"What are you doing there!"
Seeing Monty in Sam's hospital room had caused such a rush of adrenaline through Tova's system that the agent was lucky she hadn't ripped his head off right there. But Sam had still been sleeping, when she'd returned from getting a bite to eat, so she'd controlled herself.
"There's been a misunderstanding," Monty had said placatingly, hands raised in apparent submission. "I don't know what he told you, but you have to remember he might have been delusional. From the drugs, you know."
"What! What drugs?"
Monty had bowed his head in apparent sorrow. "They're very good at keeping it a secret, these addicts. I tried to get him to stop, to come clean –"
"Like the way you tried to protect him from me? Get out, Monty." Tova had been so mad that the words stuck on her tongue. "No – better wait here. I'll get the police."
"You're as delusional as him," he'd huffed. "I have more important things to do than this."
She hadn't tried to stop him as he'd swept out of the room.
And what had become of the "little girls", as Merwa had so charmingly dubbed them?
While Crane was thinking of new ways to annoy Merwa, and Esther and Or-Tikva were stopping off at the latter's village for unnamed reinforcements, Ayelet and Shira and Lero were dealing with snakes.
Of course they were more than up to the challenge.
Despite their worries, each of the three had managed to get a good few hours of refreshing sleep. At midnight Shira had come to the cave mouth to take her turn at the watch and Lero had relayed Or-Tikva's message to her before going inside to take her own rest. Ayelet had slept soundly through the night and, when she awoke, had concurred with Or-Tikva's thoughts.
"I have come to love Crane too," she'd added, "and I feel that we can best honour him by pursuing our common quest."
"Do not say 'honour him' as if he were already dead," Lero had objected. "I believe it likely that Merwa will keep him alive for a time, at least."
"One can 'honour' a person who yet lives," Shira had said wisely. "And do we pursue our quest as planned, we are surely going in the direction Crane was taken."
So the three had continued on their way northwest, completely ignoring the gloomy grove into which Crane had disappeared and which led, no doubt erroneously, off to the east.
Out from the foothills, they'd followed a path through a forest of young pine trees. The going had been easy until they'd crested a rise and, looking down, had seen that the dale below them was infested with snakes.
"This is no natural gathering," Ayelet exclaimed, as the three stood staring. "See how they wander out in the open, and how the many different species mix together in confusion. They have most certainly been bewitched.
"Evil sorcerers are so predictable," she concluded in disgust.
"What think you, Lady Lero?" Shira asked gently. "For I see you are deep in thought, and your thoughts always benefit us most greatly."
Feeling five pairs of curious and respectful eyes focused upon her, Lero addressed herself to the animals.
"The serpents will certainly be more afraid of us than we are of them. Therefore, let the most gentle of us lead the way. My dear donkey, you could circle them, stepping softly with your fearsome hooves, and drive them into a more compact area so that we can somehow sort them out."
"Only the smaller ones will be afraid of rats." Ayelet picked up Lero's thought and carried it further. "My clever rat can chase the lesser snakes in one direction, and when their greater fellows begin to consider eating him for lunch, he can take advantage of this and quickly lead them off the other way."
"Do you think," Shira asked her, "that you may have any way of undoing the spell that is upon them?"
"Only let your bird bring me a sample," Ayelet answered. "Let her choose the most docile serpent from among them, and I will see what I can do."
"The presence of a great raptor will surely cause all serpents to be more docile," Lero added. "At least, when backed up by a donkey and a rat. Is it a good strategy then, Shira?"
"It is. And we humans need not be passive; a few well-placed arrows and thrown axes can help to move the snakes where we wish them to go. And Lero – I have heard of specialists in the eastern lands who calm snakes with music. Have you, perhaps, a song you can give them now?"
"Thanks for coming," Tova had whispered when the young woman walked into the hospital room on Friday afternoon. Sam was still out cold.
"Thanks for calling me," Nicky had whispered back, pulling Tova into a swift embrace. Her black ski jacket had felt cold against Tova's cheek, but her presence had been profoundly warming.
"When was the last time you slept?" the younger woman had scolded in a motherly fashion.
"Don't remember." Tova's yawn had swallowed up the last word.
"Hmph. It's four now; Dad said I could stay until ten since I don't have school tomorrow - and he'll come pick me up. You go home and rest. If that Monty shows up again," she'd growled, "I'll take care of him."
"How'll you know him? You've never seen what he looks like."
"I'll know him."
And with that, Nicky had dropped her book bag on the floor by the chair and hunkered down next to the bed.
Tova had no choice, really. She went home.
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...