up that high, but I don’t!” Still ... plusfour elven chain ... and the price isn’t beyond your reach ... “Not only that, but I’d freeze in the winter, scorch in the summer, and chafe the whole year ‘round.”
“Elfmesh doesn’t chafe,” he said indignantly, picking up the glittery silver brassiere and running his thumbs along the cups to show her how flexible it was. He did this in a rather too lascivious and lingering a manner. “I’ll throw in the matching headband, enchanted for temperature tolerance in any normal range of weather, free of charge.”
“Well …” Destria could not believe she was even considering this, and told the voice in the back of her head to hush up. Not an easy task, for that voice sounded oddly like Mother.
She could just see the reactions of her companions if she showed up in something like this. Not even her current sensible garb kept them from oinking about like swine.
Maybe if she covered it up ... no, she knew enough about enchantments and magic armor to know that if she tried to put anything more than a cloak over it, she might as well just be wearing plain metal underpants. The magic would be of no use unless the entire thing was on display.
A ploy, no doubt, of the sweaty-palmed wizards who crafted things like this. Wizards just like Claren, her half-brother.
“It’s yours for fifteen hundred mula with the ringmail trade-in,” the shopkeeper said. He winked. “If you’ll put it on here and wear it out of the shop, instead of having me wrap it up for you, that is.”
Fifteen hundred! Half the price noted on the tag. If the shopkeeper felt that she was worth that much mula just to ogle, let him have his fun!
Moments later, she was in the back room, wiggling into the elfmesh bikini. Her bosom hardly knew what to make of it. After months of strapping everything down flat and then covering it with boiled leather and iron rings, now it was all hefted, hoisted, squashed together, and jutting defiantly outward.
“I could wedge a banner-pole between these and it would stand upright!” Destria said, shocked.
She couldn’t quite hear the shopkeeper’s reply, but since it was probably about things of his standing upright, it was just as well.
He had no mirror, just the polished reflective smoothness of a steel breastplate, but it was enough to tell her that with her own fur-trimmed boots and that scanty armor, she looked every inch the barbarian bimbo.
Well, not quite.
Not until she undid the tight braided and coiled bun of her burnished-bronze hair and let it tumble to her shoulders, then cinched it in place with the matching elfmesh headband. Which was complete, of course, with a dangly little jewel on a chain to bobble distractingly just above eye level.
Her eye level, that was. Certainly not the shopkeeper’s, which was fixed on bobbling things a good sixteen inches lower.
“Fifteen hundred,” she said, counting out the mula. The shop, drafty and chill when she came in, now felt the perfect temperature. Proof that the headband was working, at least.
“Do you fancy a drink?” the shopkeeper said, not even glancing at the coins on the counter. “There’s an aleshop just by ...”
She swept him with a scathing look and flexed her swordarm, letting him see that she had more to bulge besides what was barely confined in the brassiere. “No.”
He became businesslike again, and produced a parchment and quill. “Then, lady, if you’ll just sign here ...”
“What’s this?” She picked it up and began reading it, to his evident dismay. “A document freeing you from legal action on my part, should the merchandise fail to perform adequately?”
“It’s only a formality,” he whined.
She scrawled her signature. “There. In my experience, lawyers are like dragons. Look past all the gold and fearsomeness, and all you’ll see is a big greedy snake. Besides, all this says is that I won’t sue you. It says nothing of coming back and slitting you open to feed the crows.”
He laughed nervously. “It’s been a pleasure dealing with you, Lady ...” he read her name off the parchment and looked up. “Destria the Undaunted?”
“Mother had grand ideas.” She turned her back on him, knowing that he was still getting a good view but at least she didn’t have to see him enjoying it, and left the shop.
She only had to throw one man into a dung pile on her way back to the inn where her companions waited.
“Arboria, home of the terrible hairy beast-men!” Claren grimaced. “We’re never going to find the princess, not alive!”
“For a million mula, I’ll give it a go,” Skyhawk said, rubbing his hands together.
“He’s right, though,” Brak said. “Arboria is no place for ladies. Fair Princess Beautea, even if she is alive, is some beast-man’s rut-mate by now!”
“Our contract only states that we bring her back alive. Not necessarily untouched.” Skyhawk winked. “And I’m sure she’d be very grateful to her rescuers ...”
