The cave was dry and clean, with numerous colonies of digger beetles clinging to the ceiling, illuminating everything around them with their dim violet light. So the two travelers, who were making their way cautiously along the stone edge of the precipice, did not need to light torches, bunches of which were attached to their leather belts. The narrow trail ended with half-crumbling steps, long ago skillfully carved into the stone. Exchanging glances, the travelers began quickly and cautiously descending the stairs, but no sound echoed from their light and deliberate footsteps. “Do you see that?” the short, blond-haired boy whispered to his companion, content now that he spied what they’d been hunting for. “The spirit was not lying after all—you really intimidated the poor thing! There is a passage here indeed, which we did not know, and gnomes must have actively used it in the past.” He stamped his foot on the narrow stair in the passage for emphasis, happy that they had found the passage to a gnome town.
“All the same, we’ll have to drive that spirit out of the gorge,” the second young man chuckled. “People from midnight settlements dread coming through there to Stronghold for trade.”
“It’s easy to say ‘drive out’!” the towhead replied indignantly. “I know how you usually do that. Will he really let us drive him out? Not likely! Then again, even if he does, we’ll be in need of a week’s rest at home, not to mention the herbal potion we’ll have to drink to regain our strength.”
“Belsha, don’t whine.” The taller traveler glanced at his friend. “These spirits, of course, are evil and mean things. You would spend such an enormous amount of energy to get rid of one of them, as though it was a whole pack of these vicious things. You’d better not go.”
The short man sniffed indignantly and stared at the back of his friend, who immediately sensed the look and shrugged his broad shoulders. The tail of his tangled curly hair began bouncing against his leather belt, but Belsha’s gaze continued drilling into the back of his head.
“And what do such sturdy fellows as he think of themselves? They go about wronging druids and then pay no attention to their misdeeds.” Belsha intentionally spoke as if Vraigo was not there. In an instant, though, his tone changed. “Vraigo!” the blond-haired wayfarer suddenly cried out, now in alarm.
His friend, who was confidently striding down worn steps seconds ago, had disappeared, as if swallowed up by the thickening darkness.
“I’m here,” sounded from somewhere below. “Stop yelling. Jump down here; just be cautious.”
It was only now that Belsha, whose druid ability to see in the dark of the stone depths was much less than that of an average human like Vraigo, discerned a niche carved into the rock in front of the lower steps, and Vraigo’s head sticking out there.
“It seems we’ve arrived,” said the prince, anxiously looking around. “There is no other passage I can see.”
Agile Belsha slipped into the rock recess next to his friend and rushed forward to the shrinking rocky corridor. Vraigo started tramping after him, hitting his shoulders against sharp stones as the passage got narrower. In the end, the passage turned into a narrow slit through which the prince had difficulty making his way unless he turned sideways. He began to worry that with the next step he might be tightly stuck between the stone walls, but up ahead Belsha finally stood still, looked out of the passage and muttered with satisfaction:“Aha!”
Holding on to a rock ledge, Vraigo leaned his head forward to survey the new view and what he saw was very impressive: a large cave of gray-green stone that was not like the rest of the rock they had just seen, gently cascading down to an underground lake. The great depth of the lake made its surface so pitch black that there were not even reflections of the rare stalactites above it.
“Black Lake, who would have thought!” breathed Belsha, enjoying this. “How many times have we heard that it is impossible to find the lake?”
“It’s impossible if you don’t know that there is a passage here. Let’s get out of it.” Vraigo pushed the happy druid forward. “I was quite battered between the stones.”
Habitually holding on to barely noticeable cracks and potholes, the friends quickly began to descend from the opening of the passage to the level of the lake. Belsha again surpassed the heavier prince and was the first to arrive on the stone floor. It appeared that from top to bottom the walls and floor of the cave were of green stone. The druid gasped in admiration—the whole giant cave, as far as the eye could see in the dim light, was lined with thin plates of mica, which were shining with a greenish tint, dispersing the thick gloom of the ancient cave.
“Well, do you now believe that there could have been a town of gnomes here?” Belsha shifted his gaze from the floor to his friend, who was also carefully viewing the surprising mica tiles. “The gnomes must have been comfortably settled here. See? They would have obtained just enough reflected light to go about their business.”
“And it looks like they did that yesterday.” Vraigo unsuccessfully tried to kick loose tiles from the floor with his boot. “You had better look around, my friend.”
