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The Acolytes

The very first day he was there, Aunt Edith said to him, “Now, Peter, be sure not to leave the grounds alone.”

“Why not?” he asked, suddenly wondering if this was going to be as much fun as he had thought. It had been a sort of disappointing trip from Sol, days and days locked inside the metal walls of the spaceship. And the steward had taken his mother seriously and watched him so carefully that it had been just like being back in school. And now this—

“It’s just a matter of common sense, Pete,” said Uncle Gunnar. “We don’t know enough about this planet yet. You could get into trouble. Sure, we’ll go everywhere you want, but not alone. Together. No space explorer who rushes off by himself on a new world and gets in a scrape that his friends have to pull him out of is a hero. He’s just a bloody fool. You’ve got more brains than that. First chance I get, I’ll show you through the woods—and I’ll take my gun along.”

That made it different. Wilson Pete was suddenly glad all over to be here—here, on a frontier planet, on his uncle’s farm. And Uncle Gunnar was an old explorer himself. He’d been all over the Galaxy before he settled down on Nerthus. He was a huge man, with bright blue eyes in a tanned strong face. His hair and beard were red as fire. And he knew enough to call a fellow “Pete” instead of that sissy “Peter.” When you’re going on eleven, you like to be talked to man to man.

“Sure,” said Pete. “Sure, I’m old enough to know that.”

“Fine,” said Uncle Gunnar. “After all, this is a pretty big place we’ve got. You’ll have quite a bit to see before you want to explore the woods or the hills. How about a look around now?”

“Oh, that can wait,” said Aunt Edith. “You must be tired from your trip, Peter. Don’t you want to take a nap first?”

“I’m not tired,” said Pete. “It was an easy trip.”

He had been a little tired when the spaceship landed at Stellamont, the only city on Nerthus. It was a small place, too, just a cluster of buildings stuck on a broad green plain, not much to look at. But Uncle Gunnar had been there to meet him. They’d gone into the noisy dimness of the Spaceman’s Haven where he’d had a glass of ambrosite while Uncle Gunnar had a beer, and he’d met a dozen men he only remembered dimly, the men who were pioneering out among the stars. Then they’d gone to the aircar and flown to the farm.

It had been a long ride through a lonely sky, hundreds of kilometers of emptiness rolling beneath them. Not really emptiness—there were the hills and forests and lakes, a seacoast glimpsed from afar, broad valleys with long shadows sliding across them. But no men. Wind and sunlight and murmuring rivers, but no men.

Nerthus was almost disappointingly Earthlike, no moving mountains or columns of fire or glittering alien cities, just the wild green land slipping away beneath a humming aircar. But Uncle Gunnar made it sound interesting enough as he talked.

“There’s tomorrow in this world, it belongs to the future,” he said. “Man has only been here a few years, there aren’t many of us yet, but more are coming in every month. It’s going to be one of the great planets of the Galaxy, and we’re in on the beginning.”

“Aren’t there any natives?” asked Pete.

“Not a one. Nerthus is one of the few planets where a man can live without artificial help and have the place all to himself to boot.” Uncle Gunnar sighed. “But sometimes I wish there were natives. It’d make matters a lot easier for us.”

“How so?” asked Pete. “They couldn’t work any better’n your machines, could they?”

“No, though Cosmos knows I could do with a little extra help. Edith and Tobur and I have all we can do to manage a farm the size of ours. But it’s a question mainly of ecology. Nerthus may be like Earth basically, and even in rather fine details of biology and chemistry, but still there are some two billion years of independent evolution on the two worlds. Naturally there are differences—and as yet we don’t know just what all those differences are.

“Well, just take the obvious examples. How do we know what native foods we can eat and what is poisonous to us? We just have to try everything out first, by chemical analysis or by using Terrestrial animals. Then there are the native animals—which of them can we tame and use, and which are hopeless? The natives could tell us a lot of things we need to know.

