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This instalment took a bit less time to complete than most of the previous ones, mainly because I worked on it more or less continuously. In other words, I didn’t take time out to work on other projects, or get bogged down in the minutiae of the plot and walk away in despair.
This episode is leading up to the big climax. If there’s any part of the story that I’m going to despair about finishing, it’ll be the grand finale! Meanwhile, please enjoy this bit.
PS: June 2014: I corrected a fairly brainless continuity mistake. There are undoubtedly others, and it’s more than possible I won’t manage to (as the saying goes) catch them all...
The story takes place several hundred light years from Earth in about AD 3502, give or take a century or three.
You can take the boys and girls out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the boys and girls.
Need I say with overmuch emphasis that it is in the leg division that you are deficient? You are deficient in it, to the tune of one. Your right leg, I like. It’s a lovely leg for the rôle. That’s what I said when I saw it come in. A lovely leg for the rôle. I’ve got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is, neither have you. You fall down on your left.
--Peter Cook, One Leg Too Few
Houses of the Holy
+Vandri, how are you getting on?+
+I’m trying to clear the interference, but the old bastard’s getting stronger. I’m afraid he’s going to reach the next level before we can stop him.+
+That can’t happen. I will not allow him to destroy everything I’ve worked for. Have you had any luck contacting the big guy?+
+No, J, it looks like the bastard’s blocking him as well... oh, crap.+
+What is it?+
+Mavrida’s group and the Third Hill hunters. If I’m reading the coordinates properly they’re all in the Hidden Valley tunnel, and the instruments just registered unnaturally powerful lightning strikes in the vicinity. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?+
+Wouldn’t be much of a telepath if I wasn’t. All right, Vandri, I don’t care what it takes, I need to get a KeV-neutrino beam into that tunnel. We have to break through the interference.+
+Even at full power, we’d only get through for a few seconds at most.+
+We’ll just have to pray that’s enough. Give me all the power you can muster, sister.+
The hunting party
Time / Breathe Reprise
Within the cave the lamps were flickering low. Tharil had decided to let the lamps consume precious air, rather than prolong the agony and force everyone to wait for death in darkness.
There was very little sound or movement. To conserve their energy everyone lay still and took as shallow breaths as they could, for all the good that would do them in the end. The lupinoids sensed that something was very wrong and whimpered quietly, but Lendrin and Suvanji did their best to keep their minds at ease. A few of the men whispered quietly to each other, and a few of them embraced each other for comfort. Kemmet sat with his head on his knees, muttering darkly - though inaudibly; Tharil was grateful for that much.
+Come on, Vandri, this is taking too long. Their air will be running out by now.+
+I’m doing my best. Even with the power level at maximum, we’re still... whoa.+
+What is it?+
+I... I’m not sure. I felt something, like another presence in my mind.+
+Another presence? Could it be Ral-ne-Sa?+
+I don’t think so. It’s smaller... human-scale. Whoever or whatever it is, I don’t get any sense of threat from it. I think it may be trying to help us.+
+We could certainly use some right now, but I don’t see how. After all, if we can’t boost the power of the KeV beam with all the resources at our command, then how...+
+Wait a minute. Look, J, the power’s increasing! I don’t see how either, but it’s doing it! And... hey! The presence just jumped into the beam! I wouldn’t have said that was possible either, but it just happened. The presence is trying to contact Mavrida’s party itself, and what’s more... I think it’s succeeding! It’s broken through the interference!+
The lamps were almost extinguished. Most of the party had slipped into merciful unconsciousness. Pyrri, lying beside Lendrin with Howl curled up at her feet, remained half-awake. She had no regrets about joining Lendrin’s group. The time she had spent with them had been interesting, and her only regret was that it had to end so soon.
As she lay quietly, idly contemplating what death might be like, the wild girl became aware of a reddish glow in the cave. At first she thought it came from one of the two-legs’ flame-bowls, but it seemed to be the wrong colour, and it was pulsating in a way that they did not.
A moment later she also became aware of a curious presence in her mind. It felt like a two-leg attempting to share thoughts with her, yet she knew it could be neither Lendrin nor Suvanji. The only thing she felt sure of was that the presence meant her no harm.
+Red,+ it seemed to be saying. +Red must come to red. Do you understand? Red must come to red...+
Then the presence was gone, but its thoughts still resonated within her mind. Gradually and laboriously, fighting for every breath, she raised herself up on one elbow and looked around.
The glow seemed to be coming from Mavrida’s direction. Howl whimpered weakly as Pyrri crawled slowly past him toward her unconscious friend. The faint radiance emanating from her vicinity gave everything in the cave a red cast, but nothing more so than Pyrri’s own luxuriant hair...
As the red-haired wildling approached Mavrida she saw that the glow was coming from the stone in Mavrida’s ring. Red must come to red...
Pyrri felt dizzy. In a few more moments, she knew, she would sleep for the last time. It was tempting, so tempting, to just give up and let go, but the presence had placed an irresistible compulsion in her mind: red must come to red.
With her last vestiges of strength, Pyrri crawled to Mavrida’s side and reached out to touch the red stone.
As she did so, she felt new energy surging through her body. She was no longer resigned to dying in the dark. And indeed, it was no longer dark. As she watched the stone glowed brighter and brighter, until she was forced to throw an arm in front of her eyes to protect them.
There was a sudden jolt, a sensation of falling...
In Through the Out Door
+Oh, my god! Look at those readings, J! That presence, whatever it was... it got through! Somehow it managed to activate the stone!+
+Activate it? It did more than that, Vandri. It found a catalyst to boost the stone’s power! Keep a close eye on those coordinates. Whatever happens, mustn’t lose track of Mavrida’s group.+
+Tracking... Hello. The presence just jumped again. Where’s it off to now?+
With the help of Scarface, Sherinel’s party were making slow but definite progress southward. The frequency of striagon attacks was slowly but surely diminishing. Though bruised, battered and weary, they began to believe they might actually reach the mysterious ‘third something’ intact.
Scarface, sensing the male wildling’s melancholy, had gravitated toward him, and Sherinel was pleased to see them beginning to bond. It might only be temporary since Scarface had his own pack to return to, but at least for the moment it was helping to console the male for the loss of Night.
“So,” asked Ryvan during a lull between attacks, “have you heard any more from your mysterious Maiden?”
“Not a word,” said Sherinel. “Last time I got the impression that something was preventing her from being heard clearly. It seems that someone or something doesn’t want us to -”
“What is it?” said Ryvan as Sherinel broke off suddenly.
“I... I’m not sure,” replied Sherinel. “I seemed to feel something... a presence in my mind.”
“Is it the Maiden?”
“I can’t tell, but I get the impression it wants us to go that way,” said Sherinel, indicating a course that veered further west than the one they had been on.
“Fine,” said Ryvan. “Like I said, one way is as good as another when you don’t know where you’re going anyway.”
The hunting party
Beyond the Fringe
Whatever Kemmet had expected to see upon awakening to eternity, it is probably safe to assume that Pyrri’s ferally-grinning face was not it.
“Oh, great,” he muttered. “Can’t I get away from interfering wild girls even when I’m dead?”
“You not dead,” chimed Pyrri. “Me nor.”
“Good news and bad news, then,” he grunted.
“Tharil say, ‘Go check men,’ ” said Pyrri. “I gone checked you.” Then, without bothering to wait for a reply, she moved on to the next man.
Kemmet sat up stiffly. Some of the other men had already risen to their feet and were trying to get their bearings. Nipper, Red and Grey were keeping out of the way of the humans’ feet, while little Howl as usual followed Pyrri. They were in a small, unfamiliar clearing, surrounded by dense forest and split by a narrow brook, completely unlike the terrain on either side of the tunnel.
“Just what is this place?” muttered Kemmet. “And how the fuck did we get out of the tunnel anyway?”