Snorting uncertainly, the druid cautiously moved forward. The dim light and absolute silence oppressed the usually-cheerful Belsha, who tried to hide that oppression from his friend by talking loudly.
“I don’t quite believe in these tales of timelessness. Though, on the other hand, the gnomes went away somewhere, and as recently as my mother’s childhood there were mountains that were swarming with them. Sometimes they would even wander into the forest for herbs. As for me, I have seen none of those small, bearded beings.”
Suddenly, a low, vague shadow emerged in front of the druid while he, like a cat, darted to the side, rolled on the floor, jumped up, and stood panting, staring at something stiff and still. A tar torch immediately blazed up behind him, illuminating a section of the huge hall.
“May I be dried up!” gasped Belsha in amazement.
A number of wide columns, curved on one side, were towering in front of the travelers. Arranged in staggered rows and polished smoothly, they clearly were meant to protect the subterranean dwellers from attack. In any case, Vraigo knew of only a few very dangerous creatures that could be stopped by such a fence. Human settlements were often surrounded by metal sheets; residents would spend every spare moment scrubbing those sheets until they glittered. “So, the monsters have gotten here, too.” Immediately Belsha became serious. “You should hide yourself, and hurry, if you don’t have a magic weapon!”
Vraigo nodded and shifted the scabbard on his belt forward so that his sword, Raven, was at the ready, and without a second’s hesitation the druid also lit a torch and, holding it high above his head, followed his friend.
Beyond the columns, the cave looked more like a giant hall. Unlike the plain but shining mica on the walls they had first seen, there were intricately worked stones standing here and there, and sections of walls were gleaming with mosaic or bristling with carvings. Here were steps fleeing into the darkness of the Black Lake, and there were others carved into the sheer wall.
“Look!” Belsha said, waving a torch in an attempt to better highlight the underground hall.
Stairs led to two huge caves that stretched into the bowels of the mountain.
“Most likely, these were their homes,” conjectured Vraigo.
“Gnomes’ storehouses!” rejoiced the druid. “Mountains of treasures and magical crystals!”
“I don’t think so,” the cool-headed prince replied. “The gnomes must have organized their departure; they would have taken everything valuable with them.”
“How do you know?”
“When someone flees from death, the place he leaves behind looks quite different.” Vraigo sighed. “You are perfectly familiar with that.”
Devastated Elk Ravine flashed before the eyes of the travelers for a moment, both of them remembering too well what had happened with the tiny human settlement that had been on the edge of the Eternal Forest. But Belsha immediately shook his head, chasing away the terrible picture.
“All the same, we have to check those storage places. We have found the gnomes’ town and must not be tricked! Both humans and druids would make fun of us.”
Without waiting for an answer from Vraigo, he rushed to the narrow stairs climbing up to the entrances of the caves. On both sides of the corridors there were lower niches in which gnome families had apparently lived. It quickly became clear that the prince was right; the small nation had taken their treasure with them to unknown places. Beside stone utensils and leather clothes, there were only a few things that attracted the attention of the treasure hunters: a little hatchet with a carved hilt, not allowing it to slip from sweaty palms; a good knife, the handle of which was decorated with an image of the underground god Nera, represented as a snake biting its own tail due to poor sight; and some throwing stars made the discovery exciting to the searching friends. The fact that the gnomes, known as lovers of arms, had forgotten even those, was incredibly good fortune for the prince and the druid.
Everyone knew that, after the mysterious ancestors from the north who had made hoards of magical swords, gnomes were the best armorers on the Earth. Therefore, any weapon appearing to be made under their careful craftsmanship was especially valuable; never had one betrayed the bearer in a battle, and one could be easily exchanged for gold or precious stones. Unfortunately, gnome weapons could cause no more damage to vicious spirits and the like than could human swords, knives, and arrows.
Happy at their find, Belsha immediately began twisting and tossing the light hatchet, which fit his hands much better than the products of human blacksmiths. After watching him, Vraigo shoved the knife behind his belt. He did not want to admit how glad he was to have this swift and deadly thing, with its long, narrow blade. It was necessary to thank the weapons’ former owners and their patrons for the findings. After some hesitation, the prince laid barley cake on the abandoned altar of Nera right near the niches where the gnomes had lived.
“I wonder,” said Belsha, having played enough with the hatchet and now sitting at the entrance of the cave, “why did the gnomes decide to run away? I never saw a better position for defense. Put three fighters here and any attacking monsters could be thrown off the ledge with ease.”