“And eventually we have to understand the way the whole planet works, and fit ourselves into it. Little things like the exact composition of the soil, the bacteria in it, the insects that fertilize some plants, the spectral distribution of sunlight—all that will make a big difference in the success of agriculture. We haven’t had too much success so far in growing Terrestrial plants on Nerthus, for precisely that reason. They’re working in the labs at Stellamont, developing new varieties of staple plants like corn and potatoes—Nerthusian varieties, that will fit in here. It’ll be done, too, but it’s a big job and it’ll take time. Meanwhile, we colonists have to make out the best we can.”

Pete nodded. Uncle Gunnar was fun to talk to, though it was hard to follow him sometimes.

Anyway, the trip from Stellamont had been so interesting that Pete wasn’t tired any more. He was all on fire to see the place.

“Well, it isn’t long till supper,” said Aunt Edith. “I suppose you menfolk might as well loaf around for a while.”

“Come on, then,” said Uncle Gunnar, and he and Pete went outside.

The house was low and white, with a high, peaked roof—on Earth it would have been funny, it looked so ancient, but here it blended with the trees and the sky and the big open fields. As you came out on the front porch, you saw a broad space of turf and wooded clumps, flowers nodding in the breeze, the tall forest beyond. On one side, the fields began, rolling away toward far blue hills, on the other side and toward the rear the lawn sloped off to the farm buildings.

As they walked toward the barn, someone stepped out of it and approached them. Someone—no, something. Pete caught his breath as he saw that it was an alien.

He looked like a short, squat man with very wide shoulders and long arms, but he was completely hairless and his skin was blue. A round, flat-nosed, earless, wide-mouthed head sat on a short thick neck. He wore the usual pouched belt, as well as baggy pants around his bowed legs, and nothing else. Huge eyes that were pools of blackness gleamed at them as he came up and smiled.

“Hello,” he said. His voice was deep and heavy, with a funny sort of accent that no human throat could have had.

“Hello, Tobur,” said Uncle Gunnar. “This is my nephew, Wilson Pete, who’s going to stay with us awhile. You remember I told you about him. His father is an engineer on Earth who’s been assigned to a project on Sol VIII. The planet not being fit to live on, Pete’s folks have sent him here for the time being. Pete, this is Tobur of Javartenan, my old batman and now the hired man.”

“P-pleased to meet you,” said Pete uncertainly.

“Likewise, I say,” grinned Tobur with an alarming flash of teeth. “How you like here, huh?”

“I—all right, I guess,” answered Pete.

“Can you do this?” asked Tobur. He jumped up into the air—way into the air—clicked his heels and turned a somersault on the way down, and landed on his hands.

“N-no. Goshell, no.”

“Then I winner,” said Tobur. “Is custom on Javartenan for winner give prize to loser. Winner pay for glory, you see. So I give you prize. Here, take.” He pulled a small knife out of one pouch. “Knife belong Queen of Astafogartistan once, I take after hard battle. Brings luck. Worshiped by natives as god. Keep for souvenir, Pete.”

“Thanks! Thanks a googol!” Pete held the knife close. “Thanks, Tobur!”

The alien clapped him on the back. “Is nothing. Friends give presents, no? I have many other souvenirs of battles, sure.”

Presently, the three of them went on toward the barn. Uncle Gunnar explained to Pete: “Tobur and I were together for many years. When I finally decided to settle down, he still followed me. We can at least gas over old times.”

“But Cosmos, Uncle Gunnar, why did you stop exploring?”

“Oh—a man gets older, Pete. He’s not quite up to it any more. And then I met your aunt and decided it was time I got a home of my own. Nerthus was wide open, it offered enough of a challenge for anyone. So we came here, and I’ve never regretted it.”

They came into the cool dusk of the barn, where cows from Earth stood beside native bufoids. Going out the other door they emerged into a big corral where some of the six-legged, greenish-furred native “ponies” were kept.

“We’ve had pretty good luck taming those,” said Uncle Gunnar. “It’s handy. There isn’t as much machinery available yet as we need, and they can substitute. Also, they can go places and do things that a car or tractor can’t—into the woods, for instance.”

