Ch 24: Well Into the Mountains

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[still Crane]

"The very thing," Shira responded after a long moment. "My comrades did not believe you would be interested in our pantomimes, but I see that they have underestimated you, Crane."

"I have enough experience at battle to discern the purpose of your 'pantomimes', if that is what you wish to call them," he answered. "They cultivate balance, control, awareness – all these things have much utility for a warrior."

Ayelet gazed at him intently.

"Now then," she said. "We execute our set in silence. You must follow along as best you can."

"As you wish," Crane replied. "Should I –"

Ayelet held her hand up to stop his words, and the three women ceased all movement as well as talk.

Crane attempted to emulate the way they stood, straight and strong and yet relaxed, and found it was harder than it looked. He was relieved when they moved into a crouching position, which they held for a certain number of breaths – Crane thought it was seventeen – before they stood again, with arms outstretched.

After some minutes of these poses, Crane found the sweat standing out on his brow, though it was not a particularly hot day. After some minutes more, he yearned for a rest and a drink, though the women did not seem to be fatigued.

Finally, after a lunging stance which they held so long Crane's leg began to tremble, they stood straight one last time, and then lowered themselves gracefully to the ground.

Sitting cross-legged as they did, Crane heaved a great sigh.

Shira nodded at him solemnly.

"You have done well," she said. "None of us made it all the way through without collapsing, our first time. We are impressed."

This praise pleased Crane in a way which was most unfamiliar. His cheeks burning, he stood up quickly, saying, "I will repay the honour you have done me by preparing dinner for you."

And he rushed off before anyone could say anything else.

*

They were well into the mountains when they stopped to set up camp at the end of the next day.

Once they had cleared the foothills, they had been guided along the increasingly treacherous, diverging rocky trails by Shira's raptor. The bird flew ahead and then back, after ascertaining the preferable path, opening his great beak to announce his judgment.

Lero's donkey walked before them, testing each step with his wise and sensitive hoofs so that their own feet would be less likely to stumble.

Ayelet's rat dozed indolently on her shoulder.

After an early supper, Shira retired to their tent to rest so she would be refreshed for her guard duty that night. Ayelet scattered herbs across the surface of the water in a small cauldron which she had suspended over the fire, muttering sharp, nasal-sounding syllables into the perfumed mist that rose from the brew. Lero studied an unfurled parchment by the sun's dying light.

Crane was feeling bored, restless and vaguely irritable. He was just looking from one of his companions to the other, considering which of them might be more amenable to an interruption, when the ring on his finger began to tingle.

He regarded it with some surprise. After Or-Tikva had placed the ring on his hand, where it fitted comfortably, he had all but forgotten its presence. Now a biting sensation shot up his arm. It was so keen that he winced and closed his eyes.

On the dark undersides of his eyelids he saw a vision of Or-Tikva's living face.

"You are well?" her dulcet tones sounded softly in his ears.

Crane opened his eyes carefully and looked around. His two companions had not moved, nor did they appear to be disturbed in any way, and the evening around them was silent.

Scowling slightly, Crane shrugged and shut his eyes again.

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