When they saw that I had given up the fight, they withdrew once more. A moment passed during which I lay perfectly still. Some of the imps looked confused, but others smiled knowingly. All of them turned to their chief, who also smiled a grim and knowing smile. He stepped forward, raised me up by a handful of my hair, and shouted, “Up with you! Can’t you see what’s got to be done? Get to it!”
“I can’t,” I moaned. “I want to, but you – ”
“Of course you can’t,” he sneered. “But you must! Don’t you see?”
“You can’t but you must! You can’t but you must!” echoed the others, laughing even more uproariously than before. Again they seized me and set me on my feet.
I stood like a pillar of stone in the midst of their childish caperings, utterly lost and miserable. What could I do? They would not be satisfied one way or the other. Nor, I feared, would they be content to leave me alone.
Suddenly I was reminded of my wound. In an instant the burning pain in my chest returned, but it was somehow different this time – more like an overpowering desire laced with a surge of anger, white-hot and pure. My eyes were drawn upward, above the little hill, above the steadily rising moon, to where the long-tailed star had now reappeared in the sky.
“You must but you can’t! You can’t but you must!” sang the imps, drunkenly dancing and hopping from one foot to the other. But I saw the leer on their faces change to a look of dread in the glow of the light that was growing in the heavens.
“Maybe I must, and maybe I can’t,” I said, slowly turning my gaze from one terrified face to the next. “But I don’t care much one way or the other, for I have been wounded by the Firebird, and I am no slave to such as you!”
They all let out a horrible shriek and fell on their faces as the flaming bird swooped down upon us, scorching the earth and sending the imps flying in every direction like so many leaves before the wind. The great talons snatched me and held me like vises of steel, the fiery wings surrounded and covered me, and all in a moment I was swept away.
* * * * * * * * * *