Detective Jewell picked up a small piece of rubber, embossed with the recognizable All-Star logo, that had been lying on the floor.
Tova shook her head and said tentatively, "That doesn't seem like Monty's style – he's more of a three-piece-suit kind of guy. But then, if those hairs are his, he's not as clean cut these days as he used to be."
"Very good," Jewell said warmly. "He's on the run, he's not going to be his old self in every way. Now, if it's all right with you folks, I'm gonna let my team finish up here and go put the word out for all our peace officers on the street to be on the lookout for a shaggy-haired, sneaker-wearing Dickson."
"So you think it is him?" Tova asked.
Jewell looked at her thoughtfully. "It just smells like him, to me. I believe Mr. Burnside when he says he saw him on the street. And it's too much of a coincidence that the ring he wanted from you before is the one item that goes missing the next day. Any idea why he wants it?"
"Sam says it's about power," Tova said without thinking. Then she felt embarrassed.
"Bad juju," Jewell grumbled. "I know something about that, Miz Burnside. I'll have to think how best to deal with this. I got some people I can call on for advice. I guess you know that there's 'more things in heaven and earth', like Mr. Shakespeare told us."
"That's what Sam believes, but he has an unusually active imagination."
"Between you and me, honey, imagination's not such a bad thing to have in a case like this. You got to know that I'm more experienced than you may realize. Make sure you tell me everything that happens."
"Even if it's weird?"
"Oh yeah, especially that."
Once night had fallen, the Queen's oddly assorted rescue party was on its way, with the Malmortian colony of bats in the lead. All the women, save Lero, covered their eyes with Rik's fabric in order to enhance their night vision.
Lero tied her swathe of fabric over one ear so she could follow their winged guides' echolocation. She left the other ear open to attend to her human comrades. A strip of her swathe she had cut off and tied around her donkey's eyes like a mask so that he, too, could see in the dark.
The other animals needed no such augmentation.
As Lero and her donkey led the human contingent, she translated the bats' song as best she could. "I believe we are to slow down now – their calls are getting lower –"
"Why, I could hear that myself!" Esther whispered in wonder. "Forgive me, Lero – for although I had been aware that bats' talk is sometimes audible to human ears, I had never heard it for myself. It is enchanting!"
"Indeed, majesty," Lero responded patiently, "but I believe that what they are communicating is that we shall come to a stream not fifty paces ahead – I can hear the water's babbling now myself – so do let us postpone our consideration of bat speech until we are dry on the other side of it."
"Quite so," the Queen said graciously, and she and the other women fanned out, looking for the best place to ford the stream.
At that moment, Crane was also wandering in the dark, although he had no guide. He did have his trusty sword, which glowed enough in the moonlight to illuminate his way, as well as his own extraordinary tracking skills and his years of extensive experience, all of which he used to his advantage.
Yes, he was used to working alone. It was the way he had always walked. But for the first time in his life, he did not enjoy the sensation of this independence.
He missed his companions – peaceful Lero, steadfast Shira, the quicksilver Ayelet, and most of all, the breathtaking Or-Tikva. Queen Esther was in his thoughts too, but he had no idea that she had joined their expedition and was now a working comrade.
Still, he thought of her in a way he had never thought of any other: he wanted to serve her. He wished nothing so much as to succeed in the undertaking which she had requested of him, and to win her full respect.
He circled out stealthily from the cave mouth, pacing steadily to increase the distance between Merwa and himself as quickly as possible and making his movements ridiculously complex in order to confound any attempt she might make at tracking him. He zig-zagged, walking backwards and placing his feet at varying intervals and crazy angles.
Every little while he would climb a tree and leap from its upper branches into the next tree's canopy.
All the time his senses were on high alert as he tried to get some bearing as to direction. For lack of a better plan, he still intended to head for the kingdom of Malmort in hopes of finding the boys. Crane had never been much of a one for planning, since his extraordinary battle skills had always gotten him out of any sticky situation; then again, he had never been on just such a quest as this.
By the banks of a rushing stream he paused, noting the passage of the wind and the sound of the water, and he once again yearned for the young companions he had so quickly gotten used to.
Perhaps it was his age, he reflected – he was, after all, no longer a young man.
He had never worshipped youth, nor had he tried to hold on to it. Forwards was always his direction, and he had no wish to stand still, either on the ground or in time. Unfortunately he had never considered that his tactics would have to change with age. But then, it wasn't as if he had a role model from whom he could learn.
His thoughts turned again to the two older women. He felt sure that, when and if he had the chance to see them again, he would have many interesting issues to discuss with the Lady and Her Majesty.
For now, though, he would have to muddle through without those answers. For now, he could only do his best with a modified version of his old ways.
He gripped the pommel of his sword and growled a soft warrior's growl, then leaped into the cold water and made his way to the far bank. He was still Crane of Astartha, rightly feared and justifiable famous. He had never met a challenge that had defeated him, he had never wavered or quavered in the face of adversity.
Let Merwa plot and plan all she liked; he, Crane, was a man of action, and for now he was on the move.
"Monty's on the move," Tova announced, putting down the phone.
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...