Claren’s eyes bugged. “You mean she might --?”
“Don’t get your hopes up, boy,” Brak said. “Or anything else, for that matter. There wouldn’t be much left for you after we real men had our fun.”
Destria gave them all a cold look. “If any of you swine lay a finger on the princess, I’ll lop it off at the shoulder.”
Brak snorted. “Look who’s getting jealous! Don’t worry, Destria, I’d be happy to keep you company too. Won’t be the first time I’ve had two wenches baying at the moon.”
“You’re wasting your breath,” Skyhawk said. “Even though she’s put it all on display with that elfmesh bit of nothing, I’d wager she’s still frigid as the Waliran Sea. Remember that time with Chenbar?”
“Because I wouldn’t fall on my back for the Warlord of Zereth, that makes me frigid?” Destria asked, her voice matching her look in coldness.
“He would have given us that map if only you’d been nicer to him,” Claren said, his lower lip sticking out. “If you’d cared anything about our quest ...”
“Suppose Chenbar had fancied boys?” she shot back. “Would you have gone to your knees for him, brother dear?”
He blanched, then scowled. “You can’t talk to me like that! I’m a wizard!”
“And who paid your tuition? But for me, you’d still be learning cantrips.”
“You only got that mula because the Duke thought you were a man,” Claren said.
Skyhawk raised an eyebrow. “Do tell, Destria!”
“Stay out of this,” she warned.
“It’s true,” Claren said. “She soldiered for every army in the land, but they all fired her when they found she was a hen instead of a rooster.”
“I should have left you in the village with Father. You’re as much a fool as he is, with a helping from your mother’s side thrown in.”
“At least my mother was a proper wife,” Claren said. “She knew how to keep Father happy. Not like yours. I’ve heard about her, always running off after this monster or that.”
“My mother gave her life to save that dung-hollow of a village!” Destria clutched the hilt of her sword, her only inheritance from her barely-remembered mother. “Yours wouldn’t raise her voice if the house was on fire!”
“If not for her, you wouldn’t have me here to help you,” he said smugly. “And if not for me, you’d have no one to travel with! No man to do the talking and get the jobs! Brak, Skyhawk, would you have joined up with just a girl?”
Brak laughed heartily. “For a night or two, mayhap, and shown you some real swordsmanship!”
Skyhawk joined in. “All I can say is I’m glad Destria here finally stopped trying to dress like a man. If she’s going to be with us, we might as well feast our eyes, since she can’t cook!”
“You’re right, Claren, I’d forgotten how lucky I am to have all these men around,” Destria said.
“Arboria,” Brak intoned deeply. He gaze off into the distance in a dramatic pose, as if expecting the wind to blow back his hair and the sun to glint heroically from his teeth.
“And here I was thinking it was Sandsea,” Skyhawk said. “Good thing you’re here, Brak, else there’s no telling where we might wind up.”
Destria ignored them, stepping to the edge of the cliff.
Below, the land fell away sharply to the thickly-wooded valley floor. The treetops were a hundred feet down from where she stood, a dense green canopy that stretched to even taller cliffs on the far side. She counted a dozen waterfalls plunging into the valley, wreathed in misty spray. Here and there the tree cover was broken by winding bands of rivers, winking silver in the sunlight.
A constant gentle breeze wafted up from the trees, stirring Destria’s cloak, bringing her the scent of secret forest places. She closed her eyes and breathed it in.
Skyhawk found a trail, carved into the face of the rock and so narrow they had to inch along it single-file.
It was a nerve-wracking descent even for the most sure-footed of them. Claren, anything but sure-footed, made whimpering noises of terror with every step. Destria found herself glad for the lightness and freedom of movement afforded her by her new armor.
Soon they had reached the level of the trees, which grew right up to the cliff face so that they pushed through the outer fringes of leaves and twigs. It was cooler below, the light filtered pale green through the canopy.
Looking down, they could see a latticework of crossed and interlocked branches, and trunks descending into darkness. It reminded Destria of oceanic depths. She wondered how far down the earth was, and what strange creatures, cut off from the sun, might dwell there.
“The path goes no further,” Skyhawk, in the lead, called back. “We’ll have to take to the branches.”