“You still complaining, Kemmet?” came Tharil’s voice from behind. “You should just be thankful you’re alive.”
Kemmet turned to face him. “Yeah, but why are we alive? That’s what I want to know.”
“Trust you to make surviving sound like a bad thing,” Tharil sighed. “As far as I can tell, one moment we were in the tunnel, half dead from suffocation, the next we were here, wherever here is. Seems we have the gods to thank - Lord Ral-ne-Sa, or this mysterious Maiden our new friends keep talking about. Maybe both. Anyway, like I said, be grateful. It’s not everyone who gets saved by a miracle.”
Across the clearing Lendrin, Mavrida and Suvanji were pondering that selfsame miracle.
“From what I can make of Pyrri’s thoughts,” Lendrin began, “it seems she saw Mavrida’s ring glowing, and something... some presence in her mind, it seems... gave her the idea she should touch the red stone. When she did that, there was a blinding flash, the floor of the cave wasn’t there any more, and she felt herself falling. When she picked herself up and opened her eyes she saw that we were all here in this clearing. That’s all she knows.”
“A presence in her mind?” said Mavrida. “Was it the Maiden?”
Mavrida looked at her ring. The stone had returned to its usual appearance, showing no sign of a glow.
“It must have been the same thing that happened when I escaped from the old man, do you remember? Somehow the red stone was able to open a hole in nothing, as well as freeing Red and Grey from their paralysis. And when we were being carried down the river in the bout, the ring flashed and showed us the entrance to the Valley stream. We would never have seen it otherwise. We’d have been swept downstream, sunk and drowned.”
“So,” concluded Lendrin, “we know it’s powerful and its powers are benign. Unfortunately we don’t know the extent of its power, nor why Pyrri was able to summon its power this time. Worst of all, we don’t know how to use it against the old man.”
Mavrida gazed at the ring thoughtfully. “I don’t know either, but I’m beginning to think finding Pyrri was no accident.”
Suvanji asked, “Is the voice still talking to her?”
“No,” said Lendrin, “she says it only spoke to her the one time, then she felt it move on. She doesn’t know where.”
“If only it would speak to us,” sighed Mavrida. “It might tell us how to use the ring.”
Suvanji looked hesitant for a moment, and then spoke diffidently. “Mavrida... there’s something else I have to tell you. I was going to wait until we got to Third Hill, but now we don’t know how long it’ll be until we get there...” she sighed. “Mavrida, Ketrin is in Third Hill.”
“What?” exclaimed Mavrida, causing the men and lupinoids to cast startled glances in her direction. More quietly, she said, “Suvanji, why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m sorry, Mavrida,” said the wildling, unconsciously lowering her head in a lupinoid gesture of submission. “It was supposed to be a surprise.”
Mavrida laid a conciliatory hand on her friend’s shoulder. “Well... how is he? Is he all right?”
Raising her head, Suvanji replied, “He’s alive and well, Mavrida, but... he’s paralysed, like I was. There’s a blue crystal on his knife-hilt.”
Mavrida sighed. “Well, at least we know where he is now. My poor son, unable to move or speak. It’s a pity you didn’t have a crystal or you could have freed him. But you and he were both raised by lupinoids. Doesn’t that mean you were able to share thoughts with him?”
Suvanji smiled and nodded, and proceeded to tell Mavrida all she had learnt from Ketrin and Tolar about how the wild youth had come to be in Third Hill.
Mavrida sat for a few moments while she digested the information. Then she sat bolt upright as another sudden insight came to her.
“Of course!” she said. “I can use my crystals to try to locate Ketrin’s, just like I’ve been doing all along. Suvanji, I’m sorry you didn’t tell me about Ketrin earlier, but that doesn’t matter now. With the Maiden’s blessing we’ll soon be on our way to meet him.”
On the pretext of relieving herself, Mavrida walked to the nearest treeline accompanied by Grey for protection. Once out of sight of the hunters she took her blue crystals in hand and concentrated. Immediately she felt something tugging at her, and by turning around a number of times was able to establish the direction.
Unfortunately she knew immediately that the compulsion could not be originating from Ketrin’s crystal. Unless they had arrived at the very outskirts of Third Hill without realising it - which seemed unlikely given the flat terrain - the origin of the compulsion was too close. Clearly another paralysed wildling or lupinoid lay nearby, perhaps within a few hundred cubits.
Returning to her companions, Mavrida explained the situation. They all agreed that the victim should be found and freed, not only from simple compassion but also because that would allow Mavrida to try scanning for Ketrin once more without interference.
Meanwhile Chennith told Tharil, “I think I’ve got an idea where we are. I can’t be absolutely certain, of course, but judging by the dense forest I’d say we’re somewhere to the north of the village. That would put us a good few thousand cubits away from the tunnel, but I suppose anything’s possible to a god. Anyway, if I’m right the river should be to our west, so assuming this stream flows into the river, then south would lie in roughly that direction.”
“All right then,” said the hunt leader. “As soon as we’ve had a bit of food and rest we’ll get going.”
When he announced this to the group, Mavrida and her friends realised they had a problem.
“The paralysed victim is in that direction and Tharil wants to go that way instead,” she told them. “It’s going to be awkward to explain why we want to go in a different direction, unless we explain how the crystals work.”
Lendrin nodded. “And if we do that, the hunters might try to force us to turn the crystals over to them. I believe Tharil is an honourable man, but faced with such a potentially useful weapon he might just be persuaded to forget his scruples.”
“I have an idea,” said Suvanji.
Just then Kemmet happened to walk past on his way to the treeline.
“What are you lot whispering about, eh?” he demanded. “Conspiring against us, are you?”
Nipper growled angrily at the hunter. With her good arm Suvanji restrained her, but glared at him just as fiercely as the lupinoid.
Lendrin said, “If you must know, Kemmet, we were just discussing how great Suvanji was in the blanket last night. We had the kind of sex you can only dream about, so why don’t you go dream on?”
Kemmet went on his way muttering darkly. Lendrin caught the words “One of these days...”
One Leg Too Few
Suvanji’s plan was simple enough. Once their party was underway she slipped away accompanied by Nipper, having first received one of the blue crystals from Mavrida. By concentrating on the crystal as Mavrida had done she rapidly located the victim’s direction, and negotiated the dense vegetation en route with the help of a blade she had ‘borrowed’ from the camp.
She had not gone very far beyond the fringe when Nipper caught scent of a two-leg, and a few more tens of cubits brought them to him. There was no telling exactly how long the youth might have lain there, but the vines that shrouded his body must have taken several years to grow. The glowing crystal that paralysed him could just be seen between strands.
+Hey, two-leg,+ she projected, +I’m going to set you free.+
+Why?+ thought the paralysed stranger suspiciously. +You’re not from my pack.+
+Because I want to,+ she replied. +Been around the two-leg pack too long, I guess. Most of them want to help any two-leg that’s in trouble. Some of them even like helping four-legs too. Now just let me cut these vines away and then I’ll fix it so you can move again.+
As she hacked away the vines, taking the utmost care to avoid injury to the wildling, he was revealed as a handsome boy of about fifteen. He was of course naked, but since Suvanji was also a wildling neither of them felt any embarrassment.
However, the removal of the vines also revealed that her description of the boy as a two-leg was inaccurate. It soon became clear that his left leg had been severed just below the knee. It was not a recent injury.
+I didn’t realise,+ she projected. +Tough.+
+Stripeface got me when I was small,+ he replied. +My pack drove it off, but it took me a while to get better. I get around all right - did, when I could move. Can you really make me move again?+
+Yes,+ she thought. +Right, that’s the last of the vines. Now...+
Taking her crystal in hand, she concentrated on its glowing counterpart as it lay on the boy’s chest and thought: +MOVE!+
It worked. The boy’s muscles spasmed for a moment, and Suvanji plucked the deactivated crystal from his chest. Then he regained control over his body and began testing his limbs, revelling in his new-found freedom of movement. He sat up and licked Suvanji’s face in gratitude.