Vraigo also looked down. The narrow staircase would prevent any monsters from having much room to attack; a good voevode could defend such a fortress for years. Pressing his hands against the stone wall, the prince mentally rushed up to the magic veil, seeking energy as he had learned so many years before under Agar’s tutelage, and then he suddenly dashed aside, covering his face with his hands. The images that had filled his head were unbearable.
“What? What?” Belsha jumped to his feet.
His friend was feeling around blindly in search of support; at any moment he risked falling off the ledge. In one leap, the druid reached him and pressed him to the wall again.
Without taking his hands from his face, Vraigo muttered, “What a vile sort of creature! Never have I seen such awful beasts. Get off of me…” The prince dropped his hands and turned to Belsha with his face growing pale. “They have teeth on top, on the bottom, on all sides… And they climbed these walls just on their bellies. It’s a wonder that any of the gnomes managed to escape.”
“Are you sure they did?” asked Belsha in a husky voice.
He had known Vraigo for a long time and the feelings of his friend, like a distant echo, always passed to him.
“When these things,” the prince jabbed his finger into a stone wall, pointing as if the original monsters continued sitting at the entrance, “began jumping on the defenders from the ceiling, the elders led the gnomes away from here. They had everything ready. But I don’t see how they vanished like that.”
Sliding his hand along the wall, Vraigo again walked deep into the stone corridor, wandered around it a little, and shook his head in disappointment.
“I can’t understand it; the gnomes just disappeared. They are no more. The monsters were in a terrible rage.”
“You say they are particularly nasty?” asked Belsha anxiously.
“As if there are any other kinds of monsters! To be honest, I’m always amazed at the ingenuity of such vicious spirits. But these were huge and had such abilities. It would be much better if they didn’t exist at all. Come on, Belsha, the Duke and the original mother, Selena, should know about the new monsters.”
Driven by growing concern, the friends rushed on the way back, past the Black Lake, along the rocky slope, climbing higher and higher up out of the depths of the Infinite Mountains, towards the sunlight. Gnomes’ storehouses, legends of which had been very hard for the friends to believe, no longer seemed to be so tempting, but the certain and persistent danger that the new, ferocious monsters presented left neither the druid nor the human indifferent.
After the dead-night feeling of the underground, spring in the Eternal Forest seemed particularly happy and warm. The Eternal Forest surrounded the Infinite Mountains on all sides, and like a green ocean, flowed to the hot plains in the midday lands, as the southern corner of the earth was known, and to the great snowy regions of the midnight lands, as the northern reaches of the world were called. It was possible to wander through the forest for months without encountering human habitation or huts of druids, and eventually wander into such thickets that never released uninformed travelers. And it was also possible to feel the mysterious life of the forest and its inhabitants—that is, if one was born as a druid or an endowed magus, such as Vraigo.
Vraigo and Belsha had scarcely descended the mountain plateau when the desired path seemed to jump up to their feet. The friends ran on, following along the edge of a deceptively inoffensive emerald-green marsh. Of course, it would be prudent to be riding horses for such long-distance travel, but lately it had become too dangerous to leave horses unattended, and many forest traps were much easier to bypass on foot. There was, for example, a rusalka sitting on a thick birch branch, silently combing her very long hair, who understood at first glance that it was not worth luring the casual travelers who were without horses. To think how many good horses had been dragged by the reins by these hags’ claws to impenetrable thickets, with only their bones now left whitening in the grass.
Belsha could not resist the temptation and carefully hurled a pinecone at the rusalka, hoping that the prince, slightly ahead of him, was not paying any attention. The hag hissed, soaring up from the branch, and Vraigo, as if he had an eye in the back of his head, mockingly asked, “How come you druids don’t like rusalkas? They are cuties after all, are they not? True, they’re rather predatory. All you need to know is how to treat them correctly. Mermaids, of course, are certainly quieter.” Vraigo glanced at his friend, who tried hard to maintain his composure. “But then, they are fish!”
Suddenly the prince stopped as if rooted to the spot; his broad hand squeezed the hilt of the sword on his belt.
“Well, Belsha, if that is you again—”
The druid had a habit: he loved to frighten or distract his friend from an unpleasant conversation. Although Belsha couldn’t reach the magic veil as Vraigo could, the druid would stretch toward the sleeping spirits of trees by using the ray of his thoughts, and the spirits would respond to this call, immediately soaring from all sides like gigantic shadows. The prince, at first, always had difficulties distinguishing these strange shadows from the presence of living beings.