He reached out and snagged the halter of one. “Here, Pete. I’ve been saving this one for you. He’s yours.”

A six-legged pony on an alien planet, an alien ex-spaceman and adventurer for a friend, a whole new world—Cosmos googolplex!

Pete rode around for a while, getting the feel of the animal. The middle pair of legs gave it a funny humping motion that was a little hard to get used to. They went down to look at the orchard and some of the pens, and glanced across the fence at the waving fields of avertigonite. From that plant came avertigon, the anti-space sickness drug, and it was Uncle Gunnar’s chief money crop.

“But I’ll be pretty busy when the harvest comes in,” he said. “The neighbors—” he meant everyone within several hundred kilometers—“pool what machinery and labor they have to reap and thresh it, so I’ll have to be away quite a bit. You and Tobur will have to look after Aunt Edith and the farm, Pete.”

“We’ll do that,” promised Pete, swapping a glance with Tobur. The Javartenanian grinned back at him.

The sun was low in the west, filling the air with shining gold and slipping long blue shadows over the ground, when they heard Aunt Edith calling them to supper. “Let’s go,” said Tobur, smacking his lips, and waddling quickly ahead.

Something tinkled in the high grass, a ripple of little glass bells, sweet and laughing in the gentle sunset air. Pete had a glimpse of a green-furred small thing that skittered away from them, chiming and singing as it danced.

“What’s that?” he asked, very softly.

Uncle Gunnar shrugged. “We call ’em tinklers,” he said. “They’re found everywhere hereabouts, making that noise. Don’t ask me what they do for a living. Damn nuisance, I think.”

Pete stared after the retreating tinkler. It gamboled off, stopping now and then to look after them, and the laughter of bells filled the quiet evening.

They had given him a room to himself, a big cool chamber at the rear of the house, and sent him to bed there not long after supper. He lay for a while thinking of all that there would be to do, thinking about his luck in having Thorleifsson Gunnar for an uncle, thinking about the way he would tell of all this when he got back to Earth. Pretty soon he dropped into a light doze, but it wasn’t long before he woke up again and was thirsty.

For a little while, he just lay there, feeling too lazy to get up for a drink. But that only made him more wide awake than before. He looked around the room; it was all black and white with moonglow, the ghostly curtains fluttered in the breeze, and he could hear the faint noises of the night murmuring out there.

Well, sunspots! He wanted some water bad. So he got up and walked across to the door. The floor was cool and hard under his bare feet, and shadows slid around behind and in front of him, and the wind blew in a faint tingle of unearthly smells. Another world! You couldn’t even see the sun of Nerthus from Sol’s planets—and here he was!

He went quietly down the corridor toward the bathroom and got his drink. As he came out again, he noticed light coming from around the bend in the hall, from the living room, and he heard a low mutter of voices. His aunt and uncle must still be sitting up, talking.

It would be fun to sneak up and listen in, the way the Patrolman had listened in on the Scordians in that stereo. It’d be good practice for the time when he would be having adventures, and shoot, it wouldn’t do any harm—He went very softly down the hall and stood just beyond the open living-room door.

“—I still don’t think they should have done it,” said Aunt Edith.

“Why not?” rumbled Uncle Gunnar’s deep voice. “Cathy would naturally want to be with her husband, and you can’t have kids along on that devil’s planet. They had to send him somewhere, and this is a healthy sort of place for a youngster.”

“Oh, Peter is a sweet boy—” Pete’s ears burned—“and I’m glad to see him. But this planet healthy? I wonder!”

“What in the Galaxy could be dangerous here?”

“I don’t know. That’s just the trouble, I don’t know. If we did, we could guard against it. But Nerthus is still too much a mystery, Gunnar. Diseases, maybe—”

“Edith, I’ve told you a million times that the probability of any local germ finding a congenial host in man is vanishingly small. Sure, they did have one epidemic here, of native origin, but that particular thing was soon licked. The chance that another organism can survive a metabolism as alien as ours is so slight that we’ve got a considerably better prospect of being hit by a meteorite.”