+I’m alive again! I’m alive!+ he thought. +Got no pack now, though. Can I join you?+
+Yes,+ she replied. +You said you could get around. Can you keep up?+
+I’m not as quick as a four-leg, but not slow. Watch.+
With practiced dexterity, the wild boy placed all three limbs on the ground and proceeded to prance nimbly around Suvanji and Nipper.
+Very good,+ thought Suvanji, +I can see I’ll have to call you Three-Leg.+
Rising on both of hers, she projected: +Come on, then, you can meet the rest of my friends.+
Suvanji sent Nipper ahead to scent out the hunting party, and set off through the forest with Three-Leg making good progress behind. Soon Nipper reported that she had made contact with Lendrin, and shortly afterward Suvanji herself came within range of her lover’s telepathy.
+I’ve found the paralysed wildling and freed him,+ she told him. +He wants to come with us.+
+Well, I suppose that’ll be all right with Tharil,+ replied Lendrin. +I can just imagine what Kemmet will say, though. Better hurry on back now. Tharil’s annoyed at me for letting you and Nipper run off, but that can’t be helped.+
+All right, we should be there soon.+
A few moments later Nipper projected to Suvanji: +Faint scents. Two-legs and four-legs. Might be getting closer.+
+All right,+ she replied. +If the two-legs have got four-legs with them they’re not likely to be hostile, but stay alert just in case.+
Suvanji and Three-Leg caught up with Tharil’s party a short while later. The newcomer’s arrival caused a good deal of muttering amongst the men - not least, of course, from Kemmet.
“As if one wildling wasn’t enough,” he growled, “now we’ve got to put up with three of the bastards. And why’s he crawling around like that? Can’t he stand up straight?”
“You blind, Kemmet?” said Chennith. “Even in this light, I can see he’s only got one leg. Doesn’t seem to slow him down any, though. His hands must be tough as bark.”
Suvanji quickly introduced Three-Leg to Lendrin and they exchanged mental greetings. Pyrri also greeted him, and the two wildlings sat and exchanged facial licks. The sight of two naked children kissing might have seemed like deviant behaviour to a villager - it was certainly fortunate that Kemmet was not looking - but as far as the wildlings were concerned it was perfectly natural.
Pyrri was fascinated by the boy’s missing leg, and he was more than happy to tell her and Lendrin how a striagon had sneaked up on his pack and tried to make off with him before being driven off.
He makes it seem like an adventure, Lendrin thought in astonishment. It seemed that any trauma the wildling might have suffered from the attack had been erased by the passage of time.
Then another thought struck Lendrin. There was no telling just how much time had passed while Three-Leg was paralysed. Despite his adolescent appearance, he might be more than a hundred years old.
And if that was true, then so might Suvanji. It had never occurred to Lendrin before, but he could be making love to a woman who was old enough to be his great grandmother.
He chuckled at the thought. No matter how long the spell had held her, she had not aged a moment in that state. Her body was that of a healthy - not to mention sexually active - twenty-year-old.
Meanwhile, speaking of sexual activity...
+Three-Leg,+ projected Lendrin, +don’t stroke yourself like that while there are other two-legs around. Yes, I know it feels good, but it’s not something the two-leg pack members like to see. If you have to do it, go behind a rock or a tree where no one’s looking. Only, not when the four-legs tell us there are stripefaces nearby, or you might not get lucky again. All right?+
+All right,+, thought Three-Leg, hanging his head like any sullen adolescent. Lendrin chuckled and patted his shoulder.
Pyrri thought: +Do they all get that big?+
Gods help us, thought Lendrin.
While this conversation had been taking place, Suvanji told Tharil that Nipper had scented humans and lupinoids, and Tharil told the men to be on the lookout.
“And this time,” he told them, ostentatiously averting his gaze from Kemmet, “should they approach we will hold fire until they’re proven hostile. Understood? Right, then. In the meantime, let’s see if we can’t find ourselves a campsite for the night.”
In the event they did not have to travel far before encountering a large space that had been cleared by a falling tree. The men began erecting the tents, and without needing to be told the lupinoids spread out around the perimeter to keep watch. By this time Howl was gaining a little confidence and begged Nipper to allow him to join in. She agreed, but gave her small companion a token nip to remind him who was in charge.
Tharil beckoned Lendrin and Suvanji to him. “Let me know when the lupinoids tell you strangers are getting close,” he told them.
“They’ll be here soon,” Suvanji replied. “Grey has scented them approaching from that way.”
Tharil noted that she was pointing northward, a little to the west of their own trail.
“So,” he mused, “if we’d gone farther ahead they might have crossed our trail and missed us altogether, and if we’d fallen behind then our two parties might have run smack into one another.”
Lendrin completed his thought: “Whereas this way we have time to prepare for their arrival. Well, their lupinoids are bound to have scented us by now. I think it’s time we announced our presence, don’t you?”
With Tharil’s assent the lupinoids and wildlings set up a greeting howl, (eliciting a predictable remark from Kemmet which was as usual ignored). Moments later an answering howl came from the north.
“That’s good,” said Suvanji. “If they were hostile they wouldn’t have replied.”
“All right, men, you heard her,” said Tharil. “Let’s prepare to greet them with friendship and respect, shall we?”
Kemmet muttered something inaudible. Tharil rolled his eyes.
“Kemmet,” said the hunt leader with infinite patience, “I believe some of the tent pegs may have worked loose. Go and fix them, would you?”
As the sullen hunter departed they caught the words: “...serve you right if they come in shooting and I’m not there to protect...”
Tharil gave a huge sigh. “What can you do with people like him?”
“Mavrida’s village made one chief hunter,” Lendrin reminded him. “Mind you, he had brains as well as cruelty. Not sure what happened to him in the end, though.”
Soon the strangers’ party emerged from the trees and stood before Tharil and his hunter: five men, two of them naked; one naked woman; and six lupinoids. The villagers assumed that the naked strangers must all be wildlings, until one of them spoke up:
“Greetings, hunters. We don’t intend any harm. My name is - ”
“ - Sherinel!” cried Mavrida, rushing forward. “It is Sherinel! I thought I heard your voice, but I could scarcely believe - it’s all right, Tharil, Sherinel is my son’s dearest friend. You can trust him if you can trust anybody.”
Sherinel stepped forward and embraced Mavrida. “Oh, Mavrida,” he cried, “it’s so good to see you again!”
“And you, Sherinel,” she said. “When we found the fallen bridge we feared that you and Ketrin’s lupinoids had fallen with it.”
“No, we made it off just in time,” he told her. “But... but what are you doing here? Last time I saw you, you were safe at home in your sister’s village.”
Mavrida laughed. “What do you think I’m doing, Sherinel? I finally decided to take the initiative. My new companions and I have travelled strange paths to reach this place, and I’ve no doubt you have as well. But by the Maiden’s grace we have finally found each other again, and - and I know we have a great deal to tell each other. But first, I should really allow my host to make formal introduction. Tharil? I apologise if I’ve spoken in your place.”
“It’s all right, Mavrida,” said Tharil. “Who am I to come between a meeting of old friends? Welcome, Sherinel. I am Tharil of Third Hill, and most of the other men here are my hunting party...”
“Third Hill?” interrupted Sherinel. “The name of your village? I had a vision from the Maiden, but it wasn’t clear. All I caught was the words ‘south’ and ‘third’, so we came south. Now I know what she meant. It seems she guided us well after all. Oh, I’m sorry, Tharil. Now I’m the one speaking in your place.”
