The voice of the tumbling stream provided a kind of company. The stars had turned through several hours above him when a more purposeful splashing woke Zoltan up.
He knew somehow what he was going to see even before he turned his head. He could just perceive the fish-girl, or rather part of her. One eye, some hair, part of a bare, white shoulder in the light of moon and stars.
She was about ten meters from Zoltan, and this time he could see with certainty that she was sitting right on the bank of the stream. It was plain, too, that she was swishing not
feet but a fishtail in the water. Her dark hair, already drying, fell down over her very human breasts.
The girl only sat there, looking directly at him, but saying nothing.
Go away. He formed the words but could not say them. With vast relief he made sure that he no longer felt a hopeless compulsion to jump up and pursue her, as he had before. He felt a fear of her, contending with his curiosity, but so far the fear was manageable.
Nothing happened. Her eyes still regarded him. He could not read the expression on her face.
Zoltan rose slowly to his feet. “What do you want? Who are you? I’m not going to chase after you anymore.”
At last the girl spoke. “You don’t have to chase me anymore. And I am glad. I didn’t want to make you do that, but I had no choice. I was enslaved to the Ancient One. But now I have been set free.”
“The Ancient One?”
“A wizard. A very bad man. You must have seen him, on the night of that day when you first saw me. But he can’t use me any longer. Someone helped me to get free.”
She moved one white arm in a graceful, puzzled gesture. “A strange little man. I think he helped you, too.”
“Yes. The one who helped me is strange, all right.” Zoltan shifted his position. “Who are you, then?” he repeated.
“I don’t know who I am.” The voice of the mermaid, suddenly pitiful and ghostly, shifted into a strange, unfamiliar accent. It brought a small shiver along Zoltan’s spine. It was as if only now had the girl in front of him become completely real.
“But are you …”He couldn’t quite bring himself to say it.
“Am I what?” It was a tragic whisper.
“Are you a human being or not?” he whispered back.
There was a pause. “I don’t know that either,” the girl answered finally. “I don’t know what I am now. Certainly I was human once-I think.”
A few minutes later Zoltan was sitting closer, almost close enough to touch the girl, and she was explaining that although she was no longer subject to the commands, of the evil wizard, she still experienced sudden changes of form, from being entirely a fish to this half-human state, and that she had almost no control over them. “I am no magician. I cannot help you.” “Perhaps no one can.” The girl went on to recount something of her earliest memories, of a village beside a much larger river than this one. Something terrible had happened to her there to end that phase of her childhood.
She related also how she had seen Zoltan being set free from the riverbank cave by the same peculiar old wizard who had rescued her-or partially rescued her-from the evil enchantment that had enslaved her.
There was enough moonlight to let Zoltan see plainly the long fish-shape of her lower body, and what ought to have been her legs. The marvel was certainly genuine enough. Starting at a little below her navel, human skin shaded into bright scales. In the back of his mind, the suspicion that this might be only some renewed trick of his enemies persisted, but it was fading steadily.
She was a girl-at least the top half of her was. More than that, she was lovely-at least certain things about her were. Before long Zoltan was quietly moving closer to her again, and soon he moved a little closer still.
As he was reaching out, about to touch her hair, she looked at him with alarm. There was a white streak of movement, a splash, and she was gone.
He returned to his blankets and wrapped himself in them again for sleep. Slowly, half-unwillingly, he drifted into slumber.
When he woke again the sun was up. Zoltan ate some breakfast from his ample stores-catching fish would have taken time, and besides, hooking any fish just now would have given him a very peculiar feeling. Then he resaddled and mounted his load beast and went on following the little river downstream.
Looking up at frequent intervals to see if the flying scout of yesterday had returned, he at last received something of a shock when he saw not one winged presence in the sky but a squadron, thin black shapes against bright blue.
As the creatures drew closer, Zoltan could tell from the shapes of their wings that they were reptilian and therefore almost certainly his enemies. Certainly they would not be his friends.
Until now, with one or two doubtful exceptions-yesterday and high in the sky above High Manor-Zoltan had never actually seen an unfriendly aerial scout. But he knew that the enemies of Tasavalta had used such creatures in the past.
The creatures in this current flight were much bigger than he had realized at first. Their true size became apparent as they came closer, landing to rest on logs or rocks that Zoltan had already passed as if they were cautiously sniffing at his trail. And they were certainly reptiles. Some strain of dragon, he thought, of which many more subspecies existed than were usually seen in the vicinity of Tasavalta. •
His heart was beating faster, more with exhilaration than with fear. Here was evidence that the crazy-looking little wizard knew what he was doing after all. Dragonslicer appeared to be the very Sword that Zoltan was going to need today. He rested his hand on the black hilt but, somewhat to
his surprise, could feel nothing there but its solidity. So far, the Sword of Heroes was quiet in its sheath.
Now the reptiles had started diving at the stream, fifty meters or so ahead of where Zoltan was. Something large and white was under the surface there, something that splashed violently, trying to escape the onslaught from above. A silvery fish that looked too big for this small stream.
Zoltan suddenly tried to kick his load beast into greater speed. When that effort failed, he jumped down from the saddle and ran at the reptiles, yelling, challenging them to fight. He had drawn his Sword now, and with each stride that brought him closer to the enemy he expected that the power in it would be activated. But nothing of the kind occurred.
The creatures, not at all unwilling to fight someone who wanted to interfere with their own hunt, turned on Zoltan. The flashing blade in his hands did not appear to impress them in the least.
The Sword of Heroes remained silent and lifeless in Zoltan’s grip as he lifted it on high. The enemy came at him in a black swarm.
EARLY on the morning following his parley with Mark, the Baron received a disquieting report from one of his flying scouts. As interpreted by its trainer, the animal reported that their pursuers were now gaining ground on them again, despite the fact that Amintor was now driving his own people and animals at a faster pace.
Amintor scowled, and demanded: “How can they be gaining ground while they have that litter in their train?”
The beast master tried, with little success, to put that question to his charges. As before, the animals were unable to tell, or at least unable to say, whether the pursuing force still included a litter or not. All the beasts were sure about was that the enemy were getting closer.
While his aides, knowing it was time to keep silent, watched him closely, Amintor thought the situation over. He could, of course, send back a human scout to see what was really happening. But unless the Baron slowed down his own retreat after that, a rider might have a hard time catching up with him again to deliver his report. Whereas the flyers, as long as the weather was tolerably good, brought back their news within an hour.
Breaking camp, getting ready to move out again, he pondered on Mark’s motives. “Still really interested in my Sword,
is he? Maybe I should have tried to make the trade with him after all. Maybe he was really ready to go through with it.”
Amintor’s enchantress, riding beside him now, complained that she did not know what plan he really had in mind, and it was hard for her to work with him under such conditions.