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.