TALE OF THE ROCK PIECES

INTRODUCTION

Many of the deeds in this book require magical skills and

many trainings, so don't try them at home!

Have you ever heard or read the stories about ancient times? If your answer is no, my guess is you're likely wrong, as you are either too old and don't remember learning of these amazing events, or you are too young to have learned about all the glory and magnificence of antiquity. As the stories about ancient times are so extraordinary, incredible and true at the same time, that they are always welcome, no matter where they are told. Though, unfortunately, a great part of the things, which we should know about antiquity, are irrevocably lost in a past long gone. And even at the present time, we are not certain whether all that reaches us fits the truth. But this derisively scanty information is worth the admiration for those of us in the 21st century. What we are able to piece together at present could hardly compare with the greatness and beauty our remarkab le, remote predecessors made formerly.

Many of the things in this tale, that is about the world such as it was at one time, seem unbelievable. I am not very sure whether all that is de scribed further happened exactly that way, but it doesn't mean all that couldn't have happened at all. There are many much more unbelievable and strange events in other stories of the past. That's why I hope nobody will accuse me of having exaggerated or added something by myself, for my an cient story to become more complete. Of course, there are many tellers who go beyond all bounds and for the sake of a swift and easy gain con coct lots of nonsense. Perhaps there are some concocted things in the an cient story you will read, but they are quite inessential and don't chan ge the main part of the action.

I'd better write some explanatory notes about the numerous creatures that lived in the ancient times, but later on became extinct from the face of the earth. Probably you've never heard about the awful Brown faces and the Fiery people, about the water dragons and the giant fish-keepers, or about the weightless korks and the rock pieces. There is nothing odd about that, as they all existed a very long time ago.

Brown faced people! In the past, their mention was equal to the men tion of evil. It is hard for one to find evil deeds, which aren't rel ated to them in someway. These hateful representatives of mankind we re also called just Brown faces, and took part in almost all the sanguin ary battles and wars in the ancient times. Some of the men of scie nce often show that as a main cause for their later extinction, though I consi der their warlike nature was just an insignificant reason. It's rather their striving for power and domination over the living beings, from which they might benefit, that played the main part for their death, as one of their card inal purposes - to master the Magic, even at the price of everything that their awful imagination could figure out.

As their name suggests, the Brown faces had brown skin, alt hough it was different from the one of the Africans and mulattoes of today. Their features also differed from the black-skinned people's features, and much res embled those of the Europeans, but were quite rougher than them. Of course, it didn't mean that the Brown faces were beautiful. Many great warriors shi vered with disgust at the sight of the awful, rough forms of their countenances.

Usually, the height of these evil people was average, but many tall ones could also be found amongst them, though that ha ppened rarely. Their build was good from a human point of view, not count ing their affections, which affected the skeleton mostly. In the antiquity, it was even considered there was nothing that looked worse than a Brown face with bones, which were curved by the illness. Yet, the ill's fai ling health had a little influence on their great bodily strength. The co untless quantity of won battles and the numerous enslaved creatures were a certain proof of that. Everyone knew the ugly Conquerors' muscles could create thous ands of miracles, but their tough arms never moved a bit, even on building of their own homes. For that purpose, the Brown faces always used the gratuitous labour of their slaves, who were exploited very cruelly. Actually, the only place where these monsters acted alone was the battle ground.

Today there are hardly any remains of the former imposing castles and palaces, which were connected with branched, underground tunnels and galle ries, though nobody is certain of that. If you ever find a stronghold (or rather a part of it), covered with gold and jewels and built that way, as if the building material had been preliminarily mo lten, then the ancient construction was cast without the use of any binding we use today, you have to know that this spectacular crea tion was made with the back-breaking labour of the ugly people's sla ves. The Brown faces were fond of life in luxury and wealth; therefore they didn't spare the poor, captured beings, when the evil warriors wanted to find and dig up new treasures, or build their homes. Then it was quite normal for the weak er workers to meet their death in the deep and as if endless underground galleries, dragging a giant piece of gold or the ancient black metal, exp ecting to get a day's rest for it. Only at the sight of a great quanti ty of precious metals, the Brown faces became a little more favourable to the captives, though just for a while. Therefore, the po pular opinion in the antiquity was that the color of their soul was much darker than the color of their skin.

The women of the horrible race were as "beautiful", as the Brown faced men. It is said that the Conquerors' wives differed from their husbands mostly in the forms of their bodies, not in their faces. Everyone who saw an en slaver's wife for the first time, and of course who did not know anything about them, would think right away: "…in the presence of so many slave women (far and away more beautiful than their masters), the more stalwart warriors probably prefer the beauty to their own blood." Certainly not! As odd as it sounds, until now there is no event, describing a marriage between a Brown face and a maiden of other human race, even if she was as evil as a Warlike. Their wives also hated all the men who did not look like those of their own race. But yet, it happened once in a great while, that a man of the power-loving people took a good-lo oking, foreign slave woman to his bed, and the cause was their curios ity, not the desire for love. But if his compatriots found out, then with drawal of all the ranks and privileges (many as they were), and immediate banishment from the conquered lands were waiting for him. Besides, the sa me rule applied to a Brown face woman, who gave way to the curiosity.

The women of that aggressive race were physically less weak, than their armoured warriors with a sinister look. But that didn't prevent the brown-skinned ladies from fighting in all the battles and wars, together with their strong husbands. This minute detail entitled them to choose the best trophies of the plunder for themselves, after the hard battle operations. Though because of their great avidity the conquered things always seemed too insufficient to them, and they always murmured and grumbled. Oftenti mes, it even happened that the "gentle" better half of an ugly Conqueror, who proved to be a perfect warrior, was chosen for a leader in the forthc oming engagements. Of course, that one, who headed the terrible army, was very good at fighting with swords and at the great accuracy and quickness shooting with a bow.

The Brown faces' wives were fond of dressing in decorations of gold or other jewels, while at the same time they perfectly realized that they didn't sit well on their appearance. Another weakness of theirs, besides the collecting of treasures, was the education of the childr en and mostly the training of the girls. The awful monsters' youngsters tra ined themselves to get used to the very severe atmosphere of the bloody battles from their earliest age, because the good fighting with weapons was also too imp ortant for their training. The punishments for those who didn't fight as well as they had to were painful and cruel enough, so that they might think how skillfull they would be at the next training. Those children who fought well were arrogant with the weaker, and it even happened that they themselves punished the poor, young warriors. Oftentimes, some of the weaker and more wounded pupils kept their beds for a week or two, so that their awful and blo ody wounds could heal up, and they could be back on the training ground.

Good warriors as the Brown faces were, sometimes they needed allies for the greater and important engagements. It was logical to expect that they were also unscrupulous and cruel enough, so that they could use this opportunity - to fight together with the most warlike race in the antiquity. The preferred creatures for this purpose were chosen by many qu alities, and they could be found mostly in the Fiery people. I am not sure whether the name people were suitable for them, because they resembled us only in their appearance. These awful, red and hot creatures were composed of a head, a trunk, two legs and two arms, although there weren't any organs in thеm, there were only flames. In their faces, these spiteful, ancient monsters had only eyes and a mouth that was full of teeth of hard, white fire. They ate only by their mouths, devouring everything that could burn, and felt a deep-seated hatred of the water and the fluids with similar effect.

Practically, the Fiery people were immortal. They could die when there was nothing they could eat, and they were hungry for a long ti me, or if they were poured water on. But don't think a splash with a li quid stopped their life. To kill a Fiery creature, his enemies stood in sev eral near to a place with water, and then poured cold torrents on him during half or one hour, using big containers for that purpose. Only after this tiring procedure, it was certain that the red Fie ry man would never come back to life again.

The Fiery people's strength was also so great, as the one of the Brown faces. But the Fieries had a great advantage in the ancient engagements - they didn't feel a violent pain when they were stabbed with a sharp, shining sword, or were pierced with an arrow. Any object could pass through their bodies, and that had no effect on their fiery health. These superb qualities of theirs let them fight very well days and nights, unless there was a wizard near by, who could make a charm for a pouring and prolonged rain.

After the successful battles, the awful, red monsters didn't look at the objects of precious stones and gold decorations. Their eyes, glow ing with a black flame, were fixed on the dead bodies and on the seriously wounded warriors, for whom the cure was prolonged and too expensive, or would be dead soon. They carried these "trophies" of theirs into their deep, mountain caves, or into the Brown faces' vaults, where they began a te rrible, bloody feast with the dead and not so dead bodies. The "wise" ref lection of Dong, the Fiery creatures' chief, reached our days: "There's no thing more savoury than the human flesh, and there's nothing that sounds better, than a death-scream of the live food, caused by the fiery teeth."

Oftentimes, besides the Hot men, the ugly Brown faces needed the favours of other creatures too - the cave bears. In the past, a very long time ago, when the times were more favourable for them, they inhabited almost every large cave everywhere on Earth. The main purpose, for which the Warlike monsters used them, rarely was their direct participation in the fighting operations. It was the secret reconnaissance. The big, cave bears stood the cold, hunger and wet for a long time, by contrast with the Fiery men, therefore they became irreplaceable, when something import ant about the enemy had to be understood before the decisive fight. Besides, this animal race could move very stealthily, although its representa tives had big trunks. The only disadvantage for the execution of the sec ret missions, which were assigned to them, was the pale, red radiance coming out of the bears' eyes in too dark nights.

In the past, before they went to serve with the Brown faces, the four-legg ed scouts ate plants and forest fruits, putting a small, savoury animal in to their mouths just from time to time. It is said that when for the first ti me they tasted a human meat, generously given to them by the ug ly, brown faced winners, they forgot the taste of the vegetarian food. After that, many clumsy beasts went to live in the underground galleries forever, which were dug by the slaves. Quite a few of them stayed to rove in the mountains, but they were always ready to serve the Conquerors when they needed them. After the won battles, the ha iry bear-scouts were rewarded well with human and other fresh flesh, which could be found in the battle-field.

Oftentimes, the Brown faces' shaggy allies gathered in groups of a few bears, during their reconnaissance marches. In that way, a few of them distracted their enemy's attention, and in the meantime the rest remembered or stole secret plans, kidnapped young children, or for the sake of varie ty destroyed and broke the homes and settlements. In the ancient ti mes, there weren't any other creatures that were able to learn the things they saw and heard as well as the cave bears.

When it was necessary to fight with riders, the warlike, brown race also used horses, but the hoofed animals put them on a level with the enemies. Therefore the Brown faces almost always preferred to ride other subordin ates of theirs - the weightless korks, and they were of the most used ca ptives in the past. These nice and harmless, ancient creatures lived in the one-time dense and vast mountain forests. Their bodies (which were wide two and a half feet, long about ten feet, and thick from a few to ten inches) resembled ellipses with slightly sharp and soft ends. The mouths, that had hard, horny teeth by which the ancient cre atures bit off of the forest vegetation, were on their soft, rounded foreparts. The air "horses" had no eyes, therefo re it was considered that they orientated themselves like the bats, name ly by sound, which came out of their comparatively small orifices for fe eding, and was reverberated from the near and distant objects.