“Well—wild animals—”

“Come now, sweetheart, you also know that potentially dangerous life-forms have been eliminated around all our settlements. I haven’t seen a large carnivore in the woods here for at least two years now.” Uncle Gunnar got up and came across to where she sat; Pete could hear his slow heavy footsteps and feel the floor quivering ever so faintly under them. “Besides, Pete’s under orders to stay on the farm grounds, where even you will agree there’s no danger. And Tobur will keep an eye on him too.”

“Oh, I know it, Gunnar, I know it all. But why have all those other children vanished off farms? What became of them?”

“I don’t know. I wish I did. Perhaps there are dangers in the woods that we don’t know about. My guess is their parents got careless and let them go off alone. That’s not going to happen with Pete. Now for Cosmos’ sake, honey, stop worrying—”

Pete stole back toward his room, not caring to listen any more. He felt a little mad about it—as if he couldn’t take care of himself! But he’d obey orders like a good spaceman, if only to save the folks from worry and himself from a licking.

As he got back into the room, he heard a noise from outside. He went to the window and leaned out.

It was a strange, magic scene, a fairyland of streaming moonlight and whispering trees and unknown constellations. There were two moons in the sky, pouring their cold silver light down over the grass to glitter in the dew, throwing weird double shadows of trees. One moon was so close you could almost see it move, could almost see its shadows crawling like live things, as if the world stirred restlessly in its sleep. The stars flashed and gleamed high overhead, sprawling in new figures. Only the pale flood of the Milky Way looked the same.

The night murmured. Pete knew the nights of Earth and their noises, out in the silence far from man—buzz of insects, chirp of crickets, hoarse croaking of frogs, a million little sounds all blending into one great quiet voice. Nerthus had its language too, but it wasn’t Earth’s; all the tiny parts of it were different and they added up to a strange whisper, the voice of an alien world.

Insects were there, thrumming and humming. Something was singing, a sweet liquid trill running up and down the scale, and something else screamed harshly, far away in the woods and swamps. There was a far-off pattering like the rapid thunder of a small drum, there was a shrill scrape as of metal, there was brief maniac laughter, there was hooting and hissing and chuckling and bubbling, all at the very edge of hearing. And—something else—

Yes, there it came again. Pete remembered now, harked back to the thing which had chimed and laughed at him in the sunset.

It came bobbing and dancing out of the shadows and the forest, jumping, bouncing, swatting after the elfin lamps of night-glowing insects, and a million little bells came with it. Pete listened, straining out the window, enchanted by the night and the music.

He couldn’t see the tinkler very well. It was a dim whiteness in the shifting, tricky moonlight, a small thing that danced under his window and called to him to come out and play. But he could hear it, the bells came high and sweet now.

They were like silver sleigh-bells on a frosty night, like a sunlit rain-shower, like the laughter of young girls. It was a rush of chiming, a pizzicato on a string of glass, gay and joyous and drunken with life. Come out, come out, come out—come out and run in the moonlight with me!

“No,” said Pete all at once, and yawned. He was sleepy. Some other time, maybe. Perhaps Tobur would come along—somehow, he didn’t think the bells of Faerie would chime for Uncle Gunnar, but Tobur might understand.

After all, grownups thought the tinklers were just a nuisance. They came dancing around the house of nights and spoiled your sleep with their wistful laughter. You had to listen to them—

Tobur leaned back more comfortably against the wall of the shed. “—and there was I,” he went on. “Spacesuit leaking, poison air and minus two hundred degrees all around, natives after me—”

“Gollikers!” whispered Pete.

They sat in the shade, letting dinner settle inside them while a hot early-afternoon sun danced and flimmered beyond and the air was drowsy with humming bugs. Tobur had another story to tell.

The being from Javartenan was always ready to drop what he was doing and talk to a fellow, always glad to make some little thing for you or show you how to do a job in the best and easiest way, letting you help him so you could learn. And he was even more fun to listen to than Uncle Gunnar, with his odd accent and his exciting stories. He’d told Pete a lot in the last few days.

