"You do me a great honour, entrusting me with these young ladies," Crane said to the porter, nodding towards the three Guards who stood ready to accompany him on his journey.
The youngest of the trio, a slip of a thing with a bow slung across her back and a white rat perched on her shoulder, snorted with mirth.
"No offense, sir," she said, "but the 'ladies' of the Queen's Guard are all exceptionally skilled in the arts of self-defence. No one can do anything to us that we do not wish them to do. When we stop for a rest along the way, we would be glad to share some of our martial secrets with you. The Queen did say we were to treat you as if you were one of our own."
"She also suggested we make the most of all we can learn from him, little sister," pointed out the Guard who had been introduced to Crane as Shira; she was the eldest and the biggest of the three.
The little one was named Ayelet, which Crane knew meant "gazelle" in the Queen's speech; and the third, a quiet golden-haired young woman with watchful blue eyes, was called Lero.
The porter had proudly proclaimed Lero as the party's diplomat, which made her blush. She was fluent, he said, in seven languages including three that were believed to be those used in the secret kingdom of Malmort.
Ayelet, of course, had spoken for herself, announcing that her map- and star-reading skills, and her other arcane knowledge, would prove indispensable. She also spoke for Shira, before the older lady could open her mouth. Apparently Shira was to be their martial arts expert – the lady in question had shot a surprised and apologetic look at Crane when she heard herself so described – as well as their night watchman, due to her uncannily keen powers of perception and her encyclopaedic knowledge of the stealth tactics which an enemy might use to attack them.
Crane had received this information skeptically. Shira appeared experienced enough, and robust, and besides, she carried the double-headed axe known as a labrys in a special sheath at her belt, as well as a number of smaller throwing axes which hung from a strap across her shoulder. But Lero seemed impossibly shy and soft, and carried no visible weapons, and for all her bravado Ayelet looked as if a strong gust of wind could blow her off her feet.
Nevertheless, Crane kept his peace. He had confidence in his own abilities. His heart was stout and his back was strong. And after all that had he had experienced in his short sojourn in Susa, his mind was open to whatever new wonders might lie ahead.
They passed through the cypress grove outside the palace gates and out into open farmland, the sun high in the sky.
"We won't get far before nightfall," Ayelet commented, "but we'll make a start. Fortunately the nights are short, at this time of year, so we won't need to lose much time in rest."
"This part of the journey will be easy going," Shira added, "and an opportunity for us to become better acquainted, which will facilitate our functioning as a team."
She looked up into the sky, where a great brown raptor circled. After making a sign with her hand at her shoulder, Shira smiled as the bird descended and settled on the leather gauntlet on her forearm. The bird made an affectionate chuckling noised as it cleaned its feathers.
Crane's gaze shifted from the bird to the rodent that rode on Ayelet's shoulder. He didn't much care for rats, but perhaps the fat little fellow was intended to be sustenance for the raptor if they came to a part of the journey where hunting was impossible for her.
But Ayelet noticed him eyeing her small companion and correctly interpreted the expression on his face. She grinned cheekily and stroked the rat's whiskers.
"Shira's bird is a noble creature, it's true," she said, "and she is handy when it comes to retrieving errant throwing axes. But I vow you will be grateful, ere long, that my little friend is on our side."
Crane had no response for this. Instead, he fell back to where Lero walked beside the fine, handsome donkey who carried their supplies. He had yet to hear the young woman utter a single word in any language.
"Well met, Lady Lero," he addressed her with a polite bow of his head. "I trust it will not disturb you to have me walk alongside."
She inclined her own head in assent, and Crane fell in step on the other side of the donkey.
"Have you no animal helper, as your comrades do?" he asked gently.
Lero held a hand near the donkey's muzzle and he nudged her in speechless devotion. Crane's eyes widened as comprehension dawned.
For the first time since he'd met her, the young woman's lips parted. "He's not as dumb as he looks, either," she murmured.
The seven progressed in silence after that, following the sun's path west as the cultivated fields gave way to wild grassland. When they came to the river, they followed it northwest. Soon the mountains were looming in the distance.
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...