The color of the weightless korks could vary very fast in a large color range. That let them "disguise" themselves on any terrain, just for a split second at that. It was difficult for the inexperienced eye to see even a kork, flying from a very light to a very dark place, becau se of that perfect and instantaneous adaptation to the surrounding area. Only in their mating season, when the flat creatures were performing their love dance, they forgot about the dangers and changed their colors fast, not paying attention to the background. Everyone who had the pleasure of watch ing the graceful flight of the incredible beings in all the possible colors remembered that indescribable sight forecer.

As a matter of fact, the name "weightless" isn't very correct. These silently flying, elegant subordinates of the Co nquerors were really compar atively light, but yet were heavy enough, so all the wounded fliers were left on the battle-field. No one of the awful Brown faces liked to carry them to the castles. It was much easier to take new and healthy korks from the large stock-breeding farms for the weightless beings. If there they were few, the dark-skinned warriors went hunting for new-born, flat creatures in the mountain forests. And the Brown faces' slaves weren't made carry the wounded beings, because these flying horses had very deli cate constitutions and didn't live very long, so to treat them was out of question.

One of the things that the Conquerors never did was the dangerous hunt of water dragons. Until they became extinct, these giant dwell ers of the seas were in a great demand by the people, who had enough mon ey to buy them. The purpose for this reckless killing, which was attended with great dangers of course, was the miraculous qualities of the flesh of the dragon. Usually, a man using water dragons' meat in his food was not ill, and lived thrice longer than the other peo ple of his race. That was why the water dragons were valued high, and the ir hunters were paid well after the finished work. Now I will not descri be the hard (and extremely dangerous) hunt of the giant creatur es deep in the sea, because further in my story there'll be a chapter, de dicated to the courageous but avid people, who practised this ancient craft.

As for the Brown faces, they didn't bear the water and although some of them could swim, they always preferred to pay the divers well for the valuable food, than to drench themselves and perhaps to be eaten too.

Sometimes, the warriors with ugly faces resorted to the favours of oth er water animals. When the avid Brown faces sank a ship or other vessel, which was stuffed up with treasures, then a great part of them sank to the bottom of the sea, before they were grabbed. In these cases, the fish-keepers came to help. They were much smaller than the water dra gons, but predatory enough to perfectly execute the assigned tasks, namely jealous guarding of the sunken wealth. Usually, the brave divers who ventu red to steal the jewels guarded by the giant animal were very few, and usually they never came to the surface again.

Oftentimes, after the due rew ard of tasty human meat, the awful, scaly monster drew out the gold unassisted to the surface, especially if it was in a shallow place and in small quantities. But more often the jewels sank at thousands of feet under the water, and then the beast stayed there for months, until the ugly warriors managed to find suitable men to draw the trophies out. The huge fish easily got down at a great depth, but rising to the surface he had to swim very slowly for a day or two. Otherwise, his body burst and his stomach came out through the mouth, because of the great difference in the pressure of the water on the surface and on the floor.

At the time of the awful warriors' domination, often a whole nation was enslaved, and as the years went by died by inches of the extremely hard work in the underground galleries. If the enslaved people had some special skills the Brown faces could use, they were much wanted by the ugly Conquerors. But that didn't mean creatures like them were privileged in comparison with the common slaves. Quite the contrary - they were exploited much more than the rest, as besides the digging or throwing out of soil, these captives did other work too, according to their knowledge. And because of that many of the enemies, pressed in a tight place, preferred to die in the battles than to be slaves of the hateful monsters. Sometimes, the warriors who really loved freedom even killed themselves, facing the possibility to spend the rest of their lives in the underground tunnels. One of these noble races of mankind that loved freedom was the one of the Mountain people. In the past, and now too, one could hardly come across creatures who were more contrary to the Warlikes than the Mountaineers. Very noble and full of good intentions, these ancient noblemen never attacked first and waged battles and wars only when it was really necessary. Their battle skills and tactics often exceeded these of the Brown faces, and the quality of the Mountain people's weapons was unsurpassable and they kept their arms mastery in dead secrecy from everyone, who had evil thoughts.

In the ancient times, people from the mountains weren't widespread because they were often captured by the numerous, awful Brown faces, or died in the battles with them. The mountain people were pursued everywhere by the ugly enslavers, because of their many talents and skills. It was especially valued that the Mountaineers, or actually the wizards amongst them, mastered the Magic to perfection. Today, at the time of advance in science and technique, one could hardly imagine how many incredible and useful things the ancient possessors of the magnificent skills did. It's unbelievable how the "molten", stone castles and homes, that remained from the past, were built with the help of the wonder-working palms. And this building required only a pair of hands using magic. Often, this ancient miracle was also used for making of clothes and shoes, by it breeds and varieties were created, and even quite new, useful animal and plant species, and many, many other marvels.

Probably today many people will consider the Mountaineers' way of life awful, but I am sure there are some too, that will admire them. Usually, the noble people preferred to ma ke their settlements high in the mountains, near a lake or a large river, which often occurred in the antiquity. Tasty fish and algae for food of the dwellers of the village were bred and grown in these cold wa ter basins. Close and very stout clothes and shoes were made from water plants, after suitable ma gical treatment. Though the Mountain peo ple could make thick garments, good for cold weather, they were almost al ways wearing quite light clothes, regardless of the weather. Ev en in the severe cold spells in winter, they dived in the ice-cold waters with a loud and joyful laughter, to mow the under-water meadows, to plant new ones, or in honor of a merry feast of theirs. All that was the reason for their phenomenally iron constitution, and their long life-span, which (if they weren't killed in the battle-field or in the dark galleries) reached several hundred years and more.

The cheerful noblemen from the high mountains loved life very much (the free life at that), but that love didn't prevent them from accepting death with dignity, when it was necessary. Oftentimes, the pitiless and severe Brown faces shuddered with the steel shine of the look the Mountaineers had at that moment. These brave men, who swam perfectly, didn't feel the ground slipping from under their feet even when they were enslaved. As aft er the long hours of tiring work, the Mountaineers made plans for esc ape at the back of their minds, and often got rid of their ensla vers and came back alive and kicking to their people.

The ancient possessors of the Magic were tall enough, so they stuck out at least by a head amongst the Brown faces. Their tempers, as well as their appearances, differed much from these of the brown warmong ers. The Mountain people's skin was white or slightly swarthy, when it was necessary for them to stay in the sun for a longer time. Their featu res resembled those of the Europeans of today, but in co ntrast with the ugly people, the dwellers of the mountains were beautiful and handsome. The mountain men always wore beards and moustaches, which we re well-trimmed and made their appearance still nobler.

The Mountaineers' bodily strength surpassed their warlike enem ies' strength, or at least, was equal to theirs. Besides, the evil enslavers often resorted to a dishonest stratagam, or insidious actions in the battle that tipped the balance on their side.

Children of the people from the high, ancient mountains got accust omed to the cold from their earliest age. When they grew up, they learned to fight well with any objects, not only with the ancient weapons. Their parents knew very well what their future life held in sto re for them, therefore the training was intensive enough. But that did not mean the weaker pupils were punished or beaten after each failure of theirs. The adults in charge of the good fighting skills of the girls and boys just showed them what they had to do better, and how to do that. The thrashing as a way of education wasn't used at all. Besides, the young pupils were full of desire to master the fighting and the oth er arts, which they were taught. And because of that, they stayed after the trainings at their own free will, and trained until they began to swing the metal blades fairly well, or to hurl their wooden discuses with a great accuracy.

Besides the swords, sabres and bolts, the Mountain people had anot her very effective weapon - the flying discuses. These round, fi ghting miracles were subconcave underneath in the middle, made of wood, and were often used even more than the shooting with a bow. The wooden weapon, thrown by a man knowing how to do that, could whirl and move at a great speed. If it didn't come across an obstacle on its way, it described a big cir cle in the air and came back right in its possessor's hand, like Australian boomerang. How effective the flying discus was, the fact told that by a slight push (caused by Magic and sent towards the wooden circle), it smoothly cut off a tree that had its diameter. And if the bole was thicker, a narrow, rectangular hole of the same size as the outline of the remarkable weapon remained in it.

Behind the ancient Mountaineers' great bodily strength, there was alwa ys the kindest and grandest soul, which could be found in the representa tives of the mankind. The majority of the noble people could compose inc redibly good verses, often accompanied by the tender music, which came out of their magical crystals. These instruments were de signed to create such melodies, that made the blood in the veins boil and the eyes of the warriors shed tears. The same warriors, who otherwise didn't turn a hair in the face of the awful death. In the past, thousands of good creatures gath ered together at the feasts, organized by the ancient noblemen. Because the remarkable dances to the much more remarkable sounds from the transparent objects, skillfully made by the wizards' wonder-working hands, we re praised rightfully everywhere on Earth.

Of course, there are some other creatures too, who are typical of the ancient times and will be mentioned further, like the rock pieces. The heading of this book has their name, although they are mentioned quite more rarely than the ugly Brown faces and the people from the mountains. The reason for this was that these moving stones lived so long ago, that today we know next to nothing about them. But the few details, which are known about their life now, will be described in the course of the action, and I will endeavour not to exaggerate anything about them anywhere. Their role in this story is great and important enough.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END AND THE CAVE BEAR

Ambigat wasn't quite sure, whether his decisions and actions were right for the unenviable situation he and his friends were in. Though he was considered the best warrior amongst the living Mountaineers (or probably amongst those who had departed from this world too), this burly smith of light weapons didn't share the same opinion. Especially during the last few days, while he had led the way for the last sixty free, but exhausted men, women and children of the noble race. It was more than obvious the tired group had to escape: chasing them were many hordes of armoured, furious Brown faces. But which direction and which places and lands were the most suitable for that purpose, probably no one would be able to say or to be certain of. Even the wizard Alvin, one of the two possessors of magical skills amongst their group, didn't dare to give advices or to make the important decisions.

"Don't be so depressed, smith of light swords." whispered Alvin in Ambigat's ear from time to time, and patted him on his tough shoulder in a friendly manner. "No one else would lead us better, or think of better plans for escape than yours!"

Ambigat smiled a bitter smile and thanked the wizard for his kindness and understanding. Then, the smith also replied very quietly he was not certain at all whether his insistence to hide all the lanterns with the big, tamed glow-worms and use only the light of the moon and the stars, could really help them. He wasn't sure also whether to walk fast all day long and even during the night, resting for a couple of hours in the middle of the day, just whispering a word or two from time to time, were the best solutions to leave the ugly pursuers far behind. Of course, no one in their desperate, tired group opposed his severe decisions and plans. They had quietly and silently fulfillled every minute whim of his, and the smith's beloved Ygrene, the other wizard amongst them, whispered that in his both ears too. Ambigat smiled again, kind-heartedly this time, and thought that probably even the youngest member of their group, his two month old son, if he was able to talk, would say the same soothing words.

