As if they could hear Crane's thoughts, the two Susan parties were by then firmly directed towards Malmort, although Esther and Or-Tikva had to make a stop along the way.
"I'm never quite sure how your people feel about me," Esther mused aloud as their swift horses carried them along hidden paths in the wilderness to the north of the citadel.
"They are not sure either," Or-Tikva responded. "They respect you for the way you rule, and admire your good works, and they may even appreciate your efforts to make amends to me. But they don't care for the fact that you convinced me to leave them again."
"That is fair. Now, tell me the story of how you came to Susa and how you went home."
"Your Majesty," Or-Tikva said wryly, "has so often heard that story that she could tell it herself."
"Yet the surroundings through which we travel are gloomy and only serve to agitate my mind, which is already ill at ease over the course which lies before us. And Crane, if he indeed still lives –"
"No more, please, Your Highness. I will tell the story.
"As you know, Or-Tikva is the name I was given by my parents at my birth, and it means 'the light of hope'. I was called Vashti only when I was kidnapped from these very woods and taken to Ahasuerus' harem at Susa. I was then but a girl of thirteen, and these woods which you call 'gloomy' seemed restful and even magical to me. Especially in contrast to my large and noisy family."
She paused so Esther could hear a tree-frog's musical croak and the dripping of last night's rain-water from the forest canopy to the underbrush below. Wild flowers and herbs released their scents.
The little bat, which hung from a sash slung across Or-Tikva's shoulders, stirred in her sleep and sighed. Esther's panther loped easily along in the horses' wake.
"My parents were weavers," she continued, "and they wanted me to learn their trade as my older brothers had – all but the eldest who was obviously more suited to child-rearing. But I was a thinker and a dreamer, and though I sometimes had pretty ideas for the designs of the textiles, I lacked the discipline and dexterity necessary to execute the designs. Weaving is a science as much as it is an art.
"So my parents agreed to let me take that summer to look about me, to interview other villagers about their livelihoods, to read all the scrolls I could get my hands on and to wander in the woods looking for inspiration.
"They had not heard that Ahasuerus was seeking to expand his harem, and besides, I was just their awkward little girl. They did not see that I was on the verge of becoming a ripe young woman. I did not know it myself.
"And so it was a shock when I suddenly found myself imprisoned in the harem at Susa and they so rudely explained what was expected of me."
"For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage..." - "Esther" 7:4, Bible
Trapped in his tomblike prison, Crane could only imagine the pleasure of a woodland horse-ride. As the hours dragged on, a chill settled into his bones. Though he could not move his limbs, he warmed himself by flexing his muscles from his toes up to the top of his scalp in a version of a relaxation exercise which Shira had taught him one morning when he'd come to take over the watch.
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...