A flash of reflected light caught Lero's eye as Crane's ring bounced out into the clearing.
"Crane?" she called, peering into the dimness between the odd trees' branches.
"Crane!" she shouted when there was no answer to her first query.
She was startled by a high-pitched cry from the cave behind her. The beating of wings disturbed the air and a small form whooshed over her shoulder and landed in the rubble at her feet.
Muttering softly, the little bat bent her head and then turned to Lero, holding something shiny in her beak.
"What have you there, my friend?" Lero asked politely, stretching her hand out.
The bat tottered closer and, bowing, deposited a small disc into Lero's palm.
"Crane's ring!" she cried, recognizing it at once. "This does not bode well."
She took a step towards the grove into which he had disappeared, but the bat hissed and spread her wings, preventing Lero's progress.
"You warn of danger," Lero replied, "but I will not desert my comrade."
In answer to this, the bat moved her wings as if to herd Lero back towards the cave. The young woman scowled and took another step forward. The bat bared her fangs and hissed again. Her dark, leathery wings beat the air, spanning nearly a metre across.
Lero sighed. "Though I know you eat only fruit and insects, my friend, and thus your threat is empty, still I take your meaning. Let us return to our comrades and decide together on our course of action."
Without thinking, she slipped Crane's ring onto her finger, not even wondering at the fact that it fit her perfectly.
At the cave mouth she turned back to look for her furry, winged companion but the little bat had flown off. Lero could just make out her jagged outline above the mountain peaks from which their party had lately descended.
"Well, my feckless fellow, I expected better of you than to desert the one who healed your broken wing," Lero proclaimed to the empty air.
"Have you found no fuel for our fire, then?" Shira inquired, coming up behind her.
"Found no wood," she replied ruefully, "and lost Crane." She held out her hand to display his ring. "I fear there is mischief afoot."
"Or worse," Shira said. "Ayelet – come out – we must search for our comrade."
"Lero has wandered off?" a worried voice called from inside the cave, coming closer. "No, she is here – so, Crane then? Lero, tell us what has happened."
"He bade me stay close to you in my search for kindling, while he went to plunder yon ominous grove. Next thing I know, this ring comes flying from among the trees, and then his bat rushes out and starts ordering me around."
"His bat?" Ayelet echoed. "No, but she is still sleeping – oh! Where has she gone?"
"Flew off over the mountain," Lero answered, "perhaps in fear of whatever terrible thing has taken Crane."
"Or perhaps," Shira said thoughtfully, "she flies to Susa to alert the Queen. Bats have a surprising devotion to helping humans despite our mistreatment of them."
"I wanted to search the grove, but she stopped me," Lero told them.
"Well done, lady bat. Lero – it's not like you to be so impulsive," Ayelet said with a wink before turning serious. "Come, we cannot search the grove now – even if we knew what danger awaited us there and could arm ourselves against it, we have no daylight left. Better to eat and rest and be up again at first light –"
"But Crane will be long gone by then!" Lero protested.
"If he is stolen by Merwa, he is long gone already," Shira pointed out. "Let us take the time to plan our course. If we perish, we are of no use to anyone."
Lero took the first watch that night, sure she would not sleep easily. She sat with her donkey in the cave mouth, spine straight and legs folded, feeling the lingering heat from the fire at her back and the cool night air on her face.
In her heart and in her mind, images of Crane and of Eli appeared bearing impossible questions.
Who needed her help more? Clearly Eli was the more vulnerable of the two; and yet, as long as he was useful to Merwa, they believed she would keep him alive. Crane had nothing like that in his favour. Surely Merwa would want him out of the way, and quickly.
And yet ... and yet ...
When the voice rang like a bell in her ear, Lero thought she must have dozed and be dreaming.
"Who wears the ring?" it demanded.
She looked around and saw no one, saw no sign of movement, heard no sound but her donkey's soft snoring. He had not heard the voice, then.
Putting her hand on his velvety head to steady herself, she whispered her answer: "It is I – Lero."
The bell-like voice came softer now, and she recognized Or-Tikva's musical tones.
"My dear, I did not mean to startle you. I only needed to be sure that the ring had not fallen into the wrong hands."
"Then you know that Crane has gone missing? His bat has reached you?" Lero continued, whispering her questions aloud.
Or-Tikva did not bother to correct her delivery. "She arrived mere minutes ago. The poor thing was exhausted from her hasty flight, yet still she managed to make herself understood when she landed on my window-ledge just as I was about to retire."
"I am familiar with her eloquence," Lero said ruefully. "She prevented me from pursuing my comrade when I became aware of his plight."
"And well she did so. You are already committed to another quest, one which you must not abandon. You and your remaining companions must continue on to Malmort to rescue the boys. Esther and I will go in aid of Crane."
"Then you believe that the three of us can succeed without Crane's assistance?"
"My dear, there was never any doubt of that. The six of you," she said pointedly, "are well equipped for success. We merely added Crane to your team since he was handy and we knew he would tip the odds further in your favour. And he will yet be rejoining you. Take heart, Lero. It is only a question of when."
"Thank you, my Lady. We will rest easier – and fight more steadfastly – knowing that you and the Queen are on the way. Will we speak again?" Lero asked, suddenly sounding more like a young girl than a fierce warrior.
"You have only to find a quiet place and focus your thoughts on me," Or-Tikva answered, "and I will hear you. Now go, call Shira to her watch and you take your rest."
It hadn't been long after HamilCon that Montgomery Dickson had tried to get the ring back from Tova.
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...