But Belsha did not have time to be indignant, as two dirtygreen creatures simultaneously leapt out of the marsh grass and pounced upon the place where the druid had been standing only a second before. Belsha, already rolling head over heels, jumped up with the gnomes’ hatchet appearing in his hand as if by magic. And Vraigo just had time to turn to the malicious monsters and meet them with the brilliant blade of his sword. Now they began attacking. Teeth were chattering, claws were scratching, the sword and the battle axe were attacking tirelessly. It was important to protect one another’s back in the heat of the battle, not to give the creatures a chance to round upon them and seize their defenseless necks. A big monster repelled Belsha’s light hatchet with his paw, aiming at the druid’s face with his fetid snout. Vraigo felt the druid behind him begin to awkwardly slide into a sitting position, so he squatted and sent a beast flying over their heads with his sword. Several injured monsters huddled together near the bushes, still baring their teeth aggressively, and the prince dealt a final death blow with his heavy sword.
“You just look,” Belsha said, drawing a deep breath and moving to his friend’s side. “More new monsters.”
He looked with disgust at the brown-green tufted hair, elongated snake-like snouts, and strong clutches of their limbs, which were unnaturally twisted at the joints.
“In all likelihood, they’re also poisonous.” Vraigo hooked the face of a big monster with the toe of his boot. Indeed, two pairs of long curved tusks with deep internal grooves jutted out of the beast’s jaws. The travelers were lucky that none of these monsters had been able to bite through their boots or clutch at their unprotected bodies.
Every time after a fight, the druid’s whole body went as hard as stone and then began quivering. His tribesmen were not warriors; it was much more physically difficult for Belsha to take part in fights than it was for his human friend.
“Well,” said the prince, as he tore several wide leaves from a nearby bush and used them to begin cleaning the sword. He noted Belsha’s quivering. “We should also wash ourselves. Who will be the first to find a stream?”
It was an old children’s game. When the young prince had realized that he was a real endowed magus, naturally a contest began between him and the artful druid. Which of them was the best in searching for and recognizing herbs and rootlets, who could get water first, who could tame a beast, or even make friends with the drevalyanka? And it should be noted that Vraigo was not always victorious; the druid would often find a secret way to cope with the task better. So now Belsha stopped quivering, but wagged his sharp nose from side to side as he shook his head:
“You’ll find one at eight hundred thirty steps towards sunset. If you want, you can count them,” Belsha answered as if it had required no thought. He liked teasing the prince. Vraigo had never been able to calculate distance accurately.
The two friends found the stream in the very place that the druid indicated. It wasn’t even a stream, really just a cold spring which could easily wash away the dirt and filth of their battle. After they had finished, the chilled companions began racing with one another along the path. Although the probability of running into an ambush for a second time that day was small, they were extremely anxious to get warm and find something to eat.
“I’d kill for a flat cake!” shouted Belsha as if reading Vraigo’s thoughts.
“Flat cakes!” he chuckled. “Say thank you that I left mine with Nera and that the hatchet did not let you down. It would’ve been good if you’d had to fight against those vermin with only your knife.”
Feeling insulted on behalf of his beloved wide, curved knife, Belsha sulked, but then changed his mind about quarreling and suggested, “Surely, we can at least find a clearing of wildings or sorrel. I’m starving. Although we could also go hunting,” he added, patting himself on the sunken belly. “So what if we come home an hour later?”
Vraigo doubtfully looked at the slowly setting Eye of Day.
“Well, all right,” decided the prince. “Anyway, we can’t reach Stronghold before nightfall, and the Duke will only receive me in the morning, so I won’t be able to talk with him until then. Besides, we can’t expect to reap any results from that conversation if he doesn’t already know himself that the number of malicious monsters has increased. His usual response to a threat is: ‘We’ll take Urart, go out in the open field, and everybody will be beaten.’ ”
Sympathetically snuffling, Belsha took out a stone and a sling, disappeared behind a neighboring clump of trees, and a moment later returned to his companion holding a motley forest hen, already as fat as if it were autumn instead of just springtime. On the fire they built nearby, the hen became golden crisp and began smelling so delicious that the salivating travelers started dancing impatiently around the fire.