As a matter of fact the burly, brawny smith was very grateful to all of his compatriots for their understanding, and especially to the two possessors of the splendid skills, as they were very helpful to everyone in their group. Owing to their incredible skills, using the very pale rays of magical light from their palms, both of the wizards tried to outdo each other in concealing the insignificant traces of the group in the forest. Or they helped everybody amongst the sixty compatriots to stay awake and fresh during the fast, tiring march. As the pale, magical rays had the quality to make people forget all their tiredness and exhaustion, or even their bad mood, when their heads were treated for a while with the magnificent light. The Magic also helped Ygrene to put her young son Bren to sleep, when she had to make him be silent, as he felt he had to let the entire forest know he didn't feel well, or wanted something he mustn't have right at that moment. The most important thing about the advantages of having wizards nearby was that the two of them were able to sense any danger in the sky or on the ground, even in bad weather or in the thickest darkness. But that wasn't all they could do about their pursuers, as their magical abilities allowed them to make the awful Brown faces think the sixty members of their group were nothing else but stones, trunks of trees, or tiny, harmless, forest animals…

However, everyone in their tired group was aware that the presence of the two wizards really threatened their existence; as to capture a possessor of magical abilities was the thing every Brown face strived for, because wizards were the most preferable captives and slaves. They could do whatever the ugly masters wished for. Or whatever these ugly Conquerors made the other captives with a greater imagination than theirs think up… Of course, that didn't mean anyone amongst the sixty desperate fugitives wanted the two wizards far away from the group. Actually, they didn't even think of such a possibility, as it behooved real Mountaineers.

The two wizards were more than grateful for that. They kept on fulfillling their duties perfectly, for about a month. Actually, it was noontime of the twenty-seventh day, since they had started their tiring march, and the look on the faces of the two possessors of splendid skills showed this would be a very different day from all the others, that had passed. Ambigat's tired beloved had just given their young son to her burly husband, because there was a small stone in her high-boot, which tormented her a lot. Suddenly, Ygrene and Alvin sent him a mental, very awful warning… There were many Brown faces, riding their tamed weightless korks near the tree-tops, not very far from their group!

'The real trouble is that their horde is flying right towards us, and that is happening fast!' said Alvin by the magical way, right in the brawny smith's head.

'And what is even worse, there are too many of them, therefore it will be impossible for two wizards to deceive them by Magic, as much as we would like to!' added Ygrene fearfully, who still didn't manage to remove the small stone.

Ambigat was not a wizard, so he couldn't reply mentally and just nodded his head, then gave a sign to hide in the bushes and behind the trunks of the trees, as better as it was possible. Of course, the two possessors of the Magic could read his thoughts, but that action required some concentration and there was no time for that, as very soon the first ugly riders showed in the clear sky…

As soon as the burly smith saw the first of the horrible, armored pursuers, he realized probably this would be the last day for his sixty exhausted compatriots, when they could be free. The horrible warriors' watchful eyes didn't miss the opportunity to see any detail of the landscape, and it wasn't odd at all a few of them noticed a few of the silent fugitives in no time. That part of the forest wasn't very thick, and the desperate group had no time to look for better hiding places… The Brown faces' victorious cries could be heard at many miles in the ancient forest, so Ambigat got a good grip of the hilt of his big, magnificent sword. All of the rest of the Mountaineers took out their weapons too, though they had a great advantage, no one of them had to take care of a two month old baby. However, that was not something that bothered the burly smith too much; he just carefully thrust the young boy between his sleeveless garment and his broad back. Then his arms waved his sword so skillfully, that many of the Brown faces thought it would be better, if they just pretended to be blind and passed by the desperate group…

Unfortunately, many others amongst the armored, ugly warriors were too furious to pay attention to the glorious sight of the brawny Ambigat and his light weapon, and prepared for the forthcoming battle. Soon, an awful, black fog surrounded the entire group of the last free noble people. But that was not the only trick the horrible Brown faces had up their sleeves. After the fog had been made, they began throwing long, sticky and white ropes all over the place! These white ropes wound round a lot of the surprised fugitives in no time, and they weren't able to move a muscle… Yet, the rest of the Mountaineers, and especially the two wizards, knew very well what to do to save their poor compatriots. One could hear very clearly the sounds of the sharp swords, cutting the sticky ropes that way, so they would never be used again by the ugly riders of the weightless korks! One could hear also the sounds of many Brown faces falling off their air horses, as both Alvin and Ygrene used well their magical abilities to help them to "fulfill" that kind of action… Besides, their mental, magical guidance was more than welcome for all the Mountaineers in the fog, as using it they could see as well as if the fog had never existed!

Unfortunately, the furious, ugly Brown faces were twice as many as the badly surprised fugitives, so it was beyond the powers of the sixty noble people to cope with the horrible riders as they would like to… However, the Brown faces realized too they faced a worthy enemy, as soon it became obvious they wouldn't cope with the sixty poor Mountaineers the way they had wished for… After about an hour of furious fighting, waving of swords, awful cries, and many wounded, armored warriors (much more than the injured, noble people), at last the ugly warriors decided it was about time to leave the battle-ground, and probably never to return again!

But that wasn't a happy thought for the best warrior amongst the desperate fugitives. His heart sunk within his chest, as during the last half an hour he hadn't "heard" any of the mental messages of his beloved Ygrene… As soon as Ambigat led his compatriots out of the horrible, black fog, he found the other wizard Alvin and asked him feverishly whether he could at least sense her presence… There were tears in the brawny smith's eyes, as he knew what Alvin's answer would be, though the burly leader of the desperate group hoped against hope to hear one or two good words… There were tears in Alvin's eyes too, as several years ago he had lost his beloved by the same awful way, and knew very well Ambigat's feelings…

"The horrible, brown-skinned warriors probably anaesthetized her…" said the wizard sadly and held the desperate smith tight in his arms, while the tears of both of them rolled down in their moustaches and beards. "As I can sense only her presence, but not her thoughts or excellent, mental advices…"

It turned out Ygrene was not the only one missing from their group. When after a quarter of an hour the Mountaineers managed to hide deep in the forest and counted the present, they all realized their group had fifty members. Ten of them had already become a part of the numerous slaves of the most evil human race…

As a leader, Ambigat felt obliged to held tight in his strong arms everyone of the relatives of the missing Mountaineers, and to tell them a few kind words. And everyone else felt obliged too to do the same for him, because his loss was also very great … Unfortunately, the burly smith and his confreres had to hurry to continue their tiring march, as they knew very well what could befall them, if they weren't reasonable enough to look for a safer and well-hidden place.

It was wonderful at least Alvin was still amongst them, his magical abilities were very useful for all the group. Owing to them, the wizard found a large enough lake so high in the mountains, that no Brown face would dare to look for them there. And after a few weeks of almost constant, fast walking, the last fifty free Mountaineers reached it, and built a wonderful settlement near its shores. The days to come would be calm and wouldn't remind by anything of the horror during the last battle with the Brown faces. Ambigat and all the other forty-nine fugitives were aware they would probably never see their ten captured compatriots. The horrible, ugly warriors knew very well how to hide and treat the captives in their underground dungeons, so that no wizard could contact them… But that was not an obstacle for the sad fugitives to take a good care of the orphans and all the other relatives of the missing Mountaineers. The youngest member of their poor group, the young Bren, soon after he began to talk and understand speech, realized he had the greatest father, friends and compatriots on Earth…

All that didn't mean the last fifty free Mountaineers led an easy and opulent existence, since they had arrived near the mountain lake. All of them (except probably the youngest) knew if the Brown faces didn't want to climb high in the mountains, there would be many of their subordinates who would. And to be prepared for that, the poor fugitives had to constantly train their fighting and many other skills… As Alvin said from time to time: "Not one of us, not even the captured wizards, know whether our present situation will become the beginning of the end for our noble and skillful, but unfortunate race, that have been through so much trouble…"

Ten years had passed since the last battle with the horrible Brown faces, when one wonderful morning Bren hastened to open his eyes. Not much time had passed since the sun had shone on the big hill, which rose in the north near the Mountaineers' quiet village. The air in the stone home was cool, but there weren't any clouds in the sky, and it seemed it was going to be a warm day. Though the ten year old boy was still sleepy, he stretched himself several tim es and quickly jumped out of bed. Every morning the young Mountaineer did series of exercises, but this time he did not exert himself too much, because yesterday the wizard had promised to the youngsters in the vi llage to show them how the stone houses were built.

There wasn't any trace of the night coolness outside, when Bren ran to the lake. Obviously, he was up quite early as no one else at his age was seen near the water. Now a good many older Mountaineers had their morning bath. The boy greeted them and hastened to splash water on himself, so that his body could accommodate to the cold liquid. The wizard, who lay on his back about twenty yards in the large, wat er basin and enjoyed the weather, caught sight of the ten year old Mountaineer and smiling started swimming towards him.

"Good morning, my boy. I see that you are the most impatient of everyone," said the elderly man with a smile, which rarely appeared on his face.

"Good morning, uncle Alvin! One should not miss such a spectacle. If I don't see it, I'll be out of my mind for a week!" replied Bren, giv ing a broad smile.

"Hurry up, then!" laughed Alvin. "But chew well and don't spoil your din ner, because of the magical melting. I will not start without you, I promi se!" after these words, the old wizard threw on his wet body a large piece of cloth, simil ar to a towel and made of algae, then took his dry cloth es from the ground and went to have a breakfast.

The boy swam twice the distance from the side of the lake to the form er position of the old possessor of the wonderful skills. After that, the young warrior came back on the dry land swimming under water, and began drying in the sun. When he was almost ready, his father's figure appeared in the dista nce, from the dark forest surrounding the village. The ten year old Mountaineer was not small for his age, but he always admired his father's huge body. When they worked together, the young Bren often stopped and, enraptured, watched how the muscles of his father's strong arms bulged like big balls. The boy could watch him for hours on end, but usually one of his father's hands pressed his son's shoulder in a friendly manner, and then Ambigat invited him kindly not to be too lazy. Some of the older inhabitants of the village told, that it was a trifling matter for the huge nobleman to kill an old cave bear with bare hands, only with one blow at that. The boy didn't doubt their words at all, because he had seen how his dad had forged the glowing metal, when he had made swords and sabres. Bren didn't remember his granddad, but he was told his father's father had also been so strong and such as skillful a smith just as his heir.

Meanwhile, the huge man came close enough and his thoughtful and worried face and his tired eyes, which were wandering in the distance, could be seen well. Obviously, Bren's father had got up very early, and then had wa lked about the forest for quite a long time, because he looked tired. He sat down on the stone by the young boy to relax, before plung ing into the lake.

"Hello, my son." he greeted in a tired voice, and began to undress slowly.

"Good morning, dad. I thought that there were no more nightmares in your dreams."