Of course, when you considered how Uncle Gunnar had taken him from Javartenan as a servant to begin with, and how they’d been together ever since, it was funny how many adventures he’d had all by himself, how many planets he’d been on that Uncle Gunnar never mentioned—but Cosmos, he was sure a fine storyteller and he wouldn’t lie to a fellow.

“Well, what I do?” said Tobur now. “There I was, trapped ’gainst cliff of frozen nitrogen, spacesuit leaking, powerpack near gone, blaster ’most empty, and all those hundreds of natives coming up at me. What I do? I give up Sacred Jewel of Pashtu? Save my life that way?” He looked hard at Pete.

“Cosmos, what else could you do but surrender?” asked Pete, since that was the answer Tobur seemed to expect.

“And betray trust in me? Go back on oath? Not Tobur! Die is little thing, small Pete, but honor much. Also, I began to have idea. I began thinking mighty hard there, you bet. I had Jewel to defend, near out of blaster charges, but still plenty brains, yes. I—”


The Javartenanian started guiltily as Uncle Gunnar’s voice bellowed through the still air.

“Tobur! Where in the name of Valdaoth are you—Oh, there!” Uncle Gunnar came around the corner of the shed and saw them. His cold blue eyes flashed under his bristling red eyebrows.

“Loafing again, huh? I told you we had to get that bottom land fenced in before the harvest starts. Which means today. Where’s the truck? What’ve you been doing besides sitting on your fat tail?”

“Been watching small Pete like you told me,” said Tobur sulkily.

“Nothing to stop you working while you did, was there? Now get up and help me, or before Cosmos I’ll bounce you out of here. Up!”

Tobur rose, scowling, and slouched into the shed. Uncle Gunnar lingered behind with Pete to whisper with a twinkle: “He’s a good old cuss, but if I didn’t blow my top once in a while and yell at him, he’d never get anything done.” He added, “You might as well come with us and watch.”

“All right,” said Pete, though he was a little mad himself at being pulled out of the shade and having the story broken off that way. Now Tobur would be too grouchy to finish it for the rest of the day.

They went into the shadowy cavern of the shed after the truck. Machinery filled it, the semi-robot machinery that made it possible for three beings to run this enormous place alone. But most of the things still needed intelligent beings at the controls; Uncle Gunnar couldn’t afford too many automatics yet.

The truck had a small plastic cab and a long flat back. Tobur had the sides off by now, and he and Uncle Gunnar grunted as they lifted the fencing machine up and bolted it in place. They racked as many of the metal posts as they thought they’d need on it, added three big rolls of wire, and got into the cab. Pete said he’d rather ride in back.

So they bounced off over the fields, around trees and low hillocks, till the house was out of sight and they reached the bottom land. This was a forty-hectare patch of low-lying meadow on the edge of the great forest, covered with high lush grass that rippled in a faint wind. Uncle Gunnar wanted to make a pasture of it.

“I’ll drive for a while and you guide the machine, Tobur,” he said. “Pete, keep in sight of us.”

It was fun to watch at first. The truck went slowly along the boundary, while the machine rammed down a long spike to make a hole, drove in the post, tamped down the earth around it, and strung three taut lines of wire, all in one dazzle of metal arms. Tobur had to walk alongside the truck, guiding the rammer and the post-setter. Pete brought up the rear.

But it got tiresome after a while, the same thing over and over again, and the day was warm and quiet, not meant for working. Pete yawned and lagged.

“I’ll spell you there,” said Uncle Gunnar presently.

“No need. Not tired,” said Tobur, still sulky. Uncle Gunnar shrugged and drove on.

Pete sat down on a hummock and looked around him. From here you couldn’t see the house. There was just the meadowland, sloping upward toward the cultivated fields on one side. On the other side was the forest. It was very still and lonely.

