Again the enemy broke off the attack.
And yet once more, before Zoltan had time to rest or breathe, the onslaught was renewed. Blood was flowing from his torn scalp, but fortunately it ran around his ear, not into his eyes. He hacked yet another reptile out of the air.
At last, the four leather-wings who could still fly, dripping their own blood and hissing half-intelligible imprecations, flapped off, making unsteady headway into the northwest.
Zoltan, gasping, leaned on his Sword again and watched them until he was sure it was a genuine retreat. Then he looked around. The nymph, mermaid, whatever the right
word for her was, had completely disappeared again. Turned back completely into a fish again, he supposed, and diminished in size, or he’d be able to see her somewhere in the water nearby. He wondered how much control she had, if any, over her changes of form. She might have saved herself some harm by doing the fish-change sooner. Or maybe the smaller body of the fish would have been hooked out of the river on a talon and torn apart.
Moving unsteadily, on shaking legs, he went to one after another of the wounded reptiles on the ground and finished them off with economical thrusts and chops of Dragonslicer while they screamed curses at him. One .closed its eyes before the Sword came down. It was the closest Zoltan had ever come to killing a human being. Now he had achieved a silence that would let him rest. Zoltan wiped his Sword clean on grass, then knelt down and drank from the stream. Next he tried to stanch the bleeding of his scalp. Tied on his belt was the small medical kit that Mother Still had given him. Inside it he found a small jar labeled FOR BLEEDING. Using the Sword itself, far keener than any other blade he’d ever handled, he hacked awkwardly and blindly at his curly hair until he thought the wound was as exposed as he could safely get it. Then he loaded a finger with the unpleasant-smelling salve and pressed it directly into the flow of blood. Immediately the bleeding diminished, and in a matter of moments the flow was stanched completely.
Only then did Zoltan remember to look for his mount. He was suddenly afraid of what the reptiles might have done to it while he defended the mermaid; but the load beast was unharmed. Perhaps the leather-wings had been under orders to concentrate on the escaping mermaid. She had said something about their being sent after her by some enemy.
Zoltan remounted and pushed on. He continued downstream, paralleling the river.
Hardly was he well out of sight of the place where he had fought the reptiles when a familiar figure reappeared. It was the crazy-looking little wizard again, standing directly in Zoltan’s path.
This time Zoltan was treated to praise and concern. “You’re a brave boy, yes. Oh my, that was fine. But your head is hurt. Oh, oh, oh, oh.” And the wizard, his dried-apple countenance pinched up as if he felt the pain as much as Zoltan, did a little hop-dance of helpless sympathy, meanwhile waving his arms ineffectively.
Zoltan felt called upon to be patient. “It’ll be all right. The bleeding’s stopped already. Mother Still gave me a medicine that worked beautifully.”
“Are you sure? I don’t know her. Oh, oh.” All Zoltan could think was that this wizard, despite the power that he had demonstrated, did not inspire much confidence. Raising a hand, he gingerly explored the area of clotted blood where his hair was now cut short. “Yes, I’m sure.”
“That’s good. That’s good. Then you should go on.”
“I mean to do so.”
“That’s good, Zoltan. You’re a brave boy.” “Thank you, sir. Who are you?” “I don’t think I ought to tell you that. Because if I tell anyone, he might find out somehow, and-and anyway, whoever I am you still have to go on and find-and find your uncle. No matter what.” “Where is Uncle Mark?”
The wizard gestured nervously again. “I think you should look for the trail of a dragon.” “Oh. If I follow a dragon’s trail, it’ll lead me to him?”
“Something like that. Yes, I think that would be the best thing for you to do.”
“All right. But wait, what does a dragon’s trail look like? I’ve never seen one.”
The figure of the wizard hopped from one foot to the other, speaking faster and faster in its gravelly voice. “You’ll know. Oh, you’ll know it when you come to it, won’t you? Go on, hurry, hurry! I can’t stay here arguing all day.”
And, almost as soon as he had uttered those words, the strange wizard disappeared again.
Zoltan forged on, still heading downstream. He assumed that was still the proper direction, not having been given any instructions to the contrary. If finding his uncle Mark meant trailing a dragon, well, he would never be any better equipped for that than he was right now. Pride was growing in him as he realized how successfully he had fought off the attacking leather-wings. Not that a dozen of them were the equivalent of a real dragon, of course-but he felt ready to fight the dragon himself if it came after him.
At least, almost ready. That was a chilling thought. Well, possibly the creature wasn’t very large. The smaller land-walkers, he had heard, were no bigger than load beasts.
Zoltan had expected soldiering and adventuring to be painful and sometimes frightening. But now he wondered if such activities were always as confused and filled with uncertainty as this. Somehow this wasn’t quite the way he had imagined things would be.
He pushed doggedly on, along the stream.
That night he camped on the riverbank again, and lay awake, watching the surface of the water ripple in the moonlight, and waiting. Before he could fall asleep the girl came back, a splash and then a silvery outline, a dreamlike presence in the moonlight.
Zoltan wasn’t sure if he was relieved or worried at her presence, but he moved to sit beside her and talk to her again. He offered his medicine kit but she declined; he could see that her wounds were superficial and were already partially healed, showing rough scabs and crusting on her skin.
The air was colder tonight, and Zoltan brought his visitor one of his blankets as she sat on the rock. She thanked him politely. They congratulated each other on surviving, and she thanked him for his aid against the reptiles.
He told the girl his name and explained to her that he was taking the Sword of Heroes to his uncle, who was going to have to fight a dragon. She said that she had heard of the Swords of Power, and sounded as if she had some idea of what they were.
“But how are you going to locate your uncle?” the girl asked.
“Our friend, the strange-looking little wizard, tells me that I have to look for the dragon’s trail first. Then my uncle will be nearby somewhere.”
“What is our rescuer’s name, I wonder? And why are you so sure you must do what he tells you? If he tried to give me orders, I should be very doubtful about following them.”
“So far I don’t believe he’s lied to me. But I don’t know his name.” Zoltan went on to tell the girl more of his story than he had told her previously. Then he got around to asking her if she had yet managed to recall her name.
“No. It may be that my name is gone forever. Along with half of my humanity.” She flicked her tail, sending up spray.
“I asked the strange little magician for his name, but he wouldn’t tell me.”
“That is not so strange, for a wizard. Names are things of great power in their lives.”
“I’m no wizard. My name is Zoltan-I told you that before. I wish you could remember yours.”
The girl shrugged, a delicate motion. “There are certain names of power that I remember-ones the Master used to call me by. But I am afraid that if I uttered one of those, I should be completely enslaved to him again. And the other man, the lesser wizard to whom he gave me, sometimes used those names-but I will never say or hear them again if I can help it. You should call me whatever pleases you. I think that I have never had a name I truly liked.”
Zoltan’s mind was a buzzing blank. “I’ll try to think of something.” And he went on to tell her something more of his own story.
The mermaid assured him that she believed his story; it was, after all, perhaps not so unbelievable as her own.
Not that she could remember very much. She had been somehow kidnapped from a fishing village-she seemed to remember it as a fishing village, along a river very much bigger than this one-at a very early age, and conscripted into the evil Master’s service-she was very vague about the details of how all that had happened.