“Get back!” shouted the surviving sheriff. “There may be more of those things in there. Wait here for me, I’m going to check.” She walked straight into the cave and kept going, while Elik waited impatiently for her to return. She was gone for so long, Elik became very worried and thought the sheriff must be dead, but eventually she emerged, smiling.
“Looks like that’s the last of them,” she said. “It was a tough job, but I always thought we could beat them. I want to thank you girls for your cooperation. It was very brave, but – ” she cast a disapproving look at Elik – “what you did was very stupid. You’re lucky to be alive.”
“It was only trying to be friendly,” she complained.
“The sheriff shook her head. That’s what they want you to think,” she said in a kindly tone. “That is how they trap you. But there is no such thing as a friendly human. They are creatures of pure evil and have nothing but malice towards us. I don’t know why, but that is how they are. But let us speak no more of humans. I think you have all had more than enough excitement for today. It is time to go back to the village and tell everyone the conflict is over.”
Elik looked at the body of Brok. “What about our sister?”
“She’s not going anywhere. You had all better return to the village with us. We’ll have to come back for her body tomorrow.”
Elik felt sad to be leaving her sister behind, but she did not think she could stand much more of the smell. They should return now. They had done their job. It was hard and laborious work, and it had cost the lives of several sheriffs, but in the end it was worth it. Of course it would be an honour to arrive back in the village in the company of the last sheriff. Elik thought she had earned her place in the procession, although she was still quite sure the small human was only trying to help them, and now it was too late to do anything for him. She actually felt sorry for him.
But before she could answer, Briskil said: “No, thank you, our nest is a long walk from the village, and we could not get there before dark. Don’t worry, we know a short cut from here.”
“Be careful then,” the sheriff said. “I think we got all those humans, but you can never be certain. There might still be one or two left, and they are very dangerous.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll be careful.”
Elik watched her leave, sorry for the missed opportunity, and still angry with the sheriff for killing the good human. “Let’s go home then,” she said, but Briskil had already started limping up the path. “You’re going the wrong way!” Elik shouted, but Briskil only smiled at her and kept going. “The sun is very low in the sky, and we still have a long walk to get home before nightfall,” Elik added. Apart from her own fear of the dark, the rumours said that humans were more active at night. But this time Briskil did not even turn around. I should just leave without her, Elik thought.It’d serve her right if the humans got her.
“Elik, come here, quickly!” Briskil called from the rocks above the cave. Elik struggled to hurry up the track, which now climbed steeply to the top; and there, behind a wall of rock, was a huge, treeless plain. In the middle were the silvertrees. Three of them, standing like huge, round, shiny trees, each rising perfectly smooth and branchless to a point. “Briskil, let’s get out of here,” she whispered fiercely.
“Not yet,” Briskil said, hurrying excitedly down the slope to look at the silvertrees.
Quaking with fear, Elik followed. But when she reached the nearest silvertree, amazement took over, and she ran her hand lovingly over the cold, impossibly smooth, impossibly shiny surface. Rising flawlessly to the height of a large tree, it was much thicker than any tree. She was almost mesmerised by its beauty. The shine of the surface was dazzling. Now, at last, she knew what silver was, and she decided it was the most beautiful colour in the world.
She looked up and was startled to see Briskil now far ahead of her. “Look out!” Briskil shouted, running to the shelter of some rocks. And suddenly there was a human standing between them, killing-stick in hand. “Hello,” Elik called, waving her arms, determined to establish friendly communication with the creature this time, but the human quickly raised its killing stick, and the fire erupted again. Briskil fell in eerie silence. She screamed but had the sense to hide behind a silvertree. The path lay behind her, and a big patch of open ground lay between her and freedom. As much as she dreaded being alone with humans in the dark, she could not move safely while it was light. They said fifty humans would be enough to wipe out the whole world. She wondered if there were fifty humans left in the caves. She wondered what it would feel like to be hit by a killing-stick. She wondered if she would ever escape.
For a long time all was silent, but then she heard the sound of gravel crunching underfoot. She lifted her head to see what was happening, and at once a burst of fire hit the rock behind her. Quivering with dread, she crept around the rocks, expecting to feel fire hit her flank at any moment. Walking in the shadows, she saw an even darker shadow on the rock ahead. It took her some time to recognise it was another tunnel leading down into the ground. It was narrow, and she would have be mad to enter it, except that a human with a killing stick was somewhere behind her.
As soon as she entered the tunnel, she found herself in total darkness and had to feel her way along. The tunnel continued down for a short time before levelling out, and a glimmer of light appeared before her. She turned a corner and found herself in a huge chamber. All around her, below her, even above her, were humans, at least twenty of them, and all of them were looking directly at her.
She rushed frantically back up the tunnel, expecting at every moment to be shot or dash her brain out on a rock, but she reached the open air safely. It was already dark enough to move, though there were two moons in the sky, so close together they might have been mating. A cloud moved across the moons, and the darkness was complete. As quietly as she could, she crept out from her hiding place and across the open ground, resisting the urge to run.
She thought she was going the right way, but she found herself on what appeared to be a huge, open plain and had no idea which way to turn. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she could vaguely make out what appeared to be a big patch of shadow ahead. She instinctively moved towards it. Then the clouds parted and flooded the scene with light. The shadows she was approaching were silvertrees, five or ten of them moving together. She waited for them to pass, but they kept coming, and by this time they were arriving by the hundreds, a veritable forest of silvertrees.
Finally, after longer than Elik could have imagined possible, the silvertrees stopped arriving. This time there could be no doubt they had come to stay. They had not gone back to the stars. They had merely found a better place to hide.
Small holes began to open in the side of some of the silvertrees. Small groups of humans climbed down ladders to the ground, and they kept coming. More holes opened, one on each silvertree, and more humans climbed out, and still more. Hundreds, and then thousands. If fifty humans could destroy the world, how much evil could these countless thousands accomplish? And still doors opened, and more humans crawled out, and Elik could see the procession would never end.