Sam looked up from his computer screen and squinted at her, but said nothing.
"That was Detective Jewell," Tova continued, gazing thoughtfully at the phone she'd just replaced in its cradle. "They think Monty stayed at the Holiday Inn last night. The description matches, shaggy hair and all."
"The Holiday –! Not the one just up the street?" Sam choked out.
"Yeah, that one. He checked in under your name."
"Dirty dog. Did he use my credit card too?"
"He used a fake one, and they think he left early this morning so he wouldn't have to pay. That made the morning clerk take a second look at the name – he might not have reported it to the police otherwise. He's a fan," she added.
"Hot damn," Sam said in disgust.
Tova sat down beside him on the sofa and put her arm across his shoulders.
"What's that?" she asked, pointing at the computer screen.
For a minute Sam was silent, and they gazed together at the laptop. Where she would have expected to see crisp black letters arrayed across the silvery-white of the virtual page, instead Tova saw a virtual bat cave. Robin had just smashed some furniture and Batman was in the process of gathering up some golden Lego pieces.
"Well," Sam said slowly, "it's like this. You get points for gathering up them Lego studs, and then you can spend them on extras, like different characters. I'm savin' up for Cat Woman."
He batted his eyes at her and smiled a sorry smile.
"I know what it is, Sam – I have played a video game or two in my time."
"You love your Nintendo, don't you," he chuckled.
She batted him with her hand. "I'm not saying you can't play games. I just thought you were trying to finish that first draft of Esther."
"I was," he said heavily. "But it seems that our friend Mr. Dick-son has appropriated more than my name. This may sound far-fetched to y'all, but I think that when he stole your ring, he somehow stole my muse along with it – though I don't see as how we can report that to the police. I ain't think that givin' someone writer's block is a prosecutin' offence.
"Hell's bells, darlin', you know I ain't never had no problem with writer's block. My head's always full of ideas. It's like he just sucked the ideas right out of my head, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it."
"Oh yeah?" Tova said, rising. "Well, your lady detective said to tell her everything, especially if it's weird."
"Okay; this is weird. I'll call her myself."
"And in the meantime, I think I know someone who might be able to help you get your groove back."
The poison took hold of him just before dawn.
Crane could tell from the way it affected his limbs and extremities that it was a toxic rather than a terminal kind of poison.
He had been poisoned before, so the sensations were not unfamiliar – they were just unexpected. His sword had always healed him quickly and completely, before.
He could only guess at the provenance of this toxin. Some strand of Merwa's evil hair that still adhered to his skin, perhaps? Or some spell she had sent after him into the forest?
There was no more time to wonder. A terrible tingling from beneath his fingernails made him lose his grip on the tree he had been climbing. He managed to grab back on to it, just as he began to fall, but as he did so the skin of his palms and the soles of his feet in his boots suddenly burned as if a torch had been applied to them.
Crane gritted his teeth and gripped the tree-trunk in his arms, bending his hands back at the wrists and shifting from one foot to the other to relieve the pain. When his knees began to feel as if they were stabbed by needles, he had no other recourse but to drop to the ground, though he was no longer sure how high up he was.
The fall was interminable, but he managed to gather himself up, while airborne, and roll off the momentum when he finally landed. Only a few new bruises ensued, and they quickly dissipated, but his sword seemed to have little effect on the symptoms of Merwa's poison.
For a time – he knew not how long – he lay flat out on his back on the forest floor, feeling almost as if he were back in the sorcerer's prison. The fact that he could wiggle his fingers and toes was comforting; the shooting pain it caused was not.
After a time longer, the light of a new dawn filtered through the forest canopy and the mist in his brain began to clear.
He turned his head from side to side and looked around him. He saw black ants, going about their business in the undergrowth, and a spider waiting patiently on a web it had spun between two long leaves of grass.
Rolling his head the other way, his nose butted up against a young sapling whose nubile branches had helped to break his fall. He reached out a hand to stroke it, a gesture of affectionate thanks.
"Bark," he whispered thoughtfully.
Ayelet used bark in her antidote potion. Not the bark itself, he recalled, but the sap underneath. He had no way to kindle a fire, nor had he a pot in which to brew, nor the other necessary ingredients.
Yet might he obtain a measure of relief –
With some difficulty he loosened his sword from the scabbard at his side and drew it out. He eyed the tree compassionately.
"Perhaps if I take a small sample of bark from this crevice between your roots," he said to it, "I will not do you too much injury. I do not wish to add to your suffering in order to relieve my own."
The tree stood serene as Crane slipped the razor-sharp tip of his sword into the crevice and sheared off a sliver of bark. Turning it between his thumb and forefinger, he saw two glistening drops of sap, thick and golden like honey.
He managed to raise the sliver to his mouth and place it on his tongue. He swallowed and lay back panting.
Exhausted by his labours, and by the noxious substance lately polluting his body, Crane fell into a weird and fitful sleep.
Weird had never fazed Elvis Lightfoot. Though he'd grown up in the centre of a big Canadian city, in a secular family and an environment that generally discouraged arcane activity, he'd found magic in the natural world, in music, and in books.
He never cared that people called them 'fiction'. He knew reality when he touched it.
And he'd recognized kindred spirits in Sam and Tova when he met them. So when Tova called that afternoon to ask for his help, she didn't have much work to convince him.
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...