"They were really gone, my boy. Only your mother was in my dreams last night, and she was smiling for the first time since the awful Brown faces took her away… And when I woke up, I decided to have a walk in the forest to come to my senses."

"Does it mean that she's alive and tries to contact us?" asked the young Mountaineer with hope in his voice.

"No, young man. If she's alive, she is definitely a captive of the Brown faces, and there she is so exhausted that even if I hear her, her message will not be so calm at all. I will ask the wizard later on whether he had al so happy feelings in the night. Isn't it time for you now to eat your breakfast?" after these words, the burly man walked into the water with apparent pleasure.

"Yes, indeed. But I would be glad if you don't mind when I take your di scus at the today's training?"

"Yes, of course. I won't need it today," shouted his father as he was qui te far in the lake.

Leaving his huge father to the cares of the water and sun, Bren made for home. Meanwhile, the majo rity of the young men and women had come to the deep waters. Bathing, they lively talked about the today's event - the old wizard's construction. But after the short conversation with the smith of swords, the young boy didn't want to stop there, which was why he just greeted the young Mountaineers and went on his way. Coming near to the airy, stone home, where a lavish breakfast was waiting for him, the ten year old nobleman thought to himself how nice it would be if his remarkable mother and all the other captured Mountaineers were here. The boy knew every minute detail of the last battle with the awful Brown faces, as many times the wizard Alvin had showed him all of his mental memories about that horrible event. Bren's admiration of his mother and the rest of the missing Mountaineers' braveness was so great, that everyone amongst the noblemen in the village admired him so much, as they admired Ygrene and the other poor slaves for their wonderful qualities…

Even today, when that unequal fight was mentioned, all the warriors were sincerely sorry that the sticky, white ropes hadn't caught them, in stead of that beautiful woman - one of the best possessors of Magic amongst their people. There was often a strain of disbelieve in these conversa tions (without any malice, of course). As the Mountaineers wondered why Bren's mother had preferred the master of swords, when she had been a young girl, because she had been ab le to choose amongst so many wizards. Usually a girl that mastered the art of the splendid skills wished for a husband a man who was as skillful wizard as her.

Many years ago, a great many Mountaineers had gone in quest of their lost beloveds, though few of them had come back, very exhausted. When they had regained their strength, they had sta rted on a long, dangerous journey again, in which they had often met their death. Bren's father had also been amongst the travelling warriors, but on his second home-co ming from such a march, the wizard and the other Mountaineers had convin ced him he had been much needed here by all of his people. So, it had been no good undoing himself that way. Alvin had also followed the lead of his compatriots and had tried to save his sweetheart, and not on ly her, but despite all his skills and magical power, he hadn't managed to do anything more than the others. In the past, a good many noble Mountaineers suicided themselves, if they lost forever the human being, with whom they wanted to live until the very end of their days. But now everyone understood that the times had changed, so for the mountain race to survive, everyone's life-force was needed in the hard struggle with the hateful, brown despots. Of course, all that didn't mean they gave up their long, rescue marches (hard and dangero us as they were), no matter no one had returned with a liberated Mountaineer so far.

With these thoughts in his head, Bren ate half of his breakfast of small, tas ty fishes, breeding in quantities in the lake. It was not until then that his eyes fell on a little piece of paper near the door. 'What is ha ppening in my head? Only now I do notice this thing.' he told hims elf, and then picked it up to take a good look at it. The small leaf was fold ed up carefully, and "Ambigat" was written on the top in a small handwriting, which only the wizard had. As it was his father's name, the young boy left the note on the table of glossy stone, so that the old wizard's mes sage could be seen better, and rushed to the lake with the old, but maste rfully made discus of the smith.

Almost all the boys and girls, who today would train to use the flying weapons perfectly well, and to dive and stay longer under the sur face of the lake, had gathered near the water. The young Mountaineers talked lively and when the pensive, young boy came close enough, he heard a tall and tough, young man's words.

"...so a great many warriors will leave the village tomorrow. As all of them are pressed for time, but will need nutritive food for what will wait for them, whatever it'll be, tonight will be the time when all of us could do something useful at last, (although we are only fifteen). I know very well where the place in the thick forest is, where one can pick the tasty night fruit. And I hope no one will oppose if we all go into the dark forest after the sunset, to gather as many ball-shaped fruit as possible?…"

The young Mountaineers were delighted more than ever. As rarely they had the chance to leave their mountain village, and do something different from the training with the round discuses, or from the diving holding their breathing for a long time. And as for Bren, he forgot his sad and gloo my thoughts, at least for the present, and began to imagine what mysterio us, living creatures might hide in the night forest. Until now, the boy had never walked so far into the forest, where the night fruit (they we re of the most preferable foods of the mountain people for long journ eys) were growing in large quantities. Everyone in the village knew that the se green balls could be picked and were eatable only when they were not lit by the sunbeams. That was why they could be picked only in the night, and after that these fruit were hard and eatable for a long time for the travelling warriors' hungry stomachs. But if a miracle like that was picked off in the daytime, it mellowed at once and an awful smell ca me out from it, which even the Brown faces couldn't bear.

While the young Mountaineers were arguing whether to part in groups, or whet her to take the young Bren with them (to which the boy was fierce ly opposed), an elderly, but stocky man of middle height came unnoticed. He was the teacher of the girls and boys from the village, who had obv iously heard all their conversation, because he looked very pleased.

"Nothing could compare with the feeling that one feels when he hears his pupils' noble thoughts!" said the old Mountaineer with a kind smile, and threw his discus on the grass.

"But very few things could compare with what a young Mountaineer feels, when he understands that his teacher doesn't do what he teach es." replied the young man, who knew everything about the delicious fruit. "You have always told us not to show stupid curiosity, so you, uncle Ballick, probably weren't a very good pupil in the past, because you heard the things, which were not addressed for your ears!" Oralin (that was the name of the angry, young man) did not want to make the elderly warrior ashamed. Actually, he was proud that he could argue with him.

"And would you like to tell me then, how you found out about the tomorrow's march of the warriors?" asked the teacher with a disarming smile on his tanned face.

An intense blush overspread the fifteen year old Mountaineer's cheeks, because obviously he had also heard some things, which were not addressed for him at all.

"Don't be so depressed, my boy," the elderly Mountaineer kept on smiling. "Even if last night you didn't eavesdrop our conversation with your rem arkable father, I would have asked you to do your midnight walk. Because probably it is tedious enough only to train, isn't it? And actually, I myself must not use my ears, as you used yours last night."

During the next hour and a half, everyone threw their weapons studiously, choosing a different target from time to time. Bren's black discus didn't always fly right there, where he threw it, because it was much heavier than the one, which his father had made specally for him, but Ballick was pleased with everyone. The teacher even explained to them, that soon his pupils would throw their flying weapons like him, the elderly Mountaineer, with whom they spent a few hours ev ery morning. But no one believed that, as the extremely patient, muscular teacher was an unbeaten virtuoso in shooting with their wooden weapons, the best one amongst all the noblemen in the village. Ambigat's son, and the others too, had never seen the thickset, tough warrior mis sing the target, at which he had taken sight. Of course, that did not mean the young pupils were not able to throw their discuses well, but each one of them was awed by Ballick's ac curacy.

The sun had risen quite high and the air was quite warm, when the elde rly teacher decided to start diving in the cool lake. Taking his clo thes off, the trained Mountaineer said:

"I'm not certain whether you've noticed it, but today a warm wind from the south blows hard. That's why the surface water is moving to the north. When that warm mass reaches the opposite side of the lake, com ing across its resistance, it sinks and going to a certain depth, comes back. So, today the depths are warmer than usual, even for the summer. But don't deceive yourselves by that, and don't swim too deep. Not all of you can bear the cold yet, as you have to. Are you rea dy?"

Only a beautiful, black-haired girl stayed on the shore to take the time the rest could endure without air under the surface. Her name was Lona and she perfectly managed the big clock, which was made by Bren's father of thin leaves of magical metal, especially for events like these. She would stay on the shore until someone of the boys and girls, who now were throwing water over their bodies, took her place. The plates of the clock, sparkling in the sunbeams, were jointed one with another in the shape of a star, and changed their position by the influence of the daylight and the light of the stars in the night sky.

Ballick had a good look around to see whether each one of the line of girls and boys, who were as sound as a bell, had found a suitable place. And aft er the group of young swimmers took a few deep breaths and exhaled seve ral times; they, together with their teacher, swam the few metres to the deep. Lona signed that she was ready to take the time, and everybody else plunged almost at the same time. Bren was a little late, but he hastened to catch up with the thickset Mountaineer, who had dived on his right side.

Today the water was really warmer than usual in the depths. Looking as ide, the youngest inhabitant in the village saw the marking, colored stones, which were tied in long ropes with floats at their upper ends, and we re used for measuring the depth in diving. When the divers swam to the orange mark, which showed twenty feet under the calm lake surface, all of them made a circle and began to rise up very slowly; taking one anoth er by the hands.

Bren knew very well from the tiring swimming lessons, how within the first twenty or thirty seconds after the diving everybody felt the need to breathe. But if one kept on staying under the surface and the most impor tant – did not think of the need to breathe, it would be eas y to stay under water for a few minutes, without any bad after-effects. Bren's own record was only five minutes, so the boy did all he could to increase it. The wizard Alvin had told him all the Mountaineers, who were well-trained in holding of their breaths, could endure witho ut air sixteen minutes and more.

The depth, where they were now, was about ten feet and the young Mountaineer felt a slight ringing in his head, but that often happened when one dived, so the boy flexed the muscles of his face and got a better grip of Ballick's hand. But after a few seconds, he felt he couldn't endure any more, and came to the surface with a girl. Both of them were pleased, beca use Lona's clock showed that they had been in the lake for al most five minutes. Bren felt how near he was to a new record of his achievement and, while waiting for the other pupils to come out of the wa ter, he began splashing the girl on the shore and the beauty, who had co me to the surface with him, began to assist. Lona cheerfully promised them that the next time she would reduce their time by half, if they kept on annoying her with their tries to pour the whole water basin on her.

After a few more divings, before Bren had his turn to take the time the rest endured under the surface, the young Mountaineer stayed in the water for six minutes. The other children dived once more, while the master-smith's satisfied son squatted on the shore to watch the clock. Then all of them came out of the lake to rest for a whi le, and the teacher Ballick plunged in the deep to tie pieces of colored plants to each of the stones, which showed the depth in the water. That was the preparation for the next lesson in the reaching of as deep er-laid marking as possible. Every one of the young Mountaineers had to tear off a small piece of the plant to which they could dive, and to bring it out of the lake.

This time, the elderly teacher stayed on the shore, and just watched how the children disappeared one by one in the depths, as the leaves, which he had tied, were quite long and everyone that reached them could tear off a small piece. That was why there was no need to tie new ones aft er each diving. Before plunging into the lake, the pupils put on skillfully made masks for under-water exploring, which were made of a thick, very stout glass and of an elastic material, impermeable to pure liquid, which on ly hands with magical skills could make. With such things, the sma llest details of the objects in the water could be seen.