He lay down, feeling the soft turf give under his weight like a mattress. He crossed his hands under his head and looked upward. Tall white clouds walked through a sky of far clear blue, the sun wheeled on its slow horizonward way, the grass whispered and rustled around him, there was a drowsy murmur and buzz in the air. For a while, he picked shapes out of the clouds, a spaceship, a horse, a robot, Uncle Gunnar with his nose getting longer—He giggled and looked around him.

Only, the grass waving above his head, its smell rich and green and not quite like the smell of grass on Earth. There was a little patch of wild flowers too, blue as if they were fallen pieces of sky, sweet and nose-tickling in their scent. An insect flew past his face with its wings a million colored shards of broken sunlight. Somewhere a bird was singing.

Pete wriggled deeper down into the grass and the earth and the summer warmth.

All of a sudden, he heard the bells again, very near, high and thin and sweet. He sat up and looked wildly around.

The truck was far down the line, almost out of sight behind a jutting neck of trees. Otherwise he couldn’t see anything—no, wait—

Pete sat very still, hardly breathing, and in a moment the tinkler came into view. It was no bigger than a rabbit, fat and pale-green and fuzzy, with little black eyes that twinkled merrily. It skipped around him, twitching its nose and going ding-ding-ding and then breaking into a rain of crystal chiming.

Pete thought back to what he’d asked Uncle Gunnar about the tinklers the first morning after he’d seen one. What were they, where did they come from, why did they make that noise and how?

“Nobody knows, or cares very much either, Pete,” Uncle Gunnar had said. “There are a lot of them, running around all over this part of the continent. I shot and dissected one once to find how its vocal organs work—a matter of tympani and vibrating strings—but it wasn’t very good eating and its hide was too thin to be useful either. So now I just let them alone.”

“You shouldn’t ’a killed it, Uncle Gunnar,” said Pete, shocked. “That’s like shooting a—an elf.”

“Sure, an elf,” put in Tobur. “And there a big old troll in the woods too, and fairy castles. I know.”

“You know too damn many things, Tobur,” said Uncle Gunnar. “No, this is just another little animal.”

“But what do the tinklers do?” Pete asked.

“I don’t know,” said Uncle Gunnar. “They have the teeth and digestive system of meat-eaters, but they’re too small and weak to kill anything for themselves, and in fact I should think a fat juicy tinkler would be in some danger from carnivores itself. Especially with that silly music it makes—you can hear it half a kilometer away. Offhand, I should think they eat carrion, and reproduce like fury to keep up their numbers and keep their natural enemies fed.”

That was all, except that Pete had seen them often, and heard them still more often, and never had a close look at one—till now.

He sat still, not daring to move, and pretty soon the tinkler quieted down and crouched less than a meter from him, wiggled its impudent nose and twinkled with its eyes.

“Hello,” whispered Pete. “Hello, there.”

The tinkler skipped to its feet and let go a happy carillon.

“Come here,” said Pete. “Come here, fella. I won’t hurt you.”

The tinkler danced closer. Almost, Pete’s outstretched hand touched it, the whiskers brushed his fingers, and then it was away and laughing at him.

Pete had to laugh too. He got up, very softly and slowly so as not to scare it. The tinkler waited for him and then skipped another meter away.

He walked slowly toward it. The tinkler wriggled with delight and jumped over the wild hedge at the boundary of the woods.

Without thinking, Pete followed it in under the trees. It danced close to him, brushed its soft nose against his leg, and then before he could grab it was off again, deeper into the forest.

Pete hesitated, looking around him. He wasn’t supposed to go in here—

The trees stood tall around him, their trunks reaching up and up to a whispering vaulted roof of green and gold. It was cool and shadowy under them, speckled with sunlight and small bright flowers. A bird was trilling its gladness, and only the faint rustle of leaves answered it through the quiet—that, and the happy peal of elfin bells as the tinkler came back to Pete.

It circled around him, chiming and dancing, a little figure of laughter. It wanted him to follow it—yes, there it went, off again, stopping to look back over its shoulder at him.