Tharil chuckled. “Well, as I was saying: two of the lupinoids here owe allegiance to Lord Ral-ne-Sa and our village, and four others to Mavrida and her friends. As to those, there’s a hunter named Lendrin from a northern village, and three wildlings who I’m sure they’ll introduce you to soon. Now, then, what of your party? You’re also looking for Mavrida’s son? He must mean a great deal to you both for you to have persuaded so many others to join your searches. But now, forgive me, I’m speaking in your place, I believe. Do go on.”
“Allow me to introduce Ryvan, Rilshan and Velleth, hunters from a village to the north east, and two wildlings who don’t yet have names. Four of the lupinoids with us belong to Ketrin’s pack, one is with the wildlings, and the last is from the pack that protects the hunters’ village. As for the tale of how we all came to be here - well, that will take some time to tell.”
“Well,” said Tharil, “I’m sure there will be time for that later. You will join us for a meal? As you can see, we’re setting up camp for the evening.”
“Then with your permission we’ll pitch our tent alongside,” said Sherinel, “and of course I’d be honoured to join you, though we won’t all be able to fit in yours. We could share some of our recent catch, though.”
“Well, if you’d care to join me in my tent I’m sure one of my hunters would be happy to dine with your friends, and then we can swap back for purposes of sleeping. Since it seems our two parties will be travelling together to Third Hill, we can probably work out a more flexible arrangement later on. And of course we’d be happy to share some of our catch with you as a gesture of friendship.”
They clasped hands on it.
“And now,” said Tharil, “I mustn’t keep you from your reunion with Mavrida a moment longer.” Then a wry smile crossed his lips. “Well... perhaps a couple of moments. First, I couldn’t help noticing your violet eyes. Does that mean you can exchange thoughts with lupinoids the way wildlings can?”
“Yes. I’ve already told our lupinoid friends that we’re guests here, so they’ll behave themselves.”
Tharil nodded. “Thank you. It’s a gift that Mavrida’s friend Lendrin also shares. Perhaps we can talk about that later. But the other thing I wanted to mention... well, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Sherinel, but, um...”
The hunt leader cast a glance downward.
“You mean the scar?” said Sherinel. “I got that from a striagon. Now that was quite a tale, and I’ll be happy to tell it later.”
“Well, yes,” said Tharil, “I did notice the scar but I thought it might be impolite to enquire. No, what I was actually referring to was your current state of undress.”
“Oh, that!” Sherinel chuckled. “Well, I spent so much time travelling with naked wildlings, I suppose I just decided I should fit in. And in the village where I met the three hunters they weren’t too insistent about our covering up either, for some reason.”
“Well, you’re certainly a fine-looking young man,” smiled Tharil, placing a hand on Sherinel’s arm. “Perhaps we could discuss that later as well.”
Sherinel returned the smile and the gesture. “Yes... perhaps we could. And now, if you’ll excuse me...”
Tharil nodded, and allowed Sherinel to be led away to meet Mavrida’s friends.
For a few moments Tharil stood admiring Sherinel’s naked back as he walked away. Then he turned to the rest of Sherinel’s party, formally introducing himself to the three hunters and instructing them on where to erect their tent.
Once they were with Mavrida’s party she favoured him with a long look. “You know,” she said, “I hadn’t noticed before, but Tharil’s right. Your eyes... you exchanged blood with one of the wildlings, didn’t you?”
“No,” he admitted, “with one of the lupinoids! Much riskier, now I come to think of it, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. And now... I feel the same and yet different at the same time. I used to be terrified of lupinoids, and yet now in some way I’ve almost become one.”
+I know,+ came a thought in his mind. +In fact I may be the only other “civilised” person who knows. It’s a curious feeling, isn’t it?+
Turning toward the source of the thought Sherinel said, “You must be Lendrin. I think we should speak aloud for Mavrida’s sake, but you’re right. It is a curious sensation. It can’t really be described in words, unless we were to invent new words for it.”
“And this is Suvanji,” said Mavrida. “Don’t let the clothes fool you, she’s also a wildling. After we met her we were separated for a while, and she’s the only one of us three who has actually been to Third Hill. And now, Suvanji, I think you’d better tell Sherinel what you found there.”
Suvanji nodded. “Ketrin is in Third Hill,” she told Sherinel. “He’s alive and unharmed, except...”
“I can guess,” sighed Sherinel. “He’s paralysed, isn’t he? So Borvinn did get to him after all.”
“Yes,” said Mavrida, “but don’t despair, Sherinel. We know how to free him. Suvanji couldn’t do it because she didn’t have the means, but I do.”
She went on to explain how the blue crystals worked, and how she had come to acquire some of them.
“So,” she concluded, “all we have to do is be patient, and soon we will all be reunited again. In the meantime, we have so many moons of catching up to do.”
Sherinel nodded. “One thing, though. Where did the blue crystals come from in the first place?”
Mavrida’s face became grim. “That’s a tale in itself. Suffice it to say... there’s evil afoot. Very powerful evil. It may destroy everything we hold dear unless the Maiden can stop it... and I think she needs Ketrin’s help for that. That’s why we have to reach Third Hill and release him as soon as we possibly can.”
While Sherinel’s human companions busied themselves erecting their tent, the two groups of lupinoids were getting acquainted. After sizing each other up and familiarising themselves with each others’ scents the two packs drew aside from the humans and began fighting to establish the order of dominance.
“I thought they were supposed to be protecting us, not scrapping with each other,” grumbled Kemmet. “Fat lot of use to us they’d be if a striagon were to attack the camp right now.”
“Don’t talk daft, Kemmet,” said Chennith. “One whiff of striagons and they’ll forget their differences and gang up on ’em. ’Cause unlike some around here, the beasts understand their priorities.”
Kemmet snorted and stalked away, muttering. “Dammit, no matter what I say somebody’s always gotta shoot me down. ’Bout time someone started listening to me, or they’re all gonna be sorry.”
In due course the lupinoids sorted out their differences, with Nipper barely managing to defend her leadership against Scarface’s challenge. Once the challenges were complete the lupinoids spent a little time literally licking their wounds, which barring a few accidental bites were quite minor.
Once the tents were all erected preparations for the evening meal began. Three-Leg had the same reservations about “burnt meat” that Pyrri had had, but she and Lendrin persuaded him that he should try it before deciding.
With a few rearrangements Tharil and Sherinel managed to accommodate all the humans in their tents, and while Kemmet predictably grumbled about his relocation, the rest of the hunters took it in their stride. Suvanji, Lendrin, Mavrida and Sherinel sat together opposite Tharil, with Pyrri on one side of their group and Three-Leg on the other. Lendrin figured that keeping the two young wildlings separated would prevent them from squabbling, or doing anything else they shouldn’t.
“So, Sherinel,” said Tharil as the meal was being served, “we’ve heard how Suvanji and Mavrida came to be here. No doubt your story is just as colourful as theirs, eh?”
“That’s for you to judge,” replied Sherinel, and launched into his account. The hunters learned of Sherinel’s first sight of the naked Ketrin; their subsequent friendship and growing love; his first nervous meeting with Ketrin’s lupinoid brothers; his part in Borvinn’s hunt; his and Shadow’s fight with the striagon, his wounding and Shadow’s apparent death and resurrection; his own subsequent recuperation and reunion with Mavrida; his search with Ketrin’s lupinoids; their hazardous bridge crossing, leading to their meeting with the wildlings; their encounter with Scarface’s pack and arrival at Jezrin’s village; and finally their journey south with Jezrin’s hunters.
While he was speaking, Lendrin and Suvanji were forced to keep up a constant stream of telepathic translations and explanations for the benefit of Pyrri and Three-Leg. Meanwhile the young wildlings snaffled their food as if they expected it to be snatched away before it reached their mouths.
Once Sherinel was finished a hunter piped up: “Just as well Kemmet’s in the other tent. He’d never believe a word of it.”
