AS the frightful head of the koree darted down to seize him, Thorne, lying where he had fallen, gripped his walking pole with both hands. Instinctively he struck at the descending horror with the pole.
The blow did the creature no injury, but it did distract the monster’s attention from the man. Evidently taking the pole for a part of Thorne’s anatomy, it seized it with the immense beak, and, bracing its feet like a robin drawing a worm from the ground, pulled upward.
Thorne, still clinging to the pole, was surprised to find himself standing on his desert legs once more, not three feet from the base of that leathery neck, which the bird had stretched to the utmost. Still clinging to the pole with his left hand, he whipped out his sword with his right. Then he slashed at that taut neck; the keen, saw-edged blade sheared through to the vertebral column.
As the blood spurted from the gaping wound, the Earthman let go of the pole and sprang away, almost colliding with Yirl Du, who had hurled all his remaining javelins in a fruitless effort to distract the monster’s attention, and was now rushing in with drawn sword. The bird dropped the pole and plunged after them. But it had only taken a few steps when it collapsed and lay still.
Cautiously, the two men now approached the fallen giant. Yirl Du let himself to the ground, unstrapped his desert legs and set about gathering the javelins that still had sound shafts. This done, he recovered Thorne’s walking pole for him. Then he donned his desert legs once more, and they resumed their journey.
Morning found them in a bleak section of the desert that was devoid of vegetation as far as they could see in every direction. As there was no fuel available, they washed their dry rations down with plain water instead of pulcho. Then they buried their desert legs, poles, boxes and bottles in the sand, dug other holes, and covered themselves until nothing showed but their transparent masks. Thus, protected from the sun as well as the prying eyes of any pursuers who might chance to fly over this spot, they slept.
As soon as the sun had set they had another cold meal and were off again. In the early hours before dawn, when the combined light of both moons made everything stand out clearly around them, they reached the top of a rugged cliff which somehow looked familiar to Thorne. Then he recalled that a line of such cliffs rimmed the ancient ocean bed which the Takkor Marsh lay.
They paused on the brink and looked over. About a hundred feet below them was a broad ledge. At approximately the same distance below that was still another. And seventy feet farther down was the sloping, boulder-strewn beach.
Suddenly, to Thorne’s consternation, Yirl Du deliberately stepped over the edge of the cliff. The Earthman uttered an exclamation of horror as he saw his henchman drop straight toward the ledge a hundred feet below. But Yirl Du alighted squarely on his desert legs, sank almost to the depth of the cylinders, and then shot forward and upward. Soaring over the rim of the ledge on which he stood, he dropped to the next, bounced onward again, and alighted on the ground below.
Thorne decided to risk the jump. Accordingly, he stepped over the edge of the cliff into empty air.
There was a vertical rush of wind past his face, then his stilts plunged almost to the tops of the cylinders, and he shot upward once more. As he had neglected to throw himself far enough forward he bounced twice before he got over the rim of the ledge. But when he next alighted he knew how to throw his weight to the front so he was catapulted over the rim. A moment later he joined Yirl Du, and together they scrambled down the sloping beach until they came to a zone of trees, vines and underbrush so thickly entangled that they made any further use of the desert legs impossible.
They let themselves to the ground, and removing these devices, hid them in the underbrush together with the poles, and continued their advance afoot.
The rising sun found them on the bank of a little stream at the edge of the marsh. Here they brewed pulcho and ate their morning meal. Then they flung themselves down for a short rest, lying so that the sun would awaken them by mid-morning.
Thorne awoke first. To his delight, he noticed that the yellow discoloration from the baridium fumes had entirely disappeared from Yirl Du’s skin. He examined his own hands. They, too, had returned to their normal color. As he had no mirror in which to view his face, he went down to the stream.
He had knelt on the bank, and was just parting the rushes, when a reflection in the water before him made him look up. A huge black bat was pursuing what at first glance appeared to be a large butterfly. Apparently disabled, the smaller creature fluttered groundward, falling into the rushes not ten feet from Thorne.
In a steep spiral, the bat swooped toward its fallen prey. Leaping to his feet, Thorne saw the futile fluttering of a pair of lacy, opalescent wings above the rushes, and knew that in a moment more the bat would claim its victim. He jerked a javelin from his quiver and hurled it at the descending monster. It struck the black, furry neck with such force that the barbed head emerged from the other side.
Now it was the bat which tumbled into the rushes, only a few feet from the creature it had struck down.
Having satisfied himself that the ugly thing was dead, Thorne stepped over for a closer look at its intended prey. But as he did so, the lacy wings suddenly rose above the bushes, and he stifled a cry of amazement when he saw that they were attached to the shoulders of a slender, perfectly formed girl about three feet in height.
