Esther placed upon her friend's hand the hilt of a thin, glimmering dagger which she drew from a small pocket at the side of her tunic. The older woman then stretched an arm's-length expanse of cloth until it was taut and neatly severed it from the bolt. The dark, evanescent fabric made a sound like the wind as it was cut.
Or-Tikva handed the cut piece to Ayelet, who bowed her head as she accepted it. The young archer fingered the gift, holding it close to her face to catch its scent and examine its substance.
Three more lengths were cut from the bolt and handed out, leaving one last piece for Or-Tikva. She looked around the circle, then held her length of cloth up to her face like a mask.
"See how the fabric enhances vision," she encouraged her comrades. "It does this not only in the bright sun, but in storms of sand and rain, and even at night. And one more thing: Rik promises that it will help our eyes distinguish between true and false when we meet with Merwa's machinations."
The women were so absorbed in handling this new weapon that they did not notice Lero's lack of participation until she cried out, "Surely the Queen does not require me to hide my face! I saw my mother and sisters smothered by veils which taught them nothing but shame, though the shame rightly belonged to those who enslaved them. Those barbarians had reason to be ashamed and hide from sight, not my ladies! When I came to Susa as a refugee I was taught pride in myself, and learned to cherish the freedom of walking unveiled. But –"
Or-Tikva was kneeling by Lero's side now, and she gathered the trembling, sobbing young woman into her arms as she crooned, "Hush, my sweet, my brave one. We will find another way for you to wear the cloth. Only decide for yourself how you wish to use its qualities. You need not cover your lovely face, ever."
"I wonder." After a moment Lero spoke in a voice that was calmed, though still hoarse. "Perhaps this cloth might enhance my hearing? Let me place it so –" she wrapped it over the crown of her head and tied it under the hair at the back of her neck like a kerchief.
"Oh!" she said after a moment. "Oh my."
She looked at each of the other women in turn. "Amazing," she sighed. "I would never have thought it possible."
The Queen gazed back, her grey-blue eyes serene. Or-Tikva looked curious but also kept quiet. Shira had her eyes averted, as if afraid her friend might be hearing her thoughts.
"Tell us!" Ayelet cried impatiently. "What is it you find possible now, that you thought impossible before?"
"Your breath," Lero answered softly. "I had never realized how much one could know simply from the awareness of a person's breathing.
"Even without looking, I can hear that Her Majesty is relaxed and in no need; Or-Tikva's breath is deliberately slow because there are questions she would like answered, but is too polite to ask; Shira is holding her breath, perhaps because she fears I can now invade her privacy by some sort of mind-reading – have no fear, my dear, I can not! And Ayelet's breathing is shallow and quick because she is impatient and ready for action.
"It is ever my role, in our little band, to anticipate my comrades' needs. This wondrous fabric will clearly facilitate that," she concluded.
"What else do you hear?" Shira asked, looking up.
"I hear small animals in the brush, and I hear our fire dwindling – it needs more fuel – and I hear ... wings? Many, many wings like ... large birds, perhaps. A flock of geese? Or –"
She was interrupted by a shrill "Eeee! Eeee!" emitted from the vicinity of the Queen's pocket, where the little bat had lately been sleeping.
As the beast poked her quivering nose out of her hiding place, her cry was answered by a chorus of similar cries. They were far-off and faint to everyone save Lero, who tore the magic cloth off her head and clapped her hands over her ears.
The others stirred and looked around them. Ayelet instinctively fitted an arrow to her bow while Esther and Shira reached for their own weapons.
A black cloud seemed to boil up out of the trees behind them. In a moment it resolved itself into scores of small black bats. As the women warriors hesitated, trying to decide if the creatures were friend or foe, Crane's bat rose out of her nest in the Queen's tunic and settled on Or-Tikva's shoulder, where she appeared to whisper in the lady's ear.
After a moment, the lady said, "Lower your weapons, my good comrades – I am told our visitors bring us intelligence from our fallen brother."
"I'm glad they didn't feel a need to recreate the authentic smell of the place," Sam whispered to Tova as they stood in the museum's Bat Cave. "It would just be too much."
"I guess so!" Tova concurred over the background of Eeee! Eeee! that rushed from the speakers above their heads. "You really don't find them scary at all?"
Sam looked affectionately at the recreation of a crowded bat-bedroom filling one alcove of the gallery, with hundreds of models of the creatures hanging from the rocky ceiling.
"They're just little things," he said. "They band together for warmth, and survival, and community. They're much less scary than humans," he pointed out.
"Most things are. But what about that video we saw, where they burst out of the hillside like a swarm of crazy bees or something?"
"Now, you're just projecting a bias when you perceive them like that, darlin'. If it was people swarming like that you'd be right to be alarmed because human crowds can be deadly. You regularly hear about the weak and the small getting crushed in the forward rush of a throng. But bee swarms make honey, and they won't generally bother you if you don't bother them. And bats take care of our plants –"
"– by eating insects and spreading pollen. I know, Sam; you've told me about that and you know I listen to what you say. I just need some time to get used to new ideas."
"Of course, sweetheart. We all do. That's why I have to sneak off and eat a hamburger or some barbeque every now and then."
"But today we're going to the veggie café where my dad liked to go, right?"
"I'm lookin' forward to it. And to hearin' some more stories about your dad, if you care to tell them. You know, Tova, I think those stories inspired my captured Crane story line."
"The ones about him being in the German POW camp? I think he'd feel good about that. Now can we go down and look at some Chinese art?"
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...