Well, gollikers, it wouldn’t hurt to go just a ways onward. Maybe it wanted to show him something. And it was nice here in the woods.

The bells chimed eagerly as Pete started off. The tinkler came back, nudged him, bounded in a gleeful circle around his feet, and shot away into the farther shadows.

He trudged on for a while under the trees. It was like an enchanted forest, cool and dim and green, little spots and shafts of sunlight streaming down to pick out mossy rocks and colored fungi, and flowers hiding under fallen logs. Once in a while, a strange thing would streak off from his path, and there was a sudden rush of birdsong as he approached a gnarled old tree. Cosmos, what could go wrong in here, what were the grownups afraid of?

The tinkler bounded eagerly ahead, shaking sound out of its throat like a snowstorm turned to music, stopping now and then to look after him and wait for him with a shivering impatience. Come on, Pete, come on, come on!

But where was it going, anyway, what was it leading him to?

The notion came suddenly to Pete, so suddenly that he stopped in his tracks with the awe and amazement of it. Why, sure—sure—that could be it—what else could it be?

Nerthus wasn’t uninhabited, and man wasn’t alone on it. There was a native race, a race of little furry elves who spoke in silver chimes, only the humans who roared out of the sky in their great steel ships frightened them. They hid away, deep in the shadowy quiet of their forests, they waited and watched—

Intelligent life!

And he had discovered it!

He hurried after his guide now, running, scrambling over logs and dodging past thickets. The tinkler darted ahead, a white streak in the shades; you’d never have thought the fat little fellow could move that quick. But when it saw he couldn’t keep up, it stopped and waited.

Pete had to slow down after a while. He was panting and his heartbeat was loud in his ears. But he still shivered with the excitement of his tremendous discovery.

Sure, the tinklers were intelligent. Why else would this one be so plainly guiding him on? Intelligent, with a dancing, joyous, fairy mind that sang like its voice, a mind of moonlight and magic remote from the slow ponderous brain of man. They had been frightened, they had hidden away, but had spied out the newcomers simply by pretending to be animals. And now they had decided the time was ripe to reveal themselves.

Only they wouldn’t approach just anybody. It had to be someone they could trust, someone who would understand. A human who could tell them about his race with an insider’s viewpoint, and who could still feel the way they did, keep their secrets, act as a go-between—a kid. Sure!

Wilson Pete, first ambassador of man to the tinklers of Nerthus!

He went on, deeper and deeper into the woods, and the tinkler rang and pealed and leaped before him. And what was it saying in its own strange language?

Welcome, Pete, welcome to Nerthus and the Old Dwellers, welcome to the realms of Faerie.

Another tinkler popped out of the dripping underbrush. The two of them gamboled together, darted back toward Pete, and ran on, tinkling furiously. Two of them—! Why, that must mean he was approaching their village.

It couldn’t be far now. They’d lead him into the ring of little thatch houses; the whole population would swarm out in joy, torches and fireflies would bob and flare in the dark. They’d dance around him, singing their songs of welcome to the stranger from the stars, they’d bring him food in a golden dish and put him to bed on sweet-smelling moss. And when he came back next day with his tremendous news, the folks would forget they were mad at him.

The ground squished under his feet. Shadows were rising out of the earth, shadows and a thin steaming mist. He stumbled over logs and splashed into pools. Two more tinklers came out of the deeper darkness and frolicked around him.

They sure picked a nasty swamp to live in. Only maybe they had to do that, for protection from their enemies. Pete groped his way on, too weary to think straight any more. He only wanted sleep,

The sun was down now, darkness was whelming the world, but a last sullen ember glowed red between the trees. As he came out on the bank of the lake, it gleamed like a pool of blood.

He couldn’t see far over it. The water was thick and scummy, and trees and hummocks grew out of it. He plodded squashily along the muck of the bank, feeling a little ill from the dank smell of swamp and rot. The fog was thickening, swirling its tendrils around him. Here and there, phosphorescent fungi glowed blue in the murky twilight. The tinklers led the way, dancing and skipping over the dreary mudbanks—there was a whole crowd of them, pushing and jostling, swarming about him. Their belling filled the heavy air with a harsher note than he had heard before.