“Forget gnomes’ caves and monsters; this is what I understand!” rejoiced Belsha, splitting the chicken onto two fresh burdock leaves. “Your dinner, prince!”
But Vraigo suddenly ceased to rejoice, as an indefinite anxiety stirred under his left clavicle. Without looking again at the succulent bird, he turned to the dark wall of the forest. Something fast and almost imperceptible was moving along the glade where the travelers were standing.
“What?” asked Belsha anxiously.
“It’s as if a beast—or something…”
Bushes silently parted and a shaggy face looked out from them. The man turned his head, and then came out completely into the clearing.
“Hi,” he smiled, but the strange yellowish eyes remained stationary. “Dining out, huh?”
Still smiling, hunching his thin shoulders, he took a few strange wobbly steps toward Vraigo.
“Stay where you are,” ordered the prince at once, standing and leaning on his sheathed sword.
Belsha instantly picked up his hatchet from the ground and from the corner of his eye he noticed a few more hungry-looking faces flitting in the bushes.
“What of it?” whined the stranger. “I just want a little chicken, delicious, hot chicken…” He again stepped toward the travelers.
Realizing with whom he was dealing, Vraigo dropped the sword, and mentally darted up to the magic mantle in search of a more suitable weapon. Blue light flashed onto his right hand, and a fistful of sparks flew into the grass under the feet of the unexpected guest. The stranger howled and rushed to the side, a burst of howls from the bushes supporting him.
“These are magi!” yelled the creature, transforming and becoming covered with thick fur even as it leaped toward the safety of the bushes. “Greedy, tasty magi!”
“Tasty-y-y!” a chorus joined in howling with him.
“What should we do when the monsters tear our prey?”
“Those were magi who set the monsters loose on the forest! They should give us the equivalent!”
“Let’s leave, eh?” Belsha proposed to Vraigo. “I’m no longer eager to dine, somehow.”
“Hey, you!” cried Vraigo, who absolutely agreed with his friend. “Werewolves! We are going away and leaving the chicken for you! Stop whining!”
Grabbing their hiking bags, the travelers once again rushed along the path. Twilight had been enveloping the forest more and more, and the dreary howl of the hungry werewolves that had been piercing through the forest died down far away after the friends forded a narrow forest rivulet.
Beyond the light wedge of birches, the friends reached one end of a thick, dense fir-grove, which they hoped was the last dangerous section of the road. It is in just such dark and damp places that malicious spirits and creatures prefer to ambush travelers or perhaps to have an afternoon nap, so it was possible to move through them only by keeping one’s nose to the wind. Because of this, Belsha, silently gliding between the old trees, was the first who noticed the piksha. The druid instantly stood still, waving his hand in warning; Vraigo warily stopped beside him. Watching his friend’s signals, the prince surveyed the almost-black trees and also saw the large catlike animal, silently floating along upon heavy spruce branches. In recent years many heinous and horrible beasts had appeared in the Eternal Forest, but pikshas, who never moved in packs and did not attack people openly, continued to be one of the most dangerous creatures. Not every man could resist the hypnotizing call of a hungry piksha.
The fact that the shaggy black cat, rather than waiting for darkness, was already purposefully slinking somewhere did not promise anything good. They knew they should attempt to catch the piksha, but the friends also knew that she would not engage in battle. Scenting the superiority of the enemy, she would simply vanish, disappearing into the forest. And neither Vraigo’s magical abilities nor the druid’s intuition would help them find her—they had tested this in practice more than once. But a piksha herself would never lose track of even a thin trace left by the unlucky hunters. She would avenge her kind without fail on the inhabitants of Stronghold. Moreover, this was one of those unusual new pikshas, for whom sunlight was not an obstacle. As if it wasn’t odd at all, she jumped onto the next tree in the sunset light.
The best moment to catch such a beast was when the creature was in her den—Vraigo knew that from experience. Exchanging glances, the travelers set off after the piksha; the coherence of their movements, developed through the years, transformed them into two bodiless shadows. Soon the fir-grove was left behind, and the friends waited until the creature cautiously slipped through a meadow and then followed her into a damp, mossy ravine. Several times when the piksha stopped, rolling her nose and ears, Vraigo instantly imagined himself as a transparent blue ray. From childhood he knew that there was no better way to protect his thoughts from these too-inquisitive natural magi. After all, what revealing thoughts could be read from a simple beam? True, such tricks failed to act upon real endowed magi; they knew little Vraigo inside and out. It was much easier for Belsha to hide himself. If the druid tried very hard, even his friend could not find him in the forest—unless the prince was able to figure out which “tree” seemed to suddenly rise from its place and start to run away from him.