“How are we going to find the princess here?” Claren asked. “There’s no towns, nothing at all but trees and more trees!”
“Not an inn or a brothel for a hundred leagues,” Brak agreed.
“The king gave us this,” Skyhawk said, holding up a lacy handkerchief with a rose and a crown embroidered in the corner. “Claren will use his magic to find her.”
“Me?” He pressed his back to the cliff, eyes wide. “You want me to find her?”
“You must have learned something in the Academagicia,” Destria said. “Get to it and earn your keep.”
Claren edged his way until he could reach Skyhawk’s outstretched arm, and took the hanky. “So long as we tell her that I’m the one who found her!”
As he muttered and waved and performed his other various wizardly contortions, doing so with tiny and precise movements so that he didn’t risk stepping off the trail, Brak sidled closer to Destria.
“You shouldn’t be down here, you know,” he said. “Arboria’s no place for ladies. Especially ones clad as you are. The beast-men will be on you like dogs on a stewbone. Stay close to me.” He swelled his chest until the straps holding his corselet together creaked. “I can protect you.”
Dear gods, he’ll start flexing and posing next, Destria thought. “I can take care of myself, Brak. My armorrating is better than yours, remember?”
He frowned, remembering and not liking it. “What about your to-hit? No sword your mother left you can match my plusfive Hackslasher!”
“Gods! A dwarven warhammer couldn’t get through that skull of yours!” she said, shaking her head.
Brak beamed. “That’s right!”
“This way!” Claren’s normally pasty face was flushed -- one of his spells had worked for a change. Or the sun was getting to him. He pointed toward the heart of Arboria. “Not very far, either!”
Down and down.
The light was emerald now, the shadows deeper, the air cooler and damp so that the others shivered while Destria remained unaffected.
Birds fell silent at their approach, only to begin their cries anew as they passed. Squirrels the size of dogs darted among the branches. Tree foxes watched them from knotholes with their glittering golden eyes.
Once, a long-limbed monkey with a tufted tail swung past close enough to snatch at Claren’s cloak. The wizard’s piercing yelp of fear echoed through the forest and he dropped to his belly, clinging to the wide branch as if he would never let it go.
Skyhawk had to bodily pry him up and get him moving again. “Will you hush your mouth?” he snapped. “We’ve probably already given away our presence to the beast-men, but we don’t need you squeaking like a schoolgirl.”
Claren thrust out his lip. “I don’t know why we’re here. That princess probably just ran off with a minstrel rather than marry Prince Karming; they always do go for minstrels, everyone knows it. But we’re going to be eaten by beast-men, and all for nothing. A million mula … they probably never intended to pay, because they knew we’d be dead!”
At that moment savage shrieks erupted all around them.
“Oh, no,” Destria groaned, and drew her sword.
Brutish, shaggy creatures dropped from above, clambered up from below, swarmed at them from all sides. The stink of them alone nearly knocked the adventurers over, but all of them except Claren were able to keep from vomiting at the high, gamy stench.
Beast-men charged, waving their arms and making hideous grunting gobbling noises. Brak yelled a battle cry and swept his Hackslasher in a wide arc. Body parts flew everywhere. Skyhawk tried to slip behind one to stab it in the back, but another one saw and sprang on him. They crashed into a gnarled trunk. Skyhawk’s shortsword flipped away into the darkness.
Destria kicked one beast-man off the branch while skewering another. She fought her way over to Claren, who had finished emptying his innards and was wiping his mouth with Princess Beautea’s lace hanky.
A quick glance around showed her that Skyhawk had wedged himself into a crack in the bark and was slashing at his opponents with a dagger, jabbing at any hands that got too close. Brak, meanwhile, had been overpowered and was now all but invisible beneath a pile of reeking fur.
The beast-men rose up with Brak on their uplifted hands as if he was the conquering hero being joyously carried through the town square. His arms splayed out to either side. A smaller beast-man, this one perhaps an adolescent, strutted importantly at the front of the procession with the Hackslasher held high.
Destria leapt toward them, brandishing her sword. “Let him go!” she commanded.
Poor choice of words.
Brak crashed through twigs for twenty feet and then slammed into a wide bough hard enough to shake loose a hail of nuts that pattered off into the dark reaches of the forest below.