Something stirred, out there in the crimson water. Pete couldn’t see very well what it was. But after a moment, he made out a vague bulk by the shore, something looming and dark and misshapen. A dead stump? A small hummock? A—

The tinklers darted all around, shoving, crowding, pushing him now, and their eager noise drowned his thoughts. Only—they were urging him toward that thing—

Suddenly, Pete didn’t want to go any farther. He stopped, and his heart was like a lump in him. “No,” he gulped. “No.”

The tinklers swarmed around, thrusting him on by their weight, and the last red light glistened on their eyes and their little sharp fangs.

Something closed around Pete’s ankle, cold and hard and rubbery. He screamed. The tinklers danced with glee, ting-ting-ting-a-ting-ting!

The monster’s tentacle dragged Pete through the mud, up toward the beak that snapped and grinned in its black lump of a body. He screamed and screamed. Help, help, help, Uncle Gunnar, Mother, help, help, wake me up

It slid from the bank and pulled him under water. He drew a breath to howl and the rotten water rushed in, filled his lungs, his head roared and swam and whirled down into darkness, down and down and down.

Something else, a hand closing around his arm, a wild moment of struggle—Pete kicked out, lashing in a crazy howling darkness of thunder and horror, and then he was gulping air into his lungs, coughing and choking with fire in his chest.

* * *

He came to himself on the bank, and Uncle Gunnar’s shape, huge and dark in the gloom, was holding him. He screamed and shuddered himself against the man’s breast.

“There, Pete.” The deep voice sobbed, vibrating through his shivering body. “All right, fella, it’s all right now—”

Something of his training in self-integration came back, psycho-physiological habits, a shaking sort of calm. He huddled in his uncle’s arms and watched where the lake roiled and bubbled.

“Why did you do it?” groaned the man. “Why did you do it? We trailed you as soon as we saw you were gone, Tobur and I, we followed you and guessed our way and came here in time to see that thing dragging you under water—but why?”



“The-the t-t-t-tinkler—it led me—I th-thought it w-w-was intel—” Pete began crying.

“So—” Uncle Gunnar’s voice was soft and cold and terrible. “So that’s it. That’s how they live. When we arrived, a whole pack of the little fiends was crouched on the bank, watching—

“They lure animals out here, carnivores, curious ones, and then that thing in the water kills the prey and shares with them—Maybe that’s where some of those other kids went, to that devil’s symbiosis—Tobur!” The last word was wrenched out of him.

“T-tobur?” whispered Pete.

The lake seethed and churned with struggle. “He’s down there, fighting it,” said Uncle Gunnar. “He leaped after you, got you free—passed you over to me, and then the monster dragged him under—” He’s fighting for his life down there, and I can’t go help him. If the thing got both of us, there’d be no one to take you home. I can’t help him, oh Cosmos, I can’t help him!”

They sat waiting for a long time as night closed in on the swamp. Once a little bell tinkled in the dark. Pete screamed and huddled against Uncle Gunnar.

The man swore softly, brokenly.

The lake quieted. In the last gleam of light, Pete thought he could see blood on its surface.

Nothing came out of it.

Uncle Gunnar stood up. “I’m going down,” he said in a harsh, strange voice. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

He stepped into the lake and his head went under. Pete shivered on the bank and tried not to scream. Another little chime pealed, he clutched the muddy ground with his hands and held his jaws shut with all the strength that was in him.

Uncle Gunnar came up again and waded back to shore. He moved slowly and wearily, like an old man, and flopped down as if all the strength had gone from him.

“They’re both dead,” he whispered. “I felt them down there. Tobur knifed it to death, but it broke his neck in the last struggle. They’re both dead.” Suddenly he rolled over and buried his face in his hands.

“Oh, Tobur, Tobur, you old windbag, it’s going to be an empty world without you!”

Pete sat very quiet, for he had never seen a man cry before.

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