The hermit Gelimer had told the travelers that this was one of the handful of villages, all within a few kilometers of each other along the Tungri, whose inhabitants lived under the mermaid curse. Those few who were now visible to the slowly approaching travelers had nothing out of the ordinary in their appearance not, Zoltan supposed, that there was any reason to think they would. Three or four fishing boats were tied up at a dock, and only a few patches of ice were visible along the shore. At this lower altitude the ground was completely barren of snow.
“Remember, Zoltan, how the hermit warned us,” admonished Yambu, watching her companion closely. “In my opinion he advised us well. You should say nothing at all about mermaids while we are among these village people, at least not until we have gained some understanding of their attitude on the subject. It must be a matter that they are not inclined to treat lightly.”
“I understand. I agree,” Zoltan answered shortly. He was having a difficult time trying to control his impatience, and he supposed the difficulty showed.
During their long day’s hike down the mountain and through the forest he had talked at some length with Yambu about his continuing determination to seek out one particular mermaid.
“You say, my lady, that you are making this pilgrimage to seek the Truth. Well, so am I, in my own way. My goal is to find that girl I cannot forget her. She has come to represent Truth to me.” Since leaving their native lands months ago, the two pilgrims had had this same conversation, or one very much like it, several times. By now Yambu knew almost as much as Zoltan did about the particular mermaid he was seeking. And she had learned better than to argue directly against the youth’s objective. Instead she now asked him: “Exactly how many times did you really see her, in all?”
“Three times, at least. Oh, there were other occasions on the upper river when she was only a shadow, or a ripple in the water, or a movement in the leaves along the shore. But three times, later, I saw her solidly, and talked with her and even touched her.”
“Given the other things that happened, we must consider that those earlier appearances were a result of evil magic.”
The young man shook his head violently. “Not her evil. Not her magic, either.”
The woman remained perfectly calm. “No. Or at least not hers primarily. But the attraction you felt and still feel for her had its root in that same evil magic.”
“She was enslaved then by that ghastly wizard Wood, or one of his lieutenants!”
“True. But it seems to me that what we still do not know is to what degree, how willingly, the girl, the mermaid, went along with what the Ancient One wanted her to do.”
“She did not help him willingly at all, I tell you!”
Yambu only looked sympathetically at her young companion.
Zoltan got himself under control as well as he was able. “I tell you that I saw this girl, talked to her, several times as I moved farther down the Sanzu. She was she truly wanted to help me. She did her best to help me against the dragon at the end.”
“Ah well, you were there and I was not.” Yambu conceded the point. “Even so, that was three years ago. Even if you do succeed in finding her now, you ought to remember that much can change in three years, in the life of any person. Particularly in a young woman’s life, whether she’s half fish or not.” To herself Lady Yambu was thinking how hopeless it always was to try to shield the young against their own enthusiasms.
But now, before Zoltan was required to answer, the two travelers had to put their debate behind them. Raising open hands in gestures of peace, Zoltan and Yambu were approaching the fishing village. Children came running to look at them, and then some of the adults.
As they met the inhabitants they took care to observe the little hints, given them by the hermit, as to what was locally considered proper conduct. The people spoke a variation of the common tongue, not difficult to cope with. The greetings the two travelers received from the adult villagers were tinged at first with obvious suspicion. Zoltan was not surprised by this, considering that if all the stories of the clan feud and its consequences were true, these people had every reason to be wary.
Still, Gelimer’s coaching paid off. An elder appeared at last, and the two travelers were invited in and offered food and shelter for the night. The local hospitality was somewhat more cheerfully displayed when Yambu demonstrated her readiness to pay a small amount of coin.
As soon as the sun had departed from the sky the air grew chill, and mist rose from the river, which here below the rapids of the gorge widened to such an extent that it might almost have been called a lake. Both shores were heavily forested, and after sundown the cries of exotic animals, strange to Zoltan’s ears, began to issue from the darkness within the nearby forest.
Against the sunset sky fairly large building, of an ominously dark color, could be seen perched atop a denuded hill at a distance of two or three kilometers from the village.
In answer to the visitors’ questions, the villagers informed them that this structure was the stronghold of the Malolo clan, and in it dwelt the overlords of this and half a dozen other settlements upon the southern shore.
After the two pilgrims had enjoyed a good supper, largely of fish and bread, Yambu turned in for the night in the House of Women, and Zoltan went to the Dormitory of Unattached Men, which was one of the houses built out over the water on stilts. Tonight, for whatever reason, it seemed that he was going to have no more than a couple of roommates, two tired looking village youths who had already stretched out their sleeping mats at the far end of the large room.
So far, although Zoltan had been looking and listening alertly since entering the village for anything that might suggest mermaids, he had seen and heard nothing to suggest that this place was home to them. Indeed, there was no indication that anyone here had ever heard of such creatures. Zoltan had followed Yambu’s counsel, though with some difficulty, and had refrained from mentioning the subject. Now as he lay wrapped in his blanket, looking out at the misty, wintry lake and listening to the dark water lap the slender pilings below him, the thought of having to live in that water was enough to chill him to his bones. Of course real fish lived in it and prospered the year round . . . but she, the girl he sought, was not a fish. With his own hands Zoltan had touched her cool smooth shoulders, and her long black hair. Damn it, by all the gods, she was a human being like himself, even if she was burdened with a terrible curse . . . even if he did not yet know her name . . .
Zoltan slept. And then, in the middle of the night, he came awake, softly and suddenly. In the cold moonlight that fell in through a nearby window he beheld the very girl he had so long pursued. She was sitting close beside him and leaning over him, so that an amulet of some kind that she wore around her neck swung free. Her black hair fell in wet strands past her white shoulders and around her pale breasts. Below her slender, human waist, her body continued undivided and tapering, legless and silvery, scaly and graceful and terrible, down to the broad fins of her tail. In this dream as Zoltan first believed it was the young girl was just as he remembered her, and the three years that had passed since their last meeting might never have existed.
“Who are you?” he breathed, still more than half convinced that he was dreaming.
Her voice too was unchanged from what he remembered. “My name is Black Pearl. This is my friend, Soft Ripple. And you are Zoltan. Do you remember me?”
Only now did Zoltan realize that there was another mermaid sitting a little behind the first. The one immediately in front of him, who had called herself Black Pearl, had her silvery tail bent up gracefully beneath her, allowing her to sit in an almost completely human posture. Behind and around her, moonlight mottled empty sleeping mats, and the shadowy figure of her companion in the background. Water was dripping slowly, irregularly, from both the mermaids’ hair. “Do I-”
Suddenly the conviction was borne in up Zoltan that this was no dream. He sat up abruptly. “Do I remember you? I never knew your name, but I’ve done nothing for the past months but look for you. I’ve come down the river all the way from Tasavalta …” He reached out suddenly to take Black Pearl by the hand. She made an effort to pull away at first, but his grip was too swift and, once anchored on her wrist, too strong. “Tell me,” he pleaded. “Tell me what I can do to help you.”