“Well, I wouldn’t blame him,” said Sherinel. “I can hardly believe it myself, and I was there!”
“Our relationships with Ketrin have taken us and our newfound friends down many unexplored paths,” said Mavrida, “but we’re all stronger because of it. I think that strength is what the old man fears, and Maiden willing it will defeat him.”
As night fell the humans settled down to sleep while the lupinoids stood guard.
Before settling down beside Suvanji, Lendrin cast a wary glance at Pyrri and Three-Leg, then sighed. It was pointless to try and prevent the young telepaths from being curious about sex, even if he could somehow force himself to remain celibate with his jungle goddess.
In any case, the telepathic Sherinel was hardly likely to remain celibate either, judging by the way he and Tharil had been exchanging glances, and nor were his two wildling friends. One way or another, a great many sexual sensations were going to be exchanged telepathically this night, willingly or otherwise.
And then Suvanji embraced him, and Lendrin forgot all about celibacy.
The next few days proceeded uneventfully, apart from the expected attacks by striagons. These resulted in no serious injuries, and the combined party made good progress southward.
Their unexpected delay in returning home meant that the Third Hill group needed additional food. Since Sherinel’s party also needed to hunt it made sense to combine their expeditions.
During these hunting trips Sherinel couldn’t help noticing that Scarface often assisted the male wildling. Apparently the lupinoid had noticed the male’s depression and decided to help him get over it.
Before the second evening meal Sherinel took his wildling friends to meet Mavrida and her companions.
“You know, Sherinel,” she told him, “it’s really about time you thought of names for these two. You can’t just go on calling them ‘the male’ and ‘the female’ forever.”
“I know,” said Sherinel. “I suppose the truth is, I’ve never been able to decide on names that seemed appropriate for them.”
Mavrida cast a thoughtful glance at the naked couple.
“Well,” she muttered, “the girl’s face reminds me a little of my sister’s friend Keilis, but she’s built more like Norenna... you remember her, don’t you, Sherinel?”
“So... why not combine the names? ‘Keino’. What do you think?”
Sherinel smiled. “Why don’t I ask her what she thinks?”
Following a brief mental exchange between Sherinel and the girl, she essayed a smile and spoke hoarsely: “Kei...no. Keino. Keino. Like.”
“Well, then, it looks like that’s settled,” said Sherinel. “From now on she’s Keino. What about the male? He’s always reminded me a bit of Narric.”
“Really?” replied Mavrida. “To me he looks a bit more like Narric’s cousin Wenuril.”
“Well, what does that give us? ‘Narwen’? Mm, no... don’t think so.”
“Well, how about ‘Naril’?” Mavrida suggested.
“No, I’m not keen on that either. Besides, it’s probably too similar to ‘Tharil’... hmm, what about ‘Wenric’? I’ll ask him if he likes that.”
After another brief mental communion the male wildling agreed, and so Wenric he was. Mavrida noticed that he seemed less anxious and more confident than when she had first seen him.
“I think he’s beginning to get over Night’s death,” said Sherinel. “He’s beginning to open up a bit more. He hasn’t started learning to talk yet, but I’m sure we can persuade him before long.”
By the third morning Tharil judged that they were less than a day from Third Hill. This made everyone happy except Kemmet, who remained convinced that the newcomers were a threat.
Lendrin, meanwhile, had his own reasons for worrying.
“Our escape from the tunnel seems to have thrown the old man off our scent for a bit,” he told Mavrida and Suvanji privately, “but I’m sure he won’t stop looking for us. I don’t want to alarm the others, but I’m afraid he might take the opportunity to attack us all once we’re gathered in Third Hill. Worse, he might attack the whole village. I’d hate to be responsible for that.”
“But we can’t avoid Third Hill altogether,” said Mavrida. “At least one of us has to enter the village to release Ketrin from his spell. It’ll look suspicious if the rest of us stay away, not to mention inhospitable.”
“And I’ve made friends there,” said Suvanji. “Nipper and I don’t want to go past Third Hill without seeing Therys and Erennya again.”
Mavrida said, “Sooner or later the old man’s bound to act against us no matter where we are. My ring might give us some protection, but something in my mind is telling me that if we free Ketrin we’ll be in a stronger position to defeat him. That means we have to reach Third Hill no matter what.”
Outvoted two to one Lendrin had no choice but to agree, and by the time they took their mid-afternoon rest the vague shapes of the Three Hills could be glimpsed above the distant treeline.
“All right, everyone, stay alert,” Tharil instructed. “I know we’re close to home, but considering all we’ve been through we can’t afford to get complacent. Mavrida, keep the children and Howl with you in case there’s any trouble. I’d order Suvanji to stay with you as well, but I know she’ll want to help if there’s any fighting. Also, keep a lookout for any patrols. We’re late, so they’re bound to be worried about us.”
“Before long I’ll be close enough to reach Ketrin’s mind,” said Suvanji. “I’ll be able to tell him we’re alive.”
“Lot of good that does us,” grumbled Kemmet. “He can’t talk, so he can’t tell anyone else!”
“I’ll give you this, Kemmet,” said Lendrin. “You’re consistent.”
“Huh. Well, somebody has to be,” he muttered, and stalked off.
“Does he even know what ‘consistent’ means?” whispered Lendrin.
Tharil merely favoured him with a grin before going off to take up his sled ropes.
A few hours later Suvanji reported that Red had scented a human ahead. As expected, this proved to be a young scout from Third Hill, who stared in astonishment at the expanded hunting party.
“Tharil?” he exclaimed. “Where in all the gods’s names have you been? When Sun and Fire came back without you we feared the worst. Sharlind led a group to find you, and they found the tunnel caved in. We were all afraid you were trapped in the Valley, or buried under rock. And who are all your new friends, and what are you doing coming out of the north, and...”
Tharil placed a hand on his shoulder. “Later, Talvrin,” he said quietly, “Right now your job is to run ahead and tell Tolar we’re alive and have guests. Don’t worry, we’ve brought plenty of extra food. Go now. Oh, but, um... you’d better just walk until you get out of sight, otherwise the lupinoids might get the wrong idea and chase you down. Off you go now.”
Talvrin nodded and turned away, doing his best not to break into an excited run while casting occasional nervous glances back at the lupinoids.
In spite of Lendrin’s anxieties nothing untoward happened as they approached the village, and soon they were greeted by the sentries at the foot of the hill.
Tharil said, “If we take all the lupinoids into the village it’s going to get a bit crowded. Don’t want them all fighting and pooing in the middle of the courtyard, do we? I suggest we just take Nipper and Howl, and leave the rest on guard down here.”
“Don’t forget,” said Sherinel, “six of the others are from Ketrin’s pack. We should at least take Silverpaw and Shadow as well. They’ve already sensed his presence, and if we don’t take them to him soon they’ll go mad. I know just how they feel. The rest won’t mind staying downhill as long as their friends keep in touch with their minds.”
“All right, then, Silverpaw and Shadow can come.”
Kemmet chose that moment to butt in: “I still think you’re making a mistake, Tharil.”
“Now there’s a surprise,” Tharil sighed. “I suppose you’d prefer it if we took the newcomers prisoner instead?”
“No,” said Kemmet. “You’ve already put the village at risk by letting them get this close to it. I say you should banish them all straight away on pain of death, Suvanji included, and the farther the better. That way, when their enemy decides to blast them with lightning, at least it won’t hit our courtyard.”
“Well, there’s gratitude, I must say,” said Tharil. “Have you forgotten that they saved our lives twice - the first time, because of your carelessness?”
Kemmet was not to be put off. “We wouldn’t have needed saving either time if it hadn’t been for them,” he cried, “and now because of them the Valley tunnel is sealed shut, so we’ve nowhere to go next time there’s a drought!”
