Kirin joined Irina, slightly breathless and too overcome with relief at escaping the swamps to say a word. The others caught up in no time. No one spoke, each considering the spectacular view confronting them with mixed feelings. They were standing on a rise that, directly ahead, sloped steeply into a sparse plain that, in turn, appeared to extend into a vast expanse of unrelieved desert as far as the naked eye could see. It was an awe-inspiring and terrible sight .
To the west, a curious rock formation snaked in an erratic half-circle towards a purple mist that Mick rightly guessed to be the mountains they sought. It, too, had a beauty all its own. At the same time, it conveyed a hostility that sent shivers down the spine. To the east, a gentler but no less awesome undulation seemed to head in the off at a tangent to the direction from which they had just come before in curving inwards and finally disappearing in the same purple haze.
Mick groaned. He had expected to feel excitement, at the very least relief at sighting their goal, however distantly. Instead, he experienced only disappointment. He felt momentarily crushed by weariness and apprehension. He was angry, too. He did not belong here, after all. He began to reflect how his brother and Beth might be faring out there somewhere, facing all manner of dangers, even death. The prospect, although alarming, fed his anger and strengthened his resolve. His flagging senses rallied.
“It is good to feel free again!” Irina flung here arms wide as if to embrace the entire unfolding landscape.
“Don’t hold your breath!” muttered Mick and pointed. Farther along the ridge, creatures whose scaly bodies glittered in the sunshine had also grouped to contemplate the view.
“Krills!” hissed Kirin in wide-eyed disbelief. “What are krills doing here? Have they not done us enough harm that they must torment us even now?” His tone was harsh, not at all elf-like. On impulse, Irina put her arms around him and gave him a hug. His expression changed in an instant, radiating such joy that Mick and Pers had to look away although not before exchanging glances of mute exasperation. Both experienced a sharp stab of irritation with Irina. Mick brooded upon it for some time, but Pers, could never be angry with his sister for long. True, it was unfair to give Kirin false hope. Yet, Irina meant no harm, he was sure of it. She adored Kirin, only not in the way he desired. His heart went out to his friend. For neither did he doubt that Kirin’s passion would remain unrequited.
The krills had not seen them. For a moment, Pers’ thoughts were hung up on Michal’s telling expression. They all needed to pull together. If Kirin’s feelings for Irina made him something of a liability, the motherworlder was not helping. Pers had sensed all along that Michal was not entirely impervious to Irina’s attempts to seduce him with every passing glance. Even so, the very fact that the young motherworlder had gone out of his way to discourage her lent him a new respect in the elf’s eyes.
Suddenly, a distant shout went up. The krills had seen them!
“Back to the swamp…!” Mick yelled and broke into a run.
“To the swamp!” echoed Pers, and wasted no time joining him. Side by side, elf and motherworlder plunged into the vile undergrowth once more. Each assumed that Kirin and Irina were close behind, but there was no time to look. Not until they came upon a clump of reeds and brush that offered a likely hiding place did they turn, breathlessly, to urge the others to hurry. They saw no one. They waited, fidgeting with mere impatience at first. Gradually, annoyance was replaced with a growing feeling of dread. Another mute exchange passed between the two friends. Again, each understood the other completely. Besides, there was nothing else for it.
A tightness around Mick’s heart and an appalling dryness in his mouth gradually lessened. His blood pressure returned to near normal. He even achieved a state of calmness albeit one he found contradictorily unnerving given that krills were less than a hand’s stretch away. Certainly, neither the hunters’ evil looks nor the menacing nature of their grunts left any room for doubt. They were enjoying the sport. Nor would they settle for less than a kill. No way! Mick tossed an unspoken challenge to the krill nearest to him that, as if on cue, promptly thrust a spear into the bushes where he and Pers crouched; it missed them by a hair’s breadth.
Time and time again, it seemed they must be discovered. Other spears plunged and probed their hiding place. One grazed Mick’s shoulder and it was all he could do not to cry out. Another penetrated Mick’s tunic and drew blood. It was Pers, though, who almost gave them away. Yet another spear narrowly missed the terrified elf’s ear. Mick felt rather than saw his friend panic. Spontaneously, he pulled the elf even closer, placed a hand over the already half-open mouth and kept it there until the garbled cry was nothing but a wet patch on his palm. An irrational sense of responsibility for the elf flared in Mick. It was a new experience that, disconcertingly, he found rather to his liking. A sense of responsibility, he had to admit, was not a trait he would normally have owned up to.
A few krills continued to search nearby, but not for long. Mick and Pers continued to huddle waist-deep among reeds, hardly daring to draw breath. Once, they heard Irina scream. Mick felt his companion tense and go rigid against him. It did not need a glance to know that he was weeping, silently, but uncontrollably. Pers was at the end of his tether. Mick gave the elf’s heaving shoulders a reassuring squeeze. The grip on his fingers tightened. Mick clenched his teeth, but made no attempt to withdraw his hand.
At last, when the silence seemed to have gone on forever, they crept to the edge of the swamp and cautiously peered through the thinning wall of trees. The krills appeared to have moved on. Since there was no trace of Kirin and Irina either, they had to assume the pair had been taken along as captives. “At least they’re still alive,” said Mick.
“Your mother gave it to me.” Mick saw no reason to lie.
“Why didn’t you say so?” The change in Pers was as instant as it was dramatic. He brightened considerably. Indeed, he seemed almost restored to his old self.
“What is it?” Mick allowed himself to feel cautiously optimistic.
“It is a puli!” exclaimed the elf with the air of a child presented with a new toy. Seeing Mick’s blank expression, he scratched his head and came up with, “A tracking device. It will lead us to Kirin and Irina!”
“Once, elves and druids lived side by side,” murmured Pers as if by way of an explanation of sorts. “Even then, there was no love lost between us. It is not that we were enemies, but rather that, by our very natures, we could never be friends. Elven magic must follow elven lore. We may sometimes attempt to influence the nature of destiny if the ear of the spirits can be bent and Ri wills it so. But challenge its given course? Never! Yet, that is all a druid lives and dies for…challenge.” He shifted his head slightly and looked directly at Mick. “It is said the druid, Ca-an, single-handedly saved Mamelon from total destruction when it was torn from the motherworld. Now there was a challenge,” he added and the shy grin that Mick had missed lately fell back into place. “Lead on, my friend. No one but no one ever tracked like a druid. You can be sure the puli will take us to my sister and Kirin.”
“There’s only one way to find out,” said Mick, crying out again as the tugging persisted and dragged him stumbling, perilously close to the edge. “Not content with having a mind of its own, the damn thing wants mine too!” he exclaimed, but gritted his teeth and prised the stone free, ripping the skin from his hand before he flung it to the ground. “Sorry, to disappoint you chum!” he glared at the stone that lay at his feet, emitting no light.