The ravine deepened as the piksha moved on, leading the two travelers away from the road to Stronghold. The animal turned up in a hollow where rickety trees jostled one another in futile attempts to reach the light with even a branch, even a single twig. The road under their feet became swampy; swollen roots rose from the ground and intertwined with powerless drooping branches. They should have recognized that the piksha was sneaking into the thicket, the thicket that would soon become completely impassable.
“Maybe we better stop?” Belsha inquired of the prince, as he was firmly stuck himself in the mesh of thin but strong shoots.
“We need to understand what she intends to do here,” Vraigo replied, shaking his head. “Come on, slowly, just until we reach the bushes.” Wounding his fingers on thorns, he helped the druid to untangle and get out of the thorny shoots, and Belsha was the first to slide toward strange burnt-looking bushes.
On the other side of these bushes, the forest had quite an unattractive look: dead, or at least dying, and filled with unhealthy power, plants interlaced in a deadly struggle there. Even the adroit piksha sank her paws through brittle twigs, discontentedly hissed and scratched the hard, dry bark. It became impossible to pursue her silently, but Vraigo continued dragging his friend forward until a narrow glade opened in front of them, pulling apart the dense wall of trees. After waiting a few seconds for the creature to go a little away, the prince looked out cautiously at the glade from behind a tree. Staring at the glade, he saw a hut there and gave a low whistle in surprise as he sank down on the withered grass.
“So it is a yaga,” he said gloomily to the druid. “A witch has turned up in our forest and, in addition, is staying here and breeding pikshas. Why are the wicked creatures appearing all at once?”
Witches exceeded virtually any other vicious creatures or spirits in their wickedness. Nobody knew exactly what tribe these women belonged to. On the one hand they had an obvious affinity with the capabilities of druids, drevalyankas, and other natural magi; but on the other, not even everyone endowed with evil magic would dare to compete with the black power of a yaga. There were legends about how a witch, for seemingly no reason at all, would undertake the treatment of patients with terminal illnesses or help someone out of trouble. But more often than not, tormented by her treachery, if a witch settled near a human settlement, the people persuaded a good magus to drive her away and restore order and calm in their neighborhood. Well-coached pikshas were indispensable companions of a witch.
“Just look where the yaga grew these roots. This appears to be a dense thicket, and in fact, a stone’s throw from here to the nearest habitation.” Vraigo anxiously shook his head.
“Not everyone can warp the forest this way,” sighed Belsha. “What kind of hex was used here, and by what sort of people?”
“What ‘people’? Yagas—‘people’?”
“Well, it wasn’t a druid,” Belsha shrugged. “First, no druid would lift a hand against the forest. Secondly, we have no such power.”
“I don’t feel that she is a woman either, somehow.” The prince remembered what Agar had taught him, that yagas were transformed mentally and physically and could no longer be considered regular women. The prince focused, mentally rushing to the dark hut visible in the clearing and then recoiling back. “Wow, I was almost caught in that black hole! She’s a strong old woman.”
“Of course, I don’t know exactly, but we were told that a yaga was a woman who was singled out by a bad magus,” Belsha piped up. “He would draw a woman near him and build a close relationship with her, give her some magical strength, and then, for some reason, drive her away, changing her forever. Such wizards live a long time, so they can populate a whole land with witches. If so, it’s understandable why the old women are so aggressive.”
“Here’s more proof that a mighty bad magus has appeared in Areya,” interrupted his friend Vraigo. “I heard that there is a yaga in the bear corner of the swamps, too.”
“Again?” Belsha looked suspiciously at the prince. “Whatever happens, you’re all about that bad magus. If such a bad magus had appeared here, our elders, the drevalyankas, or your magi would definitely have sensed him, wouldn’t they? And for druids, stories of witches are considered fairy tales…”
“Sh-sh-sh.” Vraigo jumped up quickly and the druid was instantly on his feet, too. “Let’s go quickly. She has sensed us, the rotter! This is not the time to grapple with her.”