“Yes, well, we’ll have to deal with that situation later,” replied Tharil. “But there’s one thing you’ve clearly forgotten. Ketrin - our living embodiment of Lord Ral-ne-Sa of the Lupinoids - is Mavrida’s son, and Sherinel’s boyfriend. That means their enemy will be looking to attack him as well. So unless you propose banishing Lord Ral-ne-Sa’s worldly representative, there is really no point sending any of his friends away either, now is there?”
“All right,” growled the hunter. “It’s on your own head, Tharil. Just remember, I tried to warn you.”
As Kemmet returned to his place Tharil called after him: “You’d better not try anything, Kemmet, or you’ll be the one who’ll wish he’d listened.”
Tharil gave a huge sigh and turned to his new friends. “I am just so sorry about him,” he said. “Finest archer we’ve ever had, but... I blame his father. The things that man did to his son - well, we’ve all tried to make up for that, but we just can’t seem to reach him. It’s like something inside him is dead.”
Mavrida placed a hand on his shoulder. “No need to apologise, Tharil. As I said, I’ve seen his type before. Let’s just be thankful he’s in a minority.”
Tharil nodded. “Well, this isn’t getting you any closer to your son, is it? Come.”
And so at last Sherinel and Mavrida entered the village where Ketrin had dwelt for so many moons.
Mavrida glanced at Sherinel and said, “You realise you’re still naked.”
Sherinel grinned. “He won’t mind a bit.”
Mavrida vs Tolar
Diplomacy at a Standstill
It took a little time for the men to haul the meat to the top of the hill, but in due course the hunters and their guests arrived in the village. The villagers gawked at the new arrivals and exchanged mutters which they ignored as best they could.
Keino and Wenric went with Ryvan, Rilshan and Velleth to help the men load the meat into the storehouse, while Suvanji took Pyrri and Three-Leg to meet Erennya. Nipper followed Suvanji, and Howl refused to be parted from Pyrri.
Of the newcomers, that left only Ketrin’s loved ones and Lendrin. Tharil wasted no time in introducing them to the chief hunter.
“Well... welcome to Third Hill,” said Tolar. “Of course Suvanji has told us all about her friends Mavrida and Lendrin, and she learned of Sherinel while sharing her thoughts with Ketrin.”
“Then,” said Mavrida, “you know that it’s Ketrin we have come to see. Sherinel and I have separately undertaken long and dangerous journeys, but by the Maiden’s grace - and undoubtedly Lord Ral-ne-Sa’s no less - we are finally here.”
Tolar nodded. “So now, no doubt, you’d like to see him.”
“Well, of course we want to see him!” exclaimed Sherinel. “Why else do you think we came all this way, with no clear idea how we’re ever going to get home again?”
“Tolar,” Mavrida interjected in a quieter tone, “this is not just because he’s close to us. We have to free Ketrin from his paralysis, so that he can help fulfil the Maiden’s plan to destroy the evil that is haunting our forest.”
Tolar looked at her sadly and said, “Yes... that’s what Suvanji told me. I’m sorry, Mavrida, but I cannot allow you to take Ketrin from us.”
While Mavrida and Sherinel protested, Tharil muttered, “Um, Tolar, do you really think this is wise?”
But Tolar remained adamant. “Mavrida, Ketrin is no longer merely your son and Sherinel’s lover. He belongs to this village now. He has been touched by Lord Ral-ne-Sa. He is our living representative of the god of lupinoids. If he had not summoned Sun and Fire to our aid we would have starved during the long drought. And now you want to take him away from us for your own selfish ends.”
“The evil that Mavrida speaks of is real,” Sherinel insisted. “It could destroy all of us if it becomes powerful enough. There is nothing selfish about wanting to free Ketrin to help prevent that. He’d be saving all your lives again.”
Sensing the tension in the air the lupinoids bristled. Sherinel placed restraining hands on their backs. Meanwhile, Tolar stood fast.
“No. I’m sorry, but I can not allow this. It is not Lord Ral-ne-Sa’s will.”
“I see,” said Mavrida quietly. “And who exactly interprets Lord Ral-ne-Sa’s will? Oh, that’s right - you do... because his mortal representative is paralysed and mute, and so can’t speak for himself. How very convenient.”
“Except,” said Sherinel, “you’re forgetting - he can speak to me with his mind, and right now he’s telling me you’re an ungrateful idiot whose actions Lord Ral-ne-Sa thoroughly disapproves of.”
“That may be so,” said the chief hunter, “but lacking mental speech myself, I only have your word for it.”
“You also have two angry lupinoids staring at your throat,” replied Sherinel.
“The village will carry on without me, and others will carry out my will. Besides, from what Suvanji has told me about you, I really don’t believe you’d kill me in cold blood.”
“Perhaps not,” Mavrida admitted. “I’ve seen what lupinoids can do to people, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But you just made a mistake. You said it’s your will and not Lord Ral-ne-Sa’s.”
Before Tolar could frame a suitable reply to this, Mavrida placed what seemed a conciliatory hand upon his shoulder. “Come, now, Tolar,” she said, “I’m sure we can settle this amicably. FREEZE.”
Mavrida removed her hand, revealing the glowing blue crystal that was now magically adhered to his shoulder.
Tharil stepped back in astonishment. “That... that’s just like the crystal in Ketrin’s knife,” he said.
“That’s right,” said Mavrida. “So now, Tolar, you know just how Ketrin feels. Perhaps we should offer Lord Ral-ne-Sa an exchange. You can become his new representative while Ketrin goes free. I’m sure Tharil wouldn’t mind being chief hunter. Unless, Tharil, you’d prefer to join Tolar?”
Tharil mutely shook his head.
“Well, then,” said Mavrida, “I think that’s settled, don’t you?”
Placing a genuinely conciliatory hand on the paralysed chief hunter’s other shoulder, she said, “I’m sorry to have to do this to you, Tolar, but you gave me no choice. I will release you after I’ve released my son. Now lead the way, Sherinel. We’ve been kept waiting long enough.”
Watching them walk off in the direction of Ketrin’s shrine, Tharil sighed and patted his inanimate friend on the shoulder.
Mavrida vs the sorcerer’s lackeys
On the Rings of Power
It seemed that Mavrida and Sherinel had finally come to the end of their long and arduous search. As they approached the shrine of Ral-ne-sa, however, one final obstacle confronted them, in the shape of three men blocking the entrance.
“Hello, Mavrida,” said their leader. “Remember us?”
Mavrida sighed. “Yes, I’m afraid I do. Sherinel, allow me to introduce Jeylin, Jerrond and Sarlin. They tried to attack Suvanji and Nipper while we were making our way here. We defeated them.”
“Only temporarily, as you can see,” said Jeylin. “Said we’d follow you to the end of the world, didn’t we? And this dump certainly qualifies.”
“Just how did you get here ahead of us?” asked Lendrin.
“Oh, we had a bit of help,” said Jeylin smugly.
“The old man,” said Mavrida. “He used sorcery to transport you here, I’m guessing without Tolar’s knowledge. What kind of reward did he promise you for stopping us, Jeylin? Gold? Power? Whatever it was, it certainly couldn’t have had anything to do with improving your looks.”
While Mavrida was stalling the men, Lendrin had been mentally alerting Suvanji and Nipper to the situation. Suvanji was sitting with Pyrri and Three-Leg in Erennya’s hut, while Nipper and Howl waited patiently outside.
“You know,” Erennya was saying, “if Pyrri hasn’t started her bleeding yet she soon will. I know you coped without human help, but you might want to let her know what she’s in for when... Suvanji? You look distracted. Is something wrong?”
“Lendrin wants me,” said Suvanji. “Can you mind these two for a bit?”
“Of course,” said Erennya.
Muttering her thanks, Suvanji raced out of the hut toward Ketrin’s shrine, with Nipper in hot pursuit.
