“All I’m saying is that I think the Goblins are alarmist.”
“And I think a little bit of caution on their part is an excellent idea.” Ithican replied.
“’A little bit of caution’?” Sam repeated incredulously waving his hand vaguely in the direction they’d come from. “That is not a ‘little bit of caution’, that’s burning a bridge before you’ve finished crossing it.”
The metaphor was fitting. Behind them Ramandas was slowly turning to cinder. The Goblins had decided not to stay. They were going to live with their cousins, the Hobgoblins, in the mountains. Their numbers were small enough now that they would be welcome. They had also decided not to let anyone take control over the strategic coastal town. In the end they had given Sam and Ithican about an hours notice that the place was about to become Nuearth’s largest bon fire.
“I don’t blame them for a second.” Ithican said walking faster. “I wouldn’t want to stay here either. Let it burn.”
“That’s ju...” Sam snorted derisively in frustration. “You know what, I’m not even going to argue with you about it.”
“It really doesn’t matter.” Ithican shrugged. He instantly regretted it, his shoulder still ached. “All that really matters is that we stop this War.”
“Good luck.” Sam huffed. “Ith, that is out of our hands. We’ve done what we can. Besides there are people who’s sole purpose is to deal with this kind of thing. For all we know we’ve done more harm than good. Let the governments take care of it.”
“Oh right, because they’ve done such a stellar job so far with interracial relations. We need to do something, Sam.”
“You might as well go back to Ramandas and try and put out the flames with a stick. The tinder between the Elves and the Humans is dry, all it is going to take is a spark. If you ask me we should try and get as far away from both races as fast as we can.”
“And then what? Wait till it blows over?” Ithican asked rhetorically. “And when we decided to rejoin the world once again one of us is going to belong to the new Slave Race. No thank you. Besides, where would we go? We can’t escape those races, we are them. There is no place to go. In fact now that I mention it: where are we going?”
“Why are you asking me?” Sam stopped and looked around the thick forest. “I barely know where we are.”
“And you think I know?” Ithican sighed. “Great.”
“Well, let’s reason it out. South leads into Elven territory: you’ll be killed, North leads into Human territory: I’ll be killed, East leads into the ocean: we’ll both drown. West...what’s West of here?”
“It looks like we’re going to find out.”
“Well,” Sam said matter-of-factly “it looks like we’ve answered that question.”
“’What lies West of Ramandas?’.”
“Nothing much?” Ithican ventured a guess.
“Exactly.” Sam said sitting down on a moss covered rock.
“This is strange.” Ithican looked around the lush forest that they’d recently wandered into. It was different than any he’d ever seen, the plants were extremely diverse and there were vines everywhere. “How long have we been out here?”
“By my calculations... just over three weeks.”
“And we’ve managed to miss every town along the way?”
“No, I think it is just that there simply aren’t any towns out here.”
“I didn’t realize that anywhere short of the Dragon Mountain Range was uninhabited.”
“Yeah, well, I hate to bring up Zari, but he had a point.”
“’What do you know of the world outside the Wetlands, Ithican of Evergladrida?’.” Sam mimicked Zari’s oddly high pitched voice.
“All right, all right.”
“Although, how did you end up so far North? You must have come through here. I found you all the way up by Unibar.”
“I...” Ithican flushed. “I don’t remember.”
“What? You have to remember something. You walked half way across the continent!”
“Hopped up higher than a hawk on neparine.”
Sam laughed. “I had forgotten about that.”
“What little I do remember probably wasn’t real.” Ithican smiled. “At least I hope it wasn’t.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”
“What we should worry about is what we’re going to do, we can’t stay out here forever. We’re wasting time.”
“As far as I’m concerned we have all the time in the world to waste. However, I would like to get back to civilization at some point, enjoy a proper meal and a real bed.”
“A bath might do you some good too.”
“Very witty.” Sam said dryly. “Although not a half bad idea.”
“I can hear a waterfall from here, it’s faint but it can’t be too far.”
“I knew those silly pointed ears had to be good for something.”
“Watch it, Blondie.” Ithican retorted in mock indignity.
“Why do the Elves cut their ears?”
“I have no idea. I guess someone along the way decided that Elves should have pointy ears.”
Sam shrugged. He got up and stretched. “Lead the way, Elf.”
Ithican glowered at him for a second and then closed his eyes. For a moment he just concentrated on figuring out exactly where the faint sound was coming from. It wasn’t long before he decided on a direction. Heightened senses were a blessing and curse in the same breath. Especially when one’s traveling companion was Human, a race that didn’t smell particularly good even when clean.
“This way, Human.”
