Though he knew it to be a dream, Crane could not open his eyes. Darkness weighed down his eyelids.
He tried to lift his arms but could raise them no more than a few inches above his head before they met with a solid obstacle. His hands explored the limits of the obstruction; the smooth, cold hard walls of his prison surrounded him like a tomb.
Into the stillness came a soft, insidious sound like a snake's hiss. It was a voice, a voice imbued with menace.
Crane did not care for menace.
He opened his mouth to demand an explanation, but no sound issued forth from his lips. Only the sickening, faceless whispers stirred the silence.
"Tzvi," they taunted. "Amichai, Baruch, Eliezer."
Someone was chanting the names of the kidnapped boys!
With a gargantuan effort that threatened to tear out his tongue, Crane roared, "Merwa! Show yourself!"
There was a blinding flash of light and Crane's skin burned as if from the sting of a thousand wasps. A noxious odour invaded his nose and lungs, sickening him, and then he heard evil cackling laughter that rang in his ears and vibrated his skull in a most odious way.
He reached for his sword, but before he could release it from its scabbard – before even his hand touched its hilt – a soft singing poured through the air, and there was a hiss as of fire doused by cool water.
The evil laughter increased in pitch and volume, taking on a slightly hysterical tone. But then the first singing voice was joined by another, and then by three more – strong feminine voices that carried an indomitable spirit in their harmony – and Merwa's cackling ended in a furious shriek.
With a mighty crash, the walls of Crane's prison came tumbling down and he found himself standing in the cool night air outside their tent. A peek inside assured him that his companions slept safely and peacefully.
They had decided that the animals would provide a sufficient guard that night, as they were still on Susan land. Now Crane hunkered down next to Lero's donkey, who lay with his head resting on some soft grass, and thoughtfully stroked one silken ear.
"Well, my fine fellow, that was a truly fearsome phantasm," he murmured, "but with a happy ending, in truth."
The beast opened one eye and made a low whistling noise, as if in concurrence.
A lissome breeze blew down from the mountains, caressing Crane's hot cheeks, and Or-Tikva's words echoed in his brain like music:
"It is imperative that you remember that you are not alone."
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...