Seeing her approach the three intruders closed rank.
“Here comes the wild girl,” sneered Jeylin. “Bit more covered up than last time, but it won’t take us long to get it off again - after we’ve killed the boy.”
None of the others wasted time replying. At a coordinated mental command from their human friends, Silverpaw, Shadow and Nipper leapt to the attack.
Smirking, Jeylin and his hunters raised their hands. The lupinoids yelped in shock as their bodies recoiled from an invisible force which hurled them several cubits backward and left them sprawled on the ground.
“I was afraid of this,” said Mavrida. “The old man gave them some weapon to use against us.”
The lupinoids picked themselves up, bruised and angry but otherwise unhurt. Sherinel and Suvanji ordered them to stay back, and they agreed with little argument.
Mentally, Sherinel asked Lendrin: +Should we call Keino and Wenric?+
+Better not,+ thought Lendrin. +It’d alert Kemmet that something’s up, and he might decide to join forces with Jeylin.+
While this exchange was taking place, Mavrida became aware of a presence in her mind. She was sure it wasn’t the Maiden, but it did have a similarly benign feel to it. At the same time she felt a tingling on her finger, indicating that her ring was awakening again.
Oblivious to these events, Jeylin was busy gloating. “There’s nothing you or your precious Maiden can do to stop us now,” he laughed. “Once we’ve dealt with this Ketrin we’ll be out to take care of you.”
Mavrida hardly heard him. She seemed to feel the presence speaking to her without words. It seemed to be telling her it understood her desire to protect her son, and that it would help in any way it could.
While Jeylin had been talking Suvanji had surreptitiously manoeuvred her spear into her left hand. Almost before he had finished, she flung it at his chest with all the force of her uninjured arm.
What happened next was almost too quick to follow. Just as the shaft was about to skewer Jeylin, a dark radiance burst from his hand. Enveloped by this darkness the spear turned in mid-air and hurled itself straight back at Suvanji. The wildling would have been killed by her own weapon, had not an answering red radiance erupted from Mavrida’s hand, deflecting the spear again so that it just grazed her already-injured arm and buried itself in the mud at her side.
“Huh. Well, so much for spears,” said Jeylin, trying to sound confident despite being taken aback.
“Yeah, but it’s not like we need spears, is it?” said Sarlin. “Come on, Jeylin, let’s just fry ’em and have done with it.”
“All right,” sighed Jeylin. “Too bad about the girls, but there’s plenty more in the village. All right, then - NOW!”
As Jeylin and his cronies raised their hands Mavrida calmly stepped forward, guided by the presence in her mind.
“Mavrida!” cried Sherinel. ” What are you doing? You’ll be killed!”
“No I won’t,” she said. “I can’t explain. Just keep back and leave this to me.”
Beams of deadly energy lanced out from the intruders’ fingers, threatening to incinerate their soft human and lupinoid targets. But before it could reach those targets the energy was blocked and dissipated by crimson beams that darted effortlessly from Mavrida’s wedding ring.
“What’s happening?” cried Jerrond. “Why isn’t it working?”
“So,” said Mavrida, “you think there’s nothing we can do, do you?”
With a speed that astonished her she leapt forward to grab Jeylin by the wrist. As she suspected, the source of the dark beams was a ring. Its lethal energies danced around her like black lightning, yet she took no harm from them as she tore the ring from his finger and hurled it to the ground. Then she paralysed him with a blue crystal and span around to disarm Jerrond and Sarlin in the same manner.
The entire confrontation could not have lasted more than a few heartbeats. When it was over Mavrida felt as if she had fought an entire village. Sarlin and his companions stood paralysed by the wall of Ketrin’s shrine, and three rings with black stones lay on the ground,
“That was the source of their power,” said Mavrida, panting with exertion. “Part of the old man’s sorcery, no doubt.”
“So what do we do with them?” said Lendrin. “I’m afraid to even touch them.”
“Quite right,” said Mavrida. “I imagine that if anyone but their chosen wielders touch the black rings they will die horribly - unless they had protection like I did.”
“Then what can we do?” he said. “We can’t just leave them lying around.”
“No,” she said. “That we can’t.”
Mavrida gestured toward the black rings with her own ring finger. There was a blinding scarlet flash and a small hiss of steam, as the black rings were momentarily subjected to a heat far more intense than any fire the humans could imagine. When it was done three molten blobs of metal and charred lumps of mineral lay sizzling in the persistent drizzle.
Nipper padded over to sniff at the paralysed men. +No threat now?+ she thought.
+No. They’re safe,+ thought Suvanji.
Lendrin said, “Not that I’m complaining or anything, Mavrida, but how in the name of all the gods did you do that?”
“There was... something helping me,” Mavrida replied. “A kind of presence in my mind. It’s gone now. Not the Maiden. One of her friends, maybe. It felt human, but there was something feral about it as well. The spirit of a departed wildling, perhaps? Whatever it was, it told me what to do and I trusted it. And that’s all I can tell you.”
Suvanji hugged Mavrida fiercely. “Thank you for saving me,” she said.
“You know, you were a little impulsive there,” Mavrida replied. “Take it as a lesson. You can’t fight sorcery with ordinary weapons.”
“Well, come on,” said Sherinel. “It’s about time we did what we came all this way to do.”
Mavrida sighed and nodded. “I’ve been praying so long that this day would come,” she said, “though I never imagined it would be so eventful. All right, I’m ready. Sherinel, you and the lupinoids can go first.”
Silverpaw and Shadow bounded into the shrine to greet their long-lost brother, followed by Sherinel. Before following them Mavrida paused for a moment beside the paralysed Jeylin.
“You three made a very foolish choice siding with the old man,” she told him. “What do you suppose he will do to you when he learns of your failure?”
She let him contemplate this for a few moments before continuing: “Of course, if you were to cooperate with us, we might just be able to offer you protection. I’m sure you’ll find the Maiden far more forgiving than the old man. You may wish to think it over - if you’ve nothing else to do.”
Patting his shoulder, she turned and entered the shrine to meet the son from whom she had been parted for so many moons. Lendrin followed, but Suvanji waited outside in case any irate villagers came to demand Tolar’s release.
Mavrida, Sherinel and Ketrin
Mother and Child Reunion
Within the dimly-lit shrine Silverpaw and Shadow enthusiastically greeted their paralysed brother until Sherinel finally managed to persuade them to give him a turn. If Mavrida ever had doubts that Sherinel was Ketrin’s lover, his kisses and caresses would have dispelled them.
Then it was Mavrida’s turn. Hugging Ketrin’s immobile torso, she sighed, “Oh, my son... after all this time...!”
Then words failed her and she simply sat with her son for a time. Sherinel sat beside her and placed an arm about her shoulders. Silverpaw took the other side and licked her face, allowing her to place a hand on his back in return.
After a while Mavrida rose and wiped her eyes. “Well, then,” she muttered, “I think you’ve waited long enough.”
With those words she produced her one remaining blue crystal, held it out toward its mate in Ketrin’s knife-hilt, and thought: MOVE!
Mavrida felt a surge of warmth from the crystal, and the matching jewel in Ketrin’s hilt seemed to glow a little more brightly, yet Ketrin continued to sit still.
“He says he can feel something,” said Sherinel, “but he still can’t move. Are you sure you did it right?”
“I don’t understand,” she said. “It worked perfectly for Suvanji, Nipper and the rest. Maybe it’s because Ketrin’s been frozen longer?”
Once more she held out her crystal, closer this time, and thought! MOVE! MOVE NOW!
This time she felt a distinct tingling in her hand, and could almost see the discharge of energy between her crystal and Ketrin’s, yet still it had no visible effect on his muscles.
