The Queen's party caught up with her Guards late the next day. Or-Tikva tracked them using the ring which Lero wore.
It had taken some doing. The two had made contact the night before, after Or-Tikva and Esther had dined with Rik's family.
Lero reported that she and Shira and Ayelet and their beasts were safely ensconced in a secure campsite with some of their new friends.
"They weren't snakes at all," Lero had told Or-Tikva in the ring-induced vision through which they communicated. "They were rabbits and squirrels and sparrows that had had a glamour cast upon them so they would appear snakelike until they were killed. If we'd slaughtered them the way Merwa no doubt wanted us to we would have produced a pile of charming, furred and feathered corpses which would have broken our hearts."
"More than that," Or-Tikva had responded. "Knowing my sister's tendencies, it is likely that if you had gotten those creatures' innocent blood on your hands you would have strengthened her power and weakened your own. By thwarting her you have made a large advance towards her defeat. Well done, my lady – and my compliments to Ayelet for discerning the glamours and defeating Merwa's purpose. What now?"
"Now we shall let our small refugees rest and recover and then release them with a blessing. Ourselves, we shall hold our current position until you can join us. It will give us the opportunity to do surveillance and prepare."
"We shall not be long. These fine steeds can, with their four legs, cover ground in half the time it would take the swiftest human walker. You estimate your current location to be close to the Malmortian border?"
"Almost certainly, my lady. Ayelet has sensed – has perceived – multifarious magical disturbances in the area that are of a particular nature, and she and Shira are devising ways to bypass these arcane boundaries which the mage has made. Also –" Lero's tone became less confident and more confidential "- I have begun to hear voices that no one else can hear. I have not spoken of it to the others. Do you think it could be ..."
"Another of my sister's dirty tricks? Undoubtedly. What do the voices say to you?"
"I cannot ... quite ... make them out, but as far as I can tell they are just being rude."
"Keep track of what they say, even if it makes no sense, and relate it to me when next we speak. Hopefully we will speak face-to-face in two days' time - or less, if the horses are particularly energetic."
And so it was. Their Majesties had arrived at the Guards' camp the just as the next days' sun sank below the horizon, pulling the shades on the day.
The Guards had had some warning of an arrival but had not been sure whose it was, since they did not expect the Royal horses to be so very swift.
"Ayelet, why does your rat run in circles so?" Shira had asked.
The women had been sitting by their campfire after dinner, listening to one of Lero's stories.
"Well," Ayelet answered with uncharacteristic hesitation, "he does not seem to be frightened, or unhappy in any way. Maybe ..."
But before she could come up with any explanation, Lero's donkey had risen to his feet. He'd sniffed the breeze that blew down off the mountains behind them, and snuffled softly.
In her perch in a nearby cypress tree, Shira's raptor had called out in a voice that sounded like nothing so much as a glad cry.
The women had looked at one another. Turning her head, Lero had cupped one ear.
"I hear hoofbeats approaching," she'd said. "It cannot be ... do you think it is another of the malicious mage's mischievous manifestations?"
In response to this suggestion, Shira had strapped her belt of throwing axes across her shoulders and hefted her labrys. Ayelet, muttering words of protection, had taken up her bow – which was not far away – and fitted an arrow to the string, pulling it back as she'd stood up and to attention.
Lero had placed several large stones over the fire to hide its glow.
A black jagged shape cast a shadow across the rising moon and Ayelet loosed an arrow in its direction before she could stop herself. Quick as lightning, a grey form rose like a wave from beneath the trees and stopped the arrow in its flight.
"No!" Lero called out when Shira raised her arm to throw her labrys. "Stay your hand!"
In the silence that followed, the lithe grey form of a panther emerged into the dim firelight and dropped the arrow at their feet. The black shape of a bat glided down to land next to it, folding her wings.
The hoofbeats, much slowed, drew closer.
Three days later the lab results for the water bottles had come back. To be on the safe side Tova had taken several from Sam's recycling bin, and they'd all been contaminated with nicotine.
"Not in a high enough concentration to kill me right off," Sam had told her when he got off the phone with the police, "but enough to do some serious damage over time."
He'd come home from the hospital by then. Before he'd been released, Tova had arranged to have his apartment cleaned, and she'd stocked his fridge and cupboards with healthy things to eat and drink.
She'd also had his land line reactivated, since his cell phone was now evidence in a criminal investigation. And she'd arranged an array of potted plants around the place – spider plants hanging by the windows to keep the air clean; blooming Christmas cactuses in pink and red and white to add cheer and scent; and a full, four-foot-tall dracaena – a dragon tree – next to the sofa, for security.
"You got to let me pay you back for some of this," Sam had said, happily sampling seed crackers and Oka cheese washed down with apricot nectar.
"Consider it partial repayment for the plane ticket you bought me last December."
She'd thought he would protest, but he'd just said "All right" and munched some dried figs and walnut halves.
The police had enough evidence by then to pick up Monty – especially since the detective in charge of the case was a Burnside fan – but they hadn't been able to find him. His office and his condo had both been cleared out.
"Scarpered," said Sam, who'd been watching a lot of BBC programs on cable since he'd been in hospital. "Good riddance to bad rubbish."
"Aren't you worried that he's still out there?" Tova had asked, trying not to sound shrill. "Because I am."
"Fool me once, shame on you," Sam had responded placidly. "Fool me twice, my bad. Besides, you got my back now."
"I think we got to talk about some new arrangements," he'd said.
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...