Ithican followed the ever increasing sound of running water. It was nearly a quarter of an hour before Sam could make out the sound as well. Sam’s hearing may not be as sharp, but at the same time sounds like thunderstorms didn’t bring with them physical pain like it sometimes did to the keen eared Elves. Give and take, Sam thought.
The waterfall that they came to was only a few feet high and gurgled peacefully into a large shimmering pool. The forest was pulled away from the mossy bank leaving a small glade. It rained too much in this area for the plant life to desire anymore water.
The pair went down to the water’s edge and drank deeply from the clear pool. When Ithican looked up he caught his breath. A creature he’d never even heard of was sitting on the other bank. It was like a cross between a deer and a Dragon.
It looked young, too young to be on its own. It had the body and the face of a baby stag, it even had short stubby antlers. However it had big golden scales on the top of it’s head, throat, and running down its back in plates, which lead to a thick reptilian tail. The rest of the body was covered in soft looking reddish fur. Its dark brown eyes were about three sizes too large for its head, giving it a very innocent look.
The creature was just sitting in the moss, it hadn’t noticed the intruders yet. It actually seemed a bit myopic. Sam hadn’t noticed it either, he was washing his face in the cool water. Not wanting to startle the creature Ithican nudged Sam to get his attention.
“Wha...” Sam looked up and froze. “Oh my God!”
Ithican didn’t have time to finish. Sam practically tackled him and clamped his hands over Ithican’s ears. Ithican tried to pull away, but Sam was too strong. Sam had his eyes welded shut and was trying to drag them back into the forest.
“What is wrong with you?!” Ithican hissed.
“That’s a Kin-Rin!”
“A Kin-Rin.” Sam repeated still blind. He had managed to get them back into the rain forest away from the animal.
“I heard you,” Ithican shook his head and freed himself from Sam “don’t think you can deafen me so easily. What I didn’t understand is what a Kin-Rin is.”
“It’s the reason no one lives here!” Sam cautiously opened his eyes and looked around. “We have to get out of here.”
“Wait. That creature can’t be very old, it’s probably lost. We should try and help it.”
“Are you insane?” Sam asked seriously. “That thing is a killer!”
Attracted to the voices the young Kin-Rin swum across the pool and pushed into the jungle. It came out of the lush plants behind Ithican and looked up at Sam. Sam gasped and clamped his eyes shut again. Ithican gave Sam a dubious look and turned around. The Kin-Rin looked up at him with his soft brown eyes. Ithican reached out and rub the animal’s nose.
The Kin-Rin pushed against Ithican’s hand affectionately. After checking out the Elf he trotted over to Sam on his odd horse-like hooves. He nuzzled Sam’s leg with his deer face. Despite his four oversized legs the little critter was barely taller than Sam’s knees.
“No!” Sam cried and backed away. “Get away! Shoo!”
The Kin-Rin didn’t seem to notice that he was unwanted. It turned into a game. He continued to follow Sam until he had pressed the Human up against the trunk of a tree. Sam kept his eyes shut and cringed away from the young Kin-Rin.
Ithican had to laugh at the sight. Sam had faced a small army of Elves with more courage. Now he’d been treed by a scaly fawn.
“Laugh while you can, Elf.” Sam snarled. “If this thing makes a sound, you’re dead.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just a baby, it’s harmless. Just look at it.”
“No! You’ve never heard of Kin-Rin?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
“Well they can hypnotize Humans with one look, and they can kill Elves with their screeching voice.”
Ithican rolled his green eyes. He knelt down and whistled. The Kin-Rin turned around and bounced over to him like a puppy. “Is that true Little One? Are you a vicious killer?”
The Kin-Rin didn’t reply he was just happy to have company.
“Kill it, before it kills us!”
“Stop it, Sam.”
“I’m tell you, you’ve never heard of these things because no Elf has ever lived to tell the tale.”
“You must have heard wrong. This animal isn’t going to hurt us. Trust me.”
The Kin-Rin made a purring type sound. Ithican smiled and rubbed its scaly forehead.
“See? I’m still alive.”
Sam begrudgingly opened his eyes. The hideous little creature was swishing it’s thick tail in excitement. The Kin-Rin turned and looked at him. Just as it hadn’t killed Ithican with its voice it didn’t hypnotize Sam with its eyes.
“I told you it wasn’t a threat.”
“It’s young yet, even a baby Dragon can be handled.” Sam said gruffly. “Give it time.”
“And you accuse the Goblins of being alarmists.”
“All right, all right. I give in, we’ll help the miserable little wretch.” Sam said throwing his hands in the air. “But, may I just point out to you that we don’t even know where we are. How are we going to find out where it’s supposed to be?”