All the time in today's training, Bren didn't reach the depth that he wanted. Therefore, when he had his turn again, he picked up quite a hea vy stone from the ground. Then, the boy saw the teacher's approving eyes, dashed forward and making a magnificent bow in the air, sank in the depths with the load in his hands. The stroke of the calm surface of the lake cha nged the position of his mask, but it was fastened well and after that there was only air inside. As the small rock he held had bulges, and because of that it was suitable to catch, the boy tried to put the glass device in the right place, by his left hand. When he managed to do that, he was swimming by the orange stone for the depth of twenty feet in the lake, but that wasn't enough for him and Bren kept on swimming downwards, helping himself with his legs. The load he had taken was obviously useful, because he was already coming close to thirty-five feet under the water. When the young man reached thirty yards in the crystal lake, he drop ped the stone and grasped the rope to tear off a pie ce from the leaf. But his motions se emed to scare a few big, beautifully-colored fish, which probably had been waiting their prey in ambush, perfectly imi tating the red and blue algae, growing at that place. Actually, now the colors couldn't be seen well at that depth (unless the diver car ried a special torch, burning in the liquid, which extinguished fire). But one could see well enough how the water animals, that were a yard long, began swimming fast for the vertical bed and then kept on moving parall el to it, looking for a new, safer hiding-place. The thin layer of silt was swept away by the mighty strokes of their strong tails, and a snow-whi te rock was uncovered. The young Mountaineer's eyes opened wide, as he had never seen a thing like that before. The color of the big stone was seen very well even at that depth. The boy dropped the leaf, which he must tear off, and began swimming for this find, although he felt that soon he had to come to the surface to breathe. While Bren was clearing the la yered silt, he became a discoverer of a splendid sight. The rock was quite big, therefore he was pressed for time to clear and exa mine it well, but what he saw attracted his attention at once. In the middle of the clear place, there were reli ef formations resembling the small waves, which were formed on the surface of the lake, if a rougher wind blew. Things, which were similar to clams, but bigger than them and darker than the remar kable, white stone, were built in forming a regular ring round the rock waves. The magnificent thing looked that way, as if it had been made by a skillful wizard.

Feeling that he had to come to the surface already, the pleased Mountaineer cast a last glance at the unusual find, and began swi mming up. He was swimming slowly, so there wouldn't be a sudden change of the water pressure, and in the meantime the boy thought within himself who had made the snow-white miracle and why, and what its function was, if there was any. When Bren came to the surface, he took a deep breath and grinned at the teacher and pupils, who were very worried because of his long stay under the water.

"What happened to you, Bren, we thought you were in trouble," said Ballick and helped the boy to come out of the water.

"I'm really sorry, uncle Ballick. I reached sixty-five feet, but I wasn't able to tear the leaf off, because I saw an unusual sight!" said the young diver guiltily and described the white rock. "I've never seen a thing li ke that before, perhaps you know what it is?"

"No, my boy. I have not the slightest idea. But I am sure - it's not Alvin's work and it is not a work of any other wizard too. Is there someone, who wants to see exactly how it looks?" asked the elderly Mountaineer.

Everyone wanted to see the wonder, including Bren, but the prudent tea cher said it would be better if he had a rest, and chose two of the older for the diving. After a short preparation, the three divers disappeared in the lake there, where the float of the rope with the colored stones swa yed.

Oralin appeared first, followed by the other young pupil, and the glitt er in their eyes spoke much more than their words for that "really unus ual find" of the youngest one amongst them. Ballick stayed under the water quite long, only that when he came to the surface he looked quite perplexed. Now the thickset Mountaineer did not mind the others diving. Bren plunged into the lake for a second time with Lona, and although almost all the rock was cleaned out by the teacher and two pupils, opening its sparkling white in a diameter of a few yards, neither he nor the beautiful girl could under stand for what purpose it had been made, and why it had been dug in here.

It was dinner time, according to the height the sun, therefore the brawny man said that he would let the wizard know about the today's discovery. Then he stopped the training, wishing all the young Mountaineers a good appetite. The young men stayed on the shore for a litt le while, settling to wait for one another near Alvin's house after an hour, then everyone took their discuses and went home.

Holding tight his father's round, black weapon, Bren thought whether he had to ran up to the wizard before his teacher, and to be the first who would find out something more about the snow-white rock. Yet, his stomach obviously "thought" otherwise, and the boy went home too. Crossing the threshold of his stone home after a little while, the young man nearly laughed out loud. It seemed that the burly smith had picked a few green fruit during his midnight walk, and had made some juice of them. But it seemed also he hadn't slept during the last several nights, as he was breathing peacefully with closed eyes, and his beard was in the bowl with thick liquid. The sight was funny enough to enjoy it for a while, before the boy put his hand on the big warrior's shoulder.

"Well, well, what have I done." exclaimed Ambigat after he woke up, a guilty smile lit up his tired face, and the juice of the tasty balls dro pped from his beard and moustache.

Bren took a bucket with pure water, and while he helped his father to wash, he told him about the rock he had found, about the today's under-water record, and about what lay ahead tonight.

"We've lived in these areas for a long time!" wondered the master of weapons. "It seems we should have seen everything around already." added he thoughtfully, putting his strong right-hand on the young boy's should er. "Nevertheless, I'm glad for the watchfulness of my heir, who found such a remarkable wonder in the depths!"

Then, the young man refused the burly Mountaineer's help for the cooking of the dinner, sending him to go to bed. After a while, both of them were eating a salad of lake algae with a voracious appetite, and we re drinking the incredibly tasty juice of night fruit. If someone curious looked at them, he would definitely be much surprised how such an enormous quantity of food could disappear so quickly. Besides, Bren's appetite was as enormous as his big father's.

"It won't be wrong if you have a nap this afternoon, after Alvin's per formance, if you are going to pick the green balls," said Ambigat after they finished their dinner. "And it won't be wrong if you don't move away from the others, during the night march."

"I won't, I promise! But you must also promise me that you'll be very careful, when you go in quest of the lost Mountaineers tomorrow!" re plied the boy, preparing to go out.

"No, my son. I couldn't do that. The others decided it will be much bett er if I stay here. Strong warriors will be also needed in our village."

"Perhaps our remarkable wizard's note made you change your mind?"

"No, Bren. Alvin needs a new sword, and I have to make it this afternoon, but first I'll examine your show-white rock. Come on, my young discoverer, go, because even Alvin doesn't like to wait for a long time."

Bren took one of the horns the Mountaineers used instead of cups, and filled it out with the juice, which his father had made, to drink on the way. Cheerfully pacing towards the wizard's house, the boy left the empty horn in the grass, and then remembered he had seen a few white hairs in the huge warrior's hair and beard, when he had washed the result of his midnight walk. Ambigat was far from being one of the oldest dwell ers in the village, and for his age of sixty years it seemed unnatural to be streaked with grey. The majority of the last free noblemen, namely the se who had lost their beloveds, we re also prematurely old for their age. That was why, Bren guessed all that was due to the great pain for their beloveds, which had disappeared in the battlefield long ago. The young diver was often dreaming how one fine day all the captives would be back, even these that were supposed to be dead, and how then there wouldn't be a great difference between the twenty year old Mountaineers and these, who now were sixty and more, but then would be rejuvenated enough... Because oftentimes the Magic could work wonders, but only when the noblemen wanted that.

A great many representatives of the noble people had gathered in front of Alvin's stone home. Besides the young Mountaineers, there were a good many adults too. Probably each one of them, who had not someth ing urgent to do, had come to see the remarkable spectacle - the magical building. The house Alvin would make would be for the girl and young man, who were the youngest warriors in the village, and were going to live in it until the end of their days. The young couple was expecting, most impatient of everybody, to see their new home. Gliza and Antib, these were the names of the lucky youngsters, for whom the possessor of the Magic would show his skills today, promised that when the tomorrow's hard march came to a happy end, they would begin to live together.

After a while, the old wizard appeared in the doorway with a grey, sleeveless garment and trousers of the same color, made of the skin of an animal that was unknown to the youngest one amongst these who waited. His hair, moustaches and beard were wet, and the young diver guess ed that Alvin had dived a little while ago, to look at the formati ons on the white rock under the water.

"I hope you haven't waited for me too long?" asked the elderly constructor of the stone home.

"Do you indeed!" cried out Antib. "If we stand here a little longer, moustaches and beard will grow on Bren's face!" the bored, young warrior kindly kept on scolding the grey-haired wizard.

"I'm sorry!" laughed the elderly Mountaineer. "But you have to know that Ambigat's son is guilty of that, with his under-water, rock discovery, about which I understood as much as his ten year old discoverer. Nevertheless, let us not think aabout that now and drink a horn of night fruit juice, before we start. It will be my treat!"

"Oh, no! Under no circumstances!" this time the displeased one was Gliza, who after saying these words, took the wizard's arm and dragged him along towards the site of the future home.

All the rest followed them, cheerfully chattering on the way about how long Alvin had stayed under the surface, wondering about the function of the white rock, and whether a building of a house should be entrusted to such an "ignorant" wizard. The result from these conversations appeared on the discussed man's face as a broad, kindly smile.

The construction would begin in the outskirts of the village, in a pla ce that was chosen beforehand. There, as early as yesterday, the Mountaineers had heaped a lot of building material, which consisted of big and small rock dollops. Antib, together with a few strong Mountaineers, had spaded up a rectangular canal with round corners in the site of the future, rem arkable home. All the present threw the smaller stones in it; then Alvin undr essed naked to the middle, gave his garment to Bren and the real work began. Of course, now no one talked, because that magnificent sight was real ly worthy of admiration.

But the most charmed of all was the youngest one of the present. Bren was carried away by the way the wizard put his palms, radiating pale, green light, close to the stone pieces, and the hard rock dollops fused in a monolithic block. The young nobleman was so enthralled, that he didn't hear and didn't see anything else, even Gliza, who was telling him that all the pos sessors of the magical skills worked dressed with few clothes, so that they might use their power better.

After Alvin finished with the solid foundations, he started the constr uction of one of the long walls, changing for the sake of variety the color of the magical radiance from his hands to red, blue, yellow, and spar kling white, in all nuances that were possible. And when the second wall was almost ready, Bren couldn't refrain from touching the dollop of the stone that was "fusing" at the moment. Much to the young swimmer's surprise, the rock had the same temperature as the ambient air.

The whole house was ready within an hour with the help of three Mountaineers, who put the stone pieces there, where the wizard pointed them. Its sides had a slight slope from the roof to the foundations, and the roof was asymmetrical, higher on its left side. On its highest spot, there was a round orifice for the long chimn ey of the hearth.

