Mordechai paused and looked into the open blue sky. "At first we did not know what to make of these reports, but I began to listen closely to the women, and over time I have assembled their many clues into a nearly-finished puzzle."
"What sort of clues?" Crane wanted to know.
"Each of these children was ... special. One had been weakened by an illness that left him lame, but he sang like a bird. One had been born without sight, and yet could dance to music most wonderfully; another had not yet spoken a word by the age of five, though he could draw lovely pictures. At the same time we had heard stories - rumours, really, spoken in hushed voices - of an evil sorceress named Merwa who was said to be interested in breeding ... people. Perfect people."
Crane shuddered, sending ripples along the surface of the pool. Then he scowled.
"And who has given her the right to decide what it is that constitutes a perfect person?"
"Precisely," Mordechai concurred. "And so, when our spies traced the lost boys northwards - towards the kingdom of Malmort, where Merwa was thought to reside - we feared the situation was even more grave than we'd suspected."
"Only tell me where this kingdom lies and I will defeat this Merwa and return the boys to their mothers and sisters!"
"It will not be so simple, Crane."
"I have never known a simple quest, Mordechai."
"Then it is time, my friend, for you to receive the counsel and blessing of the Lady Or-Tikva."
Just then they heard men's voices approaching.
"Go now," Mordechai said softly. "The men gather for prayers; I will stay here."
Mordecai had brought up Hadassah, that is Esther, his cousin, for she had neither father nor mother; the girl was fair and beautiful ... So when the king's order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in the citadel of Susa in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king's palace ... - "Esther" 2:7-8, Bible
Crane found Or-Tikva waiting for him in her comfortable chamber at the top of the tower. She offered him refreshment and shared with him what she knew of the kingdom where Merwa held sway.
"I know I have not yet answered your questions about how I survived my exile," she began, "but the time has not yet come for that. I will tell you that the tribe who harboured me knew of the sorceress Merwa many years ago - indeed, she had been one of them but had parted ways with them and set out on her own. We did not know what had become of her.
"When I heard the women's stories of the children who were abducted, however, I became suspicious. Even in her youth, Merwa wanted to use the powers she'd been born with in ways that were unholy, inhuman and unnatural. She was prevented from harming any of the children of the tribe, but only because the elders watched her closely. And she took particular interest in the most vulnerable and the most gifted children.
"As Mordechai told you, we have now traced her movements - through a network of intelligence which would be too complicated to describe - and we believe she is working out of the kingdom of Malmort, across the mountains to the northwest. If you are indeed able to breach that fortress you may do more than liberate the lost boys, for we are sure the Malmortians also have a harem full of unwilling and sorely mistreated women and girls. The reason we have not yet rescued them ourselves is that there seems to be some sort of spell in place that makes the fortress virtually impossible to breach."
"Impossible tasks," said Crane with relish, "just take a little longer to accomplish."
At that Or-Tikva laughed, a sound which washed over Crane's ears like a healing balm. Then she grew serious again.
"Our porter will equip you with supplies - food and a tent and such - and assign a few of the Queen's Guard to accompany you."
"I go alone," Crane asserted.
"You will want these warriors with you," Or-Tikva said firmly. "They possess skills, knowledge and powers which you cannot do without. Trust me."
He sighed. "I do, my lady."
"Good. Then I have only to give you this."
YOU ARE READING
Once upon a time there was a warrior queen who loved peace ... Mild-mannered writer Samuel J. Burnside is working on his latest adventure story, set in ancient Susa, where Queen Esther is teaching former harem slaves how to fight! But can Sam's new...