“It must be something about Ketrin’s crystal,” she said. “Nothing else has changed. Oh, Sherinel, and I thought we were so close... How can we ever free him now?”
Sherinel considered. “Well... maybe if you were to hold more than one crystal when you try to release him?”
“Wait,” said Mavrida. “The presence... it’s back. Can’t you feel it?”
“There... there is something,” replied Sherinel. “Ketrin says he can feel it too. What’s it telling you, Mavrida?”
“I think...” she began, then glanced at her hands.
“What is it?” said Lendrin.
Mavrida took a deep breath. “I... I think the presence is telling me to do something, but it might be dangerous. Sherinel, I think you ought to take the lupinoids and wait outside.”
Sherinel’s answer came as no great surprise to her. “Mavrida, we and our friends have all faced terrible dangers just so we could be reunited with Ketrin. Whatever happens now, we’ll face it together.”
Mavrida sighed. “All right. But Lendrin, there’s no need for you to stay. No, don’t argue. Suvanji needs you far more than you need me. Go.”
Lendrin nodded reluctantly and left the shrine.
“All right, then,” said Mavrida. “I don’t know who the presence is, but there’s definitely something familiar about it. Not the Maiden, but certainly no friend of the old man’s either. It’s telling me that I was right - there is something up with Ketrin’s crystal.”
“So,” said Sherinel, “what’s it telling you to do if you can’t use the crystal?”
“The red stone in my ring,” she replied. “I’ve known it holds sorcery ever since Ruthyar gave it to me. I’ve always been careful not to let the blue and red stones touch, because I had the idea they were somehow... antagonistic to each other. Now, though... it seems there’s no other way.”
So saying, she extended her arms toward Ketrin, slowly moving the blue stone and the red closer to each other. As she did so they glowed with increasing brightness, casting an eerie pink glow on the walls of the shrine. Her hands tingled as her hands approached each other. Sensing that something strange was happening, Shadow and Silverpaw whimpered nervously.
“Mavrida,” breathed Sherinel, “I think it’s working! Ketrin says he can move his fingers!”
“All right, then,” muttered Mavrida.
Taking a deep breath, she placed both of her hands on the jewelled hilt, so that all three stones made contact.
The instant they did so an incandescent flash filled the shrine and Mavrida was hurled backward, knocking Sherinel off his feet and causing the startled lupinoids to leap aside.
After a moment they picked themselves up, bruised but otherwise apparently unharmed, and wordlessly went to see what had become of Ketrin.
Like them, he had been sent sprawling by the blast, but at first appeared no more mobile than before, and Mavrida thought that she had failed. After a few more moments, however, to her infinite joy and relief, she saw his limbs beginning to stir and moved to help him sit up. “Are you all right?” she asked.
“Yes, Mavrida,” he said, embracing her. “My strength is returning. Oh, mother, it’s so good to see you again!”
When Mavrida finally released him, Ketrin rose to his feet and began testing his muscles. Despite his many moons of enforced immobility his limbs remained as supple as ever.
“Oh, it’s good to be free,” he sighed. “The villagers have treated me well enough, but worship isn’t the same as friendship.”
“And what about both at once, my very own jungle god?” laughed Sherinel, enfolding the wildling in a loving embrace.
Making up for lost time, the naked youths fell to caressing, and the lupinoids settled down to watch their loveplay. Mavrida smiled and silently excused herself.
Suvanji and Lendrin were waiting outside. “No need to tell us what happened,” said Lendrin. “Sherinel’s given us all the details by thought-sharing. Well, now they’ll want to be alone for a bit, so maybe we’d better take this opportunity to go and free Tolar.”
Mavrida nodded and reached for her remaining blue crystal. But now she saw that it was no longer blue, but black as charcoal.
“Oh, look at that,” she muttered. “Its power must have got burned out when I touched it to the red stone. But see, the red stone itself doesn’t seem to have been affected. Strange.”
“Wait a moment,” said Lendrin. “Are you saying that we don’t have a crystal to free Tolar and the hunters with?”
“Not quite, Lendrin,” she replied. “You’re forgetting one thing. Freeing Ketrin also freed the crystal that was paralysing him, the one in his knife-hilt. Assuming that one hasn’t burned out as well, we can use it instead.”
“Well, we can’t ask him for it just now,” laughed Suvanji. “He and Sherinel won’t like being interrupted!”
“And they’re sure to be busy for quite some time,” said Lendrin. “We’d better go and apologise to Tolar for making him wait longer than expected.”
The three of them were about to set off, but suddenly they were brought short as the image of the Maiden appeared in their minds.
+I don’t have much time,+ she told them, +so listen carefully. I have to congratulate you all on making it to Third Hill and freeing Ketrin, but all the recent use of sorcery will have alerted your enemy to your presence. He’ll be making his next move soon. I will do all that I can to protect you, but you will need to keep your wits about you.+
Already her voice was starting to fade and become indistinct.
+Red comes to red, Mavrida. Remember. Red co...+
And then she was gone.
The three friends exchanged nervous glances as thunder rumbled ominously in the distance.
October 2012 - March 2013
TO BE CONTINUED
Comment on this story
To begin with, I completely fudged the issue of how much air our heroes (and Kemmet) had left, because I don’t have a clue how long the available air in a tunnel that size would last for a party that size. So I’m deliberately vague about how big the tunnel is and how long they’ve been trapped.
And... no doubt in what we laughingly call Real Life there would have been panic and chaos amongst the trapped party, but it seems Tharil is very good at imposing discipline. Let’s face it, to keep Kemmet in check he has to be. What’s more, it’s possible that Mavrida’s ring had some sort of calming influence. Who knows?
On another point: the reason it’s taken Sherinel so long to think of names for his wild friends is that I couldn’t think of them either! Anyway, eventually I came up with the names Keino and Wenric, which are indeed portmanteaus but not as stated in the story. “Keino” is actually derived from KEIko NObumoto, and “Wenric” stands for WENdy and RIChard Pini. If you already guessed the derivations, give yourself a toffee apple. And if you don’t know who those folks are... well, let’s just say they all have lupine connections and leave it at that.
Now then, about that one-legged jungle boy. As you might have guessed from the introductory quote, the inspiration came from Peter Cook’s famous “one-legged Tarzan” sketch, which has been delighting audiences for half a century. Of course, much of the humour in that sketch is based not just on the idea of a one-legged ape-man, but the fact that Dudley Moore is applying for the role. (Much later, of course, Moore appeared alongside Bo Derek, and Bo Derek appeared in a Tarzan movie. Small world.)
Now, for all that I love that sketch, it did occur to me that the idea of a one-legged feral child wasn’t quite so far-fetched after all. If you can accept the basic premise of an infant raised by animals (and if you’ve managed to read this far presumably you do), then you can certainly appreciate that said infant might be in danger of losing a limb to accident, predation or disease, and if that happened said infant would either have to adapt to life with fewer limbs, or die.
Hence, Three-Leg - who isn’t based on a one-legged Tarzan at all, of course, but a one-legged Mowgli. Tarzan and Mowgli are, if you’ll pardon the expression, very different animals. I have always felt that Tarzan represented brawn, while Mowgli - discounting (as always) Disney’s rather dim version - represented brains. All of my wildlings take after Mowgli to some extent. Ketrin and Suvanji are still quite naive about human culture in many respects, and yet they may be the most intelligent (mortal) characters in the entire story. Now there’s a thought.
And finally: what was the hardest part about this instalment? Without a doubt - preparing the separations for the coloured map. Seriously. See you next time, pop pickers.
In our next impenetrable instalment:
WHAT’S THAT? THE NEXT INSTALMENT ISN’T THE LAST ONE AFTER ALL? FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, IS THERE ANY CHANCE OF US GETTING TO READ THE END OF THIS STORY BEFORE THE EARTH GETS SWALLOWED BY A BLACK HOLE???!
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