The sun was warm on the women's faces when Ayelet reappeared at the cave mouth. She wore a grave expression on her visage, and held one arm away from her body. As she approached, they could discern that she carried something small yet significant in the hand that was thus extended. Whatever it was, she grasped it gingerly between thumb and forefinger as if it were worse than a poisonous snake.
"Yellow hair," she announced when she was within earshot. "Stinking of evil. A pile of it, in a second chamber beyond the first cave-room. And a stone coffin, of a size that could contain a goliath – empty, with the lid smashed on the ground. And stains of some substance – I am sure it is blood. Please give me a small piece of cloth to wrap these tresses. I cannot bear to touch them, yet I feel they may reveal –"
"It is my sister's hair," Or-Tikva said grimly, "of that I have no doubt. She made it that colour when she changed herself from Meryam to Merwa. May I see it?"
"Please – and thank you, my lady," Ayelet added as she passed the tresses to Or-Tikva.
She regarded the fingers that had touched them. Her rat, who was perched on her shoulder, craned his head forward and examined the doubtful digits, whiskers trembling.
And then he sneezed.
Crane's bat fluttered down and settled on Ayelet's other shoulder, mimicking the rodent's sniffing and sneezing, and then she flew up, flapped a few yards away, and hovered at the edge of the trees. Ayelet's rat jumped to the ground and ran to the same spot, where he paused quivering, nose pointed into the trees.
"Onward to Malmort, then?" Shira asked, as her bird unfolded her wings and rose in the air until she drifted on a morning air-current over the heads of the rat and the bat.
Lero's donkey also rose and plodded towards the trees, with Esther's panther loping alongside.
"It seems to be unanimous," Lero murmured, preparing to follow.
The other women followed suit.
"Here's something interesting," said Elvis.
Sam was just nodding off on the sofa beside him, having relinquished control of the laptop when Elvis' programming jargon became too impenetrable.
"Hmmm?" Sam mumbled, trying to wake up.
"Name change," Elvis said, pointing to some gobbledygook on the computer screen. "Ever heard of this guy?"
Sam tried to focus. "What am I lookin' at here?"
"It will be easier for you to see it this way," Elvis told him, tapping a few more keys.
As Sam watched, an image of a title page came up.
Xerxes, Royal Foe!
The next chapter in the Saga of Crane of Astartha –
an unfinished story by the late Samuel L. Burnside –
completed by P. Fleming White.
"What the –" Sam sputtered. "P. Fleming White – you gotta be kidding. That boy couldn't write his way out of a paper bag. And they got my initial wrong – it's J, not L."
"I believe Mr. White is popular with the ladies, though," Elvis observed.
"Despicable! Monty wants to kill me off to replace me with a pretty boy. May be a good marketing strategy, but despicable nonetheless."
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...