The stone home was not absolutely completed, and Alvin walked round it inch by inch, with his luminous palms close to the walls again. In that way, the stone became stronger, and now it could alre ady weather the heaviest rainy storms. There, where the stone hou se was too high, the wizard used a ladder, and finally his two wonder-wor king hands made magical glasses from a special composite. Then he set them in the square orifices with rounded corners, that would serve as big windows from now on. This completely transparent material for windows had a magnificent quality - to let through the air from the outside inwards and inside outwards. That was why when the windows were made, no one opened them until the re markable house went to ruin. Besides, the glass was quite resilient, so it was very hard to break it.

The possessor of the incredible skills took his garment from the yo ungest Mountaineer, who still gaped at him with enormous admiration, and dressing himself, he said to the young couple.

"I think that for the present it is not necessary to make the floor of your new home. As my old head guesses, you won't live in it from this very day, will you?"

"Don't worry, uncle Alvin! Our stone floor could wait until you come back from the march, if, of course, you don't mind showing your magical skills again." replied Gliza and obviously much pleased at the wizard's work, kissed him on the cheek.

Then, the newly weds invited them all to an afternoon snack, but everyo ne of the fifteen young Mountaineers thought that they had to rest to be fresh in the night, and said good-bye to the adults. The wizard Alvin also made for home, begging pardon that he had got up early in the morning, so according to his opinion he would probably sleep until supper. The rest of the noblemen accepted the invitation with pleasure, and turned their steps towards the home of Antib's family. While the others with sparkling eyes were talking about the incredibly beauti ful sight, which a little while ago had been demonstrated by the most eld erly dweller in the village, Bren decided that he had to have a private talk with the remarkable wizard. Therefo re, he took to his heels immediately, expecting to get to the grey-haired warrior's house before its owner. No matter how fast the young boy ran, when he stopped by Alvin's home he saw the stone door was closed, and no sound could be heard from the inside. Breathing heavily, the young man knocked at the door, praying to find the wizard still awake. To Bren's great delight, his apprehensions were ungrounded, as short ly after his second knock the old possessor of the Magic opened the sol id door, and stared in wonder at the panting boy.

"Bren, my boy, are there Brown faces in the village?" asked Alvin in astonishment, seeing the young Mountaineer, who had really run too fast.

"No, no, there is no one of them." laughed the young nobleman, who had di scovered the snow-white find under the water. "I just can't wait to ha ve a word with you for a while. Can I?"

"Come in, watchful, young man. But you have to know that I can fall asleep very easily, while you are talking." replied the grey-haired Mountaineer with a smile.

The ten year old diver also smiled, explaining he wouldn't be long, but when the wizard poured him some night fruit juice and sat on a small stone stool facing him, Ambigat's son's face became serious and tho ughtful.

"Uncle Alvin, I have never guessed that it is so beautiful and imposing to build a house by Magic," the young man began to speak quietly. "I am quite young and I have not lived long, so I still don't know many things, but there are hardly sights worthy of comparison with what you ma de today,"

"Thank you!" said the elderly Mountaineer. "But the construction of any one of the possessors of the splendid skills, well as it looks to an out side eye, is far from being neither beautiful, nor yet imposing. Yes, you're quite young indeed, and you haven't seen everything, which should be seen in the world where we live. After a couple of years, you'll laugh at your present thoughts with certainty, because you will know the real gre atness and beauty. I even consider that there are some things behind your today's under-water find, which no creation of the wizards could match with!"

"Do you really think so?" asked Bren in surprise.

"Yes, my boy, yes!" replied Alvin. "Unfortunately, I could not say anything more about the white rock. But I hope that the tomorrow's journey will be successful, so that I will be able to seek advice from the other Mountaineers like me. It seems that you haven't come here just to admire me?"

The boy finished his drink of night fruit juice, wiped his mouth with a small piece of soft algae, which was put on the stone table for that purpose, and lo oked the elderly man full in the face.

"Uncle Alvin, why don't you have any apprentices, whom you could teach to all that you know and can do with the Magic?"

"Oh, now I see why you ran that way, as if you wanted to ruin your lungs," said the old warrior thoughtfully. "Obviously your huge father has never told you, since you ask me. Well, all right, my boy, you probably have heard a lot of things of our last battle with the Brown faces?"

Bren nodded assent.

"It seems that no one explained to you why then the awful Conquer ors attacked us, and what their main intention was - to catch the se, who were masters of the Magic. I don't know what happened in times past and gone, but today we, the Mountaineers, are the only peo ple who could be trained to become wizards. Until now, no one of the Wa rlike monsters has been able to become a master of the magical skills. Actually, there are very few of the Brown faces, that can make one or two of the easiest charms, but of course these unimportant wonders are not useful for them at all. That is why we are their most preferred captives…" here the grey-haired Mountaineer went to pour himself some more night fruit juice, offered it to the young boy too, but he said that his stomach was full enough, and the old warrior resumed his story. "After that last battle, the people in our village are perhaps the only free living noblemen. When we came to live here, all of us decided I must not train anyone of our children, or anyone else, hoping that the Brown faces would leave us in peace in the future, as only I was ab le to do the valuable wonders. I am not sure what will happen to us furt her, and whether we'll have the same doom too, like the mountain warriors, who now are captives of the Brown faces. But without any oth er Mountaineers like me in the village, the probability to be enslaved in the vaults decreases many times. And you, my boy, could become a wo nderful possessor of the splendid skills!" finished the elderly wizard.

"If everything turns out for the best and finally we defeat the hateful enemies, will I be able to be your apprentice?" asked Bren.

"Unfortunately, I have no idea what the future may hold in store, my little friend. Because the Magic can help us to see the things such as they could be, but only a man who is well-trained in the prediction of the future is able to use his magical skills in that way. I am not that kind of wizard, Bren, I'm sorry. And I can't tell you whether you will be my apprentice. If the ugly Conquerors weren't everywhere, I myself would be very glad if I could be your teacher, so that you could become one of the best in the incredible craft!"

"I see," said the boy with sadness in his voice, and stood up to go. "Have a nice rest, uncle Alvin, and thank you for the night fruit juice and all the explanations..."

Bren crossed the threshold of the old wizard's home, but after a few steps he heard the elderly man was calling him. Alvin le aned against the door and told him with a smile on his tired face:

"Even though you won't become a possessor of the Magic, my boy, you have to know that in you there are enough imagination and striving for the imposing, beautiful, and unknown things, which is peculiar to a real master of stone buildings. Use all that, because one day all of the Mountaineers will be proud of you."

After all these comforting words, Bren felt a little relief. The young di ver waved good-bye to Alvin and went home; thinking that the day was good, in spite of his having learned the truth that he would probably never be able to be one of the best in the ancient craft. As first the boy had found the white rock, and then had seen the wonder of the magical constr uction, and tonight would go on a march. Besides, before he had never seen a smile on the wizard's face so often, as in the last few hours.

When the young Mountaineer crossed the threshold of his home, his father had almost finished Alvin's sword, and Bren offered his assistance to carry the bright wea pon to its future owner. But Ambigat said to his son he'd better get so me sleep, because the night would come soon, and then the burly man ask ed whether the building had been a sight worthy of admiration.

"It was beyond all belief!" said the boy quietly, and then hurried to go to bed, because he did not feel like talking about the Magic.

The master of weapons tactfully became silent, understanding to perfe ction that his ten year old heir didn't feel well, in order to tell him more details about that. After a while, the sword was completely finished, and the burly Mountaineer went to wash himself, covering Bren on the way with a blanket of a very soft, white material, typical make of the Mou ntain people.

The sun would go down soon, when the youngest inhabitant in the village woke up by his father's voice.

"It's supper time, my son, unless you feel too sleepy and want the oth ers to start without you," said Ambigat, putting a pleasantly smelling, just roasted fish on the table.

When Bren heard these words, he jumped out of bed immediately, splashed his face with the water that the burly smith of weapons had brought with fores ight from the lake, and sat by the perfectly cooked food. The warm supper was very tasty, but the young man forgot to eat several times, as he rem embered the words of the wizard: "I can't tell you whether you will be my apprentice." The smith of weapons watched him carefully all the time, and finally put his hand on the boy's shoulder.

"What has happened to you?" asked the burly man with anxiety. "You look so awful, as though the entire world is collapsed."

"Never mind, dad. I just understood that I would never be able to crea te what uncle Alvin made today," said the young swimmer.

His father heaved a deep sigh and went to wash the stone dishes. After that, the worried warrior came back to his son, who was still sit ting at the table, and as if blame could be read in the master-smith's tanned face...

"So, you had a talk with the wizard, after he showed his unusual abili ties," said Ambigat, and the boy nodded assent. "You certainly understood from the oldest one amongst us why the awful Brown faces were pursuing us so long, and why we had only one of the masters of the ancient craft. Yet, he has hardly mentioned to you who was the first to suggest there should not be children, who could learn the art of charm. Forgive me, Bren, I implore you to forgive me, because it was me. At first, the majority of the Mountaineers opposed, but yet I manag ed to convince them that I was right. And today I myself don't know whe ther then I did the right thing. As it was enough for me just to rememb er your mother's last cry, before I lost her, and I kept on pressing my demand to have no more wizards in our village. Now I see how awful you feel after such a loss. You could become a wonderful possessor of the splendid skills with certainty…"

"Uncle Alvin also said something like that…" sighed the boy. "But yet I would give up with pleasure even the thought of the Magic, if my mother and the other captives were here, free as all of us. And it is certainly much harder to lose the woman one loves, than the possibility to become a wiz ard."

"Then, it seems you are not cross with me for being one of the rea sons, because of which you'll never be able to make stone homes?" the bur ly man asked with relief.

"What are you talking about, dad?" replied the boy. "Is it possible that you don't know you have always been a wonderful father?"

After that, Bren embraced the smith of swords; gave a smile and said he had to go; otherwise the young noblemen would wait for him. And Ambigat took a double-edged knife, long about fifteen inches and fasten ed to a special strap, with that he put the sharp instrument on the young Mountaineer's waist.

"You will pick the night fruit much easier with this, and if needs be, it will be an excellent weapon too." explained the huge warrior, and fina lly wished him a pleasant march. The boy took a big sack of stout ma terial under his arm, fitted his knife better and made for the meeting's place.

And outside the sunset threw its last rays, before it disappeared com pletely. Several clouds obstructed half of the red glow in the west, for ming a very beautiful view, as they were colored in yellow and crimson, and three warm sunbeams were piercing and lighting them up in the middle. Bren was already late, but despite that stopped for a while to look at the sky beauty, view was really worth it. The old Mountaineers often used to say that usually the people who didn't possess the Magic and honored all kinds of gods were enjoying the sunset's beauty. They all believed the beautiful sky was a sign, that those who were living above were pleased with the believers, and showed them that very soon they would receive heavenly gifts. When the young boy was looking at what was up in the sky, he very often said the believers were absolutely right. The remarkable be auty of the sky was as splendid as that of the stone buildings, and Bren thought (though the ancient noblemen didn't believe in all these god things) it would be a great fun to share with the believers some of their numerous holidays, in honor of a "mighty" god of theirs.