“We could ask him.”
“Okay, now you’re just getting sarcastic.”
“Sorry.” Ithican smiled. “For now I suggest that we just take advantage of the pool and find a place to sleep for the night. We’ll work the rest out in the morning.”
“Sounds like a plan. Hopefully by then it will have wandered off on its own.”
The little Kin-Rin followed them back to the pool and it even joined in the festivities. The pool was large enough to swim around in and being from the Wetlands Ithican found himself in his second home. The little Kin-Rin proved to be a surprisingly good swimmer as well, using his broad tail to propel himself around gracefully.
Sam got out of the water once he deemed himself reasonably clean and just watched the pair swim about. The Kin-Rin acted just like a child, squeaking and splashing around. Ithican suddenly didn’t seem much older. He played around with the attentive Kin-Rin. Every once in a while the Kin-Rin would bite down on Ithican’s long seaweed-like hair and tug at it. Ithican would pull away and scold the animal, although his eyes were bright as polished emeralds with mirth.
Ithican took a deep breath and swam under the Kin-Rin, when he came up behind it he splashed the unsuspecting animal. The Kin-Rin squealed in surprise and retaliated by slapping its tail against the surface, splashing back very effectively. They continued with these games for almost an hour. Just horsing around -totally oblivious to the outside world.
Leaning against a tree Sam sat and listened to the Elf’s musical laughter. He suddenly realized that he’d never actually seen Ithican enjoying himself. Not like this. There had been times when he’d been less miserable than others, but for the most part he’d been half-dead since they’d met. Now he was playing with this bizarre creature like it was his own son.
That thought caused Sam to pause. He knew that Ithican’s wife was dead, and that the Elf definitely didn’t want to talk about it. However he had no idea if Ithican had children of his own. He was the right age to have at least one. How much had he left behind?
“I could stay here forever.” Ithican muttered to himself, floating in the cool water.
“Why don’t you?”
“Eventually I’d fall asleep and drown.”
“I didn’t mean in the water, I meant here.” Sam corrected.
“’Here’? As in this forest?”
“Exactly. Keep the Kin-Rin, it will grow to bigger than a horse and be a loyal steed. You two seem to be getting along, you’d make a fine pair.”
“Sam, we can’t stay here.”
“I didn’t say ‘we’, I said ‘you’.”
“What?” Ithican pushed the playful Kin-Rin away and swam up to the steep edged bank. “You’ve got to be kidding. We have too much work to do, we shouldn’t even be here now.”
“You’re never going to stop a War if it is coming, it’s been building up for too long. And you’re never going to be safe out there. The Humans will always hate you for being Elven, and win or lose, the Elves are always going to keep you an outcast. That little Kin-Rin is the only thing that is ever going to accept you.”
“You accepted me.” Ithican replied simply. “Are you trying to tell me that you are unique among Humans, the only one that doesn’t hate the Elves for being Elven?”
“No, of course not.” Sam sighed. “But at the same time people like me are the exception, not the rule.”
“That may be, but I think you will find that people willing to go to War over this petty hate between the races are also the exception.”
“And the Forest Elves?”
“You only met a handful!” Ithican snarled. “There are thousands of them. If the Forest Elves, as a whole, had decided that they wanted Ramandas: they would have it. No matter what you may think they are a peace loving people at heart.”
“And you believe the same of the Humans, after this?” Sam tugged a lock of his own hair that corresponded with Ithican’s blaze.
“I do.” Ithican replied, absently running his hand through that spot. “Marina certainly didn’t hate me, even after I refused her. She could have had me killed out of spite, but she didn’t. You risked your life for me, when you could have just walked away. Sam, we don’t have to stop the world. We just have to stop the handful of radicals.”
“I think you’ll find them fiercer fighters than you think.”
“I think you’ll find the same of me.” Ithican pushed away from the bank with a sly smile. “Varick certainly did.”
That night Sam found that he couldn’t sleep. He sat leaning up against one of the trees. Ithican and the Kin-Rin were curled up like a pair of kittens. It did not escape Sam’s notice that Ithican had been asleep for hours and had yet to cry out from some torturous nightmare. Ever since they’d met there hadn’t been a single night that Ithican hadn’t at least whimpered in his sleep, and he always woke with a violent start like he didn’t know where he was.
Now he was so peaceful that he almost looked dead in the multicolored light of the triple full moons. Ironically it made Sam uneasy to see him so at ease. It was so different from the person that he knew.
“Know?” Sam muttered softly to himself at the thought. “I don’t know anything about him.”
