On their way through the mountains that day, Crane and his party encountered several creatures – a bat, an ocelot and a lone human wanderer – who had been driven mad by the fingering mists that crept out of crannies and crevices and insinuated themselves into ears and eyes.
Ayelet's "inoculation against evil" had proved effective in protecting her comrades as well as allowing her to mend the minds of the affected strangers; it was a cure as well as a prevention - although the former required many more ounces of the stuff.
The human wanderer had thanked them and continued on her way back towards Susa; the ocelot eyed the white rat, but when the fat fellow bared his fangs and squeaked menacingly the big cat had slunk off into the underbrush.
The bat, however, had not flown away after sampling Ayelet's brew.
"The woeful waif is wounded," Crane had crooned, pointing to one leathery black wing which the bat held at an odd angle. "I will fashion a splint for her, and carry her while she recovers."
Now the small creature hung from his belt next to his scabbard. The bespelled sword had always seemed to accelerate his own healing and Crane hoped it would have the same effect on the bat.
This day's journey had been tiresome. Through some glamour set upon them by their enemy, the sun's position – on which they relied for direction – had not seemed to trace a constant course through the sky. Clouds with a sickly luminescence sprang out, here and there, reflecting the light and obscuring the sun's true location.
At one point both the donkey and the raptor had sat down, as if in protest, and refused to budge until Ayelet set her rat to nip at their toes. Even then they might not have shifted had not the little bat emitted a shrill cry, blinking her black eyes towards the darkest part of the sky.
"Over there," Ayelet cried. "Those are real clouds. See how they seem to absorb the false light? There –" she pointed up " – there is the sun, and there – " she pointed straight ahead with her other hand " – is our direction. Onward!"
"You know, the first stop on his tour is that Sci-Fi Con in Hamilton next week," Nicky had said on the phone to Tova the following evening. "We should go."
"I think I'm working?" Tova had replied hopefully.
"It's the holiday Monday. Your store is closed."
Tova had forgotten the newly-invented February holiday the government had imposed the previous year. She'd sighed. "You really think it's a good idea?"
"We have to find out what's going on. Something is not right in Burnside land, Tova."
"I know. Okay, we'll go. I could always wait for you in the Art Gallery if I chicken out. Though I guess I shouldn't do that. We'll go on the bus, right?"
"Of course. It takes less than an hour to get there."
It had been the longest hour of Tova's life. The day had dawned dismal and the view out the bus window, as they drove along, had looked particularly grim under heavy, ominous clouds.
Nicky had taken the window seat, as if protecting her new friend from the elements, and the two of them rode in quiet companionship with their heads turned towards the view.
Down University Avenue they proceeded, and along the expressway to the highway. The office towers of the downtown core had quickly given way to billboards and glass-sided, hi-rise condos, and then to a succession of sceneries: shopping malls and rows of low, old-fashioned brick office buildings with lines of cars parked in front; suburban residential neighbourhoods, their treetops visible above the concrete sound barrier; suburban hi-rise condos, standing alone; and then back to business parks, though ones with newer, more upscale headquarters.
In between, there had been swathes of forest or river valley, patiently waiting out winter in austere dignity.
When they were halfway there, it had begun to rain. Without commenting on the tears that spiked Tova's eyelashes and trickled down her cheeks, Nicky had leaned against her shoulder and asked, "Want to hear a story?"
It had taken Tova a couple of tries to respond because of the rocks that filled her chest and throat. Finally she'd whispered, "Okay."
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...