At the end of the village, fourteen brave girls and boys had been waiting, and a few of them were nervous and wanted to start before the youngest one in the group came. Fortunately, the impatient were few, so the rest did not listen to them for the present. And the late young man sighed with relief and begged pardon for his la te appearance, explaining that the sunset was perfectly visible from the threshold of his home.

"Well, finally we can go," said Oralin. "These who are carrying lanterns must go in the front, in the middle, and at the end, as we will walk in a line."

His words provoked sneers with two of the younger hunters of the gre en balls - Oregon and Evral, who obviously found it funny how a youngster who wasn't much older than them was trying to give them orders.

"Hey, you two!" frowned the sixteen year old Mountaineer. "If you think that you are going to have some rest, you'd better go back. But if a bet ter way for moving in the night is well-known to you, then say it!"

The whispering boys kept on smiling mockingly, and then the mocker by the displeased leader said:

"I hope that we are going to gather the tasty night fruit, not to eavesdrop on the Brown faces in a secret lair of theirs. Then, why shouldn't we walk that way, as we want to?"

"Because we should always be careful, when we go far from the village, ask any of the adults about that. Or maybe an hour's walk in one di rection only, and fast walking at that, is very near?" replied the leader of the young Mountaineers.

The argument continued about ten minutes, but finally all of them lin ed up in the way Oralin suggested, and lighting up their way, they set out that way where the sun went down.

Bren didn't have a lantern and suggested to Gika, the girl with whom he had splashed Lona today in the morning, to carry hers. As the young beauty didn't mind, the young Mountaineer stood by her in the line and lifted the peculiar lamp high, to have a better look at it. The lumin ous object looked like a tube, almost as long as the knife, that his huge dad had given to him, and was skillfully made of a magical glass, that only wizards' hands could make. Four glow-worms, long two and a half inches, radiating bright, blue-white light, were inside the unusual marvel. These insects' light ca me out of all their bodies, which was why they were irreplaceable in the night marches. Besides, they had never caused any fire, and their radiance wasn't very strong, so the eventual pursuers could not see them. The lanterns, which the noblemen made, always had an orifice with a stout cover, where in case of need fresh plants were dropped for food of the beautiful, luminous animals. A leather strap was built in the magical glass, so that the noblemen could carry the lanterns easily.

All the glow-worms, which the noblemen used for lighting, had acquired their present appearance and new qualities a long time ago, when the an cient wizards of the cold-like race had changed them with the help of the Magic. As that had happened so long time ago in the past, even Alvin, the oldest one in the village, didn't know which of the former posses sors of the incredible abilities had made it.

There were only stars in the sky, when the young noblemen rea ched one of the posts, where a warrior was watching night and day. Although since all of them had settled here, no one of their enemies had showed up around, as Oralin had said the caution rare ly was useless, and the sentries were still guarding the village.

This night, in the hidden watch-tower stood Antib, the newly-married man to whom the wizard had built a house. The fifteen pickers were late enough; therefore they just exchanged greetings with the young Mountaineer and quickened their pace towards the place, where the night fruit grew. On the way, their group did not speak at all, because that was a faster way to walk. Oralin and Lona were leading the line, and from time to time turned back to ask the rest whether they were tired and whether their leaders had to slacken their pace. The first two really walked very fast, but no one opposed as each one of the pickers was well trained for such marches.

Bren held the lantern at a foot from his body, so that it would not be an obstacle to his legs. The boy had forgotten his today's bitter thoughts after his talk with the old wizard, so he could enjoy the pleasant, cool night. A profound silence had wrapped the forest, which they were pas sing through. Only when a light breeze blew, the boughs of the high trees rustled and here and there a bird woke up, that gave out some sle epy screams and after a while fell asleep again. The young Mountaineer eagerly hoped to see a weightless kork, though he knew that all of them were daytime animals and rarely came over these places, and their di sguise would be more perfect during the night. But there were many rodents, similar to the present beavers, though quite bigger than them, which stopped doing their night affairs and turned their surprised, li ttle muzzles to the lanterns of the train of girls and boys.

The group hadn't walked a very long time, when the moon came out too in the starred, clear sky. Its light silvered over the way of the young Mountaineers and the top branches of the trees, and as if the glow-worms in the tubes of magical glass became needless. By the moon radiance the ancient forest became even more beautiful. Bren had never imagi ned that he would see such an amazing sight in the night, though it pal ed (in his opinion) before Alvin's magical building.

Enraptured to watch the silver wood, the youngest one in the group did not see when they entered the inside of the thickly overgrown, mounta in lands. There were only giant, ancient trees here, with very thick trunks and big heads, where quite a few moonbeams penetrated. Because of that, the darkness around was as black as coal.

Oralin said that their group's speed was very good and before long they would leave the huge trunks behind, and then there would be quite a short way to the night fruit. All of them were glad to hear that message, as to walk in the dark amongst the high plants, where goo dness only knew why there were no animals or, at least, they could not be seen, wasn't pleasant at all.

Now the way of the travelers led through big, round stones, because of that even the oldest slowed down. Bren was holding the lantern near to the ground, so he, Gika and the brave boys who were behind, could well see the obstacles on their way, when a loud scre am resounded in the night forest. The sound was coming from the place of the line where Oregon was, and it was so sudden, that all of them stood nailed to the ground.

"What happens there?" asked Lona and lifted her lantern high, while she looked the young Mountaineers over.

"Never mind," gave Oregon a groan, who had walked last in the line a little while ago, and now sat on the ground and held his sore, right arm. "It seems the puddles hereabouts have so slippery silt, that it seems you are going to pick night fruit less by a person."

Oralin helped the victim to stand up, looked at the hurt elbow and said there was nothing fractured, so in a li ttle while it wouldn't hurrt. Then he moved the lantern close to the slippe ry place, because of which the silence was broken. But when the light fell on the puddle and the damp ground around it, both young pickers froze on their spots like struck by lightning. Within a few inches of the puddle, there was a quite warm print of a giant bear paw.

"You were really right about that we must be always careful," said Ore gon quietly, as he immediately forgot about the pain of the fall.

"Let us get out of here as soon as possible," said Oralin unhesitatingly, and went to take his former place in the front of their group. "As if it would be better to go back, unless..." here the leader of the gro up stopped suddenly, and opened his eyes wide with horror because of the huge thing, that he saw ten yards ahead in the darkness. No one of the fifteen young Mountaineers had ever seen a living cave bear until now. Yet, they knew very well what it looked like from the drawings, that the old warriors showed them, and from their numerous narratives, when they gathered toge ther in the village to talk about such things. That was why, it wasn't hard for them to guess what creature the two luminous, distant dots belonged to.

The bear understood that they had seen her, and it was useless to main tain silence any more. She yawned loudly, grunted out contentedly, and before the fifteen pickers of night fruit came to themselves, the big animal rushed behind the group, cutting off the retreat to the village in that way. Although they found her earlier than she wanted, the hairy beast was calm and confident. She knew very well how long the distance from here to the rest of the Mountaineers was, so no one could hear the young Mountaineers even if they shouted their heads off.

Oralin was the first to come to his senses, and then he took a deep breath, as if to drive away the fear and shouted loud, so everybody could hear him.

"Quickly climb the trees!" and he himself rushed to the nearest trunk.

The cave bear was obviously expecting that, but the young noblemen we re quick enough and immediately climbed high in the branches of the ancient forest, where they were in a safe place at least for the present. Only Oregon was late because of his wounded arm, and the huge animal turned her steps towards him, so she nearly bit his leg. All that made the hairy beast angry, and then she struck the trunk hard with her paw, so the tree quaked and deep scars of the bear's strong claws appeared in its bark. After the fit of fury, the hairy pursuer fixed her luminous gaze on the young man, who had escaped her, and began talking with an awful, hoarse voice.

"Listen to me, my dear youngsters! You know very well that you cannot escape, though you felt my presence earlier than it was necessary. I'm able to climb up the trees ten times better than humans like you, therefore you don't have to think how nice it is to stay up there. But I don't have much ti me to lose, and I will make a good offer to you. You yourselves choose three of you, as they will save the others, when they get down from the trees and become my food. Then I promise you that there will not be any other victims, and you will leave alive and kicking. If not, I can't eat all of you, but I will tear to pieces everyone of the group. Well, my dear youngsters, I would really like to know what your decis ion would be!"

"Don't even think about such things! My dear!" answered Oregon immediately and taking good aim; he threw his lantern and hit the big beast right between the eyes.

The magical glass did not break, only the beast roared loud and everybody shuddered, then she said, choking with anger, that she wan ted to eat four and of the leanest at that. But if they wanted to complain, the victims would become five.

"Wait a minute, Oregon, you didn't have to do that," said Oralin obsequi ously from the next tree. "We may come to an agreement," the venturesome boy said to the animal. "We need some time to choose exactly which boys will die; therefore I will come down to look the others over, but on condition that the first one of them will be me."

"There is another condition too - the second will be the one, because of whom the stars came down too low." replied the beast, obviously pleased that the things are taking their course in her favour. "But you shouldn't try to cheat; you are too inexperienced for such things!"

Oralin began to slowly climb down the tree he had climbed up, but after he had whispered to Evral, with whom he had climbed up together, to go behind the thick trunk and to jump unnoticed on the ground. Then he could bring help from the village as quickly as possible. After a while, the oldest one of the group stepped on a long, uncovered root, then went to take the lantern, which a little while ago had bounded off from the head of the hairy bear. Understanding very well the catch of the leader, Oregon followed his example, but when his strong feet touched the dry ground, their huge enemy immediately turned her steps towards him, murmuring to herself: "There's the one, who will be the first to fill my hungry stomach".

"Hey, wait a minute, the stipulation is not like that at all!" cried Oralin and hurried to take his stand between the big animal and the ot her young man. "First, we have to choose the other two, and the boy behind my back is going to help about that. We kept our word and you will keep yours too! Besides, a short while ago, you accepted my condition that I would be the first who would be eaten."

The bear growled out discontentedly.

"It seems you are doing exactly the things I warned you not to try. Choose the others very fast, because I feel on ly hunger, and it would be fine to remember the delicious taste of a young meat as yours."

Holding tight the branch he had got hold of, Bren closely watched everything that happened on the ground. But after the last words of the cave monster the boy winced and gave the lantern to Gika. Then the young Mountaineer moved carefully, until he passed from the view of the hungry beast behind the trunk of the tree, and as quickly as possible came down. 'Just without fear! Think about the things that will happen, if a boy like me won't do what must be done,' repeated the ten year old Mountaineer to himself all the time, climbing down from branch to branch.

And Oralin, Oregon and the bear were already looking at the young pickers of night fruit, who had climbed in the ancient crowns.