Sam’s musings didn’t disturb Ithican’s sleep, however the little Kin-Rin stirred. He lifted his head and looked around. When he caught sight of Sam he struggled sleepily to his hooved feet. As he trotted over Sam could swear that he was smiling.
“For an animal, you seem amazingly intelligent.” Sam instantly felt silly for talking to the beast.
The Kin-Rin clucked as he rubbed against Sam’s shoulder.
“Go lay back down with Ith.” Sam instructed. “Leave me alone.”
The little Kin-Rin paid him no heed, he nuzzled Sam again. Despite himself Sam rubbed the animal’s furry neck. The Kin-Rin wagged his reptilian tail in reply. Venturing to step a bit closer to Sam the Kin-Rin put his muzzle right up to Sam’s ear and made a deep throated purring sound.
Sam suddenly found himself unbelievably tired. He shook his head trying to shake the feeling. However it clung to him like wet cloths. The Kin-Rin nudged him, practically demanding that he lay down. Sam found it impossible to refuse. Laying down on the soft moss covered earth Sam was asleep in the space between two heartbeats.
For the first time since the Eye of the Unicorn came into his possession Sam slept without a sound, not even a whimper.
It was near midday before Sam finally woke. It felt like only seconds had passed since he’d fallen asleep. In fact he might not have woken even now if it hadn’t been for the Kin-Rin who was bleating pitifully. Sam sat up and tried to rub the sleep out of his eyes. The animal wailed mournfully again.
“What do you want now?” Sam grumbled. “If you’re hungry, sorry. There’s noth...”
Sam stopped his one-sided conversation suddenly. Having finally rubbed his vision clear he saw that Ithican was still curled up on his side with the little Kin-Rin trying to wake him. The Elf’s eyes were already open, but they were rolled back so far that the usually colourful orbs were pure white. The Kin-Rin nudged him again, but got no response.
Sam got up quickly and knelt next to his friend. He put his hand against Ithican’s forehead and found him alarmingly feverish. At the contact Ithican blinked and like magic his eyes were green again. He looked up at Sam and smiled.
“Ith, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Ithican sat up and ruffled the fur on the Kin-Rin’s neck. “Why?”
“Your skin is burning hot!”
Ithican furrowed his brow. “No it isn’t. I feel fine, better than fine in fact.”
Without asking Sam reached out. Ithican peacefully allowed him to touch his cheek. Sam found the skin to be no warmer than it should be. “I could have sworn...”
“You’re just paranoid.”
“Something isn’t right, Ith.”
“See what I mean? Paranoid.” Ithican stretched. “Relax.”
“That’s the problem, you’re too relaxed, too out of it. I think that Kin-Rin is doing something to you.”
“He’s teaching me to enjoy the fact that I’m still alive -despite everyone’s efforts to the contrary.” Ithican laughed. “Come on, let’s find something to eat and get this little guy home.”
“Paranoid or not, I still don’t like it.”
“Then you’ll help me find his parents so we can get rid of him and get back to civilization. If you can call the world ‘civilized’. Let’s go.”
There wasn’t much in the strange forest that they knew was eatable, however they found enough to keep them from starving. The Kin-Rin was full of energy and he ran around them in circles as they made their way through the forest. He never strayed far and he kept close watch on Ithican in particular.
The plan was pretty simply. They were going to start at the other side of the pond and take the easiest path, since animals tend to walk the path of least resistance. On the far side of the pound there was indeed a small trail. The Kin-Rin perked up and lead the way.
“This is too easy.” Sam complained.
“No, it make sense. The Kin-Rin probably come down to this water source all the time.”
“It could be a trap.”
“Sam, it’s an animal. Animals don’t set traps.”
“I’m not so sure that Dragons can be classified as ‘animals’.”
“And Kin-Rin can?”
“Sam, are you even listening to yourself?”
“Yes, and I...” Sam froze.
Ithican looked up and caught his breath. A Kin-Rin Stag bigger than a horse had stepped into the path before them. It wore its sharp antlers like a crown and its shiny scales like armor. Its fur was blood red and it formed a thick curly mane at the creature’s slender neck. When it spied the young Kin-Rin next to the strange pair its nostrils flared menacingly.
“Sam...” Ithican said taking a step back.
Sam didn’t respond. Ithican’s blood chilled when he realized that Sam’s eyes weren’t focused. He had been hypnotized, and if the Kin-Rin Stag could hypnotize Humans...
The Kin-Rin Stag glowered at Ithican and stamped his heavy fore hoof. The little Kin-Rin chirped happily and bounced over to his father. Ithican watched as if hypnotized himself as the Stag took a deep breath.
