Soon enough, a furry creature emerged from the brush and sidled up to where Crane was lying. The man examined the newcomer through slitted eyes that appeared to be closed.
Though his recent travelling companions had taught him to be more tolerant of beasts, Crane had a bad feeling about this one. Maybe it was the smell; inhaling silently, Crane detected a stanch of smoke wafting from the creature's matted fur. And not the healthy smoke of wood fires but rather a rank, noxious odour, like offal and scorched earth.
The spider scuttled under Crane's hand for shelter as the interloper moved closer. Now it appeared to be a small man, wrapped in a filthy fur cloak with his face obscured by a bushy, unkempt beard and whiskers.
Humming and smacking his lips, the hairy man muttered to himself as he came.
Finally, he crouched down next to Crane and poked at the hero's face with a long yellow fingernail.
"Merwa's got you, you belong to her," he announced in a clear, pleasant-sounding voice. "I am her assistant, she calls me Hench, and I've got the antidote right here. She's mixed it with a docility potion to make you behave. Since you're already paralyzed, you won't feel this."
So saying, Hench opened a leather pouch that was hanging on a cord around his neck. He pulled out a packet wrapped in skins - thin layers of skins which he peeled off to reveal a thick needle dripping with some sticky substance.
"Clever, isn't she? She invented this system for getting potions inside of recalcitrant subjects. It's what we use on those naughty boys."
As Hench lowered the wickedly sharp tip of the needle and prepared to puncture the skin of Crane's throat with it, and Crane gathered himself to test out his newly-recovered limbs, the spider rushed out from under his palm. In a flash she sprang up onto the offensive hand that held the needle and sank her tiny fangs into the soft tissue above the thumb.
Hench screamed and dropped the needle.
Crane reached out and caught the needle effortlessly, and then turned it on his attacker.
"Now we'll see who's docile," he growled as he slipped the point under Hench's skin. "I do so want to see Merwa again, and you will lead me to her secret lair – the one where she's keeping the boys."
"Gnh," said Hench, his eyelids fluttering.
"Stand up," commanded Crane, sliding out from beneath the spider's web.
Hench stood up.
"Now, to the lair."
"Rxrlr," grumbled Hench, leading the way.
"What's that?" Nicky asked, pointing over Tova's shoulder at a low-growing plant in Tova's plot in the community garden. It had dark green heart-shaped leaves with pink veins and pink undersides.
"I don't know," Tova answered, crouching down to stroke the downy green fronds. "It planted itself here, and it smells so nice I couldn't bear to uproot it. Do you think your Dad might recognize it?"
"Let's take some to him, then."
As Tova began to break off sprigs of the plant, Nicky squealed in alarm.
"What if it's poisonous?"
"I've seen birds and squirrels nibbling at it, and I've touched it before with no ill effects, so I don't think it could be too toxic. Here," she said, holding some under Nicky's nose, "doesn't it smell good?"
Nicky pulled her head back, her lips turned down in skepticism, but she must have inhaled the odour in spite of herself because she sighed, "Ah, it is nice."
"Don't think I'm too silly, but I've made up my own name for it," Tova confided. "In the spring it gets pink flowers, and then a fruit that looks kind of like a blackberry, only when it ripens it turns pale pink – almost greyish – like a tiny brain. Don't worry, I haven't eaten any!"
"I wouldn't think so," said Nicky drily. "What's your name for it?"
"I call it 'Heart and Mind'. I never told anyone before. But you know – people used to believe that a plant's appearance could give you a hint of what its use is. Until science 'disproved' that idea," she concluded sarcastically.
"Science never disproved it," Nicky agreed. "Just replaced it with scientific assumptions, also unproved. Some people still believe in plants. Your 'Heart and Mind' could be just the thing to help Sam get his groove back. My dad will know. Plus – you know he's a computer programmer, right?"
"Oh! No, I didn't know that. So if Sam's laptop has gotten some kind of arcane virus –"
"Elvis Lightfoot is the guy for the job. Can't make a living as a shaman," Nicky explained. "Has to be practical."
"I guess so."
The Queen's party had reached the bat cave, but Crane's bat was not happy.
She flew somersaults in the air and circled the party of warrior women as if herding them. Once or twice she flew off at a tangent, and the women braced to follow, but each time she flew back to resume her circling and somersaulting.
The cave had been deserted when they'd reached it. All the bats save Crane's had entered it and taken their places along the craggy ceiling, hanging huddled and ready for sleep.
The warrior party had gone inside to examine the place in which they assumed Crane had been held captive. They found nothing but a bare floor covered with guano and the occasional insect wing left over from a bat's dinner.
"Perhaps it is not the right cave," Esther suggested. "I need some fresh air, at any rate."
"Pardon, majesty," Ayelet spoke up, as the Queen and the other women turned to go, "but may I explore deeper into the cave? I will send my rat ahead – these are obviously insect-eating bats, so he is safe – and I will cover my face with the magic cloth."
"Of course - if you wish," said Esther. "We shall await you outside."
And so the others waited, observing and trying to decipher the antics of Crane's bat as the sun rose above the treetops.
"Does this display signify anything to you?" Shira whispered to Lero.
"I don't really speak Bat," Lero responded, tightening her magic cloth over her ears, "but I have some ideas. I will be able to think more clearly when I have seen Ayelet emerge unscathed from yon sinister cave."
"Indeed," murmured Shira, and lapsed into silence.
"Lero," Or-Tikva addressed her softly, drawing her aside, "I did not wish to betray your confidence in front of the others, but I must ask: have you heard any more voices?"
"No," the young woman answered, "and it has been a great relief."
"Indeed. I understand that - my only fear is that this is but another odious chapter in my sister's attempted bewitchment. I must confide in you now - I can no longer perceive the guiding voices which I am used to hearing, the ones which have always helped me find my own powers."
"Oh - I'm - how can I help?" asked Lero.
"I don't know if you can. I had been warned of this condition, but I never believed it could interfere with my own righteousness. They say that occasionally the power of evil can temporarily overwhelm the power of good. My people call it 'righter's block'."
Author's Note: Will Sam and Or-Tikva get unblocked in time, or will Crane have to continue his impossible quest on his own? Even I don't know the answers to these questions because this is all I've written so far. I do have some ideas, however. Stay tuned ...
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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...