"There's a good offer for you," the boy, who had been the first to climb down, was talking, pointing at a burly, young Mountaineer. "Alkasar, do you mind lifting higher your lantern, so our hairy friend can see you? Stop now, that's better! Maybe his meat is not too lean, because he swims fast er than all of us, but yet you will eat enough. I know by ex perience of my own when you are very hungry, it is more important to eat up a big quantity of food, though not so qualitative, than to have a bite of some delicious things." Oralin stopped for a moment to breathe in, and Oregon took part in the "conversation" immediately.

"Besides, if we choose a lean girl, she won't cry loud enough when she dies, and your pleasure will not be complete. I for one, I'll shout so loud that the leaves will fall down from the twigs. It would be better, if the next victim you would eat after me would have still louder vo ice, so that the trees could fall down too. And the sight here will become more amazing, you will even be able to tell it to your children, if you have any of course, as one of your most interesting experiences. But first, let us examine the rest of these lean boys, as it wouldn't be fair to force you before you see everyone of your potential victims?"

The two young men kept on talking, eagerly ho ping to delay this bloody feast, until an experinced warrior from the village came, who could really cope with cave bears… As this one here was too big and strong, and the young Mountaineers were not able to kill her. But contrary to their expectations, the hairy animal was not foolish at all. After the two brave boys began describing the merits of a third member of the group of sca red, young noblemen in the same long way, the beast banged her paw on the ground to stop the endless gabble.

"Little wretches!" the dreadful enemy roared out. "Have the older Mountaineers ever told you how hard it is to swindle an experienc ed creature like me? Do you really think that you will manage to be cleverer than me? The conditions have changed my dear youngsters, and the meaning of that is I, myself, will choose the four for my midnight breakfast. Watch carefully, my little fools, because these which will remain alive will witness some of my abilities, and will be able to narrate about the incredible litheness and grace of the cave bear, that ate the young girl on the tree," the monster pointed at Lona by her paw. "…and didn't drop ev en a nail from her on the ground."

The beast growled out loud again, and while the rest came to their se nses, she had climbed three yards over the ground, on the chosen trunk… The two young men, who had been beguiling the four-legged pursuer a little while ago, threw glances at each other and the younger one rushed to the spot, where Oralin had left his discus with foresight, climbing down the ancient trunk.

"Hey, listen," shouted the oldest one in the group at the bear. "I know what you could think about the two of us, although I have to warn you that we did not want to make you late. We were wa gging our tongues with fear, because it was never easy to behave properly, knowing that after a while we would no mo re."

The giant animal grunted out, and seeing how Lona didn't make any attempts to escape, stopped at four feet from the girl and turned her sinister muzzle to the young nobleman, that was talking to her. But when she opened her toothy mouth, in order to reply to the young man, Oregon skillfully threw the discus and hit their awful enemy right in the eyes. The big bear was struck with blindness for a moment, and after a little while got into a wild fu ry, then said to the girl next to her that obviously she was going to eat her last. The two young Mountaineers stood motionless on the ground, whi le the freelancer of the Brown faces was climbing down the tree, angrily breaking off the branches. But when the bear rushed to cath them, Oralin and Oregon rushed to run as fast as they could in different directions, having thrown the discus to Alkasar before that. With their desperate intention, the boys yearned that the bear would run highly angry to and fro to these young Mountaineers, who would hit her with their flying weapons du ring the next minutes.

Meanwhile, a few young pickers of night fruit were trying to expl ain to the two brave boys on the ground that they, too, had a plan how to kill their hairy enemy. All of them were making efforts to incline in the most suitable way a part of a rotten and hollow trunk that had remained in the branches of the younger trees, after the ancient tree, with which it had been one formerly, had died long ago. In the shrewd boys' opini on, if someone managed to make the monster stand upr ight under the rotten trunk, they could very easily slip the wooden cyl inder on her. Then, it would not be hard to help the bear to stop breathing, to the great delight of the other scared youngsters.

When the huge animal had climbed to eat the black-haired Lona, the yo ungest one amongst the young pickers had angrily stuck his sharp knife into the old trunk, thinking: 'This is the end and I could not do anything.' But now, seeing the raging beast on the ground again, Bren bravely stepped on the dry soil and drawing a sigh of relief, hid the metal blade behind his back, holding the hilt downwards.

"What would the hairy, hungry beast think about that if I, the youngest one of all who are here, fill your huge belly?" the young nobleman gave a loud cry. "I'll swear that my meat is so lean and tasty, that each of the cave bears is going to lick her lips long after I'm eaten."

The monster stopped for a moment, and saw that this midget did not lie, or at least looked like a really tasty, midnight snack. And as the son of the burly smith was the easiest prey for the pre sent (everyone of the others had climbed the trees as high as possible), the animal clumsily went to eat him. It was obvious the boy was up to something as he didn't looked scared, but the beast was too confident such a midget wouldn't do much more harm, than to die screaming to heaven, just before it became a part of the tasty dinner. Therefore, her first blow was not a stroke, which couldn't be escaped, though that was not what Bren had in mind. Moving so fast and skillfully, that even the most gracious animals in the forest - the snakes, the cats and the deer, would envy him, the young Mountaineer lifted his long knife over his head. Its sharp blade mercilessly and very painfully stuck into the lower part of the bear's paw. The roar that followed could scare even the cave beast's fiercest compatriots, but it was nothing compared to the sounds that came out of the bear's muzzle, when her second blow with her other forelimb ended up with a new bloody wound. Now the furry scout was so angry, that she couldn't even remember what had happened with her paws a moment ago. And probably that was the reason for her reckless try to crash the boy's head, simultaneously hitting him with both her forelimbs. Of course, that led to another cut on one of the furry paws, and to a very painful spot on the other one, right there where the hilt hit the flesh of the limb. As Bren very skillfully had ducked and had stretched his right arm, holding tight and ruthlessly his sharp weapon.

The cave bear stepped back because of the pain and the great surprise, unable to realize what would follow. The ten year old boy kneeled and slid on his knees on the dry, forest ground, to reach the spot right under the beast's forelimbs, where her evil heart leapt. Now, it was a trifling matter for Bren to stick his knife up to the hilt, right in one of the most important organs of the bear, under her left forelimb…

The last thing that the cave bear saw before she died was the young Mountaineer's iron-firm eyes. Not a sound was heard from the other young men for a while, just beca use they still weren't able to comprehend what had happened. Nevertheless, the sight of their dead enemy and Bren's small figure, in comparison with her, was quite eloquent, and all of them climbed down from the big trees.

"Don't try ever again to hurt a Mountaineer!" the youngest member of their group silently said to the hairy, dead trunk, and meanwhile the others surrounded him and fixed their gazes, that were fill ed with admiration, on the cave beast and her killer.

"It is enough for me just to think that all of us wanted to leave you in the village, and I begin trembling like an aspen leaf." sighed Oralin very seriously and wrung the boy's hand. "It seems that you are much older than all of us!"

"I can't understand how you managed to do that." uttered Lona and tenderly held the young hero in her arms, then kissed him on the cheek.

All the young Mountaineers waited for an answer of this question. And finally, the confused, brave boy explained that he had been the only one with a knife long enough and suitable for such a task and the time had been short, so he hadn't been able to give it to anyone stronger and older than him.

"Nothing escaped the bear's notice when you tried to delay her, therefore it was very foolish of us to expect to stay alive, though you were perfect." the brave boy said to the two friends, who had tried to cheat the angry beast. "And then I decided to act in this way, as my father had taught me." finished the young Mountaineer simply.

"You are the son of the best warrior in the village, by the feel of it." smiled Alkasar, the young man who was swimming best of all in the group of night fruit's pickers. "But the liars were venturesome enough too, and in no time spoke as much nonsense as there were fish in the lake!"

Now all of the young noblemen were in a great mood, and laughing were disc ussing their dreadful experience, as only the real people of the ancient mountain nation could do it. The young man, who had declared in the beginning he hadn't gone reconnoitring at the Brown faced enemies, offered an apology to Oralin for his former light-mindedness. And the oldest one in the group said he, too, hadn't supposed at all what would happen, and then shook Oregon's hand.

"I would hardly have beguiled this thing here well enough without you," said the young man with a smile, kicking the hairy, dead body.

After a while, a crackle of dry sticks sounded from the trees, and then the breathless Antib appeared. His astonishment was great, when he saw what was lying on the ground, surrounded by the young Mountaineers.

"Ugh, I was thinking that I would come here very late, and then I would not find you alive. Are all of you all right?" the newly-married man gave a groan, and sat for a while to get his breath, because he had been running very fast.

"Even more than all right," said Alkasar and began to relate what they and the giant cave bear had experienced.

In the middle of the dreadful story, some of the best warriors amongst the men in the village arrived - the tea cher Ballick, the wizard Alvin and Ambigat, followed by Evral, who actually had called them. All of the new arrivals breathed sighs of relief, because they saw the giant beast was killed, and there were not any victims amongst the happy, young men. And when the master of weapons understood about his young son's boldness, all his face became radiant and the huge Mountaineer took the still confused Bren by the shoulders, threw him high in the air and then held him tight.

"My dear boy! I haven't even guessed that at this age you could do so mething like that. Didn't you feel fear, brave, young man?" asked the extr emely pleased smith of swords.

"I should think so! I was thinking that because of the trembling of my knees, I would not be able to climb down the old trunk on time. But after that I understood everything you had taught me was true, so I just had to use it." replied the young hero with joy, because it was the first time when his father was in such a good mood, since he'd known him, and the cause for that was his ten year old son.

Unfortunately, Ambigat did not remain so satisfied for a long time. With the other adults, who were also de1ighted with the brave, young warrior, he went to look for the footprints of the cave bear, and the exper ienced Mountaineers told the youngsters to wait for a while, until they came back.

Not much time had passed, when they appeared with very gloomy express ions on their faces, after the short walk in the ancient forest.

"I think we'd better come with you too, so that we could help for the picking, because the bear delayed you and everyone of us would need some more night fruit," said Ballick. "We will leave this place." the thickset nobleman heaved a deep sigh, and then went to lead the group.

The other three warriors dispersed in the line of young men, while all of them tried to comprehend the teacher's last words.

"What is the meaning of that all of us will pick more night fruit, and "we will leave this place", uncle Ballick? Maybe all the warriors will go on a quest tomorrow?" Oralin couldn't refrain from asking.

The best one at the throwing of discuses turned, and as if there was a storm-cloud on his face, so frowning and gloomy it was.

"No, girls and boys! You are still too young to suppose what exactly we have to do now. I'm really sorry that I must tell you that, but all of us have to disappear from this place. The cave bear has been here to see where exactly the village of the last free Mountaineers is. Her killing will not prevent others like her from guessing about the place of the lands where we live, as they certa inly know where their friend is. That's the end of the calm days near the lake; they are already irrevocably gone and will probably never return! Let us go now, and later on in the village, we'll talk more about that if there is time, of course."

After these words, the gloomy teacher led them as fast as possible to the trees, where the night fruit grew in abundance. Not one of the elderly men felt like talking, even though all the girls and young boys were full of questions, they decided to stop talking too. The unplea sant answers were going to appear a bit later.

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