Ithican was almost curious to hear a note that could kill. However the Stag was interrupted when another Kin-Rin stepped onto the scene. This one was a Doe. She had walked calmly up to the Stag and poked him in the ribs with her nose. The Stag released the breath with a surprised exclamation. The Kin-Rin Doe nickered like an amused horse.
“Please excuse my husband.”
Ithican started in surprise. Sam had said that! And yet he hadn’t.
“You can talk?”
“Through the Human, yes.” Sam replied for the Doe.
“Don’t hurt him, please.” Ithican hadn’t liked how she had toned the word ‘Human’.
“No, he’s safe. As are you. Thank you for returning our son.”
“It was an honor.”
Ithican could have sworn that the Kin-Rin Doe sneered at him at this. But the deer face made expression hard to determine. The Doe stared at him with surprisingly cold green eyes, for a moment she seemed lost in contemplation. She shook her head and took a step closer.
“The Elves and Humans are not the only intelligent races on Nuearth.” She said with Sam’s voice.
“Why have you stayed hidden?”
“The Humans can’t even accept the Elves as equals, what chance would we have?”
Ithican cringed. “You know about that?”
“It isn’t just the Humans. All the races seem to hate one another.”
“The Humans started it!” Sam snarled.
“You don’t know that, no one knows how it started. It’s as old as time.”
“I know more than you may think, the Humans are treacherous.” Sam and the Doe growled. She saw that she was making Ithican nervous and she forced herself to be calm. “You carry a lot of pain, I can feel it.”
Ithican didn’t respond. The Kin-Rin Doe smiled and hesitantly stepped closer. She reached out with her muzzle and pressed against his heart. Ithican drew a sharp breath. The Doe’s touch was almost electric. He felt a sudden release from a pain he hadn’t even known existed till it was gone.
“Relax.” The Doe purred, this time in a voice of her own.
Ithican didn’t even notice the change from Sam’s voice to the Kin-Rin’s. He found his breathing and heart rate both slow to a soothing rhythm. Ithican’s sight started to waver and he realized with a stab of panic that his eyes were rolling back. As he fought for control he could feel his temperature rise.
“You can’t fight the world.” She whispered seductively.
“I have to try.” Ithican muttered on the verge of sleep.
“No. Stay here.”
“Stay with the Kin-Rin.” The Doe commanded more than asked. She pushed harder against his chest. “The Humans will only betray you.”
“No!” Ithican fought off the sleep that was threatening to over take him. “Stop this!”
He started to panic. Sam had been right, something wasn’t right. There was more going on here than he understood. The more he thought about it the worse his fever became. Soon he was unable to concentrate on anything other than the heat. He felt like he couldn’t wake from a bad dream.
When the Doe saw that Ithican was having trouble she stepped away. With a gasp he snapped back into reality. Ithican’s fever vanished as quickly as it had risen. However now that the Kin-Rin had broken away the pain that he couldn’t name returned. It was like a pressure on his heart. The Kin-Rin Doe regarded him coolly with her dark emerald eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said, using Sam’s voice once more “I didn’t mean to push you. You’re not ready. You can return whenever you want. If you ever find yourself in pain, just think of me, I’ll protect you.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You’ll understand later.”
“But I...” Ithican didn’t get a chance to finish.
In the blink of an eye the Kin-Rin had vanished.
“Ith? Damn it, Ithican, wake up.”
Ithican fluttered his eyes, exposing white blind orbs. He managed to open his eyes and set them forward again. He was lying on his back looking up at a very worried Sam. Ithican sat up and ran a hand through his hair, which he found to be drenched in sweat.
“I’m not really sure.” Sam answered. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I think so. The Kin-Rin...”
“It must have charmed us both.”
“So they were really here?”
“Its are tracks are still here. I told you those things were dangerous.”
“No, they...she, I think she wanted to help me.”
“Doe? There was no Doe, only the Stag.”
“There was another one.”
“There are only two sets of tracks here, and one set belongs to the young one. When the Stag turned away I snapped out of it. I saw the two leave. You on the other hand, you must have passed out or something. You’ve been out of it for at least fifteen minutes.”
Ithican looked at the soft ground where the Kin-Rin had been. Sam was right, there was only evidence of one large animal. The Kin-Rin’s tracks were so defined that there was no question. But that doesn’t make sense, Ithican thought to himself, I felt her, I still can. His skin started to burn again.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Sam asked alarmed.
“Yes, I...” Ithican hesitated. “I’m just a bit dazed I guess.”
“Well, it’s over. They’re gone. Best thing we can do it get out of here.”
“Yeah...” Ithican said absent mindedly rubbing his hand over his heart.
“I’m fine. It’s over.”
“Let’s hope so.”