Straightening up, the travelers realized that the deep, velvety darkness of night had completely enveloped them. As if absorbed in some sort of trickery, they had missed its arrival. As cautiously as they could, straining all their sensitivity, the young men hurried back through the dead forest, the piksha forgotten. Neither of them counted the stinging thorns and sharp branches that ruthlessly tore their clothes, dug into their skin, and clung to their hair. A large predator flashed somewhere on the edge of their perception, but Vraigo mentally barked at him and the beast chose to go its own way. Only good fortune kept the two friends from meeting any of the invisible vicious spirits; apparently they had taken different paths that night, and the weary travelers safely passed the ravine with squelching water underfoot, and, reeling from exhaustion, came to the familiar path.
“Try to remember the way,” demanded Vraigo, taking a hardy breath. “I feel we will have to come back to this old lady once again, but she will really try to trick us here. It will be hard to find the right path.”
Belsha nodded; he would not particularly like to have further contact with a yaga and her pikshas, but there was no sense in arguing with the prince. If any one of the magical creatures attacked humans or druids, Vraigo would simply begin a hunt for it. And Belsha had to admit, Vraigo’s determination did hold everyone in check, except the brainless monsters prowling in packs.
Soon, as if the friends had overcome a mysterious frontier, the forest path became much brighter. Stars and a yellow slice of the moon lit up in the sky. Trees became familiar and a thin, familiar figure emerged in front of them.
“Vasilinka!” Belsha joyfully shouted, rushing to his sister. “We have found the gnomes’ town! Who did not believe us? Behold!” He drew the captured hatchet from behind his belt.
“You decided to show up!” the young woman said indignantly, her eyes sparkling angrily in the darkness and her hands plucking at a red strand of hair. “And, above all, you’re not even in a hurry, walking grandly like tailless roosters!”
The travelers looked at each other in surprise, and Vraigo, reaching into his rucksack for the girl’s gift, gently asked:
“What’s up?” Vasilinka stomped her bare foot. “Well, where have you been, can you tell me? I almost went out of my head trying to find you! Why did you not respond?”
“What’s the panic?” wondered Belsha. “We were delayed. Imagine who we just met on the way! A yaga has appeared in the forest again—”
“You have not been here for nine nights,” interrupted the girl. “Of course, I tried to convince Mother and myself that you were catching and driving out a monster or an evil spirit again. But a new detachment of monsters has appeared near the settlements that are over the river, and werewolves were howling yesterday.”
“Nine nights? Are you serious?” asked Vraigo and Belsha together.
“It seems she’s in earnest.” The prince looked at the delicate face of Vasilinka. “Although we thought it was just this morning that we went down to the cave.”
“What a bad spirit! That skunk! Sent us for a treasure, did he? It’s certainly necessary to drive him out of the gorge!” Belsha was indignant, recalling what had propelled them on their adventure to look for the gnome town in the first place.
“The spirit of the gorge is not to blame here. You, too, have heard various stories about the gnomes’ cave yourself and, again, were convinced that all those were only tales. But time there really does…” Vraigo searched for the right word. “…it gallops—you know, passes by leaps and bounds. But we can look more closely into that later on.”
Awkwardly stamping, the prince again reached into his bag and fished out a long string of beads of green mica. He’d found this bauble in a gnome’s abandoned dwelling and immediately realized how it would suit the red-haired, green-eyed druid girl. The beads flashed up in the darkness with soft phantasmal light. Vasilinka giggled and hid her hands behind her back.
“You actually think I’ll just forgive you?” she asked as severely as she could while she admired the gift.
“Just think, she was unable to contact us!” grumbled Belsha good-naturedly. “You could become accustomed to that. But I have not eaten for nine days! It is impossible to imagine. By the way, Vasilinka, what’s for dinner? Vraigo, come eat with us.”
“No, I’m going to Stronghold,” said the prince anxiously. “I must have been lost for as many days as you were. My mother must be frantic. I’m a tree stump, and didn’t tell her where I was going. She was expecting me to return quickly.”
Nodding to his friends, he lightly ran farther on, as if he hadn’t just spent a long day traversing many miles of impassable thickets and viscous swamps.
“Vraigo, thanks!” Vasilinka shouted, waving the beads that were tightly clenched in her small palm.
The prince nodded again, though the girl could no longer see him. Mentally, Vraigo had already darted somewhere far away, frowning at thoughts of all that would need to be done when he reached Stronghold, while physically his legs themselves chose the road, hopping over tussocks, going around thick trunks, and sweeping over burrows and pits.