Sam had looked up, his face gone blank and drained of all colour as he'd met Tova's eyes across the auditorium.
Her head had pounded as her thoughts raced to come up with a strategy. Then she'd risen, almost unconscious of the decision, and calmly walked to the front of the room.
"Monty," she'd politely acknowledged the agent, who'd been standing off to the side poking at his Blackberry.
He'd glared back.
"Sam," she'd said next, nodding at him.
His face looked like a death mask, though she thought she saw something flicker in his eyes.
Drawing herself up to her full five-feet-two-inches, Tova had continued formally, "Nicolette never went to a convention before so I agreed to accompany her, but I think we should be going now. Unless you can enlighten her, first, on whether or not you intend to continue as her coach."
"Sure I do," Sam had said, sounding like a ghost of his old self. "I just been swamped with work, that's all, and I ain't have the energy I did when I's young."
Up close, Tova had detected new lines in his forehead and between his brows, and grey streaks in his dark hair that hadn't been there before.
"Try to take it easy Sam," she'd whispered, before grabbing Nicky's unresisting arm and leading her out of the auditorium.
"That agent's got him drugged," Nicky had declared when they were out of earshot, in the lobby. "He's bad news."
"I know. I just don't think it's any of my business now."
"You don't give up on someone you love!"
"Nicky, honey, sometimes no matter how much you care there's not a single thing you can do."
The young woman hadn't argued any more, though she hadn't agreed. She'd simply changed the subject.
"Let's go for a walk, get some air and some food. Then you can show me that Art Gallery you told me about."
The party took shelter that evening in a cave in the foothills on the far side of the mountains.
They were assured of its safety when the little pipistrelle, whose wing seemed to have healed, flew into its depths while calling out her odd, almost soundless cry and then flapped back to the cave mouth where the party awaited. She hung herself upside-down from an outcropping over their heads, wrapped herself in her wings and closed her eyes.
"There is no threat here," Crane declared, "else she would not take her rest so."
Ayelet released her rat, who ran along the cave walls sniffing here and there and then returned, scampering up her outstretched arm and settling on her shoulder.
"He seems to agree with your bat," she said. "That satisfies me."
Before anyone else could comment, Shira's raptor appeared from above as if she had come in through the roof.
"There is a flue, then," Shira said, holding out her hand for the bird. "It is safe to make a fire."
"I will collect wood," Crane volunteered.
"I will help," Lero offered. "You may stay here," she told her donkey, who settled down on the cave floor with a grateful sigh.
Crane insisted that Lero remain close to the cave, in plain view of the others, while he ventured farther afield, confident in his ability to defend himself.
At least, he thought, there were small trees in this area of the foothills. In the mountains they had been hard-pressed to find fuel for their fire, and one cold night they had not been able to kindle any blaze at all.
Here, a mere few yards east of the cave mouth, Crane saw an attractive stand of trees that promised a cache of dead branches in the undergrowth around their roots.
While Lero collected kindling from the shrubbery in the cave's lee, he ambled over to examine this treasure trove, thinking of the hot meal they would enjoy that night and of the coals that would warm their tired bones as they slept.
Stepping into the long grasses that grew beneath the unfamiliar trees, he was overcome by a delicious lassitude. Perhaps, he thought, Lero would tell one of her stories later as the flames burned low. The lass could spin a tale, that was certain! He would ask her if she knew any tales about bats, in honour of their newest comrade.
As he wandered happily in the woodland, Crane heard a sweet chirping sound like the song his little bat had sung before she'd taken her rest this evening. And then a musical human voice, singing a wordless song. He thought he felt the ring on his hand tingle.
"Or-Tikva?" he called softly.
There was no answer, either within his head or without. Thinking fondly of his majestic friend, he reached for a broken branch that hung limply from the bough before him.
Crane held his hand up and saw bright beads of blood standing out against the skin of his wounded palm. Suddenly he felt faint. As the world went dark, some instinct inspired him to tug the ring off his finger and fling it back in the direction from which he had come.
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...