A single pained groan drifted up, and then silence.
The beast-men yammered and advanced on Destria and Claren.
“Claren, do something!” She jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow.
Claren spread his fingers. Yellow-white darts shot from his fingertips, trailing streaky smears of light. The missiles plunged into the group of beast-men, sparking and sizzling. Those struck started jumping around and pawing at themselves, while the strange fire ate into their flesh.
The beast-men scattered, Skyhawk bringing down one final foe as he emerged from his hiding place and seated his dagger in its back.
“Good job, bigmouth,” he said to Claren as he bent to the bodies of the fallen beast-men. His quick hands eagerly searched for mula or jewels. He paused. “What’s this, then? These aren’t beast-men at all! They’re just men, all wrapped up in half-cured hides!”
He threw a disgusted groin-kick at one of them, but his soft leather boot struck metal. Hard. Skyhawk began hopping about and swearing, while Destria stripped away the rotten furs.
“What is that thing?” Claren stared down at the filthy man, and at the rusted iron girding his loins.
“It’s a chastity belt,” Destria said. “There’s the lock.”
“Lock?” Claren’s eyes turned inquisitively toward Skyhawk, who immediately shook his head.
“I am not picking the lock on some bloke’s chastity belt.”
“Let’s just retrieve Brak and get on with this.” Destria looked down in the direction he had fallen, and shouted in surprise and alarm.
Figures surrounded Brak’s sprawled body. No beast-men, these, but women! Women the likes of which Destria had never seen!
Their limbs were as powerful and lithe as her own. And as well-revealed, in skimpy garb of leather and fur. Halters, bras, skirts split to the hip on both sides, loincloths, leather thongs.
Destria saw all of this, but most of all saw that the women were armed, and busy binding Brak with stout cords.
She leaped down, landing in their midst with sword drawn.
A woman spun to face her, going into a tense crouch that would have done credit to a leopardess. A snug leather halter and fringed skirt defined a figure every bit as shapely as Destria’s. Her hair was a wild tumble of midnight black, her eyes cat-green. For other adornments, she had only a necklace of animal claws, and an ivory-handled knife strapped to her thigh.
Her smile was a feral snarl, but her voice was pleasant enough. “Yours, is he? Very well, we’ll do this the honorable way.”
“Excuse me?” Destria said, nonplussed by the conversational tone.
A tall, muscular blonde in a bearskin bikini set her fists on her hips. “But, Felina, I saw him first. He should be mine.”
“The honorable way,” midnight-haired Felina insisted. “She has prior claim on all three of them.”
“Hey, now,” Brak muttered, still winded from his fall. “What is all this?”
He flexed his mighty thews and sinews against the bonds, and the savage-clad women surveyed him hungrily.
“Stand him up, strip him down, let’s get a better look!” called a woman with a magnificent fall of auburn hair.
“Destria, what’s going on?” Skyhawk called from the branch above. “Who are those women?”
“That one is small, but he looks like he might move well,” Felina commented, gaze fixed on Skyhawk. “He might breed swift, clever daughters.”
“Wait!” Destria cried as Skyhawk backed up with a horrified expression, nearly backing himself off the other side of the branch. “What are you talking about?”
“Ursina here,” Felina indicated the bearskin-clad blonde with a jerk of her head, “wants this large man for her own. I rather fancy the dark one for myself. I’m sure our tribe can find some use for the skinny one. But first, since you have prior claim, you must meet each challenger in the Ring of Spears.”
Skyhawk whirled to run, but the auburn-haired one scampered limberly up the tree and made a blinding and to Destria’s eyes impossible cast of a bolas. The cords whickered through the air and wrapped around Skyhawk’s running legs, tripping him up. Although Skyhawk was quick with a knife, his pursuer was already upon him before he could slice through half the thongs. She disarmed him and knelt on his chest with a wild victory cry.
“I have never seen such skill,” Destria gasped.
“Vulpina is one of our finest warriors,” Felina said.
“Destria, shut up and do something,” Skyhawk yelled.
Behind him, Claren stood slack-mouthed with shock. He didn’t even try to muster any magic. When a lithe little brunette in an ocelot-fur bodysuit leveled a javelin at him, he meekly put up his hands in surrender.
