As Tova had stood among the kids' books awaiting some response, the lady regarded her suspiciously and turned away.
But the other browser, a lanky dark-haired teenager, had seemed to scent the air like a nervous colt before she'd lowered her head and drifted in Tova's direction. The girl's lopsided gait held an interesting mixture of shyness and bravado.
"Hi," Tova had said gently, as the girl came to rest a few feet away.
Raising her eyes without raising her head, the girl had mumbled, "You're Sam's girlfriend?"
Tova had opened her mouth to try to answer but no sound came out.
The girl had lifted her head as if she'd heard something anyway.
"He's gone AWOL on you too, then," she'd stated darkly. "Sorry, I'm Nicolette, I should have said."
"Oh! You're Nicky! He told me about you, it's – it's nice to meet you."
"Mmm. I guess you can call me Nicky. So – maybe I shouldn't of come looking for you, but he didn't show up at the gym yesterday and I didn't know what else to do."
"He's – could be on tour," Tova had choked out.
"Checked his website. That's not 'til next week. He should be around. I called his phone but some woman answered. His PA," she'd added quickly, seeing Tova pale, "I'm sure it was his PA. She called him 'Mister Burnside' and sounded very efficient. Or is it officious?"
"Could be both," Tova said faintly.
The girl had looked at her with real concern. "I know I came to you for help Ms – sorry, I don't know your last name – but maybe I'm meant to help you."
"If I can call you Nicky," she'd responded, feeling a little stronger, "you can call me Tova. And who knows, maybe we can help each other. I've always believed that's what people were meant to do. Though to be honest, right now I don't see how – but they say there's a way, where there's a will."
"You're nice," Nicky had proclaimed, "and I don't say that lightly. I even feel better knowing I'm not the only one he's dropped the ball on, for some reason. And I really think something's wrong."
"So maybe it's not just me."
With a jerky motion, the girl had clasped Tova in a hug, saying, "I'm not much of a hugger but we could both use one, I guess. Look, I gotta get home – my dad likes it when I get dinner for him – but we should talk again."
"Okay. Do you want my phone number?"
"Yes. And – it's gonna be okay, Tova. You'll see."
They had been walking in the mountains for three days now. The heel of Crane's left foot had developed a persistent ache, and the joint of his right hip twinged with every step he took. He had to admit, at least to himself, that he was not as young as he used to be.
The previous morning, when they had awoken and poked their noses out of the tent, they had found a fine white substance falling from the sky.
Ayelet, who had taken over the watch a few hours before dawn so that Shira could catch a nap, was standing by the embers of their fire with her fists clenched at her sides, looking up.
"A truly pathetic attempt," she growled. "As if we had never heard of snow. As if snow could intimidate us. And it isn't even real snow."
She had then insisted that everyone in the party, including the beasts, anoint themselves with the protective potion she had prepared.
"An inoculation against evil," she'd called it.
It was well that they had done so.
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...