Save for a girdle of filmy, pale green material drawn tight at the waist by a belt of exquisitely wrought golden mesh and ending in a short skirt, she was nude. Her silky skin was a perfect flesh tint, and covered with fine down, delicate as peach bloom. Her golden yellow hair was bound by a fillet of woven green jade links, circling her forehead just below two delicate, feathery antennae, which swept upward and backward like a pair of dainty plumes.
As he stood staring down at her, scarcely believing his eyes, she suddenly faded from his view.
The Earthman blinked and looked again. But where she had stood he now saw only the rushes which had been bent downward by the weight of her tiny body.
Faintly he heard the fluttering of wings overhead. He looked up and saw only the empty sky. Suddenly a little pixie voice, musical as a silver bell, broke the silence.
“I know you now, man of the Old Race,” it said. “You are Sheb Takkor, the younger. You have saved the life of Eriné, daughter of the Vil of the Ulfi, and she is not ungrateful. Hold out your hand.”
In obedient wonder, he extended his hand. A glittering something dropped into his palm. He saw that it was a tiny ring fashioned from platinum and set with a sparkling green gem.
“If you should ever need the Ulfi, rub the jewel and if there is an Ulf within scent of the ring he will be yours to command.”
“Very kind of you,” said Thorne, “but . . . ” He suddenly realized that the fluttering had stopped. He was talking to empty air.
Yirl Du had come down the bank and was surveying him quizzically. “Your pardon, my lord. Were you speaking to me?”
“Yes. No. I was speaking to an Ulf—that is, to an Ulf maiden.”
“Has one of the Little People paid us a visit?”
“Not intentionally, I guess. You see, she was struck down by that bat.” Thorne indicated the carcass. “I saw her fall, thinking her only a butterfly, yet I pitied the creature and so slew the bat with a javelin. She became invisible and presented me with this.” He held out the ring.
Yirl Du exclaimed with astonishment. “Why, that is indeed a precious thing, my lord, and such a gift as only the Vil of the Ulfi or a member of his family might present to a man.”
“She named herself Eriné, daughter of the Vil.”
Thorne was brimming over with questions about the Little People, but resolved to curb his curiosity until he could talk to Thaine or Lal Vak. Sheb Takkor, he reasoned, would be supposed to know these things. To question Yirl Du about them would be to make him suspect either that he was not Sheb Takkor, or that he had taken leave of his senses.
He kept silence while they climbed the bank to get their belongings. Thorne was about to strap his box to his back when Yirl Du said, “Wait. Let us first get our water-shoes.”
“Water-shoes! I didn’t see any in my box.”
Yirl Du opened his box and took out a cylinder of rolled, reddish brown material. The Earthman then remembered having seen such a cylinder in his box, and extracted it. Unrolling it, he found it consisted of two hollow pieces of resilient material, to each of which was attached a small tube with a shut-off valve. He observed that Yirl Du had opened the valve on one of his and was inflating it by blowing through the tube, so he followed his example. Soon each had a pair of buoyant, boat-shaped water-shoes.
After adjusting their weapons and other paraphernalia, they carried the shoes down to the water’s edge and donned them by pushing their toes under elastic bands designed to cross the arch of the foot. This done, they stepped out onto the surface of the stream.
Yirl Du started off downstream, moving with strokes much like those of a skater. Thorne, trying to imitate him, found that water-shoeing was more difficult than it looked. At the first attempt, his legs spread so far apart he came near to sitting down in midstream. Again and again he tried to glide forward as his henchman had done, but it always seemed that both feet were very definitely bent on traveling in different directions.
Observing his efforts, Yirl Du said, “I fear we should have rested longer, my lord. You have grown weak from your wounds.”
“No, just out of practice,” Thorne told him. “I didn’t use any water-shoes while I was at school, you know. I’ll get back the hang of it, presently.”
And at length, by persistent effort, he did get the hang of it. By the time the sun had reached the zenith they were moving side by side in perfect unison, with long, rhythmic strokes. During this time they had traveled on a dozen winding streams, crossed six small lakes, and three times removed their water-shoes for short jaunts across the land.
At present they were gliding across the calm, mirror-like bosom of a lake much larger than any they had crossed thus far, when Thorne, chancing to notice a shadowy reflection in the placid water at his right, looked upward. To his alarm, he saw that a group of about twenty warriors, each mounted on a gawr, were gliding down toward them. And the warriors were mail-clad, round-bodied yellow men.
“Look, Yirl Du!” he cried, pointing aloft. “The Ma Gongi!”
His companion took one look. “Straight toward that point of land, quickly! It is our only hope.”
They had been making for the mouth of a little stream, beside which the point of land projected. Now they turned almost at right angles to their course and made for the shore which was about two hundred yards distant.
But they had traveled only a few strokes toward their objective when a large net, hanging on four cables, was dropped by one of their pursuers. In an instant it had scooped up Yirl Du. Thorne saw him struggling futilely like some captured wild thing—saw him draw his dagger and vainly try to cut the metallic meshes.
Then the Earthman heard a swish in the water behind him, and he, too, was scooped up in a huge net.