Vulpina cuffed Skyhawk as one might cuff an undisciplined pup, then glanced down at Destria. “He needs to learn manners, this one. But I think Felina will have fun teaching him.”
Felina nodded. “If we can best you in honorable combat, Destria. By your garb, we know you to be a sister in spirit. Were you otherwise, we would simply slay you and take the men.”
“I’ve never seen such a great outfit,” Ursina added enviously.
The village of the Arborian women consisted of thatch huts built in and around the trees, connected by slat-wood walkways and rope bridges.
Everywhere Destria looked, scantily-clad women moving about with confident, leggy strides, while men rushed to and fro tending to children and chores. Some of them were ragged beast-men, while others were clean and smooth-shaven and well-groomed, dressed in vests and loincloths.
Off to one side of the main gathering-place was a platform suspended by ropes and surrounded with a wall of upthrust spears.
“No weapons are permitted,” Felina said. “Except for the spears themselves, but the more spears that are removed, the wider the gaps in the wall become. The platform swings and sways with the slightest breeze or movement.”
While she was explaining, Destria saw her companions led toward a series of sturdy poles, each with a chain and a collar attached. The village women and older girls crowded around as the collars were clamped shut, leering, whistling, and making comments as to the various physical attributes of each.
Brak was so red with indignant fury that Destria feared he might have convulsions before much longer. Claren was near tears. This was any Academagician’s worst nightmare come true, being mocked by dozens of stunning women. Only Skyhawk seemed to have a grasp of the situation, and stared with an urgent pleading expression at Destria.
“Does your heart good to see the tables turned, doesn’t it?” a new voice said at Destria’s elbow.
The voice belonged to a young woman, whose slender limbs and soft white skin marked her as someone who had never been in battle, nor spent long in the outdoors. She wore lace-trimmed purple satin panties and a matching bra embroidered with the royal crest in gold thread on each cup, and platinum ringlets framed a face Destria knew from a portrait.
“Princess Beautea? But … but your father sent us here to rescue you.”
“Rescued?” She flung her arms wide as if to embrace the village. “No arranged marriages, no corsets and underskirts, no riding sidesaddle! No courtiers making polite chitchat in public and trying to grab my melons in private. I came here willingly, and I am never going back.”
“I suppose I can see the attraction,” Destria said.
“You have to fight for those men?”
“I think so. I’m still not sure I understand.”
“They are yours,” Beautea said. “You were with them, so you have claim on them. Felina and the others mean to fight you for the privilege.”
“To the death?”
“Not always. If you want, I suppose it could be arranged.”
“What happens to them if I lose?”
Beautea smiled. “Can’t you guess?”
“And if I win?”
“You will all be free to go. Back to the outside world.”
“Oh,” Destria said. She regarded her companions.
A trio of matronly women were examining Brak, checking his teeth and prodding his muscles and unlacing his codpiece as he bellowed and fought the chains that held him. Several men paused in their labors to watch. Some of them had pity in their eyes. Others scowled in furious, spiteful envy.
Felina and Vulpina, meanwhile, were throwing dice a short distance from the post where Skyhawk was bound. Destria surmised that the red-haired huntress had made a claim of her own, and she and Felina were settling by chance which of them would face Destria in the ring of spears.
Claren’s face burned with humiliation as giggling maidens formed a circle around him and loudly speculated whether he’d be good for anything at all, or whether they should throw him back, like a too-small fish.
Off to one side, Ursina was stretching and going through a series of calisthenics in preparation for the coming fight. Her limbs bulged and flexed with easy strength. Destria swung her gaze across the village – women lounging and chatting as they fletched arrows, women sharpening knives, women free and comfortable – to the swaying platform with its deadly ring of spears. The ends looked very sharp. The drop looked very far.
Her gaze returned to the women. To the littlest girls, swinging sticks at each other and laughing while the boys sat near their fathers and helped feed the babies.
“Out of curiosity,” Destria said, “what would happen … what would happen if I just didn’t fight at all?”
Author’s Note: this is an old tale I found recently, which I thought might be fun to dust off and finish. It was inspired by a silly filk that I wrote several years ago – I try not to filk often, because it is such an evil little habit!
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