WHEN he saw the second dalf charging toward him, Thorne whipped out his sword and raised it to defend himself. But he lowered it again. “Tezzu!” he exclaimed.
At this the demeanor of the beast suddenly changed. Instead of charging, it now bounded playfully up to him, then began skipping and leaping around him and making little purring noises deep in its throat.
And now, in the same leafy opening through which the beast had appeared, he saw a slender, girlish figure carrying a basket of fish and a trident.
“Thaine!” he cried.
“Hahr Ree Thorne! It’s really you! I’m so glad!”
Dropping basket and trident, she ran forward, flung her arms around his neck and, much to his amazement, kissed him.
“I thought you would never come. I feared they had killed you.”
“They tried hard enough,” he replied, “but I got away and came as soon as I could.”
“I’m sure you did. Let us go inside while I prepare something to eat. Why do you stand there holding the latch?”
“Because one of your dalfs is on the other side, trying to get at me.”
“That’s Neem. He won’t molest you, now that I am here.”
Thus reassured, Thorne opened the door. Neem, the great black dalf, waddled out to meet his mistress, but paid no attention to the Earthman. The latter picked up the basket and trident, and they went in.
Thorne insisted upon helping Thaine prepare the meal, and they soon had pulcho brewing, fish grilling, and fresh cakes baking.
“From your floral decorations, I judge that you have been among the Little People,” said Thaine, as she turned a browned slab of fish.
“You judge correctly,” Thorne replied. “In fact it was a dozen of their warriors who brought me here. Then they saluted and disappeared. Do you know anything about that strange power of theirs—making themselves invisible?”
“I’ve seen them do it many times,” she told him, “yet how they do it remains a mystery. Our scientists believe they are able to surround themselves with auras of photo-electric force which cause light rays to bend around them and anything within the auras, such as their weapons and clothing. Since we see objects only by means of light rays reflected from them into our eyes, if the rays miss them or bend around them they are invisible to us.”
“Sounds reasonable enough,” said Thorne. “But what is this force?”
“One might as well ask, ‘What is electricity, or magnetism, or gravity?’ We know that when they are very weary, or weakened by wounds or illness, they are unable to generate this strange force.”
“That explains why Eriné was visible when pursued by the bat. She must have been exhausted.”
Thorne told her how he had saved the life of the daughter of the Vil of the Ulfi, and showed her the ring.
“It is a precious gift, and one not lightly bestowed,” said Thaine. “I have one like it, and so has my father, but only because he once saved the life of the Vil of the Little People.”
“You remind me, that we were to go in search of your father. Have you had any word from him?”
“None. Even the Ulfi are baffled, and they know almost everything that takes place in this marsh. I fear I shall never see him again.”
Thorne saw the tears gathering in her eyes. “We’ll find your father, never fear,” he said reassuringly. “And now that the food is ready, let us eat, and I will tell you of my adventures since I last saw you. I owe you an explanation for staying away so long.”
When he had finished, she pounced on that very part of the story which he most wished to forget. “This Neva, is she very beautiful?”
“Very, even though she is deceitful and cruel.”
“You love her?”
“Would you love a person who had tricked you—then condemned you to a horrible, lingering death?”
“That,” said Thaine, refilling his pulcho cup for him, “is not an answer but an evasion.”
“Well then, if you must have it, I wish I had never seen her. But I bore you with these troubles of mine. Let us speak no more of them.”
“My poor Hahr Ree Thorne,” she said. “You do not bore me. Your troubles are my troubles, for are we not true friends?”
“Thaine,” he said, “you are a real friend.”
“I am glad,” she said softly, and laid her cheek against his shoulder.
Presently she leaned forward, half turned, and gazed up into his face. “Look at me, Hahr Ree Thorne. Is this Neva really so much more beautiful than I?”
“What a question!” he exclaimed. “It’s just like a woman to think of a poser like that.”
“Another evasion,” she countered, “but it tells me what I wanted to find out. She is more beautiful.”
He studied her smilingly. “I wouldn’t say so. “She is a blonde, you are a brunette. She is a great beauty of her type, and you of yours. You and Neva are gems of equal luster, but different.”
“Why, then, perhaps I can make you forget this Neva.” Before he was aware of what she was about, she had turned still more—was lying back across his arm. Her eyes were dark wells of enchantment. Her red lips, half parted, drew him seductively.
“Why don’t you kiss me?” she pouted.
“You little witch!”
Fiercely he bent down—crushed those warm red lips against his own.
For a moment, she suffered his caress, unresisting. Then, with a little frightened gasp she broke from his embrace—returned to her place beside the pulcho jar. Mechanically, she filled their cups. Tears trembled on her long, dark lashes. Her lips quiverd ever so slightly as she handed him his cup.
“Why, Thaine, what’s wrong?” he asked.
“I—I didn’t know it would be like that,” she quavered.
“You don’t really love me, then?”
“I wish I really knew.”
At this juncture there was the noise of huge wings flapping overhead, followed by a thud. Thorne knew from the sounds that a gawr had just flown over the house and landed in the clearing. Both dalfs sprang up, growling ominously, but Thaine silenced them.
Then, accompanied by Thorne, she ran to the door and peered through the leafy screen.